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Behavioral Science

Addiction, Behavioral Science, In the News, Mental Health, Research

Knitting as ritual – with potential health benefits?

Knitting as ritual - with potential health benefits?

knittingDuring finals, one of my college roommates would ritualistically sit in silence and knit an entire hat before she could begin studying. The steady, repetitive action calmed her down and cleared her mind. (Before less stressful exams, she baked.)

I thought of her when coming across a recent post on The Checkup that points to evidence, including previous research in seniors with mild cognitive impairment, that the health benefits experienced by people who engage in activities such as knitting and crocheting might be more than anecdotal. More from the piece:

In one study, 38 women hospitalized for anorexia were given a questionnaire about their psychological state after being taught to knit.

After an average of one hour and 20 minutes of knitting a day for an average of three weeks, 74 percent of them reported less fear and preoccupation with their eating disorder, the same percentage reported that knitting had a calming effect, and just over half said knitting gave them a sense of pride, satisfaction and accomplishment.

The rhythmic movements of knitting offer many of the same kinds of benefits as meditation, says Carrie Barron, [MD,] an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York and co-author of the book “The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands.” In addition, she says, seeing a project take shape provides a deep sense of satisfaction.

That might have been why Pee-wee Herman found the unsolved mystery of his stolen bike so unnerving: “It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting…” he said in the 1985 film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Previously: Image of the Week: Personalized brain activity scarves, Image of the Week: aKNITomy, Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders and Ommmmm… Mindfulness therapy appears to help prevent depression relapse
Photo by Merete Veian

Autism, Behavioral Science, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Home videos could help diagnose autism, says new Stanford study

Home videos could help diagnose autism, says new Stanford study

Autism is more complex to diagnose than many other childhood conditions. There’s no physical sign or lab test; rather, making the diagnosis requires careful observation for clues such as poor language and social skills or repetitive behaviors. Standard diagnostic tests take several hours of a professional’s time, and families may wait months to see someone who can assess their child.

But new research from Stanford and Harvard Medical School suggests that faster diagnoses might become possible. The research team, whose findings appear today in PLOS ONE, tested whether short home videos could be harnessed to speed the process. Using a scoring system that was pared down from the “gold standard” diagnostic test, they assessed kids’ behavior in 100 short videos pulled from YouTube. About half of the videos showed children with autism; the rest did not. The scoring system classified 97 percent of the videos accurately.

The system is unlikely to replace traditional diagnostic methods, but could help relieve the diagnostic bottleneck, study author Dennis Wall, PhD, explained in our press release:

“For instance, we could use this system for clinical triage, as a way to channel traffic so that children can get the kind of attention they need as early as possible,” Wall said. Children who clearly have autism might be diagnosed primarily with videos and quickly started on therapy, freeing clinicians to spend more time evaluating children whose diagnosis is less clear-cut.

Home videos also provide information that is otherwise unavailable to those making the diagnosis, Wall said:

Another potential advantage of using video for diagnosis is that young children often behave differently in a doctor’s office than at home.

“Clinical settings are often stark, artificial and can elicit behaviors that are abnormal,” Wall said. “The odds are stacked against the diagnostic professional because the child is in an unknown environment with strangers.”

The researchers plan to explore whether the same method could also be used for making other behavior-based diagnoses, such as detecting attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or adult-onset neurologic conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Previously: Using Kinect cameras to automate autism diagnosis, Director of Stanford Autism Center responds to your questions on research and treatment and New imaging analysis reveals distinct features of the autistic brain

Behavioral Science, Ethics, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News

Breaking down happiness into measurable goals

Breaking down happiness into measurable goals

sunflowersSo you want to be happy. Can you be more specific? A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that concrete, rather than abstract, goals for happiness tend to be more successful. Jennifer Aaker, PhD, Stanford social psychologist and marketing professor, and colleagues performed six field and laboratory experiments and found that participants who performed specific acts of kindness – such as recycling or making someone smile – reported greater happiness than participants whose prosocial goals were less precise – such as helping the environment or people more broadly.

From a Stanford News article:

The reason is that when you pursue concretely framed goals, your expectations of success are more likely to be met in reality. On the other hand, broad and abstract goals may bring about happiness’ dark side – unrealistic expectations.

Acting directly and specifically in service to others brings greater happiness to the giver, the study found. The piece continues:

For example, an experiment involving bone marrow transplants focused on the whether giving those who need bone marrow transplants “greater hope” – the abstract goal – or giving those who need bone marrow transplants a “better chance of finding a donor” – the concrete goal – made a giver more happy.

The answer: Helping someone find a donor resulted in more happiness for the giver. This, the researchers wrote, was driven by givers’ perceptions that their actual acts better met their expectations of accomplishing their goal of helping another person.

