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Power Results in Less Mirroring and Reading Emotions
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
June 27, 2017
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Are the rich and powerful out of touch? Why do leaders sometimes seem clueless about the needs of those they lead? Recent research found that those in power often stop using social skills, such as mirroring and “reading” people’s emotions, that were necessary for them to attain power. The findings  were discussed in a recent article in the Atlantic:

 

When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.


What was going through Stumpf’s head? New research suggests that the better question may be: What wasn’t going through it?
 

The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

 

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

 

That loss in capacity has been demonstrated in various creative ways. A 2006 study asked participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point. Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else (which calls to mind George W. Bush, who memorably held up the American flag backwards at the 2008 Olympics). Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.

 

The fact that people tend to mimic the expressions and body language of their superiors can aggravate this problem: Subordinates provide few reliable cues to the powerful. But more important, Keltner says, is the fact that the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”

 

Mirroring is a subtler kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within our heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience. It’s what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.

 

For nonpowerful participants, mirroring worked fine: The neural pathways they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fired strongly. But the powerful group’s? Less so.

 

Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college students who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting—say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good”—they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

 

I wondered whether the powerful might simply stop trying to put themselves in others’ shoes, without losing the ability to do so. As it happened, Obhi ran a subsequent study that may help answer that question. This time, subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.

 

This is a depressing finding. Knowledge is supposed to be power. But what good is knowing that power deprives you of knowledge?

 

The sunniest possible spin, it seems, is that these changes are only sometimes harmful. Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. Even that is not necessarily bad for the prospects of the powerful, or the groups they lead. As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly.

 

Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation. John Stumpf saw a Wells Fargo where every customer had eight separate accounts. (As he’d often noted to employees, eight rhymes with great.) “Cross-selling,” he told Congress, “is shorthand for deepening relationships.”

 

Is there nothing to be done?

 

No and yes. It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier—from time to time, at least—is to stop feeling powerful.

 

Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.

 

Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people—and experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection. An incredible study published in The Journal of Finance last February found that CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t. (The one problem, says Raghavendra Rau, a co-author of the study and a Cambridge University professor, is that CEOs who had lived through disasters without significant fatalities were more risk-seeking.)

 

But tornadoes, volcanoes, and tsunamis aren’t the only hubris-restraining forces out there. PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi sometimes tells the story of the day she got the news of her appointment to the company’s board, in 2001. She arrived home percolating in her own sense of importance and vitality, when her mother asked whether, before she delivered her “great news,” she would go out and get some milk. Fuming, Nooyi went out and got it. “Leave that damn crown in the garage” was her mother’s advice when she returned.

 

The point of the story, really, is that Nooyi tells it. It serves as a useful reminder about ordinary obligation and the need to stay grounded. Nooyi’s mother, in the story, serves as a “toe holder,” a term once used by the political adviser Louis Howe to describe his relationship with the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling Franklin.

 

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More Evidence Aerobic Exercise Improves Brain Functioning
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
June 12, 2017
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Research suggesting that aerobic exercise improves mood and brain functioning continues to mount. One recent study found that 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill for 10 consecutive days could lead to a clinically significant improvement in mood. This study was among many that were reviewed in a recent article in Science Alert: 

 

"Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart," write the authors of a recent article in the Harvard Medical School blog, Mind and Mood.

 

While some of the benefits, like a lift in mood, can emerge as soon as a few minutes into a sweaty bike ride, others, like improved memory, might take several weeks to crop up.

 

That means that the best type of fitness for your mind is any aerobic exercise that you can do regularly and consistently for at least 45 minutes at a time.

 

Depending on which benefits you're looking for, you might try adding a brisk walk or a jog to your daily routine. A pilot study in people with severe depression found that just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 consecutive days was "sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression."

 

Aerobic workouts can also help people who aren't suffering from clinical depression feel less stressed by helping to reduce levels of the body's natural stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, according to a recent study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

 

If you're over 50, a study published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicinesuggests the best results come from combining aerobic and resistance exercise.

 

That could include anything from high-intensity interval training, like the 7-minute workout, to dynamic flow yoga, which intersperses strength-building poses like planks and push-ups with heart-pumping dance-like moves.

 

Another study published on May 3 provides some additional support to that research, finding that in adults aged 60-88, walking for 30 minutes four days a week for 12 weeks appeared to strengthen connectivity in a region of the brain where weakened connections have been linked with memory loss.

