You’re Only as Old as You Feel

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Simply asking people how old they feel may tell you a lot about their health and well-being.

Not long ago, Stephanie Heller, a New Jersey realtor, was leaving her gym after a workout when she noticed a woman in the parking lot struggling to bend down. “I don’t know if she dropped something and had to pick it up, or if her shoe was untied,” Ms. Heller said, but she eagerly bounded over to help. The woman blamed old age for her incapacity, explaining that she was 70. But Ms. Heller was 71.

“This woman felt every bit her age,” she recalled. “I don’t let age stop me. I think it’s a mind-set, really.”

Each of us has a chronological age, the number we commemorate on birthdays. But some 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds look and feel youthful, while others do not. Scientists can measure these differences by looking at age-related biomarkers — things like skin elasticity, blood pressure, lung capacity and grip strength. People with a healthy lifestyle and living conditions and a fortunate genetic inheritance tend to score “younger” on these assessments and are said to have a lower “biological age.”

But there’s a much easier way to determine the shape people are in. It’s called “subjective age.”

When scientists ask: “How old do you feel, most of the time?” the answer tends to reflect the state of people’s physical and mental health. “This simple question seems to be particularly powerful,” says Antonio Terracciano, a professor of geriatrics at Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee.

Scientists are finding that people who feel younger than their chronological age are typically healthier and more psychologically resilient than those who feel older. They perform better on memory tasks and are at lower risk of cognitive decline. In a study published in 2018, a team of South Korean researchers scanned the brains of 68 healthy older adults and found that those who felt younger than their age had thicker brain matter and had endured less age-related deterioration. By contrast, people who feel older than their chronological age are more at risk for hospitalization, dementia and death.

“We have found many, many predictive associations,” says Yannick Stephan, an assistant professor of health and aging psychology at the University of Montpellier in France who has been at the forefront of subjective age research.

If you’re over 40, chances are you feel younger than your driver’s license suggests. Some 80 percent of people do, according to Dr. Stephan. A small fraction of people — fewer than 10 percent — feel older. The discrepancy between felt and actual age increases with the years, Dr. Terracciano said. At age 50, people may feel about five years, or 10 percent, younger, but by the time they’re 70 they may feel 15 percent or even 20 percent younger.

Most of the research on subjective age is based on associations between how old people feel and their health status, so it cannot establish cause and effect. It’s not clear, for example, whether feeling younger actually makes people healthier, or whether people who are already healthy tend to feel younger. But by simply asking people how old they feel, Dr. Stephan says, doctors might be able to identify who is most at risk for health problems.

For Francisca Mercado-Ruiz of South Plainfield, N.J., getting healthier transformed her internal sense of age. In the months leading up to her 49th birthday last December, she fulfilled her goal of losing 49 pounds. Before the weight loss, she had back and hip pain and felt like she was 65. Now she’s off her blood pressure medication, full of energy, has few aches and says she feels 35.

A few intriguing studies suggest that a youthful frame of mind can have a powerful effect. When scientists trick older people into feeling younger, most tend to instantly become more capable. In a 2013 experiment by Dr. Stephan and colleagues, for example, people’s grip strength significantly improved after they were told that they were stronger than most people their age. A Chinese study published last November in the journal Aging & Mental Health found that people performed better on a memory task after being told they were sharper than others their age.

Whether these findings translate into real-world situations, however, is uncertain. In a 2018 German study, investigators asked people in their 60s, 70s and early 80s how old they felt, then measured their walking speed in two settings. Participants walked 20 feet in the laboratory while being observed and timed. They also wore belts containing an accelerometer while out and about in their daily lives. Those who reported feeling younger tended to walk faster during the lab assessment. But feeling younger had no impact on their walking speed in real life. Instead, the researchers found, the ones who walked faster were those who walked the most.

What makes subjective age such a powerful predictor? Dr. Stephan believes that people possess intuitive information about their physical abilities, mental sharpness and emotional stability, all of which gets distilled into a single meaningful number.

But critics assert that for many, subjective age simply reflects cultural obsessions with youth. People cultivate a younger identity to fend off stereotypes of frailty and senility, said David Weiss, a life span psychologist at the University of Leipzig. “If old age weren’t negatively valued, you wouldn’t have the need to say that you feel younger,” he said.

Indeed, in cultures where elders are respected for their wisdom and experience, people don’t even understand the concept of subjective age, he said. When a graduate student of Dr. Weiss’s did research in Jordan, the people he spoke with “would say, ‘I’m 80. I don’t know what you mean by ‘How old do I feel?’”

Paradoxically, older people may hold warm feelings for their generation even as they feel distaste for people their age. In a 2012 experiment, Dr. Weiss and a colleague divided 104 people aged 65 to 88 into two groups. Everyone had to complete five sentences, but one group was asked to describe people their age, while the other was asked about their generation.

The first group wrote things like “People of my age are afraid and worry about the future” and “People of my age often talk about their illnesses.” The generation-oriented group displayed a stronger sense of empowerment and meaning. They wrote things like “People of my generation were the 68ers who founded a more civil society,” a reference to the student protest movements of the late 1960s, and “People of my generation should pass on their life experience to the youth.” One way to combat internalized ageism, Dr. Weiss suggests, is to identify with one’s generation.

A similar feeling of shared purpose and belonging is what keeps Thomas W. Dortch Jr., 69, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist, vibrant. People take him for being in his early 50s when they first meet him, and he says he feels like he’s in his early 40s.

“All my young staff and volunteers ask, where do you get all your energy?” Mr. Dortch said. He was mentored by African-American luminaries like the former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young and the former Atlanta mayor, Maynard Jackson, Jr. Today, as national chairman of the organization 100 Black Men of America, he nurtures the next generation of black leaders. “I’ve been focused all my life on being engaged and working to make sure that life is better for future generations,” he said. “I can never be too tired to make a difference.”

Whatever their stance on subjective age, experts agree that everyone ages differently and that people do have some control. Healthy habits, including eating well and exercising, can keep age-related deterioration at bay. Just as important is keeping a positive attitude. Internalized ageism can worsen not just people’s outlook but their health. Experts urge that people recognize not just the losses associated with aging but also the gains, which are significant.

As we age, we tend to become generally happier and more satisfied, said Dr. Tracey Gendron, a gerontologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who questions the whole notion of subjective age research. Let’s say someone who is 60 says they feel 45, Dr. Gendron said. What does that actually mean? Clearly, they don’t feel how they did 15 years earlier, because people constantly mature and change. So whose 45 do they feel?

In 2017, Dr. Gendron published a paper suggesting that the study of subjective age may be inherently unethical. “I think we have to ask ourselves the question, are we feeding the larger narrative of aging as decline by asking that question?” she said. “Older age is a time that we can actually look forward to. People really just enjoy themselves more and are at peace with who they are. I would love for everyone to say their age at every year and celebrate it.”

By Emily Laber-Warren
Image by CreditCreditMike Lemanski

When Your Marriage Needs Counseling

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If your marriage is having problems, do not wait too long to seek professional help. Marriage counseling (also called couples’ therapy) can be very effective, especially if couples seek it out sooner rather than later.

Start by finding a counselor who specializes in marriage or couples therapy. They are out there and willing to help. You may have to meet with more than one to find the right fit. It’s important that both spouses feel comfortable with the therapist, so keep trying until you find the right person.

Do You Need Marriage Counseling?

Consider these questions about yourself, your partner, and your marriage.

*Did you marry at an early age?
*Did you not graduate from high school?
*Are you in a lower income bracket?
*Are you in an interfaith marriage?
*Did your parents divorce?
*Do you often criticize one another?
*Is there a lot of defensiveness in your marriage?
*Do you tend to withdraw from one another?
*Do you feel contempt and anger for one another?
*Do you believe your communication is poor?
*Is there a presence of infidelity, addiction, or abuse in your marriage?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, then you are statistically higher risk for divorce. It does not mean that divorce is inevitable. But it may mean that you have to work much harder to keep your relationship on track. A marriage counselor can help you with that work.

Spouses who have realistic expectations of one another and their marriage, communicate well, use conflict resolution skills, and are compatible with one another are less at risk for divorce. They still may benefit from counseling at times of transition or simply to reinforce their communication skills and strong connection.

The Effectiveness of Marriage Counseling

The most studied, and effective, form of treatment is emotionally-focused couples therapy (EFT) developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Research shows that this treatment is long-lasting and helpful with those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well.

One 2017 study, for example, looked at the effectiveness of couples’ therapy in a group of veterans, with variation in age and race, and found it to be generally effective, with relationships still improved 18 months after treatment. Another study from 2017 also found improvements lasting 24 months after treatment. Research published in 2015 found EFT helpful in couples experiencing infertility.

There are also ways to gauge if counseling will actually work for your marriage. Counselors suggest that different types of couples may get more out of marriage counseling.

Which Couples Get the Most From Marriage Counseling?

If you see yourself here, you are likely to benefit from seeing a marriage counselor.

*Younger couples
*Non-sexist and egalitarian couples
*Couples who are still in love with each other
*Couples who are open to therapy and change
*Partners willing to look at themselves and their flaws

Which Couples Get the Least from Marriage Counseling?

If your marriage is more like these, counseling may not be effective for you. That doesn’t mean you should give up, but have realistic expectations.

*Couples who wait too long before seeking help
*Marriages with one or the other spouse set on getting a divorce
*Married individuals who are closed to any suggestions that may save the marriage
*Marriages with one partner addicted to alcohol, drugs or pornography
*Marriage with one partner showing up to sessions but is not invested in the work

Solutions Learned From Happy Couples

John Gottman’s research looks at happy couples for solutions. He has discovered that even though all couples experience conflict in their marriages, happy couples apparently know how to handle their disagreements because of a foundation of affection and friendship. Unhappy couples do not have this skill set.

Generally, marriage and relationship researchers suggest that the goal of couple therapy should be to change the patterns of interaction, emotional connection, and communication between the partners.

Don’t Wait to Get Help

If you think your marriage is in trouble, do not wait.​ Seek help as soon as possible. Plan to budget money and time for this treatment. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to get your relationship back on track. Find professional couples counseling or attend a marriage course or weekend experience as soon as warning signs appear.

By Sheri Stritof

When Efforts To Eat ‘Clean’ Become An Unhealthy Obsession

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Whether it’s gluten-free, dairy-free, raw food, or all-organic, many people these days are committed to so-called “clean eating” — the idea that choosing only whole foods in their natural state and avoiding processed ones can improve health.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to eat this way, but sometimes these kinds of food preferences can begin to take over people’s lives, making them fear social events where they won’t be able to find the “right” foods. When a healthful eating pattern goes too far, it may turn into an eating disorder that scientists are just beginning to study.

Alex Everakes, 25, is a public relations account executive from Chicago. As a kid, he struggled with being overweight. In his teens and 20s, he tried to diet, and he gained and lost and regained about 100 pounds.

When he moved to Los Angeles after college, he took his diet to a new level. He started working out twice a day. At one point, he ate just 10 foods — “Spinach, chicken, egg whites, red peppers — because green peppers make you bloated — spaghetti squash, asparagus, salmon, berries, unsweetened almond milk, almond butter,” Everakes says.

He went from 250 pounds at his heaviest, down to 140. He posted pictures of his six-pack abs and his “clean” diet online and was praised for it. He felt virtuous, but at the same time, he was starving, tired and lonely.

“My life literally was modeled to put myself away from destruction of my fitness,” Everakes says.

He became afraid to eat certain foods. He worked at home to avoid office parties where he’d have to eat in front of others. He didn’t go out or make friends because he didn’t want to have to explain his diet.

It turns out Everakes was struggling with something called orthorexia nervosa.

Orthorexia is a fairly recent phenomenon. Dr. Steven Bratman, an alternative medicine practitioner in the 1990s, first coined the term in an essay in the nonscientific Yoga Journal in 1997. Many of his patients eschewed traditional medicine and believed that the key to good health was simply eating the “right” foods. Some of them would ask him what foods they should cut out.

“People would think they should cut out all dairy and they should cut out all lentils, all wheat … And it dawned on me gradually that many of these patients, their primary problem was that they were … far too strict with themselves,” he says.

So Bratman made up the name orthorexia, borrowing ortho from the Greek word meaning “right” and -orexia meaning “appetite.” He added nervosa as a reference to anorexia nervosa, the well-known eating disorder which causes people to starve themselves to be thin.

“From then on, whenever a patient would ask me what food to cut out, I would say, ‘We need to work on your orthorexia.’ This would often make them laugh and let them loosen up, and sometimes it helped people move from extremism to moderation,” he recalls.

Bratman had no idea that the concept of “clean eating” would explode over the next two decades.

Where dieters once gobbled down no-sugar gelatin or fat-free shakes, now they might seek out organic kale and wild salmon.

The rise of celebrity diet gurus and glamorous food photos on social media reinforce the idea that eating only certain foods and avoiding others is a virtue — practically a religion.

Sondra Kronberg, founder and executive director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative outside New York City, has seen a lot of diet trends over the past 40 years.

“So orthorexia is a reflection on a larger scale of the cultural perspective on ‘eating cleanly,’ eating … healthfully, avoiding toxins — including foods that might have some ‘super power,’ ” she says.

Now, Kronberg and other nutritionists applaud efforts to eat healthfully. The problem comes, she says, when you are so focused on your diet that “it begins to infringe on the quality of your life — your ability to be spontaneous and engage.” That’s when you should start to worry about an eating disorder, she says.

“In the case of orthorexia, it centers around eating ‘cleanly’ and purely, where the other eating disorders center around size and weight and a drive for thinness,” she says.

Sometimes these problems overlap, and some people who only eat “clean” foods miss critical nutrients from the foods they cut out or don’t consume enough calories. “It could become a health hazard and ultimately, it can be fatal,” Kronberg says.

While people with these symptoms are showing up in clinics like Kronberg’s, scientists don’t agree on what orthorexia is.

Dr. S.E. Specter, a psychiatrist and nutrition scientist based in Beverly Hills who specializes in eating disorders, notes that there are only 145 published scientific articles on orthorexia. “For anorexia nervosa, there are 16,064 published studies and for eating disorders in general, there are 41,258. So [orthorexia] doesn’t stack up in terms of the knowledge base so far,” he says.

A 2018 review of orthorexia studies published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders finds no common definition, standard diagnostic criteria, or reliable ways to measure orthorexia’s psychological impact.

Orthorexia is not listed specifically in the DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — but that doesn’t mean it’s untreatable.

“I just think orthorexia is maybe a little bit too hard to pin down, or it’s looked at as a piece of the other related disorders — the eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and general anxiety disorder as well,” Specter says.

To treat it, “we have to look at the thought process and try to disentangle the beliefs that a person has. They become very entrenched,” he says.

“It’s a very kind of gradual process for … many in terms of trying to back out of a need to always check to see that, you know, locks are locked or that a food is not going to be harmful to them — cause their skin to break out or increase their risk of cancer,” he says.

Alex Everakes has been in treatment for two years. While he’s still significantly underweight, he says he’s happier and learning to see his diet a little differently.

Everakes eats more freely on the weekends now and tries to add a new food every few days. He’s made some friends who don’t restrict their eating.

For Everakes, taking control of his orthorexia is “knowing that your world isn’t going to come crashing down if you have like, a piece of pizza.”

He’s managed this by taking baby steps. Instead of going right for a slice of standard pizza, he started with cauliflower crust pizza. He ordered frozen yogurt before going for full-fat ice cream.

Eating disorders can strike anyone. Roughly 1 in 3 people struggling with eating disorders is male, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. And these disorders affect athletes at a higher rate than the rest of the population.

If you think you have orthorexia or any eating disorder, it’s important to seek professional help and friends who support you, Everakes says.


Stressed Out By Politics? Here’s How To Keep Caring Without Losing Your Cool

Individual Therapy Tribeca-1

The political headlines have been relentless lately. Calls for impeaching the president. Debates over health care, immigration and gun control. Fights over who tweeted what.

Discussions of these issues can quickly get heated and toxic. They can affect relationships and even your health, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

It seems that Americans “are suffering some pretty negative consequences because of their attention to and engagement in politics,” says author Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, discussing the survey results.

In the months after the November 2016 elections, Smith began to hear anecdotes about people being stressed out by the election results and political divisions in the country. “I think most people have heard of, or experienced, or at least read a news story about losing a girlfriend or boyfriend or arguments over the Thanksgiving table,” he says.

So he and his colleagues decided to find out how exactly politics was affecting Americans’ mental health.

The team did an online survey of 800 people from a nationally representative sample and asked respondents a range of questions about how engaged they are in politics and how it is affecting their lives, health and well-being.

Nearly 40% of respondents said that politics was a cause of stress in their lives. About 20% reported losing sleep, feeling fatigued or being depressed owing to politics.

Between 10% and 30% of the respondents said that politics took an emotional toll on them, by causing anger, frustration, hate or guilt, or caused them to make comments they later regretted.

About 20% reported that politics had damaged their friendships. And, says Smith, “16% say that politics has made my home life less pleasant.”

He isn’t surprised that people are stressed out by politics. But “what I felt was kind of eye-popping was simply the sheer numbers of people saying that they experienced this,” he says.

The overall findings of the new study “are consistent with what we’ve been seeing with our Stress in America survey,” says Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and the associate executive director of practice, research and policy at the American Psychological Association.

In 2017, the APA annual survey on stress levels of Americans found that 57% of respondents said they were stressed by the current political climate, whereas 63% said that the future of the nation was a cause of stress for them. Sixty percent said they thought that the country was at its lowest point in history.

And over half of the respondents said that while they like to stay informed about news and politics, doing so stresses them out.

While the APA survey found that respondents from both ends of the political spectrum reported being concerned about the divisiveness of present-day politics, Democrats found it more stressful than Republicans or independents, says Bufka.

Smith’s survey also found that respondents who were more likely to report negative consequences of politics were younger, unemployed, more liberal, more dogmatic, discuss politics more frequently and participate in politics at a higher rate.

Smith wonders if the stress from politics is a result of the current presidency or whether people who are most stressed by politics are those opposed to the party in power at any given point of time. “If we could sort of … go back to the Obama era, would we find similar sorts of numbers, but with Republicans and right-leaning people [reporting feeling stressed]?”

The only way to find out, he adds, is to wait for a shift in the political environment and do another survey.

For now, Bufka says, the new study suggests that political engagement comes at an emotional cost. And that in turn could affect politics.

“In a democracy, it’s really important that people want to be engaged,” she says. “It would be really discouraging if people felt [so] stressed and negatively impacted by the political discourse of the day that … they disengage from politics.”

She offers some tips to better manage stress levels, so people can stay engaged as citizens.

For one, she says, think carefully about whether to and how to participate in a political discussion with friends and loved ones.

“Going into any kind of situation expecting to win or to convince somebody of your point of view is unlikely to result in a nonstressful approach,” says Bufka.

If you think a discussion will be too “emotionally laden,” she adds, it may not be worth it.

She recommends that people make sure to get enough sleep and eat well to help their bodies be more resilient to the effects of stress.

It’s important to reduce your exposure to stressful inputs and make time for things that help you unwind, she says.

She suggests taking breaks from the news, or “choosing to only watch the news, read news, engage in discussions about news up until a certain point in the evening.”

Make sure you reserve enough time for things that de-stress you, she says, “whether it’s taking a walk in the woods, or spending time with friends playing a card game, or just enjoying one another’s company.”

These moments of stress-free, enjoyable activities are key to buffering against any kind of stress, she adds.


How to Find Your Happily Ever After City

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The United States is “one of the most mobile countries in the world,” according to a 2013 Gallup survey in which nearly 1 in 4 adults reported that they had moved within a five-year window. Some motivating factors for movers include the pursuit of higher education, proximity to cultural institutions and job opportunities. But relocating doesn’t always lead to the hoped-for happiness upon arrival. There can be a sense of unease in a new place that’s hard to put into words: a gut feeling that the city isn’t a good fit.

Martina Löw, an urban sociologist and a professor at Technische Universität Berlin, would argue that the problem that many people overlook is the Eigenlogik, the inherent logic or personality — a system of rules, habits, behavioral norms, architecture, history and culture, everything including the breadth of the streets, height of the buildings — of a city.

So how can you tell if a city is a good fit for you?

Consider the tempo

Dr. Löw advises you to consider whether you’re in step with a city’s rhythm or not. “You know when you’re somewhere else and suddenly you notice that you’re in everyone’s way because you’re too slow,” she said. “Or you can’t get past because you walk quickly and everyone else is too slow?”

One way to measure the speed of the city is by watching people on public transportation. While researching for her book, “Soziologie der Städte,” Dr. Löw observed in Berlin that although the underground comes approximately every three minutes, she saw people running after the train. In contrast, in Munich, she observed that although the subway runs approximately every 10 minutes, she rarely saw people running for the train.

Date a place

Charles Landry and Chris Murray, the co-authors of the book “Psychology & the City: The Hidden Dimension,” designed a personality test for cities based on seven scales of personality traits like “introvert vs. extrovert.”Although the practice of personality testing is contested in some fields of psychology, Mr. Murray said, the assessments suggest that just like in the early stages of a relationship, “you have to trial and test” your feelings toward a place. Mr. Landry recommends visiting the city before moving, if you have the money and time to do so.

Maybe you don’t. In that case, Colin Ellard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and the director of Urban Realities Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, suggests watching a 360-degree immersive video of the city you’re thinking about moving to on YouTube. While immersive videos can be a helpful (though not perfect) alternative to visiting in person, it’s worth approaching other online sources of information with a degree of skepticism. That said, he advises prospective movers to take online opinions with a grain of salt, since reviews also tend to represent extremes: the people who loved or hated a place.

Observe traffic

John F. Helliwell, an editor of the World Happiness Report, which ranks more than 150 countries by how highly their citizens rate the quality of their own lives, said that the biggest factor in finding happiness in a neighborhood or a community has to do with the quality of social interactions and the sense of belonging you have.

Traffic is one place where you might gain insight into the quality of the social interactions in a city. Do drivers in this city generally use the traffic wave instead of the middle finger? How do cars treat bikes? How do cyclists treat pedestrians? How do pedestrians treat each other? Dr. Helliwell said that in a more socially welcoming place, you can see this warmth in how people treat others in the public space with them.

In his words, do locals treat “strangers as friends they’re waiting to meet rather than as somebody who’s littering up the sidewalk?”

Ask yourself: What do I need?

Dr. Löw says you should start by asking yourself one question: Do you want the city to reflect your own character traits, or complement them? An extroverted, hyper-energetic person may not be best served by a city that replicates those qualities, like New York or Tokyo, for example. That individual might be better suited to a smaller, less hectic city, like Lisbon, which could act as a counterbalance.

Dr. Ellard said what you want or need from a city may also change with age. What you crave from a place at the age of 25 is probably different from what you want from a city when you’re in your 50s and expecting just one city to fulfill a person for their entire life might not be realistic. Dr. Helliwell agreed with this, observing that the older a person was, the more important deriving a sense of belonging from a place was (he pointed out that younger people might well derive much of their sense of belonging from their place of work, university or the communities surrounding their children’s school). He has observed that in places with lower population densities, inhabitants tend to be longer rooted in their communities, thus increasing the chances of those in the community growing more attached to each other.

Don’t overlook local “sexual identity cultures”

Japonica Brown-Saracino, a professor of sociology at Boston University, interviewed 170 lesbian, bisexual and queer women who had moved to coastal, progressive cities — Ithaca, N.Y., San Luis Obispo, Calif., Portland, Me., and Greenfield, Mass. — for her book, “How Places Make Us.” Although her findings can’t be applied uniformly across genders and locations, Dr. Brown-Saracino observed radically different sexual identities in each city. The four small cities all have growing lesbian populations, according to census data, but different identities. In Ithaca most people seemed post-identity politics, preferring to define themselves in terms of their job or their hobbies or their children rather than via sexuality. This was in contrast to Portland, where hyphenated sexual and gender identities took center stage.

However, she observed interviewees subconsciously adjusting their sense of self to the environment they had moved to. Back in Brooklyn, the same interviewee had primarily identified as a lesbian and had only socialized with other lesbians, but in Ithaca she found herself spending much of her time hanging out with straight men in a bar downtown. Only after moving did her interviewees realize how significant these differences were, which occasionally led to feelings of disappointment or loneliness.

To get a well-rounded view of the city, she recommends checking out local publications online and trying to meet as many groups of people when visiting, rather than sticking to specific scenes, neighborhoods or friend groups.

Put safety first

Jan Miles, who documents incidents of racism across the country from 2013 to 2016 in “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book,” said to do research before relocating. She recommends checking out — a website that filters incidents of violence across the United States according to race, gender and year, among other factors — and looking at political representation, both on a national and a state level, to see how diverse the politicians representing you are. She also suggests you look into whether the state the city is in has passed legislation about voting rights that aims to limit or dilute the political influence of voters of color.

If you’re part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, Ian Palmquist, the senior director of programs for Equality Federation, an organization focused on L.G.B.T.Q. rights, said to look at “what the city’s policies protecting L.G.B.T.Q. people look like.” Mr. Palmquist recommends Human Rights Campaign and Equality Federation’s Municipal Equality Index, which rates different cities for their inclusivity in terms of municipal laws, policies and services. He also suggests checking out Movement Advancement Project’s list of cities with local nondiscrimination protections for a sense of how a city’s elected representatives view the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America,” recommends visiting public spaces — parks, airports, train stations — and getting a sense of how representative the crowds are.

By Sophie Atkinson

How Parents Can Stay Close to Grown-Up Children

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Many parents sending kids off to college worry that their time as a family is over. But that isn’t always the case these days.

The Sugerman family’s trip to Southern Utah this past May involved a treacherous drive. There were hairpin turns; the three adult children needed to move boulders to clear a path for the car. “We were on these roads which were barely roads, climbing up canyon walls,” said Andy Sugerman, of Ann Arbor, Mich. “It was night. The sky was beautiful. Everybody was fully engaged.” The value of shared adversity and overcoming these obstacles together allowed for bonding unlike any other kind of experience, he said.

Many parents sending kids off to college weep over their empty nests, thinking their time as a family is over. And a generation ago, young adults often wanted to get as far away from their parents as possible once they entered adulthood. But that isn’t always the case these days. An increasing number of young adults move back home for summers or after college. And even for those who launch quickly, family vacations present an opportunity for parents to remain close to their adult children.

The trip to Utah was the latest annual family vacation for Mr. Sugerman, his wife, Gayle Rosen, and their three sons, Eli, 25; Alex, 23; and Sam, 19. The family’s first outdoor adventure — a road trip across the West in 2008 — was motivated by the recognition that “as the kids were getting older, the opportunities for time together would be more limited,” Mr. Sugerman said. Since then, the family has explored 28 national parks together.

Ms. Rosen presumed that as the boys grew into young adulthood, they’d lose interest in being with their immediate family and that the trips would stop. But that has not happened.

“The opportunity to go on a cool outdoor trip with my family continued to present itself, and I’ve continued to take it,” said Eli, who lives about four hours away from his parents, in Chicago. “I see no reason why an end would be in sight.”

Ms. Rosen feels fortunate that her children still want to go. “I love being outdoors with them. We all unplug and I get to see the amazing human beings they’ve become,” she said.

A variety of factors are keeping young adults connected to their parents — both geographically and emotionally. Research by Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, found that, compared to the mid-20th century, young adults today tend to be less financially stable and are more likely to marry later — keeping them closer to their families — while many more of them live with their parents. She also discovered that technology and accessibility of transportation make it easier to stay close. “The culture is shifting toward increased contact and increased interdependency” between parents and their young adult children, Dr. Fingerman said.

Her work indicates that 30 years ago, only half of parents reported weekly contact with a grown child, while currently nearly all parents had contact with a grown child in the past week, and over half of parents had contact with a grown child every day. She found affection and intimacy between young adults and their parents rising as well. Dr. Fingerman said this is generally a positive development that benefits both generations. As young adults turn more to their parents than their peers for guidance, “they’re getting better advice from people who care about them,” she said.

Although you can foster close relationships without spending money, taking a family vacation with young adults is a growing trend, said Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association, a company that encourages family travel. He points to Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company focused on upscale active travel for families as an example. Next year, Backroads will introduce a “20s & Beyond” segment dedicated to parents traveling with their children in their 20s and 30s. Tom Hale, the company’s founder and chief executive, said that last year, 6,500 parents and their adult children went on the company’s trips, even though the trips weren’t specifically aimed at this older age group.

Diane Sanford, a relationship psychologist based in St. Louis and author of “Stress Less, Live Better: 5 Simple Steps to Ease Anxiety, Worry, and Self-Criticism,” suggests these trips go better if parents manage their expectations, don’t overschedule and allow everyone to have time to themselves.

Laura Sutherland, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and her husband, Lance Linares, have taken their son, now 30, and daughter, now 32, on 10 trips since they graduated from college. The trips now include their spouses. Ms. Sutherland recommends booking accommodations with private rooms if possible. She assigns everyone responsibility for preparing or treating for a meal — and pitching in with cleanup. “We have clear communication in the beginning that parents shouldn’t be servants,” she said.

If budgets or timing don’t allow for travel, hiking close to home or going out for lunch and a visit to a local museum can work, too. As young adults strike out on their own, there’s a delicate balance that parents need to achieve. It starts with respecting kids’ growing independence in adolescence, said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They should feel comfortable coming to you for advice. By the time they are young adults, it’s no longer a one-way street.

“When you honor the fact that they can guide and support you, you’re developing a relationship that can last for decades,” Dr. Ginsburg said.

Dr. Sanford says if a dispute arises, instead of reacting or getting angry, “pause, take a breath and ask yourself whether it’s more important to get your way or have the opportunity for a good relationship.”

Carl Pickhardt, a counseling psychologist based in Austin, Tex., and author of the blog “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” and the book “Who Stole My Child? Parenting Through the Four Stages of Adolescence,” encourages parents of adult children to repeat a few mantras to themselves: I will respect the choices you make and how you face the consequences; I will not criticize or censor your behavior in any way; and I will cheer you on as you engage in life. He said to never provide unsolicited advice, but to request permission, saying something like, “I have some advice I would like to give that would be helpful, but only if that’s something you would like me to do.” Dr. Ginsburg suggests determining if your child wants you to listen or to provide advice, using language like: “I’m so glad that you always feel you can come and talk to me about these things. How can I be the most supportive?”

Dr. Ginsburg emphasized that there are some situations that call for a parent to become involved if the adult child’s safety is at risk, including dangerous depression, significant and substantial drug use or domestic abuse.

As young adults struggle with their identity and their life goals, parents should rest assured that they continue to play a vital role, Dr. Ginsburg said. “You are the person who is going to love them no matter what.”

Whether you take a vacation or just spend time together at a movie or a restaurant, he noted, “Your highest yield time is to just be with each other and enjoy each other.”

By Julie Halpert

Optimists For The Win: Finding The Bright Side Might Help You Live Longer

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Good news for the cheery: A Boston study published this month suggests people who tend to be optimistic are likelier than others to live to be 85 years old or more.

That finding was independent of other factors thought to influence life’s length — such as “socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors,” the researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say. Their work appears in a recent issue of the science journal PNAS.

“We wanted to consider, in the current issue, benefits of psychological resources like optimism as possible new targets for promoting healthy aging,” says Lewina Lee, who headed the study. She’s a clinical research psychologist at Boston University. “The more we know about ways to promote healthy aging the better.”

Researchers already knew from previous work that optimistic individuals tend to have a reduced risk of depression, heart disease and other chronic diseases. But might optimism also be linked to exceptional longevity? Lee looked at medical records from two long term research studies — one involving female nurses and the other involving men, mostly veterans.

The study included 69,744 women and 1,429 men. Both groups completed survey measures to assess their level of optimism, as well as their overall health and health habits such as diet, smoking and alcohol use. In the survey, study participants were asked if they agreed with statements such as “in uncertain times I usually expect the best” or “I usually expect to succeed in things that I do.”

Health outcomes from women in the study were tracked for 10 years, while the men’s health was followed for 30 years. Researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11-15% longer lifespan, and had far greater odds of reaching 85 years old, compared to the least optimistic group.

Now, researchers say they can’t tell from this study how optimism might affect longevity. Optimistic people might be more motivated to try to maintain good health — such as maintaining a decent diet, engaging in regular exercise and not smoking.

They may also be better at regulating stress, Lee says.The burden of unrelieved stress is well known to have negative effects on health, including an increase in heart disease, liver disease and gastrointestinal problems.

Clinical health psychologist Natalie Dattilo, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says even if it doesn’t come naturally, optimism can be taught. In her practice she works mostly with adults who struggle with depression and anxiety — “a lot of folks who worry,” she says. Many are pessimistic and “tend to see things through a half empty glass and typically expect negative outcomes.”

In treatment, Dattilo works to expand their world view, so their set of assumptions about the world and themselves are more uplifting and empowering.

“We examine their thinking under a psychological microscope,” Dattilo says, discussing why they anticipate a particular negative outcome. “If we can look at that together, we can begin to uncover systems of beliefs and assumptions people are making about themselves in their lives and we can begin to change those.”

Dattilo challenges patients to pay attention when a negative outlook kicks in, and consciously shift it. “Just try it on, try on a different thought, attitude or mindset and play that out and just see what happens,” she advises.

Also, she emphasizes, optimism isn’t simply the absence of depression or sadness or stress.

“People who think in optimistic ways are still prone to stress,” she says. “They are functioning in our society, meeting demands, prone to burn out. And it’s not like negative events won’t happen.”

But the way they cope with problems makes a difference, she says. Difficulties don’t tend to cause them distress for extended periods of time.

“Resilience is our ability to bounce back, to recover,” she says. “And what this study shows is that optimism actually plays a very big role in our ability to bounce — even if we experience setbacks.”

So, are gloomy curmudgeons doomed to short, brutish lives, even if they are content to be pessimistic? Some people find eternal optimists insufferable.

Lewina Lee says she treats pessimistic patients “all the time.” While some seem satisfied with their outlook, others are more open to lightening up, once they know how, in order to achieve goals that are important to them.

“I would try to challenge their negativity and shake it loose,” she says, and get rid of some of the patients’ more rigidly held beliefs for their own benefit.

Pessimists who try this will likely end up happier, she suggests. And they might even extend their lives.


Women May Be More Adept Than Men At Discerning Pain

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The pathway to opioid abuse for women often starts with a prescription from the doctor’s office. One reason is that women are more likely than men to seek help for pain.

Pain researchers say that not only do women suffer more painful conditions, they actually perceive pain more intensely than men do.

“The burden of pain is substantially greater for women than men,” says researcher and psychologist Roger Fillingim, “and that led pain researchers like myself to wonder if the pain perception system is different in women than in men.”

For more than two decades, Fillingim has been studying gender differences and pain, most recently at the University of Florida’s Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence, where he is director. He recruits healthy male and female volunteers to take part in experimental pain sessions using various painful stimuli, including pressure, heat, cold and electrical stimulation.

Probes are typically applied to the hand or arm. As intensity of the stimuli is increased, volunteers are asked to rate their pain on a scale of zero to 10, where zero is no pain and 10 is the most intense pain one can imagine. If volunteers report pain levels at 10, Fillingim stops the experiment immediately.

In comparing the responses between women and men, he says the findings in his studies and those in other pain research are consistent.

“On average, women report the same stimuli to be more painful than men,” Fillingim says, emphasizing that the same stimulus is applied to everybody, so if there are differences in how painful the experience is, it can’t be because of the stimulus because it’s calibrated to be the same for all.

Now it could be that men are less willing to admit they have pain. It could also be that women have learned to cope with pain and are more accustomed to talking about it. After all, don’t women experience more pain in their lives? What about the monthly pain of menstruation? Or the extreme pain of childbirth?

According to Fillingim, many women — if not most — experience through childbirth what appears to be “one of the most painful experiences in normal life,” he says, “but that doesn’t speak to pain sensitivity” in the lab, for example. So “experiencing an exquisitely painful event is just a different question than whether or not men and women differ in their pain responses.”

For pain researchers such as Fillingim, pinpointing how and why men and women respond differently to pain is an important first step toward finding more effective treatments for pain. It might be that medicines should be tailored according to sex or gender.

“We may ultimately need pink and blue pills, but in order to get there we need to understand what the mechanisms are that are female-specific or male-specific so that we can design more personalized therapies that are going to help reduce pain for women and men in the long run.”

That would be a welcome development according to psychologist Carolyn Mazure of the Yale School of Medicine.

“Women are more likely, for example, to have chronic headache, lower back pain and neck pain; women are more likely to have a chronic disability of one kind or another which often is associated with pain,” says Mazure. “So whether or not women report pain more or have pain more, I think we could say that both may be true.”

And when women go to the doctor they’re more likely to be prescribed opioids than men. Mazure says this can be especially dangerous because the progression from exposure to an addictive substance to addiction is more rapid for women than it is for men. “We know that with regard to opioids, cocaine, alcohol and even smoking tobacco,” Mazure says.

This is complicated by the fact that women suffer more anxiety and depression than men do. That means women with these conditions are often prescribed other drugs that can result in dangerous combinations that increase the risk of overdose.

In fact, federal data show that while more men die from drug overdoses than women do, the rate of death among women is accelerating faster than it is among men.

Mazure says understanding the “why” behind differences in pain perception could help researchers come up with better treatments.

As it is now, pain researchers such as Fillingim can only speculate about what might trigger differences in pain perception between women and men. There are numerous possibilities. One, he says, is biological and might have to do with sex hormones.

“Women have both higher levels and fluctuations in circulating estrogens and progesterone, and those may contribute to experiencing higher levels of pain,” Fillingim says, “whereas men have higher levels of testosterone,” which in some studies has been shown to be protective against pain or associated with lower pain sensitivity.

Another possible contributor could have to do with increased susceptibility to anxiety, depression and sadness — all of which are known to increase sensitivity to pain.

It could also have to do with evolution. For example, in hunter-gatherer societies, men were the hunters and women took care of the village and raised the children so that they could successfully pass on their genes. So the pressures for men and women were different.

“Women were more vigilant to a variety of environmental stimuli that might represent danger to them, and particularly to their children,” Fillingim says. “Those women who were able to respond and detect those threats and deal with them successfully survived, and their genes are more represented in the gene pool.”

Men, on the other hand, might have been less bothered by painful experiences so they could persevere and kill whatever they needed to kill to bring it home so everybody could eat, he says. Those evolutionary pressures could have some representation in today’s modern society when it comes to the perception of pain.

One question researchers are only starting to look into is whether transitioning from one sex to another makes a difference in how people perceive pain.

Fillingim points to the findings in one study that suggest individuals transitioning from male to female experienced more pain after the transition, whereas for individuals transitioning from female to male, there weren’t many changes in pain after the transition.

“Whether that was a result of the hormonal therapies that were part of the transition or the surgical experience or other factors, I don’t think we really know,” he says.

It’s a fascinating new area of study, Fillingim says, and one that will likely become increasingly important in coming years.

Image: Grace Heejung Kim

Got Pain? A Virtual Swim With Dolphins May Help Melt It Away

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Virtual reality is not new. But, as people search for alternative ways to manage pain — and reduce reliance on pills — VR is attracting renewed attention.

Imagine, for a moment you’ve been transported to a sunlit lagoon. And, suddenly, it’s as if you’re immersed in the warm water and swimming. That’s what Tom Norris experiences when he straps on his VR headset.

“It’s fantastic, I really feel like I’m there,” says Norris, who is 70 years old, retired from the military, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife. As dolphins frolic and swim by in the virtual scene, “I get a strong feeling of pleasure, relaxation and peace,” he says.

It doesn’t take long to produce that effect — about 10 minutes or so, via the headset.

Norris is no stranger to pain. He’s got chronic pain through his spine, back and hips, from injuries that go back years.

Ever since he was introduced to virtual reality, he’s been hooked. In addition to swimming with dolphins, he’s tried other VR experiences, such as wilderness walks.

“I relax. My attention is diverted and it makes the pain more manageable,” he says. Norris was on his deck when we spoke, drinking a morning cup of coffee and watching the hummingbirds. “Pain is part of my life,” he told me.

He uses lots of tools to help him cope, he says, including peer support groups, which he helps lead. But he says he finds VR particularly helpful. For him, the feeling of relaxation and ease that comes from a virtual swim with dolphins tends to linger for several days.

Norris isn’t alone in his positive experience. A study published this month in the journal PLOS ONE is just the latest to document that an immersive, virtual reality experience can be an effective strategy for reducing pain.

VR “changes the way we perceive the pain,” explains study author Brennan Spiegel, a physician and the director of Cedars-Sinai Health Services Research in Los Angeles.

The research was done in a hospital where participants were undergoing treatment for various conditions; some were experiencing pain linked to cancer and others had orthopedic pain. “We divided the patients into two groups,” Spiegel explains.

One group tried VR. They used Samsung Oculus headsets that were each fitted with a phone that had a VR app. Patients could select from a library of 21 VR experiences available on the app.

They were free to use the VR devices as much as they liked, but were advised to aim for three daily sessions, 10 minutes per session. The other group of patients got to watch a health and wellness channel on TV, as much as they wanted.

“We found that virtual reality reduced pain by about three times as much as watching TV did,” Spiegel says. Using a zero to 10 pain scale, the virtual reality experience led to a 2 point drop in pain, compared to a half-point drop for watching TV.

Spiegel’s study was partly funded by a grant from Applied VR, a company that sells VR software, but the company played no role in the conduct, data collection, data interpretation, or write-up of the study, he says.

It’s not exactly clear how VR works to help reduce pain perception, but pain specialists say there are likely multiple explanations. Distraction in just one element.

“When the mind is deeply engaged in an immersive experience, it becomes difficult to perceive stimuli outside of the field of attention,” Spiegel and his collaborators write in their journal paper. In other words, when something captures our attention and uses all our senses, we focus on it. It’s like a spotlight — and everything else falls into darkness — at last temporarily.

So, a virtual swim with the dolphins can overwhelm our visual, auditory and other senses. “VR is thought to create an immersive distraction that restricts the brain from processing pain,” the authors conclude.

The study adds to other evidence pointing toward potential benefits of VR to manage pain. Going back more than 15 years, studies have shown the technique to be useful in a range of settings — from helping people cope with anxiety to helping reduce acute pain during medical procedures, during physical therapy or during dental procedures. And, there’s some evidence VR can help with chronic pain, too.

Still, there are some unanswered questions, says Zachary Rosenthal, a clinical psychologist at Duke University who has been involved in research on VR’s effect on pain. “Distraction is helpful for pain,” he says. “That’s an understood phenomenon. … But why should VR be better than any other kind of distraction?” he wonders.

Spiegel’s research “starts to answer this question,” says Rosenthal. “I do think this study moves the needle forward.”

If you’re new to virtual reality, Spiegel has some advice: “It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor first, whenever self-treating symptoms. But in general, it is safe to use VR at home,” he says. About 5% to 10% of people who try it get cybersickness, which is basically a feeling of dizziness or vertigo, similar to motion sickness. So, it’s good to be aware of this risk.

“For people who own an Oculus Go or Oculus Quest [headset], I suggest Nature Trek, which is an outstanding set of content that is peaceful and meditative” for the treatment of pain, says Spiegel, who has no financial ties to the company. And there are other companies that make a variety of software specifically aimed at easing pain.

“For cheap and easy access to VR experiences, you can simply visit YouTube and search its massive library of free VR content,” Spiegel says. “If you want a virtual trip to the beach, type ‘VR beach’ into the YouTube search engine. Or ‘VR forest.’ It’s all there for the taking.”

VR is certainly not a panacea, but it can be another tool in the pain management toolkit. Spiegel and his collaborators say there’s still a lot to learn as to which types of VR may be most effective.


The Swaying Power Of Scented Spaces Isn’t Always Right Under Our Nose

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There’s a new smell tingling tourists’ noses in the Big Apple, far above the trash bag-lined sidewalks — and this scent is by design.

Atop One World Trade Center, New York City’s tallest building, a fragrance carrying hints of citrus, beech trees and red maples wafts through the glass-enclosed observatory deck.

When the observatory commissioned the custom scent to diffuse through the floor’s HVAC system, Managing Director Keith Douglas told the New York Times that he wanted it to elicit a “positive thought,” and offer a “a subtle complement to the experience” of visiting the space.

But not everyone is keen on the scent. One tourist described the smell as “sickly,” according to the Times, which first documented the new aromatic experience in lower Manhattan.

It’s a marketing strategy businesses are increasingly deploying to lure customers into stores and entice them to stay longer. The smell of cinnamon fills Yankee Candle stores, Subway pumps a doughy bread scent through its vents. International Flavors & Fragrances, the same company that developed clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch’s notoriously pungent “Fierce” cologne, known to linger on clothes long after their purchase, designed One World’s scent.

“The quickest way to change somebody’s mood or behavior is with smell,” says Dr. Alan Hirsch, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.

Unlike other sensory functions, people know whether they are attracted to the scent as soon as they smell it. When we see something, though, we identify what we’re looking at before we decide whether or not we like it or not.

“It’s a purely emotional sense and a bad aroma can put us in a bad mood,” Dr. Hirsch says.

People like to see where the scent is coming from, Hirsch says, and that the scent suits their setting. “They don’t like the idea that they’re being manipulated by aroma in the environment,” he says. “So if there’s flowers, then having a floral aroma would be appropriate. Having a smell of bread baking, on the other hand, wouldn’t be.”

That said, One World Trade Center visitors are unlikely to expect to be hit by notes of citrus and trees while surveying Manhattan from a 1,776-foot-tall building. Even as the building towers over the Sept. 11 memorial just below, Keith Douglas told the Times that discouraging visitors’ thoughts of the tragedy didn’t play into the scent’s consideration.

Through his research, Hirsch also found that a scent’s apparent incompatibility with its environment isn’t always a deterrent. In one experiment, he found that people are more likely to stay longer in a store that sells leather goods when that leather smell is mixed with baby powder and citrus.

ScentAir, based in Charlotte, N.C., which touts itself as “the largest and most experienced scent provider,” operates in over 100 countries where it provides scent options tailored to a wide array of businesses, including hotels, casinos and hospitals.

Yet Hirsch says some stores are reluctant to introduce scents because “good” and “bad” smells are subjective.

Research shows, for example, that women tend to have better senses of smell than do men. Age is a factor too, Hirsch says.

“About half of those over the age of 65 and three-quarters of those over the age of 80 have a reduced ability to smell,” Hirsch says.

Smoking habits, the time of day and even how recent your last meal was can mitigate our smelling sense.

“Not only do different individuals have different perceptions of whether they like or dislike the aroma, but also they have different abilities to smell,” Hirsch says. “All of us are walking around with different abilities of smell and with a different perception of what’s pleasant and what’s unpleasant.”


How to Renew Your Compassion in the Face of Suffering

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Mass suffering can make us feel helpless. Focusing on solutions, rather than emotions, may be the way out.

If you’re concerned about the humane treatment of migrants arriving at our borders, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Children separated from their families. Disease spreading rampant through detention facilities. People unable to shower for more than a month. A Border Patrol chief joining a racist Facebook group. And we are now also being confronted with anti-immigrant terrorism. No wonder so many of us feel we can’t process all that’s happening.

Emotionally checking out from human rights abuses doesn’t make you morally deficient. It’s a very understandable response, one probably rooted in our evolutionary past. Since we’re wired to help others in a small group context, it makes sense that we’re overwhelmed when confronted with thousands of suffering people. The more people who are in need, the less likely many of us are to want to help—a phenomenon called compassion collapse. This response doesn’t reflect active anti-immigrant hate, but rather a sense that we can’t respond effectively to such a large-scale disaster.

