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Omega 3 Fatty Acid and Mental Health – A Case for Treatment of Bipolar Individuals

omega-3-fatty-acidsIn the world of internet success stories, few industries are as lucrative supplement industry. On the internet you can buy supplements that claim to improve mental health, reduce risk of cancer, improve your libido, help cure psychological disorders and more (really, the only limit is your ability to think of something that needs fixing). Omega-3 fatty acids are a naturally occurring fats found most-often in fish and some vegetables.

They are purported to have many positive health effects ranging from improved cognitive aging, reduced inflammation and even helping to prevent cardiovascular disease. Unlike many supplements sold, omega-3 fatty acids have been studied in-depth.  There is some evidence that another benefit to omega 3 fatty acids is as a potential alternative treatment to bipolar disorder.

Lithium

Traditional treatment of bipolar disorder has historically been the ingestion lithium salts.   The mood-stabilizing effects of lithium are well accepted.  This powerful drug, while very effected, does tend to come with some unfortunate side effects. These include everything from tremors and an overall “dazed” feeling to potential birth defects when exposed in utero as well as potential negative long-term effects for those it is prescribed to. Furthermore, lithium is highly potent and risk of overdose is severe (and it’s impacts, when not fatal, can be long-lasting).

As effective as lithium can be for those with mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, alternatives would be welcomed and although there have been many alternatives developed in the last 50 years, these too come with their own side effects.

Enter Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Fortunately, evidence suggests that Omega 3 Fatty Acids, among their many other purported benefits, also have a mood-stabilizing effect for patients suffering from bipolar disorder.  A double-blind, placebo study indicates that patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder show signs of mood-related improvement over a 4 month period while administered omega-3 fatty acids.

The omega 3 fatty acids were administered twice daily, a randomly selected control group received identical looking capsules of olive oil.  Because of the safety of these substances, relatively high doses were used to avoid dosage that would be below an effective amount.  Over the course of the study, a significant portion of the experimental group showed signs of improvement in their disorder.

Although the effects were small and the research needs to be further investigated, the possibility that a relatively harmless and naturally occurring supplement can help stabilize individuals with mood disorders is exciting.  If nothing else, it is another promising reason to purchase omega 3 fatty acid supplements or at least increase your intake of fishes high in the substance, such as salmon.

Pain Tolerance and The Psychology of Cyclists and Other Endurance Atheletes

George Hincape at the 2004 Paris RoubaixEndurance sports, such as cycling,  require a different set of skills over their game sport counterparts. The very nature of endurance sports – pushing oneself to the limit for extend periods of time – taxes the mind much differently then other sports.  While there are plenty of heroic stories of football or hockey players playing through some ungodly injury, this is not inherent to the sport.  When Ray Lewis sacks Tom Brady, it hurts but when Brady throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing inherently painful about this success.  To win a bike race, though, is inherently painful.  What about cyclists allow them to tolerate this pain so well?  Do they even feel it the same way we do?  Does their mind approach the pain differently? Do they address the pain differently?  The following seeks to answer some of these questions.

As a competitive cyclist myself, I’ve spent a lot of time on the bike with a lot of different personalities.  I’ve had the fortune of racing with several state and national champions, professionals and Olympians. Certainly some individuals are blessed with a genetic gift that allows them and their physical systems to excel and I would argue that these genetically-gifted individuals are rare.  I would also argue that these people are less rare than most realize. The one thing I’ve learned is that as an endurance athlete, you are only as good as your mind allows and I know of several individuals that are physically strong yet mentally weak that cannot succeed.  The fact is that the winners and the ones at the top of the sport are different types of people. Not different from each other but different from you and me.

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Grit is a Requisite For Success

Common sense tells us that top endurance athletes probably have a little more “grit” than the average person.  It’s that type of grit that allowed Tyler Hamilton to win a stage of the Tour De France with a broken collarbone. Hamilton, known for his incredible pain tolerance, embodies the difference between “them” and “us”.  The insane pain tolerance of him and his peers is obviously the difference, but what drives that difference?   Perhaps their tolerance isn’t different, perhaps their pain is different.  What if these athletes feel pain differently than you and me?   That would be a convenient explanation but as it turns out it’s not likely true.

A 2012 meta-analysis of 15 pain-tolerance  and pain threshold studies studies  showed that athletes feel pain in the same way and same levels as non-athletes.  The only difference was that they were able to tolerate the pain better.  This tells us that their bodies aren’t different (they still feel the pain) but their brains might be (they have a much higher tolerance).  Additionally, it was found that the type of sport seems to matter with endurance athletes mostly having similar pain tolerances and thresholds  which were different than other sports.  This indicates some similarity within but not necessarily across sports.  A cyclist handles pain differently than a baseball player, for example.

Higher pain tolerance in athletes may hold clues for pain management

The Pain Does Matter

It would be easy to dismiss all this talk of pain tolerance and make an argument that it’s not the pain that matters, but the physical ability. It’s common to hear excuses in sport about why things didn’t work out as well as a cyclist might have liked on race day. Many like to cite physical differences and ability and at times people will note that they were just “off” that day. These things are real, and they do matter, but it’s not the whole story. Alexis Mauger, Andrew Jones and Craig Williams of the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter decided to investigate the influence of pain medication on performance during time trial cycling.

Subjects were split into two groups and were given either acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a placebo prior to a self-paced 10 mile time trial. Subjects were also asked to rate subjective levels of pain. Although there was no significant difference in perceived pain tolerance (IE all subjects felt the time trial was equally hard and equally painful), the group given a pain reducing medication had a significantly higher heart rate and a significantly better time trial time, which is to say that they pushed themselves harder. This tells us that pain seems to be a limiter both in performance and in the ability to push oneself further. The findings would arguably be less interesting if the faster group stated that the time trial was less-painful, but the fact that they didn’t feel it was any less painful, and yet they went significantly faster, tells us that the a major speed limit is the individual’s pain tolerance.  If an individual is able to tolerate pain better (or in the case of this study, merely reduce the pain), they can go faster.

Tyler Hamilton wins Tour De France Stage with Broken CollarboneDo Not Ignore The Pain – Address It

“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever” – Lance Armstrong

“If it hurts me, it must hurt the other ones twice as much, they are only human, they cannot go faster than you.” – Jen’s Voigt

“Pain is a big fat creature riding on your back. The farther you pedal, the heavier he feels. The harder you push, the tighter he squeezes your chest. The steeper the climb, the deeper he digs his jagged, sharp claws into your muscles.”  – Scott Martin

“You can’t block out the pain. You have to embrace it.” – Tyler Hammilton

In most sports, the ones at the top are often the most-quoted. Part of this is just because they are more in the spotlight, but what they say is also an excellent reflection of how they approach their craft. In a 1998 study by Jeffery Kress and Traci Statler of California State University, the quotes of Olympic cyclists were examined to determine how they attempt to deal with pain while training and competing.

