Author Archives: kharner

Using Cognitive Science in Therapy

How can cognitive psychology be applied to treat mental disorders? The cognitive model runs under the assumption that we must understand thought in order to understand behavior. Therefore, abnormal behavior, too, has a basis in cognition. Therapists who use the cognitive model believe that abnormal functioning results from inaccurate assumptions and attitudes about the world, illogical thinking patterns and cognitive distortions like overgeneralization and catastrophizing.

Developed by Aaron T. Beck, cognitive therapy has the goal to help people recognize and change their thinking processes. His treatment was specifically used for depression but can be applied to other disorders as well. Cognitive therapists first help clients becoming mindful of their negative thoughts, biased interpretations and errors in logic that dominate their thinking and lead to feeling depressed. Then the therapist can guide them to think of new interpretations and apply new ways of thinking to their daily lives. But is there evidence to suggest this form of therapy actually works?

Studies on both anxiety and depression show that CBT significantly improves conditions. This article states that the majority of systematic reviews and meta-analyses have concluded that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is “an efficacious treatment for depression”. CBT is therefore “recommended as the first-line treatment for depression.” In the study, the patients participated in CBT group therapy and the results showed a significant reduction in depression and anxiety among patients who received the treatment. The observed treatment gains were maintained at 3-months follow-up.

There are also data that suggest CBT is effective therapy for anxiety. Specifically this study placed participants with Panic Disorder in groups that received only CBT, one received CBT and medication, and one was the control group. The results showed that “There were significant reductions in panic/ agoraphobia symptoms and related variables between baseline and post-treatment, and these reductions were maintained in three-month follow-up. No differences were observed between those patients who received only CBT and those who received pharmacological treatment as well as CBT”.

So how is this treatment effective? This article says that it takes a practical, structured approach to problem solving and has the goal of changing patterns of thinking that in turn change the way they feel. It works by changing attitudes and behavior by examining cognitive processes: thoughts, images, beliefs, and schemas so that we can adapt more functional ways of processing. Further more, Aaron Beck proposed that people have an internal dialogue in their minds as if they are talking to themselves and we are often unaware of this dialogue. Many thoughts are unconscious and emotion filled and can pop up in the mind without us being fully aware. But patients learn to identify them and report them to the therapist and then work to change them.

In conclusion CBT is an effective form of therapy for many mental disorders and uses cognitive psychology as its basis. It suggests that it is not the events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give to these events. Therapists help patients understand internal dialogue, and change their distorted thoughts into more realistic ones that promote healthier behavior. It shows that we can change patterns of thought that seem to be wired within us to improve our lives.

Below is a worksheet used for homework in CBT. It is an example of the process behind the therapy and can be used by anyone to help sort out their thoughts and the meanings they attach to events.



Mindfulness Meditation May Boost Your Test Scores!

I recently became interested in using mindfulness to combat stress and reduce anxiety in order to increase my academic performance. But could mindfulness techniques straight up improve testing ability? An article from the Huffington post makes this claim, citing a “new study that shows mindfulness could help students perform better on tests by boosting their memory and comprehension skills”. I found this quite interesting and wanted to take a deeper look at the research.

In this study done by Michael D. Mrazek, participants were randomly placed in a two week mindfulness class or a nutrition class for two weeks.  The mindfulness class taught physical and mental strategies that helped people focus on the present moment. Participants were told to use this strategy throughout each day, and when they had of interrupting or intrusive thoughts.  To test progress and difference between the experimental and control  groups, the participants were assessed on a working memory capacity task as well as the verbal reasoning section of the GRE before and after the two week classes. The results were significant, showing that people who received mindfulness training had improved accuracy on the GRE and higher working memory capacity compared to the control group in the nutrition class. Analyses were run to conclude that the difference could be explained in part by the reduced mind-wandering during the tasks, a result of mindfulness training.

In a journal article for the Association for Psychological Science, Mrazek discussed the significance of his study, saying “Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn’t be unusual to find mixed results, but we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it and improved performance on both reading comprehension and working memory capacity.” Additionally the article reported that the same researches estimated that mindfulness training could result in an average 16 percentile point boost on the GRE!

In conclusion, this study supports the research hypothesis that ”Mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension score and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE”.

I found another peer reviewed article that is a systematic review of neuropsychological findings on the topic of mindfulness training and cognitive ability. It reviewed 23 studies on the topic and found that overall these studies showed “preliminary support for the notion that MMPs could provide significant benefits on several measures of cognition.”

Given this information, perhaps a new study tip would be to engage in mindfulness exercises each day before starting to study. Mindfulness allows you to focus on the present moment and encourages the dismissal of distracting thoughts. This could help you on tests, but also daily as you study for them. It goes without saying, if you are better able to concentrate while you are studying, you will remember more content. So, try out this guided mindfulness exercise before your next study session and let me know how it goes!


Should We Believe Survivors?



Why do survivors of trauma sometimes give accounts of the crime that do not add up? Should we believe them? This question has been hotly debated in the social media sphere by people without much scientific knowledge of the psychology behind traumatic memories. However, an article about the Neurobiology of Trauma came up in my Facebook feed in response to the flawed Rolling Stone story [trigger warning] about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. The article’s main thesis is that we should believe survivors even if their account of the traumatic event is not entirely accurate. Like we have learned in class, our brain did not evolve to remember every aspect of our life literally, but is better at synthesizing information in order to see the big picture. The main reason to believe survivors, however, is that the brain changes size and shape as the result of a traumatic event, and this leads to memory problems, repression, and confusion.

