Leadership skills?

In our hyper-driven and competitive culture, gaining access to the elite “C-suite” of a corporation, and the money and power that engenders, is highly coveted. Ambition, drive, hard work, and a certain degree of ruthlessness are regarded as essential qualities in an aspiring leader and traits necessary for someone working his or her way to the top. However, two interesting commentaries on leadership and advancement in the professional world have recently questioned these qualities and brought to light their similarities to two seemingly very different life paths: psychopathy and addiction.

In the first, journalist Jon Ronson makes the claim that top business leaders are four times more likely to have psychopathic tendencies than the normal population. In his new book The Psychopath Test, also brilliantly re-told on This American Life, he claims that 4% of business leaders demonstrate psychopathic tendencies, as compared to 1% of the normal population. He attributes this trend to a significantly less active amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear and emotion. In psychopaths, or potentially CEOs, fear and empathy are diminished, enabling them to act selfishly or in the spirit of Machiavelli, if you will. Abnormal amygdala responses allow these people to take risks and ruthless measures to get ahead, and leave them disinhibited from the feelings of guilt, apprehension, or remorse that most of us would feel after firing employees or conning someone out of their money.

In his book, he interviews Al Dunlap, the CEO of Sunbeam toasters and a man known for his cut-throat style and proclivity for firing people with glee. Ronson informally administers the classic PCL-R (Psychopath Checklist-Revised) to Dunlap, on which he scores higher than normal, though not high enough to register as a true psychopath. However, Dunlap does manage to turn nearly every item he answers affirmatively into a positive quality for business. For instance, reinterpreting “a grandiose sense of self-worth” as “believing in yourself,” and “lack of remorse” as “freeing yourself up to move forward and achieve more.”

While the claim that most CEOs are secret psychopaths may not hold true, a second theory does carry more weight. Originally raised in neuroscientist Dr. David Linden’s new book on pleasure, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, and reiterated recently in an opinion piece for the New York Times, Linden makes the comparison between addictive personality traits and leadership skills. He cites compulsivity, risk taking, and a depletion in pleasure as tendencies that could be utilized to facilitate perfectionism, a push towards new financial ventures, and an unwillingness to settle in business. However these traits can easily manifest disadvantageously in society’s leaders, the most obvious example being the poor risky decisions made in the financial and political sectors that resulted in the global recession.

Additionally, it is not only these personality traits that drug users and innovative leaders have in common. Paradoxically, many of the creative geniuses and political and financial authorities of our time have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse at some point in their careers. Indeed, it would be surprising for these men and women to apply their sensation-seeking tendencies towards only one aspect of their lives, and thus it is not uncommon for influential leaders and those in power to abuse drugs or alcohol. A new book on cocaine use, The Anatomy of Addiction by Dr. Howard Markel, has brought these tendencies to light using Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, as a prime example. In addition to Freud, Linden also lists Winston Churchill, Aldous Huxley, and Alexander the Great, as well as countless others, as examples of leaders who have struggled with addiction. However, it is important to note that most of these writers, CEOs, dignitaries, and geniuses were not on drugs at the moment of their breakthroughs.

I am not one to criticize drug taking or experimentation, but I am against the romanticization of these habits that can so easily become dangerous compulsions (compulsivity is clinically referred to as the persistence of a behavior despite negative consequences). Light experimentation with mind-altering substances is often cited as having provided inspiration and cognitive expansion perhaps not otherwise possible in our daily world. However, truly addictive drugs such as cocaine or opiates rarely provide these experiences without some potentially devastating long-term consequences. It is possible to maintain a recreational relationship with some of these substances, however, it is a slippery slope that should be rappelled with extreme caution. The personality traits of curiosity and the desire for exploration, both personal and intellectual, do seem to foster innovation and creativity, and compulsivity can be analogous to perfectionism or a relentless drive for success. However, compulsivity can also lead an individual from exploratory recreational use to drug abuse and dependence, and it is important to keep in mind that those individuals who created corporate, creative, or intellectual masterpieces while on drugs may have done so in spite of, not because of their addictions.

(Thanks to Tanner Brown for the Sam Harris link)

Exercise, endocannabinoids and natural highs

The benefits of exercise on the mind and the body are widely pronounced, with even moderate amounts decreasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, aggression, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. Those of us who exercise regularly may also know first hand of the almost immediate mood-enhancing benefits of exercise, often touted as “runner’s high.” However, the exact mechanisms for this emotional boost are still unknown. Once believed to be the result of endorphins–natural opioid peptides released in the body that resemble synthetic opiates–that work as analgesics and create feelings of euphoria, this idea has recently come under scrutiny. The molecules creating these opioid peptides are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier, meaning the endorphins released in the blood stream during exercise would be unable to make their way into the brain. However, a different endogenous drug system has begun to garner attention, and some researchers are now focusing on endocannabinoids, the organic derivative of cannabis, or marijuana, found in the body instead. Endocannabinoids are made up of lipids, or fat molecules, which are small enough to pass through the blood-brain barrier when released in the blood stream, and endocannabinoids have similar effects as opioids, reducing pain and anxiety and fostering feelings of well-being.

