Tag Archives: #neuropsychology

Hurts so good: Neuropsychology and Chili Peppers

Ghost peppers
The world’s hottest peppers, originally grown in Assam Province, Northeast India, epitomize the lure of pain and pleasure. Also known as raja mircha (king chili), ghost peppers or bhut jolokia originated in a region of the country where the cooler temperatures, heavy rains/monsoons, and soil quality made them grow naturally.

Currently, they are served most delectably as a condiment with mounds of rice ladled with curry, lentils, salad, and vegetables. They also pack a punch served with Maggi noodles, a South Asian comfort food, leaving you with a runny nose, sweating face, and a slow burn of volcanic heat.

The neural science
Brain pain receptors are proteins that have a certain shape that only fit specific molecules. Some pain receptors have the correct shape for capsaicin, the heat component of all peppers to fit into, like a lock and a key. When a capsaicin molecule binds to one of these pain receptors, there is a release of neurotransmitters that send a message to the brain. All neurotransmitters are chemicals that are transmitted from one neuron to the next, instant messaging, saying this is HOT. There is a quick burst of endorphins, the pain alleviating neurochemicals. Capsaicin also stimulates the thermo receptors that perceive heat, stimulating sweating and flushing. This actually has a cooling down effect, crucial in hotter climates. Not surprisingly, many countries with extremely hot menus are found in Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean (the Trini Scorpion chili pepper will make you gasp), and South America, where the temperatures are often steamy.

Why yearn for the burn? A sample of the research.
-Longevity: All chili peppers have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer (free radical), and blood-glucose regulating effects. Many of the health benefits have specifically been attributed to capsaicin molecules. Additional benefits include lower levels of bad cholesterol, increased metabolism, better gut health, analgesia (increased pain tolerance), and a general boost in immunity.

-Personality: A number of studies have found that more adventurous people are drawn to spicier and more stimulating foods. Chili 🌶 lovers are eager to try new things; willing to take risks; have a higher level of mental flexibility; and may be hungry for a variety of strong emotions, visceral experience, and adventures. This means they have a high degree of curiosity; or in other terms, they may be easily bored.

-Mood: Spicy foods create a safe high. The burst of endorphins produced by biting into a searingly hot pepper creates a burning sensation and then a sense of euphoria.

-Social Interaction:  Sharing hot food creates a sense of connection or similarity. Couples and family research shows that arguing over ‘what to eat for dinner’ is a common source of potential conflict or compromise.  “Because what I eat, what I drink, is in itself the ‘second self’ of my being,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Figuring out what each person would like to eat, or not, is part of relational negotiation: do we fit together?

Also see: On nutraceuticals and mental health – Turmeric and Mental Health.

The power of social activism + neural science.

Dr. Anne Beaumanoir was a human rights activist and clinical neuropsychologist/neurologist in France during World War II. Her parents were activists who appreciated education, science, and research as tools to help improve daily lives. Her mother, the milkmaid daughter of an organic farmer, and her father who owned a bicycle shop, were both shunned by their families for their marriage. Together, they opened a popular bistro where they served local food and libations. The bistro was known as a gathering place for intellectuals and the bookish.

Dr. Beaumanoir spent many hours in the family restaurant where she had the opportunity to interact with her neighborhood and community. She helped Jews in her town evade Nazis, once saving two teenage neighbors by arriving at their home just before the Gestapo came to their door, to spirit them away to her parents’ restaurant. Later, she moved to Algeria which was a colony of France in North Africa, and worked with the Algerian resistance movement, doing everything from working as a chauffeur to hotel bellhop.

She completed medical school in France and fell in love with EEG technology. She is one of the first advocates of using EEGs to diagnose different types of seizure activity. Throughout her lengthy career, she emphasized the importance of using medical research to help the less advantaged and was especially interested in cerebrovascular disease and childhood epilepsy. She died in March 2022 at the age of 98, in Quimper, France.  Learn more:  Anne Beaumanoir, Activist and Clinical Neurologist, Dies at 98

Word Power: The Neuropsychology of Poetry

Haiku: Masahide

I read a poem every morning and frequently encourage clients to include poetry as part of their self-care/healing routines. Poetry has an emotional force that evokes basic human empathy. In a few essential words, it can express grief, longing, resolve, hope, and anger.

