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Research Roundup 9: Forgiveness, Depression Genes, Nature and Stress, Hypnosis and Dementia, and Pre-Op Hypnosis

The latest instalment of recent psychology research

“When information overload occurs, pattern recognition is how to determine truth.”

– Herbert Marshall McLuhan, Canadian Philosopher

The boy who dissected the live fly found he had all the parts but then wondered where the actual fly had gone.

The blind men had never heard of an elephant. Each felt a part of the animal, and each believed that part to be the complete animal.

Ancient stories have long warned of gathering bits of reality, collecting those bits, even being overwhelmed by them, but failing to see the gestalt.

Never before have these ancient tales been so important for understanding our patterns of approaching the world. We’re bombarded with bits of information. But merely gathering facts, even if we were able to remember them all, doesn’t make us wise or able to see wider patterns.

In this occasional series I summarize some research pieces that I hope you find interesting and useful. I give my take on how the part of the elephant might fit with the whole beast. We can learn about the bigger picture of what it means to be human by looking at parts of what it means to be human. But only when we keep that bigger significance in mind.

So, what have I got for you this time?

This month’s gems

This time round we’re briefly looking at:

  • why we’re prone to forgive other people (and the potential dangers of this)
  • research that seems to debunk the old ‘depression genes’ theory
  • exactly how often we need to feel connected to nature to lower stress
  • how hypnosis can help alleviate symptoms of dementia, and
  • how conversational hypnosis can calm pre-op patients more than pills.

I hope there is at least something here to whet your appetite.

Research piece one: We are prone to forgive

How easily do you give someone the benefit of the doubt? How easily do you forgive?

According to new research undertaken across four major educational institutions,1 people have an overwhelming tendency to assume the best when assessing other people’s moral character. Good impressions last, while bad impressions can easily be changed.

Over 1,500 research subjects were asked to watch two strangers as they decided whether to inflict electric shocks on another person in exchange for money. The ‘good’ stranger generally refused, while the ‘bad’ stranger was willing to inflict pain on another person if it meant they would profit.

The subjects of the research, after observing these interactions, were instructed to describe their impressions of the moral character of these strangers and rate how confident they were in those impressions.

Participants were highly confident in their positive impressions of the ‘good’ stranger. But – here’s where it gets interesting – they were much less confident in their assessment of the ‘bad’ stranger.

It was as though the participants were actively looking for feedback that would cast the ‘bad’ people in a better light. There was strong bias towards not only seeing the good in others, but also not seeing the bad. For example, all it took was for the ‘bad’ stranger to make one generous choice, and subjects’ impressions of them improved instantly.

Senior author of the paper, Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, said, “Because people sometimes behave badly by accident, we need to be able to update bad impressions that turn out to be mistaken. Otherwise, we might end relationships prematurely and miss out on the many benefits of social connection.”

But on the flip side, the researchers suggested that our tendency to forgive may help explain how and why some people fall prey to manipulation and stay in abusive relationships.

My take?

We evolved in tribes. Social cohesiveness was (and is) vitally important for our survival. So writing people off, casting them from the tribe prematurely or unfairly, could have led to a weaker tribe and therefore reduced chances of survival.

On a personal level, being too misanthropic and feeling that “if I trust no one then no one will let me down!” may make us feel a little more in control. But excessive disapproval, fear, or even hatred of others can cut us off from social connection and so diminish happiness and health.2,3

The fact that we humans are so ready to see the best in others may be the reason why people tend to have a better opinion of you than you may realize.4 But I have some reservations.

If we are too ready to ‘see the good’ in others, to the point of continually overlooking the bad, we may make ourselves vulnerable to any circulating psychopaths who might be around.

Sure, we can understand why someone might act as they do. For a while we can give them the benefit of the doubt. But we also need to be prepared to protect ourselves, else we run the risk of enabling, even encouraging, bad behaviour – as happens in some abusive relationships.

You can forgive the snake that bites you and understand why it did. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your distance from it in future.

Next up, here’s some startling research I saw in the news today.

Research piece two: The ‘depression genes’ theory is a myth

Over the past 25 years, hundreds of published papers have suggested that a small set of genes influence our proneness to depression. Many hoped this meant that one day we would be able to genetically test for depression and use targeted gene or drug therapy to treat it.

