Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mindfulness and the mind

I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened
Attributed to Mark Twain

How much of our lives is spent ruminating on the potential misfortunes that will befall us if our luck runs out, or daydreaming of the fights we might pick with those who slighted us in the past? Mindfulness is described as a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness-based approaches are becoming increasingly popular as a means of reducing stress, as well as ameliorating psychological disorders. If mindfulness can promote ways of thinking that may differ from most of our everyday streams-of-consciousness, how might this impact upon our brain and cognition?

If mindfulness can change your way of thinking, it seems it can change your performance on cognitive tests. A mindfulness-based mind fitness training program has been found to reduce attentional lapses in a military cohort. However, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) did not have a clear effect upon sustained attention in a clinical trial, although the authors suggested that different results might be apparent for vigilance (i.e. sustained attention for a rarely occurring target). Outside the lab, an interesting field study indicated that providing mindfulness training to low-income children improved reported classroom behaviour-the one positive effect of mindfulness that extra sessions seemed to enhance was improved attention. Although the evidence is not final, it certainly seems plausible that techniques aiming to help you bring your attention back to the present moment when it wanders to the past or the future could lead to greater practice of cognitive control.

A number of recent studies have looked at changes in brain structure associated with mindfulness. A lot of studies examining the effects of meditation on brain structure have compared meditators to non-meditators. However, a recent study looked at changes in brain structure within the same people, before and after mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). The findings suggest that MBSR led to higher levels of grey matter* in regions of the brain stem. These were regions associated with the production of neurochemicals that modulate mood and cognition (e.g. the locus coeruleus, which produces norepinephrine). However, the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they suffer from some of the common problems with brain imaging studies (e.g. fishing for regions of activation, then labelling an observed area in the scan as corresponding to a known region in the brain, even when the use of relatively low-resolution scanners makes it difficult to know if it really is the region you specified that you were looking at). However, perhaps a more promising finding from this same group was enhanced gray matter in the hippocampus, which they had previously specified as a region of interest.

Compared to when I was a teenager, the use of the internet to flit through different sites and ideas has possibly worn down my sustained attention skills to some extent. With regard to stress, I think my levels are pretty moderate these days (perhaps I'm settling in to life as a grown-up), but there is always room for improvement**. In the interest of finding out more about mindfulness for my research (and maybe some self-improvement), I will be starting a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction shortly-should be a great chance to get a first-person view. Will let you know how I am on the far side of it!

UPDATE: It is also worth mentioning a recent review that grapples with the neuroscience of mindfulness-the senior author is Michael Posner, a major figure in the psychology of attention.

*Grey matter is made up of the cell bodies, dendrites and unmyelinated axons of neurons, the brain cells that process information. White matter, in contrast, gets its characteristic colour from the myelin that sheaths axons (allowing information to travel along the neuron more quickly).

**Note: I'm not trying to say no stress is a good thing!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A helping hand: time or money?

A poverty is sweeping the land. Fridges are full, cars are running and banks keep trucking. But an impatience grips the citizens. They are impatient with one another, flitting from task to task, constantly facing new deadlines and missing old ones. The fact that people are bad at estimating how long it will take to do things (the planning fallacy) doesn't help. Some people wondering if they should put off sleep for another hour or two to keep the show on the road.

It's the affliction of time poverty. Brother, can you spare a minute?

When someone asks for your time, you may expect them to reciprocate in future, but there's a good chance that you're giving up your time to help your fellow human. Research on the topic of altruism has tended to look at when people give up their money. Studies looking at such financial altruism may simply look at willingness-to-donate via self-report. Of course, willingness-to-donate and amount actually donated may not correspond closely, so actual helping behaviour is better to study.

A new paper describes an approach to looking at overt, altruistic behaviour, and particularly how much time people give up for an altruistic cause.

The paper initially looks not at altruistic helping but at altruistic punishment-giving of yourself in order to punish someone who violates social norms. Participants had to complete simple but time consuming tasks (like an arithmetic problem) in order to increase the size of the punishment. Although the vignettes they read were not real, it was real time the study participants were giving up. When people read an account of someone  violating a social contract (e.g. talking on mobile phone while driving) they spent longer on the puzzles, racking up a bigger punishment (e.g. bigger fine), They were more lenient (and so solved fewer puzzles) for a scenario less indicative of a social contract violation (e.g. how long you'd wait before revisiting a cinema when the programme is changed from previously advertised).

Participants also spent longer solving puzzles to give a harsher punishment to someone who deliberately violates the social contract (pushing in front to use an ATM) that someone who accidentally breaks the rules (someone rushes to train so fast they forget to buy a ticket).

The researchers found that this also works for helping behaviours. Instead of looking at the impact of social violations on altruistic punishment, they primed participants by making them watch videos of a dog shelter (empathy), a report on police shooting a dog (anger) or an instructional video on brushing a dog (neutral). Those who watched the "empathy clip" spent more time solving puzzles in order to bring about a bigger altruistic outcome (e.g. money given to pay a stray dog's vet bills).

Clearly, as the set-up in these experiments simply asked participants what they would like to happen, it would be interesting to see what would happen in a situation where giving up time led directly to real altruistic helping or punishment (or at least where participants believed as much). Nonetheless, it's quite impressive that the researchers were able to make people give up their time to punish or help a vignette character. Then again, how much time do any of us give up already fantasizing about revenge, or of being a hero, when this will not actually help/hurt those around us?

What I find interesting about time (and the authors allude to this in their discussion) is that people vary not only in terms of how much money they have, but also how much free time they have. So giving up an hour is a more onerous task for a CEO than it is for a JobBridge intern. The authors assert that there are bigger differences between people with the most and the least money than those with the most and the least free time (so perhaps there is less "time inequality" in our society??). In any case, good luck getting the CEO to take part in a study using this method...

Farrelly et al. (2015). Evidence for an alternative currency for altruism in laboratory-based experiments. Europe's Journal of Psychology, 11(1), 100-111.