Men more likely than women to face mental illness and substance abuse

June marks National Men’s Health Month, an opportunity to examine the prevalence of drug misuse and substance use disorders (SUDs) in men. Compared to women, men are more likely to engage in illicit drug use and to begin using alcohol or drugs at a younger age. These risk factors contribute to a rate of substance dependence in men that is twice that of women; men are also more likely to experience an opioid overdose. In fact, of the 47,600 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017, two-thirds were among men.

This disparity is also true for alcohol and other drugs. For example, men are more likely to drink excessively, which is associated with higher rates of alcohol-related deaths, hospitalizations, and risky behavior, such as drinking and driving. For other drugs, such as marijuana, use in males is higher, as is the prevalence of cannabis use disorder.

Trauma is an important risk factor for the development of an SUD in both men and women, though the impact appears to be more significant in men. People who experience adverse childhood experiences-abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences before age 18-are at increased odds of developing an SUD, though the relationship between SUDs and previous physical or sexual abuse, and parental separation or divorce, is stronger in men. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also contribute to the progression of an SUD. Compared to women, men with PTSD are almost twice as likely to also have an SUD.

Nearly half (45.6 percent) of adults with an SUD also have a mental illness, such as depression. Additionally, rates of suicide are almost four times greater for men than for women, although substances are commonly found in both males and females who complete suicide. According to federal data from 2014, 40 percent of deaths by suicide involved alcohol intoxication, 30 percent involved opioids, and 21 percent involved marijuana.

Given the breadth of risk factors associated with substance use disorders and misuse in men, health care providers should focus on understanding and delivering appropriate treatment for the mental health issues that can affect individuals simultaneously. In particular, because the missed identification of co-occurring disorders can be a barrier to appropriate interventions, health care systems should focus on screening and referrals for an SUD and mental health treatment, including behavioral health therapies.

Getting access to effective care is the first step toward recovery, and medication-assisted treatment has proven to be the gold standard for helping people with an SUD achieve successful outcomes. With a focus on interventions, such as trauma-informed care, that address both mental health issues and substance use disorders, health professionals can better address the complex nature of drug misuse among men and reduce the risk of overdose.

Beth Connolly directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ substance use prevention and treatment initiative.

Research helps shed new light on circadian clocks

Can your liver sense when you’re staring at a television screen or cellphone late at night? Apparently so, and when such activity is detected, the organ can throw your circadian rhythms out of whack, leaving you more susceptible to health problems.

That’s one of the takeaways from two new studies by University of California, Irvine scientists working in collaboration with the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, Spain.

The studies, published today in the journal Cell, used specially bred mice to analyze the network of internal clocks that regulate metabolism. Although researchers had suspected that the body’s various circadian clocks could operate independently from the central clock in the hypothalamus of the brain, there was previously no way to test the theory, said Paolo Sassone-Corsi, director of UCI’s Center for Epigenetics and Metabolism and senior author of one of the studies.

To overcome that obstacle, scientists figured out how to disable the entire circadian system of the mice, then jump-start individual clocks. For the experiments reported in the Cell papers, they activated clocks inside the liver or skin.

“The results were quite surprising,” said Sassone-Corsi, Donald Bren Professor of Biological Chemistry. “No one realized that the liver or skin could be so directly affected by light.”

For example, despite the shutdown of all other body clocks, including the central brain clock, the liver knew what time it was, responded to light changes as day shifted to night and maintained critical functions, such as preparing to digest food at mealtime and converting glucose to energy.

Somehow, the liver’s circadian clock was able to detect light, presumably via signals from other organs. Only when the mice were subjected to constant darkness did the liver’s clock stop functioning.

In upcoming studies, UCI and Barcelona researchers will phase in other internal clocks to see how different organs communicate with each other, Sassone-Corsi said.

“The future implications of our findings are vast,” he noted. “With these mice, we can now begin deciphering the metabolic pathways that control our circadian rhythms, aging processes and general well-being.”

In earlier studies, Sassone-Corsi has examined how circadian clocks can be rewired by such factors as sleep deprivation, diet and exercise. Exposure to computer, television or cellphone light just before bed can also scramble internal clocks.

Because of modern lifestyles, it’s easy for people’s circadian systems to get confused, he said. In turn, that can lead to depression, allergies, premature aging, cancer and other health problems. Further mice experiments could uncover ways to make human internal clocks “less misaligned,” Sassone-Corsi added.

