Delayed gratification…

marshmallow test

When I was about 7 years old my mother tested me, by asking me what I would like to do with the last piece of chocolate cake and I surprised her by saying I would chop it in half and we would have half each. She was touched by this answer, so she let me have the whole slice. I then broke it in half and ate the dry bit first and the creamy bit second, which is what I usually did…So maybe I was quite good at delaying gratification? Obviously it would be more complicated now, as I would have to choose between the slice of chocolate cake or getting into my jeans! Researchers think this is partly to do with our genes i.e. how much self-control we have….

For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a child eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? This behavioural experiment was first carried out in the 60s at Stanford Uni, in the USA, by the psychologist Mischel and colleagues. Over a period of time following the children into adulthood, they found that the ones who delayed gratification were often more successful in their lives – better at passing exams etc and the men were probably better lovers! They have repeated the tests recently and found that it is not just down to the children’s personality traits, but also down to the environment i.e. the children who were in the group with reliable researchers who kept their promises were able to hold out for 9 mins longer than the ones who had been let down….therefore as parents we should be consistent with our children.

The funniest part of the experiments, I found, were the activities the children did while waiting: dancing, singing, napping, drawing and even sitting on the marshmallow. so that it was out of sight! Which is why I don’t keep chocolate cake in the house, unless it’s my birthday!

Exercise and mood…

In The Psychologist this month Christian Jarrett summarises some of the recent research on the best way to use exercise to boost mood and combat stress/anxiety. Here are some of the salient points:

  • Moderate intensity exercise is best, perhaps because low intensity is dull and high intensity is too unpleasant! You need to get out of breath enough where you can’t sing, but could still hold something of a conversation.
  • However mindfulness based exercises such as Yoga and Pilates can also improve mood, as even though you may not get much of an aerobic workout, you are still concentrating your mind on your body in a positive way.
  • 10-30 minutes duration is ample (but no less than 10). Therefore a brisk walk round the block will do when you can’t make it to the gym…
  • Allow for your own fitness level and preferences, so that you find that sweet spot where exercise is enough of a challenge without being unpleasant.
  • Include weight training as well, as that enables you to see your progress in a visible way.

So I shall continue with Zumba,Spin, Pilates and BodyPump, knowing that I am exercising my mind as well as my body.

Excited about psychobiotics?

gut brain connection

If not you might be at some point in the future – there is a lot of hype about the psychobiotic revolution at the moment and in order to help you understand it a bit more, I will summarise the article in the Psychologist this month by Professor John Cryan:

  • Mums with high perceived stress during pregnancy have children with a different microbiome (the vast army of microbes found in our gut) from those whose mothers don’t…
  • Babies pick up microbes from the birth canal when born normally and babies born under C-section don’t – as a result they are more likely to develop autism and have an increased stress response…
  • We now have an explanation for why breastfed babies can have a higher IQ – the microbes are breaking down the complex sugars (only) found in breast milk and the microbes extract sciatic acid from these sugars which helps in brain development…
  • His studies showed that in a group of 180 old people, health outcomes were better in those who had a more diverse microbiome….and this diversity came from a diverse diet…
  • People with resistant major depression have a reduced diversity in their microbiome…
  • Healthy volunteers taking probiotics for a month, when stressed, had a different EEG signature and had a reduced positive behavioural response…
  • So we have to feed our microbes to feed our brain…
  • Unanswered (as yet) questions include – can we design interventions that improve people’s microbiome and also (as a result) improve their psychological well-being?

So, I don’t know about you, but I am going to continue to have an actimel every day (so don’t be vegan!)


HyggeMy husband would probably say that at this time of year I become a bit too fond of this Danish word! But it does seem a good way of making the most of the cold nights and dark evenings, especially during Advent and Christmas and even afterwards (unless you believe in dry January!) The nearest English translation is “cosy”- but it is more than that, as it also includes a sense of well-being with yourself and with others. E.g. Hygge for me would include a wood burner (with wet or snowy weather outside the window) flickering candles, warmth, simple but tasty food, red wine, lovely background music and good conversation with those I care about – in other words Hygge is better shared…So don’t worry if you haven’t got a Christmas or New Year’s eve party to go to; just snuggle up on the settee, put down your phone, light a candle, be grateful for the little things and enjoy the Hygge… Perhaps it is also about the contrast between light and dark, as well as the contrast between cold and warmth ? Which after all is what many of the Winter festivals are partly celebrating…


My view on dreams, as a psychologist, is that they are just the brain tidying up at night. However The Psychologist this month has an article (written by Christine Parsons and Melanie Rosen) who claim that when we share dreams we’re trying to construct a self-image for the listener; i.e. they think that by sharing complex dreams we make ourselves seem more interesting and creative.

Here are some of the other interesting points they make:

  • If you know someone who can’t stand it when you share your dreams, then just tell them you had a dream about them last night and they might suddenly be interested in hearing more!
  • We are selective about who we report to and what we choose to share.
  • Our dream-self might have a different personality!
  • Some believe that dreams can tell us hidden truths about ourselves and that certain objects symbolise people or emotions.
  • Others believe that dreams are meaningless cognitive rubbish.
  • Reporting a dream requires more than just recollection, as we have to impose a story-line onto it.
  • There is always a temptation to filter and fabricate the dream stories!
  • Dreams of sexual infidelity can correlate with lower feelings of intimacy towards our partners over the next day or so.

So perhaps the most interesting thing about dreams is not what happens in them, but who we share them with and how we share the “story”?


Golden-Retriever-1  The Psychologist for October did a feature on animals this month and I particularly liked the research about dogs. I guess I am biased, as my daughter has a dog and my son has recently got one too. (I grew up with dogs, but cannot have one now as I am allergic). Also many of my clients say that some of their best times, when they are feeling depressed, are when they take their dog out for a walk. Anyway here are some of the summary points:

  1. Stroking a dog can lower your heart rate and blood pressure when you’re stressed.
  2. Taking a dog for a walk can facilitate social interaction with other dog walkers.
  3. They are very good at understanding human communication, including tone of voice and even the point of an arm.
  4. Like humans they sleep better when they have had an active day.
  5. They know that you can’t see them when your back is turned!
  6. They have evolved over 1000s of years alongside human beings and this is why they have some social and cognitive skills similar to a 3 year old human child.
  7. People living with Williams-Beuren syndrome have some similar genes to dogs, which results in them being extremely gregarious and treating everybody as their friend.

Awakening experiences…

Chapel-History429x313This is a picture of Kings College chapel, University of London, where I sang during my first degree. In 1985 I went on a tour of the South West of England (ironically) and we sang at Downside abbey. This is where I had an amazing awakening experience (The Psychologist, September 2018, Steve Taylor). The choir were practising with the organist, i.e. there was no congregation and yet I felt myself being filled with the most ecstatic joy and at the same time was hyper aware of everything around me and every voice and note. Unfortunately I cannot remember now so many years later what piece of choral music we were singing, but it is not the only awakening experience I have had. I have only had a handful, but they are quite common and now being researched by psychologists such as Steve as part of the positive psychology movement. They usually only last a few minutes  and mostly happen with music or nature or during meditation, or surprisingly during grief or depressive episodes. They are similar but different from “flow”, which happens when concentrating on something and being so involved e.g. in sport or exercise that the moment feels effortless; and also similar but different from the small awakenings you get when practising mindfulness. Nevertheless they are moments to be cherished and I would like to hear about other people’s experiences. Apparently the three key characteristic are:

  1. Positive emotional states (including a sense of elation or serenity).
  2. Intensified perception.
  3. A sense of connection (to nature or others).