Over the past 30 years, I’ve spent nearly 25,000 hours counseling angry men, and until about two years ago, my enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If you’ve worked with angry male clients, you can understand why. These men are generally highly reluctant clients, who are often in your office only because they’ve gotten “the ultimatum” from their wives or girlfriends or bosses or sometimes court judges: “Get therapy for your anger or get out / you’re fired / you’ll go to jail.” Many, considered by everyone who knows them to have an “anger problem,” arrive in your office convinced that they don’t have an anger problem: the real problem is their stupid coworkers, annoying girlfriends, demanding spouses, spoiled kids, or unfair probation officers. However, they arrive at your office with a shotgun at their backs, so to speak, and know they have no choice. They hate the entire situation because it makes them feel powerless.
No wonder they feel powerless: they’re being coerced to lay down their anger, the only weapon they’ve ever had against feelings of powerlessness. They often trace their reliance upon anger to a childhood history of danger, trauma, shaming, and pain. Anger is the emotion they can trust, the one that might keep danger at bay. As they grew up, they continued to use anger to make people they regard as dangerous back away. By the time you see them, they regard just about every person in their lives as “dangerous,” including loved ones. These men have become habitually angry. I liken their condition to the default option on a computer: their anger goes on automatically unless they consciously turn it off.
Of course, it isn’t easy to turn off the default option when the way to do so is hidden deep within the machine’s (our brain’s) control panel. Furthermore, men for whom anger is a default emotional response to life’s vicissitudes are often relatively untrained in experiencing and communicating other emotions. For example, one of my clients “went off”–screaming and threatening bodily harm against his father’s doctors–when his father died, to the point the police had to be summoned, because he couldn’t handle his grief. Anger was the only emotion he could call upon in time of need. Not surprisingly, when these men come to therapy, whether as individuals or in couples or groups, they’re frequently defensive, argumentative, passive-aggressive, protective of their right to be angry, and doubtful about my competence to understand or help them in any way.
It’d be misleading to say that my most difficult clients are unmotivated. More accurately, they’re antimotivated, committed to undermining any behavioral programs or specific anger management tactics I offer. Meaningful change takes many repetitions: “Practice, practice, practice” is a hallmark of anger-management training. For example, taking the time to put a problem into perspective (“On a 1-10 point scale, Joe, how important is it for your teenage daughter to get home every night by 8 p.m.?”) works well, but only if the client is motivated enough to practice putting things into proper perspective perhaps as often as several times a day. It stands to reason that trying to argue such men out of their commitment to anger is pointless. I long ago realized I couldn’t beat them in face-to-face combat; they’re better at in-your-face challenges and making contemptuous remarks than I’ll ever be. I needed a tool that allowed me to sidestep their oppositionality and create a therapeutic alliance.
At a deeper level, chronically angry people have become lifelong victims of what’s sometimes called negative neuroplasticity. They’ve unintentionally trained their brains so well, through countless repetitions of undesired behavior (at least, undesired by the rest of the world), that they’re primed to think, feel, and say things that increase their own anger. For example, Joe may well think that if his daughter gets home after 8 p.m. it means she’s probably having sex with some male punk. That kind of thought pattern is automatic.
So now we have two major concerns. First, some of my clients enter treatment antimotivated. Second, their brains have been programmed to react automatically with anger and hostility to a wide variety of situations. What kind of therapeutic intervention can address these issues?
Focusing on the Brain to Increase Motivation
About six years ago, I stumbled across the answer when I attended a session about the brain at the Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. The controversial brain researcher Daniel Amen was just beginning his lecture when he mentioned in passing that he’d been browsing through the books on anger in the sales area. “None of them said anything about the brain,” he noted somewhat dismissively. Now many of those anger books he was trashing were my books, so at first I was defensive. But by the end of the talk, I realized he was right, at least about the books I’d authored. I hadn’t mentioned anything about brain processes for a simple reason: I didn’t know anything about them. That led me to immerse myself in the subject of the brain, and as I did so, my enthusiasm for working with angry clients increased exponentially.
How can learning about the brain–particularly the angry brain and how it got that way–possibly influence clients who have a hard time taking in therapy or sticking with anger-management techniques? Aren’t concepts drawn from brain research simply too abstruse, too abstract, and apparently unrelated to daily life to make much difference to them? In fact, what I’ve found is just the reverse: these men are fascinated by information about how anger develops in the brain and why it’s so hard to control, and they consider it far more relevant to their lives than many standard therapy concepts. Getting to understand a bit of what happens “inside their heads” when they get angry resonates deeply with them. In one way, they can cling to their defensiveness and denial systems, since they certainly can’t be accused of deliberately messing up their minds. Sidestepping their defensiveness and emphasizing their opportunity to do something right that will retrain their brains gives them a positive direction and a possible source for well-earned personal pride. Furthermore, hearing me explain how, by regular, committed behavioral practice of various anger-management techniques, they can literally change their own brain circuits, stimulates both hope that they can change and desire to begin. For the first time in their lives, they feel they might be capable of literally using their own brains tochange their brains. It is a real revelation to many angry men.
My own enthusiasm for brain science and my belief in angry men’s inherent capacity to reorganize their own neural circuitry are probably another key to revving up their motivation to try. My “brain talk” to them isn’t just a lecture about applied neurophysiology, but in truth a kind of triggering mechanism arousing their own curiosity and interest. Clearly, my enthusiasm evokes–in their brains–a mirroring enthusiasm for this process. It may well be that my sheer enthusiasm for this endeavor, my joy and excitement about the brain, triggers left-hemisphere mirror neuronal activity that bypasses right-hemisphere negativity and cynicism.
Devron Johnson is a 40-year-old male who’s been divorced for 10 years, partly because of his anger problems. An intelligent but not highly educated man, he works as a heating and cooling technician. He has two adolescent sons, with whom he barely converses and seldom visits. He’s now in a new relationship with Sheila, a 36-year-old mother of three younger children who live with them. Although Devron has never been physically violent with the children, he often frightens them with his angry outbursts.
This man grew up in a tough part of Detroit, where survival was the name of the game. His parents separated and reconnected several times during his childhood. The family atmosphere was markedly hostile–full of negativity, accusations, and occasional violence. Devron said he hated his father because he was never there for him, not even when he became a star athlete on his high school’s baseball team.
Devron sought therapy because Sheila had threatened to end their relationship unless he became much nicer to her kids. He added that he was also in trouble at work because “I gave the finger to my boss once too often.”
