Posts Tagged ‘Insula’

Self Awareness

March 28, 2020

Prof Davidson writes, individuals with high levels of Self-Awareness (emotional or physical) have greater activation in their insula while those with little Self-Awareness have decreased activation. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity seem to be associated with the hyperawareness of every little change in heart rate or respiration that sometimes occurs in panic disorder. To move toward the Self-Aware end of this dimension you need to increase insula activation; to dial it back, you need to decrease it.

As a result of research on panic disorder we know something about how to decrease insula activity that makes us too Self-Aware. The best-validated treatment for panic disorder is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here patients learn to reframe or reappraise the significance of internal bodily cues. So if you experience chest pain or another sensation that you interpret as a danger signal, tell yourself you have many sensations that are perfectly innocuous, and in all likelihood this one is, too. This kind of cognitive reframing, by reducing insula activity, often reduces panic symptoms substantially.

An alternative is to decrease the rest of the brain’s reactivity to the insula’s signals. The idea is to alter your relationship to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations so that you do not become entangled into an endless, self-reinforcing loop (heart skips a beat; I’m having a heart attack; heart rate spikes, repeat) and leap to the conclusion that some aspect of what you are feeling foretells doom. The trick is to keep your mind from ruminating in response to these internal cues. Rather than target the excessive Self-Awareness that comes from the insula, the idea is to reduce activity in the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex, which form a circuit that assigns emotional value to thoughts and sensations. By reducing this circuit’s activity, the brain can start perceiving thoughts, emotions, and sensations less judgmentally and less hysterically, so that we are not hijacked by our internal chatter. You’re still very Self-Aware, but it’s not debilitating.

One of the most effective ways of reducing activation in the amygdala and orbital frontal cortex is through mindfulness meditation. In this form of mental training, you practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations moment by moment and nonjudgmentally, viewing them simply as what they are: thoughts, feelings, sensations; nothing more and nothing less.

Prof. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction he knows comes in a course of mindfulness-based stress reduction. You can find courses by checking out the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness Web site at
http://www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx”id=4152.

Should you want to give mindfulness meditation a try before taking a formal course, you can begin on your own with awareness of breathing.

1.Choose a time of day when you are the most awake and alert. Sit upright on the floor or a chair, keeping the spine straight and maintaining a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy (HM has found that the reason for this erect posture is to keep you from getting drowsy. HM has had many hundreds, if not thousands of hours of meditation in a reclining position in which he did not fall asleep.)

2. Now focus on your breathing, on the sensations it triggers throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves with each inhalation and exhalation.

3. Focus on the tip of the nose, noticing the different sensations that arise with each breath.

4. When you notice that you have been distracted by unrelated thoughts or feelings that have arisen, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Emotional Style and Physical Health

March 23, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live—And How You Can Change Them. The research to be discussed is quite complex and would take many pages to describe accurately. So a top level review will be provided to understand the important relationship between emotional style and physical health. A reading of the referenced text is needed for the complete characterization.

The research involve 20 undergraduates who had participated in earlier studies who had been found to have dramatically lopsided frontal activity, either extreme left-sided prefrontal activation or extreme right-sided prefrontal activation. Blood samples were taken and analyzed for natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that constitutes a major component of our innate immune system. They attack tumors and kill tumor killing cells that have been infected by viruses. The frontal asymmetry pattern that characterizes a more positive emotional style—left frontal activation—was associated with higher NK cell activity. Participants with high left frontal activation had upwards of 50% higher activity than those with high right frontal activation. Since twenty is a daily small number of participants, this study was repeated several years later, with essentially the same results: greater left frontal activity brings greater NK cell activity.

Another study examined whether there was an association between prefrontal activity and the immune response to a vaccine. The findings indicated that people with great left-frontal activation, associated with a more positive emotional style, had the strongest immune response. The antibody levels of the most extreme left-siders averaged four times that of the most extreme right-siders. The greater the antibody level, the less likely the chance of catching the flu.

