Posts Tagged ‘Sharon Begley’

Now What?

June 16, 2016

“Now What” is the title of the final chapter in Sharon Begley’s outstanding book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.”   The answer to this question is that the future has arrived and that we are the beneficiaries of a revolution in the understanding of the brain and human potential.

There are three key discoveries.  One is that neurons are created until we die.
The second is neuroplasticity that the brain can rewire itself.
The third is that we can effect these changes with how with think, that is, with our minds.  Hence the title, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Sometimes there are problems in the brain, and these can be corrected  by the way we think and exercises that can effectively make corrections to our neuroplastici brains.  But we can also build upon and improve our minds.  The future is virtually limitless.
Begley reviews some of the exciting research of Merzenich, which shall not be reviewed here as there shall be many future posts about the work of Merzenich.

A critical topic is that of secular ethics, a term Healthymemor believes was coined by the Dalai Lama.  The Dalai lama does not proselytize for Buddhism.  Rather he argues for a new basis for a modern ethics, one that appeals to the billions of people who adhere to different religions or to no religion, one that supports basic values such as personal responsibility, altruism, and compassion.

The problem is that a scientific literate person or anyone who gives a cursory glance at newspaper science stories may well react to that a message with some skepticism.  Modern science seems to be offering a radically different view of human responsibility.  Critics call this view neurogenetic determinism, the belief, ascendant from the early 1990s and propelled by the mystique of modern genetics, that ascribes causal power to the genres one inherent from one’s parents.  Should a reader still adhere to this view they are urged to read or reread all the posts devoted to Begleys book.  Genes are affected by the environment and, what is important, are epigenetic, which refers to what is read out from genes.  The environment has strong effects as do meditative practices.  There is a related wrong view and that is strict determinism.  We are victims to neither our genes nor to our environments.  Our minds, how we think about the world along with meditative practices, can and do effect changes.

Healthy memory shall conclude this post with the Begley’s final paragraph.  “The conscious act of thinking about one’s thoughts in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking, as studies show how psychotherapy changes the minds of people with depression show.  Such willfully induced brain changes require focus, training, and effort, but a growing number of studies show how real those changes are.  They come from within.  As discoveries of neuroplasticity, and this self-directed neuroplasticity, trickle down to clinics and schools and plain old living rooms, the ability to willfully change the brain will become a central part of our lives—and our understanding what it means to be human.”

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter nine of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”  In the 1970s, Davidson and his colleagues discovered striking differences in the patterns of brain activity that characterize people at opposite ends of the “eudaemonic scale,” which provides the spectrum of baseline happiness.  There are specific brain states that correlate with happiness.

Secondly, brain-activation patterns can change as a result of therapy and mindfulness meditation, in which people learn to think differently about their thoughts.  This has been shown in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with patients suffering from depression.  Mental training practice and effort can bring about changes in the function of the brain.

Given these two facts Davidson built the hypothesis that meditation or other forms of mental training can, by exploiting the brain’s neuroplasticity, produce changes, most likely in patterns of neuronal activation, but perhaps even in the structure of neural circuitry that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.  Then therapists and even individuals by exploiting the brain’s potential to change its wiring can restore the brain and the mind to emotional health.

In 1992 Davidson and his colleagues found that activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as detected by EEG, is a reflection of a person’s emotional state.  Asymmetric activation in this region corresponds to different “affective styles.”  When activity in the left prefrontal cortex is markedly and chronically higher than in the right, people report feeling alert, energized, enthusiastic, and joyous, enjoying life more and having a greater sense of  well-being.  In other words, they tend to be happier.  When there is greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people report feeling negative emotions including worry, anxiety, and sadness.  They express discontent with life and rarely feel elation or joy.  If the asymmetry is so extreme that activity in the right prefrontal cortex swamps that in the left, the person has a high risk of falling into clinical depression.

The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind.  The findings that, in highly experienced  meditators, there is greater activity in the left frontal cortex “imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain.”

Research has shown that every area of the brain that had been implicated in some aspect of emotion had also been linked to some aspect of thought:  circuitry that crackles with electrical activity  when when the mind feels an emotion and circuitry  that comes alive when the mind undergoes cognitive processing, whether it is remembering, or thinking, or planning, or calculating, are intertwined as yarn on a loom.  Neurons principally associated with thinking connect to those mostly associated with emotion, and vice versa.  This neuroanatomy is consistent with two thousand years of Buddhist thought, which holds that emotion and cognition cannot be separated.

Using fMRI Davidson measured activity in the brain’s amygdala, an area that is active during such afflictive emotions as distress, fear, anger,and anxiety.  Davidson said, “Simply by mental rehearsal of the aspiration that a person in a photo be free of suffering, people can change the strength of the signal in the amygdala.  This signal in he fear-generating amygdala can be modulated with mental training.