Here’s how Devron described his anger: “Man, I had a bad attitude in school. I beat people up if they looked at me wrong. But I gave that up. I don’t hit nobody anymore. But Sheila says I still have a bad attitude. She says I look for problems with her kids. Then I blow because I have a really short fuse. And I have a hard time letting go of my anger, too. Once I get pissed at someone, they stay my enemy forever.” Still, Devron does want to change. He loves Sheila and even grudgingly admits he likes her children. He doesn’t want to lose them. However, he doubts whether I, or anybody else, can help him. A few years ago, he attended an anger-management program for about 10 weeks, but says, “I didn’t get nothing useful from it.”
Like many angry clients, Devron came to counseling under duress–the “get help, or get out” final call. This isn’t a formula for success, since such clients often arrive for counseling thinking that they’ll more or less passively go through the motions to get the wife/boss/law off their backs, and then they’ll be free to revert to previous behavior. By contrast, Devron was directly skeptical and dismissive–derisive, in fact. Instead of pretending to buy the package, he openly challenged me to prove I had something new to offer. It’s uncomfortable to be sneered at by your client, but I’ve learned to recognize an open challenge as a positive indicator for success. Devron’s disdain was a sign of energy that might be used in counseling, if I could develop an alliance with him.
“Actually, Devron, I do have something to offer you that you probably haven’t run into before,” I told him, “I can help you change your brain.” I proceeded to explain with the enthusiasm and energy I usually feel when talking about the brain that he was actually capable of making fundamental, long-term changes in the way he thinks. “Devron, all it takes is commitment and persistence. I know you’re capable of both of those things because you’ve told me how much you love Sheila and the kids–that’s commitment–and how you’ve stuck it out with them when it would have been easier to walk away–that’s persistence.” I emphasized to him that he’d developed lifelong habits of anger that had become deeply rooted in his brain. But I assured him that he and he alone could make changes in those habits if he so desired. However, I cautioned him that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I said he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months, so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I briefly mentioned such concepts as neuroplasticity and myleinization, but only as a tactical move, to assure him that I did, in fact, know what I was talking about. I told him I didn’t just believe this brain stuff might work, I was absolutely convinced because I’ve seen many other angry people change their brains in just this way, and because I myself had changed my brain to become much more optimistic and generous.
As I spoke, I watched Devron’s “show me” expression change to hope and wonder. “You mean I can really change the way I think?” he asked. It turned out that Devron’s oppositionality obscured a deep sense of pessimism and hopelessness. He’d believed that change was impossible, in effect dooming him to a lifelong anger career. But now, maybe because of my own sense of conviction, he began to see possibilities. We talked a little more before the hour ended, and I asked him to think about how much he wanted to change his brain and in which ways. I also asked him what positive goals he wanted to pursue–for example, what other emotions he might be willing to experience if his brain wasn’t dominated by anger. A positive goal is important with all clients, of course, but especially with angry clients, who often mistakenly set only the negative goal of being less angry. I explained to Devron that only setting a negative goal like quitting being angry was like deciding that a car that currently could only go in reverse would be just fine if you could get it to stay in neutral. The idea is to move forward in life, to get that car moving ahead. Of course this same idea applies to only quitting drinking (instead of leading a sober lifestyle) or stopping being critical (instead of giving praise).
Finally, I cautioned Devron again that real brain change doesn’t come easy. I told him he’d need to make a strong commitment to practice new behavior for at least several months so he could build, improve, and expand new circuitry inside his brain while reducing the power of his negative brain circuits. I then sent him home with two pages of examples of possible brain change plans he could implement. One example was converting criticism and pessimism to praise and optimism. Another was to convert resentment into forgiveness. A third was to look for the good in people (and himself) instead of the bad.
When Devron returned a week later, he said he’d thought a lot about changing his brain and his life. He’d discussed it with Sheila, who’d told him she’d stick around for a while if she saw him really working to change his behavior. Now he was eager to make a six-month commitment to brain change. I then gave him some handouts I’ve created to help him name his brain-change plan. A person with a good brain plan has given it a name that means something at an emotional level, includes specific initial behaviors to maximize the opportunity for immediate success, and at least speculates about longer-term improvements and additions, and how achieving these changes might affect him or her. I also gave Devron the chapter on neuroplastic change from my book to reinforce the idea that changing his brain was realistic, if and only if he’d make a strong commitment to it.
Devron returned the next week in a quandary. He told me that he and Sheila had had a big disagreement about what his brain-change plan should include. She wanted him to be nicer to her children. Devron told me that he wanted to be nicer to them, but that his first concern was quitting thinking so pessimistically about the world. “If I can’t quit thinking that everyone is out to screw me over, I don’t think my changes will last,” he said. I thought Devron had hit upon a clear understanding of how he needed to change at an existential level. Brain-change plans aren’t simple behavioral alterations: they really change your brain, and in doing so, ultimately affect your connections with yourself, those you love, and the universe. So I affirmed Devron’s insight. However, I did point out that his goal and Sheila’s weren’t contradictory. Being nicer to the kids could well become one way that he altered his mindset of hostility and suspiciousness. After all, deeply held beliefs don’t change completely on their own. Devron needed to try out new behavior and receive positive rewards for doing so in order to give his brain the opportunity to be transformed.
I’d like to offer a side comment here. We often expect our angry clients to act as if they were living in a safe world, a world in which people are pleasant, trustworthy, loving, and consistent. This false belief on our part sets clients up to fail. Devron’s siblings, for instance, regularly engaged in felonious behaviors, such as drug dealing and robbery, and expected him to join them as he often had in the past. He told me during therapy that he’d begun declining these invitations. When I asked him if he’d practiced being assertive with them, he laughed. “I guess if telling my brother to go to hell when he attacked me for not going along with some scam he was into, then yes, I was very assertive.” The result of his new “good” behavior was that his family ostracized him for several months. Fortunately though, Sheila and her children were dependably in his corner, so that Devron could practice new, prosocial behavior around them without being criticized or ridiculed.
Devron named his plan “Learning to Trust.” I was tempted to add “and take in love,” but Devron would have labeled that phrase unmanly. When I asked him how he planned to begin this plan, he suggested he could go to his father to see if he could learn to trust the man he most distrusted in the world. Needless to say, this was a palpably rotten idea: in all likelihood, his father would once again have demonstrated his complete untrustworthiness, potentially undermining everything Devron was trying to do. I talked him out of it with some difficulty by pointing out that he was betting his whole stake on one roll of the dice. “Besides, it’s a bad bet,” I said. “You’d be better off investing in a smaller stake, like letting yourself trust Sheila more.” That reminded him of his real priorities.
