Researchers Find Sense of Purpose Associated with Better Memory

Bill Wellock wrote . . . . . . . . .

Add an improved memory to the list of the many benefits that accompany having a sense of purpose in life.

A new study led by Florida State University researchers showed a link between an individual’s sense of purpose and their ability to recall vivid details. The researchers found that while both a sense of purpose and cognitive function made memories easier to recall, only a sense of purpose bestowed the benefits of vividness and coherence.

The study, which focused on memories related to the COVID-19 pandemic, was published in the journal Memory.

“Personal memories serve really important functions in everyday life,” said Angelina Sutin, a professor in the College of Medicine and the paper’s lead author. “They help us to set goals, control emotions and build intimacy with others. We also know people with a greater sense of purpose perform better on objective memory tests, like remembering a list of words. We were interested in whether purpose was also associated with the quality of memories of important personal experiences because such qualities may be one reason why purpose is associated with better mental and physical health.”

Nearly 800 study participants reported on their sense of purpose and completed tasks that measured their cognitive processing speed in January and February 2020, before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S. Researchers then measured participants’ ability to retrieve and describe personal memories about the pandemic in July 2020, several months into the public health crisis.

Participants with a stronger sense of purpose in life reported that their memories were more accessible, coherent and vivid than participants with less purpose. Those with a higher sense of purpose also reported many sensory details, spoke about their memories more from a first-person perspective and reported more positive feeling and less negative feeling when asked to retrieve a memory.

The researchers also found that depressive symptoms had little effect on the ability to recall vivid details in memories, suggesting that the connection between life purpose and memory recall is not due to the fewer depressive symptoms among individuals higher in purpose.

Purpose in life has been consistently associated with better episodic memory, such as the number of words retrieved correctly on a memory task. This latest research expands on those connections to memory by showing a correlation between purpose and the richness of personal memory.

“We chose to measure the ability to recall memories associated with the COVID-19 pandemic because the pandemic is an event that touched everyone, but there has been a wide range of experiences and reactions to it that should be apparent in memories,” said co-author Martina Luchetti, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine.

Along with the association with better memory, previous research has found other numerous benefits connected with having a sense of purpose, from a lower risk of death to better physical and mental health.

“Memories help people to sustain their well-being, social connections and cognitive health,” said co-author Antonio Terracciano, a professor in the College of Medicine. “This research gives us more insight into the connections between a sense of purpose and the richness of personal memories. The vividness of those memories and how they fit into a coherent narrative may be one pathway through which purpose leads to these better outcomes.”

Source: Florida State University

All Those Steps Every Day Could Lead to Longer Life

Denise Mann wrote . . . . . . . . .

Miami publicist Robin Diamond is “step-obsessed.”

She aims for 10,000-plus steps every day using her Apple watch and even bought a treadmill during the COVID-19 quarantine to make sure she reaches her daily goal. The 43-year-old has lost 15 pounds since April 2019 and feels better than ever before.

“Walking saved my sanity and restored my body,” she said.

Now, a new study suggests that all those steps may also add years to her life.

Folks who took about 7,000 steps a day had a 50% to 70% lower risk of dying from all causes during after 11 years of follow-up when compared with people who took fewer steps each day. These findings held for Black and white middle-aged men and women.

And quicker steps weren’t necessarily any better, the study showed. Step intensity, or the number of steps per minute, didn’t influence the risk of dying.

The study, led by Amanda Paluch, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts’ department of kinesiology, appears in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“Step-counting devices can be useful tools for monitoring and promoting activity in the general public and for patient-clinician communication, Paluch said. “Steps per day is a simple, easy-to-monitor metric and getting more steps/day may be a good way to promote health.”

She added, “7,000 steps/day may be a great goal for many individuals who are currently not achieving this amount. We also found in our study that accumulating a greater number of steps/day was associated with an incremental lower risk of mortality until leveling off at approximately 10,000 steps/day.”

Two physicians with no ties to the study looked favorably at the findings.

“This is a very nice study with a great message: “Live longer, walk more,” said Dr. Guy Mintz, Northwell Health’s director of cardiovascular health at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. “There’s no need to join a gym, no need to purchase equipment, just start walking.”

