Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

13 AUGUST, 2012

The Science of Sleep: Dreaming, Depression, and How REM Sleep Regulates Negative Emotions

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“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation.”

For the past half-century, sleep researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright has produced some of the most compelling and influential work in the field, enlisting modern science in revising and expanding the theories of Jung and Freud about the role of sleep and dreams in our lives. In The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives (public library), Cartwright offers an absorbing history of sleep research, at once revealing how far we’ve come in understanding this vital third of our lives and how much still remains outside our grasp.

One particularly fascinating aspect of her research deals with dreaming as a mechanism for regulating negative emotion and the relationship between REM sleep and depression:

The more severe the depression, the earlier the first REM begins. Sometimes it starts as early as 45 minutes into sleep. That means these sleepers’ first cycle of NREM sleep amounts to about half the usual length of time. This early REM displaces the initial deep sleep, which is not fully recovered later in the night. This displacement of the first deep sleep is accompanied by an absence of the usual large outflow of growth hormone. The timing of the greatest release of human growth hormone (HGH) is in the first deep sleep cycle. The depressed have very little SWS [slow-wave sleep, Stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle] and no big pulse of HGH; and in addition to growth, HGH is related to physical repair. If we do not get enough deep sleep, our bodies take longer to heal and grow. The absence of the large spurt of HGH during the first deep sleep continues in many depressed patients even when they are no longer depressed (in remission).

The first REM sleep period not only begins too early in the night in people who are clinically depressed, it is also often abnormally long. Instead of the usual 10 minutes or so, this REM may last twice that. The eye movements too are abnormal — either too sparse or too dense. In fact, they are sometimes so frequent that they are called eye movement storms.

But what has perplexed researchers is that when these depressed patients are awakened 5 minutes into the first REM sleep episode, they’re unable to explain what they are experiencing. This complete lack of dream recall in depression has showed up in study after study, but it’s been unclear whether it’s due to patients’ reluctance to talk with researchers or to truly not forming and experiencing any dreams. That’s where recent technology has helped shed light:

Brain imaging technology has helped to shed light on this mystery. Scanning depressed patients while they sleep has shown that the emotion areas of the brain, the limbic and paralimbic systems, are activated at a higher level in REM than when these patients are awake. High activity in these areas is also common in REM sleep in nondepressed sleepers, but the depressed have even higher activity in these areas than do healthy control subjects. This might be expected — after all, while in REM these individuals also show higher activity in the executive cortex areas, those associated with rational thought and decision making. Nondepressed controls do not exhibit this activity in their REM brain imaging studies. This finding has been tentatively interpreted… as perhaps a response to the excessive activity in the areas responsible for emotions.

Cartwright spent nearly three decades investigating “how a mood disorder that affects cognition, motivation, and most of all the emotional state during waking shows itself in dreams.” What proved particularly difficult was understanding the basis for this poor dream recall during REM sleep, since anti-depressants suppress that stage of the sleep cycle, but early research suggested that this very suppression of REM might be the mechanism responsible for reinvigorating the depressed.

This brings us to the regulatory purpose of dreaming. Cartwright explains:

Despite differences in terminology, all the contemporary theories of dreaming have a common thread — they all emphasize that dreams are not about prosaic themes, not about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but about emotion, or what psychologists refer to as affect. What is carried forward from waking hours into sleep are recent experiences that have an emotional component, often those that were negative in tone but not noticed at the time or not fully resolved. One proposed purpose of dreaming, of what dreaming accomplishes (known as the mood regulatory function of dreams theory) is that dreaming modulates disturbances in emotion, regulating those that are troublesome. My research, as well as that of other investigators in this country and abroad, supports this theory. Studies show that negative mood is down-regulated overnight. How this is accomplished has had less attention.

I propose that when some disturbing waking experience is reactivated in sleep and carried forward into REM, where it is matched by similarity in feeling to earlier memories, a network of older associations is stimulated and is displayed as a sequence of compound images that we experience as dreams. This melding of new and old memory fragments modifies the network of emotional self-defining memories, and thus updates the organizational picture we hold of ‘who I am and what is good for me and what is not.’ In this way, dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of the event and so prepares the sleeper to wake ready to see things in a more positive light, to make a fresh start. This does not always happen over a single night; sometimes a big reorganization of the emotional perspective of our self-concept must be made — from wife to widow or married to single, say, and this may take many nights. We must look for dream changes within the night and over time across nights to detect whether a productive change is under way. In very broad strokes, this is the definition of the mood-regulatory function of dreaming, one basic to the new model of the twenty-four hour mind I am proposing.

Towards the end of the book, Cartwright explores the role of sleep and dreaming in consolidating what we call “the self,” with another admonition against memory’s self-editing capacity:

[In] good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a continuing act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.