Eight Buddhist adepts and eight controls  with 256 electrodes glued to their scalps engaged in the form of meditation called pure compassion, in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving-kindness toward all living beings.  This produces a state in which love and compassion permeates the whole mind, with no other considerations, reasoning, or discursive thoughts.  The brain waves that predominated were gamma waves.  Scientists  believe that brain waves of this frequency reflect the activation and recruitment of neural resources and general mental effort.  They are also a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-found brain circuits.  In 2004 the results of this study were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Not surprisingly the results of the monks were quite pronounced.  But it was encouraging to discover that some of the controls who received a crash crash course and only a week’s worth of compassion meditation, showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal.

fMRI images were also taken.  The differences between the adepts and the controls were quite interesting.  There was significantly greater activation in the right ins and caudate, a network that other research has linked to empathy and maternal love.  These differences were most pronounced in monks with more years of meditation.  Connections from the frontal regions to the brain’s emotion regions seemed to become stronger with more years practicing meditation.  It was clear that mental training that engages concentration and thought can alter connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.

A surprising finding was that when the monks engaged in compassion meditation, their brains showed increased activity in regions responsible for planned movement.   It appeared that the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.  Another spot of activation in the brains of the meditating monks jumped out in  an area in the left prefrontal cortex, the site of activity association with happiness.  Activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal  to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.

Davidson concluded, “ I believe that Buddhism has something to teach us as scientists about the possibilities of human transformation and in providing a set of methods and a road map of how to achieve that.  We can have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish.  We’ve gotten the idea in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five intervention, which is completely cockamamy.  Athletes and musicians train many hours every day.  As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways.  To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science.”

Davidson continues, “I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years.  Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states.  That view is shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity will be the counter to the deterministic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash).  The message I take for my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility.”

Mental Activity Changes the Brain

June 11, 2016

The sixth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” reviews how mental activity changes the brain.  The notion that the mind can act downward on the brain is a concept alien to most scientists.  The first esteemed scientist to argue that the mind cn act down on the brain was Nobel Prize—winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry who developed scientifically rigorous themes  of the position that the mind can act on the brain, which he called mentalism or emergent mentalism.  He theorized that there is a “downward control by mental events over the lower neuronal events.”  He suggested that mental states can act directly on cerebral states even effect electrochemical activity in neurons.  Healthy memory blog readers should realize that this is the position of healthy memory.  However, in the 1990s this was a radical concept. one which is still refuted by mainstream scientists in spite of ample evidence that it is correct.

Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz is a practicing Buddhist who became intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness, or mindful awareness, is the practice of observing one’s own inner experience in a way that is fully aware  but nonjudgmental.  One stands outside one’s own mind, observing the spontaneous thoughts and feeling that the brain throws up, observing all this as if it were happening to someone else.  Dr. Schwartz was treating patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  OCD sufferers are troubled by obsessions and compulsions that become all-consuming.  In most cases the intrusive thoughts and fixations  feel as if they are arising from a part of he mind that is not the real self.

According to brain imaging studies OCD is characterized by hyperactivity in two regions:  the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum.  The main job of the orbital frontal cortex seems to be to notice when something is amiss.  It is the brain’s error detector, its neurological spell checker.  In OCD patients it fires repeatedly, bombarding the rest of the brain with the crushing feeling that something is wrong.  The second overactive structure, the striatum, receives inputs from other regions, including the orbital frontal cortex  and the amygdalae that are the seat of dread.  Together, the circuit linking the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum has been dubbed “the worry circuit” or “the OCD circuit.

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy patients learn to think about their thoughts differently.  So when an obsessive thought popped up, the patient would think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought.  Don’t I  know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit.  This is not really an urge to do something, but rather a brain-wiring problem.”

Dr. Schwartz used the brain-imaging technique positron-emission tomography (PET).  He would show patients their PET scans emphasizing that their symptoms arose from a faulty neurological circuit.  One patient responded immediately, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD”.  Other patients responded similarly.  The week after patients started relabeling their symptoms as manifestation of pathological brain process, they reported that the disease was no longer controlling them, and they felt that they could do something about it.

In a formal research study they performed PET scans on eighteen OCD patients before and after two weeks of mindfulness-based therapy.  None of the patients took medications for their OCD, and all had moderate to severe symptoms.  Twelve patients improved significantly.  PET scans in these patients showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically.

Dr. Schwartz concluded, “This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavioral  therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-defined brain circuit.”  He continued that the ensuing brain changes “offered strong evidence that willful, mindful effort can alter the brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes—neuroplasticity are a genuine reality.  The mind can change the brain.”

