Understanding Menopause

The 18th October is World Menopause Day. Researchers in the psychology department are working to futher our understanding of menopause, how it impacts women and how we can alleviate some of the negative symptoms of menopause. In this post, Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay explains the basics of menopause and tell us about her teams current research projects, from research in to sleep disturbances, dietary changes and menopause in the workplace.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com
author: Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay, department of psychology, northumbria university

Menopause – The Basics

Menopause is a normal, natural life event experienced by most women, and some men. Menopause results in lower levels of oestrogen and other hormones and is defined as the permanent loss of menstrual periods, usually confirmed when a period is missed for 12 consecutive months. This typically occurs between ages 40 and 58, with the average age being 51.

Perimenopause is the stage from the beginning of menopausal symptoms to the postmenopause and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. During the perimenopause, hormone levels change and the ovaries start to produce fewer eggs. Although over half of the world will experience menopause and the potential for debilitating symptoms associated with it, this important life event receives very little attention and is often not discussed.

Hot, sweaty and sweary

There are a number of common physical symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause, including:

  • Changes to your menstrual cycle
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Incontinence and bladder problems
  • Weight gain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulty sleeping

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Problems with memory and concentration – “brain fog”
  • Loss of interest in sex

However, experience of the menopause is different for everyone and a lack of awareness of the full array of symptoms both from the point of view of the individual and often within the medical profession can lead to menopause not being diagnosed. Psychological symptoms are particularly likely to be missed and often anti-depressants are prescribed without identification of menopause as the underlying cause.

Managing menopause symptoms through diet

Alternatives to anti-depressants include dietary supplements and herbal extracts and there are a range of these supplements that are marketed with claims to improve symptoms related to menopause. Unfortunately, research examining the effects of these supplements is limited and there is a lack of good evidence to support the claims made. However, research has indicated that a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes is associated with delayed onset of natural menopause whereas refined pasta and rice was associated with earlier menopause. A higher intake of vitamin B6 and zinc was also associated with later age at menopause.

A limited number of studies have also assessed the role of diet in reducing or exacerbating menopausal symptoms. A recent systematic review indicated that lower intensity of symptoms was associated with a diet comprising of more vegetables, whole grain and unprocessed food. However, the majority of studies in this area have focused on specific aspects of menopause symptoms or on specific aspects of the diet, with a lack of studies conducted in the UK.

Overall, evidence on the relationship between dietary intake and menopausal symptoms is inconsistent and inconclusive. Within the Psychology department at Northumbria we are currently conducting research exploring the relationship between menopause symptoms, mental wellbeing, and diet in a UK population.

Menopausal sleep disturbance

Sleep disturbances are extremely common during menopause, where specific problems include difficulties with falling asleep, frequent awakenings, awakening too early, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Therefore, interventions which improve or prevent menopause-related sleep disturbances are extremely important and are likely to aid physical and psychological health. To date, there are no systematic reviews of nutritional interventions to treat menopause-related sleep disturbances. Researchers within the department are currently completing a systematic review of the literature exploring nutritional interventions for menopause-related sleep disturbances.

The findings from both of the current projects relating to diet will inform the development of subsequent nutritional intervention trials examining the impact on menopausal symptoms and specifically on sleep disturbances in menopause.

Menopause in the workplace

As menopause is rarely discussed this can lead to a lack of support and issues in the workplace. Almost one million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms. As the issue mainly affects those in their late 40s and early 50s, this leads to women eligible for senior management roles leaving work at the peak of their career. This also leads to knock-on effects to workplace productivity, the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.

In July it was announced that an inquiry was being launched by the Commons cross-party women and equalities committee examining “An invisible cohort: why are workplaces failing women going through the menopause?”. This inquiry will scrutinise existing legislation and workplace practices and will draw up recommendations with a view to shaping policies to address gender equality. As stated by the Chair of this committee:

“Three in every five women are negatively affected at work as a result of the menopause. The repercussions of that are not merely individual. Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society and our place on the world stage.”

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP

Whilst this issue is gaining some attention there is still a lack of awareness of individual’s experiences of menopause in the workplace and particularly the types of support that may lead to improvements in psychological symptoms of the perimenopause/menopause.

