New research on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers challenges popular assumptions about the origins and trajectory of PTSD, providing evidence that traumatic experiences in childhood — not combat — may predict which soldiers develop the disorder.
Psychological scientist Dorthe Berntsen of Aarhus University in Denmark and a team of Danish and American researchers wanted to understand why some soldiers develop PTSD but others don’t. They also wanted to develop a clearer understanding of how the symptoms of the disorder progress.
“Most studies on PTSD in soldiers following service in war zones do not include measures of PTSD symptoms prior to deployment and thus suffer from a baseline problem. Only a few studies have examined pre- to post-deployment changes in PTSD symptoms, and most only use a single before-and-after measure,” says Berntsen.
The team aimed to address these methodological issues by studying a group of 746 Danish soldiers and evaluating their symptoms of PTSD at five different timepoints. Their study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Five weeks before the soldiers were scheduled to leave for Afghanistan, they completed a battery of tests including a PTSD inventory and a test for depression. They also completed a questionnaire about traumatic life events, including childhood experiences of family violence, physical punishment, and spousal abuse.
During their deployment, the soldiers completed measures related to the direct experience of war: perceptions of war zone stress, actual life-threatening war experiences, battlefield wounds, and the experience of actually killing an enemy.
The researchers continued to follow the soldiers after their return home to Denmark, assessing them a couple weeks after their return, two to four months after their return, and seven to eight months after their return.
What Berntsen and her colleagues found challenges several widely held assumptions about the nature of PTSD.
Rather than following some sort of “typical” pattern in which symptoms emerge soon after a particularly traumatic event and persist over time, Berntsen and colleagues found wide variation in the development of PTSD among the soldiers.
The vast majority of the soldiers (84%) were resilient, showing no PTSD symptoms at all or recovering quickly from mild symptoms.
The rest of the soldiers showed distinct and unexpected patterns of symptoms. About 4% showed evidence of “new-onset” trajectory, with symptoms starting low and showing a marked increase across the five timepoints. Their symptoms did not appear to follow any specific traumatic event.
Most notably, about 13% of the soldiers in the study actually showed temporary improvement in symptoms during deployment. These soldiers reported significant symptoms of stress prior to leaving for Afghanistan that seemed to ease in the first months of deployment only to increase again upon their return home.
What could account for this unexpected pattern of symptoms?
Compared to the resilient soldiers, the soldiers who developed PTSD were much more likely to have suffered emotional problems and traumatic events prior to deployment. Childhood experiences of violence, especially punishment severe enough to cause bruises, cuts, burns, and broken bones actually predicted the onset of PTSD in these soldiers. Those who showed symptoms of PTSD were more likely to have witnessed family violence, and to have experienced physical attacks, stalking or death threats by a spouse. They were also more likely to have past experiences that they could not, or would not, talk about. And they were less educated than the resilient soldiers.
According to Berntsen and colleages, all of these factors together suggest that army life — despite the fact that it involved combat — offered more in the way of social support and life satisfaction than these particular soldiers had at home. The mental health benefits of being valued and experiencing camaraderie thus diminished when the soldiers had to return to civilian life.
The findings challenge the notion that exposure to combat and other war atrocities is the main cause of PTSD.
“We were surprised that stressful experiences during childhood seemed to play such a central role in discriminating the resilient versus non-resilient groups,” says Berntsen. “These results should make psychologists question prevailing assumptions about PTSD and its development.”
D. Berntsen, K. B. Johannessen, Y. D. Thomsen, M. Bertelsen, R. H. Hoyle, D. C. Rubin. Peace and War: Trajectories of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Before, During, and After Military Deployment in Afghanistan. Psychological Science, 2012;
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Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a mission to seek out reasons to support their emotional reactions. And because you are usually successful in this mission, you end up with the illusion of objectivity. You really believe that your position is logicallly and objectively justified. Most people give no real evidence for their emotional reactions and no effort is made to look for alternatives opposing this emotionally based sense of certainty. The mind generally uses the “makes-sense-to-me” rule, where you take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if you find some evidence, enough so that your position “makes sense”, you stop thinking. If someone brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, you can may be swayed to change your mind. However, the problem is that you may not make any effort to seek out conflicting points of view unless they are presented to you.
This reminds me of a client I saw who ad two failed marriages and concluded, “All men are pigs.” From only two examples, she created a generalization that included three billion men! Her cynicism, her unwillingness to allow any men to get close to her, was the side-effect of two fundamental facts about how the brain work: 1) the brain has the amazing ability to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) your brain has a tendency to look for evidence that confirms an already-existing beliefs. So once you have concluded something, you have a strong tendency generalize that conclusion by noticing evidence that supports your pre-existing belief. So a pessimistic, cynical, or defeatist feeling, causes your mind to look for negative evidence and selectively ignore any positives. In this way the pain comes from making negative events larger and more awful than they really are.
