Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far

“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?

Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.

Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.

No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.

I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.

Lottery winners aren’t happier right now

Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.

They had three types of people:

  • those who recently won a lottery
  • those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
  • those who haven’t had any major life events recently

The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.

The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.

Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.

It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:

“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”

We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.

The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.

So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.

This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.

Long-term happiness is on a thermostat

There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.

The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.

The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.

Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.

So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.

Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.

how-do-i-feel-happier-in-life

Money is somewhat related to happiness still

So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.

According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.

Think about – and value – time

There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.

I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.

Experience nature

Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.

I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.

Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.

Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.

what-affects-how-happy-you-feel
My personal research shows that ice-cream causes happiness, even if you’re just after spending 40 minutes running in the rain

Body language

Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.

In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.

It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.

Good relationships

Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.

Gratitude

You’ve heard all about this before.

Exercise

I won’t bore you.

Oxytocin

Imagining being happy

I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.

The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.

Happiness begets happiness

Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.

The neuroscience of creativity

As my readers will have noticed, I don’t publish as much any more. That’t not to say my commitment to this blog has lessened (I have big plans for it!) Having gone through a period of stress, I realised just how damaging it is to creativity. I blame my reduced creative output on my increased adrenal output. It is well known that the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic), not the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) system is associated with complex cognition and creative problem solving.

Where else would my brain then lead me other than to research the neuroscience of creativity?

neuroscience of creativity

1. Listening to happy music

Gene Rowe et al used a sort of a verbal IQ test and had the subjects listen to either happy music, sad music or read a bunch of neutral facts. The participants’ mood was predictably affected by the music. Indeed, the test performance was correlated with the mood level.

I am not sure whether this will get me to delete the Amy Winehouse tracks off my Spotify account, but as far as my n=1 observations go, there is indeed a relationship between one’s ability to function at a given time and a playlist.

There will some people who will want to discredit this study, but I want to note that there is nothing in this study to say that getting out of a bad mood with happy music will lead to creativity.

Indeed, I would say that listening to happy music when you’re sad can be awful. I would say that something energetic rather than cheerful is in order. I guess I will be working on a playlist in the next while.

Interestingly, a test used to assess the ability to focus yielded the opposite results when it came to music: results were improved with sad music and worsened by happy music. The proposed explanation is that happy music broadens our perception and makes us consider alternative solutions which is so important for creativity.

The interesting lesson here is that being creative means being distractible, not focused.

My encounters with people with bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia come to mind: there is often no keeping them on topic when they aren’t well. The people who suffer with these are also known for their creativity.

I’ve been taught that distraction is a menace. Studying to be a doctor involves a lot of hours in silence, pouring over books, where the only distractions are laziness and loss of the will to carry on. Menace. The job, incidentally, is nothing but distraction. In a hospital, it is impossible to even walk down a corridor without getting five different requests from patients and staff. And it’s no excuse that you’re in the middle of something. In a world obsessed with focus and productivity, it seems anything that seems to be a distraction is disallowed. Maybe, sometimes it pays to chase our distractions.

what makes your brain more creative

2. Walking

I am surprised by the robustness of the finding, though not the finding itself: walking is associated with boosting happiness and creativity. Marily Oppezzo got participants to carry out a creative task while sitting in a chair, standing, walking inside or outside, or being pushed in a wheelchair. Walking won.

I would imagine that sports would also help with being creative. N. N. Taleb also mentioned that he walks a lot and went so far as to say that he gets x amount of pages per y amount of walking (something like 1000 words per mile?) My two cents are that sometimes I feel compelled to go walking. It’s the endorphins, the fresh air, the change of scenery. In fact, whatever it is, it works.

3. Variety

The more varied the participants’ typical activities, the higher they score on tests of creative thinking. People who are in a routine aren’t usually associated with creativity. It has become en vogue to say that everything is a habit, that the best writers have a strong discipline, that Anthony Trollope got up and wrote for 3 hours every morning… There is a difference between emphasising the importance pushing yourself to create and saying that the pushing itself produces creation.

It’s pretty obvious that creativity is the secret sauce, not the bread and butter of actually creating something.

Finding a new connection between two pieces of information (i.e. being creative) will only occur if the two areas of the brain that hold those two pieces of information are active at the same time. The more variety there is in the activation pattern of one’s brain, the higher the chance of a new connection forming.

making your mind more creative

4. REM Sleep

‹REM sleep is that part of the sleep cycles when we see dreams. It seems to be particularly important for memory formation and creation of associations, the direct input of creativity.

