Cover Story

“Up Close and Personal” with Judith Beck

This year’s “Up Close and Personal” question–and-answer session will feature internationally renowned cognitive behavioral therapy expert Judith S. Beck, PhD. She is the daughter of Aaron Beck, MD, with whom she founded the nonprofit training organization, the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Philadelphia. Attendees will have the opportunity to ask Beck about new developments in CBT for personality disorders and weight loss. Beck also plans to ask volunteers from the audience to role play clients who present a challenge in treatment. She will demonstrate how to conceptualize these clients, develop a strong therapeutic alliance, structure sessions, gain homework compliance and reduce self-harm behaviors. Beck wrote the basic text on cognitive behavioral therapy “Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond” (Guilford, 1995), which has been translated into 20 languages and is used to instruct psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and psychiatric nurses around the world. She is also internationally known for her work in the area of dieting, in which she counsels people to “think like a thin person” and learn lifetime skills for maintaining weight loss. Beck is also a clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Former APA President Richard M. Suinn, PhD, will moderate the session. For more on Beck and cognitive therapy, visit Beck Institute.

Change your thinking, change your brain

Few skills in life are as important as executive control. Children with the ability to stay focused on a goal, while filtering out irrelevant stimuli and ignoring stray impulses, are more likely to succeed in school and do better as adults in work and life, research shows. Several psychological interventions can help children cultivate these essential cognitive skills — and assist adults in maintaining them. Now, a growing body of neuroscience research is showing that these interventions can change not only behavior, but the structure and chemistry of the brain itself.

Cheryl Anne Boyce, PhD, and Karen Sirocco, PhD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, will co-chair a NIDA-sponsored plenary session where they will discuss how neuroimaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging, can provide evidence for such brain changes. The session will also feature presentations from researchers Fiona McNab, PhD, Brad E. Sheese, PhD, Jacqueline Bruce, PhD, and Yi-Yuan Tang, PhD.

“It’s really looking at the plasticity of the brain, and how developmental neuroscience can inform the development of interventions,” Sirocco says.

Can love make you gay?

The answer is a qualified “yes,” according to longitudinal research by Lisa Diamond, PhD.

“A heterosexual woman, under some circumstances, might fall in love with another woman platonically, and that can spill into sexual desire over time,” says Diamond, a psychology professor and sexuality researcher at the University of Utah. “It may not change her sexual orientation, but it’s still a completely authentic experience.”

That provocative finding is just one of many that sexuality scientists are unearthing that Diamond will review in her plenary talk. In general, scientists are finding that who we’re sexually attracted to isn’t an inborn trait or a choice, but results from a stew of social and biological forces, says Diamond. Unfortunately, research showing the fluid and complex nature of sexuality is easily misinterpreted and appropriated by people arguing against civil rights for lesbians and gays. Diamond learned that firsthand when anti-gay activists misappropriated her findings about sexual fluidity to argue that sexuality is a choice.

“In the current political climate, it’s dangerous to even be asking questions about sexual orientation, especially when the answers are controversial,” she says.

Scientists must continue to ask hard questions and also protect their research from misinterpretation, says Diamond, who will speak about the importance of reaching out to the media and the general public instead of just responding to inaccurate explanations by reporters or political activists. “We [scientists] are the best people to communicate this complexity to the public. If we don’t, our scientific findings are bound to be misused and miscommunicated, and the stakes are high,” she says.

Diamond’s talk will take place as part of a plenary topic on relationships and sexuality that will also include presentations by noted relationship researchers Julie S. Gottman, PhD, and John M. Gottman, PhD, who will speak about their method for couples’ therapy.

Dealing with dementia

The first Baby Boomers turned age 65 on Jan. 1, and another 7,000 to 10,000 more will pass that mark every day for the next 19 years, according to the Pew Research Center.

This milestone is significant because cases of dementia double every five years beginning at age 65, due to a combination of age, genes and environment, says Margaret Gatz, PhD, professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. As director of one of the largest twin studies of Alzheimer’s disease, Gatz will discuss the complex ways that genes and environment can affect dementia’s development. Physical activity, for example, may play an important role by increasing cardiovascular and brain health. Gatz plans to talk to psychologists about how they can best inform their patients about the lifelong benefits and limitations of heart health, physical activity and social and cognitive engagement on preventing dementia.