“One hundred thousand years ago, when we saw someone suffering, we could see it on their face, and when we stepped in to help them, we could make a difference,” says Stanford University social psychologist Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness. “The challenge is how to scale ancient emotions to a global context.”

As we struggle to adapt our existing social toolkit to an escalating set of global crises, how we frame the information coming at us can determine whether we turn away or engage. Feeling other people’s pain, researchers say, is often not enough to move us to help them, and it can even be counterproductive. What does spur us to act is believing we can make a meaningful difference—and focusing on a concrete plan to help instead of giving negative emotions free rein.

Inhumanity, in living color

We sometimes retreat from others’ suffering so automatically we’re not aware we’re doing it.

One of the most arresting recent images to rocket across social media showed a father and daughter face down in the Rio Grande, felled in their attempt to escape to a better future. Pictures like that one might jolt some people out of complacency. But according to psychology researcher Lauren Ministero, such photos can also unleash a tide of emotion so strong that viewers pull back to protect themselves. “Showing images of kids in distress isn’t really going to get us anywhere,” says Ministero, of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Ministero and her colleagues recently studied whether feeling bad for people in need makes us more likely to help them. They presented study participants with a story and photo of a child or multiple children suffering from hunger, violence, and poor living conditions. Then, they asked participants questions like, “How sympathetic do you feel?”—and also asked them if they wanted to help.

When they reported feeling empathic concern for the children, however, participants actually ended up donating less money to them. On the other hand, people who expressed a desire to help the children in the study were more likely to donate, and they also gave larger amounts of money.

Ministero also found that when people expressed a desire to help someone in trouble, this desire—unlike people’s feelings of empathy—did not diminish as the number of victims grew larger. In fact, the desire to help grew stronger as the need for help increased.

The most surprising finding was that empathy didn’t necessarily lead to action to alleviate the suffering. Instead, too much negative feeling seemed to leave participants feeling helpless. We tend to assume that empathy is the same thing as a desire to help, but this study showed that the two are distinct and drive us to respond to crises in completely different ways.

Tipping the balance toward helping

If empathy does not necessarily predict helping behavior, what does influence us to help large numbers of suffering people, instead of just feeling bad and tuning out?

Past research by psychologist Ervin Staub suggests that when people go through hard times, they may be more motivated to help others in great peril—perhaps because intimate knowledge of such pain spurs them to action. Staub calls this response “altruism born of suffering.”

But what if we haven’t experienced something as searing as a natural disaster—or being driven from your home by violence and poverty, only to be locked in a cage by people you hoped would help? In a recent study, Northeastern University psychologists Daniel Lim and David DeSteno investigated ways to awaken people’s desire to help even if they hadn’t been through tough times.

Like Ministero, Lim and DeSteno showed people a paragraph and photos about one suffering child or about multiple children. They found that when participants believed in their own ability to make a true difference, they generally expressed more desire to stop larger numbers of children from suffering, even if they themselves had not suffered similarly.

In a companion study, the researchers discovered they could elicit this helpful response by telling people that test results showed they were very good at responding compassionately to those in trouble. So, while we may not be more likely to help when we feel bad for others, we are more likely to help when we trust our ability to improve a situation in a meaningful way.

“The key to reducing inefficacy and inaction might be to [take the] view that our actions to help, no matter how small, matter in the grand scheme of things,” Lim says.

Riding the wave

In the face of human rights abuses, feeling equipped to help often involves navigating the shoals of emotion without getting sucked under. Some degree of negative emotion is inevitable when you’re confronted with thousands of people living in inhumane conditions. But instead of dwelling on your strong feelings, use them as the impetus to brainstorm solutions.

Coming up with a concrete helping strategy will help you trust your ability to make a real difference, which research suggests increases your motivation to act. Think of your negative emotions as “the spark that begins a process,” Zaki says. “‘What is a step that we can take? What is the role I can most effectively play?’ Just feeling someone’s pain might not get us to explore those options.”

Similarly, human-rights organizations can motivate people to act in a crisis by telling them exactly how a specific donation amount will be put to use, helping donors to trust that their contribution will effect real change.

Another antidote to helplessness is to practice the discipline of taking in everything that’s going on without reacting to it. “We can process more of the truth of these tragedies if we get ourselves in a position where we focus on what’s really happening,” Ministero says. Meditating on what people are actually going through, rather than getting lost in feelings of overwhelm, allows you to absorb the true gravity of what’s taking place. Your expanded awareness of that reality can then boost your motivation to change it.

“The empathic part, the emotional part, seems to be more distressing,” Ministero says. “Our biggest hope is to really focus on the motivational piece.” One study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who took an online compassion meditation course gave more to help someone in trouble than members of a control group.

If you’re not a meditator, you can access this kind of informed detachment simply by taking the time to engage your logical mind. Our first gut response to a tragedy—the near-instantaneous burst of negative emotion—probably won’t motivate us to help. But Linköping University psychologist Daniel Västfjäll points out that overriding that gut response and considering how many people’s lives are in the balance can inspire us to concrete action.

While empathy can lead to burnout, clarifying what’s really at stake can prompt what Zaki calls “the beginning of a search process, a focus on a better world in which suffering has been alleviated.”


Getting a Good Night’s Sleep Without Drugs

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Alternatives to prescription drugs for insomnia offer better, safer and more long-lasting solutions, experts say.

Shakespeare wisely recognized that sleep “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care” and relieves life’s physical and emotional pains. Alas, this “chief nourisher in life’s feast,” as he called it, often eludes millions of people who suffer from insomnia. Desperate to fall asleep or fall back to sleep, many resort to Ambien or another of the so-called “Z drugs” to get elusive shut-eye.

But except for people with short-term sleep-disrupting issues, like post-surgical pain or bereavement, these sedative-hypnotics have a time-limited benefit and can sometimes cause more serious problems than they might prevent. They should not be used for more than four or five weeks.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration added a boxed warning to the prescription insomnia drugs zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo and Zolpimist), zaleplon (Sonata) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) following reports of injury and death from sleepwalking, sleep-driving and engaging in other hazardous activities while not fully awake.

Last July, a Georgia woman was arrested when she drove the wrong way on a highway the day after using Ambien, as prescribed, to help her sleep. Although she had consumed no alcohol, she flunked a standard sobriety test and told police she was unaware of how she ended up going the wrong way.

Although extreme reactions to these sleep drugs are thought to be uncommon, they are unpredictable and can be disastrous when they occur. Some have resulted in vehicular fatalities.

As many as 20 percent to 30 percent of people in the general population sleep poorly. They may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, some awaken much too early, while others do not feel rested despite spending a full night seemingly asleep in bed. For one person in 10, insomnia is a chronic problem that repeats itself night after night. Little wonder that so many resort to sleeping pills to cope with it.

“Short sleep is not just an irritant. It has real consequences beyond just feeling crummy the next day,” Adam P. Spira, a sleep researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me.

However, Dr. Spira and other experts report that there are better, safer and more long-lasting alternatives than prescription drugs to treat this common problem. The alternatives are especially valuable for older people who metabolize drugs more slowly, are more likely to have treatable underlying causes of their insomnia and are more susceptible to adverse side effects of medications.

“Insomnia is typically undertreated, and nonpharmacologic interventions are underused by health care practitioners,” Dr. Nabil S. Kamel, a geriatrician now at Cox Health in Springfield, Mo., and Dr. Julie K. Gammack, a geriatrician at the St. Louis University Health Sciences Center, wrote in The American Journal of Medicine.

In other words, when persistent insomnia is a problem, before your doctor writes a prescription for a sleeping pill, ask whether there are other remedies that may be safer, more effective and longer lasting.

For example, if pain or other symptoms of a medical disorder are keeping you awake, the first step should be treatment of the underlying ailment to minimize its sleep-disrupting effects. I once spent three sleepless nights tortured by intense itchiness until a dermatologist prescribed medication for what turned out to be an invasion of bird mites. More recently, my middle-of-the-night leg cramps have been nearly entirely eliminated by consuming eight ounces of quinine-containing tonic water (actually, diet tonic) every night before bed.

If you can’t handle that amount of liquid close to bedtime, drink it earlier in the evening or perhaps try an herbal remedy that I use when traveling: Hyland’s Leg Cramps, which contains quinine as one of its active ingredients.

Sometimes, the medication given to treat a chronic ailment interferes with the ability to get a good night’s sleep. In that case, the doctor may be able to prescribe a lower dose, substitute a different drug or adjust the timing. But when the symptoms of a chronic ailment itself disrupts sleep, treatment by a specialist, including perhaps an expert in pain management, may be needed to improve your ability to sleep. If persistent emotional problems are what keep you awake, consider consulting a psychologist, psychiatric social worker or psychiatrist before reaching for a sleeping pill.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is now considered the best treatment for insomnia, especially for older adults. It teaches people to challenge disruptive negative thinking and replace it with positive thoughts that counter arousal and induce relaxation. Before going to bed, try using soothing imagery or meditation to reduce cognitive arousal.

The American College of Physicians recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as “the first-line treatment for adults with chronic insomnia.”

It is much safer than drugs and, unlike sleeping pills that work only when taken and shouldn’t be used long-term, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, teaches effective strategies that continue to work long after the therapy ends.

The physicians’ college suggests that if needed, sleep medication should be used only short-term while learning the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.

Also helpful is what sleep experts call stimulus-control therapy — limiting bedroom time to sleeping and sex. You learn to associate the bedroom with sleep by avoiding activities incompatible with it. If you spend too much time lying sleepless in bed, your brain starts to link the bedroom with not sleeping. Also avoid going to bed when you’re not sleepy.

If you don’t fall asleep after about 20 minutes in bed, Dr. Kamel and Dr. Gammack recommend getting up, perhaps taking a bath or reading, then returning to bed when you feel sleepy.

If all else fails, sleep-restriction therapy can be effective even after a week or two, especially at eliminating prolonged wakefulness in the middle of the night. It doesn’t restrict sleep itself but limits the time spent not sleeping by restricting time in bed to how long you currently sleep. Go to bed at about the same time every night, set an alarm to get up, and maintain that waking time every day for at least two weeks no matter how much you slept the night before. Finally, gradually extend your time in bed by 15 to 30 minutes, allowing a week between each extension, until you are able to get the amount of restful sleep you need with little or no wakefulness in the middle of the night.

By Jane E. Brody
Image By Gracia Lam

‘Guilty’ Pleasures? No Such Thing

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Go forth and read that trashy novel

We know them when we see them: The TV shows and movies we love, even though we just know they’re bad. The trashy books we simply can’t put down. The awful earworms we hate to love.

Yes, these are our guilty pleasures — what some people consider the junk food in our media diets. But if we enjoy them, why should we feel guilty? We should be free to enjoy whatever we like! And as it turns out, these so-called “guilty” pleasures can actually be good for us, so long as they’re enjoyed in moderation.

“When we rest, we think we’re supposed to use that time productively with problem solving,” said Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. While “that may be good for survival,” Dr. Neff said, constantly running through hypothetical problems “is not very good for happiness.”

Taking a mental break and enjoying something that doesn’t require intense intellectual focus gets us out of problem-solving mode, added Robin Nabi, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who specializes in media effects and emotion. It can also improve our ability to productively deal with stressors and help us engage more positively with other people.

If that’s true, then why do guilty pleasures get such a bad rap? Well, it’s not the indulgences themselves, but the attitudes we use when talking about them. According to experts like Dr. Nabi, feeling guilty about or disparaging activities we enjoy can diminish the benefits they offer us. But shedding self-imposed embarrassment about our interests can be empowering and enrich our social lives, which is why it’s time to ditch “guilty pleasure” from our collective vocabulary.

What is a guilty pleasure?

Because it’s often used in a winking way, the term “guilty pleasure” feels innocent, like a joke we’re proving we’re in on. But if that joke is about something that brings us genuine joy and isn’t harming anyone, then what’s the punch line?

“A guilty pleasure is something that we enjoy, but we know we’re either not supposed to like, or that liking it says something negative about us,” said Sami Schalk, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“That negative thing often ends up being an association with categories of identity we disparage and marginalize in society,” according to Dr. Schalk. Consider what separates sports and reality TV. The idea of someone apologizing for watching the N.B.A. finals sounds silly, but the implied apology when someone says, “Ugh, I know ‘The Bachelor is awful but I can’t stop watching it” is normalized. The type of audience targeted, according to experts, can play into why certain types of entertainment escape the guilty pleasure label.

Eliminating “guilty pleasure” from our vocabulary, and debunking the myth that the frivolous things we like reflect poorly on us, is useful in resisting false notions about who pleasure is for and who has a right to pursue it, said Adrienne Maree Brown, the author of “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.”

The guilt about pleasure

Though the terms guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, they mean different things, and neither really fits our conception of what a guilty pleasure is.

Guilt can be a healthy motivator to push us to change behaviors we don’t like, while shame — the painful feeling that our behavior makes us horrible people — is never productive. But when we disparage our reality TV viewing habits, for example, we typically aren’t describing a behavior we hope to change, nor are we saying we’re terrible people.

“When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism,” said Dr. Neff, the associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Beyond the fear about how others will perceive us, Dr. Schalk said this perfectionism stems from the “deeply puritanical roots” of our culture, one in which pleasure is seen “as sinful and bad and self-indulgent.”

Despite the societal message that pleasure is something that is earned, “there’s a reason why our bodies, literally at the nerve level, are wired to feel pleasure,” Ms. Brown said. For her, pleasure activism is about combating the oppressive idea that pleasure isn’t a natural part of everyday life.

She suggested asking, “Why do I feel so much shame around this if it’s not causing harm to me or anyone else?”

Our brains on reality TV

Is binge-watching seven episodes of “Real Housewives” melting our brains? Of course not, and studies suggest that “playing a video game or watching a movie or television can restore some psychological resources,” Dr. Nabi said.

Though these benefits have yet to be studied long term, and our problems don’t magically disappear once we turn off the TV, rest can reduce stress levels. Perhaps more important, “your perception of your ability to handle it improves,” Dr. Nabi said.

Giving ourselves permission to enjoy down time is also an important part of self-compassion, which is an effective way of combating anxiety and depression.

“Having something else to do besides problem solving is really healthy for us,” Dr. Neff said. She described how “flow states,” like meditating, playing sports and, yes, consuming media, can help our brains rest and recover by providing a reprieve from problem-solving mode.

“We have this cultural value of media consumption being edifying, and that what we do should be about growing and achieving,” Dr. Nabi said. “We don’t focus as much on relaxation and playing and enjoyment and fun, and these are such important aspects of being a human being.”

Balance means embracing pleasure

Still, it’s best to follow the age-old advice our parents taught us: Everything in moderation.

Though guilt can enhance pleasure in some cases, it can also push us to indulge in behaviors we feel guilty about. In one study, dieters who had been coached in self-compassion were less likely to overeat after consuming unhealthy food, while those who followed restrictive diets were harsher on themselves. If we stigmatize a behavior and then engage in it, it’s easy to go overboard, which can leave us feeling guilty and less satisfied.

Ms. Brown said that “embracing our common human need for pleasure is not about hedonism.” She added that too much of a good thing is, of course, never a good thing, which is why understanding and accepting what brings us pleasure is crucial to finding that balance.

Making connections

Perhaps the most important value of a guilty pleasure is the bond it can create between people.

“These shows are out there for a reason — they’re resonating,” Dr. Nabi said. Dr. Neff added that the connections we make with others who share our interests in such things “is not to be underestimated.”

Besides helping us connect with others, talking about what we enjoy can alleviate any residual guilt and make it easier to discover more things that bring us pleasure.

“Lots of the time, guilty pleasures get talked about in terms of genre, but you probably don’t like all boy bands, so what is it about this particular group and their music?” Dr. Schalk said. “Whatever it is, find your little niche and go for that. And don’t be ashamed of what that is, because clearly it’s doing something for you.”

Being able to talk openly about what we love is more than just a way to spend the time. After all, Ms. Brown said: “If you don’t feel like you can be honest about what TV pleases you, then what else are you keeping from yourself and others?”

By Micaela Marini Higgs

How Our Body ‘Listens’ to Vibrations

Individual Therapy Tribeca

We all know the feeling of a mobile phone vibrating in our hands when announcing an incoming call. If we perceive these vibrations so clearly, it is due to specialized receptors that transduce them into neural signals sent to our brain. But how does the latter encode their physical characteristics? To understand this, neuroscientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) have observed what happens in the brains of mice whose forepaws perceive vibrations. They discovered that neurons in the somatosensory cortex are activated in a manner similar to those in the sound-reactive auditory cortex. These results, published in the journal Nature, suggest that feeling a phone vibrate or hearing it ring is ultimately based on the same brain codes.

If you place a glass of water on your desk, you can probably see on its surface the concentric oscillatory motions created by the small movements that occur nearby. These oscillations are caused by vibrations that propagate through the floor, desk, glass and all other solid surfaces. These vibrations are also important sensory stimuli that we use to detect, for example, an approaching train or to identify the familiar step of our office neighbour. “We live surrounded by vibrations that are extremely important in how we perceive the world,” explains Daniel Huber at the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine, who led this work. “So we wanted to know how the brain perceives and represents them.”

A combination of frequency and amplitude

Using two-photon microscopy, Daniel Huber’s team visualized the activity of hundreds of neurons in a mouse’s somatosensory cortex as vibrations of different frequencies were delivered to its forepaw. Like in the auditory cortex, individual neurons were selectively tuned: they strongly responded to some frequencies and less so to others. “It turns out that these neurons are preferentially tuned to a specific combination of frequency and amplitude, and that this combination corresponds to what the mouse actually perceives. In other words, a mouse is unable to distinguish a high-frequency vibration with a low amplitude from a low-frequency vibration with a higher amplitude,” explains Mario Prsa, a researcher in Dr. Huber’s team and the study’s first author. “It is the same psychoacoustic effect detected in the auditory system, where the perceived pitch of a sound changes with both frequency and loudness.” Thus, despite the fact that sounds — which travel through the air — and vibrations — which are transmitted through solid matter — are processed by different sensory channels, they are both perceived and encoded similarly in the brain.

Everything goes through Pacinian corpuscles

In a second step, the researchers sought to identify the origin of the somatosensory stimuli involved by performing a detailed histological analysis of Pacinian corpuscles in mouse forelimb. Pacinian corpuscles are known to transduce high frequency vibrations in mammals and are densely expressed in the dermis of primate fingertips. “Surprisingly, we found that the vibration responses in the mouse brain stem from Pacinian corpuscles located on the forearm bones, whereas they were totally absent in the paw’s skin,” explains Géraldine Cuenu, a student in the UNIGE master’s programme in neurosciences, who took charge of this detailed analysis. Using optogenetics, the scientists confirmed the link between cortical responses and the particular configuration of mechanoreceptors in the forelimbs.

An ancestor of the hearing system?

Could it be that the particular distribution of vibration-sensitive mechanoreceptors along the bones of the forelimb acts as a seismograph to “listen” to vibrations? Vibratory stimuli are indeed used by a number of living organisms to communicate through plants, branches and other solid substrates. “Our discoveries probably reveal the existence of an ancient sensory channel, which could be an evolutionary precursor of hearing,” concludes Mario Prsa. This somewhat vestigial, yet highly sensitive modality might also explain how we are able to identify subtle clues linked to upcoming natural disasters, or why construction or traffic causes nuisances even when inaudible.

Story Source:
Materials provided by Université de Genève. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
Mario Prsa, Karin Morandell, Géraldine Cuenu, Daniel Huber. Feature-selective encoding of substrate vibrations in the forelimb somatosensory cortex. Nature, 2019; 567 (7748): 384 DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1015-8

How Hard Is It to Become an Expert at Something?

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Expertise is what separates the amateur from the true master in almost any field, from medicine to science to sports to artistic performance. The idea of whether experts are “born” or “made” relates to the age-old nature versus nurture debate in psychology—do genetics or experience play more of a role in shaping who we are? In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of attention paid to the “made” aspect of the debate. Expertise is acquired through dedicated practice, many experts in the field suggest.

But how exactly do people go about becoming experts? Are some people simply born with the requisite talent, or can anyone become an expert with the proper study and training?

What Exactly Is Expertise?

While it might be easy to point out who is and is not an expert, agreeing on a formal definition of expertise is not always so easy. Is it about how much you know? Is it about being able to perform an action well? And at what point does a person move from being merely good at something to being a bona fide expert?

“Expertise is consensually defined as elite, peak, or exceptionally high levels of performance on a particular task or within a given domain,” explained researcher Lyle E. Bourne, Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder and his colleagues in an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. “One who achieves this status is called an expert or some related term, such as virtuoso, master, maven, prodigy, or genius. These terms are meant to label someone whose performance is at the top of the game. An expert’s field of expertise can be almost anything from craftsmanship, through sports and music, to science or mathematics.”

So why do we so often label expertise with different terms? Each word tends to have its own subtle nuance that conveys what type of expert a person might be. If their expertise is perceived as being the result of hard work and practice, we might describe them as a master or virtuoso. If people see their abilities as arising from pure inborn talent, they might be referred to as a genius or a prodigy.

Some of the critical components of expertise are knowledge, skill, and achievement. People who become experts tend to acquire a body of knowledge that makes them one of the most informed individuals in their field. They also possess the skills that they need to determine when and how to utilize their knowledge. Such skills are often learned, but they can also be influenced by natural talent and ability. Finally, people who possess expertise also tend to excel in their field and achieve far above and beyond what the average person does.

How Long Does It Take?

Recently, a popular idea has emerged that the key to becoming an expert was devoting at least 10,000 hours to the study and practice of a subject. In a 1993 study, researchers found that the most accomplished violinists at a music academy had spent an average of 10,000 hours practicing their instrument by the age of 20. Pop psychology author Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase “the ten-thousand hour rule” in his best-selling 2008 book Outliers.

Gladwell pointed to the results of the music study as well as observations that musical greats The Beatles had likely spent around 10,000 hours practicing playing music during the early 1960s. Gladwell also suggested that tech-entrepreneur Bill Gates had devoted 10,000 hours to practicing programming before he created Microsoft. According to Gladwell, a person could become an expert in nearly any field as long as they were willing to devote the requisite 10,000 hours to studying and practicing the subject or skill.

The idea has become enormously popular outside of academics, but just how true are the claims? Can spending 10,000 hours on a subject really guarantee that you will become an expert?

Anders Ericsson of the University of Florida is a world-renowned expert on peak performance and author of Peak: The New Science of Expertise. He has studied experts from all walks of life including areas such as chess, sports, music, and medicine. He is also the researcher behind the study from which Gladwell drew his conclusions about what it takes to become an expert.

Ericcson points out a few key problems with the “ten-thousand hour rule”:

First, while the students in the music study were very good violinists by age 20, they were not masters. In other words, they were excellent players, but that did not necessarily mean they were masters of their craft. Ericsson suggests that it is sometimes around the 20,000- to 25,000-hour mark that people truly become experts or masters of a skill or subject.

Secondly, not all skills are the same. Some skills require far fewer than 10,000 hours to reach the expert level, while others require much more.

Ericsson also points out that Gladwell’s interpretation of his research is flawed. While Gladwell assumed that all of the violinists in the music study had put in the 10,000 hours of practice, that number was really only an average. Half of the violists studied by Ericsson and his colleagues spent less than 10,000 hours practicing their instruments by the age of 20, while half spent more.

Can Anyone Become an Expert?

Ericsson believes that what separates the amateur from the expert is what is referred to as deliberate practice. Ordinary practice can help people become skilled at a task, but gaining true expertise involves practicing in a way that pushes the boundaries of current skill levels and knowledge. Such practice is highly concentrated and involves working on things that are outside of your current skill-level, setting goals, and receiving training and instruction from a qualified teacher.

Just putting in 10,000 hours rehearsing the same things over and over again is not enough to become a true expert. Instead, concentrated, goal-directed, deliberate practice that stretches your abilities beyond your comfort zone is what you should pursue if you want to gain expertise in any area.

While Ericsson believes that deliberate practice is the key to becoming an expert, not all researchers agree with his conclusions. Some recent studies have found that while deliberate practice is certainly important, it is not the only factor that explains the differences between the skilled and the unskilled. While psychologists are not yet sure exactly which factors might also play a role, personality traits, physical characteristics, and overall intelligence may matter as well.

So can you really become an expert in anything as long as you are willing to devote the time and effort to it? It’s a question that psychologists continue to ponder, although there is little doubt that practicing regularly will lead to improvement in both skills and knowledge. Whether you might eventually be able to become a true master in that specific domain is something that may only be known once you try. Before you decide to pursue it, consider whether you have the interest, dedication, and time to commit to gaining expertise in that domain.

How to Gain Expertise

So what does it really take to gain true expertise? What steps do you need to follow in order to become an expert?

It Takes Work

While the 10,000-hour rule is more pop psych myth than reality, there is one aspect of the idea that is accurate—becoming an expert takes a great deal of effort. People who become experts in any field devote a tremendous amount of time, energy, and hard work toward learning and practicing their skill. If you want to master something, you need to be willing to put in the time. It might not take exactly 10,000 hours, but it will take a lot.

It Takes Deliberate Practice

One study found that out of three different types of study preparation, deliberate practice was the most effective. Researchers looked at participants in the National Spelling Bee and compared study methods with performance. Deliberate practice, defined as studying and memorizing words alone, was more effective than reading for pleasure and being quizzed by others as a study method.

Interestingly, deliberate practice was also rated as the least enjoyable and most difficult study technique. Participants who persisted with the technique also possessed higher levels of the personality trait called grit, also known as mental toughness. The researchers suggest that this mental toughness may sometimes be an important part of being able to stick with deliberate practice. While it was less intrinsically rewarding, those with grit were able to persevere and keep their eyes on their long-term goals, making them more likely to stick with the deliberate practice and more likely to perform better during competition.

One recent study, however, found that deliberate practice may actually be less important than previously believed. Researchers Brooke Macnamara, David Z. Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald found that the amount of accumulated practice did not play a major role in explaining individual differences when it came to performance or skill.

In a meta-analysis of previous studies, the researchers found that practice accounted for just 12 percent of the individual differences found in performance.

However, practice still mattered. On almost all of the studies included in the analysis, there was a positive relationship between practice and performance. The more people practiced, the better they performed in their area of interest.

What the researchers found was that the domain itself also mattered. When it came to education, practice only accounted for four percent of differences in individual performance. This number jumped up to 18 percent for sports, 21 percent for music, and 26 percent for games. In other words, practice played a greater role in improving performance for activities such as music, athletics, and games, and less of a role for professional or educational performance.

So what else might be important in the development of expertise?

It Takes Challenge

Practice is essential for developing a skill, but becoming an expert requires constantly challenging yourself to do better, learn more, and acquire new knowledge and skills. Simply rehearsing the same skills over and over again will make you better in those areas, but it won’t lead to true expertise.

The seminal educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed an important learning concept known as the zone of proximal development. This zone included the skills that were just outside of a person’s current ability level. While a person might not yet be able to do these things on their own, they can achieve them with the assistance of a more skilled mentor. By continually reaching for these new skills, mastering them, and then progressively expanding this zone of proximal development, people are able to learn and develop their abilities.

Becoming an expert requires constantly working within this zone of proximal development. Even once you have become very good at a skill within a particular domain, this does not mean that even greater expertise is out of reach. More learning, more knowledge, and better performance are still possible with further challenge and practice.

While we often think that it’s intelligence that separates the experts from the rest of us, research suggests that true expertise has more to do with acquired knowledge than inborn mental abilities. Some people might be born with the natural resources including physical abilities and access to the tools they need that allow them to achieve this expertise more readily. But becoming an expert takes effort and practice, no matter what your natural ability levels are at the start.

And even the experts are not always perfect. Experts do make mistakes, but they’re also ready to catch their own errors and eager to learn from them. Mistakes are a form of feedback. They tell us not only what not to do, but also provide information on what we might try instead. Experts are able to spot these mistakes, correct course, and apply this knowledge in the future.

Researchers continue to debate exactly what it takes to become an expert. There is no doubt, however, that it requires time, practice, and dedication.

By Kendra Cherry

The Science Of Smiles, Real And Fake

Individual Therapy Tribeca

The notion that you can smile your way to happiness is an enduring one.

Back in the 1800s, Charles Darwin was among the first to come up with what modern scientists further developed into the “facial feedback hypothesis.” That’s the idea that smiling can make you happier and frowning can make you sadder or angrier — that changing your facial expression can intensify or even transform your mood.

Dick Van Dyke sang about the phenomenon — and so did Nat King Cole. And it is still taught in psychology classes today.

But researchers are now finding that this phenomenon may be more complicated than they once thought. A recent study that reviewed around 50 years of data, including the results of nearly 300 experiments testing the facial feedback theory, has found that if smiling boosts happiness, it’s only by a tiny bit.

After crunching all the numbers, the researchers say their results suggest that if 100 people smiled — all else equal among them — only about seven might expect to feel happier than if they hadn’t smiled.

The study also looked at the effects of a number of other facial expressions, including scowling and frowning, and tried to more generally understand the extent to which positive facial expressions create positive emotions and negative facial expressions create negative emotions.

In each case, “the effects were extremely tiny,” says Nick Coles, a social psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who led the study. The results, published in the June issue of Psychological Bulletin, add to a debate that has been ongoing “for at least 100 years — since the dawn of psychology,” Coles says.

That debate over whether the simple act of moving one’s facial muscles into the shape of a smile can make one feel happier has grown especially heated in the past few years. In another study, published in 2016, 17 labs around the globe failed to replicate a seminal piece of research that had originally demonstrated a link between smiling and emotion.

That original study, published in 1988, found that people who were told to hold a pen between their teeth — forcing their faces into the shape of a smile — rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips to make a pouty face. The participants didn’t realize they were smiling or pouting — they believed they were testing out methods that disabled people could use to write.

“It was the first study that demonstrated that smiling could influence emotions even if the participants were not aware that they were actually smiling,” Coles explains.

So it was a big blow when so many labs failed to reproduce the results. Still, in 2018, when researchers in Israel reran the experiment once more, they were able to replicate the results — as long as the participants weren’t being observed or filmed.

“It gets complicated,” says Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved in the recent research.

Part of the reason for the disparate findings may be that there are lots of different kinds of smiles, Niedenthal says. “Not all smiles are genuine smiles of joy.”

Some smiles are sarcastic — more like smirks. Some smiles beam. Others simper. There are subtle differences in the dynamics of each expression, and they’re hard to re-create in a lab — with or without the aid of a pen.

Moreover, though most lab studies have found that there’s no harm in smiling, recent research has found that, over time, habitually forcing your expression into the shape of a smile can have a negative effect.

For example, still another study published this year found that service workers who felt compelled to slap on a smile for customers all day had a higher risk of heavy drinking after work. That may be because disgruntled employees forced to provide service with a smile are unlikely to be wearing genuine, joyful grins, the researchers say.

“We should continue to look into this area, at the very least,” Niedenthal says. All told, the cumulative research does seem to show that facial expressions have some effect on emotions. What’s left to do now, she says, is to tease out the mechanisms and subtleties.

In the meantime, maybe hold back on telling people to turn their frowns upside down, Coles advises.

“Because, I know when I’m sad and people tell me to smile, it just makes me more angry,” he says. And as far as the research indicates, “smiling is not going to make any important difference in your life.”

IMAGE Paige Vickers

What Are the Signs of a Midlife Crisis?

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Midlife can be the unhappiest time in a person’s life

People who are having a midlife crisis are thought to be struggling with their own mortality and, somewhere during midlife, they ditch some of their responsibilities in favor of fun. That’s why the term “midlife crisis” often causes people to picture mistresses and sports cars.

It’s thought that aging leads to feelings of depression, remorse, and anxiety. And a midlife crisis is a phase that helps people feel youthful again as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that their lives are half over.

But, the emotional turmoil some people experience during midlife doesn’t always lead to major lifestyle changes that involve the desire to be young again. In fact, a midlife crisis could turn into something positive.

Are Midlife Crises Real?

Not everyone experiences a midlife crisis. In fact, studies show a midlife crisis isn’t an issue for people in many parts of the world.

In fact, some researchers believe the notion of the midlife crisis is a social construct. And it’s the belief that you’re supposed to have some sort of crisis in your 40s that leads some people to say they experience a breakdown.

A national survey of Midlife in the United States conducted a poll to determine how many people experience midlife crises. Approximately 26 percent of the participants reported having a midlife crisis.

Most of the participants reported that their midlife crisis occurred before age 40 or after 50, however. That raises the question about whether these crises were truly related to midlife since midlife is typically considered age 45.

Out of the one in four people who say they had a midlife crisis, the vast majority say it was brought on by a major event, rather than age. Factors that triggered the crisis included life changes such as divorce, job loss, loss of a loved one, or relocation.

Signs of an Emotional Crisis

Since “midlife crisis” isn’t an official diagnosis, it’s a difficult concept for researchers to study. Researchers often disagree on what constitutes a midlife crisis.

Much of the research depends on individuals’ answers to questions about whether they’ve experienced a midlife crisis. Of course, what one person defines as a crisis may not be consistent with what another person considers to be a midlife crisis.

While it’s typically thought that a midlife crisis involves the fear of mortality or the desire to be young again, the emotions experienced during a midlife crisis may not be all that much different from the distress someone might experience during any other type of life crisis.

The American Psychological Association says an emotional crisis is evident from “a clear and abrupt change in behavior.” Examples of behavioral changes can include:

Neglect of personal hygiene
Dramatic changes in sleep habits
Weight loss or gain
Pronounced changes in mood, such as increased anger, irritability, sadness, or anxiety.
Withdrawal from usual routine or relationships

Why a Midlife Crisis May Occur

For many people, midlife is a time when relationships and roles are changing. Some people may need to begin caring for aging parents during midlife. Others may become empty nesters—or they may feel as though their teenagers are growing up too fast.

For other people, middle age may be a time of regrets. Some people may regret not choosing a different career path or not creating a life they once dreamed about living.

The aging process becomes more apparent than ever during this time as well. Some individuals may develop illnesses while others may begin to notice a decline in their physical abilities.

For some individuals, midlife may be a time of immense reflection. They may look back over their years and question what their lives might have been like if they’d taken a different path. Others may reflect on the happier days in their lives.

For those who are goal oriented, there may be less reflection and more action. Rather than look back on years gone by, they may begin scrambling to accomplish bigger goals in the second half of their lives.

The Midlife Happiness Slump

Many studies indicate that happiness is U-shaped. A gradual decline in happiness begins during the late teen years and continues until an individual is in their 40s. Happiness begins increasing again in an individual’s 50s.

Data on half a million Americans and Europeans found this trend to be true. Individuals in their 60s reported they’d never been happier, but people in their 40s felt like they were at an all-time low.

This U-shaped curve doesn’t appear to be universal, however. It’s more prevalent in high-income nations.

The gradual decline in happiness may explain why some people seem to hit a midlife crisis—they’re in a happiness slump.

Even though data suggests people become happier again later in life, there’s a pervasive belief that happiness continues to decline as we age. So, some people in their mid-40s may think life is only going to get worse—which may spark a midlife crisis.

Midlife Crisis vs. Depression

Some people may experience depression during midlife and refer to their depressive state as their midlife crisis. Women between the ages of 40 and 59 in the United States have the highest rates of depression (12.3 percent) of any group based on age and gender, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Does a midlife crisis cause depression? Does depression cause a midlife crisis? Or, is the depression people experience during midlife simply referred to as a midlife crisis?

Similarly, does a midlife crisis increase the risk of suicide? No one knows for certain if a midlife crisis is separate from a mental health crisis that might simply occur during any stage of an individual’s life.

Positive Aspect

A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development found an upside to the midlife crisis—curiosity. Researchers found that people who were experiencing a crisis—whether it was a quarter-life or a midlife crisis—experienced enhanced curiosity.

Participants reported being more curious about themselves and the wider world around them.

The distress and uncertainty participants experienced brought about openness to new ideas, which could bring insight and creative solutions. That curiosity could lead to new breakthroughs or new opportunities, which might be the silver lining in the midst of a crisis.

By Amy Morin, LCSW

Does Drinking Coffee Actually Improve Memory?

Coffee drinkers often wonder if caffeine can improve their memory. That’s because many who religiously consume the beverage notice that they seem more alert when they’ve had coffee. One coffee drinker, who described himself as “generally quite a forgetful person” swore that his memory improved after a cup of joe.

But is there actually a link between the two, or is the connection just in the minds of coffee drinkers? Get the facts on the link between caffeine and memory with this review.

How Caffeine Works

Caffeine is a stimulant drug that affects the brain directly, and it has been shown without doubt to increase alertness. However, the effects of caffeine on memory are more mixed.

Some studies have shown that caffeine can improve some types of memory, particularly the global aspects of memory. More in-depth research shows that the benefit of caffeine on memory is state dependent. This means that caffeine only improves memory if it is used both at the time of taking the information in and at the time of recalling the information later.

If no caffeine is used at the time the information is presented, people perform more poorly if they take caffeine at the time they need to remember the information. On the other hand, if they’ve had caffeine when they take in the information, and they don’t have caffeine when they try to remember it, they do worse than if they do have caffeine at the time they need to remember it.

Other studies show that with certain memory tasks, caffeine actually worsens performance. These include poorer performance on tasks of free recall – remembering information without being prompted. People also recall more false memories when they are under the influence of caffeine, so it can have the effect of stimulating your brain to come up with memories inaccurately.

Effects of Caffeine on the Memory of Older Adults

There has been some encouraging research regarding the use of caffeine in older adults to counteract the natural declines in memory that are associated with age. For example, one study showed that caffeine reduced the afternoon decline in memory experienced by “morning people” – older adults who generally perform better in the morning than in the afternoon.

However, other research indicates that caffeine is not a reliable way of improving memory in older people. In fact, research has shown that older people perform more poorly on tests of episodic memory after consuming caffeine-containing foods than those who do not. And although there is evidence that habitual caffeine use is associated with a modest advantage in long-term memory, this does not counter age-related memory declines.

As caffeine is an addictive substance, trying to self-medicate what you believe to be a poor memory may actually be making matters worse. For example, caffeine tends to interfere with your sleep and is followed by a withdrawal period, both of which can cause memory problems.

Talk to your doctor to find out whether you really have problems with your memory, other ways of improving your memory and what an optimal amount of caffeine would be for you.

By Elizabeth Hartney, PhD, Medically reviewed by a board-certified physician

Not-So-Social Media: Why People Have Stopped Talking On Phones

Emma Wisniewski felt exposed. The New York-based actress had moments where she had to open up in a way that made her feel particularly vulnerable.

She had to talk on the phone. In front of people — her fellow actors and the audience.

“I’ve done several plays now that required talking on landlines, and what always strikes me is the relatively public nature of it,” she says.

The desire to communicate privately is one reason people have largely abandoned talking on the phone as a social medium. What was once a major indoor sport, taking up hours of many people’s days, is now not only more limited but may be going the way of mailed letters and express telegrams.

“Now, calling on a phone is almost like a violation,” says Scott Campbell, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Michigan. “It’s very greedy for your social presence, and texting is not.”

Hiding From Mom

Wisniewski played a 16-year-old girl this spring in a play called Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976. As its title suggests, the play is set in America’s bicentennial year, nearly 40 years ago.

One detail that made it a period piece was Wisniewski grabbing the phone off the kitchen wall, dragging the long cord into another room. For audience members of a certain age, it was a tableau instantly familiar, yet completely distant.

Those of us in our 40s can remember fighting with our siblings to spend hours on those pea green and lemon yellow landline phones.

As it happens, the play had its premiere in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis where back in 1944 Life magazine took a series of photos of a teenage girl talking on the phone as part of her “evening ritual.” She keeps a wary eye out for her mother, who can be seen occasionally looking on with disapproval.

Hiding from Mom is one reason texting took off in the first place, says Danah Boyd, the author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Stretching the phone cord down the hall was no longer good enough to get away from hovering “helicopter” parents.

“This prompted an entire generation to switch to text-based media, starting with instant messaging,” Boyd says. “Texting is seen as even more private, because it’s harder for Mom to look over your shoulder.”

Don’t Call Us

Texting became the norm for teens and young adults, but has been adopted by older folks as well.

Boomers are still more apt to pick up the phone in professional contexts, but at work as well as home a ringing phone has come to be seen as an unwanted intrusion.

“I used to think the millennials were wrong about this, but it is an imposition to call someone and say put aside whatever you were doing and give me 30 minutes of your time,” says Neil Howe, president of LifeCourse Associates, which consults with corporations about generational attitudes and behaviors.

As Boyd points out, communication is a two-way street. Both parties in the pair have to agree to a plan. Fewer people are willing to engage in a phone conversation, which not only eats up more time than texting but has to be done in that very moment.

“Even if it’s someone I know well and love, I resent the intrusion,” says Amy Pickworth, a friend of mine who works as an editor at the Rhode Island School of Design. “The phone is so pushy. It’s just suddenly so there, demanding, ‘Talk to me, say funny things,’ or ‘I’m sad, cheer me up,’ or ‘Holy cow, listen to this.’ ”

Can You Call Back Later?

By contrast, your friends don’t need to be available right this very moment to talk via text.

“Conversations can ebb and flow, and it’s no big deal,” says Boyd, who is a researcher at Microsoft Research and Harvard University. “You’ll see teens spend 45 minutes crafting the perfect ‘casual’ text message to send to someone they have a crush on.”

Landline use is down, while mobile phone use is up, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But that includes all the things people do on phones — talking, texting, playing games.

The onslaught of information and time spent with screens is another reason why people are talking less, says Campbell, the Michigan professor.

“You can get a little saturated,” he says. “If I’m going to be keeping up in this new, digital world, something’s gotta give.”

Getting Constant Updates

Most of the people I interviewed for this piece — largely through email — said they do engage in extended phone conversations, often with family members. There’s still an intimacy to a phone call that texting can’t match.

But those conversations have to compete with a lot of demands for people’s time and concentration.

When you’re talking on the phone, you’ve got to be all in. We’ve probably all had the experience of talking to someone and knowing we’ve lost their interest when we can hear them start to type in the background.

Or, maybe worse, we’ve tuned out ourselves, sounding a little drunk as we lose the thread of our own thought as we check out websites.

It’s not just that people have grown used to multiple stimuli. Much of what they’re looking at is social in nature.

We keep up with family and friends via Facebook, Instagram and other social media channels. Those we’re closer with, we might interact with almost constantly through group texts on WhatsApp or Kik.

For many people, there’s no need to pick up the phone to catch up. Your friends already know what you did last night.

“You constantly know what’s going on,” says Nick Politan, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, “so there’s no point in ever wanting to catch up with somebody, unless they’re really close to you.”


Can Mindfulness Treat Chronic Back Pain?

Individual Therapy Tribeca

A recent study reveals 8 weeks of mindfulness-based and cognitive therapies (MBCT) may ease chronic low back pain.

If you’ve ever had back pain, you know it’s one of the worst kinds of pain to have. Chronic low back pain affects millions globally and is often very hard to treat. In many cases, it can be debilitating. Pain drugs like opioids were cavalierly prescribed for back pain in the past, leading many down the difficult road of addiction and seeding an opioid overdose crisis in the US. Now, more and more physicians and patients are seeking alternative ways to manage and treat chronic pain. A study at the University of Queensland in Australia may have found one solution – Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

MBCT combines the best of standard cognitive therapy, which helps people become aware of negative thought patterns and behaviors, with mindfulness-based strategies, which help people form a new relationship to thoughts and behaviors. MBCT consists of guided meditations and breathing practices, mindful movements like walking, and exercises aimed at understanding the stress-pain connection and identifying automatic thoughts that intensify pain. Through MBCT your learn to train the mind to identify and interrupt automatic thoughts, feelings, and reactions to pain and build a new relationship with discomfort.

Studying MBCT for Chronic Pain

To pilot test whether MBCT was better at relieving chronic low back pain than other commonly used therapy approaches, researchers had 23 people attend MBCT classes, while another 23 received mindfulness meditation training and 23 more underwent cognitive therapy. Those who didn’t receive MBCT were given the option to try it once the study was over.

Everyone received 8 weeks of instruction and were asked to do at-home practices for 45 minutes per day, 6 days a week. Their pain experiences, mood, physical functioning, and medication use were evaluated immediately after training, and 3 and 6 months later.

Following training, participants in all three groups reported significant results:

Decreased pain interference, which is the degree to which pain interferes with functioning
Decreased pain intensity
Decreased feelings of depression
Improved physical function

Improvements in pain interference over time were greater in the MBCT group than in the cognitive therapy or mindfulness groups alone. For physical functioning, both the MBCT and cognitive therapy groups showed more improvement over time than adults in the mindfulness meditation group.

Improvements in pain interference over time were greater in the MBCT group than in the cognitive therapy or mindfulness groups alone.

Researchers also checked to see if opioid use might differ for those who’d received MBCT training versus cognitive therapy or mindfulness meditation instruction. There were no significant differences by therapy type in opioid medication use from before treatment (48%) to after treatment (43%) or 6 months later.

Results from the study build on prior research finding that mindfulness-based approaches may be effective for pain management. Authors of the study note that the “three treatments investigated in this trial are designed to be empowering interventions that teach specific, long-lasting skills that patients can continue to use after treatment completion to maintain and even build upon gains made during treatment.”

These study findings also reveal that what works best for pain may depend on the individual. For some, cognitive therapies may be more fitting, empowering and effective, while others may gain more from meditation, or a combination of mindfulness principles and cognitive therapy.

Regardless of the approach, this study holds promise for those seeking to alleviate chronic low back pain using an alternative to pain medication.


Never assume you have the slightest clue what anyone else is feeling

We even smell things differently. Does this mean no amount of talking will ever clear things up?

Every now and then, ambling through the day, you’re reminded with a jolt that the inner lives of others are an utterly foreign land, from which you’re permanently banned. This point usually gets made as a reason to be more empathic: perhaps your surly colleague is struggling with painful emotions; maybe your spouse experiences everyday anxiety more intensely than you could possibly imagine. But the foreignness is even more basic than that. A new study on a technical-sounding topic – “genetic variation across the human olfactory receptor repertoire” – is a reminder that we smell the world differently, too. Researchers found that a single genetic mutation accounts for many of those differences: the way beetroot smells (and tastes) like disgustingly dirty soil to some people, or how others can’t detect the smokiness of whisky, or smell lily of the valley in perfumes.

Even this kind of research can only go so far in penetrating the walls between us. There’s a sense in which the best researcher on the planet could never know my experience – as in really, truly know it – unless he happened to be me. Suppose, for example, that coffee tastes to you the way that carrot juice tastes to me, and vice versa. How would we ever find out? We might both still love coffee and hate carrot juice, without ever discovering we meant opposite things – that what I hate about carrot juice is precisely what you adore about coffee. Philosophers call this the problem of “inverted qualia”. Their long-running (and surprisingly irritable) quarrels about it need not detain us here. But the main point feels unnervingly hard to deny: if it were true that our personal worlds differed profoundly, no amount of talking, or any other activity in the external world, could ever clear things up.

The day after I encountered the smells study, I got a follow-up dose of existential crisis as I listened to an episode of the PsychCrunch podcast, which got me wondering if I might be “aphantasic”. That is, am I one of the minority of people unable to picture images in their mind’s eye? I always thought I was able to do this, but listening to others describe the experience, I’m slightly less sure. I wonder if I’ve merely been thinking about concepts this whole time instead. Mainly what I see when I close my eyes is darkness. What I’ve been calling “mental images” don’t feel particularly different from other kinds of thought. Do yours?

Detailed cross-questioning of several friends shed little light on the matter. But then again, how could it? Some described their mental images as extremely vivid, which mine certainly aren’t, if they even exist at all. But I’ve no idea if we’re using the same criterion of vividness in the first place. Once again, though researchers have made serious inroads into studying the condition, there’s ultimately a chasm that can’t be bridged.