Denise Cai got a bunch of sleep-deprived participants to do IQ-like tests focusing on associations and analogies. The participants did some questions, but the real test started after the break. The break was different for the participants who were split into 3 groups: 1) those who got to sleep and enter REM. sleep, 2) those who got to sleep but not enter REM sleep and 3) those whom didn’t get to sleep. When all the participants returned to answer more test questions, the REM sleep group did significantly better than the other two.

This also explains why sleep deprivation results in a functional but lacklustre existence. When we sleep for 8 hours a night as opposed to 6, we get disproportionately more REM sleep. This is because REM periods get longer as you spend more time asleep. So when we cut down on sleep from 8 to 6 hours, we may only lose 2/8= 25% of our entire sleep, but we lose a much bigger percentage of our REM sleep.

A few remarks on the anatomy of the eureka moment

Mark Beeman’s studies focus on moments of insight when trying to solve complex problems. He used fMRI and EEG to reveal that a particular region in the anterior superior temporal gyrus became active shortly before a person reported having an insight. Interestingly, this region is associated with associating distant verbal relations or finding connections between information that is only loosely related.

Pulling it all together

All of the above studies are using crude proxies to creativity. Figuring out what French, cork and list have in common isn’t really creativity (it’s wine, by the way). On a personal level, I feel many of the above tips are useful. Let me know what has worked for you in the comments!

P.S. WordPress tells me I have over 1,000 followers. Thanks so much guys: I really enjoy the company 🙂

Want to be great at something? You simply need to like it

A lot of the literature in psychology, especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most part it is a thinly veiled sales pitch or click bait.

Inspiration or perspiration?

I’ve gone through the non-click bait writing/research on the matter and noticed some interesting patterns.

First, I will define success as being in the top 1% of something: swimming, earning money, cutting out adenoids… whatever floats your boat.

It appears that in the majority of cases, someone’s success in a particular field is mostly related to experience and practice, not to innate ability.

I’ve been very fortunate to have gone to school with some incredibly talented people. As we were growing up, I watched their motivations change: some people would get by on raw talent, after all school was never designed to be difficult, while some, who were mediocre to start, became unbeatable.

This observation of mine is echoed in the literature. Even if one’s first attempts at something are poor, it is bears no relationship to the overall outcome. Obviously, there are some factors at play, but they tend to be obvious: like, to be a jockey or a ballerina you simply have to be light.

However, when the mission is a little more intangible, such as becoming a good writer or being good at maths, the impact of practice greatly outweighs that of talent. This dynamic is also congruent with the idea that a mindset of believing in one’s improvement is fundamental to motivation (as distinct from the belief that one’s ability is fixed which ultimately leads to learned helplessness).

how to get good at anything

Aptitude tests show aptitude, not outcomes

Consider aptitude tests. I would argue that they need to be scrapped as they predict nothing at all. Research doesn’t support the assertion behind aptitude tests, namely that the X-factor is present in a person before they put in the work required in a particular field. I also want to prevent anyone from conflating the ideas of practice outweighing talent vs nurture being more important than nature, but I will come to that later.

I like to observe people. I especially keep a mental chart for anyone who I flag as having a high IQ or a high EQ. All of these people consistently make bad decisions in their respective fields of prowess when they aren’t paying enough attention. My musings are once again congruent with available data: SAT scores explain 9% of the variance in first year college grades.

Interest is far more important than aptitude.

Even if you have the aptitude, you still need to focus on what it is exactly you are doing to actually perform well. For example, I did well in my (what you would call equivalent to) SAT’s and in first year of college. But not in fourth year: I was only around 75% centile. Why? I lost interest, didn’t like it, stopped paying as much attention and didn’t put in as much time into the specific subject.

do aptitude tests matter when choosing career

What is the relationship between accomplishment and practice?

Can you max out your practice? Sort of: you can reach 100% in a test, but in reality practice always leads to improvement. There is of course, such a thing as inappropriate practice: overtraining, staying up at night to study instead of sleeping, but you get the point.

Anders Ericsson did some great research in this area. He confirmed a few interesting things:

  • Improvement is subject to diminishing returns. In other words, one makes more progress in the first 1,000 hours practicing something than they do in their most recent 1,000 hours.
  • Interestingly, he found that these diminishing returns often create the illusion of a plateau, however, progress continues as evidenced by a ton of studies.

is it important to like your career

What is deliberate practice?

Ericsson uses the term deliberate practice to differentiate junk hours from practice that will actually make a difference in one’s level of achievement, and this is how he defines it:

1. Focus your attention on the work with the intention to improve.

2. Your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill. 

3. After you attempt something, you should get to immediate, informative feedback until you have complete clarity in relation to what you did right and what you did wrong.

If practice is all I need, how do I motivate myself to practice?