Kress and Statler concluded that top cyclists utilize an array of tactics and techniques to address the pain associated with their sport. The key point is not that they are able to handle the pain better, it’s that they actually seek to embrace and deal with the pain, rather than ignore it as much of the population does during exercise. Simply put, top athletes approach the pain in a unique way by paying attention to it, rather than ignoring it.

A Naturalistic Investigation of Former Olympic Cyclists’ Cognitive Strategies for Coping With Exertion Pain During Performance

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Learning to Deal With Pain

With the above facts in mind a fair question to ask is whether or not this is a natural state or if it is a learned ability.  Do cyclists and other endurance athletes learn to deal with the pain over time or are they born with these unique abilities?

A meta-study of pain tolerance and perception in athletes and non athltes, published in the journal Pain in 2012 seeks to answer whether or not pain tolerances and perception can be altered over time.  The study looked at 15 studies including 900 individual subjects.  The results of this meta-study, which are extensive, indicate that individuals can actually alter their perceptions and tolerance to pain over time through regular physical activity.  Much like the act of strengthening the legs and the lungs, prolonged cycling seems to build towards a higher tolerance to pain.

What Placebos and Mental Illness can Teach us About Pain Tolerance

The placebo effect has long allowed scientists to test the effectiveness of medication (and other variables) but the effect itself has come under the scientific spotlight.  The ability for a sugar pill to reduce pain, for example, opens up many questions about how pain works.  Numerous studies over many years have proven time and again that a placebo can reduce pain in test subjects.  This indicates that pain reduction can be modulated both by external chemicals (in the form of pain medicine, for example) but also by internal psychological factors (which very well could ultimately alter brain chemistry as well).

Mental illness seems to effect pain tolerances as well.  Elderly individuals suffering from dementia have different pain tolerances and thresholds. Additionally, the specific type of dementia seems to cause unique changes of these tolerances and thresholds.

Individuals that self-mutilate also, not surprisingly perhaps, have unique pain tolerances and thresholds.  What is interesting about these individuals, though, is that the differences only seem to surface in instances of interpersonal distress.  In other words, the very scenarios that would lead to a self-mutilating episode seem to be the only time they have a heightened tolerance to pain.  This indicates that pain tolerances actually change depending on context.

Conclusion

Cyclists and other endurance athletes have to be able to face the pain inherent with their sport if they are to succeed.  Although physical prowess is an obvious requirement to succeed in endurance racing, the ability to mentally deal with the physical pain is arguably equally important.  It cannot go without saying that there are known genetic drivers behind individual differences in pain tolerance.  This helps explain why some individuals are better at dealing with pain than others (regardless of their athletic ability).  It seems likely that to become a top cyclist one must have been born with both extreme physical ability as well as an elevated natural tolerance to pain.  Beyond this, there are some differences that set the cyclists apart.  Although they may have an inherent elevated tolerance to pain, the pain itself does not differ from other individuals.  We also know that pain is an important limiter in endurance sport and if a cyclist or other endurance athlete can manage the pain better they can go faster.  Lastly, pain is very psychological so the way in which an athlete copes with it likely plays a significant role in their ability to deal with it. In the words of Tyler Hamilton a cyclist cannot block out the pain, but must embrace it.

Alcohol, Violence and Aggressive Individuals

Alcohol Violence and Aggressive People

Alcohol Violence and Aggressive PeoplePart of the awesomeness of being human is the diversity of our personalities. Put another way, different people act differently. We act differently from each other in all situations: at work, at play, when we’re tired, when we’re cranky, and when we’re drunk. There are some standard effects of being drunk but many will agree that there are different types of drunks too.  Most of these “types” are harmless but most everyone that has been in a bar has encountered the aggressive drunk.  Why are some people more prone to being violent when they drink? Is there something measurable; something predictable? It turns out, it seems there is.

Consideration of Future Consequences

The Consideration of Future Consequences scale (CFC) attempts to measure a person’s ability to consider future consequences of an action taken now.  People that score lower on the CFC test are less able to consider the consequences of their actions. Probably not surprising, aggressive individuals tend to score lower on the CFC Scale.

Alcohol and Consideration of Future Consequences

One of alcohol’s trademark effects is that it reduces people’s ability to make intelligent decisions.  People under the influence of alcohol tend to act without thinking. In other words, they tend not to consider the consequences of their actions.

The Study

To test whether certain people were more-prone to being aggressive while under the influence of alcohol, Bushman, Giancola, Parott and Roth wanted to test if individuals with low CFC scores were more aggressive while under the influence of alcohol (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103111002903).

A random group of individuals were measured on the CFC scale and then broken into two groups, either drinking a placebo drink or an alcoholic drink.  Participants were then subjected to a inter-personally adversarial competitive task. This tasks pits two individuals against each other, with the winner allowed to administer an uncomfortable but otherwise harmless shock to the loser.  The nature of the reward allows psychologists to measure a certain level of aggression.

The Results

The results showed that individuals that drank alcohol were more aggressive than those that were not and that those with lower CFC scores were more aggressive than those with higher CFC scores.  The most aggressive group were individuals with low CFC scores that drank alcohol.

Conclusion

As with many psychology studies, the tested population was limited to young college students.  Having said this, the study seems to make it clear that individuals with traits that often lead to a more-aggressive personalities (low CFC scores) in combination with alcohol, tend to lead to more aggressive behavior.

What’s this mean? It’s probably not an illusion that some people are more aggressive than others while drunk. Furthermore, I’m sure you can think of one or two people that fit that bill that also have troubles making wise decisions even while sober.

 

Sensory Adaptation

Sensory Adaptation and Priming

Last week I touched on the concept of priming in which exposure to a stimulus heightens the response to that stimulus .  More exposure increases the response to that stimulus so, as in the example I gave before, when you are shopping for a specific model of car you are probably going to notice that car more often.  This effect is so profound that it can begin to feel that there are actually more Nissan Altimas on the road than before (or more people talking about priming, or more websites about psychology, or whatever else you may stumble upon).

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This can be useful for us because when something novel is introduced to us, it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on it until we know what it is.  If I’m a caveman just hanging out in my cave and I see a new animal around my sweet cave dwelling, it’s probably not a bad idea to be ever-aware of its presence until I figure out whether or not it’s a threat to me.  So what happens when I determine it’s not a threat?  What happens when the novel and the insignificant just becomes insignificant?  Dedicating energy (physical or mental) to insignificant stimuli is a waste of our resources, so how do we handle that?