About the author and research team

Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay is a professor of Biological Psychology in the psychology department. She is also Director of Postgraduate Research and a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group

The projects described above are all being conducted in collaboration with paid student interns or placement students (Abi Glancey, Maddy Lane, Dominik Polasek) as well as staff members in Psychology: Greg ElderVicki Elsey, Nayantara Santhi and Michael Smith.

If you are interested in learning more about this research, please contact crystal.haskell-ramsay@northumbria.ac.uk

Why do we dream?

agsandrew/Shutterstock
Author: Professor Jason Ellis, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

Although science knows what dreams are, it is still not known exactly why we dream, although plenty of theories exist.

Dreams are patterns of sensory information that occur when the brain is in a resting state – as in asleep. It is generally assumed that dreams only occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – this is when the brain appears to be in an active state but the individual is asleep and in a state of paralysis. But studies have shown that they can also happen outside of REM.

Research from sleep studies, for example, shows that REM-related dreams tend to be more fantastical, more colourful and vivid whereas non-REM dreams are more concrete and usually characterised in black and white. Recent studies on dreaming show that during a dream (and in particular a REM-related dream) the emotional centre of the brain is highly active whereas the logical rational centre of the brain is slowed. This can help explain why these dreams are more emotive and surreal.

Evolutionary theory suggests the purpose of dreams is to learn, in a safe way, how to deal with challenging or threatening situations. Whereas the “memory consolidation” theory suggests that dreams are a byproduct of reorganising memory in response to what has been learned throughout the day.

Both theories have at least one thing in common – during times of stress and anxiety we either dream more or remember our dreams more often, as a way of coping with challenging circumstances and new information. This is also in line with another theory of dreaming – the mood regulatory function of dreams theory, where the function of dreams is to problem-solve emotional issues.

Anxiety and stress dreams

While there is no evidence that we dream more when we are stressed, research shows we are more likely to remember our dreams because our sleep is poorer and we tend to wake in the night more frequently.

Studies show the dreams of people with insomnia (a disorder largely characterised by stress) contain more negative emotion and are more focused on the self, in a negative light. Also, the dreams of people with insomnia tend to focus on current life stressors, anxieties and can leave an individual with a low mood the following day.

‘And then I was sitting on top of a palm tree in a white plastic chair.’ Evgeniya Porechenskaya/Shutterstock

Outside of insomnia, research has found that people who are depressed, while going through a divorce, appear to dream differently compared to those who are not depressed. They rate their dreams as more unpleasant. Interestingly though the study found that those depressed volunteers who dreamt of their ex-spouse were more likely to have recovered from their depression a year later compared to those that did not dream of the ex-spouse. Participants whose dreams changed over time, to become less angry and more pragmatic, also showed the greatest improvements. The question is why?

Although our senses are dampened during sleep (with vision being completely absent), strong sensory information, such as an alarm, will be registered and in some cases incorporated into the dream itself. We also know that during times of stress we are more vigilant to threat (on cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels), so it stands to reason that we are more likely to incorporate internal and external signals into our dreams, as a way to manage them. And this may account for these changes in our dreams, when we are anxious, depressed or sleeping badly.

How to sleep better

The current thinking is stress reduction before bed and good sleep management – such as keeping a consistent sleep routine, using the bedroom only for sleep, making sure the bedroom is cool, dark, quiet and free from anything arousing – will reduce awakenings at night and so the frequency of stress-related negative dreams.

That said, using a technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), mainly used for treating nightmares in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, it appears stress and anxiety associated with nightmares and bad dreams as well as the frequency of bad dreams can be reduced. This is achieved by re-imagining the ending of the dream or the context of the dream, making it less threatening.

The night I became a pink unicorn. Evgeniya Porechenskaya/Shutterstock

There is also evidence that IRT is effective for reducing nightmares in children. Although IRT is thought to be successful by giving the dreamer a sense of control over the dream, this hasn’t been well studied in people who are stressed or anxious.

That said, a recent study showed that teaching people with insomnia to be aware while they were dreaming and to control the dream, as it occurs – known as lucid dreaming training – not only reduced their insomnia symptoms but also reduced their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Perhaps then the key is to manage the dreams as opposed to trying to manage the stress – especially in uncertain times.

Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. He is a member of the Health and Wellbeing research group and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why do you feel like you’re falling when you go to sleep?

Dropping off. Shutterstock
Author: Professor Jason Ellis, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

It should be one of the most relaxing times of the day. You climb into bed, get comfortable and cosy, start to feel your brain slowing down … and then suddenly you experience a shocking falling sensation. It’s like you misjudged the number of stairs you were walking down, leaving your leg in mid air for just a bit longer than you expected. Not pleasant.

This bedtime tumbling sensation is the phenomenon known as the “hypnic jerk” and may sometimes be accompanied by a visual hallucination. You may have heard it called a “sleep start”, the “hypnagogic jerk” or the “myoclonic jerk”, but for the sake of sanity we’ll just stick with the former.

So what is it?

The hypnic jerk occurs when the muscles, usually in the legs (although they can be observed throughout the body), involuntarily contract quickly, almost like a twitch or spasm. Although the reasons behind this are not that well understood, the evolutionary perspective suggests that it serves at least two important but interrelated functions, the former of which is still relevant today.

First, this sudden awakening allows us to check our environment one last time, an opportunity to ensure that it really is safe to go to sleep by creating a startle-like response. You might have accidentally dropped off somewhere dangerous, after all.

Another suggested evolutionary function is that it allowed us – or at least our early ancestors – to check the stability of our body position before we went to sleep, especially if we started to fall asleep in a tree. The jerk would allow us to test our “footing” before unconsciousness set in. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Mg_66TRsb6Y?wmode=transparent&start=0

The other main theory suggests that the hypnic jerk is merely a symptom of our active physiological system finally giving in, albeit sometimes reluctantly, to our sleep drive, moving from active and volitional motor control to a state of relaxation and eventual bodily paralysis. In essence, the hypnic jerk may be a sign of the eventual switch over between the brain’s recticular activating system (which uses arousal neurotransmitters to aid wakefulness) and the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (which utilises inhibitory neurotransmitters to reduce wakefulness and promote sleep).

When jerks go bad

Either way, although in most cases a normal and natural phenomenon, the hypnic jerk can be a rather disconcerting or frightening experience. In extreme cases – whether in terms of frequency or the velocity and violence of the jerk – it can keep people awake, preventing them from entering the normal sleep onset process, resulting, in the longer-term, in a form of sleep-onset insomnia.

As the hypnic jerk is related to motor activity, anything that is going to keep your motor system active at night is likely to increase the chances of you having one – and possibly even a more intense one, too.

As such, caffeine (or other stimulants) and/or vigorous exercise in the evening and high stress and anxiety levels at night are associated with an increased chance of a spontaneous hypnic jerk and should, where possible, be avoided. Other associations include being overtired or fatigued, sleep deprived or having an erratic sleep schedule. Here, keeping a good regular sleep/wake pattern can help. https://www.youtube.com/embed/39a_XWaJ7As?wmode=transparent&start=0

Finally, from a nutritional perspective, it has been suggested, albeit anecdotally, that deficiencies in magnesium, calcium and/or iron can also increase the chances of experiencing a spontaneous hypnic jerk. That said, it has also been suggested that hypnic jerks can be evoked through sensory stimulation, during the sleep onset period, so ensuring that your sleep environment is cool, dark and quiet may be helpful in reducing the frequency and intensity of them.

There is actually very little research on the topic, presumably because it is largely seen as a normal phenomenon, making it difficult to suggest a definitive “treatment”. However, we do know that as we get older the number of hypnic jerks we will experience should decrease naturally. The main issue to consider here is whether the hypnic jerk is causing you or your bed partner a problem? If it is, then it is time to see a sleep specialist. The difficulty is there are a number of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea, that have symptoms which mimic the experience.

And if all else fails, perhaps just blame the ancestors.

Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. He is a member of the Health and Wellbeing research group and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Managing Sleep in COVID: Northumbria Sleep Research Response

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
Author: Professor Jason Ellis, Northumbria University, Department of Psychology

Over the last 12 years at Northumbria Sleep Research we have been studying the pathophysiology of insomnia. In other words, how can two people have the same experiences in life and yet one develops insomnia and the other does not?

