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Our brains may be one of the last frontiers for explorers of human physiology. The past few years have seen remarkable breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works. New discoveries in the field of neuroscience are helping us understand how and what we perceive and feel, how we learn and store memories and how reasoning and decision making are processed. Here are four new insights:

Concrete Thinking Treats Depression: Concrete thinking, or concreteness training (CNT), is a technique that replaces a dysfunctional thinking style with a more constructive one.

Patients who suffer from depression tend toward abstract thinking that focuses on overgeneralized negative events—a minor setback or mistake is blown out of proportion to its importance. CNT helps individuals recognize this tendency and instead think more specifically about problems. The refocusing process results in a shift in perspective that alleviates depression.

To test the effectiveness of concrete thinking, researchers divided 121 patients suffering from depression into three groups. The first group received CNT in addition to regular treatment; the second group received relaxation techniques and regular treatment; and the third group continued to receive regular treatment only. After eight weeks, the individuals who received CNT were significantly less depressed, while the group those who simply continued regular treatment showed no sign of improvement.

The success of this self-help therapy raises an interesting question: could we take the same approach in helping individuals change their lifestyle habits?

Meditation Increases Happiness: Yale researchers found that meditation is associated with an increased feeling of happiness and a sense of living “in the moment.” Brain scans of both experienced and novice meditators showed that experienced meditators had less activity in the section of the brain referred to as the “default mode network”—an area that has been associated with disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Further, the brain scans from experienced meditators showed decreased activity in the default mode network even when they weren’t meditating.

Commenting on the significance of these findings, Judson A. Brewer, lead author of the study, said, “Meditation’s ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years. Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically.”

Negative Focus Triggers Change: Researchers reporting in Psychological Science assert that focusing on the negative is a necessary first step in the process of implementing change. India Johnson, a graduate student at Ohio State University and coauthor of the study, notes that “in order to actually change the system, you’ve got to know what’s wrong with it.” While this study focuses more specifically on societal change, its conclusions might also be extrapolated to the realm of health and fitness. Can we use negative information (the rising number on the scale, for instance) to push us to commit to a healthier lifestyle?

Violent Video Games Alter Young Brains: Parents and educators have long worried about the negative effect of violent video games on brain function of young players; however, until now, these fears had little scientific evidence to back them up. Image scans presented by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine show that the brain suffers changes in the areas associated with cognitive functioning and emotional control after only one week of exposure to violent video games. The study, which focused on young men ages 18 to 29, revealed that after one week of playing violent video games, participants’ ability to successfully complete tasks targeting these two centers after was reduced when compared with the control group.

Dr. Yang Wang, an assistant research professor in the Indiana University Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences, said, “For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home. The affected brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior.” The upshot? Protect your teen’s mental health by limiting the use of violent video games.

With history as our guide, we anticipate that new technologies will expand the boundaries of human knowledge about the workings of the brain. Future tests will be less invasive. And because the machines that perform the tests will be less expensive, these tests will be available to an increasing number of researchers.

While we wait for future advances, we can use the insights from current research to enhance our mental and physical well-being.

Photo credit: SuperFantastic on Flickr.

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