Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

23 JUNE, 2014

Rethinking the Placebo Effect: How Our Minds Actually Affect Our Bodies

By:

The startling physiological effects of loneliness, optimism, and meditation.

In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” — an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion (public library) — a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. As Webb elegantly puts it, “nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.”

Among the most intensely interesting pieces in the collection is one by science journalist Jo Marchant, who penned the fascinating story of the world’s oldest analog computer. Titled “Heal Thyself,” the piece explores how the way we think about medical treatments shapes their very real, very physical effects on our bodies — an almost Gandhi-like proposition, except rooted in science rather than philosophy. Specifically, Marchant brings to light a striking new dimension of the placebo effect that runs counter to how the phenomenon has been conventionally explained. She writes:

It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself — rather than a particular drug — might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.

She cites a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, in which people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” As Marchant notes, this is absolutely true, in a meta kind of way. What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine, philosophy, and spirituality — despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug — it was a medical “nothing” — but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

This dovetails into recent research confirming what Helen Keller fervently believed by putting some serious science behind the value of optimism. Marchant sums up the findings:

Realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress — the belief that we are at risk — triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too — feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself…

Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response — the opposite of fight-or-flight.

Just as helpful as taking a rosy view of the future is having a rosy view of yourself. High “self-enhancers” — people who see themselves in a more positive light than others see them — have lower cardiovascular responses to stress and recover faster, as well as lower baseline cortisol levels.

Marchant notes that it’s as beneficial to amplify the world’s perceived positivity as it is to amplify our own — something known as our “self-enhancement bias,” a type of self-delusion that helps keep us sane. But the same applies to our attitudes toward others as well — they too can impact our physical health. She cites University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has dedicated his career to studying how social isolation affects individuals. Though solitude might be essential for great writing, being alone a special form of art, and single living the defining modality of our time, loneliness is a different thing altogether — a thing Cacioppo found to be toxic:

Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

Marchant quotes another researcher, Charles Raison at Atlanta’s Emory University, who studies mind–body interactions:

It’s probably the single most powerful behavioral finding in the world… People who have rich social lives and warm, open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.

Marchant points to specific research by Cacioppo, who found that “in lonely people, genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response were up-regulated, and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active, too.” Marchant explains the findings and the essential caveat to them:

[Cacioppo] suggests that our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.

Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, says Cacioppo, because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. Cacioppo thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies … he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.

Illustration by André François for 'Little Boy Brown,' a lovely vintage ode to childhood and loneliness. Click image for more.

Paradoxically, science suggests that one of the most important interventions to offer benefits that counter the ill effects of loneliness has to do with solitude — or, more precisely, regimented solitude in the form of meditation. Marchant notes that trials on the effects of meditation have been small — something I find troublesomely emblematic of the short-sightedness with which we approach mental health as we continue to prioritize the physical in both our clinical subsidies and our everyday lives (how many people have a workout routine compared to those with a meditation practice?); even within the study of mental health, the vast majority of medical research focuses on the effects of a physical substance — a drug of some sort — on the mind, with very little effort directed at understanding the effects of the mind on the physical body.

Still, the modest body of research on meditation is heartening. Marchant writes:

There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients and people with cancer, protects against a relapse in major depression, soothes skin conditions and even slows the progression of HIV. Meditation might even slow the aging process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides and so play a role in aging. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues showed in 2011 that levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a control group.

As with social interaction, meditation probably works largely by influencing stress response pathways. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels, and one study showed they have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

If you’re intimidated by the time investment, take heart — fMRI studies show that as little as 11 hours of total training, or an hour every other day for three weeks, can produce structural changes in the brain. If you’re considering dipping your toes in the practice, I wholeheartedly recommend meditation teacher Tara Brach, who has changed my life.

But perhaps the most striking finding in exploring how our beliefs affect our bodies has to do with finding your purpose and, more than that, finding meaning in life. The most prominent studies in the field have defined purpose rather narrowly, as religious belief, but even so, the findings offer an undeniably intriguing signpost to further exploration. Marchant synthesizes the research, its criticism, and its broader implications:

In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. More than 40 percent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 percent of those judged to have little faith. Are your hackles rising? You’re not alone. Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.

Critics of these studies … point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church.

[…]

Others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study, the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself. He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

Philosopher Daniel Dennett was right all along in asserting that the secret of happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Each of the essays in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion is nothing short of fascinating. Complement them with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the science of “something” and “nothing.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 JUNE, 2014

Legendary Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Why the Capacity for Boredom Is Essential for a Full Life

By:

“Boredom … protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be.”

When was the last time you were bored — truly bored — and didn’t instantly spring to fill your psychic emptiness by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? The last time you stood in line at the store or the boarding gate or the theater and didn’t reach for your smartphone seeking deliverance from the dreary prospect of forced idleness? A century and a half ago, Kierkegaard argued that this impulse to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness. A century later, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary about the creative purpose of boredom. And yet ours is a culture that equates boredom with the opposite of creativity and goes to great lengths to offer us escape routes.