I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do with any of these realisations, other than to remember never to assume you have the slightest clue what anyone else is experiencing. But in the meantime, I’ve decided to claim to be aphantasic anyway, because it makes me seem more interesting.

To myself, anyhow. I’ve no idea how it seems to you.

By Oliver Burkeman
Image, Michele Marconi

How The Brain Shapes Pain And Links Ouch With Emotion

When Sterling Witt was a teenager in Missouri, he was diagnosed with scoliosis. Before long, the curvature of his spine started causing chronic pain.

It was “this low-grade kind of menacing pain that ran through my spine and mostly my lower back and my upper right shoulder blade and then even into my neck a little bit,” Witt says.

The pain was bad. But the feeling of helplessness it produced in him was even worse.

“I felt like I was being attacked by this invisible enemy,” Witt says. “It was nothing that I asked for, and I didn’t even know how to battle it.”

So he channeled his frustration into music and art that depicted his pain. It was “a way I could express myself,” he says. “It was liberating.”

Witt’s experience is typical of how an unpleasant sensation can become something much more complicated, scientists say.

“At its core, pain is just something that hurts or makes you say ouch,” says Karen Davis, a senior scientist at the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto. “Everything else is the outcome of the pain, how it then impacts your emotions, your feelings, your behaviors.”

The ouch part of pain begins when something — heat, certain chemicals or a mechanical force — activates special nerve endings called nociceptors.

“Once they are activated, they trigger a whole cascade of events with kind of a representation of that signal going through your nerves and into your spinal cord and then all the way up to your brain,” Davis says.

And that’s when things get really complex.

Pain signals interact with many different brain areas, including those involved in physical sensation, thinking and emotion.

“There’s quite a pattern of activity that permeates through the brain that leads to all the complexities of what we feel associated with that initial hurt,” Davis says.

All that processing can have benefits, she says, like sometimes allowing us to ignore pain signals.

Say you’re playing hockey and you just got slammed into the boards, Davis says. “If you’re concentrating on that, you’re not going to be able to keep skating. So you need to be able to tune out the pain and deal with it later.”

Witt learned that he could tune out pain when he immersed himself in composing songs or painting.

“When I’m making art and music, I feel less pain,” says Witt, who is 40 now and makes his living as an artist and musician in the Kansas City area. “While I’m doing those things I’m so distracted from my pain that it’s almost like I don’t have it.”

But as a younger man, Witt still struggled with the emotional fallout from his back pain. He was depressed and felt like a social outcast.

Why does the brain link pain with emotions?

One of the scientists trying to answer that question is Robyn Crook, a biologist and brain researcher at San Francisco State University.

Crook studies the evolution of pain, and her lab compares the pain system found in mammals with its counterpart in squids and octopuses.

The most obvious evolutionary reason for pain, she says, is to prevent or minimize damage to the body. Touch a hot stove and pain tells you to move your hand away. Fast.

But evolution didn’t stop there, Crook says.

“In some animals with more complex brains there’s also an emotional or a suffering component to the experience,” she says.

In dogs, for example, pain appears to cause emotional distress much the same way it does in people. And there must be a reason for that, Crook says.

One possibility, she says, involves memory.

“Having that emotional component linked to the sensory experience really is a great enhancer of memory,” she says. “And so humans, for example, can remember a single painful experience sometimes for their entire lives.”

So they never touch that hot stove again.

And there may be another reason that people and other highly social animals have brains that connect pain and emotion, Crook says.

“Experiencing pain yourself produces empathy for other group members or other family members that are in pain,” she says. As a result, if one of them is injured “you will offer help to them because of the empathetic response or the emotional response to pain.”

That response has obvious benefits for animals that live in groups, Crook says. But an octopus is a solitary animal with no obvious need for empathy. So Crook’s lab is trying to figure out whether pain has the same links to emotion in these marine animals.

For people, the link between pain and emotion is a good thing. But sometimes it can also be destructive, says Beth Darnall, a psychologist at Stanford University.

“Mental health disorders amplify pain,” she says. “They engage regions of the brain that associate with pain processing. And they can also facilitate rumination and fearful focus on the pain.”

And when pain doesn’t go away, Darnall says, it can cause disabling changes in the brain.

“Pain is really a danger signal,” she says. “But once pain becomes chronic, once it’s ongoing, these pain signals no longer serve a useful purpose.”

Over time, these signals can lead to problems like depression, anxiety and stress.

That’s what happened to Witt in his teens and 20s. His pain led to negative thoughts and depression, which made the pain even worse.

But it’s often possible to break that cycle, Darnall says, by learning techniques that help pain patients gain some control of the way their brain is processing pain signals.

For example, she has a system for teaching pain patients how to slow their breathing and relax their muscles.

“This state of relaxation is an antidote to the hard-wired pain responses that are automatically triggered by the experience of pain,” she says.

For some patients, techniques like these can provide an alternative to pain drugs, including opioids. And for pain patients who rely on medications, she says, psychological therapies can often help the drugs work better.

But patients are rarely offered psychological treatments for pain, Darnall says.

“We have overemphasized pain as being a biomedical phenomenon that requires a biomedical intervention,” she says.

Witt, the artist and musician, agrees. He has lived with back pain for more than two decades.

But he doesn’t create songs or paintings about pain anymore. And he chooses not to take pain medication.

Instead, Witt says he stretches and exercises, watches his diet and works hard at staying optimistic.

“I’m actually not convinced that I have to live with this for the rest of my life,” he says. “I very well may. But at the same time I live in that state of mind all the time that there’s hope.”

IMAGE: Chris Nickels

We Gossip About 52 Minutes A Day, Not Be As Toxic As It Sounds

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Almost everyone gossips.

And a new study finds that people spend about 52 minutes per day, on average, talking to someone about someone else who is not present.

But here’s the surprise: Despite the assumption that most gossip is trash talk, the study finds that the vast majority of gossip is nonjudgmental chitchat.

“We actually found that the overwhelming majority of gossip was neutral,” says study author Megan Robbins, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, who studies how people’s social interactions are related to their health and well-being. “About three-quarters of the conversation we heard in our sampled conversations was neither positive nor negative,” Robbins says.

Robbins and her colleagues analyzed snippets of conversations from people who had agreed to wear a portable recording device for two to five days. The findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

People love to talk about other people. “We share tons and tons of social information,” says Jeremy Cone, a psychologist at Williams College. He was not involved in the study but says he’s intrigued by the findings, particularly the idea that so much of gossip is rather mundane.

Think about your own conversations with a family member or friend: You talk about everyday things that keep you connected. You share that your daughter got her driver’s license or your uncle has a kidney stone.

“Much of it is just documenting facts, sharing information,” Cone says.

The study has some other interesting findings: Women and men tend to gossip about the same amount. And extroverts are more likely to spend time gossiping than introverts.

And, of course, the study also finds that some gossip is negative or mean-spirited. About 15% of the snippets of gossip that the researchers analyzed included some type of negative judgement.

But even negative gossip can serve a purpose, as more research has found.

“I think gossiping can be a smart thing to do,” says Elena Martinescu, a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London who has studied gossip in the workplace. “It allows people to keep track of what’s going on and form social alliances with other people,” Martinescu says.

Of course, gossip is a complicated phenomenon. Martinescu points out that at times, it can backfire and sometimes harm people. But some scholars say that from an evolutionary perspective, we’re wired to gossip since it can give us information that we use to protect ourselves.

Research has shown that gossip can help build group cohesion and cooperation.

“When you gossip, you can keep track of who is contributing to the group and who’s being selfish,” Martinescu explains. “And by sharing this information, you can exclude those group members who are social loafers.”

In one of Martinescu’s studies, published this year in Frontiers in Psychology, she and her colleagues surveyed people about their experiences with gossip in the workplace. In the study, participants were asked to “describe a specific situation in which a co-worker said something either positive or negative about their work performance behind their back to another co-worker.”

Then, they were asked about their reactions to these events. Turns out, people felt hurt and angry, but being gossiped about also led them to self-reflection — and in some cases motivated them to improve.

“We found that negative gossip makes people likely to repair the aspects of their behavior that they were criticized for,” Martinescu says.

So, say, for instance, you were criticized for always arriving at work late. Hearing that gossip about yourself may motivate you to want to be on time.

“And that might trigger a change in your behavior for the better,” Martinescu says.

Of course, this isn’t a license to be a loose lips or to repeat baseless claims that can damage someone’s reputation unfairly. But confiding in your friends and colleagues and sharing impressions about another person — even when they’re negative — may be helpful.


Floating Away Your Anxiety And Stress

Individual Therapy Tribeca

When I mentioned to a friend that my baseline neurosis has evolved from daily stress into anxiety, her response was – “Go for a float!”

A float?

Yes — spend an hour in a dark, soundproof room floating in a body-temperature warm pool. “The heavy salt concentration does the work for you,” my friend told me. “You just lie there and meditate.”

As a doctor wary of overprescribing medications, I was intrigued by the idea that floating can combat stress and anxiety, but I wanted to know if there’s any science to back up this claim.

So I visited the lab of neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla. Feinstein is investigating float therapy as a nonpharmacological treatment for people with conditions like anxiety and depression.

“These are individuals with PTSD disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety — we covered the whole spectrum of different types of anxiety,” he says.

Before volunteers get in the pool, Feinstein maps their brains using functional MRI, which provides images of the brain’s metabolic activity. Feinstein takes images again after a 60-minute float. And he’s finding that floating seems to quiet activity in the amygdala, the brain’s center of fear and anxiety.

Feinstein asked if I wanted to try it, so after a quick shower, I jumped right in.

The round pool is 1 foot deep, 8 feet in diameter, and saturated with 1,332 pounds of magnesium sulfate, commonly known as Epsom salt. It holds you up like a mattress. The room is soundproof, the lights are off and you just lay back and float.

Floating made me feel weightless; it’s kind of like being suspended in air. I could feel my muscles relaxing. There was one exception — I noticed how clenched my jaw was, probably my natural state of being. I really had to focus on letting it relax.

It took a while to let my thoughts quiet down, but eventually I was so relaxed I fell asleep—while floating!

While this sounds promising, it’s important to remember that this research is preliminary. One of Feinstein’s pilot studies, which is currently under review for publication, found that in 50 individuals with anxiety, all showed measurable signs of relaxation including lowered blood pressure, lowered activity in the brain, and significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety. Feinstein has found that some of these effects can last over 24 hours. The Float Clinic and Research Center has many other ongoing studies and another currently under review for publication.

Even though floating isn’t a proven treatment, more and more commercial float centers are opening across the country, including the H2Oasis Float Center and Tea House, which opened here in Tulsa a little over a year ago. It uses the same open pools that were designed for Feinstein’s lab as well as small, enclosed float pods which can be claustrophobic for some people. A one-hour float session costs between $50 and $70.

“At the very minimum, you are going to have one of the most relaxing hours of your life,” says Debra Worthington, co-owner of the facility. She says that many people come here trying to float their anxieties away — injured athletes, veterans with PTSD, people with chronic pain and anxiety.

“I have people leaving the pools crying because they never knew they could feel that good because they have so much pain on a daily basis, whether it’s physical pain or mental pain,” Worthington says.

While medication is beneficial for many anxiety and mood disorders, many classes of the drugs are habit-forming, and all have side effects that patients often find unpleasant. So while floating isn’t a proven therapy, there’s little harm in trying to float some of that stress away.

IMAGE: Esther Lui

How to Stop Your Smartphone from Hurting Your Health

Individual Therapy Tribeca

You can manage your technology use to protect your health and happiness.

As psychologist Chris Willard often says, our phones can be our greatest enemy or greatest friend. While they can save us time and energy, educate and entertain us, and keep us safe in emergencies, they can also distract us from the things we need in life to stay happy and healthy.

And that distraction is often more than a casual annoyance. That’s because everything from our newsfeeds to our cell phone’s notification style follows proven algorithms that aim to keep us attached. As with slot machines, our phones train us to crave the next exciting, momentary distraction, and get sucked into checking every moment we are bored. Quite literally, phones are designed to fix our attention on the screen, not to promote healthy behavior.

Healthy living today requires defining the time and place for technology. It’s an exercise in self-awareness, because while we have the tools and knowledge to live well, we often get caught up in reactivity and habit. Living with intention, we can pause, observe with clarity the impact of technology, and make intentional choices that guide us towards better health and more happiness.

Here are some ways to manage the problematic side of cell phones and use them to promote the exact health behaviors they often undermine.

Sleep and exercise

Our bodies require sleep and exercise to function effectively, but our phone use may be detracting from both. Phones disrupt sleep, not only because of their light that stimulates our brains to stay awake, but because we get wrapped up in using them to watch shows, text, and otherwise remain plugged in past our ideal bedtime. There is a reason that shows and videos auto-play the next item: to keep you hooked.

Screen time also pushes us towards a passive lifestyle, replacing more physical and mentally engaging activities that are important for our well-being. For example, both children and adults who spend more time in front of screens have an increased risk of obesity.

What can be done? You can take a moment to plan how much sleep you require daily and then protect that time, keeping phones out of the bedroom entirely. An old-fashioned alarm clock is less distracting because it won’t entice you to stay up at night—nor to check social media before you are even out of bed the next morning. If you really need a phone alarm, stop using your phone at a specific time each night and enable the Do Not Disturb function during sleep hours (which can still allow selected phone numbers to get through if needed).

When it comes to exercise, try using your devices skillfully to enhance rather than replace exercise. You can select apps that track your activity (if you find that practical), give you reminders to work out, or even lead you through workouts at home. Otherwise, put away technology when it’s time to hit the gym or take a walk. One recent study found that children who sleep and exercise more and spend less time on screens have better cognitive functioning—which almost certainly holds true for adults, too.


Consistent relationships are core to resilience, but mindlessly using social media is problematic; it can diminish our self-esteem, increase our anxiety and depression, and, paradoxically, make us feel more socially isolated. Constant notifications of everything everyone is doing—often in the form of highly polished images of their seemingly amazing lives—make us feel inferior in comparison and can wreak havoc on our well-being and sense of belonging.

But social media can play a positive role in our social lives. They can allow family members and friends who are far apart—like military personnel or college students—to connect, keeping relationships close. To protect your relationships, it’s a good idea to shut off all notifications except those coming from real people. You can check social media and email at dedicated times that you decide on in advance, leaving them alone otherwise. Also, deleting unneeded apps from your phone may help you control overuse.

Most people find it better for their relationships if friends are able to commit to more in-person time together. Then, you can put away your phones, since having one visible makes people have shorter conversations and feel less emotionally connected. Since starting a new habit requires strict consistency, consider setting a rule for yourself: Avoid your phone when other people are nearby. Creating a culture among your peers of dedicated time together, with technology firmly in its place, can help keep your relationships strong and safe from the harmful effects of “phubbing” (snubbing people in favor of your phone).

Attention and productivity

As one Harvard study found, giving full attention to whatever we’re doing makes us happier. It’s common sense, but how often do we remember to take that focused, uninterrupted time in our busy lives?

Smartphones can disrupt us at any time and interfere with productivity at home, school, and work. The average person checks their phone dozens of times a day, also receives dozens of push notifications, and must manage email and other communications online. But multitasking is neurologically impossible; what we think of as multitasking is more like mental pinball and leads to increased inefficiency and errors (oops, didn’t mean to send that email). That’s why some businesses recommend disconnecting periodically during the workday.

As with much of healthy living, we can catch ourselves and aim for intentional choices around our smartphone use that protect our attention. That might require shutting off all unneeded notifications, taking screen breaks during work, or using programs that protect work time. You could also choose to seek out productivity software that improves your efficiency and planning while actively avoiding whatever else you find distracting on your device.

Smartphones and computers are tools that can be used well or poorly. The choice is yours. Paying attention, noting your habits, and planning accordingly can allow you to control technology in ways that bring you enjoyable convenience and better support your health and happiness. Instead of relying on default settings provided by an industry that makes money off of your time and attention, make clear decisions for yourself and your family.


Stress Takes A Toll On Health And Family

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Stress is part of the human condition, unavoidable and even necessary to a degree. But too much stress can be toxic — even disabling.

And there’s a lot of toxic stress out there.

More than 1 in every 4 Americans say they had a great deal of stress in the previous month. And half of all adults say they experienced a major stressful event in the past year. That works out to more than 115 million people.

As big as that number is, it’s just the tip of the stress iceberg, says Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir. “Everything I know suggests that this is a pretty massive underestimate,” Shafir tells Shots.

That’s because our poll captures only the stress that people are conscious of. Shafir’s work and that of others shows there’s a lot of stress people don’t even realize they have. And this “hidden” stress can reduce our capacity to juggle all the big and little problems life sends our way.

It’s all about cognitive capacity — the ability of the brain to process many different inputs at the same time, judge what to pay attention to, and make quick decisions on how to respond. Think of it as the bandwidth on your Internet connection.

“We have very limited bandwidth,” Shafir says. “There’s only so much you can attend to at any one time.”

When people are juggling complicated situations, Shafir says, “It’s like driving on a stormy night. You’re focused completely on the thing that’s capturing your attention right now, and other things get neglected.”

If stress is chronic, that neglect can be costly over time, compromising your health, your financial well-being, your relationships. So it’s important to understand this big thing we call stress and what it’s doing to us.

Our poll is unusual in that it focused on the 26 percent of people who say they’re currently living with a high level of stress.

“These are not just the people who say they have some stress day to day,” says Robert Blendon, executive director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, which conducted the poll. “These are the share of Americans for whom it really makes a big difference. It affects their ability to sleep and to concentrate. It leads them to have more arguments with family members. It affects their health.”

The poll asked people to say in their own words what was the biggest cause of their stress over the past year. By far the leading reason was poor health. Either they or someone in their family was really sick, or they were overwhelmed by the death of a loved one.

When we looked at people reporting “a great deal of stress” in the past month — a measure of current stress — sickness again stood out. Sixty percent of people in poor health report having high stress levels.

Of those with a disability, 45 percent report a lot of current stress. They’re followed by those with chronic illness (36 percent); income under $20,000 (36 percent); those in hazardous jobs (36 percent); single parents (35 percent); and parents with teenage children (34 percent).

Once we saw these results, we wanted to know more about the stories behind the numbers. So we asked people to respond via NPR’s Facebook page. Within a couple of days, we got 6,000 responses.

People wrote lengthy, detailed and heart-wrenching narratives of the stress that disturbs their daily lives without relief. Their stories tracked the poll results pretty closely, verifying the toll that high stress is having on health, relationships and work.

Cara Mengwasser of St. Louis, for instance, represents millions of Americans whose stress interacts with her health. She’s a recently divorced 46-year-old mother of three (ages 9, 13 and 16) who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 18 years ago, when she was in her late 20s.

Diabetes “has affected every aspect of my life,” Mengwasser says.

She has to watch everything she eats. She takes her insulin meter and blood sugar test kit everywhere. She can’t take a walk without checking her blood sugar first, and making sure she has something sweet to eat in case her blood sugar plunges dangerously.

Despite all her care, Mengwasser’s diabetes is more out of control lately than it’s ever been.

“At the moment, it’s not very well managed,” she admits. “Unfortunately, I have a lot of stress going on in my life, and … typically my blood sugars are the first place I see it.”

It’s a vicious circle. Having diabetes causes stress. And stress makes the diabetes worse. That, of course, is true of many illnesses.

“Most people don’t understand what it means to live with a chronic illness,” she says. “They’ll look at you and say, ‘Well, you look healthy.’ Well, I am healthy. I just live with a chronic illness that has to be taken care of 24/7. I do not get a vacation from this.”

And like thousands of others who wrote to us, Mengwasser has multiple stressors in her life.

“I’m unhappy with the job I’m in right now, and I’m getting frustrated with that,” she says. “I have three kids, and they keep me active and going in three different directions at all times. And my 16-year-old’s learning to drive, so that’s stressful, too!”

Money was another big cause of stress in our poll. More than a third of people with low incomes suffered major stress in the prior month.

That’s the case for Shelly Lloyd, a 39-year-old mother of two teenagers who lives in Sanford, Fla. Ten years ago she was waiting tables and decided she wanted to do better, so she enrolled in a community college, aiming to become a teacher.

“I had a lot of high hopes,” Lloyd tells NPR. “I loved being in college. I did great — I made straight A’s.”

But she had the bad luck to graduate in 2008, as the economy collapsed. Florida went from hiring teachers to firing them.

“I was putting in applications and sending my resume to every open teaching spot in the surrounding five counties — anything that was within an hour’s drive,” Lloyd says. “And I never got a call back, not once.”

Lloyd never did get a teaching job. And she says she’s not likely to; for one thing, she’s in arrears on her education loans, which means her school transcripts are frozen — she can’t even prove that she has a degree.

Today, Lloyd is a cashier in a grocery store, making $8.50 an hour. And this past year, when her husband was laid off from his job, the family really struggled.

“It was months of just sleepless nights — feeling sick to my stomach, literally counting the pennies to see if we could make the rent, and robbing Peter to pay Paul — terrified! Living off ramen noodles when we had been able to — not go crazy in a grocery store, but being able to buy food.”

In our poll, 70 percent of those who said they suffer a lot of stress report sleeplessness due to worry and anxiety.

That’s the case for Bobby Burgess, and it’s not just money he worries about. Thirty-year-old Burgess is a single dad with three kids under 11. They live in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“On days that the kids get sick, I have little recourse but to take a day off — or at least a half-day,” Burgess says. He works as an environmental specialist for the state, earning one day of leave for every two weeks of work.

“I’ve been taking more leave than I’ve been earning,” he says.

And sometimes the day-to-day responsibilities — running errands, making dinner, helping the kids with homework — are just too much.

In February, Burgess had what he thinks was his first-ever anxiety attack. It was on the day he’d organized a laser-tag party for his 10-year-old’s birthday.

“And [I] realized kind of at the last minute that morning that I didn’t have a cake,” Burgess says with a rueful laugh. “So I made one at the last minute. But then right before I left for the party, I just had an elevated heart rate and I was just uncontrollably emotional, you know. Basically, I just sat down, let it pass, kind of got hold of myself, and then made it to the party 15 minutes late.”

Our poll suggests that nearly 5 million Americans could tell similar stories about the stress of single parenting.

Stress is such a big problem that those in authority — especially employers — need to find ways to make life more manageable, says Shafir, the Princeton psychologist. For instance, allowing workers to have predictable shifts would help them avoid constant stressful juggling of transportation and child care.

And there’s another thing that can help — simply acknowledging that stress can overwhelm people’s ability to cope. But Shafir says that’s not easy for many Americans.

“The notions of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, which are so strong in the American culture, sort of lead you to say that if you have problems you should take yourself by the bootstraps and start working on it,” he says.

In Anniston, Ala., 34-year-old Trace Fleming-Smith has learned the value of asking for help in coping with her stress.

She directs a domestic violence and sexual abuse program, advocating for women who’ve been victims of violence. Fleming-Smith says she herself has been threatened by her clients’ abusers. And like 36 percent of those in hazardous jobs, she says she suffers from high stress levels.

“There’s these moments when I think, wow, I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” she says.

So she makes time to get support from friends who are also stressed.

“We talk for at least a few minutes every day,” Fleming-Smith says. “And we hold ourselves accountable for self-care. Like, ‘What are you doing to take care of yourself? What are you doing today? When was the last time you’ve eaten?’ ”

It’s the best thing she’s done to help her deal with those overwhelming moments, she says.

A lot of people agree with her. Nearly 60 percent of those reporting a lot of stress say they find relief from routinely spending time with family or friends.

Image: Leif Parsons

Empathy seems like a good quality in human beings. Pure and simple.

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It allows us to consider the perspective of others — to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine their experiences. From that empathetic vantage point, only good things can come, right?

Not necessarily, according to author Fritz Breithaupt. “Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy,” he writes in his forthcoming book The Dark Sides of Empathy.

Breithaupt, who directs the Experimental Humanities Lab at Indiana University, argues that empathy is a morally ambiguous capacity, one that can lead us astray if we don’t understand its many sides.

“Empathy is a riddle,” Breithaupt says. While it can enrich our lives, Breithaupt says our ability to identify with others’ feelings can also fuel polarization, spark violence and motivate dysfunctional behavior in relationships, like helicopter parenting.

Breithaupt, who reviews the cultural and scientific history of empathy in his book, explains that empathy is a relatively new concept. The term only emerged in 1909, when it was translated from a German conception of “feeling yourself into a work of art,” he says. In the past 40 years, it has risen to prominence as evolutionary biologists started to explore its role in shaping the human brain. Since then, it’s become a core psychological concept, and part of what biologists think makes us distinctly human.

Since empathy is baked into our very being, Breithaupt argues that we must be aware of the good and bad it can enable. NPR’s Jonathan Lambert spoke with him about empathy’s biological and moral dimensions.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does science define empathy, and what light does that shed on on more philosophical conceptions of it?

For a while neuroscientists thought there was an empathy center in the brain, some little spot somewhere. They thought we could understand this spot and then understand empathy.

But then they came to a much larger realization: Empathy is not in one place in our brains; it’s everywhere. Imaging studies showed that we use every part of the brain both for our own actions, our own feelings, but also for the observation of other people. So basically the whole brain does empathy.

That changes a lot of things. It shows us that empathy affects all our thinking. It’s with us every moment.

I think that means that empathy is so important to us that it’s something we can’t neglect. Yes, we’re biologically primed for it, but we also have to cultivate it, and cultivation is something that can [be a] lifelong learning task. It never ends.

So science seems to suggest that empathy is sort of baked into our being. I think most people might assume that’s a good thing. Why is it not necessarily?

I’m not going to try to convince you to say that empathy is bad or that we should be against empathy. I think it’s fundamental for us. It’s absolutely something that we have to understand to know how we operate.

I also think that in most cases empathy does more good than bad things. I want to put it in proportion — there are dark sides to empathy.

People assume that empathy is good because it is good for the recipient of empathy — I’m actually skeptical about this.

Empathy might be a little bit more selfish than many people assume. The empathizer feels less alone, they share experiences, they learn something. So we should ask for whom is [empathy] good? It’s actually the empathizer in most cases.

How is empathy good for the empathizer?

Beings without empathy live in their own world. They can’t really understand that other beings are out there with minds of their own. But beings with empathy understand that there are all these different minds around [that] have different experiences and different feelings. They can participate in them. Someone with empathy lives more than one life. Of course, sometimes that means that you have to carry the suffering of others, but in many cases their joy becomes your joy. So it’s a richer, much more complex life. And in that sense, of course empathy is wonderful for you.

But there’s a flip side too, right? In your book you talk about something you call “vampiristic empathy.” What do you mean by that?

Vampiristic empathy is a form of empathy where people want to manipulate the people they empathize with so that they can, through them, experience the world in such a way that they really enjoy it.

An extreme case of this is helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents are constantly trying to steer their kids in the directions they think are the right directions. Of course they want the best for their children. Very understandable; I have kids and I want what’s best for them too.

But I think there’s something else seeping in. There’s this sort of living along with the kids, imagining how it must be like to have a life that’s marked by successes, where obstacles disappear and life can be enjoyed. But that also means that the parents are co-experiencing that life, so they start taking over … they basically want to use the child almost as a pawn.

In a sense, extreme helicopter parents are robbing their kids of a selfhood so that they can basically project their own self into these kids.

You write that empathy can actually make us more polarized instead of bringing us together. How can that happen?

People imagine that empathy can help resolve tensions in cases of conflict, but very often empathy is exactly that thing that leads to the extremes, that polarizes people even more.

It can happen this way, be it a family feud or something that escalates to a civil war. Humans are very quick to take sides. And when you take one side, you take the perspective of that side. You can see the painful parts of that perspective and empathize with them, and that empathy can fuel seeing the other side as darker and darker or more dubious.

One example of this comes from Northern Ireland, which has a long history of conflict. In the early 2000s school administrators there tried to resolve the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant youth by bringing empathy into the curriculum.

They emphasized that students would learn both sides, and the atrocities committed by one side or the other were always put into context. Students learned this curriculum, but follow-up studies showed that this new generation was more polarized than the one before.

So what this group had internalized was there’s always two sides and, in the end, they know their side. So they reorganized this information to empathize with people on their side and withdraw from the other side.

So Northern Ireland had to abandon this project.

The other case is that of terrorists. I think a lot of terrorists may not lack empathy. Rather, they see some plight of a group they identify with — they see them suffering and see it as something horrible, and that becomes more extreme and activates them to become active terrorists.

Are there other downsides to empathy?

[Empathizers] may overextend themselves. If you are a medical doctor who sees a lot of suffering and pain every day, it can very quickly become too much. Something like a third of medical doctors suffer from “empathy burnout” that is so severe that it affects their functioning as doctors and their personal life. They become the victim of feeling empathy.

In the end though, doesn’t empathy cause more good than harm?

In one sense, yes. Empathy is weakly correlated with altruistic behavior. So there is a connection. I do think empathy can help people help each other, and that makes us human.

My core argument here is that in many cases of altruistic help or humanitarian aid, people actually don’t really empathize as much with the person in need. They identify more with the helper, the hero, the person who intervenes even if it’s an imaginary helper.

It can be good when it leads to good action, but it can have downsides. For example, if you want the victims to say ‘thank you.’ You may even want to keep the people you help in that position of inferior victim because it can sustain your feeling of being a hero.

If you want recognition and if that doesn’t come, it can turn into resentment. That’s an unfortunately common impulse. On the political scale, I think it happened in Germany. In 2015 Germany opened its borders, very laudably, to refugees. Initially there was a wave of huge enthusiasm, and then suddenly a huge drop in enthusiasm and a lot of resentment.

What are your big takeaways about empathy?

I think we can learn to use empathy in a somewhat controlled way. We can learn when to block it, when to not allow empathy to be manipulated and when to fully turn it on.

Yes, we are born with empathy, but it needs constant practice [to know] when to use it and when not to use it. So the dark sides are so important to know because they teach us that in some cases you shouldn’t empathize.

But when it’s good, we should embrace empathy, because it can lead to such richer, fuller lives.

IMAGE Christina Chung

Researchers Discover ‘Anxiety Cells’ In The Brain

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Scientists have found specialized brain cells in mice that appear to control anxiety levels.

The finding, reported Wednesday in the journal Neuron, could eventually lead to better treatments for anxiety disorders, which affect nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.

“The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks,” says Mazen Kheirbek, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an author of the study. “This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies.”

But the research is at an early stage and lab findings in animals don’t always pan out in humans.

The discovery of anxiety cells is just the latest example of the “tremendous progress” scientists have made toward understanding how anxiety works in the brain, says Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund the research.

“If we can learn enough, we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people,” Gordon says.

Anxiety disorders involve excessive worry that doesn’t go away. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder.

Kheirbek and a team including several researchers from Columbia University discovered the cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to be involved in anxiety as well as navigation and memory.

They did it by studying some anxious mice, Kheirbek says. “Mice tend to be afraid of open places,” he says. So the team put mice in a maze in which some pathways led to open areas. Then the researchers monitored the activity of brain cells at the very bottom of the hippocampus.

“And what we found is that these cells became more active whenever the animal went into an area that elicits anxiety,” Kheirbek says.

This activity didn’t prove the cells were causing anxious behavior, though. So the team found a way to control the activity of these cells using a technique called optogenetics.

The team set out to answer a simple question, Kheirbek says:

“If we turn down this activity, will the animals become less anxious? And what we found was that they did become less anxious. They actually tended to want to explore the open arms of the maze even more.”

When the researchers dialed up the cells’ activity, the mice got more anxious and didn’t want to explore at all.

But there’s a lot more to anxiety than just these cells in the hippocampus, Kheirbek says. “These cells are probably just one part of an extended circuit by which the animal learns about anxiety-related information.”

For example, the cells in the hippocampus communicate with another brain area called the hypothalamus that tells mice when to avoid something dangerous. Kheirbek says other parts of the anxiety circuit might detect dangerous odors or sounds.

“You can think of this paper as one brick in a big wall,” Gordon says. In recent years, he says, scientists have been finding and assembling other bricks at rapid pace.

And they need to because anxiety disorders are “incredibly prevalent,” Gordon says. “They hit us in the prime working years of life, and our treatments are, at best, partially efficacious.”


Are We Ready For An Implant That Can Change Our Moods

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Our thoughts and fears, movements and sensations all arise from the electrical blips of billions of neurons in our brain. Streams of electricity flow through neural circuits to govern these actions of the brain and body, and some scientists think that many neurological and psychiatric disorders may result from dysfunctional circuits.

As this understanding has grown, some scientists have asked whether we could locate these faulty circuits, reach deep into the brain and nudge the flow to a more functional state, treating the underlying neurobiological cause of ailments like tremors or depression.

The idea of changing the brain for the better with electricity is not new, but deep brain stimulation takes a more targeted approach than the electroconvulsive therapy introduced in the 1930s. DBS seeks to correct a specific dysfunction in the brain by introducing precisely timed electric pulses to specific regions. It works by the action of a very precise electrode that is surgically inserted deep in the brain and typically controlled by a device implanted under the collarbone. Once in place, doctors can externally tailor the pulses to a frequency that they hope will fix the faulty circuit.

The FDA has only approved deep brain stimulation for a handful of conditions, including movement disorders — dystonia, essential tremor and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease — and a type of treatment-resistant epilepsy. Now, many scientists in the U.S. and around the globe are experimenting with the technology for psychiatric conditions like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The results of clinical studies so far are very mixed: Some patients say they have been totally transformed while others feel no effect at all, or they get worse.

Yet research continues and the technology’s potential to instantly and powerfully change mood raises ethical, social and cultural questions. NPR spoke to neuroethicist, James Giordano, chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at Georgetown University Medical Center, about this new technology and its potential benefits and harms when used for psychiatric treatment. In addition to his work at Georgetown, Giordano has consulted with the U.S. military about these technologies and their possible use.

This interview includes answers from two separate conversations with Giordano, one conducted by Alix Spiegel and one by Jonathan Lambert. It has been edited for clarity and length.

What is deep brain stimulation and how does it work?

Scientists have been stimulating brains for a while now, but it has historically been quite crude. A neurosurgeon [would] touch a brain area with an electrode, and see what happened, what types of functions were affected. But we didn’t have a detailed picture of what we wanted to target in the brain, and the electrodes themselves were not very precise.

Now we have a much more detailed map of the networks and nodes of neurons involved in different pathologies [like Parkinson’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.] or different thought patterns or emotions. Deep brain stimulation provides a fairly specific and very precise way to utilize electrodes to deliver electrical current in and around a small set of brain cells to turn them on or modulate their activity.

Modify the circuit, and you can modify the behavior. The goal is to use DBS to modify the circuits in such a way as to improve symptoms in a very specific and precise way.

How do you know what kinds of specific inputs you want the electrode to a deliver, and where in the brain to deliver them?

There’s an old adage in brain science: “When you’ve seen one brain, you’ve seen one brain.” This is certainly true, but all brains have a lot of similarity on which individual variation is built because brain structures are changed and developed as a consequence of experience.

So when implanting a device, we know generally where we’re going, but because the patient is awake while we’re implanting the device, we can further tailor it to know where precisely to put it for the desired effect. More fine-tuning, in terms of the kind of stimulation to provide, can be done after surgery, because the device can be tuned externally.

Though it’s not yet FDA approved for them, there is ongoing research on treating psychiatric disorders with DBS? What is the research finding so far?

Many studies are certainly finding evidence that DBS can be effective for treating disorders like Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even depression. Patients are reporting a reduction in the symptoms, but we certainly still have many questions that need answering. For example, when do we treat with DBS? Early in the development of a disorder? Later, after other options have been exhausted? These are questions that still need answering.

How would you explain the difference between how an antidepressants affects the brain and how deep brain stimulation works?

A drug like Prozac or antidepressant drugs is basically like throwing water on your face to get a drink of water. Using something like deep brain stimulation is like putting a drop of water on your tongue. We can increase the specificity and precision … and, in many ways, the precision and specificity of deep brain stimulation makes it a more effective tool. It can be turned on and turned off. It can be adjusted in the very short term so it can be a more flexible tool that allows a much more precise control of mood.

And compared with antidepressants, are there differences in moral or ethical implications in the use of a treatment that allows us to act so specifically on mood?

Specificity is power. And the moral obligation that comes with great power is overwhelming. The responsibility to understand as best as conceivably possible what you’re doing not only on a neurobiological level, but also on an existential and even social level. What are you doing? Are you creating new normal [in terms of mood]? And if you’re creating new normal, do we have what I’ll call “the ethical equipment” on board to be able to address this? In some cases I think the answer is yes, but I think in other cases what you’re going to begin to see is that new ethical principles may need to be developed because of the potential and reality of the way these things are being used.

For example, expressive creativity. Is there an ethical principle of self-creativity … that I can define myself and say I want to create myself in these ways?

Do you mean, theoretically, in the future, you could go to a doctor and say I want to be a great artist?

Now we’re not quite to that point, but I could certainly go to a physician and say I want to be more outgoing, I want to be less inhibited. I’d like to be happier on a daily basis. I’d like to feel more enlightened in my daily experiences … In an open society, are we saying that one should be able to define ‘I want to be this’ and this is a tool to get there? Perhaps, but then we also have to balance that. What about others? … This gets back to a question of fairness. Can everybody get this? Who’s going to get this?

What can go wrong with this technology? What should we be worried about?

Well, it is neurosurgery, and there are certainly risks that go along with that, infection, problems with the procedure. Targets could be missed or misidentified. Those are risks that come with the territory.

But there are some more cases more specific to DBS. What if you get effects that you didn’t anticipate? By stimulating Area X, it’s possible that we could get a spillover effect that modulates other things ancillary to that, like personality, temperament, character, personal preferences. There have been case reports and anecdotal reports of things like that happening, but they’re rare.

So could implanting a DBS device have some unanticipated consequences for our tastes or personal characteristics like introversion and extroversion?

One of the better-known cases, for example, was a person whose musical taste had nothing to do with country music. And after a deep brain implant for a movement disorder, [the person] developed a real pathos for Johnny Cash music and was just totally into the aesthetic of Johnny Cash. Is it possible for these things to occur? Of course, it is. The brain works as a coordinated set of nodes and networks that are intercommunicative and reciprocal. So changing the local field electrical activity in one area isn’t necessarily going to be completely discrete from the wiring, if you will, of the kind of activities and the functions of other brain areas. These things occurring up- and down-stream represent real effects.

Can treatment with a DBS device change more than just our mood, but also our personality?

Yes, although we have to ask ourselves whether those changes are due to the positive consequences of DBS. If someone with Tourette’s was an introvert, and then they get a DBS implant and become more of an extrovert and more socially engaged, is this a side effect of the DBS? Or because they’re no longer bearing the burden of being someone with a constant verbal tic?

DBS also raises questions of personal autonomy. Are we going to get cases of people saying “my deep brain stimulator made me do it”? Perhaps. But very often patients report that the condition they had which DBS is treating impaired their autonomy more than they feel the deep brain stimulation is.

What guidance would you give doctors working with DBS in a patient? Because they can affect the state of someone’s mood by the levels of the electrical current in the device, how do they know what level to set?

To the point of clinically relevant therapeutic improvement. Just as one would set for example the levels that one could use through any other therapy, [like] cognitive behavioral therapy. Is the person functional? Are they saying, “yes I feel better, my mood is better.” The same would be true of a drug, however this is more powerful because you’re directly affecting those nodes and networks that appear to be some substrate of the thing that causes this person’s mood. So you want to be cautious. The general tenor in the field is start low and go slow.

Beyond DBS, where this might this technology ultimately go?

There is a do-it-yourself market if you will, for not deep brain stimulation but transcranial electrical stimulation. What that’s showing is that there is an increased interest in neurotechnologies that are not just oriented toward alleviating a medical condition but that change key aspects of cognition, emotions and behavior. This is sometimes referred to as the cosmetic use or designer use of neurotechnology. [If] I don’t like key aspects of personality, [such as being shy], could I modify that for example through the use of these neuro technologies? Those things are coming and it’s not in the near future — there’s interest now.

What pitfalls do we face if this technology becomes more widely used?

Mistakes will get made. Hopefully, we’ll be bright enough to correct them and recognize them when they occur not only in terms of the technological and scientific mistakes but ethical, moral, legal mistakes. In many ways, this represents something of a brave new world of capability. And I think that we have to be very, very sentinel to what the potential of this could yield. Yeah this could yield some really wonderful things but also, along with that, if it’s used for cosmetic purposes like self-enhancement, could this lead to potentially violent outcomes? I can guarantee you that things that are at very, very problematic and, in some cases, devastating will occur. Do I believe that the net effect will be beneficial because we will respond appropriately to those mistakes that we make? Yeah that’s my hope. Do I know that we will? I don’t know.


IMAGE: Christina Chung

Strategize To Catch Up On Lost Sleep

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There are lots of reasons why many of us don’t get the recommended seven hours or more of sleep each night. Travel schedules, work deadlines, TV bingeing and — a big one — having young children all take a toll.

Research published recently in the journal Sleep finds that up to six years after the birth of a child, many mothers and fathers still don’t sleep as much as they did before their child was born. For parents, there’s just less time in the day to devote to yourself.

So, can you catch up on sleep? That partly depends on how much sleep you’ve missed.

A study in the current issue of Current Biology points to just how quickly the adverse effects of sleep deprivation can kick in. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recruited a bunch of young, healthy adults who agreed to a stay in a sleep lab. Some were allowed to sleep no more than five hours per night for five consecutive days.

“After five days, people [gained] as much as 5 pounds,” says study author Christopher Depner, who studies the links between sleep loss and metabolic diseases. Lack of sleep can throw off the hormones that regulate appetite, he explains, so people tend to eat more.

Depner and his colleagues also documented a decrease in insulin sensitivity among the sleep-deprived participants. “In some people, it decreased to a level where they’d be considered pre-diabetic,” he says. Presumably, that rise in blood sugar would be only temporary in these young, healthy people. But it’s a striking indicator of how much a lack of sleep can influence metabolism.

And, even after a weekend of catch-up sleep, the participants still gained as much weight as those in the study who had not been allowed to get the extra weekend sleep.

So, bottom line: It can be hard for our metabolism to recover from a week of sleep deprivation, and — over time — chronic sleep loss can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

These findings are eye-opening, but they don’t paint the full picture. After all, many of us who lose out on sleep miss only a few hours here or there. Our sleep loss is occasional, not chronic.

Consider this scenario: You have a long day of travel and arrive home late, say, at 2 a.m. And you’ve got to wake up at the crack of dawn for an early meeting the next day. Is that a big deal?

“The short-term effect is that you’re a little more sleepy — your concentration is poor, or [you may lose] words on the tip of your tongue,” says Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep specialist in Charlottesville, Va. But what’s the long-term effect of one night of partial sleep loss?

“I don’t think there really is one,” Winter says.

Winter says our bodies are good at compensating for a poor night’s sleep. “That correction is probably going to happen fairly quickly,” Winter says. “You only got four hours of sleep last night, so you’re probably going to sleep quite well the upcoming night.”

So, while it’s ideal to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, it’s not always possible to stick to this routine. And, a recent longevity study suggests this is OK. “We’re very adaptable,” Winter says.

Researchers in Sweden looked at how the amount of weekday and weekend sleep was associated with life span. The study included about 44,000 people who were followed for 13 years. The researchers found that people who tended to get less sleep during the week, but who made up for it with extended weekend sleep, did not have an increased risk of premature death. The researchers concluded that “long weekend sleep may compensate for short weekday sleep.” They published their findings in the Journal of Sleep Research.

“If you’re somebody who needs seven hours of sleep a night, then you really need 49 hours a week,” Winter says. In other words, it’s probably OK to vary your sleep a bit over a short time period, as long as it averages out to what you need.

“Yes, I do think you can make up for lost sleep,” Winter says. “I don’t think I’ll ever make up for the sleep I lost in medical school and residency, but I do think in the short term you can.”

Still, there is one potential drawback of sleeping in on the weekend: Too much sleep can throw off your body clock. So, an hour or two of extra sleep is fine, but you don’t want to sleep in so long on a Sunday morning that then it’s hard to fall asleep Sunday night.

Another way to recover: Take a nap.

“A 20-minute nap can make up for one hour of lost sleep,” says Jim Horne, a sleep researcher and professor emeritus of psychophysiology at Loughborough University in the U.K. He published a study in 2011 demonstrating the benefits of a 20-minute nap.

Horne also points to a review study that concluded that daytime naps can help boost performance — everything from improved memory recall to being more alert. But, here’s a tip: Don’t take a nap after 3 p.m., or it’s likely to interfere with your nighttime sleep.

And Horne has another nap strategy for those times when you want to wake up feeling very alert.

“People call it a caff nap,” Horne says. The idea: Lie down to sleep immediately after drinking a cup of coffee.

“That coffee takes 20 minutes to kick in,” Horne explains. That’s just enough time to catch a few Z’s, and it has been shown to be “a very effective combination” for sleepy drivers, he says.


Misophonia: When Life’s Noises Drive You Mad

Individual Therapy Tribeca

For 18-year-old high school senior Ellie Rapp of Pittsburgh, the sound of her family chewing their dinner can be … unbearable.

“My heart starts to pound. I go one of two ways. I either start to cry or I just get really intensely angry. It’s really intense. I mean, it’s as if you’re going to die,” she says.

Rapp has been experiencing this reaction to certain noises since she was a toddler. She recalls a ride home from preschool when her mother turned on the radio and started singing, which caused Rapp to scream and cry hysterically.

“That’s my first memory ever,” Rapp says.

Over the years, “everybody was pretty confused, but on the inside I felt like I was going insane,” she says.

It wasn’t until middle school that she found a name for it. Her mom, Kathy Rapp, had been searching for years for help. Then she found an article on the Web about a condition known as misophonia.

“And I read it and I said, ‘This is what I have. This is it,’ ” says Ellie Rapp.

Misophonia is characterized by intense emotion like rage or fear in response to highly specific sounds, particularly ordinary sounds that other people make. The cause is unknown.

For people who suffer from it, mouth sounds are common triggers.

“Chewing is almost universal. Gum chewing is almost universal. They also don’t like the sound of throat clearing. Coughing, sniffing, nose blowing — a number of things,” says Jaelline Jaffe, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles who specializes in misophonia and works with Rapp.

For some, the sight of someone chewing or a specific smell or even humming, tapping or pen-clicking can trigger a negative reaction.

“It’s as if the survival part of the brain thinks somehow it’s being attacked or it’s in danger,” says Jaffe.

Misophonia got its name just a few years ago, and it is not officially listed as a diagnosis in any medical manuals. Many doctors have never heard of it, and if patients do mention their symptoms, they are sometimes dismissed or diagnosed with a mood disorder.

While many people with misophonia also have anxiety or depression, not all of them do. There are few studies on misophonia, and experts disagree over whether it should be classified as its own disorder or a subset of another.

Because it’s so little understood, the people around those suffering from it have trouble believing or understanding how painful their symptoms can be.

A small, recent study offers potential new insight into how misophonia works.

“We’re pretty convinced that we’ve found some very good evidence for relating this disorder to particular patterns of brain activity.” says Phillip Gander, who studies how the brain makes sense of sound at the University of Iowa. He was part of a team that published a study in Current Biology in 2017 that suggests that the brains of people with misophonia respond differently to certain sounds.

The team looked at 20 adults with misophonia and 22 without it. They had the participants rate the unpleasantness of different sounds, including common trigger sounds like eating and breathing, universally disliked sounds like nails on a chalkboard, and neutral sounds like footsteps or a bird chirping.