“Brain health is a lifespan matter, and all psychologists can contribute to educating the public about this, no matter what age group they’re working with,” Gatz says.

Families, too, can dampen the effects of dementia, says fellow convention speaker Sara Honn Qualls, PhD, a psychology professor and director of the gerontology center at the University of Colorado. Qualls will speak about the importance of close family relationships to the well-being of older adults and the uphill battle many relatives face when they aren’t viewed by health-care providers as essential members of an older adult’s health-care team.

When a relative is discharged from the hospital after fracturing her hip or is no longer able to live alone, “families are expected to pick up the pieces and figure out the next steps, often without having any real partnership built with formal providers,” Qualls says. Psychologists, she says, need to consider family in all of an older adult’s care decisions, similar to how the field approaches its work with children.

Cultivating the seventh sense

According to Daniel J. Siegel, MD, people don’t just have the five senses that help them perceive the world plus the so-called sixth sense. They also have a seventh sense he calls “mindsight,” or the mind’s ability to analyze its own thought processes.

Siegel is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine and executive director of an educational organization called the Mindsight Institute. In his presentation at APA’s 2011 Annual Convention, he will explain how psychologists can cultivate this extra sense in themselves and their clients in a talk called “Mindfulness and Mindsight: Their Role in Neural Integration.” Focusing attention can change the brain’s structure, says Siegel. And by using the techniques of mindfulness — being aware of the present moment as events unfold without being swept up by judgment — in therapy, psychologists can help clients develop the integrated state of awareness that Siegel believes is necessary for mental health.

For a preview, visit www.drdansiegel.com/about/audio_video_clips/ and try the “Wheel of Awareness.” “It’s a reflective practice where you look at the internal architecture of your mental life and learn to cultivate a more integrative process within that awareness,” says Siegel.

Diplomacy, meet psychology

A person’s national identity is tied inextricably to his home country’s history: its foreign relations, military victories and crushing defeats. Leaders will often channel that identity to enhance cohesion among their people, but that can also interfere with attempts to create lasting peace, says Vamik Volkan, MD, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia who spent 10 years in President Jimmy Carter’s International Negotiation network.

Volkan, who served on several committees in the 1980s and ’90s designed to encourage peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel, will deliver a convention plenary talk titled “Killing in the Name of Identity: An Age-old Problem,” in which he’ll discuss how national identity is a mixed blessing for nations caught between war and peace.

When trauma occurs, he says, its memory can embed itself in a nation’s identity. Israel, for example, uses the memory of the Holocaust and the prolonged oppression of the Jewish people to unite its population, which has been cobbled together from many geographically and culturally different Jewish groups. Yet that shared cultural association with victimhood also makes it hard for Israel to negotiate lasting peace with other nations that have historically been enemies, Volkan says.

That’s where psychology comes in. Psychological research shows that understanding why your negotiating partner feels threatened, spiteful or even generous can help all parties reach a better solution. Teaching diplomats about the psychology that underlies their own fears and anxieties, then, can help them overcome those negative emotions while negotiating, hopefully leading to more fruitful peace talks, he says.

“Diplomacy is evolving,” Volkan says. “The future of diplomacy will include psychology.”

I’ll take that in a tall, skinny glass, please

Ever eat something without thinking about it? Say, popcorn in front of the TV or extra bread when you go out for dinner? Consumer psychologist Brian Wansink, PhD, knows just how easy it is to eat mindlessly, and how hard it is to change that habit. His research — which he’ll outline under the convention plenary theme of “Disordered Eating” — suggests ways we can rearrange our environments so we make better choices without giving it a second thought. 

Studies at his Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, for instance, find that people typically serve 23 percent more food on 12-inch plates than on 10-inch ones. They also pour about 37 percent more liquid in short, wide glasses than in tall, skinny ones of the same volume, his team finds.

Being aware of such findings can help people make healthier choices by, for instance, ridding their cupboards of extra-large plates, Wansink says. Such strategies are far more likely to succeed than willpower alone, or than the trend toward “mindful eating,” he adds. “Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat, then asking ourselves if we’re full,” he says. “The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you.”