TAG: "Psychology"

Sleepless nights can turn lovers into fighters


UC Berkeley study finds bad sleep compromises couples’ ability to avoid, manage conflict.

Couple fightingRelationship problems can keep us awake at night. But new research from UC Berkeley suggests that sleepless nights also can worsen lovers’ fights.

UC Berkeley psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen have found that people are much more likely to lash out at their romantic partners over relationship conflicts after a bad night’s sleep.

“Couples who fight more are less happy and less healthy,” said Gordon, a doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the study published online in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Our research helps illuminate one factor that leads couples to engage in unnecessary and harmful conflict by showing that couples experience more frequent and severe conflicts after sleepless nights,” she added.

While previous studies indicate that poor sleep has a negative impact on romantic relationships, these new findings shed more light on how bad sleep compromises couples’ ability to avoid and manage conflict, researchers said.

“For the first time, to our knowledge, we can see the process of how the nature, degree, and resolution of conflict are negatively impacted by poor sleep,” said Chen, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

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Scientists pinpoint how we see 95 mph baseball


Discovery advances understanding of how humans predict trajectory of moving objects.

If the brain didn’t compensate for our visual processing delay, we would get hit by balls and other moving objects.

How does San Francisco Giants slugger Pablo Sandoval swat a 95 mph fastball, or tennis icon Venus Williams see the oncoming ball, let alone return her sister Serena’s 120 mph serves? For the first time, vision scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have pinpointed how the brain tracks fast-moving objects.

The discovery advances our understanding of how humans predict the trajectory of moving objects when it can take one-tenth of a second for the brain to process what the eye sees.

That 100-millisecond holdup means that in real time, a tennis ball moving at 120 mph would have already advanced 15 feet before the brain registers the ball’s location. If our brains couldn’t make up for this visual processing delay, we’d be constantly hit by balls, cars and more.

Thankfully, the brain “pushes” forward moving objects so we perceive them as further along in their trajectory than the eye can see, researchers said.

“For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain,” said Gerrit Maus, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today in the journal, Neuron.

A clearer understanding of how the brain processes visual input – in this case life in motion – can eventually help in diagnosing and treating myriad disorders, including those that impair motion perception. People who cannot perceive motion cannot predict locations of objects and therefore cannot perform tasks as simple as pouring a cup of coffee or crossing a road, researchers said.

This study is also likely to have a major impact on other studies of the brain.  Its findings come just as the Obama Administration initiates its push to create a Brain Activity Map Initiative, which will further pave the way for scientists to create a roadmap of human brain circuits, as was done for the Human Genome Project.

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Daily stress takes a toll on long-term mental health


UC Irvine-led study explores cumulative effects of everyday negative emotional responses.

Susan Charles, UC Irvine

Susan Charles, UC Irvine

Our emotional responses to the stresses of daily life may predict our long-term mental health, according to a new study led by a UC Irvine psychologist. The research, which appears online in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that maintaining emotional balance is crucial to avoiding severe mental health problems down the road.

Susan Charles, UC Irvine professor of psychology & social behavior, and her colleagues conducted the study in order to answer a long-standing question: Do everyday irritations add up to make the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or do they make us stronger and “inoculate” us against later tribulations?

Using data from two national, longitudinal surveys, the researchers found that participants’ negative emotional responses to daily stressors – such as arguments with a spouse or partner, conflicts at work, standing in long lines or sitting in traffic – predicted psychological distress and self-reported anxiety/mood disorders 10 years later.

“How we manage daily emotions matters to our overall mental health,” Charles said. “We’re so focused on long-term goals that we don’t see the importance of regulating our emotions. Changing how you respond to stress and how you think about stressful situations is as important as maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine.”

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Meditation associated with lower stress hormone


Mindfulness helps control cortisol levels, finds Shamatha Project research.

Woman meditating next to pondFocusing on the present rather than letting the mind drift may help to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggests new research from the Shamatha Project at the University of California, Davis.

The ability to focus mental resources on immediate experience is an aspect of mindfulness, which can be improved by meditation training.

“This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale,” said Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and first author of a paper describing the work, published this week in the journal Health Psychology.

High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects on a number of physiological systems.

The new findings are the latest to come from the Shamatha Project, a comprehensive long-term, control-group study of the effects of meditation training on mind and body.

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Computer as couples therapist?


Online program aimed at strengthening relationships.