Sleep is a busy time, interweaving streams of thought with emotional values attached, as they fit or challenge the organizational structure that represents our identity. One function of all this action, I believe, is to regulate disturbing emotion in order to keep it from disrupting our sleep and subsequent waking functioning.

The rest of The Twenty-four Hour Mind goes on to explore, through specific research case studies and sweeping syntheses of decades worth of research, everything from disorders like sleepwalking and insomnia to the role of sleep in knowledge retention, ideation, and problem-solving.

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10 AUGUST, 2012

10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent

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“Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.”

Buried in various corners of the web is a beautiful and poignant list titled Some Rules for Students and Teachers, attributed to John Cage, who passed away twenty years ago this week. The list, however, originates from celebrated artist and educator Sister Corita Kent and was created as part of a project for a class she taught in 1967-1968. It was subsequently appropriated as the official art department rules at the college of LA’s Immaculate Heart Convent, her alma mater, but was commonly popularized by Cage, whom the tenth rule cites directly. Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime partner and the love of his life, kept a copy of it in the studio where his company rehearsed until his death. It appears in Stewart Brand’s cult-classic Essential Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1986, the year Kent passed away.

The list, which can be found in Sister Corita’s Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit (public library), touches on a number of previously discussed themes and materials, including Bertrand Russell’s 10 commandments of teaching, the importance of embracing uncertainty, the pivotal role of work ethic, the intricate osmosis between intuition and intellect, and the crucial habit of being fully awake to everything.

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

For more of Cage’s singular lens on life and art, see the sublime recent biography Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists , without a doubt one of my favorite books of all time.

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10 AUGUST, 2012

The Science of How Music Enchants the Brain, Animated

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How harmony, melody, and rhythm trigger the same reward systems that drive our desires for food and sex.

The profound connection between music and the brain has long fascinated scientists and philosophers alike, and has even shaped the course of our evolution. The wonderful duo Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, better known as AsapSCIENCE, breaks down music’s ability to create a state of arousal by inducing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which also regulates the neurochemistry of love, offsetting a reward circuit similar to the one drugs exploit — something I can certainly attest to as a hopeless music addict.

In the same way that a drug-induced dopamine surge leaves you craving more, music becomes addictive — the dopamine tells your body it was rewarded and creates a desire to seek out more.

For more, see these 7 essential books on music, emotion, and the brain.

It’s Okay To Be Smart

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09 AUGUST, 2012

Why Success Breeds Success: The Science of “The Winner Effect”

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Biochemistry and the self-reinforcing upward spiral of winning.

The past century of science has demonstrated the pivotal role of biochemistry in such human phenomena as love, attraction, and lust. But to consider that individual neurobiology might impact things as rational and complex as, say, stock markets seems rather radical. Yet that’s precisely what trader-turned-neuroscientist John Coates explores in The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust (public library) — an ambitious look at how body chemistry affects high-stakes financial trading, in which Coates sets out to construct — and deconstruct — a “universal biology of risk-taking.”

One particularly fascinating aspect of risk-taking has to do with what is known as “the winner effect,” a self-reinforcing osmosis of the two key hormones driving the biochemistry of success and failure — testosterone, which Coates calls “the hormone of economic bubbles,” and cortisol, “the hormone of economic busts.” In traders — as in athletes, and in the rest of us mere mortals when faced with analogous circumstances — testosterone rises sharply and durably during financial booms, inducing a state of risk-seeking euphoria and providing a positive feedback loop in which success itself provides a competitive advantage. By contrast, the stress hormone cortisol spikes during financial downturns; traders with sustained high levels of cortisol become more risk-averse and timid, ultimately being less competitive.

Coates explains:

The euphoria, overconfidence and heightened appetite for risk that grip traders during a bull market may result from a phenomenon known in biology as the ‘winner effect.’

[…]

Biologists studying animals in the field had noticed that an animal winning a fight or a competition for turf was more likely to win its next fight. This phenomenon had been observed in a large number of species. Such a finding raised the possibility that the mere act of winning contributes to further wins. But before biologists could draw such a conclusion they had to consider a number of alternative explanations. For example, maybe an animal keeps winning simply because it is physically larger than its rivals. To rule out possibilities such as this, biologists constructed controlled experiments in which they pitted animals that were equally matched in size, or rather that were equally matched in what is called ‘resource holding potential,’ in other words the total physical resources — muscular, metabolic, cardiovascular — an animal can draw on in an all-out fight. They also controlled for motivations, because a small, hungry animal eating a carcass can successfully chase off a larger, well-fed animal. Yet even when animals were evenly matched for size (or resources) and motivation, a pure winner effect nonetheless emerged.