Previously: Study shows happiness and meaning in life may be different goalsAre you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeing and Stanford faculty and students launch social media campaign to expand bone marrow donor registry
Photo by Iryna Yeroshko

Behavioral Science, Genetics, In the News, Research

Can procrastination and impulsivity be inherited?

procrastination_040814Do you always finish items on your to-do list in a timely fashion, or do you wait until the last minute? New research shows that the tendency to defer tasks could be inherited, and that the traits of procrastination and impulsivity could be genetically linked.

In the study (subscription required), researchers at University of Colorado Boulder asked 181 identical-twin pairs and 166 fraternal-twin pairs to complete surveys designed to measure individuals’ propensity to act impulsively or procrastinate, as well as their aptitude to set and maintain goals. Pysch Central reports:

They found that procrastination is indeed heritable, just like impulsivity. Not only that, there seems to be a complete genetic overlap between procrastination and impulsivity — that is, there are no genetic influences that are unique to either trait alone.

That finding suggests that, genetically speaking, procrastination is an evolutionary byproduct of impulsivity — one that likely manifests itself more in the modern world than in the world of our ancestors.

In addition, the link between procrastination and impulsivity also overlapped genetically with the ability to manage goals. This finding supports the idea that delaying, making rash decisions, and failing to achieve goals all stem from a shared genetic foundation.

Researchers hope that better understanding the underpinnings of procrastination will be useful in determining how these two traits relate to higher cognitive abilities.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals, The science of willpower and How your perceptions about willpower can affect behavior, goal achievement
Photo by EvelynGiggles

Behavioral Science, Nutrition, Obesity, Research, Women's Health

Obesity and smoking together may decrease taste of fat and sweet but increase consumption

puddingA study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Philadelphia’s Monell Center has found that obese women who smoke cigarettes may have reduced sensitivity to the tastes of sweetness and fat in food and may be more likely to eat more calories.

Researchers engaged 47 female participants ages 21 to 41, grouped as follows: obese smokers, obese nonsmokers, normal-weight smokers, and normal-weight nonsmokers. All of the participants tasted vanilla puddings and were asked to rate the sweetness and creaminess of each one. The researchers found that the women who were obese and smokers rated less creaminess and sweetness in the puddings than the other three groups did.

From a release:

[Study author Yanina Pepino, PhD,] cautioned that the study only identified associations between smoking and taste rather than definitive reasons why obese smokers were less likely to detect fat and sweetness. But the findings imply that the ability to perceive fat and sweetness — and to derive pleasure from food — is compromised in female smokers who are obese, which could contribute to the consumption of more calories.

“Obese people often crave high-fat foods,” she said. “Our findings suggest that having this intense craving but not perceiving fat and sweetness in food may lead these women to eat more. Since smoking and obesity are risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, the additional burden of craving more fats and sugars, while not fully tasting them, could be detrimental to health.”

The results were published in the journal Obesity.

Previously: Obesity is a disease – so now what?How eating motivated by pleasure affects the brain’s reward system and may fuel obesity and The brain’s control tower for pleasure
Photo by dutchfulthinking.blogspot.com

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Public Safety, Stanford News

Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets

GGBridgeOver on the Huffington Post, Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, writes about a tragic phenomenon in the Bay Area: the popularity of suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. He makes a case to put public money toward installing nets and other suicide-prevention services there and in other suicide “hotspots.”

From the post:

Professor Richard Seiden [PhD] painstakingly tracked down death records for the 515 individuals who had been prevented by police from jumping off the bridge from 1937 to 1971. Remarkably, only 6 percent had committed suicide. Even if every individual who died in what was believed to be an accident were assumed to have intentionally caused their own deaths, the proportion of suicides rose only to 10 percent. In other words, 90 percent or more of people stopped from committing suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge lived out the full natural extent of their lives.

Previously: Full-length video available for Stanford’s Health Policy Forum on serious mental illnessLucile Packard Children’s Hospital partners with high schools on student mental health programs and ECT for depression – not so shocking
Photo by image_monger

Behavioral Science, Evolution, Medicine and Society, Ophthalmology, Research

Looks of fear and disgust help us to see threats, study shows

Looks of fear and disgust help us to see threats, study shows

disgustedNext time someone throws you a look, don’t take it personally: In a study of fear and disgust (the facial expressions), researchers have shown how those reactions to threat have helped us survive. Scientists studied the effects of eyes widening in fear, admitting more light and broading a participant’s field of vision, or narrowing in disgust, focusing more precisely on an object. As two-dozen undergraduate volunteers mimicked each emotion, scientists tracked their vision using using standard eye-exam equipment.

From a recent Los Angeles Times article:

Although some scientists have proposed that emotional expressions are intended primarily to communicate information, study authors argued that expressions of fear and disgust seem to perform different visual functions.

“Eye widening may improve detection and localization of a potential threat that requires enhanced vigilance, which would be consistent with the hypothesized function of fear,” wrote senior author Adam Anderson, [PhD,] a professor of human development at Cornell University. (The research was conducted by Anderson and his colleagues at the University of Toronto.)

