From the Research Digest, December 2016

A selection from our blog.

07 November 2016

This is what eight weeks of mindfulness training does to your brain
In Brain and Cognition

Practising mindfulness – spending time paying attention to your current mental experiences in a non-judgemental way – has been associated with many beneficial outcomes, including reduced anxiety and improved decision making (although note, there could be some adverse effects for some people: see What are the neural correlates of these effects? A new systematic review in Brain and Cognition has looked at all studies published prior to July this year that investigated brain changes associated with eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The combined results suggest that a short course of secular mindfulness training leads to multiple brain changes similar in nature to those seen in people who have practised religious or spiritual meditation for a lifetime.

Rinske Gotink and her colleagues found 30 relevant studies that used MRI or fMRI brain imaging to look at the effects of mindfulness training on brain structure and function, including 13 randomly controlled trials. Associated brain changes, in terms of activity levels and volume and connectivity changes, have been reported in the prefrontal cortex (a region associated with conscious decision making and emotional regulation and other functions), the insula (which represents internal body states among other things), the cingulate cortex (decision making), the hippocampus (memory) and the amygdala (emotion). Based on what we know about the function of these brain regions, Gotink’s team said these changes appear to be consistent with the idea that mindfulness helps your brain regulate your emotions.

Most of these brain changes linked with brief mindfulness training are similar to the brain changes associated with long-term spiritual or religious meditation, although the finding for the amygdala (reduced activity and volume after mindfulness) has not usually been observed in long-term meditators. The researchers speculated this may be because meditating monks and nuns, who have featured in much of the meditation research, started out with little stress – their amygdalae were ‘calm’ already. In contrast, students of mindfulness are more likely to start out stressed and to reap a calming benefit from the training, which is perhaps what is reflected in the changes to their amygdalae structure and function.

If this sounds highly speculative, it is. This study provides a useful roundup of all that we know so far about mindfulness-based brain changes, but the reality, as the researchers acknowledge, is that the existing evidence base reflects a mixed bag of methods and approaches of variable quality and with a publication bias toward positive results quite likely. Moreover, the meaning and size of the brain changes is open to interpretation, and the precise cause of them is not clear because mindfulness training is multifaceted and includes non-specific components such as the simple act of meeting up with other people in a sociable setting.

- Christian Jarrett 

Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming
In Archives of Suicide Research

As newly obtained figures from the NHS show a dramatic increase in the number of young people being hospitalised following self-harm, a timely study in Archives of Suicide Research has reviewed what we know so far about how people who self-harm manage to stop. Tess Mummé and her colleagues identified nine relevant studies to review – three quantitative, four qualitative, and two using a combination of these approaches – together involving hundreds of people aged 12 to 60, the majority female. Among the key insights, the researchers found family support is crucial for stopping self-harming, perhaps more than support from friends or professionals. But ultimately the review concludes that we need more research.
The format of most of the studies contained in the new review was to contrast the interpersonal and intrapersonal factors of people who used to self-harm but no longer do, with those found in people who are currently self-harming (the lack of longitudinal research, that follows the same people over time from when they self-harm to when they stop, is a key weakness in the literature).

Summarising the findings, Mummé and her colleagues report that family support was the ‘predominant interpersonal’ factor associated with stopping self-harming, including in studies that involved adults, not just those with teens and children. The reasons for family support being so important appeared to be the benefits of a strong role model, as well as help finding the motivation to stop, and support finding professional help. Support from friends did arise as a factor, but was not reported as consistently as family support.

Regarding intrapersonal factors, the following were all important in stopping self-harming: self-esteem, self-efficacy, sense of hope and emotional regulation. Past self-harmers reported a ‘stronger ability to accept emotions, cognitive reappraisal and resilience’ than current self-harmers.

Interestingly, one study found that past self-harmers saw their self-harm as a useful coping mechanism, but had been motivated to stop because their loved ones wanted them to stop. Other studies documented how some past self-harmers had found constructive new ways to control their emotions, such as dancing and writing, while others unfortunately had developed alternative ‘destructive coping behaviours’, such as substance abuse or eating problems.

