Posts Tagged ‘Risk’

There’s a Deep Neural Connection Between Gratitude, Giving and Values

January 2, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the titled of an article by Christina Karns in the Health & Science Section in the 25 December 2018 issue of the Washington Post.

Psychological research has found that taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being. Not only does gratitude go along with more optimism, less anxiety and depression, and create goal attainment, but also is associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits. Researchers have also found that making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism.

The author is a neuroscientist particularly interested in the brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, the author and his colleagues first ask volunteers questions meant to test how frequently they feel thankful, and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. They used statistical analyses to assess the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. As has been previously found, the more grateful people tended to be more altruistic.

Being neuroscientists the next step was to explore about how these tendencies are reflected in the brain. Study participants performed a giving activity in an MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. They especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity instead.

The result was that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region deep in the frontal love of the brain, is key to supporting both. This regions is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances. It does abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself and social processing. They also saw how differences in just how active this region was in various individuals.

They calculated a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” vs. “self-gain” situations. The participants identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had higher “pure altruism” scores. That is a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

Other studies have zeroed in on this same brain region and found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ response to charitable donations, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. So is this brain reward region the key to kindness?

To address this question the author randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for The other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.

Gratitude journaling seemed to work. Keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other research also indicates that gratitude practice make people more supportive of others and improves relationships.

Study participants also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased the “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Response to charity-gain increase more than those to self-gain.

Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity become more valuable than receiving money oneself. After the brain calculated the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of the reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

So, in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving.

Meditation is another technique to enhance altruism. In particular, loving kindness meditation done by experienced Buddhist monks revealed impressive brain activity.
To learn more about loving kindness meditation enter “loving kindness meditation” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Social Activities May Help Protect Memory

August 24, 2016

The title of this blog is identical to a title of an article by Elizabeth Agnvall in the April21, 2016 online AARP.  HM has a number of comments on this article the first of which is that this title is way, way too cautious.  There is no question that social activities help protect memory.  Although there is no claim that social activities prevent dementia, there is no doubt that they help reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment, a condition that is often—but not always — a  precursor to Alzheimers.

The article reports results of a study of about 2000 men and women age 70 and older participating in the long-running Mayo Clinic Study of Aging.  Two numbers are reported regarding the reduced risk  of people who used the computer at least once a week.  In the article proper the number provided is 42%, but in a table summarizing the studies results it is 44 %.

Those who read magazines at least once a week had a 30% reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment

Those who had engaged in crafts (for example, knitting) at least once a week had a 16% reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.

Those who engaged in playing games at least once a week had a reduced risk of 14% or mild cognitive impairment.

These are reduced risks from what?  Is the original risk 100%? 75%? 50%? 25%?

Apart from the risk of mild cognitive impairment HM wonders what are these people doing with the rest of their time?  Watching television?    Watching Lucy reruns? Presumably the reciprocals of these values are the percentages of people who are at risk?  This is my peer group and HM is astounded at the low level of these activities and the finding that such low levels resulted in reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.  It appears that my peers are largely cognitively disengaged.  This is difficult to believe.

As readers of the healthy memory blog should know, our recommendation is to remain cognitively engaged through growth mindsets on a daily basis, along with daily physical activity, daily meditation, and daily social activity.  Such a regimen should yield much larger reduced risks of mild cognitive impairment.  It is quite possible that you will be one of those whose brain has the defining symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but who never experiences any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  In other words, you may never have known that you had Alzheimer’s.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. 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.

Loneliness and Dementia

July 27, 2015

The article on which the immediately preceding healthy memory post was based, by Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post (July 21, Section A, “Too much TV could raise the risk of Alzheimer’s,” ) also reported a study on how loneliness can increase the likelihood of dementia.  This study was done by Nancy C. Donovan, an associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.  Donovan and her team traced 8311 adults in the U.S. Healthy and Retirement Study from 1998 to 2010.  The research participants were 65 and older and were given biennial assessments of their perception of loneliness using a questionnaire.  The researchers examined the participants’ cognitive performance and factored in their health status, sociodemographic status and social network characteristics.

