Category Archives: Research
What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?
I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.
I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.
In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.
In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.
So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.
Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).
You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.
The experiments mentioned in 10 Psychological Experiments that Went Horribly Wrong are more complex (and darker) than how they’re portrayed in the article, which also doesn’t give a full account of the rationale behind some of them and what conclusions we can draw from them.
But the article is still worth a look, to get a sense of the kinds of unethical cruel decisions made by experimenters and doctors, the poor experimental designs of their studies, and the way that human nature can often turn ugly really fast.
In their bid to capture, quantify or control some of our most fundamental qualities – love, cruelty, craving for approval, sexual identity, fear, power and submission – these experimenters usually didn’t account for how messy people can be (and how easy it is to let power over others go to your head).
What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?
Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:
Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…
Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.
You are allergic to peanuts.
Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?
She is a Nobel Prize winning neurologist who passed away two days ago at age 103. Where was her earliest work done?
This was while she was living in Fascist Italy. And she was Jewish.
Here’s another good article on her in the New York Times:
“Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks, opening the way for the study of how those processes can go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer, died on Sunday at her home in Rome.”
“No worries: Neuroticism may have a healthy upside” – says this article.
But this seems to be the case only if you’re both neurotic and conscientious. Because maybe by being conscientious you’re giving yourself a sense of control and security as you confront life’s many uncertainties?
(Image credit: Psychology today – and if you click on the image you’ll find an article with a look at neuroticism and conscientiousness in another context. Funnily, this article introduces us to “neurotic people” and “conscientious folks” – what about people who are both?)
I apologize for the three week absence from this blog. Among other things, I was completing some last minute edits, formatting and re-writing on the e-book I just co-authored: A Smoker’s Guide to Health and Fitness, which is now available at Amazon.
When you work on any major project, negative thoughts can intrude: doubts about your abilities and the worth of what you’re doing. Beyond that, negative thoughts can take over any area of life, as you trash your appearance and belittle your intelligence and competence.
Maybe this can help: writing your thoughts down on a piece of paper, then tearing it up and throwing it away.
A recent set of experiments has shown that people who literally throw away their negative thoughts (either by tossing away a paper on which they wrote it or dragging a word document into the trash on a computer) blunted the impact of those thoughts.
However, hanging onto the negative thought intensifies its impact. If you write the thought down and put it in your pocket or save it on your computer (or even keep it on your desk), you’re more likely to be influenced by it; the closer you keep it to yourself (putting it in your pocket next to your body vs. placing it on a desk, the stronger the impact).
What’s interesting is how closely physical actions are tied to opinions and beliefs; if you literally act a certain way towards something – even if it’s an ephemeral thought – you’ll influence your thinking and emotions. We’re cerebral creatures but so physical too.
Why not try it? If you’re overwhelmed by negative thoughts, jot them down and bin them. Then write down some positive thoughts and keep them close.
(Image credit: Pfit blog)
Using a “think/no-think” task and word pair associations (explanations are at the link), these scientists trained a group of study participants to block out part of an autobiographical memory each participant had chosen to forget.
The article doesn’t go into what kinds of memories the participants picked – they just had to be autobiographical. An example is given of an unpleasant childhood memory where you came to school in unfashionable clothes and an older kid made fun of you.
(Did any of the study participants pick memories that were more severe than that? Memories of events that could trigger PTSD?)
What exactly did ‘forgetting’ mean for the participants?
It seems they didn’t totally block out the memory and forget it ever happened. Instead they forgot some of the details. The memory also lost some of it’s “personal meaning” for them – for instance, even if a participant still remembers getting picked on for her clothes, and remembers the identity of the mean kid who picked on her, she may no longer associate the memory with feelings of personal inadequacy or self-consciousness.
A few questions to consider:
1) How long does this forgetting effect last?
(Turns out the scientists did a follow-up, and the write-up of the findings are pending.)
2) What does this kind of forgetting tell us about memory?
Our memories can have truth. But they’re also susceptible to embellishments and fabrications and personal biases. When study participants blocked out certain details, were these details more likely to be embellishments? (I don’t know if there’s a good way to find out.) If the memory lost some personal meaning for them, is it because a lot of the personal meaning came after the fact, imposed on the memory of the event by other cognitive processes? (Some people for instance are much more prone to linger over and give the worst possible interpretation to a bad memory and how it reflects on them as a person; each time they revisit a memory they might inflate the significance of the event and its negative impact.)