As there was no working definition of acute insomnia (the period prior to it being classed as a sleep disorder), prior to us starting this work, the first thing we had to do was create a clinical definition of  acute insomnia. We did this in terms of having existing vulnerabilities, how it can start, how long someone should have it to be classified, what symptoms they should experience and how frequently they should experience those symptoms every week.

Using this definition, we then demonstrated how many people in the general population are affected by it at any given time (prevalence = 7.9%) and how many people will be affected by it over the course of a year (annual incidence = 31-36%) in the UK and USA. We then went on to examine what makes people with acute insomnia different from normal sleepers and people with chronic insomnia along several dimensions (genetic, physiological, neuropsychological, psychological, social, behavioural and environmental).

Over the course of our studies, using a variety of techniques (quantitative and qualitative), we have identified which factors increase the likelihood of getting acute insomnia (i.e. insomnia for less than three months) and what factors increase the likelihood that the insomnia will progress from acute to chronic.

These findings include, changes in the timing of the human body clock, differences in brain-wave activity during sleep, how preoccupied we are with our sleep during the day, our levels of depression and how much time we spend in bed awake worrying.

In the final step of this programme of research, we created, and tested, a brief intervention (the ‘one-shot’) which can prevent chronic insomnia in up to 73% of individuals with acute insomnia. We started by testing it in the general population but then went on to determine whether the intervention works for vulnerable groups such as prisoners, adults with chronic illnesses and adolescents with anxiety and depression.

Why is preventing chronic insomnia important in the context of COVID?

We have seen a sharp increase in people reporting acute insomnia over the crisis. This increase has been attributed not only to fears and concerns about the virus itself but worry and anxiety about family and friends. There have also been increases in financial and work-related pressures and lifestyle and routine changes due to the lockdown which can also negatively impact on sleep.

If left untreated, acute insomnia can develop into a chronic insomnia which increases the risk, significantly, for several physical and psychological illnesses (for example Northumbria Sleep Research were the first to demonstrate that untreated acute insomnia significantly increases the risk for a first episode of depression).

Within the context of COVID specifically, there is lots of evidence that good sleep can; i) minimise the chances of contracting a virus, if exposed, ii) increase the recovery rate after contracting a virus and  iii) increase the speed at which immunity occurs following vaccination. Together, this underscores the reasons why identifying and preventing chronic insomnia is so important at the moment.

How are staff in the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research helping?

One of the most important things about doing research, at least in our view, is that it must have implications for practice, policy and/or changes in individual’s behaviour (real-world impact). Based upon the findings from our research and the intervention, we have already contributed to guidelines for managing sleep during COVID for the British Psychological Society, British Sleep Society, Public Health England, NHS England, the European Sleep Research Society and the Society for Behavioral Sleep Medicine in the USA. Additionally, to date, we have trained over two hundred clinicians in the UK, USA, Japan and Holland on how to use our intervention to help students, front-line healthcare workers, carers and vulnerable populations manage their sleep during the crisis.

What we are doing now, through several ongoing studies around the world, is trying to find out whether our brief intervention is actually protective against getting acute insomnia in the context of COVID

Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Department of Psychology. He is a member of the Health and Wellbeing research group and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research.

Bilingualism as a remedy for declines in thinking skills

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
Authors: Joanna Kubiak and Dr Andriy Myachykov

Do you know what it means to be bilingual?

In the simplest of terms, a bilingual person is someone who can communicate in at least two languages (Grosjean, 1982). Until the 1980s, it was believed that being bilingual is disadvantageous because the brain’s capacity is very limited; hence, speaking two languages would use more brain power and make it less effective. Some scientists went as far to say that children growing up in bilingual families are more likely to face learning difficulties. If you think that sounds untrue, then you are absolutely correct!

Changing perceptions

So, let’s discuss what has changed and how bilingualism is perceived nowadays. In short, rather positively. In the last 20 years, scientists have found substantial evidence for the beneficial impact of bilingualism on the human brain. Many argued that active use of two languages can improve sustained attention and executive functions such as inhibitory control. This means that a bilingual person will have, on average, better ability to focus their attention in response to a stimulus or activity. Additionally, it may be easier for a bilingual to suppress or ignore irrelevant information. This advantage observed in bilinguals is usually explained by the fact that bilinguals need to constantly suppress one language while using another, therefore they obtain some additional cognitive training.

