Should You Think Twice Before Popping Another Pill of Tylenol?

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By Rowena Kong

It would be difficult to imagine that anyone in this day and age is unfamiliar with Tylenol and its active ingredient, acetaminophen. Tylenol is the most popular over-the-counter pain-reliever drug, and it should undeniably be present at all times in our medicine cabinets. Some are even hesitant to travel without it in their handy luggage. Our lives would be ‘painful’ without its existence, as it is being the most accessible (and relatively affordable) reliever of our common suffering. For some, it can even be a necessity that enables them to lead a less tormented life. We pride ourselves in the fact that we would never be labelled as ‘addicts’ or ‘abusers’ with our frequent consumption of Tylenol. However, that naggy silent voice of conscience and a natural aversion to all things with the word ‘drug’ attached just bugs me each time I see a loved one popping the pills repeatedly, especially when they describe their aches as rather ‘mild’.

Words cannot express how glad I was when I finally found the answer to my inborn vigilance over the years. A study by DeWall et al. (2010) came up with behavioural and neural evidence for social pain reduction by acetaminophen. Earlier, Eisenberger and Lieberman (2004) wrote comprehensively on the processing of both physical and social pain by similar brain regions and adaptive functions of pain in the social-attachment system of mammals that serve to maintain our chances of survival against harmful consequences of social separation from the group. In the history of literature, there has never been a more popular descriptive term for the experience of social rejection and separation than the word ‘pain’ and ‘heartache’. They certainly fit their purpose in both our written and verbal expressions of such undesirable feelings. As for the brain regions of interest, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula were found to be associated with the affective component of physical pain as well as social pain, which arises from detection of conflict and discrepancy.

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Can Tylenol help relieve social pain?

Building on the hypothesis that physical and social pain share the same mechanisms, DeWall et al. conducted two experiments that tested the effect of acetaminophen on participants’ responses to social pain and rejection. Doses of the pain relief drug and a control placebo were administered for 3 weeks, and participants provided daily reports of their social pain and positive emotional experience. The results showed that participants who took acetaminophen indicated significantly lower hurt feeling scores by Day 21 and even earlier on average by Day 9 than those in the placebo condition. However, such expected results were not observed for participants’ daily positive emotions.

In the second experiment, the procedure was repeated but with a double dose of acetaminophen to make up for the smaller number of participants recruited. This time, the participants underwent an fMRI scan while performing a virtual ball-tossing game that was intended to invoke feelings of social exclusion. After the imaging procedure, they completed a self-report measure of social distress. While the self-report responses of social distress did not differ between those in the acetaminophen and placebo conditions, the scans showed that participants in the former group had reduced dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula activation.

A more recent study conducted by Durso, Luttrell, and Way (2015) looked at the effect of acetaminophen not only on negative pain but also on our evaluation sensitivity to positive stimuli. Under a random assignment procedure, participants were given either a dose of liquid acetaminophen or a placebo. Later, they were shown pictures from the International Affective Picture System which varied in positive and negative valence and emotional arousal. Participants gave their ratings of the pictures, and analyses of their responses were computed. The results confirmed the researchers’ prediction that participants who took acetaminophen would rate moderate and extreme picture stimuli significantly less negatively and positively (in other words, less extremely) than those in the placebo condition. In terms of emotional arousal ratings, those who had taken acetaminophen were also significantly less emotionally aroused than those who received a placebo. In fact, the difference in responses of mean ratings of emotional arousal between the acetaminophen and placebo groups of participants increased with the extremity of positive and negative valences of the picture stimuli shown.

To further test the overall performance of judgement on the part of the participants, a second study was included to analyze their rating of the intensity of the colour blue in each picture. The outcome was that both groups of participants did not differ significantly in their ratings and the effect of acetaminophen was therefore not present in this type of evaluation. It seems that acetaminophen affected evaluation of subjective emotional qualities of perceived stimuli more so than their objective concrete counterpart, suggesting that the drug’s action on emotional arousal may be concurrent with the process of cognitive evaluation. Another point to consider is that with the absence of a physically painful experience by participants in the above studies by DeWall et al. and Durso et al., the effect on an immediate alternative social pain to act on may have been felt to a greater degree than when the physical pain was present. The fact that daily occurrence of hurt feelings can be affected even in the absence of experimentally-induced negative experience implies the broad range of pain-associated feelings, whether directly or in an indirect manner, over which acetaminophen has access to attenuate.

