Similarities Found in Brain Activity for Both Habits and Goals

ScienceDaily


A team of researchers has found that pursuing carefully planned goals and engaging in more automatic habits shows overlapping neurological mechanisms. Because the findings, which appear in the latest issue of the journal Neuron, show a neurological linkage between goal-directed and habitual, and perhaps damaging, behaviors, they may offer a pathway for beginning to address addiction and similar maladies.

The study was conducted by researchers at New York University’s Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology, Princeton University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute, and University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London.

The brain is believed to engage in two types of decision-making processes — deliberative, in which the future consequences of potential actions are weighed in order to achieve a particular goal, and automatic or habitual, in which previously successful actions are repeated without further contemplation. While the mechanisms behind these behaviors are distinct — with goal-directed actions the result of planning and habitual ones, associated with addiction, produced more thoughtlessly — researchers have had difficulty separating them behaviorally as they both typically pursue common ends.

The researchers on the Neuron study sought to differentiate both types of decision making by studying how humans’ decisions and brain activity, measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), were influenced by previously received vs. potential future rewards in a gambling game.

In the experiments, subjects were asked to make two sets of choices, with a monetary reward given if they made certain selections. In the first set of choices, subjects were asked to make selections between different slot machines, represented by colored boxes. These choices led to the opportunity to choose between additional slot machines. If the subjects made certain choices in this second stage, they received a monetary reward. Each subject repeated this process 200 times, with the chance of winning a monetary reward varying in each round — in some rounds, certain selections were associated with a high chance of winning money; in other rounds, these same choices were much less likely to yield a monetary benefit.

By analyzing how subjects adjusted their choices based on winning, or failing to win, money, the researchers were able to distinguish goal-directed from habitual decisions. Since the chances of winning money for different choices were constantly changing, a habitual decision, which is based on repeating a previously rewarded choice, was distinct from a goal directed one, which is based on contemplating the future outcome expected for the action.

Having dissociated the two types of decisions, the researchers examined brain activity related to decision processes. Despite the distinctions between goal-directed and habitual behaviors, the subjects’ brain activity was similar for both types of action. Indeed, signals related to goal-directed plans were observed in an area of the brain known as the ventral striatum, which is normally associated with habits and drug abuse.

“This surprising result shows that the brain’s systems for different behaviors are more intertwined than previously thought,” explained Nathaniel Daw, an assistant professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology, one of the study’s co-authors.

The authors added that the finding paves the way for seeking to understand how the brain regulates between goal-directed and habitual behaviors. By comprehending the mechanisms by which the brain controls these behaviors, subsequent research can begin to address how to curb habitual behaviors such as drug addiction or alcoholism. More specifically, because these decisions have a common neural target, there is a possibility that therapeutic methods could be designed and tested, targeting this locus, to enhance goal-directed behaviors while diminishing habitual ones.

The study was funded, in part, by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Source ScienceDaily

How to feel good – or at least stop feeling bad

By Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps


If only we could wish away bad habits and unwanted traits. We would all be like the population of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon – “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Instead, we are stuck with our imperfect selves. While we enjoy shining moments of accomplishment and virtue, we also struggle with the less stellar aspects of ourselves; such as unhealthy eating, low self-esteem, depression, or untold anxieties.

Part of being human is the experience of always being a work in progress – never that final, perfect person. This can make life an exciting adventure; as long as you continue to move in the direction of growth.

Two important steps in encouraging growth are really being ‘in’ your life experiences – not always thinking about other things – and accepting those experiences. When you acknowledge, experience, and fully accept your feelings, you are essentially accepting all aspects of yourself and gaining a sense of being ‘at home’ in you. Even when you don’t like your emotions or are unhappy, they can still feel right. A perfect example of this is when you grieve the loss of someone important in your life; you don’t like the experience, but you have a sense that it is a genuine expression of your feelings, and so it feels right.

You might be thinking; This all sound great, but how can I find such inner peace? There is one very good way to do this that I am hesitant to mention because so many people misunderstand it… meditation. Although increasingly more people are learning the benefits of it for themselves, there are also many others who immediately ‘know’ it is not for them. They might be right, but they dismiss it before they really even understand it.

People often think of meditation as achieving a state of bliss, or at least a deep calm. Although it’s true that meditation can be relaxing, that’s not its main purpose. It is a practice of being aware of, and directing, your attention to your moment-by-moment experience. And it does this by teaching people to see when they become distracted or carried away with thoughts or feelings; and to return their attention to the moment (often focusing on their breath).