Furthermore, brain scans demonstrated that in certain brain regions, bilinguals and monolinguals differ in activity level when they are performing exactly the same tasks. These findings clearly support the idea that using more than one language provides a person with some extracurricular brain training, which changes its activity. Naturally, contrasting opinions were voiced that didn’t fully agree with the concept of bilingual superiority in cognitive functioning. For instance, Duñabeitia and colleagues (2014) did not find any advantage amongst bilingual children compared to monolingual children on the task measuring inhibitory control.

Despite those contradictory findings, the recent review of the research in the area showed that most studies present results supporting the ‘bilingual advantage’ theory. In fact, there is a general consensus now, that speaking two languages does not constrain one’s cognitive abilities and if anything, it improves them.

“Since bilinguals receive more cognitive stimulation throughout their lifespan, they may develop additional protection against cognitive decline”

All things considered, the belief that bilingualism can be beneficial for the brain is justifiable. Following this logic, researchers started exploring other ways this new knowledge could be applied. Some suggested that since bilinguals receive more cognitive stimulation throughout their lifespan, they may develop additional protection against cognitive decline. After all, growing evidence suggests that stimulating the mind can protect our thinking skills as we grow older. For instance, in a study by Martin and colleagues (2011), it was found that older people who received memory training showed better immediate and delayed verbal recall than people who didn’t.

But how exactly could bilingualism impact cognitive ageing?

Exciting new evidence suggests that being bilingual may impact some mechanisms responsible for slowing down the decline in thinking skills caused by age. One thing that scientists have observed is that the cognitive changes we see in ageing, don’t always map on to physical changes in the brain, in that some people appear to be more ‘protected’ against the effects of age. Researchers have proposed that this is due to something called Cognitive Reserve. This cognitive reserve is proposed to help some individuals cope with brain damage and age-related changes in the brain.

Crucially for our research, it is now believed that we can strengthen our cognitive reserve throughout our lifetime. For example, education, occupation and physical activity are all related improved cognitive reserve. Furthermore, as you could have already guessed, bilingualism is thought to be another contributor to the construct of the cognitive reserve. We can derive from this that people who are bilingual may develop more cognitive ‘resources’, thus mitigating the effect of ageing.

Why does this matter?

If all of the above is true, then is there really a need for further research? Well, the need certainly exists due to the constant increase in cases of dementia, a disorder caused by a serious decline of thinking abilities such as memory and problem-solving. Importantly, cognitive reserve holds out the promise of interventions that could alleviate the risk of dementia. Consequently, since bilingual seniors are thought to possess a better cognitive reserve than non-bilingual seniors, they should be more efficiently protected from developing dementia symptoms.

By 2050 the number of people diagnosed with dementia is projected to at least double! This will impact not only the patients’ families but also taxpayers in general. To prevent this disaster, we need to work and try to find effective ways to slow down cognitive ageing. Researching bilingualism evidently provides some hope for a better understanding of cognitive decline and therefore dementia, which hopefully helps reduce the effect this disease has on the population.

Can you help with our research on this topic?

With this goal in mind, our team has started investigating how bilingualism can strengthen cognitive reserve.  We specifically focus on the impact of proficiency in the second language, time passed since acquiring the second language and the frequency of using the second language in day-to-day life.

To keep the sample consistent, we are recruiting people who use English as their second language and are aged 60 or above. The results of our study should provide us with some insight into the role these variables play in the cognitive reserve and we hypothesized that all factors will be positively correlated with better cognitive performance.

It is important to mention that our survey controls for other factors, which could influence cognitive reserve, such as a persons general intelligence, health, social network and activities. If you know anyone who meets our criteria, please let them know (using the link below). Every contribution is priceless and in the long run, may reveal the secrets behind delaying cognitive ageing.

https://www.psytoolkit.org/c/3.3.2/survey?s=HOZZz

If you have any questions or would like further information, please contact the research team:

Andriy Myachykov, Federico Gallo, Joanna Kubiak (w18019446@northumbria.ac.uk)

About the Authors

Joanna Kubiak is a final year psychology student at Northumbria University, on the BSc Psychology programme

Dr Andriy Myachykov is an Associate Professor in the psychology department, and the lead for our Cognition and Neuroscience research group

Read more about our work in Cognition and Neuroscience on the blog!

