To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
– From Auguries of Innocence by William Blake
To one way of seeing, everything is made up of atoms and smaller particles. Yet if you look at an atom you don’t get to know much about your aunt, or a giraffe, or, for that matter, a spiral galaxy.
We don’t always get the complete picture from a part. And yet we’re spoon-fed or even hosed down with ‘factoids’ in a constant flood of information.
It takes a special kind of wisdom, gleaned from long experience and wide knowledge, to see the whole from the parts.
But for many of us, more bits of psychological information simply muddy the waters of understanding. We might nod incredulously on hearing that having a happier spouse can help us live longer,1 but how does knowing this interesting snippet help us better understand the people in our lives? We need to gain a sense of the totality of the human condition. We can, in part, do that by contextualizing ‘atoms’ of psychological fact.
Anyway, in this occasional series I look at five recent research studies and suggest what I feel they may mean to the bigger picture of being human. Yes, we need the detail, but without some kind of bigger tapestry of meaning all we have is information without understanding.
So what’s in the offering this time?
This month’s gems
This time round we’ll be considering:
- Where our minds go when they wander
- How the brain paralyses you while you sleep
- The changes narcissists undergo throughout life
- How social support guards against mental health problems
- The effects of hopes and fears on the aging process.
Research piece one: When our minds wander, where do they go?
People often complain that their mind ‘wanders’ when they try to meditate, or even just listen attentively while the neighbour with the runaway mouth gives an overly detailed answer to ‘How are you?’
I don’t know about you, but my mind is great at wandering. Much of my school days were spent daydreaming. If I have a non-urgent task, my mind can wander off topic to the extent that I might revisit a decade-old vacation, wonder whether I should go for a walk, try to recall the name of a movie I watched… or any of a million other things.
Anyway, I’m sort of getting off topic!
Recent research at UC Berkeley has discovered that certain electrophysiological signals can indicate when our minds are wandering rather than in a state of focus.2
The researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG) device to measure brain activity in 39 adults while they performed a mundane task. Afterwards, the participants were asked to categorize their thinking as task-related, freely moving, deliberately constrained, or automatically constrained.
When these responses were compared against the EEG traces, it was found that people whose minds were jumping around exhibited increased alpha brain waves in the prefrontal cortex. Alpha waves are a relatively slow type of brain wave, with a frequency of 9 to 14 cycles per second.
Robert Knight, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UC Berkeley, said, “For the first time, we have neurophysiological evidence that distinguishes different patterns of internal thought, allowing us to understand the varieties of thought central to human cognition and to compare between healthy and disordered thinking.”
We do need to be able to narrow our focus, and to ‘forget’ all else for a while. If I am wiring the house, or defusing a bomb, or performing open heart surgery (all things I have never done, but you get the idea!) then I need complete and utter focus. But we also need to see bigger patterns of reality so that our minds can roam free of the narrow shackles of predictable, ‘straight line’ thinking.
Research suggests that smarter people are more prone to daydreaming (hence my earlier boast about daydreaming away my school days!).3 It makes sense to me that excessively narrowed attention may hamper creativity, as it precludes many other elements.
Monitoring brain waves gives us a sense of the changes going on from the outside but it’s only when we talk to people and understand our own inner experiences that we can truly begin to understand the creative daydreaming mind.
How we daydream – whether we create possibilities or scare ourselves with catastrophic worries – will, in large part, determine the quality of our lives. We are not a collection of brain waves, we are embodied beings with deep experiences.
But our brains are powerful. Just consider how your brain can keep your body perfectly still even as you act out intense physical scenarios in your dreams.
Research piece two: How the brain paralyses you while you sleep
It’s long been known that sleep paralysis occurs when we enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Now researchers have discovered that in mice, this effect is mediated by a specific group of neurons in the brainstem that suppress movement during REM sleep.4
REM sleep, as I’m sure you know, coincides with dreaming. During this phase our eyes move from side to side, but our bodies are usually perfectly still.
The near-paralysis of muscles while dreaming is called REM atonia. A lack of this naturally occurring paralysis is known as REM sleep behaviour disorder. People with this condition may ‘act out’, yell, jump, or punch while dreaming.
