Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky Demystifies Depression, Which, Like Diabetes, Is Rooted in Biology

We know that depression affects people from all walks of life. Rich. Poor. Celebs. Ordinary Joes. Young. Old. But, somehow after the death of Robin Williams, there's a renewed focus on depression, and my mind turned immediately to a lecture we featured on the site way back in 2009. The lecture is by Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist, who has a talent for making scientific subjects publicly accessible. A recipient of the MacArthur genius grant, Sapolsky notes that depression --- currently the 4th greatest cause of disability worldwide, and soon the 2nd -- is deeply biological. Depression is rooted in biology, much as is, say, diabetes. As the lecture unfolds, you will see how depression changes the body. When depressed, our brains function differently while sleeping, our stress response goes way up 24/7, our biochemistry levels change, etc. You will see that biology is at work.

Sapolsky is one compelling teacher. So you might not want to miss his Stanford course, Introduction to Human Biology. It's equally worth your time. You can always find it housed in our collection 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on the site in August, 2014.

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Exercise May Prove an Effective Natural Treatment for Depression & Anxiety, New Study Shows

Image by cuegalos, via Flickr Commons

Maybe it seems intuitive that exercise would be prescribed to treat anxiety and depression, lower stress levels, and make people happier. After all, exercise and nutritional interventions are regularly discussed in the context of the U.S.’s other major killers: heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, even Alzheimer’s. How often have we heard about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle or over-processed foods? Or read about remedies from walking, yoga, and spin cycling to the Mediterranean diet?

But mental health is seemingly different—the disease model that guided depression research for so long has faltered. “We do not have a biology for mental illness,” writes Derek Beres at Big Think. Researchers lack a medical pathology for mood disorders that affect overall health, careers, relationships, and quality of life for millions. The antidepressants once sold as a cure-all and prescribed to dizzying degrees proved to have limited efficacy and unfortunate side effects. No one seems to know exactly how or why or if they work. “Mental health scripts are guesswork,” Beres writes, “more of an art than science.”

Where does this leave the state of mental health research these days? One team of scientists at the University of Vermont found evidence that exercise significantly improved mood in patients with severe and chronic mental illnesses. As Newsweek reports, “a total of 100 patients signed up to participate in the study,” whose results were published recently in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine. The study volunteers came from “wards that dealt with conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and schizophrenia.”

After a workout schedule that included cardio, resistance, and flexibility training, four times a week for sixty minutes at a time, as well as nutritional programs “tailored” for each patient, 95 percent of the participants “said their mood has improved… and 63 percent said they were ‘happy’ or ‘very happy,’ rather than ‘neutral,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘very sad.’” 97.6 said they were motivated to continue working out and eating better. “The research yielded positive outcomes in all areas investigated,” write authors David Tomasi, Sheri Gates, and Emily Reyns of the study’s results. They conclude that physical exercise may contribute to “a more balanced and integrated sense of self.”

The researchers also recommend exercise as a treatment before the prescription of psychiatric drugs. There may not yet be a clear medical explanation for why it works. But that may be because modern medicine has only recently begun to see the mind and the body as one, at a time when our cultural evolution sends us hurtling toward a greater artificial divide between the two. “We’ve constructed a world in which most of the population survives by performing minimal physical activity.” A world soon to be engulfed in VR, AR, self-driving cars, and an “internet of things” that promises to eliminate the few physical tasks we have left.

We are in danger of forgetting that our mental and emotional health are directly tied to the needs of our physical bodies, and that our bodies need to move, stretch, and bend in order to stay alive and thrive. Read more summary of the study at Newsweek and see the full results from Global Advances in Health and Medicine here.

via Big Think/Newsweek

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

1980s Metalhead Kids Are Alright: Scientific Study Shows That They Became Well-Adjusted Adults

In the 1980s, The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), an organization co-founded by Tipper Gore and the wives of several other Washington power brokers, launched a political campaign against pop music, hoping to put warning labels on records that promoted Sex, Violence, Drug and Alcohol Use. Along the way, the PMRC issued "the Filthy Fifteen," a list of 15 particularly objectionable songs. Hits by Madonna, Prince and Cyndi Lauper made the list. But the list really took aim at heavy metal bands from the 80s -- namely, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, and Venom. (Interesting footnote: the Soviets separately created a list of blackballed rock bands, and it looked pretty much the same.)

Above, you can watch Twisted Sister's Dee Snider appear before Congress in 1985 and accuse the PMRC of misinterpreting his band's lyrics and waging a false war against metal music. The evidence 30 years later suggests that Snider perhaps had a point.

