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Is Neurofeedback Effective? The Washington Post Reviews Clinical Work, Research, and Personal Experiences
By Jason von Stietz
January 30, 2015
Photo Credit: Washington Post

 

The media shined a light on the neurofeedback field in a recent article in the Washington Post. Many clinicians have developed expertise treating a variety of psychiatric disorders. Some researchers are unsure there is enough evidence to support the claims of neurofeedback practitioners. However, leading neurofeedback researchers point to the field’s recent studies as evidence. Arlene Karadis discussed the clinical work and research of neurofeedback experts and the personal experiences of their patients in a recent article:  

 

In September 2013, Chris Gardner went from kicking and spinning as a black belt in taekwondo to being locked in a world where he could not follow conversations — or even walk his dog. The 58-year-old Vienna, Va., resident had just had brain surgery to remove a large tumor, and the operation affected his mobility and cognition.

 

After nine months of physical and occupational therapy, he’d made little progress. So he tried neurofeedback, hoping this controversial treatment would improve his balance and mental processes.

 

Neurofeedback — a type of biofeedback — uses movies, video games, computers and other tools to help individuals regulate their brain waves. A patient might watch a movie, for example, while hooked to sensors that send data to a computer. A therapist, following the brain activity on a monitor, programs the computer to stop the movie if an abnormal number of fast or slow brain waves is detected or if the brain waves are erratic, moving rapidly from fast to slow waves.

 

The stop-and-start feedback, repeated over and over in numerous sessions, seems to yield more-normal brain waves. Researchers who endorse the technique say they don’t know exactly how it works but they say the changes in brain waves result in improved ability to focus and relax.

 

Neurofeedback, which is also used for post-traumatic stress disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, has been around since the 1960s. Some research has found it promising. Other studies have been inconclusive, and some have shown no positive outcomes.

 

The most solid data concern ADHD, especially a recent trial involving 104 children published in March in the Journal of Pediatrics. Those who received neurofeedback had improvements in attention and impulse control, while those who did not receive the therapy did not. These improvements persisted after six months. The authors concluded that neurofeedback may be a “promising attention training treatment for children with ADHD.”

 

Gardner had read that the technique could aid in recovery from brain injuries.

 

“I was skeptical. But I was desperate. I felt like I was wrapped in miles of cotton and could not reach through it to touch or feel anything,” said Gardner, an electronic technology consultant. His doctor was projecting a two-to-three-year recovery period, based on Gardner’s slow progress nine months after surgery.

By his ninth neurofeedback session, he was driving, taking power walks and working from home.

 

Neurofeedback treatments vary. In Gardner’s case, he sat in a chair while tiny, pulsed signals were sent to his brain. Research suggests that these signals enable the brain to revive its communication channels, which can become impaired after a brain injury.

 

“I couldn’t feel anything” while the treatments were underway, Gardner said. “I just sat there with my eyes closed. My therapist explained that the pulses basically reboot the brain.”

 

Better focus and relaxation can seemingly help improve or eliminate such conditions as migraines (imbalanced brain waves are associated with certain symptoms like pain) and anxiety.

He has just completed the last of 10 treatments. “I am not 100 percent. I probably won’t stand on my head or get on a roller coaster. But I can do almost everything I couldn’t do before,” said Gardner, who’s back to his martial arts.

 

“Do most people become totally normal? No. But they improve,” said Michael Sitar, a Bethesda psychologist certified in neurofeedback. He uses it to treat depression, ADHD, chronic pain and some other conditions.

 

“I find [that] people with focus problems can switch tasks easier. Kids who repeat themselves and who are emotionally labile become calmer and don’t repeat as much,” Sitar said. “With some complicated cases, like bipolar disorder, people may get by on less medication. Though less common, there are documented cases of nonverbal people who become verbal.”

 

Like riding a bike
 

Deborah Stokes, an Alexandria psychologist, compares neurofeedback to riding a bike: It’s non-conscious learning, based on the feedback, that, with repetition, can be long-lasting, she said.

 

“We don’t know exactly how neurofeedback works,” she said. “It’s a process where if clients get out of their own way, they relax. Over time, they get the desired brain pattern, feel calm and function better. This encourages them to stay with it.” Her team sees 30 patients a week.

 

Thomas Nicklin, whose family was living in Alexandria, saw Stokes for debilitating migraines. A year and a half after beginning a drug regimen prescribed by a neurologist, he was not getting better.