The researchers wanted to determine which neurons in the brain mediate REM atonia, and how these neurons interact with other neurons. They found a group of neurons in the ventral medial medulla (VMM) of the brain that plays an important role in REM atonia, and determined that these neurons in turn receive messages from multiple regions of the brainstem, including the sublaterodorsal tegmental nucleus (SLD). These are facts I will not remember!
Lead researcher Takeshi Sakurai said:
“[The cells] were connected to neurons that control voluntary movements, but not those that control muscles in the eyes or internal organs. Importantly, they were inhibitory, meaning that they can prevent muscle movement when active. … The glycinergic neurons we have identified in the ventral medial medulla could be a good target for drug therapies for people with narcolepsy, cataplexy, or REM sleep behavior disorder.”
Interestingly, when the researchers blocked the action of these neurons, atonia did not occur and the mice were observed to move during REM sleep, just like a person with REM sleep behavior disorder.
The researchers presumably extrapolate these findings to humans, as the central nervous systems of mice are comparable to our own.
We, of course, need to be paralysed during REM sleep. If I’m dreaming of being Superman on a summer’s night I don’t actually want to try to fly from my open bedroom window sans even tights! So if these findings can help us work towards an effective treatment for REM sleep behaviour disorder, it could be transformative for people suffering from this unusual problem.
As psychologist Joe Griffin points out in his amazing book Why We Dream: The Definitive Answer,5 the REM state can also operate outside of sleep, such as during hypnosis, when both REM and catalepsy can be observed, and also during shock, when we become ‘frozen’ with fear. It would be interesting to know whether the neurons identified in this study are affected in the same way during waking REM states.
By understanding the central role of the REM state in life – not just during sleep – we can learn more of what it means to be human.
And one element of being human is narcissism.
Research piece three: How narcissism changes throughout life
No doubt you’ve heard the narrative that young people are getting more narcissistic and, as a natural consequence of unfettered self-adoration, less empathetic.6,7 And this does seem to hold true. But perhaps all is not lost.
Even as young people seem to give less house room to humility than before, it’s only very recently that research emerged on how narcissism changes over time. A 2019 study tracked almost 750 people from age 13 to age 77 to see how the trait of narcissism changed, if indeed it did, across the lifespan.8 The findings? Life, it seems, can make us more humble.
The findings showed that qualities associated with narcissism – being overly sensitive to criticism, being full of yourself, demanding undue and inappropriate amounts of respect, imposing your views on others – naturally decline with age, regardless of context. Meanwhile, some traits, such as having high aspirations for oneself, actually increase with age.
While narcissistic personality disorder ia a distinct condition, excessive hubris can arise in any of us. But it does seem that life itself is the great teacher. Life can humble us, and when that happens narcissism necessarily diminishes. Maybe this is what we mean by ‘growing up’.
Some people learn early that the world doesn’t revolve around them, some learn it later, and some – the ones best avoided – never learn it.
The researchers found that although people tended to become less narcissistic throughout life in general, the greatest curative effect on self-inflation came from landing a job where your self-esteem isn’t necessarily the priority of your boss and workmates.
So starting work can force us to realize that perhaps we are not perfect the way we are, that sometimes we need to adapt our approach.
Lead researcher William Chopik said:
“There are things that happen in life that can shake people a little and force them to adapt their narcissistic qualities. As you age, you form new relationships, have new experiences, start a family and so on. All of these factors make someone realize that it’s not ‘all about them’.
“One thing about narcissists is that they’re not open to criticism. When life happens and you’re forced to accept feedback, break up with someone or have a tragedy strike, you might need to adjust to understanding that you’re not as awesome as you once thought. There’s a sense in which narcissists start to realize that being the way they are isn’t smart if they want to have friends or meaningful relationships.”
For some people, a humbling needs to take place. This isn’t to be confused with excessive self-deprecation or feeling one is inferior automatically, as this is just as delusional as excessive hubris. Rather, we must all reach a sense of the proper context of the self in wider reality.
Whether this happens through individual circumstances or due to national or even global crises such as wars or pandemics, part of knowing ourselves is knowing how not to worship at the altar of the self.Whether it happens through individual circumstances or due to national or even global crises such as wars or pandemics, part of knowing ourselves is knowing how not to worship at the altar of the self.Click To Tweet
Of course, it really isn’t just about me, me, me – and research backs that up too.