A study by psychology researchers at Humboldt StateOhio State, UC Riverside and UT Austin "examined 1980s heavy metal groupies, musicians, and fans at middle age" -- 377 participants in total -- and found that, although metal enthusiasts certainly lived riskier lives as kids, they were nonetheless "significantly happier in their youth and better adjusted currently than either middle-aged or current college-age youth comparison groups." This left the researchers to contemplate one possible conclusion: "participation in fringe style cultures may enhance identity development in troubled youth." Not to mention that heavy metal lyrics don't easily turn kids into damaged goods.

You can read the report, Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies here. And, right above, listen to an interview with one of the researchersTasha Howe, a former headbanger herself, who spoke yesterday with Michael Krasny on KQED radio in San Francisco.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in July 2015.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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How Carl Jung Inspired the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous

There may be as many doors into Alcoholics Anonymous in the 21st century as there are people who walk through them—from every world religion to no religion. The “international mutual-aid fellowship” has had “a significant and long-term effect on the culture of the United States,” writes Worcester State University professor of psychology Charles Fox at Aeon. Indeed, its influence is global. From its inception in 1935, A.A. has represented an “enormously popular therapy, and a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of health and wellness.”

A.A. has also represented, at least culturally, a remarkable synthesis of behavioral science and spirituality that translates into scores of different languages, beliefs, and practices. Or at least that’s the way it can appear from browsing the scores of books on A.A.’s 12-Steps and Buddhism, Yoga, Catholicism, Judaism, Indigenous faith traditions, shamanist practices, Stoicism, secular humanism, and, of course, psychology.

Historically, and often in practice, however, the (non)organization of worldwide fellowships has represented a much narrower tradition, inherited from the evangelical (small “e”) Christian Oxford Group, or as A.A. founder Bill Wilson called them, “the ‘O.G.’” Wilson credits the Oxford Group for the methodology of A.A.: “their large emphasis upon the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and the giving of oneself in service to others.”

The Oxford Group’s theology, though qualified and tempered, also made its way into many of A.A.’s basic principles. But for the recovery group's genesis, Wilson cites a more secular authority, Carl Jung. The famous Swiss psychiatrist took a keen interest in alcoholism in the 1920s. Wilson wrote to Jung in 1961 to express his “great appreciation” for his efforts. “A certain conversation you once had with one of your patients, a Mr. Rowland H. back in the early 1930’s,” Wilson explains, “did play a critical role in the founding of our Fellowship.”

Jung may not have known his influence on the recovery movement, Wilson says, although alcoholics had accounted for “about 13 percent of all admissions” in his practice, notes Fox. One of his patients, Rowland H.—or Rowland Hazard, “investment banker and former state senator from Rhode Island”—came to Jung in desperation, saw him daily for a period of several months, stopped drinking, then relapsed. Brought back to Jung by his cousin, Hazard was told that his case was hopeless short of a religious conversion. As Wilson puts it in his letter:

[Y]ou frankly told him of his hopelessness, so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned. This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our Society has since been built.

Jung also told Hazard that conversion experiences were incredibly rare and recommended that he “place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best,” as Wilson remembers. But he did not specify any particular religion. Hazard discovered the Oxford Group. He might, as far as Jung was concerned, have met God as he understood it anywhere. “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent,” wrote the psychiatrist in a reply to Wilson, “on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.”

In his reply letter to Wilson, Jung uses religious language allegorically. AA took the idea of conversion more literally. Though it wrestled with the plight of the agnostic, the Big Book concluded that such people must eventually see the light. Jung, on the other hand, seems very careful to avoid a strictly religious interpretation of his advice to Hazard, who started the first small group that would convert Wilson to sobriety and to Oxford Group methods.

“How could one formulate such an insight that is not misunderstood in our days?” Jung asks. “The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to a higher understanding.” Sobriety could be achieved through “a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism"—through an enlightenment or conversion experience, that is. It might also occur through “an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends.”

Though most founding members of AA fought for the stricter interpretation of Jung's prescription, Wilson always entertained the idea that multiple paths might bring alcoholics to the same goal, even including modern medicine. He drew on the medical opinions of Dr. William D. Silkworth, who theorized that alcoholism was in part a physical disease, “a sort of metabolism difficulty which he then called an allergy.” Even after his own conversion experience, which Silkworth, like Jung, recommended he pursue, Wilson experimented with vitamin therapies, through the influence of Aldous Huxley.

His search to understand his mystical “white light” moment in a New York detox room also led Wilson to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. The book “gave me the realization,” he wrote to Jung, “that most conversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a common denominator of ego collapse at depth.” He even thought that LSD could act as such a “temporary ego-reducer” after he took the drug under supervision of British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. (Jung likely would have opposed what he called “short cuts” like psychedelic drugs.)

