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Behavioral Science

Behavioral Science, Men's Health, Patient Care, Public Health, Stanford News

How can we get men to take better care of themselves?

How can we get men to take better care of themselves?

7206160814_dca6203a04_zFirst, I tried asking. Sprinkling little reminders, jokingly throughout the day. Then I started lecturing. Now, more than a month into my get-my-husband-to-the-dentist campaign, I’ve moved on to heckling, grilling, guilt-tripping and bargaining. I’m not too proud to beg.

I’ll bet my efforts sound familiar to men’s health expert Donnovan Somera Yisrael, MA. He’s a wellness educator at Stanford’s Vaden Health Center and he manages sexual and emotional health programs, often focusing on preventing or curbing risky behavior. And not going to the dentist, when you have an obvious tooth problem, counts as risky in my book.

Yisrael recently sat down for a Q&A with BeWell@Stanford to discuss his work with men. And his first sentence solidly supports my case: “I believe that the phenomenon of men neglecting their health generally as compared with women has been solidly established.” Uh, huh! And he has a few ideas about why that is:

Over the years, as I’ve dug deeper into “why people do risky things,” it has become evident that culture (broadly defined) is a huge factor in these risky behaviors, and in turn gender roles/stereotypes play powerful roles in the culture that influences our behavior.  Whether we are talking about wearing sunscreen, body image/eating disorders, alcohol/drug abuse or sexual/relationship violence, gender “rules” play a major role.

I’m up against a tough foe and eager for tips. The BeWell interviewer read my mind by asking how we can encourage the men in our lives to take better care of themselves. Yisrael’s response:

Men need to be persuaded and educated that in order to best maintain health, they must find a healthy way of asking for help. They must pursue health maintenance and self-care without concern that doing so means they are weak or not “real men.”

We must work to challenge what it means to be a guy, boy, man, father, etc. in 2015 and beyond. This issue is dealt with so brilliantly in the film The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. I recommend it to everyone.

And, in the case of the dentist, I’ll keep cajoling and perhaps add a bit of gender messaging to my arsenal: Manly men visit the dentist regularly.

Previously: To live longer, men need to embrace their femininity, new research suggests, Sex matters: Why we shouldn’t conduct basic research without taking it into account and Examining how fathers’ postpartum depression affects toddlers 
Image by Christoph Weigel via Marcel Douwe Dekker


Behavioral Science, Nutrition, Research, Women's Health

Adventurous eaters more likely to be healthy, new study shows

Adventurous eaters more likely to be healthy, new study shows

9044506418_142bb67dcc_zAre you willing to sample chocolate-covered silkworm pupae? What about blood sausage or, for the vegetarians among us, some shoo-fly pie (one of my personal favorites)?

If any or all of those sound tasty, or at least worth trying, then you’re probably a food neophile, aka an adventurous eater. And for you, I’m the bearer of good news: Adventurous eaters have lower body-mass indexes and are generally more conscious about healthy eating than their less adventurous diners, according to a study published recently in Obesity.

Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Vermont recruited about 500 women and had them complete a survey on their eating habits and willingness to try new things and foods. The answers shed insight into the connections between healthy habits and adventurousness:

…Adventurous eaters were less concerned that a food was easy to prepare and about its price, but more interested in cooking as a way to connect with their heritage and more likely to have friends over for dinner. Given that cooking at home is associated with lower BMI and increased consumption of healthy foods, if adventurous eaters are comfortable with foods that were harder to prepare, and often have friends over for dinner, it may be that they prepare their own food more often than non-adventurous eaters. Furthermore, eating with others versus eating alone has been associated with decreased intake in some studies. The lower concern about price of foods exhibited by more adventurous eaters is in line with characteristics of foodies, who are much more concerned with food quality than food price. Because healthy foods are often more expensive than junk foods and require preparation, adventurous eaters may be more likely to procure and prepare these types of foods than non-adventurous eaters.

The authors go on to write that the findings “have exciting practical implications” and suggest “several strategies [that] practitioners could use to help increase adventurousness.” But they acknowledge the research has several limitations, including its lack of men and definition of “adventurousness.”

Previously:  Where is the love? A discussion of nutrition, health and repairing our relationship with food, “They might be healthier, but they’ll still be junk foods”: Expert comments on trans-fat ban and Examining how food texture impacts perceived calorie content
Photo by Smabs Sputzer

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

15415-symmetry_newsMany people grow up thinking of themselves as “not very good at math” after having struggled to learn abstract math concepts. Sometimes people hit their “math wall”— the point where math classes feel so complex that the subject becomes impossible to understand — in college, high school, or even earlier.

