What Is Depression, and What Can You Do About It?

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Via Pixabay

Depression is very common, having been named “the cold of mental disorders”, in an attempt to explain just how often it is seen. Despite this, it’s still misunderstood by the general population, and even by those who are depressed.

However, it’s very important that more people become aware of what depression really is, in order for them to be able to either help those around them, or even themselves, get the proper treatment when they need it.

 

What Depression is Not

First of all, one has to understand what depression is not. In the day-to-day life, people tend to go through periods of happiness, followed by periods of unhappiness. These ups and downs are normal, and they usually correspond to events that happen in one’s life.

While people often say that they are depressed when they’re experiencing those “downs”, this is the wrong label, as it is not depression they’re experiencing.

 

What is Depression?

Depression is characterized by feelings of despair, and an inability to find pleasure and interest in everyday activities. Indeed, this loss of interest can be so debilitating that it might leave a person completely unable to carry out regular activities.

Here is a list of symptoms that one might experience when undergoing a depressive episode:

  • Experiencing depressed mood almost the entire day.
  • A substantial decline in interest in nearly any activity.
  • Lack of movement, or too much movement.
  • A substantial decline in energy levels.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Weight loss or gain that is unintentional.
  • Decreased ability to concentrate.
  • Feeling worthless.
  • Experiencing guilt.
  • Thinking about death.
  • Thinking about suicide or attempting to commit it.

These symptoms have to last for over 2 weeks in order for it to be considered depression.

 

What Should You Do when Experiencing Depression?

The first step you should take is talk to a professional about it. If you don’t know where to start, even going to your family doctor is a good idea, as he or she will be able to point you in the right direction. In addition to this, there are a few things that you can do to help yourself.

  • Exercise
  • Eat healthy
  • Get the proper amount of sleep

You’ve probably heard about how good these things are for you that you might be tempted to ignore them, but you shouldn’t. Indeed, they can help you improve your mood, and though they might not be the quickest way to healing your mind, they are efficient.

Exercise

While exercising, most people enjoy an elevated mood, and though someone who’s depressed might not experience this, after a few weeks of exercising 3 to 4 times per week, there are high chances that you will notice an improvement in the way you feel.

Not only this, but exercise can also help you relieve stress, and improve your energy, which will leave you better able to deal with everyday activities.

Eat Healthy

Eating healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits is always a good idea, but this tends to be even more true for depressed people. By doing so, you will be feeding both your body and your brain with the nutrients it needs to work properly. As such, your brain will be on its way to recovery.

Get the Proper Amount of Sleep

Getting enough sleep is probably easier said than done. If you have insomnia, then you simply can’t get to sleep. However, there are things that you can do make falling asleep easier.

For instance, you can start by having a bedtime routine that helps you relax, which might involve reading a book, drinking a hot beverage such as tea or milk, and having a warm bath.

Then, if you find yourself unable to get to sleep, you should make sure that you don’t stay in bed, as that will only make matters worse. Rather, get up, and continue reading the book, or do something else, until you feel like you are about to fall asleep again. If this doesn’t help at all, then talk to your doctor about getting medication for sleeping.

If, on the other hand, you sleep too much , then you should make sure that you have activities that you can do throughout the day in order to avoid sleeping.

 

Ask for Help

Talking to a professional might feel a bit overwhelming, and if that feels like it’s too much in the beginning, you should start by asking a loved one for help.

Some people feel ashamed about having depression, but it is nothing to be ashamed about. Not only is it very common, but it’s also not your fault that you have it.

If you open up to someone who cares about you, you don’t have to worry about them thinking less of you, because they will very likely understand and try their best to help you.

 

Experiencing depression is difficult, but luckily, the problem can be dealt with. While getting the help of a professional is the surest way to healing, there are a few things you can do on your own, such as getting the help of a friend, taking care of how much you sleep and of what you eat, and exercising.

