Meet the nocebo effect, the placebo effect’s evil twin that makes you feel pain

A fascinating new study finds patients report worse side effects when a drug costs more money.


The placebo effect is one of the most mystifying phenomena in medicine. When we expect a pill to make us feel better, it does. If we see others get better while using a medicine, we will too.

Doctors even see a placebo response in patients who are told they are on a placebo. And the more invasive, expensive, and drastic the placebo intervention, the greater the healing effect. Fake surgeries — where doctors make some incisions but don’t actually change anything — make people feel better than placebo pills alone.

But the placebo effect has an evil twin: the nocebo. It can kick in when negative expectations steer our experience of symptoms and create side effects where none should occur.

This means, incredibly, that you can get side effects from a sugar pill. And sometimes these side effects are so severe that patients drop out of clinical trials, as a 2013 paper in Nature Reviews explains. A review of fibromyalgia drug trials revealed that 72 percent of people who left the trial did so because they felt severe side effects while on placebo.

Or take statins, the most prescribed class of drug in America. They work to lower blood cholesterol and help prevent heart attacks. But people commonly report muscle aches while on the drug. Sometimes the aches are painful enough that people stop taking the drugs, which then puts them at risk for heart disease. Recent evidence suggests that the muscle aches might be a big nocebo.

There’s been a lot of recent fascinating scientific work trying to find ways to maximize the placebo effect, so that doctors can squeeze out the maximum therapeutic benefit from drugs. But scientists are also learning there are ways to minimize or maximize the nocebo effect too.

A fascinating recent study in Science shows one possible way: When patients are led to believe one drug is less expensive than another, they’re also less likely to report painful side effects.

How expensive-looking packaging can alter perception of side effects

In the new experiment published in Science, participants were told they were taking part in a study to test out a new anti-itch cream. They were also told the anti-itch cream had the side effect of making people more sensitive to heat.

The experimenters wondered: Could they manipulate the power of the nocebo effect, and make participants feel more or less pain after using the cream by priming them with an expectation?

In placebo studies, more expensive, involved procedures in which participants are aware of the higher cost and complexity tend to produce a higher placebo response. The researchers here wondered if the same applied to nocebo.

Half the participants were led to believe the drug was expensive. How: It came in a sleek blue packaging and was called “Solestan” — reminiscent of the expensive brand-name drugs you may see advertised on TV.

The other half of the participants were led to believe they were testing an inexpensive generic cream called “Imotadil-LeniPharma Creme,” which came in ugly orange-and-white packaging. It’s giving me a rash just looking at it.

A survey found that the participants did, indeed, rate the blue-packaged drug as costing more than the one in the stripped-down packaging. But in reality, both creams were the same placebo schmear, which contained no active drug whatsoever.

To test the side effect question, the researchers spread some cream on the participants’ arms. Then they hooked up that patch of skin to a device that delivered some mild heat. To fool the participants, they also hooked up another patch of untreated skin to the same machine. But they only turned up the heat on the patch of skin that had the cream. This trick was to ensure that the participants believed they were experiencing the side effect.

Then the trials began. Participants in both the expensive and inexpensive cream groups were exposed to the exact same levels of heat. The scientists kept asking: How much did that hurt?

There was a big, clear, unmistakable difference. The participants who had the “expensive” cream thought it hurt a lot more.

And what’s more: The effect increased over time. The more participants used the “expensive” cream — the more trials they underwent in the study — the more pain they felt.

How is this possible?

Like the placebo effect, the nocebo effect is influenced by expectations. And that’s what the researchers think is happening here. People guess a more expensive medication should be more potent and lead to more skin problems.

“The most likely explanation is that participants infer that expensive medication contains a more potent and effective agent and, consequently, produces more side effects,” the researchers conclude.

What researchers have realized in the past two decades is that the placebo and nocebo effects don’t just change how we talk about symptoms. Neuroscience studies find evidence that they actually change the way we perceive pain in the brain. And that’s what the researchers in this latest Science paper found too. An fMRI scan of the participants’ brains and spinal cords (which processes our pain response) provided evidence that not only were these participants saying they felt more pain, but they were experiencing it differently too.

