ASMR is linked to anxiety and neuroticism, our new research finds

YuliaLisitsa/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Dr Joanna Greer, Department of Psychology

The autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is described as an intensely pleasant tingling sensation originating in the scalp and neck, and spreading down the body. ASMR is elicited by a range of video and auditory triggers, such as watching someone pretend to perform relaxing actions like massaging or hair brushing, or listening to soft sounds such as whispers or tapping. There are countless ASMR videos on forums such as YouTube attracting thousands, or in some instances millions, of subscribers and hits.

The triggers vary from person to person. But for millions of people worldwide, ASMR is a go-to for relaxation, sleep and to reduce stress.

While research interest in the phenomenon is growing, there’s a lot we still don’t know about ASMR. For example, why do some people experience tingles and others don’t? Could understanding the personality traits associated with ASMR guide us when thinking about ASMR as a potential therapeutic intervention?

Emerging literature suggests that people who are capable of experiencing ASMR exhibit greater levels of neuroticism. Neuroticism is a personality trait typically defined as a tendency towards depression, self-doubt and other negative feelings.

Neuroticism is also associated with a tendency to experience negative emotional states such as anxiety. And we know that people who watch ASMR regularly may do so to relax or reduce stress, potentially indicating elevated levels of anxiety.

Currently, there is very little research linking neuroticism with anxiety in people who experience ASMR, or into the effect of watching ASMR videos on anxiety. Our new study aimed to add to the evidence in these areas.

What we did

We recruited 36 people who experience ASMR and 28 people who don’t. All participants watched a five-minute ASMR video that was a compilation of multiple common ASMR triggers.

Before watching the video, the participants completed questionnaires assessing their levels of neuroticism, trait anxiety (a predisposition to experience ongoing anxiety), and state anxiety (their anxiety levels in the moment). They also answered questions about their state anxiety after viewing the video.

The ASMR-experiencers had significantly greater scores for neuroticism and trait anxiety compared to the non-experiencers, which suggests these are characteristics associated with the ability to experience ASMR. The ASMR-experiencers also had greater pre-video state anxiety scores, which were significantly reduced after watching the video.

In contrast, there was no difference in non-experiencers’ state anxiety scores before and after watching the video. So the ASMR video alleviated anxiety, but only among the ASMR-experiencers.

A woman sitting in a park watching something on her laptop, with earphones in.
ASMR videos are very popular on YouTube. Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

However, when we looked at the data in a different way, we found that a propensity for greater neuroticism and anxiety overall – regardless of whether participants experienced ASMR or not – was associated with the ASMR video having a positive effect on anxiety levels.

This emphasises the importance of individual personality traits when thinking about ASMR as a potential therapeutic intervention. It also shows us that the benefits of watching ASMR videos can be experienced even if you don’t necessarily feel the “tingle”.

What does this all mean?

We have provided new evidence regarding the traits that may characterise people who experience ASMR, and an indication that ASMR could have potential as an alternative treatment for anxiety.

Our study supports previous research demonstrating that ASMR-experiencers exhibit greater levels of neuroticism. We’ve also found that people with elevated anxiety levels are more likely to experience ASMR.

Notably, in our study, watching the ASMR video reduced state anxiety among people who experience ASMR. While this seems logical considering that people who seek out ASMR often do so for therapeutic reasons, the results of our study also suggest that ASMR may have anxiety-reducing effects more generally.

So if people are prone to neuroticism and/or anxiety, they may benefit from watching ASMR – even if they don’t routinely watch ASMR videos or experience ASMR tingles.

Where to next?

Our study was only in a relatively small number of people, and we cannot discount that the targeted group most likely had a predisposition to seek out ASMR. So it will be important to carry out research with more ASMR-naive participants.

Certainly, further research into the use of ASMR as a psychological intervention will be important to better understand how this may help people who experience anxiety.