 

Sources:

http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/depression-signs-and-symptoms.htm

http://depressionhurts.ca/en/manage/social-life.aspx

http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/understanding-mental-illness/depression/

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The Brain Sees Everything, Though You Might Not

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Your brain is an incredible machine. It is capable of keeping you alive, by taking care of the little things you might not be conscious of (let’s be honest: when was the last time you consciously thought of breathing?). Not only does it do that, but it also manages to give you the means to answer questions no other animal on this Earth can. That’s pretty amazing!

But wait, there’s more! (Sorry about the commercial-like start of the paragraph. I couldn’t help myself). This goes back to the things you are not consciously aware. Studies have suggested that your brain is aware of much more visual input than you are.

A Look into What the Brain Can See

For a long time, many people believed that the brain chooses which information to pay attention to, zooms in on it, and throws away the rest. But you see, in order for the brain to be able to decide which information to keep, and which to get rid of, it must begin by being aware of everything. Now, a disclaimer: I use the term “everything”, not to mean the entire universe. Rather, I use the term to mean “everything” that is perceivable, or within the field of vision.

On to the study. Essentially, Sanguinetti et al (2013), placed their subjects in front of a screen on which there were some shapes. Some were distributed at the screen’s center, and other, on the outside of the center. This scenario mimicked real life situations in which you might be placing your attention on something specific, while ignoring the rest (at least at a conscious level). The researchers then begun monitoring the subjects’ brainwaves, to see whether their brains were processing the shapes located on the outside.

And were they? Absolutely! Now, remember, subjects weren’t consciously aware of those shapes located outside the center of the screen. However, that did not stop their brains from being aware of the. Read more here.

Blindsight : What Happens When the Brain Can’t Interpret Visual Information?

Blindsight occurs as a result of cortical blindness, which usually comes about from strokes. Cortical blindness refers to the loss of seeing ability. This appears because the part of the brain that processes visual information (occipital cortex) is injured to the point where it can’t function. The eyes, however, are healthy, and function as normally.

To reiterate, the person who has cortical blindness (or blindsight), cannot see. By this point, you’re probably expecting me to add “consciously” to the previous sentence. Indeed, I have to add that, because there is evidence that despite the fact that these people can’t see consciously, they still behave as if, at some level, they see.

This has been illustrated in many different ways. One, which is thought in Intro Psych classes is that usually, if you throw a ball at someone with blindsight, they’ll catch it. Another case study done on a patient with blindsight was as follows: the researchers asked the man to walk (without his stick) through an empty hallway. The twist? The hallway wasn’t actually empty: it was filled with random objects. However, the man was able to walk around these without knocking them over. If you want to read more on this, and see the actual video, click here.

The Subconscious at Work

The subconscious is fascinating. It operates on so many levels, it’s difficult to even begin to pinpoint what those levels are. Plus, we have yet to understand how our consciousness works, and at least we can say we’re aware of this one.

What I wanted to illustrate through the two cases I spoke of above is that our brain is capable of noticing a lot. However, this doesn’t always translate into conscious awareness of what is being noticed. Perhaps this is a big piece of the puzzle on how subliminal messages work.

“Forever Today” and the Subconscious

In the post I made about the book “Forever Today”, the first lesson was about the subconscious. In there, Clive Wearing, who lost his capacity to form new memories (as well as the one to remember), still appeared to be able to learn at some level. Again, he did so without conscious awareness. This just shows how versatile this wonderful part of our mind is. It is there to back us up perhaps on everything we do.

What an amazing mind we have!

/Larisa

 

Subconscious: What’s it All About, Plus 4 Ways to Influence Yours

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The subconscious is the part of the mind that you are not aware of. There are multiple theories about its function and operation, but it seems to be agreed upon that there truly is some part of the mind that functions without our constant conscious input.

Freud and the Introduction of the Unconscious

Freud was among the first to popularize the idea of a part of the mind working without us being aware that it’s happening. However, he did not use the term “subconscious”, because to him, it encompassed far too much meaning. He preferred to use the term “unconscious”   for describing desires and other thoughts that are repressed because they are too unacceptable from a social standpoint.

