Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How Do You Bounce Back from Setbacks?

Photo: University of the Fraser Valley via flickr (CC BY 2.0)
by Maurice Elias, Edutopia:

Educators know many highs and lows. Some of these highs come when our students show us that they have learned deeply, taken what we have presented, and used it in creative ways.

One of our greatest highs comes when students persist despite significant challenges in accomplishing a goal.

Our lows come from wanting our students to succeed and seeing them come up short. They also hit us from the many changes and challenges in the educational landscape, the shifting rules and criteria, for example.

Resources for Rejuvenating

The Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC) has taken expertise in resilience with children and extended that to their adult caregivers and educators. They realize the need to build your "bounce" so that you are not beset and stopped by the inevitable lows you encounter as a teacher.

Bouncing back usually means we are feeling run-down, and when that happens, we can turn to the four areas that DCRC has found necessary to help us spring back to life. Here they are:
  • Engaging in Relationships: Rekindle and use one or more key supportive relationships in your life. Reach out to a friend, mentor, or someone who turns to you for support.
  • Positive Internal Beliefs: Remind yourself of aspects of your life in which you matter and are effective. Recount your personal strengths, areas where you are creative, and ways people show you love.
  • Taking Initiative: Take positive actions and make necessary decisions. Get back to your hobbies, find time to do things that allow you to laugh, seek out new knowledge and new approaches, be willing to move out of your comfort zone and reach out to others for help, and don't be afraid to say, "no."
  • Exercising Self-Control: Review your strategies for calming yourself down when upset, finding outlets to appropriately express your strong feelings, and setting appropriate and realistic goals and limits.

Resilience Is Key

The DCRC has an assessment you can use, the Devereux Adult Resilience Scale, to see the areas of your life where you have the most and fewest resilient resources. And once you make that assessment, the DCRC provides ideas for you to bounce back by building up one or more areas of your life that can be a source of resilience. Here are four examples:

#1. Before You Say What You Think, Think

When someone makes a request of you, before you answer, say that you want to take a little time to think about it and you will get back to them. This allows you to bounce back on your own terms.

#2. Reach Out to Reach In

Showing empathy and gratitude will actually help you feel better about yourself. Think of people you have been out of touch with, or not in as much contact with as you would wish, and reach out to see how they are doing to show that you care. Similarly, think about who has done something for you lately (even something small), like your children hanging up their clothes, your spouse taking care of something in the house, or your student keeping the classroom orderly. Write a thank you note. Yes, a written note works better than anything electronic.

#3. Get in Touch With What Matters to You

Use some sentence starters or fill-ins to dwell a little less on what is going badly and more on what matters to you. Here are some:

When something difficult happens, it's okay because ...

- adds so much to my life because ...
- I am most grateful for ...
- I care most about ...
- My belief in ...

#4. Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Remind yourself that it is okay to ask for help. It is rare that you are facing a problem or situation that no one else has solved. Make a list of five people you will ask for help, and stay determined to keep asking until you get help. And if you get to number five without success, make another list of five. Don't worry if you have not been in touch with someone before, or if you don't know the person well, or even at all. The way you ask (as well as the luck of timing) will play a big role in the kind of response you get. Regardless, press on!

Self-Care First

If you are drawing parallels between adult and child resilience, it's no coincidence. The forces that allow people to bounce back, to defy oppressive gravity, if you will, are natural forces and therefore are available in a developmentally appropriate way for our students.

But it's a good idea to start with yourself so that you can also see the challenges that must be overcome to bounce back, especially when you have not had the experience of intentionally doing so in successful ways.

It's easy to think that someone who is down would naturally want to take any opportunity to get off the floor. But sometimes, it feels like we belong on the floor, or that there is no point in arising only to get knocked down again. Just remember, those who seem resilient have gotten that way through practice.

Resilience is developing the habit of being convinced that you do not deserve to be put down and finding the resources to ensure that you - and your students - bounce up. 

Maurice Elias's Profile

Monday, November 30, 2015

Building Resilience in 8 Simple Steps

Resilience is a daily practiceby Coaching Positive Performance:

Building resilience improves your ability to cope with stress and pressures; as and when they arrive. If you only think about stress when it occurs; you are already fighting an uphill battle.

However, if you take the time to implement some coping strategies in your life, you greatly reduce your exposure to stress.

The following are some simple strategies for building resilience, reducing stress, improving your health and increasing personal effectiveness; which you can implement in your everyday life:

Accept your imperfections

Nobody gets everything right first time; as long as you learn from your mistakes, you will continue to move forward in life. Resilience building requires that you accept yourself for who are, and accept that you will make mistakes.

Schedule some time for yourself each and everyday 

By learning to enjoy your own company, and taking time for the things that are important to you, you will increase your sense of self-esteem. Building resilience is a key defence against low self-esteem and it’s associated problems. By creating boundaries around your time, others will develop more respect for you and your time.

Turn off the technology

For at least one hour per day, switch off all technology. This time might be used to complete mundane tasks; to read; or simply to relax. Throughout history, man has been able to cope without the technology we have become accustomed to. There is no reason why you cannot cope for one hour per day.

Exercise every day

If possible, always strive to start the day with exercise - whether it be a gym workout or a short walk (it doesn’t have to be strenuous). Either way you start the day feeling good and with a sense of already having achieved something positive. This positivity will help to carry you through the most difficult of days.

Ensure that you get sufficient sleep

When it comes to building resilience, sleep is one of the most important aspects. Sleep is the body and minds way of recovering from a hard day and building up the required strength and resolve for the days to come. Go to bed a little earlier and if necessary get some advice on how to improve the quality of your sleep. By doing so, you will start the new day with more energy and a more positive mindset.

Choose your friends wisely

As Jim Rohn stated, you are the average of your five closest friends. The people you spend time with help to determine your mood and your attitude to life. By choosing friends who are supportive and whose company you enjoy; you will be more confident in your ability to cope with whatever life throws your way.

Laugh out loud

Laughter is one of  the most effective resilience building activities known to man.Identify the things that make you laugh and schedule them into your life. With the internet, there are an abundance of sites designed to make you laugh, in addition to the vast number of comedies produced for TV, Cinema and Stage. With so many resources available, there is no need to wait for laughter to come your way, you can go get it.  Adding just a little more laughter to your life, will lead to amazing results for your health and happiness.

Remember that tomorrow is another day

Life is a cycle. Good times and bad, come and go. While today may look like a dark day, tomorrow can bring a whole new perspective. When having a bad experience, remind yourself that this too shall pass and brighter times lie ahead.

If you feel that you may be experiencing stress, check out Stress Free Living.

