Distractions provide novelty and stimulation to our brains while maintaining the sense that we can never figure it all out, so the search for meaning continues.
Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
Studies have shown that meditation techniques can promote significant changes in brain areas associated with concentration. However, initial experiments involved well-trained meditators. For instance, in his collaboration with the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found much greater activation of powerful gamma waves in the trained meditating monks than in the students during meditation [PDF]. The intense gamma waves signaled higher mental activity, better concentration, learning and memory.
Now, it appears that we can get cognitive benefits associated with mindfulness without spending hours in meditation, although the practice still needs to be consistent. According to a recent study, meditation-trained participants showed a significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills after only four days of training for only 20 minutes each day:
The experiment involved 63 student volunteers, 49 of whom completed the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned in approximately equivalent numbers to one of two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened for equivalent periods of time to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit) being read aloud.
Prior to and following the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.
Both groups performed equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved following the meditation and reading experiences in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored consistently higher averages than the reading/listening group on all the cognitive tests and as much as ten times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other information in mind.
The researchers instructed the participants in this meditation training "to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of their nose. If a random thought arose, they were told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought and to simply let 'it' go, by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath."
While these gains in concentration and other cognitive skills sound amazing after such a brief period of time, it helps to remember that the brain is like a muscle. It needs a regular workout to stay in shape.
As you read the following remarkable examples of neuroplasticity in action, consider how much power you actually have to shape your brain and your life. It's never too late to change and build new good habits.
1. The adult human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons. Education increases the number of branches among neurons, increasing the volume and thickness of the brain. Brain is like a muscle that needs mental work-outs. Learning and brain exercises slow age-related mental decline and even improve brain function.
2. Physical exercise promotes creation of new neurons in the brain, the process known as neurogenesis. It also stimulates sensory and motor cortices and helps the brain’s balance system.
3. As we age, we tend to shift cognitive activities from one lobe in the brain to another. There is also an indication that we use both hemispheres as we age for the tasks that used to take place in just one hemisphere. Perhaps, the brain optimizes itself to compensate for any weaknesses.
4. Specifically designed brain exercises have been shown to strengthen weak brain functions in children and adults with learning disabilities. For example, rote memorization can help the auditory memory. Handwriting strengthens motor capacities, and adds speed and fluency to reading.
5. Stroke patients recover some lost abilities when the brain reorganizes itself to move functions from the damages location to a new one.6. Because the brain physically changes its state as we think, it is possible to measure the changes electronically. As a result, there's technology that allows completely paralyzed people move objects with their thoughts and interact with computers.
7. V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, uses imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps and help people manage their phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain, which he believes to be a construct of the brain that is projected on to the body. For example, his invention of the mirror box helped many amputees get rid of the pain in the phantom limb. The brain is tricked into believing that the phantom limb is moving when the patient sees a mirror reflection of the moving good limb in the mirror box.
8. People can improve performance through visualizations because action and imagination often activate the same parts of the brain. When we need to learn a physical skill, mental practice of this skill can produce the same physical changes in the motor system as the physical practice. This effect has been achieved in experiments that involved people learning to play the piano, as well as athletes in training.
9. If you were to wear blindfolds for two days, your visual cortex would reorganize itself to process sound and touch. Once you take the blindfolds off, the visual cortex will stop responding to tactile or auditory signals within twelve or twenty-four hours.
10. The Sea Gypsies, Nomadic people who live in a cluster of tropical islands in the Burmese archipelago and spend most of their lives in boats on the open sea, can see clearly under water at great depths because they learn to control the shape of their lenses and the side of their pupils, constricting them 22%. Most of us can’t do that, and pupil adjustment has been considered to be affixed, innate reflex. However, in one study, Swedish children were able to learn the trick, and their brains responded to the training.
11. London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to bus drivers. It's because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.
12. Collaboration between Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dalai Lama explored the effects of meditation on the brain. The researchers compared the trained minds of the monks and those of the volunteers. The results showed much greater activation of powerful gamma waves in the monks than in the students during meditation. Moreover, even when the participants were not meditating, the trained meditators' brains showed a large increase in the gamma signal. In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the meditators. The intense gamma waves signaled higher mental activity and heightened awareness.