 

Researchers still aren't sure why this type of exercise appears to provide a boost to the brain, but studies suggest it has to do with increased blood flow, which provides our minds with fresh energy and oxygen.

 

And one recent study in older women who displayed potential symptoms of dementia found that aerobic exercise was linked with an increase in the size of the hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory.

 

Joe Northey, the lead author of the British study and an exercise scientist at the University of Canberra, says his research suggests that anyone in good health over age 50 should do 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic exercise "on as many days of the week as feasible".

 

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Being Only Child Affects Brain Structure And Personality
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
May 30, 2017
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It has long been hypothesized that individuals raised as only children develop a certain type of personality. However, does being an only child influence the structural development of an individual’s brain? Researchers at Southwest University in China investigated the relationship between the MRI scans and personalities of 303 college-aged participants. Findings indicated that only children were more likely to demonstrate greater flexibility in thinking and more grey matter volume in the supramarginal gyrus, which is associated with language perception and processing. The study was discussed in a recent article in Science Alert:   

 

The mix of young people in China offers a broad pool of candidates for this area of research, owing to the nation's long-lasting one-child policy, which limited many but not all families to only raising a single child in between 1979 and 2015.

 

The common stereotype about being an only child is that growing up without siblings influences an individual's behaviour and personality traits, making them more selfish and less likely to share with their peers.

 

Previous research has borne some of this conventional wisdom out - but also demonstrated that only children can receive cognitive benefits as a result of their solo upbringing.

 

The participants in this latest study were approximately half only children (and half children with siblings), and were given cognitive tests designed to measure their intelligence, creativity, and personality, in addition to scanning their brains with MRI machines.

 

Although the results didn't demonstrate any difference in terms of intelligence between the two groups, they did reveal that only children exhibited greater flexibility in their thinking - a key marker of creativity per the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

 

While only children showed greater flexibility, they also demonstrated less agreeableness in personality tests under what's called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory. Agreeableness is one of the five chief measures tested under the system, with the other four being extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

 

But more importantly than the behavioural data - which have been the focus of many other studies - the MRI results actually demonstrated neurological differences in the participants' grey matter volume (GMV) as a result of their upbringing.

 

In particular, the results showed that only children showed greater supramarginal gyrusvolumes - a portion of the parietal lobe thought to be associated with language perception and processing, and which in the study correlated to the only children's greater flexibility.

 

By contrast, the brains of only children revealed less volume in other areas, including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) - associated with emotional regulation, such as personality and social behaviours - which the team found to be correlated with their lower scores on agreeableness.

 

While the researchers aren't drawing firm conclusions on why only children exhibit these differences, they suggest it's possible that parents may foster greater creativity in only children by devoting more time to them - and possibly placing greater expectations on them.

 

Meanwhile, they hypothesise that only children's lesser agreeableness could result from excessive attention from family members, less exposure to external social groups, and more focus on solitary activities while growing up.

 

It's important to note that there are some limitations to the study - first off, all the participants were highly educated young people taken from a specific part of the world, and the results only reflect testing from one point in time.

 

That said, the researchers say it's the first evidence that differences in the anatomical structures of the brain are linked to differing behaviour in terms of flexibility and agreeableness.

 

"Additionally, our results contribute to the understanding of the neuroanatomical basis of the differences in cognitive function and personality between only-children and non-only-children," the authors write in their study.

 

While there's still a lot we don't understand about what's going on here, it's clear that there's a link between our family environments and the way our brain structure develops, and it'll be fascinating to see where this direction of research takes us in the future.

 

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Bipolar Disorder and the Brain
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
May 18, 2017
Image courtesy of the ENIGMA Bipolar Consortium/Derrek Hibar et al.

 

Is the brain of someone with bipolar disorder different than the brain of their healthy counterpart? A study led by researchers from University of Southern California used MRI scans to compare the brains of individuals with bipolar disorder to the brains of individuals in a healthy control group. They found that the brains of people with bipolar disorder often had reductions in grey matter in frontal regions associated with self-control. The study was discussed in a recent article in Neuroscience for Technology Networks: 

 

In the largest MRI study to date on patients with bipolar disorder, a global consortium published new research showing that people with the condition have differences in the brain regions that control inhibition and emotion.


