Human Behavioral Biology
I believe in the use of electronic media to help people improve their mental health. So far I have designed only one app for this purpose, but hope to find time for more.
(Programmed by Steinar Grinde)
How to use the app
The app provides a voice that helps you get started on relevant training sessions. The principles are applicable for all sorts of brain exercise, but the app focuses on workout designed to improve well-being; that is, to affect your daily conscious experiences by elevating your mood. The words and imagery suggested by the voice are meant to help you engage the right modules of the brain. It is there to guide you, like a coach urging you to go on, but your mind has to do the exercise. The voice disappears after three-four minutes for you to continue on your own.
The sessions starts with a gong. There is a timer you can set that will count down and deliver a second gong at the end, or you can stop the session by pushing the End or the Pause buttons. The time spent is recorded in order to keep track of your exercises. It is possible to choose among the following five programs:
1. Meditative state. Here the focus is on getting into a meditative state. The session is also useful if you have designed your own words or imagery catering to the particular problems you wish to focus on. Most people experience the meditative state as pleasant, and they typically cultivate that feeling; thus even basic meditation offers an exercise in both turning off misery and turning on joy.
2. Anxiety. The text is tuned to general anxiety, but personal sentences may be added, such as “I like spiders”, or “it feels great to talk to a crowd”.
3. Compassion. Tibetan Buddhists use a lot of compassion meditation. There is a double advantage: For one, social life offers some of the strongest brain rewards, by thinking of others in positive terms you exercise these feelings; and two, the practice turns you into a more sympathetic person, which leads to more friendship and thus the opportunity to harvest the rewards in real life as well. Not to mention the advantages for society if everybody trained compassion.
4. Good mood. The exercise is designed to strengthen the modules delivering positive feelings.
5. No voice. This is meant for those who do not need any helping voice, but want to use the timer, and record the time spent for the log.
The unique feature of the app is to use the meditative state as a support for engaging parts of the brain involved with mood. Although meditation in itself can be highly beneficial for well-being, even more is gained by a concerted effort aimed at boosting relevant modules; more specifically, the off switch for bad feelings (exercise 2), and the on switch for pleasure (exercise 3 and 4).
For many people it may be easier to find an opportunity while, for example, sitting on a bus. To counteract disturbing noises, it is possible to add either of three background sounds (white noise, waves and relaxing music, the latter two from www.freesound.org, added by respectively 3bagbrew and sumsum). You may find the voice harder to follow when adding extra sounds.
You may exercise several modules during the same session, for example combining compassion and turning off worries. It is recommended to design personal phrases and imagery suitable for your particular situation – preferably in your mother tongue – in addition to, or instead of, those presented.
Whatever words and imagery you employ, it is important to engage your mind in the desired direction. For those who do not have previous experience with meditation, it is advisable to practice a bit prior to using the meditative state as a base for particular brain exercises. The first, general exercise is designed for this purpose; that is, to help you enter this state. In the other three, less time is set aside to induce a resting mind.
As with physical training, once a week is better than nothing; but in order to have a reasonable progress, it is preferable to put in more effort. A typical recommendation is 10-20 min once or twice a day. Many people prefer to do a session in the morning to freshen up for the day. You take a shower to clean your body, removing frustrations and other mental muck is arguably even more important.
If possible, you are advised to exercise with other people. The social setting does have a positive impact on your mind, and you are less likely to stop prematurely when seated together.
Is it possible?
Can mental training really improve your quality of life? Can it boost positive feelings as well as reduce worries and other forms of mental misery?
Most people are aware that workout builds muscles. The same principles apply to the mind. Evolution has installed a variety of functions, or modules, in the human brain; if you activate them regularly, they will tend to expand and improve. Humans probably have the most plastic nervous system of any animal; active modules grow, while those left inactive weaken.
For many functions, including those that generate mood, strengthening implies an increased tendency to impact on your conscious experiences. There are, however, some important differences when comparing physical and mental exercise; one, it is more difficult to design a training session for the brain, at least when the purpose is well-being; and two, there are brain modules you do not want to exercise.
So what about happiness?
Humans (and other mammals) are bestowed with modules generating positive or negative feelings referred to as rewards and punishments. We know quite a bit about their evolutionary history, how they operate, and the parts of the brain involved. The modules are turned on or off depending on circumstances and yield respectively pleasure and pain. Unfortunately they are controlled primarily by the unconscious part of the brain; consequently you cannot simply decide not to worry, or not to feel pain.