Mindfulness-based therapy is also more effective treating depression and produces longer lasting effects that do pharmaceutical products.  In 2002, Helen Mayberg discovered that anti-depressants and inert pills—placebos have identical effects on the brains of depressed people.

Toronto scientists used PET imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed patients.  They had fourteen depressed adults undergo fifteen to twenty sessions of cognitive-behavior (mindfulness) training. Thirteen other patients received parozetime, the generic name for an antidepressant.  Depressed patients responded differently to the two kinds of treatment.  With cognitive-behavior therapy activity in the frontal cortex was turned down, activity in the hippocampus was turned up, which was the opposite pattern of  antidepressants.  Cognitive therapy targets the core, the thinking brain reshaping how your process information and change your thinking pattern, which are key activities to defeating depression.  Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, working from the top down, keeps the depression circuit from being completed.

Yet another study involved having piano students practice playing a simple piece in their heads.  The result was that the region of the cortex that controls piano-playing fingers expanded in the brains of volunteers who merely imagined playing the piece just as it did in the brains of those who actually played it.

Even though neuroscientists do not know exactly how the mind influences the brain, neuoscientis have evidence that it somehow involves paying attention.  All participants in this research focused intently.  The chapter concludes by noting that an enormous amount of information bombards the brain, but unless that information is attended to, there is a high probability that it will be lost.

Sensory Experience Reshapes Adult Brains

June 10, 2016

The fifth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” is concerned with how sensory experience reshapes adult brains.  Pascual-Leone and his colleagues wanted to see what would happen if sighted adults suddenly lost their vision, so they conducted a blindfold experiment.  They recruited people with normal vision and blindfolded them.  These volunteers were blindfolded all day, every day, from a Monday morning to a Friday evening.  With this sudden, new disability, these volunteers were able to get around their rooms at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center In Boston, by touch and sound with only a minimum number of bruises.

Before the enforced blindness, the visual cortices of the volunteers only showed activity when they looked at something.  However, after a mere five days of enforced unemployment, the visual cortex started taking on new tasks.  According to fMRI readings, they were handling tactile and auditory information.  When the volunteers listened to tones to determine whether their pitch was the same or different, or when they fingered Braille symbols, their “visual” cortices became active.  Pascal Leone said that five days was not long enough to establish new neuronal connections.  Pascal-Leone said, “some rudimentary somatosensory and auditory connections to the visual cortex must already be present” left over from brain development when neurons from the eyes and ears and fingers connect to many regions of the cortex rather than just the ones they’re supposed to.  Regardless of age, faced with sensory deprivation like blindness or deafness, the brain taps its power of neuroplasticity to reorganize, using the sensory inputs it it does have.

One of the more impressive examples of neuroplasticity  can be found with stroke patients.  Edward Taub developed a therapy that came to be known as constraint-induced movement therapy.  This therapy involves putting the stoke patient’s good arm in a sling and her good hand in an oven mitt so she could not use either.  So if she wanted to hold something or feed herself, get dressed, or do the laborious rehabilitation exercises through which he puts patients, she ended to use her damaged arm.  The rehab had community was united in opposition to this ideas that therapy after a stroke could reverse the neurological effects of the stroke.  The official position of the American Stroke Association was that rehab for patients with chronic stroke only increases a patient’s muscular strength and confidence, but does nothing to address brain damage.

After just ten days of therapy Taub found that patients regained significant use of an arm they thought would always hang uselessly.  They could put on a sweater, unscrew a cap on a jar, and pick up a bean on a spoon and put it into their mouth.  They could perform almost twice as many of the routines of daily living as patients who served as the controls and did not receive therapy.  This therapy worked even for patients who started the therapy more than a year after suffering their stroke.

Another study in which twenty-one patients received constraint-induced therapy showed large improvements in the quality and use of their impaired arm compared to the control group.  Two-years later, the constraint-induced group had retained their edge and were able to use their impaired arm, which was hardly impaired at this point, significantly mor and better than those who did not received this training.

One of the drawbacks of this training is that it is extremely time-consuming.   Consequently Taub and his colleagues developed what he calls AutoCITE, for automated constrain-induced therapy extension.  Research evaluating this remote system has produced favorable results.

The brain is undergoing continuous change as connections between one neuron and another are formed to establish memories.  But neuroplasticity goes beyond that.  It produces wholesale changes in the job functions of particular areas of the brain.  Cortical real estate that use to serve one purpose is reassigned and begins to do another.The brain remakes itself through life, in response to outside stimuli—to its environment and experience

As Taub sees it, neuroplasticity is evolution’s way of letting the brain break the bonds of “of its own genome,” escaping its initial organization.  The brain is neither immutable nor static, but is instead continuously remodeled by the lives we lead.  However, there is a catch.  These changes occur only when the person is paying attention to the input that causes them.  So attentional process are key to neuroplasticity.

