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Conspirators in their own memory loss – findings from 53 patients with “psychogenic amnesia”

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27915675_5e0d733aae_b.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

A person diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia complains of serious memory problems, sometimes even forgetting who they are, without there being any apparent physical reason for their symptoms – in other words, their condition seems to be purely psychological.

It’s a fascinating, controversial diagnosis with roots dating back to Freud’s, Breuer’s and Charcot’s ideas about hysteria and how emotional problems sometimes manifest in dramatic physical ways. Today, some experts doubt that psychogenic amnesia is a real phenomenon, reasoning that there is either an undetected physical cause or the patient is fabricating their memory symptoms.

In a new paper in Brain, a team of British neuropsychologists have reported their findings from a study of 53 patients diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia – one of the largest ever studies of its kind. Michael Kopelman at Kings College, London, and his colleagues conclude that the prognosis (that is, the scope and speed of recovery) for psychogenic amnesia is better than previously realised and that there appear to be four main categories of the condition.

The patients with psychogenic amnesia were all patients at St Thomas’s Hospital in London between 1990 and 2008, and the researchers compared their memory functioning and clinical history with 21 patients with memory disorders with a known physical cause (such as early stage Alzheimer’s or hypoxia), and 14 healthy volunteers.

The patients with psychogenic amnesia fell into four distinct categories. There were those who were in a fugue state, who had been wandering lost for days with no recollection of who they are or their past life. “I had a breakdown,” said one patient. “My brain decided to close down. I felt as if placed into a grown-up body without knowing the history of the body.”

Upon neurological examination, the fugue patients appeared healthy, and their state usually returned to normal within four weeks, though usually sooner, and sometimes within hours. After recovery, most of their memories returned, except for a blank gap during the fugue state.

The second category was fugue-to-focal retrograde amnesia. These patients started out in a fugue state – lost and usually with no or little memory of their past and no sense of identity – then as the fugue state resolved, they were left with more persistent memory loss for large periods of their past lives. Their memory gaps seemed to take longer to recover than the fugue patients (sometimes never recovering), though with a relative sparing of more recent memories.

The third category was focal retrograde amnesia. These patients had a severe loss of memory for large periods of their lives, or their entire lives, sometimes a temporary loss of identity, but there was no fugue period involving wandering. The onset was often a mild neurological event (such as a minor stroke) or minor head injury, but one “insufficient to account for the severity of the retrograde memory loss”. Similar to the fugue-to-focal retrograde amnesia category, these patients’ memory loss was more prolonged than the fugue patients, but with a relative sparing of more recent memories.

And finally, some of the patients fell into a category the researchers called “gaps in memory” – they didn’t have a wandering period, loss of personal identity was also rare, and their one or more periods of memory loss were discrete, often tied to a specific traumatic experience (and often associated with PTSD).

At six months follow up, the fugue patients and to a lesser extent, the focal retrograde amnesia patients, showed good improvement. “In summary, the prognosis in psychogenic amnesia appears better than the previous literature suggests,” the researchers said.

Comparing the psychogenic patients with the neurological and healthy controls, the psychogenic group were more likely to have suffered a past head injury (though not of sufficient seriousness to explain their memory problems); they were more likely to have a diagnosis of depression; to have a history of family or relationship problems, or employment problems; problems in childhood; and/or a history of alcohol or drug problems.

The finding that the psychogenic patients were more likely to have a history of head injury than the neurological controls is particularly surprising. Kopelman’s team said “this may predispose some individuals to developing psychogenic amnesia at a later time of severe precipitating crisis.”

A debate about psychogenic amnesia that dates back to Freud is whether the process of memory loss is deliberate or subconscious. Kopelman and his team observed that their findings were more consistent with there being a conscious, deliberate element to the condition (as first proposed by Freud and Josef Breuer, though Freud later changed his position). For instance, some of the patients in the new study made comments like: “It’s like a box locked away, and I don’t really want to open it” and “I put things in boxes … I know the memories are there … but cannot get access to them.”

The current thinking of Kopelman and others is that the deliberate memory suppression of psychogenic amnesia is often brought about by stressful crises in life, and that the deliberate forgetting manifests in genuine neurological processes that really do interfere with memory and even personal identity. Kopelman and his team conclude by quoting the Cambridge University psychologists Michael Anderson and Simon Hanslmayr: “Control mechanisms mediated by the prefrontal cortex interrupt mnemonic function and impair memory … We are … conspirators in our own forgetting.”