A study on the heart-brain connection. This study employed a “threat of shock” procedure. Participants were put into a MRI tube and had simple geometric shapes projected on the ceiling. One shape meant that they might receive an electric shock, while the other meant that all would be well. A mild shock was administer for 20 milliseconds, which felt like the zap you experience if you’ve ever touched a fully charged nine-volt battery with your tongue.

There were large differences in the pattern of activation when people saw the “shock alert” symbol compared with the “don’t worry” symbol. As the heart readings came in—contractility, or the strength with which the heart beats, it could be seen that, at least for some participants, emotions reached down into the chest and wreaked havoc. Contractility is influenced by the sympathetic nervous system, which is the key constituent of the fight-or-flight response and has been implicated in stress and distress. The stronger the brain activation in three key regions—a sector of the right prefrontal cortex, the insula, and the amygdala-the stronger the cardiac contractility. In response to the threat cue, some people had little change in their contractility while others had a dramatic change. More than 40% of the person-to-person variation in cardiac contractility was accounted for by how strongly the insula and the prefrontal cortex responded to the shape that was the harbinger of threat. This heightened brain activity was racing down the highways of the sympathetic nervous system making the heart pump harder. Prof. Davidson concludes “such changes in emotional style are likely to be consequential for health when they are played out over a long period of time.”

Prof. Davidson continues, “The brain circuits that underlie Emotional Styles have extensive two-way connections with the immune system, the endocrine system, and the autonomic nervous system. Through traffic in one direction, from brain to body, the mind influences our health. This suggests that knowing someone’s Emotional Style may be as important to a health-care provider, in terms of assessing health risks, as knowing whether the patient smokes, and that altering your Emotional Style can be beneficial to physiological systems and thus overall health. Through traffic in the other direction, from body to brain, changes in our patterns of movement can affect how our mind processes emotional information. That has implications beyond warning Botox users that paralyzing some of their facial muscles runs the risk of limiting their emotional range. It also suggests that the body can become an ally in transforming emotion, meaning practices that emphasize the body, such as hatha yoga, have the potential to modulate emotion. This research is barely off the ground, but there are tantalizing hints about how this body-to-brain connection might work.”

The Brain Basis of Emotional Style

March 18, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has revealed that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient that person is. Signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex determine how quickly the brain will recover from upsetting evidence. But we know that the brain is fully able to increase connections between regions. In later posts it will be explained what you can do for these particular prefrontal-to-amygdala connections. It is eminently possible to raise one’s baseline activity in the left prefrontal cortex. How to do so will be explained in subsequent posts. Along the two extremes of the Resilience continuum people who are slow to recover, and are having great difficult bouncing back from adversity, have fewer signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Those who are fast to recover from adversity and are extremely resilient show strong activation of the left prefrontal cortex in response to setbacks and have strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and active effectively without being distracted by negative emotion, in another words a high degree of resilience.

Timothy was a high-functioning autistic boy. His extremes of being puzzled and having low social intuition reflected clear differences in brain activity and connectivity. Although he was very intelligent and able to understand language and speak, his speech was quite monotonous and lacked the modulations called intonation contours—the stresses and changes in pitch, tone, and pacing that convey emotion. For example, when volume and pitch both increase, you can be pretty sure that your interlocutor is angry. When pace slows, volume decreases, and pitch flattens, the speaker is likely sad. Timothy’s voice sounded like a robot’s. From studies of children, adolescents like Timothy, Prof. Davidson concludes that the lack of social intuition and the resulting failure to grasp what is socially appropriate comes with low levels of activation in the fusiform and high levels of activation in the amygdala.

Oxytocin is a molecule that reduces activation in the amygdala. When oxytocin is spritzed into the noses of people, which allows it to go directly to the brain, it reduces activation in the amygdala. This suggests that quieting the amygdala is the mechanism by which oxytocin induces feelings of commitment and attachment, and quieting the amygdala by other means accomplishes the same ends, including laying the groundwork for the Socially Intuitive brain.