In the letters between Wilson and Jung, as Ian McCabe argues in Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous, we see mutual admiration between the two, as well as mutual influence. “Bill Wilson,” writes McCabe’s publisher, “was encouraged by Jung’s writings to promote the spiritual aspect of recovery,” an aspect that took on a particularly religious character in Alcoholics Anonymous. For his part, Jung, “influenced by A.A.’s success… gave ‘complete and detailed instructions’ on how the A.A. group format could be developed further and used by ‘general neurotics.’” And so it has, though more on the Oxford Group model than the more mystical Jungian. It might well have been otherwise.

Read more about Jung's influence on AA over at Aeon.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Patti Smith’s New Tribute to the Avant-Garde Poet Antonin Artaud

The force of Artaud, you couldn’t kill him! - Patti Smith

Found sound enthusiasts Soundwalk Collective join forces with the Godmother of Punk Patti Smith for "Ivry," the musical tribute to poet and theatermaker Antonin Artaud, above.

The track, featuring Smith’s hypnotic improvised narration, alternately spoken and sung over Tarahumara guitars, Chapareke snare drums, and Chihuahua bells from Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara, the region that provided the setting for Artaud’s autobiographical The Peyote Dance, has the soothing quality of lullabies from such popular children’s music Folk Revivalists as Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes.

We’d refrain from showing the kiddies this video, though, especially at bedtime.

It begins innocently enough with mirror images of the beautiful Artaud—as the Dean of Rouen in 1928’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, and later in the private psychiatric clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine where he ended his days.

Things get much rougher in the final moments, as befits the founder of the Theater of Cruelty, an avant-garde performance movement that employed scenes of horrifying violence to shock the audience out of their presumed complacency.

Nothing quite so hairy as Artaud’s virtually unproduceable short play, Jet of Blood—or, for that matter, Game of Thrones—but we all remember what happened to Joan of Arc, right? (Not to mention the grisly fate of the many peasants whose names history fails to note...)

In-between is footage of indigenous Rarámuri (or Tarahumara) tribespeople enacting traditional rituals—the mirrors on their headdresses and the filmmakers’ use of reflective symmetry honoring their belief that the afterlife mirrors the mortal world.

"Ivry" is the penultimate track on a brand new Artaud-themed album, also titled The Peyote Dance, which delves into the impulse toward expanded vision that propelled the artist to Mexico in the 1930s.

Prior to bringing Smith into the studio, members of Soundwalk Collective revisited Artaud’s journey through that country (including a cave in which he once lived), amassing stones, sand, leaves, and handmade Rarámuri instruments to “awaken the landscape’s sleeping memories and uncover the space’s sonic grammar.”

This mission is definitely in keeping with Smith’s practice of making pilgrimages and collecting relics.

The Peyote Dance is the first entry in a triptych titled The Perfect Vision. Tune in later this year to travel to Ethiopia’s Abyssinian valley in consideration of another Smith favorite, poet Arthur Rimbaud, and the Indian Himalayas, in honor of spiritual Surrealist René Daumal, whose allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing ended in mid-sentence, when he died at 36 from the effects of tuberculosis (and, quite possibly, youthful experiments with such psychoactive chemicals as carbon tetrachloride.)

You can order Soundwalk Collective’s album, The Peyote Dance, which also features the work of actor Gael García Bernal, here.

via BoingBoing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this June for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch “Critical Living,” a Stop-Motion Film Inspired by the 1960s Movement That Rejected Modern Ideas About Mental Illness

Along with Michel Foucault's critique of the medical model of mental illness, the work of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing and other influential theorists and critics posed a serious intellectual challenge to the psychiatric establishment. Laing’s 1960 The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness theorized schizophrenia as a philosophical problem, not a biological one. Other early works like Self and Others and Knots made Laing something of a star in the 1960s and early 70s, though his star would fade once French theory began to take over the academy.

Glasgow-born Laing is described as part of the so-called “anti-psychiatry movement”—a loose collection of psychiatrists and characters like L. Ron Hubbard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Foucault, and Erving Goffman, pioneering sociologist and author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. For his part, Laing did not deny the existence of mental illness, nor oppose treatment. But he questioned the biological basis of psychological disorders and opposed the prevailing chemical and electroshock cures. He was seen not as an antagonist of psychiatry but as a “critical psychiatrist," continuing a tradition begun by Freud and Jung: “the alienist or ‘head shrinker’ as public intellectual,” as Duquesne University’s Daniel Burston writes.

Like many other philosophically-minded intellectuals in his field, Laing not only offered compelling alternative theories of mental illness but also pioneered alternative therapies. He was inspired by Existentialism; the many hours he had spent “in padded cells with the men placed in his custody” while apprenticed in psychiatry in the British Army; and to a large extent by Foucault. (Laing edited the first English translation of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization.) Armed with theory and clinical experience, he co-founded the Philadelphia Association in 1965, an organization “centred on a communal approach to wellbeing,” writes Aeon, “where people who are experiencing acute mental distress live together in a Philadelphia Association house, with routine visits from therapists.”

