Back to school

leavesIt smells of back to school today. There is something about the change of season from Summer to Autumn that makes me feel, even in my mid-thirties, that I should be buying a new pencil case and trying on new shoes.

Research on memory suggests that smells are very powerful cues. One study, by Willander & Larrson, gave 93 older adults one of three different types of memory cue: a word, a picture, or a smell. The researchers asked the adults to relate any event from their life to the cue. The memories triggered by the smells were older than those triggered by the words or pictures. Smell-triggered memories were mostly from the first 10 years of life, whereas word or picture-triggered memories were most from early adulthood. The older adults who took part reported more of a sense of going back in time with the smells, and also reported that the memories they recalled were ones they hadn’t thought about as much as the memories that the words or pictures brought up.

I remember the night before the new term started as being quite terrifying, even though I liked school in general. I wonder if the smell of Autumn means that there is a collective feeling of that same anticipatory anxiety for us all as grown ups at this time of year. An excuse to have a minor existential crisis and not feel bad about it, perhaps. Or at least to buy a new coat.

 

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Thinking like an astronaut and other bits and bobs

I’ve been behind with posting on here recently so here are a few links of some things I’ve been up to:

Huffing about on Huffington Post on The NHS Bill here.

Chatting online for the Guardian with other health and social care professionals about the use of mindfulness here.

Blogging about how we can get a sense of perspective by thinking like an astronaut here.

I’m now away in Shropshire on a writing week, enjoying the sound of sheep and the English sun, working on a longer thing on child development. There’s a longform piece brewing too – with Mosaic Science later this month, so I’ll be sure to publish the link here when it’s up – the 21st of June I think.shropsheep

Controversy Over NICE Guidelines

NICEThe National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) write guidelines which draw together available evidence and make recommendations for what treatments are best for different diagnoses.

A recent article in The Lancet suggests that the guidelines they wrote for bipolar disorder are biased in favour of recommending psychological therapies without enough evidence. One of the authors wrote a piece for The Guardian about this critique.

I wrote a response from a clinical perspective, about why I hope that this critique will encourage more research in this area, not limit access to psychological therapies. Have a look here if you’re interested.

NICE are writing a response to the critique soon too – so the conversation is just starting.

 

Backlash against mindfulness

Mindfulness has been written about loads in the last few years. From some of the articles you’d think it was a magical cure all, and perhaps inevitably, it seems to me that recently the worm has turned, and people have got bored, or irritated, with mindfulness.

Only a few weeks ago I was interviewed by a CQC inspector who rolled his eyes when I said that I ran a mindfulness group on the ward where I work. He was fed up of hearing about mindfulness, which reminded my of this piece a few weeks back by Eva Wiseman, on how she’s had enough of mindfulness colouring books being sent to her. To me, the backlash is interesting for a few reasons:

buddha

  1. Reasons behind the backlash. The pattern here feels familiar to me – setting something up to be brilliant then rubbishing it, when the reality is somewhere in the middle (as the evidence base suggests).
  2. The experience. The boredom and irritability that people describe feeling about mindfulness actually reminds me a bit of what it’s like to sit and practice mindfulness sometimes. It isn’t about having a blank mind, it’s about having your mind as usual, watching your mind do its thing, which often is boring, or annoying, and not always calm and peaceful.
  3. The idea of mindfulness having grand claims. Mindfulness itself has never claimed anything – it just is. It isn’t mindfulness practice that has big promises, marketing strategies and glossy packaging. That’s what we, as people, do with it. Mindfulness is just being in the here and now, instead of getting caught up in the past or the future.
  4. Mindfulness aids. You can use a colouring book to do it but you don’t have to. There are a growing number of mindfulness resources, like these books, available, and they are not for everyone, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to use new ways to help people meditate.

One group who are brilliant at explaining mindfulness to children using clever resources (and no colouring books) are the mindfulness in schools project. They use this clip from kung fu panda to explain what mindfulness is. Check it out if you want to see what Ugway is talking about.

If you aren’t bored or irritated by the idea and you want to give it a go then you could try the ubiquitous Headspace app or Mark Williams‘ down to earth introductory book: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness might not be a panacea, and it might be boring sometimes, but I’d still really recommend it.

Is living in the city bad for our state of mind?

app picture mechelliMental health problems are more common amongst city dwellers – but why? Is it the stress? The noise? The lack of green spaces? A study involving scientists from King’s College London, architects from J & L Gibbons, artists from Nomad Projects and design experts from the Van Alen Institute, is trying to find out how the urban landscape affects how we feel.

To take part, download their free app, called Urban Mind, which will prompt you at random, seven times a day for seven days, to answer questions about how you feel and where you are. The app gathers geotagging data, and if you choose to you can also upload images and sound files, to give a full sensory picture of your location.

The geotagging – which says where you are – can then be used to compare with existing mapping data to see whether you are in a deprived or affluent area, whether there are many trees or rivers nearby, and even what levels of pollution there are.

Dr Andrea Mechelli, Reader in Early Intervention at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and lead investigator on the project, hopes the app will enable a rich dataset to be collected.

“This has been developed to look at how the built urban evironment affects our mental wellbeing, Dr Mechelli said. “It’s important because within the area of urban planning and design a lot of decisions are made without much scientific evidence. The longterm aim of the study is to design some policy guidelines in this area.”

Dr Mechelli’s usual area of research is psychosis, and he sees the Urban Mind project as highly relevant to mental illness as well as mental wellbeing. Whilst some people may be genetically more vulnerable to developing certain mental illnesses, environmental stress can be a major trigger to make this more likely.

“Although we’re not looking at mental illness directly we’re looking at something that’s related,” said Dr Mechelli. “We’re all on a continuum, some of us tend to be more anxious, some less so… some may have slight psychotic symptoms that are much more common than we tend to think…. By understanding how the general population responds to the environment we’ll also understand how the environment becomes a risk factor. Longer term the study might reveal how the environment may contribute to the development of mental illness.”

Dr Mechelli, who grew up in a small village but now lives in London, thinks living in the city has many effects, socially, physically and culturally. “There are certainly aspects of urban living that are not very healthy but there are also aspects that can be very positive,” he said. “For example social networks, less risk of social isolation.”

Previous studies have shown downsides to urban life, Mechelli explained: “some aspects of city living are not good for us, for example increased sensitivity to stress and increased vulnerability to many mental disorders.”

Whether we find the city exciting or stressful might depend a lot on our individual characteristics, so Urban Mind asks some initial questions about what we are like and where we grew up to try to understand how this interacts with environmental factors.

Mechelli is excited about the project which he described as a “true cross-sector collaboration” between science, architecture and art. Anyone can download Urban Mind and participate, and Mechelli thinks using the app might make us appreciate the effects of our environment more.

To download the app check out the Urban Mind website. Images from the pilot data are available from the project-related Instagram and will be on exhibition at This Public Life – Festival of Landscape Architecture to be held in Melbourne, Australia, 15-18 October 2015.

For more on how where we are affects how we feel try these pieces on whether green spaces make us more creativehow natural light can make us feel more awake and how hospital architecture can make us feel better or worse.

This piece is cross-posted on Huffington Post UK