The researchers found that the loneliest people, about 17% of the participants, experienced the most accelerated decline in cognitive performance.  The scores of these people fell 20% faster than those who did not report being lonely.  Donovan concluded that “loneliness is a form of suffering in older people that is prevalent but undetected and untreated in medical practice.  Second, loneliness has consequences.  Our work work shows that loneliness, like depression, is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older Americans.  The finding is important because it opens up new approaches for preventing and treating Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Ideas for Increasing or Decreasing Your Risk for Alzheimer’s

July 25, 2015

An article by Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post (July 21, Section A), “Too much TV could raise the risk of Alzheimer’s, study suggests,”  provides ideas for both increasing or decreasing your risk for Alzheimer’s.  It summarizes the results of research done at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education.  The study tracked people  enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development Study for 25 years beginning in young adulthood.    Their exercise and TV viewing habits were evaluated using questionnaires three times during the course of 25 years.  Low physical activity was defined as burning fewer than 300 calories in a 50-minute session three times a week, which by at least one measure is about 300 calories less than the equivalent of playing a round of golf while riding in a golf cart (See the healthymemory blog post, “Too Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”).  A high amount of television watching was defined as more than four hours a day.  About 17 percent reported low physical activity, and about 11 percent qualified as heavy TV viewers.  3 percent reported both.

An analysis of the results showed that people who watch a lot television had a 1.5 percent higher risk of performing worse on cognitive tests compared with those who watched less television. Compared with participants with high physical activity and low television viewing, a relatively sedentary individual who exercises little and spends a lot of time in front of the television will be two times more likely to perform more poorly on cognitive tests in midlife.

You should note that the effects of television viewing are much lower than the effects of exercise.  It might be that not all television programs are bad.  True, it is likely that many are, but there are some programs that are cognitively challenging and educational, that is they likely benefit brain and memory health.

These results suggest that sedentary habits set early in life can perhaps have an impact on one’s dementia risk in midlife and later.  One of the researchers, Yaffe, said, “What’s is happening at one’s midlife is setting the stage for what’s happening over the next 20 or 30 years.”  Yet less than half the nation meets recommended exercise standards.   More that 28 million baby boomers are projected to develop Alzheimer’s by 2050.

So how does one increase risk for Alzheimer’s?  Do little or no exercise and much indiscriminate TV viewing.

How does one decrease risk for Alzheimer’s?  Exercise at least a moderate amount and be judicious in your television viewing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Is Our Evolutionary Heritage Placing Us at Risk?

July 21, 2013

I believe it is common knowledge that one of the reasons those of us living in the developed countries tend to be overweight, or obese, is that in the earliest stages of the development of our species it was beneficial to survival to store up bodily fat when food was available. This enabled our species to survive when food was not readily available. It was also beneficial to consume foods high in calories. As food is readily available in developed countries today, and there is a tendency to favor foods high in calories. So behaviors that once were beneficial, are now no longer beneficial, and are even potentially harmful.

There is an analogous situation with respect to how we respond to stimuli and how we process information. In earlier times, there were many sources of danger both from other species and within our own species. Consequently, it was beneficial to respond quickly to potential dangers. It is our sympathetic nervous system that responds to potential danger and produces stress. Our parasympathetic nervous system has the role of counteracting our sympathetic system to reduce stress and calm ourselves. An argument can be made that our evolutionary heritage has left many of us with a predisposition in favor of the sympathetic nervous system even though, for most people and in most places, this predisposition is no longer beneficial. There are other factors in addition to a likely evolutionary predisposition that increase the problem. Given the preponderance of crime shows and violence on television and in the movies, people develop a sense of danger that is not proportionate to their actual individual risk. News reports of violent crimes, mass shootings, and terrorist acts increase the sense of danger, when the actual probability of their occurring to most individuals is extremely low. Few people are aware that about 50% of law enforcement officers retire without ever having fired their weapons in the course of their duties. Even with the vast news coverage that has been given to the Trayvon Martin case, there has been virtually no mention of the fact that if there had been no gun, no one would have been killed, and there would have been no trial. The belief that the solution to the problem of gun violence is the arming of more people is clearly false. More guns increase, not decrease, the likelihood of violence.