He decided to open up emotionally a little more to both his family and a few trusted coworkers. For example, he told some of his history to two of his coworkers, the ones he felt most comfortable with, and they responded positively with their own self-disclosures. Then he took a bigger chance by admitting to Sheila that he had cheated on his first wife. Much to his shock, she told him she’d known about it for a long time–his ex-wife had thoughtfully given Sheila that information when she’d begun dating Devron–but she’d chosen not to mention it and trust that he’d be faithful to her.
Shiela’s disclosure and assertion of trust brought him to tears. At that very moment, his brain-change plan spontaneously expanded to include being trustworthy to others. Since Devron had a long history of lying by omission (“Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you that”) this expansion was quite significant. It had proved harder for him than the initial goal because he’d had to retrain himself not to leave out some of the truth “so nobody could pin me down.” He kept expanding from his core commitment to develop trust. He realized along the way that he’d been mean to Sheila’s children because he didn’t want to get close to them and then lose them. But Sheila came through by rewarding his obvious changes with reassurance that she’d stay with him.
I regularly review a client’s brain-change plan with him or her, rather than just assume it’s working fine. It’s important to challenge clients quickly if they’re letting their plan drift.
The final addition to Devron’s plan was learning how to be more empathetic. Devron acknowledged that empathy was strange territory for him: “Frankly, I never gave a damn what anybody else felt.” But now that he felt safer, he could do what safe people do: care about and take a real interest in others. Like many angry people, he has some difficulty being empathic. Empathy partly depends on automatic attunement processes usually learned in infancy through parent–infant synchronic movement. He experienced few such experiences as a child. We talked together about this deficit, a deficit he was determined to challenge. He immediately made a real effort to put himself in the shoes of others. It’s just that he had trouble first taking off his own shoes. For instance, he told his 12-year-old daughter, Amy, who was being teased by classmates, that he knew exactly how she felt, even though he’d been the bully, not the victim, when he’d been in school. But here again, the principles of neuroplasticity apply. Devron realized he’d misunderstood the situation when his daughter got mad at his reply. He then consciously took the time to listen better. Gradually, this behavior was becoming faster, smoother, and more automatic.
Devron’s plan, then, began with developing some basic trust in the world, which led to being trustworthy himself, which morphed into increased empathy and actually caring about others. He quit working with me after approximately nine months. Our last session included Sheila, who affirmed that Devron had become much less angry, more caring, and far more present in their lives. She’d previously doubted his changes would endure, “But he’s only becoming nicer,” she admitted. “I don’t doubt him any longer.” Devron added that he now felt deep inside his soul that he could trust Sheila. He felt safe in a relationship for the first time in his life. “So now I have no reason to be mad all the time.” Of course, he and Sheila still argue from time to time, as do almost all couples. But Devron controls his initial burst of anger far better than before, calms down quicker, and lets go of his anger sooner.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
The following script is from “The Baby Lab” which aired on 60 minutes..Nov. 18, 2012.
It’s a question people have asked for as long as there have been people: are human beings inherently good? Are we born with a sense of morality or do we arrive blank slates, waiting for the world to teach us right from wrong? Or could it be worse: do we start out nasty, selfish devils, who need our parents, teachers, and religions to whip us into shape?
The only way to know for sure, of course, is to ask a baby. But until recently, it’s been hard to persuade them to open up and share their secrets. Enter the baby lab.
This is the creature at the center of the greatest philosophical, moral, and religious debates about the nature of man: the human baby. They don’t do much, can’t talk, can’t write, can’t expound at length about their moral philosophies. But does that mean they don’t have one? The philosopher Rousseau considered babies “perfect idiots…Knowing nothing,” and Yale psychologist Karen Wynn, director of the Infant Cognition Center here, the baby lab, says for most of its history, her field agreed.
Lesley Stahl: Didn’t we just think that these creatures at three months and even six months were basically just little blobs?
Karen Wynn: Oh, sure. I mean, if you look at them, they–
Lesley Stahl: Yeah.
Karen Wynn: They kinda look like little, I mean, cute little blobs. But they can’t do all the things that an older child can. They can’t even do the things that a dog or a pigeon or a rat can.
No pulling levers for treats or running mazes for these study subjects. But they can watch puppet shows. And Wynn is part of a new wave of researchers who have discovered seemingly simple ways to probe what’s really going on in those adorable little heads. We watched as Wynn and her team asked a question that 20 years ago might have gotten her laughed out of her field. Does Wesley here, at the ripe old age of 5 months, know the difference between right and wrong?
Wesley watches as the puppet in the center struggles to open up a box with a toy inside. The puppy in the yellow shirt comes over and lends a hand. Then the scene repeats itself, but this time the puppy in the blue shirt comes and slams the box shut. Nice behavior…mean behavior…at least to our eyes. But is that how a 5-month-old sees it, and does he have a preference?
Annie: Wesley, do you remember these guys from the show?
To find out, a researcher who doesn’t know which puppet was nice and which was mean, offers Wesley a choice.
Annie: Who do you like?
He can’t answer, but he can reach… (reaches for nice puppet)
Annie: That one?
Wesley chose the good guy and he wasn’t alone.
More than three fourths of the babies tested reached for the nice puppet. Wynn tried it out on even younger babies, 3 month olds, who can’t control their arms enough to reach. But they can vote with their eyes, since research has shown that even very young babies look longer at things they like. Daisy here looked at the mean puppet for 5 seconds; then switched to the nice one for 33.
Karen Wynn: Babies, even at three months, looked towards the nice character and looked hardly at all, much, much, much shorter times, towards the unhelpful character.
Lesley Stahl: So basically as young as three months old, we human beings show a preference for nice people over mean people.
Karen Wynn: Study after study after study, the results are always consistently babies feeling positively towards helpful individuals in the world. And disapproving, disliking, maybe condemning individuals who are antisocial towards others.
Lesley Stahl: It’s astonishing.
Wynn and her team first published their findings about baby morality in the journal “Nature” in 2007, and they’ve continued to publish follow-up studies in other peer-reviewed journals ever since — for instance on this experiment.
They showed babies like James here a puppet behaving badly — instead of rolling the ball back to the puppet in the middle, this green-shirted bunny keeps the other puppet’s ball, and runs away.