The ability to distinguish a familiar from an unfamiliar context comes from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is famous for its role in processing memories: It seems to act as a holding pen for short-term memories, getting some of them ready for transfer to long-term storage. In a recent study of rhesus monkey, it was found that the anterior hippocampus, the portion closest to the amygdala, is also involved in regulating behavioral inhibition in response to different contexts. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often have abnormal hippocampal function. PTSD can be thought of as a disorder of disrupted context. The anxiety and terror that people with PTSD feel is quite appropriate in certain contexts, such as a battleground, but the problem is that they experience these feelings in non traumatic contexts.

Prof Davidson writes, “Differences in the strength of the connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, underlie difference in Sensitivity of Context. The hippocampus communicates regularly with the brain’s executive—function areas in the prefrontal cortex. Stronger connections from the hippocampus to these regions increase sensitivity to context, while weaker connections underlie insensitivity to context.

A key region of the brain for self-awareness is the insula, which is located between the temporal and frontal lobes. It contains what is called a viscerotopc map of the body. This means the visceral organs—heart, liver, colon, sexual organs, lungs, stomach, kidneys—are each mapped to a specific spot within the insula The insula serves as the brain’s monitoring station for everything below the neck and within the body. The insula also sends signals to the organs, instructing the heart to beat more quickly or for the lungs to inhale more rapidly. In addition to the insula, the somatosensory cortex is also involved in perceiving internal sensations. Higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.

To summarize, individuals with high level-awareness of Self-Awareness have great activation in the insula, while those with low levels of Self-Awareness have decreased activation.

The Outlook Brain and the Attentive Brain will be discussed in subsequent posts.

Focus

February 29, 2020

Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo (c. 1710)

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity. Michael Easterman is a cofounder of the Boston Attention and Learning Lab at Boston University. He says, “The science shows that when people are motivated, either intrinsically, i.e., they love it; or extrinsically, i.e., they will get a prize, they’re better able to maintain consistent brain activity, and maintain readiness for the readiness for the unexpected.” Motivation means this consistency doesn’t fall off over time.

In one experiment, participants were shown a random sequence of photographs of cities and mountain scenes, one every 800 milliseconds, while in an fMRI brain scanner. They needed to press a button whenever they saw a city scene (which occurred 90% of the time) and avoid pressing the button when a mountain scene appeared (the remaining 10%). Sometimes the trials were rewarded, In these cases participants earned 1 cent for each city scene they responded to, and 10 cents for not responding to a mountain scene. They were also penalized for getting it wrong. Other trials had no reward or penalty. The results of their brain activity showed that without the motivation of reward, the participants acted as “cognitive misers”: they didn’t bother engaging the brain’s attentional resources until their performance had dipped. [‘cognitive miser] is a term that has been used many times in this blog; enter “cognitive miser” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com to see how many times and where] Until, in other words, they had dropped out of the zone. When they were motivated by reward, however, the participants were “cognitive investors,” happy to engage their brain and concentrate in order to stay focused on the task.

In 2015, Yi-Yuan Tang, Michael Posner at the University of Oregon, and Britta Holzel at the Technical University of Munich published a review of the evidence in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. They concluded that more than twenty years of research into meditation supports the idea that it is beneficial for physical and mental health, and that it improves cognitive performance. Basically, it improves brain power.

Joshua Grant at the University of Montreal scanned the brains of Zen practioners who had racked up more than a thousand hours of practice. These seasoned meditators show less activity in a few areas of the the brain than non meditators: in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These are areas are respectively concerned with (among other things) awareness of pain, the processing of emotions such as fear, and memory storage. But some parts of the brain process pain were thicker in the meditators. There is no contradiction here: meditators process the pain but let it bother them less.

Meditative practice leads to changes in the structure of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula, a deep fold in the cerebral cortex, two areas of the brain known to be key to our ability to focus attention, both grow in people who meditate. These regions, along with parts of the front midline of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, are activated during cognitive tasks. For example, the ACC aids in the maintenance of focus by preventing other systems of the brain from barging in and demanding attention. Hooper writes, “When we are performing tasks that have been practiced over and over such as adjusting the sails on a trimaran or changing gears in a racing car, the autonomic nervous system plays a big part in carrying them out. That’s the part of the nervous system that acts automatically, performing functions such as regulating the heart rate and digestion. When we are in an effortless state of flow this occurs below the level of conscious awareness, and the ACC and the insula together help the autonomic nervous system achieve it.

