Category Archives: Self-Help

The incredible reason why you should be exercising regularly

I think everyone is sold on the idea that exercise is good for the body, assuming no contraindications. Everyone who can, should do it – it makes you physically healthier, stronger, etc.

Fewer people are aware of it’s effect on mood though, which I have discussed before. Physical exercise makes you happier, and more likely to overcome stressful setbacks that you encounter through your life. I believe it was Tal Ben-Shahar who said “Not exercising is like taking depressants.”

Fewer people still are aware of another benefit to exercise. It’s even good for the brain. Is there nothing it can’t do?

Take dementia for instance. Laurin et al (2001) looked at a huge sample of randomly selected Canadian men and women. 6,434 of these were ‘cognitively normal’ at baseline; that is, no dementia. Five years later, 4,615 people completed a follow up test which asked them about their exercise habits, as well as other tests, such as for cognitive impairment.

High levels of activity were associated with reduced risks of cognitive impairment, dementia (of any type), and Alzheimer disease. The odds of someone having Alzheimer’s in the group who exercise were half as low as those who did no exercise at all!

So it seems that regular physical activity might be a preventative factor in age related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. This is pretty big.

But the benefits of exercise do not seem to stop at prevention – they may actually have an augmenting effect on cognitive function in healthy adults; and the evidence for this is getting stronger.

Take Winters et al (2007) for instance. They took a group of people, got them to run around a bit, and then tested their learning performance, both immediately afterwards and long term. They found that vocabulary learning was 20% faster after intense exercise, as well as increases in a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, and sustained BDNF was linked to greater learning success. BDNF is sort of the holy grail of cognitive enhancement, helping to support the survival of existing neurons as well encourage the growth of new neurons and synapses. This protein may explain both the preventative and enhancement effects of exercise on cognitive function.

So when you’re wondering whether to get off your ass and get to the gym today, keep this in mind – you’re not only keeping your body healthy, you’re improving your mental function and preventing cognitive decline.

This might also play a role in the timing of your exercise sessions. Try working out immediately prior to any time you need to learn. It should improve your performance.

Obesity, junk food, and the brain – tugging the human instinct in an unhealthy direction

Ever wonder about the effect modern life has on us? Unbridled freedom, choice and… fat? Yep. According to the BBC back in ’06, we were on course for 20% child obesity in 2010. I haven’t checked that fact, nor the actual 2010 figure, but I doubt anything has been done to solve this problem. It doesn’t appear that way on a walk down an average street, anyway.

Circumstances do kind of conspire against us though. Massive corporations spend millions learning how to alter the behaviour of consumers. Marketing departments and salesmen, in their own field, know as much about human psychology as scientists do. It’s almost empirical, you advertise here, and in this way, at this time, and watch the results. Companies know exactly what buttons to press to have us spending money on junk food.

Not only that, but junk food may be a bit of a ‘hack’ in itself. As the theory goes, changes in our diet have occurred at a much faster rate than our genome is able to adapt to. Our bodies don’t ‘know’ food is abundant; as far as they are concerned, we’re hunger-gatherers in the pleistocene and food is scarce indeed. Our most successful ancestors were the ones with the strongest taste for nutrient- and calorie-dense food (fat, sugar), they were more motivated to seek and eat food, and hence more likely to pass their sugar-loving genes into subsequent generations.

At the same time as food has been systematically refined into that which we can resist the least, our environment has been undergoing a similar shift. We can’t resist conserving our energy, resting. Wasting energy could be fatal 40,000 years ago, so if we have food and shelter nearby, we tend not to move (except perhaps for sex). Combine MacDonalds with La-z-boy, throw in a TV for entertainment, and you can see the results.

fitness_escalator
You just want to slap some people, don’t you?

I’m not saying there isn’t a degree of personal responsibility here; there is. My point is that the health and fitness deck is not exactly stacked in our favour. Our natural inclinations are being pulled in an unhealthy direction.

Do I see a similar thing going on with the brain?