A team at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, led by Daniel Schwartz, PhD, might help young students avoid the math wall altogether. The researchers are using recent findings from neuroscience to explore how people learn core concepts in math and science. They recently published a study in the scientific journal Cognition and Instruction looking at how fourth-grade students learn about negative numbers and building on previous findings about our ability to process visual symmetry.

One of the new tools used in the study is described in a Stanford News article:

Students worked with a magnetic plastic strip that was numbered. To solve the problem 3 + -2, students attached three magnetized blocks to the right of zero and two blocks to the left of zero. The manipulative further included a hinge at zero, the point of integer symmetry. Students folded the two sides together, and the number of extra blocks on either side gave the answer, in this case +1. The hinge at zero helped students recruit their native abilities with symmetry, and the numbers on the little platform helped them coordinate the sense of symmetry with the symbolic digits.

The students taught with these new techniques were able to solve math problems involving negative numbers better than students taught using conventional teaching approaches; they built on the strategies they learned using the hands-on device. And:

As it turned out, students who learned to rely on symmetry didn’t simply do better than other students on the material they had just been taught. They also did better on topics that they hadn’t yet studied, such as making sense of negative fractions and solving pre-algebraic problems.

“The big difference was that the symmetry instruction enabled students to solve novel problems and to continue learning without explicit instruction,” said Schwartz.

Previously: Math and the brain: Memorization is overrated, says education expert, Building a bridge between education and neuroscience, Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds, Peering into the brain to predict kids’ responses to math tutoring and New research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain
Photo courtesy of AAALab@Stanford

Behavioral Science, In the News, Medicine and Society, Pregnancy, Public Health

Walking on sunshine: How to celebrate summer safely


Normally, I spend the Fourth of July on the shores of a Wisconsin lake, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, burning to a bright shade of pink, lighting sparklers and eating potato salad that has sat in the sun for hours. Heaps of fun, but also plenty of opportunities to fall ill.

This year, I’ve been barred from that fun trip by my oh-so-practical doc, who thinks unnecessary travel isn’t the smartest option for someone who is eight-months pregnant. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied with reading a Washington Post article, published earlier this week, about all the summer health hazards I’m avoiding by celebrating the holiday in my coastal California home.

First is athlete’s foot, a fungus that “lingers on warm, wet surfaces such as poolside pavement and the floors of locker rooms and public showers” that produces an oozing pus. Or its relative, a toenail fungus that leads to yellow, thickened nails. And I thought a big belly was a bit of bother.

There’s also coxsackie virus, known for causing hand, foot and mouth disease, which thrives in kids’ wading pools courtesy of the occasional leaky diaper. The virus usually causes blisters; in rare cases it can lead to heart failure, says Stanford pediatrics professor Bonnie Maldonado, MD. Note to self: Keep baby out of unchlorinated kiddie pools.

We’re just getting warmed up here. There’s the summertime regulars of food poisoning, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. So yeah, that potato salad, while still yummy, probably isn’t a good idea, nor is the all-afternoon exposure to 95-plus degrees.

Don’t forget swimmer’s ear, an infection of the ear canal that, according to otolaryngologist Richard Rosenfeld, MD, from New York can “really, really, really hurt and ruin a vacation.” And a walk in the woods can quickly yield a ravaging rash from poison ivy or oak.

Throw in insect-borne plagues like West Nile and Lyme disease and gee, I guess my front porch isn’t looking so bad after all.

Previously: As summer heats up, take steps to protect your skin, This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin and Stanford nutrition expert offers tips for a healthy and happy Fourth of July
Photo by Jordan Richmond

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Exposure to nature helps quash depression – so enjoy the great outdoors!

Exposure to nature helps quash depression - so enjoy the great outdoors!


Walking is good for your health. But walking somewhere natural is even better, according to a new Stanford-led study.

Study participants who walked in a natural area for 90 minutes showed less activity in a brain region associated with depression than those who walked through a city or other urban area, a Stanford News story states. From the piece:

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.”

Even further, the research supports — but does not prove — a link between urbanization and growing rates of mental illness, said co-author James Gross, PhD, a professor of psychology.

The researchers had one group of participants walk in a grassland with oak trees and shrubs. The other group walked along a traffic-clogged four-lane road. They then measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had the participants answer a series of questions. The results showed that:

Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.

Evidence that supports the knowledge you’ve had since grade school: The outdoors really can make you feel better.

Previously: To get your creative juices flowing, start movingA look at the effects of city living on mental health and Out-of-office autoreply: Reaping the benefits of nature
Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Behavioral Science, Global Health, In the News, Public Health, Research, Sleep, Technology

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Radium_Dial_UVGrowing up, my engineer father always told me to move my flowery glow-in-the-dark clock farther from my bedside. “You’re nuts, Dad,” I would respond, equating his concern with his conviction that he was dropped off by aliens in the New Mexican desert in 1947.

