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Tales of the unexpected: 10 bad habits that sometimes do us good (Part 2)

In my previous blog I looked at five bad habits that might actually have benefits for psychological and/or physical wellbeing. Here are the next five:

(6) Swearing helps reduce pain and relieve work stress

Although swearing has become increasingly commonplace, most people would agree it is a bad habit. However, research has shown that swearing can help alleviate pain. In an experimental study led by Dr. Richard Stephens (at Keele University, UK) in the journal Neuroreport, results showed that individuals that swore (compared to individuals that didn’t) could endure the pain of putting their hand in a bucket of ice-cold water nearly 50% longer (nearly two minutes for those that swore compared to one minute 15 seconds for those that said a neutral non-swearword instead). Dr. Stephens thought of the idea for doing the study after accidentally hitting his thumb with a hammer while building a garden shed and realizing that simultaneous swearing appeared to help reduce the pain. The researchers speculated that swearing might trigger our natural ‘fight-or-flight’ response by downplaying a weakness or threat in order to deal with it. However, there appears to be a caveat. Swearing may only be effective in helping reduce pain if it is a casual habit. Dr. Stephens cautioned that swearing is emotional language but if individuals overuse it, swearing loses its emotional attachment, and is less likely to help alleviate pain. Research published in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal by Professor Yehuda Baruch (University of East Anglia, UK) found that regular use of swearing expressed and reinforced solidarity among staff members. The acts of profanity enabled employees to express their feelings, such as frustration, and develop social relationships.

(7) Being messy helps boost creativity

Being messy – whether it’s a messy work desk or a messy bedroom – has often perceived as a sign of being disorganized. However, recent American research published in the journal Psychological Science by Dr. Kathleen Vohs and colleagues (at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota) suggests that being messy can boost creativity. Vohs and her team carried out a number of experiments and published them in a paper entitled ‘Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity’. In one of the experiments, 48 participants were assigned to either a messy or tidy room. Participants were asked to think up as many uses for Ping-Pong balls, and to write down. Independent judges then rated the participants’ answers for degree of creativity. Results showed that participants in both tidy and messy rooms produced the same number of ideas, but those generating ideas in the messy room were more creative. Those in the messy room were (on average) 28% more creative and were five times more likely to produce “highly creative” ideas. Dr. Vohs concluded that messiness and creativity are very strongly correlated, and that “while cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow”.

(8) Having a lie-in helps reduce heart attacks and strokes

While the old proverb that ‘the early bird catches the worm’ might be true, the old saying ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wise’ may not be. According to Dr. Mayuko Kadono, a Japanese physician at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, getting up too early in the morning may have serious health consequences. Kadono has led a number of studies on sleep and its relationship with health. In one of his studies of 3,017 healthy adults, it was reported that those individuals getting up before 5 a.m. and engaging in vigorous exercise have a 1.7 times greater risk of high blood pressure and were twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease as those who got up two to three hours later. The number of hours slept did not make a difference, only the time of getting up. Dr. Kadono said the results were “contrary to the commonly held belief that early birds are in better health. We need to find what the causes of this are, and whether exercising after waking early is beneficial”. A study conducted by American researchers at Stanford University have reported that the most restorative sleep occurs between 2:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. More general research has found that getting enough sleep can help individuals’ reduce their stress and boost their memory. In short, it’s better to wake up when your body feels ready to get up (i.e., aligning with your body’s natural circadian rhythm) rather than waking up because your alarm clock has gone off.

(9) Gossiping helps friendships and relieves stress

Gossiping is often perceived as a malicious and untrustworthy behaviour but most individuals appear to like gossiping – particularly if it is about the misfortunes of someone else. One of the reasons we like to hear about other people’s problems is that it makes us feel better about ourselves. However, there is also a growing amount of psychological research showing that gossiping may actually have positive benefits. Gossiping is important in helping us bond with other people, promoting co-operation, forming friendships, and learning about cultural norms. These consequences of gossip make us feel good, and when we feel good it helps us relieve stress, tension, and anxiety. In a recent American study published in the journal Psychological Science by Dr. Matthew Feinberg (Stanford University) and colleagues, it was reported that gossip and ostracism can have positive effects within group situations. According to Feinberg, “groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, [the] findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society”. The evolutionary psychologist Dr. Robin Dunbar (University of Oxford, UK) notes that because language is principally used for the exchange of social information and that such topics are so overwhelmingly important, he concludes that “gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible”.

