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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Am Manic, will focus; Am sad, will drift

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Attention can be focused or it can be diffused. Attentional focus has been shown to be affected by mood or affect; with positive affect leading to a broadening of attentional focus;  and negative affect, in general been shown to be associated with a narrowing of focus.

However, Gable and Harmon-Jones argue that emotion or affect is not a uni-dimensional construct, but has at least two dimensions: affective valence- i.e. whether it is felt as pleasurable or dis-pleasurable; and motivational  direction- i.e. the action tendency to approach or avoid in pursuit of a preventive/promotional goal.

Much work on emotions has emphasized that they have a number of underlying dimensions. Two dimensions that have received considerable attention are affective valence, the felt pleasure or displeasure, and motivational direction, the action tendency associated with a particular emotional state—approach or withdrawal. Approach motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to go toward an object, whereas withdrawal motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to move away from an object.

They also argue that much of the extant literature on emotion-attention linkage has focused on emotional valence alone, with just one type of motivational direction, and thus has not clarified the (in)dependent role of valence and motivational direction as regards to attention.

Thus, for e.g., the finding that positive emotions lead to  broadening of attention is focused on such research as emotions of joy, contentment etc that are low in approach motivation and are emotions felt after the goal has been reached.

Similarly, the research that has found that negative emotions lead to narrowing of focus have relied on emotions such as fear, anger etc that are high in withdrawal motivation and are pre-goal.

I believe, it is important to step back a little here and go back to our conception of happiness-ennui (mental well-being) continuum and sadness-mania (mental illness) continuum. Another way to conceptualize them is to see sadness having negative valence and low withdrawal motivation – it is passive; mania as having positive valence and high approach motivation- mania is characterized by immense desire for a goal and is pre -goal. Happiness is post goal emotion and is characterized by positive valence and low approach motivation- you have already reached the goal and do not need to exert much efforts in goal directed activity; ennui/boredom/listlessness is negative in valence and has high withdrawal motivation- it is pre-goal- a search for a worthwhile goal.

Another way to make the difference stark is employ the terminology of Berridge et al: happiness is related to liking and the opioid system; while mania is related to wanting and the dopamine system.  Depression/sadness  is related to disliking /feeling pain while ennui/boredom is related to dreading the outcome/feeling anxious (nothing to do and hence life is useless/meaningless!..anxiety but existential anxiety). Berridghe et al have shown that wanting/liking and dreading/disliking differ and have different neural and neurochemichal correlates.

To become a little philosophical, the wanting/disliking  mental illness continuum leading to mania or depression in extremes is to be avoided (thus the dictum of all religions to shun desire/ be stoic) while the happiness-ennui/boredom/existential anxiety system is more preferable where you focus on liking positive outcomes and dreading negative/neutral ones. While the former, to paraphrase Freud,  is the hysterical misery at worst, the latter is common unhappiness at worst.

But anyway that was long detour. Lets get back to the studies by Gable et al.

In the first study, the authors showed that motivational direction was relevant and was the reason behind the positivity-broadening of attentional focus effect. they showed that positive emotions lead to broadening of attention only in low approach motivation condition; but when the positive emotion had high approach motivation (emotions like desire. engagement etc), the positive affect lead to narrowing of focus.

Now a brief detour into methodology: the attentional focus is usually measured using local-global tasks whereby it is determined whether one is paying attention to global features or local features of an ambiguous/mixed stimuli. For eg, the most popular of these consists of a global big H made up of smaller (say 5 in number) F’s and then determining whether the subject notices the global H or the local F. Details can be seen in the Gable papers which are open access.

Now the authors found robust support for their hypothesis that it is the motivational direction and not affective valence that determines the attentional focus. They also relate it to adaptivity.

Positive affects, particularly those low in approach motivation, suggest a comfortable, stable environment and allow for a broadening of attention and cognition, which may serve adaptive functions (Carver, 2003; Fredrickson, 2001). However, broadening does not occur when positive affects are high in approach motivation. Such positive affects often encourage specific action tendencies, such as tenacious goal pursuit, and an associated reduction in attentional breadth. This reduced attentional breadth may prove adaptive, as it assists in obtaining goals.