Psychogenic amnesia: syndromes, outcome, and patterns of retrograde amnesia

Image: via César Astudillo/flickr

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Children of today are better at delaying gratification than previous generations

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Screenshot 2017-09-19 15.14.26.png
From Protzko / OSF, 2017

By Christian Jarrett

If you believed the copious alarmist commentary in the newspapers, you’d fear for the future of our species. Today’s children, we’re told, are more hyperactive and technology addicted than ever before. They’ve lost any ability to sit still , instead craving constant stimulation from digital devices and exhausted parents.

What might this mean for their performance on the most famous psychological measure of childhood self-control, Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test? Surely, kids of today will struggle far more than previous generations to resist the lure of one marshmallow (or other treat) now for the promise of two in ten minutes or so, as the task requires? In a new survey, the majority of child development experts certainly believed so.

Yet based on his analysis of 50 years worth of performance data on the Marshmallow Test – released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework – John Protzko at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concludes that in fact children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years.

Protzko combined the results from every published and unpublished use of the Marshmallow Test that he could find, starting with Mischel’s seminal work first published in 1968 and including 4 studies in the 1970s, 3 in the 1990s, 6 in the 2000s, and 16 in our current decade, all involving children aged ten or younger. Protzko speculates that the gap in the 1980s is due to the introduction at that time of a rival test of self-regulation which is quicker to administer – the so-called gift-delay task.

Before crunching the numbers, Protzko polled 260 members of the Cognitive Development Society Listserv about how they thought the results would come out. Just over 50 per cent predicted that Protzko would find children’s powers of self-restraint would be lower today than the in past; 20 per cent predicted no change over time; and just 16 per cent believed that children today would outperform the children of the past (the others said there wouldn’t be enough data to answer the question).

Protzko found a statistically significant linear trend – children’s ability to resist immediate temptation and wait for a greater reward seems to have increased over the decades (this remained true when removing two study outliers, marked as black circles in the graph above). The increase in delay of gratification ability is similar in size to the known increase in average IQ seen over the same timescale, possibly reflecting shared mechanisms, though this is speculation at this stage. Meanwhile, variation in Marshmallow Test performance has stayed the same over the decades, which means that average improvement has been seen across the spread of ability, not just among those children who are more self-restrained.

How could the experts have got it so wrong? Protzko’s suggests they are prone to same bias as the rest of us, what he calls the “kids these days” phenomenon: “people’s memories for their own and others’ abilities in childhood are unduly influenced by their current abilities. While it is easy to look at kids these days and deride their inability to control themselves and decry the downfall of civilisation, it is much harder to accurately recall our own selves as children.”

Does the apparent improvement in children’s powers of self-control bode well for the future, for instance in terms of reduced criminality and addiction? Protzko thinks not, speculating that it is probably one’s ability relative to others, rather than one’s absolute ability, that is relevant to future behaviour – the lowest performers will remain at risk, he suggests. “These [unhealthy and dangerous] behaviours have been with humans for thousands of years, and will be with us for thousands more,” he predicts.

The causes and consequences of the apparent increase in children’s powers of self-restraint over time remain to be uncovered by future research. For now, Protzko says the data show that “Contrary to historical and present complaints, kids these days appear to be better than we were. A supposed modern culture of instant gratification has not stemmed the march of improvement.”

Kids These Days: 50 years of the Marshmallow task [Note this study has not yet been subject to peer review]

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Contrary to media hype, new review says learning a second language won’t protect you from dementia

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Neurons with amyloid plaques – a pathological feature of Alzheimer’s disease

By Alex Fradera

Some brains struck by pathology seem to stave off its effects thanks to a “cognitive reserve”: a superior use of mental resources that may be related to the way we use our brains over a lifetime, for instance through high levels of education or, possibly, learning a second language.

Bilingual people certainly seem to use their brains differently. For example, practice at switching languages has been associated with enhanced mental control. It’s even been claimed that being bilingual can stave off dementia by up to four or five years.

If true, this would have serious implications for public policy – learning a second language would be as much a desirable health behaviour as it is an educational or cultural one. But are the brain benefits of bilingualism real? The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has published a systematic review and meta-analysis to establish the strength of the evidence base.