While the study by DeWall et al. has failed to produce any notable result on measures of positive emotion, I would like to suggest that baseline emotional experience could be less arousing than more immediate emotionally expressive stimuli induced by an experimental condition. Perhaps in this study, participants’ daily measure of general positive emotion could have decreased considerably in intensity later in the day when they reflected on their experience(s) once they were past and the arousal dissipated. It is also worth noting that the central focus of non-physical pain being discussed has been social pain which results from exclusion and rejection by others. Would results of current research generate to the kind of pain that is more self-directed and personal in nature wherein other individuals are not involved? On the other hand, we have yet to take into account the possibility of such range of effect being irreversible when consumption is extensive and prolonged even when pain symptoms are mild and bearable before taking the pill. With less intense physical pain to act on, will the effect be shifted more readily towards social pain and the blunting of emotions be more pronounced? It appears that questions will keep coming and answers to be discovered as more experts begin to get active in this line of research.

References

DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C.,…Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931-937. doi: 10.1177/0956797610374741

Durso, G. R. O., Luttrell, A., & Way, B. M. (2015). Over-the-counter relief from pains and pleasures alike: Acetaminophen blunts evaluation sensitivity to both negative and positive stimuli. Psychological Science, 26, 750-758. doi: 10.1177/0956797615570366

Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 294-300. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010

Insomnia: Real or Imagined?

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By Rowena Kong

Dear Miss Summer,

I know you must have answered this common question a number of times, but personally I just can’t seem to get rid of this problem no matter how hard I try. I’ve been losing sleep for quite some time now – spending all night mind-wandering and staring at the clock until dawn. Although my work is not so much affected at present, I deeply fear that one day this huge sleep debt might ruin my life and career. Please help!

Sleep-Agonized

Dear Sleep-Agonized,

I can understand your problem. In spite of it being a common and recurrent problem today, insomnia happens to each person for different reasons and to varying degrees. What matters to Tom may not trouble Harry because every person is a unique individual. To address your question, it sounds like the sleeplessness has been going on for quite a while now. Allow me to say that it is usually not an easy task to tackle a problem once it has reached its climax because it takes a longer process of retrospection and analysis of what has occurred. However, I tried to pick up on your hints and perceived that there has been much going on for you in terms of thoughts, fears, and career. A conscientious person who highly values her work accomplishments would definitely feel vulnerable upon realizing that her circadian rhythms are off. Perhaps you should start considering this area to be of relevance to your ongoing struggle. Try not to be too hard on yourself when things fall short of your expectations and standards, when the report you produced does not receive positive feedback from your supervisor, or clients fail to appreciate you going the extra mile for them. One thing you should also think about is the level of guilt you have due to this sleep loss problem. Be aware that it is not your fault that this is happening. Lastly, I would encourage you to take some time off work to enjoy the world outside and the new season, and even to do more mind-wandering in a non-stressful and health-rejuvenating way, because you deserve it. That way, you can loosen the tight bonds of schedule-consciousness, which might have played a role in your insomnia…

All the best and take care,

Miss Summer”

Alright, I confess – the above introduction is not an excerpt from a magazine advice column but was taken from a piece of fiction written by me and posted elsewhere. Nevertheless, it kindled an interest that caused me to start researching the topic of insomnia. I get the notion that the term, which describes sleep deprivation and its related problems, is so general and overused that its connotation is one of vagueness and ambiguity. When someone close to me recently complained of the problem, questions started popping up in my restless head of its causes and triggers, onset, duration; and, most of all, how the nature of her job might have exacerbated the condition.