Don’t wait for stress to knock upon your door. Focus on building resilience today. By taking a little time to make simple changes to your attitude and your schedule, you can significantly reduce your stress levels, improve your effectiveness, and increase your overall enjoyment of life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Norwegian Secret To Enjoying A Long Winter

Photo: Flickr user Mark Robinson
by , Fast Company:

As the days get darker and colder in much of the northern hemisphere, it’s easy to indulge in gloom.

For the next few months, you’ll be shivering. You’ll be battling foul weather. Thanks to daylight saving time there will be no chance to see the sun after work.

The gloom leads to a common question: What can I do to cope with the dark and cold? If you truly want to be happy during winter, though, this is the wrong approach to the season. Changing your mindset can do more than distracting yourself from the weather.

That’s the takeaway from research done by Kari Leibowitz, currently a PhD student at Stanford University, who spent August 2014 to June 2015 on a Fulbright scholarship in Tromsø in northern Norway. Tromsø is so far north that from late November to late January, the sun never climbs above the horizon. Leibowitz went to study the residents’ overall mental health, because rates of seasonal depression were lower than one might expect.

At first, she was asking "Why aren’t people here more depressed?" and if there were lessons that could be taken elsewhere. But once she was there, "I sort of realized that that was the wrong question to be asking," she says. When she asked people "Why don’t you have seasonal depression?" the answer was "Why would we?"

It turns out that in northern Norway, "people view winter as something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured," says Leibowitz, and that makes all the difference.

Lessons From The Far North 

To be sure, there are some aspects of the near-polar culture that might be hard to emulate elsewhere. Small Norwegian communities are tightly knit, and strong social ties increase well-being everywhere. That said, there are lessons that can help anyone think differently about cold weather.

First, Norwegians celebrate the things one can only do in winter. "People couldn’t wait for the ski season to start," says Leibowitz. Getting outside is a known mood booster, and so Norwegians keep going outside, whatever is happening out there. Notes Leibowitz: "There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

Norwegians also have a word, koselig, that means a sense of coziness. It’s like the best parts of Christmas, without all the stress. People light candles, light fires, drink warm beverages, and sit under fuzzy blankets. There’s a community aspect to it too; it’s not just an excuse to sit on the couch watching Netflix. Leibowitz reports that Tromsø had plenty of festivals and community activities creating the sense that everyone was in it together.
Photo: Flickr userJan Fredrik Frantzen
And finally, people are enamored with the sheer beauty of the season. Leibowitz grew up near the Jersey shore, and "I just took it as a fact that everyone likes summer the best." But deep in the winter in Norway, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, multiple hours a day can still look like sunrise and sunset, and against the snow, "the colors are incredibly beautiful," she says. "The light is very soft and indirect."

A Mindset Shift 

Most likely you can’t cross-country ski straight out of your house, and while Norwegian sweaters may be catching on, restaurants and coffee shops in more temperate climates don’t all feature the fireplaces and candles common to the far north. Still, there are little things non-Norwegians can do.

"One of the things we do a lot of in the States is we bond by complaining about the winter," says Leibowitz. "It’s hard to have a positive wintertime mindset when we make small talk by being negative about the winter."

This is easy enough to change; simply refuse to participate in the Misery Olympics. Talk about how the cold gives you a chance to drink tea or hot chocolate all day. Talk about ice skating, or building snowmen. Bundle up and go for a walk outside, knowing that you’ll likely feel warmer and happier after a few minutes. Better yet, go with a friend. Social plans are a great reason to haul yourself out from under the covers.

But overall, mindset research is increasingly finding that it doesn’t take much to shift one’s thinking. "It doesn’t have to be this huge complicated thing," says Leibowitz. "You can just consciously try to have a positive wintertime mindset and that might be enough to induce it."

Monday, October 26, 2015

How Corporates Co-opted the Art of Mindfulness to Make Us Bear the Unbearable

Mindfulness, ideal tool for compliance Flickr/DG Fischer, CC BY
by Zoë Krupka, La Trobe University
“If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are” - Hsin Hsin Ming.
Almost every person who walks through my practice doorway is anxious in some way. And so they should be.

While their anxiety might be blasting messages at an overly high volume, the messages themselves are worth paying attention to: abusive relationships, significant losses and workplaces that have squeezed their personal, physical and spiritual lives into a corner too small for a hamster to burrow in.

Most come in hoping that the volume of their anxiety will be turned down, but many also hope that the messages themselves will go away. Like all of us, they want to find a way around having to take difficult action to change their lives. And for some of them, their hopes are pinned on our current corporatised misinterpretation of mindfulness. They’ve been sold on meditation as a simple way to bear the unbearable.

Pasteurised versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business. With Google, Target and Ford recently jumping on the corporate mindfulness bandwagon, the rebranding of mindful meditation and practice as a means to increase both productivity and compliance is now complete. Slowing down, tuning in and radical acceptance have been molded into low-cost tools to increase our ability to speed up, tune out and drive ourselves harder than ever before.

While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.

The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.

In this context, mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance, with its focus on the individual management of our responses to forces we’re being told are well beyond our control.

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.

This confusion, of what is essentially a way to exist with full awareness, with a one-size-fits-all treatment strategy for everything from depression to premature ejaculation, has placed a powerful way of life into a tiny box reserved only for the treatment of behaviours we currently see as unacceptable. Stressed at work?

Having trouble containing your grief at the office? Struggling with the uncertainty of your position during the 7th restructure in as many years? Do some mindfulness. It’ll fix not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you. Rather than a difficult but easily accessible way to free your mind and body, mindfulness has been rebranded as a kind of gentle harness to help us heel to the corporate leg.

And the purpose of the practice has been restructured to include a hierarchy of outcomes as well.

Take a look at the current marketing of corporate mindfulness. If you’re reading an endorsement for mindfulness from one of our Captains of Industry, Jeff Weiner, for instance, you’ll hear about how he credits the practice with enhancing his success.

If you’re slightly lower on the food chain, you’ll read about how you can reduce your stress and be more productive with just a few daily minutes of meditation. And if you’re even lower down the social hierarchy, a pregnant woman perhaps, you’ll be told about how mindfulness can help you be a better carer for others.

I try to meditate every day. Even to brush my teeth mindfully. To sit on the train without my phone, to breathe consciously, to watch my thoughts go by. Most practice days I spend at least some time teaching people simple mindful practices that can help to reduce their in-the-moment anxiety, calm emotions that threaten to interfere with their ability to express them and to come into the present enough to speak clearly from their hearts and minds.

This is just part of the work of taking responsibility for our lives. Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.