Then James is shown a second show — this time the bunny who he just saw steal the ball, tries to open up the box to get the toy. Will James still prefer the puppet who helps out? Or will he now prefer the one who slams the box shut?
[Annie: Who do you like? That one.]
He chose the one who slammed it shut, as did 81 percent of babies tested. The study’s conclusion: babies seem to view the ball thief “as deserving punishment.”
Lesley Stahl: So do you think that babies, therefore, are born with an innate sense of justice?
Karen Wynn: At a very elemental level, I think so.
Paul Bloom: We think we see here the foundations for morality.
Paul Bloom is also a professor of psychology at Yale, with his own lab. He’s collaborated with Wynn on many of her baby studies, and he also happens to be her husband.
Paul Bloom: I feel we’re making discoveries. I feel like we’re– we’re discovering that what seems to be one way really isn’t. What seems to be an ignorant and unknowing baby is actually a creature with this alarming sophistication, this subtle knowledge.
And he says discovering this in babies who can’t walk, talk, or even crawl yet, suggests it has to come built in.
Lesley Stahl: So, remember B.F. Skinner, who said that we had to teach our children everything through conditioning. So, does this just wipe him off the map?
Paul Bloom: What we’re finding in the baby lab, is that there’s more to it than that — that there’s a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature.
Wait a minute, if babies are born with a basic sense of right and wrong, a universal moral core, where does all the evil in the world come from? Is that all learned? Well maybe not. Take a look at this new series of discoveries in the Yale baby lab…
[Annie: Would you like a snack?]
In offering babies this seemingly small, innocuous choice — graham crackers or Cheerios — Wynn is probing something big: the origins of bias. The tendency to prefer others who are similar to ourselves.
Karen Wynn: Adults will like others who share even really absolutely trivial similarities with them.
So will Nate, who chose Cheerios over graham crackers, prefer this orange cat, who also likes Cheerios — over the grey cat who likes graham crackers instead?
Apparently so. But if babies have positive feelings for the similar puppet, do they actually have negative feelings for the one who’s different? To find out, Wynn showed babies the grey cat — the one who liked the opposite food, struggling to open up the box to get a toy. Will Gregory here want to see the graham cracker eater treated well? Or does he want him treated badly?
[Annie: Which one do you like? That one.]
Gregory seemed to want the different puppet treated badly.
Lesley Stahl: That is amazing. So he went with his bias in a way.
And so did Nate and 87 percent of the other babies tested. From this Wynn concludes that infants prefer those “who harm… others” who are unlike them.
Paul Bloom: What could be more arbitrary than whether you like graham crackers or Cheerios?
Lesley Stahl: Nothing.
Paul Bloom: Nothing. But it matters. It matters to the young baby. We are predisposed to break the world up into different human groups based on the most subtle and seemingly irrelevant cues, and that, to some extent, is the dark side of morality.
Lesley Stahl: We want the other to be punished?
Karen Wynn: In our studies, babies seem as if they do want the other to be punished.
Lesley Stahl: We used to think that we’re taught to hate. I think there was a song like that. This is suggesting that we’re not taught to hate, we’re born to hate.
Karen Wynn: I think, we are built to, you know, at the drop of a hat, create us and them.
Paul Bloom: And that’s why we’re not that moral. We have an initial moral sense that is in some ways very impressive, and in some ways, really depressing — that we see some of the worst biases in adults reflected in the minds and in the behaviors of young babies.
But Bloom says understanding our earliest instincts can help…
Paul Bloom: If you want to eradicate racism, for instance, you really are going to want to know to what extent are babies little bigots, to what extent is racism a natural part of humanity.
Lesley Stahl: Sounds to me like the experiment show they are little bigots.
Paul Bloom: I think to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. It’s what one would expect from a creature like us who evolved from natural selection, but it has terrible consequences.
He says it makes sense that evolution would predispose us to be wary of “the other” for survival, so we need society and parental nurturing to intervene. He showed us one last series of experiments being done in his lab — not with babies, but with older children of different ages. The kids get to decide how many tokens they’ll get, versus how many will go to another child they’re told will come in later. They’re told the tokens can be traded in for prizes.
[Mark: So you can say green, and if you say green, then you get this one and the other girl doesn't get any; or you can say blue, and if you say blue, then you get these two, and the other girl gets these two. So green or--
The youngest kids in the study will routinely choose to get fewer prizes for themselves just to get more than the other kid –
[Ainsley: I'll pick green.]
– in some cases, a lot more.
Paul Bloom: The youngest children in the studies are obsessed with social comparison.
[Mark: So you get these seven. She doesn't get any.
Paul Bloom: They don’t care about fairness. What they want is they want relatively more.
But a funny thing happens as kids get older. Around age 8, they start choosing the equal, fair option more and more. And by 9 or 10, we saw kids doing something really crazy –
– deliberately giving the other kid more.
Mark: Green or blue?
They become generous. Chalk one up to society.
Lesley Stahl: They’ve already been educated?
Paul Bloom: They’ve been educated, they’ve been inculturated, they have their heads stuffed full of the virtues that we might want to have their heads stuffed with.
So we can learn to temper some of those nasty tendencies we’re wired for — the selfishness, the bias — but he says the instinct is still there.
Paul Bloom: When we have these findings with the kids, the kids who choose this and not this, the kids in the baby studies who favor the one who is similar to them, the same taste and everything– none of this goes away. I think as adults we can always see these and kind of nod.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah. It’s still in us. We’re fighting it.
Paul Bloom: And the truth is, when we’re under pressure, when life is difficult, we regress to our younger selves and all of this elaborate stuff we have on top disappears.
But of course adversity can bring out the best in us too — heroism, selfless sacrifice for strangers — all of which may have its roots right here.
Paul Bloom: Great kindness, great altruism, a magnificent sense of impartial justice, have their seeds in the baby’s mind. Both aspects of us, the good and the bad are the product I think of biological evolution.
And so it seems we’re left where we all began: with a mix of altruism, selfishness, justice, bigotry, kindness. A lot more than any of us expected to discover in a blob.
Lesley Stahl: Well, I end my conversation with you with far more respect for babies. Who knew?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Six years ago, we told you about a woman, identified as A.J., who could remember the details of nearly every day of her life. At the time, researchers thought she was unique. But since then, a handful of such individuals have been identified. And now, researchers are trying to understand how their extraordinary memories work.
Bob Petrella, 62, of Los Angeles had to go through a lot of memory testing to qualify as someone with superior autobiographical memory. First, there were lots of questions about news events from the past several decades, like the O.J. Simpson car chase.