“Conversely, eye narrowing may improve perceptual discrimination to discern different kinds of threats, such as disease vectors and contaminated foods, avoidance of which is a hypothesized function of disgust,” Anderson and his colleagues wrote.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

Previously: Botox: frozen face = chilled emotional response? and Compassion, Darwin, facial expressions, the Dalai Lama – and counterterrorism?
Photo by Rachael Towne

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Mental Health, Nutrition

Learning tools for mindful eating

Learning tools for mindful eating

applecakeWhat’s the ideal diet for you? Ask your body. Practicing mindful eating involves subtle work that may be easier said than done. In a BeWell Q&A, wellness advisor Patty McLucas describes a class she teaches on the topic, leading students to quiet social cues and impulses that drive a person to eat for reasons other than hunger.

From the piece:

So many factors are at play in our culture here in Silicon Valley — and in the Western world — that result in a disconnect between the body’s natural sensation of hunger and the response to feed ourselves well. In other words, food has become disconnected from its primary function, which is to fuel our bodies.

How can we reconnect our eating with our hunger?

Ultimately, the only method that works over the long term is re-sensitizing our instrument — that is, our bodies — to perceive true hunger and fullness. And we do this through learning the practice of mindfulness. 

We all know that babies cry when hungry and absolutely refuse food when full. If no longer hungry, a baby won’t eat even one extra mouthful — not even one bite of Aunt Hildegard’s prizewinning apple cake! So the good news is that we are all born with this capacity; however, it gets obscured by our upbringing and other conditioned habits. Mindfulness of the body helps us see that.

Previously: Mindful eating tips for the desk-boundSix mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress and How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health
Photo by joyosity

Behavioral Science, Pediatrics, Research

Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds

Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds

mathAs a member of a minority group characterized by fluency in classical ballet pantomime, studies of gesture pique my interest. So I was delighted to come across research from the University of Chicago finding that children who used specific abstract hand movements during a math lesson were able to absorb the class lessons deeply and generalize the concepts they had learned.

Published in Psychological Science, the study (subscription required) compared three learning methods, each requiring a different level of physical interaction in solving a math problem, in 90 third-graders. As described in a university release:

In one group, children picked up magnetic number tiles and put them in the proper place in the formula. For example, for the problem 4 + 2 + 6 = ___ + 6, they picked up the 4 and 2 and placed them on a magnetic whiteboard. Another group mimed that action without actually touching the tiles, and a third group was taught to use abstract gestures with their hands to solve the equations. In the abstract gesture group, children were taught to produce a V-point gesture with their fingers under two of the numbers, metaphorically grouping them, followed by pointing a finger at the blank in the equation.

The children were tested before and after solving each problem in the lesson, including problems that required children to generalize beyond what they had learned in grouping the numbers. For example, they were given problems that were similar to the original one, but had different numbers on both sides of the equation.

Children in all three groups learned the problems they had been taught during the lesson. But only children who gestured during the lesson were successful on the generalization problems.

The study’s lead author, Miriam Novack, a PhD student in psychology, said, “We found that acting gave children a relatively shallow understanding of a novel math concept, whereas gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning.”

Previously: Peering into the brain to predict kids’ responses to math tutoringNew research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain and We’ve got your number: Exact spot in brain where numeral recognition takes place revealed
Photo by woodleywonderworks

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News

Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships

Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships

forgiveA recent piece from Stanford’s BeWell program focuses on an aspect of health you don’t address at the gym, cafeteria or doctor’s office, but instead with loved ones. In a Q&A, Fred Luskin, PhD, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, explains why he believes practicing forgiveness from the start of a partnership is key to finding success in it for the long term.

From the Q&A:

What do we all need to better understand as we strive to improve our relationships?

Whether you are at the beginning of your relationship, the middle, or struggling at the end, you will need to realize that your partner is a flawed human being with difficult traits, and, if you want to be successful in love you need to learn how to forgive those flaws. Practicing forgiveness as early as possible will give you and your partner the best chance to make your relationship a lasting and healthy one.

According to surprising research, couples who do not acknowledge each others’ flaws at the very beginning of their relationship have a hard time staying together. We’ve all met the new couples who constantly gush about how perfect their partner is, and how lucky they are to have found each other. The positive and loving feelings are healthy and good, as long as you are aware and accept that your partner will have traits that can drive you crazy (when the endorphin high starts to wear off, that is). Couples who are able to see each other clearly and realistically from the beginning end up with a stronger love that stands the test of time.

Luskin teaches workshops through Stanford’s BeWell and HIP programs.

Previously: A conversation with Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin on forgiveness and its health benefitsTeaching children the importance of forgivenessStanford psychologist Fred Luskin taking questions on the health benefits of forgiving and Stanford class teaches students how to live a happier, healthier life
Photo by Tela Chhe

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