The Neuroplasticity of Young Brains

June 9, 2016

The fourth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain”  by Sharon Begley is concerned with the neuroplasticity of young brains.  It reviews an enormous amount of research that can best be summarized in the following paragraphs taken from the text.

“…the key sensory cortices are, for the first decade of life and perhaps longer, like a flighty new college gradate hopscotching from job to job, responding to the best offer.  No signals from the eyes arriving?  No problem; the visual cortex will handle a different sense and even a non sensory job such as language.  No transmission from the ears?  The auditory cortex will be happy to help out with peripheral vision.  By the early years of the millennium, it was clear that these structures should really be referred to as he “visual cortex” and the “auditory cortex” in quotation marks.  “Visual information is going into the auditory cortex and auditor information is going into the visual cortex,” the researcher Neville told the Dalai Lama as she ended her presentation.  “This isn’t supposed to be how our brain is wired.  But what the research has shown is that the primary visual cortex is not inherently different from the primary auditory cortex.  Brain specialization is not a function of anatomy or dictated by genes.  It is a result of experience.  Who we are and how we work comes from our perceptions and experiences.  It is the outside world that determines the functions properties of the brain’s neurons.  And that’s what our work has been about: how experience shapes the functional capabilities of the brain.”

“Usually, the pathways from the ears to the visual cortex and from the eyes to the visual cortex remain scarcely traveled if traveled at all, like back roads.  In people with normal vision and hearing, superhighways  carry signals from the eyes to the visual cortex and from the ears to he auditory cortex just fine, swamping any activity  along the back roads of he brain.   As a result, the wayward connections all away soon after birth , when the brain figures out where signals are supposed to go.  But in the absence of normal sensory input, as when neurons from the retina are unable to carry signals to the visual cortex or neurons from the ears to carry signals to the auditory cortex, the preexisting but little-used connections become unmasked and start carrying traffic.  The “visual” cortex hears, and the “auditory cortex sees, enabling the brain to hear the lightning and see the thunder.  (“In Buddhism,” Thupten Jinpa added, “there is a claim that an advanced meditator can transfer sensory functions to different organs, so that visual activity can be performed by something other  than the ears.  In this case, a meditator can read with “closed eyes.”)  In what Alvaro Pascual -Leone and colleagues call “the intrinsically plastic brain,” more permanent structural changes then kick in, as neurons grow and sprout more connections to other neurons.  This may be how the visual cortex adds higher cognitive function to its repertoire, too.”

Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis

June 8, 2016

Chapters 2 and 3 of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your MInd, Change Your Brain” cover neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  Prior to discussing neuroplasticity, how learning takes place needs to be discussed.  To explain how learning takes place psychologist Donald Hebb conceived of cell assemblies.  He proposed that learning and memory were based on the strengthening of synapses.
Somehow either the neuron that fires first in the chain (the presynaptic neuron) or the neuron that fires next (the postsynaptic neuron), or both, change in such a way that the firing of the first is more likely to cause the firing of the second.  Learning and memory involve the firing of large assemblies of these cells.  Hence Hebb’s theory is called cell assembly theory.  Hebb’s maxim is that cells that fire together wire together.

Virtually all the research on neuroplasticity involved animals.  This is because surgery was almost always required. Sensory  or motor connections might be severed, and then observations would be made regarding the effects of these operations.  Sometimes connections were rewired so that animals would see sound or hear light. The late nineteenth psychologist William James had wondered , were scientists were able to alter neuron’s paths so that exciting the ear activates the visual cortex and exciting the eye the auditory cortex, we would be able to  “hear the lightning and see the thunder.”  So James was correct.  And all this research invalidated the longstanding dogma that the nervous system could not be rewired or rewire itself underscoring the reality that the nervous system can and does rewire itself.

The longstanding dogma that new neurons  could not be created, neurogenesis, was more difficult to disprove.   Before cells divide, they make a copy of their DNA.  As cells can’t conjure the double helix out of thin air, biochemicals snag the requisite ingredients from within the cell and assemble them.  One element of DNA, thymidine, lets a radioactive  molecules glom on to it.  When the thymidine becomes incorporated into the brand-new DNA, the DNA has a spot of radioactivity, which can be detected experimentally.  Old DNA does not have this glow.

Joseph Altman, a new neuroscientist at MIT, decided to try the new trick on brains.  By scanning neurons for tell tale glows he figured he would be able to detect newborn DNA, and newborn cells.  He found neurons of adult rats, cats,  and guinea pigs with thymidine—indicating that they had been born after Altman had injected them with the tracer.  He published these finding in three prestigious scientific journals in 1965, 1967, and 1970, yet his claims were ignored,   Altman was denied tenure at MIT and joined the faculty of Purdue University.

