MSP47: All In The Mind

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop.

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop.

MSP47: All In The Mind

Technology and a little bit of positive thinking could vastly improve your mental and physical state. How? It’s time to Mattsplain. 



On last week’s show we talked about technologies that are meeting evolution head-on and trying to tip the balance in our favour. This week we’re in similarly choppy waters as we enter the world of the mind. In particular, the mind of Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage, an environment so hostile that it has been known to drive MRI scanners insane. It’s time to Mattsplain.


You have another new word you want to introduce this week.

·      It’s not specifically about the direction of the show, but while we’re on mental health issues.

·      We’re all familiar with terms like sociopath and psychopath.

·      Many of us work with one or the other. I know you do Jeff…


Are you talking about yourself?

·      I still maintain that that doctor is the real psychopath, and he has no business diagnosing anyone.

·      Would I be doing this show if you weren’t all my playthings?

·      Not everyone can have empathy. Nothing strange about it.


Your new word?

·      Ah. I was ranting again, wasn’t I?

·      Yes, well we’ve been talking a lot about AI on the show for the last couple of years. 

·      So, as I was looking at the stuff for today’s show I was wondering if the AIs we are building and that will eventually build other AIs could one day develop mental problems.


Like the crazy AIs in science fiction?

·      I just watched the new Emma Stone show Maniac which is partially about an AI suffering from depression and mostly about not very much.

·      One thing we’ve talked about a huge amount, is how machine intelligence differs from human intelligence.

·      But you have to wonder if one day there will be a bunch of algopaths, that’s my new word by the way, sentient machines with serious behavioural issues, seeking treatment. 


Couldn’t we just reprogram them?

·      As we’ve brought up on the show before.

·      If we have self-determining machines, those machines may have many of the rights that we enjoy.

·      So reprogramming might not be an option.

·      I can imagine a future where there is a body of healthcare professionals, human or machine, that deals with the mental health problems of AI and algorithms. 


And you wonder why people think you’re insane…

·      One of the reasons for this little sidestep is that mental health problems make people very uncomfortable.

·      And when it comes to the kind of stuff we talk about on this show, mostly technology related, it’s not an area we often come to…

·      …unless it’s to quickly mention a new drug, or the hope that probiotics and gut flora can be used to combat illnesses and conditions like depression.


Because technology has a very complicated relationship with mental health issues?

·      We often hear stories, some of them scientifically sound and others pseudo-scientifically less so…

·      …about the effect that smartphones, and 24 hour connectivity and streaming video and all the other tools of the digital age are having on our brains and our development.

·      We will talk about some of those today. As I said, it’s complicated, technology is never fully one thing or the other.

·      What is beneficial to one person in one way, may have a negative impact on another person in a different way.

·      For the factory worker replaced by a robot, technology has dealt him or her a blow.

·      For the systems engineer whose entire career is based on companies introducing robots, that same technology is a good thing.


We’re supposed to be talking about the human mind and we’re already talking about AI and robots. Can we start somewhere less complicated?

·      Sure. Let’s start somewhere that doesn’t require technology at all.

·      Just a bit of science.

·      And that science is starting to discover how important something as simple as a positive mindset can be, not only to our mental health but our physical health as well.


Really? A Mattsplained about the power of positive thinking? You’ll be calling yourself a Life Coach soon.

·      I like to think of myself as more of an afterlife coach.

·      That’s what these shows are. Preparing people for Armageddon and the oblivion that follows it.


Your method is to introduce negative thoughts before you get to the positive thoughts?

·      My method is to get the bank transfer done and get out of the room as quickly as possible.

·      Everything inbetween is noise.

·      Getting back to the topic - It’s getting increasingly hard to sort through all the conflicting information out there.

·      For example, one headline I read this morning said that eating junk food makes depression worse.

·      Now, I’m sure that those are very important findings.

·      But as someone who enjoys the occasional dip into junk food, I’m a little…

·      Scared isn’t the right word, I’m certainly not motivated to click that link.