All of this sounds very laborious: having to chip away at something, constantly look for feedback and address endless mistakes. There is only one way to avoid this hell: to like what you are doing. They say that if you pick a job you like doing, you won’t have worked a day in your life. It is sort of true.

My parents’ generation nearly all switched jobs. My parents, being Russian, were in their 30s when the USSR collapsed and so were forced to find a new way to make it. My generation is also constantly changing jobs. I know so many young doctors, nurses, solicitors, accountants who end up changing their field of work: however, they aren’t forced by harsh economic perturbations. They are forced by the discrepancy between what they were taught would be good for them as a career versus what is it actually like.

Aptitude tests and risk-averse parents had aspiring accountants believe they will be good at their job. They are good at it, but they soon realise they are ambivalent about it.

And it is hard to get up early in the morning 5 days a week when you are ambivalent. This is the reason so many people who were so “promising” end up having lacklustre careers: if you don’t like doing what you’re doing, you’re not going to find it easy to practice and if you don’t find it easy to practice, the competition will quickly leave you behind.

I recall taking a deep breath in and out to simply refocus as I was writing a note in a patient’s chart towards the end of a 14 hour shift in the emergency department, the last 9 of those without any breaks. The nurse sitting beside me took this to be a sigh of desperation and said: “It’s just another half hour until you’re finished.” Clearly, this nurse has been in a place where she was literally counting the minutes until she can go home. She was being supportive and relating to an experience she thought I was having. I was just tired. The way she said it was: “I know how much you don’t want to be here; I feel the same”. I bet there was a time when she was really excited about her work. She is good at her job. But she will never get better. And because lack of progress causes tremendous unhappiness in and of itself, she is likely to leave that job.

practice beats talent

What if I like something that I can’t turn into a career?

I think that that’s just a story we tell ourselves. Wearing a suit and going to work 5 days a week isn’t a career. Or maybe it is, but in that case we don’t all need a career. It’s hard for me to guess what people need, but I hypothesise that people need meaningful impact. And in this case, it is possible to make an impact doing virtually anything. Is it possible to make a living out of it? I would argue that it is. It requires some creativity, but with the internet people have been able to find their tribe much more easily. By listening to the audience, it will soon become obvious how to make what you are good at extremely useful to people – and monetise it. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, or even an employee. As for security, I also believe that that’s more of a story. Corporations collapse, technology makes professions irrelevant, cheaper labour elsewhere leads to job losses… Employment is far riskier that it is made out. 

The point is that it is being good that sells.

If you manage to get amazing at something odd (break-dancing, why not), you are at least as likely to sell it as if you’re mediocre at something for which there is a lot of demand (accounting). I will let you judge the level of happiness attained through these two routes for yourself.

It’s not all that simple of course. If you’re relying on being the best at something, you need to constantly put in the practice or create systems around you that will allow you t grow, e.g. creating things that last like organisations and leveraging other people. If you are relying on being mediocre where there is high demand, you will probably get away with it for the rest of your less-than-happy life.

What if I don’t know what I like?

You do, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself because it may lead to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions.

I’ve always liked writing, but I was always told it is a road to nowhere. Of what use is writing? When you’re 17, you listen to adults and trust them. Having said this, I liked science just as much. However, my interest in science was encouraged, but my interest in writing wasn’t.

It can also feel like it’s a very individualistic thing to say: “I like X”, X being piano, fashion, philosophy, whatever. We’re taught that it’s not about liking things, it’s about finding a good solid field where you can be successful. Whatever that means. So saying “I like X” is immediately contrary. There is an implicit “it doesn’t matter what you like, the choice you make it about your future! This isn’t a game!”

This kind of attitude plants a lot of doubt of course: what if X is just an infatuation? What if in 3 years’ time I am sick of painting and all I want is to start a family which is far easier to do if I become an accountant? It’s a risk, I guess, but I’ve never met anyone who really liked something and actually got sick of it. They may have been repeatedly rejected, something bad may have happened that became associated with X – but I’ve never met anyone who just lost their passion from first principles.

It can even cause guilt: doing something that you like feels like it isn’t work and is therefore not valuable. The insight here is that it feels like work to most people. 

It’s also important to remember that we like things we are good at. It’s therefore good to at least try and differentiate between positive feedback and genuine interest.

should-i-do-what-i-like-or-what-makes-money

How are accomplished people’s brains different?

Isabelle Gauthier and Michael Tarr created a new field of study: Greebles. These are a family of 3-D structures, they are made up, none of the participants of their studies knew anything about them and had to learn from scratch.