3) Do we want to forget?
In this study what’s induced in the participants isn’t genuine forgetting anyway; it sounds more like a memory getting dampened. I can think of situations where this kind of dampening and loss of some personal meaning might be desirable to people. But is it always desirable? When we tinker with our memories (which are already pretty vulnerable to our own non-conscious tinkering), we’re redefining ourselves. What if losing the personal meaning of certain negative memories makes us more likely to repeat a mistake, and to not learn or grow as much? The consequences aren’t always clear.
And is the child really counting or just reciting the number sequence?
Preschool-aged children can know the order of numbers from one to ten or twenty, much as they know how to recite the letters of the alphabet in their proper order. But counting is not only about knowing the numbers in order; it involves assigning each number to an object being counted in a given set (e.g. the ducks on a page in a book) and understanding that the last number in the sequence is the total number of objects in the set.
One reason the distinction between recitation and counting is important on a practical level is that preschoolers who are able to both recite numbers and count with them perform better at math when they enter elementary school, according to this study.
Teaching counting can be a simple matter of integrating it into day-to-day activities, as the researchers recommend:
“When adults read books with children, they can count the ducks on the page. They might count the leaves that fall to the ground outside or the number of carrots at lunchtime.”
I think regularly using math in everyday life also teaches kids that math isn’t a weird and difficult subject. Many kids fear math and see numbers as abstract nonsense. Incorporating math into simple daily activities (counting money, telling time, sharing toys or candies equally among friends) may show them otherwise.
Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.
1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).
2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).
While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.
“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.
3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.
At a first glance, the findings from the following neuroscience study seem counterintuitive. Does giving yourself a pat on the back help you notice your mistakes? Wouldn’t it make you more complacent? But it turns out that self-affirmation, as it’s defined in this study and others, amounts to more than telling yourself that you’re awesome. It’s about reminding yourself of who you are, what you most believe in and identify with.
Let’s have a look at the study.
38 undergraduates were asked to rank six different kinds of values (religious, social, etc.) by order of personal importance. The undergraduates who were randomly assigned to the ‘self-affirmation group’ were then asked to write why their most highly ranked value is important to them; those in the ‘non-affirmation group’ were asked to write why their most highly ranked value isn’t important to them. This request sets up the non-affirmation group to undermine themselves to some extent and betray what they feel is important to them.
After the writing exercise, subjects from both groups were run through a task that commonly measures executive functioning: the “go/no go” task.
… they were told to press a button whenever the letter M (the “go” stimulus) appeared on a screen; when the letter W (the “no-go” stimulus) appeared, they were supposed to refrain from pressing the button. To increase the sense of threat in the task, participants were given negative feedback (“Wrong!”) when they made a mistake.
During this task researchers recorded their brain activity with EEG. In the self-affirmation group (which performed better on the task than the non-affirmation group), subjects’ brain activity showed a stronger response to errors. Self-affirmation seemed to be associated with increased processing of errors.
People often get defensive about messing up; they hate having their mistakes pointed out to them and often prefer to live in blindness to their own errors. I think the tendency to get defensive is stronger in people who have a more incomplete or damaged sense of self; in that case they’d find the error especially threatening and would process it less deeply in order to protect themselves. Maybe in people who feel more steady, strong, and committed to who they are and what they believe in, an error isn’t such a threat to their sense of self and can be processed more deeply?
It’s also possible that the non-affirmation group was a bit discombobulated after having to write about why their most important belief really isn’t that important; it’s a strange request to make of someone, and the subjects might have thought that something was weird in the experiment and didn’t attend as much as they should have to the go/no-go task, or tried to figure out if there was something more complex going on than pressing buttons for the letter M vs. W. (Years ago in college when running a cognitive psych experiment I had a couple of subjects who seemed unusually tense and alert during the task, which involved naming pictures they saw on a computer screen. Afterwards they told me they kept waiting for a catch – that the task was too simple and that there must be some kind of trick. What the trick was, they weren’t sure, but they had tried to figure it out. Their reaction times were slower than average as a result, and some of the names they came up with for the pictures were odd.)