Our memory allows us to recall information about what is likely to happen in different situations. Our memories promote expectations and predictions to how life will unfold. For example, when you walk into a grocery store, you know automatically, how things are supposed to go. You go in, grab a cart, pick food off the shelf, line up for a cashier who will take your money for the food, and you can go home. It is not as if you walk into the store and think `OK, what happened the last time I was here’ or `Why are people looting food off the shelves?’ You automatically know how to behave in the situation based on your experience. The knowledge from these memories, makes the world a much more predictable place.
So let me be clear, you are not conscious of everything you do and how you do it, for every aspect of your life. For example, tying your shoelaces, walking, dialing the phone, or driving, are all guided to a large degree by unconscious processing. Frequently performed actions and behaviors become automatic so your consciousness can turn to other things. In this our complex, information saturated world, the brain is required to handle a vast amount of data. This enormous amount of information exceeds the capacity of your consciousness, which can contain only one or a few things at a time. In fact some researchers suggest that most of what you do on a daily basis is habitual. Which side of the bed do you get out of in the morning? Do you think about the processes of getting dressed, or is it automatic? First the left leg and then the right leg. You put my trousers on the same way every morning. You shave the same way, eat the same breakfast. And so forth. In fact, most of the choices on a daily basis are automatic and out of your conscious awareness.
A good example would be to think of the name of your sixth grade teacher. Before reading the last sentence, you probably weren’t thinking about that period of your life or that teacher. But this information was stored unconsciously and has now entered your consciousness. Soon it will pass back into your unconsciousness, ready to be accessed again if the need arises.
Try for a moment, while reading this passage, to consciously piece together the individual letters in this sentence. Actively focus on how each letter is a symbol, then consider how their meaning changes when they stand in relation to one another, how they form words whose meaning is in turn affected by the words around them, and how these chunks of symbols form a representation in your brain of what the sentence says. Not easy right. Try again.
A few things are worth noting about this exercise; namely that a) in spite of your intentions, you probably couldn’t do it without a significant level of focus, b) you understood the sentence very quickly anyway, and c) it still affected your behavior. Also, since you already knew what it said, the meaning of the sentence didn’t really change when you went over it again, trying to consciously determine why it conveys the particular meaning it does. This illustrates a few factors involved in unconscious functioning, which can be fairly difficult to consciously understand. The first point is this that you unconsciously and very quickly derive meaning from past learning experiences. Second, you have incomplete insight into how this happens, and once the skill of reading is learned, it is hard to stop without conscious effort. Thus reading is an automatic skill that is guided by your unconscious, your behavior occurs without your being entirely aware of it or choosing that it happen.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Humans, for all their sophistication, tend to use unconscious processes. For example many of us drive using unconscious skills unless something unexpected happens, at which point conscious processes take over. These allow you to analyze the unfamiliar situation in more depth in order to figure out how best to respond. The same is true for social situations. Much of the information coming in from social situations is processed unconsciously. Only a small amount of the information is attended to and analyzed consciously. Because you rely so heavily upon unconscious processes, many of your responses to social situations occur “mindlessly.” You are thus free to think about Bob’s annoying table manners and Jane’s infectious laugh as you wander down the aisles, selecting all the necessary ingredients for the dinner party the next night.
The problem is that you unconsciously conform your new experiences into existing patterns. The compulsion to explain, or determine the generalizations, is hardwired in humans, it helps us to learn. Unfortunately, the compulsion to explain is not bound by reason. If a logical explanation does not fit, the mind will make up its own explanation based on exaggerated and unlikely patterns. When presented with bits of information that have no particular relationship, your mind will find one anyway. When the mind cannot generalize a pattern with the information that has, it will create an explanation to fit. No effort is made to test the validity of facts used as evidence. Your mind tries to find additional evidence that supports your conclusion and proves that you were right in the first place. No effort is ever made to prove that you could be wrong. You just assume you are right.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Life is about attention. You can control what you attend to and for how long. Your changing and varied focus arises from what you choose to observe and concentrate on. Yet, you unconsciously and automatically refocus and redirect your attention without even knowing it. Your attention simply flows, moving in all directions like the air around you. However, the trouble arises when your attention is fixated or scattered, rather then fluid. Of course, you can selectively attend to different things, but it is impossible and not very practical to attend to all things equally. Attention is controllable, the amount and frequency of attention you give is within your power to manage. You can direct it like the wheel of a ship steers the rudder and guides the vessel in a given direction. Emotions, like attention rise and fall in the natural ebb and flow of life. Some fade with time like the sunset descending over the horizon in the ever-changing sky. Others are reoccurring lighthouses that direct you to change course and guiding you to safe harbor. Your attention is most stable when you are able to focus on the present moment and accept reality as it is, not as how you’d like to see it. You can move your attention from what has been done to what you need to do now.