As the participants practiced identifying and classifying these ridiculous Greebles, Gauthier and Tarr observed the developments in their brains using fMRI. When participants were first learning about Greebles, a huge portion of their brains was active. As they practiced more and more, fewer regions showed activity, but they ones that remained active became more active. Greebles are a nice example, but there are a number of studies like this that all point that brain activation gets more precise and efficient.

The meaning of meaningful glances

I also like to observe experienced doctors. Every morning, a senior physician would do a round and be presented with the case details of the patients who were admitted through the emergency department overnight. A lot of these presentations are really vague, that’s just the nature of the activity. The experienced senior physicians have a way of narrowing it down effortlessly: and most of the time they are correct. There is one minor detail that I noticed: they tend to fixate on something for a few seconds before they pronounce their verdict on the working diagnosis. It’s like they aren’t really here. The transient but significant fixation is especially juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of the emergency department.

It turns out that that’s a thing that experts do. Studies of eye-tracking movements of by Joan Vickers call it the quiet eye.‹ Ordinarily, our eyes jump from one object to another, about 3 times per second. The movements are controlled without our conscious involvement. As we focus on a task, these movements become more deliberate. Especially accomplished people tend to stop their eye movements for as much as a whole second as they are about to act (or make a decision). Once again, we are looking at precision and efficiency: limiting the information input to be able to focus on what is relevant. This seems to be the real skill behind being accomplished at something (incidentally, it is also the skill that is directly trained though mindfulness meditation). 

Having reviewed the mechanics of being good at something, it is obvious that it comes at an obvious cost. By going in for the kill each time, the accomplished performer is likely to miss something in plain sight simply because their optimised equation didn’t factor it in. There is valuable flexibility in being a novice.

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A downward facing doc explains the brain wiring behind mindfulness

Do you ever just wish you could get someone who knows virtually everything that’s known about the brain and quiz them about mindfulness? Well, I do – a lot – and I just got my wish!

It is my pleasure to present this interview with John McBurney MD. A practicing physician with of over 35 years’ experience, he is board certified in Neurology, Clinical Neurophysiology and Sleep Medicine. He holds an Integrative Medicine Fellowship… The list of his professional accomplishments is obscenely impressive, so I will jump to the bit we all really want to know about: Dr. McBurney maintains a daily mindfulness meditation practice as well as home yoga practice, hence the downward facing bit. Needless to say, I was beyond curious to find out his understanding of how mindfulness affects the brain.

For those of us who are put off by the mystical connotations that surround mindfulness, could you take us back to a schematic, reflex-arc type view of the process and describe the neurological response to mindfulness practice?

I think that the issue of mindfulness intersect with the leading-edge of neuroscience. It is supported by extraordinarily robust data. This area of study has been termed contemplative neuroscience. The Mind and Life Institute which is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the neuroscience community and the Dalai Llama  is an important sponsor of research and education on contemplative neuroscience. It ultimately comes down to the concept of neuroplasticity.

Donald O. Hebb coined the doctrine: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. It was an extension of the work done by an American philosopher and psychologist William James in the early XX century. You can practice “bad” things or “good” things – and neuronal ensembles form accordingly. In mindfulness, we are essentially practicing good things.

There is a resting ensemble of neural networks called the default mode network that was discovered using fMRI studies where individuals were asked to lay in the scanner and think of nothing in particular. This kind of mindless mental activity is accompanied by a lot of  self-referential ruminative recursive thoughts that are subserved by brain regions that lie along the midline, especially the prominent in medial parietal lobe. Those types of internal mental states that are remarkably robust and persist under deep general anaesthesia and even in a coma and are probably the neural basis for the self.

The more outward facing parts of the brain – like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – are more responsible for an outward orientation to the world have top down executive influence on the activation of those networks.

In mindfulness, in cultivating awareness of the breath and voluntary moment by moment awareness of the brain, we are training the brain – just like when you are learning to play the violin or any other complex skill – we are training to break out of those self-referential ruminative recursive mental states and to achieve an orientation toward the outer world and in the present moment rather than anticipating the future or reliving the past.

contemplative neuroscience mechanisms behind mindfulness

There is evidence that mindfulness leads to weaker connections in default mode network. Could we be losing something by focusing more on the external realities rather than the self?

Not everyone has a well formed default mode network. People who have been subjected to severe developmental trauma, neglect and lack secure attachment do not have robust default mode networks. Mindfulness can lower defence mechanisms that are there with good reason. However, most people with a well formed default mode network and secure attachment. We are “taming an elephant”: there is very little chance that we will significantly weaken the elephant.

Occasionally, we do hear of adverse experiences arising from mindfulness. With any robust intervention there are always potential risks.

How long does it take for mindfulness to have a manifest effect?

