Archive for March 2010
Fast food is not only bad for your body, but may also harm your bank account.
Eating habits have shifted dramatically over the last few decades–fast food has become a multibillion dollar industry that has widespread influence on what and how we eat. The original idea behind fast food is to increase efficiency, allowing people to quickly finish a meal so they can move on to other matters. Researchers at the Rotman School of Management, however, have found that the mere exposure to fast food and related symbols can make people impatient, increasing preference for time saving products, and reducing willingness to save.
“Fast food represents a culture of time efficiency and instant gratification,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, who co-wrote the paper with colleague Sanford DeVoe to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. “The problem is that the goal of saving time gets activated upon exposure to fast food regardless of whether time is a relevant factor in the context. For example, walking faster is time efficient when one is trying to make a meeting, but it’s a sign of impatience when one is going for a stroll in the park. We’re finding that the mere exposure to fast food is promoting a general sense of haste and impatience regardless of the context.”
In one experiment, the researchers flashed fast food symbols, such as the golden arch of McDonald’s, on a computer screen for a few milliseconds, so quick that participants couldn’t consciously identify what they saw. They found that this unconscious exposure increased participants’ reading speed in a subsequent task compared to those in a control condition, even when there was no advantage to finishing sooner. In another study, participants who recalled a time when they eat at a food restaurant subsequently preferred time-saving products — such as two-in-one shampoo — over regular products. A final experiment found people exposed to fast food logos exhibited greater reluctance for saving — choose a smaller immediate payment rather than opting for a much larger delayed payment.
“Fast food is one of many technologies that allow us to save time,” says Sanford DeVoe, “But the ironic thing is that by constantly reminding us of time efficiency, these technologies can lead us to feel much more impatience. A fast food culture that extols saving time doesn’t just change the way we eat but it can also fundamentally alter the way they experience our time. For example, leisure activities that are supposed to be relaxing can come to be experienced through the color glasses of impatience.”
The researchers point out that it’s impossible to know whether fast food in part caused the value for time efficiency in our culture or is merely a consequence of it — but it’s clear from their findings that exposure to fast food reinforces an emphasis on impatience and instant gratification. “Given the role that financial impatience played in the current economic crisis,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, “we need to move beyond counting calories when we examine the consequences of fast food as it is also influencing our everyday psychology and behavior in a wider set of domains than has been previously thought.”
Psychological Science, (in press)
Chen-Bo Zhong Sanford E. DeVoe.
Abstract Based on recent advancements in the behavioral priming literature, this paper explores how incidental exposure to fast food can induce impatient behaviors and choices outside of the eating domain. We found in three experiments that even an unconscious exposure to fast food symbols can automatically increase reading speed when under no time pressure and that thinking about fast food increases preferences for time-saving products while there are potentially many other product dimensions to consider. More strikingly, we found that the mere exposure to fast food symbols reduced people’s willingness to save and led them to prefer immediate gain over greater future return, ultimately harming their economic interest. Thus, the way we eat has far reaching influences (often unconscious) on behaviors and choices unrelated to eating.
Forget about crystals and candles, and about sitting and breathing in awkward ways. Meditation research explores how the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination and intentional thinking. Electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed.
“Given the popularity and effectiveness of meditation as a means of alleviating stress and maintaining good health, there is a pressing need for a rigorous investigation of how it affects brain function,” says Professor Jim Lagopoulos of Sydney University, Australia. Lagopoulos is the principal investigator of a joint study between his university and researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) on changes in electrical brain activity during nondirective meditation.
Constant brain waves
Whether we are mentally active, resting or asleep, the brain always has some level of electrical activity. The study monitored the frequency and location of electrical brain waves through the use of EEG (electroencephalography). EEG electrodes were placed in standard locations of the scalp using a custom-made hat
Participants were experienced practitioners of Acem Meditation, a nondirective method developed in Norway. They were asked to rest, eyes closed, for 20 minutes, and to meditate for another 20 minutes, in random order. The abundance and location of slow to fast electrical brain waves (delta, theta, alpha, beta) provide a good indication of brain activity.
Relaxed attention with theta
During meditation, theta waves were most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain.
“These types of waves likely originate from a relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences. Here lies a significant difference between meditation and relaxing without any specific technique,” emphasizes Lagopoulos.
“Previous studies have shown that theta waves indicate deep relaxation and occur more frequently in highly experienced meditation practitioners. The source is probably frontal parts of the brain, which are associated with monitoring of other mental processes.”
