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Harvard Neuroscientist ‘Well Being is a Skill’

Harvard Neuroscientist ‘Well Being is a Skill’

“Well-being is fundamentally no different than learning to play the cello.” This is the conclusion that neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues have declared.

Well-being is a skill.

At the 2015 Well-Being at Work conference, Davidson hosted a brief session—“Richie unplugged”—where he talked about four components of well-being that are supported by neuroscience. The mounting research suggests mental training in these four areas can make a difference in well-being. Additionally, the neural circuits involved in these areas exhibit plasticity—they can change in enduring ways for the better.

The four components of well-being that are supported by neuroscience are:

1. Resilience

When something bad happens, how long does it take you to recover? Some people rebound more quickly than others, and neuroscientists are measuring that recovery time.

“To paraphrase the bumper sticker, stuff happens and we cannot buffer ourselves from that stuff,” says Davidson, “but it’s really about how we recover from that adversity.”

Healthy Minds has found that people who report greater purpose in life may recover better than others because this purpose could help them “reframe stressful situations more productively,” according to the study.

Other research suggests mental training could help people rebound more quickly as well. Research at the Healthy Minds lab asks whether the neural circuits involved in resilience can be altered by mindfulness meditation.

The preliminary data suggests it would take thousands of hours:

“From the data that we have, it’s going to take a while before resilience is actually impacted. It’s at about six or seven thousand hours of practice, cumulatively, that we begin to see modulations of resilience. So it’s not something that is going to happen quickly, but this is a motivation and an inspiration to keep practicing.”

2. Outlook

Do you see the good in everyone? Outlook is the ability to savour positive experience—from enjoying a break at work to seeing kindness.

“We know something about the circuitry in the brain which underlies this quality of outlook,” says Davidson, “and we also know, for example, that individuals who suffer from depression, they show activation in this circuitry but it doesn’t last—this activation is very transient.”

Whereas resilience requires thousands of hours of practice, research suggests “modest doses” of  loving kindness and compassion meditation can impact outlook—Davidson mentions a recent study where individuals who had never meditated before received 30 minutes of compassion training over two weeks. “Not only did we see changes in the brain but these changes in the brain actually predicted pro-social behavior,” says Davidson.

3. Attention

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Davidson says, paraphrasing the subtitle from an article published by a group of social psychologists at Harvard which later became the topic of a Ted talk by researcher Matt Killingsworth. Those researchers also found that almost half the time, we’re not actually paying attention to the present moment. Davidson mentions that the impact on paying attention is a long-held value.

This quality of attention is so fundamentally important, philosopher and psychologist

William James, in his very famous two-volume tome which was written in 1890 'The Principles of Psychology' , has a whole chapter on attention and he said in that chapter:

“the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will”

then he went on to say that an education which improved this faculty would be the education par excellence.

4. Generosity

“When individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being,” says Davidson. “And these circuits get activated in a way that shows more enduring activation than other kinds of positive incentives.”

Caring for others is a “double positive whammy” because you benefit from being generous to other people and the study also suggests that compassion training can alter your own response to suffering.

Extending kindness—to oneself and to others—is a simple but powerful expression of mindfulness. Try this kindness practice that has been recommended by Mindful magazine. Recite these words slowly and deliberately, starting first with yourself, then extending to others.

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.

Extend to others…

May the people I encounter be safe.
May the people I encounter be happy.
May the people I encounter by healthy.
May the people I encounter live with ease.

Train Your Brain

“Our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly—most of the time our brains are being shaped unwittingly,” says Davidson at the conclusion of his talk. “And we have an opportunity to take more responsibility for the intentional shaping of our own minds and through that, we can shape our brains in ways that would enable these four fundamental constituents of well-being to be strengthened.”