The results can happen almost immediately, however, they are also cumulative. We are still figuring out what the minimum effective dose it. This reminds me of the discussion of the minimum effective dose of aspirin in stroke and heart attack prevention. When I was a resident, we were advising patients to take two 325 mg tablets twice a day. Over time this dropped to 81 mg of aspirin a day. There is speculation that the required dose may even be lower.

There is a study that defines a new marker. The original fMRI/EEG studies were done by Richard Davidson in Tibetan Buddhist meditators with over 10,000 hours of meditation. This number is somewhat arbitrary and refers to this idea that is the number of hours to become an expert at anything. However, the question arises: what is the relevance of the changes in functional connectivity in the brain in someone who has devoted such a monumental amount of time to meditation to the likes of you and me?

A very neat study was published by David Cresswell in Biological Psychiatry in 2016. They invited individuals with high level of stress, unemployed adults, to a weekend retreat experience. They were randomised to in 2 groups:

  • a 3 day mindfulness retreat (the treatment group) and
  • a 3 day relaxation retreat where they read stories, told jokes and had a good time (the control group).

The study was conducted in one centre over one weekend, so it is well controlled. Initially, both groups rated the interventions as being equally helpful to them, subjectively.

The researchers looked at the functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus. They also looked at Interleukin-6, a known marker of inflammation, that has been previously shown to be elevated in stressed out unemployed people.

Even with this brief weekend mindfulness intervention, the treatment group developed increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cyngulate gyrus. There was a neuroplastic response even after a 3 day mindfulness retreat. This was also associated with a decrease in the marker IL-6. Even after 4 months, IL-6 was decreased in the treatment group, but in the control group, IL-6 levels continued to rise, independent of whether they managed to get a job or not.

This is also relevant to doctors, who are at high risk for burnout. Because of their work commitments, the mindfulness retreat for doctors was condensed from the standard 8 week model developed by John Kabat-Zinn to a weekend intervention. The question was: does the weekend model work? The research at the University of Wisconsin where this was developed was reassuring: the residents are less stressed out, more effective and have a greater level of satisfaction.

We still don’t know the absolute minimum dose, but it seems that a weekend of mindfulness can be life-changing for the brain.

Another paper published in PLOS ONE from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Harvard looked at the practices such as meditation, prayer, mindful yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, etc, i.e. ones that elicit a relaxation response (as opposed the stress response).

This study showed that in both novice and experienced practitioners of relaxation response modalities, there were changes in the epigenetic transcription of the genome. There was upregulation of pathways associated with mitochondrial integrity, downregulation of inflammatory pathways, improved insulin-related metabolism and improved nitric oxide signalling.

Long term potentiation, the standard mechanism for memory formation, strengthens existing neural connections. This happens immediately, as you read this. Over time, long term potentiation leads to formation of new connections,through synaptogenesis, dendritic arborisation and neurogenesis i.e. brain structure changes. In turn, this affects the most neuroplastic neurons located in the hippocampus.

mindfulness minimum effective dose response neurology

In reference to this fascinating recent study of the fight or flight response, it seems plausible that breathing regulates our stress levels much more than conscious thought. Could you explain the significance of this in terms of mindfulness?

The ancients believed that emotions reside in the body. This comes up a lot in serious yoga classes.

This highly innovative study shows that the control of the adrenal medulla – the main effector of the stress response – is not from the conscious ruminating thinking centres, but by the motor and sensory cortex.

This explains why breathing, as well as yoga and Tai-Chi, are an important part of meditative practice. In my experience, these kind of interventions do affect the stress response in a beneficial way.

Mindful exercise exists in many form. For example, weightlifters need to be very mindful to maintain perfect form. Cycling is another example: it is vital to concentrate on every pedal stroke and maintain an even cadence. Once you start to day dream, you notice straight away that your output is way worse. This overlaps with the concept of flow. It is about getting in the zone. There is a very inspiring TED talk by Judson Brewer MD, Ph.D. that explains the physiology behind flow and how it is augmented by mindfulness. Mindfulness is work, and it does require discipline. There is a paradox here of non-striving and non-doing while also being disciplined.

You are a sleep medicine expert. Could you comment on the relationship between mindfulness and sleep?

Insomnia is a complex problem with many causes. However, for most people with idiopathic insomnia, the cause it these self-referential recursive ruminations. They aren’t able to “turn their brain off”. Through mindfulness practice, they are generally able to tame the default mode network that’s responsible for ruminating and daydreaming. A simple strategy would be to lie in bed and concentrate on the breath. This would ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

mindfulness default mode network neurological basis for the self

Mindfulness is a mainstay treatment for many mental health disorders. What about use of mindfulness in the treatment for organic pathology of the brain usually treated by neurologists?

