Richard G. Petty, MD

Teen Driving Risks

I have been very concerned about the burgeoning evidence of the dangers of being distracted while driving.

My concerns have been buttressed by a new report.

A national survey
of more than 5,600 high school students conducted by an alliance
between The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm
Insurance Companies indicates that
high school students are routinely driving under highly
dangerous conditions.

Teens who participated in the study say they routinely drive while fatigued and while talking on cell
phones, and that they let strong emotions cloud their judgment. Many also admitted that they are not wearing seatbelts.

The National Teen Driver Survey represents 10.6 million 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students in U.S. public high schools.

The survey results are available as a downloadable report on Keeping Young Drivers Safe,
a new Web site for parents and educators from the Children’s Hospital
of Philadelphia/State Farm alliance. The site is packed with practical
information on developing a plan that will enable new drivers to
develop the skills and habits they need to stay safe.

You can also visit the site at, where you will find information on working with a new driver to set goals and
rules; developing a timeline for parent-guided driving lessons; and
developing a parent/teen driving agreement.

Cognitive Brain Health Test

One of the blogs that never fails to provide me with some food for thought is Zack Lynch’s Brain Waves.

He has just alerted his readers to a very interesting resource.

The Brain Resource Company launched a free, confidential, 40-minute cognitive brain test in partnership with the Alliance for Aging Research. The company is offering the test at no cost until May 14, 2007.

When you first click on the link for the test, you are taken to a page on Brain Health with a great many links.

I am extremely familiar with the literature on the brain, aging and cognition. So on your behalf, I passed a critical eye over the material. I was really pleased with it. I have one or two very minor quibbles, and one or two of the links are not working yet, but overall the information is excellent and above all reliable.

One thing about doing the test is that it needs for you to be using Windows. So we Macintosh users are left out in the cold. But the test is well worth doing, so if you are a Macintosh user, you might want to see if you can borrow a Windows machine for an hour.

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact they do so.”
–Bertrand Russell (Welsh Mathematician, Philosopher, Pacifist and, in 1950, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1872-1970)

“The longer I live, the more beautiful life is.”
–Frank Lloyd Wright (American Architect, 1867-1959)

Mindless Eating

One of the keys to any successful weight management strategy is awareness:

  1. Awareness of our bodies
  2. Awareness of our bodies’ needs
  3. Awareness of what we are doing physically
  4. Awareness of what we are eating
  5. Awareness of the impact of food on our bodies and our minds
  6. Awareness of the content and consequences of our diets
  7. Awareness of our eating on other people
  8. Awareness of our food choices on animals and our physical and emotional environment
  9. Awareness of the things that drive us to eat even if we are not hungry
  10. Awareness of the spiritual consequences of eating

I have looked at hundreds of books on diet, health and nutrition and it constantly astonishes me that hardly any of them address this central component, not just of weight management, but of life management. There is some fine exceptions: one is a new book by Brian Wansink called Mindless Eating, that does a good job of discussing some of these problems of awareness about eating.

The author is a practicing researcher and Professor at Cornell, and he has an interesting paper in the current issue of the Journal of Marketing Research. Part of his thesis is that “low fat” nutrition labels may lead to the over-consumption of nutrient-poor and calorie-rich snack foods. 

I was pleased to see the experimental data, which exactly confirms my observations. After nearly thirty years of working with people with weight challenges, one of the more common problems is that some people have been brain washed into thinking that if it says “low fat” on the label, you can eat as much as you want. The trouble is that if you know how to read labels, some of the low fat foods are also low health foods. The authors of the paper make some good suggestions for changing policy to help rectify the situation.

When it comes to what we eat, part of the problem is that most of us are so comfortable with the status quo that we rarely notice much that is going on inside or around us.

A fish only becomes aware that it lives in water once it’s dragged up on shore!

And we only realize our own potential for growth and change when we become aware of the dynamic, interconnected beauty and complexity of a world that lies just beyond the reach of our senses.

Growing our awareness of food, nutrition and eating can be a transformative experience. I have known some spiritual teachers who would not accept heavy people as students, saying that if they could not even control their weight, then how could they control their minds or any energies that might be released from meditation, qigong, yoga and the like?