 

Nicklin, a teenager who was in boarding school, did 45 neurofeedback sessions over three months last year.

 

“Over time, Thomas went from three or four blinding migraines a week, vomiting and daily pain, to no symptoms,” said his mother, Pat Nicklin.

Silver Spring psychologist Robb Mapou is among the skeptics.

 

“I have not seen enough well-controlled, rigorous studies in most conditions for which it is recommended to show, definitively, that neurofeedback is effective. I also think there are other therapeutic factors that can contribute to an individual’s outcome, such as discussing their problems with a therapist.”

 

Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscience researcher at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network in Washington, agrees.

 

“I believe it is applied in some situations where we do not have enough information on the cause of a disorder or how recovery happens,” she said.

 

But Rex Cannon, past president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research, based in McLean, Va., cited nearly 200 peer-reviewed published articles that indicate neurofeedback’s effectiveness. This includes a meta-analysis of 10 studies on epilepsy patients: Although they had not responded to medications, they had a significant reduction in seizures after neurofeedback treatment. And a study on migraine patientsreported, “Neurofeedback appears to be dramatically effective in abolishing or significantly reducing migraine frequency in the great majority of patients.”

 

Patients usually have sessions two or three times a week, for a total of 10 to 40. Most sessions are 30 to 60 minutes long. They can be expensive — from $50 to $130 each. Some insurance policies cover neurofeedback, depending on the diagnosis.

 

Practitioners who use neurofeedback for medical and psychological disorders must have health-care degrees and are regulated by state agencies.

 

About 1,850 professionals have been certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance. To earn that credential, they must undergo 36 hours of study in neurophysiology and related topics, complete a mentoring program to learn clinical skills and pass a standardized exam.

 

Mary Lee Esty, a Bethesda clinical social worker, has a small study underway treating veterans with PTSD. In an earlier study of seven veteranswho used neurofeedback, she reported, the results were promising.

“These people [in the early study] initially had minimal function. They could not work, and many attempted suicide,” she said. “One is getting a PhD now. One has a full scholarship when he could not read after his head injury. All of them are doing well.”

 

Other studies describe results of the therapy in a similar way, as promising but requiring further examination.

 

Esty, who received a National Institutes of Health grant for an earlier study of brain-injured patients, has used neurofeedback to treat more than 2,500 people, mainly with brain injuries or PTSD. In her most recent and still ongoing study, she collaborates with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, which gives participants in her program post-treatment evaluations.

 

“I am in this collaboration because I want to get the hard data out there,” Esty said.

 

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Psychiatric Disorders Have More in Common Than Previously Thought
By Jason von Stietz
January 22, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

Are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder linked? A study in Nature Neuroscience revealed that that the three psychiatric disorders are linked through common genes that are not only associated with the disorders but also brain signaling, immunity, and genome function in later life. A recent article in The Verge discussed the study: 

 

This is the first study to show the genetic overlap between psychiatric disorders leads to meaningful paths for treatment, says Peter Holmans, a biostatistician at King's College London and a co-author the study. Essentially, it translates the genetic information into a roadmap for drug discovery.

 

Approximately 50 percent of adults in the US will develop a mental illness in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression will affect about 1 percent, 4 percent, and 17 percent of adults in the US, respectively, over the course of their life — and these disorders can be costly to treat. Most people diagnosed with mental illness are either poorly treated or untreated,according to a study of US mental health services published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Overall, the cost of mental illness in the US amounts to $300 billion a year for treatment, lost wages, and disability benefits. Drug discovery for many of these disorders has essentially stalled out; today's finding may lead to new approaches that could ultimately benefit patients.

 

Because this is the first study to demonstrate the mechanistic relationship between these disorders, more research needs to take place to characterize how psychiatric illness functions in the body, Holmans says. He hopes his results will encourage the field to look at biological pathways, which are sets of genes that work together to carry out essential processes in the body. "They're likely to be more promising druggable targets than individual genes," he says.

 

In the study, Holmans and his team of researchers analyzed 60,000 people — 33,000 of whom had diagnosed psychiatric disorders and 28,000 of whom didn't. The participants' genomes allowed researchers to examine the genes that act together along pathways in the body. By comparing the two groups, the researchers aimed to find out if certain pathways have a higher proportion of genetic mutations relevant to psychiatric illness. They then ranked the pathways by their contribution to disease risk for each illness, including depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Eventually, they were able to use those rankings to find out which pathways are most relevant across multiple disorders, instead of in individual illnesses.

