Author Archives: mgehlsen

Spring 2015

I’m not the first one to say this and I certainly won’t be the last, but this wasn’t the best semester for anyone here at UMW. We’ve had some tough losses, but as Eagles we need to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off in order to finish this last week up strong. But all the events going on got me thinking about what the actual effect of grief is on cognition. We know it makes us more depressed, obviously, but does it have an effect on any other area of cognition?

The first step is to take a look at the effects that Depression has on the brain and how that can affect students in the first place. It’s important to note that 1 in 10 college students has Depression, so we need to rule out the group of students with symptoms already associated with it. This handy article tells us all we need to know about the symptoms. Emotionally, it causes stress and anxiety with no identifiable cause. Cognitively, it causes the person to be less alert and have more trouble making basic decisions and even paying attention, which leads to more stress.

Now that we’ve got the baseline down, let’s head to the grieving process. According to this article, grief may be a major cause of Depression. This is most likely because the two have so many symptoms in common, but let’s keep going further. Around the time a loved one is lost, a person’s thoughts tend to revolve around that person. They wonder why and how they passed, what they could have done to prevent it, how they’ll go on without them, etc. These thoughts eventually become intrusive and tend to overtake the mind, leading to attention deficits in everyday interactions. The afflicted person finds themselves always reverting back to thinking about their loved one, and it only stops when they seek help. In serious cases, a griever may begin to hallucinate about the deceased in order to cope with the loss and fill a void left by them. The realization that the hallucinations are in fact just that causes the feelings of depression to resume at a much deeper level.

In the DSM-4, bereavement is defined as something that “may be a focus of clinical attention.” That’s it. Holly G. Prigerson, a psychologist focused on grief studies, wanted to push the DSM-5 to acknowledge the cognitive effects of grief, saying “We knew that grief predicted a lot of bad outcomes—over and above depression and anxiety—and thought it was worthy of clinical attention in its own right.” So does this mean that grief is actually above Depression and that it’s actually one of the causes? Well, duh. However, just because one causes the other does not necessarily mean that the treatments will be the same. This article states that “grief is tied to a particular event […] whereas the origins of a bout of clinical depression are often more obscure. Antidepressants do not ease the longing for the deceased that grievers feel. So in most cases, treating grieving people for depression is ineffective.”

So, what does this all mean? It means we need to take care of ourselves, fellow Eagles. We’ve been through some tough times and they’re going to take a toll on us cognitively, possibly even leading to some more serious conditions if left untreated. Seek help, talk to someone you trust, or by all means utilize the campus resources offered to us all. That one session with a counselor might make the difference between being cognitively aware during your final exams and being completely spaced out.

A Lean, Mean, Caffeine Machine

If you spot me around campus, odds are I have either a cup of coffee or a travel mug filled to the brim with a steaming cup of java. In class today, my professor asked me to do the math and figure out how many cups of coffee I’ve had so far this semester, and the number came out to around 315 with a margin of error of around 15. I grind my own beans, I use a French press, I revel in my knowledge of how to make the best cup of coffee (a very true statement). But how does coffee get us going? What is it about caffeine that makes college kids so dependent on the stuff that it’s almost like an addiction? Look no further, you caffeinated heaps of procrastination, because I’ve done the research for you!

Meet Adenosine. Adenosine is not your friend. A study shows the effects of adenosine on the brain and how it is a part of our daily lives. To sum it up, our brains slowly produce more and more adenosine as the day drags on. As this neurotransmitter binds to its receptors, we begin to feel more relaxed, even tired. Adenosine and melatonin work hand in hand to promote sleep, so in a way, I suppose adenosine actually is your friend.

This little molecule we know all too well. Behold, caffeine! Its (relatively) similar structure to adenosine means that it acts as an inhibitor to the adenosine receptors. As the caffeine binds to these receptors, the adenosine cannot and therefore we don’t have the calming effects from it and therefore become more jittery and less tired. The brain also sees these somewhat foreign molecules as a threat and triggers the adrenal gland to start producing more adrenaline to attack them. This increase in adrenaline also allows us to become more alert and causes the dependency effect.

What does this mean for cognition? Well, since caffeine imitates the effect we receive from sleeping, we basically have to look at the effects of getting enough sleep and clearing away all the accumulated adenosine. Studies show that sleep deprivation takes away from your cognitive abilities, including, but not limited to, slower reaction times, reduced fine motor skills, inability to focus attention, the list goes on, really. So when we drink caffeine, we prevent or slow down those effects and that allows us to become the A-student we’ve always wanted to be.

There is a downside to every college student’s moderate to severe (to lethal) dependency upon caffeine, however. As more and more caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors and the actual adenosine molecules can’t be absorbed, the brain creates more receptors to accommodate for this change. As a result, you end up becoming more tired in the long run because your brain requires more caffeine to have the same inhibitory effect. In fact, a study conducted by Bertil Freedhold that I couldn’t actually obtain because I don’t have a Google Books account but read the abstract for tells us that after a week-long dosage of caffeine to lab rats, the number of adenosine receptors in their tiny little brains was increased by about 25%.

So, when you reach for that 316th cup of coffee, take into consideration the fact that you’ll actually end up being more tired in the long run. Just a thought.

Busting Bilingualism

Anyone who knows me should know that I start salivating whenever I even hear the word “language.” Those who know me even better know that I speak 4 languages, some more fluently than others. Whenever I see articles that attest to the fact that those individuals who are talented enough to master more than one language, I can’t help but get a little excited because it makes me feel special. I mean, who wouldn’t? However, is there really a correlation between multilingualism and cognitive performance?