Other UCI researchers involved in the studies included Kevin B. Koronowski, Jacob G. Smith, Muntaha Samad, Siwei Chen, Christophe N. Magnan and Pierre Baldi. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Spain’s Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, the European Research Council and the government of Catalonia, among other funding sources.

Can science tell us how much alcohol you can drink safely?

Humans have been drinking fermented concoctions since the beginning of recorded time. But despite that long relationship with alcohol, we still don’t know what exactly the molecule does to our brains to create a feeling of intoxication. Likewise, though the health harms of heavy drinking are fairly obvious, scientists have struggled to identify what negative impacts lesser volumes may lead to. Last September, the prestigious peer-reviewed British medical journal The Lancet published a study that is thought to be the most comprehensive global analysis of the risks of alcohol consumption. Its conclusion, which the media widely reported, sounded unequivocal: “The safest level of drinking is none.”

Sorting through the latest research on how to optimize your well-being is a constant and confounding feature of modern life. A scientific study becomes a press release becomes a news alert, shedding context at each stage. Often, it’s a steady stream of resulting headlines that seem to contradict one another, which makes it easy to justify ignoring them. “There’s so much information on chocolate, coffee, alcohol,” says Nicholas Steneck, a former consultant to the Office of Research Integrity for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “You basically believe what you want to believe unless people are dropping dead all over the place.”

Scientific studies are written primarily for other scientists. But to make informed decisions, members of the general public have to engage with them, too. Does our current method of doing so – study by study, conclusion by conclusion – make us more informed as readers or simply more mistrustful? As Steneck asks: “If we turn our back on all research results, how do we make decisions? How do you know what research to trust?” It’s a question this new monthly column aims to explore: What can, and can’t, studies tell us when it comes to our health?

The truth is, putting alcohol research in context is tricky even for scientists. The Lancet study is epidemiological, which means it looks for patterns in data related to the health of entire populations. That data might come from surveys or public records that describe how people behave in their everyday environments, settings that scientists cannot absolutely control. Epidemiological studies are a crucial means of discovering possible relationships between variables and how they change over time. (Hippocrates founded the field when he posited an environmental rather than a supernatural cause for malaria, which, he noted, occurred most often in swampy areas.) They can include millions of people, far more than could be entered into a randomized-control trial. And they are an ethical way to study risky behaviors: You can’t experiment by randomly assigning groups of people to drive drunk or sober for a year. But because epidemiologists can only observe – not control – the conditions in which their subjects behave, there are also a vast and an unknown number of variables acting on those subjects, which means such studies can’t say for certain that one variable causes another.

Modern epidemiology took off in the 1950s and ’60s, when public-health researchers in the United States and Britain began long-term studies tracking a wide variety of health factors in thousands of people over decades and surveying them about their behavior to try to identify risks. What they found when they looked at alcohol consumption in particular was puzzling: People who reported being moderate drinkers tended to have a lower risk of mortality and many specific health problems than abstainers did. Did this mean that a certain amount of alcohol offered a “protective” effect? And if so, how much? In 1992, an influential study in The Lancet observed that the French had a much lower risk of death from coronary heart disease than people in other developed countries, even though they all consumed high levels of saturated fat. The reason, the authors proposed, was partly that the French drank significantly more wine.

The notion that alcohol may improve heart health has persisted ever since, even as further research has revealed that it can cause cancer and other health problems and increase the risk of injury and death. But equally plausible counterhypotheses also emerged to explain why teetotalers fared worse than moderate drinkers. For instance, people might abstain from alcohol because they are already in poor health, and most studies can’t distinguish between people who have never had a drink and those who drank heavily earlier in their lives and then quit. Indeed, over the years, compared with abstinence, moderate drinking has been associated with conditions it couldn’t logically protect against: a lower risk of deafness, hip fractures, the common cold and even alcoholic liver cirrhosis. All of which advances a conclusion that health determines drinking rather than the other way around. If that’s the case, and abstainers are predisposed toward ill health, then comparing drinkers to them will underestimate any negative effects that alcohol has. “This problem of the reference group in alcohol epidemiology affects everything,” says Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “It’s urgent to establish, What is the comparison point? All we know is that risk goes up the more you drink for all of these conditions.” But without a reliable comparison group, it is impossible to say precisely how dire those risks are.