Research was done using nonhuman  animals with rich environments.  That is animals who lived in enriched environments with exercise wheels and novel features were compared to animals living in impoverished environments.  The formation and survival  of new neurons increased 15% in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyros, which is involved in learning and memory.

To this point humans had not been involved in the research, the reason being that noninvasive brain imaging could not address this issue.  Brains needed to be taken from   dead research participants.  Oncologists injected BrdU into cancer patients because is marks every newborn cell.  This allowed them to assess how many new cancer cells were developing.  The researchers were able to enlist the cooperation of oncologists and their patients.  After these patients succumbed to cancer, their brains could be examined to see if any new  noncancerous cells had been generated.  Thanks to these patients and their oncologists, new neurons, indicating neurogenesis, were found in the hippocampus.

An interesting find was that forced exercise does not promote neurogenesis.  The neuroscientist Gage explained to the Dalai Lama, “Running voluntarily increases neurogenesis and increases learning even in very, very old animals.  It seems like the effects of running on neurogenesis and on learning are dependent on volition.  It has to be a voluntary act.  It is not just the physical activity.

When the neuroscientist Fred Gage sat down with the Dalai Lama it was clear that new neurons arise from neural stem cells in the adult human brain, which persist and support ongoing neurogenesis.  This discovery expanded the possibilities for neuroplasticity.  The neural electrician is not restricted to working with existing wiring, he can run whole new cables through the brain.

In humans new neurons might do more than help with learning.  The hippocampus plays an important role in depression.  In many people suffering from depression, the dentate gyrus oaf the hippocampus  has drastically shrunk.  There is a question of cause and effect, whether another factor caused the hippocampus to shrink leading to depression, or whether depression caused the shrinkage.

New research suggests that people who are suffering from depression are unable to recognize novelty.  Gage said this to the Dalai Lama, “You hear this a lot with depressed people.  Things just look the same.  There is nothing exciting in life.”  “There is also evidence,” Gage said, “that if you can get someone with depression to exercise, his depression lifts.”  So neurogenesis might be the ultimate anti-depressant.  When it is impaired for any reason, the joy of seeing life with new eyes and finding surprises and novelty in the world vanishes.  But when it is restored the world is seen anew.

It is clear that chronic stress impairs neurogenesis, at least in mice.  Gage’s colleague, Peter Ericsson suspects that holds lessons for humans also.  “In lab animals, chronic stress dramatically decreases neurogenesis as well as spatial memory..  When people under stress experience severe memory problems—forgetting their way to work, going into the kitchen and then no remembering why they went in—it is likely that what they’re experiencing is the very negative of stress on the function of the hippocampus due to decreased neurogenesis.”

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

June 5, 2016

The title of this blog post is the title of a book by Sharon Begley.  Please ponder this title for a moment and consider its ramifications.

It overturns two longstanding dogmas.  One is that the brain is hardwired and fixed.  The second is that although we are conscious, this consciousness is epiphenomenal in that his consciousness cannot change the brain.

Healthy memory was pleased to learn that William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word “plasticity to the science of the brain.  In 1890 James posited that “organic matter,” especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”As Ms. Begley notes, “But James was ‘only’ a psychologist, not a neurologist (there was no such thing as a neuroscientist a century ago) and his speculation went nowhere.”Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a great Spanish neuroanatomist who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906.  In 1913 near the conclusion of his treatise on the nervous system he declared, “In the adult center the nerve paths are somewhat fixed, ended and immutable, thus stating that the physiology of the brain itself could not be changed. Nevertheless, he did continue with the hope, “It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.”  Fortunately, empirical evidence that emerged in the 1990s and will be discussed in subsequent posts found that this statement is wrong.

The second dogma, that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that only the brain is made of solid stuff that science can study was never accepted by the Buddhists.  In Buddhism the mind is contra and can be used not only to influence but to change the brain.  The Dalai Lama ins very much interested in science and uses science to alter religious beliefs.  This will be discussed in the immediately following post.

As this is an important book, healthy memory shall devote many posts to it.  Even so, Healthymemory will not be able to do Sharon Begley’s book justices.  Thus, healthy memory encourages you to read the book, and Healthymemory is egotistical enough to think that there will be added value in also reading the posts.

Self-Affirmation Rather Then Self-Esteem

April 28, 2013

This post is largely based on an article by Sharon Begley, “To Love You Is to Know You,” published in the June issue of Mindful magazine. The importance of self-esteem was emphasized in the 1980s. All sorts of benefits were supposed to accrue to those with high self-esteem. Consequently programs were developed to enhance self-esteem. I remember being criticized by a student in her course evaluation for my having damaged her self-esteem. Although I had given the student a solid “A” in the course, she said that her self-esteem had suffered due to her getting several incorrect answers on an exam.