(10) Burping and farting help relieve bloating and stomach pain

Burping and farting may well be viewed as bad habits, but both are a normal part of the body digestion process, both acts help release unwanted gas that builds up inside the stomach, and both are vital for good gastric health. Farting is particularly beneficial for relieving bloating and preventing oneself from breaking wind can be incredibly painful. Dr Nick Read, a British consultant gastroenterologist warns “If you don’t belch and the gas stays on the stomach, this can cause the valve that separates the gullet and the stomach to relax, allowing stomach acid to splash up into the gullet, triggering heartburn”. In relation to farting he added “We evacuate wind for a reason – it forms in the bowel and we need to get rid of it. Holding it back can also trigger pain. A colleague used to call it Metropolitan Railway Syndrome – all these commuters suffered pain and bloating because they were too embarrassed to break wind on public transport”. All this leads to the conclusion that it’s the act of not burping or farting that should be considered bad habits. Is I was often told by one of my aunts: “It’s better out than in”. And never has a truer word been spoken.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Baruch, Y., & Jenkins, S. (2007). Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: When anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 28(6), 492-507.

Dunbar, R.I. (2004). Gossip in evolutionary perspective. Review of General Psychology, 8(2), 100-110.

Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Schultz, M. (2014). Gossip and ostracism promote cooperation in groups. Psychological Science, 25, 656-664.

Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Stellar, J., & Keltner, D. (2012). The virtues of gossip: reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1015-1030.

Matsuyama, K. (2011). Early birds linked to higher cardiovascular risk, study says. Bloomberg News. October 20. Located at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-10-20/early-birds-linked-to-higher-cardiovascular-risk-study-says

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport, 20, 1056-1060.

Vohs, K.D. (2013). It’s not ‘mess’. It’s creativity. New York Times, September 13. Located at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/opinion/sunday/its-not-mess-its-creativity.html?_r=0

Vohs, K.D., Redden, J.P., & Rahinel, R. (2013). Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity. Psychological Science, 24, 1860-1867.

Wighton, K. (2013). From biting your nails to burping and even eating in bed: The bad habits that can be GOOD for you! Daily Mail, April 8. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2305953/Bad-habits-From-biting-nails-burping-eating-bed-The-bad-habits-GOOD-you.html

A pining for dining: A brief overview of Gourmand Syndrome

In 2005, an article in the May 8th issue of the New York Times magazine reported the case of an unnamed European political journalist who had a stroke that caused some damage to the right frontal lobe in his brain. The journalist made a full recovery but experienced an unexpected side effect – he developed an unusual passion for gourmet food (that he didn’t have prior to his stroke).  He capitalized on his strange new behaviour and became a food columnist. Similarly, a 2011 article in the Huffington Post reported the story of Kevin Pearce, a snowboarder who sustained right hemispheric brain damage following an accident that nearly killed him. Waking up from a coma he developed a craving for basil pesto (something that he never did prior to his accident). Both of these cases are examples of a rare disorder that has been named Gourmand Syndrome, a strange behaviour first written about (clinically and academically) in the mid-1990s. Gourmand Syndrome basically comprises individuals becoming totally preoccupied and obsessed with food and ‘fine dining’.

This rare (and benign) condition only seems to occur in people who have sustained brain injuries involving the right frontal lobe and was first described (and named) by neuropsychologist Dr. Marianne Regard and neurologist Dr. Theodor Landis in a 1997 issue of the journal Neurology (one of only two empirical papers on the topic). The authors noted that hyper-orality is part of other conditions such as the Kluver-Bucy syndrome that occurs in patients with bilateral mesial temporal lesions (and which I examined in a previous blog).

Regard and Landid described the cases of two individuals who both had partial damage to the right anterior cerebral hemisphere of the brain. The first case was the political journalist briefly mentioned at the start of this article. He became totally preoccupied with gourmet food and continued after he had been discharged from hospital. The second case that Regard and Landis wrote about was a businessman who (following a stroke) also developed a passion for gourmet food. However, his preoccupation with gourmet food was part of a wider disturbance of impulse control as he also made repeated sexual advances towards the female nursing staff at the hospital he was in. (Interestingly, a later 2003 study by Regard and Landis on 21 pathological gamblers – and published in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neuropsychology – reported that 38% of them [n=8] were reported to have Gourmand Syndrome, again suggesting that these impulsive behaviours are highly inter-linked).

Having named this type of behaviour as Gourmand Sydrome, Regard and Landis then conducted a prospective study examining the frequency and the clinical and anatomical correlates of the syndrome. Over a three-year period, and using a self-constructed checklist, they carried out 723 neuropsychological examinations of patients with known (or strongly suspected) cerebral lesions. The specific criteria for Gourmand syndrome were: (i) the presence of a significant change in a person’s eating habits (i.e. preoccupation with the preparation and eating of fine-quality food), (ii) the onset of which was associated with a single cerebral lesion in the absence of other medical or social conditions, and (iii) previous eating disorders; or other neurological or psychiatric illness. A total of 36 people fulfilled the criteria for Gourmand Syndrome (5%).

