Tagpsychology

Why pessemism can be good for you

The Atlantic interviews Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and author of The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking:

Olga Khazan: What is defensive pessimism?

Julie Norem: It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. It’s hard not to feel that particular way. If you feel anxious, you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way.

When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.

Full Story:

(via NextDraft)

See also: The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

Atheletes may have trained their brains to create “time warps”

Shower head

BBC reports:

It started as a headache, but soon became much stranger. Simon Baker entered the bathroom to see if a warm shower could ease his pain. “I looked up at the shower head, and it was as if the water droplets had stopped in mid-air”, he says. “They came into hard focus rapidly, over the course of a few seconds”. Where you’d normally perceive the streams as more of a blur of movement, he could see each one hanging in front of him, distorted by the pressure of the air rushing past. The effect, he recalls, was very similar to the way the bullets travelled in the Matrix movies. “It was like a high-speed film, slowed down.” [...]

What’s more, Valtteri Arstila at University of Turku, Finland, points out that many of these subjects also report abnormally quick thinking. As one pilot, who’d faced a plane crash in the Vietnam War, put it: “when the nose-wheel strut collapsed I vividly recalled, in a matter of about three seconds, over a dozen actions necessary to successful recovery of flight attitude”. Reviewing the case studies and available scientific research on the matter, Arstila concludes that an automatic mechanism, triggered by stress hormones, might speed up the brain’s internal processing to help it handle the life or death situation. “Our thoughts and initiation of movements become faster – but because we are working faster, the external world appears to slow down,” he says. It is even possible that some athletes have deliberately trained themselves to create a time warp on demand: surfers, for instance, can often adjust their angle in the split second it takes to launch off steep waves, as the water rises overhead.

Full Story: BBC: The man who saw time stand still

(Thanks Bill!)

In Defense of Trigger Warnings

Scott Alexander on the backlash against trigger warnings:

But this is all tangential to what really bothered me, which is Pacific Standard’s The Problems With Trigger Warnings According To The Research.

You know, I love science as much as anyone, maybe more, but I have grown to dread the phrase “…according to the research”.

They say that “Confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD”. They point out that “exposure therapy” is the best treatment for trauma survivors, including rape victims. And that this involves reliving the trauma and exposing yourself to traumatic stimuli, exactly what trigger warnings are intended to prevent. All this is true. But I feel like they are missing a very important point.

YOU DO NOT GIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY TO PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT.

Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. They expose people first to cute, little spiders behind a glass cage. Then bigger spiders. Then they take them out of the cage. Finally, in a carefully controlled environment with their very supportive therapist standing by, they make people experience their worst fear, like having a big tarantula crawl all over them. It usually works pretty well.

Finding an arachnophobic person, and throwing a bucket full of tarantulas at them while shouting “I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” works less well.

Full Story: Slate Star Codex: The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

The Strange World of DIY Brain Zapping

DIY transcranial direct current stimulation

Wired reports on DIY transcranial direct current stimulation, and why the science behind it might not be all it’s cracked up to be:

It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Walsh is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, and his lab has done some of the studies that first made a splash in the media. One, published in Current Biology in 2010, found that brain stimulation enhanced people’s ability to learn a new number system based on made-up symbols.

Only it didn’t really.

“It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,” Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.

Full Story: Wired: Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation

See Also:

Doctors Worry About DIY Brain Shocks

The Next God Helmet? Zap Your Brain for Insight

Sleep is the answer for nearly every ailment

Time reports:

Researchers have known for some time that sleep is critical for weight maintenance and hormone balance. And too little sleep is linked to everything from diabetes to heart disease to depression. Recently, the research on sleep has been overwhelming, with mounting evidence that it plays a role in nearly every aspect of health. Beyond chronic illnesses, a child’s behavioral problems at school could be rooted in mild sleep apnea. And studies have shown children with ADHD are more likely to get insufficient sleep. A recent study published in the journal SLEEP found a link between older men with poor sleep quality and cognitive decline. Another study out this week shows sleep is essential in early childhood for development, learning, and the formation and retention of memories. Dr. Allan Rechtschaffen, a pioneer of sleep research at the University of Chicago, once said, “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.”

Full Story: Time: It’s Time to Pay Attention to Sleep, the New Health Frontier

(via Alex Holmes)

Why major creative breakthroughs happen in your late thirties

Quartz reports on a recent study on scientific breakthroughs:

James Murphy, the former frontman of the band LCD Soundsystem, made what he called the biggest mistake of his life at 21, when he turned down a writing job on a sitcom that was about to launch.

The sitcom’s name was Seinfeld.

Instead, he lurched around, working as a bouncer and later a DJ before finally releasing the first LCD Soundsystem album at the not-so-tender age of 35.

Murphy might have been older than some of his dance-rock peers, but his experience is fairly common among people who experience major creative breakthroughs, according to a new paper from NBER.

The authors examined the high points of the careers of both great inventors and Nobel-Prize winning scientists, and they found that the late 30s were the sweet spot for strokes of genius.