Couple smiling and looking a laptop computerIf you communicate with friends online, pay bills online, listen to music online and post photos online, why not strengthen your marriage or relationship online too?

Andrew Christensen, a UCLA psychology professor who has worked with hundreds of couples over more than 30 years, and a colleague have designed a website called OurRelationship.com that allows you and your partner to do just that — for free and from the comfort of your own home.

“I’m very confident that couples with mild to moderate problems will benefit from it,” he said. “They may not live in bliss, but I’m very confident that our online program can strengthen marriages and reduce psychological problems in a very efficient, convenient and cost-effective way.”

“There will always be a need for one-to-one therapy, just as there will always be a need for bypass surgery and heart transplants — but there is also a need to help people, with diet and exercise, reduce the likelihood that they will need heart transplants and bypass surgery. That analogy applies here too, but we’re not trying to over-sell it; this won’t solve every problem.”

While face-to-face therapy can be lengthy and expensive, the new website-based couples program is designed to take only six hours for each person, said Christensen, who in addition to his own therapeutic work has trained and supervised many other psychologists in conducting couples therapy.

“Our goal is to keep OurRelationship.com free so we can help as many people as possible,” he said. “We want to make couple interventions much more broadly available and not so time-consuming. I would like for couples not to have to go to a therapist’s office once a week.”

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Emotional-health connection not limited to industrialized nations


UC Irvine study finds phenomenon more marked in developing countries.

Sarah Pressman, UC Irvine

Positive emotions are known to play a role in physical well-being, and stress is strongly linked to poor health, but is this strictly a “First World” phenomenon? In developing nations, is the fulfillment of basic needs more critical to health than how one feels? A UC Irvine researcher has found that emotions do affect health around the world and may, in fact, be more important to wellness in low-income countries.

The study, which appears online in Psychological Science, is the first to examine the emotion-health connection in a representative sample of 150,000 people in 142 countries. Previous research on the topic has been limited to industrialized nations.

“We wondered whether the fact that emotions make a difference in our health is simply because we have the luxury of letting them,” said Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior and the study’s lead author. “We wanted to assess the impact of emotions on health in places where people face famine, homelessness and serious safety concerns that might be more critical correlates of wellness.”

Against expectations, researchers found that the link between positive emotions (enjoyment, love, happiness) and health is stronger in countries with a weaker gross domestic product. In fact, the association increased as GDP decreased, according to Pressman.

People in Malawi, which has a per capita GDP of $900, show a more robust connection between positive emotions and health than residents of the U.S., which has a per capita GDP of $49,800.

“A hostile American with hypertension can take blood pressure-lowering medication. A Malawian cannot,” Pressman said. “Medical interventions might lower the impact of emotions on health.”

Using data from the Gallup World Poll, researchers noted whether participants had reported experiencing enjoyment, love, happiness, worry, sadness, stress, boredom, depression or anger during the previous day. They also measured physical health and the degree to which subjects’ basic needs were met. Security was assessed by asking if participants felt safe walking alone at night or whether they had been robbed, assaulted or mugged.

“We hope that by showing that this phenomenon is prevalent and stronger than some factors considered critical to wellness, more attention will be drawn to the importance of studying both positive and negative emotions,” Pressman said.

She co-authored the study with Shane Lopez of the Gallup Organization and Matthew Gallagher of Boston University.

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Psychological sciences grad group provides diverse research opportunities


Fast-growing Ph.D. program is one of the largest at UC Merced.

Kristynn Sullivan, UC Merced

Graduate students Kristynn Sullivan and Chris Fradkin took distinctly different routes to UC Merced.

Sullivan left northern Virginia for the University of California’s newest campus after completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at University of Mary Washington. Fradkin built a successful career in Southern California before relocating to UC Merced.

Today, both are pursuing doctorates in the Psychological Sciences Graduate Group at the university. With 26 students and three specialty areas, the fast-growing Ph.D. program or graduate group is one of the largest on campus. Sullivan is pursuing quantitative psychology while Fradkin is studying health psychology.

Jan Wallander, professor of psychological sciences and chair of the graduate group, said the high-level program prepares students to become independent researchers and scientists. Students are matched with faculty mentors and also often work with each other.

Both Sullivan and Fradkin say they appreciate the faculty, research opportunities and atmosphere at UC Merced.

“I really liked the idea of coming to a small school that was in its growth state,” said Sullivan, who is working toward a Ph.D in quantitative psychology. “The individualized attention has been great.”