There is a very large number of posts on meditation in the healthy memory blog. Just enter “meditation” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com. It might be a good idea to first enter “relaxation response” as the relaxation response provides the entry into more advanced meditation techniques.

The Dark Side

March 9, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman begins, “Psychologists use the phrase the dark triad to refer to narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths.” As for examples, look no further than President Trump. He has hit the trifecta here. Goleman continues, “These types represent the dark side of emotional intelligence: such people can be very good at cognitive empathy, but lack emotional empathy—not to mention empathic concern. For instance, by definition the sociopath does not care at all about human consequences of their manipulation, and has no regrets about inflicting cruelty. Their feelings of any kind are very shallow; brain imaging reveals a thinning of the areas that connect the emotional centers to the prefrontal cortex.”

Goleman outlines deficits in emotional intelligence. Sociopaths have deficits in several areas key to emotional intelligence: the anterior cingulate, the orbitofrontal cortex, the amygdala, and insula, and in the connectivity of these regions to other parts of the brain. It is possible that deficits such as these can account for much of Trump’s behavior.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

February 24, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of another book by Daniel Goleman. The previous book on which many healthy memory blog posts were based was “Emotional Intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is by far our most important intelligence. Dr. Goleman writes, “In this book I want to provide new updates, sharing with you some key findings that further inform our understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply this skill set.”

There is a brain basis for emotional intelligence. This comes from neural imaging and lesion studies. Neural imaging allows the identification of where the activity in the brain is occurring. Lesion studies are from injuries or surgeries done on parts of the brain to see what functions are lost.

The right amygdala (there are two, one in each brain hemisphere) is a neural hub for emotion located in the midbrain. Patients with lesions or other injuries to the right amygdala showed a loss of emotional self-awareness—the ability to be aware of an understand our own feelings.

Another area crucial for emotional intelligence is also in the right side of the brain. It’s the right somatosensory cortex; injury here also creates a deficiency in self awareness, as well as empathy, the awareness of emotion in other people. The ability to understand and feel our emotion is critical for understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. Empathy also depends on another structure in the right hemisphere, the insula, that senses our entire bodily state and tells us how we’re feeling. Tuning in to how we’re feeling ourselves plays a central role in how sense and understand what some else is feeling.

Another critical area is the anterior cingulate, which is located at the front of a band of nerve fibers that surround the corpus callosum, which ties together the two halves of the brain. The anterior cingulate is an area that manages impulse control, which is the ability to handle to handle our emotions, particularly distressing emotions and strong feelings.

Finally, there is the ventral medial strip of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is just behind the forehead, and is the last part of the brain to become fully grown. This is the brain’s executive center; the abilities of solve personal and interpersonal problems, to manage our impulses, to express our feelings effectively and to relate well to others resides here.

When writing this HM wondered if deficiencies in these areas might, in part, explain Trump’s bullying, callous, and impulsive behavior. Perhaps such deficiencies might also explain his difficulties in keeping and recruiting staff.

Goleman’s Model of Emotional Intelligence has the following four generic domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Self awareness plays into both social awareness and self management. Social awareness and self management play into relationship management. And it is relationship management that has a positive impact on others.

Suggestible You 3

March 19, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This book is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the third post on this book.

Irving Kirsch took up psychology out of a philosophical curiosity about the brain.  He mentored Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher who earned a Chinese doctorate in Eastern medicine and was an expert in acupuncture and other alternative therapies.  These two set up a lab at Harvard and for a long time their names have been synonymous with placebo research.  Kaptchuk’s work spans many complicated aspects of placebo research—genetic, biochemical—but Vance’s favorite study is a relatively simple one.  He handed patients pills and told them it was a placebo.  He explained that placebos had been shown to be very effective agains all manner of conditions, and so forth.  When these patients took the pill, it still worked.  Not as well as a secret placebo—but it worked, even though the people taking it knew it wasn’t real.