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips, is “What shall we do now?” In an essay “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

Because of how profoundly our early experiences shape our psychoemotional patterns, it’s inescapable to contemplate how this translates into our adult capacities. How easily and uncomfortably the phrase “modern adult” can replace every mention of the child in the following passage from Phillips’s essay:

Experiencing a frustrating pause in his usually mobile attention and absorption, the bored child quickly becomes preoccupied by his lack of preoccupation. Not exactly waiting for someone else, he is, as it were, waiting for himself. Neither hopeless nor expectant, neither intent nor resigned, the child is in a dull helplessness of possibility and dismay. In simple terms the child always has two concurrent, overlapping projects: the project of self-sufficiency in which use of, and need for, the other is interpreted, by the child, as a concession; and a project of mutuality that owns up to a dependence. In the banal crisis of boredom, the conflict between the two projects is once again renewed.

It is unsurprising then, Phillips notes, that the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips adds:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

That, perhaps, is what Cheryl Strayed alluded to so beautifully nearly twenty years later, when she wrote that “the useless days will add up to something [because] these things are your becoming.”

Illustration by D.B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Phillips goes on to consider more directly the evolution of boredom from childhood into adulthood:

As adults boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one’s time? What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing?

[…]

We can think of boredom as a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire… In boredom, we can also say, there are two assumptions, two impossible options: there is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire. But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom… In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.

[…]

Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. So that the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know what he is waiting… Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis; and this, we can say, is integral to the function of boredom as a kind of blank condensation of psychic life.

Lamenting that we tend to treat boredom as a handicap and to deny it as an opportunity, Phillips cites the story of “a precociously articulate eleven-year-old boy” who was once a patient of his, brought in by a mother who believed her son was “more miserable than he realized,” in large part due to his “misleading self-representation.” Phillips found that this superficial self, which the boy donned as a shield for disapproval, was largely tied to the experience of boredom. Once again, Phillips offers a passage all too intimately applicable to the modern human condition beyond just childhood:

[The boy] was mostly in a state of what I can only describe as blank exuberance about how full his life was. As he was terrified of his own self-doubt, I asked him very few questions, and they were always tactful. But at one point, more direct than I intended to be, I asked him if he was ever bored. He was surprised by the question and replied with a gloominess I hadn’t seen before in this relentlessly cheerful child, “I’m not allowed to be bored.” I asked him what would happen if he allowed himself to be bored, and he paused for the first time, I think, in the treatment, and said, “I wouldn’t know what I was looking forward to, ” and was, momentarily, quite panic-stricken by this thought.

Phillips directed the treatment toward the boy’s “false self” and his belief that being good, by the token of his mother’s approval, meant having lots of interests that didn’t leave room for the vice of boredom. Over the course of the following year, Phillips helped the boy develop his capacity to be bored. He recounts:

I once suggested to him that being good was a way of stopping people knowing him, to which he agreed but added, “When I’m bored I don’t know myself.”

Illustration by from 'The Hole' by Øyvind Torseter. Click image for more.

This, I think, is how we as grownups in the modern world often go through life. Our version of being good is being productive. Choosing constant distraction or busyness — two sides of the same coin — we seek to avoid not boredom and passivity, but end up robbing ourselves of presence, because presence presupposed a detachment from what we look forward to, what is to come, and a mindful groundedness in what is.

This is the cultural pathology of our time: If we stopped doing what we do, we might not know who we are. As I’ve reflected before, to cultivate the art of presence in the age of productivity is no easy feat.

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is a beautiful and psyche-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with this cultural history of boredom, then revisit Phillips’s fantastic conversation with Paul Holdengräber on why psychoanalysis is like literature for the soul.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

18 JUNE, 2014

The Psychology of Your Future Self and How Your Present Illusions Hinder Your Future Happiness

By:

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

Philosopher Joshua Knobe recently posed a perplexing question in contemplating the nature of the self: If the person you will be in 30 years — the person for whom you plan your life now by working toward career goals and putting money aside in retirements plans — is invariably different from the person you are today, what makes that future person “you”? What makes them worthy of your present self’s sacrifices and considerations? That’s precisely what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores in this short and pause-giving TED talk on the psychology of your future self and how to avoid the mistakes you’re likely to make in trying to satisfy that future self with your present choices. Picking up from his now-classic 2006 book Stumbling on Happiness (public library), Gilbert argues that we’re bedeviled by a “fundamental misconception about the power of time” and a dangerous misconception known as “the end of history illusion” — at any point along our personal journey, we tend to believe that who we are at that moment is the final destination of our becoming. Which, of course, is not only wrong but a source of much of our unhappiness.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’re ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.

Gilbert explores this paradox in greater, pleasantly uncomfortable-making, strangely reassuring detail in Stumbling on Happiness — one of these essential books on the art-science of happiness. He writes:

What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes? Would you race upstairs and light that Marlboro you’ve been hiding in your sock drawer since the Ford administration? Would you waltz into your boss’s office and present him with a detailed description of his personal defects? Would you drive out to that steakhouse near the new mall and order a T-bone, medium rare, with an extra side of the really bad cholesterol?

The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor’s witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.

[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.

This gives another layer of meaning to Albert Camus’s assertion that “those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Our in-the-moment principles and attachments, after all, may be of no concern to our future selves in their pursuit of happiness.

In the remainder of Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert, who argues that “the mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are also lawful, regular, and systematic,” explores the sometimes subtle, sometimes radical changes we can make in our everyday cognitive strategies in order to avoid ending up unhappy and disappointed by unlearning because we set goals for the people we are when we set them rather than the people we become when we reach them.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.