Sullivan considered universities across the country before choosing UC Merced. She liked the faculty and program — and the stark contrast between a new, cutting-edge campus and the more than 100-year-old university she attended in Virginia.

Quantitative psychology deals with finding the best research methodology or statistics to apply to a question or issue. Sullivan concentrates on statistical analyses for evidence-based practice and also is working on a model allowing for analysis of nonlinear trends and data.

Outside the program, Sullivan serves as president of the Graduate Student Association. Officers serve on campus committees and focus on the academic experience and other issues important to graduate students.

Sullivan aims to finish her doctorate in 2014 and perhaps pursue a research career, or combine teaching and research on a university campus.

Chris Fradkin, UC Merced

Fradkin’s research centers on obesity risk in early adolescents and the factors — such as race and socioeconomic status —that might influence that risk.

Some findings may challenge the presumption that children in better-educated and higher-income families are at lower risk for obesity. The notion of the “social gradient” as applied to weight applies to some racial/ethnic groups, but not to all, Fradkin said.

He is working with data from Houston, Los Angeles and Birmingham, Ala., but hopes his findings will generalize to the larger population. In addition to socioeconomic status, there are a number of other contributing factors that need more study, he said.

Fradkin has been published in several peer-review journals and has given many presentations. For the second time, he’ll speak this summer in London at a conference on child and adolescent psychopathology.

After completing a doctorate in health psychology — by the end of 2013, he hopes — Fradkin plans to continue to perform research and teach.

UC Merced is the latest chapter the colorful life of Fradkin, a songwriter now in his 50s. Artists such as Fergie, the Plimsouls (“A Million Miles Away”) and British blues legend Alexis Korner have performed and recorded his songs.

He also won an Emmy for sound effects editing on television’s “The X Files.”

Fradkin returned to college in 2006, first enrolling in a Spanish class and then deciding to pursue an undergraduate degree. He started at Los Angeles Valley College before transferring to California State University, Northridge, where he earned a bachelor’s in psychology.

A doctorate was his next goal — along with a change of scenery. He applied to several graduate programs, and stopped in 2008 to check out Merced while driving to his daughter’s graduation in Reno.

He liked what he saw, including a used bookstore and a restaurant with a good lunch special. The warm nature of his new hometown is an ongoing bonus.

“That’s the norm here,” Fradkin said.

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Drug could aid treatment of anxiety disorders


UCLA researchers explore new use for scopolamine.

Michael Fanselow, UCLA

The drug scopolamine has been used to treat a variety of conditions, including nausea and motion sickness. A new study by UCLA life scientists suggests that it may also be useful in treating anxiety disorders.

Researchers found that the drug can help boost the effectiveness of a common treatment for anxiety disorders known as exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, a subject with a phobia or anxiety is repeatedly exposed to the object or situation they fear, in a non-threatening setting. The goal of this treatment is to ultimately lessen and eliminate the fear — in essence, make it “extinct.”

However, fear-extinction memories formed during this type of therapy tend to be weak because they are tied to the non-dangerous context. Subjects have a tendency to relapse when they again encounter the source of their anxiety in a different environment.

“Extinction has one Achilles heel that at present has not quite been pierced — namely, extinction learning is highly dependent on the environment or context in which it occurs,” said Michael Fanselow, a UCLA professor of psychology and the senior author of the study. “This makes memories formed during extinction highly fragile and susceptible to fear-recovery or relapse in any non-extinction environment.”

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Lovers’ hearts beat in sync, UC Davis study says


Couples match each other’s heart rates, respiration.

Jonathan Helm with student, UC Davis

Jonathan Helm with student, UC Davis

When modern-day crooner Trey Songz sings, “Cause girl, my heart beats for you,” in his romantic ballad, “Flatline,” his lyrics could be telling a tale that’s as much physiological as it is emotional, according to a University of California, Davis, study that found lovers’ hearts indeed beat for each other, or at least at the same rate.

Emilio Ferrer, a UC Davis psychology professor who has conducted a series of studies on couples in romantic relationships, found that couples connected to monitors measuring heart rates and respiration get their heart rate in sync, and they breathe in and out at the same intervals.

To collect the data, the researchers conducted a series of exercises, sitting 32 heterosexual couples a few feet away from each other in a quiet, calm room. The couples did not speak or touch.

