Sunday, November 22, 2009

Authoritative, Authoritarian, and Permissive Self-Parenting

Here's a nice summary of different parenting styles:

The authoritarian style is strict and dictatorial, with no dialog between parent & child.

The permissive or indulgent style is lenient, with little discipline or rules.

The authoritative style is balanced: there are clear rules, clear boundaries, which are consistently enforced, but lots of empathy, understanding, dialog, and flexibility. Strong consideration is given to the child's point of view.

I think these different styles could be applied to one's own individual mind -- I encourage aiming for a healthy, balanced, authoritative style.

Authoritarian styles will be oppressive, and foster resentment, unhappiness, anger, and rebellion within oneself (sometimes an "underground" rebellion manifesting itself as depressive self- harm).

Permissive styles could feel liberating, but could lead to an experience of drifting, with a lack of direction, without a feeling of growing or developing one's potential.

An authoritative style would lead to a healthy balance between freedom and self-discipline, allowing for growth, challenge, and happiness. It could also tame the wilder forces within your mind, not by suppressing them, but by hearing them and guiding them in a well-boundaried, safe context.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Becoming a "Self Whisperer"

Well, you may accuse me of having sentimental tastes in film, but I really did enjoy the 1998 movie with Robert Redford, called The Horse Whisperer. It's about a reclusive Montana rancher who has an almost mystical ability to gently connect with and rehabilitate horses (and humans?) who are wild, traumatized, or out-of-control.

Since 2002, a dog trainer named Cesar Millan has called himself "the dog whisperer," and has a TV show, website, and has sold millions of books. His approach is basically one of gentle, calm authority: maintaining clear and consistent boundaries without losing one's cool or becoming excessively punitive. Mind you, I see that there is a little bit of debate about some of his techniques. And it's a bit dicey to apply animal training ideas to humans.

Recently, however, people have been trying to generalize these ideas a little bit, to the subject of parenting. Hence the idea of becoming a "child whisperer." Many parents have unhelpful interactions with their children: perhaps there are behavioural or discipline problems, but often times the parents are losing their cool, the parents are resorting to excessive and ineffective punishments, or the parents are giving a lot of praise but without any discipline. Sometimes the timing of praise or discipline is out of synch with the child's behaviour. Some methods of discipline may be harmful to both child and parent. Sometimes misbehaving children seem to be ruling the house, leaving the parents frustrated and exhausted. An exhausted parent in this situation may end up just spending less and less time parenting, in order to find distractions from the problems, or in order to escape. While respite is necessary, this tactic would of course make the parent-child dynamics even worse.

Here's an article from the New York Times on this:

I would like to generalize this idea one step further, to consider ways to become a "self whisperer."

This may involve nurturing a sense of calm, gentle understanding and authority over the various forces within your own mind:

-in this sense exercises to relax or meditate need not be considered exercises in tolerating an unhealthy state, but rather exercises to produce a stance of calm, loving, gentle authority, which is ideal in "self-whispering."

-part of the process may involve setting very clear boundaries within your own mind, without becoming excessively punitive, bossy, critical, or authoritarian towards aspects of yourself or others. Various therapy styles can help in this sense, including cognitive-behavioural ideas. Methods of non-harmful self-discipline may need to be learned and practiced.

-it can be important to have "respite", but it will be important "to do activities together" with the more challenging aspects of your mind, to be an effective "self whisperer." There needs to be time for reflective, empathic dialog with self, provided there is a benevolent structure, healthy boundaries, and clear safety rules.

--I'll have to edit this posting a bit, I think it's in a formative stage right now, but I thought I'd put it up here as the start of an idea I found enchanting in the moment--

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Physical Warmth promotes Interpersonal Warmth

In an amusing study by LE Williams and JA Bargh, published in Science in 2008, subjects exposed to warm objects behaved in a manner which was more interpersonally warm. Here is the reference:

In the first experiment described by the authors, subjects in the elevator on the way to the study lab were asked to hold an experimenter's drink cup for a moment, while the experimenter wrote some identifying information down on a clipboard. The experimenter in the elevator did not have knowledge of the study's hypotheses. In the study lab afterward, the subjects were given a brief written description of a person (the same description given to all subjects), and were asked to rate that person in terms of a variety of personality dimensions. The subjects who briefly had held a cup of hot coffee gave personality ratings that were significantly "warmer," compared to the subjects who had held a cup of iced coffee. The ratings for warmth were 4.71 out of 7 for the "hot coffee" group, compared to 4.25 out of 7 for the "iced coffee" group; these differed with a p value of 0.05. "Warmth" in this sense refers to traits such as friendliness, helpfulness, and trustworthiness.

The second experiment was more blinded, in that the experimenters did not know whether the subjects were handling a warm or cold object. This time, subjects were offered a choice of two types of gifts after the experiment: the first type would be for personal use, the second would be a gift for a friend. Those who had handled a warm object were substantially more likely to choose a gift for a friend, rather than for themselves.
Those who had handled a cold object chose a "selfish" gift 75% of the time.
Those who had handled a warm object chose the "selfish" gift 46% of the time.

The authors discuss attachment theory, and suggest that one explanation for these findings, on a neurobiological level, is that the insular cortex in the brain is responsible for processing information about both physical and psychological warmth, therefore the two types of warmth perception may influence each other.

I find this type of cross-sectional social-psychological research fun and a bit lighthearted, but often containing kernels of wisdom.

It would be interesting to do similar studies of this sort, but with different groups of subjects who are stratified according to interpersonal style, depressive symptoms, etc. Perhaps there are subjects who are most sensitive to these environmental effects.

I'm amused and delighted, in any case, that figurative or "metaphorical" warmth seems to match up with literal or physical warmth. A nice meeting of the metaphorical with the literal. Perhaps this is typical of what the brain does.

In any case, this little piece of evidence further supports the recommendation to do sensually pleasing, "warmth-oriented" activities, as part of a regimen for maintaining psychosocial health. There may be something in particular about heat which could be therapeutic. Hot baths are anecdotally helpful for relaxation, pain relief, and to promote deeper sleep. I've encountered a few examples in which people found saunas quite helpful for seasonal depressive symptoms. Maybe a very warm, cozy sweater can be helpful for your mental health, and even have positive effects on others!

Here are references to a few studies showing improvement in insomnia following hot baths: {a 1999 study from the journal Sleep, showing improvements in sleep continuity and more slow-wave sleep earlier in the night, in older females with insomnia who had 40-40.5 °C baths 1.5-2 hours before bedtime} {a 2005 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showing improved sleep in elderly people with vascular dementia, following 30 minute baths in 40°C water, 2 hours before bedtime}

A precipitant of some seasonal depression, at least in Canada, may be not only the darkness but the cold. The cold may lead not only to a disinclination to go outside, but also to a less generous or a "colder" interpersonal stance, which would further perpetuate a depressive cycle. This is another reason to heed that advice mothers often give young children, to dress warmly in the winter.

Here is a link to the abstract of a study from Japan, published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2005:

In this study, mildly depressed subjects were randomized to receive one of two treatments, 5 days per week, for 4 weeks, in addition to daily physical and occupational therapy:
1) "thermal therapy" in a 60 °C sauna for 15 minutes, followed by 30 minutes wrapped in a blanket, in a 28 °C room.
2) "non-thermal therapy" of 45 minutes in a 24°C room

The thermal therapy group had a 33% reduction in psychological symptoms, compared to a 14% reduction in the non-thermal therapy group.
The thermal group had a 42% reduction in somatic complaints, compared to an 8% reduction in the non-thermal group.

The research literature on this subject is quite limited, but there is some evidence that warmth--physical and psychological--is therapeutic!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chocolate & Stress

This is a sequel to one of my previous posts:

A recent study looked at various hormonal and metabolic changes associated with consuming chocolate. In this case, 30 people were given 40 g of dark chocolate daily for 2 weeks. The authors conclude that the chocolate consumption was responsible for reducing metabolic changes associated with stress, including cortisol and catecholamine excretion.

Weaknesses of the study include its brief, non-randomized, non-blinded nature (mind you, many of us would not easily be fooled by a placebo chocolate substitute!). And I see that the study is associated with the "Nestle Research Centre" in Switzerland. While I am pleased to know that a large chocolate company has a "research centre," I do have to wonder if there could be a higher risk of bias at play.

Here's a link to the abstract:

In the meantime, there is a variety of evidence out there that chocolate consumption in moderation is good for your health, in a variety of ways.

However, one concerning issue I just learned about has to do with lead contamination in cocoa and chocolate products. Lead is a heavy metal poison which should not have any presence in the diet. It can have widespread toxicity, particularly affecting the nervous system, through either acute or chronic exposure. The issue of lead in chocolate is discussed in mainstream research, such as by Rankin & Flegal (references:, Based on some of this research, it may be true that raw, unprocessed cocoa nibs have no significant lead contamination, rather the lead in some cocoa and chocolate products may be the result of industrial processing.

Hopefully, manufacturers can address this issue, so that we can be reassured about safety, and so that we can get on with the enjoyment of one of life's great pleasures, knowing that it, in moderation, may also be good for psychological and medical health.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Cats Paint

Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics by Heather Busch & Burton Silver.

I find this book a masterpiece of humour, a wonderful parody of art criticism, and also a simple entertainment for those of us who enjoy pets.

Have a look at the customer review comments from Amazon:

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More evidence about the impact of nutrition on mood

An important paper was just published by Akbaraly et al. in The British Journal of Psychiatry, in which 3486 people were followed prospectively for 5 years, with an analysis of nutritional habits and depression symptoms. Here's a link to the abstract:

The data showed that individuals consuming a diet rich in "processed foods" (such as sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products) had a much higher rate of depression compared to those consuming a diet heavily loaded with vegetables, fruits, and fish.

The analysis controlled for confounding factors such as gender, age, caloric intake, marital status, employment grade, education, smoking, physical activity, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A component of the analysis also strongly suggests that the association is not due to reverse causation, of depression leading to worse nutrition. Rather, the analysis strongly suggests that poor diet is a component of causation: that is, poor diet directly increases the risk of becoming depressed, or of having worse depressive symptoms.

Those in the third of people with diets highest in processed foods had a 58% higher chance of having clinical depression compared to the third of people with the healthiest diets.

So, once again, more evidence-based advice to eat healthily in order to protect your mental health:
-more vegetables, fruits, and fish
-less sweets, fried foods, white flour, whole milk, ice cream, etc.

Memory Games

Here are a few links to some free memory games. They may be directed towards children, but I think people of any age could find them useful or fun exercises to improve attention & memory (or even better: you can devise your own memory games, to play with a friend, away from a computer screen):

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rhythm Practice

There's a lot out there about various exercises or games you can do to keep your brain sharp.

I would like to compile a list of things for sharpening your mind that I think are interesting, which you can do at little or no financial cost.

I think that music practice can take many forms, many of which are not only intellectually stimulating, but also possibly quite meditative: a way to let go of worries or agitation.

Here are a few sites where you can do some rhythm practice (i.e. reading rhythms or imitating them). The difficulty is quite variable, from beginner to advanced:


Monday, November 2, 2009

Swine Flu Anxiety

While in the midst of an epidemic, a great deal of anxiety arises in the population.

Anxiety can lead to an exaggerated or inaccurate perception of risk, particularly when the mass anxiety is spread in the media, such as via front-page accounts of unexpected deaths.

In approaching any type of anxiety, I think it is important to know exactly what the risks are.

So, for example, it would be dishonest to tell an airplane-phobic person that air travel is perfectly safe. It isn't: there is about a 1 in 1 million chance of the plane crashing. (In a future post, I'd like to present my analysis of the statistics, and also show that the average spontaneous death rate in the population, for a person beyond young adulthood, exceeds the death rate from flying in an airplane--therefore I could claim--flippantly--that flying is statistically a "life-prolonging activity" for most travelers).

The current flu epidemic is clearly a serious matter. There definitely is a risk of death for those infected.

Estimates I've seen of the mortality rate vary, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that it is less than 0.1% (1 in 1000) for those infected.

This is not particularly different from the mortality rate of ordinary seasonal flu.

HOWEVER, the significant difference in this epidemic is the mortality rate by age. It is clearly true that swine flu has a higher mortality rate for healthy young adults--probably at least triple-- compared to seasonal flu.

Therefore, we are seeing more young, healthy adults die of flu this year. The total numbers are very low, but are much higher than in other years. The reason the overall mortality rate is the same is that fewer elderly individuals are dying of swine flu, most likely because of heightened immunity in that population due to exposure to a similar virus decades ago.