The good news is that there are paths leading from your conscious mind to the switches controlling mood. It is possible to impact on functions that are even more strongly rooted in the unconscious brain, such as heartbeat, but you ought to know a bit about the “hidden paths” of the brain. In other words, the trick is to find practical ways of activating desired feelings and turning off unnecessary punishing activity. By doing relevant exercises regularly, the modules causing contentment or satisfaction will gradually gain more impact on your conscious life, while those causing grievances will diminish.
Finding the right practice is difficult compared to strengthening your biceps; but, as with sports, the main obstacle for progress is setting aside time for training. If you do, you will find it easier to harness your mind – you can turn off undesirable states, like stress, anger, and worries that otherwise tend to take control. It is like dealing with a well-trained dog, rather than a freewheeling cat.
A directed effort
Success, whether in sports or in improving well-being, rests with the quality of workout and the time spent.
Getting a bit of training is easy. When you walk, you engage leg and heart muscles; when you watch a comedy, you engage your pleasure module. Both are likely to improve your quality of life. The term exercise, however, is used for intentional, and more effective, activity aimed at improving a particular function. If your ambition is a marathon, you need to run instead of walk; to obtain success in the pursuit of happiness, it is important to find a suitable strategy for strengthening relevant parts of the brain.
Happiness coaches tell you to smile, laugh, and focus on positive thoughts. By doing so you slowly increase the strength of the good mood module, which means positive feelings will have more to say. This is fine, but as explained below, for many people it may not be the optimal way of training.
What is “happiness”?
The positive aspect of feelings, emotions and sensations are cared for by more or less the same nerve circuits, whether they are induced by love, art, finding a meaning in life, or tasting a cake; similarly, there are circuits generating negative feelings that are active whether you hurt your knee or are scolded by your boss. Your level of happiness, or well-being, can be defined as the net output of these mood modules. Happiness, in other words, is a term used for desirable states of mind.
These states have many sources - achievements, being with friends, or sensing God, can all induce a positive state. Somewhat paradoxically, even typical negative emotions, such as fear and grief, sometimes activate reward rather than punishment modules. A climber enjoys the adrenaline kick of the challenge, and people flock to movies that make them cry.
It is important to note that the brain presumably is designed to be in a positive state as long as there is no cause for pain. The default setting is one of contentment because it is in the interest of the genes to reside in an individual with a positive and optimistic attitude. Thus happiness is achieved simply by turning off the pains. The following anecdote illustrates the point: When Buddha was asked what he had gained by his mental practice, he allegedly answered, “I have gained nothing, it is what I have lost that matters.”
Some pain is required. It should hurt to burn your finger because otherwise you might destroy your body in pure carelessness, and for similar reasons you should feel fear when standing on top of a cliff. The problem is that many people suffer from inappropriate or excessive activity in the punishment module. We worry about things we need not worry about, and feel depressed even when life circumstances are good.
The prevalence of depression and anxiety suggests that these conditions belong to the “diseases of civilization” – somehow the present way of life causes these functions to be activated, and thus exercised, to the point where they obtain undue influence. If you can turn off the unwarranted negative states, contentment should follow. Although it is possible to turn the balance toward positive feelings by exercising joy, more may be gained by exercising the off button for whatever negative feelings that are bothering you.
The problem with turning off the pains of life, whether physical or in the form of anxiety and depression, is that negative feelings tend to be particularly hard-wired. It is essential for your genes to avoid dangers. Life depends on a fast and vigorous reaction if you come across a lion, while it is less important to react each time you see an apple. With food you are likely to get a second chance, but not so in a life-threatening situation. The punishing feelings are warning signals and consequently easily triggered – and easily strengthened. Learning to tune down the various pains is difficult, but not impossible.
There are a number of strategies aimed at helping you reduce misery. I focus here on meditative techniques because they can be adapted to most problems and used by anybody at any time.
The meditative state
A number of traditions, spiritual as well as secular, teach meditation. The important point for the present purpose is that the practice help move the mind toward a condition of “emptiness” – some people refers to it as inner peace.
By letting the mind float, you have the best starting point for engaging the specific functions you wish to activate; while if the mind is preoccupied with all sorts of business, you are unlikely to obtain a constructive workout. Moreover, getting into the meditative state is in itself a useful practice as it implies a relaxed and carefree mind; and is thus an exercise in turning off negative feelings.
You can train the brain without first entering this state, but meditation is a convenient tool; particularly if you wish to impact on brain modules involved in mood. Besides the aspects mentioned above, having a name and a framework for the exercise helps you get on. It is easier to set aside time for actual sessions when engaging in a specific program, compared to relying on the will-power to activate the desired feelings now and then. In a similar fashion, most people find it easier to follow up their physical training if they have routines specifying when and how. Without a regime, the effort too easily runs out in the sand.