Perception of Time and Quitting Smoking

Perception of Time and Quitting Smoking

There is a therapy created by Tad James called Time Line Therapy and the Basis of Personality

It's about changing a clients perception of time.  Part of that intervention is giving the client the imagined experience of floating above their time line and at time before the event happened.  Then you have the client leap over to a time in the future where they have learned the lesson of the past and are clear of that negative event.

That's the basic gist of it.  Changing the perception of time to create a change in a subconscious program and in particular, changing the emotional valence of a past event so that it can be reconsolidated with a closer to neutral meaning.

How could you apply that intervention to the idea of quitting smoking?

What if you were wanting to quit smoking and were to do this strategy on yourself?

You would have to give your brain the experience that went all the way back to your childhood, perhaps around the time when you were first offered a cigarette.  And then visualize that you saw a cigarette being handed to you.

But instead, a friend pushed it out of your hand and stopped you.
Good thing!
Remember that this would have happened all the way back then so continue to engage the neural networks related to that moment in the past so that your brain can categorize cigarettes in a different way and have those different cell assemblies activate in the future in a way that is associated to your identity of being a person that doesn't smoke.  You are changing the meaning with emotions so that the neurons that fired together in the past will stop playing catch with those smoking neurons.  You want new neurons to fire with so fire up the ones associated to the time before you were a non smoker and then slam all that shut!

If you gave your brain that novelty rich experience so that your brain got the message so that it caused you, in the future days, to notice how you feel totally different about cigarettes, so much that it doesn't even seem to be a part of you any more, then that would reprogram your mind to strategically quit smoking.

Maybe they should make commercials like that and see what effect it has on smokers? Perhaps an anti-smoking campaign to tap into smokers’ memories and tug at their heartstrings to times when they weren't smokers?

Ali Hussain thought the same.
He asserted that 'advertisers often use nostalgia-evoking messages to promote consumer products, and that tactic could be just as effective in encouraging healthy behaviors'.

Ali Hussain, is a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism,
“A lot of no-smoking messages are centred around fear, disgust and guilt,” Hussain said. “But smokers often don’t buy the messages and instead feel badly about themselves and the person who is trying to scare them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease in the United States, accounting for one of every five deaths.

Hoping to find a solution, researchers conducted a study of smokers, ages 18 to 39, exposing some to a nostalgic public service announcement Hussain created and some to a control message.

Those who viewed the PSA reported greater nostalgic emotions and displayed stronger negative attitudes toward smoking, especially women.
For more about the study:
Nostalgic Emotional Appeals for Smoking Prevention

Here is the PSA that was used.
{Courtesy of Ali Hussain, doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism]

Starting with images of childhood memories, the PSA script includes phrases such as, “I remember when I was a boy” and “I miss the simplicity of life, being outside on a warm summer night,” making references to familiar smells and tastes from bygone days. It ends with the narrator remembering when someone introduced him to cigarettes and a call to action.

So why did it work?

Nostalgia-themed PSAs play off consumers’ most cherished and personal memories, so they feel more engaged, the researchers said. And that nostalgic thinking influences attitudes and behaviors.

“Our study, which to our knowledge is first of its kind, shows promise for using nostalgic messages to promote pro-social behaviors,” said Maria Lapinski, professor in the Department of Communication.   “We know that policy and environmental changes have an influence on smoking and this study indicates persuasive messages can influence smoking attitudes.”

When persuading people with a PSA for anti-smoking, or as a hypnotherapist or doing the strategy yourself, know that your mind is capable of being influenced through your perception of time and is capable of rewiring habits under the surface as a result of those new learned experiences re-codified in that temporal association.

Erase Bad Memories and Enhance Good Ones with Manipulation of Specific Neurons

Erase Bad Memories and Enhance Good Ones with Manipulation of Specific Neurons

Stony Brook researchers discover a method to change emotionally charged memory patterns.