Given the real therapeutic power of the placebo effect, there’s been a small but growing thread of research looking into whether it can be harnessed to help treat diseases. It’s surprisingly promising. Through placebo conditioning, it may be possible to maintain the same level of drug effectiveness while taking less of the drug. Overall, this research forces doctors to consider that the context in which medicine is given can make a big difference in how people feel.

But it’s still hard to know the best way to harness the placebo effect and downplay the nocebo effect. This Science study shows the healing power of the placebo isn’t limitless — because where placebo lurks, nocebo may lurk too.



The Neurobiology of Feeling Safe


Source: The Neurobiology of Feeling Safe

by | Oct 1, 2017 | Magazine

The important role of “safety” in our life is so intuitive and so relevant that it is surprising that our institutions neglect it. Perhaps our misunderstanding of the role of safety is based on an assumption that we think we know what safety means. This assumption needs to be challenged, because there may be an inconsistency between the words we use to describe safety and our bodily feelings of safety. In the Western world, we tend to place higher value on thoughts than on feelings. Parenting and educational strategies are targeted toward expanding and enhancing cognitive processes while inhibiting bodily feelings and impulses to move. The result is a corticocentric orientation in which there is a top-down bias emphasizing mental processes and minimizing the bottom-up feeling emanating from our body. In many ways, our culture, including educational and religious institutions, has explicitly subjugated feelings of the body to the thought processes emanating from the brain.

Historically, this was clearly articulated in Descartes’s (1637) statement“Je pense donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). Descartes did not state “Je me sens donc je suis” (I feel, therefore I am). Note that I used the reflexive form of the verb “to feel.” In French, when “feel” is used as a reflexive verb, it emphasizes that feelings reside inside the person. However, in English, the meaning of the verb “to feel” is ambiguous, meaning either the sensory feelings associated with physically touching an object or the subjective experience associated with an emotional response.

Arguments regarding the relative contributions of cognitions and feelings have been at the core of historical questions related to how human behavior and emotional experience can be understood, modified, and optimized. Only during the past 50 years have emotion and investigation of subjective states of feeling become an accepted research domain within psychology. Prior research and its influence on educational (and parenting models) and clinical treatment models emphasized the cognitive pathway with the objective of nurturing cognitive functions and containing subjective feelings. This focus emphasized objective, measurable indices of behaviors and cognitive functions while dismissing subjective reports of feelings.

This has been an excerpt from The Neurobiology of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges.

Let the Body Rest, for the Sake of the Brain

Sleep deprivation can take a heavy mental toll.

Source: Let the Body Rest, for the Sake of the Brain


I’m sure a lot of subway riders are skilled nappers, but this car seemed to be particularly talented. Going over the Brooklyn Bridge on a recent morning, just as the sun was coming up, a row of men in nearly identical black suits held on to the straps with their eyes closed. Their necks were bent at the slightest of angles, like a row of daisies in a breeze, and as the car clanged over the tracks and the sun pierced through the grimy train windows, it finally dawned on me they were all sound asleep. Not even the bumps and the light could stop them from sneaking in 15 more minutes of shut-eye before work.

We take it for granted, but most people have to wake up for work (or school or other morning obligations) long before they want to. Sleeping in is treated as a cherished luxury—it’s somehow become normal that people wake up still exhausted, and anything but is a notable exception.

But rising before the body wants to affects not only morale and energy, but brain function as well.

“The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be the most prevalent high-risk behavior in modern society,” writes Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munch.

In fact, according to Roenneberg’s groundbreaking study in Current Biology, about one-third of people living in first-world countries are required to wake up two hours before their circadian clocks, or “natural waking times,” tell them to, and 69 percent of people have to wake up one hour before their bodies would like them to.

Of course, different people require different amounts of sleep and although there’s no universal rule for how long we should all be sleeping, it’s becoming increasingly clear that working late and waking early can cause serious problems. It’s not just repeated sleep deprivation that does people in, either. Just one restless night can seriously affect us in the morning.

