It can be hard to understand other people, or even ourselves. We think we want one thing when we really want another, or we think we know someone and then they go and do something we never saw coming. Underneath the seemingly bizarre and various confusions of being human, there are common factors that drive us all. But they’re not always obvious.
And research doesn’t always help, either. We get morsels of weird and wonderful information gleaned from studies on human behaviour, but what does it all mean? How can we put the pieces together? Without contextualizing what we learn we just become more confused. If you’ve got ten thousand shards of splintered glass, you might think you’ve got a stained glass window – but you won’t have the bigger picture.
In this occasional series I take a look at a few studies (most of them recent) about narrow parts of the human condition and add my own take on it, hopefully bringing some wider context.
So what have I got for you?
This month’s gems
This time I’ve included some quite diverse studies. We’ll explore:
- research suggesting that yoga and breathing exercises can help depression in the long as well as short term,
- evidence that we can create fake news in our heads,
- a study looking at depression in the final year of life,
- what does and doesn’t help with impostor syndrome, and
- what love does to the mind and body.
So let’s get into it.
Research piece one: Yoga and breathing exercises for depression
It has long been known, and the evidence shows, that yoga practice1 and breathing exercises2 can improve mood and reduce anxiety and depression. However, new research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice has taken this understanding a step further by showing that the combination of yoga and breathing exercises can improve anxious and depressive symptoms in both the short and the long term, with a cumulative improvement over time.3
Thirty clinically depressed patients were divided randomly into two groups. Both groups practised iyengar yoga and “coherent breathing” across a three-month period, but the “high-dose group” spent 123 hours practising, while the “low-dose group” spent only 87 hours.
Within a month, both groups experienced a great improvement in sleep quality. Levels of positivity and tranquility had also risen in both groups, while physical exhaustion and all other symptoms of anxiety and depression were reduced on several validated clinical scales. Interestingly, the higher ‘dose’ of yoga had greater benefits, and these benefits were compounded over time.
Based on these findings, the authors suggest that yoga may be a useful complementary treatment for clinical depression.
I am not surprised by the longitudinal benefit of practising yoga. I think any activity that helps us gain mastery can help us feel better. But it’s more than that I suspect.
Depression is fueled by negative rumination.4 We all experience emotionally arousing introspections from time to time, but depression blocks people from resolving those arousals, locking them into a vicious cycle of rumination.
A useful way to escape this pattern is simply to set about completing a task. Any task that can be completed and has a beginning, middle, and end can give us a sense of completing a pattern of expectation, which is important for all of us. This is exactly what doesn’t happen within depression, as problem solving becomes paralysed.
So to help depressed and anxious people, we can encourage them to behave in ways that help them switch off emotional loops (for example, by completing intrinsically satisfying tasks with beginnings, middles, and ends) and minimize inward focus and rumination, the fuels of depression. Focus on a challenging activity can help in both these ways.
On top of this, we know that depression is a stress condition5 – and yoga can directly lower stress, which can then free up the mind to see beyond the narrow strictures of typical depressive thinking.
But there might also be something else at play here: what’s known as the Hawthorne effect.
The effects of being valued
The Hawthorne effect is named after a study done in the 1920s and ’30s in which workers in a factory in Hawthorne, Chicago were observed as various factors in the working environment were changed.6 The aim was to find out what working conditions would increase the workers’ happiness and productivity.
Ultimately the researchers concluded that it was the interest and attention the workers received as part of the research that made them happier and better workers, not just the conditions themselves. Attention is powerful. So, in a similar vein, I imagine it was a combination of factors, possibly including the Hawthorne effect, that helped alleviate depressive symptoms in this yoga/depression study.
Easy solutions and simplistic answers are attractive, but much of life consists of a blend of influences and isn’t black or white. And never has this been more true than in the era of fake news.
Research piece two: You create your own fake news
We all understand by now that you can’t trust everything you read. The media is all too happy to bias and twist information to fit its own agenda or narrative. Sadly, much of the ‘information’ we are exposed to is in the form of fake news, thinly veiled propaganda, and simplistic but emotive memes. But it seems propaganda doesn’t just come from the outside: information manipulation and mismanagement happens in our own heads, too.
Of course, the idea that we seek confirmation of our own biases is nothing new. And confirmation bias can be particularly deeply ingrained when we feel strongly about something. But a recent study conducted at Ohio State University shows that we manipulate data towards our own biases even when presented with clear, accurate numerical information.7
For example, some people, when shown that the number of Mexican immigrants into the USA has declined recently – which is true, but goes against many people’s beliefs – remembered the opposite. They believed the information they were shown had reflected their pre-existing beliefs, despite clear evidence to the contrary.They had changed the numbers in their minds.
The researchers found that people usually remembered the stats fairly accurately when they were consistent with how they already viewed the world, but not when they went against their prejudices.
Interestingly, many people didn’t get the numbers themselves wrong – they simply misapplied them. “We had instances where participants got the numbers exactly correct – 11.7 and 12.8 – but they would flip them around,” lead author Jason Coronel said. “They weren’t guessing – they got the numbers right. But their biases were leading them to misremember the direction they were going.”
What’s more, these people then tended to pass on those false beliefs so that it became a kind of “received wisdom” – which, like Chinese whispers, could sometimes become even more distorted as it was passed along.
Coronel said, “They may not be doing it purposely, but their own biases can lead them astray. And the problem becomes larger when they share their self-generated misinformation with others.”
But it’s not that the subjects hadn’t paid attention to the figures that conflicted with their beliefs. In fact, they had paid more attention to those conflicting stats.
The researchers used eye-tracking technology on the research subjects while they read in order to judge which aspects of the statistics they were paying most attention to. Weirdly, the subjects actually spent more time looking at the numbers they would later misremember.
Jason Coronel said, “We could tell when participants got to numbers that didn’t fit their expectations. Their eyes went back and forth between the numbers, as if they were asking ‘what’s going on.’ They generally didn’t do that when the numbers confirmed their expectations.”
So they paid more attention to the numbers they would later misremember! Let that sink in.
The beliefs and assumptions of depression skew our memory to fit those assumptions and reinforce those beliefs.8 Dishing out praise to people with low self-esteem may actually make them feel worse, as it doesn’t line up with their reality.9 And so too with religious or political fanaticism. Once their prevailing mindset is fixed, only information that confirms their position, to the exclusion of all other perspectives, is accommodated in the mind of the fanatic.10
It’s all too easy for the truth to become somehow relative as we bend reality to fit the ‘propaganda’ of our prevailing mental set. And it can cause us and others untold problems as we flee further and further from the truth of things. So how can we avoid such biases? Well, we can take a huge step closer to understanding the true nature of reality simply by being aware of our biases.It's all too easy for the truth to become somehow relative as we bend reality to fit the 'propaganda' of our prevailing mental set. And it can cause us and others untold problems as we flee further and further from the truth of things.Click To Tweet
When people talk about wanting to ‘know themselves’, what do they mean? Do they consider that being able to relax judgment, avoid leaping to conclusions, and observe their own expectations and assumptions objectively is an integral part of self knowledge?
Why do I believe what I do? Is it just because everyone around me believes it? Can I update my options when presented with new or wider information?
If we can’t respond reasonably to reality then we are destined to become unwitting peddlers of fake news as we become targets for the implantation of any old belief.
It’s easy to bury our heads and fail to see disconfirming feedback. But if we are to grow as human beings, we need to be able to see and learn from new and different perspectives. After all, we only get one shot at life.
Research piece three: Depression in the final year of life
A new study has used interview responses from 3,274 people in their final year of life to evaluate symptoms of depression.11 It was found that 59.3% of people had depression in the final month before their death. Depression scores tended to increase gradually from 12 to 4 months before death, then rise quickly between 4 and 1 months before death.
