Category Archives: Neuroscience

Language and the Brain

I’ve never really given much thought to how we learn and store language. If pressed, I’d have guessed that we had a language database somewhere in the neocortex that pairs words with meanings. I’d also have envisioning this cerebral dictionary growing over time as we learn new words, new uses for existing words, and foreign languages. As it turns out, our brains are a lot more sophisticated than that.

neocortexOur neocortex assumes responsibility for the higher-order brain functions of sensory perception, cognition, motor control, spatial reasoning, and language. It is divided into four pairs of cerebral lobes:

The frontal lobes engage in planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and behavioral control. They provide an awareness of our own thought processes as well as our ability to predict what others will be thinking or doing.

The parietal lobes process somatic (pertaining to the body) sensory information including touch, pressure, pain, heart, cold, and tension.

The occipital lobes are the main centers for visual processing (size, depth, texture, spatial orientation, color).

The temporal lobes engage in long term memory processing, audio processing (hearing), language comprehension, and emotional responses. Visual areas interpret sensory input – i.e., identifying objects (including facial expressions and body language) and anticipating what they might do.

These descriptions make it appear as though the brain supports a clear delineation of responsibilities for the various functions it performs. Science tells us otherwise. As a case in point, the cortical premotor areas of the frontal lobes and the parietal lobes work together to understand actions, objects acted upon, and locations toward which actions are directed. This collective of perception/action circuits also form a crucial role in language processing.

Through the wonders of brain imaging technologies, neuroscientists have been able to measure activity in various regions of the brain when we use language. In one experiment, subjects were asked to observe, name silently, and imagine using various man-made objects – e.g., hammers, screwdrivers, etc. In all cases, the brain regions that would be employed using these tools fired when the subjects simply called them to mind. This neural circuitry gives us a richer sense of meaning for our otherwise spartan vocabulary. Here’s a simple illustration.

Suppose a pro-business commentator decried government regulation for putting a chokehold on investment. Upon hearing or reading this assertion, our brains would ignite circuitry that would be used to execute a chokehold, visualize a chokehold, and experience a chokehold, even though the original sentence has nothing to do with cutting off air supplies. It’s simply how we’re wired. We imagine or simulate the words we speak or hear in a sensory way.

Great authors and orators understand this dynamic. Their words leap off the page/podium and create vibrant imagery in the minds of their readers/listeners. For example, when Toni Morrison describes a little girl’s dress as “lemon drop yellow,” I not only see the color, but I’m firing off taste buds that give me an extra measure of freshness for that Spring fashion choice. Cognitive scientists refer to this construct as embodied language.

Why might our brains work that way? Words underspecify meaning. By themselves, a simple word-meaning pair doesn’t provide enough information to capture what we’re seeing, doing, or experiencing. They don’t help us predict what comes next, what might be expected of us, or what we might be necessary for survival. We recruit resources from across our cerebral spectrum to fill in the blanks.

Of course, not all words evoke multisensory reactions. The pro-business commentator mentioned earlier could have stated that government regulation discouraged investment or limited funds available for investment. We’d come away with the same general meaning. By evoking the imagery of strangulation, the speaker created a much more powerful literary imprint and very likely induced an emotional response.

As we move into the final stages of the upcoming election cycle, I’m playing close attention to the rhetoric employed by candidates for political office and their handlers. While they may not have been trained on embodied language, they’re certainly availing themselves of its precepts. There’s quite a lot of trafficking in words and imagery that engender fear and anxiety. Those emotions play upon our survival instincts. I hope and pray that the electorate separates their visceral reactions to this onslaught and makes informed choices based on facts and reasoned arguments regarding what’s in the best interest of the nation and the world going forward.