Zoë Krupka, PhD Student Faculty of Health Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Appeal of Narcissistic Leaders is also Their Downfall

Trump has been called a ‘textbook narcissist’ (C Keane/Reuters)
by Ross Roberts, Bangor University; Chin Wei Ong, Bangor University, and Tim Woodman, Bangor University, The Conversation:
From the sports field to the battlefield, from business to politics, ineffective leaders often shoulder the blame when things go wrong. Perhaps we should be more careful about who we put in charge.

Our research has found that your personality - and how narcissistic you are - is linked to how effective you are as a leader. We found that narcissists may appear to be good leaders early on, but they soon fall out of favour.

As we choose the leaders around us, we often think we are making informed choices about who is most effective. But our research suggests that this is not always the case. In fact, we are more likely to select as leaders those people who display narcissistic traits.

Those who score highly in narcissism tests believe they are special people who are superior. They also report high levels of confidence, are focused on themselves at the expense of others, and are vain. These overly positive views of themselves help narcissists to perform very well in situations that offer them an opportunity for personal glory, such as performing under pressure, performing tasks that are difficult, and doing things in the presence of others.

But when they perceive that there is no such opportunity, narcissists withdraw their effort and perform poorly. Because narcissists are so focused on personal glory they can be difficult team members; yet they might make good leaders. Positions of leadership provide an opportunity to gain glory from others and so are likely to be attractive to the narcissist.

The leader ship is sinking

Others have researched and written about the idea of narcissists as leaders, but until now there has been no evidence of whether or not narcissists actually do make effective leaders in the long term.
Not as good as he looks. Looking in mirror via Minerva Studio/

In two studies, we assessed people’s narcissism using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory - a standard narcissism questionnaire used in psychology research. Example items include: “If I ruled the world it would be a much better place” and “I am an extraordinary person”. People were asked to score themselves against these items on a scale of 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating higher levels of narcissism. Our mean scores were just under 14 for both the studies which is consistent with most research using similar participants.

We then asked people to work in small groups, completing weekly tasks for 12 weeks. Examples of tasks included naming all the Team GB medallists at the 2012 London Olympics and identifying the states of the USA on a blank map.

In the first study (using 112 first-year students, 71 men and 41 women, working in 24 groups in their first semester at university) we deliberately allocated people to groups so that they would be unlikely to know each other. In the second study, we used individuals who knew each other reasonably well (152 final year students, 96 men and 56 women, working as part of 29 groups) and let them choose their own groups.

Both during and at the end of the 12 weeks, the participants rated each other on their leadership effectiveness. The results were striking. Initially, the people who had scored highest on the narcissism test were rated as highly effective, but as time went on these positive perceptions waned until eventually narcissists were seen as very ineffective leaders. Although we expected narcissists not to last long as leaders, we were amazed by how rapidly they lost favour with their group, and how negatively they were viewed by the end. Over time, the narcissistic leaders’ ships sank.

Are narcissistic leaders doomed to fail?

Our results showed that the group was initially attracted to the narcissist’s charisma and vision, which allowed the narcissists to rise as the “natural” leaders. But over a very short time, narcissistic leaders failed to provide their followers with appropriate levels of challenge or support. This ultimately led to their downfall.

Although our data painted a rather negative picture for narcissists in the long run, it is not all doom and gloom for the narcissistic leader. The challenge for them is to be able to harness their charisma and combine it with other factors such as humility or empathy, which should enable them to be seen as effective leaders over time. An extreme narcissist may not care what others think of them and may be doomed to fail in leadership roles. But there are other narcissism traits that may be more effective and even necessary, in some forms of diplomacy for example - such as narcissistic charm.

Being able to choose between leaders who we “like” in the short term and those who we believe will get the job done and be effective over time is not necessarily an easy task. Dealing with this paradox is vital to be able to ensure effective leadership in the long term.

Ross Roberts, Lecturer, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences and Co-Director, Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance, Bangor University; Chin Wei Ong, PhD Candidate, Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance, Bangor University, and Tim Woodman, Professor and Head of the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, Bangor University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Stacey Copas - The Resilience Factor in Leadership: Turning Adversity Into Opportunities

The resilience factor in leadership: turning adversity into ...
Stacey Copas
by Lauren Kelleher, Women's Agenda:

Good leaders are resilient. They bounce back from set-backs or adversity, and continue to move in the right direction when times get tough.

In today’s modern workplace, the ability to cope with change and deal with challenges is an essential trait of a great leader. But remaining positive in the face of adversity can be tough.

Fear of failure, reactive behaviour and fear of rejection are just some of the many hurdles which stop people from being resilient in tough times.

According to Stacey Copas, keynote speaker and facilitator of Resilience for Results, the key to building resilience is to actively create strategies on how to handle difficult situations - a trait which is absolutely critical for any leader.

“Resilience is essential for any leader, but even more important for a woman in leadership or a woman aspiring to be in a leadership role. You need to have strategies to think more positively before you use them in practice - I liken it to ‘learning to dig your well before you are thirsty,” she explains.

Stacey has recently published a book titled How to be Resilient based on her own life experiences. When Stacey was 12 she had a devastating accident that left her a quadriplegic and wheelchair dependent for the rest of her life. Over the course of her career and life journey, she has picked up and established a number of personal philosophies and key tools to build resilience in the face of hardship.

Stacey is now Australia’s number one keynote speaker and facilitator on how to turn adversity into an asset, an ambassador for the Layne Beachely Aim for the Stars Foundation, and has worked alongside many organisations - like Telstra, CSIRO and the South Australian Cricket Association - to share how leaders can turn setbacks into opportunities.

Ahead of Women in Leadership in the Public Sector, Stacey shares her insights into why resilience is an important leadership trait for any female leader and the steps that can be used to build resilience, and turn difficulties into opportunities.

“Resilience is essential for any leader, but even more important for a woman in leadership or a woman aspiring to be in a leadership role. As women, we face more challenges than our male counterparts. It’s about being able to deal with challenges and having the strength to put ourselves out there, knowing that we maybe criticised or questioned along the way.

A big part of resilience is confidence. This is a huge issue and no matter how hard I work on confidence building, it always manages to rear its ugly head from time to time. As a result, we do start to downplay how good we really are.

To have resilience means to be able to back yourself and to be unapologetically ambitious. It’s also important to not take things personally and realise that judgements from others is not personal. The ability to communicate and network with others is another part of building resilience. To be able to get to where I am today, and to work with the people have, networking has been vital.

It’s important to have the confidence to reach out to people who you see as incredibly successful. When you lead with value, you can add value to others and that is true leadership.”

As a result, they create a lot of negative energy and end up literally being paralysed and unable to move forward. It then becomes difficult to see the bright spots in bad situations.

