AI, Depression and Life’s Purpose – NeuroPsych Now: Ep 1
My passion for the last decade has been to understand the mind. The mind is an amazing mystery. Over the years, I’ve studied psychology, behaviourism and even some neuroscience.
Something new is discovered every day and my sense of wonder grows. Our minds and brains are incredible in their complexity and yet they are sometimes beautifully simple.
In this series I want to explore what is happening in the world of neuroscience and psychology now.
New discoveries show us new ways of understanding ourselves and others every day.
Why are some people depressed and others happy? Is there a reason why those who meditate feel less pain than others? Can we reasonably understand the essence of someone’s being through diagnosis, therapeutic intervention or even the use of artificial intelligence (AI)?
Every answer we get simply leads us tonmore questions. We hope that one day we may have a unified understanding of the mind but, as in all things, it is the journey to that conclusion which excites people.
So, what’s going on in neuroscience and psychology right now?
- Researchers have developed an AI system which can accurately predict whether or not someone suffers from depression 77% of the time;
- People who are naturally mindful are less susceptible to pain, even if they have never practised meditation;
- Scientists may have find humanity’s core purpose;
- Swimming in open water has cured a woman of her depression
- Psychologists have finally reclaimed personality typing from the grasps of the self-help industry, finding that there are four main personality types
Let’s explore each of these stories and find out what’s going on in our brains today.
AI Can Detect Depression
Machine learning is a field of computer science which allows machines to “learn” using statistical techniques without explicit programming. It has been found to be useful in past research as a diagnostic tool.
When programmed to analyse specific questions relating to diagnoses, a computer program can “learn” how to detect depression in auditory and text speech. It learns to detect certain words or groups of words that correlate with a depression diagnosis. Over time it becomes more and more accurate.
However, its adherence to strict questions is ultimately its biggest weakness. It can’t be deployed into regular conversation with a therapist or clinician and their patient.
During a therapeutic intervention, there will always be some deviation away from traditional structuring because of the individual nature of each situation. When there is deviation, the programs ability to accurately diagnose the patient drops significantly.
A new AI system moves away from that paradigm. MIT researchers instead programmed it to analyse speech patterns indicative of depression and, over time, found it to be 77% accurate in its conclusions.
So, How Is This Possible?
First, it learned in the traditional method of Q&A as previous programs did. Once it had a solid grasp of the patterns that it was meant to be looking for it learned how to apply it to new subjects completely context free. This meant that specific questions didn’t need to be asked.
This is far more effective as there are much fewer constraints. It could potentially be deployed into regular conversation with a doctor and patient as a diagnostic tool. Maybe it could even be utilised in therapeutic hotlines or suicide prevention call centres to ensure that the right person gets the right help at the right time.
This AI program is useful for those who may not have ready access to a doctor or therapist. It could even be useful for those who don’t know that they have a problem. Many people with depressive or anxiety disorders do not realise what they are suffering from. Instead, they assume that living with the symptoms is simply their life.
It is important to realise that this was only a pilot study. The next step is to test it on a larger sample group and to discover exactly what data the program was picking up on.
One of the reasons why AI and machine learning is so fascinating is because it can show us entirely new ways of thinking about things. Maybe this AI program will show us an entirely new approach to detecting depression.
Rest assured, I will be keeping a careful eye on this research in the future.
Naturally Mindful People Feel Less Pain
Do you find it easy to live in the present moment? Can you easily guide your attention back to the here and now?
If you answered yes, then you probably have a naturally high pain resistance.
In a recent study, psychologists found that people with a naturally mindful disposition are generally more resistant to pain, even when they had never actually practised meditation.
76 healthy volunteers who had never practised meditation before were exposed to painful heat whilst having their brains scanned. They showed much less activation in the brain regions which are associated with pain.
It has long been known that mindfulness and meditation is an effective form of pain resistance. This study demonstrates that this is an entirely natural phenomenon that occurs even when one has no training in meditation.
It raises an interesting questions for those who are sceptical of the benefits of meditation. If pain can be significantly reduced by those who are naturally mindful, what can mindfulness meditation do when one has been trained?
Will we ever be able to completely eliminate pain?
Pain is a natural response to something having gone wrong in your body or mind. It is your brain asking for attention. Without pain, we could easily walk around with a life threatening issue and never even realise. However, we can learn how to better control pain so that it does not completely incapacitate us when it strikes.