Understanding disturbed sleep could help prevent suicides

shutterstock. Wayne0216/ShutterstockP
Author: Professor Jason Ellis

Sleep disturbance in young adults who are at risk of suicide are a warning sign of worsening suicidal thoughts, according to new research from Stanford University. These findings held true regardless of the study participants’ current levels of depression.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people in the US and the leading cause in the UK. Having a better understanding of the signs of suicidal thought is important as it could help prevent suicide. Previous research has shown a link between suicidal thoughts and poor sleep, but the Stanford researchers went beyond this research by closely examining which aspects of disrupted sleep predicted suicidal thought.

The researchers examined sleep objectively, using sleep tracking devices, and subjectively, using sleep diaries and records of suicidal thoughts. A group of 50 undergraduate students was selected for the study on the basis that they had recent suicidal thoughts or a history of suicide attempts. The students’ sleep was monitored for seven days continuously. They were also asked to complete a questionnaire – at the beginning, middle (day seven) and end of the study (day 21) – that asked them about the severity of suicidal thoughts, depression, insomnia, nightmares and alcohol use. The researchers found that changes in when the students went to sleep and when they woke up predicted suicidal thought, as did increased symptoms of insomnia and nightmares.

It has long been known that poor sleep, in general, and insomnia, in particular, are associated with a wide variety of mental health conditions. As research in the area advanced it became clear that this relationship was not just an association but rather that insomnia posed a significant risk for the development of many mental health problems, most notably depression.

The researchers objectively measured sleep using sleep tracking devices. fizkes/Shutterstock

A strong association

Over the past ten to 15 years, researchers have widened the scope of sleep and mental health research to investigate the relationship between poor sleep – including insomnia – and an increased risk of suicide. Within this framework various research groups around the world began to examine whether poor sleep was related to increased suicidal thoughts but also whether a person who sleeps poorly is more likely to attempt, or complete, a suicide or not.

It soon became clear that a strong association between poor sleep and suicide existed and that the severity and duration of insomnia symptoms and nightmares were associated with increased suicidal thoughts. Especially interesting is that in almost all these studies the relationship between poor sleep and suicide existed independently of a diagnosis of depression or the number of depressive symptoms experienced, as in the current study. But, as most of this previous research was based on self-reported symptoms (of both sleep problems and suicidal thoughts), it was unclear whether the relationship between poor sleep and suicide was based on how the person actually slept or how they felt they had slept – two surprisingly different concepts. The fact that the Stanford researchers objectively measured sleep is a particular strength of their study.

Three theories

But the reasons for the relationship between poor sleep and suicide have yet to be determined. However, there are three avenues of research which, although still in their infancy, may shed light on why poor sleep is so strongly related to suicide. One, there are significant overlaps between brain circuits that are involved in both emotion regulation and sleep. As such, if sleep is disrupted the likelihood is that mood will also be disrupted, and vice versa. Two, there may be changes in the structure of sleep itself, as a result of poor sleep and insomnia, which makes us more vulnerable to a variety of mood disturbances, including suicidal thought. And, three, the daytime fatigue, caused by poor sleep, affects our ability to think and act rationally.

As yet, we simply don’t know what underscores the relationship between poor sleep and insomnia but, with these avenues in mind, a preventative strategy for suicide is definitely getting closer. And the likelihood is that it will involve the management of sleep.


The Samaritans can be contacted in the UK on 116 123. Papyrus is contactable on 0800 068 41 41 or by texting 07786 209 697 or emailing pat@papyrus-uk.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.