There is some preliminary data that mindfulness training has a beneficial effect of seizure frequency in patients with epilepsy. It is a medical condition associated with tremendous anxiety and stress, so mindfulness could have a significant benefit in more than one way. It may even have a benefit it terms of remembering to take medication on time, etc.

Some robust studies show that the frequency of relapse in multiple sclerosis decreases with mindfulness intervention. The effect from mindfulness is similar in magnitude to the effect from beta-interferon. There is also some research showing that the frequency of inflamed Gadolinuim-enhancing lesions decreases with mindfulness.

John Kabat-Zinn used to take the patients who suffered from chronic pain or had diseases for which we had no answer, and those patients got better. Even beyond neurology, there is some evidence that mindfulness can have benefits in psoriasis. We are probably only at the bottom of this mountain.

Dr McBurney is a board member of Mindful Medicine. It is a non-profit organisation that focuses on teaching mindfulness to health professionals using retreats. He is founder of McBurney Integrative Neurology and is a clinical assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Dr. McBurney is a native of Alabama and a graduate of Auburn University and the Emory University School of Medicine. He completed his neurology residency and EEG/Epilepsy fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In 2014 he completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

Dr McBurney has given me so much to think about. I will follow up with part 2 of our discussion that focuses more on the philosophical and life experience aspects of mindfulness once I wrap my head around it.

neurological path mindfulness default mode network adrenal medulla

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!

 

How our shrinking brains are turning us into Homo Domesticus

This is the first contribution, I hope of many, by T.J. His background is as varied as entrepreneurship, medicine, game development and politics.

I must admit, at the outset, that when I first vocalised the thoughts herein, I did it as a form of humour and out of frustration regarding my fellow man. However, the more I thought about it, the more I reckon there might be some validity in it. This is not necessarily in the sense that a new human subspecies has actually developed, but that process may have indeed started.

You probably learned in school that a species is a group in which two individuals can reproduce. If they can’t, they aren’t the same species. Things are a bit more complex than that, and there are many arguments regarding that definition. For example, what if A and C can’t mate, but B can mate with both?

what is homo domesticus

A subspecies is even harder to define. As a rule of thumb, if it looks a lot different but can theoretically breed, its a subspecies*. This generally involves some sort of “block” on breeding: how else would the populations look different? In fact, a definition regarding the propensity to breed can also be used. A great example is the tiger. In that case, the different subspecies are separated geographically so mating is difficult (tigers don’t do long distance relationships). Physical differences can reinforce the problem in a feedback loop. A female Chihuahua can conceive offspring with an Irish Wolfhound, but I’m not too sure how well things will workout in the long run (Wolfhounds always leave the seat up, you see).  Eventually, things get so bad, they just become two different species, and they don’t even require lawyers to do so. For our purposes we will be super pragmatic: if Wikipedia says it’s a subspecies, it is.

homo domesticus tame human being

“But T.J., Wikipedia doesn’t say there is a new human subspecies!” I hear you say. Well yes, I’m getting to that. First, let’s discuss a subspecies that is on Wikipedia, Canis Familiaris, but you might know him as Spot, or Fido, or something – the domestic dog. Of course, our oldest friend is also basically a wolf and can successfully breed with one. (In fact, different wolf species can even breed occasionally, as I said, it’s complicated). The point is, we consider the domestic dog a separate subspecies. The fact that we don’t consider each breed of dog a subspecies is basically down to taxonomical snobbery and a fear of having to come up with a bunch of Latin names.

Why is the dog important here? Well one way to make a new subspecies is domestication. This is the manner in which I think we have formed a new subspecies of human. Let’s call him Homo Domesticus.

In 1959, a Soviet scientist called Dmitri Belyaev conducted an experiment.

He hypothesised that domestication was the result of selecting for “tameability”, not other traits like fertility or strength.

Had the Soviets not starved all the farmers in the country to death beforehand, they could have just asked them about it instead of conducting a 50 year experiment. But then again, that was the result of policy created by Soviet academics, so maybe there was some conflict of interest. Anyway, the experiment involved selectively breeding foxes to domesticate them. Belyaev was right. By the tenth generation of foxes, 18% were so tame that he had to come up with a new category of tameness for them. It is theorised that this is linked to lower adrenaline production by the “domestic” foxes.

homo domesticus explained

What is very interesting is that domestic rats also have smaller adrenal glands than their wild counterparts. I am conflating an atrophied adrenal gland with lesser adrenal production, but it is not an unsound assumption. They also have smaller brains, hearts and other organs. So could it be that domestication is simply the result of lesser adrenal production? Let’s park this idea for a minute and move on to a more popular species (for reasons I will never know).