The authors of the recent study in The Lancet endeavored to address this problem, at least in part, by removing former drinkers from their reference group, leaving only never-drinkers. To do so, they spent two years searching for every epidemiological study of alcohol ever done that met certain criteria and then extracting the original data. They marked those that already excluded former drinkers, which they thought would make the comparison group more accurate; to those that didn’t, they applied a mathematical model that would control for differences between their comparison group and that of the preferred studies.

The results – which are broken down by age, sex, 195 geographical locations and 23 health problems previously associated with alcohol – show that over all, compared with having zero drinks per day, having one drink per day increases the risk of developing most of those health problems. They include infections like tuberculosis, chronic conditions like diabetes, eight kinds of cancer, accidents and self-harm. (The more you drank, the higher those risks became.) This suggests that, on the whole, the benefits of abstaining actually outweigh the loss of any health improvements moderate drinking has to offer. The results, however, also show that a serving of alcohol every day slightly lowers the risk of certain types of heart disease – especially in developed countries, where people are much more likely to live long enough to get it. So, theoretically, if you are a daily drinker who survives the increased risk of accidents or cancers that are more likely to strike young to middle-aged people, by 80, when heart disease becomes a major cause of death, your moderate drinking could prolong your life. Then again, it might be your innate biological resilience that kept you healthy enough to drink. The data still can’t say.

Keep in mind that population studies like these are not meant to directly change individual behavior. They offer generalizations – in the case of the Lancet study, that alcohol consumption is probably riskier and less potentially beneficial than we thought – that may eventually influence policies, like higher taxes on alcohol or warning labels on bottles. Paradoxically, only if those policies, in turn, reduce the amount that millions of individuals drink will we know whether doing so improved their overall health.

In the immediate term, a better way of understanding the value of scientific studies might be to think of each as a slight adjustment of an eyeglass-lens prescription. Each one answers the question “Is it clearer like this, or like this?” and in doing so, brings our view of reality – our understanding of ourselves and the world around us – into sharper focus. If we dwell too much on the conclusions studies seem to offer, instead of also considering how they were reached, we risk missing out on one of the great benefits of the scientific process: its ability to reveal all that we don’t know.

Is there a proper way to shower?

Taking a daily shower is a fairly recent development for Americans. Just 100 years ago, many thought getting their whole body wet at once (instead of taking the sponge baths that were common then) would invite diseases like pneumonia and someone would “catch their death.”

Nowadays, a long, hot shower is a daily ritual for Many Americans. Most soaps and personal care products have surfactants that, when combined with water, bind to oil and remove the beneficial fats called sebum that naturally protect your skin.1

Generally speaking, the more a product bubbles or lathers, the more surfactants it contains. Many people spend money to buy expensive lotions to restore or replenish the natural skin oils they remove when they shower.

The irony is that most of the skin lotions people buy to use after they shower are far inferior to your skin’s own “lotion” – sebum. Worse, most are loaded with toxic ingredients that pose risks to your health.

Taking showers that are too long or too hot can also dry your skin – as will not drying yourself with a towel as soon as you emerge from the shower. (There is one exception to the rule: If you live in a very hot or damp environment, letting your body “air dry” and the water drops evaporate without a toweling off will cool you off.)

Cold water may also dry out your skin and there is no evidence that it has any therapeutic benefits for your skin barrier,2 although there may be benefits on a deeper level from exposure to cold temperatures.

Beware of These Chemicals

There are toxins you want to avoid in your soaps, shampoos and other personal care products – antibiotics. When antibacterial dish, body and laundry soaps emerged in the 2000s, they were sold as “new and improved” products to get you “better than clean.”

However the products, still widely sold, do not get you cleaner than soap and water but do expose you to the endocrine-disrupting effects of antibiotics like triclosan, found in popular dish detergents and toothpastes.

Antibiotic resistance and the creation of “superbugs” is also driven by the wide use of these antibacterial products.

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave industry a year to remove antibiotics from personal care products unless manufacturers can prove they are “both safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections.”3

All Body Parts Should Not Be Washed Equally

Soaping your skin can be counterproductive, as we have seen, since it removes the balance of beneficial bacteria and dries your skin. However, you certainly want to wash areas that have a high density of sweat glands and can produce odors – notably your groin area, buttocks and armpits.

But even when it comes to washing your genitalia, experts warn about excess soap. Here is what writer and Harvard-educated anthropologist Leslie Turnbull of The Week says:4

“The external genitalia of both men and women need to be cleaned … However, given the sensitivities of these areas, this is best done with the hand, not a cloth … and, believe it or not, the water of the shower is probably all you need.