Sensory Adaptation

Sensory Adaptation and Priming

Initially we are more aware of a new stimuli but as time passes we become less aware.

In my post about The Psychology of Stimulation I hinted at the effect of sensory adaptation in my example of the large furnaces that were in my childhood schools.  These absurdly loud things buzz and hum so loudly that when they turned off the teacher inevitably spent a few seconds yelling at us before adjusting to the change in noise level.  That’s not the interesting part though.  The interesting thing about this example is that in spite of their loudness, they were inevitably tuned out while they were on. They were tuned out so effectively that their silence was temporarily more intruding than their loudness.  What’s going on here?

The answer is sensory adaptation.   In the most simple terms, as our brain determines that a stimulus is unimportant, or even distracting, it (more accurately, central nervous system) simply begins to ignore it.  We will cover the biology of this process in a later post but the chart above provides a nice visual.

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Real World Example

Sensory adaptation happens every day and all around.  It’s why your friends house stinks yet they don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s why you don’t smell the perfume you put on this morning by the time you get to class.  It’s why the buzzing of the florescent light above you doesn’t seem to buzz, until I just pointed it out to you. This is a very cool video that does a great job explaining sensory adaptation and shows you a really neat trick in which you will see sensory adaptation at work firsthand.  Here’s a hint: Do this right, and you’ll see the network of capillaries that feed blood to your eye. Were you able to get it to work? Let us know!

What is Priming?

Volkswagen Golf

How Many People Own That Car?

Volkswagen Golf

What a cute car. Mrs. LaymanPsych would be the only person on my block with one. Except for everyone on the planet that owns one!

A few months ago I was exploring the idea of buying a new car with Mrs. LaymanPsych.  We had a few cars that we thought would fit the bill but she really settled on the Volkswagon Golf.  Affordable, good gas mileage, sporty enough to be fun, and gosh darn-it  was it cute (and what’s more important than cute?).  We visited a few dealerships and even found a few potential cars we figured we might consider purchasing.  We mulled over the decision, weighed in on other cars and tried to establish if it was a cost we wanted to take on.

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Something strange started happening over these couple of weeks.  We really thought we had stumbled upon a unique fun little car.  Sure we’d seen a few around here and there but nothing crazy.  Seemingly out of nowhere we started seeing this thing everywhere.  Every time we went out we counted 3, 5, 10 different people driving the Golf. The car was everywhere. It seemed like everyone owned a golf.  A few weeks later we ditched the idea on the Golf. Not because we thought too many people owned them but because a Nissan Altima became available from a family member.

I was happy. Another affordable car with decent gas millage and was well taken care of.  Besides, not too many people own Altimas.  But you know what? Shortly after getting the Altima I started seeing them everywhere. New ones, old ones (like mine).  It seemed like everyone owned an Altima and no one owned anything else…like a Golf.

Obviously the rest of society isn’t changing their cars to annoy me. So what’s going on here?  Often referred to as The Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, this tendency to see things consistently only shortly after first recognizing them is the result of a cognitive bias that leads to a distorted perception of reality (there aren’t actually more VW’s on the road). Part of what is fueling this is Priming.

Priming

This story is nothing unique to myself and I know that you’ve experienced it too.  Something that you think is novel, new or obscure suddenly seems very common once you hear about it.  What’s happening here is a simple psychological effect that healthy individuals can’t avoid called priming. When we are exposed to something enough it sort of rises to the surface of our consciousness.  The idea is that by exposing the mind to a stimuli or memory, the pathways to that memory, stimuli, or construct are reinforced.

An analogy: If the park is your memory, then the path from your house to that park is the pathway.  The number of people that use that pathway and the frequency with which it’s used determines how defined the path is.

Our memories work in much the same way.  Since I kept looking up Golf’s online, looking at them in person, thinking about them in the car (should I get a Golf?) then when I’m around them, I’m more likely to see them. Not because there are more of them (obviously) but merely because I have conditioned my mind to be more aware of them.

This is why things like cramming for tests does not work.  Although it seems like you can “prime yourself” for a test, the truth is that there simply isn’t enough time dedicated to a single topic to do well on an entire test. You might be able to cram one formula in your head the night before, but not an entire chapter.  This is also why we are very prone to hearing our name if someone says it in a group of large people (known as the cocktail party effect).

Have you ever experienced this phenomena? Share it in the comments below.

 

6 Tips That Will Help You Succeed With Your New Year’s Resolution

Packing on The Holiday Pounds

The Holidays … the name we generally throw at the “Big 4″ events starting with Halloween (ok, maybe that’s a stretch), Thanksgiving, ChristmasChanukahKwanzaaFestivus and the New Year.    Each of these is meant to commemorate something other than what they often become; a time of gluttony and disregard.  Gluttony of chocolates and commercial goods (and turkey, and stuffing, and ham and gravy. Oh my!).  Disregard to our health, personal limitations, and productivity.

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Subsequently, many of us tend to gain a few pounds  around this time.  The weather is cold, we are inside being jolly with our friends and we are eating.  It’s OK though, because with the new year come the resolutions.   Anyone who is a member of a gym for more than a couple of weeks a year knows that January means that their gym is about to turn into a zoo.  Hoards of generally over-weight well-doers flock to the gym with a goal of finally losing some weight.  The new year is a seen as a sort of “reset” and makes it easy to forget all the mistakes of the past and start from scratch.  The problem with this is that for many people, being overweight doesn’t stem from a few weeks of gluttony. Most overweight people have been overweight for a while and although being overweight isn’t something that happened on a specific date, often a decision is made to try and change that bad habit or lifestyle on a specific date.

As a result, it’s common that the upsurge in post-holiday gym memberships are followed by a return to normalcy within a few weeks.  Without diving into accounting or economics, we can turn to Google  for an illustration (as with anything).  Take the image below, which represents daily search volume for the keyword “gym membership” over the past decade.

Gym Membership Statistics

Google Trends graph of search volume for the keyword "Gym Membership"

Hazard to guess what each of those massive spikes is every year? In a word: January.

What successes have you had in your life to make dramatic change?  I’d love to hear your stories and any additional tips. Share your story below.

New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions are about making changes for the better.  This usually means making a commitment to some sort of difficult but attainable goal.  Lets analyze this for a moment.

  • The New Year’s Resolution is optional: No one is forcing you to take it on.
  • It’s inherently difficult: If it were easy you would already be doing it.
  • Accomplishment of this goal will increase happiness: Why else would you take on goal that is difficult and optional?