By revealing clear and consistent alterations in key brain regions, the findings published in Molecular Psychiatry on May 2 offer insight to the underlying mechanisms of bipolar disorder.


"We created the first global map of bipolar disorder and how it affects the brain, resolving years of uncertainty on how people's brains differ when they have this severe illness," said Ole A. Andreassen, senior author of the study and a professor at the Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research at the University of Oslo.


Bipolar disorder affects about 60 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It is a debilitating psychiatric disorder with serious implications for those affected and their families. However, scientists have struggled to pinpoint neurobiological mechanisms of the disorder, partly due to the lack of sufficient brain scans.


The study was part of an international consortium led by the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute at the Keck School of Medicine of USC: ENIGMA (Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics Through Meta Analysis) spans 76 centers and includes 26 different research groups around the world.


Thousands of MRI scans


The researchers measured the MRI scans of 6,503 individuals, including 2,447 adults with bipolar disorder and 4,056 healthy controls. They also examined the effects of commonly used prescription medications, age of illness onset, history of psychosis, mood state, age and sex differences on cortical regions.


The study showed thinning of gray matter in the brains of patients with bipolar disorder when compared with healthy controls. The greatest deficits were found in parts of the brain that control inhibition and motivation - the frontal and temporal regions.


Some of the bipolar disorder patients with a history of psychosis showed greater deficits in the brain's gray matter. The findings also showed different brain signatures in patients who took lithium, anti-psychotics and anti-epileptic treatments. Lithium treatment was associated with less thinning of gray matter, which suggests a protective effect of this medication on the brain.


"These are important clues as to where to look in the brain for therapeutic effects of these drugs," said Derrek Hibar, first author of the paper and a professor at the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute when the study was conducted. He was a former visiting researcher at the University of Oslo and is now a senior scientist at Janssen Research and Development, LLC.


Early detection


Future research will test how well different medications and treatments can shift or modify these brain measures as well as improve symptoms and clinical outcomes for patients.


Mapping the affected brain regions is also important for early detection and prevention, said Paul Thompson, director of the ENIGMA consortium and co-author of the study.


"This new map of the bipolar brain gives us a roadmap of where to look for treatment effects," said Thompson, an associate director of the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute at the Keck School of Medicine. "By bringing together psychiatrists worldwide, we now have a new source of power to discover treatments that improve patients' lives."


This article has been republished from materials provided by University of Southern California. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

 

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Earlier Lifestyle Factors Relate to Cognitive Health in Later Life
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
April 30, 2017
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Is there a secret to being mentally fit in old age? Will what you do in your youth and middle years impact your brain in older age? Researchers examined the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking, and social and cognitive activity on cognitive functioning in older age. Findings indicated that earlier life health and activity may lead to greater cognitive health in later life. The study was discussed in recent article in Medical Xpress:  

 

The large-scale investigation published in the journal PLOS Medicine and led by the University of Exeter, used data from more than 2,000 mentally fit people over the age of 65, examined the theory that experiences in early or mid life which challenge the brain make people more resilient to changes resulting from age or illness – they have higher "cognitive reserve".

 

The analysis, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) found that people with higher levels of reserve are more likely to stay mentally fit for longer, making the brain more resilient to illnesses such as dementia.

 

The research team included collaborators from the universities of Bangor, Newcastle and Cambridge.

 

Linda Clare, Professor of Clinical Psychology of Ageing and Dementia at the University of Exeter, said: "Losing mental ability is not inevitable in later life. We know that we can all take action to increase our chances of maintaining our own mental health, through healthy living and engaging in stimulating activities. It's important that we understand how and why this occurs, so we can give people meaningful and effective measures to take control of living full and active lives into older age.

 

"People who engage in stimulating activity which stretches the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher 'Cognitive reserve'. This builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient. It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent."

 

The research team analysed data from 2,315 mentally fit participants aged over 65 years who took part in the first wave of interviews for the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS-Wales).

 

They analysed whether a healthy lifestyle was associated with better performance on a mental ability test. They found that a healthy diet, more physical activity, more social and mentally stimulating activity and moderate alcohol consumption all seemed to boost cognitive performance.

 

Professor Bob Woods of Bangor University, who leads the CFAS Wales study, said: "We found that people with a healthier lifestyle had better scores on tests of mental ability, and this was partly accounted for by their level of cognitive reserve.