The research wasn’t designed to say how, or even if, taking more steps reduced the chances of dying.

But “exercise can reduce cardiovascular risk by improving blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, improvement of hyperglycemia [blood sugar] in diabetes, and contributing to weight reduction,” said Mintz.

Dr. Michael Massoomi is a big fan of step counting. He is a clinical assistant professor of medicine within the division of cardiology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

There is no one-size-fits-all magic number, he said. “Instead of focusing on 10,000 steps per day, as many groups call for, focus on doing more than you did the day before,” he said. “If you get less than 5,000 steps a day, try to increase it to 6,000 in the next few weeks.”

This can mean adding a 20-minute walk into your daily schedule, said Massoomi.

You don’t need anything fancy or expensive to help count steps either, he said. There are many free apps for smartphones that work extremely well.

In an accompanying editorial, Nicole Spartano, a research assistant professor of medicine in endocrinology, diabetes, nutrition, and weight management at Boston University School of Medicine, pointed out that the step counter used in the new study isn’t commercially available.

“It is unclear the extent to which steps measured on these activity monitors compare with steps measured by common consumer devices, including smartwatches, pedometers and smartphone applications,” she wrote.

The new study looked at the risk of dying, but other outcomes matter, such as quality of life and mental health. “I hope to encourage investigators and research funders to focus on these understudied topics that will provide evidence to support a national step guideline,” Spartano wrote.

Source: HealthDay

Why Uncertainty Makes Us Change Our Behaviour (Even When We Shouldn’t)

Sherry Landow wrote . . . . . . . . .

Stocking up on toilet paper – bizarre as it may be – helped many people regain a sense of control at the start of the pandemic. Photo: Shutterstock.

People around the world dramatically changed their shopping behaviours at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Faced with new uncertainty, shoppers began stocking up on basic household items – especially toilet paper – to account for the new unknown. This buying frenzy led to shortages, even though, in most cases, there was enough to go around if people only purchased what they needed.

According to a study led by UNSW Sydney, reactive behaviour like this isn’t unusual, but a common way to handle unexpected uncertainty.

In fact, unexpected uncertainty is such a powerful motivator for change that it often prompts us to adjust our behaviour – even when it’s not good for us.

“When people experience an unexpected change in their environment, they start looking for ways to lessen that uncertainty,” says lead author of the study Dr Adrian Walker, who completed this research as part of his PhD in psychology at UNSW Science. “They can change their behaviour and decision-making strategies to try and find a way to regain some sense of control.

“Surprisingly, our study found that unexpected uncertainty caused people to change their behaviours even when they would have been better off sticking to an old strategy.”

The behavioural study, recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, is the first to show the type of uncertainty we experience – that is, whether it is expected or unexpected – plays a key role in our reaction.

For example, a city worker who knows their morning commute takes anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes wouldn’t be surprised by a 50-minute trip. On the other hand, a country driver would be very surprised if their predictable 30-minute trip suddenly took 50 minutes.

To test how people respond to unexpected change, the researchers tasked study participants with selling a pair of objects to one of two subjects – in this scenario, aliens – in a virtual simulation. Their task was simple: get as many points (or ‘alien dollars’) as possible.

Participants needed to choose which alien to sell a pair of chemicals to, but only one of the chemicals determined how much the alien would pay. They needed to work out which chemical and alien combination would earn them the greatest rewards.

An initial group of 35 participants were familiarised with the task and quickly learnt that one strategy (say, Option A) gave the better offer of 15 points. But midway through the experiment, the reward pattern changed, and Option A now gave a random number between 8 and 22 points.

“As soon as we added an element of uncertainty, the participants started looking for new ways to complete the task,” says Dr Walker. “The kicker is that in all cases, the best thing they could do was use their old strategy.”

Dr Walker says the pandemic – and our different responses to it – is a large-scale example of unexpected uncertainty.

“Everything changed very suddenly at the start of COVID-19,” he says.

“Many of us were suddenly all working from home, changing how we shop, and changing how we socialise. The rules we were living by beforehand no longer applied, and there was – and still is – no clear answer about when or how the pandemic will end.