Unsurprisingly, resolution trends tend to be the same from year to year and every year you know someone (if not yourself) that has made the commitment to losing weight.  It is consistently one of the top resolutions every year, and is very likely this year as well.  This fact makes obesity an excellent topic to discuss habits, addiction, and the idea that it is difficult for some to change bad habits on a whim.  Ultimately, that’s what New Year’sResolutions aim to change: Bad Habits on a whim.  The problem is that habits of any kind (good or bad) take time to develop and bad habits are usually ones that are subjectively easy while good habits tend to be more difficult.  If this were not the case, no one would have bad habits.  This is, broadly, why New Year’s resolutions tend to fail at an absurd rate (as much as 88%).   Instead of hammering out the reasons why this is the case, lets analyze six of the major reasons for failure and how they can be combated.

6.) Identify The Cause To Change The Effect

If you smoke cigarettes when you get stressed out or eat junk food because you’re bored then simply setting goals of “quit smoking” and “lose weight” really aren’t going to get you very far.  For obesity alone there are several reasons  why people overeat. Unfortunately, many people are not always very good at assessing themselves.  If you really want to make a change you have to  take a real close look at yourself and try and figure out what is causing you to do things that you ultimately don’t want to do.  Only then can long-term change occur.

REMEMBER: The manifestation of a bad habit is often what we identify as the issue. Being overweight, for example.  If you are overweight, maybe it’s because you fill your time eating junk food instead of doing something healthy. For me, I lost 30lbs in 3 months the summer I decided to take up cycling. I never made the decision to lose weight, I made the decision to be healthier and enjoy myself while I was doing it.

5.) Be Properly Motivated

Now wait a minute please before you go yelling at me for stating the obvious, hear me out.  Coming up with resolutions is pretty easy.  There is something in your life that you think you don’t like, and you wan’t it changed.  Easy right?  Well, not exactly.  If you are overweight (sticking to our theme here), there is a reason for this.  It’s not like you got overweight overnight. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to you.  Sure, at the end of a year you may sit back (and break a chair under your large derriere) and think, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go”, but the reality is that weight gain is often a fairly slow process as are most bad habits.

The Psychology of Motivation is a classic field in psychology and several different theories on why we do what we do have surfaced over the years.  The “Incentive Theory” of motivation, states that we act out certain behaviors because of external stimuli rather than internal drive.  That is to say that the stimuli we interact with and the rewards that they give us drive us to do much of what we do.  The stronger the reward, the sooner the reward, and the ease with which we can replicate the reward as a result of the action, the higher the likelihood that the action becomes habit.

Before changing something that has become a habit, be honest with yourself: Is this something I really want to change? If so, recognize that it is going to be difficult at first. Whatever the habit, whether it is smoking or being overweight, it is something that likely formed over many years of constant and easy reward.  With most things in life, things that take a long time to build cannot simply be reversed with the flick of a switch. Being properly motivated isn’t so much a decision, “I want to be thin”, as it is a recognition that bad habits are the results of misguided motivation. Get rid of the short-term rewards for the long-term rewards.

REMEMBER: We all enjoy desserts, some of us just allow the more instantaneous reward of the dessert to drive us to action than saying “no thanks” and enjoying the reward of happiness and health. You must be honest with yourself though. Do you really want to not eat cheesecake every night or are you being compelled by outside forces (fashion magazines, skinny friends, etc)?  Ultimately you must decide which you find more important.  Happiness is the key here.

4.) Set Yourself Up For Success

We’re going to a get a little morbid for a moment but this next scenario is so powerful that it must be put out there, even for people just looking to get a six pack.  This is very closely related to Rule #5 and the Icentive Theory.

It turns out that when you give animals a way to self-administer powerful drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, they will self administer it (Surprise!).  And if you give them unlimited access to these drugs, they will continually self administer until they kill themselves.  In an eye-opening experiment, rats were given unlimited access to cocaine for 16 or 12 hours separated by either 1 day or 10 days.  The rats that were only given access to cocaine every 10 days showed little change in their binge behaviors but the rats that were given cocaine every other day continually increased the amount of cocaine they self-administered during their binge.  Chemically, the rats that had cocaine every other day were becoming more addicted to the drug and required more of it to get the same effect.

The takehome for the human is that it’s ok to eat potato chips on very special occasions if your goal is to lose weight but if you know you can’t control yourself when they are around then maybe you shouldn’t have them around.  For those of us that only indulge every now and then, whether it’s a glass of wine or a piece of cheesecake,  a single piece of cake or glass of wine provides enough enjoyment to be satisfied.  When you surround yourself with vices, it takes more of that vice to garner the same level of enjoyment.  While drugs tend to have a stronger effect on our brains reward system than good food, the basic principles are the same. And this applies to anything that brings us joy.

REMEMBER: If you surround yourself by your bad habit, the bad habit will go never go away and will likely get worse.

3.) Allow Yourself To Fail A little Bit

Listen, you’re not going to change a bad habit overnight.  As I said earlier, these are habits that developed over many years.  The manifestation of these bad habits have as well (poor diet and lack of exercise have caused you to gain weight over several years). You’re going to have to accept that your’e going to have some bad days.  One failure shouldn’t cause you to throw your arms in the air and conclude that this is just the way you are.  After all, if habits were easy to break, no one would have a bad one.  It turns out that habit formation is a function of your brain (duh) on a neural level.  An increasing body of academia is pinpointing exactly where in the brain habits are formed.  While there are several methods for pinpointing such things, I’m always a sucker for a good lesion (damaged brain) study!  A group of really clever psychologists from the University of California, Los Angeles discovered that the relatively easy task of forming habits in lab rats become much more difficult when there was damage to a very specific part of the rat’s brain; the striatum, which is located in the basal gangila, one of the oldest parts of the brain (both ours, and the rats).

So what does this mean?  To keep it simple, habits are hard-wired into our brain much in the same way (and utilize some of the same parts of our brain) that memory is hard-wired into our brain.  Habits, like memories, can vary in intensity.  The more ingrained the memory, the less likely you are to forget it. In the same light, the more intense the habit, the harder it’s going to be to break it.

REMEMBER: You don’t just wake up one morning and say “I’m done doing all the bad things I can’t help doing” and that’s that. It takes time, and you’re going to fail every now and then. Don’t let a single failure cause you to throw in the towel. In fact, it can often be helpful to give yourself a window to fail.  When I’m trying to lose weight, I often tell myself that Friday or Saturday night’s I’m free to do whatever I want.  This makes it easier to say no the other 6 days of the week and if you’re 6-1 every week, you’re going to make it to the playoffs; you’re going to win.

