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Changing your biology (through psychology)

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As someone who has pushed herself to change in a lot of ways psychologically, particularly in regards to food, but also in terms of my personality and temper, I strongly believe that psychology and behavior can reshape biology. It takes time, but I think the bodies various systems and cells adapt to changes through time. Changes that are initially difficult become close to effortless as you push your body to endure them longer. The extent to which you suffer as a result of such changes is determined by how radical they are as the leap between who you were biologically at the start and who you will be is a much larger one.

The idea that biology follows psychology and behavior is certainly not unknown. We know that people who meditate can lower their resting heart rate and improve their blood pressure. We also know that exercise improves the function of many bodily systems for the better. However, we can see and realize how behavior, particularly in regards to what we ingest, can alter biology quite profoundly when we consider drug use and abuse.

One of the reasons that many heroin or opiate users find it difficult to stop is that as they ingest or inject chemicals into their bodies to release endorphin-like responses their brain reduces the production of those chemicals in response. In essence, the more you give the body something, the more it adjusts by giving you less of whatever it stimulates. When you stop giving it what it has grown accustomed to, it takes awhile to adjust your biochemistry to compensate, and you suffer during the adjustment period.

Recently, I read a study which indicates that a similar effect may occur with people who habitually overeat. That is, the very act of overeating may cause your brain to react less pleasurably to food, so you need to eat more and more to achieve the same levels of pleasure from food. In turn, this will cause you to want to eat even more. In essence, abusing food, like abusing drugs, will lead to the desire for more and more.

This study was one that rang true to me because I have discovered that mindful eating, that is eating slowly, paying attention to the texture, smell, and taste of every bite, has changed my need for more food. Coupled with portion control, I have found that I no longer desire large quantities of any food in order to feel satisfied. This change took about 8 or so months to reach a state of relative completion in which I did not desire more than a small quantity of pleasurable foods to be satisfied, but it is quite real. It isn’t a psychological trick. It is a biological reality.

This study is compelling in what it indicates, not only in terms of overeating, but in all aspects of our lives. One possible indication is that we need to place a high value on novelty in order to extract the most pleasure from experiences. Another is that what feels like immutable nature can be retrained with effort. If you are a person who is easily upset, it could be that practicing psychological techniques each time you are upset to shorten the duration and diminish the intensity of your negative emotional response will eventually change your reaction. Conversely, being angry, aggressive, or combative on a regular basis may actually find you needing to be so more and more so in order to release the chemicals that are released when such behaviors are engaged in. In particular, adrenaline is released when angry. Frequent anger may tamp down adrenaline response (which brings about a sense of power and strength) and one may want to be more aggressive and hostile more often to get that same feeling on a regular basis.

The implications of this study, as well as what we know about the effect of various other behaviors on our neurochemistry, are encouraging. We can be better, healthier and less conflicted people, but we have to push long enough and steadily enough for our bodies to make the adjustments. If we make those changes consistently over a long enough period of time, eventually, it will get easier, not only psychologically, but biologically.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 2, 2010 at 6:21 am

The Unexplainable

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During a discussion with a work-related acquaintance, I posed a question about believing in ghosts. I offered her the following hypothetical: If there was a house in which a hundred different people stayed and each claimed they saw a ghost in the dining room, would she believe a ghost actually appeared? She said she would not. I asked her then if a thousand people said they saw it, would she  believe it, and again, she said she wouldn’t believe it. In fact, when it comes to ghosts, the only way she would believe they existed would be if she saw one herself.

I believe that her skepticism was interesting in light of the fact that she does believe the results of scientific studies, often conducted by a handful of people that she doesn’t know anything about. It illustrates how hard it is for us to believe in things which have been classified as not being real by our cultures, even when there may be ample evidence to support the existence of such things.