This process can be applied to people’s lives outside of meditation, helping them to change things about themselves. So, for example, the emotional overeater can note her urges to eat; learn to tolerate them – along with any accompanying unpleasant emotions – without reaching for food; and return her attention the tasks at hand in her daily routine. Importantly, she is neither denying her urges, which might send them underground to sabotage her later; nor chastising herself for having them, which would undermine her motivation to treat herself well and make healthier food choices.

Stated succinctly, meditation helps people change by teaching them to be inside their experience and simultaneously outside, watching it with perspective. By being in the moment without feeling overcome by emotion, people can become adept at seeing themselves repeat patterns. Then, while acknowledging and experiencing an old pattern, they can choose to respond differently. It’s in this way that meditation frees people to make the personal changes they so desire.

Source Psychology Today

Stress Affects The Balance Of Bacteria In The Gut And Immune Response

By Christopher Fisher, PhD


Stress can change the balance of bacteria that naturally live in the gut, according to research published this month in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Exposure to stress led to changes in composition, diversity and number of gut microorganisms, according to scientists from The Ohio State University. The bacterial communities in the intestine became less diverse, and had greater numbers of potentially harmful bacteria, such as Clostridium.

“These bacteria affect immune function, and may help explain why stress dysregulates the immune response,” said lead researcher Michael Bailey.

“These changes can have profound implications for physiological function,” explained Dr Bailey. “When we reduced the number of bacteria in the intestines using antibiotics, we found that some of the effects of stress on the immune system were prevented”, he added. “This suggests that not only does stress change the bacteria levels in the gut, but that these alterations can, in turn, impact our immunity.”

“This is the first evidence that the gut microorganisms may play a role in innate immunological stress responses,” said Monika Fleshner, Professor of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The study reveals the dynamic interactions between multiple physiological systems including the intestinal microbiota and the immune system.”

Because gut bacteria have been linked to diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, and even to asthma, a future goal of the study is to determine whether alterations of gut bacteria is the reason why these diseases tend to be worse during periods of pressure.

The research was conducted with colleagues from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the Research and Testing Laboratories, and was funded by the National Institute of Health.

Source The Behavioral Medicine Report

Tai Chi Aids Seniors in Fighting Depression

By DAVID MCCRACKEN, MA, LP


With more than 2 million people age 65 and older suffering from depression in the U.S., including half of those living in nursing homes, effectively treating the elderly is a growing problem – especially as the numbers of seniors rise.

Researchers at UCLA found that an ancient martial art can help significantly.

When a gentle, Westernized version of tai chi chih was combined with a standard drug treatment for a group of depressed elderly adults, researchers found greater improvement in the level of depression — along with improved quality of life, better memory and cognition, and more overall energy — than among a different group in which the standard treatment was paired with a weekly health education class.

“This is the first study to demonstrate the benefits of tai chi in the management of late-life depression, and we were encouraged by the results,” said first author Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a UCLA professor-in-residence of psychiatry.

“We know that nearly two-thirds of elderly patients who seek treatment for their depression fail to achieve relief with a prescribed medication.”

In the study, 112 adults age 60 or older with major depression were treated with the drug escitalopram (brand name Lexapro), a standard antidepressant, for approximately four weeks. From among those participants, 73 who showed only partial improvement continued to receive the medication daily but were also randomly assigned to 10 weeks of either a tai chi class for two hours per week or a health education class for two hours per week.

All the participants were evaluated for their levels of depression, anxiety, resilience, health-related quality of life, cognition and immune system inflammation at the beginning of the study and again four months later.

The level of depression among each participant was assessed using a common diagnostic tool known as the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, which involves interviewing the individual. The questions are designed to gauge the severity of depression. A cut-off score of 10/11 is generally regarded as appropriate for the diagnosis of depression.

The researchers found that among the tai chi participants, 94 percent achieved a score of less than 10, with 65 percent achieving remission (a score of 6 or less). By comparison, among participants who received health education, 77 percent achieved scores of 10 or less, with 51 percent achieving remission.

While both groups showed improvement in the severity of depression, greater reductions were seen among those taking escitalopram and participating in tai chi.

“Depression can lead to serious consequences, including greater morbidity, disability, mortality and increased cost of care,” Lavretsky said. “This study shows that adding a mind-body exercise like tai chi that is widely available in the community can improve the outcomes of treating depression in older adults, who may also have other, co-existing medical conditions, or cognitive impairment.