If you feel you really need to use your surfactant-free soap on your groin and (for guys) testicles and (ladies) external labia, then whatever you do … keep that soap away from the areas where your outside turns into your inside.

Both urologists and gynecologists agree; soap in these places is as unnecessary and potentially harmful as soap in the eye. Both genders should clean their external genitals front to back, finishing with the perianal area. As with every other part of the body, rinse well both front and back.”

Does Shower ‘Runoff’ Clean Your Feet?

There is another irony. While people generally overly soap their skin, they may actually neglect their feet. Many Americans are guilty of “mistakenly thinking the runoff from cleaning the rest of them will somehow remove the dirt, bacteria and dead skin from this critical part of the body,” says Turnbull, which is not always true.5 The top and bottom of your feet and between your toes may need to be washed separately.

Though it may not clean your feet, there is a benefit to the shower runoff for people who are prone to developing ingrown toenails.

After the shower when your skin and nails are soft, the toenail that tends to “ingrow” can be lifted up by gently going underneath its edge with your fingernail – discouraging it from growing into your skin. Certainly, preventing an ingrown toenail is preferable to treating it.

Sometimes, people who are otherwise thorough washers can also neglect their ears, says Turnbull. Use your index finger to lightly clean the external folds of your ears and the oft-forgotten area behind your ears with gentle shampoo or plain water.

Shampoo in the Shower? Don’t Make These Mistakes

Many people wash their hair in the shower daily or every other day. As with showering, there’s growing recognition that perhaps we’ve become too clean with these practices.

Like overcleansed skin, hair can be dried out by shampoo and move people to use conditioners to try to replenish the natural oils that are lost, which, like skin’s natural oils, are immensely preferable to external lotions that are applied.

Ironically, the less you wash your hair, the less it needs washing: Frequently shampooing actually makes hair more oily – and when you shampoo less, you “train” your hair to become less oily.

In addition to drying out hair, most commercial hair products contain toxic chemicals that operate as endocrine disruptors including sodium lauryl sulfate, phthalates used for fragrance, and methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and parabens, used as preservatives.

Neither bath soap nor shampoo should be synthetically scented because a pleasant aroma is not worth exposure to these chemicals. A slight hint of lavender or citrus derived from essential oils is safe but, if you’re unsure, look for hair products whose labels say “fragrance free.”

Have You Heard of the ‘No-‘Poo’ Movement?

In reaction to excessive harsh shampooing, a “no-‘poo” movement has developed that advocates abstaining from shampoo altogether in favor of baking soda, vinegar or even applying conditioner to use as a “shampoo.”

If you’re thinking of switching over to baking soda and vinegar, be aware, though, that many people say their hair initially felt grimy and unclean before it ultimately got better.

Though we have all heard the instructions “lather, rinse, repeat” for decades, almost no experts actually recommend a second shampooing. Sometimes “lather, rinse, repeat” is necessary in a salon after chemical treatments, say experts, but is seldom necessary in the everyday world.6

Applying conditioner after you shampoo is more important on your hair’s ends than your scalp because the ends are much farther away from your scalp’s oil and will be drier.

Dr. Karyn Grossman, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills, California, recommends slapping “conditioner on the ends of your hair – generally, more for thick hair and less for thinner strands – to let it sink in.”7 She told Greatist:8

“The warm, wet environment works magic: Follicles open up, letting the conditioner sink in extra deep and making it more effective than if you had rinsed off immediately … Wait until the end of your shower, and then use a comb to detangle hair.”

Like shampooing, both men and women often like to shave in the shower because it is convenient and skin is softened. Turnbull suggests:9

“If you shave in the shower, always keep a clean razor on hand. Dry it out between uses. Consider investing in a good shaving mirror if you shave your face and/or a shower bench if you shave your legs. These can make the process of shaving in the shower infinitely easier and even safer.”

Water Is a Precious Resource To Be Conserved

With droughts occurring in many parts of the U.S. and world, we can’t act like water is an unlimited resource. A 10-minute shower can use up to 50 gallons of water – about 5 gallons are used a minute. For this reason, experts suggest turning the water off while you are shaving – especially since most people want to take their time and be careful with a blade, which could expend a lot of unnecessary water.

