Thursday, December 24, 2015

And so this is 2015, and what have you thought? My psychological year in review 2015

2015: I embark on a project on family dementia caregiving and its impact on the mind (and body). An interesting paper came from Brazil early this year looking at caregiver stress and cognitive performance. Family caregivers performed worse at tasks assessing episodic memory, executive function and working memory-the latter effect even persisted after controlling for age, anxiety, depression and medication use. The authors also observed reduced brain derived neurotrophic factor in caregivers, and this correlated with working memory performance, suggesting an underlying neural mechanism. 

As part of my current research we are looking at the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction in carers. It was therefore interesting to see a Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper on mindfulness with Posner, a major name in the cognitive psychology of attention, give his two cents in this area. There seems to be a sharp methodological distinction between cross-sectional research in this area, which often compares expert meditators to non-meditators, with intervention work, which (understandably) looks at more short-term periods of meditation (e.g. an 8-week course).  

An interesting paper on dual processes of reasoning caught my eye. It was interesting to see people breaking down cognitive processes into further steps that might help to tie up some of the differing hypotheses on how Type 1 and Type 2 thinking may interact (with a very quick-and-nifty graphical abstract). I previously discussed dual process interactions somewhat generally but particularly with regard to creative thinking, and I think Pennycook et al.'s ideas are perhaps particularly relevant to a longer-term cognitive process such as creativity.   

Books-wise I didn’t get around to many psychology titles this year. The paperback of "How We Are" by Vincent Deary was out. An apparent attempt to write somewhat of a “theory of everything” for practical psychology, Deary grapples with how the small worlds we inhabit as individuals can be shaken by change. There is a touch of "the granny could have told you that" about this book, although it would have to be a highly eloquent grandmother. "Black Sheep" by Richard Stephens is a very readable and entertaining book about how things that seem bad for us can often be advantageous (tell that to your grandmother...) 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mindfulness update: 6 months on

Christmas shopping, I hear someone asking a shop assistant for mindfulness colouring books. Six months on from the end of the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) course, how mindful am I?

Why not use the same questionnaire I ask research participants to fill in? I look through the questions on the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills? Some examples:

I don't pay attention to what I'm doing because I'm daydreaming, worrying, or otherwise distracted.

I am somewhat of a daydreamer, although when trying to be mindful (e.g. when walking home from work) I can bring my mind back in focus when it strays, albeit it will need to be brought back again after a while.

I pay attention to sounds, such as clocks ticking, birds chirping, or cars passing.

I do think I am slightly more attuned to things happening in the present-before going into the class I was someone very occupied with the future and the past, as well as imagined scenarios, schemes and dreams. This is still true of me, but I think the present tense is breaking through more frequently.

I believe some of my thoughts are abnormal or bad and shouldn't be that way. 

This touches on the non-judgmental aspect of mindful awareness. In general I haven’t been prone to telling myself I shouldn’t be thinking a certain way, at least not in many years, so I doubt the course was going to change that.

I had low to moderate stress levels going into the course, so perhaps I didn’t have the same motivation to use the techniques involved as someone coming to this technique with more problematic stress levels. Meditation is something I'm doing on and off at present. Nonetheless, sometimes when I feel stress coming on, or particularly when a broken-record stream of stressed consciousness arises, I can bring my attention back to the present (so maybe I do think some of my thoughts shouldn't be the way they are after all...).

The study I’m currently running involves a 6-month and a 12-month follow-up, to see if any changes induced by MBSR classes persist over time. Change is inevitable, progress in controversial. Changing people’s behaviour in a lasting manner, including one’s own behaviour, is tricky. Informal feedback from the caregivers has been positive so far, but it will be interesting to see what happens to cognitive performance (particularly sustained attention) and biomarkers of stress 6-12 months down the line. And I wonder if that shopper will be stressed if they don't get that colouring book... 

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