 

The researchers demonstrated that many of the genetic variants that have already been shown to increase the lifetime risk of developing a mental illness work in clusters, playing majors roles in immunity, brain signaling, and genome function later in life. "That’s the very novel thing that we are showing," Holmans says. Not only do these disorders share genetic mutations in common, he says, but the mutations actually cluster together to carry out essential processes in the body.

 

The findings may bolster the 2010 move by the National Institutes of Mental Health to develop clinically useful measures based on genetics and neuroscience. "Future studies of psychiatric illness should perhaps be based on the actual symptoms observed in the patients rather than the traditional [diagnostic] criteria," Holmans says, especially since many symptoms overlap among illnesses, and people can develop one set of symptoms and not the other.

 

The next step is to see if clusters of symptoms from psychiatric disorders match certain pathways in the body, Holmans says. Such an analysis might lead to developing drugs that target specific symptoms present in more than one disorder. It might even lead to a drug that decreases a person's likelihood of developing one of these disorders in the first place — although that application seems speculative at the moment.

 

THE STUDY MAY ALSO HELP SHIFT DOCTORS FROM ILLNESS CATEGORIES TO SYMPTOMATIC DIAGNOSIS

 

Of course, genetics aren't the whole story. A person's lived experience also plays a role in the risk of developing serious mental illness. Still, Holmans says, genetic factors are "pretty important." Finding a way to regulate these pathways might not prevent everyone who's at risk from developing a mental disorder, but it may one day give at-risk people better chances of avoiding mental illness, or of making their mental illness less severe.

 

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How Does Mindfulness Meditation Change Your Brain?
By Jason von Stietz
January 14, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

Mindfulness meditation has seen a recent boon in popularity. Scientists, athletes, and people from all walks of life are exploring its use.  But what does practicing mindfulness do to your brain? Recent research utilizing MRI scans have found that practicing mindfulness for eight weeks can lead to a decrease in the size of the amygdala. A recent article in Scientific American discusses recent research on the effects of this simple practice:  

 

It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade, and mindfulness websites like GetSomeHeadSpace.com are attracting millions of subscribers. It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers ofchronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such asirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

 

Yet until recently little was known about how a few hours of quiet reflection each week could lead to such an intriguing range of mental and physical effects. Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – permanently.

 

No fear


MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

 

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.

 

The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

 

The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

“The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” she says.

 

In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.

 

Lots of activities can boost the size of various parts of the pre-frontal cortex – video games, for example – but it’s the disconnection of our mind from its “stress center” that seems to give rise to a range of physical as well as mental health benefits, says Taren.

 

“I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”

 

Feel the pain


Things get even more interesting when researchers study mindfulness experts experiencing pain. Advanced meditators report feeling significantly less pain than non-meditators. Yet scans of their brains show slightly more activity in areas associated with pain than the non-meditators.

 

“It doesn’t fit any of the classic models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas,” says Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. The expert mindfulness meditators also showed “massive” reductions in activity in regions involved in appraising stimuli, emotion and memory, says Grant.

 

Again, two regions that are normally functionally connected, the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with the unpleasantness of pain) and parts of the prefrontal cortex, appear to become “uncoupled” in meditators.

 

“It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it – by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” says Grant. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”

 

Feeling Zen


It’s worth noting that although this study tested expert meditators, they were not in a meditative state – the pain-lessening effect is not something you have to work yourself up into a trance to achieve; instead, it seems to be a permanent change in their perception.

 

“We asked them specifically not to meditate,” says Grant. “There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different.”

 

Other studies on expert meditators – that is, subjects with at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt – discovered that their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person’s does when he or she is meditating.

 

At this level of expertise, the pre-frontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected. In fact, its size and activity start to decrease again, says Taren. “It’s as if that way of thinking has becomes the default, it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration.”

 

There’s still much to discover, especially in terms of what is happening when the brain comprehends the present moment, and what other effects mindfulness might have on people. Research on the technique is still in its infancy, and the imprecision of brain imaging means researchers have to make assumptions about what different regions of the brain are doing.