Full Story: Quartz: Why major creative breakthroughs happen in your late thirties

DSM-5 As Borgesian Novel

Mental Disorders

DSM-5 as a dystopian novel:

If the novel has an overbearing literary influence, it’s undoubtedly Jorge Luis Borges. The American Psychiatric Association takes his technique of lifting quotes from or writing faux-serious reviews for entirely imagined books and pushes it to the limit: Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being. Perhaps as an attempt to ward off the uncommitted reader, the novel begins with a lengthy account of the system of classifications used – one with an obvious debt to the Borgesian Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are exhaustively classified according to such sets as “those belonging to the Emperor,” “those that, at a distance, resemble flies,” and “those that are included in this classification.”

Just as Borges’s system groups animals by seemingly aleatory characteristics entirely divorced from their actual biological attributes, DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. In its place we’re given diagnoses such as “frotteurism,” “oppositional defiant disorder,” and “caffeine intoxication disorder.” That said, these classifications aren’t arranged at random; rather, they follow a stately progression comparable to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, rising from the infernal pit of the body and its weaknesses (intellectual disabilities, motor tics) through our purgatorial interactions with the outside world (tobacco use, erectile dysfunction, kleptomania) and finally arriving in the limpid-blue heavens of our libidinal selves (delirium, personality disorders, sexual fetishism). It’s unusual, and at times frustrating in its postmodern knowingness, but what is being told is first and foremost a story.

Full Story: New Inquiry: Book of Lamantations

The effect of diminished belief in free will

Tom Stafford wrote:

Psychologists have used this section of the book, or sentences taken from it or inspired by it, to induce feelings of determinism in experimental subjects. A typical study asks people to read and think about a series of sentences such as “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”, or “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules”.

The effects on study participants are generally compared with those of other people asked to read sentences that assert the existence of free will, such as “I have feelings of regret when I make bad decisions because I know that ultimately I am responsible for my actions”, or texts on topics unrelated to free will.

And the results are striking. One study reported that participants who had their belief in free will diminished were more likely to cheat in a maths test. In another, US psychologists reported that people who read Crick’s thoughts on free will said they were less likely to help others. [...]

This puts an extra burden of responsibility on philosophers, scientists, pundits and journalists who use evidence from psychology or neuroscience experiments to argue that free will is an illusion. We need to be careful about what stories we tell, given what we know about the likely consequences.

Fortunately, the evidence shows that most people have a sense of their individual freedom and responsibility that is resistant to being overturned by neuroscience. Those sentences from Crick’s book claim that most scientists believe free will to be an illusion. My guess is that most scientists would want to define what exactly is meant by free will, and to examine the various versions of free will on offer, before they agree whether it is an illusion or not.

Full Story: Mind Hacks: The effect of diminished belief in free will

Interesting stuff, especially when considered alongside the Milgram experiments, which turned out not to be very sound. It also brings to mind the Kitty Genovese myth. If this effect is real, it is important to be aware of it so that we can try to overide it in ourselves.

Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

Peter Barker on Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine, about the problems with Stanely Milgram’s famous shock experiments:

The wrinkles in Milgram’s research kept revealing themselves. Perhaps most damningly, after Perry tracked down one of Milgram’s research analysts, she found reason to believe that most of his subjects had actually seen through the deception. They knew, in other words, that they were taking part in a low-stakes charade.

Gradually, Perry came to doubt the experiments at a fundamental level. Even if Milgram’s data was solid, it is unclear what, if anything, they prove about obedience. Even if 65 percent of Milgram’s subjects did go to the highest shock voltage, why did 35 percent refuse? Why might a person obey one order but not another? How do people and institutions come to exercise authority in the first place? Perhaps most importantly: How are we to conceptualize the relationship between, for example, a Yale laboratory and a Nazi death camp? Or, in the case of Vietnam, between a one-hour experiment and a multiyear, multifaceted war? On these questions, the Milgram experiments—however suggestive they may appear at first blush—are absolutely useless.

It is likely that no one understood this better than Milgram himself. In his notes and letters, Perry finds ample evidence that, privately, he had significant doubts about his work.

Full Story: Pacific Standard: Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

Doctors Worry About DIY Brain Shocks

Dave Siever of Mind Alive

A recent paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics warns of the dangers of DIY transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The National Post reports:

Those risks include reversing the polarity of the electrodes to cause impairment instead of benefit, and triggering potentially long-lasting and negative changes to the brain’s biology, the researchers argue in the Journal of Medical Ethics. [...]

In fact, Health Canada considers tDCS machines to be class-three devices — on a scale of risk ranging from one to four — and has yet to approve any for treating psychological illness – though they are licensed for pain and insomnia therapy, said Leslie Meerburg, a department spokeswoman. [...]

One subtle but troubling risk could lie in the ability of the devices to change behaviour, with research by Prof. Fecteau and colleagues suggesting tDCS can actually make people better liars, or less empathetic, both qualities that could encourage unscrupulous conduct.

Full Story: Do-it-yourself brain stimulation has scientists worried as healthy people try to make their minds work better

Amusingly, after citing a researcher who says tDCS could make people better liars and less empathetic, the Post quotes someone selling a home tDCS rig saying that it is “very safe.” But, despite the somewhat sordid tone of the story, the actual paper Medical Ethics paper does say that tDCS is “relatively safe.” You can find the full paper here.

(via Theoretick)

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