Brain Blogger » Psychology & Psychiatry Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Tue, 04 Aug 2015 15:00:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tell Me Sweet Little Lies Mon, 27 Jul 2015 15:00:51 +0000 We all know that telling lies is wrong. But, we still do it. Now, some researchers think that lying may not be all bad. New reports claim that children who tell lies have better memory than those who don’t.

In an experiment designed to tempt kids to cheat, researchers invited 114 children to a lab to play a trivia game. The 6- and 7-year-old children were asked if they had, in fact, cheated and they were asked about the details of their lie. Separately, the same children underwent tests of verbal and spatial working memory. In the end, the children who lied had better verbal memory (remembering words) than the ones who did not lie about cheating. There was no difference in scores of spatial memory (remembering pictures).

As the saying goes, we weave a tangled web when we do not tell the truth. (And, the cover-up is usually worse than the lie.) But, if you do lie, it takes a lot of brain power to keep track of what you know and what they know that you know. For children, lying is a natural part of testing boundaries and develops thinking skills, according to experts, but it is not clear when or how children first learn to lie.

Data suggest that 2- and 3-year-old children are capable of telling lies in certain situations. The ability to maintain consistency with a lie increases with age. Many elements, including social and cognitive factors, influence and predict a child’s tendency to lie.

Some truth-bending is probably fine – even fun and imaginative: role playing games and elaborate storytelling are impressive for a young child and it is no surprise that these activities reveal a child who is bright and creative. But, of course, being less than truthful to cover a wrong-doing or be hurtful is not a thing to be praised. Children need more than good working memory for this kind of discernment and the authors of the current study plan to evaluate how and why children lie in future studies.

Juggling lots of information – especially information that is not true – takes a lot of mental effort, and the authors of the new study assert that parents may want to [secretly] praise children for being a smarty-pants even when the “liar, liar” pants are “on fire.” Still, it’s likely better to teach children that for every good reason they have to lie, there’s probably a better reason to tell the truth. Plus, as Mark Twain taught, if you tell the truth, you don’t need to remember anything.


Alloway TP, McCallum F, Alloway RG, & Hoicka E (2015). Liar, liar, working memory on fire: Investigating the role of working memory in childhood verbal deception. Journal of experimental child psychology, 137, 30-8 PMID: 25913892

Evans AD, & Lee K (2013). Emergence of lying in very young children. Developmental psychology, 49 (10), 1958-63 PMID: 23294150

Popliger M, Talwar V, & Crossman A (2011). Predictors of children’s prosocial lie-telling: Motivation, socialization variables, and moral understanding. Journal of experimental child psychology, 110 (3), 373-92 PMID: 21663918

Talwar V, Gordon HM, & Lee K (2007). Lying in the elementary school years: verbal deception and its relation to second-order belief understanding. Developmental psychology, 43 (3), 804-10 PMID: 17484589

Talwar V, & Lee K (2008). Social and cognitive correlates of children’s lying behavior. Child development, 79 (4), 866-81 PMID: 18717895

Image via file404 / Shutterstock.

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Practice Being Grateful and Reap the Benefits Sun, 26 Jul 2015 15:00:45 +0000 The benefits of gratitude are many and profound. Being grateful is shown to improve both physical and mental health, psychological wellbeing and attitude, and our relationships with others. Practicing gratitude has even been shown to rewire our brains for the better—it is a truly powerful life-changing tool.

Reducing physiological stress and improving sleep

Just this year, one study reports that a short, two-week daily gratitude writing intervention completed by 119 women that were either working or studying at University College London increased the women’s perceived wellbeing.

The enhanced wellbeing achieved from being grateful was associated with reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as improved daily sleep quality. Similarly, another study suggests that writing down a few grateful sentiments before bed results in sleeping better for longer, primarily due to having more positive thoughts just before nodding off.

Reducing physical ailments and increasing exercise

In another study, a simple gratitude exercise, where 63 students were asked to write down five things they are grateful for per week for ten weeks, resulted in the students having fewer physical complaints (from acne breakouts to headaches) and they also reported spending 40 minutes more exercising.

Having greater energy and motivation to exercise is unsurprising considering two experiments, totalling 1,900 participants, reported a strong correlation between gratitude and vitality, i.e. feeling alive, energetic and enthusiastic.

Health benefits for those with illness and disease

Practicing being grateful is also thought to keep the doctor at bay. Being more grateful is associated with better coping and management of terminal conditions like HIV and cancer, as well as faster recovery from certain medical procedures and positive changes in immune system functioning. Moreover, having high levels of gratitude is a good predictor of a high quality of life for people with chronic illnesses.

Psychological benefits of gratitude

Generally, gratitude has been shown in multiple studies to generally make us feel good and increase positive moods such as joy, interest and alertness, as well as improve self-esteem, for both shorter and longer gratitude interventions.

The study, involving two weeks of keeping a daily gratitude diary, also led to reductions in emotional distress as well as increases in optimism and positive emotional style. This was reflected in the study involving practicing being grateful once per week for 10 weeks, which led the gratitude practitioners to feel better about their lives as a whole and feel more optimistic about their expectations for the upcoming week. Gratitude increasing optimism is very significant regarding psychological wellbeing as greater optimism not only increases general happiness and improves our health, it has also been shown to increase lifespan by as much as a few years.

Experiencing gratitude can also have a profound effect on our memories. Gratitude practice has not only been shown to increase the recall of positive memories, having a dash of gratitude when recalling unpleasant memories can help us better emotionally process the negative events, thus bringing emotional closure to these incidents. In fact, some negative and neutral aspects of memories have been shown to be transformed into positive ones through practicing gratitude.

Another interesting observation is the negative correlation between envy and gratitude. That is, as levels of gratitude increase, levels of envy decrease. Another great benefit of gratitude is that simply focusing on sincerely feeling appreciation for what you have been given in life for two minutes was shown to immediately reduce levels of materialism.

Relationship benefits of gratitude

We have recently made new strides in understanding how gratitude improves interpersonal relationships. This 2015, a study published in the journal Emotion revealed that by expressing gratitude to new acquaintances, their perceptions of your friendliness and thoughtfulness increases, making the new friend more likely to want to continue the relationship and provide a means of future contact. Basically, being confident in expressing gratitude is a good way to make new friends.

In other research, practicing gratitude resulted in participants being more prosocial by helping someone with a personal problem or providing emotional support. Moreover, the same study reported that gratitude’s positive influence on wellbeing (increased positive moods and life satisfaction) were also apparent to the participants’ spouses or significant others, which is safe to assume to be attractive and help foster an even stronger relationship.

Expressing gratitude has been shown to improve feelings of belonging and a sense of community. For example, one study involving 133 college students found that those with higher levels of gratitude had higher family satisfaction.

Expressing gratitude to a relationship partner or a friend has been positively associated with enhancing the expresser’s perception of the communal strength of the relationship, where communal strength refers to a person’s degree of motivation to respond to a the others needs. Expressing gratitude in a relationship also increases the comfort felt in expressing any relationship concerns and enhances how positively you view that friend or partner.

In other words, being openly grateful for a relationship increases the motivation to respond to the partner’s needs and allows room to address any issues negatively affecting the relationship while framing the relationship in a positive light, therefore providing a route to strengthening the relationship even further.

Gratitude has also proven useful for improving business relationships. The benefits of gratitude for business relationships include reducing the financial impatience experienced when we tend to discount the value of a delayed financial transaction; improving employee performance through praise; and reducing the number of poor business decisions made under stress.

Learning how to be grateful

Thankfully, being grateful isn’t something that you are born with, but it’s something you can learn easily. The flip side is that we can also fall out of practice with being grateful pretty easily too, especially in our modern, high paced and often stressful lives. That is why practicing gratitude as a tool is great to start with, although moving towards fostering gratitude as a general way of being, as found for practicing mindfulness, has an even greater positive influence on our lives.

  • Counting blessings
    The counting blessings intervention is commonly used in gratitude research. It’s easy peasy. On a weekly basis for at least 6-12 weeks, think back over the events of the past week and write down five or more things that happened for which you are grateful or thankful. Many find this starts out quite difficult, yet once the gratitude river starts flowing reasons to be grateful in life suddenly seem to multiply! Setting a reminder on your phone at a time you know you are not too busy each week is a great way to ensure you keep up with your practice.
  • Daily bedtime gratitude journal
    All it requires is noting one or more things you are grateful for on a daily basis. If you do this before bedtime, by clearing your mind and focussing on identifying things to be grateful for and revelling in your feelings of gratitude, you can improve your sleep as well as experience the other benefits of gratitude.
  • Expressing gratitude towards others
    Experiment with expressing gratitude at work, with your partner, with your family and with your friends. Expressing gratitude verbally to at least one person each day will not only strengthen that particular relationship and have added benefits for yourself, you may have a profound positive effect on that individual that they in turn spread to others.

The present body of research strongly supports the idea that gratitude practice really makes perfect. The more gratitude practice you perform in daily life, the deeper the benefits go and the more profound and life-altering the benefits truly are. Ultimately, moving away from gratitude being a tool, towards fostering gratitude as a general way of being, as also found for mindfulness, is where the real magic is.


DeSteno D, Li Y, Dickens L, & Lerner JS (2014). Gratitude: a tool for reducing economic impatience. Psychological science, 25 (6), 1262-7 PMID: 24760144

Eaton RJ, Bradley G, & Morrissey S (2014). Positive predispositions, quality of life and chronic illness. Psychology, health & medicine, 19 (4), 473-89 PMID: 23927598

Emmons RA, & McCullough ME (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84 (2), 377-89 PMID: 12585811

Jackowska M, Brown J, Ronaldson A, & Steptoe A (2015). The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. Journal of health psychology PMID: 25736389

Jackowska M, Brown J, Ronaldson A, & Steptoe A (2015). The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. Journal of health psychology PMID: 25736389

Kong, F., Ding, K., & Zhao, J. (2014). The Relationships Among Gratitude, Self-esteem, Social Support and Life Satisfaction Among Undergraduate Students Journal of Happiness Studies, 16 (2), 477-489 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-014-9519-2

Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Stillman, T., & Dean, L. (2009). More gratitude, less materialism: The mediating role of life satisfaction The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4 (1), 32-42 DOI: 10.1080/17439760802216311

Mccullough ME, Emmons RA, & Tsang JA (2002). The grateful disposition: a conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82 (1), 112-27 PMID: 11811629

Watkins, P., Cruz, L., Holben, H., & Kolts, R. (2008). Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3 (2), 87-99 DOI: 10.1080/17439760701760567

Williams LA, & Bartlett MY (2015). Warm thanks: gratitude expression facilitates social affiliation in new relationships via perceived warmth. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 15 (1), 1-5 PMID: 25111881

Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J, & Atkins S (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of psychosomatic research, 66 (1), 43-8 PMID: 19073292

Wood, A., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies Journal of Research in Personality, 42 (4), 854-871 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003

Image via MyImages – Micha / Shutterstock.

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Cats And Mental Illness – The Role Of Toxoplasma gondii Tue, 21 Jul 2015 15:00:30 +0000 The association between cats and lunacy is a common one in pop culture. Think of James Bond’s villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Number 1) and his cat, or Inspector Gadget’s Doctor Claw and M.A.D. Cat; or think of Dr. Eleanor Abernathy, the Crazy Cat Lady from The Simpsons. Is it somehow stored in our collective unconscious that cats go hand in hand with mental illness? Where did this perception come from? Is there a reason? Apparently, yes. It turns out that this association may not be totally random.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is mostly known for causing the disease toxoplasmosis. The only known definitive hosts (hosts in which a parasite reproduces sexually) for Toxoplasma are felids, such as domestic cats and their relatives. Its sexual reproduction leads to the formation of oocysts, which are encysted or encapsulated structures in which spores develop and that serve to transfer them to new hosts. These oocysts can then be shed in cats’ feces; they then take 1-5 days to sporulate in the environment and become infective.

Most species of warm blooded animals, including humans, can be intermediate hosts (hosts where its replication is asexual) for Toxoplasma and can become infected by ingestion of contaminated material. Shortly after ingestion, oocysts evolve into a rapidly multiplying stage named tachyzoite until the immune system of the host subdues the parasite. These tachyzoites accumulate in neural and muscle tissue and then transform into a slow replicating stage celled bradyzoite, forming intracellular cysts in muscle, liver, and neuronal cells, there residing in a latent stage most likely for the rest of the host’s life.

Animals destined for human consumption may become infected with tissue cysts after ingestion of sporulated oocysts in the environment. Humans can therefore become infected by eating undercooked meat of infected animals, or by consuming other contaminated food or water; other routes of infection are contact with cat feces or contaminated environmental samples (such as the litter box of a pet cat, for example), blood transfusion or organ transplantation, and transplacental transmission from mother to fetus.

In the human host, the parasites also form tissue cysts, most commonly in skeletal muscle, myocardium, brain, and eyes. In healthy humans, it is mostly inoffensive, causing asymptomatic latent infections and being easily controlled by the immune system. However, it may cause serious health problems to pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals, including brain damage.

Lately, a substantial amount of evidence has been suggesting that latent toxoplasmosis can cause behavioral changes in humans. The existence of this association has actually been suspected since the 1950s, or even earlier, but that hypothesis was revamped in the 1990s by studies highlighting a common risk factor between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia: contact with cats. Currently, the available evidence for this association is massive.

Research has shown that schizophrenia patients have a significantly higher prevalence of Toxoplasma gondii in their serum; likewise, having anti-Toxoplasma antibodies significantly increases the likelihood of being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Toxoplasma infections preceding the development of schizophrenia are widely described, and this association gets stronger throughout disease progression. Furthermore, a higher severity of schizophrenia-associated symptoms has been reported in patients that have been infected with the parasite.