“When we measure mental calm, these regions signal to lower parts of the brain, inducing the physical relaxation response that occurs during meditation.”
Silent experiences with alpha
Alpha waves were more abundant in the posterior parts of the brain during meditation than during simple relaxation. They are characteristic of wakeful rest.
“This wave type has been used as a universal sign of relaxation during meditation and other types of rest,” comments Professor Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU. “The amount of alpha waves increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks.This is a sign of deep relaxation, — but it does not mean that the mind is void.”
Neuroimaging studies by Malia F. Mason and co-workers at Dartmouth College NH suggest that the normal resting state of the brain is a silent current of thoughts, images and memories that is not induced by sensory input or intentional reasoning, but emerges spontaneously “from within.”
“Spontaneous wandering of the mind is something you become more aware of and familiar with when you meditate,” continues Ellingsen, who is an experienced practitioner. “This default activity of the brain is often underestimated. It probably represents a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them into perspective and lays them to rest.”
Different from sleep
Delta waves are characteristic of sleep. There was little delta during the relaxing and meditative tasks, confirming that nondirective meditation is different from sleep.
Beta waves occur when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue. EEG showed few beta waves during meditation and resting.
“These findings indicate that you step away from problem solving both when relaxing and during meditation,” says Ellingsen.
Nondirective versus concentration
Several studies indicate better relaxation and stress management by meditation techniques where you refrain from trying to control the content of the mind.
“These methods are often described as nondirective, because practitioners do not actively pursue a particular experience or state of mind. They cultivate the ability to tolerate the spontaneous wandering of the mind without getting too much involved. Instead of concentrating on getting away from stressful thought and emotions, you simple let them pass in an effortless way.”
Take home message
Nondirective meditation yields more marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention, than just resting without any specific mental technique.
he Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. November 2009, 15(11): 1187-1192. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0113.
Increased Theta and Alpha EEG Activity During Nondirective Meditation.
Jim Lagopoulos, Jian Xu, Inge Rasmussen, Alexandra Vik, Gin S. Malhi, Carl F. Eliassen, Ingrid E. Arntsen, Jardar G. Sæther, Stig Hollup, Are Holen, Svend Davanger, Øyvind Ellingsen
Abstract Objectives: In recent years, there has been significant uptake of meditation and related relaxation techniques, as a means of alleviating stress and maintaining good health. Despite its popularity, little is known about the neural mechanisms by which meditation works, and there is a need for more rigorous investigations of the underlying neurobiology. Several electroencephalogram (EEG) studies have reported changes in spectral band frequencies during meditation inspired by techniques that focus on concentration, and in comparison much less has been reported on mindfulness and nondirective techniques that are proving to be just as popular. Design: The present study examined EEG changes during nondirective meditation. The investigational paradigm involved 20 minutes of acem meditation, where the subjects were asked to close their eyes and adopt their normal meditation technique, as well as a separate 20-minute quiet rest condition where the subjects were asked to close their eyes and sit quietly in a state of rest. Both conditions were completed in the same experimental session with a 15-minute break in between. Results: Significantly increased theta power was found for the meditation condition when averaged across all brain regions. On closer examination, it was found that theta was significantly greater in the frontal and temporal–central regions as compared to the posterior region. There was also a significant increase in alpha power in the meditation condition compared to the rest condition, when averaged across all brain regions, and it was found that alpha was significantly greater in the posterior region as compared to the frontal region. Conclusions: These findings from this study suggest that nondirective meditation techniques alter theta and alpha EEG patterns significantly more than regular relaxation, in a manner that is perhaps similar to methods based on mindfulness or concentration.
The brains of psychopaths appear to be wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost, new research from Vanderbilt University finds. However suspicious I find research that administers volunteers a dose of amphetamine, or speed, and then scannes their brains using PET, the research uncovers the role of the brain’s reward system in psychopathy and opens a new area of study for understanding what drives these individuals. Let us just hope, that the faint light this study casts in the darkness of our understanding psychopathy is not a psychopath with a torch seeking his rewards after this study.
“This study underscores the importance of neurological research as it relates to behavior,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said. “The findings may help us find new ways to intervene before a personality trait becomes antisocial behavior.”
The results were published March 14, 2010, in Nature Neuroscience.
