Monday, August 31, 2009

Language Learning Metaphor

I have often compared psychological change to language learning.

This could be appreciated on a metaphorical level, but I think that neurologically the processes are similar.

Many people approach psychological change as they would approach something like learning Spanish. Reasons for learning Spanish could be very practical (e.g. benefits at work, moving to a Spanish-speaking country, etc.), or could be more whimsical or esthetic (e.g. always enjoying Spanish music or movies). There is a curiosity and desire to learn and change, and steps are taken to begin changing. A Spanish language book would be acquired. An initial vigorous burst of energy would be spent learning some Spanish vocabulary.

This process often might last a few weeks or months. There might be a familiarity with certain phrases, an intellectual appreciation of the grammatical structure, and perhaps the ability to ask for something in a coffee shop.

Then the Spanish book would sit on the shelf, and never be opened again.

Another pathway could be like the French classes I remember during elementary school. We must have had some French lessons every week for eight years. I did well academically, and had high grades in French.

But I never learned to speak French.

And most people don't learn to speak Spanish either, despite their acquisition of instructional books.

So, there is a problem here: motivation exists to change or learn something new. There is a reasonable plan for change. Effort is invested into changing. But change doesn't really happen. Or the change only happens in a very superficial way.

Here is what I think is required to really learn a language:

1) Immersion is the optimal process. That is, you have to use only the new language, constantly, for weeks, months, or years at a time. This constrains one's mind to function in the new language. Without such a constraint, the mind shifts back automatically to the old language most of the time, and the process of change is much slower, or doesn't happen at all.
2) Even without immersion, there must be daily participation in the learning task, for long periods of time.
3) The process must include active participation. It is helpful to listen quietly, to read, to understand grammar intellectually -- but the most powerful acts of language learning require you to participate actively in conversation using the new language.
4) Perhaps 1000 hours of active practice are required for fluency. 100 hours of practice will help you to get by on a very basic level. 6-10 hours of work per week is a reasonable minimum.
5) Along the way, you have to be willing to function at what you believe is an infantile level of communication, and stumble through, making lots of mistakes, possibly being willing to embarrass yourself. It will feel awkward and slow at first.
6) It is probably necessary to have fellow speakers of the new language around you, to converse with during your "immersion" experience.
7) Part of the good news is that once you get started, even with a few hours' practice, there will be others around you to help you along enthusiastically.

I think that psychological change requires a similar approach. The brain is likely to change in a similar way. I am reminded of Taub's descriptions of constraint-induced rehabilitation from strokes: recovery of function, and neuroplastic brain change, can take place much more effectively if the person is in a state of physiologic "immersion."

Many people acquire books about psychological change (e.g. self-help books, CBT manuals, etc.) in the same way one might acquire a book about learning Spanish. People might read them through, learn a few things, then the books would sit unopened for the next five years.

Or many people might participate in psychotherapy similar to a weekly language lesson: it might be familiar, educational--if there was an exam to write, people might get high grades--but often the "new language" fluency never really develops.

So I encourage the idea of finding ways to create an "immersion" experience, with respect to psychological change. This requires daily work, preferably in an environment where you can set the "old language" aside completely. This work may feel artificial, slow, contrived, or superficial. But this is just like practicing phrases in a new language for the first time. Eventually, the work will feel more natural, spontaneous, and easy.

I think the greatest strength of cognitive-behavioural therapy is its emphasis on "homework," which calls upon people to focus every day on constructive psychological change. And the different columns of a CBT-style homework page remind me of the "columns" one might use to translate phrases from one language into another. In both cases, in order for this homework to work, it has to be practiced, not just on paper, but spoken out loud, or spoken inside your mind, with sincerity and repetition, and preferably also with other people in dialogs.

There's some interesting academic work out there on language acquisition--but for a start, here's a reference from a language-learning website (particularly the summary on the bottom half of this webpage):

Monday, August 17, 2009

ADHD questions

Here are some great questions about ADHD, submitted by a reader:

1) You write here that long-term use of stimulants has NOT been shown to improve long-term academic outcomes. Why do you think this is, given that symptoms of ADHD improve on medication? (It actually really depresses me to think that individual symptoms can improve, yet no real change takes place...though I know that this might not apply to all patients.

2) What are some effective non-drug treatments for ADHD? I am particularly interested in dietary measures, and also EEG biofeedback.

3) I have read about prescribing psychostimulants as a way of basically diagnosing ADHD...i.e., the diagnosis is based on your response to the medication. I am just wondering how precise this would be, given that stimulants would probably (?) impove most people's concentration, etc. Or is there any role for neuropsychological testing in trying to establish a diagnosis? Is there any way of definitively establishing this kind of diagnosis?