“Different people tried all sorts of things – like panic shopping – to reduce this new uncertainty and return to ‘normal’. But as we’ve seen, not all of these reactive strategies were good in the long run.”

Boiling frog syndrome

While unexpected uncertainty led to dramatic responses, expected uncertainty had the opposite effect.

During the second phase of the trial, the researchers introduced uncertainty in a gradual way to a different group of 35 participants. Option A’s usual 15 points changed to 14-16 points, then 13-17 points, until the uncertainty rose to 8-22 points.

“The participants’ behaviour didn’t change dramatically, even though the uncertainty eventually reached the same levels as in the first experiment,” says Dr Walker.

“When uncertainty was introduced gradually, people were able to maintain their old strategies.”

While this specific experiment was designed for the original strategy to be the most beneficial, Dr Walker says other research has shown the harm in not changing behaviour when faced with gradual change.

“We can see this pattern in a lot of real-world challenges, like the climate change crisis,” says Dr Walker.

“When change is slow and barely noticeable, there’s no sudden prompt to change our behaviour, and so we hold to old behaviours.

“Trying to get action on climate change is a lot like the boiling frog fable. If you put a frog in a pot and boil the water, it won’t notice the threat because the water is warming gradually. When it finally notices, it is too late to jump out.”

Professor Ben Newell, the Deputy Head of UNSW School of Psychology, was one of the researchers involved in the project. He says an important next step in this research is translating insights about how people react to uncertainty in the lab to engaging people in climate action.

“If we can identify the triggers for exploring new alternatives, then we might overcome the inertia inherent in developing new, sustainable behaviours,” says Prof. Newell.

Woman wearing a face mask looking out of a window
The COVID-19 pandemic threw an added layer of uncertainty to almost every area of our daily lives. Photo: Shutterstock.

Being certain about uncertainty

Uncertainty is something humans face every day, whether it’s how bad traffic will be or what questions might be asked in an exam.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a new layer of uncertainty to major areas of our lives, like career, health, and living circumstances.

“While this study isn’t the whole picture for human behaviour during the pandemic, it can help explain why so many people looked for new ways to add certainty to their lives,” says Dr Walker, who is now a researcher in the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Medicine and Health.

Co-author Dr Tom Beesley, formerly of UNSW and now based at Lancaster University, says “Dr Walker’s work really helps us understand how people develop a representation of the uncertainty they are facing, and how they might cope, or not cope, with that.

“My lab is trying to formalise this relationship in a computational model of behaviour, so that we can make clearer predictions about what we might expect to happen under different conditions of uncertainty.”

While Dr Walker’s research is now focused on psychiatric epidemiology, he is interested to see where future research in this area goes – especially in predicting individual responses to uncertainty.

“Given how many decisions we make under uncertainty in our everyday lives, the more we can understand about how these decisions are made, the more we hope to enable people to make good decisions,” says Dr Walker.

Source: UNSW Sydney

Does Testosterone Influence Success? Not Much, Research Suggests

It is already known that in men testosterone is linked with socioeconomic position, such as income or educational qualifications. Researchers from the University of Bristol’s Population Health Sciences (PHS) and MRC Integrated Epidemiology Unit (IEU) wanted to find out whether this is because testosterone actually affects socioeconomic position, as opposed to socioeconomic circumstances affecting testosterone, or health affecting both. The findings are published in Science Advances.

To isolate effects of testosterone itself, the research team applied an approach called Mendelian randomization in a sample of 306,248 UK adults from UK Biobank. They explored testosterone’s influence on socioeconomic position, including income, employment status, neighbourhood-level deprivation, and educational qualifications; on health, including self-rated health and BMI, and on risk-taking behaviour.

Dr Amanda Hughes, Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology in Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences (PHS), said: “There’s a widespread belief that a person’s testosterone can affect where they end up in life. Our results suggest that, despite a lot of mythology surrounding testosterone, its social implications may have been over-stated.”

First, the team identified genetic variants linked to higher testosterone levels and then investigated how these variants were related to the outcomes. A person’s genetic code is determined before birth, and generally does not change during their lifetime (there are rare exceptions, such as changes that occur with cancer). This makes it very unlikely that these variants are affected by socioeconomic circumstances, health, or other environmental factors during a person’s lifetime. Consequently, any association of an outcome with variants linked to testosterone would strongly suggest an influence of testosterone on the outcome.

