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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.”

Boost Deep Sleep and Memory from ‘Pink Noise’. Pink Noise MP3 available

Boost Deep Sleep and Memory from ‘Pink Noise’. Pink Noise MP3 available

Sign Up for a Free MP3 'Meditation for a New You'

As we age, our quality of sleep declines. Researchers believe that this may contribute to later-life memory loss. New research, however, suggests that there may be a simple solution to this problem: "pink noise."
Researchers say that pink noise may help to improve deep sleep quality and memory for older adults.

Pink noise is defined as gentle, soothing sound whereby each octave possesses equal energy. In essence, pink noise is the background noise that we hear in everyday environments.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, found that when they synced pink noise to the brain waves of older adults as they slept, the sound not only enhanced their quality of deep sleep, but it also improved their memory.

Senior author Dr. Phyllis Zee, professor of neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern, and colleagues recently published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of sleep for memory consolidation - that is, the brain's ability to convert short-term memories into long-term memories.

Slow-wave sleep (SWS) - more commonly referred to as deep sleep - is part of the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep cycle that is considered important for memory consolidation. As we get older, however, the quality of SWS can decrease.

Studies have shown that disruptions to NREM sleep in older age can have negative consequences for memory.

According to Dr. Zee and team, previous research in young adults has uncovered a link between acoustic stimulation of slow-wave brain activity during sleep and improved memory. However, they note that studies using acoustic stimulation in older adults are lacking.

Acoustic stimulation boosts SWS, memory in later life

To address this gap in research, Dr. Zee and colleagues enrolled 13 older adults, aged between 60 and 84 years, to their study.

All adults were subject to one night of sham stimulation and one night of acoustic stimulation, which were around 1 week apart. The acoustic stimulation incorporated pink noise that was synced to their brain waves as they slept.

For each session, the adults completed two memory recall tests - one before they went to sleep at night, and one after they woke up the following morning.

While memory recall improved under both conditions, the researchers found that the average improvement following acoustic stimulation was three times greater than with the sham stimulation.

The greater improvement in memory as a result of acoustic stimulation correlated with a greater increase in the quality of SWS, which the team says emphasizes how important deep sleep is for memory consolidation, even in later life.

Overall, the researchers believe that their findings indicate that acoustic stimulation may be an effective way to boost sleep quality and memory in older age.

"This is an innovative, simple, and safe non-medication approach that may help improve brain health. This is a potential tool for enhancing memory in older populations and attenuating normal age-related memory decline.

Dr Phyllis Zee

However, the team concludes that further studies involving a larger number of participants are needed before acoustic stimulation can be recommended for older adults.

"We want to move this to long-term, at-home studies," notes first author Nelly Papalambros, of the Department of Neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

You can find pink noise on Youtube and you can probably get the same effect from falling asleep in front of the television when there's nothing on.  The known benefits of pink noise is well established and has been endorsed by Dr Oz.  As nice as that it, his version can't be downloaded.  Sometimes I just want to add the pink noise to my computer and then sync it to my phone.  That way I can listen to it when I go to sleep.  So if you want to download some pink noise, you can have it by liking or sharing this post.  And I'm on the honour system so once you've done your bit, you can download some pink noise.

Its good stuff.  Helps you to consolidate memories and improves your memory.  Remember and sleep well!

Talk Therapy Helps Strengthen Brain Connections

Talk Therapy Helps Strengthen Brain Connections

In post-traumatic growth, one of the steps is to talk about the problem.  People that can verbalize what the challenges are have an increased probability for restoring mental health.

New research in neuroscience now gives additional confirmation.

Summary: Study reveals cognitive behavioral therapy can strengthen specific connections in the brains of people with psychosis, and the stronger neural network connections are associated with long term reduction in symptoms.

A new study from King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has shown for the first time that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) strengthens specific connections in the brains of people with psychosis, and that these stronger connections are associated with long-term reduction in symptoms and recovery eight years later.

CBT – a specific type of talking therapy – involves people changing the way they think about and respond to their thoughts and experiences. For individuals experiencing psychotic symptoms, common in schizophrenia and a number of other psychiatric disorders, the therapy involves learning to think differently about unusual experiences, such as distressing beliefs that others are out to get them. CBT also involves developing strategies to reduce distress and improve wellbeing.

The findings, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, follow the same researchers’ previous work which showed that people with psychosis who received CBT displayed strengthened connections between key regions of the brain involved in processing social threat accurately.

The new results show for the first time that these changes continue to have an impact years later on people’s long-term recovery.

In the original study, participants underwent fMRI imaging to assess the brain’s response to images of faces expressing different emotions, before and after six months of CBT. Participants were already taking medication when they took part in the study, and so were compared to a group receiving medication only. The group receiving medication only did not show any increases in connectivity, suggesting that the effects on brain connections could be attributed to the CBT.

For the new study, the health of 15 of the 22 participants who received CBT was tracked for eight years through their medical records. They were also sent a questionnaire at the end of this period to assess their level of recovery and wellbeing.

The results show that increases in connectivity between several brain regions – most importantly the amygdala (the brain’s threat centre) and the frontal lobes (which are involved in thinking and reasoning) – are associated with long-term recovery from psychosis. This is the first time that changes in the brain associated with CBT have been shown to be associated with long-term recovery in people with psychosis.

The results show that increases in connectivity between several brain regions – most importantly the amygdala (the brain’s threat centre) and the frontal lobes (which are involved in thinking and reasoning) – are associated with long-term recovery from psychosis. This is the first time that changes in the brain associated with CBT have been shown to be associated with long-term recovery in people with psychosis.