Tor Wager conducted research using functional magnetic resonance imaging f(MRI).  fMRI measures blood flow in the brain.  This blood flow is used to infer brain activity.  It is captured in voxels. A single voxel has about 63,000 neurons in it (and four times as much connective).  Nevertheless, fMRI has been invaluable in gaining insights regarding the brain.  Wager used fMRI to capture the placebo effect in action.  The first experiment used electric shock.  The research participants saw either a red or a blue spiral on a screen warning them hey would get either a strong or a mild shock, which would hit between 3 and 12 seconds later to keep them off guard (and build expectation).  Wager  looked two skin creams explaining that a one was designed to reduce the  pain and the other was a placebo.  Actually both skin creams were placebos, but the research participants said they felt less pain with the “active” cream.

The second experiment used a hot metal pad that seared the skin for 20 seconds.  This time the screen just read, “Get Ready,” and then the pad heated up.  As in the first experiment, the research participants received placebo and “pain killing” creams, both of which were actually placebos.  Wager surreptitiously lowered the temperature of the heat pad on the fake “active” cream, fooling the research participants into thinking that the cream was reducing the level of pain they felt.  Then, in the last phase (as Collca had with Vance’s shocks), he kept the temperature high.  Researchers carefully recorded how much pain the subjects reported feeling, and Wager also had their fMRI brain scans.  What the research participants reported about their pain tracked perfectly with the activation of several parts of the brain associated with pain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a role in emotions, reward systems, and empathy), the thalamus (which handles sensory perception and alertness), and the insula (which is related to consciousness and perception).  Those reporting less pain from the placebo effect showed less activity in the key pain-related brain regions.  And those who felt less of the placebo effect showed more activity.  So these research participants were not imaging less pain; they were feeling it.

More importantly, Wager observed the route that the placebo response takes from anticipation to the release of drugs inside the brain.  Pain signals normally begin in the more primitive base of the brain (relaying information from wherever in the body the pain starts) and radiate outwards.  What Ager observed was backward, with the pain signals starting in the prefrontal cortex—the most advanced logic part of the brain with executive functions—and working back to the more primitive regions.  Vance noted that this seemed to suggest a sort of collision of information:  half originating in the body as pain, and half originating in the advanced part of the brain as expectation.  Whatever comes out of that collision is what we feel.

The following summary comes directly from Vance’s book,”Pain, like any sensation, starts in the body, goes up the spine, and then travels to the deeper brain structures that distribute that information to places like the prefrontal cortex, where we can contemplate it.  Placebos, on the other hand, seem to start in the prefrontal cortex (just behind the right temple) and go backward.  They work their way to parts of the brain that handle opioids and release chemicals that dull the pain.  That also seem to tamp down activity in the parts of the brain that recognize pain in the first place.  And you feel better.  All in a fraction of a second.”

How powerful these placebo effects are varies.  In some people they barely register.  However, in others the opioid dumps can be so powerful that people become physically addicted to their own internal opioids, similar, in theory, to how people become addicted to laudanum. One theory even suggests that chronic pain might be the result of a brain addicted to its inner pharmacy, in essence, looking for a fix.

More than opioids are involved.  Over the past few decades, other brain chemical have been shown to trigger the placebo effect.    Our inner pharmacy also stocks endocannabinoids—the same chemicals found in marijuana that play an important role in pain suppression—and serotonin,  which is important intestinal movements and is the primary neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness and well-being.

How Placebos Could Change Research and Practice

March 29, 2015

The title was on the cover of the April 2015 Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association.  Inside the issue was an article by Stacy Lu, “Great expectations:  New research is leading to an understanding of how placebos work—findings that may lead to more effective treatments and better drug research.  Our understanding and attitudes towards placebos is advancing.

In one study neuroscience researcher Shaffer and his colleagues asked participants to apply a “powerful analgesic” on their hands and arms.  Then the researchers administered small bursts of heat where the cream had been applied.  The cream was actually petroleum jelly, but participants reported that the s-called powerful cream protected them from feeling as much of a burn  as a control cream.  Even after the researchers showed them that the active cream was just petroleum jelly, it made little difference.  The participants still reported less pain from the heat when they were re-tested versus the control cream (The Journal of Pain, 2015).