Petrella scored 55 percent correct on the news events, according to a paper published in July in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. (Most people get 15 percent.) Then he was quizzed about his own life.
“They asked, ‘What day of the week was Jan. 1, 1984?’ — which was a Sunday,” Petrella recalls. “And the Steelers, my favorite team, lost to the Raiders that day, 38-10.”
Petrella is one of 11 individuals who have now been extensively studied by memory researcher James McGaugh at the University of California, Irvine. The testing has shown that Petrella and the others like him don’t use memory tricks.
They don’t have photographic memories. They’re not savants. Other than their remarkable memories, they’re normal, says McGaugh.
“They’re reasonably successful in what they do. There is a professional violinist; there is Marilu Henner, who is a successful actress … and so on,” McGaugh says.
Surprisingly, Petrella and the group didn’t do any better than you or I would on most standard memory tests — like repeating back lists of words, or a string of numbers. It’s their autobiographical memory that’s exceptional. Other types of memory are pretty much normal.
“People like us, we forget normal things. Like, I forgot where I parked my car a couple of months ago coming out of a theater. Or I forget where I left my keys,” he says.
The researchers have identified another surprising set of behaviors that these individuals share.
Here are a few questions from the preliminary screening for people with extraordinary memories. Subjects are given either a date and asked to give the event, or an event and asked to give the date.
- May 25, 1977. Answer: Star Wars opened, a Wednesday.
- Death of Anna Nicole Smith. Answer: Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007.
- July 29, 1981. Answer: Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married, a Wednesday.
“Most, if not all of them, have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies,” says Petrella. “They tend to save a lot of objects. They tend to have some repetitive habits. They tend to store things.”
Take Petrella, for example.
“He’s germ-avoidant. If he drops his keys, he has to wash them. He can’t wear shoes that have shoestrings, because shoestrings touch the ground,” McGaugh says.
But the obsessive tendencies don’t seem to interfere with daily living, McGaugh says. It’s a tantalizing clue, especially when coupled with the MRI findings that a brain area known to be involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is larger than normal in these folks.
This brain area, called the caudate, may be related to having the constant, repetitive and precise replay of past events. The brain scans also revealed other differences in brain structure.
“What we’ve identified are nine regions of the brains of these subjects that differ from those of control subjects,” he said.
Many of these regions are involved in memory encoding and retrieval. McGaugh hopes further research on these individuals will reveal how their phenomenal memories work, and perhaps how ordinary memory works as well.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Though post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with war veterans, many sufferers have yet to finish high school.
According to the National Survey of Adolescents, about 4 percent of teenage boys and 6 percent of teenage girls meet the clinical definition of PTSD.
But adolescents can be hard to diagnose.
The night Stephanie Romero turned 23, she and a friend were attacked by a stranger.
“My friend went outside to have a cigarette, and there was this guy — he came out; he was harassing us,” she says.
The man hit her and her friend, leaving Romero shocked.
“It was just a total nightmare,” she says. “I think about it all the time. I’ve never gone through anything like that.”
After the attack, Romero’s friends and family noticed she was acting differently. She didn’t go out as often. Her weight started changing. She was really depressed. Later, doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was like, PTSD? I thought it was just for veterans,” Romero says. “But I found out it’s not; it’s for anyone who’s experienced an event where you keep thinking about it and it takes over your life.”
I can relate. When I was 15, my mom was murdered. I tried everything I could to deal with my feelings, including writing songs.
But still, something was different about me. I noticed that I didn’t feel like my normal self anymore, not only mentally, but physically. I was losing weight, and my hair was falling out.
“That’s a pretty clear symptom that things aren’t going well,” says Jamal Harris, a pediatrician at a community health center in San Francisco. Harris says he sees teens with PTSD at his clinic all the time, and that many of them have physical symptoms related to their stress.
“Some examples in teens would be problems sleeping, weight gain, and just being frustrated,” Harris says.
It turns out a lot of those changes are due to hormones your body makes in response to stress. This can be a good thing. For example, if a car comes at you all of a sudden while you’re crossing the street, your body produces a chemical called cortisol, which helps you react fast enough to move before the car hits you.
But for people with PTSD, such as Stephanie Romero and me, it doesn’t take a speeding car to set us off.
In a lab at Stanford University, scientists are using a technology called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, to study the emotional reactions of patients with PTSD.
“So we know, for example, when they’re faced with a reminder of their trauma, they don’t activate the circuitry we normally associate with emotional regulation, the ability to be resilient in an automatic effortless fashion,” says Dr. Amit Etkin, the project’s lead researcher.
He says cortisol — that’s the same stress hormone that causes physical changes in the body — may also be responsible for the changes in the brain.
“Over time, elevated cortisol can cause death of neurons in the brain, the kind that don’t get replaced,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean PTSD can’t be treated. Scientists know talk therapy can be helpful. Etkin wants to understand how that kind of therapy might be repairing emotional connections in the brain. And he’s recruiting volunteers.
Stephanie Romero is one of the research subjects participating in the study. Ten months after her attack, she’s still having trouble feeling safe.
“It’s always in the back of my head. Like, you just never know your life could change in the blink of an eye,” she says. “One minute you could be celebrating your birthday, and the next you’re in the hospital and you don’t know how you ended up there.
In a room on the other side of a huge glass window, Romero lies in an fMRI machine, which looks like a big tube with a small hollow center. A monitor shows different angles of her brain.
“A lot of what we look at with emotion is focused on certain regions of the brain. One of them is the amygdala, which is really important not only for guiding your attention and focus on a threat stimulus, but also for affecting your body,” he says. “But somebody with PTSD doesn’t activate that circuitry well.”
Etkin asks Romero several questions to help him identify which specific parts of the brain are affected by PTSD, and how she feels throughout the experiment.
“Does she feel in her body at the moment, or is she feeling, like many PTSD patients report, feeling a little out of body, or detached, or unreal?” he asks.
I can relate to that unreal feeling. It started to hit me right there in the lab. Etkin hopes by understanding how that feeling plays out inside the brain, scientists will be able to come up with more effective ways of treating this disorder, whether it’s through singing, talking, neuroscience, or all of the above.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When David Eagleman was 8 years old, he went exploring. He found a house under construction — prime territory for an adventurous kid — and he climbed on the roof to check out the view. But what looked like the edge of the roof was just tar paper, and — you can feel it coming — when David stepped on it, he fell.