4) I have read that there are many differences between ADD and ADHD, i.e. not just in symptom presentation but in the underlying brain pathology. Is that true? I'm not sure how to phrase it, it seemed like the suggestion was that ADD was more "organic", although maybe that doesn't make sense. Does that have implications for prognosis or treatment strategies?

5) I have read that one red flag that suggests ADD in the context of MDD treatment is a good response to bupropion. If a patient did not have a really good response to bupropion-- or if the response was only partial-- does this usually mean that treatments with psychostimulants like Ritalin, Adderall, etc. will be ineffective (or only partially effective) also?

6) If ADD is not diagnosed/treated until adulthood, is it usually more difficult to treat than if it is diagnosed/ treated in early childhood? Is the response to stimulant treatment just as good? I guess I am wondering if there are certain structural changes that occur in the brain that result from untreated ADD-- kind of like long-term depression and hippocampal atrophy?

7) Is there a certain type of patient who usually does poorly on psychostimulants, or who experiences severe side effects on psychostimulants?

I don't know the answers to a lot of these, but I am interested to keep trying to learn more. Here's my best response I can come up with for now:

1) First of all, the bottom line of whether something is helpful or not may not be some specific thing, like academic performance. Perhaps "well-being" in a broad, general sense is a more reasonable goal. Yet, things like academic performance are important in life. Perhaps stimulants or other treatments for ADHD are "necessary but not sufficient" to help with ADHD-related academic problems over the longer term. It appears to me from the data that stimulants are actually helpful for academic problems, it's just that the size of the effect is much smaller than what most people would hope for.

2) I wrote a post about zinc supplementation before. Also adequate iron stores are probably important. A generally healthy diet is probably important. I've encountered some people with ADHD who have reduced tolerance for irritation or frustration, and may be particularly bothered or distracted by hunger; yet they may not be organized to have meals prepared regularly through the day. So it can help them manage their ADHD to make sure they always have snacks with them, so that they are never in a hungry state. Other than that, I think there are a lot of nutritional claims out there which have a poor evidence base. The link between sugar intake and hyperactivity is poorly substantiated--I've written a post about that.

Food additives or dyes could play a role in exacerbating ADHD symptoms. Based on this evidence, it makes sense to me to limit food dyes and sodium benzoate in the diet, since such changes do not compromise quality of life in any way, and may lead to improved symptoms. Here are a few references:
(this is the best of the references: it is from Lancet in 2007)

I once attended a presentation on EEG biofeedback. I think it is a promising modality. Harmless to give it a try, but probably expensive. It will be interesting once the technology is available to use EEG biofeedback in front of your own home computer, at low cost.

A few of the self-help books about ADHD are worth reading. There are a lot of practical suggestions about managing symptoms. Some of the books may contain a strongly biased agenda for or against things like stimulants or dietary changes, so you need to be prepared for that possibility.

3)The ADHD label is an artificial, semantic creation, a representation of symptoms or traits which exist on a continuum. Even for those who do not officially satisfy symptom checklist criteria for ADHD, they could benefit substantially from ADHD treatments if there is some component of these symptoms at play neurologically. Many people with apparent disorders of mood, personality, learning, conduct, etc. may have some component of ADHD as well: in some cases ADHD treatments are remarkably helpful for the other problems. So I think careful trials of stimulants could be helpful diagnostically for some people, provided there are no significant contraindications.

4) I've always thought about the ADHD label as just a semantic updating of the previous ADD label. Subtypes of ADHD which are predominantly inattentive rather than hyperactive may differ in terms of comorbidities and prognosis.

5) Hard to say. Many people think of bupropion as a "dopaminergic" drug, whereas bupropion and its relevant metabolites probably act mainly on the norepinephrine system in humans (its dopaminergic activity is more significant in dogs). But perhaps bupropion response could correlate with stimulant response. I haven't seen a good study to show this, nor do I have a case series myself to comment one way or the other based on personal experience.

6) I don't know about that. Comorbidities (e.g. substance use, relationship, or conduct problems) may have accumulated in adults who have not had help during childhood. Yet I have often found it to be the case that the core symptoms of most anything can improve with treatment, at any age.

7) Patients with psychotic disorders (i.e. having a history of hallucinations, delusions, or severely disorganized thinking) often seem to do poorly on stimulants. Patients who are using stimulants primarily to increase energy or motivation often are disappointed with stimulants after a few months, since tolerance develops for effects on energy. Patients with eating disorders could do poorly, since stimulant use may become yet another dysfunctional eating behaviour used to control appetite. And individuals who are trying to use stimulants as part of thrill-seeking behaviour, who are using more than prescribed doses, or who are selling their medication, are worse off for receiving stimulant prescriptions.