Getting less than five hours of sleep a night makes people dumber and less able to concentrate, and it can make people more susceptible to false memories, according to a new study published in the September issue of Psychological Science. Led by Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine, the study found that of the 193 people tested, participants who slept for less than five hours a night were significantly more likely to say they had seen a news video when they in fact never had. The sleep-deprived group was also more suggestible. While recounting a personal story, 38 percent of them incorporated false information the researchers had given them, whereas only 28 percent of those who had more than five hours of sleep accepted the researchers’ false information in their story retelling. Frenda and his researchers postulate that not sleeping significantly disturbs our ability to encode information.

They also question the legitimacy of eyewitness testimonies in a court of law since, in this study, a good deal of people—especially those who didn’t get enough sleep—were susceptible to false memories. If someone goes on the stand after a sleepless night, it seems the chances are higher that he may misremember events.

The importance of sleep goes beyond courts and companies though. In the classroom, students who sleep more tend to be better at remembering what they’ve learned in the previous day than those who slept less, according to a 2001 study published in Science, and a 2014 study confirmed that more sleep leads to higher exam scores as well. Students who slept seven hours the night before an exam that tested them on economics, languages, and math, scored an average of 9 percent higher than students who only slept six hours the night before.

Getting less than five or six hours of sleep has also been connected to the inability to learn motor sequences. So before learning to play piano, first focus on getting proper sleep.

But there is the possibility of overriding the mind and body’s desire for sleep. By simply telling themselves they’ve slept well, studies show that people can temporarily trick their brains. Of course, continually getting too few hours of shut-eye will eventually cause problems, but telling yourself you got more sleep and that you feel refreshed (even if you don’t) leads to increased cognitive functioning in the morning, as evidenced by self-dupers who scored significantly higher on verbal fluency and neural processing tests.

The sleeping subway riders were also on to something. Even after a terrible night’s sleep, a 10-minute nap can significantly increase short-term alertness and improve problem-solving skills.

As we reached the Chambers Street subway station, the row of suited men and women seemed to instinctively know that they had arrived at their stop. In unison, they began to open their eyes and force themselves awake. Some gave themselves little slaps on their cheeks; others rubbed their eyes and temples. Then, like marionettes on a string, their spines straightened, their gazes turned straight ahead, and they clutched their briefcases and stepped out the door, onto the quay, up the stairs, and out onto the street, already noisy and awake.


  • CODY C. DELISTRATY is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News.

The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life

How an elite education can lead to a cycle of grandiosity and depression

Source: The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life


The former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz stirred up quite a storm earlier this month with his New Republic essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—a damning critique of the nation’s most revered and wealthy educational institutions, and the flawed meritocracy they represent. He takes these arguments even further in his upcoming book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Part cultural commentary, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of education itself, the book reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift adolescents struggling to figure out how to navigate the college system, and ultimately their own lives. Deresiewicz, who is also the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter, spoke to me on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon.

Lauren Cassani Davis: How does the phrase “excellent sheep” describe the typical student at an elite college today?

William Deresiewicz: The most interesting thing about that phrase is that I didn’t write it myself. It came out of the mouth of a student of mine, and just seemed perfect. They’re “excellent” because they have fulfilled all the requirements for getting into an elite college, but it’s very narrow excellence. These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.Davis: Do you see a connection between this “hoop-jumping” mindset and other trends, like mental-health issues, on college campuses?

Deresiewicz: The mental-health issues, absolutely. People have written books about this—adolescent therapists like Madeline Levine, who wrote The Price of Privilege. These students are made to understand that they have to be perfect, that they have to do everything perfectly, but they haven’t turned to themselves to ask why they’re doing it. It’s almost like a cruel experiment with animals that we’re performing—every time the red light goes on, you have to push the bar. Of course they’re stressed.

This is also why they’re sheep, because they have never been given an opportunity to develop their ability to find their own direction. They’re always doing the next thing they’re being told to do. The trouble is that at a certain point, the directives stop. Though maybe not, because even when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards. And if you’ve always been told what you’re going to do, these options are the easiest in terms of making decisions, though not necessarily easiest in terms of the work involved.

Davis: You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?Deresiewicz: Alice Miller wrote about this 30-plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.

These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.

These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all-or-nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.

This is not really the only way to succeed, but this crazy definition not only of success, but of how you achieve success, doesn’t even really reflect how actually successful people achieve success. Steve Jobs is an obvious example, because he was obviously very gifted and ambitious but he took a circuitous path, and people who are very successful doing interesting things also often take circuitous paths.