Research piece four: Strong social support improves mental health in young adults
When you’re 19, just knowing there is someone in your life you can turn to helps protect you against depression and anxiety.9 So say the results of a new study.
The study, led by Assistant Professor Marie-Claude Geoffroy from the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University, found that young adults with greater perceived social support reported fewer mental health problems.
Almost 1200 19-year-olds were asked about their perceptions of social support, then followed up one year later. Those who had a sense at age 19 that there was someone they could rely on for help should they need it showed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety one year later.
Prof. Geoffroy said, “Our study shows that even in cases where people previously experienced mental health problems, social support was beneficial for mental health later on.”
The researchers found that an increase in perceived social support of one standard deviation was associated with a 22% lower risk of anxiety symptoms, a 47% lower risk of severe depression, and a 40% lower risk of suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts.
Although this research was done on young people, other research has found that strong social ties, a sense of ‘we’ not just ‘me’, is protective of mental health and promotes wellbeing in older adults too.10 Not only that, but a sense of belonging has also been shown to enhance physical health.11 On the flip side, we know that loneliness can cause damage to mental wellbeing.12
Other research has found an even greater protective effect on mental health if your social support network is connected to itself – in other words, the more of your friends who know and are close to each other, the greater the benefits.13 This would be, I guess, because having a sense of one big ‘family’ or ‘tribe’ makes us feel more especially embedded.
Social support, or at least a sense that you are connected to other people, is an important primal need. Feeling embedded within a social network meets our needs for a sense of safety and security, intimacy, and, of course, a connection to something greater than ourselves.
When we look at a human being we need to understand how and to what extent all their primal needs are met, because when needs remain unfulfilled, there is a danger that we’ll try to blindly meet them in ways that can cause terrible damage to us and others.
The research from McGill University suggests that the mere expectation that people will be there for you if you need help is enough to confer great mental health benefits. Certainly, expectations are vital in shaping how we experience much of life – even how well we age, it seems.
Research piece five: Aging well is greatly affected by hopes and fears for later life
If you expect or believe that you’ll be a healthy, vital, active old person, fully engaged in life, you are much more likely to actually be these things in later life – at least, according to a study conducted at Oregon State University.14
Study co-author Shelbie Turner summed it up well when she said, “How we think about who we’re going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be.”
Co-author Karen Hooker adds that “Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don’t.”
The researchers found that stereotypes about old people play a major part in moulding our expectations about aging as well as how we actually age. Karen Hooker said, “Kids as young as 4 years old already have negative stereotypes about old people. Then, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live to old age, they eventually apply to you.”
Building on previous studies that already point to an association between self-perceptions of aging and the actual aging process, this study was designed to also dig into what determines our attitude to our future selves. The authors found that a positive attitude was associated with higher optimism and higher self-efficacy both to achieve hoped-for selves and to avoid feared selves.
Expecting ourselves to ‘slow down’ may actually slow us down. Conversely, if we foster an optimistic attitude to the future and push ourselves to achieve it, we may be able to age much more healthily and gracefully.
The study cited above by Karen Hooker found that people’s self-perceptions at age 50 were correlated with multiple health outcomes up to 40 years later, including cardiovascular events, memory, balance, hospitalizations, and, as Hooker mentioned, mortality.15
Expectations have powerful unconscious impacts upon how we experience much of life. The placebo response is powerful, as we know, and so is the nocebo response (‘medical hexing’, in which the negative expectation of the patient itself produces a negative outcome).
Of course, anyone can get sick and frail in old age. It’s not all down to expectancy. But knowing as we do the power of expectation, surely it’s worth examining our own stereotypes and perceptions about age as it tries to catch up with us.
I recall some research that suggested having an active older role model (such as an athletic grandparent) may help shape our attitudes – and therefore, to some extent, outcomes – to our own aging.16
If we assume that old people inevitably become terrible drivers, or cognitively impaired, or physically weak (or grumpy!), those powerful stereotypes form powerful expectations – and in turn become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Ultimately, expectations are powerful in many if not all areas of life.
So being more aware of our own expectations, knowing how to use our expectations, and sometimes hold them in abeyance so they don’t control us too much, is, I think, a vital part of self-development.
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- Griffin, J., & Tyrrell, I. (2018). Why We Dream: The Definitive Answer. Human Givens Publishing.
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