However, given that up to half of the world’s human population is estimated to carry a Toxoplasma infection, it is safe to assume that the simple presence of Toxoplasma is not the determining factor per se. Indeed, studies evaluating the correlation between the serum intensity of Toxoplasma in schizophrenia patients compared to controls indicate that either a more active infection or a stronger immune response may be a causal factor in the development of schizophrenia.

An association between the immune system and psychoses has been extensively demonstrated, either through glial activation, altered serum levels of cytokines, changes in enzymes of immuno-modulatory pathways, or immuno-genetic markers. Similarly, the type of immune response in patients with schizophrenia to Toxoplasma infection has been linked to several deleterious effects associated with the disease. Interestingly, some antipsychotic drugs seem to have anti-toxoplasmic activity, with this action potentially contributing to their antipsychotic efficacy.

Regarding this neuroinflammation hypothesis, there are many findings that support it in the context of schizophrenia. Glial cell activation, a key mechanism in various inflammatory conditions in the nervous system, has been increasingly recognized as a relevant element in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, having been experimentally demonstrated in vivo. Glial cells play a role in managing Toxoplasma infections in the brain, most likely through the immuno-modulatory pathways known to be altered in psychotic conditions. Astrocytes and microglial cells seem to be able to inhibit Toxoplasma replication; on the other hand, the production of the cytokine interleukine-6 (IL-6) by macrophages seems to revert this inhibition, and IL-6 has consistently been found to be overproduced in schizophrenia patients.

A considerable amount of schizophrenia susceptibility genes are implicated in the life cycle of pathogens such as Toxoplasma gondii, with these genes having a role not only in immunity, but also in influencing signaling pathways that regulate dopamine-dependent behavior, for example.

Therefore, another hypothesis explaining the link between Toxoplasma infection and schizophrenia establishes a role for dopamine in these mechanisms. An effect of Toxoplasma infection on increasing the dopamine levels has been experimentally demonstrated in vitro and in mice. Accordingly, dopamine-blocking agents have shown some efficacy in the treatment of this pathology.

However, dopamine and immunological disturbances are not unique to schizophrenia, within the realm of psychiatric disorders. Both have been reported in other pathologies, namely in bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). On the other hand, no link has so far been found with major depression. Although evidence linking Toxoplasma gondii infection with bipolar disorder and OCD is still less striking, there are indeed indications that it may also be a risk factor in the development of these disorders.


Blanchard N, Dunay IR, & Schlüter D (2015). Persistence of Toxoplasma gondii in the central nervous system: a fine-tuned balance between the parasite, the brain and the immune system. Parasite immunology, 37 (3), 150-8 PMID: 25573476

Fond G, Macgregor A, Tamouza R, Hamdani N, Meary A, Leboyer M, & Dubremetz JF (2014). Comparative analysis of anti-toxoplasmic activity of antipsychotic drugs and valproate. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 264 (2), 179-83 PMID: 23771405

Miman O, Mutlu EA, Ozcan O, Atambay M, Karlidag R, & Unal S (2010). Is there any role of Toxoplasma gondii in the etiology of obsessive-compulsive disorder? Psychiatry research, 177 (1-2), 263-5 PMID: 20106536

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Sutterland AL, Fond G, Kuin A, Koeter MW, Lutter R, van Gool T, Yolken R, Szoke A, Leboyer M, & de Haan L (2015). Beyond the association. Toxoplasma gondii in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addiction: systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica PMID: 25877655

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Image via Vinogradov Illya / Shutterstock.

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HBO Documentary Film “My Depression” – A Scientific Review Mon, 20 Jul 2015 15:00:11 +0000 My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It) is a new animated musical HBO documentary co-directed by famed Broadway writer, director and composer, Elizabeth Swados. It tells the true life tale of the struggles and triumphs of living with and managing depression. That is right you heard correctly, an animated musical documentary… on depression! It gets better. Swados employed the voiceover powers of film, comedy and music industry legends Sigourney Weaver (as Elizabeth Swados), Steve Bucemi, Fred Armisen and Dan Fogler!

Having such infamous and gargantuan talents coming together, with beautiful Roald Dahl-esque colorful and metaphorically powerful animations led by award winning animators and co-directors, David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti, and captivatingly catchy musical interludes like the macabre “Suicide Mobile” sung by Steve Bucemi, the creation has the power to truly transform viewers’ perspective of depression. But is the documentary’s message in line with the scientific consensus? Is the message it spreads for the greater good?

In true Brain Blogger fashion we have put the colorful collaboration under the science-o-scope. The results of the analysis are in: There is some great news, some good news, some bad news and some ugly news.

The Great – Stigmatizing Depression

My Depression is truly in keeping with science research on mental health stigma. The telling of Swados’ story is living proof that you can be wildly successful and have a myriad of wonderful things in life yet still suffer from depression.

Importantly, it depicts floating discriminating heads of the general populace spouting all-too-common , ill-conceived and cliché judgments:

…stop being so self-indulgent…you need a hobby…what about people who are really sick, snap out of it!

Misunderstanding depression leads to unjust discrimination and negative judgments, which can be damaging. What is worse is how these negative views become internalized in the sufferer, leading to the development of self-stigma, shame and hate.

We then witness self-stigma in action where Swados conveys she is unable to recover, undeserving of care and responsible for her illness. This leads to the well-known “why try” effect where she believes she is deserved of a doomed life of depression, confines herself to her bed and seems to give up on her goals, ambitions, passions and life altogether. As the documentary shows, and in line with research, this spiral can take you on a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs to the “suicide bus”.

The Good — Individualizing Mental Health Problems

My Depression sends out another excellent message:

Depression can come in different forms for different people…

It’s even in the title itself. Swados’ depression is her depression, its personal, and can even be different for the same person at separate times in their lives. This is painted perfectly in the animation, where Swados drags her heels through the aisles of the world’s gloomiest supermarket filled with depression ingredients, with popular products like “Anxiety”, “Misery” and why not a dash of “Shame”?

The fields of psychology and psychiatry have been moving in this direction, where instead of being quick to jump in and label someone with a generalized depression diagnosis and continue on with treating depression, research is showing the importance of individualizing treatment to suit that particular individual’s representation of depression in helping them back to wellness—faster, easier and with less chance of relapse. Therapists treat real people with individual problems, not a depression clone cut straight out of the DSM.

The Bad — Personifies Depression

Swados’ depression is personified as a rather annoying and intrusive little black storm cloud. Being followed by dark clouds is often used to describe what depression feels like, and likely truly represents what depression felt like for her.

Yet there are potentially negative implications of representing depression as a separate living being. There is the danger that viewers, particularly sufferers, may take the concept that depression is an uncontrollable creature with a life of its own and that you can’t control to heart.

This metacognitive belief that you don’t own your depression and can’t control it, and that your depression owns you, makes healing from depression a darn sight harder. And if you don’t shake the belief that you have no control over depression, research shows that there is a high risk of depression relapse, and it puts you at risk of other mental health problems like hallucinations and delusions.

Towards the end there is a focus on how depression is treatable, however Swados’ characterful cloud of depression is perhaps the most powerful and memorable visual metaphor and has the potential to do both harm and good.

The Ugly —Effective Therapy Misrepresented

Finally the story ends on a positive note. Swados seeks out professional help. One of the most powerful messages in the documentary for those with depression to take home is that part of her turning point in recovering from depression is seeking therapy:

“That’s why it is also important to find a good therapist who can teach you how to cope and work through life’s surprises”

However, for psychologists and psychiatrists that stay true to evidence-based therapy they may not be particularly pleased with how the process of diagnosis and treatment was represented. The moment she sits in the chair she immediately gets given a very resolute sounding “factoid”:

I don’t know if you are aware of this but severe depression is often hereditary Liz, it’s a well-known fact that mood disorders are often passed from parents to children and on and on and on…part of your problem is the result of chemical imbalances in your brain, it’s actually not unusual, and if you are willing, of course, we can try and correct that with some of the newest medications available.

This is a grossly over-generalized and relatively old-fashioned, one-sided psychiatric view of depression and how best to treat it. What is the first thing the therapist suggests, in the form of a catchy song, drugs.

Although this may be completely normal for her particular case (who knows?) viewers should not presume this is the standard or most generally effective route to long-term mental health and wellbeing. Being immersed in psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience developments on a day to day basis, this is unlikely to be the general view based on current research.

Whether her psychiatrist used far more effective tools of change than medication and talk-therapy alone, such as including the most effective belief, thought and behavior molding interventions tailored to that persons specific problems, that alter how your brain functions at a neurological level for long-term change, and can sometimes work well with medications that create a window for improved efficacy of said interventions by temporarily reducing symptoms, eventually working on removing the potential dependence on medication that often results… is anyone’s guess.

The general impression is left that while therapy (whatever kind of therapy that was) is important she found more value in beginning:

…a series of medications and more medications and even more medications and trying to find the right ones that would work for me…it took around 3-years of trying this and that until my doctor and I eventually found something that really worked.

Thankfully, the documentary does touch on medication side-effects and briefly mentions that:

…the drugs help but not all of us and not all of the time.

Swados also mentions that before she met her therapist she also tried a number of things from healthy eating to exercising and meditating. An integrative and more holistic psychologist or psychiatrist would gradually incorporate establishing these habits. Many of these habits don’t stick and often people don’t experience the full benefits obtained from the therapeutic opportunities they present (like with drugs)… unless of course they are guided through the process by an expert using interventions proven to enhance the benefits.

In Sum

While there are a few more messages in disagreement with current scientific opinion that we haven’t mentioned, the number of near impeccable and insightful scientifically backed messages that we also didn’t touch upon in this article far outweigh the bad.

With the title echoing through the entire documentary, we cannot place blame on the scientifically incongruent parts to her story, Swados is not a scientist. It was called “My Depression”, not sciences, not her therapists, or any therapists for that matter, but hers. It’s humorous, it’s serious, it’s powerful, it’s moving, it’s clever, it’s entertaining and it mostly agrees with predominant scientific theories… totally worth the watch!


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Image Copyright Home Box Office, Inc.

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Best and Worst in Psychology and Psychiatry — June 2015 Tue, 14 Jul 2015 15:00:22 +0000 While reviewing the thousands of studies published in psychology and psychiatry this June 2015 a clearly dominant theme emerged — it’s all about the kids! From treating mental illness and problems with child development, to understanding both child and parent thinking and behavior, school might be out, but child psychology takes center stage in this month’s best and worst research limelight.

WORST: Boys in the US More Likely to Have Antipsychotics Prescribed, Regardless of Age

A study on 2006-2010 data from the MS LifeLink LRx database, which includes 63% of outpatient prescriptions filled in the U.S , revealed that boys are more likely than girls to receive a prescription for antipsychotic medication regardless of age. In children ages 1-6, boys were more than twice as likely as girls to receive an antipsychotic prescription (0.16 vs. 0.06% in 2010). This pattern held true for boys and girls ages 7-12 (1.20 vs. 0.44% in 2010) before narrowing for the 13-18 age group (1.42 vs. 0.95% in 2010) and finally becoming more comparable for young men and women ages 19 to 24 (0.88 to 0.81% in 2010). Shockingly, the youngest children, ages 1-6, were the least likely to receive the prescription from a psychiatrist (57.9 vs. 71.9, 77.9, and 70.4% for the other three age groups).

WORST: Researchers Find Mass Killings and School Shootings are Contagious

By examining databases on past high-profile mass killings and school shootings in the U.S. and fitting a contagion model to the data, researchers determined that these tragedies inspired similar events, creating a period of contagion that lasts an average of 13 days. Considering mass school shootings occur on average monthly, more so in states with a high prevalence of firearm ownership, and that roughly 20-30% of such tragedies appear to arise from contagion, the premise that news media of these events may be planting unconscious ideation in vulnerable people requires serious and immediate investigation.

WORST: When Times Are Tough, US Parents Favour Daughters Over Sons

While most parents claim they do not favor one child over another, research is saying otherwise. New research reports that participants creating a will for an imaginary son and daughter preferred to enroll a daughter rather than a son in beneficial programs, preferred to give a U.S. Treasury bond to a daughter rather than a son, and bequeathed a greater share of their assets to female offspring in their will when they perceived economic conditions to be poor. When economic conditions were considered poor, participants entrusted nearly 60% of their available resources to the girl compared to a nearly 50/50 split between the two children when economic conditions were viewed as either neutral or prosperous.

WORST: Children from High Conflict Homes Process Emotion Differently and Face More Social Challenges

Monitoring the brain activity of children picking out angry couples from a mixture of angry and neutral pictures revealed that children exposed to high parental conflict registered a much higher amplitude on an EEG test of an electrical activity called P-3 compared with children in the low conflict group. P-3 is associated with the brain’s ability to discriminate among stimuli and to focus on and give meaning to one. The pattern suggests children from high conflict homes, by training their brains to be conflict vigilant, process signs of interpersonal emotion, either anger or happiness, differently than children from low conflict homes. The researchers note that for some, that extra vigilance could lead to problems in social relationships later in life, although more research is needed to test that theory.

WORST: Avoidant and Anxious Mothers Have Greater Tendency to Punish Positive Child Behaviour and Compromise Bonding

Ninety-seven mothers and their 7-12-year-old children reported on the mothers’ responses to their children’s positive events and emotions as well as her own, and the attachment style and security in the mother-child relationship. The results indicated that more avoidant mothers reported less intense positive feelings in response to their own and their children’s positive events and were also less likely to encourage their children to savor positive events. Moreover, mothers higher on anxiety reported greater likelihood of dampening their own positive events and were more likely to feel discomfort and to reprimand their children for expressing positive moods, which was associated with the child having low feelings of security in the mother-child relationship.

BEST: Sniffing Out Autism

The study tested the sniff response of 18 children with ASD and 18 normally developing children (17 boys and 1 girl in each group) with pleasant and unpleasant odors. The results were clear. While typical children adjusted their sniffing within 305 milliseconds of smelling an odor, children diagnosed with ASD showed no such response. In fact, the sniff test results accurately predicted an ASD diagnosis 81% of the time. Researchers suggest a sniff test could be a great diagnostic tool that is completely non-verbal allowing for accurate assessments in toddlers only a few months old.

BEST: A Supportive Close Friendship Helps Boys and Girls Overcome Adversity

Young people from low-income backgrounds typically face substantial challenges to good physical health, mental health, academic achievement and employment. A new study reveals that having a single supportive close friendship can help the child to thrive under such challenging circumstances.

Analysis of 409 11-19 year old’s survey data from Yorkshire based schools (UK) serving catchment areas with poor socioeconomic status reveals that both boys’ and girls’ best friendships facilitated effective ways of coping (such as planning, reframing an issue in a positive way and using emotional support) that helped them develop resilience to complex challenges. Interestingly, girls’ best friendships had a slight tendency to promote risky and ineffective ways of coping with adversity (such as self-blame and substance use), but boys’ best friendships did not.

BEST: Understanding the Best Ways to Teach Children to Like and Eat Vegetables

A review of studies on methods to teach children to like vegetables suggests that a child’s increased liking for and intake of vegetables by using associative conditioning (repeated exposure to a food that is associated with a positive or negative consequence) and mere exposure (repeatedly providing the food to increase liking with increased familiarity) depends partly on age and partly on vegetable type. Exposure seems to be sufficient in increasing liking for non-bitter vegetables in all ages. However, associative conditioning seems necessary for bitter vegetables in children aged two years and older as children at this age are at the height of neophobia (avoiding the unfamiliar) and seem to need the added benefit of a reinforcer to learn to like bitter vegetables. Masking the bitterness of the vegetable with a small amount of sugar, sweetener, or salt will also probably enhance bitter vegetable acceptance in older children, as it does in college students.

BEST: Drug-Free CBT Therapy Better Than SRIs in Treating Child OCD

A meta-analysis of 20 randomized controlled trials collectively representing a total of 507 cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) receiving participants and 789 serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI) receiving participants demonstrates that CBT is more efficient in treating OCD than SRIs alone. Large treatment effects were found with CBT for treatment efficacy, treatment response and symptom/diagnostic remission compared with moderate effects for SRIs. The results also indicate that lower experimental quality makes SRIs appear more effective than they are in reality.

BEST: Specialized CBT Therapy Can Aid Traumatized Children in Developing Nations

New research led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers reveals that a specific type of talk therapy, called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), showed dramatic results for orphans and other vulnerable children who experienced trauma such as sexual and domestic abuse in Zambia, despite being administered by workers with little education.

Those in the intervention group saw measures of sleep problems, feelings of sadness and the inability to talk about issues fall by nearly 82% on average, while those in the treatment-as-usual group had a reduction in their scores of 21 percent.


PMID:26130211 A Meta-Analysis Of Cognitive Behavior Therapy And Medication For Child Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Moderators Of Treatment Efficacy, Response, And Remission

VEGETABLES doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.06.016

Mothers attachment style: PMID:26095911

Daughters over sons:

Mass killings: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117259

Antipsychotic meds: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0500

Zambia and TF-CBT: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0580

High conflict homes:

Best friends: 10.1111/bjop.12135

Autism sniff test: DOI:

Image via Nadezhda1906 / Shutterstock.

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Can Madness Save the World? Wed, 08 Jul 2015 15:20:44 +0000 Over the years of my explorations into psychosis and human evolution, a very interesting irony became increasingly apparent. It is well known that people who fall into those deeply transformative and chaotic states typically referred to as “psychosis” often feel at different points throughout their journeys that they have received a special calling to save the world, or at least the human race. Indeed, this experience played a particularly prominent role in my own extreme states, as well as within those of at least two of my own family members. From a pathological perspective, this is often referred to as a kind of “delusion of grandeur,” though in my own research and writing, I have come to feel that the term “heroic (or messianic) striving” is generally more accurate and helpful. The great irony I have come to appreciate is that while I think it’s true that these individuals are often experiencing some degree of confusion, mixing up different realms of experience (for example, mixing up collective or archetypal realms with consensus reality, or confusing unitive consciousness with dualistic/egoic consciousness), I have come to feel that perhaps the key to saving the world, or at least the human species, may in fact actually be revealed within these extreme experiences. To better explain this, let me first go over some key concepts.

Rethinking the Self

First of all, we need to reconsider what we mean by the term “self.” The twentieth century represented a real turning point for Western science in that it began to embrace a more holistic paradigm, in essence taking steps towards a paradigm established much earlier within the nondual traditions of the East (such as Taoism, Buddhism and the Vedic traditions) and even earlier within indigenous society. Quantum physics began to recognize just how deeply interdependent and interconnected the universe really is, capturing this with terms such as entanglement and nonlocality. Contemporary systems theory such as chaos theory and complexity theory similarly began to embrace this more holistic understanding of our world, drawing on important concepts such as Ilya Prigogene’s dissipative structure, which refers to the paradoxical way in which living entities maintain their existence across time while energy and matter continuously flow through them—similar to what we see in those little whirlpools standing above the drain of an emptying sink, in that all of the water that makes up its structure is continuously flowing through it and being replaced. Another term used extensively within these systems theories, and one that is particularly relevant to our discussion here about the “self,” is the term holon.

A holon essentially refers to what we generally think of as a living organism, but more precisely, it can be seen as a dynamic entity with three intrinsic qualities: (1) It is a self organizing system, exhibiting a kind of intrinsic consciousness or intelligence; (2) it is a dissipative structure, in that while it is able to maintain a relatively constant structure across time, it is also highly dynamic as it continuously exchanges matter and energy with the environment; and (3) it is irreducible, in the sense that any attempt to reduce it will simply result in the cessation of its existence. Although irreducible, a holon can merge symbiotically with other holons to emerge (another key concept within this holistic framework) into an altogether new holon of a higher order of complexity. This higher order holon is much more than simply the sum of its parts (the holons that compose it) in that it exhibits altogether new qualities that were simply nonexistent within the lower-order holons.

To put the idea of a holon into more concrete terms, we can say that an atom is a holon, which in turn merges with other atoms to form a molecule, a higher order holon that is much more than simply the sum of the atoms that compose it. Molecules in turn may merge symbiotically to create a living cell, what is generally thought of as the simplest living organism (a bacteria), in that some degree of consciousness and volition have become readily apparent. These in turn have merged to form yet another holon of still a higher order of complexity, the nucleated cell; and from these have emerged a still higher-order holon, the multi-celled organisms—the myriad fungus, plants and animals in our world. Certain kinds of groups of these individuals also self organize in ways that could arguably be thought of as higher order holons in their own right—flocks of birds, herds of deer, human families and tribes, an entire species, etc. Complex mergers of many different kinds of holons form ecosystems, which can be considered still higher-order holons. And finally, we recognize that out of a symbiotic relationship between the many different ecosystems of the Earth has emerged the biosphere. The well known NASA scientist, James Lovelock, has given the biosphere the name Gaia to signify that our entire biosphere can be seen as a single conscious and intelligent living organism in her own right, indeed the highest order holon on our planet.

Reversing this order of complexity is similarly illuminating, demonstrating that any attempt to reduce a holon to its parts merely results in an assemblage of lower-order holons, with the original holon itself having ceased to exist. For example, if a biologist kills a mouse in an attempt to better understand it in some way, all that remains is a collection of individual cells, some of which may continue to exist as individual cells, but which no longer work together symbiotically with the other cells to manifest as the more complex being (the mouse). The mouse as a living being, a holon, with all of its unique qualities, is no more.

So when we consider the concept of a self from this perspective, we find that our universe essentially consists of a hierarchically arranged array of holons arising from and embedded within a unified field. Lao-Tzu, writer of the Taoist text, the Tao-te Ching, said, “Tao [translated literally as ‘the way’] produced the One. The One produced the two. The two produced the three. And the three produced the ten thousand things” (Johanson & Kurtz, 1991, p. 1).

The Pros and Cons of Self Consciousness

By observing the behaviors of any living organism—whether it be a humble bacteria, a mighty redwood, or other members of our own human species—we can see clear signs of consciousness and intelligence, which I’m defining as simply the capacity to be aware of one’s environment, to make some kind of meaningful evaluation of it, and to then respond accordingly. What’s less clear is the degree to which different organisms are self conscious—aware of being aware—although it is quite clear that we humans have developed a significant capacity for self consciousness, and that this attribute brings with it both great rewards and serious risk.

On one hand, such a high degree of self awareness allows us to deeply appreciate the wonder of life and our universe. Indeed, we can recognize that our existence represents the achievement of the universe in having developed the capacity to contemplate itself. I find it difficult to conceive of anything more awesome than this. But on the other hand, such self consciousness brings with it a vulnerability to becoming profoundly confused, especially with regard to selfhood. It becomes all too easy to overly identify with the self only at the level of this particular self-aware holon, what is sometimes referred to as the personal or egoic self—that self that we typically refer to when we use the words “me,” “myself” and “I.” And along with this, we are at risk of losing sight of the fact that this personal self is merely one order of selfhood among many other orders of selfhood, as discussed above: at lower orders of complexity, the community of trillions of cells who have merged their collective wisdom and resources to manifest as this personal self, with each of these cells in turn being composed of a merger of yet simpler selves—the bacteria; and at higher orders of complexity, the communities, ecosystems and ultimately the entire biosphere of which we are part. Losing sight of this broader selfhood is not only extremely limiting, but also potentially extremely destructive.

The Breakdown of a Self

An example of the potential destruction that may occur when one member of a holon “forgets” that it is in fact such a member is in the case of cancer. In cancer, what we essentially find is an individual cell within a multi-celled organism that, for whatever reason, “forgets” it is a member of this more complex organism. We can say that its self identity has constricted radically, and it now identifies only with its personal self. Therefore, it still retains its innate tendency to meet its own needs and maintain its own survival, but it no longer contributes to the survival of the larger organism; and since it continues to be nourished by the larger organism while essentially not giving anything back, it develops a great capacity for autonomous reproduction and growth, but all the while increasingly interfering with the functioning of the larger organism. And as is well known, while cancer represents a period of very successful growth for the self-identified cells, if the organism is unable to either destroy these cells or regain their cooperation, the entire organism is likely to die, along with the cancer cells. Therefore, we can say that by losing sight of their broader selfhood, these cancer cells enthusiastically “thrived” their way all the way to their own demise.

Does this sound familiar? In the very same way that single cells live as symbiotic members of the larger multi-celled organism to which they belong, the human species can itself be seen as a holon living in a symbiotic relationship with other holons to form the higher-order holons of ecosystems and ultimately the entire biosphere, Gaia. And just like the case of the cancer cells, the human species has collectively forgotten about this symbiotic arrangement, this broader order of selfhood, and has become consumed with only its own survival at the species level (and at times this self identity is constricted even further to that of only a particular society, race, family, or even nothing more than the individual human being). And just as in the case of cancer, because now this particular holon is consumed only with its own survival while continuing to be fed by the larger organismic systems in which it is embedded, it initially reproduces and grows radically. However, also just as with the cancer cells, its own rampant growth combined with the underlying ignorance of its broader selfhood will ultimately lead to its own demise, as well as the demise of many of its fellow holons, threatening both those at a similar level within the holon hierarchy (other individual organisms and species), as well as higher-order holons such as ecosystems and perhaps even Gaia herself. This may sound farfetched to some, but it’s well established that Gaia has already had some very close calls within her long life, some of which were brought on by certain living organisms themselves, and of course any living system has its limits.

Breaking Down in the Service of Breaking Through

Ironically, the breakdown of a self can sometimes act as a breakthrough to a more sustainable existence of that self, or even in extreme cases, the emergence of an altogether higher order of selfhood –the emergence of holons of a higher order of complexity.

The contemporary evolution and systems sciences have come to recognize that a key component of evolution is the dance between chaos and order. A certain order is required to maintain the existence of holons over time, but when a significant threat of holon breakdown occurs, this can initiate a process of radical and unpredictable change—chaos—as a kind of desperate attempt to renew order when it has been seriously compromised, or even to break through to altogether new levels of order when necessary. So I think that one particularly useful way to define chaos is “a process that utilizes breaking down as a catalyst for breaking through.”

For example, it’s become widely accepted within the evolution sciences that after a very long and relatively stable period of time in the early history of the Earth during which only bacteria existed, a serious crisis emerged caused by the excessive consumption and waste products of the bacteria themselves. Prior to this, the nutrients the bacteria required for their survival were abundant enough that the bacteria were generally able to nourish themselves without bothering each other too much; but now with the population of bacteria exceeding the availability of many of these naturally occurring resources, a chaotic period ensued in which many of the bacteria were forced to consume each other. It’s speculated that some of the consumed bacteria managed to survive even after having been engulfed by other bacteria, and then went on to develop symbiotic relationships within the larger host. This in turn led to the evolution of a new holon of an altogether higher order—nucleated (eukaryotic) cells living as individuals, also referred to as protists. Then, sometime later, the conditions of the Earth had once again become very precarious for its inhabitants, and these single celled protists were forced to come together and live as symbiotic communities of cells, ultimately merging their collective wisdom and resources to evolve into an altogether new holon of yet a higher order of complexity—multi-celled organisms, which have eventually evolved into the fungus, plants and animals that exist today.

It’s important to acknowledge that this process of higher levels of complexity and order emerging from unsustainable conditions and a subsequent chaotic process is generally very risky. It often fails, not resolving successfully or even resulting in the deaths of the participating organisms. Hence the reason we find that it so often seems to require desperate conditions to precipitate such a desperate strategy. And this is where “madness” or “psychosis” comes into the story.

Can Madness Save Us?

I think it’s helpful to recognize that psychosis has both a destructive and a creative, or a chaotic and an ordered, aspect (I’ll use the term “psychosis” here, as I want to emphasize the idea of a particular kind of process occurring, and I feel that the term “madness,” while very helpful in other contexts, is a bit too generic for this purpose). On one hand, psychosis appears to occur as the result of impending breakdown—an individual’s personal paradigm, their experience and understanding of the self and the world, has for whatever reason reached a point in which it is no longer sustainable. But on the other hand, just as in the process of evolution described above, we see inherent in psychosis the utilization of “breaking down” as a kind of desperate strategy for “breaking through,” the utilization of chaos in the service of renewing order or even breaking through to an altogether different order. Yet as we’ve seen within the process of evolution, this can be a very haphazard and risky strategy that may or may not be successful, depending upon the resources and limitations of the particular organism or holon.

Whereas “psychosis” is often considered to be something occurring within a particular individual, I think we need to reconsider psychosis as occurring within the broader understanding of selfhood discussed above. So when an individual is experiencing what is often called psychosis (having anomalous beliefs, perceptions, impulses, etc., that are often extreme and/or unstable), I think it’s important to recognize that this may be the manifestation of a breakdown occurring not only within the individual, but also within the larger holon(s) within which the individual is embedded (the family, society, species, etc.). And I believe that this perspective offers us some compelling insights into how psychosis can be seen as both a warning of serious breakdown within these higher-order holons as well as the key to breaking through.

I think that anyone applying basic critical thinking skills to what can be observed about the state of the world today would be forced to come to the conclusion that we as a species are in serious trouble. No matter which angle you choose to come at it—accelerating climate change, rampant environmental destruction and mass species extinction, expanding and escalating war with over 17,000 nuclear warheads only a button’s push away from detonation—it’s only too clear that we’re skating on very thin ice. By our own doing, we have set the trajectory of our own species as well as that of the other holons of which we are a part toward great chaos. And yet, astonishingly, we collectively carry on with business as usual—increasing the amounts of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere, accelerating our destruction of species and ecosystems, expanding our wars and building even more nuclear weapons.

It’s as though we have become completely blind; and in many ways, I believe that’s exactly what has happened. Just like the cancer cells that have become blind to the fact that they are a completely dependent member of the larger organism, the human species has become blind to the fact that it is a dependent member of the broader ecosystems and the biosphere to which we belong, having become consumed with the needs of the more limited selves (one’s nation, one’s family, one’s personal self) at the direct expense of the broader selfhood to which we also belong. In other words, you could say that we have become stricken with a kind of disorder—a disorder of “constricted selfhood,” and unfortunately it appears that we have very little collective “insight” into this disorder.

Interestingly enough, it is perhaps those we deem “mad” who may be in the best position to support our species in developing this insight. Arnold Mindell, who offers the unique perspective of a psychologist steeped in depth psychology, systems theory and modern physics, suggested that:
“In a given collective, the schizophrenic patient occupies the part of the system in a family and a culture that is not taken up by anyone else. She occupies the unoccupied seat at the Round Table, so to speak, in order to have every seat filled. She is the collective’s dream, their compensation, secondary process and irritation”.

In other words, although a person experiencing psychosis may be experiencing great confusion and fluctuation between different realms of experience, these extreme states of mind often allow the person to act as a kind of conduit bringing forth the shadow—the unacknowledged, the unspoken, the denied—aspect of the particular system(s) or holon(s) to which they belong. Indeed, there is compelling evidence to suggest that someone experiencing psychosis is often able to perceive the world in a more raw and accurate manner than when in more ordinary states (such as, for example, their capacity to see through the illusion of the inverted face), and to bring forth within their anomalous experiences various valid shadow elements, such as with the prominent “paranoid delusion” of being watched over by government agencies experienced by many such individuals long before Edward Snowden revealed the actual truth of this, the long held apocalyptic themes that are uncomfortably close to what we now see actually unfolding within the world, or the voices of voice hearers that often correspond very closely with certain shadow elements within the individual’s family and broader social systems. Although these anomalous perceptions and beliefs are often exaggerated or distorted to some degree, perhaps it’s time we recognize the shadowy truths so often contained within them, and appreciate that such individuals can serve a very important role in our collective survival by acting as our canaries in the coal mine, helping us to develop insight into our impending breakdown.

It appears that nearly ubiquitous among indigenous societies is the appreciation for the potential gifts of such individuals, and the essential role that they play in maintaining the overall health of the tribe and larger social structures. Referring to such individuals as shamans, seers, visionaries, etc., indigenous societies have long recognized that without reserving an honoured place for such individuals within the social structure, the society is vulnerable to falling prey to increasingly narrow and rigid belief systems, which may ultimately undermine the health and adaptability of the society and lead to its demise (see John Weir Perry’s Trials of the Visionary Mind for what I believe is an excellent exploration of these ideas). When we look around at the state of contemporary human society, with its deepening entrenchment into rigid and dogmatic belief systems, we have to ask ourselves how wise it really is to continue invalidating such individuals as simply “crazy” or “brain diseased” and relegating them to a lifetime of mind-numbing drugs and institutionalization.

So if we consider that individuals who experience psychosis can play a very important role in helping the broader human society in developing “insight” into our unresolved shadow issues and especially the problem of our constricted selfhood, the question then arises, So what do we do about it? And again, I believe that the answer to this dilemma may well lie within the process of psychosis itself. If we consider that the human species is essentially struggling with a “disorder or constricted selfhood,” then it becomes clear that our salvation requires that we undergo a species-wide transformation of the self. Interestingly enough, when we inquire into the subjective experiences of individuals experiencing psychosis, what we so often find is a person grappling with exactly this process—a profound transformation of the self.

My own research (Williams, 2011, 2012) as well as numerous anecdotal accounts suggest that initially when a person enters into a psychotic process, their experience of the self and the world becomes highly chaotic and/or fragmented. However, those who manage to move through this process and experience successful resolution very often find that they arrive at an experience of self and the world that is qualitatively very different than that which existed prior to the psychosis. Many such people report significantly greater wellbeing and a more fluid, expansive and integrated experience of the self. For example, the participants of my own research who have experienced such a resolution all share the following common shifts as having occurred within their personal paradigms when comparing their experience now with what existed prior to the onset of their psychosis:

  • A significantly changed spectrum of feelings with more depth and unitive feelings
  • An increased experience of interconnectedness
  • A strong desire to contribute to the wellbeing of others
  • An integration of good and evil (feeling generally more whole and integrated within themselves; and seeing “evil” actions or intentions as simply the result of profound ignorance—especially as problems with constricted selfhood—rather than as anything intrinsic within anyone)
  • Appreciating the limits of consensus reality

And they all share the following lasting benefits (comparing their experience after the resolution of their psychosis to that which existed prior to the onset of the psychosis):

  • Greatly increased wellbeing
  • Greater equanimity
  • Greater resilience
  • Healthier, more rewarding relationships with others
  • Healthier relationship with oneself

In other words, it appears that such an individual often goes through a profound transformation of selfhood in which they emerge with a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world, and the inspiration to live in a way that is more in alignment with this shift in their personal paradigm—a way that is likely to be more beneficial for the personal self as well as for the other living organisms and living systems with whom they share the world. It is easy to see that this is exactly the kind of transformation the human species is in desperate need of undertaking—a profound transformative process from a highly constricted experience of the self to an experience of selfhood that is much more fluid, expansive, and humble. But how do we foster such a radical transformation?

To answer this question, I think we first need to look more closely at the state of the human species today. It’s self evident that the human species has collectively become entrenched in an experience of selfhood that is no longer sustainable, a condition very similar to what we see within an individual just prior to the onset of psychosis. It is equally self evident that, generally speaking, chaos and breakdown are rapidly escalating within human society and even within the higher order holons of the world’s ecosystems and biosphere. Again, we find conditions occurring within this higher order holon (the human society and species in general) very similar to that which occurs when an individual is slipping into a psychotic process. So would it not be appropriate, then, to consider that the human species as a whole is sliding into a kind of collective psychosis? And if so, is there some way that we can facilitate the transformation of our paradigm—our collective experience and understanding of the self—towards one that is more flexible, expansive and humble? Or do we simply have to hang on and go for the ride, trusting that a deeper wisdom will somehow see us through?

This is where I believe we may be able to take some guidance from those approaches that have been so effective in supporting individuals going through a psychotic process— residential facilities such as Soteria, Diabasis and I-Ward, the family and social systems approaches such as Open Dialogue, and the shamanic mentoring model we find within indigenous societies. All of these approaches share the belief that in spite of the chaotic and potentially destructive nature of psychosis, there is a deeper wisdom occurring within it that is striving to bring about a deep transformation from an experience of the self and the world that is no longer sustainable to one that is.

The general philosophy of the residential homes such as Soteria, Diabasis and I-Ward is that if a safe and nurturing cocoon is provided to the person—allowing for maximal freedom within a structure that ensures minimal harm and destruction—the psychosis is likely to naturally move through to a full and successful resolution. Applying this approach to the problem of our species-wide psychosis, then, it would make sense that we should strive to create similar conditions within our society at large—maximal freedom (i.e., genuine non-authoritarian democracy) within maximal safety (i.e., strict regulations placed upon harmful industry and excessive greed, while using nonviolent means and effective communication rather than aggression and war to settle our disputes).

The Open Dialogue approach and other family systems approaches directly address the need to create a context of an expanded experience of selfhood, especially in that they generally see psychosis as representing a breakdown occurring within the individual’s immediate social network (the family, close social group, etc.). And they support resolution of the psychosis, and the emergence of a more sustainable order within these various holons, by fostering open and authentic communication between the various members of these holons. In other words, all voices, especially those representing the shadow aspects of these systems, are honoured and brought to the table. This approach draws from the faith in the intrinsic self-organizing capacity of any living system or holon, seeing breakdown as occurring when various members of the system are excluded or ignored, and therefore seeing breakthrough as occurring when all members are included. Applying this approach to the problem of our species-wide psychosis, we again arrive at the conclusion that genuine, all-inclusive, non-authoritarian democracy is likely to be extremely important for our positive transformation. Furthermore, it becomes clear that effective communication and dialogue (both within self connection as well as in connection with others) are essential components of this, and that this dialogical process needs to extend beyond the various political boundaries and divisions we see in the world today to include the entire human species. Following the lead of some indigenous communities today, I would even take this further and suggest that the voices of the other holons within our expanded sphere of selfhood (the other living organisms and ecosystems) also need to be brought to the table.

Finally, indigenous societies generally have a system in which people who go through a psychotic process (sometimes referred to within this context as a shamanic illness) are mentored by others who have already successfully passed through such a process. This is somewhat akin to the various peer support systems we see in place today within contemporary society (peer respites, voice hearing groups, etc.). The potential benefits of this approach are quite obvious—those who have “been there” and have successfully integrated their experiences are often able to provide very effective support and guidance to those who are continuing to struggle with these experiences. Applying this approach to our species-wide psychosis suggests that those who have gone through psychosis and other extreme states themselves may be able to bring a particular kind of wisdom to the table that will be essential for our species-wide transformation. Indigenous societies have long recognized how important such voices are for the health of their communities; isn’t it time that contemporary societies rediscover the wisdom of this?

Anais Nin wrote a short poem that I think captures the essence of our dilemma while proposing a challenge that I think we need to seriously consider: “And then the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” So what will it be? Will we as a species continue to cling to our constricted selfhood until the bitter end, or will we find within us the wisdom and the courage to “blossom” and reclaim our membership within the broader living systems of which we are a part?

Note: Between July 10-12, I and 11 others will be presenting different perspectives on the relationship between extreme states and spiritual awakening during a FREE 3-day online summit — Shades of Awakening. For those who aren’t able to attend, or if you’ve already missed these dates, these interviews will available for download.


Johanson, G., & Kurtz, R. (1991). Grace unfolding: Psychotherapy in the spirit of the Tao-te Ching. New York: Bell Tower.

Koestler, A. (1967). The ghost in the machine. London: Arkana.

Perry, J.W. (1999). Trials of the visionary mind. State University of New York Press.

Prigogine, I., & Strengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos: Man’s new dialogue with nature. New York: Bantam.

Williams, P. (2011). A multiple-case study exploring personal paradigm shifts throughout the psychotic process from onset to full recovery. (Doctoral dissertation, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, 2011). Retrieved from

Williams, P. (2012). Rethinking madness: Towards a paradigm shift in our understanding and treatment of psychosis. San Francisco: Sky’s Edge Publishing.

Image via connel / Shutterstock.

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All You Need Is Love? Mon, 06 Jul 2015 14:00:18 +0000 Freud stated that one component of happiness is love. Correspondingly, one aspect of wellbeing is appropriate emotional attachment. Relationships, especially when they reflect the needs of the mentally ill individual, can counteract the problems of alienation and a lack of relational success, which typify mental illness, to a significant extent.

Essential to success in the arena of love and attachment depends on the appropriate “fit” of relational activity with respect to the unique needs, abilities, and skills of that individual. The need for practical success in relational spheres is paramount to the wellbeing of all people, but this need is seen most poignantly in the mentally ill.

Often, relational activity is compromised in the mentally ill. This is true of various psychological and psychiatric disorders that include psychotic disorders and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

These symptoms can include sporadic and spontaneous anxiety, ongoing subjective distress, impulsivity, mood fluctuations, flat affect and dissociation or emotional withdrawal, and symptoms of paranoia. Note that these disorders have components of anxiety and disrupted social relationships, especially in terms of the realities of distorted interpersonal boundaries. Note, also, that emotional attachment and detachment signified by very weak and insecure boundaries, such as seen in BPD, and the very strong and isolative boundaries associated with psychotic disorders, will profoundly affect negatively these individuals’ ability to negotiate relationships.

Mental illness may evolve or mutate most prominently with the circumstances of changing interpersonal activity. It is important to have a significant other in one’s life, such an individual may be characterized by a caretaker, a friend who accepts the truthful realities of one’s mental illness, or a spouse who understands the extremes of one’s illness.

The benefits of group intervention

Moreover, the mental or the behavioral health system often conducts groups for even severely mentally ill individuals. Group and individual psychotherapy with these people is paramount in treating the emotional and the relational components of these disorders.

One aspect of group intervention with psychotic clients, who often have trouble connecting with caregivers and therapists, may be the cultivation of an atmosphere in the group that allows for the honest expression of an
individual’s hallucinations and delusions, allowing for an explanation of how these thoughts and feelings are construed by that individual.

The actual intervention in this scenario would be to ask the peers of the divulging client to express how he or she thinks it feels to hold the beliefs of that individual. This is an example of how to treat psychotic disorders, and a lessening of paranoia may emerge in the psychotic client.

Impulsivity and subjective distress, in addition to disrupted and diffuse boundaries, characterize borderline personality disorder. Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has been shown to be effective in treating this disorder. The curative essence of this theory and therapy seems to be the cultivation of an accepting relationship with the client and the treatment of the client’s stated needs and concerns with respect. By asking the client what she needs “right now”, the client is much more likely to conceptualize her issues as surmountable, at least in terms of the immediacy in meeting her needs.

This juxtaposition of ”process” and “content´ represents the dialectical component of this therapy. It contains the practice of treating the client with implacable goodwill, and this component of DBT is both innovative and illuminating.

The links between psychopathology and interpersonal relationships

It is interesting and it may be the case that psychotic disorders and personality disorders may reside on a continuum of more or less psychopathology and functional relational connectedness. While both types of disorders are severe, they entail differences in terms of relational closeness with others: friends, significant others, family members and caregivers, clinicians, psychologists and psychiatrists.

Essentially, the individual with BPD may have insecure attachments with other people, who may be perceived as significant or not so in the life of the individual, by that individual, consciously or unconsciously. It is the perception of the client with BPD that his relationships are unreliable and untrustworthy. Treatment for BPD should be enacted with implacable good will, and, while the BPD client may founder in distress and distrust of her clinician, eventually, perhaps, that client will begin to stabilize in valuing and devaluing the clinician in a balanced way.

Implications for therapy and treatment

In terms of psychotic disorders, the individuals manifesting them are much less treatable by means of traditional individual psychotherapy. It should be noted that the emotions in those with psychotic disorders may be dormant, unconscious and trampled into oblivion by the realities of punitive symptoms culminating in learned helplessness.

Their thought processes also may be compromised by limited frontal lobe activity, either as a direct causal element in the presentation of psychotic disorders, or emerging from the psychotic individual’s inability to
think logically about his non-normative experience.

However, while they may be much less able to express their feelings than those individuals with BPD, there are ways to elicit expression of their feelings. Creative self-expression may be at least a partial means of allowing the psychotic individual to find a recapitulation of her internal feelings. By means of visual art and creative writing, the psychotic client may be able to express dormant feelings that allow her to project onto her artwork a reflection of her internal state.

As is known, projection of one’s internal state in terms of self-reflection is crucial to effective psychotherapy. Art therapy serves this need as well.

Overall, relationship and interpersonal connectedness are essential to psychological wellbeing. Freud stated that love is an aspect of happiness. While many interpersonal relationships do not equate with love, more or less, relationships with others signify an important treatment concern, and this concern should be translated into action by establishing endeavors to reach the client in terms of his core – sometimes utilizing creative methods.

Image via William Perugini / Shutterstock.

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Stigma Towards Mental Health Stigma Impacts Vocation Sat, 04 Jul 2015 14:00:29 +0000 Freud stated that the components of happiness are love and work. Yet, it’s interesting that people in our society tend to accept, almost unconsciously, the idea that mentally ill people are not suitable for either of these activities.

This idea seems to pervade, especially in the minds of people who adhere to conventional modes of thought. It is severe stigmatization that allows those who are not mentally ill to placidly ignore the difficulties of those who are, as these non-mentally ill people proceed without any kind of empathy for those much less fortunate.

The functioning of mentally ill individuals in vocational spheres implicates labelling theory. Mentally ill people judged to be less competent, and they become this by means of self-fulfilling prophecy. The mentally ill are labelled and viewed as dysfunctional due to stigma, they then internalize negative self-evaluations, they react with less confidence, and they understand that they are not “normal”, they become agonizingly doubtful about their ability to achieve normal lives, they tend to become less competent than other “normal” people, they focus on their inadequacies and undermine their potentials for success, especially in the realms of love and work.

Nevertheless, there do exist types of employment are seen as appropriate for mentally ill individuals, including jobs at fast food restaurants, dishwashing in restaurants, serving in convenience stores, stocking products in stores, and as peer support specialists in mental health clinics and facilities. As an unspoken precedent, there seems a normative view that the more simple and menial the proposed jobs is, the more likely the mentally ill individual will be able to perform the functions of the job.

This normative view is not blatantly unsupported. However, it is herein contended that, except in the case of highly specialized, complicated professions that require extensive experience, training and advanced degrees, what type of job really suits the mentally individual in terms of a niche may be counterintuitive.

The right “niche” is a powerful idea. A person’s niche may have little to do with education, IQ, cognitive ability, or aspiration. The right niche may have to do with the stress of a job, uniquely perceived by the individual and the mentally ill individual in particular. The right niche may also involve the atmosphere of a workplace or the idiosyncratic relationships that one forms with one’s boss or one’s co-workers.

Acceptance in the workplace is to be sought after by the mentally ill individual. This can mean hiding one of the most important aspects of one’s identity: one’s mental illness, (and it should be noted that, however we try to circumvent the issue, one’s mental illness is a large aspect of the mentally ill individual’s identity.) The choice for the mentally ill seems to be honesty about their mental illness, entailing a lack of acceptance associated with stigma that causes one to denigrate oneself and one’s ability, or concealing their mental illness, which is accompanied by anxiety, shame and a feeling of lacking integrity. This situation, for the mentally ill individual, amounts to the emergence of neuroticism, in addition to the mania or depression or psychotic symptoms that this individual may display.

The psychological pain of stigma is perceived subjectively by the mentally ill individual, although all mentally ill individuals know, consciously or unconsciously, what stigma means in terms of the psychological ramifications. Overall, the solution to this conundrum would seem to be efforts to lessen the stigma associated with mental illness. Acceptance of the mentally ill by larger society is imperative. How this may take place is an even greater conundrum.

Image via Dmitry Kalinovsky / Shutterstock.

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Do Insects Have Emotions and Empathy? Fri, 26 Jun 2015 14:00:25 +0000 A recent survey suggests that for most of us that have ever had a pet companion, it’s a no-brainer that mammals and birds are emotional creatures, sharing emotions with multiple species and not just their own. Yet despite the thousands of YouTube videos and hundreds of recent scientific studies presenting easily accessible evidence and examples, not everyone thinks so.

It was only in 2012 that scientists finally agreed that nonhuman animals are conscious beings. Meanwhile, in the laboratory, we have only just discovered that dogs display immensely complex human-like emotions like jealousy, and we are only just deciphering how cows express positive emotions through the white of their eyes. But what about insects?

What are emotions?

Briefly, let’s touch on the definition of what an emotion is, which is still largely debated even today. While most of us are pretty convinced that emotions exist (seeing as we experience them ourselves), defining emotions is easier said than done.

A universal definition for emotions that is equally applicable across all academic fields, from neuroscience to psychology to philosophy, has been near impossible to achieve. In fact, the well-known neuroscientist, Professor Joseph LeDoux, went so far as to suggest that we erase the word “emotion” from our scientific vocabulary entirely.

Although there are literally hundreds of different definitions for emotion, the most universal definition we could find originates from an article in Science called Emotion, cognition and behavior:

“…emotions include (but are not limited to) certain expressive behaviors that are associated with internal brain states that we, as humans, subjectively experience as ‘feelings’.”

Pretty vague! And due to the subjective nature of it all, it confounds making comparisons between species as we can’t simply ask other species what they feel, and as such, may wrongfully interpret or not even notice key emotional behaviors.

Another way of looking at things is that emotions are essentially ways for an organism to interpret the neural map of their body and surrounding environment in the part of their brain that monitors homeostasis. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Homeostasis is the property of a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant.”

Basically, an organism experiences too much or too little of something either within them or around them in the environment (i.e. something deviates from neutrality or optimum balance), which is then detected by our brains (i.e. via neural maps of the body). We then experience our brain’s recognition of these changes or differences through two main avenues: As subjective feelings that motivate and influence our perceptions, actions and behaviors, and as emotional behavior to express and communicate our state to others. This goes for primordial emotions like sexual desire, as well as more complex social emotions like embarrassment.

An experiment with honeybees

A fantastic example of an insect emotion experiment was carried out on our all-important flower loving friends, honeybees.

As just discussed, emotions influence our perceptions and behavior. So, imagine that your house has just been ransacked by burglars and you are feeling shocked, upset and really, really, REALLY angry. You’re so mad in fact that despite your friends trying to do and say everything possible to cheer you up, you feel so pessimistic that you simply see the downside in everything. In fact, you’re so upset that even your favorite food seems totally unappetizing.

Well, this is exactly what happened with the bees. The poor guys were shoved into a vortex (a machine used to vigorously mix chemicals) for one minute to simulate a badger attack on their hive and presumably cause them to feel complete and utter bee rage.

The bees were then presented with different solutions containing different proportions of two smelly chemicals: Octanone that the bees had been trained to associate with a yummy sugary treat and hexanol that they had been trained to associate with a bitter nasty taste.

Bees that had been shaken became pessimistic, glass half-empty characters that were more likely to react to the nasty smell in the mixtures and recoil as opposed to being attracted to the yummy smell — a result of presumably being pretty irritated. Unshaken bees on the other hand remained their more optimistic, glass half-full selves and were more likely to see the mixtures as half-appetizing, as opposed to half-disgusting like their bad-tempered counterparts did. Moreover, there were emotionally relevant changes in neurotransmitter levels in the shaken up bees, like serotonin and dopamine.

This can scientifically be interpreted as the act of shaking the bees creating an internal neurological state in them that affected their subsequent behavior that was associated with changes in brain chemistry. More specifically, this implies that agitated honeybees exhibit pessimistic cognitive biases.

Yet the authors were reluctant to say that this anger-like state was a definitive emotion. It is interesting to note that if dogs did the same thing and turned down their food after their owner had just died for example, many wouldn’t even question that the behavior was emotional.

An experiment with drosophila flies

A similar experiment was conducted with hungry fruit flies. This time the experimenters tried to induce primal fear by casting a shadow over them to mimic the presence of an overhead predator. This was much like the fear we experience when we hear an unexpected gunshot, making us feel and behave apprehensive until we consider the coast is clear and manage to calm down. And this is exactly what seemed to happen with the fruit flies.

When the fake predator was introduced and then removed, potentially freaked out and hungry flies ignored their food until many minutes later when they eventually calmed down. This suggests that an emotion-like state affected their behavior even after the stimulus was gone. Other key building blocks of emotions like scalability were also demonstrated, i.e. repeating the predator’s shadow simulation multiple times making the flies even more freaked out, taking them longer to calm down and dig into their food.

However, the authors of the study made it clear that although the flies’ responses were more complex than a simple avoidance reflex, they will not take the next leap and classify it as a bona fide emotion. What they did say was in the title of the study itself: “Behavioral responses to a repetitive visual threat stimulus express a persistent state of defensive arousal in Drosophila.”

Do insects have empathy?

As we mentioned earlier, a second aspect of emotions is the expression of emotional behavior that allows other individuals to be aware of our emotions and respond to them. As such, in order to detect and understand those emotions we have the ability to empathize and respond in kind.

In an experiment hot off the press, woodlice have shown empathic-like behavior. The researchers demonstrated that calm woodlice reduced their more excited neighbors causing them to also become calm.

One can argue that this is simply the mimicking of behaviors, as opposed to recognizing and then matching emotions. Again however, remember that if one dog barks in what we interpret as an upset nervous manner, and causes the other dog to do the same, we would tend to automatically assume that the first dog passed on its emotion to the second one if they adopt the same postures and emotional behavior. Moreover, a study published this year quite clearly stated that emotional contagion was observed in pigs as a form of empathy.

Do insects experience emotions?

To be strictly honest we still can’t say to what degree insects experience emotions on par with our own yet, although these early experiments are certainly setting the foundations for a future where we recognize that all animals have emotions of some sort.

Hopefully, by mapping the neural circuitry that underlies the fear-like behavior in flies, anger-like behavior in bees or empathic-like behavior in woodlice we may be one step closer to comparing insects’ experiences of feelings with our own. With insect brains surprising even entomology experts in their extraordinary similarities with our own brains despite marked differences, the similarities may be more profound than we would like to think.

Thankfully, we are beginning to stop with our centuries long obsession with human species superiority. It can be considered part of what has led us to ravage and raid the earth like parasites and to downplay emotions felt by other animals. Humans feel love, other animals merely bond. Humans feel jealous, but other animals merely guard resources.

While we cannot experience what it feels like for a bee to have a bee in its bonnet, a fly to feel like a bundle of nerves, or for a woodlouse to chill-out with its buddies, neither can we experience other human’s emotions… it is only because we can communicate (to a degree) that we know other humans have emotions too. Bear in mind that emotions are so subjective that we aren’t especially accurate at understanding other humans’ emotions at the best of times, never mind another species!

As we continually delve deeper into the genetic and neurological basis of emotions, the evolutionary origins of emotions will undoubtedly be gradually unearthed. Perhaps this may take us one step closer to letting go of our overinflated humanist ego and realize that ALL animals experience emotions of some kind.

“Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy and love, by their stridulation.”
~Charles Darwin (1872)


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Gibson WT, Gonzalez CR, Fernandez C, Ramasamy L, Tabachnik T, Du RR, Felsen PD, Maire MR, Perona P, & Anderson DJ (2015). Behavioral responses to a repetitive visual threat stimulus express a persistent state of defensive arousal in Drosophila. Current biology : CB, 25 (11), 1401-15 PMID: 25981791

Harris, C., & Prouvost, C. (2014). Jealousy in Dogs PLoS ONE, 9 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0094597

Proctor HS, & Carder G (2015). Measuring positive emotions in cows: Do visible eye whites tell us anything? Physiology & behavior, 147, 1-6 PMID: 25862928

Reimert I, Bolhuis JE, Kemp B, & Rodenburg TB (2015). Emotions on the loose: emotional contagion and the role of oxytocin in pigs. Animal cognition, 18 (2), 517-32 PMID: 25385575

Walker, J., Mcgrath, N., Handel, I., Waran, N., & Phillips, C. (2014). Does owning a companion animal influence the belief that animals experience emotions such as grief? Animal Welfare, 23 (1), 71-79 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.23.1.071

Image via colacat / Shutterstock.

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Top 5 Persuasion Techniques of 2015 Thu, 25 Jun 2015 14:00:49 +0000 The art of persuasion really is an art form. It’s not always easy to get everyone on board and ready to comply – we are stubborn beings us humans. From kids refusing bath-time and shy friends avoiding going out, to simple requests to your other half going in one ear and out the other and bosses not taking the 1000th hint and giving you that much deserved pay rise… come on, persuading even ourselves to do what is best for us isn’t always a walk in the park.

Thankfully, psychology research continues to advance our understanding of how to use persuasion techniques, making getting others to comply without a fuss just that much simpler. Below we have outlined the best persuasion techniques backed by science. We have placed them in order based on calculations involving numerous studies so as to indicate just how effective the techniques really are. However, keep in mind that certain techniques may suit certain situations and people more than others.

 Persuasion Technique #1: Disrupt-Then-Reframe

Slightly sneaky but highly effective and at the root of the disrupt-then-reframe technique, as well as some styles of hypnotic induction, is mild confusion. The key is to disrupt intuitive thinking processes by playing with words a little in your request.

Famous examples include changing “It’s $3 for 8 cards”, which is how we standardly talk about such prices, to “It’s 300 pennies for 8 cards”. Other examples include changing the well-known yummy word “cupcakes” to the nonsensical word “halfcakes” to sell more of the baked goods, as well as flipping words around to get more charity donations by changing “some money” to “money some”.

Wait. Disruption is only half of the story. Next comes reframing. Immediately, while their cognitive faculties are disorientated by the disruption, follow through with a reason to comply with the request. For example ending with “…it’s a bargain!”, “…it’s good for you!” or “…it’s fun!” are great ways to reframe the request and remind them that complying with your suggestion is worth it.

However, don’t dawdle. Reframing works only within the moment of distraction. Placing the disruption first is thought increase susceptibility to the reframing statement and reduce counter arguments and excuses as the listener’s brain may be begging for cognitive closure after the unexpected disruption. Fittingly, research has shown that those that people that are more uncomfortable with uncertainty are more likely to respond to the disrupt-then-reframe technique.

 Persuasion Technique #2: Legitimization of Paltry Favors

This might sound fancy, but it’s not. Legitimization of paltry favors simply means making even the smallest amount of help sound legitimate and useful. Has someone been repeatedly avoiding your requests for their time? Try “Even one second of your time would be fantastic”. Trying to get people to sponsor your charity fun run? Try “Every little penny helps”.

As with the disrupt-then-reframe technique, this technique works well verbally and simply having the legitimization statement printed on a t-shirt has proven to be effective. When trying to encourage more people to donate blood, one study found that having the message, “Even a donation one time in your life will help”, on their t-shirts, resulted in almost twice the number of people following through and giving blood.

Why does this work so well? Psychology research hasn’t provided definitive answers as of yet. It may simply be that compliance is made less avoidable when the minimal amount of help is required as it makes excuses for failing to help become inapplicable. Or it may be that the technique induces guilt or shame and jeopardizes the person’s ‘helpful citizen’ image. On the other hand, it might have nothing to do with the legitimization of paltry favors and may be more about perceiving that the person making the request is so desperate for help that anything is better than nothing.

 Persuasion Technique #3: But You Are Free (BYAF)

But You Are Free (BYAF) is a beauty of a technique that was first developed in freedom loving France in 2000. Now, there is very convincing evidence from a meta-analysis of 42 studies totaling over 22,000 participants that suggests using BYAF can double your chances of someone saying “yes” to you.

You wouldn’t believe how simple it is. First make your request. Then include the convincing punchline “but you are free.” You simply remind them that they have a choice, “I am suggesting X, but you are free to choose”. The most important thing to remember is recognizing the target’s freedom to say “no.”

The exact wording isn’t really important. You can get results using whichever words you prefer, like “but obviously do not feel obliged” or “but you don’t have to”. In fact, a study published this year found that simply wearing a t-shirt that says the word “liberty” while making the request, induced the BYAF persuasion effect without even having to use words! MAGIC!

 Persuasion Technique #4: Foot in the Door

The Foot-in-the-door technique is based on the principle that a person is more likely to comply with a larger demand after saying yes to a smaller one. The key here is having consistency between the two requests; they should be similar in nature.

Asking for help to carry your heavy bags before asking for $1000 is not in the same ballpark and likely won’t help your powers of persuasion much. However, asking for help to carry your bags prior to asking to hitch a ride to and from the furniture shop next week is more of a sure bet.

A great example of a science experiment involving this technique involved trying to get 360 women to go on a date with a young man by him talking to them in the street. He got his foot in the door by either asking for a light for his cigarette or asking for directions. Naturally most people will help. Then he swooped in to seal the deal and asked her out on a date.

While simply asking for the date without putting his foot in the door first resulted in only 3% of women agreeing, a whopping 15% of women said yes to going out with the bold gent when he got his foot in the door first.

Persuasion Technique #5: Door in the Face

The door in the face technique is the opposite of the foot-in-the-door technique, with a recent comparison between the techniques indicating they are similarly effective. It involves making an offer that is likely to be refused, followed by the offer that you really want accepted.

One example in the literature is where a woman in a bar asked people to buy her drink because her boyfriend had left without paying the bill. After the subject refused, the confederate requested only 2 or 3 coins. Low and behold more people gave up some coinage for the poor women if they were first asked to buy her a drink and refused, than if simply asked for the coins in the first place.

Interestingly, one should not delay between making the slightly unrealistic request and the second less demanding request. Moreover, you can team up with a partner in crime as the requests do not need to come from the same person. One person can present the easy to refuse large request, quickly followed by the second person making the more easy request.

A recent study adds more to the story suggesting that the door-in-the-face technique has a significant effect on verbal compliance, yet its effect on behavioral compliance is statistically insignificant. This means that you should be careful where you use this technique. If you get someone to say yes but the request involves something they have to do later and out of your sight then don’t bother!


Andrews, K., Carpenter, C., Shaw, A., & Boster, F. (2008). The Legitimization of Paltry Favors Effect: A Review and Meta-Analysis Communication Reports, 21 (2), 59-69 DOI: 10.1080/08934210802305028

Carpenter, C. (2013). A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the “But You Are Free” Compliance-Gaining Technique Communication Studies, 64 (1), 6-17 DOI: 10.1080/10510974.2012.727941

Carpenter, C., & Boster, F. (2009). A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the Disrupt-Then-Reframe Compliance Gaining Technique Communication Reports, 22 (2), 55-62 DOI: 10.1080/08934210903092590

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Guéguen N (2014). Door-in-the-face technique and delay to fulfill the final request: an evaluation with a request to give blood. The Journal of psychology, 148 (5), 569-76 PMID: 25087319

Guéguen, N. (2013). “Even a donation one time in your live will help…”: The effect of the legitimizing paltry contribution technique on blood donation Transfusion and Apheresis Science, 49 (3), 489-493 DOI: 10.1016/j.transci.2013.03.003

Guéguen N, Marchand M, Pascual A, & Lourel M (2008). Foot-in-the-door technique using a courtship request: a field experiment. Psychological reports, 103 (2), 529-34 PMID: 19102478

Pascual, A., Meineri, S., Carpenter, C., Jugel, M., Guy, P., Vallée, B., & Guéguen, N. (2015). Operationalizations of the “but you are free” technique with the word liberty and the Statue of Liberty symbol on clothes: effects on compliance-gaining Social Influence, 10 (3), 149-156 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2015.1026390

Pascual A, & Gueguen N (2006). Door-in-the-face technique and monetary solicitation: an evaluation in a field setting. Perceptual and motor skills, 103 (3), 974-8 PMID: 17326529

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Terrier L, Marfaing B, & Boldi MO (2013). Door-in-the-face: is it really necessary that both requests be made by the same requester? Psychological reports, 113 (2), 675-82 PMID: 24597457

Image via Janis Smits / Shutterstock.

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9 Personality Traits Putting Mothers at Risk of Postpartum Depression Wed, 24 Jun 2015 14:00:43 +0000 Postpartum depression is a very serious condition affecting 10-15% of mothers in most developed countries (that’s 400,000-600,000 women per year in the US). Research shows that mother really is the heart of the family, and when she is hurting, the whole family unit is at risk, where the stress and low quality of mother-infant interactions can affect the child’s brain development, with long-term negative consequences for school years and beyond.

Despite how common and devastating postpartum depression can be, or how effective therapy is, it is still a societal taboo. Many mothers don’t even want to mention the words, with studies showing that most women choose to hide their burdens and turn down much needed help.

A large part of this may be due to a potentially major vulnerability factor that also makes getting over both the largely inevitable prelude (the baby blues) and the main event (postpartum partum depression) a damned sight harder – the mother’s personality. How can a new mother escape feeling ashamed and submitting herself to the blame game if her personality may be a big part of the problem?

Clearly a lack of family and social support, genetics, previous history of anxiety and/or depression and stressful life events during pregnancy all contribute. But why then can some mothers have all the ingredients for postpartum depression and come out unscathed? And why can others, who appear risk-factor free, be ravaged by their hormones and dip into seemingly never-ending baby blues on steroids?

Could it be their personalities that allow them to more easily overcome challenging changes in brain chemistry and squash postpartum depression before it gets out of hand, or on the other hand, allows them to easily succumb to the pressures induced by hormonal changes, giving postpartum depression the chance to take over? With all of the following personality traits also being associated with depression in non-pregnant people, especially during stressful life transitions, it’s safe to say, “YES!”

If you are an expecting mother or hoping to be one soon and have any of the personality traits outlined below, don’t fret. Contrary to popular belief, your personality and associated behaviors are definitely NOT set in stone. You can not only seek help in advance of potential problems occurring, but a therapist can provide tools and guidance to help mold your personality to one that is more protective of your mental health for when your bundle of joy finally comes alone.

1) Neuroticism

Multiple studies place neuroticism as the main personality trait that can predict postpartum depression. The latest research indicates that non-depressed pregnant women with high neuroticism scores have an almost fourfold (400%) increased risk of developing postpartum depression symptoms both 6 weeks and 6 months after delivery.

Neuroticism is characterized by high sensitivity to stress including anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy and loneliness. As such, researchers have speculated that mothers that score high for neuroticism may be more sensitive to the inherently stressful challenges of early motherhood, from lack of sleep to hormonal changes.

2) High worry and low self-confidence (psychic trait anxiety)

Although worry, anxious anticipation of dangers and low self-confidence (psychic trait anxiety) are aspects of neurotic personalities it is worthy of individual mention. Women with high scores on psychic trait anxiety have a double risk of developing depressive symptoms after childbirth.

Being self-confident is known to help us stay calm, cool and collected under pressure. And dealing with a new born child’s nearly constant demands is undoubtedly associated with new pressures and challenges. If a woman’s personality is often anxious at the best of times, it’s perfectly understandable that as a new mother her feelings of anxiety may be overwhelming.

Relatedly, the more physical aspects of anxiety, such as restlessness and bodily tension (somatic trait anxiety) are also associated with an increased risk for postpartum depression at 6 weeks after childbirth.

3) Mistrust

A new discovery is that women with high mistrust of others — suspiciousness and not trusting people’s motives— are more at risk for postpartum depression 6 months after delivery than more trusting women. This may involve a lack of sharing of baby related responsibilities in the family and lack of seeking help for postpartum depression, further exasperating stress and depression symptoms. As a new risk trait, more research is needed.

4) High introversion/low extraversion

Introverts are considered quiet, reflective and focused on the inner (mental) world, while extraverts are considered outspoken, outgoing and predominately concerned with what’s going on with the outer world. A new mother having high scores in introversion tests have been shown in multiple studies to be an accurate predictors of developing postpartum depression.

Often introverts feel mentally at their best with many hours of “alone time”, they get energy and strength from solitude. The constant lack of personal space and time to reflect between feeding, holding, carrying and playing with a newborn can be overwhelming for highly introverted mothers.

5) Perfectionism

Multiple studies point to women with more perfectionist personalities, i.e. having a great need to be or appear perfect, can place women at high risk for postpartum depression. One study identified that high-perfectionism, and particularly high-concern over mistakes, are personality traits associated with major postpartum depression.

However, this is in contrast with other studies that have not found the level of a mother-to-be’s perfectionism to be an effective predictor of postpartum depression. Studies on perfectionism have involved different research methods on mothers from different countries and backgrounds where there are clear differences in societal and cultural pressures that may make perfectionism more or less of an issue. More research is required to iron out the specifics and get down to the root of the matter.

Yet it makes logical sense that being overly critical, with an all or nothing attitude regarding near impossible standards of perfection will be stressful simply for general day to day happiness in our less than perfect and often hectic modern lives, never mind when we throw a baby into the mix.

6) Harm avoidance

Overly harm avoidant personalities are those that over worry, are pessimistic, shy, fearful, doubtful, and easily fatigued and therefore tend to avoid new experiences and challenges. This is a second trait that there are conflicting results for in science research. While there are many studies that have found connections between harm avoidance and postpartum depression in multiple countries, one study on Japanese women did not find any link.

It goes without saying that being avoidant may severely limit a new mother’s opportunities for expansive experiences for both her and her child. Many non-depressed women report feeling isolated, bored and lonely during the transition into parenthood, being avoidant instead of being open to new experiences will only make matters worse.

7) Interpersonal sensitivity

Interpersonal sensitivity refers to an individual’s hypersensitivity to their own inadequacies and inferiority in relation to others, where one is fearful of criticism and rejection. In an Australian study, high interpersonal sensitivity was the greatest maternal risk factor for the development of depression at 6 months after birth.

Notably, this particular study indicates that different aspects of personality are greater risk factors for postpartum depression at different time points in motherhood.

A new mother who is quick to take offense, is unduly sensitive to ridicule, feels uncomfortable in the presence of other people and shows a negative set of expectations in her dealings with others will undoubtedly create the perfect breeding ground for anxiety and depression if this socially phobic sensitivity is not addressed, as it may lead to panic attacks and avoidance of all social activities.

8) High body image dissatisfaction

In an analysis of 19 separate studies, the majority found that body image dissatisfaction is consistently but weakly associated with a higher risk of both prenatal and postpartum depression. Moreover, it seems there is a push and pull relationship where more depression leads to more body image dissatisfaction and more body image dissatisfaction leads to more depression – a vicious cycle.

Is it any wonder that in a modern age where we are bombarded with overly perfect and unrealistic photoshopped representations of “healthy” women and men, that women’s body dissatisfaction rises after giving birth when many aim to return to their pre-pregnancy physique?

Women who are proud and happy in their bodies are more accepting of the rapid trimester-specific changes in body weight and size that essentially occur at lightning speed compared to bodily changes when not pregnant. Having less education about the changes a women goes through during pregnancy, eating/appetite abnormalities, greater weight, worse mental health, fewer immediate family relationships, as well as being non-black and a non-breastfeeder, have all been shown to be linked with high rates of body dissatisfaction postpartum.

9) Trait anger and personal distress empathy

When someone has high trait anger, they perceive a wide range of situations as annoying or frustrating, and they tend to respond by getting increasingly angry. Multiple studies have found associations between high trait anger levels and postpartum depression.

While someone with high levels of personal distress empathy may be highly observant of their own distress, but have low feelings of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others.

A study revealed that the unwanted and intrusive thoughts a mother has about harming her baby that is triggered by prolonged crying, are related to the level of the mother’s personal distress empathy and trait anger, as well as higher frustration, negative emotions, and the urge to escape the infant—as found in postpartum depression. Interestingly, research in Canada revealed that ~50% of new mothers have unwanted and distressing thoughts of harming their baby, with or without postpartum depression!

Future research will likely look at differences in trait anger and personal distress empathy between depressed and non-depressed mothers during the postpartum period.


Fairbrother N, Barr RG, Pauwels J, Brant R, & Green J (2015). Maternal thoughts of harm in response to infant crying: an experimental analysis. Archives of women’s mental health, 18 (3), 447-55 PMID: 25377762

Fairbrother N, & Woody SR (2008). New mothers’ thoughts of harm related to the newborn. Archives of women’s mental health, 11 (3), 221-9 PMID: 18463941

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Gelabert E, Subirà S, García-Esteve L, Navarro P, Plaza A, Cuyàs E, Navinés R, Gratacòs M, Valdés M, & Martín-Santos R (2012). Perfectionism dimensions in major postpartum depression. Journal of affective disorders, 136 (1-2), 17-25 PMID: 21930303

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Sweeney AC, & Fingerhut R (2013). Examining relationships between body dissatisfaction, maladaptive perfectionism, and postpartum depression symptoms. Journal of obstetric, gynecologic, and neonatal nursing : JOGNN / NAACOG, 42 (5), 551-61 PMID: 24004109

Image via michaeljung / Shutterstock.

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Best and Worst of Psychology and Psychiatry — May 2015 Fri, 19 Jun 2015 14:00:03 +0000 We have been seeing some groundbreaking developments in understanding psychological disorders and how best to treat them this year. It seems that May was the cream on the cake, with game changing advances in autism, schizophrenia and depression research — quite fitting for International Mental Health Awareness Month.

There were two main themes that emerged from the best and worst research: Insights that can help improve how we interact with one another, and insights regarding how chemicals interact with and affect us.

Here’s to International Mental Health Awareness Month and the fantastic researchers that are taking us one step closer to a happier, healthier and wealthier life for us all!


Autism brain may be hyper-functional, not anti-social

Autism is generally considered a form of mental retardation, a brain disease that impairs the ability to learn, feel emotions and empathize. However, new research suggests that initially, early in development, the brains of children that are later diagnosed with autism have supercharged brain circuits that require environmental stability to further develop symptom free.

The study demonstrates that in a rat model of autism, unpredictable environmental stimulation and an impoverished environment drives autistic symptoms. Conversely, predictable stimulation and a pleasant environment can prevent these symptoms. Autistic rats that lived in calm, safe, socially and sensory-rich environments that are highly predictable with little surprise do not develop symptoms of emotional over-reactivity such as fear and anxiety, nor social withdrawal or sensory abnormalities.

The authors suggest that having hyperfunctional brain circuits with advanced processing of the environment leaves autistic children more sensitive to environmental surprises, promoting symptom development. This means that if brain hyper-functionality can be diagnosed soon after birth, we can prevent autism symptom development using highly specialized environmental stimulation that is safe, consistent, controlled, announced and only changed very gradually at the pace determined by each child.

Specific stress-related causes for chemical imbalances in schizophrenia

This revolutionary study published in Neuron is in line with decades of research, finally bringing it all together to paint a more cohesive and less fragmented understanding of schizophrenia. The researchers created the largest ever expansive genetic data set of gene copy number variations (CNVs) that combined three separate studies amounting to 11,355 schizophrenia cases and 16,416 controls. The authors found changes in the number of copies of specific genes and genes with schizophrenia-linked mutations that encode molecules that form complexes central to the induction and maintenance of synaptic plasticity, and provide strong novel evidence for the involvement of stress sensitive changes in GABA inhibition of communication between neurons.

Interestingly, one needs only a subset of genetic changes to disturb these interlinked processes and generate a schizophrenic phenotype. This fits perfectly with why there is so much disease-related genetic variation between schizophrenic individuals.

Pathogenicity in schizophrenia therefore depends upon the total burden of disease relevant genes influenced by copy number variations, with different genes implicated in different individuals depending upon their genetic and environmental context. The authors’ analysis also suggests that there are many more locations in the human genome where CNVs influence the development of schizophrenia that are waiting to be discovered.

Stress-responsive common genetic variants predict risk of psychiatric disease

Work from the MaxPlank Institute of Psychiatry has unwrapped the genetic basis of why some people are more prone to major depression and psychiatric disorders than others when experiencing stressful life events.

The experiments suggest that when cortisol is released during stressful life events, certain genetic mutations result in differences in the transcription of stress-sensitive proteins in the brain and blood, which makes some people more at risk for stress-induced depression and other psychiatric disorders than others. Interestingly, these changes are associated with inappropriate over-reactivity of the amygdala.

By taking a closer look at these genetic variants in future experiments we will take one step closer to the effective prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders and mental health problems and promotion of general mental health well-being through stress-response targeted interventions. Watch the video here.

Kid’s altruism linked to improved health despite low income

New research indicates that children’s altruistic behaviors, family wealth and physiological health are closely intertwined. 74 pre-schoolers averaging 4 years old had physiological data, including information about heart rate and vagal tone, recorded while earning tokens that they could trade for prizes at the end of their visit. To test their altruistic behavior the children were given the chance to donate some or all of their prize tokens to imaginary sick children who weren’t able to come to the lab.

The children who sacrificed tokens to help sick kids showed greater vagal flexibility during the task. Vagal tone is a measure of tension in the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the body on a largely subconscious level, where high tension is an indicator of good general health and the body’s ability to regulate physiological stress responses. The act of donating itself was associated with higher vagal tone by the end of the task, indicating that fostering altruistic behaviors in children is good strategy for promoting good health.

Additionally children from more wealthy families in the study shared fewer tokens than the children from less wealthy families. The authors suggest that a boost in vagal tone from being altruistic might help to offset some of the physiological disadvantages a child may experience that are associated with growing up in a lower-income household.

People prefer fragrances that spark personal memories

We don’t have to be perfumers to experience the power of certain smells sparking memories from our past. The links between our nose and our memories are strong, this is well-known. However, new research indicates that we don’t necessarily place value to and enjoy a fragrance because of how nice it smells, but rather we enjoy smells more when they elicit the recall of fond memories.

These findings are likely to influence how we develop fragrances: understanding where and how we culturally experience various scents may help develop products with scents which are most likely to elicit odor-related memories.


BPA may adversely affect parenting behavior

Previous research indicates that maternal care of children can be negatively affected when females are exposed to widely prevalent endocrine-disrupting chemicals including bisphenol-A (BPA) and ethinyl estradiol (EE).

Now, a study on monogamous and co-parenting California mouse species proves that offspring born to mothers and fathers that were both exposed to BPA receive decreased parental care by both the mother and father. Females exposed to EE or BPA spent less time nursing, grooming and being associated with their pups than controls. Care of pups by males was less affected by exposure to the chemicals, but control, non-exposed females appeared able to “sense” a male partner previously exposed to either compound and, as a consequence, reduced their own parental investment in offspring from such pairings.

As hormones and regions of the brain that regulate biparental behaviors have been found to be similar across species, these studies on the California mouse may have considerable relevance to humans. Watch the video here.

Lack of perspective and forward thinking drives unethical behaviour

Have you ever stolen office supplies, called into work sick when you were A-ok, or intentionally worked slowly to avoid additional tasks? Don’t feel you are alone, for example, faking “a sickie” is so common that one study in Australia calculated that a whopping 43% of 20-24 year old workers in their survey had pulled a sickie in the last year.

In a series of experiments that involved commonly experienced ethical dilemmas, like faking a sickie, the researchers found that two factors promote ethical and honest behavior: The identification of a potential ethical dilemma as connected to other similar incidents, and anticipating that there may be the temptation to act unethically in the near future.

These findings will likely inspire the development of strategies to encourage people to behave ethically. For example, we are all aware of the commonality of politicians claiming outrageous expenses for a work trip despite the act being considered unethical. An email reminder that warns against the temptation to inflate expenses before political work trips, and that also reminds politicians that this is a temptation they will experience frequently, could effectively encourage ethical decision-making.

Alcohol misuse disorder in US is more widespread than previously thought

Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are among the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide, with recent changes to the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 prompting updating our understanding of the prevalence, correlates, psychiatric comorbidity, associated disability, and treatment of AUD diagnosis.

Twelve-month and lifetime prevalences of AUD in the US were 13.9% and 29.1%, respectively. Prevalence was generally highest for men, caucasians and Native Americans and younger, previously married or never married adults with low income levels. Significant disability increased with the severity of AUD. Moreover, strong associations were founds between AUD and other substance abuse disorders and mental health problems. Shockingly, only 19.8% of respondents with lifetime AUD had ever been treated.

The authors prompt an urgent need to educate the public and policy makers about AUD and its treatment alternatives, to destigmatize the disorder and to encourage those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption on their own, despite substantial harm to themselves and others, to seek treatment.

No improvement in cognition with post-menopausal hormones

There has been much confusion as to whether menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) might protect against cognitive aging, such as difficulty recalling words or numbers, forgetting events and actions and difficulty concentrating. By conducting a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial including 693 recently postmenopausal women living in the US the researchers concluded that MHT given to recently postmenopausal women in the US for up to four years does not improve cognition.

Interestingly however, depression-related mood symptoms were significantly improved for women treated with oral estrogen pills and progesterone, but not those treated with transdermal estradiol patches and progesterone. Although this initial study has its limitations, the findings can be used to help women make more informed decisions about whether to use MHT to manage their menopausal symptoms and direct future investigations.

Interpersonal conflict is the strongest predictor of community crime and misconduct

Neighborhoods with more private, interpersonal conflict like domestic violence and landlord/tenant disputes, see more serious crime according to a new research, highlighting the important role individuals in promoting community safety. In fact, private conflict was a better predictor of the future deterioration of a neighbourhood than public disorder, such as vandalism.

The researchers suggest that people facing stressful conflicts with others may respond violently to problems within the community, neglect private property and be less inclined to take a stand against neighborhood decline. Therefore, incentives that promote interpersonal cohesion and conflict resolution in neighborhoods may prove highly effective in preventing neighborhood crime and violence.