13. Plastic changes also occur in musicians' brains compared to non-musicians. Research shows that gray matter (cortex) volume is highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas. There is also a dark side to neuroplasticity in musicians. When a musician frequently uses two fingers together while playing the instrument, the brain maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse in such a way that the musician can't move one finger without the other. This is a condition called "focal dystonia." To play again, the musician's brain maps have to be separated through special training.
14. Learning to juggle can increase gray matter in the occipito-temporal cortex as early as after 7 days of training.
15. Extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. Brains of medical students showed learning-induced changes in the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus - brain regions involved in memory retrieval and learning.
Begley, Sharon. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Ballantine Books.
Doidge, N. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York:Viking.
Davidson, R. J., J. Kabat-Zinn, J. Schumacher, M. Rosenkranz, D. Muller, S.F. Santorelli, F. Urbanowski, A. Harrington, K. Bonus, and J.F. Sheridan. 2003. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 65 (4):564–570.
Draganski, B., C. Gaser, G. Kempermann, H.G. Kuhn, J. Winkler, C. Buchel, and A. May. 2006. Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience. 26:6314–6317.
Gaser, C. and G. Schlaug. 2003. Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:9240 - 9245.
Maguire, E.A., K. Woolett and H.J. Spiers. 2006. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 16:1091-1101.
Schwartz, J.M. and S. Begley. 2002. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Collins.
Media multitasking is increasingly common in this day and age. If all this flow of information makes it hard for you to pay attention and stay focused, you are not alone. According to new research by EyalOphir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner at Stanford University, people who multitask suffer from a weaker self-control ability. The following excerpt is from the Scientific American article "Portrait of a Multitasking Mind" by Naomi Kenner and Russell Poldrack:
The researchers asked hundreds of college students fill out a survey on their use of 12 different types of media. Students reported not only the number of hours per week that they used each type of media, but also rated how often they used each type of media simultaneously with each other type of media. The researchers created a score for each person that reflected how much their lifestyle incorporated media-multitasking.
They then recruited people who had scores that were extremely high or low and asked them perform a series of tests designed to measure the ability to control one's attention, one's responses, and the contents of one's memory. They found that the high- and low- media-multitasking groups were equally able to control their responses, but that the heavy media-multitasking group had difficulties, compared to the low media-multitasking group, when asked to ignore information that was in the environment or in their recent memory. They also had greater trouble relative to their counterparts when asked to switch rapidly between two different tasks. This last finding was surprising, because psychologists know that multitasking involves switching rapidly between tasks rather than actually performing multiple tasks simultaneously.
On the positive side, heavy media multitaskers may be better at reactive control when they are quick to respond to the relevant cues from the external world. This ability can be useful in the environments where things change fast. It also helps to build habits more easily in response to common situations.
Various studies have explored the link between the ability to use more than one language and improved cognitive function and thinking. Now, for the first time, the research team appointed by the European Commission conducted an analysis of scientific literature, European and international, on this subject during the period of May 2008-June 2009 across all 27 EU Member States plus Norway and Turkey. The findings are described in the report "The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity" [PDF].
The inventory of research-based publications covered the following five hypotheses.
The Science Daily article "Brains Benefit from Multilingualism" quotes David Marsh, specialized planner at the Continuing Professional Development Centre of Jyväskylä University, who coordinated the international research team behind the study:
"The research report brings forth six main areas where multilingualism and hence the mastery of complex processes of thought seem to put people in advantage. These include learning in general, complex thinking and creativity, mental flexibility, interpersonal and communication skills, and even a possible delay in the onset of age-related mental diminishment later in life," Marsh relates.
One of the central cerebral areas highlighted in the research report is the one responsible for memory function. People rely especially on the short-term memory when thinking, learning and making decisions.
"It is obvious that enhanced memory can have a profound impact on cognitive function, says David Marsh. -- This may be one reason why the multilingual shows superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks when compared to monolinguals. They seem to be able to have an advantage in handling certain thinking processes," March continues.
It was assumed earlier that differences in the brain would only occur if a person is bi- or trilingual, that is with a very high command of different languages. The recently published research suggests, however, that changes in the brain's electrical activity may occur already in the beginnings of learning a new language.
Perhaps, it's time to add learning a new language to your 2010 resolutions. It seems that the benefits are there regardless of whether you learn to speak it proficiently.
Related post: "Learn a language in 2009 and improve your brain"
Meditate NYC begins on Sunday, November 8 with an afternoon of meditation instruction by Buddhist teachers from a great variety of traditions. The event is free and open to all. Meditate NYC's kick-off will be followed by a full week of free meditation instruction, November 9 – 15. People from all faiths, backgrounds, and experience are welcome at Open Houses hosted by meditation groups and dharma centers throughout the NYC area.
