Improving the view: Positive psychology in preventing the repeat of psychotic episodes

(Image credit: madamepsychosis via Flickr)
(Image credit: madamepsychosis via Flickr)

Imagine you suddenly felt that everyone around you was conspiring against you. Or if voices in your head were compelling you to do bizarre or even dangerous things. Adolescence can be tumultuous enough, but for some young people, adolescence is made even more turbulent by the onset of psychosis — an experience that can distort life through the lens of a troubling mental illness.

But does having a psychotic episode in adolescence mean that you will inevitably have another? Are there ways of preventing people from having repeated psychotic episodes? And what can psychology offer that potent anti-psychotics perhaps can’t?

I was joined on Up Close a few weeks ago by Mario Alvarez-Jimenez, a clinical psychologist who has been looking at non-drug therapies for preventing psychosis. Check out the podcast or transcript here.


Loneliness and social isolation

Over 2 million Australians live alone

In 1973, psychologist Robert Weiss described loneliness as “a chronic distress without redeeming features.” For those who experience it, and its sister condition, social isolation, this sentiment may very well ring true. But not all of us experience loneliness so acutely, and there are some intriguing evolutionary theories for why such an unpleasant feeling has become rooted in the human experience.

I recently wrote a couple of pieces for ABC Health & Wellbeing on the science of loneliness and what role modern communication technologies play in our feelings of loneliness. Both pieces have been spiced with some terrific video stories from around Australia, produced by ABC Open producers Daniel Schmidt, Lisa Clarke and Jo Joyce. Check them out!

Moment’s notice: Enhancing wellbeing through the practice of mindfulness

We hear a lot about the notion of “mindfulness” these days. We’re told mindfulness is a learnable technique and that regular practice can help us alleviate depression and anxiety, or reduce chronic pain and stress. Mindfulness, it’s said, can be beneficial in pretty much most parts of our lives — from the workplace to our personal relationships, and even when we find ourselves alone. It can enhance our ability to concentrate, and even perhaps our capacity to empathise.

But can everyone truly benefit from a dose of mindfulness? Can teaching mindfulness to school children lead to a happier and healthier society? And how do we go about empirically testing how effective mindfulness is at improving wellbeing?

For the latest Up Close podcast, I was joined by Professor Felicia Huppert, an expert in the science of both well-being and mindfulness.  Professor Huppert is Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Director of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University.

Why does alcohol make some people violent?

Alcohol-fuelled violence has been getting a lot of media attention here in Australia. Just yesterday, the state government of New South Wales passed legislation to try to address the problem. The new laws will ensure mandatory 8-year prison terms for anyone convicted of fatally punching someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs (the so-called ‘one-punch law’) and implementation of bar and club lock-outs in specific districts in Sydney.

The idea behind mandatory sentencing is obviously that it will act as some kind of deterrent for people amped up on booze. But research into what’s going on in the minds of people who are prone to alcohol-fuelled violence — and it’s far from everyone — suggests that taking stock of the situation and weighing the consequences is far from easy for these people.

It turns out that subtle differences in the way that our brains are wired (due to both genetics and early life experiences) are part of the explanation. But personality and social norms can also play a role. I wrote an article for ABC Health & Wellbeing on the science behind why some people, and not others, are prone to lashing out when their blood alcohol level climbs. Check it out here.

Music and mind: Can Mozart really sharpen your neural connections?

Music is a universal component of human culture. From the Jazz clubs of New Orleans, to the symphony orchestras of Carnegie Hall, to the traditional Indonesian gamelan ensembles — it is clear that as a species, we are compelled to express ourselves through music.

Even as casual observers or listeners, there’s no denying that music can have a profound effect on us. It can make us get up and dance, and it can make us cry. It can be awe-inspiring, and it can also make us rip off our headphones or reach for the off switch.

But can music change the way that we think? Does listening to Mozart make us more creative, or perhaps smarter, as some researchers would have us believe? Do music lessons — the bane of many a childhood —  actually boost our IQ?

In the latest episode of Up Close, I spoke with cognitive psychologist Professor Glenn Schellenberg, an expert in the field of music cognition from the University of Toronto. Glenn was once a musician and composer himself, but now he studies music’s effect on us. Listen to the podcast or download the transcript here.

Infants Give a Helping Hand, Even When You Look Like an Egg

A baby’s first year of life is all take and very little give. “Change my nappy!” “Feed me!” “Me! Me! Me!”

We all start out as very demanding, seemingly thankless creatures. But collectively we make up one of the most social species on Earth. As we develop, we all acquire the abilities needed to participate in a give-and-take society.

Young children start helping their parents – and other adults – soon after their first birthday. If an adult drops something – say a clothes peg when trying to hang up the washing – the chubby fingers of an observant toddler could come to the adult’s aid.

The desire to help probably stems from a burgeoning sense of sympathy towards another human being. But scientists are still trying to figure out what processes are occurring in our brains to explain helping behaviour, especially in young kids.

In a study published this week in PLoS ONE, Ben Kenward and Gustaf Gredebäck from Uppsala University in Sweden have ruled out one of the hottest contenders for the neural basis of helping: mirror neurons. Continue reading “Infants Give a Helping Hand, Even When You Look Like an Egg”

Hormones in a hurry: Uneasy passages through puberty and adolescence

Puberty and the period of adolescence that follows it mark what are probably the most awkward of our developmental transitions. It’s a time we remember most vividly, and sometimes cringe about years later. As well as the raging hormones, growth spurts and other physical changes, adolescents also need to navigate a bumpy social landscape where peer pressure reigns supreme.

Adolescence is when we start to work out who we are as we muddle our way through to adulthood. But for some, it’s a time when we can lose our way, sometimes with consequences that stay with us for many years, or even the rest of our lives.

What is it that makes puberty so disruptive? What’s going on biologically and emotionally when puberty hits early? And what are the consequences for well-being — both during adolescence and into the future?

On this week’s episode of Up Close, I tackled some of these questions with Professor George Patton, Professor of Adolescent Health Research at the University of Melbourne.