Subsequent research has debunked the benefits of self-esteem. Although programs to build self-esteem might build self-esteem in individuals, this self-esteem does not manifest itself in better performance in school or work, in particular, and in life, in general. Fortunately a new concept has emerged to replace the concept of self-esteem. This new concept is self-affirmation. The simplest way to think of self-affirmation is as self-esteem absent the “I’m wonderful” component. Another way of thinking of self-affirmation is as “mindfulness of the self.” According to the article, “Self-affirmation is the process of reminding yourself of the values and interests that constitute your true or core self.”

Research into self-affirmation has shown that self-affirmation can not only reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that usually arise when we make mistakes, but it can also help us to learn from our mistakes so that we do better the next time. Self-affirmation makes us less defensive when receiving threatening information, be it negative feedback from a supervisor, criticism from a loved one, or poor performance. We become more open to opposing views and more self-controlled.

A study done by the psychologist Lisa Legault provides some insight as to the mechanisms underlying the benefits of self-affirmation. Two groups of college students were provided different instructions. One group performed an exercise to foster self-affirmation; the control group performed an exercise that did not foster self-affirmation. Both groups performed the same simple task: to press a button whenever an “M” appeared on a computer screen for one-tenth of a second. If a “W” appeared, they were to refrain from pushing the button. Brain activity was monitored when they performed this task. The group given the self-affirmation instructions made fewer errors of commission, pressing the button when the “W” appeared (7% vs. 12.4%). The more important result was the difference in brain activity. There is a brain wave that occurs when a mistake is made called error-related negativity (ERN). This ERN is generated by the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in detecting errors, anticipating rewards, and being emotionally aware. It generates the feeling that a mistake was made. It has a strong emotional component and is why we feel bad when we mess up. The more we care, the stronger the ERN that results when we fail or receive criticism. In this study, the self-affirmation group had stronger ERN waves than the control group. It appears that this enhanced response to the task resulted in better performance.

In view of these results, it becomes clear why self-esteem is ineffective. A person with high self-esteem might not care how well he does. He already thinks that he is great. Similarly, a person with high self-esteem is likely to reject criticism because he thinks he is great. The result is that learning does not occur. Now a person with self-affirmation will have among her core beliefs that she is capable of succeeding, but is open to criticism and failure as the means to success. Mistakes will feel more troublesome, but that results in more attention and better learning.

Mind vs. Brain

March 27, 2013

The first issue of the new publication, Mindfulness, features a column by Sharon Begley having the same title as this blog post. Her article motivated this current post. Scientists seem to be reluctant to talk about mind in a scientific context. Cartesian dualism is no longer in vogue. Neuroscience is the new kid on the block capturing fascinating images of the brain in action. The brain constitutes solid science; the mind remains somewhat questionable. There is a consensus that the mind is an emergent phenomenon emerging from the brain. However, the status of the mind remains questionable.

What is overlooked is that the neuroscience would be meaningless absent the mind. Images could be collected of the brain in action, but there would be no way of knowing what they mean. The typical brain imaging paradigm involves instructing people to do something and see what images emerge. That something is resident in the minds of both the experimental participants and the scientists doing the experiment. Otherwise the entire exercise would be meaningless.

The law of parsimony plays an important role in science. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best. So the simplest explanation is that the brain engenders activity which we interpret as the mind. This explanation assumes that the mind is epiphenomenal. In other words, it serves as a movie we passively observe and experience as mind. It is important to realize that parsimony can be overdone. The notion is that the explanation that should be chosen is the one that is simplest that still explains the most.

The first question to ask about the mind, is why is it there? Even if it is an epiphenomenon, why does it exist? Evolutionary explanations like to include reasons why things involved. So one should think that if the mind exists, there should be a reason for it. In my view the reason is for it to act on the brain. The entire notion of mindfulness is that the mind can act upon the brain, and there is ample evidence to accept this notion. Moreover, there is a pragmatic argument. Consider two individuals. One is a practitioner of mindfulness and engages in practices to control her emotions and to improve her cognitive function. The other believes that her mind is an epiphenomenon and that her brain will determine what happens. Which one do you think will be happier and more successful?

© 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.

Improving Your Sensitivity to Social Context

May 9, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context,” it is recommended that you do so before reading this current post. This post will deal with ways of diminishing or eliminating social contexts that make you feel frightened or uncomfortable. It is based on The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a pathological condition in which a person, due to past traumatic experiences, becomes frightened inappropriately in a relatively innocuous environment. Exposure therapy has proven successful in treating this disorder just as it has with phobias of specific objects or situations. Exposure therapy involves progressively more direct exposure to cues that are associated with the trauma, but in a safe context. For example, if someone had a fear of flying you might first have them watch movies about flying. Then you might drive them to the airport. You might make several trips each involving more exposure to airplanes. Then you might arrange sitting I an airplane while its on the ground. Finally, you might arrange a series of progressively longer flights in an airplane.