This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high-functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get to the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there—you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.

Davis: That ties in with your argument that words like “leadership” and “service” have become hollow in the whole college process.Deresiewicz: There’s a list of things that everyone knows you’re supposed to do to get into college: scores, extracurriculars, and then these two other things, “leadership” and “service.” They’ve been completely ritualized, and kids have become cynical about them because they know they just need to demonstrate them. In the case of leadership, which is supposed to be about qualities of character, self-sacrifice, initiative, and vision, it just means getting to the top, and that’s all. If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself.

Davis: You argue that society transmits its values through education. How would you summarize the values transmitted through the elite-education system?

Deresiewicz: I would summarize the values by quoting Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place. And I think we see that in the last 50 years, the meritocracy has created a world that’s getting better and better for the meritocracy and worse and worse for everyone else.

Davis: What kinds of values do you think education should be passing on?Deresiewicz: Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula.

That’s what the idea of a humanities education in college is and should be about, but part of that idea has very much declined. It’s not about learning a specific body of information or skills the way other parts of a college education quite properly should be. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.

Davis: Some criticize this kind of self-reflection as narcissistic, but you argue that it’s actually “the most practical thing in the world.”

Deresiewicz: I just hate it when people talk about how self reflection is somehow self indulgent—as if the things that students were being invited to do were not, like making themselves rich and powerful. How is that not self-indulgent? But I would say, aside from all the personal, intellectual, spiritual benefits of self-awareness—I can’t believe we even have to argue this—the main point is to know yourself so you know what you want in the world. You can decide, what is the best work for me, what is the best career for me, what are the rewards that I really want. And maybe you’ll end up saying that I do need a certain level of wealth, but you will know it because you will have come to know yourself. And you will be acting on your own initiative instead of having absorbed the messages that have been instilled in you unconsciously.

Davis: Gaining self-knowledge isn’t a simple or predictable process. Are there certain things that can only be learned outside the classroom?

Deresiewicz: There are certainly limits to formal institutional education. As you say, gaining self-knowledge is going to happen when it’s going to happen. But it’s certainly not going to happen if kids don’t have the tools to do it. So that’s the first thing that an education can do—help kids develop the means of reflection, and then, maybe it’ll happen the next year, or the next summer. A book you read in 12th grade or as a sophomore in college might suddenly click five years later. So yes, it happens throughout your life. But you’ve got to start, and I think you’ve got to start when you’re young. Developmentally, adolescence and the early 20s are precisely the time to ask these questions because you are engaged in making the transition from childhood certainty to adult conviction.

Aside from the classes themselves, the fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll. We need to create a situation where kids feel like they don’t have to be “on” all the time. Given the chance, adolescents tend to engage in very intense conversation, and a lot of life learning happens laterally, happens peer to peer. But if they’re constantly busy, there’s literally no time. It’s crazy. We’ve taken adolescence away from adolescents. School must not take away your opportunities to self-reflect on your own.

When I taught humanities classes, I never talked about self-reflection, and I never invited students to talk about their feelings or their backgrounds or their experiences. I would sometimes do it with students one on one, if they wanted to, but it’s an indirect process. The books are designed to make you think about your life. You can just talk about Achilles, or Elizabeth Bennett, it doesn’t matter if you leave the personal stuff out of the conversation. The books do the work of getting the soul in motion.

One good thing that they do at Lawrence University is have a course where freshmen can read great books and at the same time think about what an education is for. You don’t have to talk too personally there, but at least you’re still preparing yourself to understand your college education in an appropriate way.

Davis: What was your own college experience like?

Deresiewicz: I got to college in ’81, so the system was nowhere near as hysterical as it is now. But it was still basically the same system. My dad was an immigrant, a college professor, a scientist, and he had very specific expectations. I decided on my major—science—literally before classes even started, and it wasn’t a good decision. I love science but I never gave myself a chance to discover other things, and by the middle of college I realized that I should have been an English major because that’s what I really loved. I drifted for two or three years after college until I reached a cinematic moment in my life when I realized I needed to go and study English, whatever it takes, because I wouldn’t be happy until I did. So finally, four years after college, I went back and started a Ph.D. program.

