The Psychology of Christmas Shopping

At this time of year it can be hard to avoid all the adverts and promotions telling us to buy more. With Black Friday, Christmas shopping and soon the January sales, it’s as though there’s more out there than ever trying to persuade us to part with our money. Adverts are also getting more sophisticated, trying to tug at our heart strings to get us to spend more, and the hype around the new Christmas adverts every year doesn’t show any signs of dying down. However this is more than just brand awareness – retailers are using subtle tricks to entice us into their shops and spend our money.

artem-bali-663765-unsplash
Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

There are several tricks shops can use to attract buyers. One commonly used at Christmas is the presence of Christmas music and a Christmas scent. Research has found that this combination can lead to shoppers having more positive thoughts about the store as well as making them more likely to intend to visit (Spangenberg et al, 2005). Other research has found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that a more pleasurable shopping experience resulted in shoppers spending more money (Sherman & Smith, 1997), which shows why shops take so much care in the overall retail experience.

Shops will also try to make sure you walk round as much of the store as possible to increase the amount you spend (Hui et al, 2013). This can be done in a variety of ways, for example the location of promotional items, changing up the store layout or scattering commonly bought items (e.g. milk, bread), so that customers have to walk round more of the shop. As seeing items on the shelves can remind us about things we wanted to buy, our unplanned spend goes up. Another common trick is called “eye level is buy level” – that is, shops will place the items they want to sell the most of at eye level, as shoppers are more likely to choose those ones to put in their basket. Browsing also makes people more likely to impulse shop, and impulse spend is correlated with the time spent in the store (Iyer, 1989).

Another strategy commonly used to get customers through the door is to have a sale, or offer discounts on certain items. These are then hyped up, either through TV advertising or more often than not, through targeted emails straight to your smartphone. Studies have shown that promotions and offers can have a positive influence on how shoppers perceive the stores, which again in turn impacts intention to spend money there (Faryabi et al, 2012). Interestingly, the researchers also suggest that it is important that retailers emphasise the limited time the offer is available and display the ‘old’ price alongside the discounted one, so that shoppers don’t view the cheap price as an indicator of poor product quality.

So next time you go shopping, try and stick to the list of things you really need. Now you know the tricks retailers use to get you to spend more, you know how to avoid impulse shopping or having to buy this weeks “star offer”. Make sure your shopping involves a set of conscious decisions (do I really need this?), and you might save some money!

 

References:

Faryabi, M., Sadeghzadeh, K. and Saed, M., 2012. The effect of price discounts and store image on consumer’s purchase intention in online shopping context case study: Nokia and HTC. Journal of business studies quarterly4(1), p.197.

Hui, S.K., Inman, J.J., Huang, Y. and Suher, J., 2013. The effect of in-store travel distance on unplanned spending: Applications to mobile promotion strategies. Journal of Marketing77(2), pp.1-16.

Iyer, E.S., 1989. Unplanned Purchasing: Knowledge of shopping environment and. Journal of retailing65(1), p.40.

Sherman, E., Mathur, A. and Smith, R.B., 1997. Store environment and consumer purchase behavior: mediating role of consumer emotions. Psychology & Marketing14(4), pp.361-378.

Spangenberg, E.R., Grohmann, B. and Sprott, D.E., 2005. It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: the interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting. Journal of business research58(11), pp.1583-1589.

Advertisements

Why is yawning contagious?

Why is it that we often have an uncontrollable urge to yawn when we see someone else yawning? It happens all the time, but most of us have no idea why we do it – it occurs completely automatically. Interestingly, this phenomenon doesn’t just occur in humans, it has been shown in primates too (Anderson et al, 2004) as well as other animals. Maybe yawns signify more than just tiredness.