2.) Take Small Steps

I’m going to now start to get (more) repetitive.  This is going to be hard!  A lot of resolutions fail because people bite off more than they can chew.  Part of this is because New Year’sResolutions are bullshit (I’m foreshadowing here).  When starting on day 1 and are putting it in terms of a new year’s resolution, there is a sense you must compare where you are today with where you want to be in 365 days.  Big goals are great, but guess what, no one accomplishes a big goal without first setting and following through with smaller goals.  Interestingly, I see smokers do this very well.  The prospect of going from smoking to not smoking is scary.  The idea of going from 10 cigarettes a day to 9 by the end of the month…that’s manageable. Manageable and realistic goals are achievable goals.  If these goals are part of something bigger, that is fine.  But be sure to set yourself up with small successes.

REMEMBER: If you want to avoid viewing your goals through a bleak dark and long tunnel, set smaller more-achievable goals (smaller and less dark tunnels).  This is easy if you frame your goal in terms of a life change rather than in terms of a New Year’sResolution.

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1.) New Year’s Resolutions Are Bullshit

We talked about motivation earlier and we only touched on the motivation issue.  Lets stay with weight loss.  If I’m overweight, it’s because I eat too much and exercise too little. Exercise is hard and not usually all that fun. Eating chocolate cake is easy (as pie?) and is a damn good time.  Not only are habits hard to break but often times the habits formed because they are fun, easy, or enjoyable. To make real change you must be intrinsically motivated, if the motivation isn’t doesn’t come from within, it relies on something external.  This is fine, as long as that external motivation remains in place. The problem with New Year’sResolutions is that the motivation is centered around a date.  “Starting on the 1st, I’m going to stop (bad habit)”.

It’s comforting to start from scratch and we have trained ourselves into thinking that an arbitrary number on a calendar is that – a reset.  The reality is that it’s just another day (January 1st, to be exact) and in the long journey of changing bad habits, you will have many ordinary days.  The glitz and fabricated hope that the New Year brings only stands as a finite and temporary motivation. Remove the motivation for change, and you remove the change.  Lastly, relying on an event to mark the start of your change sets you up for failure if (and when) you do slip. “Well, I was doing so good on this year’s resolution, then I ate that bacon-filled chocolate cake. Guess we’ll have to wait until next year.”  The one thing I will say about New Year’s Resolutions is that they can act as a “jump-start”.  If January 1st is what it takes to start making you think differently then that is great.  Hopefully  you can start to see some positive return which then turns into real intrinsically motivated action. From there, it’s smooth sailing to success.

REMEMBER: New Year’sDay is just that, a day.  If you want to make changes, start right now. If you started on January 1st and failed: START AGAIN!
RememberBad habits are easy and are often fun.  That’s the crux of life though: short-term gain’s don’t always have long-term benefit. Making changes is a hard process but it’s not impossible. To succeed you have to have the right frame of mind, the right motivation, and you have to approach it intelligently.

In the Spring of 2007 (notice NOT January 1st) I realized that I had formed some bad habits of my own and had gained a lot of weight in the first few years after college.  This is common. Some people right the ship, many remain overweight late into adulthood.  I decided to make a change.  The decision wasn’t to lose weight, it was to find a healthy outlet and adjust the way I ate.  The result was 30lbs lost by the time the Fall Semester of School started.  What successes have you had in your life to make dramatic change?  I’d love to hear your stories and any additional tips. Share your story below.

Tim at 195lbs in May 2007

Tim at 195lbs in May 2007

Tim at 165lbs in August 2007

Tim at 165lbs in August 2007

ADHD, Isolation Chambers, Mice and Brain Loss – The Psychology of Stimulation

The Stimulating World We Live In

Child listening to music while reading
I can recall being in the classrooms of my youth in the Midwest. During the winter, the only things to keep the school warm were large furnaces in each room.  These were truly large and obnoxious things.  The furnaces, covered in tin, had internal fans that created a horrendous buzzing that elevated the noise of the room twofold.  An odd thing happens when you sit around these things for hours at a time though; you forget they are even there.  In fact, often the only time I would find them irritating is after they cycled off.  The new-found silence that fell upon the classroom was so dramatic that I often found myself shifting my attention away from the lesson and onto the emptiness that now filled my ears. That is to say that I often found the absence of the sound more distracting than the sound itself.

Where Has All The Stimulus Gone?

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Surely you have been in a loud room, party, or restaurant where you were able to focus on the conversation you were having with the person in front of you while ignoring all other conversations in the room.  Have you ever wondered how you are able to focus on the conversation your having at a party or a busy restaurant when there are literally hundreds of other conversations occurring within ear shot?  It turns out, our brain is pretty good at filtering out unwanted stimuli.  While it is possible to manually shift our attention to one (or several) stimuli, for the most part this all occurs without any conscious effort.  Although perhaps obvious, studies indicate that this filtration of external stimuli requires a lot of brainpower.  Specifically, it seems that focused attention (which requires the filtering of stimuli not being attended to), uses a broad network of brain pathways.  This is very likely why a common characteristic of brain damage (regardless of where the brain damage occurs) is a reduced ability to filter unwanted stimuli.

Texting while drivingThe Over-Stimulation of Today’s Brains

If you’re reading this post on an iPhone or iPad, that’s really cool because frankly I don’t have a mobile following yet.  It’s also a real sign of the times.  Here is a fun task: Go to a public place and do some people watching. Airports are probably the best example while restaurants may be more depressing.   In either case, it is not uncommon to find the majority of people filling their empty time texting, browsing facebook or catching up on the day’s news.  For the millennial’s, this is just life.  The ease of sharing information has become so profound in the last two decades across various platforms (both software and hardware) that we have become accustom to constantly seeking it out and feeding the perceived need to “know”.  In short, our brains are not only being stimulated by environmental stimuli, such as the sound of other people talking, the sensation of air moving across our skin, the feeling of the chair we are sitting in but additionally with information such as news on our iPad, music on our iPod and texts on our iPhone (if you own and carry all three of these devices at once, I suppose you are rather silly).

The effects of this over-stimulation should not be ignored and recent studies indicate that there can be some significant long-term ramifications.  It may come as little surprise that there is a strong correlation between internet addiction and ADHD in children.  A responsible question to ask: Does the ADHD lead to internet addiction or does the internet addiction lead to ADHD? The difference may seem minor but is in fact rather significant.  It is very possible that the speed of today’s internet makes it very tolerable, and in fact enjoyable, for children suffering from ADHD to bounce from topic to topic with ease.  It is, of course, also very possible that this nature of the internet also facilitates the development of ADHD.

Unfortunately, the body of academia seems to indicate the former more than the latter.  For example, children exposed to television at an early age seem to demonstrate less attention span than peers not exposed to television. Additionally, children who spend more than an hour per day playing video games have more severe  cases of ADHD than those that do not play video games. It is therefore not surprising to learn that ADHD rates are increasing from year to year, and have been for the past several decades.  This coincides with the growth of cable television, video games, the internet, and mobile technology (whether it is in the form of a cellphone or a PSP).