The CDC site shows that in a cohort of 268 people who died from swine flu early in the epidemic, 39% were in the 25-49 age group, and 25% were in the 50-64 age group. This is very different from seasonal influenza, in which about 90% of the deaths are in the over 65 age group. Here's a link to a pertinent page from their site:

Here's another important page from the CDC:

Based on the table shown on this page, here are estimated risks of death for individuals infected with H1N1, stratified by age:
0-17 age group: between 1 in 10 000 and 1 in 20 000.
18-64 age group: between 1 in 2400 and 1 in 6000.
65+ age group: between 1 in 2300 and 1 in 6800.

I found a table of age-standardized "excess deaths" due to pneumonia and influenza in Italy between 1969-2001. ( Based on this table, and assuming that only 10% of the population is infected during typical seasonal flu years, here is a very rough estimate of the risks of death by age for seasonal flu:
0-44 age group: 1 in 100 000
45-64 age group: 1 in 20 000
65+ age group: 1 in 750

The above data show that H1N1 influenza has a substantially higher death rate for those under 65 compared to seasonal flu, but as you can see the chances of dying if you catch the flu are still quite low, regardless of your age.

The risk of flu vaccines appears to be extremely low.
There is a substantial risk of contracting flu without the vaccine.
There is a low but non-zero risk of severe illness or death if you contract the flu.
The risk of a severe adverse reaction to the vaccine is much lower than the risk of a severe adverse effect from the flu itself.
The vaccine is likely to reduce the risk of contracting the flu by at least 90%.
Therefore, the benefit:risk ratio regarding the flu vaccine is very favourable. Here are references:

So, my recommendations regarding swine flu anxiety are to be informed about the most accurate facts available:

1) the risk of death or severe illness remains low, for anyone infected

2) but the risk of a healthy young adult becoming severely ill or dying is relatively higher compared to seasonal flu

3) public health measures, such as very careful hygiene and mass vaccinations, are likely to save many lives (this is true of seasonal flu as well). Statistically, you as an individual are unlikely to contract severe flu illness. Hygiene and vaccine recommendations are more likely to be part of reducing the spread of flu in the population: therefore such recommendations, if you follow them, are statistically more likely to spare severe disease in someone else, rather than yourself. That is, if you receive a vaccination, that vaccination is more likely to save someone else's life rather than your own, since the average active case of flu is likely to spread to about 2 other people, even if the case is mild.

4) Therefore, I encourage following hygiene protocols and receiving the vaccine when it becomes available. It may spare you severe illness, and it has an even higher likelihood of being an altruistic act, which spares other people severe illness. Prompt use of anti-influenza medications such as Tamiflu are likely to further reduce the risk of severe complications, and most likely will further reduce the risk of contagion.

Altruistic acts, such as getting vaccinated or washing your hands, are psychologically healthy (this is my justification for posting something about influenza in a psychiatry blog!).

*It may be important to keep in mind, for the sake of perspective, that automobile accidents, for example, claim about 600 000 lives per year among young, healthy adults. In Canada alone, there are about 1000 deaths of young, healthy adults per year due to car accidents. (reference: Another altruistic act of very practical importance is to slow down on the road!

A good article in the November 10, 2009 edition of CMAJ (p. 667-668) presents evidence that handwashing is not actually likely to be very effective in reducing the spread of influenza. Microbiologist Dr. Donald Low argues that hand hygiene has not been proven to reduce influenza spread, and that the influenza virus is primarily spread by fine droplets from coughing, which then have to be inhaled deeply. He points out that receptors for the influenza virus are located farther back in the respiratory tract, hence cannot be easily infected by touching mouth or eyes with hands, etc.
Here is an excellent article on the subject:

His evidence-based position is that the N95 mask is the best mechanical way to prevent infection if you are near an infected person. Other than that, the best practice to prevent contagion would be to contain any coughing or sneezing, to stay away from other people if you are coughing, and to avoid close proximity with those who are infected, if possible.

Meanwhile, it is undoubtedly true that good handwashing practices do reduce the spread of the common cold and other infectious diseases. So all the handwashing and hand-sanitizing stations you see all over the place remain a good idea -- it's just that handwashing might not actually protect you very much from contracting influenza, compared to other measures.