Although I understand what they are saying, I respectfully disagree. As I have discussed many times, there are physical as well as psychological, social, subtle and spiritual reasons for having trouble with weight, and I don’t think that these are grounds for excluding people from learning these practices.

For today I urge you to spend a few minutes working on your own “Ten Awarenesses” about food and nutrition.

It could be the best thing that you do for yourself all year.

“Neither the body with its senses nor the mind with its thoughts is the ultimate being that I am. The body acts and the mind moves, but behind them is the thought-free Awareness, the Knowing Principle.”

–Paul Brunton (English Spiritual Teacher and Author, 1898-1981)

“The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

–Marcel Proust (French Novelist, 1871-1922)

The Forty-Eight Minute Hour

Every teacher and lecturer knows that the attention span of the average student is about forty five minutes. It was always said that the reason for instituting 55 minute periods in
American public schools was a response to some psychological research
into the attention spans of American teenagers. There is also an urban legend that the length of time between television commercials was driven by research that purported to show that the attention span of the “average American” was six minutes.

Though some days I wonder if attention spans are down to the one minute duration of the commerical breaks!

The very term “attention span” is imprecise and driven by multiple variables including innate ability to hold attention, mood, time of day, plasma glucose level and our level of engagement in the material before us. You can do a brief test to measure your own attention span.

For the psychoanalyst, an hour is actually only 50 minutes. In the early days of psychoanalysis it was found empirically that this was the ideal duration of a psychotherapeutic session. It just so happened that it also gave the therapist time to decompress before the next session.

Several months ago I revealed that I have a “problem” called hyperfocus. It was my own chiropractor in Atlanta – Teresa Brennan – who pointed out that sitting immobile for hours at a time was not a good way to treat the spine. Exactly what I had been telling other people for years! So I installed a little free gizmo on my computer desktop that reminds me to get up and stretch every 50 minutes. And since then my productivity has soared.

So I was very pleased to see an article that strongly advocates the approach of working intensely for 48 minutes and then taking a 12 minute break before resuming work. I think that this makes very good sense, and if you are not happy with your own work habits or work output, I suggest that you give it a try.

From the psychological literature this duration seems to make sense. I also like that it introduces some balance into our work activities.

Though personally I would have preferred, perhaps, for the number to have been 42. Since that is, of course, the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (And Douglas, old friend, you are still missed.)

Or perhaps the number should have been 43.

After all, my name really is Richard Petty! (For readers outside North America: my namesake is a renowned former race car driver, but not, alas, a relative! His car was always number 43.)

Try the 48 minute approach and see if it works for you.

“Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.”

–Benjamin Franklin (American Author, Inventor and Diplomat, 1706-1790)

When Being Positive Can Be Negative

One of the points that we make in Healing, Meaning and Purpose is that the constant insistence by some people in the self-help business – that we should all be happy and positive in all that we do – can be very counter-productive.

Not only do some people operate best when they are being negative but it is very task dependent. If you are doing something tedious, trying artifically to create a smiley face may actually be the worst thing that you can do.

I have given a lot of ideas for finding out about your style and how to adapt and develop it.

There is some terrific new research in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that helps answer the age old question: does a good modd help when you are doing your job?

It is certainly true that happy thoughts can stimulate creativity, but for mundane work such as dredging through databases, it may be better to be cranky or sad.

The new study is the first to suggest that a positive frame of mind can have opposite effects on productivity depending on the nature of a task.

It is well known that stress, anxiety, depression or just a good old fashioned bad mood lead us to narrow our field of attention: we only think about and focus on the things directly in front of us. On the other hand, subjective well being is known to broaden our thinking and make us more creative. What nobody knew was whether a good mood expands people’s attention to visual details.

In this study, performed by Adam Anderson and his colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, 24 university students were asked to take two kinds of tests after listening to sad, happy, or neutral music. In one test, the students were asked to think of unusual words, to test their ability to think broadly.

As expected, those who had listened to happy music and who claimed to be in a better mood were more successful in recalling unusual words than the other two groups who listened to sad or neutral music.

In the second test, the students were presented with a row of three letters and asked to ignore everything except for the letter in the middle. This is a well-known test designed to measure the breadth of their visual attention and ability to focus on what was in front of them. This time, the happy music students were 40% more likely to be distracted by the unnecessary flanking information than students who had listened to the sad music.

Your attention acts like a torch or the beam of a spotlight. A good mood broadens the beam so that you see more things than usual. Including all the distractions and the irrelevant data.

So being a bit grumpy and irritable when you have to do your tax returns is probably the best way to get through the task quickly and with as few errors as possible.

A Memory for Faces

Your humble reporter has always had a good memory for faces. A month after a meeting in San Antonio at which we had about 250 attendees, he was in another part of the country when a charming man came over to say, “You won’t remember me, but I was at your lecture in Texas last month.”

He looked like a man who’d eaten a raw egg when he got the response, “Oh yes, fifth row from the back, fourth person along.”

It would be great if that memory for faces could be linked to a memory for names or something else useful. But sad to say it isn’t. Just the face, and when and where it was last seen.

But new research in neuroscience has shown us ways to tether other memories to each other.

So it was interesting to see a new report of some fascinating research from Vanderbilt University in Nashville suggesting that it is common for us to be better able to remember faces than other objects and in addition that faces “stick” the best in our short-term memory. The reason may be that our expertise in remembering faces allows us to package them better for memory, since faces are complex and their recognition is also essential for normal social relationships.

The findings are currently in press at the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

The key component of the research is visual short-term memory or VSTM has a unique way of being coded in the brain. The findings have practical implications for the way we use our memories. Clearly being able to store more faces in VSTM may be very useful in complex social situations. Just think for a moment how much most people like being remembered, particularly if you can attach a name and salient fact to the memory. Most of the successful business people and politicians that I know are remarkably adept at doing this.

Short-term memory is crucial to the way in which we create impressions and adapt to a continuously changing world. It serves as temporary storage for information that we are currently using: rather like the RAM on a computer. For example, in order to understand this sentence, your short-term memory will need to remember the words at the beginning while you read through to the end. People with some neurological and attentional problems have a real problem with doing that. VSTM is a component of short-term memory that helps us process and briefly remember images and objects, rather than words and sounds.

VSTM allows us to remember objects for a few seconds, but as with working memory and all the short-term memory stores, its capacity is limited. The new research focuses on whether we can store more faces than other objects in VSTM and the possible mechanisms underlying this advantage.

Study participants were asked to look at up to five faces on a screen for varying lengths of time (up to four seconds). A single face was later presented and the subjects had to decide if this face was part of the original display. For a comparison, the process was repeated with other objects, like watches or cars.

The researchers found that when participants studied the displays for only a brief amount of time (half a second), they could store fewer faces than objects in VSTM. They think that this is because faces are more complex than watches or cars and therefore they require more time to be encoded. Surprisingly, when participants were given more time to encode the images (four seconds), an advantage for faces over objects emerged.

The researchers believe that our past experience with learning faces explains this advantage. This theory is supported by the fact that the advantage was only observed if the faces were upright: the most familiar orientation. Faces that were shown – and therefore encoded – upside-down showed no advantage over other objects.

This is very similar to the situation in chess, where, compared with a novice, a master can instantly remember a position on the board if the pieces are in logical places. If they are arranged at random, the master does no better than the rank amateur.

Most of the textbooks tell us that the capacity of short-term memory is something is fixed, and that you either have a decent capacity or you do not. However the research indicates that you can learn to improve your capacity for this form of memory.

This makes sense: as a child your reporter rarely made notes and his parents supported him in that. More than one school teacher thought him lazy and inattentive because his note books consisted of doodles and random scribbles in between pages of homework.

How many other children have also been accused of cheating or faced punishment or ridicule simply because they had a good memory, but did not learn in the same way as the other kids?

We already have some methods for training people to get better at using visual memory, but most have been discovered by trial and error. This new research will make it that much easier to devise memory training methods rooted in brain science.

But also remember something else: sometimes forgetting is as important as remembering.

Elbert Hubbard, the American Editor, Publisher and Author who perished aboard the Lusitania in 1915, had this to say, “A retentive memory may be a good thing, but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness.”

Attention Deficit Disorder and Brain Laterality

Here two topics that are very close to my heart: the puzzle of laterality and asymmetry and attention deficit disorder.

We live in an asymmetric Universe. Fundamental particles tend to rotate and wobble to the left rather than the right; most molecules show a lateral shift; and all the biologically active amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – are in the L-form. Meaning that in solution they bend light to the left. The R-forms, that bend light to the right, for the most part don’t work in biological systems. Some of the most extraordinary asymmetry is seen in the human brain. There’s a myth that about the hemispheres of the brain that I’ve talked about before, but bears repeating.

The idea that the left hemisphere of the brain is specialized for logic, analysis and language, while the right hemisphere is holistic, artistic and mystical has been circulating for over thirty years. It has even been suggested that the right hemisphere of the brain is the seat of intuition, which cannot be correct. It may be involved in instinct, but it is impossible to reduce a non-local psycho-spiritual experience to groups of brain cells. There may be correspondence – the right hemisphere becoming activated during intuition, but not causality: right hemisphere activation as the cause of intuition.

This notion of discrete functioning of the hemisphere has become so pervasive that it is commonplace to hear people describing themselves as being “right brained,” or accusing someone else of being “left brained.”

A simple concept that is also profoundly wrong. This is fine as a metaphor, but not as a fact. It is true that language is more highly represented in the left hemisphere of the brain in right-handed men. But language is bilaterally represented in women. Most men tend to use a small strip of the left hemisphere for language, women tend to use both hemispheres at once. There’s still a left-sided predominance, but it’s quite a different pattern from most men’s brain.

Boy’s brains mature more slowly than girls’ brains, and by adolescence are more lateralized than are the brains of girls and women. The truth is that we cannot neatly divide up the functions of our brains, and we need both sides of our brain if we are to function at our best.

Until very recently most experts said that handedness was a purely human attribute. Yet anyone who has every lived with a cat, dog or horse knows that that is wrong, and now there’s literature to prove it.

I tried to put that mistake to bed in a review article that included a detailed discussion about brain asymmetries in animals. I also reviewed the excellent evidence that certain regions of the brain have been becoming more lateralized over the last 100,000 years.

I’d like to show you why this talk of brain lateralization is not a sterile academic debate.

We do not know if left-handedness or mixed handedness is more common in ADD/ADHD. But the evidence is getting stronger and stronger that there is something different in people with ADD/ADHD in how they use the two sides of their brains.

Three conditions: autism, dyslexia and ADD/ADHD share one characteristic: they are all marked by what we call atypical cerebral asymmetry in that they don’t have the normal left hemisphere dominance for language. This is more of a problem for boy, since they normally make more use of their left hemispheres. But it’s not all bad: atypical cerebral asymmetry may also be associated with certain aspects of creativity.

Researchers in New Zealand have just reported something strange, but which is consistent with previous research. When healthy right-handed children are asked to bisect a line drawn on a page, when they use their right hand they tend to bisect the line toward the right, and with the left hand toward the left. But children with ADD/ADHD don’t do this. The researchers have now gone further and suggested that there are at least two types of ADD/ADHD, in one of which – ADHD-I – the primary problem is in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Using an entirely different methodology, researchers in Baltimore, Maryland, have found that children with ADHD use their brains differently when engaged in patterned motor activity.

In an earlier post I talked about the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and there is an important connection to it is called the cingulate cortex. A new study has shown that adults with ADD had significantly smaller overall amounts of cortical gray matter, and reduced volumes of their prefrontal and anterior cingulate regions. Both are highly lateralized in the human brain.

Compared with controls, unmedicated children with ADHD have a small right cingulate cortex, but it is normal in children who have been treated, indicating that the treatment is doing more than treating symptoms: it may actually be re-wiring the brain.

Research from the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and David Geffen School of Medicine showed that in adults with ADHD, showed reduced left hemisphere specialization, were better at processing emotions, and worse at processing words compared to controls. They tend to use their right hemispheres more and their left hemispheres less.

Unaffected individuals constantly shift their attention toward the important or salient things in their environment. Children with ADHD have a problem with directed attention: the ability to allocate and direct attention toward a salient stimulus. New research has discovered that this is due to problems in a region of the brain called the parietal lobe that is known to play a significant role in shifting attention and detecting specific or salient targets in the environment. As a result the child’s brain does not know what is important.