Whoosh … Thud.
David was fine. But between whoosh and the thud, something odd happened. As David remembers it, he noticed every detail of his surroundings: the edge of the roof moving past him, the red bricks below moving toward him. He even did a little literary analysis: “I was thinking about Alice in Wonderland, how this must be what it was like for her, when she fell down the rabbit hole.”
All of that happened in just 0.86 seconds. David knows that now because he has calculated how long it takes to fall 12 feet. David Eagleman is now Dr. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, and one of his specialties is exploring how our brains perceive and understand time.
Several years ago, motivated in part by his childhood plunge, David started studying the way our sense of time distorts in crisis situations. He has gathered a huge number of stories from people who have survived falls, car crashes, bike accidents, etc. Everyone, he says, seems to say the same thing: “It felt like the world was moving in slow motion.”
But what is really going on? David started to think that maybe, in a crisis, the brain goes into a sort of turbo mode, processing everything at higher-than-normal-speed. If the brain were to speed up, he thought, the world would appear to slow down. This would work just like a slow-motion movie; in a slow-mo shot of a hummingbird, for example, you can see each individual wing movement in what would otherwise be just a blur.
Taking The Plunge
So David decided to craft an experiment to study this “slow-motion effect” in action. But to do that, he had to make people fear for their lives — without actually putting them in danger. His first attempt involved a field trip to Six Flags AstroWorld, an amusement park in Houston, Texas. He used his students as his subjects. “We went on all of the scariest roller coasters, and we brought all of our equipment and our stopwatches, and had a great time,” David says. “But it turns out nothing there was scary enough to induce this fear for your life that appears to be required for the slow-motion effect.”
But, after a little searching, David discovered something called SCAD diving. (SCAD stands for Suspended Catch Air Device.) It’s like bungee jumping without the bungee. Imagine being dangled by a cable about 150 feet off the ground, facing up to the sky. Then, with a little metallic click, the cable is released and you plummet backward through the air, landing in a net (hopefully) about 3 seconds later.
SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.
The Time Blur
The falling experience was, just as David had hoped, enough to freak out all of his subjects. “We asked everyone how scary it was, on a scale from 1 to 10,” he reports, “and everyone said 10.” And all of the subjects reported a slow-motion effect while falling: they consistently over-estimated the time it took to fall. The numbers on the perceptual chronometer? They remained an unreadable blur.
“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”
According to David, it’s all about memory, not turbo perception. “Normally, our memories are like sieves,” he says. “We’re not writing down most of what’s passing through our system.” Think about walking down a crowded street: You see a lot of faces, street signs, all kinds of stimuli. Most of this, though, never becomes a part of your memory. But if a car suddenly swerves and heads straight for you, your memory shifts gears. Now it’s writing down everything — every cloud, every piece of dirt, every little fleeting thought, anything that might be useful.
Because of this, David believes, you accumulate a tremendous amount of memory in an unusually short amount of time. The slow-motion effect may be your brain’s way of making sense of all this extra information. “When you read that back out,” David says, “the experience feels like it must have taken a very long time.” But really, in a crisis situation, you’re getting a peek into all the pictures and smells and thoughts that usually just pass through your brain and float away, forgotten forever.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The following are sample questions that can be used to generate discussion about a traumatic event:
I. Fact Questions
- How did you first learn of the incident?
- Where were you when the incident occurred?
- What did you see?
- In what way were you involved in the incident?
- Who told you about the incident?
- What were you doing at the time of the incident?
II. Thought Questions
- What was your first thought when you learned, saw, heard, about the incident?
- What were you thinking when the incident was occurring?
- What did you say to yourself?
- What have you been thinking/saying to yourself since the incident happened?
- What thoughts keep coming back to you?
III. Reaction Questions
- What is the worst part of this incident for you?
- Which part of this would you most like to change?
- What about the incident makes this such a difficult situation to handle?
- What are you having the most difficulty handling?
- What is the strongest reaction that you are experiencing?
IV. Symptom Questions
- What, if any, physical symptoms have you experienced?
- Has anyone experienced sleep disturbance?
- Has anyone’s appetite been affected?
- What “out of the ordinary” physical symptoms are you experiencing?
- What is your body telling you about this incident?
V. Relationship Questions
- How has this incident affected the people closest to you?
- What have others said or done that upset you?
- What have others said or done that has been helpful to you?
- Has it been helpful to talk to others about what has happened?
- Do you have people that you can speak to about the incident?
VI. Recovery Questions
- What are you doing to manage the stress that you are feeling?
- What are you doing to cope with the incident?
- What are you doing that’s working for you?
- What are you doing that’s not working for you?
- If someone else were in your situation, what would you advise them to do?
- What are you going to do to take care of yourself?
- What things have you done in the past that helped get you through a stressful event/period?
- What things do you have planned in the next several days that will help you in dealing with this stressful situation?
The brain makes, organizes, and controls memory. The brain, like memory operates on hormonal chemicals. These chemicals produce emotional responses in the brain and body. Just like a certain combination of flour, sugar, butter, and other ingredients can combine and produce a cake, these chemicals combine in your brain to produce certain physical reactions and emotional responses.Just like an automobile contains various fluids (brake, window washer, transmission, oil, anti-freeze, etc.), the brain operates on chemicals known as “neurotransmitters”. The levels of these hormonal chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain create your mood. Emotional memories contain instructions for the brain to use these neurotransmitter ingredients to produce the mood. Like the oil in your automobile, neurotransmitters have a normal level in the brain and can be “low” or “high” depending upon certain situations.
Suppose your boss said to you, ‘I think you’re one of worst people I’ve ever seen … but I’m just joking, so don’t take it personally’. Even with your boss telling you that it’s not sincere, there’s nothing to keep you from blushing or from feeling tense all over. And I dare say that you’re gonna remember you boss having said that long after you’ve forgotten the other details of the rest of your discussion. I guarantee it. That’s why you remember important and emotional events in your life more than regular day-to-day experiences. First, you have a horribly or unexpected event, and then you have intense fear and helplessness. That intense fear and helplessness is gonna stimulate norepinephrine, the brain chemical associated with the fight or flight reaction. You are hard wired to secrete norepinephrine when you face stress, which makes your memories of that stressful event stronger. The detection of stress hormones triggered by an insult or a traffic accident, tells the brain that this is a memory of great importance.