And then, when something does go wrong, you’re quite happy to disappear down the Google-fed link hole of medical opinion and quackery?

·      Which is where it starts to get really difficult.

·      Whenever you start looking at those links, you think, well, I have those symptoms.

·      And then you find out you’re reading a Star Trek script, and you probably haven’t been infected with parasites from a distant nebula.

·      And if you are infected with parasites from a distant nebula, you’re probably going to die but, broadcast it and you will probably be a social media sensation.


So, how can telling myself to smile more often change my life?

·      This is still me. This isn’t woolly or New Agey.

·      There will be no smiling on this show.

·      Some of our listeners may have heard of Alicia Crum.

·      She heads up the mind and body lab at Stanford University in California.

·      You can Google her, she’s done Ted Talks and there are a lot of other video presentations of her talking on and around this subject.

·      I’m quoting from a presentation she gave at the World economic forum in Davos this year, an organisation not known for wielding the healing power of crystals.


We get it. These are serious people and Dr Crum is a serious scientist…

·      Exactly. So this quote comes from Davos via the new scientist.

·      “Our minds aren’t passive observers simply observing reality as it is; our minds actually change reality. The reality we experience tomorrow is partly the product of the mindsets we hold today.”

·      Or to put it the way New Scientist has, in a piece titled how positive mind really can create a healthy body’

·      Two people could have identical genes and lifestyles but one can end up healthier than the other, thanks to their different thoughts.


That’s quite a hard concept to get your head around…

·      Very much so. It’s easy to imagine some sides of it, the person who is anxious and worries more and there is a corresponding stress on organs like the heart.

·      But Dr Crum is uncovering evidence that it’s a lot more widespread and nuanced than that.


Like a mental health placebo effect?

·      Yes. And that’s one of the places that sparked Dr Crum’s interest in this subject.

·      As a psychologist she was very interested in the placebo effect and also in the fact that its effects weren’t well researched or being applied.


We’re talking about measurable changes?

·      Yes. In medical trials it’s not unknown for subjects treated with a placebo to release natural painkillers or chemicals that lower their blood pressure.

·      Patients given a placebo may also start to experience some of the side effects associated with that drug.


How does this relate to what we do in the real world?

·      Dr Crum did an experiment a little over 10 years ago with a group of hotel cleaners.

·      They were divided into two groups.

·      One group was explicitly told about the number of calories they were burning as a result of their work.

·      They were given information that made explicit how physically demanding their work was and how it might be a tool to stay fit.

·      The other group was told nothing.

·      A month later, those in the information group had lost an average of kilo each the most experienced a lowering of their BP.

·      Those in the control group stayed the same.

·      That wasn’t a comprehensive study, but it was a Springboard for the research that the mind & body lab has embarked on since then.


How does it work in a neurological sense?

·      That’s what researchers like Dr Crum are trying to discover.

·      We’re at the point now, where we can see that our mindset has a measurable effect on the body.

·      We can start to use make use of those discoveries, but we’re still trying to discover exactly why.

·      One of the Theories that Dr cram has is that our perception of physical fitness, let’s say we perceive ourselves to be unfit

·      …the brain may actually be triggering inflammation and releasing chemicals like cortisol, and those can affect how you respond to exercise.

·      Or make your more likely to view the effects of exercise on the body in a poor light..


When we come back, Matt will continue to talk himself out of his aversion to exercise.




We’re thinking positive today. One thing that occurs to me, are there examples of being positive – doing something that should be good for us – but that actually ends up with a negative outcome? 

·      This next part may come as a surprise to a lot of people.

·      When I’m advising clients, issues of positivity and negativity often come up.

·      For example, let’s say it’s a marketing campaign and we want to celebrate the New Year. 

·      Don’t talk about the end of 2018. Talk about 2019 and all the possibilities it opens up.

·      It’s not spin. It’s positioning. 