“We’ve seen a lot of research that one person in a relationship can experience what the other person is experiencing emotionally, but this study shows they also share experiences at a physiological level,” Ferrer said.

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Mistrust of government deters older adults from HIV testing


Later detection poses greater health risks.

Older woman talks with doctorOne out of every four people living with HIV/AIDS is 50 or older, yet these older individuals are far more likely to be diagnosed when they are already in the later stages of infection. Such late diagnoses put their health, and the health of others, at greater risk than would have been the case with earlier detection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 percent of HIV-positive people between the ages of 50 and 55, and 51 percent of those 65 or older, develop full-blown AIDS within a year of their diagnosis, and these older adults account for 35 percent of all AIDS-related deaths. And since many of them are not aware that they have HIV, they could be unknowingly infecting others.

Various psychological barriers may be keeping this older at-risk population from getting tested. Among them are a general mistrust of the government — for example, the belief that the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves — and AIDS-related conspiracy theories, including, for example, the belief that the virus is man-made and was created to kill certain groups of people.

Now, a team of UCLA-led researchers has demonstrated that government mistrust and conspiracy fears are deeply ingrained in this vulnerable group and that these concerns often — but in one surprising twist, not always — deter these individuals from getting tested for HIV. The findings are published today (Jan. 29) in the peer-reviewed journal The Gerontologist.

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Do ‘cool’ kids bully more?


Study shows behavior more prevalent among middle schoolers already considered popular.

Jaana Juvonen, UCLA

Jaana Juvonen, UCLA

Bullying, whether it’s physical aggression or spreading rumors, boosts the social status and popularity of middle school students, according to a new UCLA psychology study that has implications for programs aimed at combatting school bullying. In addition, students already considered popular engage in these forms of bullying, the researchers found.

The psychologists studied 1,895 ethnically diverse students from 99 classes at 11 Los Angeles middle schools. They conducted surveys at three points: during the spring of seventh grade, the fall of eighth grade and the spring of eighth grade. Each time, students were asked to name the students who were considered the “coolest,” the students who “start fights or push other kids around” and the ones who “spread nasty rumors about other kids.”

Those students who were named the coolest at one time were largely named the most aggressive the next time, and those considered the most aggressive were significantly more likely to be named the coolest the next time. The results indicate that both physical aggression and spreading rumors are rewarded by middle school peers.

“The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” said Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “What was particularly interesting was that the form of aggression, whether highly visible and clearly confrontational or not, did not matter. Pushing or shoving and gossiping worked the same for boys and girls.

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Poor sleep can leave romantic partners feeling unappreciated


Study results shed new light on emotional interdependence of sleep partners.

Spouses and other romantic partners often complain about feeling unappreciated, and a new study from UC Berkeley suggests poor sleep may play a hidden role.

A study looking into how sleep habits impact gratitude found that sleep deprivation can leave couples “too tired to say thanks” and can make one or the other partner feel taken for granted.

“Poor sleep may make us more selfish as we prioritize our own needs over our partner’s,” said Amie Gordon, a UC Berkeley psychologist and lead investigator of the study, which she conducted with UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen. Gordon presented her findings today (Jan. 19) at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychologists in New Orleans.

The results shed new light on the emotional interdependence of sleep partners, offering compelling evidence that a bad night’s sleep leaves people less attuned to their partner’s moods and sensitivities. For many couples, nighttime can turn into a battleground due to loud snoring, sheet-tugging or one partner tapping on a laptop while the other tosses and turns.

“You may have slept like a baby, but if your partner didn’t, you’ll probably both end up grouchy,” Gordon said.

A sixth year Ph.D. student who focuses on the psychology of close relationships, Gordon noted that many people claim to be too busy to sleep, even priding themselves on how few hours of slumber they can get by on. The observation inspired her, in part, to study how a lack of zzzs might be affecting love lives.

More than 60 couples, with ages ranging from 18 to 56, participated in each of Gordon’s studies. In one experiment, participants kept a diary of their sleep patterns and how a good or bad night’s rest affected their appreciation of their significant other.

In another experiment, they were videotaped engaged in problem-solving tasks. Those who had slept badly the night before showed less appreciation for their partner. Overall, the results showed poor sleepers had a harder time counting their blessings and valuing their partners.

How to remedy that? “Make sure to say to say ‘thanks’ when your partner does something nice,” suggested Gordon. “Let them know you appreciate them.”

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