These findings do not tell us whether the primary problem is a way in which specific parts of the brain talk to each other, or whether the scientists are actually measuring the way in which the brain reacts to deficits in one region. Perhaps other regions take over the functions of parts that are not working as they should.

The most important take home message is that we already have methods for stimulating and integrating the hemispheres of the brain. Few have so far been much used in ADD, but this information gives us a whole new way forward.

Attention Deficit Disorder and Executive Functioning

“Not to have control over the senses is like sailing in a rudderless ship, bound to break to pieces on coming in contact with the very first rock.”
–Mahatma Gandhi (Indian Nationalist and World Teacher, 1869-1948)

The Mahatma’s statement could apply to most people stuggling with attention deficit disorder.

There is an important idea in neurology and psychology called “Executive functioning.” This refers to our ability to be able to make and carry out plans, direct our attention, focus and also to control our internal states: our impulses and emotions and to be able to switch from one task to another. In other words it is a key part of our ability to self-regulate our behavior, mind and emotions.

Most evidence now indicates that executive function is mediated by the regions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It happens that these same regions are amongst those that seem to undergo beneficial changes in people who practice meditation.

For people interested in attention deficit disorder, I’d like to recommend a book, “Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults,” by Thomas E. Brown. In the book he encapsulates some up-to-date research indicating that one way of conceptualizing some of the difficulties faced by people with attention deficit disorder, is to break them down into the six major “domains” of executive functioning:

  1. Activation: Organizing, prioritizing and getting to school or work
  2. Focus: Tuning in, maintaining focus and shifting attention
  3. Effort: Sustaining effort, regulating alertness and adjusting processing speed
  4. Emotions: Modulating emotions and managing frustration
  5. Memory: Holding and manipulating information and retrieving memories
  6. Action: Monitoring and regulating actions

It can be very helpful for people to understand why they face the problems that they do, and how each may be amenable to a different type of help.

What we have done below is to re-draw and slightly simplify an extremely helpful diagram from Dr. Brown’s book, that will make it easier for you to see that kind of problems you or a loved one may be facing, and how treatment and coping strategies will be directed toward whichever of these is causing the most trouble in a person’s life.

(You can click on the diagram to see a large version of it.)

Apple Computers

I make no bones about it; I’m a Mac guy. Always have been, and probably always will be.

I don’t have any stock in the company, but I think that I’m on about my ninth or tenth Apple computer. Every time that I have to scuttle off to use a Window’s based machine I start getting antsy.

Apple has just had their Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

As a scientist and clinician very concerned about the epidemic of attentional and mood disorders in the population, something caught my eye. During Steve Jobs’ keynote preview, in which he highlighted some of the key features of the new Mac OS X “Leopard” operating system, there was more and more emphasis on developments designed to reduce the frustrations of working with a computer and ways to deal with the ever-increasing number of demands on our attention. There were a dozen new gizmos all designed to simplify and streamline our interactions with our computers, email and our Internet experience.

I don’t know whether this is the fruit of market research, or just a natural reaction by computer developers who are feeling themselves overwhelmed by a constant barrage on information. But whichever it is, I’m delighted to see this very welcome development.

Note to self, maybe I should send this note to Steve Jobs and say a big "thank you" on behalf of millons of users.


Here’s a study that came I under the radar, but is an important contribution to our on-going discussions about the perils of multi-tasking.

Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at my alma mater in London did a most interesting study funded by, of all people, Hewlett Packard.

It was a postal study carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and the main finding was that excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence.

Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls were fond to have a 10-point fall in their IQ. That would be more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. People who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind and the brain as losing a night’s sleep

More than half of the 1,100 respondents said they always responded to an email "immediately" or as soon as possible, with 21% admitting they would interrupt a meeting to do so.

Do we really need any more evidence to confirm the dangers of multitasking and constant partial attention?

I don’t think so.

Therefore I’m going to continue to publish tips and techniques for dealing with the barrage of information that threatens to drown us.

Even before the oceans begin to rise….

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