“What happened was that the response to the neutral sounds and negative sounds were the same in both groups,” he says.

But the people with misophonia rated the eating and breathing sounds as highly disturbing. Those without the condition did not.

The ones with misophonia also showed classic signs of stress when hearing these trigger sounds: “Their heart rate increased and it made their palms sweat more,” he says.

Also, the people with misophonia appeared to have some unusual brain activity when the trigger sounds were played.

“In the misophonia group, the activity was far greater in particular parts of their brain,” Gander explains — including parts of the brain that process emotions.

It’s an interesting study, agrees Steven Taylor, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia who specializes in mood disorders. But there are a number of important problems with it, he says. First, it was very small, and the subjects’ misophonia was diagnosed with only a short questionnaire. “In studies of clinical conditions like misophonia, diagnosis by questionnaire is typically inadequate. A face-to-face interview with a trained clinician (e.g., a psychologist) is typically needed,” he says.

Also, the study doesn’t show what causes misophonia, only that it is associated with some brain regions and their connections, he adds.

Gander agrees that more work needs to be done. “What it does help us do is identify some targets in the brain to look at,” he says.

For the misophonia community, the brain study was a big deal.

Marsha Johnson is an audiologist in Portland, Ore., who specializes in misophonia. “It was phenomenal. It was the first piece of research that showed our population that what they had was real,” she says.

Johnson is one of the first to identify misophonia. She began recognizing that a number of her young patients had symptoms that couldn’t be easily explained as either hearing disorders or psychological problems.

“They were perfectly developing normal kids until the certain period of time from like 7 or 8 years old through about 13 or 14 — and mostly girls,” she says. Also, their triggers were most likely to come from close family members.

Back in 1999, she dubbed it selective sound sensitivity syndrome.

But a more melodic name — misophonia — would later catch on after it was so named by scientists who wrote a paper describing symptoms of decreased sound tolerance in 2001.

Misophonia means hatred of sound, which, as Johnson points out, is not technically accurate.

“Most of these people don’t hate sound; they only hate particular sounds,” she says.

Johnson began speaking at conferences and leading online group chats to draw attention to misophonia, and thousands came. She developed a network of providers to work with misophonia patients, including therapist Jaelline Jaffe.

But the community is still relatively small, and recognition of the condition is still not universal. Misophonia is listed by the National Institutes of Health on its rare diseases website as a chronic disorder (though Jaffe and Johnson say it is likely underdiagnosed and may not be so rare).

And it’s not listed in the bible of mental disorders, the DSM-5, which makes it hard for doctors to identify it and rare for insurers to cover treatments related to it.

“The problem is, the whole field currently lies undefined,” says Johnson.

And there aren’t any bulletproof treatments. But there are some strategies that can help someone cope. Flooding the ears with noise, noise-canceling headphones, mindful breathing, or just getting up and taking a brisk walk can redirect attention. Others have found antidepressants or exercise helpful.

For Ellie Rapp, a combination of noise-canceling headphones and learning to look at life a little differently have helped her excel in school and cope at home.

“Misophonia … I would say it used to define who I am, but now I just see it as another part of my life,” she says.

She graduates from high school this spring and plans to study cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University in the fall.

“I want to basically be a Dr. Jaffe and get my SciD or Ph.D. and eventually solve the mystery and cure it,” she says.

Ellie Rapp’s mom, Kathy, stresses that family support plays a big role in helping people with misophonia. At conferences and meetings, they’ve met adults who experience isolation and despair because their families did not believe them.

“It sounds bizarre, but it’s very real and a family’s help I think is critical in helping somebody live a fuller life,” she says.


Do All Hipsters Look Alike?

Individual Therapy Tribeca

The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same. Science explains why efforts to reject the mainstream merely result in a new conformity.

You’ve probably seen this effect—perhaps you are a victim of it. You feel alienated from mainstream culture and want to make a statement that you are not part of it. You think about wearing different clothes, experimenting with a new hairstyle, or even trying unconventional makeup and grooming products.

And yet when you finally reveal your new look to the world, it turns out you are not alone—millions of others have made exactly the same choices. Indeed, you all look more or less identical, the exact opposite of the countercultural statement you wanted to achieve.

This is the hipster effect—the counterintuitive phenomenon in which people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same. Similar effects occur among investors and in other areas of the social sciences.

How does this kind of synchronization occur? Is it inevitable in modern society, and are there ways for people to be genuinely different from the masses?

Today we get some answers thanks to the work of Jonathan Touboul at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Touboul is a mathematician who studies the way the transmission of information through society influences the behavior of people within it. He focuses in particular on a society composed of conformists who copy the majority and anti-conformists, or hipsters, who do the opposite.

And his conclusion is that in a vast range of scenarios, the hipster population always undergoes a kind of phase transition in which members become synchronized with each other in opposing the mainstream. In other words, the hipster effect is the inevitable outcome of the behavior of large numbers of people.

Crucially, Toubol’s model takes into account the time needed for each individual to detect changes in society and to react accordingly. This delay is important. People do not react instantly when a new, highly fashionable pair of shoes becomes available. Instead, the information spreads slowly via fashion websites, word of mouth, and so on. This propagation delay is different for individuals, some of whom may follow fashion blogs religiously while others have no access to them and have to rely on word of mouth.

The question that Touboul investigates is under what circumstances hipsters become synchronized and how this varies as the propagation delay and the proportion of hipsters both change. He does this by creating a computer model that simulates how agents interact when some follow the majority and the rest oppose it.

This simple model generates some fantastically complex behaviors. In general, Touboul says, the population of hipsters initially act randomly but then undergo a phase transition into a synchronized state. He finds that this happens for a wide range of parameters but that the behavior can become extremely complex, depending on the way hipsters interact with conformists.

There are some surprising outcomes, too. When there are equal proportions of hipsters and conformists, the entire population tends to switch randomly between different trends. Why isn’t clear, and Touboul wants to study this in more detail.

It can be objected that the synchronization stems from the simplicity of scenarios offering a binary choice. “For example, if a majority of individuals shave their beard, then most hipsters will want to grow a beard, and if this trend propagates to a majority of the population, it will lead to new, synchronized, switch to shaving,” says Touboul.

It’s easy to imagine a different outcome if there are more choices. If hipsters could grow a mustache, a square beard, or a goatee, for example, then perhaps this diversity of choice would prevent synchronization. But Touboul has found that when his model offers more than two choices, it still produces the synchronization effect.

Nevertheless, he wants to study this further. “We will study in depth this question in a forthcoming paper,” he says.

Hipsters are an easy target for a bit of fun, but the results have much wider applicability. For example, they could be useful for understanding financial systems in which speculators attempt to make money by taking decisions that oppose the majority in a stock exchange.

Indeed, there are many areas in which delays in the propagation of information play an important role: As Touboul puts it: “Beyond the choice of the best suit to wear this winter, this study may have important implications in understanding synchronization of nerve cells, investment strategies in finance, or emergent dynamics in social science.”

By Emerging Technology from the arXiv

Are All Our Organs Vital?

individual Therapy Tribeca

Even the appendix and tonsils are less expendable than we thought.

Medicine has not always shown a lot of respect for the human body. Just think about the ghoulish disregard early surgeons had for our corporeal integrity. They poked holes in the skull and copiously drained blood with leeches or lancets—a practice that remained a medical mainstay through the late 19th century. Even today many of the most popular surgeries involve the wholesale removal of body parts—the appendix, gallbladder, tonsils, uterus (usually after the childbearing years)—with an assurance that patients will do just fine without them. There are many valid reasons for these “ectomies,” but what has become increasingly less defensible is the idea that losing these organs is of little or no consequence.

Take the appendix. Or rather leave it be, if possible. Many of us learned in school that this tiny, fingerlike projection off the colon is a useless, vestigial remnant of our evolution, much like the puny leg bones found in some snakes. But that idea has been debunked, says evolutionary biologist Heather Smith, director of Anatomical Laboratories at Midwestern University in Arizona. A 2017 study led by Smith reviewed data on 533 species of mammals and found that the appendix appears across multiple, unrelated species. “This suggests there’s some good reason to have it,” she says.

The reason appears to be immunological and gastrointestinal. In all species that have an appendix, Smith notes, it either contains or is closely associated with lymphoid tissue, which plays a role in supporting the immune system. In humans, the appendix also harbors a layer of helpful gut bacteria—a fact discovered by scientists at Duke University. In a 2007 paper, they proposed that it serves as a “safe house” to preserve these microbes, so that when the gut microbiome is hit hard by illness, we can replenish it with good guys holed up in the appendix. Some evidence for this idea surfaced in 2011, when a study showed that people without an appendix are two and half times more likely to suffer a recurrence of infection with Clostridium difficile, a dangerous strain of gut bacteria that thrives in the absence of friendlier types.

The appendix may have more far-flung roles in the body—including some that can go awry. A study published last October found that misfolded alpha-synuclein—an abnormal protein found in the brain of Parkinson’s disease patients—can accumulate in the appendix. Intriguingly, the study found that people who had the organ removed as young adults appear to have some modest protection against Parkinson’s.

New research has also shed light on the value of our tonsils and adenoids. In a study published last July, an international team assessed the long-term impact of removing these structures, or leaving them, in 1.2 million Danish children. Over a follow-up period of 10 to 30 years, the 5 percent or so who had one or both sets of organs extracted before age nine were found to have a twofold to threefold higher rate of upper respiratory diseases and higher rates of allergies and asthma. Notably they suffered more frequently from ear infections and, in the case of adenotonsillectomies, sinus infections—conditions thought to be helped by surgery.

We have known for a long time that the adenoids and tonsils “act as a first line of defense against pathogens that enter through the airways or eating,” says Sean Byars, a senior research fellow at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health and lead author of the paper. The fact that these tissues are most prominent in children, with the adenoids nearly gone by adulthood, has bolstered the view that they are not essential, but as Byars points out, “maybe there’s a reason they are largest in childhood.” Perhaps they play a developmental role, helping to shape the immune system in ways that have lasting consequences.

Byars cautions that his study, large though it is, awaits confirmation by others and that the decision to treat any given child must be made on an individual basis. Still, he says, “Given these are some of the most common surgeries in childhood, our results suggest a conservative approach would be wise.”

It is worth noting that tonsillectomy rates have declined in the U.S., especially since the heyday in the mid-20th century. Surgeons are also doing fewer hysterectomies, reflecting a growing view that the uterus does not outlive its usefulness once childbearing is done and that there are less drastic ways to address common issues such as fibroid tumors.

So are any human body parts truly useless or vestigial? Perhaps the best case can be made for the wisdom teeth. “Our faces are so flat, compared with other primates, that there’s often not room for them,” Smith observes. And given how we butcher and cook our food, “we really don’t need them.”

By Claudia Wallis

What An Insect Can Teach Us About Adapting To Stress

Individual Therapy Tribeca

What if we told you that you could learn a lot about handling adversity from the life of a bug? In their explorations of humans and how we interact with the world around us, the team that makes NPR’s Invisibilia stumbled on a surprising fact about the insect world — one that could inspire a new way of looking at ourselves.

The epic destruction wrought by swarms of locusts is downright biblical. Exodus tells of a plague that left nothing green in all of Egypt, and we’ve seen these harbingers of destruction at work in modern day Australia, Argentina and Israel, just to name a few. But for centuries, one essential piece of information about these strange insects eluded scientists: Where do they come from?

These massive swarms just seemed to pop up out of nowhere, decimate everything and then vanish.

And then finally, in 1921, a scientist named Sir Boris Uvarov made a breakthrough about the source of the swarms. It turned out the horrible locusts were actually common grasshoppers that had undergone a biological metamorphosis.

At first, scientists were skeptical because grasshoppers are known for being shy, solitary creatures. If they see another grasshopper for instance, “They actually run away from them,” says scientist Michael Anstey.

But under stressful conditions, such as a drought for instance, the grasshoppers all have to crowd together to share the limited resources. As they’re trying to grab for the last bits of food, their big hind legs rub up against each other and it’s basically tickle torture. The rubbing together fuels the release of serotonin in their nervous system, which sets several things in motion.

“There’s little stimuli, little hairs, on the hind legs which get triggered and that then starts this domino cascade of the behavioral change from the solitary [grasshopper] into the notorious swarming form,” says Anstey, who published research on desert locusts, one species that goes through these changes.

Their wings grow bigger and they start flying around like crazy, they turn from green to black and yellow. They get aggressive and fearless, and incredibly social. In fact, according to Anstey, they are actively attracted to other locusts. And that’s how the swarms build.

But why did it literally take centuries to figure out that these two creatures were actually the same creature? And why, even after the theory was proposed, did scientists resist it? Why was that such a hard idea to swallow?

Maybe it’s because we can’t see that in ourselves. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor from Northeastern University, says people can be “experientially blind” when faced with a new image of themselves. They just can’t take it in.

She says we often have such a rigid sense of self that when we’re presented with new concepts about ourselves — like, you think of yourself as a generous person and then someone tells you they actually think you’re kind of selfish — and our reaction is usually to reject it.

“People will defend themselves or dig their heels in, keep their concepts intact. Or they’ll ignore,” she says.

We like to think that we know who we are, and that we are one thing — one unified true self. But according to Barrett, social psychology research has shown that it’s not like that.

“Who you are in a given moment is very much determined by the situation that you’re in,” Barrett says.

So when you’re trying to handle some frank criticism or you’re struggling with something hard — or just really want to make a change in your life — Barrett says, you might want to embrace a more flexible self image.

“If you see yourself in a certain way and that way is inflexible, then you will go to great lengths to make sure that you and everybody else sees you in that way,” she says. “And in the end, you’ll be stressed more frequently, you will work harder to try to please people … to keep that view of yourself intact.”

If you are struggling in one role in life, your professional life for instance, you don’t pin your whole identity, your whole sense of self, on that role, she says. Instead, it helps to have “multiple views of yourself,” Barrett says.

“So if somebody criticizes you as a teacher, well, you have other ways to think about yourself. You could think about yourself as a friend in that moment, you could think about yourself as a mother. You think about yourself as a terrific gardener.”

Realizing that you have “a vocabulary of selves” you can become, Barrett says, can be empowering. “It doesn’t allow other people to define who you are. You get to be the author of who you are. Your brain is the one that’s making the choices.”

According to Barrett, “You aren’t who you are all the time. You are who you are in a given situation.” You might be a locust in one setting, and a grasshopper in another.

The locusts, by the way, have embraced the idea. As soon as the drought is over, they go back to their own corners as their shy, solitary, bright green selves.


How to Identify a Malignant Narcissist

Individual Therapy Tribeca

While narcissism has been a personality trait that has been around for a long time, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and narcissistic personality traits have been in the public eye more often in recent years. As awareness increases surrounding narcissistic traits, people are wondering if they are dealing with a narcissist rather than someone who is simply selfish, thoughtless, or overly power-seeking in a more general way.

Narcissists are a specific type of person and dealing with them is never easy. That’s why it helps to know when you have one in your life and what to expect from interactions with them. This knowledge, recognition, and understanding can provide you with some clues as to how to deal with them in the safest way possible.

Narcissism vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

It’s important to note that those with narcissistic traits aren’t necessarily diagnosable with the personality disorder NPD. Personality disorders are stable maladaptive patterns of behavior that involve at least two of the following four areas, according to the American Psychological Association (APA): cognitive (thought patterns), affective (emotional patterns), interpersonal (patterns of relating to others), and impulse-control-based.

Personality disorders create an impairment in how people function in their lives and affect an estimated 10 percent of the population in the US, though there are different types of personality disorders. This means that not everyone who has some of these traits is diagnosable with this personality disorder, but they may have a less severe form of this pattern of behavior that can still be problematic and difficult to deal with.

Types of Narcissists

While there is only one official diagnosis for narcissists, there are different “variants” of narcissism or different types of narcissists, and narcissism comes in varying degrees of severity. A 2012 review of the research on narcissism identified several of these variants including grandiose narcissists, who seem to require excessive praise and attention, and vulnerable narcissists, who tend to have a lot of anxiety and need a lot of supportive attention.

Among the variants of narcissism, however, malignant narcissists are by far the most damaging. Beyond merely wanting to focus primarily on themselves and be held in overly high regard by virtually everyone in their lives, they tend to have a darker side to their self-absorption. This subset contains the general traits of NPD including the regular egocentricity, but also some antisocial traits and even a sadistic streak in addition to a poor sense of self and lack of empathy. In fact, some experts see little difference between malignant narcissists and psychopaths in that both have a sadistic, antisocial streak, and very little empathy. There is often some paranoia involved with malignant narcissism as well.

Malignant narcissists can be highly manipulative and they don’t care who they hurt as long as they get their own way. They see the world in black-and-white terms, including seeing others as either friend or foe. They seek to win at all costs and generally leave a great amount of pain, frustration, and even heartache in their wake. They generally don’t care about the pain they cause others—or may even enjoy it and experience it as empowering—and will do what it takes to prevent themselves from loss, inconvenience, or failing to get what they want in any situation.

Identifying Narcissists in Your Life

While not every person who displays narcissistic traits is a classic “narcissist” in the sense that they have the diagnosable condition of NPD, even those who fail to meet the criteria for diagnosis can create a lot of harm with the traits they do possess. Further, it’s unethical for a trained therapist to diagnose friends and family with NPD (due to potential bias) and it’s certainly not an official diagnosis for a layperson to view the diagnostic criteria and decide that someone they know has a psychological disorder.

Narcissists generally resist therapy (which can include diagnosis) because they tend to be happy—far happier than those in their lives because they don’t face the negative consequences of their disorder, their unfortunate targets do. Because discomfort is what generally brings people to therapy, narcissists themselves rarely seek treatment or diagnosis, which means that sometimes we can’t have a firm diagnosis for someone who has NPD, but we can recognize that they “probably” have it based on how closely they appear to fit the criteria. It helps to know this because their behavior can sometimes feel unpredictable but actually does follow a somewhat predictable pattern if you know what to look for.

The following is an abbreviated summary of the diagnostic criteria for NPD according to the DSM-V, which is the industry standard for diagnosis of psychological conditions.

A grandiose sense of self-importance
A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
A belief that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with similar high-status people and organizations
A need for excessive admiration.
A sense of entitlement or unreasonable expectation of special treatment or extreme loyalty
A tendency to use others for their own needs or wants
A lack of empathy, or unwillingness/inability to recognize and honor the needs and feelings of others
Proneness to envy or having a belief that they are envied by others
A sense of arrogance shown in behaviors and/or attitudes

Again, while a clinical diagnosis can’t be made from observation from friends and family, it helps to know what the criteria are as it can provide an idea of how close someone might be to fitting the profile. A less clinical more simple way to tell if someone in your life may have narcissistic tendencies is to look at signs and symptoms, which are observable traits and behaviors that tend to go hand-in-hand with disorders.

Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and the severity of symptoms vary. People with the disorder, particularly malignant narcissists, generally:

Care quite a bit about their appearance and can come across as quite charming
Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it, and will discount any evidence that doesn’t support their belief of their own superiority
Exaggerate their own achievements and talents, even to the point of lying
Are often preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
Are highly manipulative
Tend to project their bad behavior onto others, meaning they may accuse you of the very behavior they are conducting
Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
Aren’t opposed to taking advantage of others to get what they want
Fail to see or value the needs and feelings of others
Have no remorse for hurting others and rarely apologize unless it will benefit them in some way
Insist on having the best of everything and believe that they deserve this
Aren’t able to handle criticism and lash out if they feel slighted in any way
Have a poor sense of self and weak ability to regulate their feelings and actions
Secretly feel insecure and have a week sense of self

How to Deal With a Narcissist

If the description of a narcissist sounds familiar and has you concerned, this is probably a good thing. Knowing that you may be dealing with someone who could hurt you and having some concern for yourself in this situation can help you to protect yourself from the pain that a malignant narcissist can cause, at least to an extent. How does one deal with NPD in a loved one (or in someone they must deal with, like a co-worker)? Fortunately, they are somewhat predictable, so there are a few guidelines that can help.

Accept that they will be difficult to deal with. Put some distance between yourself and them whenever possible. This may be challenging as those with narcissistic traits tend to have poor boundaries and resent when you try to set them, but it is healthier for you.

Know that if you challenge them directly, they will likely retaliate in any way they can. This may include bringing others into the situation and attempting to turn them against you. This doesn’t mean that you agree with whatever the narcissist asks of you, but you may want to find less confrontational ways to communicate your boundaries or disagreements. If you do need to confront the person, try not to do so in front of a large audience or they will want to save face and will feel more threatened, sparking more retaliation.

Do not try to change them and don’t expect them to change or you will be disappointed.
Surround yourself with supportive people as much as possible to absorb some of the negativity you may experience with this person.

Life with a narcissist will never be easy, so it’s simplest if you can put distance between yourself and this person. However, if this person is a family member or co-worker, this can be more difficult. In this case, it helps to know who you are dealing with and how to handle communication in as healthy a way as possible.

By Elizabeth Scott, MS

Ghosting: What It Is, Why It Hurts, and What You Can Do About It

Individual Therapy Tribeca

You’re in a relationship. Suddenly, and maybe without any warning at all, your partner seems to have disappeared. No calls, no text messages, no connection made on social media, no responses to any of your messages. Odds are, your partner hasn’t unexpectedly left town because of a family emergency, and isn’t lying dead in a ditch somewhere but, rather, has simply ended the relationship without bothering to explain or even let you know. You’ve been ghosted.

Who Ghosts and Who Gets Ghosted?

Why would someone choose to simply disappear from another person’s life, rather than plan, at minimum, a conversation to end a relationship? You may never know for sure why you were ghosted. While more studies need to be done specifically on the ghosting phenomenon, past research has looked at different types of attachment personalities and choice of breakup strategies; it’s possible that people with an avoidant type personality (those who hesitate to form or completely avoid attachments to others, often as result of parental rejection), who are reluctant to get very close to anyone else due to trust and dependency issues and often use indirect methods of ending relationships, are more likely to use ghosting to initiate a break-up.

Other research found that people who are believers in destiny, who think that relationships are either meant to be or not, are more likely to find ghosting acceptable than people who believe relationships take patience and work. One study also suggests that people who end relationships by ghosting have often been ghosted themselves. In that case, the ghoster knows what it feels like to have a relationship end abruptly, with no explanation, no room for discussion. Yet they seemingly show no empathy toward the other, and may or may not experience any feelings of guilt over their ghosting behavior.

What it Means to Ghost and Be Ghosted

Ghosting is by no means limited to long-term romantic relationships. Informal dating relationships, friendships, even work relationships may end with a form of ghosting. For the person who does the ghosting, simply walking away from a relationship, or even a potential relationship, is a quick and easy way out. No drama, no hysterics, no questions asked, no need to provide answers or justify any of their behavior, no need to deal with someone else’s feelings. Certainly, while the ghoster may benefit from avoiding an uncomfortable situation and any potential drama, they’ve done nothing to improve their own conversation and relationships skills for the future.

For the person who is ghosted, there is no closure and often deep feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. Initially, you wonder “what’s going on?” When you realize the other person has ended the relationship, you’re left to wonder why, what went wrong in the relationship, what’s wrong with you, what’s wrong with them, how you didn’t see this coming.

What to Do If You’re Ghosted
Ghosting hurts; it’s a cruel rejection. It is particularly painful because you are left with no rationale, no guidelines for how to proceed, and often a heap of emotions to sort through on your own. If you suffer from any abandonment or self-esteem issues, being ghosted may bring them to the forefront.

In this age of ever-advancing technology, your ghoster is likely to appear on your various forms of social media and, if that’s the case, this person who is now physically gone from your life, is still quite visible. How do you move on? Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet or proven advice to quickly guide you into recovery from a ghosted heart, but there is common sense.

“Avoid reminders of your ex,” advises Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Psychology Department at Albright College in Pennsylvania. “They’re likely to cause painful emotions to resurface, and they won’t help you get emotional closure or insight into why they broke up with you.”

After you stop torturing yourself by going over old photos, saved old texts, new social media postings, and anything else you think might give you insight into the mind and current whereabouts of your ghoster (and let’s face it, you’re bound to be doing that even if you’re not normally an obsessive person), try to find a new distraction. Perhaps most importantly, know that this probably isn’t about you or anything you did wrong.

“You should realize that if your ex chose the strategy of ghosting to break up with you, it likely tells you something about them and their shortcomings, rather than indicating that the problem lies with you.” Dr. Seidman adds.

In other words, try to move on as quickly and completely as you can. Maintain your dignity and stay focused on your own health, happiness and future, leaving the ghoster to deal with the ultimate repercussions of their own immaturity and lack of courage in the context of a relationship.

Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, CDN

Searching For Anger’s Animal Roots

Individual Therapy Tribeca

For comedian Lewis Black, anger is a job.

Black is famous for his rants about stuff he finds annoying or unfair or just plain infuriating.

Onstage, he often looks ready for a fight. He leans forward. He shouts. He stabs the air with an index finger, or a middle finger.

To a scientist, Black looks a lot like a belligerent dog, or an irritated gerbil.

“Practically every sexually reproducing, multicellular animal shows aggressive behavior,” says David Anderson, a professor of biology at Caltech and co-author of the book The Neuroscience of Emotion. “Fruit flies show aggression.”

When I relay that last bit to Black, he’s skeptical. “Really?” he says. “Come on.”

But Anderson, whose lab studies fruit flies, says the evidence is compelling.

“They fight over females, they fight over food, they threaten each other, they put their wings up in the air, they charge at each other,” he says.

But does aggressive behavior mean a fruit fly gets angry the way Black does? Anderson says that depends on how you define the term.

“We use anger subjectively to refer to our experience, our conscious experience, of rage, the feeling that you are about to explode, the feeling of irritation,” he says.

Black feels that way a lot. And he has spent decades thinking about how anger works in his own brain.

“My anger comes from a collection of things that occur during the course of a day that build up,” he says. “So by the end of a day, six or seven things have happened to me that have gone into my anger bank.”

What kinds of things? During an hourlong conversation, Black offers a sampler: “Idiotic debates that go on in Congress, health care, your cable provider, chemicals that we allow to be dumped, sensitivity training, the president, the Iraq War, exercise.”

Animals presumably have other triggers. And, of course, there’s no way to know for sure how an animal is feeling.

So Anderson and other scientists focus on animals’ behavior and on biological changes like heart rate, hormone levels and brain activity.

By those measures, Anderson says, there is strong evidence that animals experience some sort of internal state that drives their aggressive behavior. “I’m comfortable calling that state anger as long as we are clear that we’re not [referring] to the subjective feeling,” he says.

Research also shows that aggressive behavior is remarkably consistent across species, Anderson says.

For example, both animals and people may take out their aggression on innocent bystanders.

Anderson says his cat does this.

“It can be staring out the window when a neighborhood cat strolls by,” he says. “Its back arches, it hisses, its tail goes up and it turns around and attacks my other cat who’s been sitting placidly by minding her own business.”

That sort of behavior suggests animals generalize their anger much the way people do, Anderson says. And experiments show that the internal state can persist long after the event that caused it is gone.

For example, it’s easy to provoke a state of aggressive arousal in an adult male fish by showing it another threatening male, Anderson says. Then, even after the threat has been removed, the adult male will continue to attack young fish in the tank that it ordinarily ignores.

Generalizing and maintaining an angry state is familiar territory for Black. After a day banking irritation, he says, he is ready to be onstage “yelling about something that has nothing to do with my phone service or my cable carrier, my cable provider.”

Both Anderson and Black say expressing anger can be useful.

For Black, it’s a matter of maintaining his internal balance.

“I have the best blood pressure of anybody I know,” he says. “And I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve spent a lot of my life yelling and screaming about things onstage.”

He may be right — to a point.

There’s evidence that expressing anger can reduce levels of stress hormones. On the other hand, there’s also evidence that extreme outbursts may trigger a heart attack.

And, of course, being on the receiving end of this emotion can hurt.

But for Black, anger is a powerful motivator. “What anger is good for, too, is to generate energy to move on, to figure out how to do something,” he says. “You get angry and go, what do we do?”

Anger appears to play a similar role in the animal world, Anderson says. For example, an aggressive response can help a creature survive if it’s attacked or robbed. “If a squirrel steals a nut from another squirrel, there’s an adaptive value to arousing the squirrel who was the victim of the theft and having it chase at the other squirrel and beat him up and try to recover his nut,” Anderson says.

In both animals and people, Anderson says, aggressive behavior tends to be associated with similar physical responses like a racing pulse, higher blood pressure and elevated levels of hormones such as testosterone.

And he says the similarities in both behavior and biological responses raise a question about brain evolution and aggression. “You look at dogs fighting, you look at fish fighting, you look at flies fighting, you look at people fighting,” he says. “Is that because they’re all using the same basic brain mechanisms and brain chemicals?”

There is a working theory that because aggression is so common and because it’s more than a reflexive response, the inner state that goes with aggression must be common too.

If so, that suggests the potential for anger is something we’re born with.

There’s an ongoing debate among scientists about whether that’s true. Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University is among the researchers who contend that human emotions including anger are “constructed” rather than hard-wired in the brain.

But Anderson believes that many behavioral responses and the internal states associated with them are innate and form “the evolutionary underpinnings of emotional behavior.”

Marcel Just, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, also thinks there is a strong biological component to anger and other emotions.

Just is one of the few scientists who have actually studied anger in human brains. And what he found was surprising. “Everybody’s anger feels very personal,” he says. “But in fact if you and I were both in an MRI scanner and measured the activation, the pattern would be rather similar.”

Just was part of a team that trained a computer to recognize the brain activity associated with emotions in people. And a study showed that it was able to identify anger most of the time and to differentiate that emotion from others, like disgust.

One way the human brain may differ from an animal’s is in the circuits used to control emotions, including anger, Just says. He thinks our ability to use these circuits probably depends more on nurture than nature.

“One of the things that we learn from our families, from our parents, from teachers is how to deal with our various emotions and most particularly anger,” he says.

Black has spent much of his life learning how to deal with his anger. And he understands why the emotion has such a bad reputation. “It’s where it leads to that’s gotten its rap,” he says. “Disgust? You may lose a friend. Anger? You could kill a friend.”

So Black says when he is performing, he often finds himself trying to make sure an audience doesn’t get too angry.

And if he finds out his flight home has been delayed, he stays calm.

“Here’s a million-dollar tip,” he says. “You sit on that anger, and you just empathize with the person whose job it is to deal with you.”


Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Over the past three years, I’ve had one major goal in my personal life: To stop being so angry.

Anger has been my emotional currency. I grew up in an angry home. Door slamming and phone throwing were basic means of communication.

I brought these skills to my 20-year marriage. “Why are you yelling?” my husband would say.

“I’m not,” I’d retort. Oh wait. On second thought: “You’re right. I am yelling.”

Then three years ago, an earthquake hit our home: We had a baby girl. And all I wanted was the opposite. I wanted her to grow up in a peaceful environment — to learn other ways of handling uncomfortable situations.

So I went to therapy. I kept cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets. I took deep breaths, counted to 10 and walked out of rooms. And I even meditated at night.

These strategies helped me manage the anger, but they never really decreased it. It was like keeping a feral horse in a barn. I was contained, but not really domesticated.

Then, six months ago, I was talking with Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University. Right at the end of the hour-long interview, she tossed out this suggestion: “You could increase your emotional granularity.”

My emotional what?

“Go learn more emotion words and emotion concepts from your culture and other cultures,” she added.

Over the past 30 years, Feldman Barrett has found evidence that anger isn’t one emotion but rather a whole family of emotions. And learning to identify different members of the family is a powerful tool for regulating your anger, studies have shown.

Or better yet, as I found, go and make up your own anger categories and start using them.

What is anger?

There’s a common theory about anger. You’ll find it in text books, scientific papers, news reports — even here at NPR. And some scientists support the theory, says Feldman Barrett.

The idea is that anger is one of several “basic emotions” that are universal, Feldman Barrett says. It’s almost like a reflex — hard-wired in the brain. When something unjust or unfair happens to you, “your blood pressure often goes up. Your heart rate will go up. Maybe you’ll breathe heavily or you’ll have a reddening of your skin,” she says. “Then you’ll have an urge … to punch or yell at someone. That’s the stereotype of what anger is,” Feldman Barrett says.

But it’s not the full story.

Anger around the world

What you feel when you’re angry depends on the situation, what your past experiences are and how your culture has taught you to respond, she says.

As a result, there is actually enormous variation in the types of anger in the U.S., like exuberant anger when you’re getting pumped up to compete in sports, or sad anger when your spouse or boss doesn’t appreciate you.

When you look at other cultures, the variation explodes.

Germans have a word that roughly means “a face in need of a slap,”or backpfeifengesicht. “It’s like you’re so furious with someone that you look at their face, and it’s as if their face is urging you to punch them,” Feldman Barrett says. “It’s a great emotion.”

Ancient Greeks differentiated between a short-term anger that doesn’t stick around (ὀργή or orge ) with a long-lasting anger that’s permanent (μῆνις or menin).

Mandarin Chinese has a specific word for anger directed toward yourself, 悔恨 or huǐhèn. It’s literally a combination of regret and hate, says linguist Yao Yao at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “You regret something you did so much, that you’re angry at yourself,” she says.

Thais have, at least, seven degrees of anger, says linguist Yuphaphann Hoonchamlong at the University of Hawaii. “We don’t walk around saying ‘I’m angry.’ That’s too broad,” she says. “We may start with ‘I’m displeased’ and ‘I’m dissatisfied’ and then increase the intensity,” she says.

And India is a treasure trove of angers.

“There’s a common form of anger which means like ‘when eggplant hits the hot oil,’ ” says Abhijeet Paul, who teaches South Asian literature at Middlebury College.

“You suddenly become, like, really angry at hearing something shocking or learning something that you really, really dislike,” Paul says.

Indians also differentiate between political anger, which you have for the ruling class or “boss man,” and personal angers, which you have for a friend, family or neighbor. You would never mix the two and express political anger in a personal relationship, Paul says.

“There’s also a very interesting anger that is a loving anger,” Paul says. You express this emotion toward a spouse when your spouse has angered you but you can’t help them, only love them, he says. “It’s a mixed bag of love, grief, sorrow and anger.”

Personalize anger to help regulate it

So in many ways, anger is like wine. There are these major varieties — such as chardonnay and pinot noir — but each vintage has its own unique combination of aromas, flavors and potency. The more practice you have at detecting — and naming — these nuances, the better you understand wine.

And if you learn to detect all the various flavors and nuances of anger and label them, you can start to handle your anger better, says psychologist Maria Gendron at Yale University.

“There’s definitely emerging evidence that just the act of putting a label on your feelings is a really powerful tool for regulation,” Gendron says. It can keep the anger from overwhelming you. It can offer clues about what to do in response to the anger. And sometimes, it can make the anger go away.

The idea is to take a statement that’s broad and general, such as, “I’m so angry,” and make it more precise. Take the Thai: “I’m displeased,” or the German “Backpfeifengesicht!”

Psychologists call this strategy emotional granularity. Studies show that the more emotional granularity a person has, the less likely they are to shout or hit someone who has hurt them. They are also less like to binge drink when stressed. On the other hand, people diagnosed with major depressive disorder are more likely to have low emotional granularity compared to healthy adults.

“There’s a whole arm of research showing how functional it is to have finely tuned categories for our experiences,” Gendron says.

Emotional granularity is like watching HDTV versus regular TV. It lets you see your anger with higher resolution, Gendron says. “It gives you more information about what that anger means, whether you value that experience and choices about what to do next,” she says.

This last part is key: Being granular with you anger helps you figure out what’s the best way to handle the situation — or whether you should do anything at all.
For instance, if you are feeling a quick burst of anger, which you know will fade rapidly, then maybe doing nothing is the best strategy.

And you don’t have to limit yourself to the labels that already exist, Gendron says. Be creative. Analyze what’s causing your various angers, give them specific names and start using the terms with family and coworkers.

“If you’re making a practice in your family of coming up with words and then using them together, that actually can regulate physiology,” she says. “That can resolve the kind of ambiguity about the situation.”

Personally, I found this strategy the most helpful. I started paying attention to what typically triggers my anger at work and at home. And I found three major types, which I named.

Illogical anger: This emotions happens when somebody at work makes a decision that seems completely illogical. Once I labeled this anger and started tracking what happens afterwards, I quickly realized that trying to convince an illogical person of logic is often futile – and a waste of time.

Hurry-up anger: This is the anger I feel when someone else is not doing something fast enough — yes, I’m talking about the driver of the gray Prius at the stoplight this morning or the 3-year-old who will not put her shoes on fast enough. Once I labeled it, I realized that cars, people and toddlers eventually move. Huffing and puffing doesn’t make it faster.

Disonophous anger: This is my favorite anger. And has the biggest impact on my life.

I wanted to figure out how to decrease yelling at our house. So I started paying attention to what often occurred right before the screaming began. It was super obvious: The dog was barking and the toddler was screaming. Basically two loud sounds simultaneously.

So my husband and I made up disonophous anger from the Latin for “two sounds.”

Now when my husband says, “I have disonophous anger, Michaeleen …” we know exactly what to do: Put the dog on the porch and pick up the baby.

And I know he’s not angry at me. He just wants some peace and quiet.

By Michaeleen Doucleff, Photo Ariel Davis

How the Glorification of Busyness Impacts Our Well-Being

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Being excessively busy can get in the way of you living your best life

How many times have you started your day looking at a long to-do list, checking numerous emails, forecasting multiple appointments and obligations for the day and wondering how you are going to get it all done? Our world is busy and continues to place demands on our time like never before. We are often juggling responsibilities at work and at home, trying to find time to take care of ourselves and maybe even have fun once in a while. As much as we may complain about being busy, we seem to not be slowing down at all. What is the appeal of being busy and how might it be getting in the way of you living your best life?

So often we tend to view being busy as a badge of honor or a way to establish status and a sense of worth. This line of thinking tends to make sense in our society because, for the most part, it is still fairly individualistic and no one wants to feel like they are being left behind. We are wired for connection and want to not only belong but feel important, as if being perceived as important or needed better secures our connections with others.

What We Think of Ourselves

Living in the world means that we are interacting with others. From an early age, as we are learning about the world and how we fit into it, we begin to look at what others are doing as a point of reference.

Psychology Today describes social comparison theory as, “… determining our own social and personal self-worth based on how we stack up against others we perceive as somehow faring better or worse.”

As we go through various seasons of life we look around and, not only notice what others are doing, but place value and meaning to what we see. We then use this value and meaning to look at ourselves and what we’re doing to determine where we stand.

In our observations of the world around us, we might start to notice patterns of what seems to help people gain things like:


As we notice these patterns, it is common to naturally incorporate that information into our narrative of who we are, who we want to be, or who we believe we are supposed to be. The values of society start to integrate with our development of values and tend to guide our decision making.

If our desire is to feel connected, successful, accepted and influential, then we are going to look and see what seems to work to help people achieve those things.

In our society, one of those behavior patterns we are likely to notice could include someone who is always on-the-go, over scheduled, and moving in a variety of directions at once. Naturally, our observations tell us that is what we should be doing as well if we want success, connection, acceptance, and influence.

What Others Think of Us

As a human being interacting with other human beings, it is fair to say that we are apt to consider what others think of us. Admittedly, we are looking around observing others and placing meaning and value to their behavior and assume others would be doing the same with us, observing our behavior and placing value to what they see us doing or not doing.

We learn that how we show up in the world seems to matter. If we have learned through our own social experiences that certain patterns of behavior, such as being extraordinarily busy and constantly on-the-go lead to being successful, connected and accepted by others, then we may find it appealing to engage in those behaviors.

Harvard researcher and professor Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., studies the neuroscience of human connection and suggests that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. He states in his book, Social, “We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different kind of experiences yet the way our brains treat them suggests that they are more similar than we imagine.”

In other words, when we feel social pain, such as feeling judged or rejected, it matters to our mind, heart and our bodies. We want to avoid that kind of pain, so we do what we can to avoid having to experience it.

Being busy can possibly offer us a sense of assurance that we have secured a social place within our community. We see ourselves as plugged in, connected, and valued and assume other people likely see us the same way as we continue to demonstrate our excessively busy behavior.

However, the pain of rejection or disconnect that we are trying to avoid may not outweigh the pain we put our minds and bodies through by glorifying busyness and being constantly on-the-go.

Busy vs. Productive

Many of us have been in situations where we have gone through the day feeling extremely busy and overcommitted in our scheduling and obligations, yet look back on our day not feeling particularly productive.

Being busy and being productive can often be confused with one another. However, being productive means more than running around endlessly and feeling over-extended. Merriam-Webster defines the word productive as, “Yielding results, benefits or profits.” Essentially, it means that we have something to show for our hard work. Being busy has to do with an amount of time, where productivity has more to do with our use of time.

Impact on Emotional Health

When we glorify busyness we are likely to overextend ourselves with varied obligations, appointments, commitments, and responsibilities.

There are many ways in which this lifestyle can impact our emotional health, such as leaving us to feel:


In our attempts to preserve connection and secure our sense of value by being overly busy, we end up taking on too much and can easily become flooded with negative emotion and even feeling isolated from others.

When we are unable to complete tasks or adequately fulfill the many obligations we have dedicated ourselves to, we can feel guilty and ashamed for letting people down or letting ourselves down. The reality is that our expectations were likely unrealistic and the ability to follow through successfully would have been impossible.

Over time, the experience of these emotions can leave us feeling as if we will never be enough. People who glorify busyness tend to find self-worth through tasks, performance, and accomplishment.

It might be easy to understand how this cycle of taking on too much and not being able to adequately follow through can impact our feelings of self-worth, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. If we fear others might see us as incapable as well, our social self is threatened and the very pain of rejection or judgment that we are trying to avoid can have room to creep in.

Impact on Physical Health

Shuttling from one appointment to the next and having no time to spare in our schedule causes us to get creative in how we are feeding ourselves, moving our bodies, and resting. In other words, we end up making poor choices in all of these areas because we either don’t have time to make careful choices or our emotional reservoir is dry due to exhaustion and our impulsive decision making takes over.

Eating drive-through or quick processed foods, skipping exercise, and getting very little sleep are common practices for people who glorify busyness. The risk of not being able to socially keep up or feel valuable is too great and, in turn, our physical health and well-being can become compromised.

The ways in which excessive busyness can impact our physical health include things like:

Muscle tension/pain
Compromised immune system
Change in sex drive
Digestion issues
Cardiovascular disease
Impact on Relationships

When we are stretched thin for time and already unable to effectively follow through on our multitude of commitments, it is understandable that our relationships would suffer as a result of being excessively busy.

As with other things, relationships need time and energy to continue growing. If you are often over scheduled and overcommitted, you likely have neither time nor energy to spend nurturing your relationships with others.

Overall, relationships can be fairly flexible. We understand when people are busy and that it can be difficult to schedule time to chat or connect, especially as adults. However, when someone is chronically busy they can appear unapproachable, detached, and uninterested to those around them.

As described in many types of couples therapy such as Emotionally Focused Therapy, there are three main components to look for in healthy, connected relationships: Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement. When our relationships are lacking in one of these areas, it is likely we don’t feel very connected.

Demanding, overextended schedules leave no time for meaningful connection. In our efforts to preserve relationships, we may send a quick text or attempt to make plans. Over time, especially when attempts to get together are disrupted by last minute changes, people can feel devalued and be less willing to compromise and forgive. Patterns of broken connection lead to people feeling distant and uninterested in maintaining connections. Relationships with friends, family, spouses, and even children can be impacted by the glorification of busyness.

Benefits to Making Change

Creating change in the area of busyness can offer us improved physical health, greater peace and joy, and better, more connected, relationships. Having time for others and ourselves can offer us that sense of safety, value, and connection we were once looking for by being so busy.

Some of the benefits can include:

Improved sleep
Decreased anxiety/depression
Healthy relationships
Improved physical health
Less overwhelm
Increased optimism
Opportunities for self-care
Deeper connections with loved ones

Steps You Can Take

Examine the Source of Your Self-Worth

When we are excessively busy and glorify the idea of busyness, it is common to gain our sense of self-worth through tasks, performance, accolades, and recognition from others.

Most can agree these things feel good in the moment but, overall, don’t seem to fulfill our sense of self-worth in a meaningful and substantial way. The good feelings do not last long before we tell ourselves it isn’t enough and we feel pushed to move on to the next task or performance.

As we work to make intentional change in how we spend our time, it is helpful to reexamine where our sense of self-worth has been coming from and how well it has worked. Take a moment to evaluate your core values and allow yourself to be honest with what may have a longer-lasting impact on your positive self-worth. An example of this could be recognizing that over-scheduling yourself leaves you feeling exhausted rather than valued.

In exploring your core values you may find that spending time with family offers you a more meaningful sense of connection and value, and choose to set aside more time for that during the week or on the weekends.

Challenge Your Narrative

Our narrative is what we tend to tell ourselves about who we are, our worth, our abilities, and our purpose, among other things. Being excessively busy is usually a result of our desire to feel worthy, valuable, and connected but can end up leaving us feeling isolated, exhausted, and inadequate.

As you begin to make changes in scheduling and setting healthier boundaries around your time, you may find the need to challenge an old narrative that says you are not enough if you’re doing all things all the time. It can feel unnatural to slow down a bit and cause you to feel vulnerable. Allow yourself the opportunity to challenge your old narrative and update it with a healthier view of self, your worth, and your purpose.

Set Boundaries

People who glorify busyness and are chronically overscheduled tend to have difficulty setting boundaries with others and being assertive. As you learn to say no to excessive projects, tasks, and appointments, you may fear how people respond to you, especially if they are not used to hearing no from you.

Remember why you are taking better control over your time and keep the big picture in mind. Managing time and ridding yourself of excessive busyness is likely about connecting with friends and family, taking care of your physical health, and living with more peace and joy. Remind yourself of those things as you determine where to set boundaries. It is not so much about saying no to the person in front of you as it is about saying yes to yourself and the people who mean the most to you.

By Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC/MHSP, Reviewed by a board-certified physician

What Does FOMO Mean and How Do I Deal With It?

Individual Therapy Tribeca

FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” is a real phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common and can cause significant stress in your life. It can affect just about anyone, but some people are at greater risk. Here is what you should know about the history of FOMO, what research says, how to recognize it in your life, and how to manage FOMO to avoid negatively affecting your happiness.

What Is FOMO?

The fear of missing out refers to the feeling or perception that others are having more fun, living better lives, or experiencing better things than you are. It involves a deep sense of envy and affects self-esteem. It is often exacerbated by social media sites like Instagram and Facebook.

FOMO is not just the sense that there might be better things that you could be doing at this moment, but it is the feeling that you are missing out on something fundamentally important that others are experiencing right now.

It can apply to anything from a party on a Friday night to a promotion at work, but it always involves a sense of helplessness that you are missing out on something big.

Brief History

The fear of missing out has been described by researchers as “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out—that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.”

And while it has presumably been around for centuries (you can see evidence of FOMO in ancient texts), it has only been scientifically studied during the past few decades, beginning with a 1996 research study by marketing strategist, Dr. Dan Herman. Since the advent of social media, however, FOMO has become more obvious and has been studied more often.

Social media has accelerated the FOMO phenomenon in several ways. It provides a situation in which you are comparing your regular life to the highlights of others’ lives. Therefore, your sense of “normal” becomes skewed and you seem to be doing worse than your peers. You might see detailed photos showing that your friends enjoyed fun times without you, which is something that people may not have been so readily aware of in past generations.

Social media creates a platform for bragging; it is where things, events, and even happiness itself seems to be in competition at times. People are comparing their best, picture-perfect experiences, which may lead you to wonder what you are lacking.