They also extend these finding to negative affects and depression etc and I can easily relate them to earlier work I have covered regarding the danger or safety of environment and promotional/ preventive focus:

Together with past research, the present research supports the idea that low- and high-approach-motivated positive affect produce opposite effects on attentional breadth. It is possible that the intensity of withdrawal motivation exerts similar attentional effects; that is, low-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause broadening, whereas high-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause reduction in breadth. Indeed, such an interpretation would fit with past research. For example, individuals with depression, a low-intensity motivation, are more creative than nondepressed individuals (Andreasen, 1987) and show broadening of attention and memory (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005). In the case of low-motivated negative affects such as sadness and depression, “a more open, unfocused, unselective, low-effort mode of attention would prove not deficient but, on the contrary, beneficial” (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005, p. 456), as one disengages from a terminally blocked goal and becomes open to new possibilities (Klinger, 1975). The past research that found negative affect caused decreased attentional breadth may have evoked negative affective states that were high in withdrawal motivation (e.g., fear; Gasper & Clore, 2002).

This brings me to their current paper , aptly titled , The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows, that found exactly the effect hypothesized above that sadness/depressive mood was related to broadening of attention, while disgust, a negative emotion with high withdrawal motivation was related to narrowing of focus. they also found that the effect of negative emotion was mediated by arousal which could stand as a proxy for motivational direction.

These two experiments revealed that the relationship between negative affect and attentional precedence is more complex than commonly thought. In line with past theory and evidence, Experiment 2 demonstrated that negative affect caused a narrowing of attention. However, this narrowing occurred only when negative affect was high in motivational intensity. When negative affect was low in motivational intensity, in Experiment 1, it caused a broadening of attention. These results are consistent with the idea that the effect of emotion on local/global precedence is not due to negative versus positive affect, but is instead due to motivational intensity. Positive and negative affects of low motivational intensity broaden attention, whereas positive and negative affects of high motivational intensity narrow attention.

To me this is sufficient, clinching and converging proof of the theories I have been trying to develop with regards to emotions (specifically mania, depression, happiness and despair) and make clear that there are at least two dimensions to happiness/sadness and mental well being/illness constructs. Perhaps if we start liking what we have and stop coveting or wanting more, we have a philosophical, religious, as well as now a psychological, blueprint for how to lead the good life and how to avoid a living hell.

Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows: Attentional Consequences of Negative Affects Low and High in Motivational Intensity Psychological Science, 21 (2), 211-215 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359622
Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2008). Approach-Motivated Positive Affect Reduces Breadth of Attention Psychological Science, 19 (5), 476-482 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02112.x

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Dopamine and theory of mind: another autism/schizophrenia dichotomy

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There is an article in press in Neuropsyhcologia by Lackner et al that related Dopamine (DA) levels as measured by Eye Blink Rate (EBR) to preschoolers (3-5 yrs old) Representational theory of Mind (RTM).

The authors hypothesized that as one of the neural correlates of RTM is dMPFC, and as dMPFC has dopamine receptors and is innervated by dopmainergic projections along the dopamine mesocortical pathways , hence perhaps it is the dopamine’s tonic and phasic levels that may be correlated with and have a causal role in the preschoolers’ developing RTM abilities.

3-5 years is a critical period in which the RTM abilities are developing in a normal kid and are first found to be deficient in autistic kids. another linkage the authors seem relevant, but which I don’t agree to much, is the error -prediction theory of dopamine. They believe that ToM/RTM abilities develop when one takes into account the behavior of others and finds discrepancies in ones own knowledge and why they act based on certain different assumptions and by realizing this error of prediction modifies ones understanding of others and starts attributing a mind to them. The authors believe that phasic dopamine which has error prediction functions may be affecting RTM via this pathway too; I find that not very convincing.

However, their basic premise that tonic or baseline dopamine affects RTM abilite seems to be on firm ground and they found support for this hypothesis. They did not measure DA levels directly , but instead relied on Eye Bink Rate (EBR) which is a robuts predictor of overall dopamine in the mesolimbic pathways via the caudate nucleus dopamine levels. They also did not measure EBR directly but measured it using EEG waveforms of relevant brain regions above the eyes.