Physically, the brain is altered in at least three fundamental ways, according to the article and backed by this peer-reviewed study. The left pre-frontal cortex, or part of the brain that controlled language capacity, shrinks in size. This makes it more difficult to communicate details of the trauma. Second, the hippocampus is affected and the survivor’s concept of time and space can be altered, creating a “fragmented understanding of the memory of the traumatic event”. Third, the amygdala regulates emotion and this part of the brain becomes hypersensitive and can lead to seemingly irrational behavior after trauma. These are all normal responses to an abnormal event.

Since this is a cognitive psychology class and we talk a lot about memory, I decided to focus my research on the fragmented understanding of traumatic memories. For one example, I found a journal article that studied change in trauma narratives. In this study, the participants were survivors of interpersonal assault and were instructed to write a narrative about their trauma before and after engaging in Cognitive Processing Therapy. The results showed that “sexual assault survivors may be less likely to disclose the details of the attack in the first narrative“, since 55% of the participants reported a forced sexual act in only one of the 2 narratives.

Another relevant study was done on survivors of the September 11th attacks. While these survivors did not necessarily face sexual violence, their experiences still fall under the category of trauma, defined by the American Psychological Association as “an emotional response to a terrible event”. The participants’ memory was assessed by the use of questionnaires and free recall. The results showed that “survivors’ recollections of 9/11 varied between assessment points and were moderated by their trajectory of posttraumatic stress”.

The same journal article also discusses two paradigms of trauma memory. The traditional thought was that memories of post-traumatic events were fixed and inflexible because the nature of the event was thought to create long lasting memories that were set in stone. However, this viewpoint is being challenged as a number of empirical studies suggest that traumatic memories may not be fixed; in fact, they can be distorted and malleable over time.

In conclusion, I believe that this information about the cognitive processing of traumatic memories demonstrates that arguments such as: “her story was incongruent” are not valid evidence to discount the experiences of survivors of sexual violence. We should stand with survivors because sexual assault is an issue that affects far too many college students. Some people insensitively say that survivors are “overreacting” or falsely accusing their perpetrator, but in reality:

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Musical Memory

What is it about music that makes it easier to memorize than words alone? This something I have wondered about ever since I started playing the violin as a kid.  I was required to memorize all the pieces I played growing up, but that was the easy part! As long as I knew the notes and rhythms, memorization came as an inevitable result of daily practice. People routinely asked how I could play a 10-minute piece without looking at the sheet music, but I never had an answer; I just did, and by no means am I the only one with this ability. Most musicians are required to memorize full concertos packed with technical and rhythmic difficulties, and can do this with seeming ease. Take world renowned violinist Hillary Hahn for example: [youtube][/youtube]

Not only is music easier for most people to memorize, the memories seem to be long lasting as well. To this day I remember how to play pieces of music I learned years ago. And I am sure all of us remember songs from childhood that aided learning, such as the ABCs, Nursery Rhymes, Old McDonald, Schoolhouse Rock, songs to help learn foreign language vocabulary, and even tunes for remembering math formulas.

So, what do we know about memory and how does music fit in to the picture? An article from the Wall Street Journal provides a basis for understanding. In the article, scientist Dr. Roediger says that music can act as cue to unlock information that is stored in the brain because it provides rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. The structure of songs also includes repetition, which promotes memorization. Roediger explains how neuroscientists believe that humans developed music and dance to aid in the retrieval of information, and the brain function that responds to music evolved long before those related to language!

Structure is one reason music is memorable. Prehistoric laws, stories and customs needed to be passed down orally before humans invented written language. Therefore, the words were presented as poems, chants or songs in order for them to be easier to memorize and recall. For example, the epic works of Homer such as the Iliad and the Odyssey were organized into poetic structures in order to be passed down verbally. Chants were widely used to aid the memorization of large information sets as well.

Repetition is another factor that makes music easier to learn. Every time a piece is rehearsed, the pathway of neurons deepens, making a metaphorical groove in the neural network. When rehearsed many times, this pathway becomes so strongly glued that your brain can’t help but follow through the sequence, making memorization effortless.

Another factor that comes into play is associations. Since the brain uses networks to store and retrieve information, the info with many associations is easiest to find. When we remember music, we remember a number of things about the music that are associated with it like tune, a certain voice, and specific instruments. All of this (including the structure of rhythms and rhymes seen above) provide context that makes the memory easier to retrieve even after a long period of time.

One study provides experimental evidence that singing can facilitate foreign language learning. Participants in this study were randomly assigned to three conditions where they were told to “listen and repeat” words and phrases in Hungarian. The three conditions were: speaking normally, rhythmic speaking or singing. The results of the experiment showed that the singing condition performed better on Hungarian language tests after a 15-minute learning period compared to the other two groups. This difference was statistically significant so the results suggest that singing can facilitate memory for spoken foreign languages.

My overall thoughts about this topic are that much more research should be done on the effects of music on the brain and its cognitive processes. It was difficult to find many scholarly articles on the subject. The Wall Street Journal article I used did not go into enough depth in my opinion. However, the scientific study of how singing effects foreign language learning was interesting and informative, but the results were definitely not surprising. Further research should be done to find better ways of teaching and learning information with the help of music since our brains evolved to pass down information through song and poetry. I believe music is an essential part of the human experience and it would help us greatly to gain more insight on the role of music in our lives.