Blog Explanation

This blog brings together content that is noticeable, important or otherwise interesting from a human givens point of view.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Rethink Your Thoughts about Thinking Targeting metacognition—our beliefs about thoughts—might alleviate mood disorders and even schizophrenia Jun 12, 2014 |By Tori Rodriguez

Your beliefs about the way you think can shape your life in surprising ways. A spate of recent findings suggest that targeting such metacognition can help relieve mood and anxiety disorders, and it may even reduce symptoms of psychosis.
Metacognition often takes the form of a value judgment about one's thoughts, such as “It's bad that I overanalyze everything.” Research has shown that these metacognitive beliefs can play an important role in obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and generalized anxiety disorder, among others. In particular, they may matter more than the way we frame situations in our mind, such as by focusing on the negative aspects of a life event. That framing, called cognitive appraisal, is typically addressed in psychotherapy, but metacognition is not, perhaps to the patient's detriment, explains psychologist Jennifer L. Hudson of Macquarie University in Australia. A study published last fall in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found that among 83 children, those with anxiety disorders held more negative beliefs (“Worrying might make me go crazy”) and positive beliefs (“Worrying helps me feel better”) about worry than the nonanxious children. “We think that these beliefs might play a causal, or at least a maintaining, role in the anxiety disorders,” says Hudson, a co-author of the study.
Metacognitive therapy can successfully treat mood and anxiety disorders, according to a growing body of research. Developed in 2008 by Adrian Wells, a clinical psychologist at the University of Manchester in England, the therapy teaches patients to recognize and reframe metacognitive thoughts that reinforce unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as “my fretting is uncontrollable,” much in the same way cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) targets maladaptive beliefs along the lines of “the world is unsafe.” The technique also helps people become more flexible in the way they think about their thoughts, instead of defaulting to rumination, for example.
One small study published last year in the Japanese Journal of Personality examined whether metacognitive therapy could reduce depressive rumination by disproving positive beliefs about this style of thinking, such as “rumination increases insight into situations.” Twelve undergraduate students with high rumination scores were randomly assigned to an intervention group for two weeks, and 11 others were assigned to a no-treatment control group. The technique reduced the students' tendency to dwell on their negative thoughts.
More surprisingly, a small study from the June issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that metacognitive therapy reduced symptoms of psychosis. Citing the mixed results yielded by studies of CBT in treating psychotic disorders, researchers gave 10 patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorders up to 12 sessions of metacognitive therapy over a nine-month period. At the end of treatment, five of the participants had at least a 25 percent decrease in symptoms. Four of the five maintained this improvement at follow-up three months later.
Although larger studies are needed, many clinicians and researchers are now beginning to believe treatment should go beyond addressing a patient's specific thoughts to illuminate the underlying beliefs that might be reinforcing them. “Metacognitive factors are crucial in determining the unhelpful thinking styles in psychological disorders,” says Robin Bailey, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Manchester and author of a recent paper showing that certain metacognitions are positively correlated with health anxiety. “How a person thinks may be more important than what a person thinks.”

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Language Moves Your Inner Dancer There are deep, surprising connections between words and the brain’s sense of motion through space Apr 22, 2014 |By Lindsay Harris

If you are sitting at a computer right now, take a look at your keyboard. If your keyboard looks like most, the “delete” key is further away from you than the “shift” key. Go ahead and hold down the “shift” key, and don’t release it until I tell you to.
This was the procedure followed by participants in a study recently published in the journal PLoS One. Participants were seated in front of a response apparatus with two buttons, one closer than the other. They read sentences, displayed one word at a time, while they depressed one of the buttons and their brain activity was recorded with scalp electrodes. After reading the last word in the sentence, their instructions were to move their hand to the other button.
Still holding down the shift key? Okay, move your hand to “delete” after you finish reading the following sentence:
As e-mail becomes more common, the amount of snail mail most people receive grows less and less.
The findings of this seemingly simple study might surprise you. On average, participants took longer to move their hand upward (e.g., from “shift” to “delete”) after reading a sentence that ended with the expression “less and less” than after reading a sentence that ended with “more and more.” The researchers argued that moving one’s hand in an upward motion is more difficult than moving one’s hand in a downward motion after reading “less and less,” because encountering that phrase activates areas of motor cortex that are also activated when lowering—not raising—one’s hand.
These were not the first researchers to find evidence in support of the theory of embodied simulation, the notion that we understand the meanings of words by activating the parts of our brains we use to interact with them. (E.g., I know what you mean when you say “e-mail,” the theory goes, because motor regions of the brain I use to place my fingers on a mouse, and to move my eyes across a screen, are activated when I hear the word.) Other studies have shown that it takes longer to move your hand toward you after reading the sentence “Close the drawer,” for example, or to press a button with your fingers outspread after reading a sentence describing an action that requires a closed hand, like hammering a nail.
The PLoS One study, however, shows that our understanding of abstract quantifiers, not just concrete language, is grounded in perceptual simulation. The linguist George Lakoff has argued that we understand abstractions through the use of conceptual metaphors. For example, the colorless, shapeless, weightless quantifier “more” is understood in terms of the concrete direction “up.” (The metaphor results in idioms such as “rising incomes” and “high numbers.”) The fact that the “more is up” metaphor seems natural to us—the more one has of something, the taller the pile of it becomes, and the higher one must raise one’s arm to add to the pile—is why the metaphor was adopted in the first place. The PLoS One study, led by Connie Qun Guan of Beijing’s University of Science and Technology, provides evidence that a motor simulation of the act of stacking is undertaken whenever one encounters the phrase “more and more.”
Guan’s study is also the first to provide neurophysiological evidence of a causal relationship between sensorimotor activity and language comprehension during silent reading. The fact that we have a hard time lowering our hand when we see “more” suggests that the brain simulates an upward movement when it encounters the word, but not necessarily that the simulation is what allows us access to the word’s meaning. In principle, comprehension of language might lead to the activation of neural motor systems (you see the word “more” and access its meaning; you simulate stacking; and then you have trouble lowering your hand) rather than the other way around (the simulation triggered by seeing the word “more” allows you access to its meaning; difficulty lowering your hand is a secondary effect of the simulation). Guan’s team, however, argues that the electrical signals recorded from participants’ brains during the experiment indicated a motor response to key words occurred faster than it would take to comprehend a word and then perform a simulation.  Motor cortex was active shortly after presentation of a key word, signaling that a simulation occurred early on in the chain of neural events.
The embodied simulation phenomenon has practical implications. By now we have all heard the claims that talking on the phone while driving is dangerous, because it diverts a portion of our limited attentional resources away from the road. The research supporting these claims is strong, but evidence for embodied simulation suggests that chatting-while-driving is dangerous for another reason. If part of your sensorimotor system is engaged in language comprehension while you are having a conversation, then less of it is engaged in processing incoming visual, auditory, and tactile information from the real world. The impairment is so slight as to be insignificant in most situations—not much tends to happen in a second’s time during a walk around the block or a game of Scrabble, and a temporary reduction in visual processing capacity during these activities will at worst lead to a stubbed toe, or a double letter score where you might have had a triple.  One second in a car moving at 60 miles per hour, however, equals 88 feet.  Yet one more unanticipated consequence of our modern, speeded-up world—and one more reason to shut off that cell phone or shush the person in the passenger seat when navigating a sticky situation.