The sleep disorder of insomnia, defined as difficulties with falling asleep, maintaining sleep and the experience of an unproductive sleep which results in inefficient daytime functioning, is categorized into primary and secondary or comorbid categories (Erman, 2007; Riemann et al., 2010). Under the category of primary insomnia, the three subtypes recognised are psychophysiological, paradoxical, and idiopathic insomnia (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2005). The International Classification on Sleep Disorders, however, made use of the term ‘sleep state misperception’ in place of ‘paradoxical insomnia’ to classify a subjective complaint of sleep disturbance without corresponding objectively measured evidence (ASDA, 1990; Dorsey & Bootzin, 1997). Notably, patients with sleep state misperception exhibited more stage 1 and 2 sleep than slow-wave stage 3 and 4 sleep, similarly to other insomniac patients. Together with psychophysiological insomnia, the underlying symptoms of sleep state misperception have been attributed to an individual’s persistent state of hyperarousal (Bonnet & Arand, 1997; Perlis, Merica, Smith, & Giles, 2001). A study by Pavlova et al. (2001) assessed insomniacs and normal controls on a Hyperarousal Scale consisting of self-report items describing behaviours relevant to primary insomnia patients. It was shown that the insomnia group had significantly higher mean Hyperarousal total scores compared with the control group. In the earlier report by Bonnet and Arand (1997), which listed measures of the hyperarousal state, insomniacs displayed increased physiological metabolic rate, body temperature, tensed and confused mood, vigour, and subjective sleep latency. Clearly, it would have been difficult for hyperaroused individuals to transition from such a state into the low arousal slow-wave and REM sleep stages, lending some explanation to the observation of prolonged sleep latency complaints. There appears to be a tendency towards misperception by certain insomniacs; for instance, those with sleep state misperception, that sleep is difficult to attain, and waking time is unexpectedly lengthy in the absence of evidence. According to tests which examined the relation between subjective sleep latency and arousal, it was discovered that participants who consumed caffeine, which increased their arousal, had increased ratios of subjective to objective sleep latencies. This implies a close relationship between hyperarousal and inaccurate perception of prolonged sleep latency. A study which compared patients who experienced different subtypes of insomnia, including psychophysiological insomnia, sleep state misperception and insomnia with depressive disorder, found that those with sleep state misperception sufferers were the only group that overestimated their total sleep time, while subjective sleep latency was significantly overestimated across all groups (Vanable, Aikens, Tadimeti, Caruana-Montaldo, & Mendelson, 2000).

As far as the state of hyperarousal has been recognized to be of relevance in this field of sleep research, such a model provides a promising complement to studies of the relationship between personality traits, enduring psychological factors, and sleep disorders. In addition to distorted perceptions of sleep latency, duration and quality, can certain personality traits such as neuroticism and introversion play a significant role in the negative experience of insomnia since these factors also take into account a person’s physiological and/or psychological state(s) of arousal? It turns out that the baseline arousal level between introverts and extraverts does not differ much during low stimulation sleep activity, and thus is not a significant predictive trait factor of insomnia (Larsen & Buss, 2014). On the other hand, the trait of neuroticism, which is more thoroughly discussed and measured under Hans J. Eysenck’s model of personality, is extensively associated with a wide range of dispositions which underlie individuals’ greater emotional reactivity to a variety of situations and susceptibility to sleep difficulties and psychosomatic symptoms. Vanable et al. (2000) reported in one of the above-mentioned studies that insomnia patients who scored high on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory clinical scale of Psychasthenia (which assesses a person’s abnormal fears and negative emotions and is also an old term for obsessive-compulsive disorder) were more likely to underestimate sleep time (Framingham, 2013). The study also suggests that personality variables affect the sleep misperceptions of patients without a history of depression and psychiatric disorder more than otherwise, hinting at factors such as cognitive rumination and anxiety. Thus, we can see that sleep research is unraveling more and more of how such a passive activity can be fragile and sensitive to the outcomes of our perception, thought and emotional processes. On the flip side, what we get out of our sleep also significantly influences our daily functioning, health and well-being. Yet, like ‘Sleep-Agonized’ from the introduction, perhaps the best thing we can do to achieve a sleep-healthy life is to loosen the shackles of distress on our minds and ease the burden. Before we even know it, the snores are starting…

References

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2005). International classification of sleep disorders: Diagnostic and coding manual (2nd ed.). Westchester, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

American Sleep Disorders Association (ASDA). (1990). International classification of sleep disorders: Diagnostic and coding manual. Rochester, MN: Author.