Ongoing scientific research confirms meditation's positive effects on body and mind. Meditate NYC offers an accessible way to find out what various approaches to meditation involve and what the benefits are. For more information, visit http://meditatenyc.org
How do you deal with difficult people? Are you bothered by conflicts, rejections, or negative opinions of others? Most of us are. Somehow, it's hard to stay detached and let go. Some of us spend much time reflecting on past conversations, thinking of what was said, and how it was said, and what it meant.
I notice how my 4-year-old daughter is learning her social skills. When she comes back from her playschool, she now likes to talk about who her friend is and who isn't, and who is "mad" at whom. Their friendships and preferences come and go, and their little disagreements and disappointments with one another are easily forgotten. It's all light-hearted at this point. Interestingly, it is in this tender age, before our cognition is fully developed, when we form many of our subconscious brain maps and beliefs. And as we grow, these subconscious beliefs may make it more difficult for us to forget, forgive, and move on.
The good news is that we can change our reactive patterns. We cannot control other people's behavior, so the best approach is to learn to manage our own responses. It becomes easier if we understand how our brain responds to perceived threats. Because so many of our beliefs are subconscious, as adults, we may not even be aware of what pushes our buttons and why. We may just notice that we become defensive, stressed, or self-critical. If the brain recognizes something as a threat, it activates the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system of the brain, responsible for the emotional control and memory of our emotional reactions. The limbic system can process something as a threat even before the stimulus reaches conscious awareness, triggering the "fight or flight" response. Our body is then flooded with cortisol, and the decision-making and rational parts of the brain shut down to mobilize our resourced for the attack or retreat.
In addition, the brain evolved to be sensitive to status and authority, i.e. how we look relative to someone else. As a result, we tend to worry about what others think of us.
Sometimes, just understanding these "quirks" of the brain and becoming aware of what's happening to us in the moments when our buttons are pushed can be helpful. Reframing the situation to lessen the threat is also helpful. We can change the brain's processing of our usual triggers if we consciously choose a behavior different from what we tend to do. In other words, we can create new neural pathways in the brain with better responses. So, once we become aware of what's happening, it helps to switch our mind to something that produces positive emotions fast and can reward the brain with the "feel good" molecules, like dopamine. The quicker we can replace the negative reaction with a positive one and the longer we can sustain the positive, the easier it will be for the brain to rewire itself.
Next time you have to deal with negative reactions, difficult people, or explosive situations, start practicing this "reframe-switch-sustain" approach. A similar process was used by psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder patients and described in his book "Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior." The consistent application of his neuroplasticity-based technique helped the patients improve their OCD symptoms and caused the corresponding physical changes in the brain, which were confirmed by brain scans. This practice can also help us with our everyday worries and anxieties.
Finally, it's good to remember that our brains are social and mirror emotional responses. We have the power to manage our own reactions and help others step out of their trigger points if we engage with love, kindness, fairness, and support.
According to Wikipedia, "[a] subliminal message is a signal or message embedded in another medium, designed to pass below the normal limits of the human mind's perception. These messages are unrecognizable by the conscious mind, but in certain situations can affect the subconscious mind and can negatively or positively influence subsequent later thoughts, behaviors, actions, attitudes, belief systems and value systems."
A new study by a UCL team led by Professor Nilli Lavie provides evidence that people are able to process emotional information from subliminal images and are better at detecting negative subliminal messages. ScienceDaily reports:
In the study, Professor Lavie and colleagues showed fifty participants a series of words on a computer screen. Each word appeared on-screen for only a fraction of second – at times only a fiftieth of a second, much too fast for the participants to consciously read the word. The words were either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle). After each word, participants were asked to choose whether the word was neutral or 'emotional' (i.e. positive or negative), and how confident they were of their decision.
The researchers found that the participants answered most accurately when responding to negative words – even when they believed they were merely guessing the answer.
"There has been much speculation about whether people can process emotional information unconsciously, for example pictures, faces and words," says Professor Lavie. "We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words.
Professor Lavie explains that there are evolutionary advantages to responding quickly to subliminal negative information because those emotional messages may have helped us avoid danger.