·      We’re talking about the same thing and we’re choosing to address it in a positive light.

·      We’re talking about the start of something new rather than the end of something old and familiar.


And how does that make us healthier?

·      It’s an analogy. Be a little bit patient.

·      Let’s take eating healthily. 

·      Some of Dr Crum’s research suggests that the effect that eating healthily will have on your body, depends in part in the way you frame it mentally.

·      Dr Crum’s team carried out an experiment in 2011 where volunteers were fed a milkshake and their levels of a chemical called ghrelin, which helps to control our reaction to hunger, was measured.

·      One group was told they were eating a healthy, low calorie shake, the other group was told that the same shake was a high calorie indulgence.


Presumably, the low calorie group burned the shake off faster?

·      That’s what I imagined would happen.

·      It isn’t though.

·      The measurements afterwards showed that the levels of ghrelin were markedly higher in the low calorie shake group.

·      And The volunteers in that group felt less full.

·      The fatties, by contrast, were all full and satisfied.

·      High-levels of ghrelin correspond with food deprivation. 

·      It slows the metabolism down and you’re more likely to store the energy as fat.


And the take away is that eating healthily is bad for you?

·      No, the takeaway is that the way your mind frames the action also has an enormous impact on the result of that action.

·      So, if you’re someone who eats healthily, but frames it as depriving yourself of high-fat or indulgence or comfort foods,

·      you actually casting that good action in a negative light and the net effects on your body are less positive than they should be.

·      So Dr Crum suggests that we cultivate a mindset of indulgence.

·      We treat everything that we eat as indulgent and savour its taste and flavour and texture.


This does seem to be a little one-sided…

·      I keep mentioning Dr Crum but that’s mainly because she carries out the kind of sneaky experiments that I would carry out if I was doing that job.

·      Scientists at other universities and research institutes have also recorded similar results and phenomena.

·      And this has implications for many areas of our lives, including stress management, ageing. 

·      We do have to talk about some other aspects of Technology and mental health, so if you are interested in in the subject, as I said earlier do Google dr Alicia Cram and you can listen to her TED talks some of the other video presentations that She has online.

·      It’s an absolutely fascinating area, and one that I think we’ll come back to as we start to make the connections between the what and the why.


One of the areas that seems to get a lot of press is the negative effects that technology is having on our health.

·      I imagine quite a few of our listeners, especially those that own children – have I got the terminology right? – will have seen headlines that there is a growing mental health crisis in the young.


There’s quite a lot of controversy over that…

·      There’s a lot of disagreement about whether or not this is true.

·      Some indicators like suicide rates in the under 30s seem to be stable in many Western countries, suggesting that, even if there is an increase in mental health issues, they tend to be treatable rather than chronic.

·      One quote I read was quite nice: “Human nature is very stable. The way of measuring rates of mental disorder is remarkably unstable.”


Hasn’t there been an increase in the levels of self-harming behaviour in some countries?

·      Yes, and even the reasons for this have been hotly debated.

·      In the past, self-harming behaviour was something people generally kept secret.

·      What we’re seeing is an increase in visible self-harming. 

·      People are documenting their action on social media, which is leading some health professionals to wonder if this trend is separate from traditional self-harming:

·      That this has become an acceptable way to signal distress to peers and family.


Haven’t we concluded that phones and social media are leading to anxiety and isolation and factors like low self-esteem and poor body image?

·      This is where we get into that yes-no territory. 

·      People’s lives on social media are hard to live up to. Especially the so-called Influencers.

·      I’ve got friends who are posting photos everyday from places like Bali or Iceland.

·      So you assume that they’re there, and that their life is one long holiday.

·      But I know for a fact they were only there for a two day mini-break last month.

·      They just took a lot of photos.

·      There’s a dislocation between the story of social media and the reality that the person posting lives.

·      It’s very relevant that Facebook and Instagram call their temporary posts Stories.  

·      We associate the word Story with fiction. And maybe that’s how we should approach social media too.