In the meantime, findings from recent neuroimaging studies are beginning to shed more light on this phenomenon. Using a type of brain imaging called electroenchephalograpy (EEG), researchers have shown that the electrical activity known to be associated with relaxation (including mindfulness meditation) increased in response to ASMR stimuli. This was true even when participants were performing a mentally demanding task.

These studies suggest that ASMR leads to changes in brain activity typically associated with a relaxed state, possibly even during day-to-day activities. More neuroimaging research will compliment behavioural studies and help us to identify the mechanisms that could underpin ASMR’s anxiety-reducing capabilities.

About the author

Joanna Greer is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department, working in the Cognition and Neuroscience research cluster.

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

Always forget to keep your New Year’s resolutions? Smoking and drinking could be why

ratmaner/Shutterstock.com
AUTHORS: Anna-Marie Marshall, University of York; Colin Hamilton, Northumbria University, Newcastle, and Tom Heffernan, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Given that the New Year is just around the corner, now might be a good time to come up with a resolution to reduce your drinking, or stop smoking (or both). That is if you remember, of course.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and smoking cigarettes together could be having a negative impact on your memory. In fact, the impairment associated with using both of these substances is greater than the single use of either substance – a double whammy.

Prior research has established that drinking alcohol in excess (more than 14 units a week, or binge drinking in excess of six units for females and eight for males in a single session) and smoking is associated with a variety of negative health and memory outcomes.

One part of memory that is negatively affected by alcohol and cigarette use is prospective memory. Prospective memory involves planning and remembering future activities, such as remembering to meet with friends at a specific place or time, or remembering to take medication on time.

Excessive alcohol use can damage prospective memory. In one study, when participants were asked to carry out specific tasks, such as handing the researcher a book after a cue from the environment or to call the garage at a specific time, binge drinkers remembered to carry out fewer actions than those who do not binge drink. A similar pattern is evident in smokers. Regular daily smokers remember to carry out fewer memory actions, compared with those who have never smoked.

Not only does drinking excessively and smoking impair memory when used separately, when used together they intensify the effect. Smoking has been found to worsen the memory in those who drink alcohol in excess. Those who both drink and smoke have more memory issues, an impaired ability to think quickly and efficiently and have greater issues with problem solving. Also, those who are dependent on alcohol and also smoke cigarettes suffer more brain damage than those who do not smoke. These people show more cortical thinning in the frontal region of the brain – a region of the brain that is important for memory.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in short- and long-term memory. Alila Medical Media/Shutterstock.com

Testing polydrug users

As people tend to drink alcohol and smoke together, we investigated the combined (polydrug) effect of these two substances on prospective memory. To do this we recruited four groups: excessive drinkers who do not smoke; smokers who do not drink excessively; people who both smoke and drink excessively (polydrug group); and a low-alcohol, non-smoking control group. Participants were tested on their ability to remember six actions. For three of these the participant was asked to carry out a task at a specific time (for example: “In seven minutes, I would like you to change the pen you are using”). For the other three actions participants were asked to carry out a task in response to a cue (for example, “When you come to a quiz question about ‘Eastenders’ I would like you to give me this book”). Participants were asked to remember these while completing a set of puzzles.

Our analysis of the results showed that the polydrug group (people who both smoke and drink excessively) had a greater impairment than the excessive drinkers and smokers combined. This suggests that there is something that happens when using both of these substances which negatively impacts memory.

Our study is the first to show this effect for prospective remembering. This finding is important because it highlights that prospective memory may be compromised by the combination of excessive drinking and cigarette smoking.

It is our hope that the findings uncovered here will help to improve our understanding about the dangers of excessive drinking and smoking beyond the health concerns usually highlighted in public health warnings.

This research highlights the dangers of combined heavy alcohol use and smoking in relation to everyday memory, in this case prospective memory. If you’re considering what your New Year’s resolution should be this year, why not give up booze or cigarettes in the New Year. You might even want to consider giving up both.