But now it turns out he may have had a point (although I’m still quite sure he came from a hospital in Pennsylvania, not a spaceship).

A new study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms has shown that access to artificial light at night has shortened the amount of time we sleep each night. A recent University of Washington release describes the study:

The researchers compared two traditionally hunter-gatherer communities (in Argentina) that have almost identical ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds, but differ in one key aspect – access to electricity…

In their usual daily routines, the community with electricity slept about an hour less than their counterparts with no electricity. These shorter nights were mostly due to people who had the option to turn on lights and go to bed later, the researchers found. Both communities slept longer in the winter and for fewer hours in the summer.

This is the first study to examine differences in communities, rather than relying on artifically manipulating light in a laboratory.

“In a way, this study presents a proxy of what happened to humanity as we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and eventually to our industrialized society,” said lead author Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington biology professor. “All the effects we found are probably an underestimation of what we would see in highly industrialized societies where our access to electricity has tremendously disrupted our sleep.”

So douse those lights, turn off the TV, push back your glowing clock, and embrace the dark — with a nice, long snooze.

Previously: New recommendation: Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each nightMobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Can adjusting your mobile device’s brightness help promote better sleep?
Via Medical News Today
Photo by Arma95

Behavioral Science, Events, Mental Health, Research, Videos

Stanford bioengineer uses his experience in Iraq to improve research of TBI and PTSD

Stanford bioengineer uses his experience in Iraq to improve research of TBI and PTSD

777423808In 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order calling for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. Third-year doctoral student Russell Toll is one of many who is doing research in these areas, and he brings a unique perspective to his work: He’s both a bioengineer and an Army combat veteran.

In 2006, Toll was in charge of a combined tank and infantry platoon stationed in the Diyala River Valley, about an hour northeast from Baghdad, Iraq.

His unit deployed with 14 tanks; they came back with four. Within 15 months, 28 men in his batallion were killed and 132 were severely wounded. A third of his men earned the Purple Heart and his unit — the 1-12 CAV in the 1st Cavalry Division — earned the Valorous Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism.

Now, Toll is working with his graduate advisor, Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to identify biomarkers associated with TBI and PTSD. Toll and Etkin will discuss their work at the West Coast preview of the film “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” next Saturday, June 20, at Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium.

Recently, I spoke with Toll to learn more about his experience in Iraq and his research.

How did your experience in Iraq inform your understanding of PTSD?

As a platoon leader, all of your thoughts and efforts are focused on keeping your unit safe and getting them home. Only after you get home and decompress do you realize how much [weight] you were carrying.

This is a common experience for many soldiers and people that have lived through a traumatic experience.

At what point in your military career did you become interested in bioengineering and research on TBI and PTSD?

The pivotal point was in 2009 when I visited Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] to check in on my men. The care they received at the center was excellent, but some of the equipment and technology that was being used to diagnose and treat them seemed like it hadn’t changed since Vietnam.

When I returned to my hotel room at night, I found myself drawing up ways we could address this problem on the backs of napkins. I have a bachelors degree in systems engineering from West Point, and I decided to apply these skills as a graduate student in bioengineering.

What was it like to come to Stanford after spending 15 months in Iraq?

It was a stark transition from the Army to Stanford; I felt like I had just climbed off the tank and stepped straight into systems biology. It sounds funny, but in a way I was able to apply my military training to my graduate studies: I developed cooperative relationships with the “indigenous experts” so I could get help from my classmates. As evidenced by my friends, I’m good at surrounding myself with excellent people. Their tutoring, coaching and friendship — especially that of Shrivats Iyer — was a major reason I was able to make it this far.

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Behavioral Science, Ethics, Events, Medicine and Society, Mental Health

Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?

Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?

5846841745_f2f620c5d3Anger isn’t good for your health. It spikes your heart rate, exacerbating heart conditions and anxiety. It leaves an ugly residue, a sensation of unease and aggression and it can lead to violence against others or oneself.

But in the west, we have an uneasy relationship with this powerful emotion, said Owen Flanagan, PhD, co-director of the Center of Comparative Philosophy at Duke University and speaker at the annual Meng-Wu lecture hosted by the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education last week.

In the United States and Europe, some anger is considered justified, even necessary for healing after one is wronged, Flanagan said. It’s natural, just a part of our constitution. An appropriate amount of anger is expected, a sign that you care. Flipping out because your barrista took too long making your latte? Probably not okay. But yelling at a driver who rear-ended you while texting? Certainly.