Lead author of the study Dr Liam Mason from King’s College London, who is a clinical psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital where the research took place, said: “This research challenges the notion that the existence of physical brain differences in mental health disorders somehow makes psychological factors or treatments less important. Unfortunately, previous research has shown that this ‘brain bias’ can make clinicians more likely to recommend medication but not psychological therapies. This is especially important in psychosis, where only one in ten people who could benefit from psychological therapies are offered them.”

The researchers now hope to confirm the results in a larger sample, and to identify the changes in the brain that differentiate people who experience improvements with CBT from those who do not. Ultimately, the results could lead to better, and more tailored, treatments for psychosis, by allowing researchers to understand what determines whether psychological therapies are effective.

The study took place at the Psychological Interventions Clinic for Outpatients with Psychosis (PICuP), a specialist service based in the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

Funding: The research was supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and the Wellcome Trust.

Original Research: Full open access research for “Brain connectivity changes occurring following cognitive behavioural therapy for psychosis predict long-term recovery” by L Mason, E Peters, S C Williams & V Kumari in Translational Psychiatry. Published online January 17 2017 doi:10.1038/tp.2016.263

How Conversational Metaphors Engage Brain Region for Visual Perception

Summary: Researchers discover metaphors that involve body parts such as arms or legs, such as ‘twist my arm, engage a brain region responsible for the visual perception of those parts.

Source: Emory Health Sciences.

Body part metaphors activate the extrastriate body area.

Listening to metaphors involving arms or legs loops in a region of the brain responsible for visual perception of those body parts, scientists have discovered.

The finding, recently published in Brain & Language, is another example of how neuroscience studies are providing evidence for “grounded cognition” — the idea that comprehension of abstract concepts in the brain is built upon concrete experiences, a proposal whose history extends back millennia to Aristotle.

When study participants heard sentences that included phrases such as “shoulder responsibility,” “foot the bill” or “twist my arm”, they tended to engage a region of the brain called the left extrastriate body area or EBA.

Image shows a brain with the EBA highlighted.

The extrastriate body area was shown in 2001 to respond selectively to images of the human body, and more recently to metaphors involving body parts. Reprogrammingmind image is credited to Alexander et al./Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The same level of activation was not seen when participants heard literal sentences containing phrases with a similar meaning, such as “take responsibility” or “pay the bill.” The study included 12 right-handed, English-speaking people, and blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

“The EBA is part of the extrastriate visual cortex, and it was known to be involved in identifying body parts,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University. “We found that the metaphor selectivity of the EBA matches its visual selectivity.”

The EBA was not activated when study participants heard literal, non-metaphorical sentences describing body parts.

“This suggests that deep semantic processing is needed to recruit the EBA, over and above routine use of the words for body parts,” Sathian says.

Sathian’s research team had previously observed that metaphors involving the sense of touch, such as “a rough day”, activate a region of the brain important for sensing texture. In addition, other researchers have shown that motion-related metaphors engage parts of the brain involved in motor control or in the perception of movement.

Relative to those previous findings, the researchers were surprised to find that body part metaphors did not tend to activate areas of the brain linked to motor control or the sense of touch.

“It is a negative result, but just because we didn’t detect signals with these brain imaging methods doesn’t mean subtler connections don’t exist,” Sathian says.

The Brain & Language paper includes analysis of “resting state connectivity”, showing that the EBA appears to communicate with language processing areas of the brain, even while someone is not listening to a metaphor. Follow-up research could test whether magnetic stimulation of the EBA interferes with processing of body part metaphors.

In one reported case of damage to the brain including the EBA, the affected person was impaired in using body part words to refer to inanimate objects (the teeth of a comb or the arm of a chair). Separately, the EBA was recently shown to be involved in understanding the meaning of gestures.

Research on metaphor comprehension can inform rehabilitation approaches for someone who has had a stroke or traumatic brain injury affecting the ability to process language.

“Engaging their senses multimodally may be a way to bootstrap rehab for those individuals,” says Sathian, who is director of the Rehabilitation R&D Center at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.


The first author of the paper is senior research associate Simon Lacey, PhD. Collaborators at Auburn University and Purdue University contributed to the paper.

Funding: The research was supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS1125756) and the Veterans Administration.

Source: Quinn Eastman – Emory Health Sciences
Image Source: image is credited to Lacey et al Brain & Language (2016).
Original Research: Abstract for “Engagement of the left extrastriate body area during body-part metaphor comprehension” by Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla, Gopikrishna Deshpande, Sinan Zhao, Careese Stephens, Kelly McCormick, David Kemmerer, and K. Sathian in Brain and Language. Published online December 2016 doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2016.11.004


Engagement of the left extrastriate body area during body-part metaphor comprehension

Grounded cognition explanations of metaphor comprehension predict activation of sensorimotor cortices relevant to the metaphor’s source domain. We tested this prediction for body-part metaphors using functional magnetic resonance imaging while participants heard sentences containing metaphorical or literal references to body parts, and comparable control sentences. Localizer scans identified body-part-specific motor, somatosensory and visual cortical regions. Both subject- and item-wise analyses showed that, relative to control sentences, metaphorical but not literal sentences evoked limb metaphor-specific activity in the left extrastriate body area (EBA), paralleling the EBA’s known visual limb-selectivity. The EBA focus exhibited resting-state functional connectivity with ipsilateral semantic processing regions. In some of these regions, the strength of resting-state connectivity correlated with individual preference for verbal processing. Effective connectivity analyses showed that, during metaphor comprehension, activity in some semantic regions drove that in the EBA. These results provide converging evidence for grounding of metaphor processing in domain-specific sensorimotor cortical activity.

“Engagement of the left extrastriate body area during body-part metaphor comprehension” by Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla, Gopikrishna Deshpande, Sinan Zhao, Careese Stephens, Kelly McCormick, David Kemmerer, and K. Sathian in Brain and Language. Published online December 2016 doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2016.11.004