Author Archives: jfreud

The Psychology Behind Mindfulness


You know those nights when you’re lying in bed (for what feels like forever!) and you just cannot fall asleep? All the thoughts about the day and whatever else might be popping into your head are swimming through your mind and keeping you awake…

It turns out mindfulness has been found to help people quiet those thoughts that keep them awake. The practice of mindfulness has been studied for use in treating all kinds of maladies, such as depression and stress as well as for use with patients suffering from physical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, or HIV. This article asserts that it has also been found beneficial in helping with weight loss and maintaining an exercise program. The article also notes the technique’s usefulness in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. So, the question is, why? And how?

Mindfulness relies on the ability to focus attention on your awareness of the current moment. You allow yourself to be aware of any and all thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may have in order to process them without evaluating them critically. In essence, it relies on the ability to focus attention and maintain enough concentration so that you can seize control of thoughts that enter your awareness (which obviously takes a lot of practice). The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will prime the neural networks required for the process of identifying and acknowledging thoughts without criticizing them. Given all this, it makes sense that the technique might be effective in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. By shifting the focus of your attention and being more aware of the current moment (instead of whatever thoughts are keeping you awake), you may be able to better control your emotional responses to your thoughts.

The trick to mindfulness is the promotion of increased awareness of thoughts in order to promote better control over emotional responses to them. This is why mindfulness has been used as a treatment for anxiety disorders as well. The ruminative thinking that keeps us awake at night is a major cause of insomnia and also present in many anxiety disorders. The idea is that the ability to acknowledge thoughts in a different way, without driving yourself crazy over them, will ease anxiety (which is caused by this type of thinking). In order to do this, mindfulness encourages a sort of selective attention in which you focus your attention on something such as breathing, instead of rumination.

Okay, that explains why mindfulness is effective. But what types of strategies do people use?

Breathing is only one of many techniques you can use in order to focus your attention and be more aware of what is currently happening. (This short video explains how to do a common breathing exercise called the “4-7-8 Breath.”) Meditation is the technique that is perhaps the most talked about. Movement exercises can also be helpful.

In fact, mindfulness has been shown to have an impact on the functioning of the brain in general. For example, This article says that people who meditate show superior performance on tasks associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which deals with tasks related to self-regulation, the ability to direct attention, behavior and suppress immediate responses, and the ability to alternate strategies quickly. These skills are all necessary to exercise mindfulness and you would develop them the more you practice the technique.

In addition, when practiced regularly, mindfulness also leads to a weakening in the “functional connectivity” between the amygdala and the rest of the brain and a strengthening in the “functional connectivity” among areas associated with attention and concentration. So, “mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness, says.

So, next time your thoughts keep you awake, maybe consider being more mindful about what you are thinking. Like every other skill, it may take some practice before you start reaping the rewards from practicing mindfulness, but who knows what will happen once you’re able to focus your attention more effectively.

What do you think? Do you practice mindfulness or think it could be useful?


When creative genius and madness collide


Have you ever entered a room and been completely distracted by the noises you hear (the whir of the fans, the buzz of a projector) that you cannot concentrate? Those noises, although minute in actuality, consume all your cognitive resources and attention, and you find yourself unable to think about anything else. Say while you’re taking a test or listening to a lecturing professor. It could even happen right as you enter a room and you are adjusting to a new environment. It happens all the time, but after a brief period we habituate to these sounds and no longer notice them. Imagine what it would be like if you continued to these subtleties in your environment, no matter how long you had been there.

Research on cognitive processing from Northwestern University by Darya L. Zabelina and her colleagues published in Neuropsychologia suggests that highly creative people struggle with this. In a phenomenon known as “sensory gating”, we are able to determine how much information from our environment enters our awareness. However, the research suggests, some people have “leaky” sensory gates, so they struggle to shut out distracting information. As it turns out, this tends to be the case with creative people. Why? Research suggests a theory positing that the leaky sensory gate allows for the opportunity to perceive and then assimilate information that is less closely related, thereby producing ideas that are more creative (due to the ability to connect more distantly related concepts). A leaky sensory gate allows a person to consider more information, information that most people wouldn’t even notice. Some creative geniuses throughout history who were known to have been extremely sensitive to noise include Charles Darwin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekov. (Interestingly enough, all of these were notable writers in some capacity.)

However, there is a catch. It is possible that this same characteristic that produces such incredible genius may also be associated with vulnerabilities to some serious mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia. After all, reduced ability to tune out information from one’s environment (also called lateral inhibition) has been associated with schizophrenia and schizotypal personalities. So, there is a possibility that leaky sensory gating may be a common “risk factor” between psychopathy and creative achievement. It has been suggested that some people with schizophrenia may have a greater chance of making creative connections than people without schizophrenia due to their potential to perceive and integrate more information. This could be suggested of Isaac Newton, as it has been suggested that he suffered from schizophrenia. The same could be said for John Nash, a mathematical genius and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 who became the subject of the book and movie, both entitled “A Beautiful Mind” that chronicled his descent into schizophrenia before receiving treatment.

