Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

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Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

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:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of 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…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

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?

You mean there’s hope for me?

“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?

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

(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?)

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

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.

Fearing the mind – some thoughts on “The Politics of Experience”

My background in psychology hasn’t included readings on psychotherapy so I’ve started checking out books on the topic and just finished R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience.

A few points that jumped out at me from Laing’s book:

1) We (by which he mostly means European/North American people) live in a society that doesn’t truly admit to the existence of a complex “inner world” of dreams/imagination/fantasies/etc. that have any meaning (he wrote this book in the 1960s but there’s relevance to that position today).

(I put “inner world” in quotations, because the boundaries between what goes on in our heads and what’s out in the world is blurry – even our basic perceptions of the external world are filtered through our brains, and our thoughts and mental processes alter the way we perceive the world, what we attend to, what we remember, etc. Laing makes a similar point about there not being a sharp divide between internal and external.)

2) We view people who have been diagnosed with mental illness as lesser and as Others; mental health professionals do their best to subdue and drug them instead of explore and understand their perspective.

3) We can’t help people thrive if we don’t see them as human individuals enmeshed in relationships with others and interacting with society, its institutions and culture.

The terrifying mind

Our mental landscape can be a scary place. Beautiful too, sublime, but also unpredictable, intense, and terrifying.

Laing quotes people who went through – and ultimately emerged from – psychotic episodes where they felt they were traveling back in time, touching other dimensions and planes of existence, encountering core truths about life that were transcendent and overwhelming. Along with confronting visions and wonders, people can easily lose themselves in this mental realm, which seems limitless and is shot through with darkness and terrors as well.

Even mental activity that’s more mundane is awe-inspiring – for instance, everyday acts of creativity: filling a blank page with words or images. From where did they come? What’s inspiration and creativity really? Furthermore (and this is something Laing doesn’t really go into) so many of our basic mental processes occur beneath our awareness, guiding our decisions and actions. Laing speaks in general about people in modern society being alienated from who they are, but how do we come to know who we are and why we choose to act as we do when so much of our brain’s activity is by necessity unfolding beneath our notice? (I say “by necessity” because there’s only a little we can attend to and notice at any given time – meanwhile our brains are gathering, sorting, processing tons of information about the world and matching up current happenings with memories of prior events.) I’m not advocating for a position where we dismiss ourselves as unknowable and leave it at that; but what does it mean to “know yourself”?

Somehow, our brain’s activities give rise to “the mind” – consciousness, imagination, intuition, reveries, rationality, rationalizations, recollections, etc. It’s wondrous and mysterious, and mysteries can be terrifying.

Stamping out the mind

Laing rejected explanations of mental activity and ‘mental illness’ (a term he doesn’t want to use) that are concerned only with external behaviors or that see people as isolated units. These days individuals get reduced to products of cell activity or to animals in the thrall of evolutionary drives. Everything else is treated as so much noise or explained away glibly. I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View now and there’s a passage that reminds me of this tendency to iron out the complexities of the mind and pretend its chaos is meaningless (a jangle of nerves):

Lucy faced the situation bravely, though, like most of us, she only faced the situation that encompassed her. She never gazed inwards. If at times strange images rose from the depths, she put them down to nerves… Once she had suffered from ‘things that came out of nothing and meant she didn’t know what’. Now Cecil had explained psychology to her one wet afternoon, and all the troubles of youth in an unknown world could be dismissed.

Psychology (and psychiatry) can be used, and have often been used, as a way to obscure self-knowledge and diminish people. Those classified as mentally ill are especially vulnerable to being treated in inhuman ways: drugged to the gills, incarcerated, subjected to abuse in the guise of treatment, and told they’re incapable of any valid perceptions of reality and meaningful experience. This approach to mental health is yet another way of dismissing the frightening complexity of the mind, rather than trying to understand and work with each individual as a person, which would take effort and a willingness to confront our vulnerability and our painful, puzzling, and beautiful experiences of life – or at the very least accept that they exist and aren’t meaningless.

