Category Archives: Research Results

ADHD, MDHD*: Attention, Mindfulness and the Zeitgeist of Disorder

IMG00054-20100925-1729Four articles in three sections of today’s The New York Times on how we do (and don’t) focus our minds – and how we can (and might) do so for the better.  They’re onto something.

In his review of Daniel Goleman’s new book, “Focus:  The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Nicholas Carr describes how Stephen Dedalus “monitors his thoughts without reining them in” as an example of open awareness, one of many types of awareness Goleman details (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/focus-by-daniel-goleman.html?smid=pl-share).  In “Jumper Cables for the Mind,” Dan Hurley reports on tDCS at Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation, and research that shows low voltage electrical brain stimulation seems to enhance any number of cognitive functions(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/jumper-cables-for-the-mind.html?smid=pl-share). David Hochman, in “Mindfulness at Every Turn,” details the increasing reach of mindfulness: the Marine Corps, Silicon Valley, The Huffington Post (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/fashion/mindfulness-and-meditation-are-capturing-attention.html?smid=pl-share).  And Clive Thompson’s “Brain Game,” the subject of Walter Isaacson’s review, proposes an increasing reliance on “intelligence amplification,” human cognition harnessed to the power of computers (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/smarter-than-you-think-by-clive-thompson.html?smid=pl-share). 

As a psychologist and psychotherapist who has been involved in mindfulness education since the late ’60’s (when it was called meditation), and integrative medicine before it had a name, this explosion of interest in expanding awareness and increasing attention – improving the powers of the mind – thrills me.  I’m all for anything that increases compassionate awareness and improves attention:  for my clients, my patients, our children, and certainly myself.

The idea of “more, better” is as American as it gets, and I’m all for more and better when it comes to the mind.  But I’ve got some reservations about the how of all this.  The selling of mindfulness seems somehow antithetical to the very acceptance mindfulness cultivation strives for.  And it may seem a strange thing for a psychologist whose focus is on problem solving to say, but life is not simply a problem to be solved.

Hegel supposed that all art is a reflection of the time in which it is created; the same is no doubt true of the psychological arts.  Ours is a time when excellence is valued.  Not necessarily the pursuit of excellence, however.  We like our accomplishments big and easy and fast.  And the improvement of mental functioning, while often shockingly quick when we begin proper training, is indeed a lifelong practice.  In it for the long haul, not simply for today’s trend.

Training takes practice.  So why bother?

When we correlate attention solely with achievement, we limit what the mind can do even as we improve our chances for success.  Just as an efficient laser requires vast numbers of atoms in an excited state, our human laser-like focus, so crucial for excellence in completing many tasks, requires a ramping up of very specific kinds of attention.  As we learn more about the brain’s neuroplasticity – and apply ever more sophisticated technology – exciting real life applications will allow us to improve attention.  An eye surgeon focuses his attention as well as his laser beam, and a good thing that is.  But while a  laser can attain and sustain this heightened excitation and focus, we, on the other hand, experience stress in response to the demand for constant laser-like focus.  We can focus our attention sharply and well – but only for so long.

We also require rest.

But what is the nature of the rest we require?  Not the sort of lack of attention we often choose: multi-tasking, zoning out, mindlessly watching tv, texting while talking and walking.  Divided attention does not refresh, it simply provides a break from the intensity of single focus attention.

What is the awareness that refreshes?

Open awareness, mindfulness, the meditative state.  The form really doesn’t matter.  Pick and choose,  try a form that suits, or try one and switch to another.  What matters is the ongoing practice of focusing awareness, even while accepting all the gyrations of mind that accompany the attempt to do so.  We can quiet the “monkey mind” with practice, but not by ignoring or drugging away our thoughts and feelings.

Focused attention AND open awareness.  We need both for success in accomplishing our goals, and success in living a fulfilled life.  Both.  And both can be improved – greatly – through practice.   It may seem an oxymoron, but research has shown what generations (and other cultures) know: the work of improving attention and awareness mean less stress, increased productivity, and happier lives.

* Mindfulness Disorder, with and without hyperactivity

Copyright © 2013  Marlin S. Potash, Ed.D.  All rights reserved.  

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And Why is Feeling Bad Good?

“Would have been nice to have had a few depressives underwriting financial derivatives and real estate over the past few years.”

Posted by DR, February 26, 2010, in response to Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex blog-take on his article in today’s New York Times. The Upside of Depression.

Depression. It’s a good thing. Or it can be. Helps focus the mind. A clarifying force that pushes aside extraneous things – like eating or sleeping or sex – so you can settle in, wrap your head around, chew on the really big questions.

The ones that seem unanswerable. The ones we’d rather avoid. The ones we’d benefit from addressing. The ones we’d better start answering…

Now that would be a really good application of Behavioral Economics…

Copyright © 2010 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

On Glasses Half Empty and Half Full. Part V: An Optimistic Attitude Bodes Well

glasshalffullcloudy mountains

STORM COMING IN, OR BLUE SKIES AHEAD?
WHAT DO YOU SEE?

Another positive health finding for learned optimism: According to a study published in the August 10 issue of Circulation, women who have a more optimistic view of life, who are more cheerful and trusting, are less likely to develop heart trouble than those who take a pessimistic view of life.

The report of The Women’s Health Initiative, which has tracked more than 97,000 postmenopausal American women between the ages of 50 and 79 for more than eight years examined psychosocial and social factors and their effect on the health of postmenopausal women, among other factors. Optimism was measured by a questionnaire on whether a woman agreed with such statements as “In unclear times, I usually expect the best.” The questions measuring cynicism asked about agreement with such statements as “It is safer to trust no one” and “I have often had to take orders from people who did not know as much as I did.”

Women within the highest 25 percent of optimism scores had a 9 percent lower chance of developing heart disease and a 14 percent lower chance of dying of any cause. Women with the highest degree of cynical hostility were 16 percent more likely to die than those with the most trust in their fellow humans.

There are several possible explanations for the new finding, according to lead author and University of Pittsburgh researcher, Dr. Hilary Tindle. Money might well be involved, since “optimism is associated with higher income and education,” she said. But curiously, “the level of socioeconomic status when a woman was young was better associated with outcome than current status,” Tindle said. 45191

Three broad categories off possibilities beyond that are posited by Dr. Tindle:

Lifestyle factors. “Optimistic women had more stable risk profiles, with less high blood pressure and diabetes. They didn’t smoke as much and tended to exercise more. So their lower risk might just be associated with living healthier.”

Optimists may be more likely to follow their doctors advice more faithfully. “Previous studies have shown that optimists tend to follow the diet they are told to follow.”

A woman’s outlook on life might affect how she responds to stress. Pessimism and cynical hostility might lead to higher blood pressure, higher heart rate and other physical risk factors.

Is it possible to change one’s outlook? To become a more optimistic, less cynical and hostile person? To go beyond ‘anger management’ (so in vogue these days) to a more essential change of world view? Because this study certainly suggests that would be one terrific idea. Now!

Absolutely. Two requirements:

The lightbulb has to want to change: you need motivation and the desire and ability to stick with it.
You need to follow a consistent practice: committing to a good program, therapist, teacher who can teach you techniques designed to be effective for you.

Change of this nature takes practice and time.

But there’s increasing incentive. As Dr. Tindle notes, “One’s view of the world and your perspective can play an important role in your health. This study demonstrates the role and significance of the connection between the mind and the body. Its just another reason to try to look at the bright side of life.”

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

An Upside to Not Being Able to Retire?

key&money401K tanked? Spouse lost a job just when you were hoping to cut back on work? Come to think of yourself as already having had your retirement – it was called “going to college?”

Feeling locked in to working forever?

Well, according to a UK study published in the current issue of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, there is potential good news about having to remain in the workforce longer. Postponing your retirement may delay dementia. Experts from King’s College London analyzed data from more than 1,300 people with dementia. They found that for people who delayed retirement, each extra year of work was associated with approximately a six-week delay in the onset of dementia.

Simon Lovestone, one of the paper’s co-authors, suggested that “the intellectual stimulation that older people gain from the workplace may prevent a decline in mental abilities, thus keeping people above the threshold for dementia for longer.”

Cause and effect have not been definitively determined, and we don’t yet know how to prevent or adequately treat Alzheimer’s disease. But Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause, accounting for almost 60 percent, of the dementia that affects 1 in 20 over the age of 65. It’s heartening to think responding to the current economic climate by working longer may have an upside. It may be associated with delaying a disease that scares – and afflicts – so many. It’s a stretch, but we’ll take our optimism wherever we can get it…

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved

On Glasses Half-Empty or Half-Full. Part I: The Research

glasshalfemptyTough times, right? It’s easy to feel pessimistic. Well, read on. More evidence that an optimistic outlook correlates with better health, both physical and psychological.* After this week’s post on depression, that’s a pretty positive thing!