People that are shy and introverted tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look at them, creating anxiety. It’s true, but it applies to everyone, not just those who are shy. When anything enters your visual field, you unconsciously begin scanning it. A person walking into a room is “scanned” by almost everyone else and that automatic scanning procedure takes about two seconds. The unconscious mind is looking for two things 1) to see if you have a memory or point of reference for comparison and 2) to protect you for any signs of danger. If the new individual is odd looking, carrying a weapon, or naked, the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare, fright, or “Don’t I know you?). Individuals with physical features that are unusual lead to the common “double take” where you will first unconsciously scan for safety and reference, then look again consciously to examine and analyze. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed facts/details. This occurs unconsciously as reflex and instinct. To override or cancel this natural/normal procedure requires attention, focus, and effort.
Because of the tremendous amount of data streaming in to the mind every second from your senses, your mind’s ability to perform routine tasks unconsciously is essential. The human eye, for example, scans two billion bits of data per second. If all this data were not already organized somehow, the conscious mind would have to start from scratch to figure out what each pattern of light and dark meant. You simply can’t afford to consciously process all the data every time you move your eyes. It would take all day just to get dressed. Automatic, unconscious processes allow you to respond to familiar situations quickly, efficiently, whereas controlled, conscious processes produce responses slowly, demanding a great deal of attention and mental effort. However, you typically use conscious processes only when you must or are highly motivated to use them.
Over the last several years, the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural awareness. We hunt it in neurology labs, lament its decline on op-ed pages, fetishize it in grassroots quality-of-life movements, diagnose its absence in more and more of our children every year, cultivate it in yoga class twice a week, harness it as the engine of self-help empires, and pump it up to superhuman levels with drugs originally intended to treat Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy. Everyone still pays some form of attention all the time, of course—it’s basically impossible for humans not to—but the currency in which we pay it, and the goods we get in exchange, have changed dramatically.
Attention is a complex process that shows up all over the brain, mingling inextricably with other quasi-mystical processes like emotion, memory, identity, will, motivation, and mood. Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart.” We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other. Only in the last ten years—thanks to neuroscientists and their functional MRIs—have we been able to watch the attending human brain in action, with its coordinated storms of neural firing, rapid blood surges, and oxygen flows. This has yielded all kinds of fascinating insights—for instance, that when forced to multitask, the overloaded brain shifts its processing from the hippocampus (responsible for memory) to the striatum (responsible for unconscious tasks), making it hard to learn a task or even recall what you’ve been doing once you’re done.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Have you ever tried to ride an elephant? I’ve been on rides at the circus or petting zoo as a child where some trainer led the elephant by a short rope around a short circle. Then I went to Africa and for the first time it was just me and an elephant, no rope. I wasn’t alone, there were eight other people on the elephant, and one of the people was a local elephant trainer, so the ride didn’t ask much of me. There was, however, one difficult moment. We were riding along a path on a steep hillside, two by two, and my elephant was on the outside, walking about three feet from the edge. Then the path turned sharply to the left, and my elephant was heading straight for the edge. I froze. I knew I had to steer left, but there was another elephant to my left and I didn’t want to crash into it. I looked around and no one else seemed to notice. I might have called out for help, or screamed, “Look out!”; but some part of me preferred the risk of going over the edge to the certainty of looking stupid. So I just froze. I did nothing at all during the critical five seconds in which my elephant and the one to my side calmly turned to the left by themselves. As my panic subsided, I laughed at my ridiculous fear. The elephant knew exactly what she was doing. She’d walked this path a hundred times, and she had no more interest in tumbling to her death than I had. She didn’t need me to tell her what to do, and, in fact, the few times I tried to tell her what to do she didn’t much seem to care. I had gotten it all so wrong because I had spent the previous ten years driving cars, not elephants. Cars go over edges unless your unless you tell them not to.
Well nice story, but what is the point? Well, I think that this story can be helpful in understanding how the unconscious mind works. Just like a person riding an elephant, you may believe that you are directing your life, but in reality your unconscious is directing you. You may be riding these elephants, but they are the ones in control of where you are going. Like the rider, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the unconscious emotional elephant does. The rider is holding the reins and by pulling one way or the other can tell the elephant to turn, stop or go. You can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, you’re no match for him. You are merely a passenger. The elephant has been around for longer, is much faster, and is far more powerful then you. The rider cannot stop the elephant once it takes action, you can only guide it where it is willing to go. If you want your elephant to respect your wishes, you need to be aware that the elephant will exaggerate failures, understate success, and it will worry about potential consequences. The elephants may be stampeding, but they can be tamed. With time, attention, and effort, the rider can train the elephant, the unconscious can be made conscious, and the results of this teamwork can be astonishing. The key, is noticing when your conscious and unconscious are pulling you in opposite directions.
How do you know when you are being pulled in opposite directions? You need to reflect on how you make sense of the world around you. It begins by understanding how the unconscious mind influences daily life. Your daily experiences occur on two different levels of perception, namely conscious and unconscious. The conscious mind is the one that we are all familiar with. The conscious mind is in charge of “perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation.” However, there is no single definition for the unconscious in psychological literature. For my discussion, I will use a definition for the unconscious from Webster’s New World Dictionary, which is, “the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings of which you are not conscious, but which influence your emotions and behavior.”