It was also clear from the studies that interpersonal and intrapersonal factors are connected – for example, a lack of family support can fuel feelings of low self-worth that appear to be related to the maintenance of self-harming.

Only one study actually asked people in-depth what it was like to go through the process of stopping self-harming. This pointed to a gradual, multi-stage experience that began with a focus on the self, such as building relationships and self-esteem, and that moved on to learning alternative forms of emotional regulation. Close personal relationships were seen as important throughout the stopping process.

Overall, Mummé conclude that much more research is needed to help inform the development of interventions to help confront the increasing rates of self-harm occurring in developed countries. We especially need more studies that delve into the experience of stopping self-harming, ‘based on the notion of the self-injurer being the expert in understanding the behaviour’. Such is the paucity of research that at present‘it remains unclear how people reach the point of wanting to stop and then how they actually stop self-injuring’.

- Christian Jarrett 

Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to
In Emotion

The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.

The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, ‘movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect’.

The researchers tested hundreds of undergrad students across three studies with the true aims of the research disguised in each case – for example in the first instance it was framed as supposedly being an investigation into the effects of unfamiliar environments on mood. The researchers also checked to ensure no one guessed the true aims of the study.

Two of the studies showed that students who spent 12 minutes on a group walking tour of campus buildings, or on a dull walking tour on their own of the interior of a campus building, subsequently reported more positive mood, in terms of their ratings of feelings like joviality, vigour, attentiveness, and self-assurance, than others who spent the same time sitting and looking at photographs of the same campus tour, or watching a video of the same building interior tour.

The mood-enhancing effect of walking was found even for a so-called ‘walking dread’ condition in the second study, in which students were warned ahead of walking the building tour that they would have to write a two-page essay afterwards and discuss their essay’s contents (this was just to provoke dread, they didn’t really have to do it). Whereas students in the sitting condition (with no provocation of dread) showed reductions in their positive mood by the end of the study, the students in ‘walking dread’ condition actually maintained their positive mood. This was despite the fact they said they expected their mood to drop by the end of the tour.

The third and final study was the most tightly controlled. This time researcher–participant contact was kept to a minimum, with participants randomly allocated to different conditions and thereafter following instructions given by computer. Some students spent 10 minutes watching a Saatchi Gallery video alone while sitting on a treadmill, others spent the same time watching the video while standing on a treadmill, and the remainder watched the video while walking on the treadmill. The cover story was that the researchers were investigating the effects of proximity to gym equipment on people’s feelings. Once again, at the end, the students who’d spent time walking reported more positive mood scores than those who had been sitting or standing.

Miller and Krizan acknowledged some limitations of their research – for example, to maintain the cover story for the studies, they didn’t take any physiological measures from their participants. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the precise mechanism here for the observed effects. But the researchers believe they’ve made a breakthrough, concluding that their experiments ‘are the first to document a causal effect of routine ambulation on positive affect’ (note that the effects here were strictly on positive feelings; negative mood feelings were unaffected).

Miller and Krizan added: ‘Taken together our findings suggest that incidental ambulation has a more robust and pervasive influence on affect than previously thought’ and that their results might even explain why – as shown by prior research – we are generally quite hopeless at predicting our future mood. ‘People may underestimate the extent to which just getting off their couch and going for a walk will benefit their mood as they focus on momentarily perceived barriers rather than eventual mood benefits.’ 

- Christian Jarrett 

A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself
In Neuron

Whether we’re testing our mettle on a video game, on the golf course, or at the bowling alley, it’s good to have a realistic sense of our ability, so we attempt things that are feasible – and don’t accept unwise bets. But how accurate are we at judging ourselves in this way?

In a new study in Neuron, researchers from Oxford University have shown that our sense of our own ability is coloured by the other players around us. Specifically, their findings suggest that when we’re competing with a strong player, we tend to downgrade our own ability. Conversely, when that player is on our team, we see ourselves as better than we really are.
Marco Wittmann and his colleagues asked 24 participants, mostly in their twenties, to play a series of short mini-games: for example, making judgements about the colours of shifting shapes, or estimating the time passing between flashing items. Participants played each mini-game simultaneously with two other ‘players’ – actually research assistants who only pretended to play.

