Richard G. Petty, MD

Acting On Your Dreams


“I learned this, at least by my experiment: that if you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavor to live the life which you have imagined, you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

You will put some things behind, you will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within you; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in your favor in a more liberal sense, and you will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty, nor weakness.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is what they should be. Now put foundations under them.”

–Henry David Thoreau (American Essayist and Philosopher, 1817-1862)   

Hormones, Addictions and Mood

People working with mental illness have been for years now been puzzled by two observations. The first is that mood disorders and schizophrenia follow quite different trajectories in men and women. Women tend to be more vulnerable to mood disorders and if they get schizophrenia it tends to be less severe and to have fewer “negative” symptoms, such as flat, blunted or constricted affect and emotion, poverty of speech and lack of motivation until after menopause. We have looked at some of the reasons for the different rates of mood disorder, in terms of relationships and social pressures, but there must also be a biological component. The second puzzle is that women are more vulnerable to addictive drugs in the days before they ovulate.

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may provide part of the answer to both puzzles.

Colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have conducted a fascinating imaging study that has shown that fluctuations in levels of sex hormones during women’s menstrual cycles affect the responsiveness of the reward systems in the brain.

The reward system circuits include the:

  • Prefrontal cortex, which has key roles in thinking, planning and in the control of our emotions and impulses
  • Amygdala, which is involved in rapid and intense emotional reactions and the formation of emotional memories
  • Hippocampus, which is involved in learning, memory and navigation
  • Striatum that relays signals from these areas to the cerebral cortex

It has been known for some time that neurons in the reward circuits are rich in estrogen and progesterone receptors. However, how these hormones influence reward circuit activity in humans has remained unclear.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to examine brain activity of 13 women and 13 men while they performed a task that involved simulated slot machines. The women were scanned while they did the task, both before and after ovulation.

When anticipating a reward, in the pre-ovulation phase of their menstrual cycles the women showed more activity in the amygdala and frontal cortex. When women were actually winning prizes, their reward systems were more active if they were in the phase of their menstrual cycle preceding ovulation. This phase of the cycle is dominated by estrogen, compared to postovulatory phase when estrogen and progesterone are both present. When winning, the main systems that became active were in the parts of the brain involved in pleasure and reward.

The researchers also demonstrated that the reward-related brain activity was directly linked to levels of sex hormones. Activity in the amygdala and hippocampus was in directly linked to estrogen levels, regardless of where a woman was in her cycle. When women won prizes during the post-ovulatory phase of the cycle, progesterone modulated the effect of estrogen on the reward circuit.

Men showed a different activation profile from women during both anticipation and delivery of rewards. Men had more activity in the striatum during anticipation compared with women. On the other hand, women had more activity in a frontal cortex when they won prizes.

This research could have a number of important implications. The most obvious is that it confirms what many women know already: they are more likely to take addictive substances or to engage in pleasurable – but perhaps impulsive or risky – behaviors just before they ovulate.

It is not difficult to imagine why this might have developed during evolution.

“Coming to terms with the rhythms of women’s lives means coming to terms with life itself, accepting the imperatives of the body rather than the imperatives of an artificial, man-made, perhaps transcendentally beautiful civilization. Emphasis on the male work-rhythm is an emphasis on infinite possibilities; emphasis on the female rhythms is an emphasis on a defined pattern, on limitation.”
–Margaret Mead (American Anthropologist and Writer, 1901-1978)

50 Tools for Better Writing

After decades as passive consumers we are becoming a community of writers.

I read quite a lot and I have found some excellent writing on the Internet.

I’d like to give a plug to the Poynter Institute. Though designed to help journalists, they give our loads of excellent advice that we can all use.

Roy Peter Clark from the Institute has posted 50 tools that can help you when you do any kinds of writing.

Alhtough each of us wiull find some more useful than others, I hope that you will find many of them to be valuable and interesting.

Links of 50 Writing Tool

  1. Writing Tool #1: Branch to the Right
  2. Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs
  3. Writing Tool #3: Beware of Adverbs
  4. Writing Tool #4: Period As a Stop Sign
  5. Writing Tool #5: Observe Word Territory
  6. Writing Tool #6: Play with Words
  7. Writing Tool #7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific
  8. Writing Tool #8: Seek Original Images
  9. Writing Tool #9: Prefer Simple to Technical
  10. Writing Tool #10: Recognize Your Story’s Roots
  11. Writing Tool #11 Back Off or Show Off
  12. Writing Tool #12: Control the Pace
  13. Writing Tool #13: Show and Tell
  14. Writing Tool #14: Interesting Names
  15. Writing Tool #15: Reveal Character Traits
  16. Writing Tool #16: Odd and Interesting Things
  17. Writing Tool #17: The Number of Elements
  18. Writing Tool #18: Internal Cliffhangers
  19. Writing Tool #19: Tune Your Voice
  20. Writing Tool #20: Narrative Opportunities
  21. Writing Tool #21: Quotes and Dialogue
  22. Writing Tool #22: Get Ready
  23. Writing Tool #23: Place Gold Coins Along the Path
  24. Writing Tool #24: Name the Big Parts
  25. Writing Tool #25: Repeat
  26. Writing Tool #26: Fear Not the Long Sentence
  27. Writing Tool #27: Riffing for Originality
  28. Writing Tool #28: Writing Cinematically
  29. Writing Tool #29: Report for Scenes
  30. Writing Tool #30: Write Endings to Lock the Box
  31. Writing Tool #31: Parallel Lines
  32. Writing Tool #32: Let It Flow
  33. Writing Tool #33: Rehearsal
  34. Writing Tool #34: Cut Big, Then Small
  35. Writing Tool #35: Use Punctuation
  36. Writing Tool #36: Write A Mission Statement for Your Story
  37. Writing Tool #37: Long Projects
  38. Writing Tool #38: Polish Your Jewels
  39. Writing Tool #39: The Voice of Verbs
  40. Writing Tool #40: The Broken Line
  41. Writing Tool #41: X-Ray Reading
  42. Writing Tool #42: Paragraphs
  43. Writing Tool #43: Self-criticism
  44. Writing Tool #44: Save String
  45. Writing Tool #45: Foreshadow
  46. Writing Tool #46: Storytellers, Start Your Engines
  47. Writing Tool #47: Collaboration
  48. Writing Tool #48: Create An Editing Support Group
  49. Writing Tool #49: Learn from Criticism
  50. Writing Tool #50: The Writing Process

Procrastination and Perfectionism

Regular readers will know that I am convinced that we are now in a fourth phase of the personal development movement, in which it is now incumbent on writers and speakers to support their propositions and suggestions with empirical data. And if there is no data, then they need to collect some.

There is an idea that has launched a thousand self-help books, websites and seminars: that perfectionism is the primary cause of procrastination. There was a time when I was the Prince of Procastinators. After my “recovery” I became an expert on helping others overcome the problem. So I’ve done a lot of research on procrastination. As I was preparing this posting I looked at over a dozen books and two dozen websites, and almost every one of them had “perfectionism” as a or the cause of procrastination.

But is it true?

The answer is “No.”

Professor Piers Steel from the University of Calgary Haskayne School of Business has published an important paper in the current issue of the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin.

The paper confirms some things that we have always suspected, for instance that most people’s New Year’s resolutions are doomed to failure, but demolishes the idea perfectionism is the root of procrastination.

The evidence from this work – which is the fruit of ten years of research – is that procrastinators have less confidence in themselves and a lower expectancy that they can actually complete a task. By contrast, perfectionists procrastinate less, but they worry about it more.

These are the main predictors of procrastination:

  1. Low levels of self-confidence
  2. Low expectancy of being able to complete a task
  3. Being task averse
  4. Impulsivity
  5. Distractibility
  6. Motivation to complete the task

The paper also makes the point that not all delays are procrastination: the key factor is that a person must believe that it would be better to start working on given tasks immediately, but still not start work on it.

It is said that 95% of people procrastinate at some time in their lives and 15-20% are chronic procrastinators.

Amazingly, there is a mathematical formula that predicts procrastination. Steel calls this Temporal Motivational Theory, which takes into account the key factors such as the expectancy a person has of succeeding with a given task (E), the value of completing the task (V), the desirability of the task (Utility), its immediacy or availability (Ã) and the person’s sensitivity to delay (D).

This is the magic formula: Utility = E x V/ (Ã) D

I am impressed by this work, but it is also supremely practical, because it helps point us at appropriate targets to treat our own tendency to procrastinate.

There is also something else that is very important. Many of us believe from our own experience that perfectionism is indeed the root of our own procrastination. For a long time I thought so myself. But research like his helps us to re-analyze our understanding of ourselves. We all begin by using folk psychology to explain our behavior and the behaviors of other people. The trouble is that those explanations are often wrong. Research like this can be enormously helpful as we grow and develop as individuals.

It remains unclear why some people may be more prone to procrastination, but some evidence suggests it may be genetic. It may also be more common in people with anxiety disorders or attention deficit disorder.

You may also be interested to evaluate your own tendency to procrastinate. There is a terrific resource here.

“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”

–Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (Russian Writer, 1818-1883)

“The wise does at once what the fool does at last.”

–Baltasar Gracián (Spanish Jesuit Philosopher and Writer, 1601-1658)

“Procrastination is opportunity’s assassin.”
–Victor Kiam (American Businessman and Former CEO of Remington, 1926-2001)

“I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”
— Rabindranath Tagore

(Indian Poet, Playwright, Essayist, Painter and, in 1913, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1861-1941)

A Rainy Day Question

“Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”—Susan Ertz (a.k.a. J.R. McCrindle, Anglo-American Novelist, 1894-1985)
I was reminded of this quip while reading some new material about the progress being made in aging research. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, biologist Shripad Tuljapurkar who holds the Dean and Virginia Morrison Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University highlighted some of the issues surrounding the extension of human life-span. This is something that I have been tracking closely for over twenty years, since it was shown that the cells of people with diabetes mellitus age more quickly when placed in tissue culture, even if they are away from the high glucose of the diabetic environment. There is a link between premature aging and diabetes.

It is widely known in the scientific community that there has been a great deal of progress on aging research, much of it done behind the closed doors of pharmaceutical companies. According to Professor Tuljapurkar between 2010 and 2030, the modal, or most common, age of death will increase by 20 years if anti-aging therapies come into widespread use. This projected increase is based on some sophisticated modeling, and reflects a life-span growth rate that is five times faster than the current rate. If accurate, this would increase the modal age of death in industrialized countries such as the United States from roughly 80 years to 100.

So back to the question: if you suddenly discovered that you were going to have an extra thirty years of healthy life, what would you do with it?

I really do suggest that you start thinking about that. Assuming that you have enough money to live a decent life, what would you do with that extra twenty years? Would you:

1. Enjoy spending more time with younger members of the family?

2. Learn some new skills?

3. Make new friends?

4. Travel?

5. Read those books you always meant to?

6. Become more involved in spiritual pursuits?

7. Find a new way of serving others?

    8. Sit in front of the television?

What plans or aspirations do you have that you want to add to this list?

But then I have another question for you: if your answers included any of the points from 1-7, why not do them right now? What exactly is stopping you from doing all those things today?

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