The unconscious is not a thing but a relationship between yourself and the external world. Just as gravity describes a relationship between masses, perhaps your unconscious and conscious mind refer to a similar relationship between your inner processes and the outside world. The conscious mind is what you ordinarily think of when you say “my mind.” It’s associated with thinking, analyzing and making judgments and decisions. The conscious mind is actively sorting and filtering its perceptions because only so much information can reside in consciousness at once. Knowledgeable and powerful in a different way than the conscious mind, the unconscious mind handles the responsibility of keeping the body running well. It has memory of every event you have ever experienced; it is the source and storehouse of your emotions.
So I find an iceberg to be a useful metaphor to understand the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. An iceberg floats in the water largely hidden. Typically, the tip of the iceberg is seen, and the huge mass of it remains below the surface. Only a small percentage of the whole iceberg is visible above the surface. Everything else falls back below the water line, into unconsciousness. The conscious mind, like the part of the iceberg above the surface, is a small portion of the whole being. Yet the unconscious mind, the largest and most powerful part, remains unseen below the surface. And like an iceberg, the conscious mind is built upon a solid foundation of unconscious material.
Because of the inherent limitations of your perceptual systems, you can place your attention and concentration on a very tiny fraction of the information that is potentially available to you, at any moment. For instance, as you read this, you are probably unaware of the feeling behind your knees, or the background sounds around you, until you consciously direct attention to them. The brain is constantly scanning its environment for personally relevant information. When an unexpected event occurs, such as a loud noise from an empty room, a rush of adrenaline shuts down all unnecessary activity and focuses the brain’s conscious attention, so you can spring into action. Conversely, a situation that contains mainly predictable or repeated circumstances, such as driving, reduces the conscious brain’s interest in the outside world and tempts it to turn inward. The point is that lacking emotional weight, circumstances lose their hold on your conscious attention. The best the mind can do is to have an awareness that flexibly scans events, so that nothing is ignored for very long. The more information you have available to you about events, the better you are able to determine what is relevant to solving problems and satisfying your needs and desires.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. We’ve seen them as primitive passions, the unfortunate legacy of our animal past. When we do stupid things – say, eating too much cake, or sleeping with the wrong person, or taking out a subprime mortgage – we usually blame our short-sighted feelings. People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality.
This bias against feeling has led people to assume that reason is always best. When faced with a difficult dilemma, most of us believe that it’s best to carefully assess our options and spend a few moments consciously deliberating the information. Then, we should choose the alternative that best fits our preferences. This is how we maximize utility; rationality is our Promethean gift.
But what if this is all backwards? What if our emotions know more than we know? What if our feelings are smarter than us?
While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion – David Hume was a prescient guy – it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions.
The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.
Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome. Pham’s catchy name for this phenomenon is the emotional oracle effect.
Consider the results from the American Idol quiz: while high-trust-in-feelings subjects correctly predicted the winner 41 percent of the time, those who distrusted their emotions were only right 24 percent of the time. The same lesson applied to the stock market, that classic example of a random walk: those emotional souls made predictions that were 25 percent more accurate than those who aspired to Spock-like cognition.
What explains these paradoxical results? The answer involves processing power. In recent years, it’s become clear that the unconscious brain is able to process vast amounts of information in parallel, thus allowing it to analyze large data sets without getting overwhelmed. (Human reason, in contrast, has a very strict bottleneck and can only process about four bits of data at any given moment.) But this raises the obvious question: how do we gain access to all this analysis, which by definition is taking place outside of conscious awareness?
Here’s where emotions come in handy. Every feeling is like a summary of data, a quick encapsulation of all the information processing that we don’t have access to. (As Pham puts it, emotions are like a “privileged window” into the subterranean mind.) When it comes to making predictions about complex events, this extra information is often essential. It represents the difference between an informed guess and random chance.
How might this work in everyday life? Let’s say, for example, that you’re given lots of information about how twenty different stocks have performed over a period of time. (The various share prices are displayed on a ticker tape at the bottom of a television screen, just as they appear on CNBC.) You’ll soon discover that you have difficulty remembering all the financial data. If somebody asks you which stocks performed the best, you’ll probably be unable to give a good answer. You can’t process all the information. However, if you’re asked which stocks trigger the best feelings – your emotions are now being quizzed – you will suddenly be able to identify the best stocks. According to Tilmann Betsch, the psychologist who performed this clever little experiment, your feelings will “reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity” to the actual performance of all of the different securities. The investments that rose in value will be associated with the most positive emotions, while the shares that went down in value will trigger a vague sense of unease.