About the Author

Professor Jason Ellis, is a Professor of Sleep Science in the Psychology Department and the Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research. The centre sits within our Cognition and Neuroscience Research Group

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why some people believe they can hear the dead

Tom Tom/Shutterstock
AUTHORS: Adam J. Powell, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Northumbria University, Newcastle

It’s a blustery October night in 1841, and though Liverpool is sleeping, Mrs Bates is very much awake. Before her, shining brightly at the foot of her bed, is an “open vision” of her friend Elizabeth Morgan, “standing in full view before her, clothed in robes beautiful and white”. The shimmering vision lingers for “some considerable length of time” before fading away. When dawn arrives, and after a fitful sleep, Mrs Bates is informed by a messenger that Elizabeth Morgan is dead.

People have reported spooky, spiritual and extraordinary experiences for centuries. Like Mrs Bates, those who claim to have communed with the dead have found themselves ridiculed as well as revered. Our recent research has revealed that mediums, mystics and psychics are more prone to certain auditory phenomena than the general population – which may play a role in their reports of communicating with the dead.



The experience of hearing voices is far more common than you might expect. Some studies have estimated that as many as 50% of people hear the voice of their deceased loved one during periods of grieving. Elsewhere, research from our team has shown that some Christians occasionally hear God as a literal auditory voice with which they can commune.

Claiming to be able to speak with the dead is often found to coexist with the beliefs of what’s called “spiritualism” – a quasi-religious movement based on the idea that individuals continue to exist after the death of their physical bodies. Their “spirits” may appear to or communicate with living persons, often called “mediums”.

Spiritualism can be traced back to the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who in 1848 claimed to hear a spirit knocking on the walls of their home in New York. Mediums that “hear” the spirits, as the Fox sisters did, are said to be “clairaudient” while those who can “see” the spirits are considered “clairvoyant”.

From Arthur Conan Doyle to the Kardashians, the possibility of spiritual mediumship has endured and captivated many. In fact, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), one of several contemporary spiritualist organisations in Britain, boasts a membership of at least 11,000.

What’s more, interest in channelling spirits, psychic predictions, and life after death seems to have been growing in both the UK and the US in recent years. But what’s actually going on when people hear voices they take to be the spirits of the dead?

‘I hear dead people’

Our new study of the clairaudient experiences of contemporary mediums is beginning to clarify why some people report hearing spiritual voices. We found that people who were more likely to experience “absorption” – a tendency to get lost in mental imagery or altered states of consciousness – were also more likely to experience clairaudience.

This finding suggests these people actually experience unusual sounds they believe to be clairaudient. But it doesn’t explain why they identify these voices with the spirits of the dead, which is the core tenet of spiritualism.

Two eccentrically-dressed women in a black and white photo, one reading the palm of the other
Mediums and mystics are enduring figures throughout history. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Significantly, nearly 75% of those we surveyed said they didn’t know about spiritualism or its set of beliefs prior to their earliest clairaudient experiences. This suggests that, for many, the sensation of speaking with spirits preceded knowledge of clairaudience as a phenomenon.

Some scholars argue that mediums later tag their voice-hearing to spiritualism as a way of explaining their auditory hallucinations. This “attributional theory” may explain why there are a large number of spiritualist mediums.

Grave concerns

Historical research suggests that emotional desires play a key role in conjuring such phenomena. In the past, this research tells us, when an individual felt melancholic and desperate for a manifestation of the supernatural, they would often record a spiritual experience shortly thereafter.

Guidance from a faith leader also seems important for conjuring the metaphysical. The work of Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for instance, highlights how one’s desire must be met with direction, noting the importance of training and instruction for the faithful who hope to have vivid encounters with the divine through prayer.

Colourful Christian chruch service with man holding arms out in prayer
The religious regularly report supernatural experiences, including hearing the voice of God. Paul shuang/Shutterstock

However, further research has shown that spiritual practice does not necessarily make perfect – at least not without a pre-existing tendency towards immersive mental activities. For mediums, this means that “yearning and learning” is not enough. Clairaudience may require a unique proclivity for voice-hearing.

Healthy hearing

Researchers are increasingly interested in the similarities and differences between clairaudience and several other forms of voice-hearing, like those experienced by people living with mental illness.

For example, individuals with psychosis also frequently hear voices. By comparing such voices to the clairaudience reported by mediums, researchers have already begun to identify important differences that distinguish clairaudience from the experiences of people living with psychosis. For example, mediums tend to exert more control over their voices – and they report very little distress accompanying the experience.

