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Social Network Helps the Stressed and Depressed Cope

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When you’re anxious, stressed, or depressed, your inner monologue often goes to a dark place. It can start to seem like everything you do is stupid, all obstacles are impossible to overcome, and everyone hates you. A therapist can help you see that these thoughts don't correspond with reality, but not everyone has access to a therapist 24/7. 

Enter Koko, an app that allows you to enlist a team of strangers to be your pseudo-therapists. It’s a social network built on the ideas of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and “reframing,” or rethinking your perspective. 

Creator Rob Morris developed the tool, which launched on Apple's app store this week, while completing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. In a study of 166 people with symptoms of depression, the crowdsourced technique Koko employs helped people improve their moods and learn cognitive reappraisal, a therapeutic tool that teaches people to tweak the way they're thinking about a problem.

Image Credit: Koko

When you log in to Koko, you can post the negative, depressive, anxious thoughts that often go unshared on general social media channels, where people feel pressured to present themselves in a flattering light. You can post, for instance, “I just ruined an important work presentation, and I feel like an idiot.” The app will prompt you to delve deeper into your feelings about the situation. Then, other users can comment on your post—but they have to say something deeper than “oh, that sucks!” Instead, users are supposed to reframe the negative thought, helping the stressed party find the positive aspect of the situation, no matter how small. They might, for instance, point out that public speaking is a common fear, and it’s important to give yourself credit for trying your best. 

The practice of helping others see their problems in a new light can, in turn, help you learn to rethink your own stressors. And having a community to turn to in tough times can help people feel less alone, allowing them to unload anonymously to a supportive group. It’s not a comprehensive substitute for talking to a mental health professional, but it's a lot more helpful than posting cryptic statuses on Facebook or telling no one at all. 

Koko is available for iOS now. An Android app is forthcoming. 

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Health
Supermarket Introduces 'Quiet Hour' to Help Customers With Autism Feel at Ease
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For some people on the autism spectrum, a routine trip to the supermarket can quickly morph into a nightmare. It’s not just the crowds and commotion that trigger feelings of panic—sounds that many shoppers have learned to tune out, like intercom announcements or beeps from the checkout scanner, can all add up to cause sensory overload. But grocery stores don’t have to be a source of dread for people with such sensitivities. By turning down the volume for one hour each day, one supermarket is making itself more inclusive to a greater number of customers.

As Mashable reports, Australian grocery store chain Coles is partnering with the Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) organization to roll out "quiet hour" in two of its stores. From 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., the lights will be dimmed by 50 percent, the radio and register sounds will be turned down to their lowest volumes, and cart collection and non-emergency PA announcements will be put on hold. The changes are meant to accommodate shoppers with autism and their families, but all shoppers are welcome.

The initiative is based on research conducted by Aspect on people on the autism spectrum and those who care for them. In addition to modifying the atmosphere, Coles has taken steps to educate its staff. If someone does start to feel overwhelmed in a Coles stores, employees trained in understanding and dealing with autism symptoms will be on hand to assist them.

Coles is following the lead of several chains that have made themselves more inviting to shoppers on the spectrum. Last year, British supermarket chain Asda introduced its own quiet hour, and Toys "R" US implemented something similar in its UK stores for the holiday season.

The Coles initiative is just a trial run for now, but if the customer reaction is positive enough it may be here to stay. Visitors to their Ringwood and Balwyn East stores in Victoria will have a chance to experience it now through the end of October.

[h/t Mashable]

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New Study Shows It's Surprisingly Easy to Make People Have Auditory Hallucinations
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If you’ve ever heard something that wasn't there—an auditory hallucination—you know that the sound seems very, very real. A new study suggests that it's easy to induce auditory hallucinations in people, but it's even easier in people who already claim to hear things that aren't there. The research was published in the journal Science.

Co-author Al Powers is a psychiatric researcher at Yale. Speaking in a study, he said hallucinations “…may arise from an imbalance between our expectations about the environment and the information we get from our senses.”

In other words, he says, "You may perceive what you expect, not what your senses are telling you."

Powers and his colleagues recruited 59 people to help them test that hypothesis. There were four groups of participants: people who heard voices and had been diagnosed with psychosis; people who had been diagnosed with psychosis but didn’t hear voices; people who heard voices but had not been diagnosed with any mental illness (we'll come back to that in a moment); and people who just plain didn't hear voices.

The third group was an unusual one: 15 self-professed psychics. These participants said that they heard voices every day, but unlike people in the first group—those diagnosed with psychosis who heard voices—they weren't bothered by the voices they claimed to hear. In fact, they took them to be communications from supernatural forces or entities.

All the participants then underwent brain scans. While they were in the scanner, the researchers used a combination of sounds and images to trick their brains into producing auditory hallucinations. First, participants were shown a checkerboard and played a sound. Then they were told to listen for the sound. Sometimes it played when the checkerboard appeared. Sometimes it didn't play at all, but the checkerboard showed, which led their brains to expect the sound would be played.

Members of all four groups experienced the hallucinations, hearing noises even in the silence. Their brain scans showed that they really were "hearing" the nonexistent sounds.

Unsurprisingly, the two groups of hallucination-prone people were more susceptible to hearing things. But when they were told that there had in fact been no sound, people with psychosis were less likely to believe it. 

The authors say this difference could potentially help doctors spot, diagnose, and treat psychosis in their patients before it becomes severe.

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