To start off, it might be useful to explore what’s going on in the brain when we experience a contagious yawn. One hypothesis is that contagious yawning is linked to excitability (in terms of higher activity) in the motor cortex, with people who have more excitability showing higher levels of yawning when shown stimuli of people yawning (Brown et al, 2017). Other imaging studies have explored the patterns of brain activity during contagious yawning, and found evidence to suggest that a part of the motor cortex containing mirror neurons is important for this action to happen (Haker et al, 2013). Mirror neurons, as the name suggests, are active when we carry out an action, or when we see others carry out the same action (to find out more click here).

kevin-grieve-704178-unsplash
Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

One well-known theory for yawning contagion is that we yawn to show empathy. Evidence to support this has come from several studies, for example one study found that children with autism (thought by some to have lower levels of empathy) yawned less than their peers when they were shown videos showing people yawning (Senju et al, 2007). Similar findings have also been shown in participants with schizophrenic traits, a condition also linked to low empathy (Platek et al, 2003). And remember the mirror neurons described above? They are also thought to be linked to empathy as they are involved in aspects of social communication (Gallese, 2007). However, not everyone agrees – one recent review described the current evidence as ‘inconsistent and inconclusive’ (Massen & Gallup, 2017), suggesting that more research needs to be done before a link can be made. For example, they suggest that children with autism yawn less when shown these stimuli because they don’t focus as much on faces, which could explain the finding described above.

An alternative theory is that yawning has a more functional advantage: it is used to cool down our brains. Breathing in a large amount of air is enough to cool the blood in the face, which in turn cools down our brain. For example, one study found that participants recorded contagious yawning more in summer (when temperatures were higher) than in winter (Massen et al, 2014).

Yawning is also thought to be linked with improving focus. Waluskinski (2014) hypothesises that the physical act of yawning helps to increase the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid, which in turn helps to clear any sleep-inducing hormones from the brain. Contagious yawning could therefore be evolutionary advantagious. For example, if one member of a pack yawns, it causes others to do the same, therefore keeping the whole pack alert and on the look out for predators or prey.

Thank you for reading, and thanks to Bex for suggesting this post! If there’s anything else you’d like me to write about then let me know in the comments below.

References:

Anderson, J. R., Myowa-Yamakoshi, M., & Matsuzawa, T., 2004. Contagious yawning in chimpanzees. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 271 Suppl 6(Suppl 6), S468-70.

Brown, B.J., Kim, S., Saunders, H., Bachmann, C., Thompson, J., Ropar, D., Jackson, S.R. and Jackson, G.M., 2017. A neural basis for contagious yawning. Current Biology, 27(17), pp.2713-2717.

Gallese, V., 2007. Before and below ‘theory of mind’: embodied simulation and the neural correlates of social cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), pp.659-669.

Massen, J.J., Dusch, K., Eldakar, O.T. and Gallup, A.C., 2014. A thermal window for yawning in humans: yawning as a brain cooling mechanism. Physiology & behavior, 130, pp.145-148.

Massen, J.J. and Gallup, A.C., 2017. Why contagious yawning does not (yet) equate to empathy. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 80, pp.573-585.

Senju, A., Maeda, M., Kikuchi, Y., Hasegawa, T., Tojo, Y. and Osanai, H., 2007. Absence of contagious yawning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Biology letters, 3(6), pp.706-708.

Walusinski, O., 2014. How yawning switches the default‐mode network to the attentional network by activating the cerebrospinal fluid flow. Clinical Anatomy, 27(2), pp.201-209.

Mental Health at Work

Back in September, the charities Mind and Heads Together launched a new initiative to raise awareness of mental health in the workplace. This was in the light of a recent Mind study, which found that 48% of people reported experiencing a mental health problem in their current workplace (Heads Together, 2018).

The Stevenson/Farmer report (2017) reported that the UK was facing a “significant challenge” to our mental health in the workplace. In this report it states that although 1.5 million people with mental illness are in work in the UK, around 300,000 people lose their jobs every year due to poor mental health. They also estimated the total cost of mental illness to employers at between £33 and £42 billion each year. Workers can also feel as though they have to hide any mental health problems from their employers, due to a fear of negative consequences or being treated differently at work (Walton, 2003).

workplace mental health.jpg

One recent systematic review of mental health at work found that there is some evidence to suggest that modern workplaces can have a detrimental affect on our mental health (Harvey et al, 2017). In particular, factors such as having high job demands, low job control, stress, or bullying (amongst others) were associated with a higher risk of developing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Another important factor which influences employees’ mental health is having a work-life balance, something many of us are striving for in current workplace cultures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one study found that having a poor work-life balance is associated with higher levels of anxiety, whereas having a good work-life balance was related to higher levels of job and life satisfaction (Haar et al, 2014).