When light hits the retina, visual information is translated into a cascade of nerve impulses sending signals deep into the brain. It is here, in the brain's visual cortex, which resides in the occipital lobe at the back of the skull, that these signals are interpreted and give rise to perception. But the visual system has limited capacity and cannot process everything that falls onto the retina. Instead, the brain relies on attention to bring details of interest into focus so it can select them out from background clutter.Scientists had known for some time that attention to visual details increased the firing of neurons that responded to those details. What they didn't realize until now is that attention also reduces background noise, improving the clarity of the signal:
The findings of the Salk researchers, published in the September 24, 2009 issue of the journal Neuron, reveal that the uptick in the firing rate is only a small part of the story. "What we found is that attention also reduces background activity," says postdoctoral researcher and first author Jude Mitchell, Ph.D. "We estimate that this noise reduction increases the fidelity of the neural signal by a factor that is as much as four times as large as the improvement caused by attention-dependent increases in firing rate. This reduction in noise may account for as much as 80% of the attention story."The study reminds us that attention is our window into the world. The results seem to support the following practical observations:
What comes to mind if I ask you to imagine that you are at the following places:
One of your associations is likely to be the sensation of smell because all of the places above have strong aromas. Does it feel like you can almost smell them? Those aromas can quickly change your moods and emotions, and evoke memories. Why do odors play such a significant part in our emotional regulation?
The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses directly linked to the limbic system – the center of emotions in the brain. According to "Essential Oils Desk Reference," when we inhale a fragrance, the odor molecules travel up the nose where they are trapped by olfactory membranes, protected by the lining inside the nose. Each odor molecule fits into specific receptor cell sites. Each one of these hundreds of millions of nerve cells is replaced every 28 days. When this lining of nerve cells is stimulated by the odor molecules, it triggers electrical impulses to the olfactory bulb in the brain. The olfactory bulb than transmits the impulses to the gustatory center, responsible for our perception of taste, the amygdala, where emotional memories are stored, and other parts of the limbic system of the brain.
Alan Hirsch, M.D., F.A.C.P., the founder and neurological director of The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, explains this quick connection between odors and emotions in his interview for the medical journal Alternative & Complementary Therapies [PDF]:
As we all know, smells can also transport us into the past. In one of his studies, Dr. Hirsch discovered the number-one odor to evoke childhood memories. Can you guess what it is?
It turns out that environmental smells affect our behavior. In the same interview, Dr. Hirsch reports that people drive more aggressively on days when there is bad smell of air pollution, causing an increase in motor-vehicle accidents. Bad environmental odors tend to promote aggression, impede learning, and encourage school kids to misbehave.
I don't know about you, but I am about to diffuse some peppermint oil to improve my environment. It helps with task performance by increasing concentration, enhances athletic performance [PDF], and curbs appetite [PDF]. Smells good to me!
To learn more about essential oils: http://www.smartessentialoils.com
"If we want to simplify and deepen our lives, we must simplify and deepen our minds. When we become more centered, clear, spacious, caring, and open, there is suddenly much more room in our frenetic lives for both others and ourselves."
— Lama Surya Das
How do you start your work day? Do you jump right into your email inbox and get lost in the sea of unread messages calling for your attention? If so, before you know it, your mind is probably racing from one thought to another, to another. Unless your primary job function is to respond to email messages, email is a good example of how we give away the control of our schedule in response to other people's agendas and invite overwhelm into our day right from the start. We also lose precious moments when we can maximize brain power. How so?
When too much noise and input enters our brain, we become fuzzy thinkers. In addition, overwhelm and information overload add to our stress levels. Prolonged stress elevates cortisol, a stress hormone that appears to shrink the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and other cognitive functions.
The point is that if we want to be efficient, productive and creative at work, we need to put more thought into how we start our days. Much like we are better off taking the earliest flight if we want to leave on time because flight delays tend to snowball, we should spend our early work hours on some deep thinking because distractions snowball too.
You can come up with your own empowering morning routine that can help you maximize brain power for your most important projects:
What's your favorite mourning routine to maximize brain power?
Have you ever bought a lottery ticket or at least, been tempted to buy one? Your rational mind understands that the odds of winning are slim, but that tingling of hope inside says, "Somebody inevitably wins. What if it's me this time?" You are not alone. In fact, the odds of winning a lottery are stacked clearly against you because our brains like gambling and prompt so many to buy those lottery tickets.
