Tag Archives: #neuropsychology

The Neuropsychology of Gifting

Present: A Gift/In the Here and Now/To Give or Offer
A noun, adjective, and verb all in one.

  • Giving gifts creates a tide of oxytocin, the neuropeptide that signals safety, connection, and affection.
  • Receiving a desired present from a loved one and giving a gift to a loved one actually produces the same brain rewards.
  • The oxytocin effect is in motion during each step of gift-giving, from planning, shopping for the gift, wrapping it, and anticipating the response of the giftee.
  • Brain scans using fMRI technology showed that giving a present indicates simultaneous activity in the brain area associated with processing social interactions and the part of the brain that feels pleasure. Gifting is a pleasure-full interaction. (Learn more about the neuropsychological link between generosity and happiness.)
  • The monetary value of the gift was unimportant. Gifts do require sacrifice: thought, creativity, time, and money; but they don’t have to be expensive. One of my favorite gifts was a recipe, handwritten by a friend who was a renowned chef accompanied by a ‘voucher’ to cook it for me.
  • A present does not have to be a tangible object. Similar brain rewards were found by giving the gift of time (babysitting, helping cleaning out closets, dog walking), assistance (help with a project, home or office), or experience (a weekend away, spa time, a special exhibit).
  • Presents accompanied by a thoughtful message, letter, card, or note were greatly valued,. Messages that bring to mind shared moments, explanations about the significance of the gift, and the connection between the gifter and the giftee are a gift in themselves.

Also see the Mental Health Benefits of Random Acts of Kindness.

Is simplicity significant?

Whether or not you call it minimalism, neuropsychological research indicates there are certainly mental health benefits to this type of lifestyle. Primarily, following a minimalist lifestyle emphasizes saving time, energy, and money, areas that are integral to mental health. Based on research from clinical psychology, minimalism has cognitive, social, and emotional benefits.

Allows you to self reflect
Overcommitment creates a frenetic pace. Time to sit and think is rare. Making time for meditation, prayer, and breath work/pranayama forces our brains to slow down in a way that is often not possible during the rest of our busy lives.

Encourages solitary time
Neuropsychological research shows that solitude has a number of benefits including increased feelings of creativity, introspection, agency, and even spirituality. Decreasing our social commitments and social media time is often difficult but actually provides a brain boost.

Reduces decision fatigue
Over 35,000 times. That’s the current cognitive research estimate on how many decisions we are required to make each day. And, if true, that comes out to 2000 decisions per hour or one decision to be made every two seconds. Overthinking is not just a phrase, it’s reality.

Supports executive brain functioning(such as organizing, planning, prioritizing, and self monitoring).
Simplifying life can help assist with productivity. Everything from meal prep, giving away items that are not used, going through your closet, not scrolling endlessly, and removing unnecessary events and tasks from your calendar all support your frontal lobe abilities.

Also see my post on simplified daily rituals that matter.


On Neuropsychology and Respect: the complicated history of sage

Burning sage, also known as smudging or cleansing, is an ancient indigenous North American spiritual ritual.

Scientifically, it has been established that white sage (Salvia apiana) is rich in compounds that activate certain receptors in the brain. These receptors are responsible for elevating mood levels, reducing stress, and even alleviating pain. In addition to dissipating negative energy, improving mood, and strengthening meditative practice, burning sage may improve memory, attention, and focus. A 2016 literature review of neuropsychological studies noted that evidence for Salvia’s cognitive-enhancing benefits are promising, and perhaps a means to help battle dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Last but not least, burning sage has antimicrobial properties. It truly cleanses.
Smudging has been well established as a Native American cultural or tribal practice (see the American Psychological Association sources on indigenous mental health).

As non-native individuals and mental health practitioners, it is our responsibility to be informed and respectful. For example, if non-native people “cleanse their space of negativity” through the use of smudge medicine (burning sage, sweetgrass, palo santo, etc.), it is crucial to understand its cultural significance and history. It was illegal for Native Americans to practice their religion until 1978 in the U.S., and many were jailed and killed just for keeping indigenous practices and traditions alive. Smudging sage was part of those banned religious practices. It was literally a crime.

Because of all that complicated history of sage burning, when non-Native people use white sage to “smudge” their homes or other spaces, it can infringe upon the cultural importance and authenticity of the ritual and its historical spirituality. The practice of smudging, therefore, should not be taken lightly, according to Dr. Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor of American Studies, Psychology, and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, author of the blog Native Appropriations, and citizen of the Cherokee Nation

It is possible to practice and appreciate indigenous cultural, medical, and spiritual practices without disrespecting them. Do research, be mindful, have gratitude, and strive to celebrate Indigenous people and traditions in a way that is culturally conscious. It is a gift, not a right.

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.

* 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.

* 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.
Embolden Psychology

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Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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