Of those identified fulfilling the three criteria, 94% of them (n=34) appeared to have right hemisphere damage in the brain (in particular, the right anterior part of the brain involving basal ganglia, cortical areas, and limbic structures). Most of the individuals’ symptoms were caused by tumours (although there were other causes including focal seizures, head trauma [with focal concussion], haemorrhage, and cerebrovascular accidents). The authors concluded that:

“Most patients with the ‘gourmand syndrome’ had clinical and anatomical evidence of a unilateral right-sided lesion, mainly involving anterior cortico-limbicregions. The strong clinical-anatomical correlation suggests that gourmand eating can represent a neurological sign of diagnostic value. The eating behavior does not correspond to any known category of eating disorders. At most, it could be classified as a benign, non-disabling form of hyperphagia, but with a specific preference for fine food”

A later case study of Gourmand Syndrome by Dr. Mary Kurian and her Swiss colleagues was published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior. They reported the case of a 10-year-old boy with epilepsy (and who had hemispheric brain damage (i.e., “right temporoparietal hemorrhagic lesion”). As with previous adult cases, he developed Gourmand Syndrome and experienced a significant change in his eating habits, or as the authors put it, an “abnormal preoccupation with the preparation and eating of fine-quality food…without any previous history of eating disorders or psychiatric illness”. More specifically, the boy’s parent’s noticed that he began to avoid eating at fast-food restaurants and would only eat or cook the finest foods. The authors argued that their case study confirmed previous observations relating to the importance of the right cerebral hemisphere in disturbed eating habits, not just in Gourmand Syndrome but eating disorders such as anorexia and obesity.

Both of the published empirical papers noted that Gourmand Syndrome includes an obsessive component along with other behavioural consequences typically associated with addiction (e.g., cravings, preoccupation, salience, etc.). They also notes that one-third of the 36 patients identified in their prospective study had symptoms of mania (e.g., aggression, diminished impulse control, disinhibition, affective lability). In recent a review of Gourmand Syndrome by trainee psychiatrist Alexandros Chatziagorakis in the Neuropsychiatry News concluded that:

“Owing to the rarity of further articles and reports of Gourmand syndrome, its diagnostic significance is yet to be proven. It would be worth using Regard [and] Landis checklist during neuropsychological assessment of neurological patients to establish its frequency and its clinical and anatomical correlates. At the same time, it would be worth performing a psychiatric assessment to determine whether Gourmand syndrome presents in the context of an already defined psychiatric syndrome such as mania. This will tell us whether Gourmand syndrome has indeed a diagnostic value as a neurological or even neuropsychiatric sign”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chatziagorakis, A. (2012). Gourmand Syndrome. Neuropsychiatry News, 5 (Spring), 23-24.

Holt, T. (2005). Of two minds. New York Times (Magazine), May 8. Located at: http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/the_way_we_live_now_-_of_two_minds.pdf

Huffington Post (2011). The Gourmand Syndrome: Brain Damage Can Trigger Food Obsession, Huffington Post, October 9. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/11/the-gourmand-syndrome-food-obsession_n_894629.html

Kurian, M., Schmitt-Mechelke, T., Korff, C., Delavelle, J., Landis, T. & Seeck, M. (2008). “Gourmand syndrome” in a child with pharmacoresistant epilepsy. Epilepsy and Behavior, 13, 413-415.

Regard, M., Knoch, D., Gütling, E. & Landis, T (2003). Brain damage and addictive behavior: A neuropsychological and electroencephalogram investigation with pathologic gamblers. Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology, 16, 47-53.

Regard, M. & Landis, T (1997). ‘Gourmand syndrome’: Eating passion associated with right anterior lesions. Neurology, 48, 1185-1190.

Uher, R. & Treasure, J. (2005). Brain lesions and eating disorders. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 76, 852–7.

Freak speak or lingo star? A beginner’s guide to Foreign Accent Syndrome‬

Today’s Daily Telegraph featured the story of Englishman Alun Morgan who following a stroke now speaks fluent Welsh. Doctors diagnosed the 81-year old Mr Morgan with aphasia, a form of brain damage that causes a shift in the brain’s language centre. Mr Morgan is now being taught to speak English again.