A number of studies published in recent years (and succinctly summarized here by the New York Times), have looked at the endocannabinoid system and exercise in mice and have found strong links between the two. Neuroscientists in Rome using single cell recordings in the striatum (the region touted as the pleasure center of the brain) discovered that both running and sucrose consumption increased the sensitivity of cannabinoid receptors in the striatum, indicating a greater activation of the pleasure system. This upregulation in cannabinoid transmission also helped to serve as a protective factor for the mice when stressors were introduced into the environment, providing neurological support for the claims that exercise can have strong emotional benefits, preventing stress, anxiety, and depression.

Another study investigating the pleasurable effects of running researched mice specifically bred without cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Researchers in France discovered that mice deficient in cannabinoid receptors ran 30-40% less over the course of a week than normal mice. Taken with the other mood-enhancing benefits of running, this further suggests that endocannabinoids are involved in the pleasure derived from exercise.

A seemingly paradoxical alternative effect of endocannabinoids is their role in eating, as well as exercise. Endocannabinoids are responsible for some of the pleasure derived from food, and in addition to the analgesic and anxiolytic effects, medicinal marijuana is also used to stimulate patients’ appetite, which can be affected by terminal illnesses or treatment. Recently, a team of scientists at the University of California, Irvine discovered that endocannabinoids not only provoke hunger and provide pleasure when we eat, but they also increase desire and urges for fatty foods in particular. In a study published this month in PNAS, researchers fed rats a sham liquid diet high in fat content (sham diets work by draining the contents of the stomach before the meal is digested, meaning that the taste and act of consumption are registered, but not the nutritional value or satiety signals that result from eating a meal). The diet high in fat, but not ones of primarily sugar or protein, selectively increased levels of endocannabinoids in the intestines. However, when the vagus nerve (responsible for taste) was cut, this increase of endocannabinoids in the stomach did not occur. This suggests that it is the taste sensation of the fat and communication from the brain to the GI tract that elicits this release. This elevation of endocannabinoids also affected metabolic processes in the stomach, creating a feedback loop where signals were sent back to the brain, creating a greater demand for more high fat foods. Conversely, when endocannabinoid antagonists (drugs that decrease the amount of endocannabinoids in the body) were given to the rats, they selectively consumed less high-fat solution but did not alter intake of their normal food chow. This study provides strong evidence for the fat-specific effect endocannabinoids have on appetite and craving, potentially creating a perpetuating cycle of demand and consumption of high-fat foods.

The paradoxical effects of endocannabinoids on the brain suggest that they have much to do with pleasure, and while they may encourage a binge on potato chips, at least they will also help you enjoy burning them off afterwards.

Does the internet control our minds?

As some of you may have noticed, I get a lot of my ideas for posts from the New York Times. I like to think that it is a relatively unbiased source of information, and I believe that it has several interesting news articles or opinion pieces every week. However, even my beloved NYT is guilty of a potentially dangerous trend towards self-fulfilling bias, regurgitating back opinions to me that I already agree with and information I know to be true. (Though in their defense they did publish a great op-ed piece recently calling this phenomenon to our attention.)

Everyone is guilty of cognitive bias and selective attention. Quite simply, we prefer to read things that confirm what we already believe. Both the sources that we choose to consume, as well as the information we retain from these sources, will more than likely further cement our own original views. It is very difficult to change someone’s opinion on an important topic, not only because we rarely seek out conflicting beliefs, but because even when we do we are prone to misinterpret, disregard, or even forget anything that disagrees with us. While ideally we would all make unbiased decisions about the content and media we consume, clearly this is not the case; it is no big secret that conservatives watch Fox News while liberals prefer MSNBC or the Daily Show. However, nowadays search engines and online news sources are further filtering down the selection of content for us to consume by crafting search and recommendation results based on previous articles or links selected. With these algorithms, even if you wanted to branch out from your usual media content you might be unable to, or it would at least involve more in-depth clicking or search terms.

We covet and praise the use of personalized prediction models on sites like Netflix and last.fm to recommend music and movies similar to what we already know and like. But when the decisions made by mathematics and computers affect not only our artistic tastes but also our world views and political opinions a dangerous line begins to blur. Nowadays, it is no longer the government censoring information and ideas, it is our brains and the information readily available to us.