I’ve continued to struggle with the psychological stuff—the cycle of grandiosity and depression, the constant comparisons. Once it gets implanted, you will always struggle with it, and you just get better, hopefully, at dealing with it. But the take home message is that everyone has to liberate themselves from this system. Education should be an act of liberation. We need to make a better system but ultimately everybody has to claim their freedom for themselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR              Lauren Cassani Davis

LAUREN CASSANI DAVIS is a former editorial fellow at The Atlantic.

How Childhood Bullying Affects People Later On – PsyBlog

Up to 1 in 3 people in the US report having been bullied during childhood — most often at middle school.

Source: How Childhood Bullying Affects People Later On – PsyBlog

Bullying is linked to mental health problems in later years, new research finds.

However, these tend to fade over the years, showing the remarkable resilience of many children.

The study followed 11,108 twins who were followed until they were 16-years-old.

Dr Jean-Baptiste Pingault, one of the study’s authors, said:

“Previous studies have shown that bullied children are more likely to suffer mental health issues, but give little evidence of a causal link, as pre-existing vulnerabilities can make children both more likely to be bullied and experience worse mental health outcomes.

We used a robust study design to identify causation.”

Bullying was linked to later conduct problems, depression, anxiety and other psychological problems.

However, five years later, most of these issues had faded away.

Dr Pingault said:

“While our findings show that being bullied leads to detrimental mental health outcomes, they also offer a message of hope by highlighting the potential for resilience.

Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term.

The detrimental effects of bullying show that more needs to be done to help children who are bullied.

In addition to interventions aimed at stopping bullying from happening, we should also support children who have been bullied by supporting resilience processes on their path to recovery.

Our findings highlight the importance of continuous support to mental health care for children and adolescents.”

Dr Sophie Dix, Director of Research at MQ: Transforming Mental Health said:

“This important research is further strong evidence of the need to take the mental health impacts of bullying seriously.

We hope this study provides fresh impetus to make sure young people at risk — and those currently being bullied — get effective help as soon as possible.

More than one in five UK young people say they’ve recently been bullied.

And now this unprecedented study gives the strongest evidence to date that bullying can directly cause many common mental health conditions — and have a serious effect on mental health in the long-term.

But the good news is that it shows that people can and do get better — demonstrating the importance of resilience.

Now we need to understand why this is and develop new ways, through research, to intervene and change lives.”

According to psychologists, people who cry a lot have this unique personality trait

Source: According to psychologists, people who cry a lot have this unique personality trait

When was the last time you just cried your eyes out? A month ago? A week ago? Maybe you’re drying your eyes from your last good cry as you read this. It’s okay to feel vulnerable after you shed a few tears, but you have nothing to apologize for.

In fact, crying is not only a perfectly healthy thing to do, but it’s also a sign of strength and resilience. Here are four reasons why you should feel empowered, not pathetic, after crying.

You Know How to Relieve Stress

A 1983 study from the American Psychological Association showed that most people feel more relieved after crying that was due to stress from interpersonal relationships and anxious or sad thoughts. (1)

Crying is one of the best ways to channel and filter out the thoughts and events that cause us worry or grief. Bottling up your emotions by holding back the tears can lead to long-term psychological damage that we’ll discuss later on.

When we cry, we are releasing negative tension that builds up from our day to day lives, allowing us to feel comforted and recharged so that we can pick ourselves back up afterward. Emotional tears also contain hormones that escape our body that could improve our mood after crying. (2)

Professor Roger Baker from Bournemouth University said that crying is the transformation of distress into something tangible, and the process itself reduces the feeling of trauma (source). So, when people encourage you to “just let it out,” now you know why.

It Shows You Don’t Care about What Others Think

The feeling of vulnerability and feebleness when we cry usually results from when other people are around. You feel the cracks in your voice; you feel the tears well up and the blood rush to your face, but you try your hardest to suppress these responses until it all comes bursting out. (3)

Society conditions us from an early age to believe that displaying negative emotions in front of other people is something that should be avoided at all costs. But human nature shows that we are all intelligent and sensitive creatures, and we can’t constantly keep up our emotional guard.

A 1964 study found that people respond less negatively and more compassionately to people who are crying. The study looked at the self-reported emotional response of people when they are in the presence of a crying person. (4)

Although the study found that crying made most people feel uncomfortable, crying in front of others shows that you place your feelings above the social expectations of those around you. That is a feat many of us can only wish to achieve.

You Aren’t Afraid of Your Feelings

Human beings cry for all sorts of reasons; hormonal imbalances, anger, loss, loneliness, stress, and low blood sugar are just some of the many reasons we weep. Sometimes it’s something that seems trivial like a sad movie or a nostalgic song, and often times we don’t even know the root cause of why we’re crying.

The important part of it is that you are acknowledging your emotions and confronting them head on. Not facing negative feelings can risk leading you down a dark path; alcoholism, depression, anxiety disorder, drug abuse or any kind of unhealthy compulsive behavior can stem from a refusal to face one’s emotions.

Feelings of guilt, fear of punishment or judgment, and self-doubt in all forms are some of the hindrances that cause people to choke back tears and disassociate. But allowing yourself to let go of that self-doubt for the sake of your own mental health is a sign of courage and control.

Crying Makes You a Better Friend

We talked earlier about “letting down your emotional guard.” This does more than send people a message that you’re strong; it shows your friends and family that you are honest and open when faced with adversity.

If you’re in a situation where you are with a friend, and both of you received some upsetting news, taking the first step in crying will allow other people to feel comfortable expressing their own emotions. Those who accept sadness when it stares them in the face allow others to do the same.

This does amazing things for your character and the strength of your relationships. Breaking down these walls that so often separate us from our fellow human beings can lead to more cohesive and meaningful friendships.

Crying makes you learn about who your true friends are, as well. Those who avoid you or bring you down when you already feel your most vulnerable are probably people you should consider removing from your life.

Crying and Mental Illness

If you find that you cry or have the urge to cry on a nearly constantly recurring basis, you should look into talking to a counselor or therapist. Chronic episodes of crying can be signs of depression and anxiety which can arise from a myriad of circumstances.

These conditions affect millions of people across the globe and can lead to self-harm or even suicide if they aren’t addressed. Click on links for anxiety and depression if you want to learn about how these conditions can affect your physical health.

Here are three online starting points if you think may be suffering from a mental illness:


Crying is one of the healthiest mechanisms we employ to cope with our emotions. It elevates our mood in the long term, relieves stress, builds character and fortifies relationships. So, the next time you feel the dreaded waterworks approaching, don’t repress the feeling. Let those tears help you to grow socially, mentally and spiritually.



  1. Martin, R. B., & Labott, S. M. (1991, July). Mood following emotional crying: Effects of the situation. Journal of Research in Personality, 25(2), 218-244. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(91)90017-k
  2. Patel, V. (1993). Crying behavior and psychiatric disorder in adults: A review. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 34(3), 206-211. doi:10.1016/0010-440x(93)90049-a
  3. Acebo, C., & Thoman, E. B. (1992, March). Crying as social behavior. Infant Mental Health Journal, 13(1), 67-82. doi:10.1002/1097-0355(199221)13:13.0.CO;2-#
  4. Hart, B. M., Allen, K., Buell, J. S., Harris, F. R., & Wolf, M. M. (1964, November). Effects of social reinforcement on operant crying. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 1(2), 145-153. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(64)90016-5

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Brain Waves Reflect Different Types of Learning

MIT researchers reveal the neural signatures for explicit and implicit learning.

Source: Brain Waves Reflect Different Types of Learning


Figuring out how to pedal a bike and memorizing the rules of chess require two different types of learning, and now for the first time, researchers have been able to distinguish each type of learning by the brain-wave patterns it produces.

These distinct neural signatures could guide scientists as they study the underlying neurobiology of how we both learn motor skills and work through complex cognitive tasks, says Earl K. Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the Oct. 11 edition of Neuron.

When neurons fire, they produce electrical signals that combine to form brain waves that oscillate at different frequencies. “Our ultimate goal is to help people with learning and memory deficits,” notes Miller. “We might find a way to stimulate the human brain or optimize training techniques to mitigate those deficits.”