ADHD and Brain Size

Advances in brain imaging in the past two decades have allowed researches to dig deeper into the pathology of mental disorders.  In the past 10 years, many efforts have been made to pinpoint the cause(s) of ADHD and one, perhaps unsurprising, finding is that the brain development is delayed in children with ADHD.  In fact, individuals with ADHD have smaller brains than those who do not.  And while the delayed development is thought to take the same path as the healthy brain, this difference in gray matter volume persists into adulthood.

The reasons for these differences remain unknown and as with most psychological disorders, it is likely a combination of biology and environment.  That is to say that there may be a genetic predisposition that may be reinforced by environmental stimuli.  Is the recent spike in ADHD diagnoses related to the proliferation of environmental stimuli across our culture? It use to be the case that while sitting at a restaurant waiting for our food that we would speak to those we are with.  Increasingly, this time is spent reading LaymanPsych.com on our iPhones.

Isolation TankIsolation Tanks

Isolation Tanks were created to test the effects of sensory deprivation, and they do a very good job at depriving the brain of outside stimulation.  Ideally, an isolation tank cuts off all sound, light, and the subject floats in a mixture of saltwater kept at the same temperature as your skin. Thus, a proper isolation tank leaves the subject seeing nothing, hearing nothing, and feeling nothing.  The tank leaves the subject to float and let their brain meander through its own thoughts, completely uninterrupted by outside stimuli (ignoring taste and smell).   This dramatic shift in environment has been said to produce dramatic effects for participants.  One of the most visible proponents in recent years, Joe Rogan claims there is a hallucinogenic effect.  Recent study indicates that the isolation tanks can reduce anxiety, depression, hostility, and fatigue while increasing creativity.  With the sheer amount of brainpower dedicated filtering out unneeded stimuli, it seems logical that sensory deprivation would have dramatic effects by allowing more brain power to be dedicated to other tasks or brain development.

Filtering, Over-stimulation, ADHD, What is The Connection?

Let us pause for a moment.  The first half of this article outlined an (unqualified)* argument that perhaps the reason the attention span of society in recent years is dropping, ADHD is on the rise, as a result of the increase in information and pure stimulation that our brains must filter out in order to function properly.  This filtering takes a massive amount of brainpower and yet because it happens without any conscious effort, it is taken for granted.  A newborns brain is roughly 1/4 of the size of its adult form and grows massively into the teen years.  Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 18, the brain begins to shrink.  This is a natural process as unused pathways are pruned out.  The differences are (subjectively) small, changing no more than 10% over the course of an individual’s life (from peak brain volume to death) and unrelenting.  Once the shrinking starts, it does not stop.

And at long-lost, this is where the study at hand comes into play.

Long-term sensory deprivation prevents dendritic spine loss in primary somatosensory cortex

The sky may not be falling, but our brains certainly are shrinking.  This is a fact and it is unavoidable. In all mammals, brains peak in size shortly after birth (this is relative, in humans it is around the age of 15 plus or minus a few years) and the number of synapses continue to decrease until death.  But can the shrinkage be slowed?

Yi zuo, Guang Yang, Elaine Kown & Wen-Biao Gan of the New York University School of Medicine sought to find out by playing a prank on mice…sort of.

The role of whiskers in those lucky mammals that have them

Whiskers are an important feature of those fury little creatures that have them: cats, dogs, mice, etc.  Whiskers are simply specialized hairs that provide tactical feedback.  Cats, for example, use their whiskers to gauge the size of an opening to determine if they can fit through it or not.  Whiskers exist to provide feedback, they are in every sense of the word…stimulating.

So Zuo and his fellow researchers used this fact to help study the effects of sensory deprivation on mice by cutting the whiskers off of several mice and looking at the effects of their brains.  The whiskers were trimmed daily of the experimental group of mice while a control group was left alone. Otherwise, the two groups of mice lived the same existence over the course of the experiment.

What they found

In short, the removal of the whiskers slowed down dendritic spine loss ( the part of a neuron that receives information a synapse).  Over the course of the study, this meant that the volume of the mice who underwent the whisker-trimming had larger brains than the control group. It should be pointed out that this was not because of new dendritic spine formation but rather a slowing down of loss of dendritic spines.   Additionally, while these findings held true regardless of the age of the mice, the results were more dramatic in adolescent mice than in adult mice.

Putting it all together: What can we take from this?

Zach Davis

Zach Davis (The Good Badger) sits alone on a cliff while completing a 5 mile journey by foot along the Appalachian Trail

Here are some facts

  1. Brains shrink as we get older
  2. Our society is becoming more and more stimulated as we become more and more plugged in
  3. ADHD, a disorder that predominately surfaces in adolescence, is on the rise
  4. Individuals with ADHD have less brain volume than healthy counterparts
  5. Isolation Chambers seem to have positive benefits
  6. Sensory deprivation appears to reduce the rate of natural brain loss, this is more profound in children
  7. If sensory deprivation reduces brain loss, one can reason that over-stimulation can promote it

In today’s ever-stimulating world, getting some rest and tuning out is becoming rare.  It only makes sense that we are probably frying our brains away on our iPods and video games.  Perhaps it’s time that we all just take a moment and listen to nature, unplug, and hike the Appalachian trail.  Ok, that may be a tad extreme, but you may want to reconsider that end-of-the-night facebook binge before you go to bed.  It’s not that computers are bad, certainly the benefits to today’s youth far outweighs the fact that many children have internet addictions and our taste and diversity in music is strongly related to the fact that it is so easy to listen to anything with a few passes of our thumb.  No, technology is not evil, but it probably shouldn’t run our lives unchecked.

*LaymanPsych never pretends to be authoritative and thus such arguments are to be taken with a grain of salt. Feel free to disagree with any arguments made here but please post comments below if you do!

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Why is Yawning Contagious?

Why do we yawn?

Why do we Contagious Yawn?
It is probably a pretty safe bet that you have found yourself yawning after seeing someone else yawn before you. Certainly math class can be boring and nightlong marathons of fragging strangers on Call of Duty can lead to a short night’s rest. Boredom and tiredness are typically the two most commonly accepted reasons we yawn for people that don’t study the mattter. For many years it was suspected that yawning, a reflexive action in which there is little control over, is the body’s way of restoring o2 levels and flushing the system of co2, though studies have indicated for years this likely isn’t the case.