The uncertainty of the reward is what keeps the brain interested. When the brain is busy predicting if we win or lose, it produces more of the neuromodulator dopamine, which is responsible for focused attention and more pleasurable experience. That explains how people can spend hours pulling a lever of a slot machine. Imagine what would happen if you were to get a regular salary for pulling the same lever but no chance of a random win. You'd be bored to death very soon. Random rewards keep the excitement alive but can also lead to gambling addictions.
Finance professor Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School used this behavior of dopamine neurons for the force of good when he created a pilot program called "Save to Win." Michigan residents now can invest as little as $25 into a one-year Save to Win Certificate of Deposit for a chance to win an annual grand prize of $100,000, plus monthly cash prizes varying up to $400. The goal, of course, is to encourage more people to save.
Here's something even more exciting. Our brains interpret near misses as wins, causing us to keep playing longer. In a recent fMRI study conducted by Luke Clark of the University of Cambridge, near misses activated the reward system of the volunteers who were playing a computerized slot machine in the same way as wins. The researchers saw a lot of activity in the striatum and the insula - areas involved in reinforcing behavior with positive feedback. Since people are generally not happy when they feel they were so close to winning but didn't, you may wonder about the reason for this odd behavior of the brain. The answer may be that such positive reinforcement after near misses encourages learning. The brain wants us to keep practicing the skill until we get better.
How could you use this reward system of the brain to help you build good habits faster? Here are a few things you can do:
Create a reward jar and fill it with pieces of paper with the descriptions of things you'd enjoy doing (your rewards), mixed with some blank papers. If you stay on track with your new habit, let's say, for a week, pull a piece of paper from the jar to see if you've got your lucky reward. Sometimes, you will, other times, you won't (if you get a blank paper), but that's exactly the point. If you brain knows that the reward is coming, it feels nice, for sure, but not so exciting after a while.
If you want to help others improve and grow, do random acts of kindness to encourage paying it forward, give unexpected gifts to celebrate accomplishments, express your gratitude by sending a thank-you note by snail mail (it is so rare these days that it would seem like a win to the recipient).
And remember that near misses are your opportunity to become better. Our dog trainer taught us to give our dog a treat every time the dog got a bit closer to the desired behavior. It's not just dogs that can learn new tricks with positive reinforcement. Encouragement goes a long way for people too.
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
~ Leonardo da Vinci
I was reading my Sunday paper last weekend and saw a cartoon depicting two birds sitting on a wire. They were watching the third bird that was about to fall down and was struggling to hold on to the wire. The caption read "You're overthinking this, Phil."
Do you sometimes complicate things excessively? I am guilty of it, I'll admit. Here's a related belief that comes up in coaching: we distrust simple solutions. If something is too easy, it can't be the answer. Are you familiar with that kind of thinking? Yet, simple practices can be very effective in producing remarkable results.
Take an example of recent neuroscience discoveries in the area of brain health. A few weeks ago, I was at a workshop conducted by Mark Robert Waldman, co-author of "How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist." The topic was "Imagination, Reality, and Maintaining a Healthy Brain." When it comes to maintaining a healthy brain, the strategies are simple and effective when done consistently. The authors list eight ways to exercise your brain to enhance your physical, mental and spiritual health. The easiest two may surprise you.
Do you know, for example, that a simple act of yawning improves alertness and concentration, optimizes brain metabolism, lowers stress, and increases memory recall among other things? Now, that's what I call brain efficiency. So, yawn on purpose. In fact, do it right now. Take a deep breath and get yourself into the yawning mood. If you have people around, that's even better because yawning is contagious. It can even improve group cohesiveness because it helps people synchronize their behavior with others.
If you are tired of yawning, smile. Smiling stimulates brain circuits that strengthen empathy and a positive outlook on life. Even if you don't feel like smiling, try it anyway. You'll give a signal to your subconscious that you are happy, and it can improve your mood.
Yawn, smile, and simplify! That's today's lesson.
When we are in a positive mood, our visual cortex takes in more information, while negative moods result in tunnel vision, according to a recent University of Toronto study.
In my previous post on "Positivity," I wrote about Barbara Fredrickson's research indicating that positive emotions tend to broaden our focus, enabling us to discover more tools and solutions to life's challenges and ultimately making us more resourceful.
Now, the University of Toronto study shows that good moods also create such broad focus for our perceptual experience. In the article "People Who Wear Rose-colored Glasses See More, Study Shows," ScienceDaily reports:
The researchers suggest that good moods help us see more in our environment, but the downside is that the broad focus can distract us from critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery. In contrast, bad moods limit our ability to integrate information that is outside our immediate attention.