Poetry can provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma, and grief. Its powerful combination of words, metaphor, and meter help us better express ourselves and make sense of the world and our place in it. Using poetry to find our voice can open up new ways of expressing ourselves that cannot be traversed with everyday words, and open up ways to heal and restore us, particularly in times of stress.

Clinical psychology research:
Different research studies have found evidence that writing or reading poetry can be therapeutic for both patients dealing with illness and adversity, as well as their caregivers. A 2021 study of hospitalized children found that providing opportunities for them to read and write poetry reduced their fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue. A group of 44 pediatric patients was given poetry-writing kits containing writing prompts, samples of selected poems, colorful construction paper, pens, and markers. The majority of children reported that they felt happy after the poetry activity. The post-poetry surveys also found that writing and reading poetry gave the children a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection.

Another recent study found that guided poetry writing sessions significantly alleviated both symptoms of depression and trauma in adolescents who have been abused. Other studies found that poetry therapy with a mental health therapist helped cancer patients improve emotional resilience, reduce anxiety levels, and improve their quality of life. One study of undergraduate students in Iran found that reading poetry together reduced signs of depression, anxiety, and stress.

Poetry therapy may support the emotional well-being of caregivers, including domestic violence counselors, family members of dementia patients, and frontline healthcare workers. A systematic review published in 2019 found that poetry can help healthcare workers combat burnout, reduce stress, and increase empathy for patients, providing the possibility of an arts-based tool to turn to during the pandemic and beyond.

Neuropsychology research:
I have stated elsewhere that when I read something truly evocative, I can feel it on the skin. Neuropsychological research has found that recited poetry can cause participants to feel intense emotions and actual feelings of chills. Surprisingly, even subjects with little prior experience with poetry were moved; 77% said they experienced chills listening to unfamiliar poems. Video recording of the participants’ skin (via a “goosecam”) captured objective evidence of goosebumps during the readings.

These poetry-induced chills activate parts of the brain’s frontal lobe and ventral striatum, which are involved with reward and pleasure. The insular cortex, a brain area associated with bodily awareness, was also activated during these moving passages which may explain why poetry can feel like a visceral full-body experience.

Poetry as a whole-brain experience:
The use of metaphor; making comparisons and drawing connections between different concepts—in particular has been found to activate the right hemisphere of the brain. Normally, our brain’s left hemisphere is most involved in helping us understand language, but research has found that the right hemisphere may be critically important for integrating meanings of two seemingly unrelated concepts into a comprehensible metaphor. Patients who have difficulty with verbal expression, whether it’s based on trauma or neurodivergence, may benefit from poetry.

The Neuropsychology of Ghosting

Ghosting hurts deeply. It activates a systemic experience of loss that stems from our amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. It’s actually a full brain experience.

Prefrontal cortex (frontal lobes)
* We are left wondering what went wrong, without the benefit of an explanation, the opportunity to ask questions, or clarify the sequence of events. This makes our frontal lobe, the part of our brain that craves meaning and context, ache. Our brains may then do recurrent mental searches trying to make sense of events.

Hippocampus
* Ghosting triggers memories of past losses and reinforces the idea that everyone leaves us. Unwanted thoughts and intrusive memories can subsequently be triggered by being ghosted. These memories come from the Hippocampus, the part of the brain that consolidates memory and constantly adds to it. Recent research shows that a reduction of the neurotransmitter GABA in the Hippocampus is also implicated in loss and trauma, and is associated with intrusive thoughts and visual images.

Amygdala
* Ghosting activates our abandonment and rejection wounds. Being ‘left behind’ can set in motion acascade of anxiety symptoms. Anxiety comes from an ancient response to danger and need for ‘survival in the world’. The amygdala is the part of the brain that produces a sense of unsafety and insecurity when we are ghosted.

Depletion of neurotransmitters
* For individuals with a history of loss or trauma, ghosting strengthens the neural pathways that underly beliefs that we are not good enough, worthy enough, or even lovable. These beliefs can lead to a depletion in the ‘happiness’ neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. In other words, ghosting can trigger major depression.

See also Mental Distress and Social Exclusion. 