 

Both Grant and Taren, and others, are in the middle of large, unprecedented studies that aim to isolate the effects of mindfulness from other methods of stress-relief, and track exactly how the brain changes over a long period of meditation practice.

 

“I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” says Taren. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”

 

Perhaps it is the new age, quasi-spiritual connotations of meditation that have so far prevented mindfulness from being hailed as an antidote to our increasingly frantic world. Research is helping overcome this perception, and ten minutes of mindfulness could soon become an accepted, stress-busting part of our daily health regimen, just like going to the gym or brushing our teeth.

 

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How to Raise Intelligent Children? Teach Them to Value the Learning Process
By Jason von Stietz
January 8, 2015
Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

How do you raise intelligent children? Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., a researcher at Stanford University, asserts that in order to raise intelligent children “don’t tell them that they’re smart.”  Rather than instilling in children a belief that they are “special” and “gifted,” a dedication to learning and sustained effort should be nurtured in them. The “secret” to raising smart children was recently discussed in an article of Scientific American:

 

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son's confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

 

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

 

Praising children's innate abilities, as Jonathan's parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

 

The Opportunity of Defeat


I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon, all then at the University of Pennsylvania, had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can effect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

 

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people's beliefs about why they had failed.

 

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many more problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easier problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

 

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

 

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

 

Two Views of Intelligence


Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that's that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

 

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort or acquirable skills, not fixed ability, they can be remedied by perseverance. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

 

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, then at Columbia University, and Kali H. Trzesniewski, then at Stanford University, and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students' mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can't really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.

 

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

 

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with less regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

 

Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.

 

Along with psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, now at Columbia, I found a similar relation between mind-set and achievement in a 2003 study of 128 Columbia freshman premed students who were enrolled in a challenging general chemistry course. Although all the students cared about grades, the ones who earned the best grades were those who placed a high premium on learning rather than on showing that they were smart in chemistry. The focus on learning strategies, effort and persistence paid off for these students.

 

Confronting Deficiencies


A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships. In a study published in 1999 of 168 freshmen entering the University of Hong Kong, where all instruction and coursework are in English, three Hong Kong colleagues and I found that students with a growth mind-set who scored poorly on their English proficiency exam were far more inclined to take a remedial English course than were low-scoring students with a fixed mind-set. The students with a stagnant view of intelligence were presumably unwilling to admit to their deficit and thus passed up the opportunity to correct it.

 

A fixed mind-set can similarly hamper communication and progress in the workplace by leading managers and employees to discourage or ignore constructive criticism and advice. Research by psychologists Peter Heslin, now at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Don VandeWalle of Southern Methodist University and Gary Latham of the University of Toronto shows that managers who have a fixed mind-set are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their employees than are managers with a growth mind-set. Presumably, managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as works-in-progress and understand that they need feedback to improve, whereas bosses with a fixed mind-set are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their underlying level of competence. Assuming that other people are not capable of changing either, executives with a fixed mind-set are also less likely to mentor their underlings. But after Heslin, VandeWalle and Latham gave managers a tutorial on the value and principles of the growth mind-set, supervisors became more willing to coach their employees and gave more useful advice.

 

Mind-set can affect the quality and longevity of personal relationships as well, through people's willingness—or unwillingness—to deal with difficulties. Those with a fixed mind-set are less likely than those with a growth mind-set to broach problems in their relationships and to try to solve them, according to a 2006 study I conducted with psychologist Lara Kammrath, now at Wake Forest University. After all, if you think that human personality traits are more or less fixed, relationship repair seems largely futile. Individuals who believe people can change and grow, however, are more confident that confronting concerns in their relationships will lead to resolutions.

 

Proper Praise


How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about mathematical geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up children by telling them how brilliant and talented they are, our research suggests that this is misguided.

 

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, psychologist Claudia M. Mueller, now at Stanford, and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that's a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their process: “Wow … that's a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

 

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their process. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their hard work did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

 

Making Up Your Mind-set


In addition to encouraging a growth mind-set through praise for effort, parents and teachers can help children by providing explicit instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and I designed an eight-session workshop for 91 students whose math grades were declining in their first year of junior high. Forty-eight of the students received instruction in study skills only, whereas the others attended a combination of study skills sessions and classes in which they learned about the growth mind-set and how to apply it to schoolwork.