Humans have had a decreasing brain size for the last 28,000 years, Wikipedia reliably informs me. Upon discovering this, I immediately thought, could we be domesticating ourselves?! It turns out I’m not the first to think this. A study by Bailey and Geary used population density as a proxy for advanced societies and found that there was a correlation between this and brain size reduction in history. The conclusion was that “life got easier”, basically.

Since individuals had more security from those around them, they could scrape by with less intelligence.

Now I am tempted to leave things here with a note that a reliance on our fellow man will therefore lead to humans becoming stupid – brain size does map to intelligence on a large scale such as human evolution, but that would be intellectually dishonest. There is a large body of academics that think that the reliance on others may have nothing to do with intelligence. It could be down to heat loss, or that our brains became more efficient at doing what they do and needed less volume. I am tempted to discuss why I think those ideas have merit but are untrue, but do not have the space here. Furthermore, I want to keep this light and cutting rather than scientific and thorough (too late, say you).

homo domesticus smaller brain

Personally, I have a much darker theory. Brain size did correlate to intelligence and to societal complexity. But not because we are all happy bunnies living in wonderland. Let me take the case of one our “best” moments as a species: agriculture!

Agriculture is great, apparently. Yet human health suffered immensely as a result. The fossil record shows (is it a fossil record if the bones have not petrified?) that human height dropped four inches and there is a myriad of pathologies that developed upon the adoption of agriculture. This later changed but only after about 8,000 years. So why did we do it? Or a better question would be, why did we keep doing it? Perhaps it was because societal elites were able to domesticate others. Whether they are slaves or peasants, the result is the same.

One group forces the other to farm, and if they don’t, they are killed. Almost as if they are selecting for tameness…

Of course, that wasn’t 28,000 years ago. It isn’t hard to imagine the same process earlier in history? In fact, for the farming peasants to be tame enough to stay, they would likely have already been tamed in prior generations. Remember the foxes? 18% in only ten generations. I should also have mentioned that domestic rats do not run away after losing a fight like wild rats, they stay and lie submissively. By the twentieth generation, 35% of foxes were of the super tame variety. How many human generations in 28,000 years? About 1,000, actually.

But hold on! How is that a subspecies? Well, for most of human history there has been a tendency to mate with those of a similar social standing. This functions as a block to mating and could result in certain traits becoming concentrated, forming two subspecies. Maybe it’s not so far fetched.

So who are they then? In areas where there are wolves and dogs, wolf-dog hybrid occur. They might be a different subspecies, but that doesn’t mean that the big bad wolves aren’t utterly dashing to the refined domesticated ladies. Sort of like a canid James Dean, I guess. Furthermore, in humans, we know that while there was a tendency to mate in a certain social circles historically, it was by no means as rigid as portrayed today. William the Conqueror is a good case in point. (His mother was the daughter of a tanner.) Therefore, the process of domestication and subspeciation is likely incomplete in us. We all probably have both traits, to varying degrees. There are the wild men and the servile.

The significance of all this is that in the last few decades publicly traded corporations and the state encroached more into our everyday lives, filling the role of our trainers and being run by the most domesticated, institutionalised humans of all.

Due to the above, we risk completing the process of domestication. Don’t be under the illusion that we have more personal freedoms than in yesteryear, but that’s an argument for another day.

* To qualify as breeding in this context, the offspring must be “viable”, that is, fertile.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

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

1. The madness of mindfulness

From The Financial Times

Lately, there’s been more and more of a backlash against mindfulness. It’s only natural given the rate it is growing at and the unscrupulous many who try to earn some cash riding this wave and promising mindfulness as the true path to the moon and the stars.

An understandably overwhelmed mother standing amidst Lego pieces gets a push notification on her phone that it is time to be mindful. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camels back. She goes on a rant about the appful pursuit of happiness. Caustically, she remarks on the passive aggressive nature of the simplicity of the mindfulness proposition and the real-life difficulties of its application. Of course, the article isn’t about mindfulness, it is about the cult of commoditised mindfulness and its many apps. It is quite overwhelming indeed – if you are the kind easily gets swayed by trends.