But new research at the University of Colorado Boulder has found no significant association between depression risk and the genes previously thought to be associated.5

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, assessed genetic and survey data from 620,000 individuals, focusing on 18 specific genes that have appeared multiple times in depression-focused studies. They found that these 18 genes, including one (SLC6A4) involved in the transport of the neurochemical serotonin, are in fact no more associated with depression than randomly chosen genes.

The lead author, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Matthew Keller, stated, “We found that, as a set, these candidate genes are no more related to depression than any random gene out there. The results, even to us, were a little bit stunning.”

My take?

It would be wonderful to find out that some relatively simple faulty mechanism or neurochemical imbalance is behind the depression epidemic, but to me it seems obvious that the causes are more complex than simply out-of-whack brain chemistry or genetic predestination. How can genetics explain the dramatic rise we are seeing in the rates of depression worldwide?6

As for the neurochemical theory of depression, it’s more urban myth than legitimate science. It was shown a long time ago that artificially lowering availability of serotonin in the brain doesn’t cause depression or even lower mood.7

So something else seems to be happening to people when they depress.

It’s always tempting to simplify and view reality mechanistically, but of course people who become depressed are… people. Individuals, with stresses, learned thinking styles, and traumas.

I think we need to explore all options, and if we can find effective chemical treatments for depression (I mean ones that actually work significantly better than placebos),8 I will be the first to incorporate them into my treatment plans where indicated.

But as well as looking at people’s brains, we need to look at their lives. When we understand how most emotional problems arise and what each of us needs to be emotionally fulfilled, then we can look beyond the simplistic ideas of ‘chemical imbalance’ and genetic fatalism.

Okay, next, why don’t we take it outside?

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Research piece three: The exact time we need to spend feeling connected to nature to reduce our stress

It’s long been known that being in nature helps calm us. But a new study establishes for the first time exactly how long we need to feel connected to nature to experience effective stress relief.9

In this study, conducted at the University of Michigan and published in Frontiers in Psychology, urban-dwelling participants took what the researchers called a “nature pill” (spending time in a natural setting, such as an urban green space) for at least ten minutes, at least three times a week. The subjects were free to choose where and how they spent this time, but were not to exercise, use any kind of technology, or read. They were encouraged simply to feel connected to nature.

Saliva samples were taken from each participant before and after they spent time in nature, and the concentrations of two physiological markers of stress – cortisol and alpha-amylase – were measured. This was done on four separate occasions per participant to help account for daily fluctuations in cortisol levels.

The researchers found that walking or sitting in a natural setting and feeling connected to nature significantly lowered stress in the body. The sweet spot – that is, the greatest cortisol reduction per unit time – occurred between 20 and 30 minutes. After that, cortisol levels continued to drop but not as dramatically.

Dr MaryCarol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research, said:

“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us. Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

My take?

What struck me in this study was how the authors emphasized a feeling of being connected to nature. I have noticed that if I use hypnosis with a client and suggest an inner experience of nature just for 20 minutes or so, they will often come out of trance looking refreshed and renewed, almost as though they had actually been out in nature.

Chronic stress is often said to be a curse of modern life, and depression is essentially a stress condition. When people are depressed, their blood cortisol levels are higher than normal.10 The widespread levels of anxiety in the population,11 along with the many, likely underreported side effects of psychotropic drug treatments,12 lead me to think we should all be connecting to the soothing power of nature more often and more fully.

Like all animals, we evolved out of doors, among green spaces and the sounds of the wild. We see how stress affects cooped-up animals,13 yet we continue to coop ourselves up. And I think the consequences of too much time indoors staring at screens may still be underestimated.

Town planning plays a part here too, of course. The more green spaces there are within urban settings, the better.

I think we should all be prescribing and taking “nature pills” regularly.

And now for something completely different.

Research piece four: Hypnosis can reduce the symptoms of dementia

The results of a pilot study involving 18 subjects suggest that hypnotic treatment can improve quality of life for people living with dementia in both the short and the long term, and may even help reduce symptoms and slow progression of the condition.

Dr Simon Duff, a forensic psychologist at the University of Liverpool, compared seven aspects of quality of life among dementia patients who were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups. One group received hypnotic treatment; one group received standard dementia treatment; and one group took part in a discussion group, in which patients were encouraged to discuss news and current affairs.14

Dr Duff said, “Over a nine-month period of weekly sessions, it became clear that the participants attending the discussion group remained the same throughout. The group who received ‘treatment as usual’ showed a small decline over the assessment period, yet those having regular hypnosis sessions showed real improvement across all of the areas that we looked at.”