I’m not offering this scenario up to say “ghosts exist”. I actually think that the question and its answer are irrelevant. I’ve never seen a ghost and expect that I never will. Frankly, I believe that they are what I’d term a “perceptual event” which some are capable of having and others are not, but that they are neither “real” nor “imagined” in the commonly understood sense of those words. The same goes with what are seen as “aliens”. Such perceptual events are interpreted differently based on the person and the culture, but they are not hallucinations so much as mental “translations” of some stimuli which a small minority can perceive under certain unknown conditions. This is merely my theory though, and I don’t expect others to agree with it as it is unprovable.

In my previous post, I discussed the role of science as proving the explainable. In this post, I want to talk about the unexplainable and the role that religion and spiritual beliefs play in that. It is my opinion that the role of religion has always been a way to explain broad patterns of experience or common thought patterns which cannot be proven or logically validated, but seem to come together in a manner in which humans find meaning.

Before I continue, I must labor to make a point and that is that I am not a Christian nor do I subscribe to a particular religion or follow any dogmas. I don’t believe in “God” (or “gods”) as conceptualized by most people, nor am I an atheist. I was raised a Christian, but abandoned those beliefs at the age of 15 in a moment of clarity while sitting in a junior high school history class. Yes, I remember the exact moment, and how it felt and what I was thinking. However, I do not reject religion as something of value nor do I believe any religion is “wrong” or a fanciful way of dealing with fear of death as many people believe. In fact, I think if you want to talk about fear of dying, religion is a far scarier path than atheism on that particular topic. With atheism, you face oblivion which offers no pain or pleasure. With religion, you live in fear everyday of making incorrect choices and you face the prospect of eternal torment, toil, or suffering. Which is a scarier belief to follow when it comes to dying?

I want to make it clear that I have no religious agenda to validate. I don’t think religions are “wrong” or “right” but merely different ways of framing and conceptualizing that which is unexplainable in accord with ones culture or upbringing. I think that whatever greater truth there is, if indeed there is one, is too vast and hard to understand for any one way of addressing it to suffice. If there is an explanation, we all get to see but glimpses of it through our respective spiritual lenses. We’re all just a tiny bit right, and lack the perspective or mental capacity to be more than that in my estimation. That is an opinion that everyone is free to disagree with because my perspective is certainly no more “correct” than any other on these sorts of issues.

Getting back to the point though, I believe that the role of religion for human beings, is to explain and attempt to control the unexplainable. When bad weather destroyed crops and we didn’t understand why such bad things happened, we created gods who we angered but could placate in order to control the next season’s harvest. Comfort could be derived from such rituals, even when results were not necessarily what we had hoped for. Unfortunately, then, as now, the rituals that comforted the devoted masses often harmed the unlucky few. Then, lives were sacrificed. Now, we see people harassing, murdering, and judging others who do not believe as they do.

While religion as a force, particularly when fundamentalists are part of the equation, can be highly destructive, it can also serve a productive and interesting purpose. Puzzling out the nature of the unexplainable is part of our nature as thinking beings. Answers to larger questions are needed, and sometimes whether or not the answers are “right” is less important than whether they are helpful psychologically. As long as those answers remain personal, and are only shared amongst like-minded people and not inflicted on those who are of a different mind, there is absolutely no harm and certainly there is some benefit in using spiritual perspectives to explain the unexplainable.

The main and undeniable benefit is that it provides people with comfort. The secondary and less recognized one is that there is sometimes wisdom and information hidden in such theories and even in dogma. The story of Eden, for instance, may be traceable to a transition from a comfortable hunter-gatherer existence in a certain part of the middle East to a transition to an agrarian life when the resources of that area were destroyed by changes in weather patterns or depleted. The questions and stories of religion often create a stepping off point for questions of science and psychology. They reflect the answers we need and want, and propel us forward in seeking them. They make us reach for the unreachable, and find unexpected answers along the way.