The University College London research team, led by Naaheed Mukadam, surveyed hundreds of papers published up to November 2016, finding fourteen high-quality studies that measured dementia and/or mild cognitive impairment (a more subtle analogue and frequent precursor of dementia) as well as participants’ status as either mono-lingual or bilingual.

Eight of the studies drew their conclusions from patients who had attended clinics complaining of memory problems, and their results were in favour of bilingualism. In one study, the age of diagnosis for amnesic mild cognitive impairment was around four to five years later for bilingual patients compared to monolingual. Another five studies asked when people began noticing their symptoms, and these also found the similar four to five year delay for bilinguals. Two of the eight found no significant effects, but the preponderance of evidence here looks pretty good.

The trouble is, all of these papers were retrospective, and depended on when people decided to show up to a clinic, and/or their accurate dating of when their symptoms began. Complicating matters is the fact that bilingual people from minority ethnic backgrounds are known to seek help later for dementia, on average, probably for social and cultural reasons. Moreover, these studies rarely controlled for education, which tends to be higher for non-minority multi-linguals, and as education itself contributes to cognitive reserve, this may be another confound.

Better controlled studies that identify a sample of people free from dementia and then follow them in the future are easier to interpret. Mukadam’s team identified five such studies. These found that five years after recruitment there were no significant differences between bilingual and monolingual participants in terms of whether they had developed any memory problems or neurological diagnoses. A meta-analysis using the raw diagnosis numbers from each study – a total of just over 5,000 participants – confirmed that bilingualism does not stave off dementia.

But a weak evidence base doesn’t mean an effect isn’t real. Indeed, more recent research from a team of Italian researchers used neuroimaging techniques to make a more systematic case for the benefits of bilingualism, including that it is associated with greater neural connectivity.

This Italian work is too recent to feature in the new review, but it’s notable that it escapes some of the methodological problems discussed above. However, when I brought this to Naaheed Makadem (the lead author of the new review), she raised a few considerations: firstly, that the new neuroimaging study investigated people who were generally lifelong bilinguals, living in a bilingual context (the Italian-German borderlands of Italy), which affords more opportunities for lifelong mode-switching than would be found for cases of adult migration or deciding to pick up a new language; secondly, she points to other potential confounding factors, such as employment and social status (i.e. the apparent neural advantages of bilinguals might be related to their being more likely to be in employment and higher social status).

The multi-lingual mind may have important consequences, but it’s not clear that recommendations to learn a second language later in life will necessarily produce the protections that have been claimed. Makadem’s team conclude their work by suggesting that “public health policy should therefore remove recommendations regarding bilingualism as a strategy to delay dementia and instead concentrate on more generally reducing cognitive inactivity.”

The Relationship of Bilingualism Compared to Monolingualism to the Risk of Cognitive Decline or Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

The impact of bilingualism on brain reserve and metabolic connectivity in Alzheimer’s dementia

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Women know better than men what other women are thinking and feeling

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Screenshot 2017-09-13 17.18.57.png
Interaction effect of perceiver and target gender on mindreading performance, from Wacker et al, 2017

By Emma Young

If you want to know what a woman is really thinking, ask another woman. That’s the message of a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which was designed to probe our ability to use other people’s posture, facial expressions and behaviours, as well our interpretations of ambiguous statements, to infer what’s going on in their mind – no matter what they’re actually saying.

The research team, led by Renata Wacker at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, recruited 304 women and 241 men, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The volunteers were put through possibly the most irritating – though potentially clinically useful – movie-watching experience imaginable.

The Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition is a 15-minute fictional film that focuses on the social interactions between two female and two male middle-aged adults preparing for and getting together for dinner. The film pauses no fewer than forty-five times for the viewer to answer questions about the characters’ thoughts, intentions and emotions. (For example, “What is Cliff thinking?”, “Why is Betty saying this?”, and “What is Michael feeling?”).

Each question has four multiple choice answers, three of which are wrong – for instance, in one pre-dinner scene, Cliff and Sandra are enjoying chatting about Cliff’s recent holiday in Sweden, then Michael arrives and dominates the conversation, directing all his speech at Sandra. Slightly annoyed, Sandra looks at Cliff then asks Michael if he’s been to Sweden. Participants are asked why she did this: the correct answer is to help get Cliff back into the conversation; an example of an incorrect answer is to loosen Michael up.