Research has also been carried out to explore how to improve the workplace for optimal mental health. Modifying the work environment to increase employees exposure to sunlight or natural elements can help to improve their mental health and increase their feelings of job satisfaction and commitment (An et al, 2016). There is also evidence to suggest that mindfulness based interventions can help to reduce stress levels, psychological stress and fatigue (Huang et al, 2015). It should be noted that the mindfulness intervention used in this study involved 2 hours of training a week and 45 minutes of  self practice each day for 8 weeks, so although useful in the long term, this approach is not something which provides instant results!

Thanks for reading this post – if you’d like more information on mental health in the workplace then please visit https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/.

 

References:

An, M., Colarelli, S.M., O’Brien, K. and Boyajian, M.E., 2016. Why we need more nature at work: Effects of natural elements and sunlight on employee mental health and work attitudes. PloS one11(5), p.e0155614.

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/658145/thriving-at-work-stevenson-farmer-review.pdf

https://www.headstogether.org.uk/the-duke-of-cambridge-launches-mental-health-at-work/

Haar, J.M., Russo, M., Suñe, A. and Ollier-Malaterre, A., 2014. Outcomes of work–life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures. Journal of Vocational Behavior85(3), pp.361-373.

Harvey, S.B., Modini, M., Joyce, S., Milligan-Saville, J.S., Tan, L., Mykletun, A., Bryant, R.A., Christensen, H. and Mitchell, P.B., 2017. Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems. Occup Environ Med74(4), pp.301-310.

Huang, S.L., Li, R.H., Huang, F.Y. and Tang, F.C., 2015. The potential for mindfulness-based intervention in workplace mental health promotion: results of a randomized controlled trial. PloS one10(9), p.e0138089.

Walton, L., 2003. Exploration of the attitudes of employees towards the provision of counselling within a profit-making organisation. Counselling and Psychotheraphy Research3(1), pp.65-71.

Functions of the Frontal Lobe

It’s been a while since I’ve done a blog post purely dedicated to neuroscience, so this week I thought I’d write about a part of the brain that doesn’t always get much attention – the frontal lobe (also known as the frontal cortex). As the name suggests, the frontal lobe sits at the very front of your brain, just above your eyes. It is thought to be involved in ‘higher processing’ such as logic, or decision making, and it has therefore been hypothesised to be what distinguishes humans from other primates.

frontal lobe

Perhaps the most famous study of the frontal lobe was conducted in 1848, following an accident to a man called Phineas Gage. Phineas was working as a railroad construction foreman when an explosion forced his tamping bar to fly upwards, through his cheek and into his brain. The force was so strong that the iron bar broke through the top of his skull and landed a few metres away. Amazingly, Gage survived and he lived for another 12 years after the accident. However his personality had changed completely – once polite and courteous he became rude and impulsive, and could never hold down another job.

Examinations of Gage’s skull show that the bar exited his head through the frontal region of his brain. Damasio et al (1994) were able to re-examine Gage’s brain using modern imaging techniques and modelled which brain areas were likely to have been affected. They found that the bar would have missed the language and motor areas, instead damaging an area known as the ventromedial frontal cortex. This area is thought to be responsible for regulating both emotions and behaviour, which explains the changes in Gage’s personality after his accident.

gage

Accounts of Gage’s deficits after his injury suggest that he had problems with executive functioning after the accident. This term covers any kind of control we have over our behaviours, such as impulse control, problem solving and verbal fluency (e.g the Stroop test). Other studies exploring executive functions in people with frontal lobe lesions have also found that severity of a lesion is associated with worse scores on tasks designed to test these skills (e.g. Foong et al, 1997). However, it should be noted that the frontal lobe has high levels of connectivity with other areas of the brain, therefore it is unlikely that the frontal lobe alone is responsible for all aspects of executive function (Alvarez & Emory, 2006).

Interestingly, the frontal lobe has also been implicated in neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD, as they also often feature impulsivity and impaired behaviour control. One neuroimaging study found that children with ADHD showed an inverse relationship between symptom severity and surface area of the frontal lobe (Dirlikov et al, 2015). However, more research is needed to explore the causal direction of this relationship.