Another reason is conditioning or reacting in a way you always have. From the time when we are young, there is a general focus on things that are wrong, rather than things that are right. A lot of people tend to downplay their achievements and have a tendency to focus on the things they haven’t done well, rather than the things they have done well.

Ultimately across the board the biggest challenge is that people just don’t know how to deal with adversity. They don’t have any practical strategies or have never learned what to do when something goes wrong, and it becomes difficult to find the positive in it.

The big thing I’ve found is resilience comes down to having strategies to think more positively before you use them in practice – I liken it to ‘learning to dig your well before you are thirsty. It’s a matter of making a conscious decision to be better at how you respond when things don’t go to plan. It’s about how to turn negatives into positives as quickly as possible.”

“Looking back on my career, there has been five top things I do to turn negatives around:

1. Take responsibility

“Rather than looking for someone to blame, I take ownership for finding the solution, even if something is not my fault or if it is out of my control. It’s important to focus on finding a solution and taking responsibility and it really is the starting point to turning things around.”

2. Watch the language you use - don’t be a ‘negative Nancy’

“I really watch the language I use to make sure that my focus is on being positive, rather than getting bogged down in all the things that might be going wrong. People have a tendency to be overly dramatic around sensitive issues or difficult situations. They say awful things and use language that might make a situation seem worse than it actually is. Using positive language helps to focus on what’s ahead and looking at what’s there, rather than what is missing or what has been lost.”

3. Surround yourself with a network of supporters

“It has been so important for me to have good people around me. Having people that are there to support, encourage and push you is vital. It’s important to have cheerleaders in our lives. It is also important to recognise that some people aren’t such a positive influence in our world and being careful about our interactions with people like that.”

4. Be clear on what inspires and motivates you

“Be clear on what inspires you and connect your work to those personal values. This will help you to feel fulfilled about what you are doing. It also helps you to drive forward when things seem like they are out of control. I’ve felt when I am in situations that are difficult or might stress me out, that I really start to question my ability. Coming back to what inspires and motivates you can help you move forward in those difficult times.”

5. Find ways to remind yourself of the positives

“It doesn’t matter how far you get in your career, there will still be difficult days. One strategy I use to deal with these days is remembering all the positives. For example I have an email file or a collection of all the positive feedback forms of things I have done for others. When I’m feeling really flat or out of my comfort zone, I take 10 minutes to read through these. It’s important to celebrate your successes.”

“There are two things that have been pivotal for me. The first was having the confidence to take a leap of faith and leave a job that everyone thought had great prospects for me. I had a gut feeling I was meant to do something different, so I took a leap of faith and I left my job, started my business and it was tough initially but it something I am really proud of.

The second achievement is collecting all of my learning and experiences and publishing in into a book and putting it out there for the world to see.”

To learn more about building resilience and other strategies needed to become a better leader, join Stacey at Women in Leadership Public Sector 2015.

For more information visit or call +61 2 9229 1000 or email

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Meditation: A Quiet Superpower

by Jason Marsh, Devan Davison, Bianca Lorenz, Lauren Klein, Jeremy Adam Smith, Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, UTNE Reader: 

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. 

At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good - the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center - culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part four of ten (parts three and five). 

Are genes destiny? They certainly influence our behavior and health outcomes - one study published in 2013 found that genes make some people more inclined to focus on the negative. But more and more research is revealing how it’s a two-way street: Our choices can also influence how our genes behave.

In 2013, a collaborative project between researchers in Spain and France and at the University of Wisconsin found that when experienced meditators meditate, they quiet down the genes that express bodily inflammation in response to stress.

How did they figure this out? Before and after two different retreat days, the researchers drew blood samples from 19 long-term meditators (averaging more than 6000 lifetime hours) and 21 inexperienced people. During the retreat, the meditators meditated and discussed the benefits and advantages of meditation; the non-meditators read, played games, and walked around.

After this experience, the meditators’ inflammation genes - measured by blood concentrations of enzymes that catalyze or are a byproduct of gene expression - were less active. Blood samples from the people in the leisure-day condition did not show these changes.

Why does this matter? The researchers also looked at their study participants’ ability to recover from a stressful event. Long-term meditators’ ability to turn down inflammatory genes, it turns out, predicted how quickly stress hormones in their saliva diminished after a stressful experience - a sign of healthy coping and resilience that can potentially lead to a longer life.

This is good news to people who come from a family of stress cases who are stress-prone themselves: There are steps you can take to mitigate the impact of stressful events. Hard as it may be to find time or get excited about meditating, mounting evidence suggests that it can offer more concrete advantages to a healthy life than the leisurely activities we more readily seek.

Photo by RelaxingMusic, licensed under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How Rivalry Propels Creativity: Michelangelo and Raphael; Leibniz and Newton; Constable and Turner - Does Every Creative Genius Need a Bitter Rival?

English: Screenshot of Orson Welles in The Lad...
Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai trailer (Pic: Wikipedia)
by Jacob Burak, edited by Pam Weintraub, Aeon: 

Jacob Burak is the founder of Alaxon, a digital magazine about culture, art and popular science, where he writes regularly. His latest book is How to Find a Black Cat in a Dark Room (2013). He lives in Tel Aviv.

On 25 May 1832, John Constable was busy adding the final touches to his masterpiece, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. One of England’s greatest 19th-century landscape artists, he had been working on the painting for more than 10 years and was finally set to reveal it to the world the next day, at the opening of the Royal Academy of Arts’ 64th annual exhibition. Next to his piece hung Helvoetsluys by J M W Turner, an artistic genius in his own right. Watching Constable’s last-minute efforts, Turner decided to add an extra brushstroke of his own: a red buoy floating on the water.

That single daub of red paint against a background of grey sky and sea was so arresting that visitors couldn’t take their eyes off it, certainly not to look at Constable’s painting. It was yet another landmark in the bitter rivalry between the two artists. A year earlier, Constable had used his position in an exhibition committee to have a Turner painting taken down and hung in a side room, replacing it with a painting of his own.

Turner and Constable are not alone in the pantheon of epic rivalries between creative giants. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, two of the most brilliant mathematicians and thinkers of the 17th century, laid claim to the development of calculus, the mathematical study of change. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla both invented electrical systems in the 1880s. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates went head-to-head as pioneers of the computer age. If you Google almost any famous figure along with ‘rivalry’, you’ll find some interesting results.

Think of rivalry as a type of über competition driven by mutual obsession, with the rivals propelling each other to spiralling achievement, and investing more mental and emotional resources in each other than circumstances would ever dictate on their own. In 2014, across two sets of studies involving undergraduate students and runners, Gavin Kilduff, a psychologist at New York University, found that rivals tend to be the same age, gender and social status. True rivals know each other and, indeed, often have long, enmeshed histories. Rivals are, by definition, evenly matched - but the higher the level of their attainment, the more they propel each other on.

