Dance, Dance, Dance

Dance classes, which have long been seen as simply an extracurricular activity, may have an important influence on the mental health of teenage girls. According to a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, teenage girls who took dance lessons reported reductions in their stress levels and psychosomatic symptoms – and these results stayed consistent even 20 months later.

In a randomized trial, girls from age 13 to 18 years with internalizing problems were enrolled in an 8-month-long dance intervention. According to self-reports, 91 percent of the teens reported improvements in their health status and deemed the dance class a positive experience.

One hundred and twelve Swedish girls participated in the study. They all had a history of visits to the school nurse for psychosomatic symptoms (e.g., pain in the head, stomach, neck) or persistent negative affect or tiredness. Half the girls attended twice-weekly 75-minute-long dance classes; the control group was given free movie passes during periodic interviews. The girls’ health problems were not addressed during the dance class.

The teens were interviewed on topics of health, emotional distress, psychosomatic symptoms, negative affect, depression, sleep, and more. Those in the dance group saw reductions in self-reported stress at 8-month and 12-month follow ups compared to those in the control group. Most teens (i.e., 87 percent) also reported good or very good health at the 12-month follow-up. At the 20-month follow-up, the intervention group still reported reductions, well after their dance lessons had ended.

To read more about this study, visit the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

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Seeing with the Brain: Hallucinations, a New Book by Oliver Sacks

Hallucinations, a new book by Oliver Sacks, MD, hit store shelves (and e-readers) this month, and—like many of his other books—it is sparking conversations not only in the scientific community but also more widely among the reading public.

Sacks is a clinical neurologist and professor at New York University School of Medicine. He is best known for his books that examine case studies from his own research and practice, including The Mind’s Eye, Musicophilia, Uncle Tungsten, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings (which inspired the 1990 feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams).

In this new book, Sacks asserts that, contrary to popular belief, hallucinations are not the sole purview of the mentally ill. In fact, they are surprisingly common among individuals with sensory deprivation (e.g., blindness) or medical conditions such as migraine, epilepsy, or Parkinson’s. Many healthy people experience hallucinations in the moments before sleep or upon waking, according to Sacks. Strong emotions associated with major life changes can trigger hallucinations, for example, when a bereaved spouse experiences a “visit” from his or her lost loved one. And of course, hallucinations can be a side effect of medication or intoxicants.

Hallucinations is a collection of fascinating stories, anecdotes, and case studies. Sacks describes a woman who hears not spoken voices, but music; a man who smells roast beef when he feels a migraine coming on; and a respected botanist who walks into his lab, only to see himself already at work. Drawing on history, art, religion, and popular culture, Sacks seeks to describe and better understand the experience of hallucination. As a clinician and researcher, he also delves into the biology of the brain and the neurological reasons behind many types of hallucinations.

With this book, Sacks hopes to ameliorate some of the stigma associated with hallucinations. In a recent interview with Slate magazine, he said, “I think there’s a common view, often shared by doctors, that hallucinations denote madness—especially if there’s any hearing of voices. I hope I can defuse or de-stigmatize this a bit. This can be felt very much by patients. There was a remarkable study of elderly people with impaired vision, and it turned out that many had elaborate hallucinations, but very few acknowledged anything until they found a doctor whom they trusted.”

In a 2009 TED Talk entitled “What Hallucination Reveals About Our Minds,” Sacks provides an introduction to his subject, along with some background on the work that led to his recent book. The 20-minute TED Talk is available free online, so take a look—and let us know what you think. PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

When Actions Don’t Speak Louder Than Words

A new study from researchers at Northwestern University helps to better understand the powerful impact words have on infants.

While babies were watching the researchers intently, an experimenter used her forehead to turn on a light. She then allowed the infants to play with the light themselves to see if they would imitate this novel action. In a second group, the experimenter announced what she was doing, naming the activity with a nonsense word (“I’m going to blick the light”), before using her forehead to turn on the light. In this group, the infants were more likely to imitate the behavior. Researchers believe that the subjects in the study were more likely to see the behavior as an intentional event when it was paired with language, and thus, imitate it.

This points to the idea that infants as young as 14 months of age coordinate what they know about human behavior with their knowledge of language when they choose which actions to imitate. Infants’ observation skills, when paired with language, heighten their ability for understanding of intentions and actions. Without language to convey meaning, infants do not imitate these “strange” actions, allowing language to unlock a bigger world of social actions.

To read more about this study, see Developmental Psychology.

Community PARtners: A Success Story

ImageImagine seeing someone’s life turn around before your eyes. A woman who has struggled, financially and emotionally, is preparing for a long-awaited job interview. She has come quietly into a shop and is browsing through a selection of professional clothing. For the first time in her life, she tries on a business suit and emerges tentatively from the dressing room. Looking in the mirror, her face suddenly changes. She has a new look of confidence because she can see it now: She can imagine herself in a professional environment. She is ready to take her life in a new direction. This woman is what Dress for Success is all about—and she is the reason that PAR is delighted to support the DFS Tampa Chapter.

Founded in 1997, Dress for Success is a not-for-profit organization offering services designed to help clients find and retain good jobs. At the Tampa chapter, Dr. Heather Ureksoy, a member of PAR’s Research and Development team, has been an active volunteer, serving not only as a volunteer coordinator and shop manager but also organizing an apparel drive here at PAR that garnered more than 300 articles of gently used professional clothing for women making a fresh start in the job market. In October this year, Heather organized an Excess Inventory Sale to raise funds for the purchase of more plus-sized suits for the DFS boutique. During the two-day sale, PAR employees donated their time to work at the event, while others came to shop.

“Our clients are referred to DFS through various service agencies in the Tampa Bay area,” Heather explains. “In 2012 so far, we have suited approximately 950 clients—and we have also expanded our career center to accommodate more mock interviews, résumé consultations, and technology classes.”

Since its inception almost 35 years ago, PAR has been giving back to the community, and employees are actively engaged in a wide range of community service projects. When Heather came to PAR two years ago, she was happy to be part of an organization that supported her volunteer work. “I knew I wanted to do something to give back,” she says, “but I had no idea how much I would love it! PAR provides a paid day off for employees to do volunteer work. Bob and Cathy [Smith, founders of PAR] have created a real culture of giving throughout the company.”

Clearly, Dress for Success is about much more than just finding appropriate clothing for a job interview. “It’s very personal,” says Heather. “The women we serve want to tell their story. They’ve all had some sort of struggle, and they’re getting back on their feet. Tears are shed! It can be exhausting, but it’s so rewarding. And when they find the right suit—their whole face transforms. It’s really beautiful.”

To learn more about Dress for Success, visit www.dressforsuccess.org and click on the Locations link to find your local chapter.