Understanding disturbed sleep could help prevent suicides

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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

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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

Want to read about more work like this?

You can read more about the work of our Psychopathologies group in the Health and Wellbeing Research blog

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

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.