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If this is the case, then it represents a collision between creative genius and serious mental illness that has been an age-old topic of debate dating back to antiquity. This article says that the ancient Greeks considered both populations as “having been touched by the gods.”

A Guide to Studying and an Original Study Tip

This article by Regan A.R. Gurung and Lee I. McCann from the Association for Psychological Science outlines several effective study strategies in addition to several ineffective study strategies. The effective strategies include techniques such as creating examples that apply to the material, generating mnemonics and mental images, using a study partner, and self testing with the review questions at the end of a chapter in the book. All of these methods require elaborative rehearsal. They require the student to think about what the material means and make connections to material the student already knows as opposed to simply relying on rote memorization. Making connections and thinking critically about new material makes it much more likely that the student will remember the new material. In contrast, the ineffective strategies the article lists, such as spending too much time on key terms and summaries to the extent that pedagogical aids are ignored, highlighting too much, studying with a friend without testing each other, and using review questions as content rather than an opportunity to test knowledge are all tasks that require maintenance rehearsal. This is a more mechanical, rote memorization process. This makes it much less likely that the information will be remembered and understood. However, all of these tasks could easily be tweaked to create tasks that would require elaborative rehearsal. All in all, deeper level processing is integral to memory because the ability to retrieve a memory later depends on the memory connections that were developed during the process of encoding. In order to retrieve a memory, you must be able to rely on a number of connections, each of which triggers another connection, which leads to memory retrieval. This is why mnemonic strategies are effective; they depend on these connections.

With this in mind, I would suggest writing journal entries relating material from class to material from other classes as a way to learn and study material. It requires elaborative rehearsal due to the need to think about the material in a different way in order to connect it to other classes, possibly in different disciplines. It would also be effective to relate the material to previous material from the same class. Both tasks would serve as an active learning process that would create connections and facilitate later retrieval. This strategy would also serve to solidify understanding of concepts in the other classes to which the student was relating the material. It also forces you to put the concepts into your own words while learning and studying material; this is an important skill to have because it also aids in memory retrieval, as it requires elaborative rehearsal.

Lastly, it is also important to note that another important element of learning and studying is attention. As the article mentions, it is not beneficial to study while engaging in distracting activities such as watching tv, texting, or using social media. This is due to the fact that we have limited cognitive resources. If we are dividing our attention between multiple tasks that require similar resources, such as texting and reading a textbook, we will not be able to encode the information as well because some of our cognitive resources will be devoted to texting.

To sum up, the best study strategies are those that require elaborative processing, or making connections and thinking critically about new information. It is also best to engage in these study strategies when you are devoting all your attention to them.

Interesting fMRI Studies

This is an intriguing article about the impact of head movement on fMRI data from the Kessler Foundation.  Data from subjects who move their heads during imaging usually has to be discarded, as it is a source of random error.  The article asserts that this often occurs with subjects who suffer from cognitively impairing disorders such as MS.  Thus, there is a potential bias against subjects who are more impaired.  Dr. Wylie, the associate director of Neuroscience in Neuropsychology & Neuroscience Research at the Kessler Foundation, said that as the difficulty of the task increased, there was an increase in movement that was larger among subjects with lower cognitive ability.  A possible, albeit costly, solution is to recruit a larger number of subjects.  This way, subjects of all different abilities are better represented.

I found this article to be very interesting, as it presents an important issue with fMRI that never occurred to me.  Given that fMRI is becoming the standard in neuroimaging, it seems all that much more important that both researchers and consumers of research be aware of this issue.  I am also curious if there are any other issues or biases that exist that are similar to this one.  I can certainly think of several other diseases or disorders which would make it difficult for subjects to stay still during imaging.

As I was reading this article, I was reminded of another article by Alexis Madrigal, which highlights another important critique of fMRI.  The article discusses the very real possibility of attaining false positives when using fMRI purely due to chance because of the large amount of data being collected by the machine.  This assertion is supported by the fact that spots of activity appeared in the brain of a deceased salmon when it was put in the fMRI by neuroscientist Craig Bennett as a test subject.  This surprising incident can be used to show the importance of sound statistical methods that take into account the possibility of false positives.  Bennett highlights the importance of having the right amount of statistical power when conducting research.

Taken together, these two articles seem to suggest the importance of sound and careful attention to statistics when doing research in Cognitive Psychology.  Since the discipline relies on neuroimaging as one of the methods of studying the brain, it seems particularly important to be aware of any pertinent issues that may exist with the imaging method that is being used in the given experiment.  This could help to avoid unwanted complications in the experiment, such as confounds or low internal validity (which is very important in Cognitive Psychology).  I would be interested to see if other methods of neuroimaging, such as CT scans and MRIs, have similar concerns associated with them.  It seems as though it would be easier to avoid with other methods due to their more static nature.  CT scan and MRIs both take images at a moment in time.  On the other hand, an fMRI measures the amount of oxygen in the blood in a particular part of the brain.