About the Authors

Dr Anna-Marie Marshall, completed this work as a PhD researcher and demonstrator in the Psychology department at Northumbria. She is now a research fellow at the University of York

Dr Colin Hamilton and Dr Tom Heffernan are Senior Lecturers in Cognitive Psychology in the Psychology Department. Both work within our Cognition and Neuroscience Research Group

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

Funded PhD Opportunity: Coordination in Context

Authors: Dr Merryn Constable, Dr Kris McCarty, Dr Nick Neave
  • Playing jump rope.
  • Holding the door open for the person behind you.
  • Dancing, singing, and being merry with your friends at a wedding.
  • Building an aeroplane that reduces carbon emissions.
  • Navigating a roundabout.
  • Performing life-saving medical assistance.

Humans face coordinative challenges every day. Some are mundane, some propel society toward new innovations, and others may be life or death situations. The human species has survived and thrived because of the strong drive toward collaboration (Boyd & Richerson, 2009; Tomasello, 2014).

Nevertheless, collaborating, coordinating and cooperating is not necessarily simple. Coordinative failures are common: Sometimes doors are closed in people’s faces, dance steps are missed and car crashes occur.

So, how do humans adapt to each other to achieve the best possible outcome? How do humans coordinate in a variety of situations? How can the frequency of coordinative failures be minimized?

This is the study of Joint Action!

Researchers who are interested in how human cognition supports collaboration, coordination and cooperation study what is called Joint Action (Sebanz & Knoblich, 2021).

To collaborate humans must develop a representation of the task. This representation will often include a predicted representation of the actions that each person will take to do the task.  Establishing such a representation might not require much effort. In fact, the required representation sometimes already exists, as in understanding the rules that one must abide by to navigate a roundabout.

If rules or conventions do not exist, the representation will be developed by more complex routes. Communication and negotiation are obvious means of aligning task representations, however, humans also use variety of ‘mindreading’ processes to align representations without direct communication.  

To illustrate: Around the roundabout we go….

Roundabouts are designed such that the cognitive resources of coordination are minimized. And in fact, the installation of roundabouts does tend to reduce car crashes that result in injuries and fatalities for those in cars (Elvik, 2003). This coordinative event relies upon road users (1) having knowledge of the rules and conventions associated with roundabout use, (2) abiding by those rules and conventions, and (3) trust in other road users to abide by those rules and conventions. Without trust, the traffic through the roundabout would not proceed smoothly.

Most often, traffic proceeds smoothly. Each individual aims to proceed past the roundabout, and can reach their goal by following the rules. They must monitor the progress of other cars in the roundabout but they can do so at a minimal level. Coordination manifests with little effort.

When it goes wrong….

Consider a rogue American driver on a British roundabout. They went anti-clockwise instead of clockwise! How can a crash be avoided?

Other drivers may begin to beep to communicate the error and (hopefully) get the rogue driver back on the right track. But the driver is oblivious and bopping away to some loud music; the communication has failed. Other drivers must begin to engage in more effortful action monitoring and prediction processes so they can adapt and avoid collision.

What is the goal of the proposed PhD Project

Using human movement analysis this project will explore the cognitive strategies that coordinative partners use to adapt to different task constraints. For example, task difficulty and task uncertainty.

This fundamental research aim will then be explored in terms of environmental context. Specifically, ‘How do factors present in the physical and social environment (e.g., physical constraints, hierarchical structures, partner familiarity) shape the coordinative strategy employed during a joint task?’ Answering these fundamental questions about how the human cognitive system works will provide theoretical direction to tackle the collaborative and coordinative challenges that humans face. From designing urban environments that promote free-flowing pedestrian and vehicular traffic, to implementing policies and workflows to optimise coordination within hospitals, the theory of joint action can assist.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who is enthusiastic about working across disciplines to contribute to the cumulative pursuit of knowledge within cognition and joint action.

