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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Desiderata: Does Expressive Writing Make You Happier?

Written by Max Ehrmann to his diary, c.1920
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

I had forgotten about this little piece of prose poetry until my little sister was assigned to memorize it for her gifted class. And I had a sudden flashback to my own eighth grade self memorizing this as well. I'm starting to realize how much that class has shaped who I am, as much as people may scoff and say, "We never learned anything in gifted."

Desiderata raises something of psychological interest: Max Ehrmann wrote this to his diary. Did that make him happier? Healthier? Pennebaker's expressive writing paradigm showed that people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. In the expressive writing paradigm, participants were asked to write about traumatic, stressful or emotional events for 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions. Those who did so generally had significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who wrote about neutral topics. 

The Pennebaker writing paradigm seems to suggest that the expression of emotion helps to cope with the emotion. However, the results seem to go against another study by Bonanno & Keltner (1997), in which the expression of emotion in facial expressions led to higher levels of grief. This supports the facial feedback hypothesis, somatic marker hypothesis, and James-Lange theory, which all say that the body greatly influences emotional experience. 
"Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit."

Perhaps we can resolve the dilemma of "to express or not to express" in this way: express through the mind instead of letting the body dictate. Perhaps expression through writing distracts from one's physical expressions by focusing energy elsewhere. Perhaps crafting words allows you to look at your experience in a different light, perhaps see it as a lesson learned, or growing experience.

It might not work for everyone, but why not try?--write in a diary, write a poem, write a song. "Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why do we cry when something is beautiful?

Because it is too beautiful, too beautiful to last.
--Michael Tilson Thomas on Mahler Symphony No. 1, Mvt III, at 5:20-7:00 below (Bernstein conducting):

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Happiness Through Health and Music

“Music has Charms to soothe a savage Breast / To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”
-William Congreve

I came across Regimens: Soothing Melodies for Cancer Patients from the New York Times this morning, stating that new research suggests that listening to music may reduce pain and anxiety in cancer patients. This research isn't new per say, the original paper is actually a systematic review paper that put together data from 30 trials.

Here is the plain language summary:
Having cancer may result in intense emotional, physical and social suffering. Music therapy and music medicine interventions have been used to alleviate symptoms and treatment side effects in cancer patients. In music medicine interventions, the patient simply listens to pre-recorded music that is offered by a medical professional. Music therapy requires the implementation of a music intervention by a trained music therapist, the presence of a therapeutic process, and the use of personally tailored music experiences.
This review included 30 trials with a total of 1891 participants. The findings suggest that music therapy and music medicine interventions may have a beneficial effect on anxiety, pain, mood, quality of life, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure in cancer patients. Most trials were at high risk of bias and, therefore, these results need to be interpreted with caution.

Although music has been used for pain relief since the ancient times, only recently has music come under empirical scrutiny for pain management in clinical settings, with a focus on postoperative, labor, and chronic pain, three common types of clinical pain. 

Looking at various papers on music interventions, the mechanism underlying music’s pain reducing abilities have been largely attributed to the psychological factors of distraction and relaxation. Other physiological explanations seem to relatively neglected. However, in the end, the psychological mechanisms are inherently physiological themselves, perhaps mediated by a spinal mechanism. So in the end, the gate control theory of pain may serve as an uniting mechanism to explain the beneficial impact of music intervention on pain management.

Though it may not be clear how music heals, one thing is clear: it doesn't hurt to have music. Research isn't necessary for us to know that. As a doctor, I'll take advantages of music to connect with patients. Doctors spread happiness through health, and musicians do so with music. So, why not do both?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

3D Audio (cont.)

Here's just a little update from my post a few months ago, 3D Audio. I was excited to find this video on the Princeton homepage today:

Looks like this 3D audio is getting closer and closer to becoming reality!

Professor Chouieri's last statement - "This is one of the calls of technology--to mimic nature" - is inspiring. It certainly puts technology in a new light. It's another example of how nature propels the [the artist/scientist].