Unfortunately, the entire science and religion problem occurs when one side decides that it should perform both of the major roles. Science starts to operate to explain the unexplainable such as the question of whether or not God exists. Religion counters and tries to explain the absolutely explainable in dogmatic terms. As long as both play in their own sandbox, all can be well and harmonious. Proponents of each side, however, are not content to merely fulfill their respective roles, but act to dominate entirely in fits of insecurity over their value in society. Religious people fear being marginalized and dislike being ridiculed by scientific assertions and explanations and scientific people fear that willful ignorance may become the order of the day, and there’s a big fight in the sandbox.

I advocate that people respect the limits of both sides of the issue. Science shouldn’t seek to prove that which is patently unprovable, like whether “God”, an ambiguous and varying concept across cultures and faiths, exists. And, I also believe the answer to the question is irrelevant because the effect of the concept of “God” is more important than its actual existence. Science should never seek to explain something so ill-defined and ambiguous and should stop wasting time telling religious people that everything they know is wrong. It’s not science’s job to stick its tongue out at religious beliefs and blow them the big raspberry. Religious people should cease to rewrite observable reality according to their particular dogma. Doing so not only makes them appear irrational, but insecure about the validity of their particular faith. It’s not the job of religion to shoehorn scientific discovery into fictions that reshape data into a more comfortable dogmatic framework. Anything other that acting with respect for the limits of the role each side should play is just the result of respective egos kicking sand at each other, and is a waste of time and energy.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 24, 2010 at 11:23 pm

The Explainable

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Lately, I’ve been having conversations with various work associates about the nature of religion. Before you think it’s time to back away slowly, I’d like to assert that I am not going to bash religion, nor am I going to support it. My views on this topic are broad-minded and inclusive of science and all religions. I have a personal sense of such things, but it is deep, complex, and will be beside the point of this post. This post (and a “part 2” to follow) isn’t about what is “correct” or debating the point from one side or another, but rather about how sides being taken is unproductive and unnecessarily antagonistic and adversarial.

The question that has been discussed was about whether science has become the new religion. I know this is a sensitive topic for people who are atheists and who believe science is the only way to convince ourselves of what is actually real. The fact that it is something which gets scientific hackles up only indicates all the more that science might be regarded in a similar fashion as religion among scientific sorts. It points to the idea that “religious” is seen as a pejorative descriptor and that one elevates oneself by aligning ones position with pure science and views “religion” as something negative.

At any rate, the notion that science has become the new religion is not based on trying to undermine the validity of science, but rather based on the idea that many people have faith in whatever researchers say. They accept that if researchers say it is so because they did their measurements, calculations, and experiments, that it must be “true” or “real”.

Of course, we all know by now that the wind keeps blowing in opposite directions in regards to the results of research. First we are told that drinking alcohol is bad for you, then we’re told it is good in moderate amounts. We’re told that Calcium supplements are helpful in stopping the effects of loss of bone density and later told that, “oops”, they don’t really help unless you also have Vitamin D. The bottom line about science is that it has to be seen as fallible, and that it should be questioned, but many people have the idea that science measures “truth” and reflects “reality” accurately. It can. It might. But, it doesn’t always (or “often” depending on the subject) reflect reality as much as the hopes and theories of the researchers who conduct those studies and unconsciously (or consciously) bend the results to their viewpoint.

Moving on though, I’m not here to bash science as I am a strong advocate of science. I’m simply not an unabashed fan-girl. I view scientific results as “the best we can do for now” and take the results with appropriate grains of salt. Science plays an incredibly important role for human beings, and that is that it does a good job of attempting to explain anything which is explainable. What I mean by that seemingly non-sensical statement is that it measures things that are measurable based on the advancement of instrumentation which is capable of translating things into sensory data which humans can perceive. We can’t see sound waves, but we can create sonar devices which allow us to see them.

The thing which science doesn’t do is explain the unexplainable. The tipping point for someone in embracing science as a religion comes to me when they believe that science can measure everything which is “real”. If you believe that nothing exists which science cannot measure or will not eventually be capable of measuring, then there is a good chance that science is your religion, and that your view of reality is very limited. To think that everything that exists can be measured or recorded, or that everything that exists can be translated into a form that humans can see, smell, hear, taste, or feel is a bit on the fanatical side. To believe that no information or theory is of value simply because it can’t be proven using scientific methodology and that any experience which cannot be replicated under controlled conditions didn’t really “happen” seems to me to be a very narrow view of the nature of existence, particularly given the vastness and complexity of not only the earth, but the universe.