 

"Our results highlight the important of policies and measures that encourage older people to make changes in their diet, exercise more, and engage in more socially oriented and mentally stimulating activities."

 

Professor Fiona Matthews of Newcastle University, who is principal statistician on the CFAS studies, said "Many of the factors found here to be important are not only healthy for our brain, but also help at younger age avoiding heart disease."

 

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tDCS Increases Honest Behavior
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
April 21, 2017
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Can honesty be strengthened like a muscle? Researchers at University of Zurich led a study examining the relationship between honesty and non-invasive brain stimulation known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Findings indicated that tDCS applied over the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increased honesty in situations in which it is tempting to cheat for personal gain. The study was discussed in a recent article in MedicalXpress: 

 

Honesty plays a key role in social and economic life. Without honesty, promises are not kept, contracts are not enforced, taxes remain unpaid. Despite the importance of honesty for society, its biological basis remains poorly understood. Researchers at the University of Zurich, together with colleagues from Chicago and Boston, now show that honest behavior can be increased by means of non-invasive brain stimulation. The results of their research highlight a deliberation process between honesty and self-interest in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC).

 

Occasional lies for material self interest

 

In their die-rolling experiment, the participants could increase their earnings by cheating rather than telling the truth (see box below). The researchers found that people cheated a significant amount of the time. However, many participants also stuck to the truth. "Most people seem to weigh motives of self-interest against honesty on a case-by-case basis; they cheat a little but not on every possible occasion." explains Michel Maréchal, UZH Professor for Experimental Economics. However, about 8% of the participants cheated in whenever possible and maximized their profit.

 

Less lies through brain stimulation

 

The researchers applied transcranial direct current stimulation over a region in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC). This noninvasive brain stimulation method makes brain cells more sensitive i.e., they are more likely to be active. When the researchers applied this stimulation during the task, participants were less likely to cheat. However, the number of consistent cheaters remained the same. Christian Ruff, UZH Professor of Neuroeconomics, points out "This finding suggests that the stimulation mainly reduced cheating in participants who actually experienced a moral conflict, but did not influence the decision making process in those not in those who were committed to maximizing their earnings".

 

Conflict between money and morals

 

The researchers found that the stimulation only affected the process of weighing up material versus moral motives. They found no effects for other types of conflict that do not involve moral concerns (i.e., financial decisions involving risk, ambiguity, and delayed rewards). Similarly, an additional experiment showed that the stimulation did not affect honest behavior when cheating led to a payoff for another person instead of oneself and the conflict was therefore between two moral motives. The pattern of results suggests that the stimulated neurobiological process specifically resolves trade-offs between material self-interest and honesty.

 

Developing an understanding of the biological basis of behavior

 

According to the researchers, these findings are an important first step in identifying the brain processes that allow people to behave honestly. "These brain processes could lie at the heart of individual differences and possibly pathologies of honest behavior", explains Christian Ruff. And finally, the new results raise the question to what degree honest behavior is based on biological predispositions, which may be crucial for jurisdiction. Michel Maréchal summarizes: "If breaches of honesty indeed represent an organic condition, our results question to what extent people can be made fully liable for their wrongdoings."

 


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Mental Health Issues Stigmatized Among Providers
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
April 15, 2017
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Mental health providers often help people work through their most traumatic and personal issues. Although they attempt to act as a model of mental health, their own wellbeing can often suffer. Mental health providers often work long hours, receive inadequate support in the workplace, and are expected to remain resilient in the face of trauma. In other words, admitting to their own mental health issues and seeking help can be highly stigmatized. This phenomenon was discussed in a recent article in The Guardian:   

 

Understanding around mental health is improving: campaigns such as Time To Change have drawn public awareness to the issue and employers are realising the affects of dedicated wellbeing support to staff – which have led to a 30% reduction in mental health-related absences. But surprisingly, stigma still exists for those working in mental healthcare themselves.

 

Many people working in the sector are reluctant to talk about their own experiences, says Elizabeth Cotton, an academic at Middlesex University researching the topic. She was one of them. “I walked a thin line between being a competent professional and feeling like a fraud at managing my own mental health at work.”

 

This experience also rings true for Sarah Jones*, a peer support manager for a mental health charity. In previous jobs she was forced to actively hide her mental health problems.