Today scientists are studying  placebos as a psychobiological  phenomenon and the placebo response as a potentially important part of the success of many medical treatments.  Psychological assessments, brain scans, and genotyping are used  to understand better how placebo responses work and to identify who may be most likely to respond to them.  Placebos are similar to cognitive therapies in that they tap into people’s beliefs that there’s hope and that they will get better.

A meta-analysis of 25 neuroimaging studies of pain and placebos conducted by Wager and Atlas of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that people who took placebos and expected have reduced pain had less activity in brain regions associated with pain processing, including the dorsal anterior cingulate, thamalus, and insula (Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology, 2014).

Research suggests that placebos have the greater effect in neural systems involved with processing reward seeking, motivation, and emotion.  Placebos seem to work especially well in patients with depression, Parkinson’s disease, and pain.  All three conditions involve the neurotransmitter dopamine.  These are also areas where people can consciously monitor their own treatment results.

In a study of patients with Parkinson’s disease Wager and colleagues found that simply expecting medication altered brain activity in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in brain areas associated with reward learning in ways similar to actual dopaminergic medication (Nature Neuroscience, 2014).

In another study of people with migraines, placebos elicited a response without any verbal cue to effectiveness,   Slavenka Kam-Hansen and colleagues openly labeled placebo pills for some patients who reported as much pain relief as those who also got a placebo but had been told that they’d received real medication. (Science Translational Medicine, 2014).

Genetics research has found that participants with a specific genotype related to having more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex reported having a larger effect from a placebo  treatment  than participants with a genotype that produces less dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (PLOS ONE, 2012).

Children seem to respond especially well to placebos.  In one study their placebo response was 5.6 that of adults (The Journal of Pain, 2014).

Patients are interested and enthusiastic about placebo  treatments.  They are pleased to discover that they can contribute to their own healing.

Why Are Older People More Vulnerable to Fraud?

December 19, 2012

It is always depressing hearing a story about an elderly couple who have lost their entire life savings to a scam. But one also wonders how people with so many years of experience can fall for such a scam. One would think that as we age we would become less, not more, vulnerable. An article in a Special Section on Aging in the Washington Post1 provides some insight.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), up to 80% of scam victims are older than 65. The tendency of the elderly to accentuate the positive makes them easy marks according to the FTC and the FBI. According to social neuroscientist Shelly Taylor, “Older people are good at regulating their emotions, seeing things in a positive light, and not overreacting to everyday problems.”2 Taylor and her colleagues showed pictures of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group up of 119 older adults (aged 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (aged 20 to 42). “Signs of untrustworthiness included averted eyes; an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes; a smug, smirky mouth, and a backward tilt of the head.”3 Each face was rated on a scale from minus 3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy). The results indicated that the untrustworthy faces were rated as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones.

The same researchers then performed the same test with new participants. However, this time the brains of the participants were imaged looking for differences in brain activity between the age groups. When the younger subjects were asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active. This activity increased during the sight of an untrustworthy face. However, older people showed little or no activation. According to Taylor the insula’s job is to collect information not about others, but about one’s own body, sensing feelings and the so-called gut instincts, and presenting that information to the rest of the brain. “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.” It appears that the optimistic tendency of the elderly might be overriding this warning signal.

It is curious to speculate as to why the elderly tend towards optimism. As we age, we close in on the prospect of our own death, and have likely experienced the passing of loved ones. Physical and cognitive problems are likely to present themselves. Social relationships can deteriorate and be lost, so loneliness can be a problem. An optimistic attitude can be quite helpful in coping with these difficulties. Nevertheless, the elderly need to realize that this optimistic attitude can make them vulnerable to fraud. See also the healthymemory blog posts, “Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?” and “The Distinctiveness Heuristic.” Enter “Optimism” in the search box to find more posts regarding optimism and its positive and negative merits.

1Norton, E. (2012). Why Older People Get Scammed, Washington Post, December 11, E4.

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.