Getting into the meditative state is neither conceptually nor technically difficult, yet it is a bit tricky. The mind does not like to be idle – the brain is designed to constantly gather internal and external information and use that to generate conscious experiences. Moreover, the process of generating consciousness is rooted in the unconscious brain. To some extent you can learn to take control, to follow your own line of thought, but sensations and unwarranted thoughts tend to interfere. Both in meditation, and in your daily life, it is highly beneficiary to learn to retain attention and focus on the task at hand.
The suggested exercises use words and imagery as means to access particular parts of the brain; more specifically, to activate positive feelings and turn off the negative ones. It is well documented that words and mind images can impact on functions that are otherwise difficult to reach; for example, imagining a bright sight will contract your pupils while thinking of something dark will open them.
The present approach use sentences formulated to push the mind in the desired direction. If you say, “I am happy” or “My mood is good”, the words will tend to stimulate pleasant feelings. It is sufficient to formulate the sentences inside your head. The words help you navigate the path from the conscious mind to the unconscious buttons controlling mood. In fact, there are even links to these switches from certain muscles. If you force the mouth into a smile, for example by holding a pencil between the teeth, you engage positive feelings; but words are presumably more effective. For optimal training, you should at the same time try to engage the relevant brain module, that is, try to feel happy.
How to exercise
It is best to find a quiet place where you sit down in a restful position with a straight back. Some people like to stretch out a bit, and take a couple of deep breaths, before they start. The fewer disturbances you get, the easier it is to retain focus, which is why you should close your eyes. It is a bit more difficult to close your ears, but earplugs help; alternatively, the app provides the option of calm, regular background sounds to mask external noise.
Finding a comfortable position helps you avoid the distracting aches of discomfort. If you sink down in the chair, you tend to induce drowsiness, and mental exercise requires an awake brain. It is easier to relax your mind if you first relax your body, consequently the sessions start with an element of muscle relaxation. Another advice is to have a fixed (quiet) place and time for training; the more routine-like, the more likely you are to have success.
These are rules of thumb. It is possible to train anywhere – while walking or being in a horizontal position – but most people find that the workout improves if obeying the above suggestions.
The meditative state is not an either or thing; some people find it easy to keep the mind empty, while with others thoughts and disturbances keep popping up. When distractions do occur, the trick is to let them go, rather than getting started on a line of thought. Think of whatever pops up as twigs floating by on a river – to disappear swiftly and gently from view. Distractions are your enemies in the pursuit of an efficient workout, they are to be dealt with resolutely but gently.
Feel free to move your body when that feels right, and itch where it itches; the problem is not these minor disturbances, but failing to return to the meditative state. If there are particular issues troubling you, these are likely to pop up; they do make the exercise more difficult, but are also an excellent opportunity to learn to stay focused, and to train the capacity to turn off emotionally bothering thoughts.
Before each session, you may remind yourself to stay focused. Managing to keep the mind in a meditative state is an exercise in its own right, you will improve upon practice, and it may actually help you when struggling to maintain attention to other tasks in life.
A useful trick is to focus either on a bodily function such as breathing, or on a specific sound (a mantra) such as “aing” or “auhm” that you keep repeating in your mind. Either may do, but the app is based on the former; for example, to focus on the feeling of air moving in and out of the nose. The point of this trick is that it offers the mind the equivalent of a chewing gum; it is no longer completely idle, but at the same time most modules can be told to “shut up”. Experienced meditators may manage without, but most schools of meditation suggest you use these tricks at least to start the process of relaxing the mind. In the specific exercises, short sentences eventually take the role of mantra as objects of focus
Do not think of the exercise as a chore, it is a treat you offer yourself in the form of taking time off the real chores of life. Some people describe the meditative state as a controlled high – tuning in to your default setting of contentment, or to inner peace if you prefer, feels good. It is worth the effort by its inherent rewards.
How to measure success
While it is easy for the marathon runner to know how he is proceeding, it is difficult to measure the level of happiness. Most people will sense an improvement, in the form of an elevated mood, or by noticing that worries and low mood loses their grip.
There are also certain indications of success you may notice, such as how easily you get upset by others – for example, drivers that do not behave the way you think they should – or how strong the desire is for alcohol or TV entertainment. A happy person is less in need of external stimuli to activate reward modules, simply because when contentment is already there, these stimuli offer less benefit. It is also possible to ask someone who knows you whether they can sense a change in personality.
One should expect an appreciable effect within 6-8 weeks of training.
There are a number of tests available that try to probe your level of happiness and compassion. Most are based on questionnaires, and are thus easily biased if you want to fool yourself, yet they may be useful. Martin Seligman, a leading scientist in positive psychology, has a number of relevant tests on Internet (search for Authentic Happiness).