Unconventional Wisdom

Now that I have a chance to think back on APA convention, I wanted to share a few impressions with my fellow psychologists, both those who attended and those who didn’t.

Cultivated serendipity: The first is a return to the challenge of unification that I discussed in my first post. I think one way that we can each address unification, and try to help make psychology stronger, is not just by strengthening our own science, or our own practice, or our own subdiscipline, but doing what we can to understand others in psychology. As I move further on in my career, I realize how difficult this can be. It is downright uncomfortable to sit in a session outside my subdiscipline, with unfamiliar assumptions and vocabulary. But if we force ourselves to think about how our discipline relates to what might at first seem strange, we can be struck with interesting connections. These serendipitous realizations can be tremendously and unexpectedly rewarding, but we need to be in the room to have them. I had several moments like this. One was on the morning of the last day, after the presentation of Margaret Tarampi, a psychologist who first trained and practiced as an architect, then changed careers into cognitive psychology. Dr. Tarampi had described condominiums in Japan which had been directly inspired by the work in neuroscience finding that enriched environments cause neurogenesis. Tarampi noted in her presentation that this was perhaps not the best research to guide architecture (the research compared cages that had essentially nothing in them to cages that had just a few things for the mice to do), but that architects had found the neuroscience (new brain cell growth!) much more compelling than psychology research. During the question period, in an offhand way, Tarampi mentioned that architectural photos almost never have people in them. I thought this was a fitting example of how a discipline like architecture could use psychology but clearly does not.

Slide from Margaret Tarampi of lofts designed by Arakawa and Gins

Slide from Margaret Tarampi of lofts designed by Arakawa and Gins

Impact at small sessions: Like at any conference, I went to a few sessions which were very sparsely attended given by junior colleagues. As I look into an audience of 10 or 15 (or sometimes five, as I have on occasion as a presenter), I sometimes feel downhearted. The presenter has often spent months on the research, weeks on the presentation, and days of nervousness and anxiety, and a small audience can leave one wondering if was worth all the trouble. While we may have an ethos of “only the quality of the science matters” in science, nothing confirms that status matters (and you don’t have it) like an 8 a.m. session with an empty room. But in these moments, I am happy to be in the audience myself, and I remind myself that even small audiences can yield great connections and can sometimes be the spark of collaborations. I saw this happen during several question periods, as questioners revealed themselves to have an expertise that complemented that in the presentation. Whether it was an ecologist curious about the psychological work in biophilia and the cognitive benefits of nature, or a sleep researcher interested about the role of sleep deprivation in the obesity associated with poverty, or even my own thoughts inspired by the history of the five senses, or how touch and movement are inextricably linked.

Take home messages and “positive psychology:” As a graduate student attending my first conference, I can remember sharing an elevator with a senior professor in my department, and sharing my youthful ebullience and eagerness at this session or that. He grumbled, “Oh, that’s nice you’re excited, I hate this conference, and actually, most conferences” or something to that effect. Although I had a good time at that conference, I could start to see what he meant. Sessions that looked absolutely fascinating to me on paper would all too often turn out to be mumbling through PowerPoint slides with tables and 10 pt font, or incoherent, or not about what they said they were about at all. In the past, those sessions would make me disappointed and get me down as I felt my time was being wasted. But as time has gone on, I have come to have a more positive outlook on these sessions. I try to take what I can from them, even if it is a reminder of what not to do and a single useful example. This positive psychological outlook has helped me get more out of conferences, and not dwell on those sessions that are not as useful or interesting as others.

I hope that you readers were able to find something useful in my blogging, too. Thanks for reading.

Unwinding After Convention

Whew! We survived another awesome APA convention. The weather in Washington D.C., was tolerable (and for me quite nice compared to the heat in Texas). The hustle and bustle of convention usually takes a toll on most people by Sunday of the convention. So it’s nice to be home to decompress after three to four days of back-to-back activities.

As I reflect on my convention experience this year, I realize that APA has allowed me the opportunity to connect with so many driven and dynamic people. The past few days have been rewarding on so many levels. Walking through the halls of the convention center and socializing withDSC02145 friends and colleagues, I can say I will be attending the APA convention for many years to come — not just for the research and earning continuing education credits, but also to stay connected to the profession.

This year at convention was a little different for me than typical years. In the past, I have presented poster sessions, participated in symposiums and attended sessions and social hours. Busy, right? Somehow, I was able to do that this year, as well as, serve as one of four early career psychologist bloggers. You can imagine that at the conclusion of convention, self-care is needed.

So how do you unwind once you leave APA convention? For me the answer is pretty simple.

My luggage will probably be sitting a few days. PackingDSC02143 and unpacking have never been a fun activity for me. So thinking about unpacking is the last thing I consider doing after returning from convention.


I have a love-love relationship with my sofa! As I sit here now composing this post, I’m looking forward to getting comfy on my sofa to watch some television. I’m not sure about you but my guilty pleasure is reality TV. Since I hDSC02142aven’t had much time for TV while at convention, I definitely had some catching up to do earlier today.

We all need to relax and rejuvenate after a busy schedule. I hope you have some time  to refresh before getting back to your weekly routine. Unless you’re a super hero, remember, we can’t take care of others without taking care of ourselves. I hope to see some of you again next year in Toronto.


Metabolic Syndrome and Mental Decline: Is Exercise A Feasible Prevention?

Metabolic syndrome (MetS) “is an example of a health variable that may play a causal role in cognitive and language declines with age,” Avron Spiro III, PhD, said at a symposium Aug. 7 at the convention.

A constellation of five interrelated risk factors (a large waistline, a high triglyceride level, a low HDL cholesterol level, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar; three are needed to be diagnosed with MetS), MetS is known to increase an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has also linked cardiovascular and metabolic declines to decreases in different cognitive abilities among older adults, showing reduced cognitive speed, executive functions, memory, and language functioning (i.e., word finding, sentence processing).

obesity1Concurrently, we also know the lack of physical activity is closely linked to metabolic syndrome, and that regular exercise can help to control weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and improve many aspects of mental health, including cognitive decline. Due to the indisputable evidence of the physical and mental health benefits, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is recommended five days a week. However, less than half of American adults meet this recommendation, and less than 15 percent perform regular vigorous physical activity.

Pretty gloomy statistics, right? As Edmund Acevedo, PhD, said, “although physical activity is important in decreasing the risk of having metabolic syndrome, it is clear that stk327235rknthe challenge lies in increasing physical activity.”

A good example is physical education classes in public schools. Many schools do not have enough gym teachers, gyms (or both), or have cut out gym classes because of increasing educational demands. Children and adolescents need even more regular exercise than adults – at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day.

More than a third of U.S. children overweight or obese today, which puts them at risk of developing a whole spectrum of diseases, metabolic syndrome included. It is thus essential, in my opinion, to start the prevention of overweight and obesity as early as possible as a preventive measure for MetS and the physical and mental decline that accompanies it later in life.

And while the questions of who is going to do it, when, and who is going to pay for it are essential, one thing is clear – people must reach the recommended physical activity levels starting at the earliest age possible, and continue throughout the school years. State legislatures and departments of education should therefore instigate or strengthen the physical education policies (and before- and after-school policies) to meet these goals. Once that is achieved, we can hope that the regular exercise habits adopted in school continue through adulthood, and lead to better health, physical and psychological.

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at DrNicoleAvena.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Researcher says “cultural expression starts in early childhood”

One of the ethical standards for psychologists is to provide culturally sensitive services. Multicultural Guidelines have also been developed in the past (see below) after the ethics code was revised in 2002.

  • Guideline 1: Psychologists are encouraged to recognize that, as cultural beings, they may hold attitudes and beliefs that can detrimentally influence their perceptions of and interactions with individuals who are ethnically and racially different from themselves.
  • Guideline 2: Psychologists are encouraged to recognize the importance of multicultural sensitivity/responsiveness to, knowledge of and understanding about ethnically and racially different individuals.
  • Guideline 3: As educators, psychologists are encouraged to employ the constructs of multiculturalism and diversity in psychological education.
  • Guideline 4: Culturally sensitive psychological researchers are encouraged to recognize the importance of conducting culture-centered and ethical psychological research among persons from ethnic, linguistic, and racial minority backgrounds.
  • Guideline 5: Psychologists are encouraged to apply culturally appropriate skills in clinical and other applied psychological practices.
  • Guideline 6: Psychologists are encouraged to use organizational change processes to support culturally informed organizational (policy) development and practice.

diversityGiven the growing diversity of the population, it’s more important than ever before to be “culturally competent.” Culturally competency has been defined as a system that acknowledges the importance of and incorporates culture, assessment of cross-cultural relations, vigilance toward the dynamics that result from cultural difference, expansion of cultural knowledge, and adaptation of interventions to meet the culturally unique needs at all levels of service (Whaley & Davis, 2007). During a session (chaired by Shamin Ladhani, PsyD) titled Culturally Sensitivity in Health: Health Psychology’s Role, Health Beliefs, and Assessment (held on Saturday morning), the presenters discussed key components of being culturally sensitive in a health care setting and outlined practical approaches to meeting the needs of a diverse population.