If Laing sometimes writes as if he’s romanticizing psychotic episodes and their potential for exploring the mind, he’s balancing out other approaches that wipe away the mind’s messiness entirely, kill self-awareness, and diminish intimacy between people. One point he returns to over and again – and it’s worth making – is that when people do experience the world in ways classified as “mentally ill” (depending on the individual, he/she may not be actually ill, just labeled that way), they aren’t experiencing their mental illness in a vacuum. Their interpersonal relationships and the society they live in have an impact on the course of their illness, its manifestation, the potential for recovery and adapting to daily life, and whether or not they’re accepted as a person instead of an embarrassment and an upsetting reminder of how the mind dances beyond the reach of neat little labels and human control.

Social impact

An article I came across recently by Tanya Marie Luhrmann – Beyond the Brain – is well-worth reading and centers on the effects of social environment on people with schizophrenia, including the influence of other people’s attitudes and behavior. The bottom line is that the brain doesn’t operate in isolation; the same goes for the body as a whole, down to the activity in the most remote cells. We’re constantly responding to and interacting with our environments. While drugs can play a role in treatment of psychiatric illness, particularly of severe cases, drugs aren’t everything and don’t solve all problems. Same goes for looking at brain scans and pointing to patterns of brain activation. What do they tell me about what it’s like to be you? To think and dream and experience the world the way you do?

Luhrmann writes:

We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are.

We can’t fully know each other, but why pretend there’s nothing to know at all aside from relatively superficial qualities? What Laing seems to put forward in his book is a vision of psychotherapy where you aren’t trying to aggressively make people “normal” (whatever normal happens to be in a given society) but to be a guide to them, and to actually hear what they say about their experience of the world instead of dismissing it all as a mass of symptoms.

More unanswered questions

Laing’s book doesn’t really go into how these changes in treatment will be achieved practically (but he does suggest at one point that people who have gone through similar psychotic breaks or psychological experiences can help serve as guides and counselors).

As for his general view of a society in which people are alienated from themselves and from each other, it wasn’t clear what alternative he proposes: what’s an example of a society, in his view, that would promote better mental health and acceptance of different individual experiences? All societies are founded on compromises between individuals and agreements to abide by certain principles. What about personal relationships – what’s an example of a healthy parent-child relationship, for example? He doesn’t get into that; he says only that parents ‘murder’ various potentialities in their children and mold them to societal specifications. If he’s right, what’s to be done?

He points to instances in the past or in other cultures where individuals could explore alternate mental states (through drugs, fasting, etc.), but weren’t these people few in number? Sometimes their activities were sanctioned, sometimes they were revered, but many times they were considered dangerous or aberrant as well.

One person Laing writes about in this book who went through a psychotic episode and emerged from it intact said that the world became illuminated in new ways, even as he continued his day-to-day life with its dissembling and false faces. To what extent can a more transcendent experience of the world co-exist with the smaller, pettier interactions of daily life?

Laing asks at one point: If our society is so dysfunctional, why would we want to adapt to its ideas of normal mental functioning?

Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.

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2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

Unemployment and Mental Health Tips

An article on CNN discusses the effects of long-term unemployment on mental health while profiling a software engineer and a photojournalist who haven’t succeeded in landing a job after months of searching. It’s a bleak picture. Unemployment increases the chances of depression and anxiety, and can lead to feelings of apathy, helplessness, anger, and profound self-doubt. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re well-qualified and out of work in spite of your best efforts. After a while you might begin to wonder if your efforts are worthwhile.

Here are some general tips (several of them mentioned in the article) for staying mentally healthy while unemployed.

  • Take good care of yourself. This includes eating well, staying physically active, and getting enough sleep. Do your best not to leave medical or dental problems untended; a number of conditions when neglected become less easily treatable and more expensive to treat with time.
  • Connect with other people, not only for networking purposes but also socially (granted, the two overlap). Be sure to make time for people who generally help you feel positive, optimistic, and relaxed. Don’t stay cooped up all day at home.
  • Reserve some time for yourself each day or every week to be alone and unplugged from everything, free of other people’s immediate demands.
  • Consider returning to school or obtaining some kind of additional skills training, but only if you can strongly justify the investment of time and money and are clear about why you want to enroll in a given program (simply using it as an escape from “real life” is probably a bad idea). For any program you’re looking into, here are some questions to ask yourself:
    • Is it accredited?
    • What options are available to me for tuition reduction and other kinds of financial aid (that will hopefully not land me in decades of debt)?
    • Would I be offered opportunities to work while enrolled? What’s the track record for finding a job on completion of the program? Are there good career services in place that would offer me help?
    • Why is it that I want to get this degree/certification/training?
    • What do current and former students say about the program?
    • What are the alternatives to obtaining this particular degree or certification? What alternatives exist to the program I have in mind?
    • Does this program allow me to make use of previous educational or job experience? (e.g. transfer credits)?
    • Do I need to complete the whole program, or can taking a key class or two suffice for my purposes?
  • Learn for free online. Here are a couple of good lists of free online educational sites, where you can learn for the pleasure of it, to further your intellectual development, and to expand your job-relevant skills and training: The 100 Best (And Free) Online Learning Tools and 12 Dozen places to Educate Yourself Online for Free. Two of my favorite sites these days are The Khan Academy and Code Year.
  • Learn for free offline. Places where I’ve attended free lectures, discussions, and classes have included:
    • Public libraries
    • Museums
    • Local colleges and other educational institutions
    • Historical societies (and other societies of the sort)
    • Book stores
    • Public parks
    • Religious institutions
    • Healthcare institutions
    • Community centers