Why Self-Compassion is more Important than Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of self and self-worth. While there is some overlap, self-compassion doesn’t require that we evaluate ourselves positively or that we see ourselves as “above average”. Instead, the positive emotions of self-compassion still kick in when self-esteem falls down; when we don’t meet our expectations, suffer a loss, fail in some way. It is a way of relating to yourself. This means that the sense of intrinsic self-worth inherent in self-compassion is highly stable. Self-compassion has been linked to higher resilience, better physical health, and increased life satisfaction.

External circumstances, skills, friendships, intimate relationships, even physical capabilities, may wax and wane. Self-compassion, as practice, is a constant. 

Also see The Neuropsychology of Self-Compassion.

The psychology of scotch bonnets

I’ve never fully understood people who tell me that they can’t “handle” spicy foods. Sure, like others, more than once I’ve bitten off more than I should have, and enjoyed delicious spiciness all the while with tears pouring down my face. So why do some people hate hot sauce, chili peppers, and other spicy foods while others can’t get enough?

The answer is based in science, but not genetics, as many people think. It turns out that there is no such thing as a spice-loving gene, and no one is born loving hot sauce. Sure, being exposed to spicy foods at earlier ages can encourage familiarity and even cravings from memories of meals past.

According to science, affinity for spicy foods is learned, a result of repeated exposure to peppers—specifically to capsaicin, the compound that makes chili peppers taste hot and makes your mouth burn. This process of learning to love heat is what Dr. Paul Rozin, professor in clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who examined the psychology of food tastes, called “benign masochism.” People who eat a lot of spicy food don’t have numbed or injured taste receptors. They are not insensitive to the irritation that extreme spice produces. They actually come to like the same burning sensation that deters many animals and humans that dislike heat. Eating spices that are intense creates a burst of endorphins, the neurotransmitters of pleasure.

Dr. Rozin termed this a hedonic shift, meaning that folks who like the burning sensation of hot foods actually form stronger associations between pain and pleasure. It hurts so good.

What is Anhedonia?

Imagine living a life without the ability to relish the delectable surprise of a great meal, the joy of getting together with an old friend, the pleasure of a first kiss, or a triumph at work. People who suffer from a condition called anhedonia find it hard to enjoy much of anything. They are not necessarily sad, but feel very little pleasure in daily existence, or none at all. Finding the motivation to socialize, take action in the world and access life’s rewards is painfully elusive for them. Anhedonia is a common symptom of depression.

The neuropsychology of anhedonia is not yet well understood, although it has been linked to abnormal volume in brain structures related to seeking rewards and, according to brain scans, less activity in these areas. Anhedonia is also associated with a poor prognosis, including heightened risk of suicidal thoughts and recurrent depression.

There are two main types of anhedonia:

  • Social anhedonia. You don’t want to spend time with other people.
  • Physical anhedonia. You don’t enjoy physical sensations. A hug leaves you feeling empty rather than nurtured. Your favorite foods taste bland. Even sex can lose its appeal.

Symptoms of Anhedonia:

  • Avoiding social situations with friends.
  • Avoiding romantic relationships or pulling away from current relationships.
  • Feeling or thinking more negative about yourself or other people.
  • Including saying negative things to yourself.
  • Feeling fewer emotions like joy, sympathy, empathy, and having more blank/unemotional facial expressions.
  • Uncomfortable feelings around other people, including family, friends, coworkers, or acquaintances.
  • Putting on fake emotions; For example, pretending you’re happy around others.
  • Decreased sex drive.
  • No interest in physical or emotional intimacy.
  • Reoccuring physical problems, such as being sick often, aches, pains, gastro -intestinal distress, or headaches.
  • Anhedonia makes relationships, including those with friends and family members, a struggle. Research psychologists believe that anhedonia may be tied to changes in brain activity. Some early research suggests that the dopamine neurons in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex might be overactive in people with anhedonia. This somehow interferes with pathways that control how we seek out rewards and experience them.