But this doesn’t meant we can simply rely on every fleeting whim. The subjects had to absorb all that ticker-tape data, just as Pham’s volunteers seemed to only benefit from the emotional oracle effect when they had some knowledge of the subject. If they weren’t following college football, then their feelings weren’t helpful predictors of the BCS championship game.
The larger lesson, then, is that our emotions are neither stupid nor omniscient. They are imperfect oracles. Nevertheless, a strong emotion is a reminder that, even when we think we know nothing, our brain knows something. That’s what the feeling is trying to tell us.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Think about something it took you a really long time to learn, like how to parallel park. At first, parallel parking was difficult and you had to devote a lot of mental energy to it. But after you grew comfortable with parallel parking, it became much easier — almost habitual, you could say.
Parallel parking, gambling, exercising, brushing your teeth and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns, says New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg. His new book The Power of Habit explores the science behind why we do what we do — and how companies are now working to use our habit formations to sell and market products to us.
It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.
“Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself,” Duhigg tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “That’s what we think about when we think about habits.”
The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future.
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.
“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”
That’s why it’s easy — while driving or parallel parking, let’s say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you’re having.
“You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says. “And that’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”
Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors — like pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they’re in the same environment. But if they take a vacation, it’s likely that the behavior will change.
“You’ll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it,” he says, “because once the cues change, patterns are broken up.”
That’s one of the reasons why taking a vacation is so relaxing: It helps break certain habits.
“It’s also a great reason why changing a habit on a vacation is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it,” he says. “If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”
It’s not just individual habits that become automated. Duhigg says there are studies that show organizational habits form among workers working for the same company. And companies themselves exploit habit cues and rewards to try to sway customers, particularly if customers themselves can’t articulate what pleasurable experience they derive from a habit.
“Companies are very, very good — better than consumers themselves — at knowing what consumers are actually craving,” says Duhigg.
As an example, he points to Febreeze, a Proctor & Gamble fabric odor eliminator that initially failed when it got to the market.
“They thought that consumers would use it because they were craving getting rid of bad scents,” he says. “And it was a total flop. People who had 12 cats and their homes smelled terrible? They wouldn’t use Febreeze.”
That’s when Proctor & Gamble reformulated Febreeze to include different scents.
“As soon as they did that, people started using it at the end of their cleaning habits to make things smell as nice as they looked,” he says. “And what they figured out is that people crave a nice smell when everything looks pretty. Now, no consumer would have said that. … But companies can figure this out, and that’s how they can make products work.”
Companies can also figure out how to get consumers to change their own habits and form new ones associated with their products or stores. The megastore Target, for example, tries to target pregnant women, says Duhigg, in order to capture their buying habits for the next few years.
“The biggest moment of flexibility in our shopping habits is when we have a child,” he says, “because all of your old routines go out the window, and suddenly a marketer can come in and sell you new things.”
Analysts at Target collect “terabytes of information” on its shoppers. They have figured out that women who buy certain products — vitamins, unscented lotions, washcloths — might be pregnant and then can use that information to jump-start their marketing campaign.
This can get tricky: One father was upset after receiving coupons for baby products in the mail from Target addressed to his teenage daughter.
“He went in and said, ‘My daughter is 16 years old. Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?’ and the manager apologizes,” Duhigg says. “The manager calls a couple of days later … and the father says, ‘I need to apologize. … I had a conversation with my daughter, and it turns out there’s some things going on in my house that I wasn’t aware of. She’s due in August.’ So Target figured it out before her dad did.”
“What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change.”
“I felt like I had a lot of habits that I was powerless over. … I have a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. And I remember when my 3-year-old was 1 1/2 or 2. I was writing the book. We would feed him chicken nuggets or other stuff for dinner, which was the only stuff he would eat. And it was impossible for me to stop from reaching over and grabbing his chicken nuggets. It was a struggle every night not to eat his dinner because a 2-year-old dinner is designed to taste delicious and to disintegrate into your mouth into carbs and sugar. And so, I was really interested in this, and I wanted to exercise more and I wanted to be more productive at work.”
“The weird thing about rewards is that we don’t actually know what we’re actually craving.” “When [Alcoholics Anonymous] started, there was no scientific basis to it whatsoever. In fact, there’s no scientific basis to AA. The 12 steps that are kind of famous? The reason why there’s 12 of them is because the guy who came up with them — who wrote them one night while he was sitting on his bed — he chose them because there’s 12 apostles. There’s no real logic to how AA was designed. But the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink. … It doesn’t seem to work if people do it on their own. … At some point, if you’re changing a really deep-seated behavior, you’re going to have a moment of weakness. And at that moment, if you can look across a room and think, ‘Jim’s kind of a moron. I think I’m smarter than Jim. But Jim has been sober for three years. And if Jim can do it, I can definitely do it,’ that’s enormously powerful.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Our brains are filled with billions of neurons, entangled like a dense canopy of tropical forest branches. When we think of a concept or a memory — or have a perception or feeling — our brain’s neurons quickly fire and talk to each other across connections called synapses.