After each round, participants were given fake feedback on how they and the other players had just performed. They were encouraged to use this to make predictions on how many points they and the others would score on the next round of play. Their performance predictions were influenced by this feedback, which shows they were following the instructions.

In each round of the game, participants were paired with one of the other players and told either that they were a team (with success based on whether their combined performance reached a certain threshold), or that they were competing (with success dependent on their beating the other person by a high enough margin). In theory, this framing shouldn’t have affected their judgement of their individual performance because although their scores were combined or compared, their own performance was independent of the other player. But in practice, it did.

When teamed up with a previously strong player, participants rated it likely that their own performance would be especially strong in future. When pitted against a strong player, they rated their own future performance as more likely to be poor.

A complementary pattern arose for ratings of the other player: participants who were good at the game thought a teammate would do better than his or her performance would suggest, and a competitor would do worse.

Wittmann’s team describe this as a ‘merging of estimates’. During collaboration, this works a little like an anchoring effect: mentally, you ride on the coat-tails of a teammate, assuming that you are sort-of-similar in ability. But when competing, you exaggerate difference: the better the opposition, the more conscious you are of your own deficiencies.

We’ve known for a while that collaborative contexts draw us to notice traits we have in common with others, but this is the first work to show that these contexts also influence our evaluation of a particular trait. So if you’re playing golf on Rory McIlroy’s team, beware of taking side-bets on your putting game: your sense of what you can deliver is likely to be off.

- Alex Fradera 

Three labs just failed to replicate the finding that a quick read of literary fiction boosts your empathy
In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

‘Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.’ So said Joyce Carol Oates, and many more of us suspect that reading good fiction gives us insight into other people.

Past research backs this up, for example providing evidence that people with a long history of reading tend to be better at judging the mental states of others. But this work has always been open to the explanation that sensitive people are drawn to books, rather than books making people more sensitive. However, in 2013 a study appeared to change the game: researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano showed that exposure to a single passage of literary fiction actually improved readers’ ability to identify other people’s feelings. This sent ripples through popular media, but since then a struggle has ensued to establish the robustness of the eye-catching 2013 result.

Kidd and Castano have since published more evidence supporting their initial findings, and they emailed us recently to point out that they have a successful direct replication in press at The Scientific Study of Literature, and that there are at least two published replications of their original finding. But meanwhile another lab tweeted us to say that in as yet unpublished work, they failed to recapitulate the same results. Now the latest development in this contested field comes from a collaboration of three independent research groups.

Led by Maria Euginia Panero, a PhD candidate at Boston College, the collaboration followed the 2013 research by looking systematically at the effects of literary fiction on performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, a classic test of judging mental states where participants see an actor’s facial expression, cropped to show only the eyes, and they have to pick the state (e.g. sceptical, joking) that they think applies.

The total sample size of 792 exceeded that of the original experiment, while keeping the demographics very similar – just over half women, average age 35. And in every comparison the researchers controlled for lifetime exposure to fiction, judged by ability to recognise author names from a list.

In their original 2013 study, Kidd and Castano’s comparisons uncovered a number of effects: that reading literary fiction (such as Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis) increased emotion recognition performance compared with reading non-fiction, that it had a greater benefit on performance than reading popular fiction (such as Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories), and that it was better than reading nothing at all. But using the same text passages, none of these effects were replicated in the new research – reading matter had no acute effect on the ability to read the mind in the eyes.

There was one significant finding: a greater lifetime exposure to fiction was correlated with better mind-reading performance. This tallies with the past work showing that readers are indeed better at this test, but questions the idea that a fleeting exposure to fiction really changes subtle cognitive-perceptual abilities.

Panero and her colleagues speculate that, given success in other ‘conceptual’ replications using slightly different methods, it’s possible that there may be unseen variables at work, such as verbal intelligence, lack of prior exposure to literary fiction, or types of reader (e.g. ‘deep’ rather than ‘skim’ readers) that influence whether or not a benefit occurs. In other words, there might be a real acute effect of literary fiction here… but only for certain people, at certain times of their lives, or under certain conditions. af

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett and contributor  Dr Alex Fradera.

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