The RTM tasks they used and the Response -conflict executive function (RC-EF) tasks they used are very simple and intuitive and I refer the reader to methods section to pursue them in detail. For our purpose it is sufficient to mention that RTM did not include the famous anne-sally false belief task but had other variants like false belief location task etc.

Their findings were unequivocal. They found that DA levels as gauged from EBR were a significant predictors of RTM abilities and the effect was not mediated by a possible confound- that of RTM and RC-EF linkages and correlations.

For our purposes what is most important is the direction of the effect . More DA levels were associated with better RTM ; while lower DA was associated with lower RTM performance. This is consistent with the DA relation of Schizophrenia/Autism one of which has higher DA levels and better ToM; while the other both poorer ToM and lower baseline DA. To quote:

These findings dovetail with other research connecting dopamine and representational theory of mind in autistic and schizophrenic populations. Both autism and schizophrenia have been associated with RTM impairment (Pickup, 2008; Sabbagh,2004; Savina & Beninger, 2007) and dysregulation of DA (Braver, Barch, & Cohen, 1999; Lam, Aman, & Arnold, 2006). For instance, in the case of schizophrenia there is some evidence that increased levels of frontal dopamine, as a consequence of the pharmacological activity of some atypical antipsychotics, leads to increased performance on RTM tasks (Savina & Beninger, 2007). The present study added to this body of literature by demonstrating associations between RTM and DA in typically developing children. Considered together, this further supports the hypothesis that dopaminergic functioning plays a role in RTM development.

As always, I am excited by more support for Autism and Psychosis as opposites theory and belive this further cements the case and shows possible neurochemichal mechanisms underlying the difference.

Lackner, C., Bowman, L., & Sabbagh, M. (2010). Dopaminergic functioning and preschoolers’ theory of mind Neuropsychologia DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.02.027

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The way the worm wiggles

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Once in a while you come across a study article that is so elegant and lucid that you have to blog about it. A not-son recent, but new to me  article in PLOS computational biology by Stephens et al is just such an awesome and well written article that despite being outside my comfort zone and expertise area I feel driven to write about it and bring it forth  to a wider audience(which it rightfully deserves).

The article reduces the spontaneous motion and shapes thereof of nematode worm on an agar plate  to low dimensionality and finds using principal component analysis (PCA) and eignevectors approach , that four factors (eigenvectors or  eigenworms as the authors call them) were sufficient to describe the spontaneous motion/ shape of the nematode worm C elegans, These four dimensions were able to account for 95 % of the variance in the shape of the worm.

The authors measured the curvature of the worm as it moved on the agar plate and found that the actual shape at any instant can be easily represented by projections along the four dimensions/eigenworms and that these were sufficient and no higher dimension representation were needed.

The first two modes or eigenworms were sinuous in nature and were related to a traveling wave down the worms body. The speed of phase change was related to the speed of the forward/backward ,motion of the worm.

The third eigneworm was related to the turning behavior of the worm  while the fourth eigneworm was related to teh fact that the head and tail of the worm can move independently and thus there was a small effect at the head and tail region of the fourth mode/eigenworm.

This decomposition of shape and spontaneous movement was what I found most attractive and understandable. they later found that there were attractor state in the seemingly chaotic worm motion and that if the external stimuli (thermal stimuli having no directionality) was applied to the worm when it was in a proper state then it can cause it to turn in a predictable direction. they were thus , with the help of thermal stimuli, able to ‘steer’ the worm.

To me this is one of best exemplars of how difficult to understand scientific concepts can be easily explained to lay audiences using a combination fo great text and equally great accompanying figures.  The article was published in open access PLOS so rush over and have a look yourself.

Stephens, G., Johnson-Kerner, B., Bialek, W., & Ryu, W. (2008). Dimensionality and Dynamics in the Behavior of C. elegans PLoS Computational Biology, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000028

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Chronic stress, neurogenesis and depression

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Chronically stressful life events have been shown to lead to depression. Chronic stress leads to hyperactivity of HPA axis leading to more glucocorticoids (cortisol) in the human body. This excess cortisol in term is proposed to underlie the affective symptoms of depression. Also, depressive people have been found to have up to 20% smaller hippocampal volume, and a recent theory is gaining ground that depression is due to reduced neurogenesis. Even if the entire spectrum of depressive symptoms is not due to reduced neurogenesis and atrophied or smaller hippocampus, at least the cognitive symptoms of depression are largely due to this.

