Saturday, August 14, 2010

Should Nightmares Have Happy Endings?

THERAPY Computers track data at the Maimonides clinic in Albuquerque.

Therapy may help people who suffer from chronic nightmares learn how to turn bad dreams into good ones. But now some experts wonder if changing your nightmares from scary to safe is always a good idea, reports Sarah Kershaw in Science Times.

    The technique, used while patients are awake, is called scripting or dream mastery and is part of imagery rehearsal therapy. The therapy is being used to treat a growing number of nightmare sufferers. In recent years, nightmares have increasingly been viewed as a distinct disorder, and researchers have produced a growing body of empirical evidence that this kind of cognitive therapy can help reduce their frequency and intensity, or even eliminate them.

    The treatments are controversial. Some therapists, particularly Jungian analysts, take issue with changing nightmares’ content, arguing that dreams send crucial messages to the waking mind.

To learn more, read the full article, “Following a Script to Escape a Nightmare,” then please join the discussion below.

Phys Ed: Does Lucky Underwear Improve Athletic Performance?

Athletes are a notoriously superstitious lot. For years, Michael Jordan wore the shorts from his national-championship-winning University of North Carolina days under his Chicago Bulls uniform. Serena Williams won’t change her socks at tournaments she’s winning. Other professional athletes carry lucky charms or perform rituals, like bouncing a basketball in elaborate sequences before a free throw or kissing the golf ball before a putt. Jason Giambi (the former Yankee and current Colorado Rockies first baseman) has said that he slips on a pair of “lucky” thong underwear when his batting average falls. The thong’s reputation is so potent that slumping teammates reportedly beg to borrow it.
Phys Ed

Despite this fidelity to charms and rituals, however, there has been little scientific proof that such superstitions work. Does believing in luck actually make you a better athlete? Or would Michael Jordan have been just as successful without his undershorts?

A new study published online in the journal Psychological Science provides some intriguing answers and makes a compelling case that each of us should find lucky underwear of our own.

For the study, researchers in the psychology department at the University of Cologne in Germany completed a series of experiments. In the first, they recruited 28 college students to try to make as many putts as possible on a putting green. Before his or her first attempt, each participant was handed a golf ball. Some were told, “Here is your ball; so far it has turned out to be a lucky ball.” The rest were told, more blandly, “This is the ball everyone has used so far.” Each student putted 10 times.

The students using the “lucky” balls sunk significantly more putts than those who didn’t.

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Next the researchers had a different group of students complete a dexterity test. The students were given a plastic cube containing 36 balls and a shelf dimpled with 36 holes. They were told to dip and twist the box until the balls rested in the holes. First, though, they were given instruction from a moderator, who told some of the volunteers, “I press the thumbs for you,” a German idiom that means, approximately, “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you; good luck.” The rest received neutral directions. By a fairly significant margin, the volunteers who had been offered good luck maneuvered the balls into position fastest.

Finally, the researchers tested whether people performed mental tests (of memory and vocabulary) more proficiently when they had a lucky charm with them. As it turned out, they did. They also reported feeling more confident about their ability to perform the tasks when their chosen charm was tucked up beside them than when it was in the next room (ostensibly to be photographed). Perhaps most tellingly, they tended to work harder and persevere longer at the tasks than the charmless group — apparently believing that since luck was with them, they shouldn’t quit too soon.

The conclusion from these combined experiments was fairly obvious. “Activating a good-luck superstition,” the authors wrote, “leads to improved performance by boosting people’s belief in their ability to master a task.” More precisely, they added, “the present findings suggest that it may have been the well-balanced combination of existing talent, hard training and good luck-underwear that made Michael Jordan perform as well as he did.”

But while this study suggests that superstitions can improve performance, the underlying physiological mechanisms remain complex and rather mysterious. Does the confidence inspired by lucky underwear lower nervous-system arousal, for instance, or otherwise reduce physiological stress? A number of scientists are looking into those issues. But for now, what psychologists — and fans — suspect is that superstitions are more common among the best athletes, the most invested and the hardest-working, the very people you might expect not to need luck.