Arloth, J., Bogdan, R., Weber, P., Frishman, G., Menke, A., Wagner, K., Balsevich, G., Schmidt, M., Karbalai, N., Czamara, D., Altmann, A., Trümbach, D., Wurst, W., Mehta, D., Uhr, M., Klengel, T., Erhardt, A., Carey, C., Conley, E., Ruepp, A., Müller-Myhsok, B., Hariri, A., & Binder, E. (2015). Genetic Differences in the Immediate Transcriptome Response to Stress Predict Risk-Related Brain Function and Psychiatric Disorders Neuron, 86 (5), 1189-1202 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.05.034

Favre, M., La Mendola, D., Meystre, J., Christodoulou, D., Cochrane, M., Markram, H., & Markram, K. (2015). Predictable enriched environment prevents development of hyper-emotionality in the VPA rat model of autism Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00127

Gleason, C., Dowling, N., Wharton, W., Manson, J., Miller, V., Atwood, C., Brinton, E., Cedars, M., Lobo, R., Merriam, G., Neal-Perry, G., Santoro, N., Taylor, H., Black, D., Budoff, M., Hodis, H., Naftolin, F., Harman, S., & Asthana, S. (2015). Effects of Hormone Therapy on Cognition and Mood in Recently Postmenopausal Women: Findings from the Randomized, Controlled KEEPS–Cognitive and Affective Study PLOS Medicine, 12 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001833

Grant, B., Goldstein, R., Saha, T., Chou, S., Jung, J., Zhang, H., Pickering, R., Ruan, W., Smith, S., Huang, B., & Hasin, D. (2015). Epidemiology of Alcohol Use DisorderJAMA Psychiatry DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584

Miller, J., Kahle, S., & Hastings, P. (2015). Roots and Benefits of Costly Giving: Children Who Are More Altruistic Have Greater Autonomic Flexibility and Less Family Wealth Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797615578476

O’Brien, D., & Sampson, R. (2015). Public and Private Spheres of Neighborhood Disorder: Assessing Pathways to Violence Using Large-scale Digital Records Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 52 (4), 486-510 DOI: 10.1177/0022427815577835

Sheldon OJ, & Fishbach A (2015). Anticipating and Resisting the Temptation to Behave Unethically. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 41 (7), 962-75 PMID: 26001580

Sugiyama, H., Oshida, A., Thueneman, P., Littell, S., Katayama, A., Kashiwagi, M., Hikichi, S., & Herz, R. (2015). Proustian Products are Preferred: The Relationship Between Odor-Evoked Memory and Product Evaluation Chemosensory Perception DOI: 10.1007/s12078-015-9182-y

Image via lightpoet / Shutterstock.

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Are We All Schizophrenic? Part II – Hallucinations Fri, 22 May 2015 12:00:18 +0000 In the last installment of the series, we discovered that delusional thinking is a part of normal life, with an estimate of 1-3% of non-schizophrenic individuals having severe delusional thinking on par with schizophrenia. You might think that hallucinations – the arguably more extreme schizophrenia symptom – would be rarer? You’d be wrong!

Have you ever heard, seen, smelt, felt or tasted something that wasn’t actually there? If you have, you are probably like the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, schizophrenia and psychosis free. Hallucinations, despite common misconceptions, are a part of normal healthy living that most of us put down to a “brain glitch”. Let’s take a look at just how common hallucinating is and how this relates to individuals experiencing schizophrenic hallucinations.

May the destigmitazation commence!

Hallucinations are defined as the perception of an object or event, using any of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste), despite there being no external stimulus. We will leave out hypnagogic (falling asleep) and hypnopompic (waking up) hallucinations, or there we would be no discussion, we would end the debate here by simply stating that we all have the potential to hallucinate practically every day!

For that matter, let’s put sleep deprivation to one side too, as 8 out of 10 of us are likely to have visual hallucinations if sleep deprived for long enough. The longer you go without sleep, the more intense the hallucination. Moreover, forget including childhood in the equation, or bouts of delirious fever.

We should also recognize that even in science research, self-reports of hallucinations are likely under-reported in healthy people for multiple reasons. One reason established by research is an individuals fear of appearing insane. Thankfully, reports of hallucinations are not so easily effected by the need to be socially desirable as reports of delusions are.

A revealing analysis of the World Health Organization’s World Health Survey from 52 countries indicates that the frequency of self-reports of hallucinations in the general population are greatly impacted by culture. For example, estimates of the number of people reporting hallucinations over a 12 month period in Nepal were a hearty 32%. Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan this number was a meagre 0.5%.

While currently there aren’t any real, solid ideas as to why, and more questions being posed than answers being given, let’s put cultural differences aside and take a look at the various forms of hallucinations in a little more detail.

Auditory Hallucinations

“What? Did someone call my name?”

Auditory hallucinations are the most commonly reported type of hallucination in schizophrenia (present in 60-90% of patients) and most commonly manifests as hearing voices, with music hearing also being commonly reported.

One of the largest and most detailed studies on hearing voices estimates that 5-15% of all adults will experience hearing voices at some point during their lifetimes. One percent of these healthy, non-schizophrenic individuals may hear multiple and at times interacting voices with character-like qualities that are typically associated with chronic schizophrenic hallucinations. For many, it’s just a normal mode of experience.

Visual Hallucinations

“I am sure there was a man standing there!”

Visual hallucinations typically involve flashes of light or sightings of people and/or animals and are the second most commonly reported type of hallucination in schizophrenia (16-72% of patients). Let’s not forget that in certain religious circles, seeing a flash of light may be considered a gift or glimpse of God.

Reports estimate that 4-12% of healthy individuals have visual hallucinations (although numbers vary greatly between different countries, as mentioned previously).

Tactile and Somatic Hallucinations

“Ahhhh! Was that a beasty crawling up my leg?!”

Tactile hallucinations involve sensations felt on the skin, like being tapped on the shoulder or an insect crawling along the surface. Somatic hallucinations on the other hand involve more internal physical sensations, like feelings of electricity in the brain or snakes slithering inside the stomach.

One US-based study estimates that tactile and somatic hallucinations occur in around 20% of schizophrenic patients. Currently, how common this is in the general populace is largely unknown. One UK report estimates that 3% of the population experience touch-based hallucinations, 24% of which have no association with poor mental health.

Olfactory and Gustatory Hallucinations

“Can you smell/taste that? No? Just me?”

Olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) hallucinations, known as phantosmia and gustatory phantasma respectively, are the least reported hallucinations in schizophrenic patients. This may very well be because they are less distressing and less infamous, but that does not necessarily mean that they are uncommon, and are suspected to be grossly under-reported.

In a US-based study, 17% and 8% of schizophrenic patients experienced olfactory and gustatory hallucinations respectively. Interestingly, initial estimates of hallucinations of smell and taste in the general UK population are pretty similar at 7-8%, with 2-3% of participants having had experienced the hallucinations the month prior to when the study was conducted.

Hallucinations in Schizophrenia

So what is the difference between hallucinations experienced when a person is diagnosed as schizophrenic, compared to when they are diagnosed as mentally healthy? Its worthy of note that not all schizophrenic patients experience hallucinations, with the International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia estimating that approximately 70% of schizophrenic patients experience them. For those that do they are rarely benign or pleasant.

In the schizophrenic population, these hallucinations – that healthy people tend to chalk down to an intriguing blip in reality – are more frequent, intrusive and distressing. The real game-changer is when one believes that these glitches in our naturally skewed, flawed and limited interpretation of reality are real.

Hallucinations as a Sign of Ill-Health?

That being said, there are numerous reports of hallucinations being associated with physical health problems independently of a mental disorder, and those that persist may be worthy of clinical examination. They are often reported in individuals with epilepsy, brain tumors, migraines, visual impairment, stroke, drug withdrawal, sinus diseases, sensory deprivation, narcolepsy, inborn errors of metabolism and various neurodegenerative diseases.

However, an individual that is blessed by never having mental health issues and is in perfect physical health may still experience regular hallucinations. Experiencing hallucinations are far more common than schizophrenia or a related mental disorder, as well as most of the more physical ailments that hallucinations are associated with!

With the misplaced idea that hallucinating is a dead cert sign of mental illness free from your mind, please feel free to share your hallucinatory experiences and let’s see just how common they are.


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Teeple, R., Caplan, J., & Stern, T. (2009). Visual Hallucinations The Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 11 (1), 26-32 DOI: 10.4088/PCC.08r00673

Image via ysuel / Shutterstock.


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Dissociation and Psychosis Thu, 21 May 2015 12:00:59 +0000 Dissociation represents a condition of disconnection from events and states that are usually integrated. These include many conditions of consciousness, such as memory, identity and perception. For the purposes of this article, there is a focus on depersonalization and derealization.

Depersonalization is a sense of existence in which one inhabits a consciousness that allows for the feeling that one is not in her own body. In this feeling-state, the individual’s body is perceived as disconnected from one’s sense of self. This state typically results from physical or sexual abuse or other types of trauma.

Derealization comprises a state in which the world and the environment “feel” unreal to the individual residing in this state. Both depersonalization and derealization are aspects of dissociation represented by subjective states that usually result from trauma.

Both of these aspects of dissociation, specifically, depersonalization and derealization, can be considered psychological mechanisms of defense. Nevertheless, living in a dissociative state is not ideal: it represents an emotional withdrawal from one’s healthy sense of self and the world. However, dissociation can protect the individual in that state from future trauma, such as physical abuse that results in psychological abuse.

Dissociation in the forms of depersonalization and derealization provide a thin, albeit very thin, emotional buffer against physical or psychological harm.

The science of psychiatry treats psychotic disorders through the application of medication to the problems of hallucinations and delusions. The reality or unreality of hallucinations, which may be considered a semantic onslaught, can cause one to withdraw into the self and experience dissociation, such as depersonalization and derealization. While meds might culminate in the elimination of hallucinations (which is a great achievement), psychotic states whose symptoms are represented by auditory hallucinations, are experienced by the psychotic individual as torture amounting to trauma. Delusions compound this suffering.

Trauma can result in regression through emotional withdrawal of the self from the material self and the material world. While it might seem sentimental to procure the phrase, “a return to the womb”, this may be exactly what dissociation represents.

While perhaps not understood to be a salient precursor to Eriksons’s stages of development, this “return to the womb” may be considered to be an internal state of those who have experienced trauma, including the subjective experience of psychosis.

Regressive psychotherapy based upon the Eriksonian stages, proceeding with a a focus on “trust versus mistrust” and on to psychological dichotomies at the psychotic person’s natural level of development, such as “intimacy versus isolation”, may prove to be effective. This psychotherapy might be created utilizing appropriate interventions, such as Rogerian therapy as an initial stage focusing on trust, moving toward the cultivation of feelings of autonomy using Adlerian therapy, reinforcing acts of initiative and industrious accomplishment using behaviorism, engendering identity using cognitive therapy that addresses the emergence of abstract thought.

Overall, the dissociative person is a fragile shell of a person as a result of trauma. Nurturing this budding human being through appropriate psychotherapy might ameliorate the trauma associated with the expression of depersonalization and derealization.

Image via Anna Tamila / Shutterstock.

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Interview with Dan Pink – Manipulating the Masses and Hacking your Life Tue, 12 May 2015 12:00:48 +0000 We recently caught up with Dan Pink, the mastermind and host of Crowd Control, a 12-part National Geographic TV series in which Dan and his team use behavioral science, design and technology to solve public problems. He has over 20 years experience as a journalist and writer, and is the author of five bestselling books about human behavior, including his latest book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.

With his TED talk on the science of motivation below being one of the 10 most-watched of all time (nearly 10 million views!) we asked him a few questions about Crowd Control, and more specifically, on motivating the masses and motivating ourselves to change our lives for the better.

Dan Pink in OfficeWhat are the main academic theories that you draw from in the devising of your crowd control experiments?

Dan: We drew on a variety of studies and lines of research for the show. For instance, we used the famous research showing that a certain shade of pink — called “Drunk Tank Pink” — had a calming effect and then painted a towing lot reception area pink to calm frustrated drivers.  

Along those lines, we drew on research showing that the smell of lemons triggers thoughts of cleanliness and pumped lemon scent into a baseball stadium men’s room to increase hand-washing. We used research showing that the color blue operates as an appetite suppressant — then painted a dining room blue to slow people’s eating and deter their overeating.

And that’s just the beginning. We used some principles of gamification. We harnessed research showing that it’s possible to alter behavior simply by explaining why the behavior is necessary. We used the principle of social proof — that is, our tendency to look to others for cues about how to behave — to get people to walk more carefully on sidewalks while using their cell phones.

Reward versus punishment and orders versus encouragement seem to be to be recurring themes in your social experiments, could you comment on this?

Dan: Sort of. For simple, short-term tasks if-then rewards and punishments (as in if you do this, then you get that) can be pretty effective. But sometimes they don’t last very long. We instated a speed camera lottery to reward drivers who stayed under the speed limit. While the lottery was in place, speeds dropped. But once we removed it, my guess is that people went back to their bad behavior.

On orders versus encouragement, that’s tricky, too. But in general, human beings don’t like being told what to do. In fact, we have only two basic reactions to control. We comply. Or we defy. But that often doesn’t lead to lasting behavior change. Encouragement — whether helping people make regular progress or understand the “why” of their efforts — often has less short-term impact. But its effects can last longer.

Has Crowd Control inspired any crowd-controlling action by governments, organizations or businesses that you know of?

Dan: Yes! In New Mexico, we installed a musical road to deter speeding. When drivers go the speed limit over this stretch, grooves in the highway vibrate and play the song America the Beautiful. That road will be there for years — and several other states (as well as a few other countries) are now investigating building these sorts of roads themselves.

Also, in one episode we went to Austin, Texas, to try to crack down on people parking illegally in spaces reserved for the disabled. Our technique was to install signs, alongside the existing signs, that read “Think of Me. Keep it Free.” The signs also featured a photograph of a local person in a wheelchair. That technique eliminated illegal parking in the area. Now cities in the states of Texas, Connecticut, and Colorado are doing the same.

And finally, how can we invite some of the life and society benefits from your Crowd Control experiments to our own personal real-lives?

Dan: There are all kinds of ways. Take the lemon scent experiment. During flu season office, schools, even homes could put a bowl of lemons in the washroom to encourage hand-washing. Or if you want to lose weight, use blue tablecloths, blue napkins, and blue plates to see if that dampens appetite. (Use smaller plates, too, since we found those substantially cut down on overeating.) We did a great experiment using a photo booth to show people what they’d look like without apply sunscreen. That got them — at least that day — to change their ways.

Since we do a terrible job planning for the future, if you’re trying to get yourself to save for retirement or exercise more or use sunscreen, try a smartphone aging app like Aging Booth or Oldify. Snap a picture of current you, wait for a picture of future you, and you might be shocked into changing your ways.  

More broadly, recognize that most of us go through life pretty blindly, barely thinking about what we’re doing. So try whatever you can — fun, surprise, games, etc — to jolt people out of that default behavior and jolt them into better, more productive behavior.

Image via STH / Shutterstock.

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