Although often treated as a joke, ‘Foreign Accent Syndrome’ (FAS) is a very rare speech disorder but now medically recognized condition. FAS is typically characterized by the (sometimes sudden) appearance of a new speaking accent, identifiably different from the person’s native language. Prior exposure and knowledge to the newly acquired accent is not needed for it to occur and it is usually perceived as foreign or dialectical by fellow natives and, usually, by the person themselves. Published case studies have reported that it is impossible to fake FAS. However, the FAS sufferers don’t suddenly acquire a foreign language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.) just the accent (although the Wikipedia entry on FAS made reference to a news report that coming out of a coma, a 13-year old Croatian girl allegedly gained the ability to speak fluent German). However, as far I am aware, there are no proven cases where someone with improved their language skills following the development of FAS.

FAS typically occurs following a traumatic brain injury (e.g., head trauma, stroke, cerebral haemorrhage) although other conditions (such as multiple sclerosis) have also led to the development of FAS. Those with FAS often suffer in other ways including poor concentration span, poor memory, and feelings related to loss of identity. Research examining the brain structures of those with FAS have highlighted there are commonalities in relation to specific parts of the brain that are (unsurprisingly areas that control various language functions). More recently, there is growing empirical evidence that the cerebellum (which controls motor function) appears to be critical in the development of some cases of FAS. For instance, Dr. D.A. Cohen and his colleagues published a case study in a 2008 issue of the journal Neurology and concluded that their case demonstrated “that abnormal right cerebellar activity can play a causal role in perpetuating the FAS rather than being merely an epiphenomenon of damage to the reciprocally connected left hemisphere”. A series of papers published by a team led by Dr. P. Mariën have all conformed the role of the cerebellum in the acquisition of FAS (Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 2006; Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 2007; Cortex, 2009).

The disorder was first described over 100 years ago (in 1907) by Dr. Pierre Marie (a French neurologist). This was followed by a Czech case study published in German by Dr. A Pick in 1919. (Unfortunately, these first two cases were not written in English so I have been unable to gain any details of either of the two cases described)

The first published case study written in English is believed to be one dating back to 1947 by the neurologist Dr. Monrad-Krohn. He described the case of a 30-year old female (Astrid L) from Norway who was hit on the head by shrapnel during a German air raid on Oslo in 1941. The injury led to aphasia, hemiplegia, and seizure disorder. This caused speech problems but within a year of the injury, the woman’s speech began to improve but it was different to how she had spoken before her head injury. Monrad-Krohn described how the woman’s ‘rhythm and melody’ of her voice had dramatically altered and that she sounded like she had a foreign (German sounding) accent (even though she had never travelled outside of Norway). Consequently, she was shunned and/or ridiculed by many of her native Norwegians. Since these three early published case studies, around 60 cases of FAS have been documented worldwide including people who went from speaking British to French, American to British, Japanese to Korean, and Spanish to Hungarian. A 2006 article by Diane Garst and William Katz highlighted the common features of FAS. The ‘classic’ characteristics are:

  • Monolingual patient is frequently mistaken for being a non-native speaker.
  • Speech changes are not triggered by psychiatric or psychological problems.
  • Idiosyncratic speech errors contribute to appearance of a cohesive ‘accent’
  • Patient is aware of accent and unhappy about it.
  • Voicing changes occur in both prosody (syllable-by-syllable timing, and abnormal pitch patterns) and segmentals (consonant distortions, substitutions, deletions; frequent problems with alveolar tap/flap; omplex or unusual vowel substitutions)

Writing in a 2007 issue of the Annals of General Psychiatry, Stéphane Poulin and colleagues noted that:

Different explanations of the functional origin of FAS have been suggested, one of the more frequent being impaired access to verbal-motor patterns or a mild form of apraxia of speech. Clinical manifestations are heterogeneous among FAS patients but usually include segmental (e.g., changes in vowel length and tenseness) and prosodic (e.g., inappropriate word and sentence stress) deficits”.

A 2005 paper in the journal European Neurology by Edwards, Patel and Pople examined 35 case published case studies of FAS. Their analysis reported that the majority (n=26) of those with FAS resulted from cerebral infarct. The remainder resulted from head injury (n=6), multiple sclerosis (n=2) and psychosis (n=1). In one-third of the cases (34%), the person with FAS also had agrammatism (i.e., a form of expressive aphasia that refers to the inability to speak in a grammatically correct way). As Stéphane Poulin and colleagues note:

“In spontaneous speech, agrammatic patients speak non-fluently and produce telegraphic speech. They mainly use content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and tend to omit or substitute function words (prepositions, articles and auxiliaries) as well as inflections or other grammatical morphemes. Among reported FAS cases, few brain imaging studies have been done and there is no consensus regarding the precise region responsible for its occurrence. Neuroanatomically, the vast majority of the lesions described were in the dominant hemisphere and in most cases involved regions typically associated with Broca’s aphasia. Subcortical structures seem to be consistently affected”.