Bonnet, M. H., & Arand, D. L.(1997). Hyperarousal and Insomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 1(2), 97-108. doi:10.1016/S1087-0792(97)90012-5

Dorsey, C. M., & Bootzin, R. R. (1997). Subjective and psychophysiological insomnia: An examination of sleep tendency and personality. Biological Psychiatry, 41, 209-216.         doi:10.1016/0006-3223(95)00659-1

Erman, M. K. (2007). Insomnia: Comorbidities and consequences. Primary Psychiatry, 14, 31–35.

Framingham, J. (2013). Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Retrieved from Psych Central website: http://psychcentral.com/lib/minnesota-multiphasic-personality-inventory-mmpi/

Larsen, R. J., & Buss, D. M. (2014). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Pavlova, M., Berg, O., Gleason, R., Walker, F., Roberts, S., & Regestein, Q. (2001). Self-reported hyperarousal traits among insomnia patients. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 51, 435-441. doi:10.1016/S0022-3999(01)00189-1

Perlis, M., Merica, H., Smith, M., & Giles, D. (2001). Beta EEG activity and insomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 5, 365–376.

Riemann, D., Spiegelhalder, K., Feige, B., Voderholzer, U., Berger, M., Perlis, M., & Nissen, C. (2010). The hyperarousal model of insomnia: A review of the concept and its evidence. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14(1), 19-31. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2009.04.002

Vanable, P. A., Aikens, J. E., Tadimeti, L., Caruana-Montaldo, B., & Mendelson, W. B. (2000). Sleep latency and duration estimates amond sleep disorder patients: Variability as a function of sleep disorder diagnosis, sleep history, and psychological characteristics. Sleep, 23(1), 71-79.

Recruiting for the Visual Attention/Perception Study of Men With and Without Prostate Cancer

There is a new study looking at vision and perception in prostate cancer patients. The study is a collaborative project between researchers Drs. Alan Kingstone and Richard Wassersug at UBC, and Dr. Jaime Palmer-Hague at Trinity Western University in Langley.

The study will compare the perceptual responses of men with prostate cancer to that of age-matched men without prostate cancer, and more generally, seeks to investigate the ways in which people view, understand, and interact with visual stimuli. The study is especially important for prostate cancer patients on certain drugs that might affect their mood and attention. Continue reading

Think Creative? Think People, and Culture…

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By Rowena Kong

Which would you do better at: detecting similarities amongst a group of items, or brainstorming an original title for a thriller movie? Chances are, your level of performance on these two representative measures of creativity can be influenced by the social environment around you, and particularly by the behaviour and backgrounds of the people with whom you interact. One study by Ashton-James and Chartrand (2009) showed that the effect of social interaction on creativity occurred through the activation of thinking styles. The authors hypothesised that mimicry of participants’ behaviour without their awareness would induce a convergent thinking style, and that a divergent thinking style would be observed when participants were not mimicked. Indeed, the outcome revealed that the mimicry condition led to higher scores on a convergent thinking task (pattern recognition) while the non-mimicry condition produced better performance on a divergent thinking task (generation of novel product labels).

It can therefore be seen that our style of thinking affects our creative problem-solving skills, and the research literature has identified two thinking styles (convergent and divergent), each of which stimulates different domains of our cognition (Guilford, 1959). Convergent thinking is associated with the social side of creativity; for example, the ability to effectively collaborate and coordinate with others in generating solutions to problems from a relational angle (Bahar & Hansell, 2000; Larey & Paulus, 1999). On the other hand, divergent thinking involves stretching the limits of one’s perspectives and broadly crossing over various themes and categories to come up with unusual and extraordinary ideas (Guilford, 1959). Our tendency to engage in either thinking style can be influenced by the social demands of the situation and the people with whom we work (Brewer, 1996; Nemeth & Kwan, 1987; Schwarz, 1990; Tedeschi & Nacci, 1976). When team members share similar knowledge and cultural backgrounds, smooth collaboration tends to facilitate convergent thinking. Conversely, when members differ in a number of aspects such as skills and outside group membership, they are likely to engage in divergent thinking and therefore to produce innovative and novel outcomes (Arndt, Routledge, Greenberg & Sheldon, 2005; Ashton-James & Chartrand, 2009; De Dreu, 2007; Nemeth, 1986).