A lot of water is also misused in waiting for the shower to reach its desired warm temperature. That is why some conscientious people place 5-gallon buckets under their shower head while the water is warming to use later for watering plants, rinsing clothing or even flushing the toilet.10

Speaking of the toilet, some people urinate in the shower, which is not as unsanitary as it sounds since urine is sterile unless there is infection present.11 While some may find the idea of relieving themselves in the shower unpleasant, it is a habit that does conserve water because 27 percent of the water used in American homes comes from toilet flushing.12

Even the humidity and warmth in the bathroom after taking a shower can be conserved by keeping the door and windows closed. This will soften your skin and let moisture sink in while you are dressing and grooming, say experts.

But there is one caution when it comes to humidity: It can degrade the potency and composition of any medicines you have stored there (and, if left overly humid, the moisture could contribute to mold growth). Increasingly, pharmacists tell people to keep their medicines anywhere but in the bathroom!

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

More than half a century after the great marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Sacks adds:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether delicious Everything in Its Place with naturalist Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, pioneering conservationist and Wilderness Act co-composer Mardy Murie on nature and human nature, and bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on gardening and the secret of happiness, then revisit Oliver Sacks on nature and the interconnectedness of the universe, the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

What does it mean to suffer consciously?

Nobody wants to suffer. In fact, I think the goal of many people’s lives is to stay as far away from suffering as possible. Pain is no fun, because you know…it’s pain. When we are in pain we spend most of our energy trying to figure out how to get out of pain.

You put your hand in a fire, it burns, the hand moves. That’s lesson two in the “Life 101” handbook (unless you like that type of thing then burn on my friend.) Nonetheless, for most of us if we are suffering, or more appropriately, if we are “in suffering” (because we cannot be suffering) it can be a peaceful to practice “conscious suffering”.

Most of the time when we are suffering it’s because we believe we shouldn’t be having the experience we are having. “I shouldn’t have cancer”, “I shouldn’t be going through a break-up”, “I shouldn’t have lost my job”, etc. We are resisting what is happening and therefore fighting the Reality of the situation. We are hurting and we want it to stop dammit!

Pain is typically a warning that something needs to be addressed (although sometimes we inflict pain because it’s what we are used to, or we don’t know any better). But what’s wrong is never the situation itself, that’s always neutral, but our thinking or judgement about the situation.

You may say to me, “Sterlin, if I have the stomach virus from hell and it feels like the Tasmanian devil is playing Dance Dance Revolution on my innards, it’s not my judgement that my stomach hurts… it hurts!” And I would say to you that we’re both onto something. Yes, your stomach hurts (apparently), but you make it hurt that much worse when you add a negative story to it.

Typically we can’t just stop at “my stomach hurts”. Your stomach hurting is a relative fact. But the fact that you don’t like that your stomach hurts, or you have to miss work and you can’t afford to, or you had plans for the weekend you have to cancel and now you’re going to miss out, or whatever…therein lies the judgement and the creation of the negative story. We often don’t stop at the facts themselves but in a gross act of self sabotage we add a lot of extra mess onto it that increases our suffering.

If we can’t do anything about a situation at the current time then we can either accept it or argue. Accepting it moves us out of resistance, arguing moves is further into pain.

“My stomach hurts” appears to be a fact for you at that time. Everything else is a story you’ve attached to it.

The other part of conscious suffering is looking at what the experience is meant to teach us. Now we could argue that finding the meaning behind the suffering is the creation of more stories, and that is very true. However, isn’t it more kind and peaceful to believe a happy story than a painful one?

When we shift our focus to the thematic messages of our life events we start to look at our experiences on a deeper level and remain open to the possibilities of what we are being shown about ourselves. And yes, it’s always about us. It can’t not be.

If your partner spontaneously leaves you with no announcement or apparent reason and we suffer, it is about us. I don’t mean this statement in the self-reprimanding, low self-esteem way. I mean this in the most empowering way possible. When we realize that everything happens for us, not to us, it moves the responsibility and power back to us. That doesn’t mean that we can always change the circumstances of the situation but that we can work with the only thing we can change…ourselves.

When we begin to look at the deeper or more pervasive messages behind our suffering we begin to suffer consciously. What this means is we give our experience meaning. The most painful suffering experiences of my life have been those when I was unable to find the meaning or the reason behind the suffering.

Sometimes because we are mired in the experience of our pain it can be difficult to find the meaning behind it, and as a result we may need to find someone who can provide a greater perspective (spiritually, psychologically or emotionally) to what the experience may be signaling to us. This is when other people become messengers. Incidentally, the best messengers help us to discover what our own meaning is.