I stumbled upon a commentary by Robert Sapolsky that although is 10 years old, but I still found interesting and worth bringing to notice of my dear readers. In it Sapolsky looks at a study by Czeh et al that found evidence linking reduced proliferation in dentate gyrus and a shrunken hippocampus to depressive stress as modeled by psycho-social stress paradigm in tree shrew. Also, they found that an antidepressant, tianeptine, reversed the effects of stress by restoring proliferation and hippocampus size and thus reversing symptoms of depression. However the level of glucorticiods were still higher, after anti-depressant treatment, and thus it is apparent that anti-depressants work downstream of stress induced increase in glucorticoids.

Sapolsky believes that the data support either of models presented in figure 1A or figure 1B i.e. the increased glucocrticoids can lead to shrinkage of hippocampus directly or through their effect on affective symptoms. I believe figure 1C is also possible and its not necessarily incompatible with 1A or 1B and that increased stress may lead to increased cortisol- may lead to reduced neurogenesis may lead to shrinkage of hippocampus and which may in turn lead to affective and cognitive symptoms.

An alternative to reduced neurogenesis/ proliferation theory is the dendritic atrophy/ neurotoxicity theory that posits that shrinkage of hippocampus is due to cell death/ white matter loss. This again is a possibility but the evidence in favor of reduced neurogenesis is growing and becoming strong by the day.

Overall the new paradigms in depression research that look beyond serotonin or mono amine imbalance is a welcome trend and hopefully would lead to better interventions and prevention strategies and not just better pharmaceutical innovations. Its time one realized the rile chronic stress play sin depression and how that can be easily prevented to reduce the mental health burden.

Sapolsky, R. (2001). Depression, antidepressants, and the shrinking hippocampus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (22), 12320-12322 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.231475998
Czeh, B. (2001). Stress-induced changes in cerebral metabolites, hippocampal volume, and cell proliferation are prevented by antidepressant treatment with tianeptine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (22), 12796-12801 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.211427898

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Happiness opposed to despair/ennui; sadness to anger/irritability

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We normally view happiness and sadness to be opposites on a single continuum, but I propose that it is time to change the textbooks and view happiness as opposed to ennui/despair and sadness as opposed to anger/irritability when it comes to basic opponent affects.

But before we go down that path first a detour.

I recently read Flourishing: edited by Keyes & Haidt , and the last article by Keyes caught my attention. I looked up a few more articles by Keyes and found this one that again elaborates on the theory put forward in the book chapter.

The point Keyes wants to make is that mental illness and mental health are two different things and are relatively independent of each other. Traditionally mental health has been conceptualized as the absence of mental illness, but Keyes says that our intuitions are incorrect here and mental health is another, parallel continuum on which people can differ.

Throughout human history, there have been three conceptions of health.The pathogenic approach is the first, most historically dominant vision, derived from the Greek word pathos, meaning suffering or an emotion evoking sympathy. The pathogenic approach views health as the absence of disability, disease, and premature death. The second approach is the salutogenic approach, which can be found in early Greek writings and was popularized by Antonovsky (1979) and humanistic scholarship (e.g., Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow). Derived from the word salus, meaning health, the salutogenic approach views health as the presence of positive states of human capacities and functioning in thinking, feeling, and behavior (Stru¨mpfer, 1995). The third approach is the complete state model, which derives from the ancient word for health as being hale, meaning whole and strong. This approach is exemplified in the World Health Organization’s (1948) definition of overall health as a complete state, consisting of the presence of a positive state of human capacities and functioning as well as the absence of disease or infirmity. By subsuming the pathogenic and salutogenic paradigms, the whole states approach is, in my opinion, the only paradigm that can achieve true population health.

Thus when we talk of whole states mental health we are basically talking about two related things- a mental illness or disability dimension and a flourishing or mental health dimension. Keyes et al have performed confirmatory factor analysis on measure used to measure mental health and illness and found that the data is best explained by two latent factors-one related to flourishing and the other to illness.