Imagine if memory could be tuned in such a way where good memories are enhanced for those suffering from dementia or bad memories are wiped away for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder. A Stony Brook University research team has taken a step toward the possibility of tuning the strength of memory by manipulating one of the brain’s natural mechanisms for signaling involved in memory, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Their findings are published in the journal Neuron.

Brain mechanisms underlying memory are not well understood, but most scientists believe that the region of the brain most involved in emotional memory is the amygdala. Acetylcholine is delivered to the amygdala by cholinergic neurons that reside in the base of the brain. These same neurons appear to be affected early in cognitive decline. Previous research has suggested that cholinergic input to the amygdala appears to strengthen emotional memories.

“Memories of emotionally charged experiences are particularly strong, whether positive or negative experiences, and the goal of our research is to determine the mechanisms underlying the strengthening of memory,” said Lorna Role, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and Co-Director of the Neurosciences Institute at Stony Brook Medicine.

In the paper, titled “Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits,” Dr. Role and colleagues used a fear-based memory model in mice to test the underlying mechanism of memory because fear is a strong and emotionally charged experience.

Brain mechanisms underlying memory are not well understood, but most scientists believe that the region of the brain most involved in emotional memory is the amygdala. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

The team used optogenetics, a newer research method using light to control cells in living tissue, to stimulate specific populations of cholinergic neurons during the experiments.

Two of the team’s findings stand out. First, when they increased acetylcholine release in the amygdala during the formation of a traumatic memory, it greatly strengthened memory making the memory last more than twice as long as normal. Then, when they decreased acetylcholine signaling in the amygdala during a traumatic experience, one that normally produces a fear response, they could actually wipe out memory.

“This second finding was particularly surprising, as we essentially created fearless mice by manipulating acetylcholine circuits in the brain,” explained Dr. Role. “The findings provide the basis for research examining novel approaches to reverse post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The challenge of continued research is that cholinergic neurons remain difficult to study because they are intermingled with other types of neurons and are few in number compared to other types of neurons in the brain.

Because acetylcholine is a natural signaling mechanism and seemingly essential for memory, additional research will center on non-pharmacologic ways to manipulate or fine-tune memory.

“The long-term goal of our research is that we would like to find ways – potentially independent of drug administration – to enhance or diminish the strength of specific memories, the good ones, and diminish the bad ones,” summarized Dr. Role.


The research involves faculty and students from the Stony Brook University Departments of Neurobiology and Behavior, and Pharmacological Sciences, as well as the CNS Disorders Center, the Neurosciences Institute, and the Program in Neurosciences. Co-authors include Li Jiang, Srikanya Kunda, James D. Lederman, Gretchen Y. Lopez-Hernandez, Elizabeth C. Ballinger, Shaohua Wang, and David A. Talmage.

Source: Gregory Filiano – Stony Brook University
Image Source: The image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits” by Li Jiang, Srikanya Kundu, James D. Lederman, Gretchen Y. López-Hernández, Elizabeth C. Ballinger, Shaohua Wang, David A. Talmage, Lorna W. Role in Neuron. Published online May 5 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2016.04.028


Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits

•Photostimulation of ACh in BLA during cue-fear training makes memory more durable
•Stimulating ACh input to BLA in vivo and ex vivo increases neuronal excitability
•Stimulating ACh input to BLA can elicit LTP
•All of the above effects are dependent on acetylcholine receptors (AChRs)


We examined the contribution of endogenous cholinergic signaling to the acquisition and extinction of fear- related memory by optogenetic regulation of cholinergic input to the basal lateral amygdala (BLA). Stimulation of cholinergic terminal fields within the BLA in awake-behaving mice during training in a cued fear-conditioning paradigm slowed the extinction of learned fear as assayed by multi-day retention of extinction learning. Inhibition of cholinergic activity during training reduced the acquisition of learned fear behaviors. Circuit mechanisms underlying the behavioral effects of cholinergic signaling in the BLA were assessed by in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiological recording. Photostimulation of endogenous cholinergic input (1) enhances firing of putative BLA principal neurons through activation of acetylcholine receptors (AChRs), (2) enhances glutamatergic synaptic transmission in the BLA, and (3) induces LTP of cortical-amygdala circuits. These studies support an essential role of cholinergic modulation of BLA circuits in the inscription and retention of fear memories.