You should be confident in quantitative research methods and have ambition to develop skills in human movement analysis. The applicant will be expected to engage with a wider group of academics interested in both fundamental and applied research aligned with the themes of coordination and teamwork.

Applicants should have a background in psychology, kinesiology (sports science) or a related discipline. The successful applicant will have a history of academic achievement as demonstrated by first-class, or upper second-class undergraduate honours degree and/or a masters degree (or equivalent).

About the supervisors

Merryn is a Senior Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow within the psychology department. She is committed to advancing the research profile of Northumbria and passionate about supporting young researchers. As such, she sits on the University’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee advocating for the interests of Early Career Researchers. Prior to the UK, she has held academic posts in Australia, Canada and Hungary, with her research networks extending to Austria and Italy.  Her research takes an interdisciplinary perspective as a result of her background in psychology, kinesiology, cognitive science and business communications. Most recently, Merryn has been translating her work on social cognition and joint action to comparative psychology, healthcare and robotics. Merryn also has a strong technical background, with a particular interest in using motion capture technologies to answer fundamental questions about human cognition.

Kris is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. He is also the department’s technical lead and as a part of that role oversees the use of the specialist hardware and software that researchers use to conduct their research. With his expertise in Motion Capture, Eye-tracking, Body Scanning, virtual reality, and a variety of programming languages he provides assistance and training to staff and students in the technical aspects of experimental psychology. Kris has worked on an array of applied projects using motion capture including a collaboration with the European Space Agency and NASA investigating the effect of reduced gravity on muscle function and postural control.

Nick is a Professor within the Department of Psychology. He is the Director of the Hoarding Research Group, Faculty Director of Ethics, and Chair of the Faculty Research Ethics Committee. He has extensive experience of conducting high quality research and in managing research teams and supervising research students. He has a keen interest in motion capture technology and has conducted research using motion capture to explore human dance movements and how such movements may serve as ‘honest’ signals to reproductive quality.

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Merryn Constable (merryn.constable@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post.

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Constable, M.D., Bayliss, A.P., Tipper, S.P., Spaniol, A.P., Pratt, J., & Welsh, T.N. (2016) Ownership status influences the degree of joint facilitatory behavior. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1371-1378. doi: 10.1177/0956797616661544

Constable, M.D., Elekes, F., Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2019) Relevant for us? We-prioritisation in cognitive processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(12), 1549-1561. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000691

Sebanz, N., & Knoblich, G. (2021). Progress in Joint-Action Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0963721420984425. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721420984425

Török, G., Pomiechowska, B., Csibra, G., & Sebanz, N. (2019). Rationality in Joint Action: Maximizing Coefficiency in Coordination. Psychological Science, 30(6), 930–941. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619842550

Sleeping longer than 6.5 hours a night associated with cognitive decline according to research – what’s really going on here?

Does too much sleep really increase your risk of cognitive decline? Dragan Grkic/Shutterstock
AUTHOR: Dr Greg Elder, Northumbria University

A good night’s sleep is important for many reasons. It helps our body repair itself and function as it should, and is linked to better mental health and lower risk of many health conditions – including heart disease and diabetes. It’s also been shown that not getting enough sleep is linked to cognitive decline and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

But more isn’t always better, as one recent study found. Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine have published a paper that indicates that just like getting too little sleep, sleeping too much may also be linked with cognitive decline.

The research team wanted to know how much sleep was linked to cognitive impairment over time. To do this, they looked at 100 older adults in their mid-to-late-70s on average, and tracked them for between four and five years. At the time of their study, 88 people did not show any signs of dementia, while 12 showed signs of cognitive impairment (one with mild dementia and 11 with the pre-dementia stage of mild cognitive impairment).

Throughout the study, participants were asked to complete a range of commonplace cognitive and neuropsychological tests to look for signs of cognitive decline or dementia. Their scores from these tests were then combined into a single score, called the Preclinical Alzheimer Cognitive Composite (PACC) score. The higher the score, the better their cognition was over time.

