Tag Archives: #neuropsychology

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.’

The Neuropsychology of Wine

Neuropsychologists already know that the brain’s memory hub, the hippocampus, is the first area to be compromised by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Those who smell, serve, recommend, and taste wine for a living are apparently doing more than just expanding their palates. According to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the brains of Master Sommeliers seem to be much more resistant to neurodegenerative diseases than those of the average person.

Scientists analyzed MRI scans of Master Sommeliers and compared them to those of non-wine-experts, to determine how the human brain responds when it gains a certain level of expertise. There are currently less than 250 Master Sommeliers worldwide, all of whom must pass a rigorous and in-depth exam to earn the title. The certification process can take several years and is the highest official professional distinction one can attain in the beverage service industry.

In 2016, a study on Master Sommeliers at the Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health located in Las Vegas found that the entorhinal cortex (the important area of the brain that includes the Hippocampus) was physically thicker in the wine professionals’ brains versus a control group. Results showed that sommeliers with long careers in hospitality exhibited enhanced and healthier brain tissue in the entorhinal cortex, suggesting that the specialized training of sommeliers might result in advantages in the brain, well into advanced adulthood. This is especially significant, given that the cortical regions involved are the first to be impacted by many neurodegenerative diseases. Additional research has also backed up the theory that sommeliers make excellent models to study brain health.

We know from previous research done in other fields that the brain benefits from active studying, and using the brain areas processing senses, especially smell, are responsible for memory, emotion, learning, and reward. Olfactory training, in particular, improves brain capacity which lingers in individuals, even those who have developed early stages of dementia. The research also demonstrates the importance of integrating sensory stimuli across modalities, and assigning pleasure (hedonic value) and emotional salience to stimuli. You will remember the scent of the perfume of your beloved.

Take away: experts who use ALL of their sensory knowledge for their work on a regular basis, integrating sensory stimuli across modalities, and assigning passion (hedonic value) and emotional salience (engagement) to stimuli seem to have a brain advantage.

For stats please see: Structural and Functional MRI Differences in Master Sommeliers: A Pilot Study on Expertise in the Brain in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 

On Metacognition

Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking. It’s the ability to have an internal dialogue and analyze your own thought process. I have named it the personal landscape, in my work. Mediated by the frontal lobes, metacognition is a measure of executive functioning, perhaps the highest measure. People who demonstrate high metacognition talk about and analyze their own thought process. A simple example of meta behavior is: ‘I need to give myself a reminder or put this on my calendar, or I won’t hold myself accountable.’  People with high metacognition are often conscientious and successful entrepreneurs, students, and employees. They leverage self-awareness. They watch an internal movie of their personal cognition: thoughts, feelings, and observations, that’s on replay.

Another interesting example:
The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, which is the experience of attempting to retrieve from memory a specific name, memory, or word but not being able to do so. Usually, the name or word is eventually retrieved, but while one is trying, it seems to hover tantalizingly on the rim of consciousness. Metacognition is knowing what you know, and also knowing what you don’t know, simultaneously.

The Neuropsychology of Chores

Neuropsychological research shows that those children who have a set of chores have higher self-esteem, are more responsible, and are better able to deal with frustration and delay gratification, all of which contribute to greater success in relationships, school, and future endeavors. These are all aspects of executive functioning, which include planning, organizing, sequencing, sustaining effort, and self monitoring, all mediated by the frontal lobe of the brain. One study by Dr. Martin Rossman showed that the best predictor of young adults’ career success in their mid-20’s was participating in household tasks when they were children. Also see the What Is Executive Functioning

In my practice, parents often express concern that their kids are so busy with school work, sports, and social life, that they have little or no time to contribute to household tasks. I believe that household tasks and chores are absolutely essential, contribute to brain development, and help with prioritizing, scheduling, and multitasking. I specifically assign household tasks that are developmentally appropriate as part of a treatment plan for each family.

The gains:
Life Skills
I often ask kids, are you important in your family? Kids begin to see themselves as important contributors to the family. They feel a connection to the family. Holding them accountable for their chores can increase a sense of themselves as responsible and capable. Not being taught the skills of everyday living can limit children’s ability to function at age appropriate levels. By expecting children to complete self-care tasks and to help with household chores, parents equip children with the skills to function independently in the outside world.