Thanks for reading – see you next week for another post!

References:

Alvarez, J.A. and Emory, E., 2006. Executive function and the frontal lobes: a meta-analytic review. Neuropsychology review16(1), pp.17-42.

Damasio, H., Grabowski, T., Frank, R., Galaburda, A.M. and Damasio, A.R., 1994. The return of Phineas Gage: clues about the brain from the skull of a famous patient. Science264(5162), pp.1102-1105.

Dirlikov, B., Rosch, K.S., Crocetti, D., Denckla, M.B., Mahone, E.M. and Mostofsky, S.H., 2015. Distinct frontal lobe morphology in girls and boys with ADHD. Neuroimage: Clinical7, pp.222-229.

Foong, J., Rozewicz, L., Quaghebeur, G., Davie, C.A., Kartsounis, L.D., Thompson, A.J., Miller, D.H. and Ron, M.A., 1997. Executive function in multiple sclerosis. The role of frontal lobe pathology. Brain: a journal of neurology120(1), pp.15-26.

 

Seeing faces

This week’s post is inspired by some conversations I had over Halloween which got me thinking. Why are faces everywhere at this time of year (think carved pumpkins and ghost masks), and what makes them scary? Last year I wrote about the science behind horror movies and why we find things creepy. But what is it about some shapes carved into a pumpkin that makes us see a ‘face’, even though we know it is just an inanimate object?

david-menidrey-417820-unsplash

Humans have an uncanny ability to see faces in almost anything, not just pumpkins. We see the images of celebrities in toast, add eyelashes to our car’s headlights and assign personalities to buildings (small windows make it look suspicious – google it if you don’t believe me). This phenomenon even has a name – pareidolia.

The brain is so good at identifying faces, there is even a part of the brain specialised for this very function. The fusiform face area is located in the fusiform gyrus in a part of the temporal cortex responsible for processing visual stimuli. Whilst not without controversy, evidence to support the existence of an area specialised for face processing has been shown in neuroimaging studies (Kanwisher et al, 1997) as well as in the condition of prosopagnosia, or face blindness (Farah et al, 1995). People with prosopagnosia are impaired at recognising whole faces, and can in fact be better at seeing scrambled or inverted forms instead.

As well as being an important area in recognising real faces, the fusiform face area is also thought to be involved in seeing these other types of illusory faces (Lui et al, 2014). This study used fMRI to measure activation in the fusiform face area whilst participants were shown random noise stimuli and were told to find either faces or letters, and found most activation in this area when participants were identifying faces in the patterns they were shown.

And why are these illusory faces creepy? One theory is that they look familiar, but there’s something not quite right about them. It is then this uncertainty that leads us to find some ghostly faces scary.

Thanks for reading – as ever please leave a comment if you liked this post, and let me know about any future topics you’d like to see covered on freudforthought!

References:

Farah, M.J., Wilson, K.D., Drain, H.M. and Tanaka, J.R., 1995. The inverted face inversion effect in prosopagnosia: Evidence for mandatory, face-specific perceptual mechanisms. Vision research35(14), pp.2089-2093.

Kanwisher, N., McDermott, J. and Chun, M.M., 1997. The fusiform face area: a module in human extrastriate cortex specialized for face perception. Journal of neuroscience17(11), pp.4302-4311.

Liu, J., Li, J., Feng, L., Li, L., Tian, J. and Lee, K., 2014. Seeing Jesus in toast: neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex53, pp.60-77.

Youth Mental Health

There’s been a lot of stories in the news recently about young people’s mental health. More young people than ever before are being referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), young people are experiencing delays in trying to access treatment, and they can also have problems continuing to access care when they reach the upper age limit of CAMHS. But why is there an apparent crisis within youth mental health services?

oliver-cole-232552-unsplash

We know that there has been an increase in the number of young people who are experiencing problems in their mental health, whether this is due to an increased incidence, increased awareness and identification, or both.  Adolescence in particular is a period of increased risk of the onset of mental illness, with three quarters of all mental illness beginning by the age of 24, and half by the age of 14 (Kessler et al, 1995). Current estimates suggest that about 1 in 10 children in the UK under the age of 16 are affected by some form of mental health problem (Murphy & Fonagy, 2012).

Despite this life stage being a period of high risk for mental illness, young people can often be the group who are least likely to access help (MacKinnon and Colman, 2016) and are difficult to engage in care (O’Brien et al., 2009). As identified in some of the news articles linked above, when young people do try to access help they are often turned away as they are not ill enough for treatment. This is something I have also experienced through my work as a researcher on MILESTONE (Tuomainen et al, 2018), a project which is aiming to improve mental health services for young people. As adult services have much higher thresholds for care than children’s services, once young people reach the upper age limit of CAMHS they may be told they are not ill enough to qualify for ongoing care. If there is no service for these young people to be transferred to, many drop out of treatment all together.

Some of these problems have been attributed to services being under-resourced and under-funded. For example, one survey of child psychotherapists found that 61% of respondents said that the main NHS service they work in was facing downsizing (ACP, 2018). The current problems in CAMHS were also having a negative impact on both the quality of care they were able to provide, and staff morale. This report also identified a decline in the number of specialist services for young people, and inadequacies caused by the unsuccessful redesign of services.

One commissioner for CAMHS services in London has identified some specific targets to improve, including faster access to crisis teams, extending opening hours of existing services, and reducing the number of young people sent to inpatient units in a different part of the country (Cassell, 2018). It would be my hope that these changes are adopted throughout the country, and that young people and their families are able to access timely and appropriate care.

References:

ACP (2018) ‘Silent Catastrophe’ Further evidence of NHS CAMHS failing children and young people with most severe needs. Association of Child Psychotherapists, London.

Cassell (2018). NHS England. Accessed 19/10/18 https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/transforming-child-and-adolescent-mental-health-services/

Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R. & Walters, E. E. (2005) Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication. Archives of general psychiatry, 62, 593-602.

Mackinnon, N. & Colman, I. (2016) Factors associated with suicidal thought and help-seeking behaviour in transition-aged youth versus adults. The Canadian journal of psychiatry, 61, 789-796.

Murphy, M. & Fonagy, P. (2012) Mental health problems in children and young people. Annual report of the chief medical officer, 1-13.

Tuomainen, H., Schulze, U., Warwick, J., Paul, M., Dieleman, G. C., Franić, T., Madan, J., Maras, A., Mcnicholas, F., Purper-Ouakil, D., Santosh, P., Signorini, G., Street, C., Tremmery, S., Verhulst, F. C., Wolke, D. & Singh, S. P. (2018) Managing the link and strengthening transition from child to adult mental health care in Europe (MILESTONE): background, rationale and methodology. BMC psychiatry, 18, 167.

Yoga and mental health

Yoga is something that I really enjoy, and try to practice at least 3 times a week. As well as doing something which challenges me physically, I have found that yoga has been so useful for my mind. It helps me to switch off, something which I can find quite difficult, and I definitely feel more relaxed afterwards. I wanted to write this post to explore what other benefits yoga can have for mental health and wellbeing.

jared-rice-388260-unsplash

Several studies have explored the impact of yoga on stress reduction in an otherwise health population. Some of these findings were synthesised in a recent systematic review by Sharma (2014). This review found that although some of the included studies were of poor quality, there is sufficient evidence to show that yoga has benefits for reducing stress in a variety of settings and populations. Another systematic review has explored why yoga can help to reduce stress (Riley & Park, 2015). They examined different mechanisms by which yoga could reduce stress, both psychological (e.g. mindfulness, increased self-awareness) and physiological (lowering cortisol levels, decrease in stress biomarkers in brain activity), however concluded that there is currently not enough evidence to draw any firm conclusions.

Researchers have also explored whether yoga can have a positive impact for people with anxiety or depression. One study compared anxiety levels of women before and after completing two 90 minute yoga classes for two months, and compared these with a control group (Javnbakht et al 2009). They found that participants who took part in yoga classes showed a significant decrease in anxiety, compared to participants in the wait list group.  A systematic review has explored the impact of yoga on depressive symptoms (Pilkington et al, 2005. Again, whilst the findings show a positive impact, the authors stress that the results should be interpreted with caution due a variability in study methods and quality.

Yoga can also have some benefits for physical health conditions, in particular helping to reduce pain (Büssing et al 2012). The authors hypothesise that this could be due to improved flexibility, calmness, and focusing the mind, which reduces anxiety. More research is needed to explore other potential benefits of yoga in physical health conditions.

 

References:

Büssing, A., Michalsen, A., Khalsa, S.B.S., Telles, S. and Sherman, K.J., 2012. Effects of yoga on mental and physical health: a short summary of reviews. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2012.

Javnbakht, M., Kenari, R.H. and Ghasemi, M., 2009. Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women. Complementary therapies in clinical practice15(2), pp.102-104.

Pilkington, K., Kirkwood, G., Rampes, H. and Richardson, J., 2005. Yoga for depression: the research evidence. Journal of affective disorders89(1-3), pp.13-24.

Riley, K.E. and Park, C.L., 2015. How does yoga reduce stress? A systematic review of mechanisms of change and guide to future inquiry. Health psychology review9(3), pp.379-396.

Sharma, M., 2014. Yoga as an alternative and complementary approach for stress management: a systematic review. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine19(1), pp.59-67.

Shyness

How would you describe shyness? Stereotypically, shy people are portrayed as being quiet, often loners who don’t want to stand out from the crowd, but is this really true? I was inspired to write this post whilst reading Quiet by Susan Cain, as it really got me thinking. What is shyness, and why do we see it as a disadvantage?

In her book, Cain starts by explaining the difference between shyness and introversion (for more on introversion, read my post here). Introversion is a personality trait in which people prefer lower amounts of stimulation, they may choose to spend time in their own company rather than with others or prefer quiet over loud music. Shyness, on the other hand, is more about how we perceive other’s judgments of ourselves, in particular a fear of looking silly or being disliked. Of course it’s possible to be an introvert and be shy, but they don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand.

shy

Shyness is also separate from society anxiety disorder – a type of anxiety disorder in which individuals have an extreme fear of social situations and will often try to avoid them all together. Whereas shyness is a personality trait and isn’t necessarily negative, social anxiety disorder involves intense anxiety during social interactions, for example when meeting new people or speaking up in front of others (Stein & Stein, 2008).

Cain argues that shyness and introversion aren’t inherently negative personality traits, despite the fact that modern society often prioritises people who fit within a more extroverted personality type. As a child who was often shy, I have consciously tried to move away from this label as I’ve got older, both socially and at work. I’m also definitely an introvert as I need to recharge by relaxing alone. I wouldn’t classify myself as shy now, despite the fact that I don’t always feel comfortable speaking in public (I feel that’s quite normal!). Although trying to push myself out of my comfort zone to alleviate some feelings of shyness has helped me, reading Quiet definitely made me reconsider how I view shyness and introversion, and view them in a much more positive light.

What are your thoughts on shyness and introversion? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

 

References:

Cain, S., 2013. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Broadway Books.

Stein, M.B. and Stein, D.J., 2008. Social anxiety disorder. The Lancet371(9618), pp.1115-1125.

 

Food and Mental Health

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you are what you eat”, but can the food we eat affect not only our physical health, but our mental health too? A relatively new branch of research has started to investigate the links between our diets and our mental health, with really interesting results coming from this field so far.

Research studying the links between diet and mental health have found evidence to suggest that a poorer diet is correlated with some types of common mental illness. For example, Jacka et al (2011) studied the diets and mental health of over 5700 adults in Norway and found that participants who ate a better quality diet (for example one containing more fruit & vegetables, fish, wine (!) and unprocessed meats) were less likely to have depression. This study also found a link between a higher intake of processed and fatty foods and increased levels of anxiety. Another study exploring the link between diet quality and mental health in Wales has also shown similar results, although only in the female participants (Cook & Benton, 1993).

One study which explored the link between diet and mental health is the SMILES trial (Jacka et al, 2017), which compared a dietary intervention to a social support control for participants with depression. Participants were randomised to each of these groups, and over a 12 week period either received a dietary intervention which aimed to improve the overall quality of their diet by incorporating foods from the Mediterranean diet, or the social support control. The image below shows the basis of the dietary intervention.

ModiMedDiet-Food-Pyramid

This study found that participants who received the dietary intervention reported a significantly larger reduction in depressive symptoms at the end of the 12 week period than those in the control group. At the end of the study, 10 of the 33 participants in the intervention group had experienced such a reduction in symptoms that they were classified as being in remission, compared to 2 out of 34 in the control group.