Have Scientists Found Our Life’s Purpose?
In an interesting article, it has been suggested that our core purpose in life may simply be finding meaning in our own lives.
From the time that we are born, we are attempting to find meaning in everything.
I would imagine everyone reading this article has experienced the phenomenon of a young child repeatedly asking why, no matter how many reasonable answers are given. We are meaning finding machines.
If we did not have an innate desire to learn why things are the way that they are, we would not have science, mathematics or any academic ventures at all.
Humanity’s insatiable curiosity has led to incredible discoveries. Could it be that searching for why we are even alive is our core purpose itself?
It is our desire to make sense of the world that seems to place us as separate from other animals. Most are perfectly content to live as they are. We strive to be more.
Everyone from Katy Perry to Elon Musk wants to understand how the world works. In knowing how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, we could perhaps find the answers to everything.
It does beg the question though, if we were to finally make meaning of everything, then what would be our purpose?
Maybe it would be using those answers to shape a better world or at least a better existence.
For now, I find this to be a reasonable answer to the question of what humanity’s purpose is.
Can Open Water Swimming Cure Depression?
In a fascinating case study from the University of Portsmouth, researchers have followed the life of a woman who suffered from major depressive disorder and severe anxiety. Seeking for an alternative for traditional drug therapy, she began to swim in open water on a regular basis.
Due to this regular activity, she was able to reduce her medication to the point where she is now completely drug free and manages her symptoms without drug intervention.
Could this be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety?
Yes and no.
Firstly, this was just a case study of a single individual. It has no ecological validity as she is literally one person in 7.4 billion. Secondly, we have no idea what other factors may have affected her reduction in symptoms.
With that in mind though, I am inclined to accept the conclusion that this can be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety.
Why Does It Work?
Outdoor exercise has long been associated with stress reduction. Furthermore, cold water exposure can also work as a non-therapeutic or non-medicinal intervention.
When immersed in cold water, the body immediately activates a stress response. However, your body cannot maintain that kind of stress peak for too long and, over time, it calms down.
Frequent exposure causes the body to learn quicker how to acclimate to the stress response and calm down faster. This reduction then begins to get carried over to other stressful situations, therefore causing an overall reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms.
One of the things which I did to relieve my own symptoms of depression and anxiety was switching to taking cold showers in the morning. Not only did it wake up me up far more efficiently than a cup of coffee, it also began to reteach my body how to respond to stress. Now, I can stand under cold water with only a slight spike of panic before calming myself fairly quickly.
Though I could not say to how much of an extent this helped me, I can certainly conclude that it did help enormously.
The Real Science of Personality
I was genuinely surprised to see how widespread this research study got in both mainstream and non-traditional news, though realistically I shouldn’t have been.
The idea of personality typing has been popular for decades. It is rare for a week to go by when I don’t see some kind of sham personality test which states that it can tell your personality from your star sign, what movie characters you identify with or whether or not you eat broccoli. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Buzzfeed.)
Why Is Personality Important?
Personality is so interesting because so much of our lives come down to personality. Genetics plays a large role, but that can’t really be controlled – yet. Personality, on the other hand, gives us a way to practically alter our futures or provide an excuse for why we do the things that we do (“Oh, it’s just my personality”).
However, accurate personality typing is far too often associated with sham “science” and the self-help industry. This study is beginning to reclaim some territory and demonstrates that personality can be largely categorised.
Boasting a massive experimental group of 1.5 million participants, personality is being whittled down to a mere four categories: average, reserved, role models and self-centred.
Each of these categories hold varying degrees of the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. For example, the reserved categories are likely higher in neuroticism than role models who are likely higher in extroversion than the previous.
There is still a lot of research to be done on this topic. However, it does begin to provide the framework for a tool which could be widely used for therapeutic intervention, hiring decisions and even, better dating website algorithms.
This month has provided some incredible insights into the mind and our brains. We are getting closer every day to a complete understanding of what makes us who we are. Maybe one day we will be able to use AI to diagnose any mental condition in the stages of its infancy, making it easier to treat the billions who suffer from mental conditions. Perhaps new science of personality typing will make it that much easier for someone to find a compatible mate.
Does science hold the answers for everything? Maybe not, but as meaning-making machines, we will continue to search until we have found that answer too.
Thanks for reading.
If you want to know where I get my news on neuroscience and psychology, visit Neuroscience News.