The rates of depression were highest in younger adults, women, and non-white adults. People with cancer were more likely to experience a precipitous increase in depressive symptoms at the very end of their life, whereas those with conditions that impaired daily activity, such as lung disease, experienced persistently high rates of depressive symptoms throughout their final year.
Lead author Elissa Kozlov, PhD, of the Rutgers Institute for Health, said:
“Psychological symptoms are important to address throughout the lifespan, but especially in the context of serious or chronic illness in order to reduce suffering and distress and help individuals experience a ‘good death.’ More research and policy work are needed to address the lack of skilled geriatric and end-of-life mental health providers, limited reimbursement structure for psychological care, and gaps in adapting and disseminating evidence-based non-pharmacological interventions for adults with limited life expectancies.”
All the different life stages carry risks for depression, and it might seem obvious that depression would be high in the final year of life, especially in the young and those who can’t fully engage with life due to pain or disability. But it’s important to remember that if almost 6 in 10 end-of-lifers are depressed, that still leaves 4 in 10 who are not depressed.
I’d like to know what it is about them and their lives that are protective against depression. We know that depression is more common in women than in men,12 but might other factors also contribute? Older age? White skin? If so, to what extent is depression mitigated by these factors, and to what extent by other, possibly external, factors? In particular, the question remains whether non-white people are more likely to become depressed in their final year when they live in predominantly white cultures.
We need to find ways to help people, as Elissa Kozlov said, to have a “good death” – to make the absolute most of their remaining time on this Earth.
Living in the moment, enjoying small pleasures, and deepening relationships are all ways we may be able to help people in their final months, as well as helping them become as comfortable as possibly, both physically and psychologically. Knowing how to relax our clients is vital, and never more so than in the context of a terminal illness. We can also listen and support people as they go through a kind of grieving for what will not come to pass – for one’s own life and all the possibilities and dreams that will die along with it.
While we are here we have to be the best we can be. And part of that might, for some, include leaving behind the trap of impostor syndrome.
Research piece four: Why impostor syndrome happens and how to cope with it
‘Impostor syndrome‘ is the feeling that one is a fraud or a phony, not smart or skilled enough to inhabit one’s role. This problem commonly occurs in both educational (“Everyone thinks I’m this great student, but deep down I know I suck!”) and professional (“People assume I’m this super cool and efficient manager, but inside I’m panicking, just waiting be found out for what I’m really like!”) settings.
A study from Brigham Young University found that 20% of the college students in their sample suffered from a very strong sense of impostor syndrome.13 They conducted detailed interviews with 20 of these students to uncover the various coping strategies they used to mitigate their feelings of inadequacy.
One particular method stood out as being particularly effective. They found that those students who sought social support from people outside their academic program – that is, outside the context in which they felt like a fraud – managed their emotions much better. On the other end of the spectrum, the most ineffective coping strategies were playing video games and trying to fake being self-confident.
These findings suggest that students who “reach in” to other students within their major are unlikely to feel better and may even feel worse. However, students who “reach out” to friends, family, or academics outside their major are likely to experience a reduction in feelings of impostorism.
Co-author Jeff Bednar said:
“Those outside the social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups. After reaching outside their social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked in just one area.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that impostor syndrome had no relation to competency. Previous research looking at the relationship between impostor syndrome and the Big Five personality factors found that those with low conscientiousness and high perfectionism or neuroticism scores were more vulnerable to impostor syndrome.14 That being said, many highly conscientious people do develop impostor syndrome, and I’ve certainly seen many highly talented therapists develop their own feelings of fraudulence.