Results of a longitudinal study, published in the May issue of Health Psychology, provide yet more support for the value of learned optimism. Laura D. Kubzansky, PhD and colleagues of the Harvard School of Public Health tracked 569 individuals from age 7 to their mid-30s to see if certain personality traits influenced health later in life. Their findings: Children who were able to react less negatively to situations at age 7 – who viewed the world through the lens of optimism rather than pessimism – reported better general health and fewer illnesses 30 years later.

According to Dr. Kubzansky, “Certain characteristics already evident early in life are likely to spark positive or negative emotions, and also influence biological and behavioral responses to stress. Some traits may contribute to developing healthier behaviors and better social relationships, and ultimately more resilience in mid-life.”

Trained observers rated the 7 year olds’ behaviors, which were then assigned to three personality attributes, one of which was distress-proneness (the tendency to react negatively to situations). To determine adult health, participants rated their health and reported whether they had any of the following illnesses: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis, stroke, bleeding ulcer, tuberculosis or hepatitis.

For all the participants, having a more positive outlook (along with the ability to pay focused attention) in youth affected health the most. These effects were greater for women, suggesting that women may be more sensitive to interactions among emotion, behavior and biology, perhaps predisposing them more to certain health risks, such as heart disease. No differences in effects were found across race or ethnicity, childhood health or socicoeconomic status.

“Behavior and emotions generally linked to certain temperaments play a crucial role in long-term health,” Says Dr. Kubzansky. “Fortunately, early childhood characteristics can be shaped and guided by social, family and peer interactions. Interventions can focus on altering certain ways of responding and behaviors that frequently accompany particular traits to prevent certain diseases.”

Next up: Part II: How to change that half-empty glass into a half-full one. A slightly tougher task, so give me a few days, please?

*With special thanks to the American Psychological Association Public Affairs Office and DS who inspired this series.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

Because It’s Terrific, About Depression, and You Should Read It if You are Depressed or Have a Depressed Friend or Loved One

Couldn’t say it any better than this. This, from my friend Robert Stein’s Connecting.the.Dots blog today (see Blog Roll):

Being Depressed

The cover of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine in jangled hand-printing reads “I have sat in shrinks’ offices going on four decades now and talked about my wish to die the way other people might talk about their wish to find a lover.” These words surround a small dark snapshot of a woman’s face looking at the camera in utter despair.

I know that face, just as I know something about the feeling those words describe. A quarter of a century ago, the writer, Daphne Merkin, fresh out of college, worked for me at McCalls, a gifted young woman, more serious than most but glowing with ambition for the literary career that stretched ahead of her.

Now, in painful detail, she tells of a life since then in a black cloud of chronic depression punctuated by constant psychiatry and mounds of medication, ending in a hospital stay anguishing over whether or not to submit to ECT, electro-shock therapy.

Her thousands of words evoke the extreme of a condition I have lived with since childhood, suffered with in loved ones and anguished over with friends and colleagues. Her account will resonate with the afflicted and baffle those lucky enough to find it exotic, perhaps even self-indulgent.

Yet it is at the heart of modern life, as painful, debilitating and destructive as cancer. Psychiatry and pharmacology almost randomly seem to help some victims but fail those who are most directly connected to life and most vulnerable, as I once wrote about Marilyn Monroe and my best friend, the photographer Ed Feingersh, both of whom died in their thirties, unable to keep living with it.

Like them, Daphne Merkin seems to have suffered from that gift and used it to connect with other human beings as a writer, perhaps never more so than in this account of her struggles.

Even those who can’t understand what she is going through may find something of themselves in her and wish her well for the future.

This Just In…

This from BBC News: Sisters ‘make people happy’

Sisters “make families more open and willing to talk about problems” Sisters spread happiness while brothers breed distress, experts believe.

Researchers at The University of Ulster quizzed 571 people aged 17 to 25 about their lives and found those who grew up with sisters were more likely to be happy and balanced.

Their findings, presented at today’s British Psychological Society meeting, suggest that having daughters made a family more open and willing to discuss feelings. The influence of girls was particularly important after distressing family events such as marital break-ups.

Lead researcher Professor Tony Cassidy said: “Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families. However, brothers seemed to have the alternative effect. Emotional expression is fundamental to good psychological health and having sisters promotes this in families.”

Emotional intelligence. It starts early. And we can help our kids develop it, girls and boys. We’ve certainly been seeing enough of what life looks like without it…

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.