·      Like true-crime movies: this story is based on real-life events.


So, you agree that we’re putting pressure on people. Especially the young.

·      The bigger question is how resilient people are.

·      I’ve followed the debate about weight loss lollipops over the past few weeks and companies like Facebook have to work a lot harder to stamp that nonsense out.

·      It’s not just harmful to people who are still trying to form their self-image – 

o  which I think is pretty much all of us, it’s not something that is reserved for the young, we’re all vulnerable – 

o  it’s also that they’re profiting from something that’s very dark and unpleasant.

·      But that’s not to say that studies have concluded that the digital world is negative to young people. 

·      Actually, some studies, such as one conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute, which is part of Oxford University, into around 120k British teens, concluded that moderate use of handheld devices actually correlated to a small positive effect on mental health.


What are we missing?

·      There Is a much greater awareness of mental health issues. 

·      And the stigma is decreasing. People are more open about their struggles with depression, anxiety and other conditions that were once thought to be a bit shameful, a bit weak.

·      While that tolerance is fantastic, the facilities that most countries have to deal with this new openness are being stretched.

·      Supply is not meeting demand, and rather than letting people disappear back into the shadows, where they may self-medicate rather than seek treatment, technology is stepping into the gap.


There’s an app for that?

·      Nothing so trite. But there are apps that help to connect people to support services.

·      That might be medical health clinics, counsellors.

·      Apps and forums can also provide a helpful support network for people suffering with many health conditions, not just mental health issues.

·      It’s good to know that you’re not alone. That other people are in a similar situation.

·      It doesn’t replace medical care but can be a good way to augment it.

·      Those services also provide a wealth of insight and data for clinicians and researchers who may only be getting one-side of the conversation in their engagement with patients.


Presumably tele-consultation is another possibility?

·      Sure. Mental health services are often unequally distributed, even within developed countries.

·      Talking to a psychiatrist, or psychologist or counsellor over a video link may be imperfect, but it does help for people who don’t have ready access to services near where they live.

·      Obviously, most clinicians will recommend developing a one-on-one, face-to-face relationship but this approach could also increase the number of patients a medical professional is able to effectively see.

·      Tele-consultation is a direction that a lot of medicine has been heading in over the past few years.

·      What I think is potentially more interesting, from a technology point of view, is virtual reality.


I thought you said VR was useless?

·      It is, as an entertainment vehicle. We’ve seen the holodeck. VR goggles turn you into a burrowing mole, flailing in the sunlight.

·      Plus, they give me vertigo.

·      It does have relevant specific case uses. 

·      And this is one of them.

·      One study was published in the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry in July this year.

·      It was an automated treatment, with no counsellor, that used immersive VR simulations to help 100 people with a fear of heights, guided by an avatar

·      Each of the test subjects used the simulation over a 4 week period and there was a marked improvement in their ability to cope with heights by the end of their course of treatment.


And these simulations could be extended?

·      Listeners can check out an article at The Guardian by Jason Freeman, called Don’t Dismiss tech solutions to mental health problems.

·      The number of conditions where an automated system are suitable may be limited, but certainly VR may become a mainstay of mental health treatments.

·      It allows doctors and counsellors to place patients in scenarios and gauge their responses over time.

·      So it isn’t something that just works for aversion therapy.

·      It may end up being a very important support or enhancement tool in many cognitive therapies for many conditions and disorders.


Two weeks in a row, we end on a happy note.

·      And that happy note is very important.

·      It’s really worth having a look into that positive mindset stuff.

·      It’s not a cure-all. But it may give you some insights into why your approach to fitness, or diet, or health or even managing aches and pains, doesn’t seem to be as effective as someone else’s.

·      We all talk about hitting a wall where things don’t seem to work as well anymore.

·      Maybe it isn’t a wall. Maybe it’s a mirror.

MATTSPLAINED, Podcast, BFMMatt Armitage