 

“I have friends who work within the sector who have very little support at work, and have told me they just wouldn’t disclose their mental health issues to colleagues or managers due to fear of judgment or discrimination,” she says.

 

Mental health workers are often expected to be “self-reliant [and] cope in the face of traumatic and emotionally challenging work,” says Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.

 

There is expectation that because these care workers are supporting mentally ill people, their own mental health must be under control. This can put immense pressure on them.

 

“Even when I was working in a psychiatric hospital and suffering from mental health issues, I didn’t feel I could trust my supervisor to get beyond the notion that I was just being ‘a bit anxious’,” says Laura Sharp*, a social worker who works in adult and child care. “I was working with suicidal people all day every day, but I was told to be less emotive.”

 

Sharp says this experience made her work – which often involved restraining suicidal patients from self harm or cleaning up blood – traumatising. “I felt neither contained nor safe, physically, emotionally or professionally.”

 

It is widely assumed that workers in the sector will be less susceptible to trauma and are somehow desensitised to the emotionally difficult work they carry out, says Allen. These unrealistic exceptions can often be “a dangerous contributor to less compassionate and engaged care and support,” she warns.

 

Allen also says that people working in the mental health sector often find that the job does not meet their expectations. “They often are in a different culture, working with a financial regime that is at odds with their personal commitment,” she says. This creates a stressful situation: “staff either bend themselves out of shape, become exhausted trying to make the system work, or simply leave,” she says.

 

Other elements of the job can exacerbate or catalyse this distress. Cuts to fundingand stretched services, particularly in the NHS, can cause internal support infrastructure to crumble, meaning workers needing help can also fall through the cracks. A survey (pdf) from the British Psychoanalytic Council and UK Council for Psychotherapy found that therapists felt burnt out and distressed because of their work, while not receiving adequate supervision to help deal with these issues.

 

Mental health workers, who often work punishingly long hours to begin with, are working additional hours to compensate for lack of staffing and rising demand, says Allen. “Staff are left feeling like they have no time to adapt to changes and perform at their best.”

 

Sharp, who has since got a new job, thinks the sector needs a further push in looking after employees’ mental health, which will ultimately benefit service users. “I still think every day about the patients I worked with and how the system is failing them,” she says. “I’m a social worker and I still love my job. But I only managed to get this love back by leaving a job I had initially felt passionate about. That’s not right.”

 

The sector needs to do more to support mental health issues in staff. Since changing jobs, Jones has also found an employer that views her own experiences of mental health as an asset. She says the support at her current work has helped her to thrive and eradicated her feelings of shame around mental illness.

 

*Some names have been changed

 

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Can Fast fMRI Monitor Brain Activity of Thoughts?
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
March 30, 2017
Photo Credit: Lewis et al

 

Can fMRI detect human thought? Researchers from Harvard utilized recent developments in fast fMRI techniques to examine rapid oscillations of brain activity during human thought. Researchers showed participants rapidly oscillating images and monitored the rapid oscillations of brain activity in the visual cortex. These findings ark the first steps towards better studying the neural networks as they produce human thought. The study was discussed funded by the National Institutes for Health and discussed in a recent press release: 

 

By significantly increasing the speed of functional MRI (fMRI), NIBIB-funded researchers have been able to image rapidly fluctuating brain activity during human thought. fMRI measures changes in blood oxygenation, which were previously thought to be too slow to detect the subtle neuronal activity associated with higher order brain functions. The new discovery that fast fMRI can detect rapid brain oscillations is a significant step towards realizing a central goal of neuroscience research: mapping the brain networks responsible for human cognitive functions such as perception, attention, and awareness.

 

“A critical aim of the President’s BRAIN Initiative1 is to move neuroscience into a new realm where we can identify and track functioning neural networks non-invasively,” explains Guoying Liu, Ph.D., Director of the NIBIB program in Magnetic Resonance Imaging. “This work demonstrates the potential of fMRI for mapping healthy neural networks as well as those that may contribute to neurological diseases such as dementia and other mental health disorders, which are significant national and global health problems.” 

 

fMRI works by detecting local increases in oxygen as blood is delivered to a working part of the brain. The technique has been instrumental for identifying which areas in the brain control functions such as vision, hearing, or touch. However, standard fMRI can only detect the blood flow coming to replenish an area of the brain several seconds after it has performed a function. It was generally accepted that this was the limit of what could be detected by fMRI—identification of a region in the brain that had responded to a large stimulus, such as a continuous 30 second “blast” of bright light. 