If you let children off the hook for chores because they have too much schoolwork or need to practice a sport, then you are saying, intentionally or not, that their academic or athletic skills are more important than life skills. I work with young adults who go off to college and don’t know how to do their laundry or who live with roommates and leave piles of dishes in the sink, causing friction. Chores are an important part of relationships, with family, colleagues, and friends. One goal I emphasize is for kids to plan and help make a meal for the family each week. By accomplishing goals that are not related to school or athletic prowess, there can be huge gains in self-efficacy and self-esteem.

Role Modeling
You can model a message that there are tasks that need to be completed in order for the entire household to run smoothly, and that everyone in the family is encouraged and expected to participate. Or, alternatively by being allowed to avoid tasks, children may receive the message that chores are boring, mundane, can be put aside, and are to be done by others.

Encouraging Participation
Young children naturally want to be a part of the family and want to help. Ideally, you will encourage their participation (even if it takes more work on your part in the short run). The size of the task does not matter; the responsibility associated with it does. Praise hard.

Withholding Judgment
When tasks are assigned, and completed on a consistent basis, they are creating new neural pathways. Being overly critical or judgmental is not the objective, making chores part of a daily routine is.

Assigning Chores
For those parents who did not begin a chore regimen when their kids were little, you can still start a plan now. You can take some time to think about what tasks you need help with in the home, what life skills your children need to learn, and what are each child’s interests and abilities.

Family Meetings
As you contemplate these decisions, you can ask your children for their feedback and input. This shows teamwork and connection. Also, brainstorm ideas for overcoming any obstacles faced in the past, such as children not following through, arguing, or not doing a thorough job. Many parents hold a family meeting to discuss chores and when and how they will be starting, revising, or re-instating them. Such times together can build morale, improve relationships, and facilitate creative problem solving.

Giving an Allowance
One question that parents frequently ask is whether allowance should be tied to the completion of chores. This is a personal call for families. Many parents want their children to help around the house as a contributing member of the family, not because there is money or other external rewards associated with it. The option I most often discuss is that chores and allowance can be separate. I also encourage providing an allowance or reward for a task that is above and beyond everyday routines, such as cleaning the garage, painting a shed, or other major house projects.

Earning Privileges
One alternative to paying an allowance may be to have children earn privileges for completing their chores. For example, a teen may earn the right to use the car on the weekends by washing the automobile. A school-age child may earn the privilege to have friends over to play if he throws away the trash and puts away the games after a previous gathering with friends. Often parents expect kids to finish their schoolwork, before they get on their favorite video game. All of these actions demonstrate earning privileges, and when done consistently, show that chores and fun are both important.

The Vulnerability of Sports Heroes

The Super Bowl has become such an important event in our society that it has taken on the stature of many national holidays and has become embedded in family traditions.

Traditional Super Bowl galas, parties, office pools, trips to venues, and dinners — where some people pay more attention to what they’re eating and socializing than the game itself, are just a few of the activities people may engage in for the event.

Sport, by its very nature, allows us to be critical, judgmental, admiring, and effusive in praise. We get to experience an entire spectrum of emotional responses from just one football game, tournament, or match.

Overall, we personalize athletes, and we perceive our teams and sports celebrities as being on a pedestal, and bringing us along for the ride.

We say ‘WE won’ or ‘WE were cheated.’

The American Psychiatric Association has noted the dangers of the assumption that athletes should be perceived as always having to be mentally healthy or the false notion that “being strong” means handling things on your own. Hoping to increase awareness and remove the stigma surrounding the mental health of athletes, the APA has put forth this official statement:

First, mental illness is as likely as common in athletes as in the general population.

Second, it is not a sign of weakness and should be taken as seriously as a physical injury.

I will add, based on clinical research, and my professional experience, that physical and head trauma can also create a set of mental health vulnerabilities that can linger much past the perceived injury after being “cleared.”

Third, getting help will most likely, improve, not damage an athlete’s self-confidence.

Lastly, the American Psychiatric Association asks people to acknowledge that sports subject a person to a unique set of challenges and circumstances that can make a person vulnerable to feelings of depression or anxiety.

One of the most significant things we can do when it comes to the mental health of athletes is to remove the stigmas associated with mental illness and enforce the message that help is available. Each person has a right to find the treatment that works for them. Friends, teammates, and family members can offer support by looking for warning signs, paying attention, noticing, and taking seriously signs that people are struggling.

Athletes should not be assumed or expected to be machines or entertainers, especially where their emotions are concerned. In addition to trainers, coaches, and physical therapists, they should be offered psychological support when necessary during their career as well as after retirement.

It’s fun to have heroes, and equally important to let them have feet of clay.


Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

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

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