“Cholinergic Signaling Controls Conditioned Fear Behaviors and Enhances Plasticity of Cortical-Amygdala Circuits” by Li Jiang, Srikanya Kundu, James D. Lederman, Gretchen Y. López-Hernández, Elizabeth C. Ballinger, Shaohua Wang, David A. Talmage, Lorna W. Role in Neuron. Published online May 5 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2016.04.028

People Who Have Had Personality Changes and Post-Traumatic Growth

People Who Have Had Personality Changes and Post-Traumatic Growth

“The ”self-image” is the key to human personality and human behavior. Change the self-image and you change the personality and the behavior.” Maxwell Maltz. author of Psycho-Cybernetics

Gradual personality changes can be normal with the aging process and experience that one receives. It is a part of human development. Psychologists generally view personality as one of the most stable and difficult-to-change human traits. But radical personality changes are seen in psychotic illnesses and organic brain damage. Sometimes exposure to traumatic combat experiences could cause acute changes in behavior and emotions. Many case studies coincide with the personality changes following traumatic combat exposure. These changes include confusion, delusional beliefs, altered awareness, violent behavior, detachment including withdrawal from family and friends, paranoid behavior, trigger events with vivid intrusive traumatic recollections, dissociative states and radical changes in lifestyle.

The Magnitude of Trauma and Personality Change – Research by K. Fink

The researcher K. Fink studied the correlation between Psychological trauma and possible personality changes. He postulates that, in post-traumatic personality structures caused by overwhelming traumatic experiences, pre-traumatic personality features and childhood experiences are of little or no relevance. In this study, sixty-four survivors of Nazi concentration camps were clinically interviewed and examined, their concentration camp experiences detailed and pre-persecution histories and post-persecution psychopathology studied. The significance of a concentration camp experience were analytically discussed and evaluated. This study showed that 52 cases (81.2%) of the 64 survivors of concentration camps presented an almost identical depressive personality structure irrespective of their pre-persecution life history. The 64 survivors of concentration camps were psychologically compared to 78 cases of people who, in view of the menacing circumstances, decided to emigrate and in this way were spared from becoming victims of the Nazi ‘final solution. (Fink,K. (2003) The Magnitude of Trauma and Personality change. Int J Psychoanal. 2003 Aug;84(Pt 4):985-95.)

Negative and Positive Personality changes following Combat Exposure

Combat trauma can cause drastic personality changes. Often these changes are negative. These negative changes are associated with pessimism, depressive feelings, anger, intense rage, lack of interest in libido (or sometimes the opposite: hypersexual behavior), extremism, inclination towards self-harm or suicide etc.

Regardless of the negative aspects of combat trauma, some studies indicate that there were positive changes after experiencing combat. There are many case studies on positive posttraumatic growth that helped a person to overcome his trauma and see the world in different perspective.

The story of the Emperor Ashoka (273 – 232 BC) is one of the best examples of positive personality changes following combat trauma. In his early days, the Emperor Ashoka had an undying desire to conquer. His last battle- the Kalinga War was full of human misery. He saw the death and dying of countless soldiers. He saw the human suffering. After the Kalinga War, the Emperor got a new insight. He renounced war and worked for the betterment of humankind embracing Buddhism. Ashoka in human history is often referred to as the emperor of all ages.

The Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) returned from the Crusade as a tired soldier. He fought for Spain and when he returned to Madrid after slavery, he found out that the government ignored his services and did not pay any significant attention. His mind was full of battle images and hallucinations. After coming home from long years of battle, Cervantes created the character Don Quixote that filled with humor and pathos. His fictional character Don Quixote goes in to dissociative episodes. He fights with windmills assuming it as enemy figures. Don Quixote’s vivid hallucinations reveal Cervantes tired mind after long years of battle. Cervantes once said, “The truth lies in a man’s dreams… perhaps in this unhappy world of ours whose madness is better than a foolish sanity.” Was Cervantes affected by combat stress? The answer could be yes.

The Count Leo Tolstoy participated in the Crimean War in 1854 fought against the French, British and Ottoman Empire to defend Sevastopol. He was exposed to numerous war traumas that changed his personality. The climax of this personality change occurred many years after the war when he was traveling to buy an estate. He had to stay in a motel and in the middle of the night, he woke up with a mortal fear. This could have been a severe anxiety attack and this incident made distinct changes in him. He experienced persistent sorrow and emptiness, which he described in his autobiographical book Confession….

"I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was not a crime I did not commit…Thus I lived for ten years.”

The posttraumatic growth in Leo Tolstoy helped him to become the best novelist of the World. His great epic novel the War and Peace deeply analyzes the war and human psyche ranging from heroism to cynicism and from glory to emptiness.

Even after many years, some of the personality changes troubled him. In January of 1903, as he wrote in his diary, Tolstoy had still experienced deep unshakable sadness.

"….I am now suffering the torments of hell: I am calling to mind all the infamies of my former life—these reminiscences do not pass away and they poison my existence. Generally, people regret that the individuality does not retain memory after death. What a happiness that it does not! What an anguish it would be if I remembered in this life all the evil, all that is painful to the conscience, committed by me in a previous life….What a happiness that reminiscences disappear with death and that there only remains consciousness…"

Mahatma Gandhi participated as a volunteer in the Ambulance Corps during the Boer war that fought from 1899 to 1902 between an alliance of the Boer governments and the Great Britain. In Boer war, Gandhi saw killings, torture and horrifying atrocities. This experience affected him greatly to embrace non-violence further deep. Gandhi was against any kind of War. He refused to support the revolutionary activities of Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose who wanted an arms struggle to free India from the British. Gandhi once wrote: "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could."

The Nobel Prize Laureate Ernest Hemingway served in the Lincoln Brigade as a volunteer during the Spanish Civil War. According to the Military Psychiatrist Dr William Pike, half of the Spanish civil war veterans suffered from severe combat related stress. At one point, Dr Pike was able to take 28 shell-shocked men hiding in a wine cellar. Ernest Hemingway was disgusted with the war and its horrendous nature. This new experience inspired him to write his novel Farewell to Arms. In the later years, he suffered from recurrent depression and took his own life.

Personality Changes Following the Elam War Experiences

Many combatants who fought in the Elam War had experienced psychological disturbances. Some underwent acute stress reactions on the battlefield and some had late posttraumatic reactions. The chronic post-traumatic stress symptoms changed their cognition and behavior pattern. These psychological damages had long-term effects on the combatants. It affected their personal, professional and social lives.

Lt. HXX43 had served 9 years in the operational areas. In 1998 he was posted to protect the Jayasinha Pura Camp and there he underwent strenuous military duties and faced enemy fire. In 1999 when he was serving at the Kokkuthuduvai camp the LTTE attacked them. It was a dreadful battle and many people died. Lt. HXX43 witnessed the deaths of the enemy carders as well as the deaths of his own men. It was a shocking and devastating period for him. Over the years, he witnessed a number of deaths and how soldiers were getting wounded. At the Kovil Point in front of his eyes, a soldier lost his leg due to an antipersonnel mine. The soldier’s leg blown in to pieces all he could see was blood and bone fragments. These traumatic experiences changed this thinking pattern and made him more and more cynical.

After serving a number of years at the Northern war, front Lt. HXX43 came home as a tired man. Generalized body pain fatigue and frequent headaches often troubled him. He became more and more irritable and could not control his anger. He suffered a general apathy and could not feel happiness and did not derive any satisfaction by doing any pleasurable activates. His friends, parents and the wife noticed the melodramatic personality changes in him.