Another telling recent experiment found that superstitions flourish particularly in situations where talent is nearing its limits. In the 2008 work, researchers at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, had a group of students putt. The first round of putts were easy, measuring only three feet to the cup. The second round consisted of nine-foot putts. Each volunteer putted 20 times at each distance. Students could choose their balls for each putt from a basket containing four different colors. During the easy round, the best putters pulled balls out at random; they weren’t interested in the colors. But the less-able students, those who weren’t good at putting, tended to pick the same colored ball after any successful putt. (It had become their “lucky” ball.)

When the testing moved to the longer putts, the better golfers started picking the same-colored ball after successful putts. As their skills were being challenged, they began turning to luck to increase their chances. Meanwhile, the less-talented putters, who generally missed all of the longer putts anyway, no longer seemed to care which ball they used. Luck couldn’t help them now.

The lesson from this and the other experiments is, at its most basic, that being superstitious is a sign not of weakness but probably “of hope,” says Kristi Erdal, a professor of psychology at Colorado College and the senior author of the putting study. You may be turning to an external, intangible force, but you haven’t given up.

Of course, there can be a downside to being superstitious in sports. “If athletes focus their energies on minor superstitious behaviors over training,” Ms. Erdal said in an e-mail message, “or if the superstition is so entrenched that its disruption (someone steals Jordan’s shorts) leads him to play horribly because of the associated anxiety,” then good luck becomes its opposite. For most of us, though, most of the time, being superstitious is not wholly negative, she wrote. A lucky thong could probably help each of us perform at our best.

A New Risk Factor: Your Social Life

Social relationships are just as important to health as other common risk factors like smoking, lack of exercise or obesity, new research shows.

Numerous studies have suggested that strong social ties are associated with better health and longevity, but now a sweeping review of the research shows just how important social relationships really are. Researchers from Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people. They found that people who have strong ties to family, friends or co-workers have a 50 percent lower risk of dying over a given period than those with fewer social connections, according to the journal Plos Medicine.

The researchers concluded that having few friends or weak social ties to the community is just as harmful to health as being an alcoholic or smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. Weak social ties are more harmful than not exercising and twice as risky as being obese, the researchers found.

Notably, the strongest effect was shown when studies used complex measures of social integration, focusing on a person’s family ties, friendships and work connections. In those studies, the survival rates for people with strong relationships were twice that of those with weaker ties. Single measures, like whether a person was married or living alone, weren’t good predictors of health. For instance, people who lived with others had just a 19 percent survival benefit compared with those who lived alone.

Although research has long suggested social relationships are linked with better health, it hasn’t been clear whether the effect is due to the fact that healthy people are more likely to be socially active. A person with chronic health problems has more difficulty spending time at work and with friends. While the data collected from the latest analysis don’t prove a causal relationship between health and social ties, the researchers say it is strongly suggestive, because the people studied were otherwise healthy and followed for an average of seven-and-a-half years. Even when controlling for a person’s health status, the benefit of social relationships was still evident.

There are several theories as to why social connections may improve health, including that people with strong family and social ties may be more active, more likely to seek medical care and have lower stress. “Our relationships encourage us to eat healthy, get exercise, get more sleep, see a doctor,’’ said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young.

Dr. Holt-Lunstad said the research suggests that medical checkups and screenings should also include measures of social well being. “Medical care could recommend if not outright promote enhanced social connections,” she said.

Paying for Dental Implants

Today’s Patient Money column focuses on dental implants, which are often a better option than dentures or other types of dental work for replacing lost teeth.

    The procedure is straightforward. A surgeon places a titanium screw in the jaw bone, and prosthetic teeth are secured to the implant. They don’t wiggle or slip, as dentures can, and are healthier for the gums and bone. Most patients find implants easier to maintain than dentures.

The problem is that insurance plans typically don’t pay much toward the cost of dental implants. To learn more, read the full column, “For Most, Implants Beat Dentures, but at a Price,” and then please join the discussion below.