To offer just a few examples which illustrate what I mean, I will mention that cats appear to be able  follow the earth’s magnetic fields to find their way around, and we can’t scientifically explain or “prove” what they seem to be doing, but all external observation indicates that something is there that cats can perceive which we cannot which allows them to navigate. Crows appear to be able to “teach” each other how to open milk bottles and tear apart trash bags, even when the crows are not occupying the same geographic space. We can’t explain how they communicate information seemingly over vast distances without actually squawking at each other. Science cannot measure or replicate these processes, but clearly there is something there as we can observe these animals’ actions.

Anything which smacks of telepathy, precognition, a collective unconscious, or ESP is scoffed at, but there is (at least anecdotal) evidence that such things exist. They do not cease to be a possibility because they cannot be replicated in a scientific environment. If I place two crows with milk bottles in two different labs and one crow grew in the wild and was captured opening a milk bottle and the other was raised in captivity and never saw a milk bottle, does a failure of the crow in captivity to learn to open the bottle mean that no teaching goes on in the non-experimental environment?

It has always been my feeling that science is reductionist in nature, and that is how it loses some of my faith. It tests with known conditions only and then debunks theories based on limited variables. If science believes condition A, B, and C will result in condition D and it tests with A, B, C, and D does not result, then it concludes that the relationship between A, B, C, and D cannot be proven to exist. However, what if there are conditions E, F, and G which the researchers are not aware of which must factor into A, B, and C for D to occur? Perhaps the crows only communicate however they do under certain circumstances, and a wild crow and a domesticated one in a couple of labs don’t satisfy those conditions so no teaching or learning occurs. The E, F, and G could be weather patterns, the presence of trees or power lines, or even some biological condition which occurs in wild crows that doesn’t occur in those raised in captivity. We cannot know, and science will not ask because anything which can’t be part of a controlled environment doesn’t fit the method and therefore will not be factored in, especially if such variables seem “illogical” as components of the dynamic being tested for.

The previous example is a very crude one, but it is meant to illustrate a point. There are not only flaws in scientific methods and biases at play, but there are things which simply cannot be measured by instrumentation which translates phenomena into something that humans can perceive. Some things, are simply beyond our perception no matter how sophisticated the tools that we employ. That means there are some answers that will never come to us via science. To me, that’s okay. It doesn’t invalidate the answers we get or undermine the value of science or research, but rather recognizes its limits. It’s a tool, not a way of distilling “truth”. The truth is much bigger than science can measure. To me, it is important to understand and accept that science can only explain that which can be explained with its particular methodology. Given our limits, that means there are a lot of answers science will never be able to give us.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 23, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Posted in religion, science

Interpretation Age

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A study was done identifying a gene that is rather blandly identified as 5-HTTLPR as a marker for mood disorders. In particular, it was believed that having this gene increased a person’s risk of depression and anxiety. The connection between the gene and affective problems has been long established, but recently it was pointed out that the presence of this marker was twice as high in East Asian populations but the frequency of the commonly linked mood disorders was half that in Western populations. It has been speculated that the gene does not relate to depression or other psychological disorders but may in fact be a marker for social sensitivity. Since awareness of others is an asset in group-oriented cultures and can be a deficit in cultures that focus on individualism, the presence of 5-HTTLPR has a different emotional effect depending on the cultural environment.

I’m not mentioning this because I’m fascinated by cross-cultural studies or genetic markers (though I am interested in such things). I use it as an example of how data or information can easily be misinterpreted based on bias. Scientists who studied this genetic issue interpreted its prevalence among those with mood disorders as an indication that it is a marker for a psychological problem because of their particular cultural bias. They didn’t cast their data-gathering net wide enough and offered up an  interpretation based on less than expansive data.

