Using Your Brain To Improve Your Own Mental Health

He who increases knowledge, increases sorrow but who wants to live a life of ignorance?

The key to a happy life

The key to a happy life is the ability to transcend personal suffering, find a balance, and recognise that the world has problems. This requires mental effort and those of us who strive to better understand ourselves in the world come out the other side as a new person, with some peace of mind and a way to live.

Fundamental or accidental?

A limit to understanding ourselves in the world is the fact that we do not know that some of the things we perceive to be truly fundamental today may actually be just accidental. For instance, the brain uses systematic patterns of thought to produce philosophy including science, mathematics, literature, ideas and beliefs including a belief in a deity to guide us towards new insights. What we need to understand is that none of these may be fundamental in themselves. They are just tools that our ancestors used to probe the unknown and to see what is possible – knowing that what is common for us is just a tiny sliver of what actually exists.

Accidental fundamentalism is often mistaken for truth

In the West we have made the truth our highest value. This motivation while important is weak compared to the actual power of belief. We are born into a culture which often insists on a particular religious or ideological philosophy as fact and the only way to understand ourselves in the world, but adhering to this belief may cause personal suffering by impeding insights necessary to achieve peace of mind. Resisting enculturation is the highest expression of human psychological development and is a hallmark of what is called in psychology as the fully self-actualised person.

Recasting reality

Self-actualisers reject accepted cultural ‘truths’ and see beyond the confines of an era to achieve a clearer perception of reality. A further subtle difference sets these people apart. Most of us see life as striving to get this or that – whether it be material things or having a family or doing well career wise. Self-actualizers in contrast do not strive as much as develop. They are only ambitious to the extent in being able to express themselves more fully and perfectly, delighting in what they are able to do. Another general point is their profound freedom of mind. In contrast to the conforming pressures around them self-actualizers are a walking example of free will.

Mental health requires courage

In this way happiness can be described as personal autonomy. The independence of mind to explore and choose the best skills and tools needed to achieve personal insight. Where you are no longer beholden to culture, creed or religion and without any attendant guilt or fear in abandoning old ways in order to try new ones as you evolve to become the master of your own fate.

What to believe?

Mental health is two things:(i) being in touch with reality and (ii) being open to new experiences. But here’s the thing – there is no reality only perception. Understand that the world is not necessarily as you perceive it. Everyone has filters and only by acknowledging them can you begin to get a clearer picture. Even in a close relationship the same simple act can be viewed differently. A man will see paying all the bills as his duty while his wife will see it as an act of love. Appreciate that your views might be prejudices. Most importantly make sure that the perceptions you do retain or adopt are grounded in verifiable fact and can be tested. Otherwise any actions you take based on your beliefs will be on shaky ground.

As part of the Limerick Lifelong Learning Festival 2021 I will give a public talk on Thursday, May 27th @ 4pm entitled: What to believe? The brain and the nature of truth in a post-COVID world. In this talk you will learn how the brain provides insights, values and priorities in informing the mind as to what it believes to be true, and how you can use this information to improve your own mental health

Click here to register via Eventbrite 

What actually makes us happy?


Recently, Gallup surveyed people across 158 countries about their happiness and reported that Switzerland came out on top while four of the five least happy countries in the world were Rwanda, Benin, Burundi and Togo.  Gallup also argued that most of the differences in happiness could be explained by just six factors:

  1. Real GDP per capita
  2. Healthy life expectancy
  3. Having someone to count on
  4. Perceived freedom to make life choices
  5. Freedom from corruption,
  6. Generosity

However, I believe that this survey missed something fundamental about the nature of individual human happiness.

Happiness is within you.

As I explained in previous posts, it is an astonishing fact that the recipe for individual human happiness can be summarized into just one sentence and here it is.

Your happiness is determined by an ability to engage and respond appropriately to the people, things and events that surround you.

Notice from this sentence, that your own individual happiness depends on YOU alone and not the people, things and events that surround you.  Ultimately whether you are..

  1. Male or female
  2. Old or young
  3. Able bodied or not
  4. Alone or in company
  5. A local or a stranger
  6. Confident or timid

..each one of us has the power to regulate our own happiness – a fact that the happiest people in the world already know.

Holders of Swiss passports and those living in sub-Saharan Africa take note.

Are Pessimistic Brains Different?

The ability to stay positive when times get tough – and, conversely, of being negative – may be hardwired in the brain, finds new research led by a Michigan State University psychologist.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, is the first to provide biological evidence validating the idea that there are, in fact, positive and negative people in the world.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to find a brain marker that really distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers,” said Jason Moser, lead investigator and assistant professor of psychology.

For the study, 71 female participants were shown graphic images and asked to put a positive spin on them while their brain activity was recorded. Participants were shown a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat, for example, and told one potential outcome was the woman breaking free and escaping.

The participants were surveyed beforehand to establish who tended to think positively and who thought negatively or worried. Sure enough, the brain reading of the positive thinkers was much less active than that of the worriers during the experiment.

“The worriers actually showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions,” Moser said. “This suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

The study focused on women because they are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety related problems and previously reported sex differences in brain structure and function could have obscured the results.

Moser said the findings have implications in the way negative thinkers approach difficult situations.

“You can’t just tell your friend to think positively or to not worry – that’s probably not going to help them,” he said. “So you need to take another tack and perhaps ask them to think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

Negative thinkers could also practice thinking positively, although Moser suspects it would take a lot of time and effort to even start to make a difference.

– See more at:

Mental Health and Well-Being for Mind and Brain

Why do some of us show only minor effects of stress while others show a more severe and disabling mental and physical decline? This slide share presentation explains how you can use your brain to recognise stress and manage it so as to benefit yourself and others in your lives.

Topics addressed include (i) understanding the brain and how it processes emotions, (ii) understanding psychological stress including its sources and consequences and (iii) reducing and preventing stress through the practice of mindfulness (awareness), cognitive restructuring (recognising your thoughts), diet, exercise and progressive relaxation.

Click here for audio recording of a workshop presentation to students and faculty at the Flinders University Department of Education, Adelaide, South Australia.


Weekly Neuroscience Update


Keeping mentally active by reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain in old age, a study suggests.

The rate and extent of damage to the spinal cord and brain following spinal cord injury have long been a mystery. Now new research has found evidence that patients already have irreversible tissue loss in the spinal cord within 40 days of injury. The study, published in the journal Lancet Neurology, used a new imaging , developed at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging (UCL). This enables the impact of therapeutic treatments and rehabilitative interventions to be determined more quickly and directly.

UCSF neuroscientists have found that by training on attention tests, people young and old can improve brain performance and multitasking skills.

Researchers are striving to understand the different genetic structures that underlie at least a subset of autism spectrum disorders. In cases where the genetic code is in error, did that happen anew in the patient, perhaps through mutation or copying error, or was it inherited? A new study in the American Journal of Human Genetics finds evidence that there may often be a recessive, inherited genetic contribution in autism with significant intellectual disability.

A specific brain disruption is present both in individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and those with bipolar disorder, adding to evidence that many mental illnesses have biological similarities.

Weekly Neuroscience Update

medium_46044113Advice to “sleep on it” before making a big decision may be wise, according to new brain-imaging research.

Scientists from the University of Southampton have identified the molecular system that contributes to the harmful inflammatory reaction in the brain during neurodegenerative diseases.An important aspect of chronic neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s or prion disease, is the generation of an innate within the brain. Results from the study open new avenues for the regulation of the inflammatory reaction and provide new insights into the understanding of the biology of , which play a leading role in the development and maintenance of this reaction.

A study conducted at the University of Granada and the University of York in Toronto, Canada, has revealed that bilingual children develop a better working memory –which holds, processes and updates information over short periods of time– than monolingual children.

Good mental health and clear thinking depend upon our ability to store and manipulate thoughts on a sort of “mental sketch pad.” In a new study, Yale School of Medicine researchers describe the molecular basis of this ability — the hallmark of human cognition — and describe how a breakdown of the system contributes to diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Your eyes aren’t just advanced visual systems capturing images of what’s around you. New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that when our eyes perceive visual stimuli, it gets encoded in our brains in ways that change our emotional reactions.

In a pair of new papers, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences upend a long-held view about the basic functioning of a key receptor molecule involved in signaling between neurons, and describe how a compound linked to Alzheimer’s disease impacts that receptor and weakens synaptic connections between brain cells.

Fear responses can only be erased when people learn something new while retrieving the fear memory. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by scientists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and published in the leading journal Science.

Injuries that result in chronic pain, such as limb injuries, and those unrelated to the brain are associated with epigenetic changes in the brain which persist months after the injury, according to researchers at McGill University.

Montreal researchers find that music lessons before age seven create stronger connections in the brain.

A team of political scientists and neuroscientists has shown that liberals and conservatives use different parts of the brain when they make risky decisions, and these regions can be used to predict which political party a person prefers.

Sorry I’m late, it’s all down to my chronobiology

Photograph: Getty Images

Individuals differ in terms of their chronotype – that is to say whether you are morning oriented or evening oriented, or somewhere in the middle.

We are well into party season as the holidays approach, with dinners, drinks with friends and similar festive cheer. But in the midst of all the fun there is also an annoyance: the latecomer.

Everyone knows someone who is always late. Maybe you’re one of those people yourself. Theories on why some individuals are late on a regular basis come from a variety of perspectives – anthropological, cultural, neurological and psychological. But are there scientific explanations for chronic lateness?