 

Combining several new techniques, Jonathan R. Polimeni, Ph.D., senior author of the study, and his colleagues at Harvard’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, applied fast fMRI in an effort to track neuronal networks that control human thought processes, and found that they could now measure rapidly oscillating brain activity. The results of this groundbreaking work are reported in the October 2016 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.2

 

The researchers used fast fMRI in human volunteers observing a rapidly fluctuating checkerboard pattern. The fast fMRI was able to detect the subtle and very rapid oscillations in cerebral blood flow in the brain’s visual cortex as the volunteers observed the changing pattern.

 

“The oscillating checkerboard pattern is a more “naturalistic” stimulus, in that its timing is similar to the very subtle neural oscillations made during normal thought processes,” explains Polimeni. “The fast fMRI detects the induced neural oscillations that allow the brain to understand what the eye is observing --- the changing checkerboard pattern. These subtle oscillations were completely undetectable with standard fMRI. This exciting result opens the possibility of using fast fMRI to image neural networks as they guide the process of human thought.” 

 

One such possibility is suggested by first author of the study Laura D. Lewis, Ph.D. “This technique now gives us a method for obtaining much more detailed information about the complex brain activity that takes place during sleep, as well as other dynamic switches in brain states, such as when under anesthesia and during hallucinations.” 

 

Concludes Polimeni, “It had always been thought that fMRI had the potential to play a major role in these types of studies. Meaningful progress in cognitive neuroscience depends on mapping patterns of brain activity, which are constantly and rapidly changing with every experience we have. Thus, we are extremely excited to see our work contribute significantly to achieving this goal.”

 

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Interhemispheric Connectivity Related to Creativity
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
March 23, 2017
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Popular media often suggests that the “right brain” is more associated with creativity and artistic ability. Researchers at Duke University and University of Padova examined the relationship diffusor tensor imaging brain scans and measures of creativity in 68 participants. Findings indicated that greater interhemispheric connectivity related to higher creativity. The study was discussed in a recent article in Medical Xpress:  

 

For the study, statisticians David Dunson of Duke University and Daniele Durante of the University of Padova analyzed the network of white matter connections among 68 separate brain regions in healthy college-age volunteers.

 

The brain's white matter lies underneath the outer grey matter. It is composed of bundles of wires, or axons, which connect billions of neurons and carry electrical signals between them.

 

A team led by neuroscientist Rex Jung of the University of New Mexico collected the data using an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which allows researchers to peer through the skull of a living person and trace the paths of all the axons by following the movement of water along them. Computers then comb through each of the 1-gigabyte scans and convert them to three-dimensional maps—wiring diagrams of the brain.

 

Jung's team used a combination of tests to assess creativity. Some were measures of a type of problem-solving called "divergent thinking," or the ability to come up with many answers to a question. They asked people to draw as many geometric designs as they could in five minutes. They also asked people to list as many new uses as they could for everyday objects, such as a brick or a paper clip. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about their achievements in ten areas, including the visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, cooking and science.

 

The responses were used to calculate a composite creativity score for each person.

 

Dunson and Durante trained computers to sift through the data and identify differences in brain structure.

 

They found no statistical differences in connectivity within hemispheres, or between men and women. But when they compared people who scored in the top 15 percent on the creativity tests with those in the bottom 15 percent, high-scoring people had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres.

 

The differences were mainly in the brain's frontal lobe.

 

Dunson said their approach could also be used to predict the probability that a person will be highly creative simply based on his or her brain network structure. "Maybe by scanning a person's brain we could tell what they're likely to be good at," Dunson said.
 

 

The study is part of a decade-old field, connectomics, which uses network science to understand the brain. Instead of focusing on specific brain regions in isolation, connectomics researchers use advanced brain imaging techniques to identify and map the rich, dense web of links between them.

 

Dunson and colleagues are now developing statistical methods to find out whether brain connectivity varies with I.Q., whose relationship to creativity is a subject of ongoing debate.

 

In collaboration with neurology professor Paul Thompson at the University of Southern California, they're also using their methods for early detection of Alzheimer's disease, to help distinguish it from normal aging.

 

By studying the patterns of interconnections in healthy and diseased brains, they and other researchers also hope to better understand dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury or coma.