Based not in the Pennsylvania city, but in London, the Philadelphia Association still operates—along with several similar orgs influenced by Laing’s vision of therapeutic communities. In "Critical Living," the animated stop-motion film above, filmmaker Alex Widdowson excerpts interviews with “a current house therapist, a former house resident, and the UK author and cultural historian Mike Jay, to explore the thinking behind the organization’s methodology and contextualize its legacy.” For Laing, mental illnesses, even extreme psychoses like schizophrenia, are personal struggles that can best be worked through in interpersonal settings which eliminate distinctions between doctor and patient and abolish methods Laing called “confrontational.”

Laing’s work began to be discredited in the mid-seventies, as breakthroughs in brain imaging provided neurological evidence for mainstream psychiatric theories, and as the culture changed and left his theories behind. A friend of Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and Allen Ginsberg, and an intellectual hero to many in the counterculture, Laing began to move into stranger territory, holding workshops for “rebirthing” therapies and giving people around him reason to doubt his own grasp on reality. Burston lists a number of other reasons his experiments with “therapeutic community” largely fell into obscurity, including the significant investment of time and effort required. “We want a quick fix: something clean and cost-effective, not messy and time consuming.”

But for many, Laing’s ideas of mental illness as an existential problem—one which could be just as much a breakthrough as a breakdown—continue to resonate, as do the many political and social critiques he and his contemporaries raised. “In the system of psychiatry,” says one interviewee in the video above, “there’s a huge emphasis on goals, and on an ending. In the more in-depth therapies, they’re more sensitive to the fact that the psyche can’t be rushed, it takes time.”

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Mapping Emotions in the Body: A Finnish Neuroscience Study Reveals Where We Feel Emotions in Our Bodies

“Eastern medicine” and “Western medicine”—the distinction is a crude one, often used to misinform, mislead, or grind cultural axes rather than make substantive claims about different theories of the human organism. Thankfully, the medical establishment has largely given up demonizing or ignoring yogic and meditative mind-body practices, incorporating many of them into contemporary pain relief, mental health care, and preventative and rehabilitative treatments.

Hindu and Buddhist critics may find much not to like in the secular appropriation of practices like mindfulness and yoga, and they may find it odd that such a fundamental insight as the relationship between mind and body should ever have been in doubt. But we know from even a slight familiarity with European philosophy (“I think, therefore I am”) that it was from the Enlightenment into the 20th century.

Now, says Riitta Hari, co-author of a 2014 Finish study on the bodily locations of emotion, “We have obtained solid evidence that shows the body is involved in all types of cognitive and emotional functions. In other words, the human mind is strongly embodied.” We are not brains in vats. All those colorful old expressions—“cold feet,” “butterflies in the stomach,” “chill up my spine”—named qualitative data, just a handful of the embodied emotions mapped by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa and co-authors Riitta Hari, Enrico Glerean, and Jari K. Hietanen.

In their study, the researchers “recruited more than 1,000 participants” for three experiments, reports Ashley Hamer at Curiosity. These included having people “rate how much they experience each feeling in their body vs. in their mind, how good each one feels, and how much they can control it.” Participants were also asked to sort their feelings, producing “five clusters: positive feelings, negative feelings, cognitive processes, somatic (or bodily) states and illnesses, and homeostatic states (bodily functions).”

After making careful distinctions between not only emotional states, but also between thinking and sensation, the study participants colored blank outlines of the human body on a computer when asked where they felt specific feelings. As the video above from the American Museum of Natural History explains, the researchers “used stories, video, and pictures to provoke emotional responses,” which registered onscreen as warmer or cooler colors.

Similar kinds of emotions clustered in similar places, with anger, fear, and disgust concentrating in the upper body, around the organs and muscles that most react to such feelings. But “others were far more surprising, even if they made sense intuitively,” writes Hamer “The positive emotions of gratefulness and togetherness and the negative emotions of guilt and despair all looked remarkably similar, with feelings mapped primarily in the heart, followed by the head and stomach. Mania and exhaustion, another two opposing emotions, were both felt all over the body.”

The researchers controlled for differences in figurative expressions (i.e. “heartache”) across two languages, Swedish and Finnish. They also make reference to other mind-body theories, such as using “somatosensory feedback... to trigger conscious emotional experiences” and the idea that “we understand others’ emotions by simulating them in our own bodies.” Read the full, and fully illustrated, study results in “Bodily Maps of Emotions,” published by the National Academy of Sciences.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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