We live in an information age and the question that we need to ask ourselves is how well we use this information. Do we use it to understand the world or to be thoughtful, or do we simply plug in the bits and pieces that support our worldview and validate our personal pet theories? It has been said that people have begun to use information in order to support theories rather than create them. That is, they form a theory first, then collect the information that supports it rather than look at the information first and derive a theory that goes along with what that data suggests. In the aforementioned study, they most likely looked at the genetics of people with mood disorders, and saw what they had in common that people without such disorders tended to lack. This is tantamount to looking at all members of a gang, noting that they all wear white socks while businessmen wear dark socks, and concluding that all who wear white socks are members of a particular gang without noticing that they all tend to wear sneakers and most people who wear sneakers wear white socks.

In my experience, this is becoming more and more often the case as we are drowning in information. The more we have, the more we need to tune out and the more selective we are about what we accept and pay attention to. This is a rather dangerous trend as it leads to mistakes that can have serious consequences, particularly when interpretation is wrong in areas which affect our lives. On a macro level, this can be very bad and I think that we might be able to see some of the consequences of that in the low-fat, high-carb lifestyle that was advocated in the past. It may (or may not) have contributed to the increased incidence in type 2 Diabetes in populations in which such changes were widely recommended.

On a more personal level, however, I think that we are also quite prone to taking available information and misinterpreting it in line with our psychological issues and biases. Early on in my working life (around age 24), during my second job, I worked in one office alone 3 days a week and another office with other employees 2 days a week. There was a much older woman at that office who had her own room and I would walk by her desk and say nothing. One day, she called me into her office and asked me if she had done something to offend me. I was taken aback at that assertion and said that she most certainly had not done so and I didn’t know why she believed that was the case. While holding back tears, she told me that she couldn’t understand why when I walked by the open door to her office that I never offered a greeting such as “good morning” when I saw her. I felt terrible about that and I told her I was very sorry, but I was just “really busy”. The truth was that I lacked social skills because I had never worked in that sort of environment and didn’t know better about what to do or say.

In that situation, this older woman worked with me for months and built up a sense of hurt and rejection over my actions. She felt I had a grudge against her because I strode by her office without offering a greeting. Her interpretation of the available information couldn’t have been more wrong and her confrontation upset and brought both of us nearly to tears. She felt rejected based on her worldview about people who failed to greet her and what she believed it meant. I was humiliated at my lack of knowledge of office etiquette and social ineptitude, but in my view, I had been going about my day quite properly focusing on getting the job done rather than socializing. No one was “wrong” in this situation as both of us operated from our own worldview and there was no moral failing, but both interpretations of the available facts were incorrect as I neither disliked her nor was I going about my business in a socially appropriate fashion.

Beyond misinterpreting the actions of others, we often do not read ourselves very well. Why am I so sensitive? Why do I procrastinate? Why can’t I get a boyfriend? We take a personal inventory (often an inaccurate or incomplete one) and try to understand ourselves, but we infuse the interpretation with a mishmash of public psychobabble and our own ego issues. A personal interpretation which is incorrect will lead to a resulting misstep. If you try and try and fail, maybe it’s because you aren’t following the correct course of action because you are misinterpreting why you act as you do. You may believe you have a stomach ache because you hate your job and are developing an ulcer, but it could be that you’re sensitive to MSG or allergic to some food you commonly consume at lunch-time. You may think the answer is quitting your job, but it might be simply changing your diet. When presented with a fact, it is very important to focus on interpretation with an open mind rather than to seek a quick answer in a narrow field of options which fit your worldview.

We are both blessed and cursed to live in an information age, but I think that we need to start to work on building an “interpretation age”. We need to start using information not to cast about for obvious answers based on the current buzz and self-serving interpretations, but to find accurate answers that lead to successful solutions. We need to focus on using processes that allow us to take information and find the proper path, not ignore that path because it’s one we do not favor.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 18, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Posted in psychology, science