2. Time will show – and only time

From N.N. Taleb

N.N. Taleb, the closest thing we have to a popular philosopher today, brings some seemingly obvious, yet profound, insights:

…Actors gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect. The Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know…

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

3. Music works the same way as heroin

From Nature Scientific Reports

Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. The research shows that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

4. The internet and our brains are more similar than we think

From Neural Computation

The Internet relies on not being overloaded in order to work. The solution involves controlling information flow such that routes are neither clogged nor underutilised. To accomplish this, the Internet employs an algorithm called “additive increase, multiplicative decrease” (AIMD) in which your computer sends a packet of data and then listens for an acknowledgement from the receiver. If the packet is promptly acknowledged, the network is not overloaded and your data can be transmitted through the network at a higher rate. With each successive successful packet, your computer knows it’s safe to increase its speed by one unit, which is the additive increase part. This process is quite similar to our brain’s long term potentiation, i.e. memory formation. But if an acknowledgement is delayed or lost your computer knows that there is congestion and slows down by a large amount, such as by half, which is the multiplicative decrease part. This is called long-term depression (nothing to do with clinical depression).

5. The “bouba-kiki”effect: words sound sharp or soft on a subconscious level

From Psychological Science

The “bouba-kiki” effect, originally reported over 85 years ago and replicated many times since, shows that people consistently pair the soft-sounding nonsense word “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes and they typically pair the sharp-sounding nonsense word “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes.One may argue this is good old onomatopoeia, however, the researchers did a series of curious visual experiments showing people the nonsense word in a congruent (bouba-circle) or non-congruent (bouba-angular) shape. The images were shown in one eye, while the other eye was shown flashy distracting images. The congruent pair was noticed first, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

Here are my top picks from the neuroscience-mindfulness spectrum for this week.

1. We judge our previous decisions based on new information

From The Journal of Neuroscience

Thinking about thinking (known as metacognition) is hugely important for adaptation, however, little is known about it. The results of this study demonstrate that the information used to make the initial decision differs from the information that is used in metacognitive judgments.

2. Obesity is linked to memory problems

From The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

Obesity could play a part in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. It appears that the relationship is a two-way street: being overweight or obese impacts memory function, then the memories of eating experiences change and thus affect future eating behavioural patterns.

3. There is little or no diagnostic specificity in the fMRI results for mental illness

From Human Brain Mapping

It appears that individuals with mental illness – regardless of the diagnosis – have abnormalities in their limbic system responses to various tasks. The limbic system is associated with emotion.

Put simply, the fMRI of a depressed person isn’t different to the fMRI of a person with a (seemingly) completely different disorder schizophrenia.

This could be a reflection on insufficient sample sizes. It could also be a reflection on the worry of going into an MRI scanner. A number of studies emerged recently showing that we’re possibly misinterpreting the findings of fMRI.

neuroscience mindfulness latest news
From Addressing Reverse Inference in Psychiatric Neuroimaging: Meta-Analyses of Task Related Brain Activation in Common Mental Disorders

4. Fat shaming is associated with poor health outcomes

From Obesity

Individuals suffering from obesity who self-stigmatise may be at an increased cardiometabolic risk. Physiological and psychological mechanisms linking weight bias internalisation and metabolic syndrome warrant further research.

One of the researchers commented:

“There is a common misconception that stigma might help motivate individuals with obesity to lose weight and improve their health,” Pearl said. “We are finding it has quite the opposite effect.

When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress.”

5. Thinking loops lead to emotional loops

From Tara Brach

Tara Brach humorously talks about the relationship between biases, emotion, beliefs and thinking. Emotions can subside in 90 seconds unless we generate cycles of thinking that re-trigger and reinforce them.

Have a great weekend everyone.

neuroscience mindfulness news

Management consultants now selling neuroscience

The Financial Times published an interesting post today on how management consultants are looking at brain chemicals to help analyse leadership and workplace trust.

Deloitte is looking into brain chemistry – and how they can apply what they learnt in neuroscience to management. Some of the quotes from management consultants sound like they need a bit more time in the oven: “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently.”

management consulting psychology neuroscience

I think Thinking Fast and Slow should be read by every management consultant and leader. I wonder what these guys will have to add on top of this. Paul Zak, the neuroscientist that the FT quotes, talks about trust as an “economic lubricant”. Isn’t that Marketing 101? In fact, I doodled about it here. Ok, they mention a few chemicals that most management consulting folk and their clients probably haven’t heard of before like oxytocin. In management consulting, a new name usually means a new sales pitch, so I can see why they are excited. Another management consultant references the idea that we are more irrational when we are in fight or flight mode. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that in some boardroom some CEO of a gargantuan business is signing off on a contract with a management consultancy that just presented this – but really, it does sound like plain common sense.

There is one very interesting idea in the article: predictive hiring.

Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile. The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are”…

I think that games that seeing how a person takes decisions is a great way to understand their personality. It is the basis of psychological tests. However, if, instead of trying to go into the reasons why a person is like this and what they can do about it, we could simply use this information for what it is, I think it would really help to match people with certain jobs. It’s like a decision making genome that you can then marry with a job description – of course only after you accumulate enough data.

using psychology neuroscience in management consulting

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