Thanks to the internet and broadcast media, there are many cases of FAS that have not been reported in the academic and clinical literature. I’ll leave you with a few you can check out yourself. Just click on each name to get the details.

  • Tiffany Roberts: In 1999, 57-year old American woman Tiffany Roberts (from Indiana) had a stroke and developed an English accent.
  • Linda Walker: In 2006, a 60-year old British woman with a Geordie accent (from Newcastle) had a stroke and developed a strange accent (described as Jamaican, Italian, French Canadian and Slovak).
  • Rajesh: In 2007, a 14-year old Indian boy (from Uttar Pradesh) developed a broken American accent following corporal punishment from his father.
  • Cindy Lou Romberg: In 2007, a middle aged American woman Cindy Lou Romberg (from Port Angeles, Washington) developed an English speaking Russian/German/French-sounding accent following her neck being adjusted by a chiropractor (although she had suffered a brain injury in a car crash back in 1991).
  • Julie Frazier: In 2008, a 39-year old American woman Julie Frazier (from Fort Wayne, Indiana) developed a British-Russian accent following a severe hemiplegic migraine (the first such case involving migraine as the trigger episode).
  • Sarah Colwill: In 2010, a 35-year old British woman Sarah Colwill (from Devon) developed a Chinese accent following an extreme migraine.
  • Kay Russell: In 2010, a 49-year old British woman Kay Russell (from Gloucestershire) developed a French/Russian/Eastern European accent following a migraine.
  • Karen Butler: In 2011, a middle-aged American woman Karen Butler (from Newport, Oregon) developed an Irish/Eastern European accent following oral surgery.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ardila, A. Rosselli, M., & O. Ardila. (1988) Foreign accent: an aphasic epiphonomenon? Aphasiology, 2,5, 493-499.

Aronson, A.E. (1990). Dysprosody of pseudo-foreign dialect. In Aronson, A.E. (Ed.), (2nd ed.) Clinical Voice Disorders  (pp. 119-124) New York: Thieme-Stratton.

Berthier, M., Ruiz, A., Massone, M., Starkstein, S., & R. Leiguarda. (1991). Foreign accent syndrome: behavioural and anatomical findings in recovered and non-recovered patients. Aphasiology, 5, 129-147.

Blumstein, S.E., Alexander, M.P., Ryalls, J.H., & W. Katz. (1987). On the nature of the foreign accent syndrome: A case study. Brain and Language, 31,215-244.

Coelho, C.A., & Robb, M.P. (2001). Acoustic analysis of Foreign Accent Syndrome: An examination of three explanatory models. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology, 9, 227-242.

Cohen, D.A., Kurowski, K., Steven, M.S., Blumstein, S.E. & Pascual-Leone, A. (2008). Paradoxical facilitation: the resolution of foreign accent syndrome after cerebellar stroke. Neurology, 73, 566-567.

Edwards, R.J., Patel, N.K. & Pople, I.K. (2005). Foreign accent following brain injury: syndrome or epiphenomenon? European Neurology, 53, 87-91.

Garst, D. & Katz, W. (2006). Foreign Accent Syndrome. The ASHA Leader, August 15.

Marie P. (1907). Presentation de malades atteints d’anarthrie par lesion de l’hemisphere gauche du cerveau. Bulletins et Memoires Societe Medicale des Hopitaux de Paris, 1, 158–160.

Mariën P., Verhoeven J. (2007). Cerebellar involvement in motor speech planning: some further evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 59, 210-217.

Mariën P., Verhoeven J., Engelborghs, S., Rooker, S., Pickut, B. A., De Deyn, P.P. (2006). A role for the cerebellum in motor speech planning: evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 108, 518-522.

Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Wackenier, P., Engelborghs, S. & De Deyn, P.P. (2009). Foreign accent syndrome as a developmental motor speech disorder. Cortex, 45, 870–878.

Moen, I. (2000). Foreign accent syndrome: A review of contemporary explanations. Aphasiology, 14, 5-15.

Monrad-Krohn, G.H. (1947). Dysprosody or altered “melody of language.” Brain, 70, 405-415.

Pick, A. (1919). Über Änderungen des Sprachcharakters als Begleiterscheinung aphasicher Störungen. Zeitschrift für gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie, 45, 230–241.