Saturday, September 16, 2017

How Childhood Family Relationships Impact Health Over Time

An article in the American Psychologist summarizes various studies that look at childhood family relationships and health. Key findings noted in the article are included here.

Studies suggest that where high levels of family conflict threaten children’s feelings of emotional security, children may develop difficulties regulating their emotions, including the development of hostility and mistrust which manifest behaviorally as aggressive actions. As these childhood interactions recur, children begin to create more pervasive interactional styles or ways of responding that get perpetuated into adulthood, and affect not only how they interact with their parents but also interactions with peers and romantic partners.

Biologically, exposure to negative parenting, family conflict, and parent psychopathology are all associated with short-term changes in the release of the hormone cortisol. Over time, the chronic activation of the stress response and release of cortisol results in allostatic load, the cumulative wear-and tear on the body that puts us at risk for cardiovascular disease and many other diseases and illnesses.

A second model—the biological embedding model—proposes that stress that occurs at specific points during development (such as early in childhood) can calibrate how physiological systems operate going forward in time. Stressors experienced early in life may program how certain cells of the immune system function and respond to threats, and this type of programming of biological systems may remain in place even if the stressor ends. Thus when a child experiences adversity early in life, their monocytes and macrophages (types of white blood cells) become calibrated to respond to future threats with a heightened proinflammatory response.

Over a lifetime, this proinflammatory response results in a persistent state of low-grade inflammation that drives forward both disease mechanisms such as atherosclerosis, eventually contributing to the development of cardiovascular disease and allostatic load.

In addition to inflammatory pathways, early life adversity may have effects on the activity of hormonal systems that regulate organs and tissues in the body. For example, the hormone cortisol (released by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) is an important regulator of monocytes and macrophages, and at high doses conveys antiinflammatory signals to these cells. However, upon repeated exposure to stress, these cells become less sensitive to cortisol signaling, which in turn allows chronic inflammatory states to persist. Cortisol also has effects on other biological systems that have implications for health, including the cardiovascular, metabolic, and neural systems.

Similarly, the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (released by the sympathetic nervous system as part of the fight-or-flight response to threats) are known to upregulate the expression of proinflammatory genes in monocytes and macrophages. These hormones also have direct effects on cardiovascular, pulmonary, and other systems relevant to health.

Another biological hypothesis is that stressors experienced early in life “weather” individuals’ physiological systems, resulting in a premature aging of cells, and eventually leading to a shortened life expectancy.


Childhood Close Family Relationships and Health

Yoga and mindfulness meditation improve brain function and energy levels

A study from the University of Waterloo found that practicing just 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation per day can boost the brain's executive functions, cognitive abilities linked to goal-directed behavior and the ability to control knee-jerk emotional responses, habitual thinking patterns and actions. 

"Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain's conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information," said Peter Hall, associate professor in the School of Public Health & Health Systems. "These two functions might have some positive carryover effect in the near- term following the session, such that people are able to focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life."

Thirty-one study participants completed 25 minutes of Hatha yoga, 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and 25 minutes of quiet reading (a control task) in randomized order. Following both the yoga and meditation activities, participants performed significantly better on executive function tasks compared to the reading task. "This finding suggests that there may be something special about meditation -- as opposed to the physical posing -- that carries a lot of the cognitive benefits of yoga," said Kimberley Luu, lead author on the paper. The study also found that mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga were both effective for improving energy levels, but Hatha yoga had significantly more powerful effects than meditation alone.

"There are a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance," said Luu. "These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. 

Hatha yoga is one of the most common styles of yoga practiced in Western countries. It involves physical postures and breathing exercises combined with meditation. Mindfulness mediation involves observing thoughts, emotions and body sensations with openness and acceptance. "Although the meditative aspect might be even more important than the physical posing for improving executive functions, there are additional benefits to Hatha yoga including improvements in flexibility and strength," said Hall. "These benefits may make Hatha yoga superior to meditation alone, in terms of overall health benefits."

Kimberley Luu, Peter A. Hall. Examining the Acute Effects of Hatha Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation on Executive Function and MoodMindfulness, 2016; 8 (4): 873 DOI: 10.1007/s12671-016-0661-2

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday, September 29, 2012

How shared physical activity helps you connect and influence

In this month's Psychology Today, Matt Huston mentions a couple of interesting pieces of research that show how shared physical activity binds us together.

Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California found that students were twice as likely to acquiesce to a confederate's unethical suggestion if they had previously worked together to move plastic cups in a synchronized sequence.

In an earlier study, students who sang "O Canada" in unison before playing an economics game were more likely to make decisions for collective rather than individual gain.

Spouses who commute to work in the same direction are more satisfied with their marriages, regardless of whether they actually travel together, reports a study by Xun Huang in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Even newly acquainted duos like each other more when they are told to walk to a task in the same direction.

Think of the possibilities. International leaders trying to reach consensus, managers looking to gel and motivate teams, even parents getting children to listen and act appropriately.  I think we've just uncovered the reason why golf games work so well as sales tools.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How repetition increases believability

Turns out the more times you hear something, the more likely you are to believe it.  Repetition is the key and it doesn't seem to matter much whether you hear it from multiple people or via multiple media or from one person multiple times. A study by Kimberlee Weaver and colleagues published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that one person in a group expressing the same opinion three times had 90% of the effect of three different people in a group expressing the same opinion. (Weaver et al., 2007).

So how does that play out in our daily lives? Advertisers and influencers repeat the same message over and over. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, in fact it does exactly the opposite -  it breeds attraction. When an opinion is repeatedly broadcast at us by the same organization, not only do we believe it, but we're also likely to believe it represents the general opinion. That's despite the fact it is analogous to the same person repeating themselves over and over again.

Where does this effect come from? The study's authors argue it comes down to memory. Because repetition increases the accessibility of an opinion, we assume it has a high prevalence. In everyday life we are likely to hear the same opinion many times in different places. We then put all these together to judge the general mood of a group. When one person repeats their opinion, we simply over apply the rule.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Improve honesty by moving the signature line to the top of the form

Research suggests the IRS might be able to improve tax payer's honesty by moving the signature line to the top of the form, such that signers declare that they will tell the truth rather than that they have told the truth. The findings, based on several experiments, are published in a the paper, When to Sign on the Dotted Line? Signing First Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self-Reports, written by Lisa L. Shu, Francesca Gino, and Max H. Bazerman of Harvard Business School, Nina Mazar of the University of Toronto, and Dan Ariely of Duke University.

"A lot of prior work has focused on the consequences of unethical decision-making and the factors that lead people to be unethical," says Lisa Shu, a doctoral candidate in Organizational Behavior at HBS. "This drove us to want to explore the flip side. We know a lot about when and why people cheat based on our lab and field studies; we thought it was now time to examine how to prevent people from cheating."

The key, according to the researchers, lies in increasing ethical salience: inducing people to pay greater attention to their moral standards and examine the integrity of their behavior when it counts the most.

"A signature is a way to highlight the fact that you're about to do something important, and that it's going to be a reflection of the self," says Francesca Gino, an associate professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at HBS. "Attaching a signature to a pledge of honesty is a way of effectively linking identity to morality."

Saturday, March 17, 2012

5 Ways to Boost Cognitive Capacity

A 2008 study on fluid intelligence and working memory by Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, and Perrig showed for the first time, that it might actually be possible to increase intelligence through training. Up until this point it was assumed that intelligence was genetic, remained relatively fixed, and could not be improved in any lasting way. Among the study's findings:
  1. Fluid intelligence is trainable
  2. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent - meaning, the more you train, the more you gain. 
  3. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is.
  4. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don't resemble the test questions (typical intelligence test questions)

Writing about this study in Scientific American, author and Behavioral Therapist Andrea Kuszewski provides us with five ways to increase fluid intelligence and cognitive ability:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things the Hard Way
  5. Network

1. Seek Novelty.
When you seek novelty, you create new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections.

Constantly exposing yourself to new things puts your brain in a primed state for learning. Novelty also triggers dopamine, which not only kicks motivation into high gear, it also stimulates the creation of new neurons—and prepares your brain for learning.

2. Challenge Yourself.
Challenging yourself is about more than keeping your brain active and involves more than mental games and puzzles. Work by scientist Richard Haier shows that intense training on novel mental activities (in this case the video game Tetris) can produce increased brain activity and cognitive growth initially, but that activity drops off. Why the drop? Once the brain figured out how to play the game, and got really good at it, it got lazy. It didn’t need to work as hard in order to play the game well, so the cognitive energy went somewhere else instead.