One way to find the meaning in our suffering is to think of your life as an archetypal fairy tale. Look at your life as though you were reading it or as though you are watching it as a spectator. Identify the central themes in your life (and there’s only a handful of themes human’s work with over and over again such as loss, forgiveness, acceptance, empowerment, and control.)

Then you identify how the scene that is currently playing out reflects one or more of those themes. How has the character (you) dealt with this theme at other parts in the story? And how can the character choose to work with this theme at this point given the realization that the theme has appeared again on order to be worked through, so that the character (again, that’s you) can develop?

When we start to view painful experiences in this way it does a couple of things 1.) it moves us out of unconscious identification with what is happening and allows us to pull back (which incidentally eases the severity of the suffering) and 2.) it positions your experience as a gift rather than a punishment. When you realize the experience was given to you by you, you can no longer blame anyone else for your suffering (which is empowering and freeing).

You recognize that even if someone commits a terrible transgression, you (and the forces that be) orchestrated that experience for your evolution. How wonderful.

Conscious suffering is an act of courage that prevents you from living in blame or resistance and moves you into the empowered state of understanding. It offers you a opportunity for growth and the possibility that you may not have to work on that particular theme if you really experience and understand the breadth of the experience. Living and working through our karmic lessons doesn’t mean we’ve done it right or wrong but that we’ve understood the experience.

That doesn’t mean you won’t ever suffer again, and its entirely possible the same theme will show up to test your learning comprehension if not in this lifetime perhaps in another to really ensure you mastered that test. Earth is a big ol’ finishing school so the lessons never s top, and human beings love to learn.

The experiences you’re dealt are very rarely (if ever) more than the soul can handle, although the personality may hate them. The experiences we’re dealt also reflect our level of consciousness at any given time and the subtlety of our experiences may alter as we continue to grow and evolve.

When we are conscious of the deeper meaning of suffering (and you nihilists out there know that even your nihilism is a form of meaning) we stop arguing with our pain and start dealing with it as conscious participants, rather than innocent victims.

SOTT FOCUS: MindMatters: Transformation or Degradation? The Many Faces of Suffering

Illeism: New research finds this ancient rhetorical trick leads to wiser reasoning

Socrates famously declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that “knowing thyself” was the path to true wisdom. But is there a right and a wrong way to go about such self-reflection?

Simple rumination – the process of churning your concerns around in your head – isn’t the answer. It’s likely to cause you to become stuck in the rut of your own thoughts and immersed in the emotions that might be leading you astray. Certainly, research has shown that people who are prone to rumination also often suffer from impaired decision-making under pressure and are at substantially increased risk of depression.

Instead, the scientific research suggests that you should adopt an ancient rhetorical method favoured by the likes of Julius Caesar and known as “illeism” – or speaking about yourself in the third person (the term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the Latin ille meaning “he, that”). If I was considering an argument that I’d had with a friend, for instance, I may start by silently thinking to myself “David felt frustrated that…” The idea is that this small change in perspective can clear your emotional fog, allowing you to see past your biases.

A bulk of research has already shown that this kind of third-person thinking can temporarily improve decision making. Now a preprint at PsyArxiv finds that it can also bring long-term benefits to thinking and emotional regulation. It is, according to the authors, “the first evidence that wisdom-related cognitive and affective processes can be trained in daily life and of how to do so.”

The findings are the brainchild of Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo, whose work on the psychology of wisdom was one of the inspirations for my recent book on intelligence and how we can make wiser decisions.

Grossmann’s aim is to build a strong experimental footing for the study of wisdom, which had long been considered too nebulous for scientific inquiry. In one his earlier experiments, he established that it’s possible to measure wise reasoning and that, as with IQ, people’s scores matter. He did this by asking participants to discuss out-loud a personal or political dilemma, which he then scored on various elements of thinking long-considered crucial to wisdom, including: intellectual humility; taking the perspective of others; recognising uncertainty; and having the capacity to search for a compromise. Grossmann found that these wise-reasoning scores were far better than intelligence tests at predicting emotional well-being, and relationship satisfaction – supporting the idea that wisdom, as defined by these qualities, constitutes a unique construct that determines how we navigate life challenges.

Working with Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, Grossmann has also looked for ways to improve these scores – with some striking experiments demonstrating the power of illeism. In a series of laboratory experiments, they found that people tend to be humbler, and readier to consider other perspectives, when they are asked to describe problems in the third person.