Dr Dan Nightingale, co-author of the research and leading dementia consultant at the Abacus Clinic in Newark, added, “Evidence to date has shown that we can enhance the quality of life for people living with dementia through the correct use of hypnosis. We have now developed a course for clinicians who wish to incorporate hypnosis into health care plans.”

My take?

I’m not sure exactly what hypnotic suggestions were given to these patients, but it seems that they benefited from the hypnosis in more ways than one – the results show that they even became more active and sociable between sessions. This does seem promising, though I do think more research is needed.

I have often felt that there is a kind of reconnection to health that happens during well applied hypnotic trance. Perhaps this happens, to some extent, on a physical level as well as an emotional one – and of course the two levels are really one and the same.

We know that higher stress levels increase inflammation in the brain and body,15 and some studies suggest that high inflammatory markers in midlife may be a risk factor for dementia.16 It’s not a stretch to think that inflammation may also exacerbate dementia after its onset. Deep relaxation reduces stress, and therefore presumably inflammation. This may be one mechanism by which hypnosis can reduce dementia symptoms.

Finally, in the wake of the recent finding that “talk therapy” seems to be more effective at relieving IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) than medication,17 let’s look at how conversational hypnosis may be better at calming pre-surgery nerves than anti-anxiety meds.

Research piece five: Calming words relax patients more than pills

The traditional approach for calming the nerves of anxious surgery patients is to give them anti-anxiety drugs before surgery. But research presented in 2015 at the American Society of Anesthesiologists Annual Meeting suggests that conversational hypnosis, a technique in which hypnotic language patterns and a soothing voice are seamlessly incorporated into everyday conversation, may be better medicine.18

The research looked at anxiety levels, as measured by variations in heart rate and self-reported comfort level, in 100 patients undergoing hand surgery under regional anaesthesia. Fifty patients were soothed with conversational hypnosis (not formal induction) and fifty were given 25 mg of oral hydroxyzine, a standard anti-anxiety medication, before surgery.

Patients who had received hypnotic communication were significantly more relaxed throughout the surgery than patients who had received anti-anxiety meds.

Lead author of the study, Emmanuel Boselli, MD, PhD, an anesthesiologist and physician in Lyon, France, said, “Conversational hypnosis can be used prior to surgery in conscious patients having local or regional anesthesia. It also could be beneficial before general anesthesia to decrease patient anxiety.”

My take?

Hypnosis is thought to have been used as a surgical aid as early as the nineteenth century,19 and I’m heartened to see modern physicians and anaesthetists finally taking such an interest and discovering its benefits.

Few things are more soothing than genuine, skilled human interaction. Just as people can be calmed by gentle (and consensual) human touch,20 so too can they be touched deeply by words and made to feel better.

Few things are more soothing than genuine, skilled human interactionClick To Tweet

I hope you enjoyed my quick jaunt into recent research and got something from some (if not all!) of it. I’d love to read any thoughts you have on what I’ve written about here.

Helping a UPTV client feel less angry

This client originally came to see Mark because she wanted help developing the self-confidence to see clients after training as a hypnotherapist almost a year before.

It does seem her self-confidence has increased as far as using hypnosis is concerned. She has had business cards printed and made a bag with her logo on it. She even conversationally hypnotized a man she met whilst simply having a conversation with him at a party.

But practical considerations are getting in the way such as her upcoming bunion operation and the need for her house extension which she needs to see clients which hasn’t yet been built. She describes herself as an 8 out of 10 in motivation to see clients now. Mark asks her what else she’d like to work on and she talks about anger and frustration, especially with a particular woman at work and her son who lives with her. Mark seeks to help her feel less angry but still remain assertive.

Note: UPTV is open for joining right now, until June 14th.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  2. I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ creation Ebenezer Scrooge, who learned to like other people eventually and became much happier as a result.
  7. At least 90 studies have been done to see what happens when monoamine levels are reduced in people. A 2007 meta-analysis of this research conducted at the University of Amsterdam found no evidence that lowered serotonin acted as a depressant:
  11. See:
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  20. See:

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