The most recent and arguably the most logical explanation comes from Andrew C. Gallupa and Gordon G. Gallup Jr. of State University of New York in their 2007 study on yawning. The comprehensive study concluded that the act of yawning is the body’s way of cooling warm brains.  Increased brain temperature is associated with many effects, several of which mimic (or perhaps even cause) of the effects also associated with feeling tired (drowsiness, for example).  It seems that yawning is nothing more than temperature regulation. Fine. Easy enough. But what the heck does temperature regulation have to do with contagious yawning? Lets dig a little deeper. But first…

In just two short paragraphs of writing on the topic, I have yawned several times (Have you? Don’t lie).  Lets try an experiment. Watch this video of a cute kitten yawning and tell me you don’t yawn as well. Is this article making you yawn? Leave a comment below and tell us how many times you yawned.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bfoftiihn6s

Admit it, you yawned (or at least went “Awwwww”).

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Who contagious yawns?

Macaque Yawning

Watch out for those teeth! A Macaques monkey yawning.

Stumptail macaques yawn in responses to other macaques on video 
A 2006 study by Anika Paukner and James Anderson (University of Stirling) discovered that macaques demonstrate a significant increase  in yawning of after the chimps were shown videos of other chimpanzees yawning.

How they did it
22 macaques were shown videos of other macaques yawning and videos of other macaques making non-yawning facial expressions (control).

The results
The results showed an increase of nearly double (4.7 vs 10 yawns, on average) when macaques were shown the yawn videos demonstrating that contagious yawning is not environment-related (as the yawns were on video) but instead must something psychological.

Human yawns are contagious to domesticated dogs
A 2008 study by Joly-Mascheroni, Senju and Shepard explored whether or not dogs were effected by seeing a human yawn.  Their findings indicated that dogs are in fact responsive to human yawns.

How they did it
29 domesticated dogs were placed in view of a human subject.  The human subject either yawned (a real yawn) or mimicked a yawn (control).

The Results
Over several trials two simple results surfaced.

  1. 21 out of 29 dogs were responsive to human yawning in that if they “caught” a human yawning, the response was a yawn themselves.
  2. The dogs were not responsive to the “fake” (control) yawn. Only real yawns elicited a response yawn.

(Watch a video of the experiment)

The Red-Footed Tortoise does not contagious yawn
In another study, researchers Wilkinson, Sebanz, Mandl and Huber prove that while some animals contagious yawn (such as chimpanzees and domesticated dogs), the red-footed tortoise does not.

How they did it
Several red-footed tortoises were conditioned to yawn at the site of a red square that was flashed in their face.  The yawning response to this stimuli was predictable and reliable.  A second group of red-footed tortoises were placed in view of the experimental tortoises and were observed.

The Results
There were three possible situations in which a red-tortoise would respond to a yawn.

  1. Seeing a red-footed tortoise yawn in response to the conditioned stimuli
  2. Seeing a red-footed tortoise yawn naturally (no external stimuli)
  3. Seeing a red-footed tortoise make the motion of yawn (a fake yawn)

In all three scenarios, there was never an observation of a red-footed tortoise yawning in response to another red-footed tortoises yawn. In other words, the red-footed tortoise does not contagious yawn!

What do The Animal Studies Tell Us?

Domestic dogs yawn in response to a human yawn and tortoises don’t respond to their own kind’s yawns.  Neither are primates but domestic dogs do demonstrate a very high level of social interaction with humans.  Could this be why dogs are likely to yawn in response to a human yawn?  It is widely accepted that dogs have co-evolved alongside humans.  Interestingly, wolves are not as socially responsive to humans as dogs are and this is likely because dogs and wolves have evolved separately for many thousands of years. It’s also worth pointing out that the video studies indicate that contagious yawning is not environmentally driven.  Therefore, contagious yawning is not merely an illusion caused by a warm room (which would cause several individuals to have warmer brains and need cooling via a yawn).

These facts indicate that the act of contagious yawning is a socially driven-response, but what social skill is at play here?

Empathy as an Explanation for Contagious Yawning

One of the few positives that can come from disorders of the brain is that they can give us insight into how a normal functioning brain works.  For example, brain lesion studies have been one of the most useful ways of studying brain functions.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is the story of Phineas Gage, who suffered a traumatic work accident in which a 4in diameter rod was forced through his skull.  The damage to his frontal cortex along with a dramatic change in his social inhibitions and odd behavior in the years following the accident resulted in some of the first and to this day most useful insights into the connection between the frontal cortex and human behavior.

In the same sense, we can look at human behavior disorders as a window to the psychological relationships behind related-behaviors.  In the case of contagious yawning, many studies are leading us down a road in which empathy appears to be the cause.  Some of the most insightful work to this end are studies related to childhood development and autism.

Autism and Empathy

Of the several symptoms of autism, the hallmarks are impaired non-verbal social interaction and a lack of social-awareness/empathy towards others. Given that this is a widely studied and overwhelmingly accepted fact, let us now explore contagious yawning among autistic patients.

Contagious and spontaneous yawning in autistic and typically developing children

In a 2009 study by Fiorenza Giganti and Maria Esposito explored the difference between autistic children (both high and low functioning) and normally developed children and their responses to human yawn.

How they did it
The parents of the three groups (normal, autistic high functioning & autistic low functioning) were first asked to observe and record the number of yawns in their children over the course of a day. This information was then used as a baseline. In the second part of the study, the children were shown videos of young adults yawning (stimuli) and making other facial expressions (control). Clips were random (smile or yawn) and standard in length (5s). Children were also given audio of people yawning.

The Results
In the first part of the study, there was found to be no significant difference in the number of natural yawns by any of the groups of children regardless of development. In the second part of the study, however, the non-autistic children were significantly more likely to yawn in response to both the visual and audio yawns while autistic children were significantly less likely in the video sessions (low-functioning autistic children were significantly less likely than high functioning-autistic children as well). In the audio-only sessions, both groups of autistic children showed virtually no contagious yawn, in contrast to their normally developed counterparts.

Psychological influences on Yawning in Children

In another simple study, James Anderson and Pauline Meno explored the yawning behavior of healthy children ranging in age from 2 to 11 years old to study contagious yawning in children.

How they did it
87 children ranging from 2 to 11 years old were shown videos of adults yawning 17 times and smiling 17 times. Children were asked to clap when they saw someone yawn (this helped ensure that younger children were able to recognize a yawn).

The Results
The data from the study suggests that children under the age of 6 will not reliably yawn in response to seeing another human yawn. In other words, contagious yawning does not exist in children under the age of 6.

Conclusions

One of the differences between humans and most other species is the advance social skills that develop in adults.  This development does take some time and it has been suggested that advance empathy does not begin to really take shape until the age of 6 or 7.  Additionally, it is well documented that autistic children lack basic empathetic skills.  These facts alongside the above contagious yawning studies seem to indicate that contagious yawning is directly related to empathy.  Since empathy is an advanced social skill, of which few animals in the kingdom have (that is both empathy and advance social skills), it is also not a surprise then that contagious yawning is lacking in the animal kingdom outside of a specific set of highly-advanced animals (humans included).

