Archive for April, 2010

Culture and mental illness

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

I heard an interesting interview on CBC radio yesterday, with an author who’s written a book on how North American conceptions of mental illness and mental health are beginning to influence other parts of the world, and perhaps not always in ways that are beneficial. The book is called Crazy Like Us, by Ethan Watters. He gave an interesting example about the increasingly wide availability of antidepressants, and how that is influencing different cultures’ perception of how normal or “pathological” it is to have a period of sadness, or what used to be called melancholia. I agree that our technologies often influence our perception of things. I had a professor once who was fond of saying, “If all you have is a hammer, the whole world starts looking like a nail.” There’s certainly a lot of truth to that in the world of mental health and illness. I do believe there is a risk of medicalising things that are better thought of as simply part of life. In doing so, we too often disengage from the health-giving life milieu in which we are embedded (family, work, activities) in order to turn ourselves over to medical “experts” to fix us. Of course, I believe that some particularly severe forms of psychopathology really do exist and  require professional attention, but I find that much of what I do in my clinical practice is to try to reconnect people with ordinary things that are beneficial. That often takes people much of the way, and sometimes it takes them the whole way.

Can cognitive training actually make you smarter?

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Today I read a new paper by Martin Buschkuehl and Susanne Jaeggi in the Swiss Medical Weekly that reviews the scientific literature on whether intelligence can be improved by specific interventions. This is an interesting question, and one that’s going to continue coming up over the next little while, because there have been indications in various studies over the last few years that certain kinds of cognitive training do actually lead to reliable increases in performance on certain kinds of intelligence measures. Specifically, training regimens aimed at improving working memory, executive functions (I’ll explain that term another time), and controlled attention seem to bring about improvements in what is called “fluid intelligence”, which is the ability to reason and problem-solve in novel contexts. These authors actually published one of those studies themselves in 2008; it was a very interesting paper that found increases in fluid intelligence after adults engaged in only 19 days of working memory training.

So, the answer? It seems to be a qualified ‘yes’: although more data need to come in, and what is meant by intelligence needs to be clearly defined, there is a clear trend pointing toward the ability to improve general intellectual ability through certain targeted forms of cognitive activity. Neat, eh?