L/ Cpl. AXX39 served many years in the North facing hostilities. During this period, he witnessed a large number of combat related traumatic events. He saw the deaths of his unit’s soldiers as well as the enemy. He was utterly devastated following these sorrowful experiences. After coming home L/ Cpl. AXX39 became a different man. He physically and verbally abused his wife, often imposed heavy punishments on his children and became extremely suspicious. He lost the motivation and will to survive.

Personality Changes Following Traumatic Brain Injuries

A large numbers of soldiers sustained head injuries in the Elam War. These wounds were predominantly caused by the gunshots, mortar blasts and artillery attacks. Many injured soldiers had a range of neuro­psychological problems and personality changes following the brain injuries. Apart from the personality changes these victims experienced impaired memory, difficulty in concentrating, cognitive difficulties especially in logic and in rational judgment with lack of impulse control.

Lance Cpl. NXXS32 sustained a MBI (Mortar Blast Injury) to the parietal region of the skull. He immediately lost his consciousness. Later he was transferred to the Anuradhapura Hospital then to the NSU (Nero Surgical Unit) National Hospital Colombo. After months of treatment, his physical condition improved.

Although he survived the MBI, the head injury gave him occasional epilepsy. He was then diagnosed with Posttraumatic Epilepsy. After the head injury, there were drastic personality changes in him. He had memory and cognitive problems, emotional liability with intense mood swings, hostility and inappropriate sexual behavior. He was treated with SSRI s, mood stabilizers, and CBT.

Sgt. CXXT56 served nearly 8 years in an artillery battery. There he was constantly exposed to artillery shellfire and vibration. By 2004, he had constant headaches, termers of the hands, sexual dysfunctions, inability to tolerate loud noises, hostile feelings, and marked cognitive changes.

Adopting Positive Stress Coping Methods

Personality traits play an important role in military training. Professor Joshua J. Jackson of the Washington University in St. Louis is of the view that the military attracts men who are generally less neurotic, less likely to worry, less likely to be concerned about seeking out novel experiences. Therefore positive stress management would increase the productivity of the military and it protects soldiers for great extent from possible psychological harm in combat situations.

Mismanagement of combat stress can lead to misconduct stress behaviors (insubordination, desertion, social disruption, and harassment of civilians) as well as negative stress coping methods like alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence and cruelty to children. The combatants must be taught positive stress coping methods such as seeking counseling services, meditation, engage in recreational activities, doing sports, participate in religious work etc. creative work like art , sculpture , writing also help to get away from stresses.

Private PX43 served in the operational areas over 8 years and throughout this period he witnessed death and destruction. He became restless, agitated and gradually experienced posttraumatic symptoms. His nights were full of battle dreams and horrors that he underwent in the North. When Private PX43 was referred for psychological support services in 2004, he was treated with medication and psychotherapy. In addition, he was referred for spiritual therapy that was consisted of Meditation. (Rev Harispattuwa Ariyawansalankara-Chief Incumbent, Sri Lanka International Vipassana Meditation Centre helped us enormously to organize meditation and spiritual therapy for the war affected combatants) Within several months, his mental condition improved and Private PX43 practiced meditation with a great interest. He became more positive about the life experiences and was able to overcome his posttraumatic features. By the late 2006, he was free of posttraumatic symptoms.

Cpl JX54 sustained a gunshot injury to his leg and underwent below knee amputation. His life was devastated after he became disabled. Several times, he planned to take his own life. He became hostile, blaming others for his misery and started abusing alcohol. In 2003, he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder and treated accordingly. Gradually his stress and anxiety reduced and he was able to see his present life condition with a positive attitude. Today Cpl JX54 is free of his traumatic and self-destructive behavior and engages in an income generating handloom business.