Imagine, for instance, that you are arguing with your partner. Adopting a third-person perspective might help you to recognise their point of view or to accept the limits of your understanding of the problem at hand. Or imagine you are considering moving jobs. Taking the distanced perspective could help you to weigh up the benefits and the risks of the move more dispassionately.

This previous research only involved short-term interventions, however – meaning it was far from clear whether wiser reasoning would become a long-term habit with regular practice at illeism.

To find out, Grossmann’s team first asked nearly 300 participants to describe a challenging social situation, while two independent psychologists scored them on the different aspects of wise reasoning (intellectual humility etc). The participants then had to fill out a daily diary for four weeks. Each day they had to describe a situation they’d just experienced, such as a disagreement with a colleague or some bad news. Half were prompted to do so in the first-person, while the others were encouraged to describe their trials from a third-person perspective. At the end of the study all participants repeated the wise-reasoning test.

Grossmann’s results were exactly as he hoped. While the control participants showed no overall change in their wise reasoning scores, those using illeism improved in their intellectual humility, perspective-taking and capacity to find a compromise.

A further stage of the study suggested that this newfound wisdom also translated into greater emotional regulation and stability. After they had finished the four-week diary intervention, participants had to predict how their feelings of trust, frustration or anger about a close family member or friend might change over the next month – then, after that month was up, they reported back on how things had actually gone.

In line with other work on “affective forecasting”, the people in the control condition over-estimated their positive emotions and under-estimated the intensity of their negative emotions over the course of the month. In contrast, those who’d kept a third-person diary, were more accurate. A closer look revealed that their negative feelings, as a whole, were more muted, and that’s why their rosy predictions were more accurate. It seems their wiser reasoning had allowed them to find better ways to cope.

I find these emotion and relationship effects particularly fascinating, considering the fact that illeism is often considered to be infantile. Just think of Elmo in Sesame Street, or the intensely irritating Jimmy in Seinfeld – hardly models of sophisticated thinking. Alternatively, it can be taken to be the sign of a narcissistic personality – the very opposite of personal wisdom. After all, Coleridge believed that it was a ruse to cover up one’s own egotism, and many of President Trump’s critics have pointed out with disapproval that he often refers to himself in the third-person. Clearly politicians like Trump may use illeism for purely rhetorical purposes, but when applied to genuine reflection, it appears to be a powerful tool for wiser reasoning.

As the researchers point out, it would be exciting to see whether the benefits apply to other forms of decision making besides the more personal dilemmas examined in Grossmann’s study. There’s reason to think they might. Previous experiments have shown, for instance, that rumination leads to worse choices in poker (hence why expert players strive for a detached, emotionally distanced attitude), and that greater emotional awareness and regulation can improve performance on the stock market.

In the meantime, Grossmann’s work continues to prove that the subject of wisdom is worthy of rigorous experimental study – with potential benefits for all of us. It is notoriously difficult to increase general intelligence through brain training, but these results suggest that wiser reasoning and better decision making are within everyone’s power.

David Robson (@d_a_robson) David is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wiser Decisions. It is out now in the UK and Commonwealth and will be published in the USA in August.

British woman wakes up from coma speaking fluent French

It was May 2006, and I had just been swimming. I was on my way from my home in Hastings to work as a revenue executive for HMRC. It was raining hard, and the visibility was terrible. I was crossing the road when a white van drove into me and I fell, hit the side of my head, and rolled under a parked car. I have no memory of it. In fact I didn’t remember anything from a year before the accident until four years afterwards; I began to work out what had happened to me from what other people told me.

I was in an induced coma for three weeks in the neurological unit attached to Haywards Heath hospital. The medical staff tried to bring me out of the coma after about 10 days, but it was too early. I’ve got no medical notes about my time in hospital, but my family and friends were there every day. My coma was marked grade 3 in the Glasgow Coma Scale: the deepest one you can be in but still be alive; luckily I didn’t need brain surgery.

When I started coming round I was moved to my local hospital. The strangest thing was that the first words I spoke were French. A friend asked the nurses whether he should speak to me in French; they thought it was a good idea, to encourage communication. So he would ask me a question in French, and I would reply in fluent French. No one knew why, but I had done both German and French at O-level almost 30 years earlier. After a while, the doctors decided speaking French was not helping me, because I’m English. So posters were put on the wall asking people not to speak in French.

Before my coma I’d never heard of foreign accent syndrome, which can occur when people wake up from a coma and their speech is affected; people sometimes perceive it as a foreign accent. What happened to me is different, because I really was speaking French, and not just for a few seconds – for two weeks.

I still don’t know why. I’ve never had any desire to visit France, although there has always been talk in our family about our French ancestry, which can be traced right back to the grandparents of Cardinal Richelieu.

Six months before the accident, I had directed an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan and two of my friends came to the hospital to play the overture from Iolanthe, hoping it would inspire me to become fully conscious. My heart raced when the music was played and went back to normal when it stopped. There was a book for visitors to make notes – for example, when I said an English word, or smiled. My father used to sing nursery rhymes to me and was really pleased when he sang, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” and I replied, “Once I caught a fish alive.” That was quite a milestone and a relief that I was speaking English.

I was in my local hospital for a couple of months and then moved to a brain rehabilitation centre where I stayed for about a year. I still wasn’t making much sense, and had to relearn everything, including how to breathe on my own.

I don’t remember this period at all: it’s a blank. Friends tell me what I used to say and do, such as saying numbers and doing sums out loud, but it really does sound as if they’re talking about someone else.

I eventually went home and was looked after by carers; I have never married and don’t have children. I don’t remember learning to read again, but I do remember being attracted to books I had read as a child, such as Charlotte’s Web. It was almost like trying to start life again.

Before the accident I had run five half-marathons, and as I was recovering, I couldn’t bear to see people jogging. I walk with a stick now, and I can’t use steps unless there’s a rail to hang on to. I will never be 100% back to normal because I have diffuse axonal brain damage, which affects spatial awareness. When I am walking, my feet don’t know when they are going to hit the ground.

Three years ago, I heard Esther Rantzen talking on the radio about her charity The Silver Line, which matches volunteers with lonely and isolated older people, and they talk on the phone once a week. I rang up straight away and was assigned a “friend” who is 75. The role has changed my life and helped me to feel useful and normal again. It’s lucky I didn’t lose my ability to speak English, or we would never have been able to communicate.

– As told to Kate Morris

Research reveals majority of atheists believe in a supernatural phenomenon or entity despite their trust in science

Belief in the supernatural is still alive and kicking, even among people who don’t believe in a god. Research on atheists and agnostics around the world has revealed that almost nobody can claim to completely reject irrational beliefs such as life after death, astrology, and the existence of a universal life-force.

The UK-based Understanding Unbelief project interviewed thousands of self-identified atheists and agnostics from six countries – Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, US and UK. It found that despite their godlessness, a majority believe in at least one supernatural phenomenon or entity.

Among atheists in the UK, for example, about 12 per cent believe in reincarnation and nearly 20 per cent life after death. All told, 71 per cent of atheists hold one or more such beliefs; for agnostics the figure is 92 per cent. Atheists and agnostics comprise about 37 per cent of the UK population, so when combined with religious people, that means a large majority of the general population believe in the supernatural.

Globally, the most prevalent supernatural beliefs are in fate – that “significant life events are meant to be” – and that there are “underlying forces of good and evil”. Between 20 and 30 per cent of atheists in the UK and US believe in these, and around 40 per cent of agnostics. But this is lower than in the general population, where more than half of people believe them.

The project also asked people about karma, objects or people with mystical powers and the existence of supernatural beings. Even the least believed phenomenon – karma – is endorsed by around 10 per cent of atheists and 30 per cent of the general population in the UK.

Japanese atheists proved the least susceptible to the supernatural, scoring single-digit percentages for most and about 20 for fate and good / evil. Chinese atheists were the most susceptible, with more than 30 per cent professing a belief in astrology.

However, atheists and agnostics in Western countries do conform to type on one measure: they are more likely to endorse science. Two-thirds in the UK agree with the statement “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge”, compared with 46 per cent of the general population.

“Humans are not rational,” says Jonathan Lanman, an anthropologist at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the leaders of the project. He says the results may tell us something about how our brains work. “All those individual supernatural beliefs might have a distinct psychological foundation, it’s not like there’s a ‘religion’ module in the mind that produces all of them.”

Marjaana Lindeman of the University of Helsinki, Finland, says she is surprised by the findings. Her own work on supernatural beliefs finds that a majority of atheists reject them all.

“If you don’t believe in a supernatural being like God it is quite difficult to believe in other types of supernatural phenomena,” she says. “It is about thinking, reasoning, knowledge and argument.” The contradiction could be down to the fact that people are very sensitive to how questions about belief are worded – questions about fate or good and evil could be interpreted in a secular way, for example.