In applying such concepts and findings to the cultural environment, one might hypothesise that divergent thinking style would be utilized to a greater degree by people who endorse the independent self-concept than by those who are more interdependent. Westerners who are of European descent tend to be fairly independent and perceive themselves as distinct and unique from one another, each person having his or her own identity that is defined separately from others or the group. Westerners also often tend to have a greater preference for interpersonal distance; meanwhile, in the East, in-group members’ shared identity and bonding are prioritised and made a larger part of everyday life (Sussman & Rosenfeld, 1982). On a larger scale, Western societies also tend to produce more breakthrough innovations of novel concepts and inventions than do Eastern societies (Heine, 2012). Westerners’ scores were also higher on a number of studies assessing Easterners and Westerners’ creativity based on their divergent thinking performances (Niu & Sternberg, 2002).  One study of Asian American participants’ creativity reported that those who were more assimilated to the American culture produced more novel solutions in divergent thinking tasks under the cues of said culture than did those who were less assimilated and low in bicultural identity integration (Mok & Morris, 2010).

Additionally, studies of implicit theories of creativity in East-Asian Chinese populations have revealed one conceptual view of creativity that may not be shared by these societies’ Western counterparts: an emphasis on creativity for the benefit of the community. Creativity is often culture-specific and more group-oriented or convergent in East-Asian societies, whereas, in the West, it tends to be more individualistic and self-directed. The cultural variation of the concept of creativity also calls into question the universality and validity of divergent thinking tests in gauging a person’s true creative aptitude. Perhaps it would be more helpful to test Easterners on their convergent thinking capacity as well.

References

Arndt, J., Routledge, C., Greenberg, J., & Sheldon, K. M. (2005). Illuminating the dark side of creative expression: Assimilation needs and the consequences of creative action following mortality salience. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1327-1339.

Ashton-James, C. E., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). Social cues for creativity: The impact of behavioral mimicry on convergent and divergent thinking. Journal of Experimental  Social Psychology, 45, 1036–1040.

Bahar, M., & Hansell, M. H. (2000). The relationship between some psychological factors and their effect on the performance of grid questions and word association tests. Educational Psychology, 20, 349-364.

Brewer, M. B. (1996). When contact is not enough: Social identity and intergroup cooperation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20, 291-303.

De Dreu, C. K. W. (2007). Cooperative outcome independence, task reflexivity and team effectiveness: A motivated information processing approach. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 628-638.

Guilford, J. P. (1959). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5, 444–454.

Heine, S. J. (2012). Cultural psychology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Larey, T. S., & Paulus, P. B. (1999). Group preference and convergent tendencies in small groups: A content analysis of group brainstorming performance. Creativity Research Journal, 12, 175-184.

Mok, A., & Morris, M. W. (2010). Asian-Americans’ creative styles in Asian and American situations: Assimilative and contrastive responses as a function of bicultural identity integration. Management and Organization Review, 6, 371-390.

Nemeth, C. J. (1986). Differential contributions of minority and majority influence. Psychological Review, 93, 23-33.

Nemeth, C. J., & Kwan, L. (1987). Minority influence, divergent thinking, and detection of correct solutions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 48-58.

Niu, W., & Sternberg, R. (2002). Contemporary studies on the concept of creativity: The east and the west.  The Journal of Creative Behavior, 36, 269-288.

Schwarz, N. (1990). Feelings as information: Informational and motivational functions of affective states. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition. Foundations of social behavior (pp. 527-562). New York, NY: Guilford.

Sussman, N. M., & Rosenfeld, H. M. (1982). Influence of culture, language, and sex on conversational distance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  42, 66-74.

Tedeschi, J. Y., & Nacci, P. (1976). Liking and power as factors affecting coalition choices in the triad. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 4, 27-32.

You Are Not Sleeping Enough!

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By Samantha Chong

Midterms and paper due dates haven’t all passed yet, and with finals coming up, it never seems to end. Have you been getting as much sleep as you would like since everything started? We know all too well how important it is to get enough sleep. In addition to being vital for ensuring physical and mental wellbeing, sleep also plays a role as a protective factor against various health problems and chronic illnesses (Roberts, Roberts & Xing, 2011). But let’s be truthful here – the majority of us have poor sleeping habits. As university students trying to keep up with our lives, getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night has inevitably become one of the many luxuries we cannot afford.