How these neurons interact with each other — and what the wiring is like between them — is key to understanding our identity, says Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT.
Seung’s new book, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, explains how mapping out our neural connections in our brains might be the key to understanding the basis of things like personality, memory, perception and ideas, as well as illnesses that happen in the brain, like autism and schizophrenia.
“These kinds of disorders have been a puzzle for a long time,” says Seung. “We can look at other brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and see clear evidence that there is something wrong in the brain.”
But with schizophrenia and autism, there’s no clear abnormality during autopsy dissections, says Seung.
“We believe these are brain disorders because of lots of indirect evidence, but we can’t look at the brain directly and see something is wrong,” he says. “So the hypothesis is that the neurons are healthy, but they are simply connected together or organized in an abnormal way.”
One current theory, says Seung, is that there’s a connection between the wiring that develops between neurons during early infancy and developmental disorders like schizophrenia and autism.
“In autism, the development of the brain is hypothesized to go awry sometime before age 2, maybe in the womb,” he says. “In schizophrenia, no one knows for sure when the development is going off course. We know that schizophrenia tends to emerge in early adulthood, so many people believe that something abnormal is happening during adolescence. Or it could be that something is happening much earlier and it’s not revealed until you become an adult.”
What scientists do know, he says, is that the wiring of the brain in the first three years is critical for development. Infants born with cataracts in poor countries that don’t have the resources to restore their eyesight remain blind even after surgery is performed on them later in life.
“No matter how much they practice seeing, they can never really see,” says Seung. “They recover some visual function, but they are still blind by comparison to you and me. And one hypothesis is that the brain didn’t wire up properly when they were babies, so by the time they become adults, there’s no way for the brain to learn how to see properly.”
At birth, he says, you are born with all of the neurons you will ever have in life, except for neurons that exist in two specific areas of the brain: the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, which is thought to help new memories form, and the olfactory bulb, which is involved in your sense of smell.
“The obvious hypothesis [is] that these two areas need to be highly plastic and need to learn more than other regions, and that’s why new neurons have to be created — to give these regions more potential for learning,” says Seung. “But we don’t really have any proof of that hypothesis.”
But not everything is set in stone from birth. The complex synaptic connections that allow neurons to communicate with one another develop after babies have left the womb.
“As far as we know, this is happening throughout your life,” he says. “Part of the reason that we are lifelong learners — that no matter how old you get, you can still learn something new — may be due to the fact that synapse creation and elimination are both continuing into adulthood.”
“A connectome is a map between neurons inside a nervous system. You can imagine it as being like the map that you see in the back of the pages of in-flight magazines. Imagine that every city in that map is replaced by a neuron and every airline route between cities is replaced by a connection.”
“Sometimes people with seizures don’t respond well to medications, and the only way for them to respond is for surgeons to remove the part of the brain from which the seizures originate. So [a computational neuroscientist] got permission to also record the signals of single neurons inside human subjects before doing the operating. So what the experimenters did was they showed the people pictures of celebrities and places and other kinds of objects, and they found that the neurons in the areas that they recorded from, which is in the medial temporal lobe … responded highly selectively. They would respond to only a few pictures out of a large collection of many pictures. And in particular, there was one neuron in one person that responded only to pictures of Jennifer Aniston — not to Halle Berry, not to Julia Roberts, and one great finding said that this neuron did not respond to pictures of Jennifer Aniston with Brad Pitt. … It would be overstating the case to say this neuron only responds to Jennifer Aniston because the experimenters didn’t have time to show the person all possible celebrities. But it seems safe to say that this neuron responds to only a small fraction of celebrities.”
A diffusion spectrum image shows the brain wiring in a healthy human adult.
“Your brain is this vast network of neurons, communicating through signals. And as far as neuroscientists can tell, these signals that are passed around the network are reflecting the processing of all of our mental processes — your thoughts, your feelings, your perceptions and so on.”
“If you have brain damage, and lots of neurons are killed, those neurons won’t grow back except in [the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, which is thought to help new memories form, and the olfactory bulb, which is involved in sense of smell]. So you could view it from a very pessimistic viewpoint. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that medical advances in the future will somehow activate regenerative powers in the brain. If these regenerative powers exist in [those] two areas, why not awaken them in other areas of the brain? So there’s also an optimistic kind of spin on this.”
Only one organism has had its full connectome — or neural map — mapped out by neuroscientists. It’s a tiny worm no bigger than a millimeter, but it took scientists more than a dozen years to map out its 7,000 neural connections. They started out by using the world’s most powerful knife and slicing the worm into slices a thousand times thinner than a human hair. They then put each slice in an electron microscope and created a 3-D image of the worm’s nervous system. That’s when the true labor started, says Seung.
“That’s when [neuroscientists had to] go through all these images and trace out the paths taken by all of the branches of the neurons and find the synapses, and compile all that information to create the connectome,” he says.