Not in Asia, Flanagan said. There, in accordance with Buddhist traditions, anger is right up there with hatred as the worst emotion, something that should be eliminated as soon as it arises.

Flanagan said he and other academic colleagues posed a question to the Dalai Llama several years ago: If you find yourself in a public place with a very bad person, like Hitler, before the atrocities have started, what should you do? Westerners would say anger was AOK, as was perhaps even murder. After conferring with his colleagues, the Dalai Llama said yes, murdering Hitler would be justified to prevent a very bad karmic causal chain. But anger? Absolutely not.

One could argue that even Hitler’s behavior was a byproduct of his genes, his upbringing, the surrounding society, Flanagan told the audience.

Flanagan said he still hasn’t figured out his own views toward anger. “Anger is a destructive emotion, but it might be a necessary emotion. I’m still not sure about that.”

But in the U.S., we don’t always live in accordance with our own traditions, Flanagan said. “We give ourselves sloppy permissions all over the place to be very angry people. That’s something that’s just not good.”

To counter anger, Flanagan offers several tips, drawn from both western and eastern traditions. First, embrace an emotion that is incompatible with anger, such as gratitude. Or reflect on your own insignificance and the transitory nature of the harm: This too will pass. “Astronomy is a good antidote to taking yourself too seriously,” Flanagan said.

In a longer term, Seneca suggests that it helps to “live among people who teach the children that anger is always bad.”

But is it even possible to completely eliminate anger? Some argue no, even babies express a form of frustration or discontent that could be a sign of inner anger. Or, we could all be conditioned by society, learning to be angry as soon as we’re born.

Previously: Bright lights breed stronger emotions, study finds, Is it possible to control one’s emotions? and Study suggests emotions may trump mind in matters of self-control while meditating
Photo by katmary

Behavioral Science, Imaging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity – and to stifling it

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity - and to stifling it

EinsteinHow often does the accountant turn out to be the life of the party? How often do the Nike sneakers, rather than the Armani suits, call the shots? Yet that may be the case when it comes to – of all things! – creativity.

As I wrote in this news release about an imaging study just published in Scientific Reports:

[Stanford scientists] have found a surprising link between creative problem-solving and heightened activity in the cerebellum, a structure located in the back of the brain and more typically thought of as the body’s movement-coordination center… The cerebellum, traditionally viewed as the brain’s practice-makes-perfect, movement-control center, hasn’t been previously recognized as critical to creativity.

That’s putting it mildly. And that’s not the only bizarre outcome of the study, whose findings also suggest that shifting the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers into higher gear impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.

When I interviewed neuroscientist Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s senior author, about the research, he told me:

We found that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers – the parts of the brain that enable you to plan, organize and manage your activities – is negatively associated with creative task performance.

Creativity is one of the most valuable human attributes, as well as one of the hardest to measure. Tying it to activity in particular brain structures in a living, thinking human brain is a brainteaser in itself.

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Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Obesity, Public Health, Sleep

How insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain

How insufficient sleep can lead to weight gain


I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who hates sleep and can’t wait to get less of it. Yet, even though most people want more sleep and know it’s important for their health, few people get as much shut-eye as they need. If you’re one of the many who needs a bit more motivation to get to bed earlier, a recent BeWell@Stanford article on how sleep can affect your weight may do the trick.

In the Q&A, sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, explains why and how insufficient sleep can increase your risk of weight gain:

It is very clear that if you’re not sleeping enough, you’re putting yourself at risk for increasing your weight.  If you sleep less than six hours a night, you’re likely to have a higher BMI (body mass index). Longitudinal data — and the evidence is quite strong — shows that if you sleep more over time, you’ll lower your BMI, which correlates with weight reduction.

In the first centuries of human life on earth, if humans weren’t sleeping they were probably looking for food or fleeing a predator. Not sleeping enough was a sign that we were in danger or that we were under stress. When we are sleep deprived, we feel hungry. Data indicates that if you sleep less, you eat more, and it disrupts your hormones. This problem is magnified in today’s world because food is too available!

Mignot also discusses the top reasons why people sleep so little, the importance of naps, and how being sleep-deprived skews our perception of doing and performing well. “[W]e have to make sure we don’t burn the candle at both ends, Mignot said. “Sleeping brings creativity, productivity and the ability to perform at a higher level.”

The piece is a quick, and informative, read.

Previously: Exploring the history and study of sleep with Stanford’s William Dement“Father of Sleep Medicine” talks with CNN about what happens when we don’t sleep wellStanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation, Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family and More evidence linking sleep deprivation and obesity
Photo by Goodiez

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