In order to keep your brain making new connections and keeping them active, you need to keep moving on to another challenging activity as soon as you reach the point of mastery in the one you are engaging in. You want to be in a constant state of slight discomfort, struggling to barely achieve whatever it is you are trying to do. This keeps your brain on its toes, so to speak.

3. Think Creatively.
Creative thinking is about using both sides of your brain, focusing on a diverse range of topics and subjects, making remote associations between ideas, switching back and forth between conventional and unconventional thinking.

4. Do Things the Hard Way.
Your brain needs exercise the same way your body needs exercise. If you stop using your problem-solving skills, spatial skills, logical skills, and cognitive skills, your mental muscles will atrophy much the same way your physical muscles would without use.

We have a variety of modern conveniences and technologies that help make things easy for us. GPS tells us how to navigate the city, auto spellcheck and grammar check keep us from having to remember how a word is spelled or whether to use a common or semicolon. These are great conveniences, but they do little to build brainpower. If you want to increase cognitive capacity, one of the best things you can do is say no to shortcuts and use your brain.

5. Network.
By networking with other people - either through social media such as Facebook or Linked-In, or in face-to-face interactions - you are exposing yourself to the kinds of situations that are going to make items 1-4 much easier to achieve. By exposing yourself to new people, ideas and environments, you are  opening yourself up to new opportunities for cognitive growth.

Full article by Kuszewski

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The connection between physical sensations and higher cognitive powers

In Body of Thought, a fascinating article by Siri Carpenter in Scientific American Mind we learn about the connection between physical sensations and higher cognitive powers. In particular, we learn how seemingly trivial sensations and actions like smiling or frowning or holding a smooth or rough object can influence high-level psychological processes such as social judgment, language comprehension, visual perception and even reasoning.

Psychologist Lawrence Barsalou at Emory University talks about how a few brave scientists in the 80s began to challenge the view that the body is just an input-out device for the brain. They suggested instead that higher cognitive processes are grounded in bodily experience and the brains low level sensory and motor circuits don't just feed into cognition; they are cognition.

Though ridiculed at the time, by the late 90s, evidence started trickling in, then later pouring in to support their thesis. Barsalou notes studies that show that:
  • holding a hot cup of coffee or being in a comfortably heated room warms a person's feelings toward strangers
  • striking an open expansive "power pose" prompts people to make bolder decisions
  • wearing a heavy backpack makes hills look steeper
  • a water bottle looks closer when you are thirsty
  • moving objects upward versus downward speeds recall for positive memories
  • sitting on a hard chair turns mild-mannered undergraduates into hard-headed negotiators.

Results of a now classic study by Fritz Strack at the University of Wurzburg in German, shows that smiling (even fake smiling) can affect how we feel and interpret information. Strack and colleagues found that people rated Far Side cartoons as funnier when they were holding a pen between their teeth, without allowing it to touch their lips ( a pose that activates muscles used for smiling). Those findings indicate that the face sends important feedback to the brain, which it then uses to interpret information about the world.

A 2009 study by neurologist Bernard Haslinger at the Munich University found that Botox injections to the forehead not only paralyzed frown muscles, but also jammed the neural circuits needed to fully process negative emotion. It seems if you can't physically make a frown, you're less likely to be sad.

It seems we also project immoral behavior onto body parts. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that people rated hand sanitizer more highly after lying via e-mail and mouthwash more highly after lying via voicemail.

Monday, January 30, 2012

How do you persuade people to keep appointments?

People who fail to show up for appointments cost organizations big bucks. A study in the UK showed that missed GP and hospital appointments costs the National Health Service more than 700 million pounds annually. Research carried out in liaison with the NHS Bedfordshire found that three behavior-change interventions can lead to a dramatic reduction in the numbers of people who fail to turn up for appointments:
  1. Getting patients to confirm their appointment by verbally repeating the details to the receptionist. 
  2. Getting patients to write the appointment down themselves (rather than the receptionist doing it for them).
  3. Placing positive messages around the GP practices confirming that attending appointments is the "social norm".
In the case of the Bedfordshire research, the techniques lead to a reduction of 30% in the number of no-shows for NHS appointments. Organizers estimated that if the interventions were replicated nationally, they could deliver savings of up to 250 million pounds annually.