Each of the worm’s 300 neurons had between 20 and 30 connections. In comparison, humans have 10,000 connections of neurons — and billions of neurons. And scientists still aren’t sure what the various pathways in a worm’s nervous system mean.
“We’re still far away from understanding the worm,” says Seung. He says that scientists would like to eventually map a 1-millimeter cube of a human brain or a mouse brain, which contains 100,000 neurons and a billion connections.
“The imaging of all of those slices of brain can be automated and made much more reliable,” he says. “And now we have computers that are getting better at seeing.”
So far, though, neuroscientists have only mapped the neural connections of a piece of a mouse retina, which is very thin.
“What we know in the retina is a catalog of the types of neurons,” he says. “The next challenge is to figure out what are the rules of connection between these types of neurons. And that’s where we still don’t know a whole lot.”
Mapping more of these connections, he says, will tell us a lot about brain function and possible pathways that can be treated.
“I don’t want to promise too much, and my goal right now is simply to see what is wrong,” he says. “That’s not in itself a cure. But obviously it’s a step toward finding better treatments. The analogy I make is the study of infectious diseases before the microscope. You could see the symptoms, but you couldn’t see the microbes — the bacteria that caused disease. We’re in an analogous stage with mental disorders. We see the symptoms, but we don’t have a clear thing we can look at in the brain and say, ‘This is what’s wrong.’ “
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Many people see life as a succession of golden opportunities, all of which we miss. The paradox is that we spend so much time looking over our shoulder at past opportunities that we won’t see the next one coming in time to grab it. We are going to miss that one, too. It is very hard to be optimistic under these circumstances. In fact, all we can be is pessimistic, discouraged and depressed. Such a life is hardly worth living.
This negative attitude is entirely consistent with our self-contempt. If we feel worthless, we do not “deserve” happiness or success. We deserve to let opportunities slip through our fingers. We “deserve” to make “errors in judgment” which confirm our contempt for our intelligence.
This attitude very conveniently prevents us from achieving any happiness or success that we do not deserve. We are afraid that we will screw it up. When a golden opportunity comes our way, we bungle it. We sabotage it, after which, we bemoan the cruelty of our fate. Our secret payoff is that we have spared ourselves the “guilt,” the pain of enjoying happiness that we feel unworthy to enjoy. Instead, we have the familiar despair of succeeding and then ruining it with our inadequacy to cope.
Laura came for counseling, she was “all shook up,” She didn’t know why. It turned out that this scary state of affairs was a case of “cognitive dissonance.” She couldn’t reconcile her attitudes from the past with her experiences in the present. She could not solve the problem. She felt like she was “falling apart.” She felt threatened with annihilation. The conflict between reality and what she brought to reality was taking place below the level of conscious awareness. It was not accessible to her. Our task was to make these troublesome, unconscious attitudes conscious.
Laura: “I don’t know what to do. I’ve got a final exam next week and I can’t study for it. My eyes just won’t focus on the books. I can’t read. I can’t concentrate. When I try to sleep my mind races at night, and I don’t get any rest.”
Therapist: “Have you always had difficulty studying?”
Laura: “No, I’ve gotten straight A’s all through college so far. I don’t know why this is happening all of a sudden.”
Therapist: “How is this semester different?”
Laura: “The main thing is that I’ve been accepted at graduate school. I can’t get a job in my field without a Master’s degree, so if I wash out next week, I won’t qualify for graduate school, and I’ll blow my whole career. It’s too much pressure. If I can’t cope with this, how can I be a social worker?”
Therapist: “There’s a lot at stake then. It sounds like you are trying to prevent this disaster from happening.”
Laura: “But it isn’t working. I’m out of control.”
Therapist: “It never works when you try to control in the wrong way. You can’t even let yourself sleep. You have to be on guard all night in order to keep this bad thing from happening. You certainly can’t focus your attention on school books when you are engaged in this cosmic struggle to ward off the doom that you are predicting for yourself.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
It’s a tradition as old as New Year’s: making resolutions. We will not smoke, or sojourn with the bucket of mint chocolate chip. In fact, we will resist sweets generally, including the bowl of M &Ms that our co-worker has helpfully positioned on the aisle corner of his desk. There will be exercise, and the learning of a new language.
It is resolved.
So what does science know about translating our resolve into actual changes in behavior? The answer to this question brings us — strangely enough — to a story about heroin use in Vietnam.
In May of 1971 two congressmen, Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois, went to Vietnam for an official visit and returned with some extremely disturbing news: 15 percent of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, they said, were actively addicted to heroin.
The idea that so many servicemen were addicted to heroin horrified the public. At that point heroin was the bete noire of American drugs. It was thought to be the most addictive substance ever produced, a narcotic so powerful that once addiction claimed you, it was nearly impossible to escape.
In response to this report, President Richard Nixon took action. In June of 1971 he announced that he was creating a whole new office — The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention — dedicated to fighting the evil of drugs. He laid out a program of prevention and rehabilitation, but there was something else Nixon wanted: He wanted to research what happened to the addicted servicemen once they returned home.
And so Jerome Jaffe, whom Nixon had appointed to run the new office, contacted a well-respected psychiatric researcher named Lee Robins and asked her to help with the study. He promised her unprecedented access to enlisted men in the Army so that she could get the job done.
Soon a comprehensive system was set up so that every enlisted man was tested for heroin addiction before he was allowed to return home. And in this population, Robins did find high rates of addiction: Around 20 percent of the soldiers self-identified as addicts.
Those who were addicted were kept in Vietnam until they dried out. When these soldiers finally did return to their lives back in the U.S., Robins tracked them, collecting data at regular intervals. And this is where the story takes a curious turn: According to her research, the number of soldiers who continued their heroin addiction once they returned to the U.S. was shockingly low.
“I believe the number of people who actually relapsed to heroin use in the first year was about 5 percent,” Jaffe said recently from his suburban Maryland home. In other words, 95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.
This flew in the face of everything everyone knew both about heroin and drug addiction generally. When addicts were treated in the U.S. and returned to their homes, relapse rates hovered around 90 percent. It didn’t make sense.
“Everyone thought there was somehow she was lying, or she did something wrong, or she was politically influenced,” Jaffe says. “She spent months, if not years, trying to defend the integrity of the study.”
But 40 years later, the findings of this study are widely accepted. To explain why, you need to understand how the science of behavior change has itself changed.
According to Wendy Wood, a psychologist at University of Southern California who researches behavior change, throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s scientists believed that if you wanted to change behavior, the key was to change people’s goals and intentions.
“The research was very much focused on trying to understand how to change people’s attitudes,” Wood says, “with the assumption that behavior change would just follow.”
So researchers studied how to organize public health campaigns, or how to use social pressure to change attitudes. And, says David Neal, another psychologist who looks at behavior change, these strategies did work.
Mostly. “They do work for a certain subset of behaviors,” Neal says. “They work for behaviors that people don’t perform too frequently.”
If you want, for example, to increase the number of people who donate blood, a public campaign can work well. But if you want them to quit smoking, campaigns intended to change attitudes are often less effective.
“Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they’ve done it enough, their behavior doesn’t follow their intentions,” Neal explains.
Neal says this has to do with the way that over time, our physical environments come to shape our behavior.
“People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment,” Neal says.
Outsourcing control over your behavior sounds a little funny. But consider what happens when you perform a very basic everyday behavior like getting into a car.
“Of course on one level, that seems like the simplest task possible,” Neal says, “but if you break it down, there’s really a myriad set of complex actions that are performed in sequence to do that.”
You use a certain motion to put your key in the lock. And then physically manipulate your body to get into the seat. There is another set of motions to insert the key in the ignition.
“All of this is actually very complicated and someone who had never driven a car before would have no ability to do that, but it becomes second nature to us,” Neal points out. “[It's] so automatic that we can do it while we are conducting complex other tasks, like having conversations.”
Throughout the process, you haven’t thought for a second about what you are doing, you are just responding to the different parts of the car in the sequence you’ve learned. “And very much of our day goes off in this way,” Wood says. “About 45 percent of what people do every day is in the same environment and is repeated.”
In this way, Neal says, our environments come to unconsciously direct our behavior. Even behaviors that we don’t want, like smoking.
“For a smoker the view of the entrance to their office building — which is a place that they go to smoke all the time — becomes a powerful mental cue to go and perform that behavior,” Neal says.
And over time those cues become so deeply ingrained that they are very hard to resist. And so we smoke at the entrance to work when we don’t want to. We sit on the couch and eat ice cream when we don’t need to, despite our best intentions, despite our resolutions.
“We don’t feel sort of pushed by the environment,” Wood says. “But, in fact, we’re very integrated with it.”
To battle bad behaviors then, one answer, Neal and Wood say, is to disrupt the environment in some way. Even small changes can help — like eating the ice cream with your non-dominant hand. What this does is alter the action sequence and disrupts the learned body sequence that’s driving the behavior, which allows your conscious mind to come back online and reassert control.
“It’s a brief sort of window of opportunity,” Wood says, “to think, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ “
Of course, larger disruption can also be helpful, which brings us back to heroin addiction in Vietnam.
It’s important not to overstate this, because a variety of factors are probably at play. But one big theory about why the rates of heroin relapse were so low on return to the U.S. has to do with the fact that the soldiers, after being treated for their physical addiction in Vietnam, returned to a place radically different from the environment where their addiction took hold of them.
“I think that most people accept that the change in the environment, and the fact that the addiction occurred in this exotic environment, you know, makes it plausible that the addiction rate would be that much lower,” Nixon appointee Jerome Jaffe says.
We think of ourselves as controlling our behavior, willing our actions into being, but it’s not that simple.
It’s as if over time, we leave parts of ourselves all around us, which in turn, come to shape who we are.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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