The only logical conclusion to draw at this time is that we yawn in response to other’s yawns simply because we are empathetic.  The reason that we are empathetic to other individuals yawns has yet to be explained but there are other behaviors that seem to also be contagious such as itching, smiling, and several other behaviors.  Empathy is an important skill for physically weak (relatively) highly social animals that rely on each other.  Without empathy, bad things can happen.

So, simply put, we are contagious to other people’s yawns because we are empathetic.  If your wife doesn’t yawn when you do, you’ve been warned.
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The Japanese Earthquake & Tsunami Tragedy Helps Demonstrate “Animal Instincts” in nature.

Laymanpsych does not take the tragedy in Japan lightly.  Many lives have been lost and the reality of the tragedy in Japan has only just begun surface. If you would like to help, a safe and surefire way is to simply text REDCROSS to 90999 on your cell phone to make a one-time $10 donation to help assist the Red Cross with disaster relief in Japan.

Understanding Human Reaction to Sudden Tragedy

The unfortunate reality of most human tragedies is that in the chaos that they create is the predictability that is human nature. As much diversity in our behavior that our (massive) frontal cortex allows for, at the base of our brain is an ancient structure that we share with every vertebrate on the planet. The brainstem, not surprisingly, is thusly the center of our most simple behaviors and bodily functions.

Many (women) may argue that men are mostly “brainstem” for it is the simple things that are required for life that are controlled by the brainstem. The beating of your heart, the rhythmic breathing of your lungs, arousal, and our alertness are all functions of the brainstem (among others).

There is more than irony in Disney's personification of the animal stampede

Human Emotion in The Brain

Additionally, it has been hypothesized that our emotions are largely controlled by areas of the brainstem.  A PET study (conducted by Antonio R. Damasio, Thomas J. Grabowski, Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Laura L.B. Ponto, Josef Parvizi & Richard D. Hichwa) in 2000 demonstrated that when humans think of emotional historical events in their lives, activity in the regions of the brainstem increased, indicating that the brainstem plays an important role in the creation and reaction of emotional stimuli.

So what does it matter if the brainstem controls all of these simple functions?

The point is that although the rest of our brain has evolved significantly from our early ancestors, ultimately the very basic functions of our being are shared with the rest of the animal kingdom.  This is no more visible than in times of sudden and unexpected tragedy, specifically in large groups of people.

Human Reaction to Disaster

As natural as it seems to run from disaster, as can be seen in many clips of the earthquake it’s easy to take for granted the lack of control we actually have when the brainstem is in high gear.  Many refer to the brainstem as the brain’s “auto pilot” because the functions it is mostly responsible for are also the ones that we take without thought.  This is not by accident but rather by design.

If we were tasked to assess and react accordingly to every experience in our lives, our survival rate would be more similar to Layman Psych’s Call of Duty score.

Every time you slam on the brakes because of a car you didn’t see, every time you duck from a soccer-ball that grazes your head, and every time you see a mass of people running like a herd of cattle, the brainstem is at work.  The masses of people running from ground zero on 9/11 were not thinking about getting away, it was an automatic response.  And while many would likely tell you later “We were just trying to get out of there” the truth is that this was more likely something that they became conscious of after they had already started running.

How do we know this?

As mentioned previously, there have been many studies that point to evidence that suggests our brain stems play a significant role in emotional responses. Such suggestions are nice on their own, but how can we further make this claim concrete?  What if we studied an emotional disorder–the mental disorder–and examined the cause of that disorder–the physical or biological reason the disorder exists?

The Brainstem’s role in Panic Disorder

It just so happens that by studying panic disorders, we can begin to understand what part of the brain is responsible for eliciting this emotion.  A now outdated, but oft cited study from 1994 (by V J Knott, D Bakish, and J Barkley) found that stimulation of the brainstem elicits panic attacks.  Since then, a vast amount of scholarship has been written that supports these claims.  Additionally, a recent study found that not only is there a correlation to panic (and panic attacks) and regions of the brainstem, but an abnormally large area of brainstem is correlated with an increased chance of an individual having panic (attack) disorders.

The Take Home

Every vertebrate on the planet has a few things in common. They eat, they breath, they sleep, they panic, they have a brain stem.  While many animals lack the vast majority of structures and/or size of the human brain, we all share the ability to panic and react in auto mode.

Underneath the sadness of loss of human life is pure horror and animal-like reaction in the form of panic

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nNkuig1l8s

Is Charlie Sheen Mentally Ill? You be the judge.

Charlie Sheen’s demise

There is nothing like a psychotic train-wreck to awake Laymanpsych out of its winter hibernation. Charlie Sheen, as we’re sure you’re well aware, has been making headlines for the past couple of months because of hospitalization-leading porn-star-laden coke binges.  Most recently the news has centered around the highest paid television actor’s feuds with his employers at CBS who have halted production of Two and Half Men as a result of these off-the-set troubles.

Sheen, no stranger to controversy, has been making the rounds on radio and TV shows with a ferocity that rivals the Tea Party Express in November.  The defensiveness of his appearances (which seem to serve no purpose but call out his employers who have essentially fired him) is overshadowed by his behavior which can only be labeled as bizarre.

Many have been left wondering if he is, in fact, mentally ill.  Famous celebrity mental health specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky stated that he feels Sheen “is clearly manic“.

What’s going on with the man?

Having watched the interviews on The Today Show and Good Morning America, LaymanPsych wanted to bring these labels to the masses with some better understanding.

Aside from falling back on decades of experience (and wads of student loan debt), psychologists and psychiatrists rely on a bible of sorts; the DSM-IV.  So what does the DSM-IV say about manic episodes?

Manic Episode

During the period of mood disturbance, three (or more) of the following symptoms have persisted (four if the mood is only irritable) and have been present to a significant degree:
1.) inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
2.) decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
3.) more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
4.) flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
5.) distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
6.) increase in goal-directed activity (at work, at school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
7.) excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)

Having seen all of the interviews to date (and if you haven’t, they are worth watching in much the same way that a wreck at a race track is), LaymanPsych is also left to wonder if Sheen is also suffering from a mood disorder.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

1.) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
2.) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3.)Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
4.) Requires excessive admiration
5.) Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
6.) Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
7.)Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
8.)Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
9.)Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

These are just lists of required symptoms of the disorders and it’s not our place to state what’s going on with Charlie. Clearly something is wrong though. Is Charlie Sheen dealing with a mental illness? We’ll let you be the judge, and hope that Charlie gets some help from medical professionals to judge for themselves.

More Reading…

DSM-IV Manic Episode criteria
DSM-IV Narcissistic Personality Disorder criteria

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