Editing Consciousness: How Bereaved People Control Their Thoughts Without Knowing It - Neuroscience NewsHomeArtificial Intelligence Editing Consciousness: How Bereaved People Control Their Thoughts Without Knowing It Neuroscience NewsDecember 10, 2018 Artificial Intelligencedeep learningFeaturedmachine learningNeuroscienceneurotechOpen Neuroscience ArticlesPsychology7 min read Summary: Using machine learning to analyze fMRI brain scans of grieving people, researchers shed light on how unconscious suppression occurs. Source: Columbia University. People who are grieving a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or a child, use different coping mechanisms to carry on with their lives. Psychologists have been able to track different approaches, which can reflect different clinical outcomes. One approach that is not usually successful is avoidant grief, a state in which people suffering from grief show marked, effortful, repeated, and often unsuccessful attempts to stop themselves from thinking about their loss. While researchers have shown that avoidant grievers consciously monitor their external environment in order to avoid reminders of their loss, no one has yet been able to show whether these grievers also monitor their mental state unconsciously, trying to block any thoughts of loss from rising to their conscious state. A new collaborative study between Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Irving Medical Center published online December 7 in SCAN: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience demonstrates that avoidant grievers do unconsciously monitor and block the contents of their mind-wandering, a discovery that could lead to more effective psychiatric treatment for bereaved people. The researchers, who studied 29 bereaved subjects, are the first to show how this unconscious thought suppression occurs. They tracked ongoing processes of mental control as loss-related thoughts came in and out of conscious awareness during a 10-minute period of mind-wandering. Co-directed by Paul Sajda, professor of biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and radiology, and John J. Mann, Paul Janssen Professor of Translational Neuroscience (in Psychiatry and in Radiology), the researchers used a new approach to track the interactions between mental processes: a machine-learning approach to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) called “neural decoding,” which establishes a neural pattern or fingerprint that can be used to determine when a given mental process is happening. “The major challenge of our study was to be able ‘look under the hood’ of a person’s natural mind-wandering state to see what underlying processes were actually controlling their experience,” says Noam Schneck, lead author of the study, a postdoctoral fellow in Sajda’s lab and now assistant professor of clinical medical psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University Department of Psychiatry/ New York State Psychiatric Institute. “No one has done this kind of work before, showing this type of consistent control of one mental process–thinking about loss–by another–selective attention–as it happens spontaneously and unconsciously. These findings are significant because they open the door to building a fuller picture of the unconscious mind. We know that the experiences we have arise as a combination of constantly interacting networks. Now we have shown this interaction as it happens naturalistically as well as the way it controls experiences.” The team recorded fMRI from people who had lost a first-degree relative (a spouse or partner) within the last 14 months. The subjects performed a modified Stroop task, a test widely used in psychology to measure a person’s ability to control the contents of attention, and a separate task presenting pictures and stories of the deceased. Using machine learning, the team then trained respective neural fingerprints for attentional control based on the Stroop task and mental representation of the deceased based on the pictures and stories. The team observed spontaneous fluctuations in these processes that occurred during a neutral mind-wandering fMRI task. They discovered that those with more avoidant grief engaged their attentional control process to block representations of the deceased from conscious awareness. The brain networks respectively involved in controlling attention towards the deceased (red) and representing the deceased (blue). During a 10-minute period of mind-wandering, avoidant grievers engaged the control network to block representations activated in the representation network from reaching consciousness. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Noam Schneck/Columbia Engineering. “Our findings show that avoidant grief involves attentional control to reduce the likelihood that deceased-related representations reach full conscious awareness,” says Schneck. “Even though they are not aware of it, avoidant grievers actively control their mental state so that spontaneous thoughts of loss do not enter their consciousness. This kind of tailoring of mind-wandering likely exhausts mental energy and leads to time periods when the thoughts actually do break through. It is like an ineffective pop-up blocker that runs in the background of your computer. You might not be aware that it’s there but it slows down the overall operating speed and eventually breaks down and the pop ups get through.” The researchers suggest that one treatment goal for avoidant grievers may be to relax the conscious and unconscious mental controls that they maintain over their thinking of the loss. Since this control and monitoring happens outside of conscious awareness, this would be challenging to do, but training in mindfulness and acceptance may help some people relax both their conscious and unconscious mental controls.