How to Combat Anhedonia

  • Aerobic activity
    Activities that raise heart rate and create adrenaline create a burst of well-being. Running, jogging and high intensity workouts that raise the heart rate. This physical activity activates your sympathetic nervous system, the body’s prompt to switch into high-gear, which creates adrenaline which amps up your entire body and counteracts anhedonia’s numbed feeling of emptiness.
  • Strength training
    Strength training exercises keep your heart rate up and puts tension on your muscles, which then create a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor), that creates endorphins and increases dopamine.
  • Nutrition
    Certain foods increase dopamine production which helps relieve anhedonia. An amino acid called Tyrosine, found in food, can be synthesized into dopamine. Another amino acid called phenylalanine can be synthesized into Tyrosine. These are both found in protein-rich foods, such as turkey, dairy, lentils, and legumes
  • Meditation
    Meditation is the act of focusing on breathing or immediate surroundings as a way to calm the mind, release stress, and relax the body. Meditation decreases depression symptoms by lowering the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Several brain scan studies have correlated high cortisol levels with symptoms of major depression. A recent study was conducted on meditation for patients with late-stage cancer who were receiving frequent radiation treatments. Results indicated that participants in yoga and chemotherapy had a much higher quality of life, as assessed by measures of depression and anxiety, compared to those who only received chemotherapy. Patients reported better mood, less fatigue, and an improvement in perceived health.
  • Meaningful relationships
    Having meaningful relationships that are sustained and tended to regularly increases dopamine production and decreases anhedonia.
  • Physical touch
    Physical touch can decrease anhedonia symptoms by creating oxytocin. Physical connection with other humans like hugs, holding, or sex, produces the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which decreases cortisol levels.
  • Therapy
    Even with the best food, exercise, a host of deep friendships, and frequent meditation — the brain is not going to heal in a day or a week. Anhedonia is the result of dopamine deficits because the brain has a compromised ability to send and receive this neurotransmitter.  Talk therapy can help us learn coping skills and stress reduction strategies that help deal with anhedonia.
  • Adding something new
    The strategy that I use in my practice is called adding something new, and not taking away things. Adding something new every week or month changes our neural pathways. By asking people to reflect and recall things that were pleasing to their senses, therapy is essentially trying to jumpstart/reboot the connections in the brain’s reward center. Since the reward center is responsible for sending and receiving dopamine, when therapy is successful, it increases dopamine levels as well as the brain’s potential to receive more pleasure in the future.

The Psychology of Houseplants

Plants are a metaphor for our lives.

The average person spends more than 85 percent of their time indoors, maybe more so now because of COVID-19. So it’s no surprise that quarantine has made plant parents of a lot of us. But the human connection with plants is ageless; countless studies have analyzed the mental health benefits of keeping indoor foliage.

People have been keeping potted plants as far back as ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. Wealthy Victorians embraced houseplants as a way to brighten the dull, dreary English winters. In the 1970s, the decade of the world’s first Earth Day, there was an indoor foliage boom. There are many mental health advantages to having plants in your home and office spaces that have been documented across psychology studies.

Houseplants give you a taste of nature.
Houseplants are an easy way to bring the outside in and reap the restorative benefits of being in nature, even when you can’t be outside.  A Japanese study that explores Shinrin-yoku (‘forest bathing’) found that spending time around nature lowers stress levels, reduces blood pressure and has an overall relaxing effect on the body. Forest bathing is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.

Tending to plants models self-care.
Caring for a plant, giving it water and sunlight, cutting it back when needed, repotting to a better space, the simple consistent habits required for plants to thrive, lay the foundation of doing these things for yourself.

Plants improve executive functioning.
Caring for plants creates a positive feedback loop, in which you are taking on a measured responsibility, following through, and witnessing the effects. Tangible evidence of what can happen when we are consistent, do what needs to be done, and adapt to our environmental needs. Plants teach us the outcome is worth the effort and that we are constantly growing and evolving. The sequential aspect of plant care is good for our mental functioning.

Plants can boost your creativity.
Plants are good for brain storming and creativity. A Texas A&M University, department of psychology, study found that having indoor plants in the workplace greatly improved idea generation, creative problem-solving, and boosted sustained effort.

Plants can make you more productive.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that the presence of plants in the workplace led to increased productivity, energy, and higher levels of concentration. Maintaining plants actually appears to stimulate your brain and increase your attention span.

Plants reduce feelings of anxiety.
Exposure to indoor plants has positive effects on mental health. When we’re in the presence of indoor plants, the activity of our sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight-or-flight portion of our nervous system, decreases. Indoor plants promote a sense of relaxation, comfort, and calm.