To me, it makes perfect sense to seek support from those outside the field within which you feel like a phony. Of course it’s going to be easier to gain objectivity on an emotionally difficult situation when you are outside of it. Not only that, but people on the outside, as it were, are in a better position to help you see the bigger picture. Talking to them can help us contextualize our feelings and perceptions. Indeed, this is a major reason why people seek psychotherapy, as well as supportive friendships.
It’s always important to meet your emotional needs in many different areas of your life and not to ‘put all your eggs in one basket’. If, for example, we meet our need for a sense of achievement or competency (status) from only one area, we may feel much more insecure than if it were met from a range of sources. After all, if that area falls through we will be left with nothing to fulfil that need. Similarly, if we rely on a single person to meet all our needs, we may (quite rightly) feel insecure in the relationship and be incredibly needy, which, ironically, runs the risk of driving that person away.
Having a wide and varied life is important to becoming a well-rounded and balanced human being. Mind you, sometimes cunning Cupid can trip us up.
Research piece five: Do you fall in love with your heart or your head?
This retrospective study caught my eye with claims that:
- Falling in love only takes a fifth of a second.
- Falling in love can elicit a similar euphoric feeling to using cocaine
- Falling in love can affect the intellectual areas of the brain.15
Thirty lovesick rats were used in the study.
I’m joking, of course!
The research, led by Stephanie Ortigue, looked at the brains and hearts of human couples in love. They found that when we experience love, 12 areas of the brain work together to release chemicals, such as oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, and adrenaline, that effect feelings of euphoria. No wonder unrequited love can hurt so much. And no wonder rejection by a lover can feel like a terrible detox. The kind of love studied here was the ‘in love’ euphoric stage of love.
Euphoric love was found to influence such higher cognitive functions as mental representation, metaphors, and body image. Maybe love makes poets of us all!
So this begs the question: Do we fall in love with our hearts or our heads?
The answer, according to Ortigue, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Neurology at The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, is far from straightforward.
“I would say the brain, but the heart is also related because the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa,” Ortigue says. “For instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulations to the heart, butterflies in the stomach. Some symptoms we sometimes feel as a manifestation of the heart may sometimes be coming from the brain.”
Other changes that have been observed in those who are in love include heightened levels of ‘nerve growth factor’ (NGF), particularly in couples who had just fallen in love. NGF plays a vital role in the phenomenon of ‘love at first sight’ as well as in other social situations.
To quantify love or describe it simply in terms of brain chemicals and physiological responses is like reducing the ocean to H20.
Sure, you know water is one part hydrogen to two parts oxygen, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the experience of being adrift in the Pacific, watching the sun go down over the Caribbean, or quenching your thirst on a boiling, dry day.
Likewise with love.
We can talk about what happens in the mind and body during love, but to know it, you have to feel it. And of course there are different kinds of love.
Sometimes there is an instant attraction and perhaps even a deep recognition of what we call love at first sight. Such love stimulates reward centres in the limbic system of the brain, which is why some people, it seems, get addicted to the ‘in love’ stage of love, continually moving on once that part has flattened out. Other kinds of love include the unconditional love of a parent for a child, which appears to involve more of the midbrain.
I was also interested in how passionate love affects some aspects of higher cognitive function, including, among other things, our body image. The researchers don’t really explain this, but it makes sense to me that the relationship one feels to one’s own body becomes altered during love. After all, your body is merged with another’s, more meaningfully perhaps than ever before. Me becomes we, so your relationship to your own body is necessarily altered.
When we are in love we can lose wider context, not always seeing the ‘warning signs’ that the relationship is heading for the rocks. Often people say afterwards that they did see the warning signs, but their love, adoration, and yearning for the person overrode that niggling voice of common sense. The winds of a hurricane will always extinguish the small flame of a candle.
We need to nurture love in the long term so that we and others can be sustainably nurtured by it. Sugar highs in the short term are all very well, but if that’s all we have we will end up malnourished and sick.
But falling in love is, of course, a vital stage – and one that often takes us by surprise. After all, as a certain playwright once wrote:
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
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