Rivalry can be double-edged: it motivates not just heightened accomplishment but, sometimes, unethical behaviour such as lying, cheating or stealing. In a series of studies, Kilduff found that those primed for rivalry were more open to Machiavellian acts and more likely to exaggerate positive results in a cognitive task. Rivalry could account for scandals and malfeasance at the highest levels of industry, and might even explain some of the risky behaviour behind the economic collapses of the recent past.

The social drama of rivalry, with its hostility and aggression, masks a deeper subconscious dynamic. We might think of our nemesis as the polar opposite of ourselves, but as Kilduff’s research suggests, our rivals are much more like us than we dare admit. While this might seem counter-intuitive, it follows that rivalry can actually be good for us: acknowledging that our rivals share our most essential traits, good and bad, can help us up our game and gain some of the insight we need for greater success.

Orson Welles summed up this idea in his movie The Third Man (1949): ‘In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

Although this might seem cynical, art historians tend to agree: the birth of the Renaissance is attributed to the rivalry between two artists over who would design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery. In 1401, the cloth importers’ guild declared a competition to design a set of doors for this building - one of the oldest in Florence, where the poet Dante and members of the prominent Medici family were baptised. Lorenzo Ghiberti, aged 23, won the commission, ousting his more established opponent, Filippo Brunelleschi. Ghiberti’s victorious design ushered in a new style of art, more naturalistic and with greater emphasis on perspective and idealisation of the subject. While it took him another 21 years to complete the assignment, the episode began a competitive frenzy that became a trademark of the Renaissance.

In fact, the most important artistic achievements of the Renaissance occurred in the small area between Rome, Florence and Venice, home to just a couple of hundred thousand people at the time. One of the largest cathedral domes in the Christian world, the Duomo in Florence; the realistic representation of the human body; and linear perspective in painting all came into existence thanks to the rivalry between Renaissance giants such as Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Raphael (1483-1520).

According to their contemporary, the art historian Giorgio Vasari, rivalry was common among elite artists of the period. Renaissance Rome was home to any skilled artist aspiring to work for the Vatican - the biggest and almost single employer of the time. The natural intensity of competition in such a restricted setting yielded works of art that still hang in the world’s elite museums. The practice of exhibiting paintings by different artists side by side in order to compare technique and style naturally heightened the pressure on each artist. Raphael achieved new heights in his work when he designed 10 tapestries, commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s divine ceiling.

The results were applauded by all - all, that is, except Michelangelo. That should come as no surprise. The famous sculptor and painter was also renowned for his temper. When the handsome young Raphael first arrived on the Rome scene and was quickly commissioned by Pope Julius II, Michelangelo labelled him a bitter rival and proceeded to repeatedly accuse him of plagiarism. At one point, Michelangelo worked on his ceiling masterpiece behind a partition in order to hide it from Raphael. The latter, no shrinking wallflower himself, managed to arrange a view of it and later, in his fresco The School of Athens, incorporated a seated figure taken straight from Michelangelo’s work. Thanks to these machinations, the rivalry between the two giants became one of the most famous in the annals of art.

It wasn’t until the establishment of science societies in the late 16th century that major scientific rivalries reared their head. Perhaps the most notable early outbreak was the fierce war between Newton and Leibniz, each of whom claimed to be the first to invent calculus - today widely considered to have been developed independently by each of them. The feud caused such a rift between the English and European mathematics communities that, for more than a century, almost no scientific knowledge was exchanged between them.

In the early 18th century, Newton balked at nothing in his campaign for priority over the invention of calculus: in 1712, the Royal Society of London published a document granting Newton ownership of the invention and discrediting Leibniz. The paper, however, should be taken with an exceptionally large grain of salt, since Newton, who was president of the society at the time, personally appointed all the committee members and even wrote large parts of the document himself. The two colossi of mathematics never met in person and it is not clear that Leibniz was ever exposed to Newton’s work. One can only imagine how a productive exchange of their ideas, disputed over a public platform, could have enhanced the introduction of calculus and the scientific developments that followed.

‘The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory but progress,’ said the French 19th-century essayist Joseph Joubert. Once the new societies and their publications made information more accessible, rivalry between scientists, research institutes and even states began to drive new discoveries. Journalistic interest in the drama enabled more public exposure to science. In one notable case, the dispute between Thomas Huxley and Richard Owen, two of the leading biologists in 19th‑century Britain, shined an important spotlight on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, little‑known to the general public at the time.

One of the stormiest scientific rivalries of recent years raged between the paleoanthropologists Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey over the discovery of some of the oldest fossils from pre‑human species. Johanson discovered the skeleton ‘Lucy’, thought to be around 3.2 million years old, while Leakey discovered ‘the Turkana boy’, believed to be more than 1.5 million years younger than Lucy - each cited by its discoverer as the proverbial ‘missing link’ between humans and apes. Their public falling‑out was remarkable even for science. The researchers had refused to share a platform since 1981, but finally met on stage in May 2011, explaining their positions and giving interviews at a highly publicised event at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where their vocal discord first erupted 30 years before.

Thirty years later, older and wiser, they expressed a genuine desire to integrate their findings with many of the dramatic discoveries that took place since their feud first erupted. It also became clear how those two men complemented each other: while Leakey generated an abundance of fossils, it was Johanson who was better at interpreting his findings.

Entire societies and social groups can rival each other, too. ‘Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe and covers the graves o’Donald,’ begins a ballad by Jim McLean about one of the most brutal events in the bloody history of Scotland. The massacre of Glencoe took place one early morning in February 1692, conceived by the British authorities as a punishment for the failing of the MacDonald clan of Glencoe to swear allegiance to William and Mary, the new co-regents over England, Scotland and Ireland. Thirty-eight men were killed by British soldiers who lived among them, and 40 women and children were killed when their homes were torched or died later from starvation. The mass murder was presented to the MacDonald clan as a revenge spree by the Campbell clan - a claim that fell on willing ears given the long history of clashes between the two groups. This bitter tribal rivalry, which began in the 14th century, continues in different forms to this day.

The rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites started after the prophet Muhammad died in 632, when both groups vied to succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. The ancient divide between these major denominations of Islam is a major source of unrest in the Middle East to this day. In other cases, tribes have fallen out much more recently: the divide between Hutu and Tutsi that resulted in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s was less than 100 years old and partially created under colonial rule in the 1920s.