If I can’t remember the name of that song, Google is at my fingertips to relieve me of the burden of recall. If I had an iWhatever, I could do this wherever I was. Is this another example of circumstances moving us away from optimal functioning?

It makes intuitive sense, and strong arguments have been put forward both for and against, but I’m not sure the evidence either way is deep enough to form a solid opinion yet. Some studies have been showing cognitive gains related to media usage (see this lab for instance).

On the other hand, there’s the multi-tasking study that many bloggers have picked up – where people who were classed as heavy multi-taskers were not so good on a test of task switching ability. But how this relates to general internet usage (for instance) isn’t all that clear.

But even assuming there is a detrimental effect going on (which as I say, I think is a big assumption at the moment), there might be a common solution, which I’ll talk about next time…

The Doctor will sue you now

Here’s a free chapter from Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science. It wasn’t included in the original edition of the book because at the time Matthias Rath was suing both Goldacre and The Guardian for libel over the issues covered within. After Rath dropped the case, this chapter was swiftly and meticulously written up and given out free on a creative commons licence.

I definitely want to add more posts on critical thinking (and thinking skills generally) to this blog, because they are integral to not only doing well on a psychology degree, but also evaluating the masses of bullshit that gets thrown at you in the glorious information age. This chapter fits in nicely with that. Plus, it buys me some time to write up a proper post!

The chapter covers a really important question. When it comes to pseudoscience and alternative therapy, a common argument for is: “What’s the harm?” And it’s a deceptively difficult question to answer in some ways, because, like the good little Westerner that I am, I believe that people should be free to choose their own beliefs and form their own opinions. If they want to believe that a lump of crystal will bring them wealth or that a vial of water will cure their acne, what’s the harm? I mean, placebo effects do happen right?

Well, maybe so, but although the usual consequences are just Joe Bloggs getting ripped off in Holland and Barrett (or wherever), sometimes they are far, far worse. The chapter explains what happened in South Africa when anti-retroviral drugs for HIV were rejected in favour of, if I remember correctly, a mixture of lemon, garlic and beetroot. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this really happened (with severe consequences). And that’s not even the half of it. I won’t spoil the surprises, but you will be truly shocked and probably outraged.

Click here to download the free chapter.

As for the author:

Ben’s blog is at badscience.net (and here is the original post releasing this chapter, in case the link above stops working for some reason)

I highly recommend his book, Bad Science. It’s not sufficient alone as a critical reasoning book for a psych degree, but it covers a lot of technical points about research methods, stats, etc., all explained with real-world stories and examples. It’s an entertaining read although be warned that it might stir up the debunker in you!

You can also follow Ben on twitter here.

Open-Mindedness

Most people have quite the wrong idea about what open-mindedness is.  I’ve been told by people who believe in things that are not well supported by evidence, that I am closed-minded for not believing in them.  Ghosts, for example, or the existence of a soul.  Am I closed-minded because I hold back on accepting things until I have seen sufficient evidence?  I don’t think so.  I am definitely open-minded, but that does not mean I accept anything without judgement or consideration.  A better word for that is gullible.  I often find too, that people who tend to believe in supernatural kinds of things are immediately dismissive of scientific kinds of things.  Which, to me, suggests that either they are (a) accepting towards things they want to believe, and closed-minded against things they don’t, or (b) have their own standards for determining what they will accept and what they won’t, which are different from my  own (in which case, by their own reasoning, they are closed-minded too).

Unfortunately, people aren’t taught how to think, how to evaluate claims and evidence.  Which is a shame, since it seems to me that people adopt their opinions and beliefs from newspapers and other media, which are the places where critical thinking is most needed!

Below is an excellent video on open-mindedness I found on YouTube.  Give it a watch, it really explains things well.

Who needs self-esteem anyway?

I discovered an interesting paper by Ryan and Brown (1), which got me thinking. This paper proposes a view of self-esteem that I hadn’t come across before.

First, they explain their view of the self. Most researchers use the ‘self-as-object’ definition – we have a self-concept, which can be complex, simple, positive or negative based on our own appraisal and evaluation of it. These evaluative ‘schema’ make up self-esteem.

