Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. I Asked a Psychopath How to Stop Caring About Rejection

From Vice

This brilliant article summarises the feelings of a psychopath with insight. I think is a valuable approach as instead of demonising people with psychopathy, it is better to understand:

  • With rejection, I always ask myself “why did this happen?” I never ask “why am I not worthy?” When I get rejected I feel bad for like negative-two seconds. It’s just, oh how do I fix it?
  • Everything for me is a percentage. For example if I think something’s against me at about 20:1, I’ll put in 20 different proposals or versions to make sure I get what I want. Doing that trains your expectations too. If your chances are 20:1 and you only put in one attempt, then you can’t get upset if it doesn’t work.

2. New research finds that dopamine is involved in human bonding

From Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“We found that social affiliation is a potent stimulator of dopamine,” says Barrett. “This link implies that strong social relationships have the potential to improve your outcome if you have a disease, such as depression, where dopamine is compromised. We already know that people deal with illness better when they have a strong social network. What our study suggests is that caring for others, not just receiving caring, may have the ability to increase your dopamine levels.”

3. The reasons behind right- and left-handedness revealed

From eLife

Epigenetic factors appear to be at the root of it, reflecting environmental influences. Those influences might, for example, lead to enzymes bonding methyl groups to the DNA, which in turn would affect and minimise the reading of genes. As this occurs to a different extent in the left and the right spinal cord, there is a difference to the activity of genes on both sides.

Unlike other forms of caregiving, the act of mothers singing to infants is a universal behaviour that seemingly withstands the test of time.

4. Infant brains engage through song

From University of Miami

“High cognitive scores during infant-directed singing suggested that engagement through song is just as effective as book reading or toy play in maintaining infant attention, and far more effective than listening to recorded music.”

“Mothers around the world sing to their infants in remarkably similar ways, and infants prefer these specialised songs. The tempo and key certainly don’t need to be perfect or professional for mothers and infants to interact through song. In fact, infants may be drawn to the personalised tempo and pitch of their mother, which encourage them to direct their gaze toward and ultimately communicate through this gaze.”

5. Use it or lose it: how the brain chooses what memories to store

From eLife

“This goes some way to answering the long-standing question of whether the formation of generalised memory is simply a result of the brain’s network ‘forgetting’ incidental features,” Morrissey explains. “On the contrary, we show that groups of neurons develop coding to store shared information from different experiences while, seemingly independently, losing selectivity for irrelevant details.”

Have a lovely weekend everyone!

 

Exercise and thinking

I recently chanced upon a study showing that aerobic exercise can be beneficial in mild cognitive impairment. It literally increases the size of the brain. The fact that we can now image brains in a way that detects this is exciting. Nobody is really quite sure what it means, but the fact that it is so tangible and obvious is really gratifying – and hard to argue with. Interestingly, mindfulness also changes brain structure on imaging.

There have been plenty of studies of this sort – including on healthy people. They show that exercise benefits one’s mood and working memory, enhanced cognitive strategies, hippocampal neuroplasticity – in short, exercise helps your brain do its thing. I wish this message was easier to spread. Exercise for a functional brain.

In my own subjective n=1 experience, exercise makes a huge difference to how I feel emotionally. It’s like a shield that keeps irrelevant noise out – and it was quite hard to believe how well it works until I tried it. At this point, I’ve been non-stop at it for over 3 years. My main motivator to stay going with exercise is how it makes me feel. Not immediately, not right after a gym session, but on average. Having said that, isn’t our motivation nearly always how it makes us feel? How I got into it was the classic monkey-see-monkey-do dynamic. Some like to call it having a role model. During my masters, I was surrounded by a bunch of health-freaks: they were all from continental Europe, wore fancy running shoes, drank a lot of coffee and read the Economist. The enthusiasm with which they discussed running routes for their new city, whether or not a Fitbit is worth the investment – and so on, rubbed off on me. I had to try this, ze fitness. I never stopped.

exercise benefits depression

I’ve experimented with running, spinning, HIIT, swimming, weights – pretty much anything that is solitary and non-competitive is good. During a particularly busy stint at the hospital, I injured a joint – meaning I couldn’t properly weight bear. I could barely get around the seemingly endless corridors of a large Dublin hospital with nobody to cover for me on call. Exercise was not on the menu. About a week into this state of affairs, I noticed that I was starting to get sad for no reason at all. It took some introspection to figure out that it was likely down to the fact that I wasn’t exercising. The biochemistry shifted, the chemicals released during exercise wore off – and now I was feeling down. I took corrective action: so I cannot weight bear. Time for abs of steel! As if. In any case, the change in my mood from a week of significantly diminished physical activity was stark.

This experience is echoed in the story of a patient I once saw in a psychiatric hospital. He was a young guy who exercised a lot: 20 miles on a bike every day, marathons, the works. For about a year and a half he attended a cardiologist about a chest pain. He had virtually every conceivable test done – none of these tests detected any abnormalities. By the time he saw me, he had had a few attacks of this chest pain in the space of a few days – and a very low mood. The week before two things happened: he twisted his ankle and his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Long story short, the man’s chest pain was psychosomatic. He had a perfectly healthy heart. The stress of his girlfriend breaking up with him, superimposed on not being able to exercise due to a twisted ankle, led to the mood collapse as well as the chest pains.

Clearly, exercise is addictive. This is part of the reason why people keep exercising despite pain. Before I discovered the absolute must that is a foam-roller, I caused a repetitive strain injury in my calf from running too much. I couldn’t really stop: I was so into it, I just gobbled down two Nurofen and off I went. If, six months previously, someone told me that I would be like this, I would never have believed them. My buzz was all about cuddling up with a book and drinking hot chocolate – not hopping around with a painful calf in the permeating Dublin rain.

Once a psychiatry professor came to talk to us during lunch. His opening question was: “What is the single most effective intervention for both physical and mental health?” Some annoying know-it-all raised their hand and said: “Exercise.” (Okay, okay, it was me). I would still say it though.

I think it is the perfect example of the 80/20 rule, or even a 99/1 version of it. Exercise takes up very little time – if you’re clever about it – and delivers unbelievable results. In short, exercise is definitely on the to-do list of anyone who is interested in having a clear head. It’s surprisingly easy to get carried away into fitness-junkie territory, however, it is definitely worth the risk. In any confusing situation, it’s mindfulness and exercise.

exercise for healthy brain and good mood

A religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble

Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five. Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.

The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:

“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”

This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.

As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.

I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.

kurt vonnegut free will transcendental meditation breakfast of champions

Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:

“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”

This really resonates with me.

Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.

It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.

Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.

The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.

transcendental meditation scam kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions