- Bipolar behaviour – Shift between Mania and Depression
When it comes to diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder in children, there have been concerns that feelings such as anger, anxiety and shyness may be pathologised, when they should be seen as part of a child’s normal, yet idiosyncratic developmental trajectory
Bipolar disorder is a severe and chronic mental health problem with two main forms. It was previously known as “Manic Depression”; however the term was greatly stigmatized. There has been a shift over the past few decades to use “Bipolar Disorder” instead, allowing for more clarity when reaching a formal diagnosis and it is often perceived as less emotionally loaded.
Bipolar I Disorder is experienced by 1 in 100 people and in this form people usually experience repeated episodes of mania and depression. Bipolar II Disorder affects about half as many people. The main difference is that people with Bipolar II haven’t had episodes of mania, instead hypomania, a milder form of mood elevation but with similar periods of severe depression.
In mania people experience periods of intense elation and euphoria. Typically there is an enormous increase in energy is accompanied by “racing thoughts” (exciting and often creative impulses). People report that these can be pleasurable experiences but the consequences can be problematic and in some cases catastrophic. For instance people may develop ambitious business plans as their mood elevates but be unable to see these through leading to work and financial problems. Drug and alcohol use is also common during mania. Whilst mania and hypomania are the recognisable characteristics of bipolar disorder, in reality individuals spend significantly more time of their time being depressed.
Although many people may have long periods of stable mood between episodes of mania and depression, they often experience lower levels of symptoms which can also be distressing and affect daily life. A formal diagnosis may be given when a person’s mood episodes adversely affect their work or personal relationships with family or friends. However many people experience ups and downs of mood without requiring mental health care.
When bipolar disorder is suspected, a person will usually be assessed by a clinician. They will normally be asked questions derived from a diagnostic tool such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM; American Psychiatric Association).
The fifth edition (DSM-5) has been subject to criticism that it could lead to over-diagnosis of children and adults. With regards to children, there have been concerns that feelings such as anger, anxiety and shyness may be pathologised, when they should be seen as part of a child’s normal, yet idiosyncratic developmental trajectory. DSM-5 has introduced lowered thresholds, making it easier to meet criteria for a mental health condition and there have been controversial additions such as disruptive mood dysregulation in children.
- What’s the most we can remember
Unlike digital cameras with full memory cards that cannot snap any more pictures, our brains never seem to run out of room. Yet it defies logic that one adult human brain – a “blood-soaked sponge,” in writer Kurt Vonnegut’s words – should be able to limitlessly record new facts and experiences.
Neuroscientists have long tried to measure our maximum mental volume. However, what scrambles any simple reckoning of memory capacity is the astounding cognitive feats achieved by dedicated individuals, and people with atypical brains.
Many of us struggle to commit a phone number to memory. How about 67,980 digits? That’s how many digits of pi that Chao Lu of China, a 24-year-old graduate student at the time, recited in 2005. Chao uttered the string of numbers during a 24-hour stretch without so much as a bathroom break, breaking the world record.
Savants have pulled off arguably even more amazing performances, capable of astounding feats of recall, from names and dates to the details of complex visual scenes. And in rare instances, injuries to previously healthy people have seemingly triggered “acquired savant syndrome.” When Orlando Serrell was 10-years-old, for example, he was struck by a baseball in the left side of his head. He suddenly found he could recall countless licence plates and compute complex calendrical items, such as what day of the week a date from decades ago fell.
How is it that these peoples’ noodles put the average brain’s memory to shame? And what do the abilities of pi reciters and savants say about the true capacity of the human brain?
On a quantifiable level, our memory capacity must have some basis in the physiology of the brain. A crude, but perhaps useful metric in this regard: the approximately 100 billion neurons that compose our brains. Only around a billion, however, play a role in long-term memory storage – they’re called pyramidal cells.
If you were to assume that a neuron could merely hold a single “unit” of memory, then our brains would fill to the brim. “If you could have as many memories as neurons, that’s not a very big number,” says Paul Reber, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. “You’d run out of space in your brain pretty fast.”
Instead, researchers believe memories form in the connections between neurons and across neural networks. Each neuron sprouts extensions like train lines from a commuter hub, looping in about a thousand other nerve cells neurons. This architecture, it is thought, makes the elements of memories available across the whole tangled web. As such, the concept of a blue sky, say, can show up in countless, notionally discrete memories of outdoor scenes.
Reber calls this effect “exponential storage,” and with it the brain’s memory capacity “goes through the roof.”
“Under any reasonable guess, it gets into the several petabyte range,” says Reber. One petabyte equates to 2,000 years-worth of MP3 song files. We don’t yet know exactly how many connections a single memory needs, of course – or even if its storage can be compared to a digital computer at all – so such comparisons should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. Suffice to say, according to Reber, “you have tonnes and tonnes of space.”
Could people endowed with super-memories, then, have exceptional brains?