Back in Liverpool in 1841, Mrs. Bates “rejoiced in the vision” of her friend at the end of her bed, while Elizabeth Morgan’s husband is said to have received “consolation in the valley of grief” when he learned of the vision. Hearing the dead is not necessarily a sign of mental distress – or supernatural possession. For mediums, it may be a source of comfort – a quality of the way that they experience reality.

About the Authors

Adam J. Powell, Assistant Professor (Research), Religion and Medical Humanities, Durham University and Peter Moseley, Senior Research Fellow, in the Deparment of Psychology ar Northumbria University

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How the parrot got its chat (and its dance moves)

Who’s a clever boy then? D Coetzee/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Dr Larry Taylor, Department of Psychology, Northumbria University

Many animals – including seals, dolphins and bats – are able to communicate vocally. However, parrots are among a select few that can spontaneously imitate members of another species. A study has now pinpointed the region in the brain that may be allowing this to happen – the region that is also involved in controlling movement. The finding could perhaps also explain the fact that parrots, just like humans, can talk and dance.

We know that birds that can sing, including parrots, have distinct centres in their brain supporting vocalisations, called the “cores”. But, exclusively in parrots, around these there are outer rings, or “shells”. Surrounding this is a third region supporting movement. This is an older pathway that is shared by vertebrates. To find out more about what the unique shell system actually does, the research team analysed the expression of genes in these pathways in nine different species of parrot. They focused on ten genes that we know to be more active in the song regions of birds’ brains compared to other parts of the brain.

They found that parrots, when compared to other birds, have a complex pattern of specialised gene expression in all three parts of its brain. That means that most of the vocal learning that is specific to parrots, such as imitation, must be taking place in the shell region and the part of the brain that controls movements. This is surprising, as previous work had assumed that only the dedicated core system would be involved in vocal learning and that the shells had nothing to do with talking.

My own research has shown that it is the connections between brain regions controlling cognitive and motor skills that support language in humans.

The researchers also examined songbirds and hummingbirds and found that the shell regions were indeed unique to the parrots. However, they said future research would have to clarify the exact mechanisms involved in imitating.

Imitation game

That this shell system is observed in so many species of parrot – including in Keas, the most ancient species known – suggests that the vocalisation abilities evolved around 29m years ago. For comparison, that is more or less the time when humans’ ancestors are believed to have branched off from other primates.

The researchers hypothesise that this shell structure evolved after the core system for singing in birds was duplicated in the brain, with the shell centre developing new functions such as mimicking. So studying the shell structure in parrots could help us identify other mysterious duplications that could have led to certain brain functions in humans.

Might be hard to believe but parrots have a lot going on upstairs. Courtesy of Jonathan E. Lee, Duke University

Only parrots, humans and certain types of songbird can mimic other species. The fact that species as different as birds and humans share this behaviour is a clear example of “convergent evolution,” in which two species independently evolve structures supporting similar behaviours.

Imitation requires significant brain power and complex, specialised processes. For example, acoustic information must be represented, its organisation decoded and finally the sound reproduced. The complex specialisation of the core, shell and motor systems in parrots support these processes for imitation, enabling these species to couple auditory information from the environment with the finely grained behaviours necessary to produce them. There is currently no evidence suggesting that parrots have any special kind of articulators for producing spoken language. Rather, their brains seem to be doing the extra work.

Let’s dance

Interestingly, the authors also note that humans and parrots belong to another select set of animals – those that synchronise body movements to the rhythms of beats while listening to music. That is, unlike almost every other animal in the world, parrots and humans spontaneously dance (strangely enough, that group also includes elephants which have also demonstrated an ability to move along with music).

In parrots, such dancing is associated with the non-vocal motor regions surrounding the shell – which supports the possibility of a general capacity for learning regularities in the sounds they hear and coupling them with behaviour.

The study is a big step forward in our effort to understand what makes parrots so different from other birds. Indeed, the researchers themselves say they were surprised that the brain structures they discovered had gone unrecognised for so long.

Dr Larry Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the Department of Psychology and a member of our Cognition and Neuroscience Research Group

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.