 

In the growth mind-set classes, students read and discussed an article entitled “You Can Grow Your Brain.” They were taught that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. From such instruction, many students began to see themselves as agents of their own brain development. Students who had been disruptive or bored sat still and took note. One particularly unruly boy looked up during the discussion and said, “You mean I don't have to be dumb?”

 

As the semester progressed, the math grades of the kids who learned only study skills continued to decline, whereas those of the students given the growth-mind-set training stopped falling and began to bounce back to their former levels. Despite being unaware that there were two types of instruction, teachers reported noticing significant motivational changes in 27 percent of the children in the growth mind-set workshop as compared with only 9 percent of students in the control group. One teacher wrote: “Your workshop has already had an effect. L [our unruly male student], who never puts in any extra effort and often doesn't turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it. He earned a B+. (He had been getting Cs and lower.)”

 

Other researchers have replicated our results. Psychologists Catherine Good, now at Baruch College, Joshua Aronson of New York University and Michael Inzlicht, now at the University of Toronto, reported in 2003 that a growth mind-set workshop raised the math and English achievement test scores of seventh graders. In a 2002 study Aronson, Good (then a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin) and their colleagues found that college students began to enjoy their schoolwork more, value it more highly and get better grades as a result of training that fostered a growth mind-set.

 

We have now encapsulated such instruction in an interactive computer program called Brainology. Its five modules teach students about the brain—what it does and how to make it work better. In a virtual brain lab, users can click on brain regions to determine their functions or on nerve endings to see how connections form or strengthen when people learn. Users can also advise virtual students with problems as a way of practicing how to handle schoolwork difficulties; additionally, users keep an online journal of their study practices.

 

New York City seventh graders who tested Brainology told us that the program had changed their view of learning and how to promote it. One wrote: “My favorite thing from Brainology is the neurons part where when u [sic] learn something there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture them when I'm in school.” A teacher said of the students who used the program: “They offer to practice, study, take notes, or pay attention to ensure that connections will be made.”

 

Teaching children such information is not just a ploy to get them to study. People may well differ in intelligence, talent and ability. And yet research is converging on the conclusion that great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift. Mozart, Edison, Curie, Darwin and Cézanne were not simply born with talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort. Similarly, hard work and discipline contribute more to school achievement than IQ does.

 

Such lessons apply to almost every human endeavor. For instance, many young athletes value talent more than hard work and have consequently become unteachable. Similarly, many people accomplish little in their jobs without constant praise and encouragement to maintain their motivation. If we foster a growth mind-set in our homes and schools, however, we will give our children the tools to succeed in their pursuits and to become productive workers and citizens.

 

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tDCS and Attention Bias Modification Training Lead to Decreases in Anxiety
By Jason von Stietz
January 2, 2015
Photo Credit: University of Western Australia

 

Researchers at Western University of Australia found that a combination of cognitive training and brain stimulation can lead to decreases in anxiety and depression. The study examined the use of cognitive bias modification and transcranial direct current stimulation in retraining maladaptive cognitive and attentional habits. The study was discussed in a recent article of MedicalXpress:

 

In collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford, the study revealed that around 20 minutes of targeted electrical stimulation to a region of the frontal cortex could dramatically improve the effectiveness of a computer-based task designed to retrain unhelpful patterns of attention that are known to maintain high levels of anxiety.

 

Lead author, Dr Patrick Clarke, of UWA's School of Psychology and Centre for the Advancement of Research on Emotion, said the cognitive retraining procedure, known as attention bias modification, had shown considerable promise as a treatment foranxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and may even help with overeating.

 

"It works by having people practise a simple task where they have to repeatedly ignore certain unhelpful information, such as angry faces, or negative words, that would normally grab their attention," Dr Clarke said.

 

"The more the task can help people to direct their attention away from this type of unhelpful information, the more benefit they tend to get from it in terms of lower anxiety.

 

"Our Oxford colleagues were previously able to identify an area of the frontal cortexthat they believed could be responsible for the crucial change in attention that these tasks try to achieve. What's particularly exciting about our study is that we've been able to show that delivering electrical stimulation to this same area can enhance the effectiveness of the training."

 

The stimulation technique, known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, can enhance activity in areas of the brain by applying a weak electrical current to the scalp.

 

"There has been some research looking into tDCS as a stand-alone treatment for conditions such as depression, but our findings suggest that it might be best used in conjunction with specific cognitive training tasks, such as the one we used," Dr Clarke said.

 

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