As more research on FOMO is conducted and becomes available, we are getting a clearer picture of what it entails and how it affects us. The picture is not pretty, as there are many negative effects of FOMO, and it is more common than you might expect. Consider the following:

Social networking sites are both a cause and effect of FOMO.

Unsurprisingly, adolescents use social networking sites at a high rate and may experience FOMO as a result. Interestingly, however, FOMO acts as a mechanism that triggers higher social networking usage. Girls experiencing depression tend to use social networking sites at a greater rate. Boys, on the other hand, found that anxiety was a trigger for greater social media use. This shows that increased use of social media can lead to higher stress rates caused by FOMO.

FOMO associated with social media usage transcends age and gender. FOMO can be experienced by people of all ages, several studies have found. One study in the Psychiatry Research journal found that the fear of missing out was linked to a greater smartphone and social media usage and that this link was not associated with age or gender. The research also found that both social media use and “problematic” smartphone usage was linked with a greater experience of FOMO. Smartphone usage was related to fears of negative and even positive evaluations by others as well as linked to negative effects on mood.

FOMO is linked to lower life satisfaction. Another article published in Computers and Human Behavior found several trends associated with FOMO. Fear of missing out was found to be associated with a lower sense of having one’s needs met as well as a lower feeling of life satisfaction in general. FOMO was heavily linked to higher engagement in social media, as other studies have suggested—it appears that FOMO is linked to both feeling a need to engage in social media and to increase that engagement. This means that FOMO and social media habits may contribute to a negative, self-perpetuating cycle.

Fear of missing out can be dangerous. Aside from increased feelings of unhappiness, fear of missing out can lead to greater involvement in unhealthy behaviors. For example, the same study in Computers and Human Behavior found that FOMO was linked to distracted driving, which in some cases can be deadly.

Minimizing FOMO

Fortunately, steps can be taken to curb your FOMO if it is something you experience.

Research shows that a fear of missing out can stem from unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life and that these feelings can propel us into greater social media usage.

In turn, greater engagement with social media can make us feel worse about ourselves and our lives, not better. In this way, it helps to know that our attempts to alleviate feelings of FOMO can actually lead to behaviors that exacerbate it. ​ Understanding where the problem lies, however, can be a great first step in overcoming it. The following can help:

Change your focus. Rather than focusing on what you lack, try noticing what you have. This is easier said than done on social media, where we may be bombarded with images of things we do not have, but it can be done. Add more positive people to your feed; hide people who tend to brag too much or who are not supportive of you. You can change your feed to show you less of what triggers your FOMO and more of what makes you feel good about yourself. Work on identifying what may be sapping your joy online. Work to minimize these as you add more to your feed (and life) that makes you happy.

Keep a journal. It is common to post on social media to keep a record of the fun things you do. However, you may find yourself noticing a little too much whether people are validating your experiences online. If this is the case, you may want to take some of your photos and memories offline and keep a personal journal of your best memories, either online or on paper. This can help you to shift your focus from public approval to private appreciation of the things that make your life great. This shift can sometimes help you to get out of the cycle of social media and FOMO.

Seek out real connections. You may find yourself seeking greater connection when you are feeling depressed or anxious, and this is healthy. Feelings of loneliness or exclusion are actually our brain’s way of telling us that we need to seek out greater connections with others and increase our sense of belonging. Unfortunately, social media engagement is not always the way to accomplish this—you might be running from one bad situation right into an even worse one.

Rather than trying to connect more with people on social media, why not arrange to meet up with someone in person? Making plans with a good friend, creating a group outing, or doing anything social that gets you out with friends can be a nice change of pace, and it can help you to shake that feeling that you are missing out. It puts you in the center of the action. If you do not have time to make plans, even a direct message on social media to a friend can foster greater and more intimate connection than posting to all of your friends and hoping for “likes.”

Focus on gratitude. Studies show that engaging in gratitude-enhancing activities like gratitude journaling or simply telling others what you appreciate about them can lift your spirits as well as those of everyone around you. This is partially because it is harder to feel as if you lack the things you need in life when you are focused on the abundance you already have. It also holds true because making others feel good makes us feel good.

This lift in mood may be just what you need to relieve yourself of feeling depressed or anxious. You likely will not feel as tempted to go down the rabbit hole of social networking and FOMO when you realize how much you already have. You will begin to feel that you have what you need in life and so do other people. This can be wonderful for your mental and emotional health.

By Elizabeth Scott, MS, Reviewed by a board-certified physician

The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter

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A cluttered home can be a stressful home, researchers are learning.

Do you have a clutter problem?

If you have to move things around in order to accomplish a task in your home or at your office or you feel overwhelmed by all your “things,” it’s a strong signal that clutter has prevailed. And it might be stressing you out more than you realize.

“Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who studies the causes of clutter and its impact on emotional well-being. And a cluttered home, researchers are learning, can be a stressful home.

Dr. Ferrari was part of a research team that questioned three groups of adults about clutter and life satisfaction: college students; young adults in their 20s and 30s; and older adults, most in their 50s.

The authors assessed volunteers’ tendency to procrastinate, asking them to respond to statements like “I pay bills on time” using a five-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Procrastination is closely tied to clutter, because sorting through and tossing items is a task that many people find unpleasant and avoid. It takes time to file away important papers or sort through a dining room table buried under books.

The researchers also measured participants’ general well-being in relation to how clutter might be affecting their lives, asking them to answer questions such as “the clutter in my home upsets me” and “I have to move things in order to accomplish tasks in my home.”

The study, published in Current Psychology, found a substantial link between procrastination and clutter problems in all the age groups. Frustration with clutter tended to increase with age. Among older adults, clutter problems were also associated with life dissatisfaction.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that clutter can negatively impact mental well-being, particularly among women. Clutter can also induce a physiological response, including increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

A 2010 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at dual-income married couples living in the Los Angeles area who had at least one school-aged child at home. The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home or a home that needed work tended to have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day. Those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the day.

Darby Saxbe, an assistant psychology professor at University of Southern California and the study’s lead author, said that the women in the study who described their home as being cluttered or needing work began their day stressed and remained stressed. Some of the added stress, she suspects, was tied to women’s tendency to take on housework and extra chores after the workday. In terms of cortisol levels, men who did more housework in the evening were as likely to have raised cortisol levels at the end of the day as women. It’s just that not as many men spent as much time on housework as their wives, she said.

In a follow-up study, Dr. Saxbe studied the cortisol level in the afternoon and evening, a time when stress should be dropping in “an adaptive recovery.” Not everyone in the study was bothered by shoes left on the staircase or mail piled on the coffee table. But again, women were more likely than men to complain about clutter or having too many unfinished projects, and did not show a cortisol reduction.

“Clutter is in the eye of the beholder,” Dr. Saxbe said. “The people who talked about it were the ones who had the cortisol response.”

Experts are beginning to explore why clutter can elicit such a strong emotional response.

Dr. Saxbe said there has long been a standard representation on how a middle-class home should look and function. A disorderly home fails to live up to such an expectation.

“If you think of the 1950s ideals of the single family home,” Dr. Saxbe said. “The man comes home, kicks up his feet and has a cocktail. The home is a place to come home and unwind. But not if the home is filled with a to-do list and never-ending drudgery.”

Gaining control over the drudgery of decluttering is a task that many inhabitants of cluttered residences struggle to master.

Dr. Ferrari noted that clutter is also often the result of an “over-attachment” to our personal items, which makes it difficult to part with them. For overwhelmed individuals who want to declutter, he recommends a hands-off approach.

“If you’re going to declutter, don’t touch the item. Don’t pick it up,” he said. “Have somebody else hold the pair of black pants and say, ‘Do you need this?’ Once you touch the item, you are less likely to get rid of it.”

Another option is to make a conscious effort to acquire less. Dr. Ferrari argued that most of what we accumulate we do not need. “We have taken our wants and been told they are needs,” he said.

Dr. Saxbe agreed that a good way to declutter is to keep items out of the house in the first place. She urged shoppers to consider whether they truly need an item or if it will add to their home’s sense of dysfunction. “Once it’s in the house, it’s really hard to deal with. You get attached to the things you own,” she said.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi

Channeling The Pain Of Depression Into Photography

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In a particularly difficult season of depression, photography was one of the tools Tara Wray used to cope.

“Just forcing myself to get out of my head and using the camera to do that is, in a way, a therapeutic tool,” says Wray, a photographer and filmmaker based in central Vermont. “It’s like exercise: You don’t want to do it, you have to make yourself do it, and you feel better after you do.”

In July, she published Too Tired for Sunshine, a book of her photos from that period, taken between 2011 and 2018. Some of the images show a stark beauty, others a raw loneliness, and some capture hints that the world may be slightly off-kilter.

Photographically, Wray says she’s drawn to light, the honesty of dogs and “things that are humorous and maybe aren’t trying to be.” Making these images helped keep her buoyant.

Having a camera functions as “a sort of protection, a buffer that gives me a reason to be somewhere,” she says. “It helps me move through an environment with a purpose when I might otherwise feel out of place.”

And, like exercise, photography provides a kind of release. “When I’ve made what I think is a good picture, I can feel it, and everything else momentarily falls away.”

Through creative expression, Wray says she’s able to focus her “ruminating or obsessing” into “something bigger.”

“There were moments that I felt alone and isolated in a dark place, and I wondered if I would see the other side of it,” she says. “Photography has given me those moments back … I can now see them in a different light.”

At the same time, Wray stresses that photography isn’t her only tool.

“You’ve gotta have a whole arsenal of things to deal with mental illness, and I try to do all the things I can to stay healthy,” she says, adding that she knows she is fortunate to have a supportive family and access to therapy, medication and good doctors.

Wray is a self-described introvert and private person. For her, taking the photos was one thing, but the decision to publish a book about her experience with mental illness was another.

“I question that all the time,” she says. But her belief in the importance of breaking a stigma won out.

“These are things you wouldn’t necessarily talk about with the other parents at pickup at school, but here I am putting everything out there,” says Wray. “I’m using my own sort of shame and fear of sharing this with others to encourage others, to say, ‘It’s OK to do it.’ … There’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

“The act of sharing a photo — of being seen and understood by others — probably matters more than I would like to admit,” she says.

That connection, it turned out, went both ways. People who saw the book reached out to Wray to share their excitement and their own photography. She had struck a chord.

“People would say, ‘I make work similarly,’ or ‘The camera is something I use as a tool,’ or ‘Would you take a look at this series that I made when I was going through this?’ ” Wray says.

A month after her book was published, Wray invited others to share their photography.

She started an Instagram account, @TooTiredProject, “to help those struggling with depression by offering a place for collective creative expression,” and asked people to tag their images #TooTiredProject.


If You Feel Thankful, Write It Down. It’s Good For Your Health

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Over this past year, lifestyle blogger Aileen Xu has kept a monthly gratitude list.

Sometimes it was the big stuff: “I’m grateful that my family is so understanding. I’m grateful so many people care.”

And sometimes it was life’s little blessings: “July 2018: I’m grateful for good hair after I shower.”

Xu started making such lists when she was in college, “at a point when I was just not in a very good place in my life.” Now, the 28-year-old lifestyle blogger and YouTuber recommends the practice to her nearly 750,000 subscribers.

It wasn’t a hard sell.

“I think just over the last few years there’s been more of a trend to focus on gratitude,” says psychologist Laurie Santos, who teaches a course on the science of well-being and happiness at Yale.

Gratitude is being endorsed by wellness blogs and magazines. You can buy different kinds of specific gratitude journals, or download apps that remind you to jot down your blessings.

“Those types of products can remind us to take time to be grateful,” Santos says. “But it’s also important to remember that gratitude is free.”

And noting your gratitude seems to pay off: There’s a growing body of research on the benefits of gratitude. Studies have found that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep better, lower stress and improve interpersonal relationships. Earlier this year, a study found that keeping a gratitude journal decreased materialism and bolstered generosity among adolescents.

In another study from August, high school students who were asked to keep gratitude journals also reported healthier eating. There’s also some evidence it could lower your risk of heart disease and lower symptoms of depression for some people.

That’s why gratitude features heavily in Santos’ happiness class. “It’s one of the practices that really wins out from the field of positive psychology,” she says, because it takes very little time, and “the benefits are so powerful.”

Making gratitude lists is one way of accessing those benefits. You could thank God or the universe. You could keep your gratitude private or share it with others. The best way of accessing and expressing gratitude may be different for each person.

Santos’ students, in addition to keeping gratitude journals, are asked to write a thank you letter and then read it out loud to the recipient. “I can show measurable improvements in well-being even a month after you’ve done this,” Santos says.

What works for some people may not work for others. To find your best method, “[r]eally think about what feels right and what feels natural or meaningful to you,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who studies happiness and gratitude.

Some may find that a daily dose of gratitude in the morning can be transformative. “It helps me feel awake and abundantly joyful,” says Sam Khazai, a 38-year-old actor based in New York, who uses a journal that prompts him to list three things he’s grateful for each day.

“I know it sounds kind of meta,” he says. “But practicing gratitude, it brings me so much gratitude in and of itself.”

There have been times, however, when he has skipped a day or even several days when he’s felt especially down. “Or if I don’t skip those days, I’ve straight up lied to my own gratitude journal … I’ve filled it with things I hoped to be grateful for,” he says — but he didn’t feel grateful, and forcing it felt bad.

“Gratitude is a very rich emotion, but it’s also kind of a complicated one,” notes Lyubomirsky. “Sometimes when you express gratitude, you could also feel humbled or indebted or embarrassed. So it doesn’t always feel pleasant.”

In one study Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that counting blessings once a week boosted happiness, but doing so three times a week didn’t. “That suggests that for most people, at least on average, three times a week was too much,” she says. “And too much gratitude can sort of backfire.”

There’s also a lack of research on how gratitude exercises affect people with clinical depression, anxiety or suicidal tendencies, Lyubomirsky says. “If you’re depressed, and you’re asked to express gratitude … you might have trouble thinking of what you’re grateful for, or you may feel really guilty you haven’t paid back that person you’re grateful for.”

Indeed, for all the research on the broad benefits of expressing gratitude, there’s also evidence that it isn’t for everyone. And it isn’t a panacea — it can’t make injustice, loss, or pain disappear.

What gratitude can do is give us hope. “The research shows that focusing on the positive, in addition to the negative, can boost our mood more than we expect,” says Santos.

In Oakland, Calif., 31-year-old mental health counselor Zeyda Garcia agrees. During really tough times, like when she’d lost a job and was sleeping on her friend’s mom’s couch — she felt like she was reaching for reasons to be grateful.

But she still tried to find some. “Even if it’s just — I’m grateful for the sun that’s shining or being able to wake up,” she says. It felt hokey, and “kind of fake, a little bit.”

But ultimately, it helped. “It allowed me to ground myself,” she says. “It allowed me to remember what was going well, in a world full of chaos.”

BY MAANVI SINGH, Image by Kristen Uroda

The Top Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2018

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There is plenty of science to convince us that social connection is key to well-being. But relationships are complicated, bringing good and bad into our lives. This year’s top insights speak to the practical forces that unite us or divide us—both in intimate relationships and in our communities. They offer some hints about how to overcome anger or loneliness, and help explain why it’s so hard to make friends and offer them emotional support. They demonstrate the psychological forces that lead to conflict and the kinds of environments that promote greater generosity.

All of these insights remind us of the interplay between our inner lives and our social conditions. Ways we might take care of ourselves, like practicing mindfulness and getting good sleep, have implications down the line for our relationships. And the type of neighborhood and culture we live in, in turn, influence our own well-being.

This year’s top insights from the science of a meaningful life move from our most private emotions to the ways different groups of Americans relate to each other. They won’t solve all of our social problems—but we hope this list of discoveries will help you to better understand yourself and the people around you.

A great deal of research has investigated the tricky realms of parenting and romantic relationships. Yet studies on friendship—which can offer so much joy and meaning in life—remain less common.

This year, University of Kansas researcher Jeffrey A. Hall helped demystify the process of friendship-building in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. It’s the first to explore how many hours it takes for an acquaintance to become a friend.

Hall surveyed 112 college students every three weeks during their first nine weeks at a Midwestern university. He also gave a one-time questionnaire to 355 American adults who had moved to a new city in the past six months. In these surveys, the newcomers picked a friend or two and reported how much time they spent together and how close the friendship became.

With this data, Hall was able to approximate how many hours it took for different levels of friendship to emerge:

It took students 43 hours and adults 94 hours to turn acquaintances into casual friends.

Students needed 57 hours to transition from casual friends to friends. Adults needed, on average, 164 hours.

For students, friends became good or best friends after about 119 hours. Adults needed an additional 100 hours to make that happen.

How do you know if someone is destined to become your bestie or remain a polite acquaintance? Hall asked people what kind of activities they did with their friends, but there was no one clear path to intimacy. However, a different team of researchers discovered this year that they could predict which people were friends based on their brain activity. Friends, it seems, share not just secrets and hugs but similar neural responses to the world.

These findings offer hope—and a dash of perspective—to those of us feeling lonely and yearning to find our crowd.

“Making friends takes time,” Hall says. “Everyone wants to have friends, but you can’t have friends without making them.”

Do you consider yourself to be pretty good at identifying what other people are feeling? Well, don’t be too confident, suggest four recent studies.

One study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, ran multiple experiments testing how accurately people gauged the feelings and thoughts of others. Some people were specifically instructed to try to walk in others’ shoes, while others were instead asked to do things like concentrate hard or imitate the expression on the other person’s face. The researchers found that the shoe-walkers did no better at accurately reading another person than any of the other groups—and, in some cases, they did worse.

In yet another recent study, researchers asked some participants to look at the face of a person who was watching an emotionally evocative video—and then guess the emotion in the video from the face of the watcher. Another group simply watched the video and tried to imagine how it would make a stranger feel. You might think that faces are an open book, but the people who tried to guess the emotion in the video from a watcher’s face were more often wrong than those who just watched the same video themselves.

In these studies, the most confident people were often the least accurate at empathizing. The problem is hubris—thinking we understand people better than we do and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. But there are ways to improve our empathic skills. Over the long term, we can work on developing our own self-awareness—since, in two other studies this year, more self-aware people were better at identifying the feelings of others.

In the meantime, we can better understand others—whether a spouse or someone on the other side of the political spectrum—if we simply ask them questions and listen carefully to the answers.

Mindfulness can help you manage your anger

All of us have probably lost our cool at one time or another—maybe yelling at the phone company or at a child who misbehaved. But these outbursts are rarely very effective, and they often leave us feeling ashamed and regretful.

How to handle anger better? Recent studies suggest mindfulness could help.

In a study published in Mindfulness, David DeSteno and his colleagues randomly assigned participants to either a three-week mindfulness course (training in breath and body awareness, open awareness of thoughts, and not judging experiences) or a control activity that involved solving cognitive puzzles, prior to bringing both groups into a lab. There they gave a talk—and then received a scathing review of their performance from an undercover research assistant in the audience. Afterwards, researchers asked them to make a condiment mixture for their critics to sample based on a few ingredients, including a very hot pepper sauce—a way to see how aggressive they would be.

The results? Those who’d practiced mindfulness meditation said they were just as angry as non-meditators…but they added significantly less hot sauce to the mix. Apparently, the meditators were more able to feel anger without lashing out.

Other recent studies support the idea that mindfulness can help us regulate our emotions amid social tension. In one, more mindful spouses were able to maintain lower blood pressure and greater heart rate variability—indicating better recovery from stressors—while discussing marital conflicts than people who were less mindful. Another found that more mindful people seemed to be less distressed when they were excluded by others, and their brains showed decreased activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, too—a pattern associated with exerting less cognitive control over emotional upsets.

These finding suggest that mindfulness could help us manage our anger better—not by suppressing it, but by staying cool while anger passes through us. That’s why DeSteno says that mindfulness meditation does “exactly what the developers of meditation hoped that it would do: increase ethical behavior by preventing people from inflicting harm on other people in a situation where that’s the normative response.”

Sleeplessness breeds loneliness

It’s been long known that when you’re feeling lonely, you may not sleep as well. But the opposite appears to be true, too: Poor sleep leads to loneliness.

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers scanned people’s brains both after a normal night’s sleep and after a night of sleep deprivation. Participants watched videos of a stranger approaching them from a distance and pushed a button when they felt the stranger was getting uncomfortably close, while the researchers monitored what was happening in their brains.

After sleeping poorly, participants wanted the strangers to stop at a much greater distance than they did after a night of normal sleep, and their brains reflected a particular pattern: Circuits associated with social repulsion lit up, while circuits involved in theory of mind (our ability to gauge the intentions of others) diminished. This pattern suggests that poor sleep makes people want to avoid other people. Indeed, the poorly slept participants also reported feeling lonelier.

Then, the researchers took the experiment one step further: They asked other people to rate how lonely they thought participants felt by watching videotapes of them. Not only did the raters think the sleep-deprived ones looked lonelier—the raters were also less interested in interacting with them. This implies that poor sleep could lead to a vicious cycle of avoiding others and others avoiding us—a threat to our well-being.

As the researchers conclude, “People who come in contact with a sleep-deprived individual, even through a brief one-minute interaction, feel lonelier themselves as a result, indicating viral contagion of social isolation caused by sleep loss.”

Other studies have shown that healthy sleep affects our relationships by helping us better empathize with others, reduce our prejudices, modulate our anger, and be less susceptible to rejection. These new findings add to that science, demonstrating that a good night’s sleep can help prevent loneliness, too—in ourselves and in those around us.

Smartphones can make in-person interactions less enjoyable

As smartphones become ubiquitous, it seems like it’s becoming more and more socially acceptable to use them in different settings. But how does this affect our relationships with other people?

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology investigated how smartphones influence in-person interactions by inviting over 300 people to share a meal with friends or family at a cafe. Some people kept their phones out next to them, while others turned their phones on silent and stowed them away. Afterward, they filled out surveys about their experience.

Ultimately, the people who dined without their phones felt less distracted and (in turn) enjoyed the meal more. They were also less bored and in a better mood. In a separate analysis, the same team of researchers pinged 123 students randomly during their daily life—to find out what they were doing, how they were feeling, and whether they were using their phones—and the same pattern appeared. People just didn’t enjoy socializing as much if they were on their phones.

“Phone use prevents individuals from fully engaging in the present moment,” the researchers write. “Despite their ability to connect us to others across the globe, phones may undermine the benefits we derive from interacting with those across the table.”

This seems to be true even for people who grew up with smartphones, like the college students in the study. In fact, another study published in Emotion this year suggests that well-being is declining among teens and that screen time may be to blame. A team of researchers led by Jean Twenge found that teens who spend more time on screens and less time on offline activities tend to have reduced well-being. And since 2012, the first year when a majority of Americans owned smartphones, the rise in screen time has gone hand in hand with decreases in teens’ self-esteem and satisfaction with life.

There was one hopeful finding in Twenge’s study, though: On an individual level, teens who spent more time interacting with friends online also spent more time with friends in-person. Our online and offline worlds are not always a zero-sum game—but maybe, as the first study suggests, it’s best not to combine them during the same meal.

Teen emotions really are jumbled

If you have any teenagers in your life, you’ve probably witnessed the emotional rollercoaster that is adolescence. But why is teen emotional life so rocky, and how is it different from our emotional experience at other ages?

In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers from Harvard and the University of Washington asked participants ages five to 25 to look at a series of unpleasant images, such as a baby crying, and rate how much they felt five negative emotions: angry, disgusted, sad, scared, and upset. Their scores were analyzed to see how often they experienced a certain emotion independently from the other four emotions.

Ultimately, the researchers found that adolescents tended to experience many emotions simultaneously—and that they differentiated them poorly. In other words, a teenager might consistently feel angry and sad together, indicating that it is difficult for her to distinguish between the two.

Adolescence is “a period of more murkiness in what emotions one is feeling,” explains lead author Erik Nook.

Emotion differentiation, the ability to know and accurately label distinct emotions in ourselves, is a sign of good mental health. Those with high emotion differentiation tend to use effective coping strategies in difficult situations instead of turning to unhealthy alternatives like aggression or alcohol.

Can teenagers improve their ability to differentiate emotions? Or do they just have to wait until adulthood when, the research suggested, people became better at it?

Another 2018 study published in Emotion found that teaching middle schoolers about their emotions—specifically, how they can get better at changing them with practice—improved their well-being in school. The key seemed to be understanding that emotion regulation is a skill that can be learned, not something you’re inherently good or bad at.

So while it’s true that teens experience a whirlwind of confusing feelings, it’s also possible to help them gain more clarity and feel more in control.


Could Depression Be Caused By An Infection?

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Sometime around 1907, well before the modern randomized clinical trial was routine, American psychiatrist Henry Cotton began removing decaying teeth from his patients in hopes of curing their mental disorders. If that didn’t work, he moved on to more invasive excisions: tonsils, testicles, ovaries and, in some cases, colons.

Cotton was the newly appointed director of the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane and was acting on a theory proposed by influential Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, under whom Cotton had studied, that psychiatric illness is the result of chronic infection. Meyer’s idea was based on observations that patients with high fevers sometimes experience delusions and hallucinations.

Cotton ran with the idea, scalpel in hand.

In 1921 he published a well-received book on the theory called The Defective Delinquent and Insane: the Relation of Focal Infections to Their Causation, Treatment and Prevention. A few years later The New York Times wrote, “eminent physicians and surgeons testified that the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane was the most progressive institution in the world for the care of the insane, and that the newer method of treating the insane by the removal of focal infection placed the institution in a unique position with respect to hospitals for the mentally ill.” Eventually Cotton opened a hugely successful private practice, catering to the infected molars of Trenton, N.J., high society.

Following his death in 1933, interest in Cotton’s cures waned. His mortality rates hovered at a troubling 45 percent, and in all likelihood his treatments didn’t work. But though his rogue surgeries were dreadfully misguided and disfiguring, a growing body of research suggests that there might be something to his belief that infection — and with it inflammation — is involved in some forms of mental illness.

Symptoms Of Mental And Physical Illness Can Overlap

Late last year, Turhan Canli, an associate professor of psychology and radiology at Stony Brook University, published a paper in the journal Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders asserting that depression should be thought of as an infectious disease. “Depressed patients act physically sick,” says Canli. “They’re tired, they lose their appetite, they don’t want to get out of bed.” He notes that while Western medicine practitioners tend to focus on the psychological symptoms of depression, in many non-Western cultures, patients who would qualify for a depression diagnosis report primarily physical symptoms, in part because of the stigmatization of mental illness.

“The idea that depression is caused simply by changes in serotonin is not panning out. We need to think about other possible causes and treatments for psychiatric disorders,” says Canli.

His assertion that depression results from infection might seem far-fetched, or at least premature, but there are some data to bolster his claim.

Harkening back to Adolf Meyer’s early 20th century theory, Canli notes how certain infections of the brain — perhaps most notably Toxoplasma gondii — can result in emotional disturbances that mimic psychiatric conditions. He also notes that numerous pathogens have been associated with mental illnesses, including Borna disease virus, Epstein-Barr and certain strains of herpes, including varicella zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles.

A Danish study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2013 looked at the medical records of over 3 million people and found that any history of hospitalization for infection was associated with a 62 percent increased risk of later developing a mood disorder, including depression and bipolar disorder.

Canli believes that pathogens acting directly on the brain may result in psychiatric symptoms, but also that autoimmune activity — or the body’s immune system attacking itself — triggered by infection may also contribute. The Danish study also reported that a past history of an autoimmune disorder increases the risk of a future mood disorder by 45 percent.

Antibodies Provide A Clue

The idea that there could be a relationship between the immune system and brain disease isn’t new. Autoantibodies were reported in schizophrenia patients in the 1930s. Subsequent work has detected antibodies to various neurotransmitter receptors in the brains of psychiatric patients, while a number of brain disorders, including multiple sclerosis, are known to involve abnormal immune system activity. Researchers at the University of Virginia recently identified a previously undiscovered network of vessels directly connecting the brain with the immune system; the authors concluded that an interplay between the two could significantly contribute to certain neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Both infection and autoimmune activity result in inflammation, our body’s response to harmful stimuli, which in part involves a surge in immune system activity. And it’s thought by many in the psychiatric research community that inflammation is somehow involved in depression and perhaps other mental illnesses.

Multiple studies have linked depression with elevated markers of inflammation, including two analyses from 2010 and 2012 that collectively reviewed data from 53 studies, as well as several postmortem studies. A large body of related research confirms that autoimmune and inflammatory activity in the brain is linked with psychiatric symptoms.

Still, for the most part the research so far finds associations but doesn’t prove cause and effect between inflammation and mental health issues. The apparent links could be a matter of chance, or there might be some other factor that hasn’t been identified.

Dr. Roger McIntyre, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, tells Shots that he believes an upset in the “immune-inflammatory system” is at the core of mental illness and that psychiatric disorders might be an unfortunate cost of our powerful immune defenses. “Throughout evolution our enemy up until vaccines and antibiotics were developed was infection,” he says. “Our immune system evolved to fight infections so we could survive and pass our genes to the next generation. However, our immune-inflammatory system doesn’t distinguish between what’s provoking it.” McIntyre explains how stressors of any kind — physical or sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, grief — can activate our immune alarms. “For reasons other than fighting infection, our immune-inflammatory response can stay activated for weeks, months or years and result in collateral damage,” he says.

Unlike Canli, McIntyre implicates inflammation in general, not exclusively inflammation caused by infection or direct effects of infection itself, as a major contributor to mental maladies. “It’s unlikely that most people with a mental illness have it as a result of infection,” he says, “but it would be reasonable to hypothesize that a subpopulation of people with depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia ended up that way because an infection activated their immune-inflammatory system.” McIntyre says that infection, particularly in the womb, could work in concert with genetics, psychosocial factors and our diet and microbiome to influence immune and inflammatory activity and, in turn, our risk of psychiatric disease.

Trying Drugs Against Inflammation For Mental Illness

The idea that inflammation — whether stirred up by infection or by other factors — contributes to or causes mental illness comes with caveats, at least in terms of potential treatments. Trials testing anti-inflammatory drugs have been overall mixed or underwhelming.

A recent meta-analysis reported that supplementing SSRIs like Prozac with regular low-dose aspirin use is associated with a reduced risk of depression, and ibuprofen supplementation is linked with lower chances of obtaining psychiatric care. However, concomitant treatment with SSRIs and diclofenac or celecoxib — two other anti-inflammatories often used to treat arthritis — was associated with increased risk of needing hospital care due to psychiatric symptoms.

A 2013 study explored the antidepressant potential of Remicade, a drug used in rheumatoid arthritis. Overall, three infusions of the medication were found to be no more effective than a placebo, but patients whose blood had higher levels of an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein did experience modest benefit.

“The truth of the matter is that there is probably a subset of people who get depressed in response to inflammation,” says lead author Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona. “Maybe their bodies generate more inflammation, or maybe they’re more sensitive to it.”

How infection and other causes of inflammation and overly aggressive immune activity may contribute to depression and other mental illnesses — and whether or not it’s actually depression driving the inflammation — is still being investigated, and likely will be for some time. But plenty of leading psychiatrists agree that the search for alternative pathologic explanations and treatments for psychiatric disorders could help jump-start the field.

“I’m not convinced that anti-inflammatory strategies are going to turn out to be the most powerful treatments around,” cautions Raison. “But I think if we really want to understand depression, we definitely have to understand how the immune system talks to the brain. I just don’t think we’ve identified immune-based or anti-inflammatory treatments yet that are going to have big effects in depression.”

But the University of Toronto’s McIntyre has a slightly brighter outlook. “Is depression due to infection, or is it due to something else?” he asks. “The answer is yes and yes. The bottom line is inflammation appears to contribute to depression, and we have interventions to address this.”

McIntyre notes that while the science of psychiatry has a long way to go, and that these interventions haven’t been proved effective, numerous approaches with minimal side effects exist that appear to be generally anti-inflammatory, including exercise, meditation and healthy sleep habits.

He also finds promise in the work of his colleague: “Like most cases in medicine, Charles Raison showed that anti-inflammatory approaches may benefit some people with depression, but not everybody. If you try on your friend’s eyeglasses, chances are they won’t help your vision very much.”

Bret Stetka is a writer based in New York and an editorial director at Medscape. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, and on The He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 2005.

Scientists Improve Mood By Stimulating A Brain Area Above The Eyes

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There’s new evidence that mild pulses of electricity can relieve depression — if they reach the right target in the brain.

A study of 25 people with epilepsy found that those who had symptoms of depression felt better almost immediately when doctors electrically stimulated an area of the brain just above the eyes, a team reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

These people were in the hospital awaiting surgery and had wires inserted into their brains to help doctors locate the source of their seizures.

Several of the patients talked about the change they felt when the stimulation of the lateral orbitofrontal cortex began, says Kristin Sellers, an author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. One person’s response was: “Wow, I feel a lot better. … What did you guys do?”

The stimulation only lasted a few minutes. After it stopped, the effect on mood quickly faded.

To be sure that the effect was real, the researchers also pretended to stimulate the lateral OFC in the same patients without actually running current through the tiny wires implanted in their brains. In those sham treatments, there was no discernible change.

The results add to the evidence that patients with depression can be helped with an approach known as deep brain stimulation.

DBS is an approved treatment for tremors, including those associated with Parkinson’s disease. But results with depression have been less consistent, and DBS isn’t approved for this purpose by the Food and Drug Administration.

The latest study represents “another piece in a very complicated puzzle, a very important piece,” says Dr. Helen Mayberg, a pioneer in the use of DBS to treat depression.

The study also offers strong evidence that stimulating the OFC can temporarily improve the mood of a person who is feeling depressed, says Mayberg, who directs the Center for Advanced Circuit Therapeutics, which is part of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York.

But it’s unclear whether the stimulation can produce long-lasting changes, she says. Also, the study couldn’t answer a critical question because it only looked at people who were reporting transient symptoms of depression.

“What happens if you did this in people who actually have failed every kind of treatment for a major depressive episode and are chronically and intractably ill,” Mayberg says.

Meanwhile, her own team has been able to help about 80 percent of those patients by stimulating a different area of the brain — one that happens to share many connections with the OFC.

The latest study offers “more evidence that [DBS] is something that is real and will work for depression,” says Al Fenoy, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Fenoy is part of a team that has had success treating depression by stimulating yet another brain area that shares connections with the OFC. “We’re all (working) along a very similar pathway,” he says. “One of the common denominators might be this orbitofrontal area.”

But it’s also possible that different types of depression will require different targets, Fenoy says.

All of the research on brain stimulation reflects a move away from the long-held view that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

“A more sort of modern conception is thinking of depression as a circuit dysfunction, meaning that there’s something about the way cells in the brain are talking to each other that is not quite right,” says Dr. Vikram Rao, an author of the new study and an assistant professor of clinical neurology at UCSF.

So researchers have been trying to identify faulty circuits and make them work better using electrical pulses. The challenge has been to find areas that have a really good connection to the malfunctioning circuit

“The way that I like to think about it is we’re trying to get onto a highway and there’s a lot of different on-ramps,” Sellers says.

The UCSF team took a novel approach to this task by studying patients with epilepsy who were awaiting surgery. That meant they already had wires inserted into their brains to help doctors locate the source of their seizures.

In a previous, related study, UCSF researchers had used a different group of epilepsy patients to identify circuits in the brain that indicated whether people were happy or sad. This time, they were able to use these wires to not only monitor various brain circuits involved in mood but also electrically stimulate some of those areas.

The researchers were able to use the technique in many different areas in the brain. And Sellers says they got an immediate response when they stimulated the OFC.

“What we found was that consistently, stimulation in the lateral OFC was improving mood in symptomatic patients,” Sellers says. What’s more, more powerful stimulation produced a more dramatic improvement in mood, she says. There were no issues with side effects, including mania, which has been seen in some previous experiments with brain stimulation.

That’s probably because the OFC offers a really good on-ramp to brain networks involved in depression, Rao says. “It does seem to be a crossroads for connecting many different brain regions that had been implicated in regulating our mood.”

And Rao says the results suggest that stimulation of this area is improving the function of a faulty circuit, rather than just making everyone happier.

“Only the people who had symptoms [of depression] to start with improved their mood, which suggests that perhaps the effect of what we’re doing is to normalize activity that starts off abnormal,” Rao says.


Breathing Through the Nose May Offer Unique Brain Benefits

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Folklore, spiritual traditions and even mothers have for ages drawn an implicit connection between respiration and state of mind: Breathe in deeply through your nose, we are told, to clarify thoughts, achieve serenity, defuse tantrums. There isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to back up these ideas, but a growing number of experiments have been looking at the influence that breathing has on our cognition. In October, a study in The Journal of Neuroscience considered the relationship between memory and how we breathe.

Recognizing odors is a key survival mechanism for most creatures — including humans, of course. This is why neuroscientists believe the links between thinking and breathing were early evolutionary adaptations. Studies have shown that when rodents sniff, the flow of even odorless air initiates brain activity by stimulating neurons in what’s called the olfactory bulb, which then signal the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the creation and storage of memories. For the October study, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and other institutions conducted an experiment to see whether something similar happens to us if we breathe through our mouths.

Mouth breathing resulted in fuzzier recall and more incorrect answers.

Two dozen healthy young male and female volunteers inhaled 12 different scents from small vials held to their noses. Some of the smells were familiar, like the essence of orange, while others were obscure. The subjects were told to memorize each scent. They went through this process on two occasions. For one, they sat quietly for an hour immediately after the sniffing, with their noses clipped shut to prevent nasal breathing; on the other, they sat for an hour with tape over their mouths to prevent oral breathing. During each hour, their brains should have been consolidating memories of the smells in the hippocampus, according to the researchers’ hypothesis. After each hour, the volunteers were exposed to repeated scents and new ones, then asked to determine whether an odor had been sniffed earlier.

The men and women were consistently much better at recognizing smells if they breathed through their noses during the quiet hour. Mouth breathing resulted in fuzzier recall and more incorrect answers. As Artin Arshamian, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute and lead author of the study, puts it, “Nasal breathing enhanced memory consolidation.” Presumably, the oral respiration was less effective because it bypassed the olfactory bulb, Arshamian says, and did not jump-start the same neuronal cascade.

Whether nasal, as opposed to mouth, breathing can improve people’s long-term memories unrelated to odors — or otherwise enhance cognition — is still in doubt. “However, I would not be surprised if it did have a similar effect on memory in everyday life,” Arshamian says. He doesn’t think these hypothetical effects would be that big. But, he says, “Given the fact that breathing has been used to change mental states for thousands of years, we still know next to nothing about respiration and brain function in humans.”

By Gretchen Reynolds
Illustration by Celia Jacobs

Do You Really Know Why You Do What You Do?

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Experimental psychologist Petter Johansson researches choice blindness — a phenomenon where we convince ourselves that we’re getting what we want, even when we’re not. In an eye-opening talk, he shares experiments (designed in collaboration with magicians!) that aim to answer the question: Why do we do what we do? The findings have big implications for the nature of self-knowledge and how we react in the face of manipulation. You may not know yourself as well as you think you do. Petter Johansson and his research group study self-knowledge and attitude change using methods ranging from questionnaires to close-up card magic. To see his Ted Talk, click here.

Can’t Stop Worrying? Try Tetris To Ease Your Mind

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If you’ve ever played Tetris — whether it was at an old-school Gameboy, or just on your iPhone — then you know: It’s 8-bit enchantment.

“Years of my life were lost disappearing into a game of Tetris on my Nintendo system,” says Kate Sweeny, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

But maybe the hours she spent lining those little blocks (“tetriminos”) into perfect rows of 10 weren’t a total waste. Her latest research suggests that Tetris can ease us through periods of anxiety by getting us to a blissfully engrossed mental state that psychologists call “flow.”

“The state of flow is one where you’re completely absorbed or engaged in some kind of activity,” Sweeny explains. “You lose your self-awareness, and time is just flying by.”

So say, you’re waiting for a date to text you back, or for your LSAT scores, or — as much of the country will be doing on Tuesday — waiting for the election results. You may be tempted to think obsessively about the possibilities. Instead, Sweeny’s research suggests, you may want to turn off Twitter alerts, and try distracting yourself with a brain game.

The study, published recently in the journal Emotion, focused on people who were waiting for uncertain, potentially life-altering news, and it found that a flow-inducing game of Tetris could help them cope.

Sweeny and her collaborators gathered a group of more than 300 college students and told them their peers would be evaluating how attractive they were. “I know, it’s kind of cruel, but we found it’s a really effective way to get people stressed out,” Sweeny says. While the participants awaited their attractiveness scores, the researchers had them play Tetris.

Some played a painfully slow, easy version of the game — which bored them. Some played an extremely challenging, fast version — which frustrated them. And everyone else played the classic version, which adapts to each player’s individual skill level and gets them into that state of flow.

In the end, everyone experienced a degree of worry. But the third group reported slightly higher levels of positive emotions (on average, about a quarter of a point higher on a five-point scale) and slightly lower levels of negative emotions (half a point lower on a five-point scale).

“It wasn’t a huge difference, but we think it’s noticeable,” Sweeny says. “And over time, it can add up.”

The results line up with a growing body of research showing that regular doses of flow can boost our mood and help us manage stress. And although playing Tetris is a reliable way to achieve flow, other absorbing video games would work too. And if you’d rather put down your digital device, no worries. Games are by no means the only way.

“Think of the activity that grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies happiness. “For me, it’s mountain biking.” For you, it could be chess or ballet.

“I can’t say I found this study particularly surprising at all,” says Dunn, who wasn’t involved in the research. “Mostly because, based on previous research, it’s hard to find a situation where the experience of flow isn’t a good thing.”

What the new research does suggest, she says, “is that even in tough moments, we should push ourselves to do something challenging to get us out of the moment.”

“Go mountain biking, or rock climbing or have games night with your friends where you play really challenging games,” she says.

And if all else fails, you can always try Tetris.

By Maanvi Singh

We Just ‘Fell Back’ An Hour, Tips To Stay Healthy During Dark Days

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When it comes to turning back the clocks on our devices, technology has us covered. Our smartphones automatically adjust.

But our internal clocks aren’t as easy to re-program. And this means that the time shift in the fall and again in the spring can influence our health in unexpected ways.

“You might not think that a one hour change is a lot,” says Fred Turek, who directs the Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology at Northwestern University. “But it turns out that the master clock in our brain is pretty hard-wired, ” Turek explains. It’s synchronized to the 24 hour light/dark cycle.

Daylight is a primary cue to reset the body’s clock each day. So, if daylight comes an hour earlier — as it will for many of us this weekend — it throws us off.

“The internal clock has to catch up, and it takes a day or two to adjust to the new time,” Turek says.

Scientists have documented that the shift to daylight saving time in the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and traffic accidents.

And the results of a new study, which will be presented at an American Heart Association conference later this week, points to a 20 percent increase in the number of patients admitted to the hospital for a atrial fibrillation, which is a type of irregular heartbeat, in the days following the spring time change.

“It is definitely a surprise when thinking about a one-hour difference,” says Jay Chudow, an internal medicine resident at Montefiore Health System who did the research. This finding is preliminary, but it adds to the evidence that daylight saving time transitions can have negative health consequences.

These studies are a reminder of just how sensitive we are to time and rhythm. Over the last 20 years, scientists have documented that, in addition to the master clock in our brains, every cell in our body has a time-keeping mechanism. These clocks help regulate important functions such as sleep and metabolism. And increasingly, there’s evidence that when our habits — such as when we eat and sleep — are out of sync with our internal clocks, it can harm us.

As we’ve reported, our bodies crave consistent routines. When we disrupt our routines with erratic sleep or eating habits, it can increase the risk of metabolic disease. For instance, people who work overnight shifts are at higher risk of developing diabetes and obesity. Research also shows that kids who don’t have set bedtimes and mealtimes are also more likely to become overweight.

At this time of year, as the amount of daylight continues to decrease, it’s easy to fall into bad habits. “The [decrease] in daylight can throw off a lot of things including socialization and emotional rhythm,” says Sanam Hafeez, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University.

How to prepare for the darker days ahead

Go to bed an hour or so earlier. As the clocks turn back, Hafeez says you want to maximize your exposure to daylight in the morning hours, since it gets dark so early in the evening. If you’re accustomed to going to bed at 11 p.m., try 10 p.m. instead. “Just record ‘The Daily Show,’ or whatever you watch at night. That’s what I do,” says Hafeez.

As we’ve reported, research has shown that a lack of sleep can send a signal to the body to store fat, so getting plenty of shut-eye is key to good health. And, if you use the morning for exercise, all the better, since physical activity can help stave off depression.

Stock up on foods that nourish. Our moods can take a turn south during the cold dark months, and we tend to eat more, too. So, instead of a big plate of pasta for dinner, think about adding protein sources. “There definitely seems to be more fullness associated with protein,” Janet Polivy of the University of Toronto at Mississauga told us in 2011.

Fish, nuts and other plant-based proteins such as tofu are good alternatives if you don’t want to add meat. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. “One of the most basic ways that omega-3s help to regulate mood is by quieting down the [body’s] response to inflammation,” Joe Hibbeln of the National Institutes of Health told us for a story on the Food-Mood connection.

Eat dinner early and keep it light. Research suggests that the timing of your meals can help stave off weight-gain. In one study, a group of dieters who ate their main meal of the day before 3 p.m. lost about five pounds more than the people who ate a dinner meal later in the evening.

So here’s one approach: Make lunch your main meal, and take a small-plate, tapas approach to dinner. Also, limit alcohol. There’s plenty of evidence that drinking more than a serving or two per day is not healthy.

Join a club or group activity. Winter can bring social isolation. “Some people tend to hibernate,” Hafeez says. And some people develop seasonal depression. Bright lights or light boxes can help people who have seasonal affective disorder.

Another approach is to try to stay socially engaged. Hafeez’s advice: Join a book club or find people with a shared hobby. Group exercise classes are also effective at combating the winter blues.

Go south — or closer to the equator — if you can. The farther north you live, the darker your days will be in the winter. And this can dampen your mood. Here’s Fred Turek’s advice: “I take more trips to the southern part of the U.S. during the winter months. The closer you get to the equator, the more daylight there is,” Turek says.

Of course, for many of us, travel is a luxury, so this might not be possible, but it’s important to get as much light into your day as you can.


A Toolkit for Unhooking from Criticism

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Fact: Work Brings Criticism. Here’s how to detach the emotion from the comments.

It’s happened to all of us: feedback on our creative work has, at one time or another, caused us to get stuck. Maybe a client hated your designs, and your confidence was shaken for the months that followed. Or a client hated your designs, and you wasted hours arguing with them in your head. Or maybe it’s the quieter criticism of no response at all—to blog posts or a new offering in your business—that has you feeling demoralized.
All of these are ways we get “hooked” by criticism – caught by it in ways that limit us. What we want instead, of course, is to be able to hear and incorporate useful feedback, without the personal wounding or creative blocks that so often come with it.

Over the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of working with creatives, entrepreneurs, and leaders to help them unhook from criticism, so they can have more impact and feel a greater sense of freedom in their work. I’ve also abandoned creative pursuits I’m passionate about—writing, dance, performance—because I got so hurt by feedback that I could no longer keep creating. I had to find my way back to creating consistently, in spite of the ups and downs of audience receptions to my work. And now, as a working writer and entrepreneur, again and again, I have to unhook from praise and criticism all the time.

I had to find my way back to creating consistently, in spite of the ups and downs of audience receptions to my work.

Through all of that work I discovered there are a few tools and practices we can use in our daily lives to completely change our relationship to criticism for the better. These key concepts are a core part of what I teach and what I’ve written about in my book, Playing Big.

See feedback as giving you information about the person giving it—not as giving you information about yourself. Perhaps your boss has given you the feedback that your work on a recent project is “bad.” So here’s the question: Does that give you any facts about your work, your talent? I’d argue it doesn’t. But it does tell you something about your boss’ preferences and taste.

Understanding feedback in this way—as providing information only about the person giving it—is liberating, especially for creatives who will always have to deal with a range of highly subjective assessments. When you view feedback in this way, it simply becomes strategically useful information that can tell us how to engage the people we want to engage: bosses, clients, colleagues, or the audience for our artistic work.

We can still take feedback seriously. We can still work hard to incorporate it. But we do so knowing the feedback isn’t a verdict on us; it’s information about how we’ve come across, and about how we can be more effective with a particular person or group.

Try it out. Think back to some negative feedback you’ve received. What did that feedback tell you about the person giving the feedback? What insight did it give you into their preferences, their style, or their expectations? How does that perspective change how the feedback feels, and what you might do about it?

Recognize that all distinctive work brings criticism. Many of us hold the notion that if our work was as good as it could be, everyone—or almost everyone—would love it. But often, our greatest work is the most polarizing. To steep yourself in this idea that all distinctive work brings praise and criticism, visit your favorite bookseller’s website. Look up one of your favorite books. Read a five star review. Read a one star review. Read another five star review. Read another one star review. Toggle back and forth between the most laudatory and the most critical reviews. Take in the range of reactions, the opposing opinions shared.

Find the match-up. The criticism that we most fear receiving and that we find the most wounding is criticism that matches up with what we believe about ourselves. Notice which past criticisms have stung the most for you. Notice if there is a particular criticism you most fear receiving. Perhaps it’s being seen as “arrogant” or “good but not great” or “lazy.” Simply notice what it is for you. In what way does this mirror what you believe about yourself, or fear to be true about yourself?

Your work is to turn your attention away from the outward criticism and develop a more accurate, compassionate assessment of yourself. When you’ve changed the belief about yourself, you’ll no longer be so afraid of or wounded by that criticism.

Typically, it’s not feedback itself that gets us in trouble, but the way we interpret it.

Separate facts from interpretation. Typically, it’s not feedback itself that gets us in trouble, but the way we interpret it. Say several publishers reject your book proposal. That’s the fact. But what you make that mean might be “my idea isn’t marketable” or “I’m a bad writer.” Maybe those conclusions are true, maybe not. When you receive feedback that causes you to get stuck, separate fact from interpretation by writing down these four items:

The fact of what happened (for example, “Six publishers have rejected my book proposal”)

Your current interpretation of the facts (for example, “The proposal is embarrassingly bad”)
Five other interpretations of the facts (for example, “I haven’t found the right fit yet” or “I may need to make the marketing section stronger” or “Having a personal introduction to an editor might really help.”) Bring in a friend to brainstorm with you if you have trouble thinking of alternative interpretations.

One action you can take to find out more about what the feedback really means, so you can shift your approach accordingly (hint: that probably means talking to the people who gave the feedback to learn more).

Have you gotten hooked by criticism in the past? When has it hampered your creative growth, and how did you move past the block? And what would be possible in your creative life right now, if you were less attached to feedback?

By Tara Sophia Mohr

Own Your Behaviors, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success

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This speech is a call to action. We spend about eighty percent of our day at work, the rest is at home. If we have a bad day at work we are likely to take that negativity home with us and vice versa. It is of paramount importance that we create healthy environments in the spaces that most affect our lives by giving of our best and receiving the like in return. The 5 Chairs is a powerful and systematic method which helps us master our own behaviours and manage the behaviours of others. To be a good leader is to contribute to the success and happiness of everyone, at work and at home, on a conscious level. The 5 Chairs offer 5 Choices. Which will you choose?

Behavioral Coach, Corporate Trainer, Author of ‘5 Chairs 5 Choices’. Louise Evans heads up her own organization in Florence, Italy from which she offers international leadership development, cross-cultural transitional coaching and personal development programmes for individuals and teams working in international contexts. She is English but has lived and worked in Germany, France and for the last 30 years in Italy.

Three things have always been important in her life – people, travel and the performing arts – all three of which she combines in her daily work. Having travelled to 75 countries and experienced culture shock three times, Louise brings multiple perspectives to the present moment to help people connect across their differences. Louise believes deeply in people’s ability to grow and transform. What she values most is helping people strengthen their self-awareness and their understanding of others so that they bring their best selves into the world in every situation. To see her Louise Evans, TEDxGenova, click here.

7 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Mental Focus

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Staying on task can be difficult, but it can be particularly challenging when you are surrounded by constant distraction. In today’s always-connected world, diversions are nothing more than a click away. Even during quiet moments, distraction is literally at your fingertips as you find yourself checking your Facebook or trying to catch that elusive Pokémon.

Fortunately, focus is a lot like a mental muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. Why is ​focus so important? The ability to concentrate on something in your environment and direct mental effort toward it is critical for learning new things, achieving goals, and performing well across a wide variety of situations. Whether you are trying to finish a report at work or competing in a marathon, your ability to focus can mean the difference between success and failure.

Improving your mental focus is achievable, but that does not mean that it is necessarily quick and easy. If it was simple, then we would all have the razor-sharp concentration of an elite athlete. It will take some real effort on your part and you may have to make some major changes to some of your daily habits.

Here are some tips and tricks from psychology that can help you develop laser-like mental focus and concentration.

Start by Assessing Your Mental Focus

Before you start working toward improving your mental focus, you might want to begin by assessing just how strong your mental focus is at the present moment. Consider the following statements and select the ones that seem to best describe you:

I find myself daydreaming often when I need to be working on an important task.
I find it difficult to tune out distractions.
I often lose track of what I was working on and have to start over again.
I tend to focus on difficult tasks during times of the day when I know I will be the most alert.
I like to set goals and break tasks up into more manageable segments.
If I find my mind wandering, I’ll take a short break and then come right back to what I was working on.

If you identify more with the first three statements, then you probably need to work on your mental focus quite a bit. If the second set of statements seems more your style, then you probably already have fairly good concentration skills, but you could be even stronger with a little practice.

Eliminate Distractions

Admit it, you saw this one coming. While it may sound obvious, people often underestimate just how many distractions prevent them from concentrating on the task at hand. Such intrusions might come in the form of a radio blaring in the background or perhaps an obnoxious co-worker who constantly drops by your cubicle to chat.

Minimizing these sources of distraction often sounds easier than it really is. While it might be as simple as turning off the television or radio, you might find it much more challenging to deal with an interrupting co-worker, spouse, child, or roommate.

One way to deal with this is to set aside a specific time and place and request to be left alone for a period of time. Another alternative is to seek out a calm location where you know you will be able to work undisturbed. The library, a private room in your house, or even a quiet coffee shop might all be good spots to try.

Another important thing to remember is that not all distractions are external. Environmental noises and interruptions are often easier control than the internal distractions that might make it difficult to focus your attention. Exhaustion, worry, anxiety, poor motivation, and other internal disturbances can be particularly difficult to avoid.

A few strategies you might want to try to minimize or eliminate such internal distraction are to make sure you are well-rested prior to the task and to use positive thoughts and imagery to fight off anxiety and worry. If you find your mind wandering toward distracting thoughts, consciously bring your focus back to the task at hand.

Focus on One Thing at a Time

While multitasking sometimes seems like a great way to get a lot done quickly, it turns out that people are actually rather bad at it. Juggling multiple tasks at once can dramatically cut down on productivity and makes it much harder to hone in on the details that are truly important. Why? Because our attentional resources are limited so it is important to budget them wisely.

Think of your attention as a spotlight. If you shine that spotlight on one particular area, you can see things very clearly. If you were to try to spread that same amount of light across a large dark room, you might instead only glimpse the shadowy outlines.

Part of improving your mental focus is all about making the most of the resources you have available. Stop multitasking and instead give your full attention to one thing at a time.

Live In the Moment

It’s tough to stay mentally focused when you are ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or tuned out of the present moment for some other reason. You have probably heard people talk about the importance of “being present.” It’s all about putting away distractions, whether they are physical (your Smartphone) or psychological (your anxieties) and being fully mentally engaged in the current moment.

This notion of being present is also essential for recapturing your mental focus. Staying engaged in the here and now keeps your attention sharp and your mental resources honed in on the details that really matter at a specific point in time.

It may take some time but work on learning to truly live in the moment. You cannot change the past and the future has not happened yet, but what you do today can help you avoid repeating past mistakes and pave a path for a more successful future.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. Despite the fact that people have practiced forms of mindfulness meditation for thousands of years, its many health benefits are only recently starting to be understood.

In one study, researchers had human resources professionals engage in simulations of the sort of complex multitasking they engaged in each day at work. These tasks had to be completed in 20 minutes and included answering phones, scheduling meetings, and writing memos with sources of information pouring in from multiple sources including by phone calls, emails, and text messages.

Some of the participants received 8 weeks of training in the use of mindfulness meditation, and the results found that only those who had received this training showed improvement in concentration and focus. Members of the meditation group were able to stay on task longer, switched between tasks less frequently, and performed the work more efficiently than the other groups of participants.

Practicing mindfulness can involve learning how to meditate, but it can also be as simple as trying a quick and easy deep breathing exercise. To accomplish this, start by taking several deep breaths while really focusing on each and every breath. When you feel your mind naturally begin to wander, gently and uncritically guide your focus back to your deep breathing.

While this might seem like a deceptively simple task, you may find that it is actually much more difficult than it appears. Fortunately, this breathing activity is something you can do anywhere and anytime. Eventually, you will probably find that it becomes easier to disengage from intrusive thoughts and return your focus to where it belongs.

Try Taking a Short Break

Have you ever tried to focus on the same thing for a long period of time? After a while, your focus starts to break down and it becomes more and more difficult to devote your mental resources to the task. Not only that, but your performance ultimately suffers as a result.

Traditional explanations in psychology have suggested that this is due to attentional resources being depleted, but some researchers believe that it has more to do with the brain’s tendency to ignore sources of constant stimulation.

So what’s the solution?

Researchers have found that even taking very brief breaks by shifting your attention elsewhere can dramatically improve mental focus. So the next time you are working on a prolonged task, such as preparing your taxes or studying for an exam, be sure to give yourself an occasional mental break. Shift your attention to something unrelated to the task at hand, even if it is only for a few moments. These short moments of respite might mean that you are able to keep your mental focus sharp and your performance high when you really need it.

Keep Practicing to Strengthen Your Focus

Building your mental focus is not something that will happen overnight. Even professional athletes require plenty of time and practice in order to strengthen their concentration skills. One of the first steps is to recognize the impact that being distracted is having on your life. If you are struggling to accomplish your goals and find yourself getting sidetracked by unimportant details, it is time to start placing a higher value on your time. By building your mental focus, you will find that you are able to accomplish more and concentrate on the things in life that truly bring you success, joy, and satisfaction.

By Kendra Cherry, Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

A Brain Scientist Explains How She Stays Mentally Fit

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As a specialist in Alzheimer’s prevention, Jessica Langbaum knows that exercising her mental muscles can help keep her brain sharp.

But Langbaum, who holds a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology, has no formal mental fitness program. She doesn’t do crossword puzzles or play computer brain games.

“Just sitting down and doing Sudoku isn’t probably going to be the one key thing that’s going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

Instead of using a formal brain training program, she simply goes to work.

“My job is my daily cognitive training,” says Langbaum, the associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix.

And that’s true of most working people. “While you’re still in the work force you are getting that daily challenge of multitasking, of remembering things, of processing information,” she says.

Langbaum offers that perspective as someone who has spent years studying the effects of brain training programs, and as someone who has seen Alzheimer’s up close.

“My grandfather was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment when I was in graduate school getting my Ph.D.,” she says. “That transitioned into full-blown Alzheimer’s dementia.”

So Langbaum began to ask herself a question: “How can I in my career help ensure that we aren’t suffering from the disease when we reach that age?”

And she realized early on that puzzles and games weren’t the answer because they tend to focus on one very narrow task. The result is like exercising just one muscle in your body, Langbaum says. That muscle will get stronger, but your overall fitness isn’t going to change.

The brain training programs used in research studies are more promising and much more demanding. “They’re hard,” says Langbaum, who tried them herself while she was part of a groundbreaking study on the effects of brain training.

In the study of about 2,800 people age 65 and older, most spent more than five weeks doing exercises that tested memory, reasoning or speed. Two of the interventions, reasoning and processing speed, helped a bit even 10 years later, Langbaum says.

“They delay the onset of cognitive impairment,” she says. “They keep your brain working at the same level longer, compared to people who did not receive those same cognitive training interventions.”

But it remains unclear whether brain training can also prevent or delay Alzheimer’s. And more recent research suggests that social interaction may be a better form of mental exercise than brain training.

“People who have a lot of social interactions, particularly in mid-life, have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia in later life,” Langbaum says. “There’s something about being around people that’s helpful for our brains.”

Langbaum’s in good shape on the social front. Between her family, her two kids, her colleagues at work, and her friends, she says, the social areas of her brain get a vigorous daily workout.

So brain training isn’t for Langbaum. But it may be useful for people who are out of the workforce and more isolated, she says.

And she has some advice for anyone looking for a way to keep their brain healthy.

“If you like crossword puzzles, do them,” she says. “But try something new. And trying something new that brings you enjoyment is key. Don’t do it if you don’t like it.”


Can a Mood-Predicting Smartphone App Work?

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Evidence behind a digital tech intervention remains scant

In the world of digital health, Silicon Valley-based Mindstrong stands out. It has a star-studded team and tens of millions in venture capital funding, including from Jeff Bezos’ VC firm.

It also has a captivating idea: that its app, based on cognitive functioning research, can help detect troubling mental health patterns by collecting data on a person’s smartphone usage—how quickly they type or scroll, for instance.

The promise of that technology has helped Mindstrong build incredible momentum since it launched last year; already more than a dozen counties in California have agreed to deploy the company’s app to patients.

Does the app live up to its promise? There’s no way to tell. Almost no one outside the company has any idea whether it works. Most of the company’s key promises or claims aren’t yet backed up by published, peer-reviewed data—leading some experts to wonder if the technology is ready for the real world.

“I wouldn’t waste all that time and money in the wild until they get sure that some of those things are as specific as they hope they are,” said Rosalind Picard, a researcher at MIT Media Lab who is familiar with Mindstrong’s work and tries to use data from smartphones and wearables to detect a person’s mood.

Even as one of the company’s executives, Dr. Tom Insel, acknowledged to STAT that the app isn’t perfect, the company’s CEO emphasized that Mindstrong could provide unprecedented insight into conditions like depression.

Mindstrong is not alone in pushing the frontiers of smartphone-based digital health. Many companies use so-called digital phenotyping, collecting scientific data on a person’s digital life, to gain insights into his or her physical or mental health.

The company’s app collects information about how people are typing and runs it through a machine learning algorithm to determine which data can predict their emotional state. Mindstrong has already used it in controlled clinical settings and trials—including one run by a company developing new antidepressants and another done in a ketamine clinic. The app is available in Apple’s app store, but requires a participant code to access it.

“We’ve done the validation work against the gold-standard clinical tests for depression, for anxiety, for cognitive decline, whether it’s memory or executive function,” said Dr. Paul Dagum, the company’s founder. “We’re confident, we’re already seeing some really exciting results.”

In the last year, Mindstrong’s footprint and reach have already grown exponentially. The Palo Alto-based company’s workforce has doubled to 42 employees and it made a sizable gift to Harvard’s school of public health. In February, it launched a partnership with Takeda to develop new biomarkers that will be able to aid the pharmaceutical giant’s clinical trials for depression treatments.

The idea is to use that data to establish a “normal” pattern—so it can be compared against someone’s typing habits on any given day. If the habits look off, slower or more agitated than normal, the app can alert a health care provider.

Abnormal patterns, Mindstrong says, might show up if a person is more depressed or anxious, or if just about anything else about their mental health changes. When asked which disorders Mindstrong might be able to detect, Dagum replied, “all of them.” (Dagum, a data scientist and physician, founded the company in 2017 with Rick Klausner, the founder and director of CAR-T pioneer Juno Therapeutics and Grail, a liquid biopsy company.)

Mindstrong officials told STAT that among their most encouraging results is that its app can even predict how a person will feel next week, or at least how a person will perform on the Hamilton Rating Scale for depression—kind of like a weather app for your mood.

The data behind this claim is being published soon, said Insel, who is the former head of the National Institute of Mental Health and came to the company in 2017 after a short stint at Verily.

The app can detect a seven-point change on the Hamilton scale, Insel said. That kind of difference could indicate a patient who is not normally depressed now shows signs of mild or moderate depression, or that a person with moderate depression is now showing signs of a very severe condition.

“For a clinician and for someone taking care of a patient, knowing that, it could be very, very powerful,” Dagum said.

The company’s momentum has taken it to the cusp of a real-world deployment in California. About 15 counties—including the most populous county in the United States, Los Angeles County—will be spending about $60 million over the next four years to bring companies like Mindstrong and other apps into their health care system.

These counties hope apps will help them get better services to people with mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Mindstrong program itself is limited: Patients can choose voluntarily whether to use the app, which will be free to them, and that decision won’t affect the rest of the mental health services they can access.

So far, the Mindstrong app has only been used in controlled clinical settings and trials—including one run by a company developing new antidepressants and another done in a ketamine clinic. The company has also claimed that a “nationwide employer” and private substance abuse clinics in D.C. are using the app.

But other than the change on the Hamilton scale—which hasn’t yet gone through peer review and was disclosed to STAT in an interview—almost no data about how well Mindstrong’s technology works is available to independent observers.

The company’s website describes five completed clinical trials, but it has not yet published the results of any. Only a handful of other published works—all from the last year—have hinted at how well it works or its scope with data to back up the claims.

The company published a 27-person pilot study in the journal npj Digital Medicine earlier this year. Dagum is also an author on a poster presentation given at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s 2017 conference, another poster that reported results from a very wide variety of digital phenotyping techniques—not just typing—and a paper describing a clinical trial protocol—not results.

As Mindstrong steps toward a wider rollout, the scientific studies behind its claims will matter. Federal regulators, for one, have cracked down on commercial apps that misleadingly reference a study’s conclusions to market their app.

Based on her own research, at least one expert in digital health and mood said she’s skeptical that Mindstrong can, in a general population, work as well as the company claims. MIT’s Picard said that while there are ways to predict or detect mood changes, you usually need more than just a single type of data to do so.

“I’m suspicious that a single modality like typing is going to be sufficient. It would be like saying there’s a single question [on a screening questionnaire] that a doctor could be using,” said Picard, who is also CEO of a company that works on digital phenotyping, like Mindstrong does.

“My guess is that their specificity to depression is going to be relatively low,” Picard said.

Her own research, for example, relies on temperature and skin conductivity as well as calls and the amount of time spent on a phone to predict mood changes. It is about 80 percent accurate.

Especially in the field of digital mental health, “we need more peer review,” said Dr. Steven Steinhubl, the director of digital medicine at Scripps Research Translational Institute. (Steinhubl is also the co-editor-in-chief of npj Digital Medicine.) Though he said he strongly believes in the potential of apps like Mindstrong, Steinhubl cautioned that peer review has a purpose.

“[Peer review] is a very imperfect system, but there’s really nothing in the peer-reviewed literature. That means that other experts aren’t able to weigh in,” he said. “If you have committees and other people reviewing something who maybe don’t have the same level of expertise, you’ll have people saying, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’”

Other researchers have also found that neuropsychological tests, more broadly, have relatively low accuracy rates.

In a study that examined people who were already being treated for depression, one computerized test could only accurately predict their condition in about 40 percent of cases. Another showed a 44 percent accuracy rate for a similar computerized test used to examine people with major depression.

A neuropsychological test—if it’s used as a screening test—is “going to miss a lot of people who are depressed,” said Richard Porter, a psychology researcher based at the University of Otago in New Zealand who conducted one of the studies.

And even if depressed people do show some kind of cognitive impairment, it’s impossible to tell what caused it.

Many things other than mental illness might cause a person to perform poorly on cognitive tests—like living with another disorder, having a lower baseline performance on cognitive tests, having a drink or taking prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal drugs.

Mindstrong’s leaders aren’t worried about that kind of noise in their data. Some of those factors are important to note, both for patients and the health care professionals working with them.

“You’re hungover, you didn’t sleep well, you didn’t take your medication, you have a medication side effects, you’re having stress and challenges at work and at home. Those are things that we want to measure,” Dagum said.

But even Insel admitted that there are plenty of issues that could affect typing speed—and which Mindstrong hasn’t figured out how to sort out yet. Sticky fingers after lunch, full hands at an airport, wearing gloves during winter, or a broken hand might also plausible affect a person’s typing speed—and, therefore, the app’s performance.

“One thing we’ve thought about is how we factor in those unusual environmental issues,” Insel said. “We’re working on that. But I can’t say that we’ve solved all of those possible issues.”

Insel and others linked with the company are fond of comparing their app to a smoke detector—something that’s intended to enhance humans’ senses to detect danger.

But part of the value of a smoke detector is that if it’s functioning properly, we know it isn’t going off at random. It only goes off in certain conditions and carries a specific message: Your house is on fire or about to be. Do something.

At least for now, that’s where Mindstrong differs from a smoke detector. There’s no way to tell, yet, how specific it is or how sensitive its algorithm is.

Insel said that information is coming. He said the company has the data about the app’s accuracy—but he declined to provide those figures, citing papers pending publication. “[They] square very well with clinically used biomarkers,” he said.

California authorities suggest they have been shown some of that data. But they’re nevertheless cautious about how the app will work in their new, different setting.

One official said there will be “clear writing” included with the state’s version of the app about what it can do, what it cannot do, and what goals the counties hope it will help them achieve.

Those goals are pretty lofty. At least some counties eventually plan to use it not only to supplement the existing system, but potentially to bring more people into its fold.

“We might be able to go to colleges, emergency departments, other places,” said Debbie Innes-Gomberg, a deputy director at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “There’s a process of identifying that they’re symptomatic, but [our target population is] people that are in our system and people who maybe need to be.”

And even before the app launched in the original five counties that had signed on, the pilot has expanded. Another 11 counties have recently decided to join.

Still, Innes-Gomberg said, it’s going to be rolled out with caution. “We’re not going to oversell this.”

By Kate Sheridan for Scientific American

Are You Struggling With Secondhand Stress?

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Yes, stress is contagious. Here’s how to keep it from spreading.

Rushing around the office or at the shopping mall, tapping a pen on a table, finishing other people’s sentences, sighing repeatedly, slamming down the phone…people behave like this when they’re stressed. What’s worse is that this kind of stress is contagious — you can get so-called secondhand stress just being around people who are tightly wound.

“‘Secondhand stress’ is a stress response that is triggered by someone else’s behavior,” explained Jordan Friedman, MPH, stress management speaker, author, and founder of

We may be seeing the other person’s behavior as a threat to our environment, said Heidi Hanna, PhD, a fellow with the American Institute of Stress and author of the upcoming book Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress. “When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we, too, should be worried,” she explained.

Behavior that begets secondhand stress, however, may not necessarily be inherently stressful.

Rushing around the office or at the shopping mall, tapping a pen on a table, finishing other people’s sentences, sighing repeatedly, slamming down the phone…people behave like this when they’re stressed. What’s worse is that this kind of stress is contagious — you can get so-called secondhand stress just being around people who are tightly wound.

“‘Secondhand stress’ is a stress response that is triggered by someone else’s behavior,” explained Jordan Friedman, MPH, stress management speaker, author, and founder of

We may be seeing the other person’s behavior as a threat to our environment, said Heidi Hanna, PhD, a fellow with the American Institute of Stress and author of the upcoming book Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress. “When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we, too, should be worried,” she explained.

Behavior that begets secondhand stress, however, may not necessarily be inherently stressful.

And as if these situations weren’t already stressful enough, according to Dr. Hanna, we use more energy protecting ourselves during stressful situations. “This means we can become more fatigued as the day goes on, easily carrying our irritability or distracted thinking into the home where it can negatively impact our interpersonal relationships,” she said.

Commuter Rage: The Ripple Effect of Horn Honking

The home is not the only setting for secondhand stress. “Think of commuting and road rage or commuter rage,” Friedman said, when “you can give somebody a dirty look, or you could follow too close to someone in front of you who you think is going too slow, or you could honk your horn.”

“All of those things send messages that, for some of us, cause us to feel more physically stressed, more threatened and angry,” he explained. Secondhand stress may threaten not only your own physical or emotional health but also the safety of others. “Those stress responses can interfere with concentration and focus, which is key to safe driving,” he noted.

Secondhand Stress: A Sex-Buster

Romantic relationships can also fall under the spell of secondhand stress. “If you’re in the mood for sex, but your partner seems too stressed to do it, you might go without it, get frustrated, and even [become] disinterested if this scenario happens frequently,” said Friedman. “Secondhand stress can be a wet blanket that extinguishes intimacy.”

Secondhand Stress at Work

Anxious, hurried co-workers are the major culprits behind secondhand stress in the workplace. “If one of your colleagues is rushing around the office, they always seem too busy,” said Friedman. “We interpret that as them not having time for us or them being more important than we are,” and that triggers a stress response in you.

Avoiding the stressor can pose real problems when it comes to teamwork, productivity, and goals, however, because secondhand stress prevents co-workers, team members, and others from addressing problems.

The Endless Circle of Stress

“People who cause secondhand stress are usually unaware of the impact they’re having on others,” Hanna said. “Most people don’t realize how sensitive the brain is at picking up things like non-verbal cues, changes in voice tone or inflection, noise, physical tension, or choice of language.”

“Their behaviors that are causing you to feel stressed are often not directed at you,” Friedman added. “It’s highly likely that you’re not the only recipient of the secondhand stress.”

Interestingly, victims of secondhand stress may have some of the same characteristics as spreaders of stress, said Friedman. “We all respond to stress in different ways, and our stress response is exhibited in different ways,” he said. “It could be that we turn around and are short-tempered with someone else. Or someone’s rushing is contagious and then we start rushing, sometimes unnecessarily. We may become moody as a result of someone else’s mood.”

Secondhand Stress-Busting Strategies:

1. Stop and think about whether your stress-provoking behaviors are harmful to you and others, and choose not to go there.

2. “Try not to put yourself in situations where a lot of secondhand stress is created — crowds, heavy traffic, long lines,” Friedman said.

3. Build boundaries and healthy habits. “The best way to limit the effects of secondhand stress is to become self-protective of your energy,” said Hanna. Some of her relaxing self-care tips:

4. Take five-minute breaks every hour

5. Stretch or walk around for a few minutes

6. Try mini-meditations

7. Add more humor into your day

8. Carry a virtual stress management kit that includes “a breathing technique that you can do, something that you can think about — such as ‘It’s not about me, it’s about all of the pressure that that person is feeling’ — a way to blunt that secondhand stress from having too much of a negative impact on you,” said Friedman.

9. Communicate directly. “It may seem really challenging and difficult at first, but it will help to get to an understanding faster and it will be less stressful,” Friedman explained. Hanna suggests saving email messages as drafts and spending time re-reading for tone so you’re not causing others unnecessary stress.

10. Don’t let little things get to you. “Being able to see minor annoyances in the scope of the bigger picture can help,” said Hanna.

11. Accentuate the positive. “Practice seeing what’s positive around you by writing down a few things you’re grateful for each morning so that the negatives don’t have as much power to stress you out,” Hanna said.

12. Don’t spread secondhand stress. “If we reduce the amount of secondhand stress we’re emitting, it will be less stressful for the people around us,” Friedman said, which will make it easier for them to tell us what’s on their minds.

By Janet Kim, MPH

The Benefits of PTSD Group Therapy

When it comes to seeking out treatment for PTSD (or any other psychological difficulty), you may wonder if it would be helpful to attend group therapy. There are many benefits to attending a group, and in many cases, group therapy can be just as helpful as individual therapy. Some of the advantages of group therapy are listed below.


A major benefit of group therapy is validation. By being in a group with a number of people struggling with the same problem, you can see that you are not alone in your struggles. In addition, you may learn that some people in the group are having a hard time coping with the same difficulties, such as relationship problems, substance use, sleep difficulties, or impulsive behaviors.

In addition, sometimes it can be difficult for a person without PTSD to understand what someone with PTSD is going through. They may have a hard time understanding how difficult it is to cope with thoughts and feelings about a past traumatic event. However, in a group setting, other people with PTSD may be able to more easily recognize and validate what you are going through because they have had very similar experiences.

Learning From Others

Another benefit of group therapy is being able to learn from the experiences of others. You can hear about what coping strategies other people found to be effective and what coping strategies were not effective. You may also learn new ways of addressing a problem in your relationships or at work. By being in a group, you can be exposed to other perspectives on your problems that you may have never considered.

In addition, you can benefit from the experience of others who have lived with PTSD for a longer period of time or who have recovered from the effects of PTSD. Further, just by being in a group, you can learn some better ways of interacting or relating to others. You can also try out and practice some new skills (for example, communication skills) before using them with people outside of the group.

You Can Help Others

Just as you can learn from others, your experiences in coping with PTSD may also benefit other people in the group. Being able to help others can increase your self-esteem, as well as your belief in your own ability to cope with PTSD symptoms. There is also some research to suggest that helping others is a strong predictor of who recovers from PTSD.

Social Support

Finally, group therapy provides an excellent way of receiving social support from others. It has been determined over and over again that finding support from others can be a major factor in helping people overcome the negative effects of a traumatic event and PTSD. A group setting can provide you with the opportunity to develop supportive, trusting, and healthy relationships with other people.

Group Therapy Versus Individual Therapy

Just as group therapy has many advantages, it can also have some downsides. First, in group therapy, you don’t get the level of one-on-one attention that you would receive from an individual therapist. In addition, in a group setting, you likely will not be able to discuss certain problems as deeply as you would in individual therapy.

Group therapy also has rules determined by the group leader. This may mean that some topics are off-limits in order to protect the group members and make sure that the group is a safe place. For example, group members may not be allowed to discuss their traumatic event in detail in order to prevent other group members from being triggered.

Therefore, when it comes time to seek out therapy for your PTSD, it is important to think about what you would like to achieve in therapy. It is also important to think about what setting (individual versus group) is going to be best for you to get your needs met. In some cases, both group and individual therapy are used together.

As with seeking out a therapist for individual therapy, it is important to be a consumer and do as much research as possible. This way, you can ensure that you will find the best fit for your needs and goals.

By Matthew Tull, PhD, Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD

On The Virtues of Sleep

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In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I compiled an infamous list of seven deadly sins. Of these seven, sloth is the only sin that shares its name in English with an animal. But are these curious animals truly guilty of vice?

Sloths personify laziness in Western culture through a reputation for sleeping a lot (though they actually sleep for less than 10 hours a night in the wild). Indeed, seen through the value system of medieval Catholicism, this cute, tree-loving mammal must really be a demonic Snorlax hellbent on dragging humanity into a sleepy damnation.

But is slothfulness actually wrong? If slothfulness means avoiding responsibility and failing to accomplish important, meaningful goals, then most likely yes. However, if slothfulness means getting more than seven hours’ sleep a night to improve health and increase productivity, then surely there’s nothing wrong with that.

A Gallup poll in 2013 found that Americans sleep, on average, 6.8 hours a night, with 40 per cent getting less than the recommended minimum of seven hours. According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, teenagers get a little more than seven hours of sleep a night, while actually needing at least nine. Yet society continues to function … if only like a frail, untuned clock.

According to the sleep neuroscientist Matthew Walker at the University of California at Berkeley: ‘The number of people who can survive on six hours of sleep or less without measurable impairment, rounded to a whole number and expressed as a per cent, is zero.’ In fact, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to be healthy.

Not convinced? To really appreciate human sensitivity to sleep, consider daylight savings time (DST). Each year, millions of people lose an hour of sleep when clocks ‘spring forward’ on the first Sunday of DST. Like a cruel experiment, we watch the health consequences of this spring forward: heart attacks and even suicides spike the following week as bodies are put under stress by the sudden change.

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I compiled an infamous list of seven deadly sins. Of these seven, sloth is the only sin that shares its name in English with an animal. But are these curious animals truly guilty of vice?

Sloths personify laziness in Western culture through a reputation for sleeping a lot (though they actually sleep for less than 10 hours a night in the wild). Indeed, seen through the value system of medieval Catholicism, this cute, tree-loving mammal must really be a demonic Snorlax hellbent on dragging humanity into a sleepy damnation.

But is slothfulness actually wrong? If slothfulness means avoiding responsibility and failing to accomplish important, meaningful goals, then most likely yes. However, if slothfulness means getting more than seven hours’ sleep a night to improve health and increase productivity, then surely there’s nothing wrong with that.

A Gallup poll in 2013 found that Americans sleep, on average, 6.8 hours a night, with 40 per cent getting less than the recommended minimum of seven hours. According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, teenagers get a little more than seven hours of sleep a night, while actually needing at least nine. Yet society continues to function … if only like a frail, untuned clock.

According to the sleep neuroscientist Matthew Walker at the University of California at Berkeley: ‘The number of people who can survive on six hours of sleep or less without measurable impairment, rounded to a whole number and expressed as a per cent, is zero.’ In fact, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to be healthy.

Not convinced? To really appreciate human sensitivity to sleep, consider daylight savings time (DST). Each year, millions of people lose an hour of sleep when clocks ‘spring forward’ on the first Sunday of DST. Like a cruel experiment, we watch the health consequences of this spring forward: heart attacks and even suicides spike the following week as bodies are put under stress by the sudden change.

Though it might feel like we aren’t doing anything when we sleep, nothing could be further from the truth. During sleep, the fluid-filled ventricles of the brain open so that deadly toxins – including the amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease – can drain.

Volunteers who were kept awake for 31 hours straight showed huge spikes in the Alzheimer’s causing molecule compared with well-rested participants. The implications are clear – pulling an all-nighter is hardly harmless.

Beyond staving off Alzheimer’s, sleep generally strengthens the immune system and protects us against cancer. Because our daily sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm, appears to regulate many biological functions, a night of light sleep throws a wrench into the gears of health and rejuvenation.

Moreover, we often fail to take sleep deprivation as seriously as alcohol intoxication, even though both immediately impair our behaviour and cognition. According to Walker: ‘After 20 hours of being awake, you are as impaired cognitively as you would be if you were legally drunk.’ Driving after being awake for 24 hours straight gives similar levels of impairment as driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1, higher than what is considered over the legal limit in many jurisdictions.

Walker, the author of the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017), also points to what is perhaps the most appalling irony of all: that doctors – the very people who are supposed to be caring for our health – are often complicit in creating today’s sleep-deprived culture. New medical residents serve 30-hour shifts, and this sleep deprivation affects not only them but also their patients. Indeed, Walker states that: ‘Residents working a 30-hour shift are 460 per cent more likely to make diagnostic errors in the intensive care unit relative to when they’re working 16 hours.’ Doctors’ lack of sleep might literally be killing patients.

We have a cultural problem in the West. From bosses to self-help gurus to school administrators, responsible and otherwise intelligent people who should know better advocate that we sleep less and accomplish more.

Even when we’re not explicitly told to sleep less, advice that often passes for wisdom leaves little space for eight hours of sleep a night. Consider the retired US Navy SEAL, author and podcaster Jocko Willink, who relentlessly encourages his followers to wake up before the crack of dawn. Sure, waking up at 4:30am and hitting the gym can be a healthy habit – if you’re in bed by 9:30pm. Willink himself goes to sleep around 11pm or midnight, but admits that more sleep is healthier.

‘We are with sleep where we were with smoking 50 years ago,’ Walker said on a recent podcast. ‘We had all of the evidence about the … disease issues, but the public had not been aware, no one had adequately communicated the science of, you know, smoking to the public. The same I think is true for sleep right now.’

As we plough recklessly through the night, coffee cup in one hand and smartphone in the other, we curse sleep while slumbering in a deeper, mental sense. True slothfulness isn’t sleeping eight hours a night – it’s ignoring our health and taking on important responsibilities in an underslept state. As we update our values based on empirical evidence, it might be only a matter of time before society appreciates the true wisdom of the sloth.

Joel Frohlich is a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is examining biomarkers of autism spectrum disorders. He is also senior editor at Knowing Neurons.

Benefits of Group Therapy for Mental Health Treatment

Group Therapy Tribeca

Being part of a group can offer insights that you may be too close to your situation to see. Discover why participating could be a helpful type of treatment for you.

At first, the idea of participating in group therapy might seem intimidating. Who wants to share their story with strangers? But group therapy, in which one or more psychologists lead a group of 5 to 15 people, can be very beneficial. In fact, “participants are often surprised by how rewarding their experience can be,” says Ben Johnson, PhD, ABPP, a clinical psychologist, director of Rhode Island Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Coaching, and a clinical assistant professor at the Warren Albert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, R.I. “I’m a big fan of group therapy.”

Patti Cox, PhD, CGP, in private practice in New York and president of the Eastern Group Psychotherapy Society, a regional affiliate of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, says anyone can benefit from group therapy “What’s important is to be in the right group at the right time,” she says. “An acute crisis is not the best time to start group therapy because your needs are so great.”

Groups generally meet once or twice a week for 90 minutes to two hours. How much people want to reveal about themselves is very individual, but there’s security in knowing that what’s said in group, stays in group.

Benefits of Group Therapy

Here’s how group therapy for mental health treatment can help:

Groups provide support. Hearing from others with similar issues helps you see that you’re not alone in having challenges, whether you’re grappling with panic attacks, depression, or another mental health issue, Johnson says. Many people experience a sense of relief.

Groups provide a sounding board. If, for example, you talk about a fight you had with your partner, group members can see things in the way you present it that you don’t. “Hearing from other people about how you come across can be very powerful,” Johnson says. “You get a wider range of perspectives on your situation, and that can help you deal with your problems better.”

Groups can propel you forward. Hearing how other members successfully overcame their fear of flying or how they confronted a family member over drug abuse can be very encouraging. “Patients often push themselves harder when they see what others are doing,” Johnson says.

Groups promote social skills. “Groups not only help to ease that sense of isolation, but also give the opportunity to practice re-engaging with people,” Johnson says. By participating in a group, you see that you can get along with others.

Group therapy costs less than individual counseling. Some people believe that, because group therapy costs less, it’s not as good, but “that’s not the case at all,” Cox says. “Group therapy can be incredibly powerful.”

Groups teach you about yourself. “Every person in the group holds up a mirror and you get to see yourself through their eyes,” Cox says. It’s a way of uncovering the blind spots that may be blocking your ability to overcome your issues.

Sharing Can Be Healing
Like many people, Traci Barr, 51, of Greenville, S.C., who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen, was skeptical that she could benefit from a group. However, three years ago, after a failed suicide attempt, Barr went into group therapy while recovering in the hospital.

“I had a much more open mind to it because, at that point, I had nothing left to lose,” she says. “I was going to do whatever the doctors told me, and doctors told me I would benefit from group therapy.”

Right away, though, Barr found that the suggestions the group offered were exactly what she needed.

“The group helped me most with coping skills,” she says. “I learned very simple and very effective things — such as what boundaries are and not to allow things in my life that were not good for my manic side.” Barr also found that sharing her story with others was “very meaningful and very healing.”

The group experience, Barr says, “definitely helped me over the hump.” From there, she says, it was a matter of building on small victories — going from being unable to do laundry to launching a new career as a chef and now being able to make presentations about healthy eating in front of large crowds.

How to Get the Most From Group
Try these steps to maximize group therapy:

Take a pledge. Each group should have participants sign a contract that spells out what’s expected of them, Cox says. Knowing this can help you overcome any fears about participating.

Participate. You might have days when you don’t feel like talking, and that’s fine, Cox says, but the more you contribute, the more you’ll get out of it.

Share. Your experiences might be meaningful to someone else, and you’ll find that helping others helps you, too.

By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD

Carolyn Ehrlich provides Group Therapy Tribeca. Sometimes it can be helpful to share the things you’re going through with a group of people who are working to make positive changes in their own lives. Group therapy Tribeca provides a place to feel listened to and supported. It’s an opportunity to understand the behaviors that influence the way people feel about you. Supported by a psychotherapist, you’re able to practice giving and receiving feedback. And learn how to improve your relationships with friends, people you work with, your family, your partner or a potential partner.

Why You Should Take Time to Mourn During Career Transitions

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Grief is common when you leave a job you love.

On my last day in the newsroom at a North Carolina alt-weekly, I found myself choking back tears. For the first time in almost a decade, my desk was completely clean. All of my old reporter notebooks, past newspaper editions and sticky notes with scribbled writing on them were in the trash.

At the time, I didn’t think I’d be sad to leave — I chose to quit, after all. But, to my surprise, I did feel as if I’d lost something important, and I felt that way for months, mostly because I never stopped to consider why.

But feelings of grief are common when you leave a workplace you love, said Kim Scott, author of “Radical Candor.”

“Even if you’re moving on to something that you really want to do and it’s the right decision, change is really hard,” Ms. Scott said.

She said it’s important to take time, both before you leave a job and after you’ve started a new one, to process these transitions. Dealing with bouts of grief instead of ignoring them can help you better navigate the complex emotions of leaving a job you love and starting fresh somewhere new.
Why do we feel sad when we move on from a job?

For many Americans, identity is tied to work. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, more than half of workers in the United States define themselves based on their job, and have been doing so consistently since 1989.

But it’s important to figure out whether you identify with your professional occupation or with the organization you work at.

“If you’re a technology person and you leave Google, you’re still a technology person,” said Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at the Yale School of Management. But if you identify much more with being an employee of Google, she said, “you’re in a different boat than someone who sees themselves as a programmer who creates things and could do that anywhere.”

In either case, what informs that connection to work is the human need for a sense of belonging, said Beth Humberd, an assistant professor of management at UMass Lowell.

“We want to be a part of something, and we want to be seen as needed in an area,” she said.

Dr. Wrzesniewski added that for many people, what they do professionally is symbolic of other things. “It’s symbolic of the things you care about,” she said. “It’s symbolic of your talents. It’s symbolic of your offering to the world.”

Compounding those feelings is the sheer amount of time we spend at our jobs. In 2015, Americans worked an average of 46.8 weeks per year, compared with 43 weeks in 1980, according to an analysis of Labor Department data from the Pew Research Center. (Not to mention the time we spend on ambient work, like dashing off a quick email from your smartphone at 9 p.m.)

There’s also the realization of who we’re leaving behind. Colleagues can serve as “pseudo-family,” said Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin, a psychologist in New York, and you might not recognize that until after you’ve moved on.

“While we work, our lives happen — births, deaths, breakups — and our colleagues are often there to mourn with us and to celebrate the new transitions in our personal lives,” Dr. Orbé-Austin said. “We share our lives in the workplace often in very intimate ways. All of these things provide deepening connections, support, and built-in social opportunities that we sometimes take for granted.”
So, how can I prepare myself?

Remember that grief might come, perhaps unexpectedly.

“Part of it is just not getting caught off-guard by the fact that it’s normal to have those feelings,” said Ms. Scott, who used to work at Google in sales and operations. On her last day at the company, Ms. Scott said she started “sobbing” when a member of human resources came to take her identification badge.

“He was shocked, and I was shocked,” she said.

Molly Barker, the founder of the nonprofit Girls on the Run in Charlotte, N.C., said she was “very intentional” about preparing for her departure as she retired in 2013 after 17 years at the organization. It took her about three years to figure out how to exit in a positive way, and she talked through everything with a small group of people she trusted.

Another concrete step to take when leaving, Dr. Orbé-Austin said, is to have a succession plan. This can mean creating a list of all your responsibilities, or a putting together a list of important contacts, or something else altogether. This can help your successor, but it’s also a way for you to reflect on everything you’ve done at that job.

“It’s almost like processing your experience there very proactively in a very classy way,” Dr. Orbé-Austin said.
I’ve started my new job — but I’m still mourning my old work life

That’s totally normal, and everyone processes career transitions differently. Some people might not be fazed when they leave behind a role they considered profound. Others might feel sadness or a sense of loss they don’t understand. Anger, frustration and anxiety can also crop up from time to time. Further still, you might feel a confusing mix of all of those emotions — or none of them at all.

Shana Wilson Anderson, 42, is a senior manager of training and delivery at Capital One, but in March, she said goodbye to the company she spent 18 years at. She started at T-Mobile in Georgia as a customer service representative and made her way up to senior manager of operations.

Ms. Anderson said she still hasn’t gotten over the grief of leaving, adding that on her last day, there wasn’t “a dry eye” in the call center. “I am an organized person, a planner, a strategic thinker,” she said. “What I did not plan for was how I would really feel when I left the company.”

This is what grief looks like, Dr. Orbé-Austin said, and it’s O.K. to allow yourself to feel it. But if you’re having trouble letting go, it can be helpful to identify exactly what you miss about the old workplace so you can address that loss head-on.

“If it’s the relationships, you can plan regular happy hours so that you can stay in touch,” Dr. Orbé-Austin said. “If it’s identity loss, then you can work on formulating a new sense of identity that helps repair the loss and connecting more thoughtfully to your new work identity or your new workplace.”

Work is more than simply what we do, she added.

“It’s really important to value the complexity of what goes on at work. It isn’t this experience where you just execute tasks,” Dr. Orbé-Austin said. “There are really complex, dynamic growth experiences that are occurring, and when you experience loss, you’re acknowledging the full breadth of all you experienced at that workplace.”

By Kimberly Lawson

Mono no Aware: The Transience of Life


Mono-no-aware is a challenging perspective to put into words successfully; it can be literally translated to “the ahhness of things” or to “the bittersweet poignancy of things.” What comes most easily to mind is the beauty of the cherry blossom; the flower blooms intensely, yet only for a short period of time each year. As the flowers die and the petals fall, cherry blossoms line the streets like a layer of soft, pink snow, and are most beautiful when captured between the precipice of life and death. That is precisely the unique appeal of the cherry blossoms; their aesthetic focuses on the unavoidable transience of the material world that exists. According to this view, the fragility and inherent brevity of an instance of awe, such as the blooming of the cherry blossoms, only aids in heightening the event’s stunning, albeit melancholic nature. Because it only lasts for such a short period, it is undoubtedly appreciated more. Understanding and accepting that innate uncertainty of life helps us evade the overwhelming feeling of morbidity associated with impermanence, instead highlighting our ability to enjoy life by appreciating its fleeting moments. The unavoidable nature of finite existence is contrasted with the never-ending stream of change, as life continues to occur despite the continuous passing of objects and experience. The realization of impermanence is therefore bittersweet, tinged with mourning, and yet also capable of recognizing the beauty of change in itself.

The concept of mono-no-aware originated from traditional Japanese religion and has its roots embedded in Shinto beliefs, yet it was also influenced by Buddhist principles. Shintoism, which exists for the most part entirely in Japan, aims to cultivate an increased awareness of the individual in relation to the surrounding environment, and it stresses an openness and sensitivity to the energy present in the world. Later on, the introduction of Buddhism in Japan focused this belief on the transient nature of the environment and everything that exists within it. From here, the focus shifted simply from awareness to a deeper appreciation of the beauty and aesthetic value of change. The overall impact of the aesthetic principle is to recognize the impermanence of everything that exists and create a deeper connection with it because of its fleeting nature.