Competitive sport is rife with rivalry. Glaswegian football fans can back either the Rangers or Celtic, a late sublimation of the warring Scottish clans mentioned above, and there is an endless array of favourites from boxers to racing car drivers. Nothing can match the fervour that caused El Salvador to declare war on Honduras following the ‘Football War’ of 1969. While the true causes were economic, emotions first flared when fans of both teams clashed violently at a FIFA World Cup qualifier. The third, decisive game was held in Mexico City on 26 June 1969. El Salvador won 3‑2 after extra time. The same day, El Salvador dissolved all diplomatic ties with Honduras and the two countries were at war less than three weeks later.

When people get so worked up over a rival, isn’t something deeper going on? The fiercest rivals are often firstborn, says the American science historian Frank Sulloway in Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (1996). Sulloway cites evolution as the basis for his claim that the finite resource of parental attention is a source of sibling rivalry. Firstborn children use their size and strength advantage to uphold their status, and are more likely to compete over physical or intellectual territory. Younger siblings tend to undermine the status quo and develop a rebellious personality.

In a particularly meticulous study, Sulloway analysed the biographies of almost 4,000 researchers and scientists from the 18th and 19th centuries, including 83 pairs of siblings. He found a younger sibling was 7.3 times more likely than a firstborn to support an innovative theory. But a firstborn’s chances of engaging in rivalry were 3.2 times greater than those of younger siblings. You guessed it: Newton and Leibniz were the eldest sons in their families. Turner was an older brother, and Constable’s older brother was intellectually disabled, so the onus of success fell on him as if he were the eldest.

The prototype, of course, is Cain, who committed the first envy-driven murder in the Bible. A comprehensive study of sibling relations by the Dublin Institute of Technology in 2012 found that, although most people support their siblings, some exhibit signs of rivalry verging on outright hostility. Given our achievement-oriented culture, it should come as no surprise that a third of siblings report rivalry and emotional distance, with 15 per cent not even talking to each other. Sibling rivalry is greater when there is a small age gap, no gender difference, or when one sibling is intellectually gifted.

An especially profound exploration of rivalry comes from the psychologist Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, who said that we have more in common with our rivals than we would like to admit. The qualities in our rival that arouse our hostility are exactly the ones we prefer to repress in ourselves: weakness, anxiety, greed, aggression, lust and rudeness are a few common examples. Jung called this panoply of traits ‘the shadow’.

In Freudian theory, we defend ourselves from urges we don’t want to acknowledge by denying their existence and ‘projecting’ them onto others. This makes us attribute qualities, intentions and desires to others that are actually our own. According to Jung, such urges are buried deep within the ‘shadow’ part of our mind. The less cognisant we are of the shadow inside us, the darker and denser it becomes.

If we project qualities from our own ‘shadow’ onto a potential rival, we can easily find ourselves spiralling into a heated conflict when our rival behaves like us. Even worse, without our rival, we might feel that we lack an independent existence and wallow in the darkness of our ‘shadow’ with no one to project it upon.

Jung’s notion of the ‘shadow’ adds dimension to the relationship between our rival and ourself. Jung calls that conscious self the ‘ego’. The ‘shadow’, meanwhile, is the dark part of our personality hiding behind our social mask - the ‘persona’. As soon as we are old enough to comprehend the cultural mores around us, we select those parts of the self that are socially acceptable and classify them as ‘ego’, while repressing socially undesirable traits - transporting them to the shadow, where they continue to exist unbeknown to us. Jung claimed that the ‘ego’ and the ‘shadow’ have the same origin and maintain a perfect balance: the clearer the conscious part of our personality, the more well-defined our ‘shadow’ self. The opposite is true, too: a ‘shadow’ that is not contained can wreak mental havoc.

Look to your shadow to identify your lifelong rival - the source of your creativity and, perhaps, your rage. If you have a particularly strong negative response to someone and think he or she is a real jerk, think again. That might be a reflection of your ‘shadow’ in action.

Edward Bennett, a friend of Jung’s, elaborates on this in What Jung Really Said (1967). He describes the phenomenon as a gut reaction that projects the source of our emotion onto another, usually by means of sharp criticism or outright accusation. When we hate someone, we hate something in them that is part of us; if we do not subconsciously recognise our own traits in the other person, then we will not be too bothered by them.

Projecting our shadow onto someone else is always easier than acknowledging and containing it. When someone else projects their shadow onto us, it encourages us to project our shadow back onto them, unless we are aware of what is happening. But withstanding that dynamic takes an unusual level of self-awareness - even for brilliant minds. And why would we want to resist? The shadow is the seat of creativity, as far as Jung was concerned.

In Owning Your Own Shadow (1991), Robert Johnson, a popular American Jungian author and analyst, explains why rivalries tend to erupt between especially creative people: ‘Narrow creativity always brings a narrow shadow with it, while broader talents call up a greater portion of the dark.’ The more creative you are, the greater your chances for rivalry. And the fiercer your rivalry - the higher your chances of remarkable progress.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How to Live Without Regrets

No Regrets art
Image by April Johnson, Creative Commons
by Margret Aldrich, UTNE Reader:

If you died today, what would be your paramount regret?

Would you lament the fact that you never got the front porch painted; that you didn’t try that hot new restaurant; that there was one more project at work you wanted to wrap up?

Palliative caretaker Bronnie Ware spent years attending to hospice patients during the final weeks of their lives.

In those achingly heavy days, she heard first-hand their regrets over missed opportunities, botched relationships, and squandered joys.

Realizing what these end-of-life wishes could teach the rest of us, Ware collected the top five regrets of the dying for her blog Inspiration and Chai and republished them online with the AARP. The affecting list follows:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard. 
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. 
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It’s easy to inch dangerously close to these common regrets in our own lives. Workaholic family members should know that every one of Ware’s male patients regretted putting their job above their children and partners.

Skip the late-night conference call! Too-busy young parents should beware of letting golden friendships grow cold (“everyone misses their friends when they are dying,” Ware says). Have a drink with an old pal! And all of us should remember the most common regret: not being true to oneself. Unleash all those beautiful quirks and aspirations!

The U.S. edition of Ware’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing will be released this month. Gratefully, she hints it has a happy ending, noting that each of the people she cared for came to terms with their regrets and even made major life changes to remedy them.

“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality,” she writes. “I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal.” It’s not too soon for the rest of us to make changes, either - good health or not. Don’t wait.

Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.

Friday, October 2, 2015

INTERVIEW: Can Compassion Change the World?

The Dalai Lama and Daniel Golemanby Jill Suttie, syndicated from Greater Good:

Daniel Goleman talks with Greater Good about his new book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World.

The Dalai Lama has a long history of meeting and collaborating with social scientists - psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and others looking to understand the science of human emotions and behavior. Through these collaborations, he has learned about the research in this area and has encouraged scientists to pursue fields of inquiry more directly aimed at serving the public good.