 

"Data sharing in neuroscience is increasingly more common as compared to only five years ago," said Joshua Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, who founded the Open Connectome Project and processed the raw data for the study.

 

Just making sense of the enormous datasets produced by brain imaging studies is a challenge, Dunson said.

 

Most statistical methods for analyzing brain network data focus on estimating properties of single brains, such as which regions serve as highly connected hubs. But each person's brain is wired differently, and techniques for identifying similarities and differences in connectivity across individuals and between groups have lagged behind.

 

The study appears online and will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Bayesian Analysis.

 

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Underestimating the Value Of Being in Someone Else's Shoes
By Jason von Stietz, M.A.
March 19, 2017
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Do we need to walk a mile in people’s shoes to understand them? Although people are often confident in their understanding of other’s emotions, recent research found that individual’s often overestimate the accuracy of their understanding. Furthermore, when individuals simulate the experiences of others and infer their emotional response they are significantly more accurate. The study was discussed in a recent article in Medical Xpress: 

 

We tend to believe that people telegraph how they're feeling through facial expressions and body language and we only need to watch them to know what they're experiencing—but new research shows we'd get a much better idea if we put ourselves in their shoes instead. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

 

"People expected that they could infer another's emotions by watching him or her, when in fact they were more accurate when they were actually in the same situation as the other person. And this bias persisted even after our participants gained firsthand experience with both strategies," explain study authors Haotian Zhou (Shanghai Tech University) and Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago).

 

To explore out how we go about understanding others' minds, Zhou, Epley, and co-author Elizabeth Majka (Elmhurst College) decided to focus on two potential mechanisms: theorization and simulation. When we theorize about someone's experience, we observe their actions and make inferences based on our observations. When we simulate someone's experience, we use our own experience of the same situation as a guide.

 

Based on previous research showing that people tend to assume that our feelings 'leak out' through our behavior, Zhou, Epley, and Majka hypothesized that people would overestimate the usefulness of theorizing about another person's experience. And given that we tend to think that individual experiences are unique, the researchers also hypothesized that people would underestimate the usefulness of simulating another person's experience.

 

In one experiment, the researchers asked 12 participants to look at a series of 50 pictures that varied widely in emotional content, from very negative to positive. A webcam recorded their faces as these "experiencers" rated their emotional feelings for each picture. The researchers then brought in a separate group of 73 participants and asked them to predict the experiencers' ratings for each picture. Some of these "predictors" simulated the experience, looking at each picture; others theorized about the experience, looking at the webcam recording of the experiencer; and a third group were able to simulate and theorize at the same time, looking at both the picture and accompanying recording.

 

The results revealed that the predictors were much more accurate when they saw the pictures just as the experiencer had than they were when they saw the recording of the experiencer's face. Interestingly, seeing both the picture and the recording simultaneously yielded no additional benefit—being able to simulate the experience seemed to underlie participants' accuracy.

 

Despite this, people didn't seem to appreciate the benefit of simulation. In a second experiment, only about half of the predictors who were allowed to choose a strategy opted to use simulation. As before, predictors who simulated the rating experience were much more accurate in predicting the experiencer's feelings, regardless of whether they chose that strategy or were assigned to it.

 

In a third experiment, the researchers allowed for dynamic choice, assuming that predictors may increase in accuracy over time if they were able to choose their strategy before each trial. The results showed, once again, that simulation was the better strategy across the board—still, participants who had the ability to choose opted to simulate only about 48% of the time.

 

A fourth experiment revealed that simulation was the better strategy even when experiencers had been told to make their reactions as expressive and "readable' as possible.

 

"Our most surprising finding was that people committed the same mistakes when trying to understand themselves," Zhou and Epley note.

 

Participants in a fifth experiment expected they would be more accurate if they got to watch the expressions they had made while looking at emotional pictures one month earlier—but the findings showed they were actually better at estimating how they had felt if they simply viewed the pictures again.

 

"They dramatically overestimated how much their own face would reveal, and underestimated the accuracy they would glean from being in their own past shoes again," the researchers explain.

 

Although reading other people's mental states is an essential part of everyday life, these experiments show that we don't always pick the best strategy for the task.

 

According to Zhou and Epley, these findings help to shed light on the tactics that people use to understand each other.

 

"Only by understanding why our inferences about each other sometimes go astray can we learn how to understand each other better," the researchers conclude.

 


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