Dr. Davidson recommends the following exercise for gradually inuring yourself to cues that make you anxious or angry.1

1. To help you relax, start with a breathing exercise from hatha yoga. With your eyes closed attend to your breathing as you would in mindfulness meditation, counting the duration of each inhalation and exhalation.

      1. Once, you have counted several breaths, lengthen you breathing cycle so that it takes one more second. Keep increasing their length as long as it feels comfortable.

      2. Pay attention to whether inhalation and exhalation are the same length. If one is longer, try to increase the length of the other so that they both are about the same length. Do this for five minutes and then open your eyes.

After you feel comfortable with this exercise, you can move on to context training.2

      1. Make a list of the cues or behaviors that upset you. Form images of these cues or behaviors. Be as specific and as detailed as you can.

      2. In a safe context conjure up these images in as much detail as possible.

      3. At the same time, practice the breathing exercise described just before this one. Continue to do this until you feel comfortable with the images you formed. Continue at this for about fifteen minutes.

        Dr. Davidson writes that you should experience from doing this after four sessions, and that the hour spent doing this is well worth it.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Ibid.

Improving Social Intuition

May 6, 2012

If you have not yet read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context” it is recommended that you read about it before considering improving it. These recommendations for improving social intuition can be found in The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley. It you have already read “Social Intuition” then you might anticipate that he would advise you to pump up your fusiform activity and quiet your amygdala activity. In practical terms he offers the following advice:

“1. Start with strangers. When you are out in public pick a couple or a small group of friends and discreetly watch them. Pay particular attention to their faces, which communicate so much social information. Remind yourself to look at other people’s faces when you watch them, and, particularly when you interact with them.

  1. See how well you can predict how they will touch each other (or not), how close they will walk together, whether they will look into each other’s eyes when speaking.

  2. Get close enough to overhear them (assuming you can do this unobtrusively. I recommend doing this is a crowded public place such as a party, a packed department store, or a jammed movie theater lobby). See if their tone of voice seems to match their body language and facial expression.

  3. If not, then you are probably misunderstanding something. Take note of that and apply this lesson to the next people you observe.

  4. Once you feel confident that you can tell what people are feeling, try it with friends or colleagues.”1

    I have the utmost respect for Dr Davidson, but I would strongly advise against staring into a stranger’s face or eyes. This can lead to uncomfortable situations. I also cannot understand why he recommends working with strangers rather than friends first.

    He also offers exercises for becoming proficient at interpreting specific cues.

    1. When you are in a public place where friends are chattering or at an airport terminal close you eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune in to specific voices and focus on the tone rather than the content.

      1. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys. The open your eyes and see what comes next. Were you able to anticipate it based on your interpretation of the tone.

      2. Now repeat the exercise with posture and body language (without closing your eyes, of course).

      3. Designate one channel, tone of voice or body language, and concentrate on it throughout the entire day.

      4. The next day switch to the other channel and repeat the exercise.

Dr. Davidson write that you should see results after a short period of time.

Now some people might be too tuned in to social cues. For example, someone might be excessively tuned in to social cues and will always be trying to please other people. Dr. Goldman would say that such people need to give their fusiform a respite. They should try to focus on other parts of the environment and increase their amount of introspection.

The next Healthymemory Blog post will deal with improving your sensitivity to context.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

© 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.

Personality Theory and Emotional Style

April 8, 2012

This post is taken largely from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley. The personality theory in current vogue is by Lewis Goldberg.1 It is a five dimension model of personality in which the five dimensions are:

Openness to Experience

Conscientiousness

Extraversion

Agreeableness

Neuroticism

(If you have not already read the preceding blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style,” now would be a good time). Here is how Goldman relates his six dimensions of emotional style to the five dimensions of personality.

Someone who is high in openness to new experience has strong social intuition, is highly self-aware, and tends to be focused with respect to attentional style.

Someone who is conscientious has well developed social intuition, an acute sensitivity to context, and a focused style of attention.

Extraverted people are at the fast to recover end of the resilience spectrum and maintain a positive outlook.

Agreeable people are highly attuned to social context, have strong resilience, and tend to maintain a positive outlook.

Highly neurotic people have low resilience, a gloomy negative outlook, are relatively insensitive to context, and are unfocused in their attentional style.

Davidson would argue that his Six Dimensions of Emotional Style provide a better explanation of personality types. In later posts we shall see that his Six Dimensions of Emotional Style are also grounded in brain structures, and can provide a better account of pathological cases. He also offers remedies both for pathological cases and for non pathological individuals who would like to make alterations in their emotional style.

1Goldberg, L. (1993). The Structure of Phenotypic Personality Traits. American Psychologist, 48, 26-34.