Plants promote mindfulness.
Most people with anxiety worry about the future. They may be mentally living in the future, worried about what’s going to happen next, or what could go wrong. Mindfulness brings emotions and feelings to the present. Taking the time to tend to plants can be considered a mindfulness activity.

Pattern Interrupts

In the business world, a pattern interrupt is anything that forces you to snap out of your automatic thinking. I believe in flashcards. They help us learn new material and remember what we have learned.

We also have adult flashcards. A picture of your dogs or children on your phone or home screen reminds you why you work. A piece of music or song reminds you of your loved one. A book on your shelf or by your bed reminds you that you have something you learned and valued. An award on your wall reminds you of your accomplishments. A shirt from a previous relationship reminds you what you don’t want to return to.

By having visual reminders in your environment, you can shake yourself out of a train of thought. Leaving positive reminders around your environment reminds your brain what you’re doing and encourages moving forward.

A Harvard University, department of psychology, study exposed a senior male group of participants to be away from routines at home and nursing facilities, to live for a week in an environment that was physically similar to where they had lived when they were younger. They discussed historical events as if they were current news, took care of their own ADLs and personal needs, and shared photos of their younger selves. A week later, they showed improvement in physical strength, manual dexterity, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision. They even showed improved scores on IQ testing. Visual cues within our environment serve as reminders of memories and functioning.

A pattern interrupt can change a person’s behavior patterns that are potentially detrimental to their health, mood, and potential. According to the author of the Harvard study, Dr. Ellen Langer, they may even slow down our aging process.  For additional resources see The Psychology of Nostalgia.

Shades of Gray

Black and white thinking – also known as all-or-nothing thinking – splits your world neatly into one category or another. If you’re experiencing depression, it’s common to fall into black-and-white thinking. You might focus a lot on your perceived failings, what you should have done differently in a situation and not surprisingly you end up feeling low. Black-and-white thinking also plays a role if you’re experiencing anxiety. A panic attack can make you think about a situation as either completely safe or completely unsafe.

Why Thinking in the Gray is Important

  • Black and white thinking can negatively impact your relationships
    Your partner is the most wonderful person in the world — until they’re the worst. This cycle of love/hate, down/up, good/bad can be seriously stressful for any relationship. In some cases, these wild lows and highs can be a sign of something more serious, such as mental health problems. In family relationships and friendships, quickly changing from thinking a loved one is perfect to feeling they’re awful can erode intimacy and trust. By seeing your loved one as either all good or all bad, you’re not letting yourself see them for what they are: a normal, fallible human.  See also How Mental Flexibility Helps Romantic and Family Relationships.
  • Binary Thinking Leads to Poor Decisions
    According to psychological research, thinking in binary terms can actually change the way we perceive the world, effectively conditioning us to miss nuance. In a 2016 study, Pomona College researchers found that participants’ perceptions of how someone was feeling changed depending on whether they were given black and white, or more fluid categories, to understand emotion. By conditioning a person to see things in more binary terms, black and white thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it even harder to perceive nuance.
  • It can signal a deeper problem
    While everyone experiences black and white thinking to some extent, extreme black and white thinking can also be a symptom of mental illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, experience intense black and white thinking, which can in turn affect their perceptions of their relationships with others and with themselves.

How to challenge black and white thinking
Shifting your thinking can be difficult but with the right support, you can learn some helpful strategies. Cognitive BehavioralTherapy (CBT) and Mindfulness based therapy are effective ways to address black and white thinking. It is a process where you are encouraged to replace unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving with more helpful approaches. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight but with time and professional help, it is a very effective treatment.

How to Be In The Gray
Reframe your thinking. Catch yourself in the middle of a thought and challenge whether it is true or not. Are you really a terrible partner? Does your boss really hate you? Is your best friend actually ignoring you? Is it more accurate to think: ‘I might not have been at my best today, but my partner loves me and I can work to communicate better.’ Or ‘My boss doesn’t need to constantly reassure me, they will tell me if there’s an issue.’

Words like ‘never’ and ‘every’ are not helping you. Catch yourself using ‘absolute’ words and rethink them as ‘sometimes,’ maybe,’ or ‘every now and again’. Acknowledge and accept that life is filled with uncertainty. You don’t have all the answers all of the time. It’s completely fine to say, ‘I don’t know, I need to think about that more.’

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