We are all governed by our circadian clocks. The study of this internal clock comes under the heading of chronobiology. “Circadian rhythms are internal 24-hour rhythms created by the Earth spinning on its axis within a 24-hour period,” says Dr Andrew Coogan, a chronobiologist at NUI Maynooth.

“Life has evolved to take advantage of that. Through evolution we have adapted a time-keeping mechanism. Animals and organisms can anticipate changes in their environment and then react appropriately. It’s important particularly for preyed-upon animals, who know to get home before it’s dark.”

The existence of circadian rhythms was first demonstrated in the 1960s when human subjects were placed into a timeless environment – a concealed former second World War bunker to be exact – with no time-reference points, clocks, natural light and so on.

It was found that the volunteers still expressed 24-hour rhythms through their internal clock. They had energy at appropriate times, slept at night time and were awake during the day.

But circadian rhythms affect individuals differently and can lead to inclinations towards “morningness” or “eveningness” and, in turn, “lateness”.

“Individuals differ in terms of their chronotype – that is to say whether you are morning oriented or evening oriented, or somewhere in the middle,” says Coogan.

“This is both an individual characteristic but also changes across the lifespan so small children generally are morning oriented, teenagers tend towards eveningness, then back towards the morning in adulthood.

“This affects the time of day we are most alert and our cognitive prowess is best set up for. Such individual differences seem to be down in part to genetics, but may also be driven by environmental factors – TVs, computers in bedrooms and street lighting at night might all make for a tendency toward ‘eveningness’.

“It might also explain in part lateness. If you are trying to get out of bed and get to school early yet your body clock is not attuned to that rhythm you may struggle and end up being late. So some of us may be predisposed to be late at different times of the day – probably most pertinent to the morning.”

The inclination towards morningness and eveningness also relates to personality. Eveningness tends to be associated with creativity and impulsiveness.

“Plus if you’re a strongly creative person you lose a sense of time when you’re in the middle of something you find very interesting – otherwise known as the absent-minded professor effect,” says Billy O’Connor, professor of physiology in the Graduate Entry Medical School in the University of Limerick.

“People get so engrossed in what they’re doing, they lose any sense of time. It’s actually a sign of good mental health. But it can be very frustrating for other people.”

Morning people, on the other hand, tend more towards conscientiousness and better organisational skills.

“Some people are future oriented so time is very important to them,” says Coogan. “Those who live in the present are not so bothered with being late.”

Being late for a flight or an important meeting is stressful and some people get addicted to that feeling. “Creating a stressful environment can be used by people to up their game,” says O’Connor. “It helps some people focus but you can become addicted to stress, more specifically the hormone cortisol. Its release gets you whizzing along when you need it most.

“Chronic stress ages the body and the brain. So this kind of behaviour works in the short term and does help some people get more done in their lives. But the brain performs optimally when it is calm and focused.”

There is, of course, one other reason why 3pm means 3.30pm to some people. “It can be a power thing,” says O’Connor. “In a business meeting setting, for example, which is a complex social gathering with multiple agendas and strict rules of engagement. They are not casual affairs so being constantly late for a meeting without a valid reason may be regarded as discourteous in a group.

“It may also be regarded as attention seeking, selfish behaviour and signs of a disorganised mind, and will more than likely result in social exclusion,” he says.


This article appeared in the Irish Times 19-12-12

Image Credit: Getty Images

Weekly Neuroscience Update

medium_6835040374Two recent pieces of work raise the prospect of being able to predict and even regulate a person’s risk-taking behavior, by first observing activity of the anterior cingulate cortex and then dialing it up or down.

A new study shows that for millions of individuals around the world who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), anger is more than an emotion; it’s an agent that exacerbates their illness.

Brain changes persist for months in children who have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury, or concussion, U.S. researchers say.

Chinese researchers have devised a new technique for reprogramming cells from human urine into immature brain cells that can form multiple types of functioning neurons and glial cells. The technique, published in the journal Nature Methods, could prove useful for studying the cellular mechanisms of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and for testing the effects of new drugs that are being developed to treat them.

Researchers have discovered how the brain assesses confidence in its decisions. The findings explain why some people have better insight into their choices than others.

Scientists have combined and translated two kinds of brain wave recordings into music, transforming one recording (EEG) to create the pitch and duration of a note, and the other (fMRI) to control the intensity of the music.

A compassion-based meditation program can significantly improve a person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others, finds a study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This boost in empathic accuracy was detected through both behavioral testing of the study participants and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brain activity.

Your brain has at least four different senses of location — and perhaps as many as 10. And each is different, according to new research from the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

photo credit: Amanda Nicole Betley via photopin cc