Similar to previous studies the research found that men with higher testosterone had higher household income, lived in less deprived areas, and were more likely to have a university degree and a skilled job. In women, higher testosterone was linked to lower socioeconomic position, including lower household income, living in a more deprived area, and lower chance of having a university degree. Consistent with previous evidence, higher testosterone was associated with better health for men and poorer health for women, and greater risk-taking behaviour for men.

In contrast, there was little evidence that the testosterone-linked genetic variants were associated with any outcome for men or women. The research team concluded that there is little evidence that testosterone meaningfully affected socioeconomic position, health, or risk-taking in men or women. The study suggests that – despite the mythology surrounding testosterone – it might be much less important than previously claimed.

Results for women were less precise than results for men, so the influence of testosterone in women could be studied in more detail in the future using larger samples.

Dr Hughes added: “Higher testosterone in men has previously been linked to various kinds of social success. A study of male executives found that testosterone was higher for those who had more subordinates. A study of male financial traders found that higher testosterone correlated with greater daily profits. Other studies have reported that testosterone is higher for more highly educated men, and among self-employed men, suggesting a link with entrepreneurship.

“Such research has supported the widespread idea that testosterone can influence success by affecting behaviour. There is evidence from experiments that testosterone can make a person more assertive or more likely to take risks – traits which can be rewarded in the labour market, for instance during wage negotiations. But there are other explanations. For example, a link between higher testosterone and success might simply reflect an influence of good health on both. Alternatively, socioeconomic circumstances could affect testosterone levels. A person’s perception of their own success could influence testosterone: in studies of sports matches, testosterone has been found to rise in the winner compared to the loser.”

Source: University of Bristol

Motivation Depends on How the Brain Processes Fatigue

How do we decide whether or not an activity which requires work is ‘worth the effort’? Researchers at the University of Birmingham & University of Oxford have shown that the willingness to work is not static, and depends upon the fluctuating rhythms of fatigue.

Fatigue – the feeling of exhaustion from doing effortful tasks – is something we all experience daily. It makes us lose motivation and want to take a break. Although scientists understand the mechanisms the brain uses to decide whether a given task is worth the effort, the influence of fatigue on this process is not yet well understood.

The research team conducted a study to investigate the impact of fatigue on a person’s decision to exert effort. They found that people were less likely to work and exert effort – even for a reward – if they were fatigued. The results are published in Nature Communications.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that there were two different types of fatigue that were detected in distinct parts of the brain. In the first, fatigue is experienced as a short-term feeling, which can be overcome after a short rest. Over time, however, a second, longer term feeling builds up, stops people from wanting to work, and doesn’t go away with short rests.

“We found that people’s willingness to exert effort fluctuated moment by moment, but gradually declined as they repeated a task over time,” says Tanja Müller, first author of the study, based at the University of Oxford. “Such changes in the motivation to work seem to be related to fatigue – and sometimes make us decide not to persist.”

The team tested 36 young, healthy people on a computer-based task, where they were asked to exert physical effort to obtain differing amounts of monetary rewards. The participants completed more than 200 trials and in each, they were asked if they would prefer to ‘work’ – which involved squeezing a grip force device – and gain the higher rewards offered, or to rest and only earn a small reward.

The team built a mathematical model to predict how much fatigue a person would be feeling at any point in the experiment, and how much that fatigue was influencing their decisions of whether to work or rest.

While performing the task, the participants also underwent an MRI scan, which enabled the researchers to look for activity in the brain that matched the predictions of the model.

They found areas of the brain’s frontal cortex had activity that fluctuated in line with the predictions, while an area called the ventral striatum signalled how much fatigue was influencing people’s motivation to keep working.

“This work provides new ways of studying and understanding fatigue, its effects on the brain, and on why it can change some people’s motivation more than others” says Dr Matthew Apps, senior author of the study, based at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health. “This helps begin to get to grips with something that affects many patients lives, as well as people while at work, school, and even elite athletes.

Source: University of Birmingham