Tips to be more culturally sensitive may include:

  • Understanding communication methods
  •  Recognizing and responding to language barriers
  •  Clarifying cultural identification
  • Identifying religious and spiritual beliefs
  • Managing your own biases and prejudice
  • Being aware of your body language and privilege

diversity2All of these aspects of cultural sensitivity are important. The panel also highlighted that we need to be careful about not recognizing variation and diversity within ethnic groups. For example, Gurung noted that Latino might include individuals who are Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Dominican. Each of these groups has its own traditions, beliefs and rituals that may affect how you work with members to address their needs. According to Regan Gurung, PhD, “cultural expression is a developmental process that starts in early childhood.” Given the developmental nature of cultural expression, you can imagine that for anyone different from someone else could have a different world view on causes and coping for a particular concern.

Seen at the Convention, Saturday, Aug. 9

Some 12,000 attendees joined the convention activities Saturday in Washington, D.C. Below, a gallery of some of the sights, and the psychologists, at and around the convention center.

Want Justice? Stop Tolerating These Realities

One in three black male children born in the United States is expected to go to jail or prison at some point in his lifetime, said public interest lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, JD, at an APA convention session on Saturday.

“That wasn’t true in the 20th century and it wasn’t true in the 19th century,” he said “It’s true in the 21st century.”

That sobering fact  was just one of at least a dozen similar statistics about today’s criminal justice system shared by Stevenson, who has devoted much of his career to representing juveniles on death row.

While in 1972 there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons, he added, today there are 2.3 million and the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. That difference has less to do with an increase in violent crime than with broader social and psychological dynamics in our society that need more attention at scientific and professional gatherings.

One such dynamic is “proximity” he said. “We do educational work but we do not go into schools. We work with children and we talk about children, but we don’t actually spend time with them. We talk about criminal justice reform and violence, but we don’t get close to the people who are engaged in and experience these acts.”

One example of how such distance can breed injustice, he said, is the rate of violence against children in jails and prisons. On any given day in this country, 10,000 children are in adult jails and prisons where they face five times a greater rate of sexual violence and eight times greater rate of suicide, he said.

“We have allowed our distance from the needs of children and our failure to understand these dynamics to make us comfortable tolerating these realities,” he said.

Those working toward justice also need to focus on changing the dysfunctional narrative that has emerged about the mental health needs of people in the criminal justice system, which is “simply disconnected from what science tells us,” he said.

“I work in very poor communities and one of the hardest things for me to see is children who are clearly traumatized, so clearly disrupted by a level of trauma and violence that it makes it impossible for them to conform to the behavioral expectations of institutions that refuse to see that disability,” he said. While most of these children live in violent communities, go to violent schools, routinely see and experience acts of violence, “when they act violently, we call them violent offenders as if somehow they are the aberration,” he said.

To change the narrative, the word “trauma” needs to be applied more frequently, he said. “If we don’t use that word, we don’t use all of these resources and skills and interventions we know and have that can help people suffering from trauma recover,” he said.

Terrence Roberts Speaks on Racism, Resilience

American Psychological Association Annual Conference APA Washington DC

Photo by Lloyd Wolf

In 1957, Terrence James Roberts and eight other teenagers became the first black students to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“The nine of us were subjected to a year of sheer hell,” said Roberts at APA’s Committee on Ethnic and Minority Affairs’ breakfast Saturday, where he was awarded a presidential citation by APA President Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD. “Whatever you might possibly consider that one human being could do to another, that happened to us — daily.”

Through resilience and faith, Roberts eventually graduated from Los Angeles High School and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a PhD in clinical psychology in 1976. In 1999, he and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton. Roberts is now retired from the faculty of the Antioch University Los Angeles and is principal of the management consulting firm Terrence Roberts Consulting.

Although things have changed for black Americans in the United States since Roberts’ high school days – and have changed in large part due to his and others’ courage – they haven’t changed enough, he said.

“The law is now on my side, but still I am forced daily to contend daily with the ongoing violence of social and cultural exclusion, demeaning ideological belief systems, invidious institutional practices, implacable psychological barriers, ahistorical and pseudoscientific research designed to support claims of white supremacy and well-meaning others who suggest that I ‘overreact,’” he said.

Roberts challenged the audience to “do all [you] can do to change this pernicious status quo,” he said

“Instead of despair, I offer you the opportunity to learn as much as you can, develop a strategy and intervention, and move forward confidently with the assurance that whatever you do will, in concert with what others do, be sufficient to alter the course of history.”