Earlier work has found that this test can pick up mind-reading deficits in autism, borderline personality disorder and body dysmorphic disorders, and can measure individual differences in mind-reading ability in typical adults.

In this study, the researchers found that the female volunteers got significantly better scores than the men. This didn’t come as a huge surprise, as other work has found that, on average, women are better at inferring other people’s mental states and identifying facial expressions. But the analysis also revealed that women were better at mind-reading other women than they were at reading men. Men were also slightly better at reading women than men, but they still scored lower than the female participants.

Part of the explanation for women being easier to read could be that they are more emotionally expressive than men, as suggested by some past research, although a recent study found that the true gender pattern is more complex.

When it comes to the superior performance of the female volunteers, this may be because women are simply better at mind-reading. Alternatively, they may be more motivated to do it.

Differences in male and female friendships may be one factor that contributes to greater mind-reading skills in women, the researchers suggested. Research has found that women are more likely to share emotions with, and simply to talk more with, their female friends than men do with their male friends.

When it comes to the women’s particular skill at reading other women’s thoughts, “the proposed social-cognitive mechanism and developmental factors of this bias have to be examined in following studies,” the researchers said.

The team also re-analysed their data, this time with a focus on the volunteers’ ages. They found that young adults were better mind-readers, overall. Performance started to decrease around the age of 30, and continued to get worse through middle and old age. It’s possible this is partly because of known age-related declines in cognitive performance, but again, this is something that will have to be explored in future studies.

Women Know Better What Other Women Think and Feel: Gender Effects on Mindreading across the Adult Life Span

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Let’s dial down the hype about grit – new paper finds no association with creative achievement

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Duckworth’s book is a best-seller

By Alex Fradera

In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth authored a paper on a trait she called “grit” which went on to arrest the attention of anyone interested in the secrets of success. TED talks and a 2016 book followed, wherein Duckworth explained how a combination of passion for a topic, and perseverance in the face of difficulties – the two facets of grit – were the recipe for achievement, a claim borne out by studies within schools and across the lifespan.

In recent years, however, researchers have become more critical of the scope and relevance of the concept. Now an article published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, suggests grit gives surprisingly little insight into the world of creative success.

On first glance, grit seems a must for creatives. Countless artistic professionals associate their success with a passion for their chosen art form, and describe the necessity of perseverance in the face of obstacles and discouragement. But the value of grit isn’t backed by the three new studies from a team led by Magdalena Grohman at the University of Texas.

They used Duckworth’s publicly available “grit scale” (which taps passion and perseverance); a personality questionnaire measuring the Big Five traits; and a self-report measure of creativity, the Creative Achievement Questionnaire, which captures public achievement in ten different creative domains such as music or dance, with participants scoring higher if they’ve done things like played in a band or made an original composition.

In an initial survey of 131 university students (two thirds women, average age 19), their creative achievement scores correlated with their scores on the personality measure of Openness to Experience, but showed no significant relationship with either facet of grit.

A second larger study (325 students), with more comprehensive measures of grit and personality, found Openness again correlated with creativity, both on the Creative Achievement Questionnaire and on a measure of everyday creativity capturing frequency of activities such as writing or being a member of a camera club. But again, grit showed no correlation with either creative measure.

This seems surprising, but consider something: the first survey found the “passion” facet of grit (among other things, high scorers say that are not distracted by new ideas and projects) correlated negatively with scores on Openness to Experience. Given that higher Openness is associated strongly with greater creativity, both here and in the wider literature, the negative correlation with grit should give us pause for thought.

Grohman’s team were ahead of us, highlighting that Duckworth defines passion primarily as a commitment to one thing at the expense of others (another example: on the grit scale, passionate people score lower on the item “I become interested in new pursuits every few months”). Openness, as the name suggests, is all about becoming interested in new and different things. Moreover, there is no emotional element in the passion facet of grit as conceptualised by Duckworth: no measure of excitement, joy or elation by participating in the activity. Her notion of passion is less like the fiery, explorative artist, and more like a nerdy completionist devoting their time to finding that last sticker for their 1986 Panini sticker book. And that characterisation simply seems to miss the mark of what we mean by creative passion.

If this sounds unfair, consider Grohman and her colleague’s final study, where they asked high school students to rate classmates’ creativity, in terms of who produced the most original assignments. Their teachers were also asked to rate the students’ persistence and passion, in whatever way they understood those terms, and both these scores correlated with higher student creativity. The students’ self-reported perseverance (as measured by Duckworth’s grit questionnaire) also correlated weakly with their creativity, but this association disappeared once the researchers took account of differences in personality scores.