Now that he will be turning 80 this year, the Dalai Lama asked psychologist and bestselling author Daniel Goleman to write a book outlining his vision for a better world and the role science can play. The result of their collaboration, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, is both a translation of the Dalai Lama’s ideals and a call to action.

Recently, I spoke with Goleman about the book.

Jill Suttie: After reading your book, it seemed to me that the Dalai Lama’s vision for a better future comes down, in large part, to cultivating compassion for others. Why is compassion so important?

Daniel Goleman: He’s not speaking from a Buddhist perspective; he’s actually speaking from a scientific perspective. He’s using scientific evidence coming from places like Stanford, Emory, and the University of Wisconsin - also, Tanya Singer’s project at the Max Planck Institute - which shows that people have the ability to cultivate compassion.

This research is very encouraging, because scientists are not only using brain imagery to identify the specific brain circuitry that controls compassion, but also showing that the circuitry becomes strengthened, and people become more altruistic and willing to help out other people, if they learn to cultivate compassion - for example, by doing traditional meditation practices of loving kindness. This is so encouraging, because it’s a fundamental imperative that we need compassion as our moral rudder.

JS: You use the term “muscular compassion” in your book. What do you mean by that?

DG: Compassion is not just some Sunday school niceness; it’s important for attacking social issues - things like corruption and collusion in business, government, and throughout the public sphere. It’s important for looking at economics, to see if there is a way to make it more caring and not just about greed, or to create economic policies that decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. These are moral issues that require compassion.

JS: Compassion can be cultivated through mindful meditation. But, I think a lot of people start meditating for personal reasons - to decrease stress and to learn to be more accepting of what is. How does that lead to social activism?

DG: I don’t agree with that interpretation of what meditation or spiritual practice is for. That view of mindfulness leaves out the traditional coupling of mindfulness with a concern for other people - loving kindness practice, compassion practice. I think the Dalai Lama’s view is that that’s inadequate. Meditation does not mean the passive acceptance of social injustice; it means cultivating the attitude that I care about other people, I care about people being victimized, and I’ll do whatever I can to help them. That he sees as true compassion in action.

JS: Is there any research that supports the idea that mindfulness and social activism are linked?

DG: There’s some evidence that mindfulness not only calms you and gives you more clarity, but it also makes you more responsive to people in distress. In one study, where people were given the chance to help someone in need - offering a seat to someone on crutches - mindfulness increased the number of people who did that. And, if you extrapolate from there to helping the needy whenever they cross your radar in any way you can, it suggests that mindfulness would help. However, there’s even more direct evidence that cultivating compassion and loving kindness enhances the likelihood of helping someone. Putting the two together is powerful.

JS: In your book, the Dalai Lama refers to something he calls “emotional hygiene” - or learning how to handle difficult emotions with more skill and equanimity. He says it should be as important as physical hygiene, and that we should all improve our “emotional hygiene” before trying to tackle social problems. Why is that?

DG: That’s the Dalai Lama’s perspective - we need to get all of our destructive and disturbing emotions under control before we act in the world. If not, if we act from those emotions, we’ll only create more harm. But if we can manage our distressing emotions in advance, and have calm, clarity, and compassion as we act, then we’ll act for the good, no matter what we do.

It’s not that any one emotion is destructive, though; it’s the extremes that can harm others and ourselves. When emotions become destructive, you need to manage them and not let them run you. For example, anger: if it mobilizes you and energizes you and focuses you to right social wrongs, then it’s a useful motivation. However, if you let it take over and you become enraged and filled with hatred, those are destructive, and you’ll end up causing a lot more damage than good. 

JS: I think it’s difficult for some people to actually know when their emotions are causing them to act inappropriately, though.

DG: That’s why self-awareness is absolutely crucial. Many people get hijacked by their emotions and have no idea, because they are oblivious, because they lack self-awareness. And what meditation and mindfulness practice can do is to boost your self-awareness so you can make these distinctions more accurately, with more clarity.

JS: One of the Dalai Lama’s tenets you articulate in the book is that we should have a universal ethic of compassion for all. Does he suggest we extend compassion even to those who commit atrocities, like murder or genocide?

DG: He holds out an ideal of universal compassion, without exception. That’s something we can move toward. But he also gives us a very useful instruction: He says, make a distinction between the actor and the act. Oppose the evil act - no question - but hold out the possibility that people can change. That’s why he opposes the death penalty, because a person can turn their life around, and we shouldn’t exclude that possibility.

Universal compassion is a high standard, and I don’t think most of us can meet it. But we can move toward it by expanding our circle of caring. Paul Ekman has had extensive dialogues with the Dalai Lama about this, and he says that this is a good target, but that it’s very hard to reach.

It goes against natural mechanisms that make us favor our own group - our family, our company, our ethnic group, etc. So, the first step is to overcome that tendency and to become more accepting of and caring toward a wider circle of people. Caring for everyone is the final step, and I don’t think many people can get there. But we can all take a step closer.

JS: It sounds like many of the Dalai Lama’s suggestions are aspirational in nature.

DG: The Dalai Lama often talks to people with great aspirations, and, after he’s gotten them all roused up, he says, “Don’t just talk about it, do something.” That’s part of the message in my book: Everyone has something they can do. Whatever means you have to make the world a better place, you need to do it. Even if we won’t see the fruits of this in our lifetime, start now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Why it Hurts to See Others Suffer: Pain and Empathy Linked in the Brain
by Rebecca S. Dewey, University of Nottingham, The Conversation:

The human brain processes the experience of empathy - the ability to understand another person’s pain - in a similar way to the experience of physical pain.

This was the finding of a paper that specifically investigated the kind of empathy people feel when they see others in pain - but it could apply to other forms of empathy too. The results raise a number of intriguing questions, such as whether painkillers or brain damage could actually reduce our ability to feel empathy.

The researchers used a complicated experimental set up, which included using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow changes in the brain. However, brain imaging alone can’t prove a link between pain and “pain empathy”.

This is because the same brain areas are activated in each case, partly because there is a lot of overlap generally between the brain areas used for feelings and emotion. Another factor is that fMRI is not a direct measure of brain activity - the blood flow measure is instead something that we infer to accompany brain activity.

The authors therefore took a new approach. They investigated whether the way a drug changes how the brain processes pain and empathy for those in pain can be used to understand the similarities and differences between these two experiences.

The study is based on two experiments on a total of about 150 participants - which is an unusually large number for this kind of study. The financial expense and general inconvenience of running fMRI studies, means scientists usually just involve some 20 or 30 people.

The painkiller trick

All the participants in the study were given a tablet that they were told was an approved, highly effective, expensive, over-the-counter painkiller (to ensure it had the maximum chance of working). However, none of the participants actually had a real painkiller but a placebo.