My interest in multilingualism was sparked when I watched this video by a not-too-famous YouTuber. Spoiler alert: she’s not actually speaking those languages, that’s what we in the industry call “gibberish.” So I got to thinking about how she must be cognitively advantaged if she can even feign knowledge of all of those languages. However, a later video of hers disproves this. So I did some research.

An experiment conducted by Simon and Wolf in 1963 put bilinguals and monolinguals to the test in cognitive performance. In their task, participants were presented with a color and a shape on one side of a screen. If the figure was red, they had to push a button on the right side of the keyboard. If it was blue, a button on the left was pressed. The experiment varied in congruent and non-congruent trials where sometimes the color and the side of the screen it was presented on were similar, and sometimes that was not the case. The experiment showed that both types of participants performed equally, disproving that cognitive function was superior in bilingual people. This task was performed with people of varying levels of multilingual proficiency. For example, one trial consisted of native English speakers, native English speakers who also spoke Spanish, and English-Spanish interpreters whose jobs require them to be fluent in multiple languages. All participants performed the same regardless of level of proficiency in multiple languages.

Furthermore, research has shown that the level of proficiency in basic lexical tasks is decreased across languages in bilingual participants. Time and attention are divided between the two languages, so the learner doesn’t go as in-depth into the language as monolingual speakers of the same language do. In a fluency test, participants were given a letter or category and one minute to name as many words as possible either beginning with the letter or in the category. At the end of the minute, bilingual participants showed a much lower total number of words said than their monolingual counterparts.

So the next time you think that learning a language will help you in the workplace, you need to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of being multilingual. Yes, you’ll be able to communicate with several different types of people, but does the benefit really outweigh the cognitive cost?


If you ask someone what their blood type is, a fundamental aspect of what their body is comprised of, odds are they might not know. However, if you ask them something important, like what their Zodiac sign is, they’ll answer with no hesitation. For example, I’ll be able to tell you that I’m a Leo without a second thought. Some people live under the false notion that their zodiac sign is a major determining factor in their overall personality, but could this be true? Is it possible that there are only 12 different types of personality in over 7 billion people? And is it likely that you’ll be having the exact same kind of day with 1/12th of the population based on an arbitrary assignment? According to horoscopes, yes, you and 1 in every 12 people will find love today in the place you least expect it.

But why do people believe that the cosmos have an effect on personality? There’s this thing called subjective validation which basically states that two completely unrelated events are connected because a relationship is demanded. In other words, we find a way to make our horoscope apply to us. This “relationship” between the stars and personalities was put to the test by psychologist Bertram Forer. He gave a “unique” personality assessment to a group of students based on  a personality exam that they took and asked them to rate the accuracy of their assessment on a scale from 0 to 5, 5 being the most accurate. The average score was 4.26/5, meaning that everyone thought their personality assessment accurately captured how they view themselves. But here comes the plot twist:

Every student’s “unique” result was actually the exact same one.

What Forer basically did is he took a line or two from each horoscope’s description and compiled them into a single paragraph. This is where subjective validation comes into play. Odds are, people paid more attention to the “hits” rather than the “misses” in this paragraph and tried to make the traits apply to them. This unique paragraph also consisted of a number of Barnum statements, or statements that could apply equally to anyone. For example, “you have a great desire to be liked by everyone around you.” Well yeah, I haven’t met anyone whose sole goal in life was to be hated by everyone in their life.

To further debunk the astrological myth, all you have to do is look around you. The 25% of people who rely on “compatibility” to find destiny’s one true love for them are living under the world’s greatest delusion. My best friend is a Sagittarius and I’m a Leo, so apparently we’re supposed to be enemies. My parents are also supposed to remain as friends. 40 years of marriage and 5 kids would all beg to differ. Does compatibility largely rely on personality? Of course it does! But does personality rely on the stars? Not at all. This is one of those moments where A = B but B C, so it should logically follow that A C.

But what are some of the factors that make horoscopes so convincing? First of all, the subject believes that the unique description of how their day/week/month/year/life will pan out applies only to them, hence the term unique. However, as I’ve said before, this “unique” description applies to 1 in every 12 people. This is where you have to keep in mind that snowflakes are the only things that are abundant yet still remain unique, unlike humans. What’s more, people tend to believe what’s being told to them if they’re being told by a veritable source of authority, such as a psychic with a turban, a crystal ball, and maybe some incense burning in the back room to set the mood. So with this divine being forecasting your future and your love life, of course there will be some sense of credibility to it. But again, this is where people tend to make their own self-fulfilling prophecies.

Another experiment was carried out by French astrologist, Michel Gauquelin. He provided readers of a French newspaper with a free horoscope so long as they provided feedback of the accuracy of the prediction. Lo and behold, over 90% of the readers said their prediction was accurate. This is where the next trick comes in: the horoscope was exactly the same for all readers, much like Forer’s experiment.

What’s more, personality may change but not as quickly as some people may think. In 2011, the planet underwent some slight realignment, which meant that the stars realigned as well and therefore changed everyone’s zodiac sign. I was a Leo before this change and apparently now I’m a Cancer (a change I refuse to accept because I liked being a lion and I don’t know how to feel about being demoted to a teeny little crab). But this means that everyone’s personalities will change as a result, making those who were introverted before relatively extroverted because their date of birth fell within a different range. Just because the signs changed, that doesn’t mean that personalities changed overnight.

So when determining your personality, don’t rely so much on horoscopes. Consult a psychological examination backed by a credible institution or just ask the people around you and obtain some Informant Data. Better yet, do some introspecting and ask yourself rather than the crystal ball.