Doctors in denial about death, their own powerlessnessMedical students were invited to attend the seminars, but for a long time, none did. “The physicians have been the most reluctant in joining us in this work,” Kübler-Ross noted in On Death and Dying. “It may take both courage and humility to sit in a seminar which is attended not only by the nurses, students, and social workers with whom they usually work, but in which they are also exposed to the possibility of hearing a frank opinion about the role they play in the reality or fantasy of their patients.” American doctors were so preoccupied with avoiding death that they avoided any discussion of it. “I observed the desperate need of the hospital staff to deny the existence of terminally ill patients on their ward.” This was typical for the medical profession at the time. In the early 1970s, years after Kübler-Ross began her research, only about 10 percent of doctors told their patients when they had a terminal condition; until 1980, the American Medical Association considered it a doctor’s right not to tell their patients if they had an incurable disease. At Kübler-Ross’s hospital, most doctors would inform the patient’s family of a fatal diagnosis and allow them to decide what to share with the patient.
Death's Best Friend | by Jessica Weisberg | NYR Daily | The New York Review of BooksAnd so begins Kübler-Ross’s journey, one of a restless, curious woman seeking truth despite the well-meaning men who stand in her way. At six, a teacher asked her to write an essay about what she intended to be when she grew up. When she told her parents about the assignment at dinner that night, her father, a middle manager at an office-supply company, told her that she should plan for a career as his secretary. “No, thank you!” young Elisabeth snapped. That night, she wrote in her journal that she planned to become a physician and an adventurer. “I want to find out the purpose of life.”
Medium – Read, write and share stories that matterIt’s hard not to be moved by the exchange between Abu Jani (which means “dear father” in Urdu) and Sonu (one of Muhammad’s nicknames). The dadbot does what dads do best: remind their kids to take care of themselves. Indeed, Muhammad has been so taken aback at times that he’s found himself needing to close his computer and go out for a walk.
The link between circadian rhythms and aging: Gene associated with longevity also regulates the body's circadian clock -- ScienceDailyLast year, Guarente found that a robust circadian period correlated with longer lifespan in mice. That got him wondering what role SIRT1, which has been shown to prolong lifespan in many animals, might play in that phenomenon. SIRT1, which Guarente first linked with aging more than 15 years ago, is a master regulator of cell responses to stress, coordinating a variety of hormone networks, proteins and genes to help keep cells alive and healthy.
Blood pressure declines 14 to 18 years before death: It's normal for blood pressure to trend lower in the elderly--but it foreshadows the end -- ScienceDailyBlood pressure in the elderly gradually begins to decrease about 14 or so years before death, according to a new study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine. Researchers from UConn Health and the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K. looked at the electronic medical records of 46,634 British citizens who had died at age 60 or older. The large sample size included people who were healthy as well as those who had conditions such as heart disease or dementia. They found blood pressure declines were steepest in patients with dementia, heart failure, late-in-life weight loss, and those who had high blood pressure to begin with. But long-term declines also occurred without the presence of any of these diagnoses.
When Things Go Missing - The New YorkerThe verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in forlorn. It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from a still more ancient word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century, we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and one another and has been steadily expanding ever since. In consequence, loss today is a supremely awkward category, bulging with everything from mittens to life savings to loved ones, forcing into relationship all kinds of wildly dissimilar experiences.
Scientist explains the psychological function of eulogizing the deceasedThus, eulogizing the life of another after they die is almost like upholding our part of the bargain. We need to believe that others will carry on our memory after our death in order to allay our anxieties, and so we do for them what we hope they will do for us. When you think about it this way, you can see why the eulogy has become such an institutionalized aspect of the funeral ceremony. It satisfies our deeply rooted need to manage our own anxiety and sadness surrounding death and finitude.
When to digAs a little girl, she used to help dig a grave before winter came. “You knew someone was going to die,” she says, and if the ground was frozen, the body would have no place to go. “As a kid, you would think: That could be anybody. That could be me.”
Aubade by Philip LarkinThis is a special way of being afraid No trick dispels. Religion used to try, That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade Created to pretend we never die, And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anasthetic from which none come round.