“Psychopaths are often thought of as cold-blooded criminals who take what they want without thinking about consequences,” Joshua Buckholtz, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. “We found that a hyper-reactive dopamine reward system may be the foundation for some of the most problematic behaviors associated with psychopathy, such as violent crime, recidivism and substance abuse.”
Previous research on psychopathy has focused on what these individuals lack — fear, empathy and interpersonal skills. The new research, however, examines what they have in abundance — impulsivity, heightened attraction to rewards and risk taking. Importantly, it is these latter traits that are most closely linked with the violent and criminal aspects of psychopathy.
“There has been a long tradition of research on psychopathy that has focused on the lack of sensitivity to punishment and a lack of fear, but those traits are not particularly good predictors of violence or criminal behavior,” David Zald, associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry and co-author of the study, said. “Our data is suggesting that something might be happening on the other side of things. These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward — to the carrot — that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick.”
To examine the relationship between dopamine and psychopathy, the researchers used positron emission tomography, or PET, imaging of the brain to measure dopamine release, in concert with a functional magnetic imaging, or fMRI, probe of the brain’s reward system.
“The really striking thing is with these two very different techniques we saw a very similar pattern — both were heightened in individuals with psychopathic traits,” Zald said.
Study volunteers were given a personality test to determine their level of psychopathic traits. These traits exist on a spectrum, with violent criminals falling at the extreme end of the spectrum. However, a normally functioning person can also have the traits, which include manipulativeness, egocentricity, aggression and risk taking.
In the first portion of the experiment, the researchers gave the volunteers a dose of amphetamine, or speed, and then scanned their brains using PET to view dopamine release in response to the stimulant. Substance abuse has been shown in the past to be associated with alterations in dopamine responses. Psychopathy is strongly associated with substance abuse.
“Our hypothesis was that psychopathic traits are also linked to dysfunction in dopamine reward circuitry,” Buckholtz said. “Consistent with what we thought, we found people with high levels of psychopathic traits had almost four times the amount of dopamine released in response to amphetamine.”
In the second portion of the experiment, the research subjects were told they would receive a monetary reward for completing a simple task. Their brains were scanned with fMRI while they were performing the task. The researchers found in those individuals with elevated psychopathic traits the dopamine reward area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, was much more active while they were anticipating the monetary reward than in the other volunteers.
“It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward, psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they’re after,” Buckholtz said. Added Zald, “It’s not just that they don’t appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns.”
Nature Neuroscience, 2010; DOI: 10.1038/nn.2510
Mesolimbic dopamine reward system hypersensitivity in individuals with psychopathic traits.
Joshua W Buckholtz, Michael T Treadway, Ronald L Cowan, Neil D Woodward, Stephen D Benning, Rui Li, M Sib Ansari, Ronald M Baldwin, Ashley N Schwartzman, Evan S Shelby, Clarence E Smith, David Cole, Robert M Kessler & David H Zald.
Psychopathy is a personality disorder that is strongly linked to criminal behavior. Using fallypride positron emission tomography and blood oxygen level–dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that impulsive-antisocial psychopathic traits selectively predicted nucleus accumbens dopamine release and reward anticipation-related neural activity in response to pharmacological and monetary reinforcers, respectively. These findings suggest that neurochemical and neurophysiological hyper-reactivity of the dopaminergic reward system may comprise a neural substrate for impulsive-antisocial behavior and substance abuse in psychopathy.
When a romantic relationship ends, an individual’s self-concept is vulnerable to change, according to research in the February issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Self-concept is defined as a person’s sense of “me.” Romantic partners develop shared friends, activities and even overlapping self-concepts.
Using three studies, the researchers examined self-concept changes that can occur after a breakup. They found that individuals have reduced self-concept clarity after a breakup. This reduced clarity can contribute to emotional distress. The loss of the relationship has multiple psychological consequences, including the tendency for individuals to change the content of their selves and the feeling that their selves are subjectively less clear and even smaller.
Finding that there is a prevalence of self-change experienced when a romantic relationship ends provides a testament to the power of loss that impacts one’s sense of self.
“Not only may couples come to complete each others’ sentences, they may actually come to complete each others’ selves,” write authors Erica B. Slotter, Wendi L. Gardner, and Eli J. Finkel. “When the relationship ends, individuals experience not only pain over the loss of the partner, but also changes in their selves. This research is the first to demonstrate the unique contribution of reduced self-concept clarity to the emotional distress that individuals experience post-breakup.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 2, 147-160 (2010)
DOI: 10.1177/0146167209352250 this version was published on February 1, 2010
Who Am I Without You? The Influence of Romantic Breakup on the Self-ConceptPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Erica B. Slotter
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wendi L. Gardner
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
Eli J. Finkel
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
Romantic relationships alter the selves of the individuals within them. Partners develop shared friends and activities and even overlapping self-concepts. This intertwining of selves may leave individuals’ self-concepts vulnerable to change if the relationship ends. The current research examines several different types of self-concept change that could occur after a breakup and their relation to emotional distress. Across three studies, using varied methodologies, the authors examined change in both the content (Study 1a and 1b) and the structure of the self-concept, specifically, reduced self-concept clarity (Studies 1 through 3). As predicted, individuals experienced self-concept content change and reduced self-concept clarity post-breakup. Additionally, reduced clarity uniquely predicted post-breakup emotional distress.
Key Words: self/identity • romantic relationships • breakup • self-concept clarity • emotional distress
A new randomized trial shows that on average, three months after receiving a series of 10 massage sessions, patients had half the symptoms of anxiety. This improvement resembles that previously reported with psychotherapy, medications, or both. But the trial, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, also found massage to be no more effective than simple relaxation in a room alone with soft, soothing music.
“We were surprised to find that the benefits of massage were no greater than those of the same number of sessions of ‘thermotherapy’ or listening to relaxing music,” said Karen J. Sherman, PhD, MPH, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute. “This suggests that the benefits of massage may be due to a generalized relaxation response.”
Massage therapy is among the most popular complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for anxiety, she added. But this is the first rigorous trial to assess how effective massage is for patients with generalized anxiety disorder.
The trial randomly assigned 68 Group Health patients with generalized anxiety disorder to 10 one-hour sessions in pleasant, relaxing environments, each presided over by a licensed massage therapists who delivered either massage or one of two control treatments:
* Relaxation therapy: breathing deeply while lying down
* Thermotherapy: having arms and legs wrapped intermittently with heating pads and warm towels
All three treatments were provided while lying down on a massage table in a softly lighted room with quiet music. All participants received a handout on practicing deep breathing daily at home. Unlike the two control treatments, massage was specifically designed to enhance the function of the parasympathetic nervous system and relieve symptoms of anxiety including muscle tension.
Using a standard rating scale in interviews, the researchers asked the patients about the psychological and physical effects of their anxiety right after the 12-week treatment period ended and three months later, Dr. Sherman said.
All three of the groups reported that their symptoms of anxiety had decreased by about 40 percent by the end of treatment — and by about 50 percent three months later. In addition to the decline in anxiety, the patients also reported fewer symptoms of depression and less worry and disability. The research team detected no differences among the three groups; but the trial did not include a control group that got no treatment at all.
“Treatment in a relaxing room is much less expensive than the other treatments (massage or thermotherapy), so it might be the most cost-effective option for people with generalized anxiety disorder who want to try a relaxation-oriented complementary medicine therapy,” Dr. Sherman said.
Depression and Anxiety, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/da.20671
Effectiveness of therapeutic massage for generalized anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial.
Karen J. Sherman, Evette J. Ludman, Andrea J. Cook, Rene J. Hawkes, Peter P. Roy-Byrne, Susan Bentley, Marissa Z. Brooks, Daniel C. Cherkin
massage • therapy • therapeutic use • clinical trials • randomized • generalized anxiety disorder • relaxation • breathing exercises
Background: Although massage is one of the most popular complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for anxiety, its effectiveness has never been rigorously evaluated for a diagnosed anxiety disorder. This study evaluates the effectiveness of therapeutic massage for persons with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Methods: Sixty-eight persons with GAD were randomized to therapeutic massage (n=23), thermotherapy (n=22), or relaxing room therapy (n=23) for a total of 10 sessions over 12 weeks. Mean reduction in anxiety was measured by the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HARS). Secondary outcomes included 50% reduction in HARS and symptom resolution of GAD, changes in depressive symptoms (Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-8)), worry and GAD-related disability. We compared changes in these outcomes in the massage and control groups posttreatment and at 6 months using generalized estimating equation (GEE) regression. Results: All groups had improved by the end of treatment (adjusted mean change scores for the HARS ranged from -10.0 to -13.0; P<.001) and maintained their gains at the 26-week followup. No differences were seen between groups (P=.39). Symptom reduction and resolution of GAD, depressive symptoms, worry and disability showed similar patterns. Conclusions: Massage was not superior to the control treatments, and all showed some clinically important improvements, likely due to some beneficial but generalized relaxation response. Because the relaxing room treatment is substantially less expensive than the other treatments, a similar treatment packaged in a clinically credible manner might be the most cost effective option for persons with GAD who want to try relaxation-oriented CAM therapies. Depression and Anxiety 0:1-10, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
Think back to your last fight with someone you love. How did you feel afterwards? How did you behave? Conflict with a loved one often leaves a person feeling terrible and then behaving badly. So much so that these scenarios have become soap opera clichés. After an argument, one partner may brood, slam the door, and then drive to a local bar to drown their sorrows in alcohol. These dramas rarely have happy endings. Given these stereotypes, how do people control their emotional reactions and prevent emotional storms and their attendant use of intoxicating substances?