This is how they define mental health or flourishing dimension.

Until recently, mental health remained undefined, unmeasured, and therefore unrecognized at the level of governments and nongovernmental organizations. In 1999, the Surgeon General, then David Satcher, conceived of mental health as “a state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity” (U.S. Public Health Service, 1999, p. 4). In 2004, the World Health Organization published a historic first report on mental health promotion, conceptualizing mental health as not merely the absence of mental illness but the presence of “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (World Health Organization, 2004, p. 12).

Keyes comes up with 13 symptoms of mental health and these include Positive emotions (i.e., emotional well-being) including positive affect and avowed quality of life; Positive psychological functioning (i.e., psychological well-being) consisting of self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy (see Keyes & Ryff, 1999); and Positive social functioning (i.e., social well-being) consisting of social coherence, social actualization, social integration, social acceptance, and social contribution. In DSM style they propose that individuals exhibit some minimum symptoms to classify as flourishing and those with very low scores be classified as languishing.

To be diagnosed as flourishing in life, individuals must exhibit high levels on at least one measure of hedonic well-being and high levels on at least six measures of positive functioning. Individuals who exhibit low levels on at least one measure of hedonic well-being and low levels on at least six measures of positive functioning are diagnosed as languishing in life. Adults who are moderately mentally healthy do not fit the criteria for either flourishing or languishing in life.

Keyes then goes on to show the costs of languishing and not focusing on mental health and why a narrow focus on cure/prevention of mental illness is detrimental, but that is beside the point as to today’s topic. what is most important take way for today is that there are two separate factors of mental health and mental illness.

This brings us back to the affects- happiness, sadness, ennui/despair and anger/irritability. Consider for a moment depression. It is an illness characterized by sad mood and anhedonia etc. Consider its counterpart on the illness spectrum. while a normal person not having depression may seem the counterpart, the real counterpart is mania which often has a angry/irritable mood (alongside euphoria) associated with it. Also depression is characterized as a reaction to losses/continuous exposure to stresses that makes goals out of reach/unachievable. Here the focus is preventive in nature- the state does not deteriorate further and goals do not remain unmet. However, depression or sad mood is also an avoidance reaction. One becomes withdrawn from the situation and does not fight the stress, but flights from the stress by withdrawing in a cocoon. The loss of appetite and more sleep can be seen as behavioral counterparts of withdrawing or exhibiting a flight response to stress.

As opposed to this, mania can be seen behaviorally as an active approach state in which one works actively towards the things required to overcome the loss of valued entity/life goal. Again, I propose that mania is a reaction to a situation similar to depression – when something is lost/ is under threat of losing- but this time , under stress, one fights and not flights- thus one becomes energized to right the wrong and may become angry/ irritable if the efforts to retain goals/ valued entities are frustrated by external world. It is important that both mania and depression are on the illness scale of functioning/ mental health and are a result of life trauma/ stress/ perceived/ real/ threat of loss of loved object/person. Thus the focus is preventive and the state is of scarcity.

Contrast this to a state of abundance when ones (life) goals have been met/ are within reach.// This apparent positive state of affairs may again give rise to different emotions/ behavioral manifestations depending on whether one has approach or avoidance dominant reaction. If one approaches the more free time available after goal accomplishment as a boon that can be used to home ones hobbies/find other meaning in life/ build relationships etc and not as a threat ( free time can be a threat) then one experiences positive emotion of happiness and behaviorally flourishes.

In contrast consider a similar person who has achieved everything in life – (a good job, wife, kids etc ) , but given the fact that one is living in abundance is frightened or flights from the free time that has been made available. that person will be listless, will exhibit ennui or boredom and may even exhibit despair as he finds life meaningless. Thus behaviorally he would languish.

Thus, I rest my case that happiness is opposed to ennui/despair while sadness is opposed to anger/irritability and while happiness is a measure of flourishing; sadness is a measure of illness. One can definitely conduct experiments , perform factor analysis to confirm, that indeed happiness and sadness is not a unitary construct, but are two separate but related dimensions. I would love to hear your comments.

Keyes, C. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychologist, 62 (2), 95-108 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.2.95

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