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

April 4, 2012

These six dimensions are taken from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Resilience style. When you’re knocked down, do you bounce back quickly and get back into the ring of life, or do you fall into a puddle of depression and resignation? Do you respond to setbacks with determination and energy, or do you give up? If you have an argument with your significant other, is the remainder of your day ruined, or do you recover quickly and put it behind you? These are examples of the two poles of the resilience dimension A person can be at either pole of the dimension or somewhere in between.

Outlook style. Do you tend towards optimism or pessimism? Even when things don’t go your way, do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement? Or are you cynical and pessimistic struggling to see anything positive? Again, these statements are intended to represent to poles of the Outlook dimension. You can fall at either extreme or anywhere in between.

Self Awareness style. Are you aware of the messages your body sends you? Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? Is your inner self opaque to your conscious mind such that you act or react without knowing why you do what you do? Do people who know you ask you why you never engage in introspection and wonder why you seem oblivious to your being anxious, jealous, impatient or threatened? Again, these statements are meant to represent the poles of the Self Awareness dimension. You can be at either extreme or fall anywhere in between.

Social Intuition style. Can you determine whether people want to talk or be alone, or whether they are extremely stressed or feeling mellow? Or are you puzzled by or blind to the outward indications of people’s physical or emotional states? So at one end of the dimension are the socially intuitive types and at the other end are those who are puzzled. Again, you can fall at either end or anywhere in between.

Sensitivity to Context style. Are you able to pick up the roles of social interaction so that you do not embarrass yourself, or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate? If you are at one end of the Sensitivity to Context dimension you are tuned in. If you are at the other end you are tuned out. Of course, you can fall anywhere between these two poles, The Sensitivity to Context dimension might seem to be be very similar to the Social Intuition dimension, but there are reasons for distinguishing between them. Different brain structures are involved, and there are other reasons for this distinction that will become apparent in subsequent posts.

Attention style. Are you able to tune our distracting information and focus on the important information to which you are trying to attend? It is this dimension that is most relevant to a healthy memory. If you have read the Healthymemory Blog extensively, you should be well aware of the importance of attention to memory. Most memory failures are a failure to attend. So difficulties in your attention style will affect the importance of your memory.

Subsequent posts will relate these dimensions to personality theory and to pathological conditions. Each dimension will be considered in more detail and discuss the underlying brain structures that are involved. And methods for altering you emotional style will be discussed. However, at this point you should realize that there is not one ideal emotional style. Emotional styles can and should vary among individuals. It is when your emotional style is hindering your happiness and the health of your memory that they need to be addressed.

Emotions and a Healthy Memory

April 1, 2012

When I was a graduate student in the seventies studying cognition, emotions were of little interest. We needed to research cognition, the important stuff. Emotions were something of concern to clinicians and those dealing with mental illness, not something with which we hard-nosed scientists needed to be concerned. Richard Davidson was a graduate student the same time that I was, but he immediately saw the folly in this view. He completed his requirements for a doctoral degree and has done research which has developed a coherent view of emotion, the brain structures and processes underlying emotion, and methods for modifying our emotions. The last point is most important because he has shown that, regardless of any innate predispositions, we can control and change our emotions.

I did not have the prescience of Davidson. I held the contempt for the study of emotion that was prevalent at that time. In retrospect I can see how foolish I was. It is our emotional states that determine not only our happiness and satisfaction, but also the effectiveness of our interactions with the environment. Emotions are a key factor in a healthy memory. Emotional problems promote an unhealthy and ineffective memory.

Davidson is a most remarkable fellow. He is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Time magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2006. Much of Davidson’s work has been published in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

He has identified six dimensions of emotional style: Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Social Context, and Attention. Each of these dimensions is characterized by different interactions of structures in the brain, the activities of which can be observed and measured. He relates these dimensions to personality and explains how they develop. He relates them to normal and abnormal patterns and explains when “different” becomes pathological. What is most important is his elucidation of the plasticity of the brain and how emotional styles can be changed. He provides a questionnaire test to self-assess one’s position on the six dimensions. He also provides exercises one can use to modify one’s emotional style. External resources are also identified.

This book is highly readable. It is a joy to read. He added a co-author, Sharon Begley, to assure its readability and accessibility. Many personal stories are included. His experiences as a research assistant in a sleep laboratory when he was in high school, his undergraduate studies, his graduate studies including his meetings with fellow graduate student Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his professional career including his trips to Central Asia, and his relationship with the Dali Lama are entertainingly presented.

This is an important book. Accordingly, I plan to devote a substantial number of Healthymemory Blog posts to it. But there is no way I can even come close to giving this book its just due. I strongly encourage you to get and read the book. It should not only be interesting, but also personally rewarding.

© 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.