Have you ever been caught daydreaming or doodling in class, during a lecture or at a business meeting? While others could interpret it as a sign that your mind was meandering aimlessly instead of paying attention, neuroscientists now provide us with the evidence to the contrary. It turns out that the daydreaming mind continues to solve problems, and doodling actually helps remember things better. The advice to 'sleep on it' isn't a bad idea either.
According to a recent University of British Columbia study, activity in numerous brain regions increases when our minds wander. Daydreaming activates both the brain's "default network," which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and the "executive network" - the brain areas associated with high-level, complex problem-solving. The findings support the notion that daydreaming, which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives, allows us to shift our attention from routine tasks to work through more important problems in our lives. You may not be able to accomplish an immediate goal if you daydream, but you can come up with a creative solution to a life challenge.
If you feel the urge to daydream during a boring presentation and want to improve your concentration, try doodling. It may seem contradictory to the common perceptions, but doodling while listening can keep you on track with a boring task and help you remember details better. In a recently published study, subjects given a doodling task while listening to a dull phone message had a 29% improved recall compared to their non-doodling counterparts.
In addition, nighttime dreams can also help you solve problems. A study conducted by the University of Alberta and the University of Montreal of 470 psychology students revealed that dreams that occurred six to seven days after the remembered event often reflected "interpersonal interactions, problem resolution and positive emotions." These findings suggest that people continue to work through personal difficulties in dreams.
Sleep psychologists claim we have about six dreams each night during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). We often forget our dreams, but there are things we can do to recall dreams better and capture any creative ideas that emerged in the dream state:
Finally, if you want your dreams to be more positive, try smelling something pleasant while you sleep. German researchers used specific volatile odorants with a negative or a positive smell ("rotten eggs" versus "roses") to stimulate subjects during sleep. When the unpleasant odor was used, the subjects reported that the emotional coloration of the dream was predominantly negative. When they smelled the pleasant odor, their dreams had a positive coloration.
Related post: Take a nap
Directed movements of the body can, outside of conscious awareness, guide higher-order cognitive processing, according to a new study, conduced by University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras with Vanderbilt University postdoctoral researcher Laura Thomas. PhysOrg reports:
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said, "The mind is embodied, not just embrained." This study demonstrates once again the important link between our mind and body, or "embodied cognition."
You can think on your feet quite literally. So, next time you feel stuck trying to solve a problem, start moving. Your body may guide your brain to an unexpected solution.
This study is described in the article "Swinging Into Thought: Directed Movement Guides Insight in Problem Solving" by Alejandro Lleras and Laura Thomas, appearing in an upcoming issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. To read the full report and watch the videos of the problem-solving and exercise sessions, click here.
[UPDATE] Yesterday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frank Felberbaum, the memory expert and author of "The Business of Memory: How to Maximize Your Brain Power and Fast Track Your Career," with Rachel Kranz.
Frank Felberbaum is president of Memory Training Systems, a division of The Felberbaum Consulting Group, Inc., a global company specializing in memory development and brain-power performance strategies. Formerly founder and director of The Memory Training Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, he has implemented his unique memory systems at more than 175 major corporations.
In 1995, Frank Felberbaum represented the United States at the World Memory Olympics in London and was awarded a special medal. From 1997 to the present, he has trained and coached many of the mental athletes who compete at the U.S. Memory Championship held in New York City.
Now, you can listen to his interview and learn how to tap your full memory potential and put your career on the fast track to success.
Most of us forget 85 percent of what we learn within 72 hours. Frank Felberbaum has taught thousands of business people throughout the world, including employees and executives at dozens of Fortune 500® companies how to become more efficient, effective, and powerful on the job by mastering the three basic mental functions behind memory:
• Paying attention: How to be a better observer and stay focused in the era of multitasking.
• Visualizing: How to create mental movies that help retain information by telling stories.
• Associating: How to link newly acquired information to familiar experiences, which are easily recalled.
You can listen to the interview via web at:
To download the audio recording of the interview:
Music can entertain, shift our mood, relieve stress, promote cognitive development, make us better at recognizing emotion in sound, and now scientists search for evidence that music can heal, according to The New York Times article "Composing Concertos in the Key of Rx" by Matthew Gurewitsch:
Click here to read the full article.