It turns out your memory is sort of like Jell-O, it takes time to solidify a memory in your brain. And while its setting, you can make that memory stronger or weaker. It all depends on the stress hormone norepinephrine. Norepinephrine actually makes your brain remember better. Now you needn’t have been traumatized to understand the powerful effect that emotions can have on the formation of memory. In fact, it has been known for a while that norepinephrine, the hormone released during stress and anxiety, enhances memory. This explains why emotional arousal has such a powerful influence on how well you remember things. An event becomes a strong memory, or a traumatic memory, when emotions are high. Here are sme other hormones that alter mood:
Serotonin: Perhaps the most actively researched neurotransmitter at this time, serotonin is known to be related to depression, headaches, sleep problems, and many mental health concerns. When serotonin is low in the brain system – depression and other mental health problems are produced. A chronic low level of serotonin, as when experiencing long-term severe stress, produces strong depression. Low serotonin is also associated with bulimia, a severe eating disorder, where the body craves sweets and carbohydrates in a desperate effort to raise serotonin levels. Antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, work by increasing serotonin in the brain. As your Serotonin level changes, your mood changes.
The neurotransmitter serotonin, which acts as a chemical messenger between nerve cells, plays a critical role in regulating emotions such as aggression during social decision-making. Serotonin has long been associated with emotion, with low levels of serotonin being associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, Though many scientists have hypothesized a link between serotonin and impulsivity, researchers have just begun to understand its precise involvement in aggression.
A recent study highlighted why some of us may become combative or aggressive when we have not eaten. They found that the essential amino acid necessary for the body to create serotonin can only be obtained through eating and our serotonin levels naturally decline when we don’t eat. This research builds on the discovery that the human brain responds to being treated fairly the same way it responds to winning money and eating chocolate; being treated fairly turns on the brain’s reward circuitry. In this study, scientists reported that people with low serotonin levels were found to be more sensitive to being treated unfairly.
Dopamine: Abnormally high levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain produce paranoia, excitement, hallucinations, and disordered thought (schizophrenia). Abnormally low levels produce motor or movement disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease.
Dopamine, a chemical with a key role in setting people’s moods, could have a much wider-ranging impact on their everyday lives, research suggests. Experiments show that altering levels of the chemical in the brain influences the decisions people make. The results show the relative importance of “gut feeling” over analytical decision making. Previous research using brain imaging techniques, have detected a signal in the brain linked to how much someone enjoyed an experience. Scientists found that signal could in turn predict the choices a person made.
With the suspicion that the signal was dopamine, the researchers set up a study to test how people make complex decisions when their dopamine system has been tampered with. The participants were given a list of 80 holiday destinations, from Greece to Thailand, and asked to rate them on a scale of one to six. They were then given a sugar pill and asked to imagine themselves in each of the destinations.
Researchers then administered L-Dopa, a drug used in Parkinson’s disease to increase dopamine concentrations in the brain, before asking them to imagine the other holidays. They rated all the destinations again, and a day later they were asked where they would prefer to go, out of paired lists of holidays. The extra dopamine gave people higher expectations when rating holiday options. And that translated into the choice of trip they made a day later.
This study reinforces the notion that dopamine plays an important part in the complex decisions humans such as what job to take and whether to start a family. The results indicate that when we consider alternative options when making real-life decisions, dopamine has a role in signalling the expected pleasure from those possible future events. We then use that signal to make our choices. This is important because we frequently overestimate the pleasure we would gain from something, because our dopamine system is influencing our assessments pof risks and rewards.
Norepinephrine: Related to worry, high levels of norepinephrine in the brain produce strong physical-anxiety manifestations such as trembling, restlessness, smothering sensations, dry mouth, palpitations, dizziness, flushes, frequent urination, and problems with concentration. A “panic attack” is actually a sudden surge of norepinephrine in the brain.
Endorphins: These substances kill pain and produce a feeling of well-being. In marathon runners, these substances are responsible for the “runner’s high”. It is also produced during anxiety as restlessness, such as a sudden need to rearrange furniture, go dancing, or clean house.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When it comes to disorders of the mind, our society has a tendency to seek out the safety of clear-cut categories. We want there to be a bright line separating normal from abnormal, health from sickness.
Alas, the human brain is a category buster, an organ so complicated that it continues to surprise and confound.
Consider autism. In recent years, autism has received an increasing amount of attention, largely because of a dramatic increase in its incidence. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, which include “classic” autism as well as Asperger syndrome.
These diagnoses are often based on observed deficits in social interaction, such as a lack of eye contact or verbal conversation. Temple Grandin, a noted autistic doctor, describes the experience of spending time with nonautistics as akin to being “an anthropologist on Mars.”
Because of these obvious shortcomings—humans are supposed to be social animals, after all—most people regard autism as a disease, a straightforward example of an impaired mind. But there’s compelling evidence that autism is not merely a list of deficits. Rather, it represents an alternate way of making sense of the world, a cognitive difference that, in many instances, comes with unexpected benefits.
That’s the lesson, at least, of a new study from the lab of Nilli Lavie at University College London. A few dozen adults, both with and without autism, were given a difficult perceptual task, in which they had to keep track of letters quickly flashed on a computer screen. At the same time, they also had to watch out for a small gray shape that occasionally appeared on the edge of the monitor.
When only a few letters appeared on the screen, both autistic and normal subjects could handle the task. However, when the number of letters was increased, subjects without autism—so-called neurotypicals—could no longer keep up. They were overwhelmed by the surplus of information.
Those adults with autism didn’t have this problem. Even when the task became maddeningly difficult, their performance never flagged.
What explains this result? According to the scientists, autism confers a perceptual edge, allowing people with the disorder to process more information in a short amount of time. While scientists have long assumed that autistics are more vulnerable to distraction—an errant sound or conversation can steal their attention—that’s not the case. As Prof. Lavie notes, “Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information-processing advantage.”
These perceptual perks have real-world benefits. The scientists argue, for instance, that the ability to process vast amounts of data helps to explain the prevalence of savant-like talents among autistic subjects. Some savants perform difficult mathematical calculations in their head, others draw exquisitely detailed pictures at a young age. These skills have long remained a mystery, but they appear to be rooted in a distinct cognitive style shared by all autistics. Because they can process details that elude the rest of us, they can perform tasks that seem impossible, at least for the normal mind.
The same logic applies to many supposed mental disabilities. In recent years, scientists have demonstrated that people with attention-deficit disorders typically demonstrate higher levels of creative achievement in the real world, such as publishing fiction or winning prizes at science fairs.
