Last year a research article made headlines because it reported that starting about 3000 years ago the human brain started shrinking. The authors hypothesized that this may have occurred “from the externalization of knowledge and advantages of group-level decision-making due in part to the advent of social systems of distributed cognition and the storage and sharing of information.” They came up with this conclusion because that is what occurs in ants, ” the insights ants offer can broadly inform us of the selective forces that influence brain size.”
Not So Fast
The fact that the researchers are making a global statement about humans and the fact that the basis for their hypothesis comes from ants suggests that this finding about our brains shrinking should be suspect.
And in fact is should be. A recent research article rebuts this finding. The original article used flawed analyses to arrive at a false conclusions. There has actually been no change in human brain size in the last few thousand years. I am quite sure that this rebuttal will not generate headlines though, unlike the flawed findings of the original article.
Social Sciences Need Discipline
In physics and other physical sciences, experimental results are not trusted unless they have been replicated independently at least once, and preferably more often. This tends to reduce the frequency at which mistaken results are published.
Social sciences need similar self-discipline. This is difficult because the results from social science have more emotional charge and therefore are more likely to be picked up by the popular press. Social scientists also, like most humans, enjoy attention and therefore may promote their work to the public before any independent validation supports their findings. This tendency is compounded when the findings have commercial applications.
None of this is going to change quickly. We can protect ourselves from being misled to some extent by having a doubtful attitude toward social science research that makes global statements about humans or large groups of humans.
A lot of my patients have been “working wounded”. They were struggling financially and experiencing stress-related conditions from the constant unease caused by insecurity about basic necessities. Another factor was that they had little influence over their working conditions.
The combination of insecurity about meeting their basic needs and not having the ability to influence their condition had a significant negative impact on their health and the health of their family members.
Reducing Stress – Improving Health
This organization, The Indie Sellers Guild, appears to be helping indie sellers gain more ability to improve their working conditions and pay. This is likely to have a positive effect on their health.
Helping patients deal with medical misinformation can be quite frustrating, especially when it causes them to act in ways that are dangerous. Here is a metaphor that helps me avoid getting into arguments and do something helpful.
Imagine that you have fallen off a sheer cliff. You have managed to grab hold of a tree limb that has grown out of the cliff face. If you look up you see nothing but sheer rock. If you look down you see a dense cloud concealing everything below your knees. Your legs vanish into that cloud, and no matter how far you extend your legs, all you can feel under your toes is empty space.
You hear a voice telling you, “The ground is only a few inches below your feet. Just let go.” What would it take for you to trust that voice? What would you feel as you loosened your fingers?
A patient who clings to medical misinformation is in the same position, whether the misinformation is about vaccines, pain medications, food, etc. . In order for us to help them change, we don’t need to prove that we are right, that we know more, or that we are so smart. We need to prove that we will be there to catch them
This short video (~2 min) came from a newsletter I get about fire and safety issues. In the middle it shows a 3-D animation of how the antibodies created by the COVID vaccine protect the cell. I thought the animation was pretty neat.
For about 20 years I have been telling my patients to use a “have done” list, instead of a “to-do” list. Sometime during the day, usually near the end, they are to write down any tasks they completed or made progress on. The feedback has been extremely positive. People feel more hopeful and more energized from their “have done” list, and knowing what they have done helps orient them to what to do next. Its much less stressful than staring at a “to-do” list.
Apparently there is now some research support for this. The authors of the following article use a more structured process than I do. I simply ask people to write down what they have done, without planning to do something first. But I imagine their version may work too.
The “review” and “redo” techniques are powerful ways of training helpful habits. I received a request for instructions on these techniques from a participant in an online course on resilience that I am co-facilitating.
The instructions are adapted from a presentation I gave in Helsinki in Jan 2019 to health care professionals who worked on rapid resuscitation teams in hospitals.
For those who want to download a pdf of the instructions you can find that here:
The following instructions are to help with stress and are not meant as treatment for any medical conditions. If you have any discomfort from any technique then stop using it.
Recovery breathing maintains our reserves.
Stress tends to wear us down physically and emotionally. In the model of stress that I use, this comes from our reserves being depleted. When our reserves are depleted we feel physically exhausted or emotionally drained. Even thinking about doing something can feel too much for us.
We need to maintain our reserves no matter what type of stress we are dealing with. Breathing techniques can help us do that.
We can optimize the rate we recover from stress by developing three aspects of breathing. These are
In this post I will describe unease, one of the components of stress. I will explain how unease is related to emotions. I will also give an example of a meditation technique to reduce the effect of unease on our nervous system. An audio version of the text is below. A meditation track is at the end of the post.