A recent study into the neural mechanisms through which external information, such as professional advice, is integrated into financial decision making may shed light on how Bernard Madoff was able to deceive so many people. ScienceDaily reports:
The lesson is... don't outsource your critical thinking, especially when you talk to an expert.
Click here to read the full article.
Last Sunday, I attended the discussion between neuro-psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg as part of the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. The topic was how positive thinking influenced the mind. Specifically, they talked about the effects of lovingkindness meditation practice on positive emotions and about the results of Dr. Fredrickson's research, described in her new book "Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive."
The conversation began with the question about the roles of positive and negative emotions. Psychologists have known for a long time that negative emotions are so salient and effective in seizing our attention because our survival has depended on them. The fear of a tiger, the disgust at the sight of rotten food - those negative emotions have been there to protect us. But why do we need positive emotions and how can we experience them more often? This is the inquiry of the positive psychology.
Dr. Fredrickson's research points out that positive emotions tend to broaden our focus, enabling us to discover more tools and solutions to life's challenges and ultimately making us more resourceful. When we experience negative emotions, our focus is narrow. This tunnel vision precludes us from switching perspectives and seeing creative solutions. Positive emotions let our minds open, or "bloom." In Dr. Fredrickson's study, the lovingkindness meditation practice has been shown to increase the frequency of positive emotions. In the lovingkindness mediation, you gather your attention around words and phrases of love and peace that you repeat rhythmically and direct to yourself and others. Those participants who saw a bigger increase in positivity from the start of the program also showed more benefits after three months of practice. In the long term, positive emotions result in more resilience and life satisfaction.
All emotions are transient. The point is not to try to be positive all the time, but rather to increase the frequency of positive emotions. Dr. Fredrickson discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones makes people more resilient and creative in meeting life’s challenges and achieving their goals. You can find out your ratio and get other online tools at Dr. Fredrickson's website http://www.positivityratio.com. As Sharon Salzberg beautifully said, what counts is the willingness "to begin again," to redirect the mind towards more positive alternatives.
An interesting question was raised during the Q&A about the cross-cultural variance with regard to positivity. Culture influences what we consider a positive experience. For example, in cultures where individualism is praised, people feel positive when they stand out and accomplish something on their own. In collective cultures, feeling connected to a group, fitting in, may be more important to increase positive emotions. Reflecting on my own cross-cultural experiences, I wonder if the broad focus also facilitates cultural adjustment. It would be interesting to see studies on this.
Between February 21 and April 23, 2009, The Rubin Museum of Art will host its second annual Brainwave, which "explores the intersection of mind and matter with nearly fifty different events, including discussions with some of the world's premier artists and neuroscientists." Here are just some of the offerings:
Click here to read the full list of "Meetings of the Minds." I plan to attend and blog about at least some of these events.
As a linguist by training, I have always liked learning new languages. In fact, English is not my native language, Russian is. I started truly learning English when I was in high school and added a few more languages later while studying linguistics. After reading "The Bilingual Brain" in the Society for Neuroscience Brain Briefings, I am considering adding a new language to my 2009 resolutions:
Those who start learning languages at an early age benefit the most.
I am glad I am raising my daughter bilingual (English and Russian), and we'll be adding Spanish soon.
Adults benefit from learning languages as well. There are many misconceptions surrounding adult language learning, especially about the "critical period" hypothesis that argues that the brain is too rigid to learn after puberty, making second language acquisition more difficult for adults. Current neuroscience research into the competitive nature of brain plasticity offers a different explanation. The skills we practice compete for our brain map space. In his book "The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," Norman Doidge writes:
This can also explain why learning a language as an adult is quite possible and much easier if you immerse yourself in the environment where that language is spoken, or if you otherwise have a strong need or desire to learn it, for example, when your close friends, your spouse, or your co-workers speak a different language. If you put enough attention into it, it will happen. It is, to a large extent, an issue of priorities, time, and motivation.
What language are you learning this year?
Jonah Lehrer, the author of "How We Decide," discusses the perils and benefits of city life as they relate to the brain in his article "How the city hurts your brain ...And what you can do about it" in The Boston Globe:
But the urban environment has its positive sides too, including creativity and innovation:
One of the ways to mitigate the negative effects of city living is to spend more time in natural settings that can restore and replenish our mental energy. Click here to read the full article.
And check out the Urban Mindfulnes blog for tips on how to stay mindful in the city.