What contributes to our low quality of sleep? A recent study by Zunhammer, Eichhammer and Busch (2014) found that students do in fact shorten their time in bed so that they can spend more time studying. They also found that exam stress is the most profound predictor for poor sleep quality experienced by students, and that some students suffer from symptoms of insomnia during exam period. This finding does make sense, considering the fact that most of us have to balance around 5 courses (and the work load that comes with each), part time jobs, socializing, exercising, and the list goes on. At the end of the day, the only thing we can put off is sleep! It seems to be justifiable from our perspective.

However, this sleep restriction that we impose on ourselves will only do more harm than good in the long run. For example, a recent study showed that it can even do damage to our waistlines. While the relationship between getting enough sleep and aid in weight loss remains unclear, research has found that lack of sleep is partly responsible for our weight gain. Markwald et al. (2012) has shown that sleep loss increases an individual’s food intake; this is a physiological adaptation to provide the body with the energy needed to sustain extended wakefulness. I’m sure most of us have no trouble relating to this. When we find ourselves frequently pulling all-nighters, the stomach growl at 1:00 a.m. leads us to reach for the bag of cookies or that bowl of instant noodles. We are consuming calories to gain energy when we should be sleeping!

Here’s one question I have always pondered: can we ever catch up on our sleep? While the majority of us can’t seem to afford a full sleep cycle on weekdays, we sleep in on weekends with the hopes of compensating for the lack of sleep during the school week. Are these 2 days of extended sleep really sufficient for us to recover from our sleep deprivation? Pejovic et al. (2013) have suggested that this strategy is only partially successful. Their study found that individuals who engaged in this strategy were able to decrease daytime sleepiness, and their overall levels of stress hormone cortisol were reduced. However, the strategy was not sufficient to improve everyday performance, suggesting that more than two days of extended sleep may be required.

Clearly, sleep is a basic need that we all take for granted despite its importance in aiding our daily functions. As a result of a bad night’s sleep, we pay the cost of having to start a brand new day while suffering from sleep deprivation. Getting enough sleep allows the body to rejuvenate itself while the minds is put to rest. To help us place more value on our sleep quality, Schardt (2012) proposed a few sleep remedies worth keeping in mind: regular engagement in exercise (which increases the time spent in slow-wave sleep), yoga, and taking a hot bath before going to bed (which helps to lower body temperature—one of the physiological triggers for sleep).

Now, stop reading and go get some sleep!

References

Markwald, R. R., Melanson, E. L., Smith, M. R., Higgins, J., Perreault, L., Eckel, R. H., & Wright, K. P. (2013). Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(14), 5695-5700.

Pejovic, S., Basta, M., Vgontzas, A. N., Kritikou, I., Shaffer, M. L., Tsaoussoglou, M., … & Chrousos, G. P. (2013). Effects of recovery sleep after one work week of mild sleep restriction on interleukin-6 and cortisol secretion and daytime sleepiness and performance. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism305(7), E890-E896.

Schardt, D. (2012). Sleep on It. Nutrition Action Health Letter39(3), 9-11.

Zunhammer M, Eichhammer P, Busch V (2014) Sleep Quality during Exam Stress: The Role of Alcohol, Caffeine and Nicotine. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109490. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109490

Samantha is a Psychology major and a research assistant at the Health & Adult Developmental Lab. She hopes to pursue a future career in the field of applied psychology. She enjoys reading novels, and, ideally, spending her weekends exploring cafes or bakeries in Vancouver. She is also a chocoholic and a dog lover.

While You Are Doing, I Am Feeling: The Potential of Mirror Neurons

By Rowena Kong

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Since the discovery of mirror neurons about two decades ago, research into their functions to explain their existence in humans and primates have provided us with an ever richer understanding of their remarkable network system in the brain (Marshall, 2014). The mirror neuron circuitry was first observed in the premotor cortex of the macaques, and subsequently in other frontal and parietal cortical regions, particularly those responsible for perceptual and motor processes. Mirror neurons are essentially motor neurons which fire during both execution and observation of an action. The first researchers to discover this group of neurons termed them mirror neurons based on the discovery that the macaques in their study were observing actions as if they were a reflection of their own in a mirror. Thus, the pioneering discovery was followed by research on imitation and empathy in an effort to piece together the puzzle of these neurons’ existence and function(s) from theoretical and empirical standpoints.