  • Jerome Feldman and Srinivas Narayanan, Embodied meaning in neural theory of language, August 2003 (published by Science Direct)

Alzheimer’s Disease

With last week’s focus on mental health, I thought I’d zero in on a particularly challenging form of mental disorder, Alzheimer’s disease. The Mayo Clinic characterizes the condition as “a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to waste away and die. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia — a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral, and social skills that disrupts a person’s ability to function independently.”

alzheimer's diseaseThe Alzheimer’s Association has published a rather alarming set of statistics regarding the prevalence of this disease:

  • 8 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, with estimated growth to 14 million by 2050
  • 16 million Americans provide 18.5 billion hours of unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, valued at nearly $235 billion
  • 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or senior dementia

There is no treatment that cures Alzheimer’s disease or alters the disease process in the brain. However, as documented elsewhere in this blog, healthy lifestyle habits appear to be protective of brain circuitry and forestall its development.

I have some experience in this area. My father had geriatric dementia in his later years. While his cognitive functioning was impaired, he was still able to carry on an animated conversation until the last couple of months before his death at 96. My mother has fill-blown Alzheimer’s disease and has been substantively impaired for quite some time.

It turns out that while most seniors think it’s important to have their cognitive abilities checked regularly, only 16% of them actually follow through with testing. I can understand why. Of the many things that fall away with old age, the loss of one’s cognitive capacity and memory just might be the most frightening. It’s a clear marker of infirmity that foretells the loss of independence. And, as noted in last week’s post, any condition identified as detrimental to mental health tends to be stigmatized.

My mother was among the smartest people I’ve ever known, and she viewed her intelligence as one of her primary assets. So, I imagine that it was really bothersome for her to experience a decline in her analytical capacity and  stellar memory. Early indications came 5+ years ago when she asked me to take over their finances when Dad went into skilled nursing. The cover story was that it would be easier for me to navigate all the administrative details that accompanied payment of fees and reimbursement by their long-term care insurance provider. But a quick glance at their books revealed that Mom’s accounting skills had really fallen by the wayside.

Mom was once our chief purveyor of family stories, providing extraordinary detail on names, relations, conversations, events, etc. In the last few years, she spent more time listening to the stories and acting as if she were following the conversation (but may not have been). A little over a year ago, she stopped being able to watch movies or TV shows – even familiar ones or those with really simple story lines. She just couldn’t follow the action and would say over and over, “What’s going on?” Within the past couple of weeks, she seems to have forgotten who I am.

As caregivers go, I am really, really lucky. My parents acquired long-term care insurance 25 years ago. As such, Mom can afford to live in one of the nicest Memory Care facilities in the area. Her room and the common areas are beautifully appointed. The organization attracts competent, caring staff. They do the “heavy lifting” (literally and figuratively) so that I can focus on being a daughter. Even so, it is still really difficult to watch my Mom struggle with everyday living. And there’s very little I can do these days other than sit with her.

As noted above, 1 in 3 older adults passes on with some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The sad reality is that the person you knew leaves long before his or her body finishes its earthly existence. I miss the mother who knew me. I miss the mother who shared my memories. I pray that she is as safe, comfortable, and peaceful as we can make her in these final days.

Mental Health

Ten years ago, a former colleague published an evocative memoir about her struggle with depression, her road to recovery, and her ongoing management of the condition. I was floored by her revelation. When we worked together, she was an “it” girl – intelligent, witty, beautiful, athletic, and seemingly successful in all aspects of her life. And yet her struggles were very real, very painful, and very nearly fatal.

She is not alone.

mental healthTIME magazine’s special issue on mental health tells us that 450 million people worldwide struggle with mental health issues. In the United States alone, one in five people experience some form of mental illness each year. Those afflicted increase their mortality risk by 26% and are decidedly more susceptible to metabolic syndrome, chronic stress (and the attendant physiological distress), and altered immune function. TIME estimates the worldwide annual cost of mental illness to be $2.5 trillion and projects growth to $6 trillion by 2030. Suffice it to say, it’s an emerging health crisis.

The stigma attached to mental illness creates an impediment to effective treatment. It takes courage to seek help in a society that often deems mental disorder as a sign of weakness. Yet the emerging science tells us that these brain disorders have their basis in biology and require intervention. We need to change the public discourse to create a safe space for people to get the help they need.

For the past 60 years, antidepressants have been a bedrock of psychiatric treatment. However, 30% of the target population do not respond well to them. Of the remainder, it could take a process of trial-and-error to find the right medication and dosage to produce a workable result. Unfortunately, the longer one stays in a state of depression, the harder it becomes to set things right.