What the unconscious and subconscious have in common was that they both operate beneath the layers of conscious thought. They influence our actions without us being aware of them.

The Subconscious as a Source of Instinct

It appears that many of our instincts originate deep in our subconsciousness. The theory at hand here is that our conscious mind, being too busy, fails to notice subtle clues in the environment. This is where the subconsciousness steps in. Having the ability to “pay attention” to the surroundings, it picks up on those things. Then, it makes you want to take an action towards or away from that stimulus. However, upon closer inspection, you would not know why you feel like taking that action.

Subliminal Messages: Do They Actually Work?

It appears that the answer is yes. However, it comes with some conditions. For instance, in order for these types of messaged to have an effect, it must be something about a biological need and associated with an effect that is positive in nature. What I mean by having an effect is to make someone to take a certain action. If you’d like to read more about experiments done with subliminal messages, click here.

However, there are other ways of giving rise to an effect.  In one study people were presented a list of words so quickly that they could not have had enough time to read them consciously. These people were much more likely to say (or guess) that the words were of a negative nature when that was the case. What this could mean is that we are much better at interpreting cues in the environment when they are negative. If you want to read more on the topic, click here.

How to Get a Hold of Your Subconscious

Now, I don’t mean to say that you can get complete control over this part of your mind. Not at all. Nevertheless, there are ways in which you can influence it.

1)      Meditate Your Way to Calmness

It is known that emotions are not exactly under the control of the consciousness. Sadly, there’s no way to control them completely, but you can contain them. You can do that through meditation. A study done in 2012 suggests that people who meditate consistently are much more stable in their emotions than those who don’t. Want to read more? Click here.

2)      Talk the Positive Talk

Here I’m assuming everyone wants positivity in their lives. A way in which you can incorporate it is through the way in which you talk to yourself. Be nice and say to yourself things like “I’m worth it” or ‘I’m a great person”. Eventually, you’ll start believing and behaving accordingly.

3)      It’s All in the Eyes of the Mind

Visualizing is a great way of playing around with your desires. When you really want something, visualize it, and your mind will absorb it quickly. Chances are, some of that will leak into the subconscious. Then, you’ll start feeling like achieving that goal is a lot easier than before. At first, you might find visualising hard, but the more you do it, the better you’ll be at it. Close your eyes (you can do this before going to sleep), and imagine the thing you want. See it clearly and as detailed as possible. See yourself taking the necessary steps to achieve it. You’ll have a much easier time obtaining things after having visualised them.

4)      Ingrained Behaviors Past the Conscious Mind

I don’t know if you’ve heard that it takes 21 days for a behavior to become a habit. It seems that this is false, as on average, it takes around 66 days for that to happen. However, that number is still pretty small compared to the rest of your life. So, if you want to become a certain way (say, nicer), then practicing a certain habit (smiling to people more often) that makes you so each day for 66 days will get you there. Or at least it will get you closer.

So, that’s about it for the subconscious. If you’re still looking for resolutions for the rest of the year, getting in touch with this force is definitely a good idea. Tell me what you think about this topic!

/Larisa

Patients in a Vegetative State Might be Capable of Recognizing People They Care about

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I read something extremely intriguing today, and I wanted to share it with you. It seems that recent research has been focusing on trying to understand whether patients in a vegetative state are capable of recognizing loved ones.

The way in which they attempted to find this out was by showing them pictures of people they are close to, and by measuring their brain activity. The result? When showed photographs of loved ones, parts of the brain involved in the processing of emotion became active.

This is a transaxial slice of the brain of a 5...
This is a transaxial slice of the brain of a 56 year old patient (male) taken with positron emission tomography (PET). The injected dose have been 282 MBq of 18F-FDG and the image was generated from a 20 minutes measurement with an ECAT Exact HR+ PET Scanner. Red areas show more accumulated tracer substance (18F-FDG) and blue areas are regions where low to no tracer have been accumulated. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another similar experiment was done on one patient in a vegetative state that was asked to think of her parents’ face. The patient experienced an increase in the activity of areas of the brain connected to the processing of faces and of emotions.