Couples' quality of life linked even when one partner diesIn previous work, Bourassa and colleagues had found evidence of synchrony, or interdependence, between partners' quality of life, finding that a person's cognitive functioning or health influences not only their own well-being but also the well-being of their partner. Bourassa and colleagues wondered whether this interdependence continues even when one of the partners passes away. To find out, the researchers turned to the multinational, representative Study of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), an ongoing research project with over 80,000 aging adult participants across 18 European countries and Israel. Specifically, they examined data from 546 couples in which one partner had died during the study period and data from 2566 couples in which both partners were still living. As one might expect, the researchers found that participants' quality of life earlier in the study predicted their quality of life later. And the data also provided evidence for interdependence between partners -- a participant's quality of life earlier in the study was associated with his or her partner's quality of life later. Intriguingly, the results revealed interdependence between partners even when one partner died during the study; the association remained even after Bourassa and colleagues accounted for other factors that might have played a role, such as participants' health, age, and years married.
Charismatic leaders helped by perception of mortal threatsFor example, the researchers asked students to think about death or a control topic and then read statements supposedly written by gubernatorial candidates of varying leadership styles. You are not just an ordinary citizen, you are part of a special state and a special nation, the charismatic leader said. I can accomplish all the goals that I set out to do. I am very careful in laying out a detailed blueprint of what needs to be done so that there is no ambiguity, a task-oriented leader said. I encourage all citizens to take an active role in improving their state. I know that each individual can make a difference, the relationship-oriented leader said. Participants then picked the candidate they would vote for. After thinking about a control topic, four of 95 people chose the charismatic leader. After a death reminder, that candidate’s votes increased nearly eightfold. Such results, the psychologists wrote, suggested that "close elections could be decided as a result of nonrational terror-management concerns."
Lurking, death nigglesWhile thinking about death directly, Pyszczynski says, folks do rational things to get away from it, like trying to get healthy. It’s when death lurks on the fringes of consciousness that they cling to worldviews and seek self-esteem. "That helps explain why these ideas might seem strange to some people," says Pyszczynski, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "You can’t really introspect on it. While you’re thinking about death, this isn’t what you do."
The race away from deathIn a new book surveying that work, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (Random House), Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski argue that fear of death drives our actions to a much greater extent than people realize. "The terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science," they write. "It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It contributes to conflicts around the globe. At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it."
We're all running away from deathOne, that our awareness of death creates tremendous potential for anxiety or terror. Two, that we learn to manage that terror by embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability. Three, that we gain and maintain psychological security by sustaining faith in that worldview and living up to the values it conveys.
Havel tidies, waits for the endLate in his life, he remarked that he was moving about his country house, all alone, a battered old man, tidying up, making sure that his table was orderly, all the books piled just so, “fresh flowers in the vases.” Why, he wondered, was he doing this? Or rather, for whom was he doing it? It’s as though I were constantly expecting someone to visit. But who? … I have only one explanation: I am constantly preparing for the last judgement, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden.
Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal CancerI feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. […] This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).[…]I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night.
A name is worth a thousand photographs?the ability of a name to bring back every single memory you have of that per-son is far more realistic and specific and much more comprehensive than a still photograph, which captures a specific moment in time or a single event or a generalized image that may or may not be moving for all who have connections to that time.
Vietnam Memorial and Woolsey Hall at YaleThe power of a name was very much with me at the time, partly because of the Memorial Rotunda at Yale. In Woolsey Hall, the walls are inscribed with the names of all the Yale alumni who have been killed in wars. I had never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls, and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names. Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, the stonecutters were carving in by hand the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, and I think it left a lasting impression on me…the sense of the power of a name.
How to end wellBut when her hospice nurse arrived, she asked Peg what she cared most about in her life, what having the best day possible meant to her. […]Her first goal was just managing her daily difficulties. The hospice team put a hospital bed on the first floor so she wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs, organized a plan for bathing and dressing, adjusted her pain medications until they were right. Her anxieties plummeted as the challenges came under control. She raised her sights.[…]“She was focused on the main chance,” Martin later said. “She came to a clear view of how she wanted to live the rest of her days. She was going to be home, and she was going to teach.”[…]“[…]She’d had no children; her students filled that place for her. And she still had some things she wanted them to know before she went. “It was important to her to be able to say her goodbyes to her dear friends, to give her parting advice to her students.”
There’s a word in Hebrew—malkosh—that means “last rain.” It’s a word that only means something in places like Israel, where there’s a clear distinction between winter and the long, dry stretch of summer. It’s a word, too, that can only be applied in retrospect. When it’s raining, you have no way of knowing that the falling drops would be the last ones of the year. But then time goes by, the clouds clear, and you realize that that rain shower was the one. Having a mother—being mothered—is similar, in a way. It’s a term that I only fully grasp now, with the thirst of hindsight: who she was, who I was for her, what she has equipped me with.