The neural signatures could help identify changes in learning strategies that occur in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, with an eye to diagnosing these diseases earlier or enhancing certain types of learning to help patients cope with the disorder, says Roman F. Loonis, a graduate student in the Miller Lab and first author of the paper. Picower Institute research scientist Scott L. Brincat and former MIT postdoc Evan G. Antzoulatos, now at the University of California at Davis, are co-authors.

Explicit versus implicit learning

Scientists used to think all learning was the same, Miller explains, until they learned about patients such as the famous Henry Molaison or “H.M.,” who developed severe amnesia in 1953 after having part of his brain removed in an operation to control his epileptic seizures. Molaison couldn’t remember eating breakfast a few minutes after the meal, but he was able to learn and retain motor skills that he learned, such as tracing objects like a five-pointed star in a mirror.

“H.M. and other amnesiacs got better at these skills over time, even though they had no memory of doing these things before,” Miller says.
The divide revealed that the brain engages in two types of learning and memory — explicit and implicit.

Explicit learning “is learning that you have conscious awareness of, when you think about what you’re learning and you can articulate what you’ve learned, like memorizing a long passage in a book or learning the steps of a complex game like chess,” Miller explains.

“Implicit learning is the opposite. You might call it motor skill learning or muscle memory, the kind of learning that you don’t have conscious access to, like learning to ride a bike or to juggle,” he adds. “By doing it you get better and better at it, but you can’t really articulate what you’re learning.”

Many tasks, like learning to play a new piece of music, require both kinds of learning, he notes.

Brain waves from earlier studies

When the MIT researchers studied the behavior of animals learning different tasks, they found signs that different tasks might require either explicit or implicit learning. In tasks that required comparing and matching two things, for instance, the animals appeared to use both correct and incorrect answers to improve their next matches, indicating an explicit form of learning. But in a task where the animals learned to move their gaze one direction or another in response to different visual patterns, they only improved their performance in response to correct answers, suggesting implicit learning.

What’s more, the researchers found, these different types of behavior are accompanied by different patterns of brain waves.

During explicit learning tasks, there was an increase in alpha2-beta brain waves (oscillating at 10-30 hertz) following a correct choice, and an increase delta-theta waves (3-7 hertz) after an incorrect choice. The alpha2-beta waves increased with learning during explicit tasks, then decreased as learning progressed. The researchers also saw signs of a neural spike in activity that occurs in response to behavioral errors, called event-related negativity, only in the tasks that were thought to require explicit learning.

The increase in alpha-2-beta brain waves during explicit learning “could reflect the building of a model of the task,” Miller explains. “And then after the animal learns the task, the alpha-beta rhythms then drop off, because the model is already built.”

By contrast, delta-theta rhythms only increased with correct answers during an implicit learning task, and they decreased during learning. Miller says this pattern could reflect neural “rewiring” that encodes the motor skill during learning.

a brain

The divide revealed that the brain engages in two types of learning and memory — explicit and implicit. image is adapted from the MIT news release.

“This showed us that there are different mechanisms at play during explicit versus implicit learning,” he notes.

Future Boost to Learning

Loonis says the brain wave signatures might be especially useful in shaping how we teach or train a person as they learn a specific task. “If we can detect the kind of learning that’s going on, then we may be able to enhance or provide better feedback for that individual,” he says. “For instance, if they are using implicit learning more, that means they’re more likely relying on positive feedback, and we could modify their learning to take advantage of that.”

The neural signatures could also help detect disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier stage, Loonis says. “In Alzheimer’s, a kind of explicit fact learning disappears with dementia, and there can be a reversion to a different kind of implicit learning,” he explains. “Because the one learning system is down, you have to rely on another one.”

Earlier studies have shown that certain parts of the brain such as the hippocampus are more closely related to explicit learning, while areas such as the basal ganglia are more involved in implicit learning. But Miller says that the brain wave study indicates “a lot of overlap in these two systems. They share a lot of the same neural networks.”


Funding: The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Picower Institute Innovation Fund.

Source: Becky Ham – MIT
Image Source: image is adapted from the MIT news release.
Original Research: The study will appear in Neuron.

MIT “Brain Waves Reflect Different Types of Learning.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 12 October 2017.