This effect, called “placebo analgesia”, has been shown to be highly effective at reducing the amount of pain one perceives. However the authors wanted to know whether it affected how pain and pain empathy are processed in the brain.

A second group of people were also given this placebo analgesia, and 15 minutes later a second tablet - a drug that reverses the action of a painkiller. However, the participants were told this tablet would enhance the action of the painkiller, so they weren’t expecting it to counteract any previous drug they were given. The authors wanted to know whether the “placebo analgesia” could be reversed in the same way real painkillers can.

After waiting for the placebo painkiller to “take effect”, and checking that it had “worked” in all people, participants underwent various experiments. These involved receiving a short painful electrical shock to the back of the hand (the strength of this had previously been matched for differences in individual levels of pain threshold - we’ll call this self pain) and watching a picture of someone they had earlier met receive the painful stimulus (we’ll call this pain empathy).

Participants were then split into two groups: some received a real and painful shock (or watched someone receive it), while others received a painless stimuli. The painless stimulus was administered in the same way as the electrical stimulus, but at a lower current.

Participants were asked to rate the amount of pain they felt during self pain and were asked to rate the level of unpleasantness they felt while watching another person receive pain (pain empathy). And they also underwent fMRI during self pain and pain empathy.

The results?

In the first experiment with the one tablet only (placebo painkiller), 53 people received real pain and 49 people received (pretend) pain stimuli. The placebo painkiller reduced the amount of pain the participants reported feeling and also reduced the amount of unpleasantness they reported feeling while watching someone else experience pain.

At the same time, the fMRI scan revealed that the network of regions that usually process pain showed a reduction in activity for placebo (pretend) pain compared to real pain.

In the second experiment, where 50 participants took an additional tablet - 25 had the real drug that reverses the action of a painkiller and another 25 people a placebo. The real drug was found to reverse the effects of the placebo analgesia on self pain and also on pain empathy, each by a similar amount. This confirms that the effect of the “pretend” painkiller can be reversed in the same way that a real (drug) painkiller can.

Placebo or reality? We can feel other people’s pain.

This means that empathy for pain is likely to be processed very similarly (in the brain) to first-hand pain. We can infer that this is because both self pain and pain empathy are changed in the same way by the painkiller-reversing drug, and because placebo analgesia also reduces pain empathy in the same way as it reduces pain. The fMRI results add further evidence that this is indeed what is going on.

Exploring empathy further

This is therefore consistent with the theory that empathy for pain occurs as a result of simulating another person’s feelings within one’s own brain. It also provides further evidence that the feelings of pain and pain empathy occur as a result of similar processes within the brain.

Further, patients who have damage and/or disease in the parts of the brain that fall within this network of pain-processing areas, often experience a reduction in ability to feel empathy for pain. This suggests that the ability to feel pain is necessary in order to experience empathy for pain.

Going forward, the research could be useful to explore empathy in other contexts. For example, the researchers suggest addressing the question of whether the pain from other events - for example social rejection - is processed in a similar way. This study certainly provides a new angle to investigate the feelings of pain and empathy - namely by manipulating two experiences to see if they are processed in similar ways.

Another suggestion is that taking painkillers may decrease one’s feeling of empathy for pain - but that topic needs further research. A way to do this could be to compare the results of this study using placebo painkillers with a similar design using real painkillers.

Rebecca S. Dewey, Research Fellow in Neuroimaging, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Neoliberal Epidemics: The Spread of Austerity, Obesity, Stress and Inequality

Stockton-on-Tees (Petergal-half, CC BY-SA)
by Ted Schrecker, Durham University and Clare Bambra, Durham University, The Conversation:

Within the small local authority of Stockton-on-Tees, where one of us lives and works, the difference in male life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas is 17 years.

This is comparable to the difference in average male life expectancy between the UK and Senegal.

It does not mean that moving from a richer and leafier ward into Stockton town centre will shorten your life expectancy but it does reflect the consequences of what sociologist and urbanist Saskia Sassen calls “a savage sorting of winners and losers”.

The sorting has not just happened. It is the end point of a decisive shift away from the postwar welfare state, and what Thomas Humphrey Marshall called social citizenship.

The retreat from social citizenship in the UK began in the Thatcher era, if not earlier, but the financial crisis that swept across the world in 2008 provided a pretext for a new round of (selective) austerity.

As tax revenues shrank, the need to control borrowing and the resulting fiscal deficits was invoked to justify drastic but selective public expenditure cuts, such as the bedroom tax (a benefit reduction for social housing tenants), increased benefit sanctions and reductions in local authority budgets that will hit the poor and the poorest regions hardest. Even before May’s general election, it was widely agreed that the harshest cuts have yet to occur.

In concrete terms this means that, as one report called it, the relentless rise of food poverty in Britain will continue, as austerity measures lead to increased reliance on food banks. And more cases will occur like that of diabetic former soldier David Clapson, who died with just £3.44 left in his bank account and an empty fridge after he was sanctioned for missing an appointment with a Job Centre adviser.

In our new book, we draw on an extensive body of scientific literature to assess the health effects of three decades of neoliberal policies. Focusing on the social determinants of health - the conditions of life and work that make it relatively easy for some people to lead long and healthy lives, while it is all but impossible for others - we show that there are four interconnected neoliberal epidemics: austerity, obesity, stress, and inequality.

They are neoliberal because they are associated with or worsened by neoliberal policies. They are epidemics because they are observable on such an international scale and have been transmitted so quickly across time and space that if they were biological contagions they would be seen as of epidemic proportions.

Both the financial crisis and the austerity response are consequences of neoliberal policy choices, in particular the deregulation of financial markets and institutions by the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the 1980s.

Again harking back to before the election, a depressing political consensus appeared to exist among the three largest UK parties that there is no alternative to austerity. We reject that consensus.

A looming public health crisis can still be avoided, but it will require a different set of political choices, which recognise that public finance is a public health issue and the Conservative project of shrinking the state comes with a body count.

The indispensable elements of those alternative choices: more progressive taxation, in contrast to post-2010 policies that have actually redistributed income upward; strengthened rather than weakened social protection; and less spending on warheads and £15 billion roads to nowhere.

In 2008 the World Health Organisation’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health issued a landmark report on health inequalities that called for closing the gap in a generation. It began with the observation that “social injustice is killing people on a grand scale”.

Five years on the chair of the commission, Sir Michael Marmot, branded the coalition government’s social policies “a grotesque parody of fairness” in an address to the American Public Health Association. If only our political leaders had the same courage.

Ted Schrecker is Professor of Global Health Policy at Durham University and Clare Bambra is Professor of Public Health Geography at Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.