A second perspective is the ‘self-as-process’ idea, in which the self is not the object of evaluation, but is the process of assimilating and integrating experience. From this perspective, it is not important whether self-esteem is low or high; what is important is what is going on when these evaluations are made.

Staying with the self-determination theory (SDT) tradition, they argue from the self-as-process position that concern with the worth of the self is a byproduct of psychological need deprivation. In other words, most people don’t sit around thinking “How worthy am I?”; yet many other people obsess over this, and compare themselves continuously. The fact that they do this, Ryan and Brown propose, means there is a psychological need unfulfilled (the three psychological needs being relatedness to others, autonomy, and competence).

For example, an individual lacking in relatedness with others may try to conform to the standards of other people in order to gain their acceptance. They might get it, but the quest for self-esteem hinders their authenticity and personal growth. Likewise, a person may seek self-esteem in achievement, if they are insecure about their competence.

So if one has self-esteem, it is because their basic psychological needs are fulfilled. Therefore self-esteem can be beneficial to an individual – but only if they don’t need it! Seeking self-esteem it for its own sake may lead to conflicts in the basic needs, and therefore only temporary satisfaction.

Ryan and Brown suggest, based on this, that a life lived without concern for self-esteem might be optimal. When something bad happens, we are disappointed, but we do not integrate this into our self-concept and disparage ourselves (“I’m a loser!”). Likewise, when things go well, we are pleased, but again the self is not conceptualised as an object to be praised (“I’m awesome!”).

This phenomenon of not integrating positive or negative events with the self may be related to another interesting construct – locus of evaluation. This is the degree that an individual has integrated a set of standards or values by which to judge their actions, versus the extent that they rely on an external frame of reference. For example, if I had an internal locus of evaluation for blog writing, it would not matter how much traffic or tweets I got from this post – I do not judge my performance on that, so it would not affect me. Conversely, if I had an external locus of evaluation, I would be highly affected by the traffic I got, for I would need that external reference to know how well I did.

An external locus of evaluation is correlated with low self-esteem (2), just as the theories of SDT and self-esteem would predict: the need for another person to set the standard for our self-evaluations is a hallmark of the introjected style of motivation – this indicates the deprivation of a psychological need, and hence low self-esteem.

You can envision a dark side to an internal locus of evaluation too; if your own judgement is just plain wrong, for instance. But, in any case, this just seems to deflect the issue; if an internal locus of evaluation is a buffer protecting self-esteem, it would preserve both the positive and negative forms of self-esteem alike. The problem seems to be with the concept of the self itself.

To take this further, Ryan and Brown bring in ideas from Buddhist philosophy, which go something like this: when we form a self-concept (self-as-object) we often forget that this ‘me’ is merely a creation of thought, and is only one of an infinite number of possible ways that we can construe the self.

We know there is some truth to this idea from CBT and Seligman’s explanatory style of optimism – our self-concept, our self-esteem, the emotions we experience – even mental disorder in some cases – can be traced back to particular thoughts, beliefs and judgements we hold of ourselves.

Here’s the point: if the self can be constructed in any number of ways – which appears to be the case – is this really the self that we want ourselves and others to esteem? Perhaps the fickleness of the self-as-object construction is the reason that self-esteem is not a reliable route to well-being or growth.

But if not these constructions, then what? Is there a deeper ‘self’, beneath these constructions? Mindfulness is proposed as an answer – as long as we hold to a construction of the self-as-object to esteem, there will always be situations where we do not live up to the values on which the self is based. The idea is to disidentify with the self-as-object, and simply to have awareness of the processes that the self is made up of, without ever saying “That is me.”

And coming full circle, this is in accordance with the idea of healthy self-regulation – someone who has their basic psychological needs met, does not strive for self-esteem.

References:

(1) Ryan, R., & Brown, K. (2003). Why We Don’t Need Self-Esteem: On Fundamental Needs, Contingent Love, and Mindfulness: Comment. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 71-76

(2) Bucus, D. (2008). Defining the self: Locus of evaluation, self-esteem, and personality. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 69, 122.