“With tai chi,” she said, “we may be able to treat these conditions without exposing them to additional medications.”

The results of the study appear in the current online edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Source Psych Central

Mid-Life Crisis-Myth or Reality? Turning Crisis into Wisdom

By Ilene Serlin, Ph.D

Mid-Life Crisis-Myth or Reality?

Turning Crisis into Wisdom


Growing up in the 60s and as a student of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I was sure that I-and each human being-was unique. I resisted theories of developmental psychology or any suggestion that my issues were “age-related.”

Many years later, I look back upon my 30s, my 50s, and even now my 60s, and cannot escape the patterns. Yes, I’m unique-but my issues also live in the context of their times and across others of my age. At this point in time, the rich complexity of uniqueness/commonality is comforting and feels like a doorway into wisdom. At each decade I ask myself-and those with whom I work-“How am I unique, and how do I correspond to the developmental issues of others my own age?”

The following excerpt is from a client, Jeff Weinberger, who had just confronted turning 50. His reflection below is a good example of one man’s understanding of his uniqueness and of his commonality with all others. Jeff has given permission to include his identity in this blog so that his story may serve as a model to help others begin their own journeys toward midlife self-acceptance:

I am not 30.

No matter what my friends (or your friends) say, 50 is not the new 30 (or 40, or even 49). 50 is 50. Period. It’s not like 30 or 40. Those decades had their own unique challenges and opportunities, as does this one.

I turned 50 a few weeks ago, and as I relaxed at home after a weekend of celebration, I realized I had suddenly arrived on something like a new plateau.

This is not a mid-life crisis. In fact I don’t think (at least I hope) that I ever will have one of those:  http://posterous.jeffweinberger.com/mid-life-without-the-crisis]). It’s turning out to be a new perspective on my life and the world that surrounds me.

It is a new so-called life-stage. And I’m just starting the journey of learning a few things about being a 50-something (besides that I’m now eligible for AARP membership).

  • I know more about how to get where I want to go. I don’t know everything – I hope not! – but I do know more than I did, and more than at any prior age (obviously!), about how the proverbial game is played, and how I can tilt the outcome more in my favor. I may not win (as one of my favorite t-shirts ever read: “He who dies with the most toys, wins”), but I can certainly do a better job with the tools now available to me of ending up where I want to be.
  • I am turning into Popeye (“I am what I am”). Or at least I’m becoming more secure in who I am, who I’ve become in the past 50 years and how I want to become a better me (notice, not become something else) for the next 10-20-30-more years. This has also led to far less conflict in my life – I’m so much more comfortable ceding ground to others that I never wanted anyway. I just needed to learn that I never wanted it.
  • There are more younger people in my life. Of course, but it may not seem obvious that the overall average age of the people in the room (business, social, whatever room you’re in) hasn’t changed – you’ve just gotten older. I’ve noticed that more of my new friends and associates are younger than I, where there used to be a more even division of age. I’m now the older, more-experienced guy. That’s nice in and of itself, but the other benefit is that all these new young associates and friends challenge me, teach me and keep me on my toes.
  • I’m learning to live with new realities. I am – thankfully – suffering no serious physical challenges, but I do find that I don’t have some of the physical capacity I once did. I can’t always improve every statistic of my workout. I can’t always be faster or stronger than anyone else I choose to compare myself to. It’s starting to give me a longer-term, more balanced perspective on my own capability. I have started to think in terms of what performing well means, and how to keep challenging myself through variety rather than through linear progress. I think it’s going to keep the physical condition aspects of my life quite interesting.
  • I’ve given myself permission to be honest. In my teens, 20s and 30s, I was always trying to prove that I had it all under control and built a facade to help make others believe that and be impressed. But it was a fraud. I knew I had hard, deep, challenging questions. When I started opening up and telling people about my challenges and questions, I found out not only was I not alone, but that I gained more respect for honesty than I ever did for the facade. Plus I’ve developed deeper, better relationships as a result, and the people around me value me for the real, not perceived, me. Living and loving life comes with hard questions; being honest about it makes it easier – whether I deal with them or not.

I’m new to this. I’ve only been 50 for a few weeks, but it’s crystal clear to me that there’s a new life-stage starting, with a set of new perspectives, better tools and knowledge and, I hope, a lot more fun, growth and learning ahead.

I don’t know where it will take me (maybe I should write down now what I plan to say when I turn 60?), but it promises to be the best decade I’ve had yet – and I don’t think I could ask for more than that.

Source Psychology Today