This sentiment is expressed continuously in Japanese society, and in my opinion, is an idea that Western society often lacks. In my own personal experience, people (myself included) harbor the desire to cling on to the way things are, or once were, instead of understanding that change and brevity are essential to life. In movies, we desire the happy endings, a neat and tidy outcome that can remain static: the guy gets the girl; the kingdom is saved; life is forever paused in a moment of blissful (and unrealistic) content. Japanese media, in comparison, can often end with people fading out of each other’s lives, despite once being an integral part of them, and audiences are completely satisfied with this narrative. In Japanese, there are countless untranslatable phrases that can crudely be summed up to “people arrive in your life and then leave” or “the instantaneous nature of life should be treasured.” This year, I have made countless friendships that, once my time in Japan ends, will never be able to continue in exactly the same way that they exist now. The people I greet every morning, the people who have seen me in poor shape on the streets of Shinjuku, the ones who have handled my at times barbaric personality, the ones who have remained by my side the entire time, will return to their own countries and their own, separate lives. This thought, if I chose to consider it long enough, is depressing. But despite that, I’ve had the opportunity to experience them, something that never would have occurred if I hadn’t invoked change myself.

It boils down to this: appreciate the moment, because the beauty experienced in it will never be the same. It will pass. It will end. And that is okay because as life changes, new beauty, perhaps of a different kind, will arrive. Every season the cherry blossoms die. But every year, they come back to, once again, coat the streets in their ethereal and incomparable demise.

By Taylor Bond

Group Therapy Tribeca

Sometimes, it can be helpful to share the things you’re going through with a group of people who are working to make positive changes in their own lives. Group Therapy Tribeca provides a place to feel listened to and supported. It’s an opportunity to understand the behaviors that influence the way people feel about you. Supported by a psychotherapist, you’re able to practice giving and receiving feedback. And learn how to improve your relationships with friends, people you work with, your family, your partner or a potential partner.

The Theory of Mind Myth


‘I don’t understand what you think that I’m saying.’
(Marital argument, overheard at a local diner.)

Following a mass shooting, the gunman’s next-door neighbours are stunned, and tell reporters that he was a good, kind man. Meanwhile, former classmates and co-workers describe him as a ticking time bomb. Pundits attribute Donald Trump’s latest Twitter tirade to unbridled narcissism, early dementia, a bullying father, Machiavellian shrewdness – or a man with a heartfelt mission to make America great again… Show us any human behaviour, and we’ll drum up half a dozen seemingly common-sense explanations. The underlying assumption: we can know with a reasonable degree of accuracy what is going on in another’s mind. Labelled by psychologists as theory of mind (abbreviated as ToM), this ability to understand that others have separate minds containing potentially different beliefs, desires and intentions is often said to be one of our pre-eminent cognitive skills distinguishing us from other creatures.

That we have a folk psychology theory of other minds isn’t surprising. By nature, we are character analysts, behavioural policemen, admirers and haters. We embrace like minds, and go to war against contrarians. Mind-reading is our social glue, guiding virtually all of our daily interpersonal interactions. When trying to decide whether or not a potential gun owner is prone to violence, a mental patient is suicidal, or a presidential candidate is truthful, we are at the mercy of our thoughts about others.

The fate of democracy depends on our ability to grasp and accept differing mindsets – yet the seemingly near-universal absence of reasonable public discourse suggests that this rarely occurs. We accuse those with conflicting opinions of having character defects, subliminal prejudices, faulty education, cultural brainwashing and a myriad of other ‘if only they knew better’ flaws of reasoning. But there’s a more basic and frightening possibility. What if we really aren’t capable of a sophisticated reading of other minds?

For starters, let’s pretend the impossible – that we can step outside our minds and see how ToM might work. A psychologist presents a child with two hand puppets – Sally (who has a basket) and Anne (who has a box). Sally puts a marble in her basket, and leaves the room. While Sally is away, Anne takes the marble from the basket, and hides it in her box. Finally, Sally returns to the room, and the child is asked where Sally will look for her marble. By around age four, most children recognise that Sally will look in her basket (where she last had the marble), not in Anne’s box. Absent neurodevelopmental abnormalities such as autism, this universal ability of young children to pass various versions of the Sally-Anne test is frequently cited by cognitive scientists as unequivocal evidence that we can know the minds of others.

To offer further insight, in recent years, neuroscientists have come up with some tempting theories of how our brain might accomplish this feat. The first promising neural mechanism was described in 1992 when the Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues discovered that when rhesus macaque monkeys reach for food such as peanuts, individual cells fire in the prefrontal motor cortex. The same cells also fire when the monkeys observe a researcher reaching out for a peanut – as long as the monkey believes that the gesture is intentional and that the experimenter planned to eat the peanut. Since the same cells fire both when initiating and observing an action, they have been labelled ‘mirror neurons’; collectively, the network is called the ‘mirror neuron system’.

Because the macaques could tell whether a gesture was made in order to eat a peanut or to play with it, researchers postulated that the mirror neuron system could detect intention – and that the monkeys possess a theory of mind. During the decade following their discovery, in fact, mirror neurons were frequently touted as the neural basis for empathy, complex social interactions, evolution of language and cultural advances characteristic of the modern human. The behavioural neurologist V S Ramachandran even went so far as to assert that mirror neurons would ‘do for psychology what DNA did for biology … With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: “mind-reading” empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language.’

Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and skeptics downgraded the hyperbolic attributions. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California in Los Angeles and a pioneer in the mirror neuron work, said the system operated at the basic level of recognising simple intentions and actions – much like what we might do in a high-stakes poker game. You are about to make a bet when you notice that the player to your left is getting ready to push forward a stack of his chips. He might be making this gesture to distract you from another aspect of the game. Perhaps he is trying to distract you from his undercover partner, a player to the right. He might be trying to create a fake ‘tell’ to use against you in the future. A diversity of mental states can generate the same motor action. Understanding that your opponent will soon push his chips forward tells you nothing about the purpose behind the motion.

That hardly stopped scientists from trying to prove a theory of mind. With the collapse of the mirror neuron theory, other brain regions emerged as replacement candidates. In her wildly popular 2009 TED lecture, the cognitive scientist Rebecca Saxe at MIT argues that the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) – the region of brain just behind your right ear – ‘is almost completely specialised. It does almost nothing else except think about other people’s thoughts. Differences in this brain region can explain differences in adults in how we think about and judge other people.’

But we also know that the rTPJ coordinates incoming sensory inputs to create a stable physical sense of self in the environment. Transcranial magnetic stimulation can alter rTPJ function to produce the classic out-of-body experiences. Damaging the region via stroke or brain tumour can result in disordered self-awareness, even lack of recognition of paralysis. Despite this, according to Jean Decety, a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago, a properly operating rTPJ is also necessary for us to distinguish ourselves from others.

It’s a strange loop: we are asking the same area of brain to both generate a coherent sense of self, and simultaneously step outside this frame of reference to get a fresh, unbiased perspective on another’s thoughts. Talk about running uphill against basic physiology.

Despite the inadequacy of these leading neuroscience explanations of ToM, it remains hard to shake the belief that we can step inside another’s mind. Saxe begins her TED lecture with the question: ‘How is it so easy to know other minds?’ To illustrate her point, she shows two photos. The first is a mother gazing at her young child; the second is of a teenager jumping off a high cliff into the ocean below. ‘You need almost no information, one snapshot of a stranger, to guess what this woman is thinking, or what this man is.’

I look at the mother, and see a combination of love and awe. But with a moment’s reflection, I realise that I have gathered together some general assumptions about what humans have in common, and dropped them into her mind. I have no way of knowing if she is also worrying that her husband might feel neglected by her single-minded devotion to her child, wondering when to enrol her child in preschool, or trying to cement into memory the feeling of unconditional love that she anticipates will be challenged when her newborn morphs into a rebellious teenager. By drawing on innate and acquired beliefs about human nature, I can imagine her mind at the most universal and generic, but not at the particular.

The photo of the boy diving off the cliff raises further questions. Since I’m unaware of any neuroscience literature on the mental states of cliff-divers, let me substitute a study on the world’s most famous free-soloing mountain climber, Alex Honnold. Just watch Honnold climb 3,000 feet (900 metres) straight up the vertical face of a Yosemite peak without the use of any safety equipment – no ropes, nets or harnesses. Ask yourself: is Honnold experiencing a great degree of anxiety and fear when he looks down at the Yosemite floor thousands of feet below – or a moderate amount? Or none? Also ask yourself how sure you are of your answer, and how you’d know if you are right.

In 2016, the neuroscientist Jane Joseph at the Medical University of South Carolina compared Honnold’s brain to that of another veteran mountain climber. While in an fMRI scanner, both were shown a succession of 200 supposedly high-anxiety-generating photos – gruesome burnt and disfigured corpses, mangled accident victims, as well as several high-risk mountain-climbing routes. The climber serving as a control demonstrated high-level activation of his amygdala – the area of brain that typically fires when one is fearful, frightened or anxious. By contrast, Joseph told Nautilus magazine, Honnold’s amygdala remained entirely silent. When asked about the photos, Honnold was puzzled. ‘I can’t say for sure, but I was like, whatever,’ he said. Even the ‘gruesome burning children and stuff’ photographs seemed to him dated and jaded. ‘It’s like looking through a curio museum.’

Joseph believes that Honnold’s fMRI reflects the absence of the normal primary threat response, as though his fear switch has been turned off. Even so, Honnold does not consider himself fearless. He recalls incidents both related and unrelated to mountain-climbing that he calls scary.

And now we run into a second problem – the superimposition of language on to mental states. Honnold is quite conscientious, and makes meticulous surveys of his climbing routes. He readily acknowledges that a fall means death, and describes this possibility as scary. Whether this represents a cognitive understanding of danger or a felt emotion is impossible to say. Given his non-firing amygdala, Alex’s ‘scary’ is unlikely to be similar to the type of fear other mortals get when standing near the ledge of a high-rise window, let alone a high cliff. Wondering what Honnold might experience while solo climbing reminds me of the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s unanswerable question: ‘What is it like to be a bat?’

This is not to say that we have no idea of what goes on in another’s mind. The brain is a superb pattern-recogniser; we routinely correctly anticipate that others will feel grief at a funeral, joy at a child’s first birthday party, and anger when cut off on the freeway. We are right often enough to trust our belief that others generally will feel as we do. Listen to the TED audience wince when shown the photo of the cliff diver as though personally sensing the fear he must be experiencing. And yet, if the cliff-diver has the same non-firing amygdala as Honnold, such impressions will be completely off-base. The insurmountable problem is that we are up against the limits of trying to imagine a mental state that we’ve never had. (Which is no different than trying to conjure what an orgasm feels like before you’ve had one.)

Perhaps I’m dead wrong and my theoretical objections don’t do ToM justice. Maybe there is compelling daily life evidence for ToM’s central claim that we can know the beliefs, desires and intentions of another.

Let’s start with the easiest way to study ToM experimentally – lie detection. If we are good at mind-reading, surely we should be superb lie detectors. But a 2006 review in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that volunteer subjects were barely better than chance at detecting when an actor was lying or telling the truth (54 per cent). A decade later, despite various efforts to improve lie-detection performance, the Monitor on Psychology reported that ‘people’s ability to detect lies is no more accurate than chance, or flipping a coin. This finding holds across all types of people – students, psychologists, judges, job interviewers and law-enforcement personnel.’

If we’re not so good at lie detection, perhaps we can do better at predicting violent behaviour. In 1984, The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that psychiatrists and psychologists were vastly overrated as predictors of violence. Even in the best of circumstances – with lengthy multidisciplinary evaluations of persons who had already manifested their violent proclivities on several occasions – psychiatrists and psychologists seemed to be wrong at least twice as often as they were right when they predicted violence. Nevertheless, the article suggested that new methodologies might improve prediction rates.

No such luck. Thirty years later, a review article in The British Medical Journal concluded that: ‘Even after 30 years of development, the view that violence, sexual or criminal risk can be predicted in most cases is not evidence-based.’ Despite being the co-developer of a widely used evaluation tool for violence risk-assessment, the psychologist Stephen D Hart at Simon Fraser University in Canada is equally pessimistic. ‘There is no instrument that is specifically useful or validated for identifying potential school shooters or mass murderers. There are many things in life where we have an inadequate evidence base, and this is one of them.’

Suicide prediction? Same story. According to two recent meta-analyses: ‘There has been no improvement in the accuracy of suicide risk-assessment over the last 40 years.’ The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has advised that ‘assessment tools and scales designed to give a crude indication of the level of risk of suicide’ should not be used.

All good theories are predictive. Sooner or later, they need supporting evidence. If experts cannot tell us who will be violent, or commit suicide, or is lying, isn’t it time for us to reconsider whether there are real and practical limits to our belief in ToM?

Earlier, I brought up the mirror neuron controversy to emphasise that there are a number of low-level brain processes that might appear like higher-level functions – but are not. I suspect that the Sally-Anne and other ToM tests are analogous examples. Yes, we know that other people have minds, desires and intentions that are potentially different to our own. But putting ourselves in another’s situation is not even remotely comparable to actually feeling and thinking as another. I might be able to fit into Honnold’s climbing shoes, but I cannot crawl inside his mind.

As I write this essay, I am reluctant to entirely accept the evidence that I’ve just presented. I cannot shake the gut feeling that there’s more to lie detection than is revealed in the studies. On the other hand, as an inveterate poker player, I admit to being shaky at detecting bluffs, so try to base my decisions upon player betting patterns. I’m not alone. Given the predictive failures of ToM, psychologists are increasingly looking at big data rather than individual minds.

A research team led by Stephan Ludwig at the University of Westminster in London developed automated text-mining software that analysed more than 8,000 emails bidding for awards based on a company’s performance. They compared the program’s ability to detect fibs in the bids against an independent investigation by the company’s account managers. The program far surpassed the account managers, achieving a 70 per cent degree of accuracy. The researchers hope that their technique will eventually be able to detect deception in everything from visa applications to dating profiles.

Scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee gathered data on more than 5,000 patients with physical signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation. By gathering up readily available impersonal healthcare data such as age, gender, zip codes, medications and prior diagnoses, but without directly interviewing the patients, there was 80-90 per cent accuracy when predicting whether someone would attempt suicide within the next two years, and 92 per cent accuracy in predicting whether someone would attempt suicide within the next week. When assessing the likelihood of suicide of 12,695 randomly selected hospitalised patients with no documented history of suicide attempts, the group was able to achieve even higher rates of prediction. With such results, we shouldn’t be surprised that Facebook has introduced its own proprietary AI system to detect those at increased risk of suicide.

The shortcomings of ToM have long been part of public lore – particularly in the criticism of psychiatry. But we have persisted with the belief that the fault is with psychiatry and psychiatrists, not with the basic tenet that we can know what another is thinking and feeling. For me, the final straw, the most unequivocal indictment of ToM, has been the evidence from recent political developments – from the inability to get a handle on Kim Jong-un’s mindset and nuclear intentions, to the near-universal failure of political pundits to recognise the pent-up anger, fear and resentment simmering in future Trump supporters.

I’ve got to confess, doubts about ToM began early in my neurology career. A young Jamaican woman had strangled her 18-month-old daughter to death. When sent to the psych ward of San Francisco General Hospital for observation, she had attacked a moaning, wheelchair-bound woman with dementia, breaking her neck before nearby guards could intervene (the victim died of her injuries). The court-appointed psychiatrist wanted to know if this woman’s episodes of violent behaviour might have a neurological basis.

The woman wasn’t at all like the person I’d pictured from reading her chart. With her bright smile, easy laugh and lilting accent, she was utterly engaging. I couldn’t imagine her hurting anyone, let alone her child. As expected, the hour-long exam revealed no clues to explain her behaviour. Before leaving, I gathered up my nerve and asked her if she had any idea why she’d choked her daughter and attacked the old woman.

For a long time, the woman sat motionless. She finally blurted out: ‘I hate the sound of crying.’ She folded her hands in her lap and stared at me, shaking her head. Each of us was speechless, acutely aware of the unbridgeable gap between us. I was shaken by the realisation that whatever I thought crying triggered in this woman, it would be pure fiction, a story I’d dream up to give some sense of explanation to the inexplicable.

This wasn’t an isolated event. During my career, I’ve been baffled enough times to fully accept how little access I have to the inner workings of other minds. When a patient died of a mysterious illness, I asked his 30something son permission for an autopsy. The man agreed on the condition that he was allowed to watch. When I asked him why, his sole explanation was: ‘He’s my father.’

A middle-aged woman collapsed during the middle of the night. The CAT scan revealed a massive brain haemorrhage that would almost certainly be fatal within hours. When I told her husband, he blinked a couple times, then said without any apparent emotion: ‘OK. I think I’ll go home and take a shower.’

But the most singularly illustrative demonstration of the limits of ToM occurred during the psychiatry segment of my neurology board-certification oral exam. My test patient was an unkempt man who smelled of mildew.

‘How long have you been in the hospital?’ I began the interview.

‘Three months.’

Surprised that he hadn’t been tidied up, I asked again.

‘A couple years, give or take. Time is elusive when nothing’s happening.’

‘Could you be more specific?’

‘If you pressed me, I’d say most likely I’ve been here three days.’

‘Do you have any prior history of mental illness?’

‘Who doesn’t?’

‘Other members of the family as well?’

‘Depends on who you ask.’

‘Do you have any idea why you’re here?’

‘No. Do you?’

‘Yes. You’re my test patient for the psychiatry portion of the neurology boards. It’d sure be helpful if you at least tried to give me some straight answers.’

‘Personal answers are never straight. You learn to couch yourself in yes, but, maybe, and on the other hand. You never know when you might be asked to run for president.’

And so it went – 30 minutes of agonising head shakes and bobbing and weaving, while my evaluating psychiatrist took copious notes, then indicated that time was up. He excused the patient.

‘So,’ the examiner asked. ‘What do you think?’

‘I have no idea. The patient is entirely unreliable.’

‘Surely you have some hunches.’

‘Not really. I can’t even tell if he’s putting me on.’

‘If passing or failing depends on making a diagnosis, what would you say?’

‘Sorry. I’d just be guessing.’

‘You’re dismissed,’ the psychiatrist said with a blank expression that I couldn’t interpret.

That evening, after the exam was over, I ran into the psychiatrist. He was all smiles. ‘Nice going – you passed with flying colours.’

‘You’re kidding? I was sure my psych exam was a complete whiff.’

The examiner laughed.

‘So, what was wrong with him?’ I asked.

‘Who knows? He’s one of our best; we use him for many of the exams in this part of the country.’

‘He’s a professional patient?’

‘Not exactly. He was formerly hospitalised – though no one was quite sure what was wrong. While on the ward, he acquired this uncanny ability to mimic most major psychiatric diseases. This time, we asked him to portray an uncooperative and unreliable patient.’

‘So he does have an underlying mental disorder?’

The examiner simultaneously shrugged and smiled. ‘Have a safe flight home.’

I’ve concluded that tragedy can create otherwise unimaginable responses. This is hardly mind-reading. Conjuring a different view of the world is a rare talent requiring an extraordinary leap of imagination: Hamlet, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are artistic one-offs based not on deep understanding, but yarns we spin about each other’s intentions and motivations. We make up stories about our spouses, our kids, our leaders, and our enemies. Inspiring narratives get us through dark nights and tough times, but we’ll always make better predictions guided by the impersonal analysis of big data than by the erroneous belief that we can read another’s mind.

Robert Burton is a neurologist, author and the former associate director of the department of neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center at Mount Zion. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and Nautilus, among others. His latest book is A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (2013).

Can Mindfulness Help Your Brain Cope with Rejection?


A new study finds that rejection is less distressing to mindful people (and their brains).

One of your best friends hosts a party without inviting you; your romantic partner seems oblivious to your attempts at conversation; work colleagues make important decisions behind your back.

How long do you usually stay upset after these events? An hour? A day? A week? We constantly face rejections big and small in our everyday lives, but some people regain their calm more quickly than others. A new study provides preliminary evidence that the way we respond could be determined by how mindful we are and traced to a specific part of the brain.

In their study, the researchers recruited 40 undergraduate students to answer surveys about their mindful awareness: how receptive and attentive they typically are to events and experiences in the present moment.

Then, students played an online game while their brains were scanned via fMRI. Three players tossed the ball to each other; but after a few tosses, the other two players excluded the student. Though students were told the players were real participants located in other rooms, the interactions were actually pre-programmed.

Ultimately, the students who were naturally more mindful reported feeling less distress than others did about being rejected.

“Individuals higher in trait mindfulness may be more effective regulators of their negative emotions,” write the authors of the study.

What explains this effect? Viewed on fMRI, more mindful students had different levels of activity in their ventrolateral pre-frontal cortex (VLPFC).

The VLPFC is the lower-frontal part of the brain that helps regulate negative emotions, especially after social rejection. Concretely speaking, the VLPFC is a bundle of neurons that helps you keep your emotions in check and stay “in control” of yourself, even during events as traumatizing as discovering your partner cheating on you, for example. This ability to regulate powerful emotions and continue performing essential tasks in spite of them was a crucial survival skill for our ancestors.

In the study, more mindful students’ VLPFCs were less active compared to less mindful students’ when feeling excluded. As earlier studies have found, more active VLPFCs do not always lead to better emotional regulation. In fact, overstimulating the VLPFC may sometimes cause us to “lose control.”

Coauthor David S. Chester explains that an excessive effort to control our emotions and consciously “change” them by thinking of a situation differently (“Why am I so angry? This fight is really no big deal! I should be calm…”) can be energy-taxing and eventually make our VLPFC “too tired” to keep inhibiting emotions. This is when—despite trying so hard to remain calm—harsh words, plates, or fists might unexpectedly start flying. Something like this may happen in the brains of less mindful people as their distress in the face of social rejection becomes “too much.”

Trying to think our way out of negative emotions, by looking for silver linings or taking a broader perspective, works sometimes. But other times these thought processes can be too draining, lead us astray into rumination, or even completely fail. In these cases, taking a more mindful approach to our feelings—letting them arise and pass like clouds in the sky—could be a better way to cope.

By Astrid L. Montuclard a contributor and research assistant for Greater Good. She is also a mindfulness teacher-in-training with the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and research coordinator in the Bay Area.

Mood Changes To Muddled Thinking, Might Be Dehydration


Was it hard to concentrate during that long meeting? Does the crossword seem a little tougher? You could be mildly dehydrated.

A growing body of evidence finds that being just a little dehydrated is tied to a range of subtle effects — from mood changes to muddled thinking.

“We find that when people are mildly dehydrated they really don’t do as well on tasks that require complex processing or on tasks that require a lot of their attention,” says Mindy Millard-Stafford, director of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Georgia Institute of Technology. She published an analysis of the evidence this month, based on 33 studies.

How long does it take to become mildly dehydrated in the summer heat? Not long at all, studies show, especially when you exercise outdoors.

“If I were hiking at moderate intensity for one hour, I could reach about 1.5 percent to 2 percent dehydration,” says Doug Casa, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, and CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute.

For an average-size person, 2 percent dehydration equates to sweating out about a liter of water.

“Most people don’t realize how high their sweat rate is in the heat,” Casa says. If you’re going hard during a run, you can reach that level of dehydration in about 30 minutes.

And at this level of dehydration, the feeling of thirst, for many of us, is only just beginning to kick in. “Most people can’t perceive that they’re 1.5 percent dehydrated,” Casa says.

But already there are subtle — maybe even imperceptible — effects on our bodies and our mental performance.

Take, for example, the findings from a recent study of young, healthy and active women who agreed to take a bunch of cognitive tests and also agreed to restrict their fluid intake to no more than 6 ounces for one day.

“We did manage to dehydrate them by [about] 1 percent just by telling them not to drink for the day,” says Nina Stachenfeld, of the Yale School of Medicine and the John B. Pierce Laboratory, who led the research.

The women took one test designed to measure cognitive flexibility. It’s a card game that requires a lot of attention, since the rules keep changing throughout the game.

“When the women were dehydrated they had about 12 percent more total errors” in the game, says Stachenfeld.

She repeated the tests after the women drank sufficient water, and their performance improved. “We were able to improve executive function back to normal — in other words, back to the baseline day — when they rehydrated,” the scientist says.

Dehydration didn’t hamper performance on all the tests; the women’s reaction time, for example, was not impeded. The decline was seen during the complicated tasks.

Though the study was small, and funded by PepsiCo, which sells bottled water, Stachenfeld designed the methods and completed the analysis independently. And other scientists say her findings fit with a growing body of independent evidence that points to similar conclusions.

“I absolutely think there could be big implications of having a mild cognitive deficiency with small amounts of dehydration,” Casa says.

If you’re a student, for example, a 12 percent increase in errors on a test might matter. And whether you’re a pilot, a soldier, a surgeon or a scholar, many daily tasks depend on the ability to be precise and pay attention.

For anyone trying to do their best work, the findings raise a number of questions:

How much water do we need?

There are no exact daily requirements, but there are general recommendations.

A panel of scholars convened several years ago by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that women should consume, on average, about 91 ounces of total water per day. For men, the suggested level is even higher (125 ounces).

Note that this total includes water from all sources, including food and other beverages, such as coffee and tea. Typically, people get about 20 percent of the water they need daily from fruits, vegetables and other food.

Also, water needs vary from person to person. For example, body weight and muscle mass matter. Also, physical activity and heat exposure can increase the amount of fluid a person needs.

How can you tell if you’re dehydrated?

One easy test: The color of your urine is a good guide. As a general rule of thumb, the darker the color, the more likely you are to be dehydrated. Aim for shades that have been described as “pale lemonade” or “straw.” A color chart developed by physiologist and University of Connecticut professor Lawrence Armstrong can be a helpful guide, researchers say.

Are older people more vulnerable to dehydration?

As we age, we’re not as good at recognizing thirst. And there’s evidence that older adults are prone to the same dips in mental sharpness as anyone else when mildly dehydrated.

Don’t wait until you’re thirsty. A good rule of thumb is to sip fluids throughout the day. No need to chug huge amounts at one time; there are some risks to overhydrating, too.

Can coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks have a dehydrating effect?

The most recent evidence finds that coffee provides similar hydrating qualities to water. In other words, yes, your morning cup of joe — or whatever caffeinated beverage you fancy, can help to keep you hydrated.

As we reported in 2014, people who routinely drink coffee or tea develop a tolerance to the potential diuretic effects of caffeine.

By Allison Aubrey

Hate Where You Live? So Does Everyone Else



I can’t help being suspicious of anyone who claims to be entirely happy with their surroundings.

According to a recent survey, more than a third of New Yorkers want to leave New York. Then again, as the journalist and entrepreneur Elizabeth Spiers pointed out on Twitter, wanting to leave New York – and giving voice to that feeling, in bars and on subway trains and online – is a critical part of many New Yorkers’ identity. (In the New York media, essays with titles such as “Why I’m Leaving New York” are a cliche, and you can bet they’re read mainly by disgruntled New Yorkers, since who else would care?) As a Brit in New York, I certainly think frequently about leaving. Yet I can’t help noticing how many Londoners take a similar pleasure in criticising London, while a recent Paris Review essay explained how the greatest minds of 19th-century Vienna hated Vienna. Maybe this shows that city life makes you miserable. But I have another theory: that the kind of people who voluntarily gather in big cities are those prone to grumbling about their surroundings. And I’m not even convinced we’re less happy as a result.

There are, obviously, lots of perfectly rational reasons to hate living in any specific city: spiralling house prices, terrible public transport, overcrowding, et cetera. But if you’re sufficiently privileged to have some choice over where you live, being a bit annoyed with wherever you’ve chosen has always struck me as the only dignified stance. To bond with fellow residents in wry irritation at everything that sucks about the place – yet without actually leaving – is to recognise something deep about the nature of dissatisfaction: that it’s a human universal, which you’ll never eliminate by pulling up roots and moving on. (The Buddhist insight usually quoted as “life is suffering” may translate better as “life is unsatisfactoriness”: you might avoid severe distress for years at a time, but a milder kind of bothersomeness really is ubiquitous.) By contrast, I can’t help being a bit suspicious of anyone who claims to be entirely happy with where they live. Have they really thought the matter through?

Besides, living at a slightly oblique angle to your surroundings is energizing. The author Ron Rosenbaum once explained how he writes with the TV on, to have something to “concentrate against”, and moderate irritation with one’s place of residence works the same way: it keeps you on your toes. It’s also just realistic.

In his new book The Happiness Dictionary, a compendium of emotion-related words that don’t exist in English, Tim Lomas highlights the German word Fernweh, “a yearning for distant places”. It’s not homesickness: it can refer to places you’ve never lived, never visited, or even places that don’t exist. And it captures the melancholy behind the obvious fact that you can only ever be in one place at a time: wherever you move, countless places will always be unattainably distant. For anyone fortunate enough to have options – about where to live, or anything else, for that matter – the real challenge might be not choosing the best one, but learning to live with the fact that, even if you do choose the best one, the yearning may never go away.

By Oliver Burkeman

Heat Making You Lethargic? Research Shows It Can Slow Your Brain


Can’t cool off this summer? Heat waves can slow us down in ways we may not realize.

New research suggests heat stress can muddle our thinking, making simple math a little harder to do.

“There’s evidence that our brains are susceptible to temperature abnormalities,” says Joe Allen, co-director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. And as the climate changes, temperatures spike and heat waves are more frequent.

To learn more about how the heat influences young, healthy adults, Allen and his colleagues studied college students living in dorms during a summer heat wave in Boston.

Half of the students lived in buildings with central AC, where the indoor air temperature averaged 71 degrees. The other half lived in dorms with no AC, where air temperatures averaged almost 80 degrees.

“In the morning, when they woke up, we pushed tests out to their cellphones,” explains Allen. The students took two tests a day for 12 consecutive days.

One test, which included basic addition and subtraction, measured cognitive speed and memory. A second test assessed attention and processing speed.

“We found that the students who were in the non-air-conditioned buildings actually had slower reaction times: 13 percent lower performance on basic arithmetic tests, and nearly a 10 percent reduction in the number of correct responses per minute,” Allen explains.

The results, published in PLOS Medicine, may come as a surprise. “I think it’s a little bit akin to the frog in the boiling water,” Allen says. There’s a “slow, steady — largely imperceptible — rise in temperature, and you don’t realize it’s having an impact on you.”

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that documents the effect of heat on mental performance, both in schools and workplaces.

For instance, a 2006 study from researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that when office temperatures rise above the mid-70s, workers’ performance begins to drop off. Researchers reviewed multiple studies that evaluated performance on common office tasks. The study found that worker productivity is highest at about 72 degrees. When temperatures exceeded the mid-80s, worker productivity decreased by about 9 percent.

Another, more recent study compared worker performance in green-certified buildings and typical office buildings. They found a dip in cognitive function linked to conditions in the indoor environment, including higher indoor temperatures and poor lighting.

And, when it comes to performance in the classroom, a study funded by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program finds that taking a standardized test on a very hot day is linked to poorer performance. The study includes an analysis of test scores from students in New York City who take a series of high-school exams called the Regents Exams.

The author, R. Jisung Park, assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes that compared with a 72-degree day, “taking an exam on a 90◦F day leads to a 10.9 percent lower likelihood of passing a particular subject (e.g. Algebra), which in turn affects probability of graduation.”

There’s still a lot to learn about how our brains and bodies respond to heat. “We all tend to think we can compensate, we can do just fine” during heat waves says Allen. But he says the “evidence shows that the indoor temperature can have a dramatic impact on our ability to be productive and learn.”

By Allison Aubrey

Are Work Friendships a Good Thing?


We tend to avoid work friendships, but connecting with colleagues can ultimately make us happier and more productive.

How often have you had the following conversation at work?
How are you?
Good. You?
It is a script we stick to even if we are dying inside.

It’s hard to build real connections with your colleagues if you never get beyond superficial chitchat. And yet people who have a “best friend at work” are not only more likely to be happier and healthier, they are also seven times as likely to be engaged in their job. What’s more, employees who report having friends at work have higher levels of productivity, retention, and job satisfaction than those who don’t.

Many companies have tried to support office bonds through perks like ping-pong tables, free lunches, or corporate retreats, but the reality is that most of us don’t have close friends at work. In a survey by Pew and the American Life Project, just 12 percent of respondents’ closest ties were with people from their professional life. If we expand this to people who were significant in the respondent’s life, the results aren’t wildly different. Only 19 percent of the people surveyed had a significant relationship with a workmate.

This phenomenon seems to be particularly American. Going on a vacation with a coworker is virtually unimaginable in America—less than 6 percent of workers have taken their relationship with colleagues to this level. Research by Stanford professor Hazel Markus, author of Clash: How to Thrive in a Multicultural World, suggests that this fact is probably due to our cultural propensity towards fierce independence—rather than the interdependence characteristic of many other cultures. More than one in four Poles and close to half of Indians have vacationed with a coworker. Is there something that American workers are missing?

Research shows that, after food and shelter, belonging is a fundamental human need. Given that we spend between 8 and 9 hours of our day at work (not including commute time), we have significantly less time to fulfill our social needs outside of work. When we’re not working, we’re either dealing with family and errands, or trying to grab some rest when we can. The workplace, where we spend such a large portion of our time, is an ideal place to foster the positive connections we all need—not just for our well-being but also for our productivity and health.

That said, friendship at work is often tricky for a reason. It can be a mixed blessing; people who are friends with coworkers tend to perform better at work but they also report being more emotionally exhausted and having difficulty maintaining their friendships. When conflict (inevitably) arises among work friends, relationship conflict leads to negative outcomes in teams composed of friends, but positive outcomes among teams without prior friendships.

The difficult truth is it just may not be possible to have friendships at work without some degree of fallout. There are real entanglements that can arise when the boundaries between work and friendship become blurred. Work responsibilities need to take precedence over socializing. Managers and leaders need to continue being able to assign tasks, and role hierarchy does need to be respected. Performance evaluations need to happen authentically and honestly. Competition is often part of workplace culture—will you or your peer get promoted?—which can lead to lack of trust or willingness to get too close. After all, how would your friendship fare after you become their manager?

Alongside these factors is a fear of being vulnerable, of disclosing too much in case this disclosure makes you look weaker or less competent—worse yet, you might get thrown under the bus for it.

Finally, the need to look and act professional creates a desire not to get too informal or familiar with anyone else—after all, “professional distance” ensures that people will maintain respect for you. All of this can make friendship at work hard—or at least somewhat scary.

Maybe that’s why, despite the benefits of friendship at work, some people still choose to avoid it. Some just aren’t comfortable having real friends at work. They may benefit from a more formal relationship with their colleagues. And that’s OK. Many of the benefits that come from having friends at work likely emanate from values like vulnerability, authenticity, and compassion. Emphasizing these values, rather than the relationships, can allow workplaces to feel “friendly” even if there aren’t real friendships. Moreover, research by John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness, shows that the true health and happiness benefits of social connection stem less from how many friends you have in your circle and more from how connected you feel to them (after all, you can feel lonely in a crowd). So nurturing that internal and subjective feeling of connection and friendliness is really most important.

While some people will always be hesitant to make friends at work, for these or other reasons, social connection is a basic human need. All friendships have hard moments. Work friendships just have different ones.

By Emma Seppala. This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review and Fulfillment Daily.

The Psychology Of Dealing With Change



Many people spend a great deal of effort trying to avoid change, but it will inevitably catch up to you. Whether it’s starting a new job, moving to a different city, the end of a relationship, or a loss of a loved one, try these strategies to cope with change

Any life is a life of change. We experience transitions in work and relationships, changes in our physical and mental health, and new events in our local communities and our world. Sometimes we know a change will occur, while other times it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Maybe it’s a disappointment, or maybe it’s a wonderful surprise.

Many people spend a great deal of time and energy trying to avoid change, but it will inevitably catch up to them. If you can learn to cope with change, you’ll lower your risk for anxiety and depression. Your relationships will flourish, and your body will feel healthier. But if you can’t cope with change, only a minor amount of stress can make you feel overwhelmed by life. You might also struggle to set and meet the goals you have for yourself.

Being able to cope with change is sometimes called resilience. Though your environment and genes might influence your level of resilience, the amount isn’t set in stone. Practicing different ways of thinking and being in the world can boost your ability to deal with change and help you create a life that is adaptive to new places and unexpected events. Let’s take a look at a few healthy practices for increasing your level of resilience and coping with change.

Evaluate Your Level of Control

Sometimes it’s all too easy to become fixated on events over which we have no power, or people who might never change their actions or attitude. But rather than focus on blaming others or moving the unmovable, resilient people set their sights on what they can control. To evaluate your level of control over a situation, you can ask yourself, “What can I take responsibility for in this situation?” When you look for opportunities to empower yourself and work towards change that is possible, you’re less likely to feel stuck in difficult situations.

Practice Self-Care After a Loss

Often life’s transitions involve losses, such as a death, a big move, the loss of a job, or a relationship ending. Even positive transitions, like a graduation or a job change, can make you feel a little sad. During these times of transitions, don’t push away any grief you might feel. Acknowledge the loss, and pay attention to what you’ve learned from the experience. Seek support and camaraderie among friends and family, and consider speaking with a counselor or other mental health professional if you feel you need extra support during the transition.

Check Your Thought Patterns

In times of change, it’s easy for your mind to cut corners. You might see everything in black or white, or you assume the worst will occur. But if you take the time to examine your thought patterns and assess how rational they are, you might find some space to nudge your thinking towards resilience. If you’re not sure how to slow down your mind, practicing relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness or deep breathing, can help you feel more in control of your brain and how you evaluate a major change.

You can also generate more positive thoughts if you take the time to remind yourself about transitions and challenges you successfully navigated in the past. Make a list of ways you’ve been resilient in your life, and consider what traits and actions might be able to see you through the current challenge. By focusing on your strengths instead of your weaknesses, you will feel more empowered to meet what lies ahead.

Be in the Present

While it’s important to look to the past to find your strengths, sometimes you can feel too pulled into the future in times of change. When you worry about what the future will bring or what mistakes you might make, you forget to be in the present and observe what’s happening around you. To bring yourself back to the present, get in tune with your body. Pay attention to how it responds to stress, and set aside time every day to relax, take some deep breaths, and bring your focus back to the present.

Find Your Priorities

The most resilient people see change as an opportunity rather than a monster to fear. Transitions in life allow you to consider where your priorities lie. How do you really want to spend your time on earth? What’s really important to you? Where do you see yourself wasting your time and energy? With a clear sense of your goals and values, you will find your mind and body can be much more resilient when it comes to the stressors of change.

Above all, prioritizing your health in life’s transitions means not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. Humans are social creatures by nature, so you weren’t built to withstand every sudden event in life without the support of others. Talk to family and friends who are experiencing similar changes, or consider finding a support group in your community. Ask your doctor about how to prioritize your health during change, and don’t be afraid to talk to a counselor or other mental health professional about building resilience. You can’t avoid change, but you live a life of resilience. You can embrace transition and see challenges as opportunities to thrive.

By, Kathleen Smith, PhD

Emotional Resilience Is a Trait You Can Develop


Those with a higher degree of emotional resilience are able to handle the stresses that come with daily life more effectively and calmly. They are also able to manage crises more easily. Fortunately, emotional resilience is a trait that can be developed. In fact, it’s a trait that is absolutely worth developing for many reasons, not the least of which is that it can transform your life and your experience of stress.

What Is Emotional Resilience?
Emotional resilience refers to one’s ability to adapt to stressful situations or crises. More resilient people are able to “roll with the punches” and adapt to adversity without lasting difficulties; less resilient people have a harder time with stress and life changes, both major and minor. It’s been found that those who deal with minor stresses more easily can also manage major crises with greater ease, so resilience has its benefits for daily life as well as for the rare major catastrophe.

What Influences Emotional Resilience?
Emotional and physical resilience is, to a degree, something you’re born with. Some people, by nature, are less upset by changes and surprises — this can be observed in infancy and tends to be stable throughout one’s lifetime. Emotional resilience is also related to some factors that aren’t under your control, such as age, gender, and exposure to trauma. However, resilience can be developed with a little effort. If you know what to do, you can become more resilient, even if you are naturally more sensitive to life’s difficulties.

What Are Traits of Emotional Resilience?
Resilience is not a quality that you either do or do not possess; there are varying degrees of how well a person is able to handle stress. Still, there are certain characteristics that resilient people tend to share. Some of the main characteristics are:

Emotional Awareness:
People with emotional awareness understand what they’re feeling and why. They also understand the feelings of others better because they are more in touch with their own inner life.

Perseverance: Whether they’re working toward outward goals or on inner coping strategies, they’re action-oriented — they trust in the process and don’t give up.

Internal Locus of Control: They believe that they, rather than outside forces, are in control of their own lives. This trait is associated with less stress because people with an internal locus of control and a realistic view of the world can be more proactive in dealing with stressors in their lives, more solution-oriented, and feel a greater sense of control, which brings less stress.

Optimism: They see the positives in most situations and believe in their own strength. This can shift how they handle problems from a victim mentality to an empowered one, and more choices open up.

Support: While they tend to be strong individuals, they know the value of social support and are able to surround themselves with supportive friends and family.

Sense of Humor: People strong in emotional resilience are able to laugh at life’s difficulties. This can be a huge asset, as it shifts one’s perspective from seeing things as a threat to seeing them as a challenge, and this alters how the body reacts to stress. They also get a good laugh more often, and this brings benefits as well.

Perspective: Resilient people are able to learn from their mistakes (rather than deny them), see obstacles as challenges, and allow adversity to make them stronger. They can also find meaning in life’s challenges rather than seeing themselves as victims.​

Spirituality: Being connected to your spiritual side has been connected with stronger emotional resilience, especially if you’re internally connected and not just going through the motions of attending services. (This doesn’t mean that people who aren’t spiritual can’t be resilient, just that this connection has been found.)

How To Become More Resilient
As mentioned, emotional resilience can be developed. And because stress and change are a part of life, there are always opportunities to practice resilience—the payoffs are significant. All it takes is an interest and commitment to the process and a little information on how to develop and strengthen traits of resilience.

By Elizabeth Scott, MS

Bonanno GA, Galea S, Bucciarelli A, Vlahov D. What Predicts Psychological Resilience after Disaster? The Role of Demographics, Resources, and Life Stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Southwick SM, Vythilingam M, Charney DS. The Psychobiology of Depression and Resilience to Stress. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.

Opening Up About Depression And Suicide Could Help Someone Else


Fifteen years ago, I broke up with my very nice boyfriend and plunged headlong into a dark depression. I loved Marc but had known from the beginning that he wasn’t the man for me.

I still believe that breaking up was the right move, but I chose a bad time to do it. I was between jobs and felt adrift. I was applying for a more permanent immigration visa (I’m from Canada – and, yes, Canadians need visas too) and it was a stressful and expensive process that made me question my legitimacy. I was on shaky ground emotionally and financially. Marc tried to persuade me to get married to stabilize my citizenship, but I didn’t want to. That’s how clear I was that the relationship needed to end.

I just didn’t realize that by breaking up with him at this unsure moment in my life I was essentially cutting the guy wires of my mental health.

It was a terrifying time, and even today I’m very glad that I came through it alive. I’m often amazed that I feel a basic sense of contentment about my life now. It could easily have been otherwise.

All of this came rushing back to me last Saturday. In the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death the day before, my Facebook feed was flooded with stories from friends and acquaintances expressing their struggles with depression and very close calls with suicide. I had no idea there were so many people like me all around. It felt like the beginnings of a #metoo moment for those of us who have spent time in this frightening landscape. After reading so many stories of people struggling to feel acceptable and worthy, what had seemed like an outlier experience started to seem more ordinary than remarkable. So many of us have #beenthere.

I noticed that the stories in my Facebook feed were from people who had otherwise done well in their lives. They had completed college; they had careers and families; they had traveled. Some of these people I knew outside of Facebook. I would have never guessed how much despair they had lived through.

One acquaintance, Marni Sclaroff, a yoga teacher and mother in Reston, Va., posted a photo of the scars on her wrists where she cut herself for years, starting at age 15. She was also hospitalized. “My depression was existential,” she wrote, adding that she came from a supportive family. “I remember, in first grade, struggling to understand what the point was.” To read more from JOELLE HANN, click here.

Common Medications Linked To Depression


If you take Prilosec or Zantac for acid reflux, a beta blocker for high blood pressure, or Xanax for anxiety, you may be increasing your risk of depression.

More than 200 common medications sold in the U.S. include depression as a potential side effect. Sometimes, the risk stems from taking several drugs at the same time. Now, a new study finds people who take these medicines are, in fact, more likely to be depressed.

The list includes a wide range of commonly taken medications. Among them are certain types of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) (used to treat acid reflux), beta blockers, anxiety drugs, painkillers including ibuprofen, ACE inhibitors (used to treat high blood pressure), and anti-convulsant drugs.

“The more of these medications you’re taking, the more likely you are to report depression,” says study author Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.

The study, which was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, included 26,192 adults who participated in a federal survey, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. All of the participants listed the medications they were taking at the time of the survey. In addition, they each completed a depression screening, the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), which asks about sleep, mood and appetite.

More than a third of the people who took the survey were taking medications known to have depression or suicidal thoughts as potential side effects. Olfson and his collaborators wanted to determine whether those participants were more or less likely to be depressed, compared to participants who didn’t take any of these medications.

“What we found is that, in fact, they’re more likely,” Olfson says. And they found that people who took three or more of the medications were three times as likely to be depressed.

About 15 percent of participants who simultaneously used three or more of these drugs were depressed. By comparison, among participants who didn’t use any of the medications, just 5 percent were depressed. Even those who used just one of these medications were at slightly higher risk of depression: About 7 percent were depressed.

Olfson says the study does not prove that the medications caused the depression. “We’re just showing that if you’re already taking them, you are more likely to be depressed,” he says. To determine causation, he says, researchers would need to follow people over time — beginning at the time they start taking the medications — to see if they’re more likely to develop depression.

Nonetheless, Olfson says, he was surprised by the “strength of the association between the number of medications and the likelihood of being depressed.”

These findings may motivate people to ask their health care providers more questions. “People should always be ready to ask, ‘What are the risks and the benefits of me taking this medication?’ ” says Don Mordecai, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, Calif. And he says doctors should be ready to have these conversations, too. To read more from ALLISON AUBREY, click here.

Imposter Syndrome Hits Men Harder Than Women


The idea that some of us experience “imposter syndrome” was first mooted in the 1970s by two US clinical psychologists who noticed the preponderance of high-achieving women who felt they had somehow cheated or fluked their way to success and feared being found out. Research on the syndrome has since exploded and it’s become clear that many men also experience similar fraudulent feelings. In fact, in their new exploratory paper in Personality and Individual Differences, a team of US and German researchers claim that, under pressure, imposter syndrome may hit men harder than women, triggering more anxiety and worse performance – a difference they speculate may be due to traditional gender norms that place a greater expectation on men to be competent.

Rebecca Badawy and her colleagues recruited hundreds of female and male undergrads studying communication or business in northeastern USA. They measured their levels of imposter syndrome with an established scale that includes items like “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack”.

In one study, the researchers gave the students two sets of five verbal and numerical Graduate Record Exam questions (the GRE is used in the US to select students for graduate programmes). After the first set of questions, the researchers ramped up the pressure for half the students, giving them fake feedback that stated they had answered all of the first five questions incorrectly.

Although imposter feelings were overall higher among women, this harsh feedback seemed to especially affect male students with high imposter feelings – they reported higher anxiety, made less effort (as measured by time taken on the task), and showed a trend towards poorer performance, as compared to others given positive feedback. In contrast, female students with high imposter feelings responded to harsh feedback by increasing their effort and showing superior performance.

It was similar in a second study in which heightened pressure was placed on half the students by telling them that their results on five Graduate Record Exam questions would be shown to a professor on their course (the researchers called this a “high accountability” situation). In this context, men with higher imposter syndrome scores again showed increased anxiety, reduced effort and a tendency toward worse performance, as compared with others who were told their scores would be shown anonymously to a stranger. In contrast, women with imposter feelings were largely unaffected (in terms of anxiety, effort or performance) by the increased accountability situation.

