All posts by Taylor Burbach

Changes in coping throughout adulthood

Manfred Diehl, Helena Chui, Elizabeth L. Hay are part of the Adult Development and Aging Project (ADAPT) at Colorado State University. Their mission is “To contribute to the knowledge about healthy and successful adult development and aging through research, education, and collaborative outreach.” Dr. Diehl received his PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from Pennsylvania State University and is interested in psychological development throughout the course of adulthood.

The ADAPT team from Colorado State

Diehl, Chui, Hay, and colleagues performed a longitudinal study of the change in coping and defense mechanisms across adulthood. Starting in 1992, they recruited 392 adolescents and adults, the majority of which were of European American descent. 129 of the original sample completed data for all four samples, in 1992, 1994, 1998, and 2004. Participants were asked to two 2-hour testing sessions each time.

In order to measure coping and defense mechanisms, the California Psychological Inventory was used. Ego development was measured using Loevinger’s Washington University Sentence Completion Test. Verbal ability and inductive reasoning were measured using the Education Testing Services Kit of Factor-Referenced Cognitive Tests. Socioeconomic status was also taken into account, although participants were not asked to divulge their education level because for the first two waves many were still high school/young adult age.

Diehl, Chui, Hay and colleagues found significant age related patterns of coping and defense mechanisms. As we age, ego regression tends to decrease while sublimation stays relatively constant and the use of suppression coping mechanisms increases. The defense mechanisms isolation and rationalization slowly and steadily decline with age; displacement, regression, and doubt fall from adolescence to mid-50s when these mechanisms begin to rise again; intellectualization follows the opposite pattern, rising until the mid-50 and then slowly falling again, although less dramatically than the previous three mechanisms.

Interestingly, this study revealed that ego level was the most significant predictor of age related changed in these coping and defense mechanisms. Ego level correlates with intellectualization, and when these rise, doubt and displacement fall. Intellectual abilities didn’t significantly affect changes in coping and defense mechanisms.

There were also differences in men and women use of these mechanisms. Women reported more sublimation, suppression, rationalization, and doubt than men, but less intellectualization. Regardless, both men and women’s coping and defense mechanisms changed similarly over the course of the study.

Coping and defense mechanisms are integral to functioning during stress (so literally anywhere). The changes in these mechanisms don’t seem to follow a set course or become more adaptive as we age, despite what you would think. While some maladaptive mechanisms decrease with age, others increased. By increasing our awareness of which maladaptive mechanisms are prevalent during certain age groups,we can try and increase efficacy of more positive coping and defense mechanisms and make an effort to healthily manage stress.


Themes in exercise adherence vs. dropout

After reading Greg Downey’s The Encultured Brain chapter on neural enculturation in capoeira and Lisa Heywood’s 2011 article advocating a cultural neuropychology of sport, I thought a lot about how these articles applied to physical activity in general. What makes people commit to physical activity? This isn’t a question I’m unfamiliar with. As a chronic yo-yo dieter and infrequent exerciser (who has the time anyway?), this is something I’ve asked myself for years, only to find myself lacking motivation again and again despite the colorful articles found online and in pop-culture magazines promising to give me a new outlook on my physical health and help me form lasting fitness-related habits.

Lisa Pridgeon and Sarah Grogan provide insight into why adherence to an exercise regimen in difficult for some  by exploring themes shared by people (adherers and non-adherers) who, currently or at one point, held gym memberships. Pridgeon was advised in this project  by Grogan, a professor at Staffordshire University’s School of Psychology Sport and Exercise. Grogan’s primary work is in exploring body image.

Pridgeon and Grogan interviewed 14 men and women, asking them to talk openly about their gym/exercise experience. 9 were current gym members, who adhered to a regular exercise routine, while 5 were former members. All were members of a small gym in the UK where membership was composed of 90% males. The participants in the study reflected the gym’s gender proportions. Pridgeon and Grogan then used interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) to identify common themes in gym experience among the participants.

Both participant groups had three themes in common when considering commitment to an exercise regimen, as well as a theme specific to each group. Adherers and non-adherers shared ideas of upward social comparisonculture, and habit. Although these three themes were present in all participants’ ideas about adherence to exercise, their attitudes toward these themes differed between groups. Adherers alone shared a theme of exercise dependency, while non-adherers shared ideas of social support as a motivating factor.