The short answer: no. Pi record holders, like Lu, as well as most winners of memory championships swear they are just regular people who have dedicated themselves to training their brains for holding and retrieving selected pieces of information.
Nelson Dellis, a USA Memory Championship winner, says that his memory was actually awful before he became a competitive mental athlete. Practice made all the difference. “Within weeks of training, maybe even less, you’re doing something that seems almost impossible to the normal person,” says Dellis. “We all have this skill within us.”
Several years ago, when Dellis first started his cerebral workouts, it took him 20 minutes to memorise a deck of cards. Nowadays, he can commit to memory all 52 cards in under 30 seconds – in other words, in a single pass. Dellis is trained up to five hours daily on card-counting and other memory competition events ahead of his successful title defence at the 2015 USA Memory Championship on 29 March in New York City.
Like other memory champs, Dellis relies on tried-and-true strategies for quickly committing items to memory. One popular trick: the construction of a “memory palace.” As Dellis explains, he visualises a dwelling he knows well, such as a house he lived in as a kid. He translates the items he needs to remember into images that are then placed on the table near the door, for instance, then on the kitchen table, and so on. “You mentally navigate yourself through that space and pick up those images you left there and translate them back to what you memorised,” Dellis says.
Pi reciters also frequently use the memory palace or similar tactics, like converting chunks of numbers into words strung together into a rambling story.
The inner savant
The widespread success of these memory strategies suggests nearly anyone can become a whiz, if they just set their minds to it. But can you do so without putting in so much ground work? That’s the aim of Allen Snyder, the director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney. He has controversially proposed that we all may possess an “inner savant” that can be tapped with the right technology.
According to Snyder, the normal human mind operates largely on a high level of conceptual thinking, rather than concerning itself with myriad, low-level details. “We are conscious of the whole and not the parts that make it up,” he says.
As a snap demonstration of our built-in mental programming for conceptualisation, Snyder ran an experiment with his colleagues. He tasked them with remembering a long shopping list with items like steering wheel, windshield wipers, headlights, and so on. “People were terrible at remembering the list,” Snyder says, but invariably they told him he had said “car,” when, in fact, he had not. “They assembled the parts.”
It seems plausible that evolution could have honed our brains to work in this manner. For example, rather than obsessing over every little detail of a lion’s face, like the tint of each hair, our brain quickly surmises that –boom! – this is a predator and we need to react, fast.
In other words, most of the data our senses transmit to the brain are not elevated to a conscious level. In savants, however, this higher-level conceptual thinking does not kick in, affording them “privileged access” to a deluge of details. When remembering the shopping list, for instance – they would remember the individual parts (headlights, wipers and so on) without pouncing on the overall concept – the car.
Cases of acquired savant syndrome, like that of Serrell, the boy who was struck by a baseball, prompted Snyder to search for a physiological basis for the phenomenon. The left anterior temporal lobe, above our left ear, emerged as a candidate brain region. Researchers have noted its dysfunction in autism and savant syndrome, as well as in elderly dementia cases accompanied by newfound artistic and musical abilities. (The region also corresponds to the site of Serrell’s boyhood trauma.)
Snyder gently inhibited neural activity in this part of volunteers’ brains with a medical device he’s dubbed a “thinking cap” that generates magnetic fields. Intriguingly, he reported that these people temporarily display improved drawing, proofreading and counting skills.
Can you measure a brain by counting neurons? Not really (Credit: SPL)
Can you measure a brain by counting neurons? Not really (Credit: SPL)
Despite Snyder’s ambitions, anyone hoping for a fast track to genius will have to wait a while, though. It is entirely possible that other factors, such as increased confidence or alertness, given the presence of a futuristic gizmo on subjects’ heads, led to the apparent brain gains. What’s more, the tasks at hand have been relatively modest (Snyder has yet to test the extremes of long-term memory, for instance), so his volunteers’ improvements hardly reach the dizzying heights of acknowledged savants like Serrell.
Given these limitations, some scientists have scoffed at Snyder’s claims; although there is a growing interest in the use of brain stimulation, their ambitions are generally much more modest. But at the very least, Snyder’s preliminary work hints that our brains could surprise us the more we look into their operations.
The bottleneck of memory
What’s clear is that human memory, as it is, has an intrinsic limitation. So why don’t we just remember everything – both the details, that most of us fail to record, and the overarching concepts, that savants often miss?
“I don’t know,” says Snyder, “but you would think it has something to do with the economy of information processing.”
Northwestern’s Reber also thinks that the brain, as it interprets its world, simply cannot keep up with the torrent of external stimuli. “That’s probably why we don’t remember everything – there’s this bottleneck coming from our senses into our memory,” he says.
Invoking the familiar computer analogy, Reber says the limit to human memory in a lifetime is not hard drive space, but download speed. “It’s not that our brains are full,” Reber says. “The information we’re experiencing comes in faster than the memory system can write it all down.”
- How Mindfulness Improves Executive Coaching
The benefits of mindfulness meditation for business leaders are increasingly appreciated and confirmed by empirical research. Executives and high performing professionals increasingly use meditation to manage stress, maintain strategic focus, enhance cognitive performance, promote emotional intelligence, and improve interpersonal relationships. Meditation programs are increasingly offered in the workplace to promote these benefits. Potential risks of mindfulness programs can be avoided and advantages enhanced when workers engage voluntarily and proactively in the process.
However, mindfulness meditation is usually a freestanding offering in workplaces and not tied to the user’s specific leadership development challenges. Mindfulness meditation has not yet been rigorously integrated into leadership development programs and executive coaching. These kinds of development programs can help emerging leaders to identify — and overcome — their limiting beliefs, behavior patterns, and interpersonal difficulties. Such programs can help them to develop new skill sets including the capacity to think strategically and motivate others.
Similarly, executive coaching helps individual clients to develop essential skill sets to manage direct reports, communicate more effectively, develop sound strategic plans, and implement action plans for success. But since most executive coaches and leadership development specialists are not also specialists in applying mindfulness strategies, important opportunities may be missed. While executives may benefit from pursuing meditation as a freestanding stress-management strategy, their development as vibrant leaders could be bolstered by vigorously integrating the two approaches.
When executive coaches and mindfulness specialists collaborate closely, they can help clients to identify their core challenges and focus in-depth on addressing those challenges in a synergistic fashion. They can hold clients accountable to commitments they’ve made to both processes. The executive coach can engage the client in dialogue about how mindfulness strategies (such as controlled breathing and guided imagery) are working in the service of leadership development and executive functioning.
Meanwhile, the mindfulness specialist can help the client to develop individually tailored meditation techniques that support the executive leadership goals (such as maintaining a calm, steady presence in essential meetings in the C-suite or with colleagues across the organization). The two processes can powerfully reinforce each other and promote enhanced quality of life, work performance, and leadership capacity. But that is only the case if the executive coach and mindfulness specialist maintain a healthy dialogue with one another.
In our practice, we work closely day-to-day as an executive coach/meditation specialist team. Together we have developed an integrative and bidirectional model of executive coaching and mindfulness coaching. We take the initiative to inform each other regularly about the specifics of the work we are doing with our shared clients. Our approaches are mutually reinforcing.
When the client achieves a relaxed state during meditation sessions via controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (temporarily suspending cognition), he or she can then work on the mindset changes that are the focus of the executive coaching. These mindset changes are more attainable when they are worked on in a state of meditative relaxation. Conversely, relevant thoughts “bubbling up” in the client’s mind during meditation sessions are relevant to the tasks of the executive coaching and leadership development sessions. In some cases, we meet together with our clients to ensure that the goals and strategies are well aligned amongst all of us.
Here’s an example of the process with one of our shared clients. Steven has been a successful executive in the tech industry and recently began working with a start up company, at which point he experienced a major spike in his longstanding anxiety, obsessional work style, and profound worries about his health. The executive coaching work has aimed to transform his mindset from focusing on problems and roadblocks standing in the way of success, into focusing on interesting challenges and opportunities all around him. His capacity to reframe self-perceived problems as opportunities has deepened since he began to focus on this cognitive reframe not only during executive coaching sessions, but also during meditation and yoga sessions. At the same time, during those sessions my colleague noticed that he was expressing worries about his office set-up and daily work schedule. That information flowing from meditation and yoga sessions has helped to deepen the executive coaching process by identifying concrete, worthwhile tasks for him to pursue.
The benefits of a relaxed body state for executive coaching clients like Steven cannot be overestimated. Once Steven’s self-awareness expanded to include his breathing and his body state in general, he became more grounded, mentally focused, and capable of making significant changes. Deep breathing and somatic relaxation moderated his cognitive intensity, which empowered him to tolerate and transform stressful thoughts rather than being overwhelmed or detrimentally reactive to them. He thereby succeeded in achieving the executive coaching goals of transforming his self-perception from being riddled with problems to embracing wonderful new leadership challenges and opportunities for growth.
The synergy of executive coaching and mindfulness meditation is compelling. Meditation helps clients achieve a state of being in which they can think clearly about work-related stressors and goals. And when executives make positive mindset and behavior changes, they are better positioned to relax and achieve a meditative state — with all its inherent benefits. The two approaches continually deepen and bolster each other.
By carefully integrating executive coaching and mindfulness strategies in a single practice setting, we can help clients develop into more self-aware, grounded, emotionally intelligent, and effective leaders. Executive coaches, leadership trainers, and mindfulness specialists can form powerful partnerships in the service of an enhanced client experience. Rather than leaving to chance whether and how clients will engage in mindfulness meditation, executive coaches should consider partnering with highly qualified and trusted mindfulness colleagues. The process is more rewarding, and the outcome for clients is far superior, with this kind of coordinated approac