    These kinds of events are often advertised online and in local magazines and newspapers.

  • Volunteer. Opportunities for volunteering exist in practically every field. In addition to giving you the good feeling that comes from helping people and being engaged with the world, volunteering can strengthen or maintain your existing skills and train you in new ones, and also help you make new connections and obtain references.
  • Work on projects you’re passionate about. Along with giving you purpose and fulfillment, they might also make money for you or help your future employment prospects (including steady self-employment). Also keep an eye open for (legal) opportunities all around you, short-term and long-term. Maybe there’s a needed service you can offer people based on your skill set and experience.
  • Structure your day. In the absence of familiar routines each day can feel shapeless and devoid of direction and purpose. It’s easy for hours to pass unproductively in a blur of T.V. and web-surfing.

    You could have a detailed plan for what you want to do every hour, or just make a list of what you hope to accomplish every day, with the most important items given top priority; even if you rarely get to every single item on the list, you’ll at least address the most important ones.

    Your daytime plans should be as concrete as possible. For instance instead of saying, “I’ll look for work,” write down the specific actions you’ll take (the people you’ll contact, the applications you’ll fill out, the cover letter you’ll tweak, etc.).

    Also account for how you’ll be spending your time when you aren’t looking for work: obligations to family and friends, communal activities, various projects, chores around the house, personal time, sleep. The more disciplined you are, the easier it will be for your mind to stay sharp, focused and active; you’ll know what you need to do and work towards it with purpose.

  • Even if you’re feeling down, try not to brood. It’s useless, counter-productive and self-defeating. All those worries whirling around your head, all those negative remarks you’ve heard from others and beaten yourself up with lead nowhere. Find ways to cut off brooding if you start to sink into it – meditate, take a minute or two to just breathe, go for a walk, do some exercise, listen to some music, pray – whatever will keep you from rehashing and picking over the same negative thoughts. Focus your energies on concrete actions; stay open to various ideas.
  • Don’t take the situation personally, as a sign that there’s something fundamentally, irredeemably wrong with you. Others might try to make you feel it personally – they might gloat over your struggles or tell you that you aren’t trying hard enough or talk about how easy it was for so-and-so to land a job. Getting hit with these kinds of discouraging remarks can take a toll on your mental health and deplete you of the energy you need to stay productive.

    Your uncertain circumstances and lack of employment don’t make you a worthless person. Be open to suggestions and constructive criticism but don’t accept insults. Don’t fall into the trap of measuring yourself against everyone you meet to see how far you fall short, or how much better you are than them. Remember that we’re all human.

    People who undermine you in the guise of “helpful” or “motivating” remarks are to be avoided as much as possible; at the very least try to block out their remarks. Spend time with people who genuinely support you and stay engaged in activities that inspire you. Do what you can to stay hopeful and to keep working on yourself with an open and positive outlook.

Other resources:
A link from 2009 with content that’s still relevant today: 100 tips, tools, and resources to help you survive without a job.

Hope Now unemployment resources (part of a general site for homeowners, but the job-related links could apply people who don’t own a home).

Just found this Forbes article – 10 Things You Need to Do While You’re Unemployed (some of the advice overlaps with this post, and there are further suggestions about networking and resume-writing, along with an attitude of self-reliance and making opportunities for yourself).

I hope that at least some of these suggestions have been of use to you. Please feel free to comment with your own thoughts, advice, and experiences.