Upward Social Comparisons

We all compare ourselves to the people around us. In a gym setting, this often means interacting with people of a higher fitness level. For people who adhere to a regular exercise routine, this upward social comparison is motivating. For most adherers, the idea that you could progress without these comparisons (the presence of a role model) is ridiculous. Although this was a motivating factor for adherers, there was a negative tone behind some of these stories, namely that having a role model decreased body satisfaction and therefore drove the individual to continue to exercise more.

The story is a little different for non-adherers. Upward social comparison for these people also increases body dissatisfaction, but typically at such a high level that it discourages these individuals from continuing to exercise. Especially in females, this heightened body dissatisfaction is an important factor in why they discontinue exercise routines.


I’m sure we’ve all seen the Planet Fitness commercials that promote their gyms as a “Judgement Free Zone.” This ad campaign is an effort to separate their gyms from “gym culture,” which a lot of people view negatively. Pridgeon and Grogan found that gym culture meant something different to men and women. Men viewed fitness in the gym as competitive. Individuals were always striving to be better or equal to their peers. Success in these endeavors is recognized and praised by their peers, and therefore is very rewarding. Women see gym culture as a support system and value social interaction and acceptance over competition.

What determined adherence or non-adherence when it came to culture was simply whether or not the individual felt the gym’s culture was consistent with their personal identity.  Non-adherers reported feeling like an outsider while adherers viewed the gym culture as re-affirming their personal identity.


Both adherers and non-adherers agreed that forming habits was important to adherence.  Adherers simply removed the decision making process, and were instead prompted to engage in exercise through situational cues. For non-adherers, reestablishing a lost habit was one of the biggest obstacles to rejoining the gym.


This theme was present in the account of adherers only. Addiction and endorphins were credited with adherence. While dependency could be detrimental, the adherers asserted that some level of dependency was necessary to maintain their adherence.

Social support

For non-adherers only, losing or lacking social support was a common reason for gym dropout. These people found that their exercise adherence was better when they planned to go with someone instead of going alone.

Member validation

One member from each group switched roles during this study, and were able to confirm these themes. An adherer stopped exercising after an injury, and found it hard to reestablish his gym habit. Conversely, a non-adherer started to exercise more and confirmed the dependency theme, reporting increased gym attendance increased her body satisfaction and self efficacy.

Understanding reasons behind exercise adherence can be very important when taking into account a lot of long term health problems can be fixed or controlled through regular exercise. This phenomenological approach from Pridgeon and Grogan provides unique insight into this problem.


Evolutionary Theory and Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a difficult disease to explain, and therefore one difficult to treat. Increasingly, evolutionary theory is being used to attempt to explain phenomena that are inadequately explained through other frameworks. Nicholas Gatward, in his 2007 article “Anorexia Nervosa: An Evolutionary Puzzle,” outlines evolutionary explanations for the behavior that is archetypical of the disorder.

Typically, when biological/genetic causes are discovered for a behavior, we have reason to believe there is some evolutionary reason for that variation persisting, regardless of its current expression (adaptive vs. maladaptive) in an individual. AN seems to be strictly maladaptive in any context, but Gatward argues for mechanisms that could be adaptive that play a role in the development of this disease. He proposes three different explanations for the development and maintenance of AN: (1) Threat of Exclusion, (2) Threat of Starvation, and (3) Threat of Eating.

The threat of exclusion has roots in the importance of social relationships in our species. Throughout the majority of our evolutionary history, these relationships greatly improved the survival of those involved. If you were not able to cultivate and maintain bonds within your group, you could be shunned and you were much less likely to survive or reproduce. Competing for social resources with the same people you must be accepted by involves complicated assessment of the social climate in order to maintain balance. Social comparison  was, therefore, adaptive throughout much of our history. As social groups grew larger and hierarchies became more pronounced (early human groups were largely egalitarian), social comparisons revealed larger gaps and created greater dissonance within individuals. In our current cultural climate, thinness is seen as a sign of higher status, so restriction (and subsequent weight loss) allows individuals control over their perceived status.

The threat of starvation  provides an explanation for how individuals who begin dietary restriction can continue for such long periods of time when there should be evolutionary mechanisms driving the search for food instead of abstinence. The prevailing theory is that the mechanism that allows people suffering from AN to resist eating is the same mechanism that helped out ancestors deal with famine. Behaviors exhibited by people with AN such as “over activity, denial of starvation, and refusal to eat what limited food is available” are all components of adapted behaviors meant to get people to seek places with more food instead of conserving energy in a place of famine. Regardless of the original reason for restricting, the results activate this famine response and make long term starvation possible.

The threat of eating is another explanation for how starvation can be maintained and treatment attempts are largely unsuccessful. There are a couple different explanations within this category, but they both recognize AN behavior as a submissive response to social competition. First, it is believed that women of higher status use their influence to perpetuate the idea that thinness is desirable, resulting in the development of AN behavior in lower status individuals, therefore removing them from social competition. Second, AN could be a way for individuals to remove themselves from competition by suppressing reproduction, resulting in the removal of stress associated with competition. With this view, it is easy to see how recovery can seem unappealing if it means re-entering competition that individuals view as a losing battle.

These three explanations have their strengths and weaknesses. I find that the threat of exclusion and threat of starvation (adapted to flee famine) explanations are the most persuasive. They reflect current social climates and adequately explain how once adaptive mechanisms can be influenced by environmental factors to become maladaptive to the degree exhibited in those with AN. I especially like the “adapted to flee famine” example, because it exhibits how the ability to endure long periods of starvation is adaptive, contrary to how we normally think of evolutionary adaptations.

I think the threat of eating framework is a little harder to justify and therefore is his weakest argument. His examples are pulled from several different directions and I don’t feel that they are adequately synthesized. Particularly, the argument that AN is a result of higher status individuals perpetuation of thin-ideal in order to eliminate low status competition doesn’t really make sense to me. My own observations have seen AN as a “high class” disorder. Maybe I’m misunderstanding this argument, but I think Gatward’s lack of elaboration on this point is indicative that he doesn’t put as much stock in this explanation as the others.

Gatward does a good job of pointing readers in the direction of how these evolutionary explanations could be translated into individual causation of this disorder. I don’t think he quite hits the mark, but he does make a point of distinguishing ultimate and proximate explanations of behavioral phenomena. That is, evolutionary explanations are ultimate, meant to explain how AN behaviors were once adaptive. Proximate explanations, or those on an individual level, are best explained through other frameworks. I think we can understand proximate explanations better in the context of evolutionary theory, but we should not rely on solely on evolutionary theory when considering how to deal with this behavior individually.

Overall, I thought this article was informative and successful in getting me to think about AN outside of the psychological framework. It is easy to say that these disorders are a product of their environment, but stopping with that explanation is not very helpful when helping patients recover.

All information for this summary/review from:
Gatward, N. (2007). Anorexia Nervosa: An Evolutionary Puzzle.
European Eating Disorders Review, 15, 1-12.

Companionship and Art in Mother-Infant Interactions

Colwyn Trevarthen is Emeritus Professor of child psychology and psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh. He originally trained in biology and studied infancy in Harvard in the late 1960s.

The author, in the flesh!

In his talk “Born for Art, and the Joyful Companionship of Fiction,” Trevarthen makes a case for mother-infant interactions as facilitating creativity. Mother-infant interactions take place even before birth, when mothers will speak to their unborn children. This behavior is rewarded when infants recognize their mother’s voice. Subsequent interactions between mothers and their infants are mutually beneficial and have qualities of “communicative musicality,” pulse,” and “narrative.”

These are all qualities of art and require creative collaboration between the mother and infant. Trevarthen doesn’t believe that the interaction was limited to mothers and infants. He believes other family members observed these interactions and reacted positively and creatively, continuing to foster play activity in infants and therefore facilitate further development of creativity.

Trevarthen believes that it was these interactions that ultimately separated us from Neanderthals and gave us the unique ability to produce imaginative art and music, which he believes stems from mother-infant interactions. This makes sense if we think about the neural pruning that occurs in the first few months of life. Interactions between mother and infant during this critical period would strengthen neural pathways related to sociality and creativity that are involved in these interactions.

environ mom infant
Image by me, inspired by research by Zaneta Thayer

Epigenetic factors play a huge role in this transition. The plasticity of the human infant brain creates the perfect opportunity to foster creative innovation during this time. This kind of interaction can only strengthen social bonds within families and communities that participate in these interactions.

There is an online flash activity that I really like that illustrates the importance of the mother’s interactions with her infant. It’s called Lick Your Rats. You are put in the position of a rat mother and tasked with grooming your infant. The more attention you give your pups, the more activated their glucocorticoid receptor becomes, which helps the rats deal with stress more easily as adults. Trevarthen also cites the research that this flash game is based on, so I thought this was the perfect illustration of his point.

lick your rat pups
Try it out yourself! From the University of Utah Health Sciences website

The discovery of mirror neurons in rhesus monkeys is another illustration of how mother-infant interactions could facilitate creative collaboration. Mirror neurons make empathy possible, and therefore make it possible to share experiences. Rhesus monkeys have a very similar developmental trajectory as humans, including the intimate face-to-face interactions between mother and infant that seem to give rise to artistic expression (an outward indication of shared experience and ideas).

I have a few problems with Trevarthen’s ideas. Trevarthen puts a lot of emphasis on the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) that is needed for the ideal development of a human infant. Mismatch theory is very popular and used to explain an abundance of morbidities that we face today. Trevarthen invokes the EEA in order to make a case for increased maternal interaction in a society that has seen a decline in this kind of parenting. He cites that women  who exhibit warm mothering tendencies tend to have a harder time with abstract reasoning, saying that this is the reason many modern women have trouble juggling the responsibilities of motherhood and employment. I don’t know if this is necessarily the case. This may just be a knee-jerk reaction of mine, but this assertion just sounds wrong to me. There are plenty of women I know who have juggled the demands of employment and motherhood expertly. My own mother, who I like to think is very intelligent and hard-working, raised my sister and I working full time and (as far as I can tell) we turned out as developmentally sound as anyone I know.

He also goes on to say that long periods of day care in the first year of an infant’s life are “clearly detrimental.” If we are invoking the idea of an EEA, however, it doesn’t seem to me that daycare should pose much of a threat to the infant’s development, since the idea that children were typically raised by the community seems to be widely held.

It may just be that I have a problem with the idea of an EEA. Mismatch theory sounds nice on paper, and can account for some problems that we have, but typically these problems can be attributed to cultural causes as well (think obesity/diabetes). Culture is also probably the best solution to these problems, since culture is more fluid and can adapt quicker than biology.

Regardless, I think the idea that artistic creativity emerged from the epigenetic influence of mother-infant interactions is genius. Mirror neurons, release of oxytocin and dopamine during these interactions, and the rythmic nature of these interactions all support Trevarthen’s claims. I think it is also important to note that artistic endeavors are an intrinsic part of human nature, and the idea that this ability to innovate and create on a level that other creatures cannot is truly something that sets humans apart.

Evolving Brain Stuff, Y’all (part 2)

****Pictures coming soon***

I was especially excited to review “Evolution and the Brain ” from The Encultured Brain because evolution is something that interests me. I really like to see how evolutionary theory applies to different disciplines (can anybody say EvoS?). Theodosius Dobzhansky said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I have found that this can apply to many different fields other than biology.

I have studied development in the context of evolution before, but never in a neurological context. This chapter really built onto my existing understanding of human evolution. As someone studying anthropology (I guess this is a neuroanthropology blog), I was especially excited to read about how the human brain and culture interact and how we can understand this interaction in an evolutionary context. Below is a quick summary of the chapter.

About the Authors

Greg Downey is Head of Department and Associate Professor of anthropology at Macquarie University. His interests include, but are not limited to, neuroanthropology, ethnomusicology, economic anthropology, and evolutionary theory. His main research focus is on skill acquisition from a neuroanthropological perspective.

Daniel H. Lende is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida. His interests include neuroanthropology and biocultural medical anthropology. His research interests focus on substance and abuse, stress, cancer, PTSD, among others.

Together, Downey and Lende run the PLOS (Public Library of Science) blog site. The PLOS blog site is intended to facilitate discussion about science and medicine.

Size Matters

When we talk about how special human brains are, we typically first talk about size. Although size itself is not the only feature important when studying the brain, it is especially important to consider in an evolutionary context. It takes a lot of energy from high quality food sources to develop and maintain large brains. However, absolute size isn’t the determining factor of intelligence, and neither is relative brain size. Rather, the encephalization quotient of an animal best predicts brain and body size relationships. Humans are outliers, with a ~6X higher encephaliztion quotient for mammals our size.

Before our ancestors enjoyed an increase in brain size, they were distinguished by bipedalism. After this initial divergence, our ancestors’ brains tripled in size by two million years ago. Body size also increased, but not at the same rate. Another jump in brain size occurred about 500,000 years ago. Genetic research has revealed a great deal of similarity between humans and chimpanzees (our closest relatives) especially compared to our other primate relatives. Even the small differences in our genes account for huge phenotypic variation.

“Evo-devo” is a recently developed paradigm combining evolutionary theory and developmental biology. The idea that we can look at developmental processes to get an idea of how evolution has shaped us is not a new idea, but only recently has it been a widely accepted way of evaluating how evolution has shaped us.

Structure Matters

Comparative neuroscience is a great way to see how evolution has acted on the brain structure itself. By looking at human brains along with other primates we can see that evolution acts on existing structures, changing the function of a structure instead of creating a completely new structure. One way this is exhibited is by increasing the size of certain regions in proportion to others. There are often trade-offs when this happens; when one region increase another must decrease in order to remain metabolically stable. Humans are especially unique in our hemispheric specializations. This creates a streamlined process for quicker and more varied neural processing but also leaves us highly susceptible to injury (trade-off). Brain regions growing disproportionately is a demonstration of natural selection acting on this growth.

Connections Matter

The larger our brains get, the more neurons we possess, opening up more connections in neural pathways. Evolution acts, not only on the number of neurons in a region, but also on connections within and between regions. In humans, control of our larynx has been affected by a neocortical “invasion,” which is important for language. Other animals do not have these connections, and are therefore missing brain function vital to speech.

Not a Brain Alone

I think it is hard for people to grasp that intelligence is not shaped entirely within. Culture plays a big role in our learning and brain development. During the first three months after birth, there are many neurons in an infant’s brain that adults will not possess. During these three months, vital connections are made, and there is a pruning of neurons that go unused. It is during this time that a lot of cultural cues become ingrained in people. The social intelligence hypothesis places paramount importance on intelligence as a tool for cooperation. The focus is on the individual and how collaborative actions benefit the individual. In the cultural niche hypothesis, emphasis is on the interaction between multiple brain. Many human intelligence innovations could not be possible without the collaboration of multiple peoples’ brains. Regardless, sociality is a large contributing factor to human intelligence.

Run it! Run it!

Sing the title of this post to “Run it” by Chris Brown while watching this gif and tell me you didn’t smile.

I wrote this before I realized someone else also wrote about running as their hobby…. hopefully our posts are different enough to not be redundant.

Me after my first 5k!

Running is not something I ever thought I would enjoy. Even after I started running for fitness, I did it infrequently. I would push myself too hard, injure myself, and have to back off before I could do anything else. Last year, I decided I wanted to participate in a color run (specifically Color Me Rad). I learned how to pace myself and trained like crazy. I discovered it was something I enjoyed… a lot! I even decided I would sign up for the running class here at UA (who doesn’t want class credit for doing something they love?). Anyway, here is my experience with running using Tinbergen’s four “Why” questions.

  • Historical: Legends of the first marathon come from Greece in the 5th century BCE. After the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon, Pheidippides was tasked with delivering the news to Athens.
    Statue of Pheidippides on Marathon Road

    He ran approximately 26 miles (the length of a modern marathon) to deliver the news, and subsequently collapsed and died from exhaustion. Competitive marathon races were started in the modern Olympic Games in 1896 to honor this part Greek history.
    Let’s rewind a little bit before moving on. In the 16th century, jogging was a common part of training for swordsmen. In the 19th century, running was part of the training regimen of many athletic sports. The modern running fad was started when Bill Bowerman published Jogging  in 1966. Recreational running was born from these events.

  • Proximal: Why did I start running? I actually hated running for P.E. or really for any other reason when I was younger. My mom used to say “I will only run if I’m being chased” and I adopted the same philosophy. I knew people who played sports and even some who ran for fun, but it never interested me. In fact, I actively avoided it.
    My pre-running/post-health craze stage at color guard camp (I’m in the pj pants… it was early)

    In my later years in high school, I became interested in health. I restructured my diet, started exercising outside of P.E., and discovered I really enjoyed it. However, running didn’t come until later. The real reason I started running is vain and I’m hesitant to even admit it. I was reading health-related articles one day and read that long distance running releases hormones that slow down aging. I was sold! (I’m pretty sure this is not what I read but it’s the same idea. This, however, says HIIT is what prevents aging.)

  • Developmental: Thinking back on it, I became interested in health at the peak of my adolescence. I was already concerned about how I was viewed by my peers. All teenagers are. However, the concept of “dieting” wasn’t really introduced to me until high school, when some of my friends joined the dance team and were required to maintain their weight (something about extreme weight gain/loss throws off your center of gravity, resulting in bad form, injuries, etc…) which I thought was horrifying at the time.
    With the color guard my junior year before a parade!

    But, of course, I wanted to fit in, so I  joined in. I was also a member of the color guard throughout high school, and if you’ve ever tried to toss a flag into the air you know it takes some strength! I found that I really enjoyed learning about nutrition and health and why our bodies work the way they do.

  • Functional (physiological): A theory developed by David Carrier
    Quidditch on the Quad my freshman year… a LOT of running was involved in training/playing

    suggests humans are evolved for long distance running, specifically to facilitate hunting. This is called the Endurance Running hypothesis. Here’s a fairly short video of David Attenborough talking about persistence hunting in the Kalahari and it’s awesome: