Monday, 28 April 2014

Make mine a green tea

You've probably heard that green tea is an excellent source of antioxidants, and so it is. Unlike other types of tea, it is made from unoxidised leaves and is minimally processed. This may account for its association with various health benefits, including reduction in stroke and heart disease risk and anti-cancer efficacy.

Researchers in Switzerland have identified another good reason to add the beverage to your shopping list, with a recent study demonstrating that green tea may positively influence the brain's cognitive function.

Participants were randomised, blind, into two groups - one requiring them to ingest a soft drink containing green tea extract and the other a soft drink without the extract. All were then asked to perform a series of working memory tasks and their brain activity was measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The findings revealed that those in the green tea group exhibited greater activity between the right parietal lobe and the frontal cortex of the brain. While there was enhanced performance in the memory tasks among this group, the effect was not significant, which the authors propose may have been a consequence of the small sample size.

According to Alzheimer's Research UK, dementia affects 820,000 people and costs the UK economy £23 billion per year - more than cancer and heart disease combined. They say that research in the area is grossly underfunded, given the considerable personal and societal impact of the disease.

It would seem, then, in the light of these facts, that further research into the possible relationship between green tea and working memory ought to be on the agenda, with bigger numbers to validate or discount the effect. In the meantime, I plan to make tea time count - it's black to green for me!

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The power of gratitude

In the Western world, we live with an unprecedented level of material abundance. You just need to take a look down the high street at the preponderance of coffee shops and nail bars (alongside the ever-increasing army of estate agents) to gauge the generalised decadence of our way of life. Most of us want for very little and feel we're lagging behind unless we have the latest phone, gadget or holiday experience. Our society is geared up to fuel consumerism - if we want it we can have it, on credit if necessary.

A new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences sheds interesting light on the relationship between material satisfaction and satisfaction in life - it would appear that having our material needs met does not necessarily make for a happy life. You may not be surprised to know there is something else going on.

The researchers asked 246 participants to complete a questionnaire which measured 'need satisfaction', 'gratitude' and 'satisfaction in life'. What they discovered was that those who scored low on gratitude and high on need satisfaction were more likely to be less satisfied with their lives - in other words, their needs were satisfied but they were not.

The authors propose that gratitude is about an attitude of receptivity - the perception of receiving a gift from outside of ourselves. Because we are social creatures, when we extend our minds beyond our own  little worlds (which we necessarily do when we experience gratitude), we benefit with a sense of wellbeing.

They point out that people who are materialistic tend to be self-centred rather than interested in those around them, and are more likely to focus on what they don't have (and need to get in order to be satisfied). They are generally ungrateful for (or perhaps unaware of) what they do have, be it their health, family or job.

We're all familiar with the 'poor little rich kid' archetype and stories of eye-wateringly wealthy celebrities who wind up with lives imploding, in deep pits of addiction, depression and despair. We've never been able to buy our way out of these states because the problem is not material, but spiritual.

Personally, I find writing a gratitude list a powerful antidote if I'm feeling down - to itemise the many gifts which have been showered upon me is to acknowledge, for one thing, that I'm part of something bigger than me. An attitude of gratitude shifts the focus away from the things I think (erroneously) will make me happy and onto the things I already have. Gratitude, in my experience, uplifts the soul.

How important is gratitude? How do you think it relates to materialism? Is it possible to be materialistic and grateful? Is satisfaction in life possible without gratitude? Your thoughts and reflections gratefully received!

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Friday, 11 April 2014

FAB memories

Fading Affect Bias (FAB) is a term which applies to the way we remember autobiographical events, with positive affect being shown to persist for longer than negative. You can understand why this might be the case - by holding onto the rose-tinted view we may, arguably, be protecting our mental health and allowing ourselves to adapt and move on.

A new study published in the journal Memory sought to understand whether the FAB principle applies universally, given that past research has focused only on American college students.

The authors tested for evidence of FAB by sampling over 2400 autobiographical event descriptions from 562 participants in ten countries around the world. Participants ranged from mature-age German citizens to Ghanaian students and all were asked to recall a number of positive and negative events in their lives. For each event, they were asked to rate the emotions they felt, both at the time, and in the present when calling the event to mind.

The findings were consistent - each of the ten diverse groups experienced FAB, with negative emotions  associated with remembered events fading more quickly than positive emotions. Furthermore, there was no evidence that FAB changes with increasing age - our bias towards remembering the positive seems to be a lifelong effect. The authors conclude:
"We believe that this phenomenon is part of a set of cognitive processes that foster emotion regulation and enable psychological resilience."
This makes sense to me, but makes me wonder how FAB fits in with the concept of denial, used so frequently as a psychological defence mechanism? Perhaps those fortunate ones who pass through life without mental health issues harness this principle in order to remain mentally well? Perhaps for those with deeper psychological problems, knowing about the existence of FAB may be helpful in breaking through the denial which can mask the truth of a past situation?

What are your experiences with memory? Do you see this phenomenon at work? We'd love to hear your thoughts, so do comment below.

Written by Jacqui Hogan

Monday, 7 April 2014

Therapists spreading greater appiness

iPhone screenshot ReliefLink app

Have you noticed how many adults seem to be playing games on their mobiles? I'm constantly amazed at the numbers I see wildly flicking their thumbs across phone screens, apparently trying to beat whichever imaginary opponent they're up against. I have no idea what the popular games are right now, but I'm sure there are those that 'everyone's' playing, depending on how engaging and how well marketed. It looks pretty stressful to me.

But now there's a new game (i.e. app) which claims to be able to help with mental health - specifically to reduce anxiety.

PersonalZen is based on two animated characters in a field - one of which is serene and friendly and the other irritable and angry, and the aim of the game is trace the path of either creature when it burrows down into the grass.

Developed by researchers from Hunter College and the City University of New York, it purports to train the attention towards the positive. Based on attention bias modification training, it draws on the notion that by learning to ignore threatening stimuli and focus on more comfortable sensations we become less anxious in stressful situations.

In the research conducted to evaluate the app, 78 people who scored highly in an anxiety survey were randomised and played the game (or placebo) before delivering a speech. Those in the active group expressed lower subjective anxiety and lower observed stress reactivity than those in the placebo group.

Mental health apps are not new, but there are still not many based on bona fide scientific research. Last year, a suicide-prevention app called ReliefLink won the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's app contest of the year, raising the profile of 'gamification' (the use of video game techniques to educate) in mental health. More a mood-tracking device than a game, ReliefLink tweets users regular affirmations and helps them find local help if they're contemplating suicide.

What are your thoughts on mental health apps? Do they, as it's suggested, perform a valuable role in the light of possible economic and practical barriers to treatment? Could they be a helpful addition to a therapist's armamentarium? Or could they simply add to the problem by causing further dissociation and technological alienation? Your experience, thoughts and comments would be greatly welcomed.

Written by Jacqui Hogan