Although the above study involved relatively small numbers of participants, the results of this trial show promising results of the impact of a good quality diet and improvements in mental health. Results of studies such as these suggest that lifestyle interventions such as diet could be one effective (and cost effective) way of helping individuals to manage their mental health. However, it must be noted that dietary interventions are not being suggested as a method to replace treatments such as medication or CBT, but a method to work in conjunction with them.

If you want to find out more about how the food you eat impacts on your mental health, then MIND have some really useful tips e.g. making sure you stay hydrated, managing your caffeine intake and eating enough protein are simply ways to start. Follow the link here for more information.

If you found this post interesting and want to read more about potential links to our diet and mental health, why not read my post on the gut microbiome and mental health here?

References:

Cook, R. and Benton, D., 1993. The relationship between diet and mental health. Personality and individual differences14(3), pp.397-403.

http://foodandmoodcentre.com.au/media/smiles-trial/

Jacka, F.N., Mykletun, A., Berk, M., Bjelland, I. and Tell, G.S., 2011. The association between habitual diet quality and the common mental disorders in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health study. Psychosomatic medicine73(6), pp.483-490.

Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R., Itsiopoulos, C., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M.L. and Brazionis, L., 2017. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’trial). BMC medicine15(1), p.23.

 

Childhood Amnesia

Have you ever wondered why you have so few memories of your early childhood? This phenomenon is called childhood or infantile amnesia, and is thought to occur up to around the age of 4 or 5 (Perner & Ruffman, 1995). It is our episodic memories which are affected by childhood amnesia – that is memories about our lives, as opposed to semantic memory (facts and knowledge about the world) or procedural memory ( e.g. how to ride a bike). Knowing that only one type of memory is affected is a start, but what does this tell us about the causes of childhood amnesia?

Infancy is a time of major brain development, as the human brain increases in size by fourfold from infancy to adulthood, due mainly to increased connections between neurons (Hayne, 2004). Therefore, it may be logical to suggest that childhood amnesia is a result of the areas of the brain responsibly for long term memory not being sufficiently developed for long term retrieval. Alberini & Travaglia (2017) argue for the existence of a “developmental critical period” of the hippocampal memory system. We know that the hippocampus, a structure in the temporal lobe (see image below) is responsible for storage and retrieval of episodic memories (for a more detailed overview of the hippocampus’s role in memory, see my previous posts here and here). Alberini & Travaglia hypothesise that childhood amnesia is caused by the immaturity of the hippocampal memory system, as the hippocampus is not fully developed until about 3-5 years of age.

memory-neurodewvelopmen-hippocampus-neurosciencenews

 

An alternative theory of the neural mechanisms of childhood amnesia involves the structures in the brain responsible for language, rather than memory processing. This theory partly originated as the ages affected by childhood amnesia coincide with a period of limited language abilities. This has led to some scientists suggesting that childhood amnesia is caused by infants being unable to verbalise their memories. As infants cannot encode memories in a linguistic format, they may not be able to recall them or use linguistic cues to aid retrieval (Haynes, 2004).

There has also been debate about the importance of early memories – if we do forget our early experiences then is it true that our early experiences shape our later development? One theory as to how these forgotten memories impact later lives was proposed by Li et al (2014), who proposed that a physical memory trace exists, even once the memory has been forgotten. The memory has been forgotten due to a problem with retrieval from long term memory, rather than a decay of the memory trace itself. This research links back to the differences between implicit and explicit memory, and suggests that childhood amnesia mainly occurs with explicit memories.

Thanks for reading – see you next Thursday for a new post!

References:

Alberini, C.M. and Travaglia, A., 2017. Infantile amnesia: a critical period of learning to learn and remember. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(24), pp.5783-5795.

Li, S., Callaghan, B.L. and Richardson, R., 2014. Infantile amnesia: forgotten but not gone. Learning & Memory21(3), pp.135-139.

Perner, J. and Ruffman, T., 1995. Episodic memory and autonoetic conciousness: developmental evidence and a theory of childhood amnesia. Journal of experimental child psychology59(3), pp.516-548.