Sleep was measured using a single-electrode encephalography (EEG) device, which participants wore on their forehead while sleeping, for a total of between four to six nights. This was done once, three years after people first completed their annual cognitive tests. This EEG allowed the researchers to accurately measure brain activity, which would tell them whether or not someone was asleep (and for how long), and how restful that sleep was.

Two examples of EEG devices on mannequin heads.
Participants would have worn a device similar to this to track their sleep. wideonet/ Shutterstock

Although sleep was only measured at one period during the study, this still gave the research team a good indication of participants’ normal sleep habits. While using an EEG to measure brain activity may be somewhat disruptive to sleep on the first night, as people get used to the equipment, sleep tends to return to normal the following night. This means that when sleep is tracked from the second night onwards it’s a good representation of a person’s normal sleep habits.

The researchers also took into account other factors that can affect cognitive decline – including age, genetics and whether a person had signs of the proteins beta-amyloid or tau, which are both linked to dementia.

Overall, the researchers found that sleeping less than 4.5 hours and more than 6.5 hours a night – alongside poor quality sleep – was associated with cognitive decline over time. Interestingly, the impact of sleep duration on cognitive function was similar to the effect of age, which is the greatest risk factor for developing cognitive decline.

A good night’s sleep

We know from previous research that lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. For example, one study showed that people who reported sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness, have a greater risk of developing dementia compared to people who don’t. Other research has shown that people who have short sleeping times have higher levels of beta-amyloid in their brain – which is commonly found in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers don’t know for certain why lack of sleep is linked to cognitive decline. One theory is that sleep helps our brain flush out harmful proteins that build up during the day. Some of these proteins – like beta-amyloid and tau – are thought to cause dementia. So interfering with sleep might interfere with our brain’s ability to get rid of these. Experimental evidence even supports this – showing that even just one night of sleep deprivation temporarily increases beta-amyloid levels in the brain of healthy people.

But it’s less clear why long sleep is linked with cognitive decline. Previous studies have also found a link between over-sleep and cognitive performance, but most relied upon participants self-reporting how long they sleep nightly – which means the data is less accurate than using an EEG to measure brain activity. This new study therefore adds weight to such findings.

What’s surprising about this study’s findings is that the optimal sleep duration is much shorter than that which previous studies have suggested are problematic. The study showed that sleeping longer than 6.5 hours was associated with cognitive decline over time – this is low when we consider that older adults are recommended to get between seven and eight hours of sleep every night.

It could be the case that it isn’t necessarily the length of the sleep that matters, but the quality of that sleep when it comes to risk of developing dementia. For instance, this study also showed that having less “slow-wave” sleep – restorative sleep – particularly affected cognitive impairment.

What we also cannot tell from this study is if long sleep durations can independently predict cognitive decline. Essentially, we can’t rule out that participants who slept longer than 6.5 hours every night might not have already had pre-existing cognitive problems of brain changes suggestive of dementia that weren’t picked up on the tests. And although the researchers were careful to adjust for dementia-related factors, longer sleepers may also have had other pre-existing conditions that might have contributed to their cognitive decline which weren’t taken into account. For example, this could include poor health, socioeconomic status or physical activity levels. All of these factors together may explain why longer sleep was linked to cognitive decline.

There are many factors which can impact on both our sleep quality, and whether we experience cognitive decline. While some factors aren’t preventable (such as genetic predisposition), there are many things we can do alongside getting a good night’s sleep to help reduce our likelihood of developing dementia – such as exercising and eating a healthy diet. But while the researchers of this study seem to suggest there’s an optimal sleep duration – between 4.5 and 6.5 hours every night – the occasional weekend lie-in is unlikely to do your brain any harm.

About the author

Greg Elder is a Senior Lecturer in the Psychology Department at Northumrbia, Associate Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, and a member of the Cognition and Neuroscience Group. You can read more posts by the group over in our Cognition and Neuroscience Blog

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

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