These are amazing findings, though I am a little skeptical about them, particularly because the last experiment (done by asking the patient to think of something) speaks of increased activity in the brain of one patient only. One isn’t exactly the kind of number that would support an entire hypothesis when it comes to evidence for a conclusion.

However, I can’t deny that these findings are a gleam of hope in the world of families who have a member in a vegetative state. The very idea that perhaps the person lying in bed can actually recognize them is absolutely stunning and encouraging.

If you have any thoughts on the subject, please share them with me! I hope you find the topic as fascinating as I do 🙂

If you want to read the original article, click here.

And, on a different note, I wish you all a wonderful New Year!

/Larisa

Learning, Practicing and the Brain

  In my last post, on Malcom Gladwell‘s Outliers, I mentioned that practice is one of the factors that makes us good (or really good) at performing a task. Today, I’d like to explore with you how the brain adjusts to our learning. 

For years it has been thought that the human brain stops developing around adolescence. Nevertheless, it has been shown that the brain continues to grow and change beyond the 20-year mark, and up until mid-twenties. The particular area that becomes more complex after the teenage years is the frontal lobe, which is crucial for thinking processes, such as planning, problem solving, reasoning, and for attention.

English: Brain viewed from the right side show...
English: Brain viewed from the right side showing the 4 major cerebral lobes. This is a digitally enhanced version of an illustration from Manuel de L’anatomiste, by Charles Morel and Mathias Duval, published in 1883 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          Hence, it can be concluded that our ability to think and pay attention expands after adolescence is over. 

There is, however, research that seems to attack this theory, not by opposing it completely, but by expanding upon its affirmations. This research has shown that our brains do NOT reach full maturity before we are 30; rather, they continue their development up until late in our 40s. Particularly, it is the prefrontal cortex (responsible for abstract thinking and analysis) that has been shown to change its shape on brain scans.

               What does it all mean?

What this new information suggests is that brain capacity broadens  as we mature, and it is notably our thinking that improves as years pass.

                How is this connected to learning?  

Learning happens when the brain has changed in a manner that allows for faster connections (synapses) between the brain cells (neurons), or when the structure of neurons has changed from within. As the brain develops, learning is easier simply because these changes can occur faster.

Compare this idea with molding clay that is warm and soft (in our case, the brain as it is developing), and molding it when it is hardened (the mature brain).            

              How does practicing come into the picture? 

When you practice a certain skill, a set of neurons in your brain begin firing. The more you do that particular task, the faster the neurons are at forming connections with one another, and hence, the better and faster you become at doing that it.  Moreover, if you keep repeating that task, or using the skill, the brain part in charge of that will change in dimensions, increasing in order to accommodate for the new synapses formed.

There you have it! Practically, our ability to perform a skill is translated as the ability of our neurons to form connections between them. Once we have repeated something enough times, we become better at it because the neurons have learnt the road they have to take in order to help you perform.  

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

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John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote which you undoubtedly know by now (or at least the first sentence of it), is by Lord Acton, who created it more than a century ago. Observation alone has proven this very idea true, but recently there have been plenty studies that have also confirmed it.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s first identify the five main types of power, because as it turns out, there isn’t just one:

Coercive power: the power one has to correct wrongdoings by penalizing.

Reward power: the power to award an individual’s good deed.

Legitimate power: the power given by someone with a higher position.

Expert power: the power that comes from knowledge.

Referent power: the power one has when he or she is admired.