An intriguing correlation, certainly, but what is the causal mechanism at work? Scientists have suggested that there are several elements at play: First, testosterone levels rise when animals face off, producing anabolic effects on muscle mass and hemoglobin, quickening reactions, improving visual acuity, and increasing the animal’s persistence and fearlessness. Then, once the fight is over, the winning animal emerges with even higher levels of testosterone, and the loser with lower ones. Coates sums it up thusly:

Life for the winner is more glorious. It enters the next round of competition with already elevated testosterone levels, and this androgenic priming gives it an edge that increases its chances of winning yet again. Through this process an animal can be drawn into a positive-feedback lop, in which victory leads to raised testosterone levels which in turn leads to further victory.

So does this winner effect also occur in humans? Coates thinks so. He cites a study, in which researchers rigorously examined a database of 630,000 professional tennis matches and found that the winner of the first set had a 60% chance of winning the second one and, since the win in these matches comes down to the best of three sets, winning the match itself. (Anecdotally, a quick glance at Michael Phelps’s Olympic scorecard would suggest a similar conclusion.)

The precompetitive surge in testosterone has been documented in a number of sports, such as tennis, wrestling and hockey, as well as in less physical competitions, such as chess, even medical exams. Winning athletes in sports experience a postgame spike in testosterone, suggesting that a positive-feedback loop is indeed the physiological substrate to winning and losing streaks. Incidentally, these testosterone-driven sporting victories appear to be more common when an athlete is on home turf, the so-called home-field advantage. Athletes on a winning streak may thus have a very different body chemistry than those on a losing streak. IN all these experiments, with both animals and humans, the winners experienced a self-reinforcing upward spiral of testosterone.

Tying the research back to the human condition itself, Coates puts it rather poetically:

We hold the keys to victory within us, but usually cannot find them.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf goes on to examine how this intricate exchange of information between body and brain coalesces into what we call “gut feelings,” reminding us that we are, after all, remarkable and complicated machines.

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07 AUGUST, 2012

Creative Evolution: French Philosopher Henri Bergson on Intuition vs. the Intellect, 1907

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“That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.”

“The intellect by itself is the seat of trouble,” wrote Anaïs Nin in her diary in 1942.

A recent passing mention in a chapter on the origin of “nothing” in Jim Holt’s excellent new book on why the universe exists reminded me of Creative Evolution (public library; public domain) by French philosopher and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Henri Bergson (1859-1941) — an alternative account of the mechanisms underpinning Darwin’s evolution, originally published in 1907, which went on to become an enormously influential work in the philosophy of science.

In this particular excerpt, Bergson takes something we’ve previously explored in the context of the individual’s creative process — the role of intuition and its supremacy over rationality — and uses it as the lens on science and nature as a whole:

We see that the intellect, so skillful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigor, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use.

[…]

The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.

Instinct, on the contrary, is molded on the very form of life. While intelligence treats everything mechanically, instinct proceeds, so to speak, organically. If the consciousness that slumbers in it should awake, if it were wound up into knowledge instead of being wound off into action, if we could ask and it could reply, it would give up to us the most intimate secrets of life. For it only carries out further the work by which life organizes matter–so that we cannot say, as has often been shown, where organization ends and where instinct begins. When the little chick is breaking its shell with a peck of its beak, it is acting by instinct, and yet it does but carry on the movement which has borne it through embryonic life. Inversely, in the course of embryonic life itself (especially when the embryo lives freely in the form of a larva), many of the acts accomplished must be referred to instinct. The most essential of the primary instincts are really, therefore, vital processes. The potential consciousness that accompanies them is generally actualized only at the outset of the act, and leaves the rest of the process to go on by itself. It would only have to expand more widely, and then dive into its own depth completely, to be one with the generative force of life.

[…]

[I]t is impossible for intelligence to reabsorb instinct. That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.

A man born blind, who had lived among others born blind, could not be made to believe in the possibility of perceiving a distant object without first perceiving all the objects in between. Yet vision performs this miracle. In a certain sense the blind man is right, since vision, having its origin in the stimulation of the retina, by the vibrations of the light, is nothing else, in fact, but a retinal touch. Such is indeed the scientific explanation, for the function of science is just to
express all perceptions in terms of touch. But we have shown elsewhere that the philosophical explanation of perception (if it may still be called an explanation) must be of another kind. Now instinct also is a knowledge at a distance. It has the same relation to intelligence that vision has to touch. Science cannot do otherwise than express it in terms of intelligence; but in so doing it constructs an imitation of instinct rather than penetrates within it.

“Real science,” as Stuart Firestein keenly observed, “is a revision in progress, always” — as is real life itself. How frequently we forget — rationalize away — the role of instinct in that ceaseless revision.

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