The increase in anxiety, and reduction in effort, shown by men with imposter feelings could be interpreted as reflecting their fear of being found out, combined with a “self-handicapping” strategy – reducing their effort so that they can use this as an excuse to explain the poor performance that they are anticipating.

“Assuming that traditional gender norms hold, males [with imposter syndrome] may have exhibited stronger negative reactions because they believe that society at large values males who demonstrate high competence and at the same time, do not believe that they can fulfil this standard,” the researchers said.

In contrast, the women with imposter feelings appeared less sensitive to the negative feedback and expectation of review by a professor – if anything, they arguably responded to negative feedback in an adaptive way by increasing their effort. The researchers linked this with the traditional cultural expectation that women should be warm rather than competent. “Being less constrained by gender norm violations and backlash (i.e. they were already expected to perform poorly on competence-based tasks like exam questions), females [with imposter feelings] may have felt freer to attempt to improve their performance (and risk failure) rather than excusing it with lack of time or effort invested,” they said.

It’s hard to know if and how these findings might relate to real-world situations in an academic setting or workplace. Badawy and her team admit their findings are exploratory and may not generalise. In particular, if their explanation based around gender norms is accurate, one can imagine these norms might vary not just across international cultures, but even between different sub-cultures in the same country – depending, for instance, on the specific gender-based attitudes, beliefs and pressures in different occupations.

These issues aside, Badawy and her colleagues suggest their key finding – of particular male vulnerability to imposter syndrome under pressure – may have practical implications for managers. “If managers of organisational specialists observe evidence of imposter syndrome in male workers currently performing at high levels, they may benefit from making attempts to restore those workers’ sense of agency if they are placed under high accountability situations,” they said. They added that mentoring by professors or managers, skills training and stretch assignments could be potential beneficial strategies (find more ways to combat imposter syndrome in this 99U article). However, they warned these will only work “if mentors are trained to down regulate their own gender role expectations”.

By, Christian Jarrett, Editor of BPS Research Digest

How to Build a More Forgiving Community


As groups, organizations, and nations, we can find love and healing after being wronged.

There are many ways to hurt another person. There are also many ways to forgive that hurt.

On an individual level, we can forgive ourselves or we can forgive others. Self-forgiveness is the experience of getting successfully past self-condemnation by responsibly dealing with our shortcomings and restoring a healthy sense of self. For some, it is important to feel forgiven by God or a higher power. Forgiving another person can be seen as a victim’s altruistic and loving response to an offender’s injurious act.

Research suggests that these acts of individual-level forgiveness carry enormous mental and physical health benefits. Numerous studies have documented that forgiveness can reduce stress hormones, and it may improve both immune-system and cardiovascular functioning. In addition, forgiveness reduces rumination and associated depression, anxiety, anger, obsessive and compulsive cognition, and even psychosomatic illness. Forgiveness also improves relationships—and many studies show that the quality of our relationships is the single best predictor of happiness.

Is it possible for these benefits to be felt by groups, organizations, communities, and entire nations, regions, or cultures?

Community forgiveness—and on a larger scale, societal forgiveness—is a collectively embraced decision to change negative behavior, thoughts, feelings, and motivations toward an offending group or groups of people. Community injustices vary greatly in their nature. Some affect a small portion of the community; others touch the lives of virtually all members. Some community offenses are minor and others are quite severe, even life-threatening. As such, community forgiveness is a process that unfolds within a particular place and time.

Can we make forgiveness more possible and likely within a specific community—within individuals, between them, and in relation to another community? Two separate studies show that it is possible to foster forgiveness in communities. Both employed two-week forgiveness awareness-raising campaigns that used methods such as public lectures, student newspaper articles, debates, panels, group discussions, and small-group education. The studies show that these campaigns helped community members replace negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with positive, generous, and loving ones.

In a recent study, we found that even a short forgiveness campaign can help community members (as individuals) feel more forgiveness, more love, and less conflict. Our previous community interventions focused on mere awareness-raising through workshops and other kinds of education. However, by doing those studies we recognized that raising awareness did have a positive effect on changing people’s dispositions to forgive.

In this new study, we decided to strongly engage community members and offer multiple options for experiencing forgiveness within the community. Our results exceeded expectations—and offer some useful lessons for those who would promote forgiveness within their community. To read more from EVERETT L. WORTHINGTON JR., BRANDON J. GRIFFIN, LOREN TOUSSAINT, click here.

What Is Consciousness?


Scientists are beginning to unravel a mystery that has long vexed philosophers

Consciousness is everything you experience. It is the tune stuck in your head, the sweetness of chocolate mousse, the throbbing pain of a toothache, the fierce love for your child and the bitter knowledge that eventually all feelings will end.

The origin and nature of these experiences, sometimes referred to as qualia, have been a mystery from the earliest days of antiquity right up to the present. Many modern analytic philosophers of mind, most prominently perhaps Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, find the existence of consciousness such an intolerable affront to what they believe should be a meaningless universe of matter and the void that they declare it to be an illusion. That is, they either deny that qualia exist or argue that they can never be meaningfully studied by science.

If that assertion was true, this essay would be very short. All I would need to explain is why you, I and most everybody else is so convinced that we have feelings at all. If I have a tooth abscess, however, a sophisticated argument to persuade me that my pain is delusional will not lessen its torment one iota. As I have very little sympathy for this desperate solution to the mind-body problem, I shall move on.

The majority of scholars accept consciousness as a given and seek to understand its relationship to the objective world described by science. More than a quarter of a century ago Francis Crick and I decided to set aside philosophical discussions on consciousness (which have engaged scholars since at least the time of Aristotle) and instead search for its physical footprints. What is it about a highly excitable piece of brain matter that gives rise to consciousness? Once we can understand that, we hope to get closer to solving the more fundamental problem.

We seek, in particular, the neuronal correlates of consciousness (NCC), defined as the minimal neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any specific conscious experience. What must happen in your brain for you to experience a toothache, for example? Must some nerve cells vibrate at some magical frequency? Do some special “consciousness neurons” have to be activated? In which brain regions would these cells be located?


When defining the NCC, the qualifier “minimal” is important. The brain as a whole can be considered an NCC, after all: it generates experience, day in and day out. But the seat of consciousness can be further ring-fenced. Take the spinal cord, a foot-and-a-half-long flexible tube of nervous tissue inside the backbone with about a billion nerve cells. If the spinal cord is completely severed by trauma to the neck region, victims are paralyzed in legs, arms and torso, unable to control their bowel and bladder, and without bodily sensations. Yet these tetraplegics continue to experience life in all its variety—they see, hear, smell, feel emotions and remember as much as before the incident that radically changed their life.

Or consider the cerebellum, the “little brain” underneath the back of the brain. One of the most ancient brain circuits in evolutionary terms, it is involved in motor control, posture and gait and in the fluid execution of complex sequences of motor movements. Playing the piano, typing, ice dancing or climbing a rock wall—all these activities involve the cerebellum. It has the brain’s most glorious neurons, called Purkinje cells, which possess tendrils that spread like a sea fan coral and harbor complex electrical dynamics. It also has by far the most neurons, about 69 billion (most of which are the star-shaped cerebellar granule cells), four times more than in the rest of the brain combined. To read more from Christof Koch, click here.

At the end of the day, escape, don’t marinate in politics


One of the many baffling aspects of this baffling year has been the way people keep recommending cultural products – films, novels, TV shows – on the grounds that they’ve got something to say about “the current climate”. Apparently, after a busy day in a world defined by Trump, Brexit, brutal inequality, misogyny and looming environmental catastrophe, some of you like nothing better than to relax with a glass of wine and run through the whole lot again.

Personally, I’m increasingly desperate for works that have zero resonance with today, which is why I’ve mainly been reading Victorian mystery and detective novels. By all means stage your production of Julius Caesar as a thinly veiled critique of the president, but don’t expect me to attend. I can’t have a single exchange over dinner, or at a coffee shop, without that Coke-slurping quasi-fascist muppet managing to dominate the conversation, so there’s no way I’m spending an evening at the theatre with him as well. I live in the current climate. So forgive me if 10pm finds me in the late 19th century, rereading EW Hornung’s stories of Raffles the gentleman thief.

Escapism gets a bad name in psychology, for the obvious reason that it involves avoiding reality – and reality-avoidance, taken to extremes, is a recipe for a shallow life at best, and some serious disorders at worst. Yet it hardly follows that it’s bad in moderation. Humans, wrote Sigmund Freud, “cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction which they can extort from reality”. You could go further: it may be that the survival of democracy depends on not everything we watch, read and discuss being about the survival of democracy. “Our social lives are tyrannised by democracy,” argues the philosopher Robert Talisse, and “the tyranny of democracy undermines democracy”. Healthy politics depends on our sharing a big hinterland of culture and other activities that aren’t about politics; otherwise, we come to see our fellow citizens as nothing but representatives of our tribe or the opposing tribe, and can’t collaborate in the way democracy requires. When every movie or novel demands that you pick a side, it erodes the common ground on which constructive politics unfolds.

Besides, at least when you’re engaged in pure, wholehearted escapism, you know you’re doing it. When I’m reading Victorian thrillers, I’m consciously taking a break. By contrast, when I’m gripped by the hour-by-hour soap opera of Russiagate or Brexit on social media, it feels like I’m confronting reality, when arguably I’m practising a covert kind of escapism, ignoring the important stuff for the gossip. In 2018, perhaps we should aim to spend more time escaping and far less marinating in politics, precisely so that when we do engage, we make a difference.

If you’d like to feel high-minded about spending the Christmas break hunkered down watching Mary Poppins and baking shows, please go ahead. Your escapism isn’t merely excusable; you might be helping to save civilisation.

By Oliver Burkeman, for The Guardian

The Secrets to a Happy Life, From a Harvard Study


What does it take to live a good life?

Surveys show that most young adults believe that obtaining wealth and fame are keys to a happy life. But a long-running study out of Harvard suggests that one of the most important predictors of whether you age well and live a long and happy life is not the amount of money you amass or notoriety you receive. A much more important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

These are some of the findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that since 1938 has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men and in some cases their spouses. The study has revealed some surprising – and some not so surprising – factors that determine whether people are likely to age happily and healthily, or descend into loneliness, sickness and mental decline.

The study’s current director, Robert Waldinger, outlined some of the more striking findings from the long-running project in a recent TED Talk that has garnered more than seven million views.

“We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don’t read,” said Dr. Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “And so we really wanted people to know that this study exists and that it has for 75 years. We’ve been funded by the government for so many years, and it’s important that more people know about this besides academics.”

The study began in Boston in the 1930s with two very different groups of young men.

In one case, a team of researchers decided to track Harvard college students through adulthood to see what factors played important roles in their growth and success. “They thought there was too much emphasis placed on pathology at the time and that it would be really useful to study people who were doing well in their young adult development,” Dr. Waldinger said. The study recruited 268 Harvard sophomores and followed them closely, with frequent interviews and health examinations. In recent years the study has also incorporated brain scans, blood draws and interviews with the subjects’ spouses and adult children.

At around the same time the study began, a Harvard Law School professor named Sheldon Glueck started to study young men from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including 456 who managed to avoid delinquency despite coming from troubled homes. Eventually the two groups were merged into one study. To read more from ANAHAD O’CONNOR, click here.

The Negative Effects of Feeling Out of the Loop

Counseling Tribeca

The Psychology of Popular Media Culture

Celebrities are people famous for being famous. Have you ever given any thought to how it happens that pop-culture figures become so well-known, even when they have risen to the top upon a wave of interest for which there was not the slightest rational explanation? What is the real root cause of our lemming-like rush to keep tabs on insignificant but famous people? What leads us to share this information on social media? Why do we visit gossip portals and read tabloids, even though they’re totally worthless to us? Partial answers to these questions are given by a trio of researchers via a series of creative experiments that they’ve reported in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Most of us are afraid of being excluded or ignored. The ability to detect and avoid ostracism likely developed for evolutionary reasons – as humans, remaining in groups enhances our survival. Often, even when the experience of ostracism seems trivial or rationally beneficial, we experience negative consequences. Nicole Iannone at Radford University and her colleagues concluded that the feeling of being “out of the loop” on popular culture may produce similar psychological consequences as partial ostracism – especially less “need satisfaction” (that is, less satisfaction of the four fundamental needs of belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control), reduced competence, and more negative moods.

The researchers asked American undergrad participants in a first experiment to view photographs of musicians who they were told are in the news at the moment and that most people in pilot research had recognised. In fact, some were chosen to be highly familiar (like Justin Bieber) and others less so (like Ellie Goulding). Viewing musicians that were supposedly very famous, but whom the participants did not recognise, led them to report less need satisfaction and a slight increase in negative mood.

A second experiment confirmed these results using a larger sample of students and pictures of actors. In a third experiment the researchers went one step further, finding similar psychological effects for failing to recognise supposedly famous pop culture logos, even among those participants who said pop culture isn’t important. This is surprising considering that people who supposedly don’t care about popular culture should not feel bad when they are unfamiliar with it.

A final study replicated the previous results using a subtler method. The researchers simply asked students to indicate their pop culture preferences using Buzzfeed-style quizzes. Critically, some of the participants were quizzed about highly familiar celebrities and pop topics (movies, books, TV shows etc.) whereas others were quizzed about more obscure people and topics. A control group rated buildings. Even though there was no explicit mention of other people’s familiarity with the quiz items, those participants in the unfamiliar pop culture condition experienced an effect of being more out of the loop, including lower need satisfaction, and more negative mood (in contrast, those in the familiar pop culture condition did not experience a boost to need satisfaction compared with controls). These effects occurred regardless of participants’ beliefs about the importance of pop culture.

The results of these experiments suggest it is highly probable that our participation in pop culture is not due to its attractiveness, but rather the desire to avoid the negative emotions associated with the feeling of being out of the loop – at least among university-age people. To read more from Tomasz Witkowski, click here.

Can Government Policies Make Us Happier?


World happiness expert Richard Layard explains why policymakers need to focus on improving mental health and human relationships, not just the economy.

The World Happiness Report has been published every year since 2012, giving countries important data about the well-being of their people and how it compares to other nations’. One of the primary proponents and editors of the report is renowned economist Baron Richard Layard of the London School of Economics.

As a researcher, Layard has been at the forefront of encouraging nations to prioritize people’s well-being, not just economic prosperity—and to use data-driven methods for figuring out what policies most impact happiness. His latest initiative is a book called The Origins of Happiness, in which he and his coauthors report on several large, longitudinal studies looking at human development over the lifespan. Some of the findings are surprising and point to counterintuitive ways to foster happiness.

I spoke with Layard about his findings and what they mean for policymakers as well as individuals around the world.

Jill Suttie: Why did you want to write this book right now?

Richard Layard: For many years, I’ve been trying to persuade policymakers to adopt the happiness of their people as a goal, because that is the way forward for society. But if you can’t provide evidence of what’s going to make a difference to people’s happiness, then the policymakers can’t make good policy. So, in our book, we tried to assemble comprehensive evidence to explain the variation in happiness within different populations—in particular, how much happiness would change if different circumstances prevailed—to give policymakers specific numbers they could use to make decisions.

JS: Most people assume that money is related to happiness, but you’ve found that there’s not as strong a relationship as we may think. Why do you argue that?

RL: We have data on levels of happiness in a normal population, and we have information on the circumstances of the people—their income, employment, education, whether they have a partner, whether they’re involved in some criminal subculture, their physical health, and (an important one) their mental health. We’re looking simultaneously at the effect of all of these things, and explaining the variation in happiness. And, actually, when you do that, you find that income explains very little of that variation—less than most of the other things I mentioned.

If you look around at the people you know, you might not find that so surprising. Yes, their income has a positive impact; but it only explains 1 percent of the variance of happiness in the population. To read more from JILL SUTTIE, click here.

How to Build a Relationship Based on Interdependence


Most of us value connection with others, especially in our romantic relationships. In fact, we are wired for connection and it allows us to create bonds and intimacy with our partner. The success of long-term relationships depends heavily on the quality of our emotional connection with each other. When we think of our ideal relationships we often think of a wonderful, close, lifelong relationship with our most important person.

So, how do we build that kind of relationship? That cozy, safe, long-term bond with someone who we know has our back for the long haul? A relationship that give us the freedom to be ourselves, that supports our growth and allows us to have flexibility with each other?

What Is Interdependence?
Interdependence suggests that partners recognize and value the importance of the emotional bond they share while maintaining a solid sense of self within the relationship dynamic. An interdependent person recognizes the value of vulnerability, being able to turn to their partner in meaningful ways to create emotional intimacy. They also value a sense of self that allows them and their partner to be themselves without any need to compromise who they are or their values system.

Being dependent on another person can sound scary or even unhealthy. Growing up, we are often taught an over-inflated value of independence, to be somewhat self-contained, with a high value placed on not needing others for emotional support.

As valuable as having a sense of independence is, taken to an extreme, this can actually get in the way of us being able to connect emotionally with others in a meaningful way. Emotional intimacy with a partner can be difficult to achieve, even scary or not seen as particularly valuable in a relationship, for those who have an extraordinary sense of independence.

Interdependence Is Not Codependence
Interdependence is not the same thing as being codependent. A codependent person tends to rely heavily on others for their sense of self and well-being. There is no ability for that person to distinguish where they end and their partner begins, there is an enmeshed sense of responsibility to another person to meet their needs and/or for their partner to meet all of their needs to feel okay about who they are.

Traits of a codependent relationship include things like:

Poor/no boundaries
People pleasing behaviors
Unhealthy, ineffective communication
Difficulty with emotional intimacy
Controlling behaviors
Blaming each other
Low self-esteem of one or both partners
No personal interests or goals outside the relationship

Codependent relationships are not healthy and do not allow partners room to be themselves, to grow and to be autonomous. These unhealthy relationships involve one partner, or both, relying heavily on the other and the relationship for their sense of self, feelings of worthiness and overall emotional well-being. There are often feelings of guilt and shame for one or both partners when the relationship is not going well.

As therapist and codependency specialist, Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT describes, codependency involves “someone who has lost their core sense of self, so that his or her thinking and behavior revolves around someone or something external, including a person, a substance, or an activity, such as sex or gambling.”

Why Interdependence Is Healthy for a Relationship
Interdependence involves a balance of self and other within the relationship, recognizing that both partners are working to be present and meet each other’s physical and emotional needs in appropriate and meaningful ways. Partners are not demanding of one another and they do not look to their partner for feelings of worthiness. This gives each partner space to maintain a sense of self, room to move toward each other in times of need and the freedom to make these decisions without fear of what will happen in the relationship.

Characteristics of an Interdependent Relationship

A healthy, interdependent relationship can be recognized by some of the following:

Healthy boundaries
Active listening
Time for personal interests
Clear communication
Taking personal responsibility for behaviors
Creating safety for each other to be vulnerable
Engaging and responding to each other
Healthy self-esteem
Being open and approachable with each other

When partners feel cherished and valued, the relationship becomes a safe haven and a place where the couple can be interdependent. This means that they understand they are not alone in the relationship, can turn toward each other safely in times of need and feel secure that their partner will be present.

How to Build an Interdependent Relationship
The key to building an interdependent relationship is to be mindful of who you are from the beginning. Many times people are looking for, or entering, relationships simply to avoid feeling alone, without any personal reflection of who they are, what they value, and their goals for the relationship. Taking time for this kind of personal reflection allows you to enter a new relationship with an awareness of self that is critical for the establishment of an interdependent relationship.

As licensed psychotherapist Sharon Martin, LCSW suggests, it is important to maintain a sense of self in our intimate relationships. She suggests the following ways to maintain a sense of self in relationship:

Knowing what you like and what matters to you
Not being afraid to ask for what you want
Spend time with friends and family
Continue pursuing your personal goals
Be mindful of your values
Make time for hobbies and interests
Don’t be afraid to say “no”
Don’t keep yourself small or hidden to please others

Allowing your partner room and opportunity to do these same things will be the key to establishing a healthy, interdependent relationship. Starting your relationship in this way can allow for the development of a safe space for both partners to learn how to turn toward each other intimately without fear of losing themselves or being controlled or manipulated. Interdependent relationships do not leave people feeling guilty or scared of their partner or the relationship, but leaves them feeling safe with their partner.

Take time to reflect on who you are and what you want in your most important relationships. Being mindful of this in the dating process can help ensure that your relationship will be healthy and more solid for the long term.

By Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC/MHSP

Addicted to digital technology? Here’s how to beat the habit


Banning yourself can have the perverse effect of making your phone more enticing. What you need to do is make it boring

Recently, I bought a piece of digital technology to help me conquer my low-level addiction to digital technology. Yes, yes, I know this makes me sound like a sucker, no better than those techno-junkies who queue overnight at the Apple store for an early glimpse at the meaninglessness of their lives. But bear with me: Ditto, which costs about £30, is a thimble-sized contraption that clips to my belt and vibrates when I get texts or calls from specific people. So I can stash my phone in my bag, out of sight and reach, confident I’ll be contactable for, say, a baby emergency. (Or by the editor of Guardian Weekend. Obviously!) You can use the iPhone’s “do not disturb” feature to do something similar; but last year, researchers showed that just having a phone in your sightline impairs your cognitive capacities. By contrast, Ditto replicates all the secret joy of accidentally leaving your phone at home, with none of the accompanying panic.

Readers even more curmudgeonly than I am may mutter that if I have such a tortured relationship with my phone, I should just get rid of it – downgrade to a dumbphone, maybe. Didn’t we manage fine before smartphones came along? The trouble is that smartphones, like most technology, aren’t simply bad. They’re worse: a diabolical mixture of bad and very good. I love receiving photos of the baby while I’m at work; I love FaceTiming with faraway friends; I just hate the compulsion to stare absently at the web every five minutes. That’s the smartphone’s whole trick: all those addictive apps are essentially parasites.

“Hundreds of daily activities that used to be performed in separate locations, with different gestures, and through a range of interpersonal interactions, have now all been collapsed into the smartphone,” says Jocelyn Glei, in a recent episode of Hurry Slowly, her podcast on slowing down and cultivating attention. “Our brains have been trained to allot a substantive portion of our ‘automatic attention’ to our smartphones.” Every time I use the phone for something indisputably meaningful, such as tending to a friendship, I’m reinforcing the allure of all its other functions, most of which aren’t. To read more form Oliver Burkeman, click here.

Do the Patterns in Your Past Predict Your Future?


On paper, Shon Hopwood’s life doesn’t make a lot of sense, not even to him.

“I don’t have a great excuse as to why I did these things. And everybody always wants that,” he tells me. “It closes the circle for people. But that’s not really how it happened.”

To the naked eye, it looked like Shon Hopwood was born into a really good pattern. He grew up in the neighborly, low-crime community of David City, Neb., to a great Christian family that encouraged self-reliance. “My parents basically opened the door in the morning and would say, ‘See you in a few hours.’ It was a good childhood.”

Fresh air, loving family, safe community: Those are some pretty good patterns.

But for some reason, in college, Hopwood started veering off the graph. He wasn’t that interested in school, so he dropped out and returned to David City to work, and that was all going fine, until one day when his friend Tom asked him down to the bar for a drink.

“And he just asked me, he said, ‘What do you think about robbing a bank?,’ ” Hopwood says.

“And you know most people would have said, ‘No!’ Or ‘What are you talking about?’ Or walked away, or a million other responses. And my response was, ‘Yes! This is a great idea!’ ”

And so Hopwood’s path forked. He would become a bank robber.

Of course Hopwood had second thoughts. He had them right up to the moment he walked into the bank dressed as a handyman. “I walk in the bank and I pull a mask up and I drop the tool box on the ground. It makes a huge noise so everyone turns and looks at me. And I unzip my coveralls, pull out a 22 [-caliber] rifle and yell, ‘Everyone get down. This is a robbery!’ ”

After that Hopwood recruited a small group of friends and just hit one bank after another until one day, four guys from the FBI tackled him. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, which was bad enough, but what really cut was that a bunch of people in his hometown disowned his completely blameless parents. To read more from ALIX SPIEGEL, click here.

7 Creative Insights To Give Your Career a Boost This Very Second

Relationship-Counseling-TribecaCatchy headline, huh? We swear it’s true, too.

There’s gobs of merit in chiseling away at one of your bad habits for months in order to make a long-term improvement to some aspect of your career. In fact, we champion that approach here all the time. However, we’re also going to make the alternative case that there is nothing wrong with a quick fix that you can implement right now and will provide you with immediate positive results. So the 99U staff and contributors have rounded up seven of our top productivity tips to give you a head start on your next work move.

1. Be No. 1 (into the Office)
Getting creative work done when it’s peaceful and quiet? Easy. Getting up early every day? Not so easy. A humble suggestion: Start small. Break free from the train of people shuffling into the office starting at 9 a.m. by being the first person into work just once a week. You know, the kind of early arrival where you are the one turning on the lights. The easiest way to start is to aim for Fridays. This way you’ve already ticked off your most import tasks by the time your body is tapped out in mid-afternoon and everyone in the office is buzzing about their weekend plans. (And if we’re being honest, it’s way too easy to push late Friday afternoon work to Monday.)

Let’s be clear, still work your normal amount of hours. Just approach them differently. If you tell yourself that you can leave work by 4 p.m. on Friday if you complete your to-do list, chances are good you’ll be done by 3:59! An added bonus? Doing something hard first thing in the morning just plain feels good. Like the endorphin rush from hitting the gym in the morning, you will experience a boost in spirits.

Make it fun too — treat yourself to breakfast and a fancy coffee on the way in. (Work at home? Then creating something by 8 a.m. is your goal.) But for God’s sake don’t send an unnecessary email like, “Hey, Ron, I will be in the conference room if anyone is looking for me” time stamped at 7:45 a.m. when absolutely no one is looking for you. This isn’t a contest: It’s about you feeling good for your extra effort and using your time wisely. To read more from 99U, click here.

How To Make Stress Your Friend


Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.

Kelly McGonigal translates academic research into practical strategies for health, happiness and personal success. To see her Ted Talk, click here.

New Study Finds Tea Enhances Creativity


A study in the journal Food Quality and Preference suggests that tea-drinking benefits divergent thinking, a key element of creativity that’s associated with generating ideas or identifying patterns. The researchers from Peking University greeted their initial 50 student participants with a cup of either hot water or black Lipton tea, before asking them to use children’s building blocks to make the most attractive design they could. Independent raters, blind to the study purpose and condition, rated the tea-drinkers designs as more creative, in terms of factors like aesthetic appeal, innovativeness and grandness.

In a second study, 40 more participants proposed names for a ramen noodle shop, and judges considered the names produced by tea-drinkers to be more innovative (but no more playful).

Tea drinking has already been tied to enhanced convergent thinking – coming up with the single correct answer to a problem – but the researchers claim theirs is the first study to find a relationship with more open, explorative thinking. The reasons for the effect aren’t clear: no significant improvement in arousal or positive mood was observed in the tea drinkers, nor did the participants prepare tea themselves, a ritual that some have speculated could help shift mindset. It’s possible that the effect is simply due to relaxation – so why not sit back and enjoy a brew with your next brainstorm. To read more from Alex Fradera, click here.

Counseling Tribeca by Therapist Carolyn Ehrlich specializing in Couples Therapy Tribeca and Parenting Counseling Tribeca SoHo NYC.

How do you know if you’re a jerk?


I’m sure you don’t feel like a jerk. Nobody does. Few of us like to believe anything negative about ourselves.

Do you think it’s possible you might be a jerk? It’s a rude question, I know, but not a totally absurd one. After all, we’re surrounded by jerks – if you don’t believe me, glance at the headlines, drive home during rush hour, or check Twitter – so, statistically, it’s entirely plausible that one of them is you. I’m sure you don’t feel like a jerk, of course. But nobody does. Partly that’s because few of us like to believe anything negative about ourselves.

But, as the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has argued in several essays, it’s also because the essence of jerkitude (which, he argues, is distinct from other forms of obnoxiousness) is “to see the world through goggles that dim others’ humanity”. Jerks view other people “as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers”. So if you’re a jerk to people, and they respond in predictable ways – with anger, irritation or, if you’re lucky, friendly criticism – you won’t take their reactions seriously, assuming you’re even listening at all. Why? Because you’re a jerk.

It gets worse, as Schwitzgebel explains. If you sincerely aspire to figure out whether or not you’re a jerk, you’ll probably begin by asking yourself if you regularly treat others high-handedly, regarding their desires and ideas as inferior, valuable only in so far as they serve your ends. Yet the very act of asking that question means you can’t, in that instant, be a jerk. “To the extent one genuinely worries about being a jerk, one’s jerkitude momentarily vanishes,” Schwitzgebel writes. “If you prickle with fear and shame at your possibly shabby behaviour to someone, in that moment, by virtue of that very prickling, you are… seeing that person as an individual with moral claims upon you.” But don’t get too comfortable: if you take this to mean that you couldn’t possibly be a jerk, since you’re the kind of person sensitive enough to wonder if you might be, then you’ll lapse back into complacency, which is fertile soil for becoming a jerk. To read more from Oliver Burkeman, click here.

Counseling Tribeca by Therapist Carolyn Ehrlich specializing in Couples Therapy Tribeca and Parenting Counseling Tribeca SoHo NYC.

Smart or Determined? Examining The Role of Motivation in IQ Tests


Intelligence tests are meant to tell you something about a person’s inherent abilities. But what if the results are distorted by the motivation to perform well? That would undermine the tests’ validity and have important implications for their use in education and recruitment.

A simple way to find out whether motivation affects intelligence test performance is to offer people a financial incentive for doing well and see if this helps them get a higher score. A paper in the British Journal of Psychology has done this, finding that while a financial incentive boosted people’s self-declared effort levels, it failed to lift their performance. This result is good news for the validity of intelligence testing. Or as the paper’s author, Gilles Gignac at the University of Western Australia, put it: “The position of a causal effect of test-taking motivation on intelligence test performance in adults does not, yet, appear to be clearly tenable”.

The background to this research is a controversial meta-analysis published in 2011 by Angela Duckworth (of Grit fame) and her colleagues which suggested that motivation distorts IQ test performance, thereby challenging the validity of IQ tests as a pure measure of ability. However, only 2 of the 46 samples included in that meta-analysis featured adults, and the findings from those adult samples were inconclusive.

To plug this gap, Gignac recruited 99 undergrads and asked them to complete various intelligence tests, including of basic “processing speed”, working memory, fluid intelligence (measured using Raven’s progressive matrices) and crystallised intelligence (based on a vocab test). To read more from Christian Jarrett, click here.

Counseling Tribeca by Therapist Carolyn Ehrlich specializing in Couples Therapy Tribeca and Parenting Counseling Tribeca SoHo NYC.

Why Change is Your Greatest Ally

Relationship-Counseling-TribecaChanges often hurt when they first emerge, but resisting them goes against the way the world works. In my teens and 20s I lived in a spiritual community where days and nights of ordered living, rules, and obedience made it seem like change was something that happened somewhere else, to other people. For us, life felt unchanging, certain, solid. And then a scandal flamed through the group like a fire through a tinder-dry forest. In a flash, one identity ended, and my new life began.

I had no choice but to open up to the kaleidoscope of possibilities inherent in every moment. And it was one heck of a ride. I started working in the arts as a producer, creator, and performer. And I finally knew who I was. Or at least, I thought I knew who I was, and then that changed, too, as everything does. Nothing sticks around. Nothing stays the same. How many versions of us come and go over the days, the months, the years? The child gives way to the adolescent. The adult ripens and rots.

Change brings us face to face with impermanence. This awareness could easily breed anxiety or terror or rage.

How can you plan for your future if you don’t know what it will be, what you will be or, even worse, if you will be? Most of us react to this groundlessness by trying to stop things from changing. But how far do we really get with that?

Even change for the better can feel unpleasant. You get a new job, with more money, and then worry starts to bloom. What if things don’t work out? What if they realize I’m a fraud and I actually have no clue what I’m doing?

But the truth is we don’t know much about what “will be.” All we can really know is what is right now. To read more from Elaine Smookler, click here.

Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good


Should parents be troubled when their kids start to deceive them?

Odds are, most of us would say yes. We believe honesty is a moral imperative, and we try to instill this belief in our children. Classic morality tales like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Pinocchio” speak to the dangers of dishonesty, and children who lie a lot, or who start lying at a young age, are often seen as developmentally abnormal, primed for trouble later in life.

But research suggests the opposite is true. Lying is not only normal; it’s also a sign of intelligence.

Kids discover lying as early as age 2, studies have found. In one experiment, children were asked not to peek at a toy hidden behind them while the researcher withdrew from the room under false pretenses. Minutes later, the researcher returned and asked the child if he or she peeked.

This experiment, designed by the developmental psychologist Michael Lewis in the mid-1980s and performed in one form or another on hundreds of kids, has yielded two consistent findings. The first is that a vast majority of children will peek at the toy within seconds of being left alone. The other is that a significant number of them lie about it. At least a third of 2-year-olds, half of 3-year-olds and 80 percent or more of children 4 and older will deny their transgression, regardless of their gender, race or family’s religion.

Children are also remarkably good at lying. In a series of additional studies based on the same experimental model, a range of adults — including social workers, primary-school teachers, police officers and judges — were shown footage of kids who were either lying or telling the truth about having committed a transgression, with the aim of seeing who could spot the liars. Astonishingly, none of the adults (not even the kids’ parents) could consistently detect the lies. To read more from ALEX STONE, click here

Counseling Tribeca by Therapist Carolyn Ehrlich specializing in Couples Therapy Tribeca and Parenting Counseling Tribeca SoHo NYC.

Your Good Friend During Flu Season


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Liberian elbow bump.

When Ebola overtook the West African country in 2014, many people were afraid to shake hands and embrace in the customary way. That’s understandable, because Ebola is spread by the exchange of bodily fluids during body-to-body contact.

So Liberians came up with a less touchy-feely greeting. They bumped elbows.

The reason I thought of the elbow bump was a comment made by a teacher in a hot yoga class I take. In a room heated to 96 degrees, the students work hard at their poses (and also lift weights and do cardio). (I know, it’s wild!) After a strenuous set of exercises, the teacher called out, “High five your neighbor.”

And I thought… really? Slap my sweaty and possibly germy palm up against the sweaty and possibly germy palm of a stranger? During a flu season that has been described as “severe.”

Wouldn’t an elbow bump be less risky?

So I spoke to a couple of experts. And I learned a few things about the way we get infected with colds and viruses. And about the advisability of high-fiving. To read more from MARC SILVER, click here.

Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness

Relationship-Counseling-TribecaOn Jan. 12, a few days after registration opened at Yale for Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life, roughly 300 people had signed up. Within three days, the figure had more than doubled. After three more days, about 1,200 students, or nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates, were enrolled.

The course, taught by Laurie Santos, 42, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said in an interview. “With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”

Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there. To read more from DAVID SHIMERJAN, click here.

Maybe You’d Exercise More If It Didn’t Feel So Crappy


Some people love to exercise. But plenty more do not, and urging them on with information about how healthy exercise can be hasn’t exactly been shown to sway the masses. Only about half of Americans report meeting the government’s exercise recommendations,1 so some scientists are exploring another idea: Let’s make exercise feel better. To do that, they’re looking beyond old advice like “find something you enjoy” and instead focusing on approaches that exploit the way we experience exercise.

Most people feel better after they are done exercising, but that does not seem to matter in terms of their future activity, said Ryan Rhodes, a professor of exercise psychology at the University of Victoria who co-authored a review of how people feel during and after exercise. If you want to make exercise enticing, you have to make it more pleasurable. Research by David M. Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at Brown University, and his colleagues has shown that how you feel during exercise predicts both current and future physical activity levels.

The good news is that the feel of exercise can be manipulated. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson developed the “peak-end rule,” which holds that people judge events not by the overall experience but by some combination of how they feel at the most extreme part and at the end of the event. One example: Kahneman and his colleagues had study subjects immerse their hands in 57-degree water for 60 seconds and, separately, do the same thing with the other hand but tack on an additional 30 seconds while slightly warming the water to a temperature of 59 degrees. Given a choice, the subjects opted to repeat the longer trial. Experiences that end with a bad part are more likely to be recalled as unpleasant than if a miserable part comes toward the beginning, even if the average discomfort is the same. To read more from Katherine Hobson, click here.

When worry becomes a problem

Relationship-Counseling-TribecaFeeling afraid about life issues is common as you age, but if it takes over your life, you may have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Everyone feels afraid or worried at times, but if these feelings begin to take over your life, then you may have crossed over into generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is the most common anxiety disorder among older adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

“The issue with many older men is they often just endure the discomfort of GAD, or think it’s normal, and do not talk about the problem,” says Dr. David Mischoulon, director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at -Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “However, left alone to manifest, GAD may lead to serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, depression, and addictive behavior like excessive drinking.”

GAD symptoms
GAD is defined as feeling anxious, fearful, or worried about multiple unrelated events or activities every day for at least six months. People with GAD constantly anticipate disaster and are overly concerned about issues like health, money, and family, even when there is no apparent reason for concern.

GAD tends to run in families and may be something you have always dealt with, but it also can be triggered by sudden changes, says Dr. Mischoulon. For instance, the death of a spouse or friend may make you feel vulnerable about being alone. To read more from Harvard Health, click here.

Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP and I specializes in Relationship Counseling Tribeca

Having A Vivid Imagination With OCD


At the heart of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are the intrusive, often distressing, thoughts. My skin is dirty… I must have left the gas on and my house will burn down… But why do some obsessive thoughts compel the person to act on them, while others don’t? And how are some people with OCD able to control the compulsion to act – to repeatedly wash their hands, or to go home to check appliances, for example – while others can’t?

As the authors of a new study on OCD, published in Clinical Psychological Psychotherapy, point out: “A single negative intrusive thought may result in an avalanche of compulsive behaviour, whereas even hours of intrusive thought may prompt little or no compulsive behaviour in some individuals.”

An earlier internet-based pilot study of people diagnosed with OCD, by the same team, suggested that if the obsessive thoughts are accompanied by matching illusory sensory perceptions (preoccupation with the idea of one’s house burning down accompanied by the smell of smoke, for example), this makes the experience more intense, and is more likely to lead to compulsive behaviour.

To investigate more thoroughly, Steffen Moritz at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and his colleagues, recruited 34 people diagnosed with OCD, and who were being treated at Hamburg University’s medical centre. Interviews established the severity of the participants’ obsessive and compulsive symptoms, and they took a battery of tests, including the research team’s own Sensory Properties of Obsessions Questionnaire. To read more from Emma Young, click here.

Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP and I specializes in Relationship Counseling Tribeca

Am I the worst for looking at other people’s texts on the subway?

Imagine being eaten by a cave bear. Or a saber-toothed cat. Imagine, with that first gash of claw or incisor, instantaneously transitioning from being a person to being food. Imagine what it feels like, the first, dangling bits of you being ripped apart, ground up and ingested, while the rest of you watches.

Very unpleasant stuff. And yet for much of human history we lived acutely under such a threat. Just think how hard it must have been to relax! If prehistoric humans were anything like modern animals, one way they fended off predators was by vigilantly monitoring the creatures around them for signs of danger, in case they saw the terror coming a split-second sooner.

There were subtler benefits to watching other people too—particularly when they didn’t expect us to be watching. Keeping tabs on private behavior helped enforce social norms; food hoarding or sexual transgressions could be exposed and censured. In short, spying helped us thrive, and so we became exceptionally good at it, innovating like crazy. (Apparently, the Mehinaku tribe in Central Brazil can tell who had sex with whom by identifying the footprints that accompany butt-cheek imprints in the sand.) We became, as one psychologist has put it, a species of “informavores”—a surreptitiously symbiotic race of hyper-­obtrusives, sucking up information about one another. Our business has always been getting up in each other’s business. To read more from JON MOOALLEM, click here.

Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP and I specializes in Relationship Counseling Tribeca

Nobody’s Better Than You

Relationship-Counseling-NYCMany years ago, when I was young and things didn’t go my way, my mother used to look at me with a fierce and piteous expression and tell me: “Nobody’s better than you.”

My mother is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. By the time she was born, her people (and my dad’s) were well established throughout the American south. Though early to the great waves of immigration, which began in the late 1800s and continued through the end of World War II, my ancestors were no less stigmatized, seen by their neighbors as part of the influx of unwashed Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians debarking en mass from ships.

Living in small towns in Virginia, without the community of others of their kind, the Rosenbergs and the Sagers kept their observances confined to the indoors; like cinema’s classic Miss Daisy, in public they practiced fervent assimilation. Their efforts weren’t always successful. Among the few stories of his childhood my father ever told was one about being chased by other boys in his town, who threw rocks and called him a “kike” and “bagel eater.” Later, his entrance into medical school at the University of Virginia was delayed a year because the quota for Jews in the class had already been filled.

My mother remembers being a brunette in a sea of blondes, excluded from the in-crowd, a perpetual outsider in her own milieu, which happened to be a town that saw a lot of action during the Civil War. Everyone in school knew whose parents owned the “Jew store.” And everyone in school shopped there; my mom could sometimes be found working after school, sitting on a low stool, fitting shoes. When she didn’t win the vote for yearbook editor, the teacher appointed her co-editor. Same with the newspaper. The teacher knew my mother would get things done, even if the popular kids wouldn’t vote for her.

And so it was, when I didn’t win the election for middle school vice president, or make the J.V. basketball team, or secure the attentions of the cute and popular girl for whom I was vying—when my achievement was lacking, my performance was underwhelming, my results didn’t match my expectations—my mother would try to let me know I should keep on trying, that I shouldn’t let myself feel undeserving. That I should stand up and demand whatever I felt was rightfully mine. To read more from Mike Sager, click here.

Why Your Brain Has Trouble Bailing Out Of A Bad Plan

Relationship-Counseling-NYCYou’re in your car, heading for an intersection. The light turns yellow, so you decide to hit the gas. Then you see a police car.

Almost instantly, you know that stomping on the accelerator is a big mistake. But there’s a good chance you’ll do it anyway, says Susan Courtney, a professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

That’s because as one area of your brain is recognizing that police car, other areas have already begun carrying out your original plan to accelerate. “Even if you haven’t actually started moving your foot, your brain has already initiated that plan,” Courtney says.

And stopping a plan once it’s underway requires a lot of brainpower, Courtney and a team of researchers report in the journal Neuron. “It’s complicated,” she says.

The team monitored the brain activity of 21 people and one monkey as they encountered a situation that’s a bit like approaching an intersection when the light turns yellow.

Participants were asked to focus on a central point on a screen and wait for a target to appear somewhere else. Sometimes they were allowed to do the natural thing and shift their gaze to the target when it appeared. To read more from Jon Hamilton, click here.

Lonely? Short of friends? Try looking at it differently

Relationship-Counseling-NYCPsychologists are regularly berated for spending their workdays reaching blindingly obvious conclusions about the world – an accusation that isn’t entirely unwarranted. (My favourite recent finding comes from the journal Psychological Science: “Depressed individuals may fail to decrease sadness.”) At first glance, it’s tempting to respond that way to a new study from the University of British Columbia, explaining why people tend to assume that their friends have more friends, and lead less solitary lives, than they do. Can you guess? That’s right: because every single time we see our friends, they’re socialising. By definition. Assuming you don’t spy on your friends via telescope from treetops, you never see them at home alone in their pyjamas, eating pickled onion Monster Munch while watching The X Factor and feeling sorry for themselves. You’re never there when they wake in the dark at 3am, wondering where their lives are headed. Or, likewise, consider those happy throngs you glimpse through the windows of the bar you pass each day on your way home from work: doesn’t it seem like they’re always meeting friends at the bar?

In fact, it’s a mathematical oddity that your friends do have slightly more friends than you do, on average. (Essentially, this is because people with large circles of friends are more likely to have you as a member of theirs.) But the main culprit, this new study confirms, is an observability bias. The more instances of something we encounter, the more significant we naturally assume it to be – and though we encounter our own solitude frequently, we never encounter other people’s. The distorted judgments we reach as a consequence have real emotional effects, the researchers found, leaving people with lower wellbeing and less of a sense of belonging. So, yes, the fact that we only ever experience loneliness when it’s happening to us is blindingly obvious, I suppose. But blindingly obvious in an almost literal sense: it’s so self-evident, we barely ever see it. To read more form Oliver Burkeman, click here.

Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP and I specializes in Relationship Counseling NYC

Saving Lives Via Text Message

Relationship-Counseling-NYCElisheva Adler was 20 years old, sitting in pajamas in her childhood bedroom in Long Island, the first time she saved someone’s life via text message.

Adler had just started volunteering as a counselor for Crisis Text Line. The 4-year-old nonprofit provides free crisis intervention through a medium that is increasingly favored by young people: texts. Using the code 741741, counselors have exchanged more than 50 million messages with people who are facing issues from stress at school to self-harm. Out of those exchanges have come thousands of “active rescues” where first responders are called to a scene.

Adler heard about Crisis Text Line when she watched a TED talk by founder Nancy Lublin. Lublin had been running a text-based volunteer organization for teens, called DoSomething. One day, Lublin tells NPR, the platform got a text that read, “‘he won’t stop raping me. It’s my dad. He told me not to tell anyone. r u there?’ ” To read more from ANYA KAMENETZ, click here.

Are our dreams trying to tell us something?


What are dreams for? It’s one of those bottomless questions where the answer tells you mainly about the person doing the answering. Those who pride themselves on being hard-headed and scientific will say they’re meaningless nonsense or, at best, some kind of boring but essential process for consolidating the memories of the day. Those who think of themselves as spiritual, meanwhile, will insist they’re messages from beyond. Yet the hard-headed answer isn’t much more plausible than the kooky one. If dreams are random brain-firings, how come they have coherent narratives? And if they’re just a dull retread of everyday events, how come they’re so often wildly inventive, haunting or surreal? (Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with any of my own, though the famous fact that “nothing is more boring than other people’s dreams” is, in itself, rather interesting.) As James Hollis, a Jungian psychotherapist for whom dreams are far from meaningless, writes: “Who would make this stuff up?” Night after night, you go to bed and elaborately crazy stories plant themselves in your mind through no choice of your own! Don’t tell me something intriguing isn’t going on. To read more from Oliver Burkeman, click here.

Do Intelligent People Make Less Effective Leaders?



Highly intelligent people tend to make good progress in the workplace and are seen as fit for leadership roles: overall, smarter is usually associated with success. But if you examine the situation more closely, as does new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, you find evidence that too much intelligence can harm leadership effectiveness. Too clever for your own good? Let’s look at the research.

John Antonakis at the University of Lausanne and colleagues recruited 379 mid-level leaders (27 per cent women, average age 38) at private companies in 30 mainly European countries, working in areas ranging from banking and telecoms to hospitality and retail. Each participant completed a personality questionnaire and a well-validated measure of intelligence, the Wonderlic Personnel Test. Their average IQ was 111 (the average for the general population is 100), with a fairly even spread of scores.

The researchers also had access to third-party ratings of the participants’ leadership performance from eight people: either peers or subordinates of the leader, who rated them on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire, which explores the degree to which the leader demonstrates various leadership styles, some known to be useful (e.g. a “transformational style” which inspires, or an “instrumental” style that removes stumbling blocks), others detrimental (e.g. a passive, hands-off style).

Overall, women tended to employ better leadership styles, and to a lesser extent so did older leaders, but the bulk of the variance was accounted for by personality and intelligence. Like so much previous work, intelligence showed a positive linear relationship with leadership effectiveness, but this association flattened out and then reversed at an IQ of about 120. For leaders with higher intelligence than this, their scores in transformational and instrumental leadership were lower, on average, than less smart leaders; and beyond an IQ of 128, the association with less effective leadership was clear and statistically significant. To read more from Alex Fradera, click here.