There is certainly a selective social advantage for the function of mirror neurons in facilitating imitation. Iacoboni (2009), in his review of the relationship between imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons, concluded that imitation, as a precondition for empathy, is automatic and effortless. This is a direct pathway through which imitation and imitation learning operate. In other words, we are able to put ourselves in others’ shoes because our actions would correspond with theirs were we faced with similar situations; furthermore, the performance of a physical action necessitates an understanding of the logic behind it. Chartrand and Bargh (1999) showed that the frequency of spontaneous imitation by subjects correlated positively with their empathy scores.

Psyched_MirrorNeurons_PicHowever, we should consider the possibility that an intermediary implicit mechanism that enhances the empathic response may be involved. After all, a positive association between imitation and empathy may not be indicative of a cause-and-effect relationship. Empathy, as a rather complex encompassment of perceptual, cognitive and emotional processes, does not rely solely on the mirror neuron system but also on other brain regions that affect our appraisal of another’s plight (Corradini & Antonietti, 2013). The fact that research on mirror neurons and empathy has mostly focused on the negative reactions of pain and disgust suggests that the positive aspects of emotion may have been neglected as another measure along the wide spectrum of empathy.

Imitation may also take place along a second more complex, unconscious route that similarly leads to engagement in the observed action at a later point in time. The involvement of motor behaviour is again emphasised. Examples of studies which are in line with this argument were conducted by Bargh et al. (1996) and Dijksterhuis et al. (2000). In these studies, participants who were primed with words and questions typically related with the elderly actually acted more ‘elderly’ and performed poorly in memory tasks following the priming.

Another issue highlighted in the review concerning the function of mirror neurons is that perception and action are represented in similar ways in the brain, which explains why they fire during both processes, even at the single-cell level. This also leads to the question of the plasticity and functional versatility of such neurons. Since the regions in our brains devoted to sensory systems can adapt to the processing of alternative representations of stimuli in the event of a deficit in one faculty (as in the case of sensory substitution devices which compensate for a defective sense, e.g. vision, by conversion of visual stimuli information into an auditory format), the potential multifunctional capability of these intriguing members of our neurobiological makeup has yet to be explored (Reich, Maidenbaum, & Amedi, 2012).

References

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230–44.

Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893–910.

Corradini, A., & Antonietti, A. (2013). Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition, 22, 1152-1161.

Dijksterhuis, A., Bargh, J., & Miedema, J. (2000). Of men and mackerels: Attention and automatic behavior. In H. Bless, & J. P. Forgas (Eds.), Subjective experience in social cognition and behavior (pp. 36–51). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

Iacoboni, M. (2009). Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 653-670.

Marshall, J. (2014). Mirror neurons. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 111,  6531.

A Dose of Reality (TV)

By Paula Concepcion

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I have to admit: I absolutely love watching TV.

If I’m not busy studying or reading or sleeping, I’m probably watching TV – catching a new episode of one of those series I’m into, or, more often than not, a new episode of one of my favorite reality TV shows.

I’ve been watching reality TV probably since I was eleven, and it all began with my family catching an episode of the third season of The Amazing Race. Since then, I’ve kept up with that show along with other shows like Survivor and America’s Next Top Model. I have also watched parts of shows like The X Factor, The Voice, and American Idol. This makes me wonder: what is it about these kinds of shows that keeps me tuning in, anticipating a new episode? Continue reading

Using Social Media to Build a Class on Social Media

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By Catherine Rawn

Over the next year I’ll be developing a course called the Psychology of Social Media, which I will teach as Psyc 325 in January 2016 at UBC. This course is currently listed as a developmental course, but we will emphasize themes of social and personality psychology (which relate to identity and personality development). I’m excited to be developing this new, rich course, and have already begun brainstorming. Continue reading

Participate in a Peer Learning & Peer Assessment study

PeerassesswbGreat news! Professors Peter Graf and Catherine Rawn have received UBC funding towards their project ‘Fostering Peer Learning & Assessment Skill’. This project will create and evaluate the tools and support materials needed for including a pedagogically valid and reliable peer assessment component in the Psych 101 & 102 classes. Continue reading