This also brings up the scary question of how reliant we are on the internet and technology at large, not only for our news and celebrity gossip, but more importantly for the ability to work, communicate, and connect with people personally and professionally. In a rather bizarre survey conducted by the McCann WorldGroup, 53% of youth would rather sacrifice their sense of smell than give up their computer or smart-phone. To put it bluntly, our society is obsessed with technology; we have become addicted to the internet. As someone who researches drug addiction, I do not use this term lightly, but really the comparisons are telling. Escalation of use, inability to cut back when attempted, a feeling of urgency or craving to get online after prolonged periods of abstinence, persisted use even in the face of negative consequences, not to mention the surge in rewarding dopamine we experience when our iPhones “ping” with a new email or text message.

In the spirit of true Pavlovian conditioning, that noise, that pervasive ping, has taken on the ability to arouse us in the way that a natural reward would. It has become associated with the news that someone has reached out and contacted us, and thus has achieved the same rewarding significance. The excitement or joy you get when you hear that ping and anticipate opening an email (is it a letter from a friend, a Facebook invite, or the ever disappointing listserv update), increases your arousal and causes dopamine to be released into the basal ganglia (particularly the nucleus accumbens), just as seeing a friend or being invited to a party would in real life. Over time, this ping has become associated with social interaction, and the feeling of reward it evokes has gradually been transferred from the email content to the cue itself. So now this ping, whether it’s from your own phone or the hundreds of others like it, creates this same state of arousal and surge of dopamine that the anticipation of an intimate interaction in real life might elicit. If you’re like me, you are also hyper-sensitive to this sound, assuming you’ve heard it in a song or ambient noise. Greater attention is allocated to perceiving the ping from the cacophony of sounds we are inundated with every day, just as a drug user has greater vigilance to perceive cues associated with drugs and their related paraphernalia from a vast array of sensory stimuli.

The internet is an invaluable tool in our arsenal, and without a doubt, no one would advocate returning to a time before it. However, we should keep in mind just how much time and energy we spend on it and how reliant we have become. The uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa and the resulting internet shutdowns protesters in Egypt and Syria were subjected to should remind us that the internet is not necessarily a constant, and perhaps it is important to keep our reliance on it, both personally and intellectually, in check.

(Thanks to Emily Barnet for the McCann survey.)

Pursuing happiness

In honor of the 4th of July and in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, The Atlantic published a nice piece on the “Pursuit of Happiness” this week, specifically on how our community and environment can shape our mood and mindset, and how local governments are initiating public service projects to aid in our psychological well-being. However, a study published in the Journal of Human Genetics last month by behavioral economists at the London School of Economics suggests that it is not external factors but rather our genes and neurotransmitters (most notably serotonin) that determine how happy we are.

Serotonin has been linked to happiness and empathy, and a depletion of it is often seen in patients with depression. Many common antidepressants work by elevating levels of serotonin in the brain, including SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), the most commonly prescribed medication for depression, which prevents the retraction of serotonin back into the cell after it has been released. This recycling of serotonin occurs naturally in the brain, with neurotransmitter transporters binding to the chemical in the synapse, taking the serotonin back up into the cell, and enabling it to be released again. The serotonin transporter gene 5-HTT is involved in the expression of the proteins that form these transporters and has two different forms it can take, a long or a short version. The long allele of 5-HTT results in more transporters being expressed, however, paradoxically, researchers have recently discovered that individuals who carry two long versions of the gene are significantly more likely to report higher levels of subjective well-being than those who inherited two short versions of the allele. In the study by Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, 69% of those with the long versions rated themselves as either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives, as opposed to only 38% of people with the short versions. While this is contradictory to the theory behind SSRIs, which prevent the recycling of the neurochemical and thus enable higher levels of serotonin to be present in the synapses, the greater number of transporters in the long allele population permits faster turn-over, facilitating greater release and higher, more stable levels in the brain.

On the other end of the spectrum, individuals with short alleles are known to have decreased brain density in the amygdala and limbic circuitry, areas implicated in emotion regulation and fear responses, impairing their perception and reaction to emotional stimuli. Those with short alleles have a higher risk of depression, although this association is somewhat tenuous as the 5-HTT gene directly only accounts for 10% of an individual’s susceptibility to anxiety or depression. Most likely, it is a gene-environment interaction that determines an individual’s likelihood of developing depression, as individuals with short alleles are more prone to react poorly or with greater anxiety to bad news.

Thus, returning to The Atlantic article, to what extent can our environment really foster a positive affect, and do things like city planning–improving traffic flow or building green spaces–really influence our overall levels of happiness? How much do the little things in our environment matter? Sure it’s unpleasant to sit in traffic and much more agreeable to eat lunch under a tree, but in the greater manifestation of mood do these things affect us on such a fundamental level? After the immediate physical or aesthetic enjoyment, are there pervasive lingering effects? Surely it is more the people we surround ourselves with and our own internal perception of events that determines our mood. How much of an effect do we have on our own happiness and how much is determined by our surroundings? What truly makes us happy?