The fact that teacher-rated passion and teacher-rated persistence correlated with creativity (even after accounting for personality), but that scores on the grit scale did not, suggests that passion is indeed relevant to creativity, but not as conceptualised by Duckworth’s notion of grit.

It’s worth noting that these were student samples rather than professional creatives, so further work would need to be done there too, but given the conceptual tension between passion and Openness, it seems plausible to expect similar patterns to emerge.

Where does this leave grit? Well, with a recent meta-analysis suggesting that grit has only modest associations with performance, and is strongly associated with the incumbent personality predictor of success, trait Conscientiousness (also true in this study, with correlations between .54 and.65), it seems appropriate to dial down the grit hype and treat this construct like any other psychological measure – of potential interest, but unlikely to be the breakthrough that changes society.

The Role of Passion and Persistence in Creativity

Image: via PeskyLibrarians/Flickr

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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Autistic boys and girls found to have “hypermasculinised” faces – supporting the Extreme Male Brain theory

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3D image annotated with 21 facial landmarks, from Tan et al, 2017

By Christian Jarrett

According to the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism, there are certain cognitive and behavioural characteristics that manifest more often in men than women, on average, such as a bias for systematic rather than empathic thinking. Autism can be seen as as extreme version of that typical male profile, the theory proposes, possibly caused by prenatal exposure to higher than usual amounts of testosterone in the womb.

A related observation is that exposure to high concentrations of prenatal testosterone leads to the development of “hyper masculine” facial features. It follows that if the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism is accurate, then autistic people will have hypermasculine faces.

A new study in Scientific Reports put this logic to the test, and consistent with the Extreme Male Brain theory, found that autistic girls and boys had highly masculine faces as compared with neurotypical control children.

Past research into whether autistic people tend to have stereotypically masculine facial features has been mixed. Women with sub-clinical autistic traits or a diagnosis of autism have been found to have more masculine than average faces, but studies with autistic men have sometimes found no difference from controls, or they’ve found the autistic men to have androgynous rather than hyper masculine features.

For their new paper, the research team led by Diana Tan at the University of Western Australia, deliberately sought to test pre-pubescent autistic and neurotypical children, thus removing the possibility that hormonal changes during puberty might conceal or reverse any facial signs of prenatal exposure to high testosterone levels (as may have been the case in the earlier research involving adults).

Tan and her colleagues also employed a new 3D facial mapping process, tested on 48 neurotypical boys and 53 neurotypical girls, to provide a highly accurate and objective measure of the facial features that most typify a male and female child’s face. Using these features, the researchers’ algorithm was able to correctly categorise the sex of children’s faces with around 98 per cent accuracy.

Next, the researchers deployed their 3D facial mapping algorithm to score the facial features of 54 caucasian autistic boys, 20 caucasian autistic girls and age-matched neurotypical caucasian boys and girls. This showed that the autistic boys and girls had more masculine than usual faces – to use the researchers’ jargon, their faces were hypermasculinised.

Moreover, when the researchers compared the autistic children and control children’s faces on the six facial features (mostly related to the positioning of the nose and upper lip) that most strongly distinguished neurotypcial boys’ faces from girls’ faces, the autistic kids of both sexes were found to have a more masculine score than controls on five of these features.

Finally, among the autistic boys and girls, the more masculinised their faces, the more social and communication difficulties they tended to have, as scored in their diagnostic test for autism.

The sample sizes for this study were relatively small, but the study’s biggest weakness is that it asks us to make a logical leap – high prenatal testosterone levels are known to cause faces to appear more masculine, autistic children have more masculine than average faces (as shown by the new results), therefore high prenatal testosterone levels contribute to autism (in line with the Extreme Male Brain Theory). However, as the researchers’ themselves acknowledge, this study featured no data on the testosterone levels that the children were exposed to prenatally, meaning there could be other explanations for the results. “Further investigation that tracks longitudinal links between early testosterone exposure, postnatal facial morphology and autism phenotype will provide more direct tests of the hypothesised relationships,” they said.