Those with dyslexia, meanwhile, are often better at peripheral perception and quickly grasping the gist of a scene, showing superior performance on a variety of visual tasks. This might explain the high number of artists and designers with the condition.
The larger lesson is that, according to the latest research, these “deficits” are actually trade-offs. What seems, at first glance, like a straightforward liability turns out to be a complex mixture of blessings and burdens.
For too long, we’ve assumed that there is a single template for human nature, which is why we diagnose most deviations as disorders. But the reality is that there are many different kinds of minds. And that’s a very good thing.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We assume children don’t remember much, because we don’t remember much about being children. As far as I can tell, I didn’t exist before the age of 5 or so—which is how old I am in my earliest memory, wandering around the Madison, Wis. farmers market in search of cream puffs. But developmental research now tells us that Isaiah’s memory isn’t extraordinary. It’s ordinary. Children remember.
Up until the 1980s, almost no one would have believed that Isaiah still remembers Iris. It was thought that babies and young toddlers lived in a perpetual present: All that existed was the world in front of them at that moment. When Jean Piaget conducted his famous experiments on object permanence—in which once an object was covered up, the baby seemed to forget about it—Piaget concluded that the baby had been unable to store the memory of the object: out of sight, out of mind.
The paradigm of the perpetual present has now itself been forgotten. Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.
The conventional wisdom for older children has been overturned, too. Once, children Isaiah’s age were believed to have memories of the past but nearly no way to organize those memories. According to Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory who studies early memory, the general consensus was that a 3-year-old child’s memory was a jumble of disorganized information, like your email inbox without any sorting function: “You can’t sort them by name, you can’t sort them by date, it’s just all your email messages.”
By those standards, Isaiah is a wizard of memory—the Joshua Foer of the preschool set. But it turns out that all children are Joshua Foer: Even very young children have bewilderingly good memories. Twenty years ago, a study on memories of Walt Disney World—the ne plus ultra memorable experience—surprised everyone involved: Children who’d been at Disney when they were only 3 years old could recount detailed memories of it 18 months later. Evidence has piled up ever since. A just-published paper on long-term recall found that a 27-month-old child who’d seen a “magic shrinking machine” remembered the experience some six years later.
Far from having no memories at all, very young children remember a lot like adults. In early infancy, the neural structures crucial for memory are coming online: the hippocampus, which is, very roughly, in charge of storing new memories; and the prefrontal cortex, which is, very roughly, in charge of retrieving those memories.
But these neural regions and their connecting pathways are still developing. And they capture only part of the present as it flows by.
Think of memory as like orzo, Bauer says. “It’s not like one big piece of lasagna noodle. Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.” Adults have a fine-mesh net to catch the orzo. Babies have a big-holed colander: The orzo slips through. “What’s happening with the baby is that a lot of the information is escaping even as the baby is trying to get it organized and stabilized.” In early infancy, a lot of experiences never become memories—they slip away before they can be preserved.
Babies remember far more than anyone thought, in other words, but far less than any adult. It’s only around 24 months that children seem to get better colanders: They get better at catching the orzo—at organizing and processing information in a way that makes a memory out of an experience.
The past gets stickier, too: Memories no longer slip away after a couple of months. Children a few months under 2 retain memories of experiences a year earlier—half their lifetime ago. But they won’t retain those memories into adulthood: No one remembers their second birthday party. For a few reasons—nascent neural structures, the lack of knowledge to make sense of early experiences, the lack of language to represent those experiences—it may be impossible for any part of our lives before, say, 24 months to stick around into adulthood. The average earliest memory—fragmented and lonely, but real—doesn’t date until around 3½ years of age.
What makes that first memory stick into adulthood? This is where the new science of early memory takes an unexpected turn: Once memories start to stick, how long they stick around for may be less of a neural question than a social question. It may have less to do with the child than with the adults.
Psychologists have spent a lot of time listening to how parents talk to their children, specifically how parents negotiate the very stubborn truth of parenthood that children aren’t any good at talking back. Kids can’t keep up their end of the conversation. When discussing the past, parents get around this problem in a couple of different ways. They might ask specific, repetitive questions about past events. Or they might narrate the past in a detailed, elaborate way, asking the child questions and then incorporating their answers into the narrative, a style that researchers call “highly elaborative.”
It turns out that children of highly elaborative mothers tend to have earlier and richer memories. A study of adolescents whose mothers were highly elaborative during their preschool years found they had far earlier first memories than those whose mothers weren’t. Conversational style matters, because when children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event. And when parents scaffold their children’s stories—when they essentially tell the stories for their children, as a highly elaborative parent of a very young child would—they are reinforcing those same connections.
The word story is important here. Children are learning how to organize memories in a narrative, and in doing so, they are learning the genre of memory. “As children learn those forms, their memories become more organized,” says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory who studies memory and narrative. “And more organized memories are better retained over time.”
Conversational style may also explain why women tend to have earlier first memories than men. Girls typically have different and more elaborative interactions in early childhood than boys do. “Mothers are more likely to be highly elaborative when talking about the past, and particularly when talking about highly emotional events in the past, and they’re more likely to do it with their girls than with their boys,” Fivush says.
As an intervention, in at least in the short-term, training parents to talk about the past in a highly elaborative way seems to be highly successful: Children begin to tell stories—to process their experience—in richer, more detailed ways. (There’s also good evidence that that these skills correlate with literacy.) The Maori in New Zealand have the earliest average first memory of any culture—2½ years of age—and talk to their children in a highly elaborative way about their shared past. I’d thought of memory as essentially neural. But at a certain point, it may be as much cultural.
By pretending to be Iris, by acting out stories from Isaiah’s past, I was, without knowing it, teaching my son how, and why, we remember. In the long term, this is pretty fantastic. In the short term, it is pretty profoundly stupid: I was sentencing myself to spend more time pretending to be Iris. “Children learn the skills that are both practiced and valued in their environment,” Fivush says. “Kids who grow up in homes where you talk about the past all the time, in these more elaborative ways, grow up with better memories.”
But despite myself, I’m prematurely nostalgic for childhood amnesia; in your most unhappy hour of parenting an infant, its absoluteness is a get-out-of-jail-free card. You can console yourself with the thought, He will not remember this. (At 3 a.m., though, your thinking is often more like, He won’t even remember this! The ingrate!) Isaiah is now at the age when he might remember, for the rest of his life, something that happens—something that I do—right now.
It’s wonderful and terrifying in equal measure.
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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