As has been mentioned in previous healthymemory blog posts, System 1 processes (if you don’t know what System 1 processes are, enter System 1 into the blog search box) were especially beneficial to the early survival of our species. And while System 1 processes are beneficial most of the time, they can have erroneous outputs and System 2 processes must be engaged. A very simple way of thinking about this is that System 1 is reacting, whereas System 2 is thinking. Mindfulness involves shutting down System 1 processes and allowing the flow of System 2 processing.

More information can increase the resort to System 1 processing in an effort to try to keep up with the information overload. Nate Silver notes in his book, The Signal and the Noise, a surprising result of an earlier technological innovation that greatly increased the dissemination of information, the printing press. It produced the Protestant Reformation that plunged Europe into war. “From 1524 to 1648, there was the German’s Peasant War, the Schmalkaldic War, the Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Irish Confederate Wars, the Scottish Civil War, and the English Civil War…The Thirty Years War alone killed one-third of Germany’s population, and the seventeenth century was possibly the bloodiest ever, with the early twentieth staking the main rival claim.”1

One can argue that the advent of the internet has increased the dissemination of information, produced information overload, and has resulted in similar problems: terrorism, religious wars (in the 21st century if you can believe it), and political polarization, which has impeded, if not prevented, effective government.

The solution to this problem is clear, it is mindfulness. We need to try to establish contact with reality, with our bodies, and our minds. (Enter “Mindfulness” into the healthymemory blog search block to learn more about mindfulness).

1Silver, N. (2012). The Signal and the Noise. New York: The Penguin Press., p. 4.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Multi-tasking in the Automobile

June 26, 2013

This presentation was done by David L. Strayer of the University of Utah at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). His important work on multi-tasking in the automobile has been discussed in previous healthymemory blog posts. To bring you up to date, matters have gotten worse. Elaboration on this point will follow later in this blog. Strayer had video of an individual who was not only texting, but also reading on his kindle why he was driving. He had another video of a motorcyclist who was texting while riding his motorcycle in traffic!

One of the problems with multi-tasking is that people who think they are good at it are usually especially bad at it and put others at risk. Research indicates that at any time on the road about 10% of the drivers are on their phones. Research has also indicated that driving and using your cell phone degrades driving performance to the level of those who are qualified to be legally driving under the influence (BAC > 0.08 %). Statistics indicate that a driver is 2.2 times as likely to commit a traffic violation when they are on a cell phone. Hands free laws are irrelevant. This is a matter of diverting a limited supply of attention. A common statement is, “how is this any worse than speaking with the passenger who is in the car with you?” Here the critical difference is that your passenger is likely aware of the situation and can actually assist you. Strayer had videos of people in a driving simulator with a passenger and a cell phone. Their task was to exit at a specific exit. Those who had a passenger did especially well with the passenger helping them to identify the exit. However, those on a cell phone were much more prone to drive past the exit. He also had video of a driver on a cell phone driving write through a red light and crashing into another car. The reason for this is attentional blindness. Speaking on a phone takes away attention needed for driving. There is a demonstration where viewers are asked to watch a video and count the number of passes of a ball completed by people in the video. During this video a man in a gorilla suit walks across the stage. Most people watching this video miss the man in the gorilla suit because their attention is directed at the ball tossing task!

Texting while driving is even worse. If you are going to text while driving, why not just drive off the road and save the lives of those you might kill texting while driving?   Matters are getting worse. Car manufactures are placing systems in cars that allow you to review email, search the web, and compose text messages while driving. Moreover, drivers can select from options and make dinner reservations. All this crap, and I do mean crap, is being placed in new automobiles without any regard for the risks they are creating!