A new study published in Biological Psychiatry, by Elsevier, suggests that the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) is a brain region that may help people to control their emotional reactions to negative facial expressions from their romantic partners.
Christine Hooker and her colleagues recruited healthy, adult participants in committed relationships. The research subjects viewed positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions of their partners during a brain scan. In an online daily diary, participants reported conflict occurrence, level of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
They found that LPFC activity in response to the laboratory-based affective challenge predicted self-regulation after an interpersonal conflict in daily life. When there was no interpersonal conflict, LPFC activity was not related to mood or behavior the next day. However, when an interpersonal conflict did occur, LPFC activity predicted mood and behavior the next day, such that lower activity was related to higher levels of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
The study findings suggest that low LPFC function may be a risk-factor for mood and behavioral problems after a stressful interpersonal event.
The constructive management of negative emotional states that emerge inevitably within romantic relationships can be a critical facet of coping with the world. These relationships frequently serve as emotional havens from the stresses of the working world. Yet these relationships also may augment rather than reduce life stress. When that happens, problematic behaviors such as over-eating and substance abuse may increase.
Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented on the importance of these findings: “When activated in the context of intense emotion, it appears that the LPFC helps us to manage the intensity of negative emotions that emerge in social relationships. When this brain region does not efficiently activate or when the intensity of the conflict is very high, people need to learn behavioral strategies to cope with the emotional response. For some people this strategy can be as simple as counting to 10 before doing something that they might regret later.”
This study raises an important question. How can clinicians enhance the function of the LPFC when its function is compromised? Cognitive and behavioral strategies may be important treatment components.
As Dr. Hooker explained, their findings “suggest that imaging can provide potentially useful information about who may be vulnerable to mood and behavioral problems after a stressful event. We hope that future research will build on this idea and explore ways that imaging can be used to inform people about their emotional vulnerabilities.”
Biological Psychiatry, 2010; 67 (5): 406 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.10.014
Neural Activity to a Partner’s Facial Expression Predicts Self-Regulation After Conflict.
C. Hooker, A. Gyurak, S. Verosky, A. Miyakawa, Ö. Ayduk.
Background Failure to self-regulate after an interpersonal conflict can result in persistent negative mood and maladaptive behaviors. Research indicates that lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) activity is related to emotion regulation in response to laboratory-based affective challenges, such as viewing emotional pictures. This suggests that compromised LPFC function may be a risk factor for mood and behavior problems after an interpersonal conflict. However, it remains unclear whether LPFC activity to a laboratory-based affective challenge predicts self-regulation in real life.
MethodsWe investigated whether LPFC activity to a laboratory-based affective challenge (negative facial expressions of a partner) predicts self-regulation after a real-life affective challenge (interpersonal conflict). During a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, healthy, adult participants in committed relationships (n = 27) viewed positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions of their partners. In a three-week online daily diary, participants reported conflict occurrence, level of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
Results LPFC activity in response to the laboratory-based affective challenge predicted self-regulation after an interpersonal conflict in daily life. When there was no interpersonal conflict, LPFC activity was not related to mood or behavior the next day. However, when an interpersonal conflict did occur, ventral LPFC (VLPFC) activity predicted mood and behavior the next day, such that lower VLPFC activity was related to higher levels of negative mood, rumination, and substance use.
Conclusions Low LPFC function may be a vulnerability and high LPFC function may be a protective factor for the development of mood and behavior problems after an interpersonal stressor.
Key Words: Borderline personality disorder; diathesis-stress model of mental illness; emotion; emotion regulation; expressed emotion; facial affect; interpersonal relationships; major depressive disorder; social neuroscience