(For descriptions and examples of types of power, be sure to check this article)

It is, no doubt, interesting to see these five kinds interacting in the real world, and important to note that the more types of power one holds, the better he or she feels. Indeed, power feels good. It has the same effect on people as the use of cocaine. However, the qualifying factor is the last on the list of five. When a person is admired, not only it is accepted into society, but it is also rewarded with the opinion that it deserves any other kind of power it may hold. When someone is not respected by peers, he or she tends to be pushed away from its group, and is thus never given the chance to hold other types of power.

The problem arises after one gains power, because of the effect described by Lord Acton. Interestingly enough, it seems that this effect only on occurs with those individuals who feel they deserve it. It isn’t very clear why this happens, but part of the reason is that those in power are often of the opinion that they have more rights. Perhaps they are not saying it out loud, but they most certainly act in agreement with this idea. Another factor that comes to play is that those in power are out of touch with the individuals around them, which makes them fall prey to a shortage of empathy. Thus, they start thinking less and less in terms of the Golden Rule, and more in terms of their individualistic well-being.

Do not misinterpret my words; I do not think that taking care of oneself is a bad thing. Quite the opposite.  However, I don’t believe that taking care of oneself should come as a result of harming others (obviously, this is a simple way of putting it, and there are many factors that would need to be considered before applying a generalization to real life).

So there you have it! People usually rise to power if they are liked by others, but once they get there, they tend to fall prey to hypocrisy. Do you have any stories regarding power? If so, please share them, I’d love to hear what you have to say 🙂

PS: Here are two more sources I’ve used in this article:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704407804575425561952689390.html

http://www.economist.com/node/15328544

How the Past Creates You

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As I mentioned in the previous blog post, which  was about the book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (mouthful of a title, I know), experiences have a very big impact on the formation of who we are. Of course, we come into this world with a genetic make-up, which makes us predisposed to certain things. However, it is the environment that has the final say when you get down to it.

By environment I don’t just mean the tree outside your house or the flowers in your neighbour’s garden, though they may be a part of it. To get a better picture, we’ll have to include past events , people we have met, and memories we have made. Or do we?

As it turns out, it is only our memories of events and of people that count in the end, because the experience itself dies, and is thus lost, once it ended. However, as Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his TED talk, some of these experiences (and only a select few) enter our memory, where they are spoiled by impressions and the inevitable effect time has on these treasured and tricky thoughts.

So, back to our topic: it is actually the memory of an experience that influences us, consciously. When you have to choose, say…a store from which to buy, you can’t help but replay memories of past visits to certain stores, and, in some situations, memories of what people have told you about those stores. If in one store you happened to end up with a really good find at the end of the shopping experience, you will probably be inclined to choose it over the other ones, despite the fact that the other things you purchased there weren’t all that wonderful.

Why is that important in the creation of who we are? Well, that’s because many times (or more often than not), our memories are distorted. When it comes to thinking of ourselves, they are distorted  in a manner that highlights  (perhaps exaggerates) our qualities, and our good deeds, and minimizes the negative things we’ve done. This is why most people who one would think of as morally impoverished are able to live their lives happily and without remorse. To sum up what we have so far: memories often make us seem better than we are, to ourselves.

What about the subconscious? Though it is not yet very well known, we all do realize, to some extent, that  it influences us in many ways. This article discusses how studies have shown that neurons in the brain of mice, which normally work while a certain experience is underway, also fire before encountering  a new exposure, similar to the one dealt with in the past. As it is explained, this is probably why different individuals have different ways of approaching  the same problem: because the past shines through, providing us with guidelines on how we should act in a novel situation.

What all of this information means, in practical terms, is that the past leaves a very strong mark  on which the presents exists, and the future is built. It is only with extreme difficulty that we can escape a certain pattern which was drilled in our minds, and the trouble is that very, very often, the difference between being capable of breaking free from the chains of the past and remaining captive, are some genes which we didn’t choose. Add to this the fact that even when wrong, we have a tendency to appreciate and understand ourselves quite a little bit more than needed, and the effect is even more pronounced: We refuse to change, because we are programmed to believe we are all right the way we are. Perhaps not great, but pretty darn close.