The Extreme Male Brain theory has inspired important research into the causes of autism, but it has also been controversial. Cordelia Fine, the author of Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, cites the theory as an example of contemporary “neurosexism”. And other recent research has uncovered findings that are inconsistent with the theory – for instance, last year a brain imaging study found that, compared with male neurotypical controls, autistic boys and men had resting connectivity patterns that resembled what’s more typically seen in women, while autistic girls and women showed a more masculine neurological profile, lending support “to the notion that autistic spectrum disorder may constitute a disorder of sexual differentiation or androgeny rather than a disorder characterized by masculinization in both genders.”

Hypermasculinised facial morphology in boys and girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder and its association with symptomatology

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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New research reveals the long-term toll of keeping secrets

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It is mind-wandering about our secrets that most seems to take a toll, rather than the job of concealing them

By Alex Fradera

Secrets burden minds. To understand how, researchers have previously focused on the act of concealment during one-off social interactions, showing that keeping a secret is draining and can increase anxiety. But what about the longer-term toll? A new paper in Attitudes and Social Cognition describes ten studies on the impact of secrecy day-on-day, showing how the burden of a secret peppers our waking life with reminders and periods of brooding.

The Columbia University team – Michael Slepian, Jinseok Chun, and Malia Mason – first developed and validated a secrets survey with two thousand participants. From this they identified 38 classes of secrets covering a range of contexts from theft and drug use to sexual orientation.

Using the new survey with 600 more participants (for most of the paper, participants were recruited from an online portal and tended to be in their thirties), the researchers found that 96 per cent of them currently had a secret of some kind, most commonly romantic thoughts about someone outside their relationship, sexual behaviour, or emotional infidelity.

The researchers also asked participants to consider the past month and report how often they were in a situation where they had to conceal their secret, and how often their mind wandered to the secret when there was no need for concealment. Mind-wandering was twice as common as episodes involving concealment, and crucially, it was how often participants caught themselves thinking about the secret – but not how often they had to actively conceal it – that was associated with the impact of the secret on their lives, as measured by their ratings of how much “this secret made my life and well-being worse”.

This apparently adverse effect of thinking about our secrets was replicated in a survey of tourists canvassed in New York. These findings suggest that active concealment – the primary focus of most secrecy research, and tightly wound into its scientific definition – may not be the defining characteristic of secrecy, and that it may rather be the repeated reflections upon hidden information that enact a greater psychological toll.

However, this research hasn’t shown a causal link between secret-related mind-wandering and wellbeing because the results are correlational (it would be hard to test this experimentally because it would be unethical to insert troubling life secrets into people’s lives). It seems likely that the association is at least partly caused by some toxic secrets both springing into mind more readily and having their own directly harmful influence on a person’s life. However, further analysis showed that higher secret-related mind-wandering still correlated with lower wellbeing regardless of the importance of a secret or the deviancy of the information it contained – suggesting repetitive thoughts about any kind of secret can take a toll.

What about secrets that are more obviously troubling to conceal (such as hiding an affair or trauma from a loved one) – might the act of concealment itself take a greater toll in these situations? To check this, the researchers focused in further studies on weightier secrets that the participants felt guilty for keeping from their partner. Yet participants still described mind-wandering about the secret more often than having to conceal it (one longitudinal study estimated mind wandering to be 2.5 times more frequent than concealment). And again, more frequent mind-wandering was associated with lower wellbeing, both in terms of diminished life satisfaction and relationship quality.

If these results are accurate and mind-wandering about secrets really does chip away at our wellbeing, what is the psychological process? It’s psychologically harmful to ruminate on negative thoughts or memories, and recalling a secret often involves accessing such content, so perhaps the same process is at play? It seems not. Slepian’s team asked 186 more participants to either recall a negative life event known to their partner or a secret they kept from them. Participants considered the negative life event more unpleasant than did those in the secret group, but it was the latter group who reported feeling less satisfied with life in that moment, suggesting that this wellbeing drop wasn’t simply a matter of bad feeling. Rather, the secrecy-related dissatisfaction was associated with a self-reported sense of weakened authenticity.

We often feel forced to keep a secret because we fear the cost of revealing it. But this research suggests that the secret is already costing you, even when you’re not actively concealing it, through a steady drip of reminders that makes you resent your own obstruction of a well-lived life. That doesn’t mean that it’s straightforward to put aside the deception. But if you can find a way, it may change how you experience life: not just through the big release, but a freer mental space, day on day.

The experience of secrecy

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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