Posts Tagged ‘Observer’

The Happiness U-Curve

March 16, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 “Observer”, a publication of the Association of Psychological Science (APS).

Despite all the negative components of aging, researchers consistently find a happiness paradox:  As the body declines, happiness tends to increase.  Across the lifespan this “Positivity effect” follows a U-shaped pattern:  happiness starts out high in late adolescence, bottoms out in middle age, and reaches a second zenith in old age.

A 2011 Gallup analysis of 500,000 phone interviews found that “a septuagenarian is far more likely than someone in their 30s to have high emotional health.  This happiness advantage held true even after controlling for demographic factors, including gender, race, education, marital status, employment, and regional location.

This happiness U-shape appears across the world.  Economists Andrew Oswald and David G. Blanchfower documented this pattern in more than 500,000 people living in more than 70 different countries.  Their analysis concluded that from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, people around the world tend to be happiest in their old age regardless of their nationality.

Oswald says, “Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period.  But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20 year old.  Perhaps realizing that such feelings are completely normal in midlife might even help individuals survive this phase better.”

This universality of happiness U-curve implies the aging may play a positive role in the brain.  A team of Australian researchers led by Leanne Williams, who is now at the Stanford University School of Medicine, argues that a combination of neurological changes and life experiences account for this phenomenon.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor emotional processing as people of various ages viewed photographs of different facial expressions, the researchers found that older people were more emotionally stable and less reactive to negative emotional stimuli than younger people.

Contrary to the ubiquitous negative stereotypes of declining memory and cognitive integrity, Williams and colleagues found emotional well-being may increase with normal aging.  Their study included 242 individuals (122 males and 120 females) divided up into four major age categories:  12-19 years, 20-29 years, 30-49 years, and 50-79 years.  Participants were assessed in the scanner for the neural activation evoked by emotions of threat and happiness depicted in facial expressions.  After being shown a photograph of a face, participants had to select the best option for identifying the emotion being displayed in the photograph.  They also rated on a 1-to-5 scale, the intensity of the emotion being displayed.
Rather than showing an inevitable decline across all functions, the images displayed a linear increase in emotional stability with age, meaning that people in their 70s ultimately experience better emotional well-being than most people in their 20s.

The fMRI results suggest that as we age, the way our brains process emotional stimuli  changes in ways that favor emotional stability.  The brain scans indicated that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is a brain area involved in the governance of emotional functions, processed stimuli differently across the lifespan, contributing to better emotional stability for older adults.  As we age, the mPFC areas become increasingly active while processing negative emotions compared with positive ones, suggesting that older people were comparatively better at controlling negative emotions.

This article ends as follows: “Ultimately Williams and colleagues argue that as we age this combination of neural processing, as well as an accumulation of life experience, provides older adults with the neural tools to take life in stride—a capability their younger counterparts will just have to wait for.”

Finding Focus

March 15, 2017

This post is based on a section with the same subtitle in “The Cognitive Upside of Aging” is an article by Alexandra Michel in the February 2017 Observer, and publication of the Association for Psychological Science (APS).  This study  used data collected from and was published in “Psychological Science.”  It found another unexpected boom for aging brains:  Sustained attention tends to improve over time, peaking in the mid-40s.

This study was led by Francesca C. Fortenbaugh, Joseph DeGutis, and Michael S. Esterman of the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory at the VA Boston Healthcare System.  This study tested sustained attention across 10,430 adults using a specialized task for identifying individual differences in people’s ability to focus on a single task over 4 minutes.  DeGutis said in a statement, “While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their middle-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused.  One current hypothesis  is that compared to younger adults, adults in their mid-years mind-wander less, leading to better sustained attention performance.  This sample was larger than all previous efforts to model changes in sustained-attention performance during development, aging, or across the life span combined, which allows us to more precisely model transition periods in performance across the life span using segmented linear regression”

Sustained attention underlies several important cognitive processes, including learning, perception, and memory.  Lapses in attention can lead to serious problems ranging from difficulty at work to an increased risk of car accidents.  Measuring attention across individuals is itself a challenge; attention fluctuates, sometimes dramatically, from moment to moment.

The researchers used a new tool they developed:  the gradual-onset continuos performance task (gradCPT).  Participants were shown serious of grayscale photographs go 10 city scenes and 10 mountain scenes.  One photograph gradually transitioned into the next every 800 milliseconds, so that as one image faded, a new image steadily took its place.

There were 5,027 male and 5,403 female participants between  10 and 70 years old who completed the gradCPT on between March and September of 2014.  The participants were told to press the space bar whenever they saw a city scene, but to withhold a response when the image was a mountain scene.  Here the goal was to create a task that required frequent responses from participants while having a relatively low cognitive demand.  Identifying the differences between the two scenes was easy, but carefully attending to the transitions repeatedly became challenging over time.

By analyzing mean reaction time, reaction time variability, hits, misses, discrimination ability, and criterion (a measure of strategy or willingness to respond in the case of uncertainty), the researchers were able to tease apart the changes in unsustained attention across the lifespan.  From the ages 10 through 16, gains in both reaction times and discrimination ability were extremely large.  After age 16, gains in these skills were much smaller until they peaked around age 43.

A factor analysis of the results suggests than people also begin to use different cognitive strategies as they age.  Younger individuals demonstrated faster reaction times (due to either super information-processing speed or more liberal response strategy), whereas older individuals showed a slower, more cautious strategy and evidence they made more adjustments after a mistake.

Burnout and the Brain

February 12, 2016

Burnout and the Brain is the cover story by Alexandra Michel for the February 2016 for Association for Psychological Science publication, “Observer.”  A psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger,  brought burnout into the research lexicon in 1974.  He defined is as the loss of motivation, a growing sense of emotional depletion,, and cynicism.  He found these symptoms among formally idealistic mental health workers who depleted and weary, resenting patients and the clinic.

Burnout is recognized as a legitimate medical disorder and has been given its own ICD-10 code(Z73.0—Burn-out state of vital exhaustion).  Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with depression including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.  A 2013 survey of human resource directors in the United Kingdom found that nearly 30% reported that burnout was widespread in their organization.  Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson collaborated on the most influential  framework for defining and assessing burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress.  People in careers focused on caregiving report the most prevalent rates of burnout, but the condition does not discriminate among call center representatives, professional athletes or CEOs.  Eventually jobs that require too much of employees will cultivate feelings of negativity and hopelessness as people struggle to meet unrealistic deadlines,  rude customers, and cope with the emotional tolls of their jobs.

Maslach and her collaborators have identified the following six key components of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout:  workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.  The physician Richard Underman describe he incremental onset of burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own.”

Research from psychological scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden ha shown that workplace burnout can alter neural circuits leading to a vicious cycle of neurological dysfunction.  They recruited 40 research participants with formal diagnosed burnout symptoms from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University.  They also recruited a control group of 70 health volunteers with no history of chronic street or other illnesses.  All participants completed two test sessions:  a task designed to measure their ability to regulate their negative emotions and an evaluation of their brain’s connectivity using resting state functional MRI (fMRI).

Researchers showed all participants standardized series of neutral and negative emotional images to assess reactions to stress.  After a participant had looked at an image for 5 seconds, a se of instructions appeared on the screen that directed each participant to either suppress (down-regulate), intensify (up-regulate), or maintain her emotional response to the picture.  Immediately following this instruction cue, the same image was presented again for 5 seconds.  As the participant  focused on the picture. a loud, startling burst of sound played.  An electrode taped to the participant’s cheek recorded the reflex reactions to this stressful stimulus.

The two groups showed similar startle responses when they were instructed to maintain or intensify  their emotional reactions.  But when groups were asked to down-regulate their emotional responses to negative images. clear differences emerged.  Participants diagnosed with burnout reported more difficulty modulating their strong negative emotional responses compared with the healthy controls, which was confirmed by their physical responses.  They had much stronger reactions to the startling noise than did the healthy control group.

On another day a subset of the participants came into the lab where they were scanned while lying quietly.  Activity among several brain areas involved in processing and regulating emotions were examined.  Participants in the burnout group  had relatively enlarged amygdalae, and also appeared to have significantly  weaker connections  between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress, especially the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The more stressed an individual reported feeling, the weaker the connectivity  between these brain regions appeared on the R-fMRI.

Compared with the control group, the overworked group also showed weaker correlations between activity in the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a structure important to executive function. Weaker connections between these to brain structures could help explain why participants in the burnout group had more difficulty controlling their negative emotions.

Another researcher at the Karolinska Institute, Ivanka Savic, confirmed that brains of individuals suffering from burnout don’t just function differently—their very structure might change.  He took MRI-based measurements of cortical thickness and amygdala, ACC, and mPFC volumes to gauge the physical toll of stress.   A brain area essential to cognitive functioning, the frontal cortex, begins to think as part of the normal aging process, but patients suffering from burnout showed more pronounced thinning in the mPFC compared to the controls as well as the effects of aging being more prominent in the scans of the burnout group.  Burnout patients appeared to have larger amygdalae and shrinking of the caudate which correlated with their perceptions of workplace stress.

Savic theorizes that over activation of the amygdalae leads to impaired modulation of the mPFC regions, which trigger further stimulation of the amygdalae, which leads to even more activation of the mPFC.  As the cycle spirals further out of control over time, neural structures being to show signs of wear and tear, which lead to cortical thinning as well as memory, attentional, and emotional difficulties.

A team of Greek psychological scientists led by Pavlos Deligkaris have examined the cognitive costs of burnout.  In 13 of the 15 studies he examined he found that executive  attentional and memory systems appear to suffer in association with burnout, and cognitive functioning is impaired in burned-out individuals.  Of the seven studies assessing sustained or controlled attention, five indicated that individuals with burnout were more prone to attentional lapses.  Of the  seven studies that included assessments of memory, six showed an association between burnout and memory impairments.

So burnout is a serious problem that goes beyond its symptoms and results in damage not only to cognitive processes, burt also to the brain.  Can it be treated?  It is both unfortunate and surprising that little research has been done in this area.  The little research that has been done suggests that the answer is positive, but much more research needs to be done.  It strikes me that meditation might prove beneficial both in  prevent burnout and in treating burnout once it has occurred.

Of course, if burnout is caught early, then perhaps treatments will not be necessary.  The costs of burnout are severe.  Jobs need to be modified, and individuals need to understand that there is no glory in destroying their brains.  Although the damage from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy might be more severe, the effects of burnout are likely more prevalent.  A new philosophy is needed.  Where is all the leisure time that was supposed to result from technology?  When I was in elementary school in the fifties I was promised that by the turn of the century, leisure time would be greatly increased.  Why are we all working more in this age of technology?  (Put “Labor Day”  in the healthy memory blog search).  Also see the healthy memory blog post “The Wellbeing of Nations:  Meaning, Motive, and Measurement”.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.