While depression can affect every one of us at any age, we are at increased risk in our 60s and beyond. There’s an increased incidence of seniors living without family members nearby. Upwards of 20-25% of Baby Boomers do not have children. That combined with a plethora of solitary entertainment can result in a downward spiral of loneliness.

So, what can we do to maximize our own mental health?

  1. Get a good night’s sleep every night. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and arise at the same time every morning. Have a calming ritual at night that helps you prepare for sleep.
  2. Eat a healthy diet. The same dietary risk factors that give rise to heart disease also affect brain health.
  3. Exercise! It’s not just good for the body; it’s good for the brain! Physical activity elevates mood, bolsters energy, and stimulates the production of endorphins. It also desensitizes the body to certain kinds of emotional distress.
  4. Prioritize spending time with people. Socialization is one of the best things you can do to sustain a healthy brain and ward off depression. Stay in the workforce. Volunteer. Join clubs. Put the welcome mat out and invite friends over.
  5. Consider living in an intentional community. The younger generation has embraced this lifestyle, often as a function of economic necessity. The fifty-five-and-over crowd has access to a broad range of planned communities all across the country, primarily in warmer climates. A handful of multi-generational communities are sprouting up as well. Or simply forge connection within your neighborhood.
  6. Engage in mindfulness training. It helps you focus on the present rather than ruminate on the past, among other benefits. For those of us who have trouble sitting still, try floating on water. Early evidence suggests that it lowers anxiety, relieves muscle tension, and engenders a relaxed state of mind.
  7. Seek professional help. As a case in point, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing negative thought patterns and finding new approaches to problems.
  8. Get a pet. Research has shown that pet ownership lowers blood pressure, heart rates, and heart disease risk. And pets are a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness.
  9. Use light therapy if affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. It can be a mood and energy booster first thing in the morning.
  10. Focus on all the things about which you can be grateful and let go of grievances and disappointments. Make a habit of forgiving yourself and others. Pay attention to the blessings that each day brings.

What Neuroscience Tells Us About Emotional Styles

I’m a regular patron of the Beaverton library. I usually work from a specific reading list based on recommendations from friends and colleagues. But I happen to browse the neuroscience section and came upon a title that caught my eye – The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live… and How You Can Change Them. Mmmm… a self-improvement guide for nerds!

It turns out that the author – Dr. Richard Davidson, PhD – was intrigued by the varying emotional responses that people manifest when dealing with all the things that life throws at them. As he entered graduate studies at Harvard in the 1970s, he wanted to establish a scientific basis for describing these variances while developing concrete methodologies that help people lead healthier, happier lives. His efforts help birth affective neuroscience, the study of brain mechanisms that underlie our emotions.

The book introduces readers to his six dimensions of “emotional style” along with a summary of the research that led to their development. You learn a bit about how the brain works and the differences that show up in varying manifestations of the six dimensions. He talks about the mind-body connection (a topic on which I’ve written previously). And he also talks about the ways in which our brains adapt and change based on the experiences we have and the thoughts that we think. I commend interested parties to read the book and dive into the details. It’s fascinating!

The six dimensions of “emotional style” for which Dr. Davidson found a clear neurological correlate are:

  1. Resilience measures the speed with which one shakes off the anger, sadness, or other negative emotion after a loss, setback, hassle, or other bothersome event. He labels the extremes Fast-to-Recover (insufficient reflection on, and learning from, an experience) and Slow-to-Recover (trapped in a cycle of excess rumination).
  2. Outlook reflects one’s attitude toward lived experience. One with a positive outlook sustains joyful, interconnected, outgoing, upbeat sensibilities. One with a negative outlook can experience positive sensations intermittently but is unable to keep them going.
  3. Socially intuitive people are adept at discerning and interpreting non-verbal communication, such as body language, facial expressions, vocal intonation, etc. They tend to exhibit high activation in the fusiform face area (which deciphers faces), and relatively low activation in the amygdala (which triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response).
  4. Self-Awareness provides consciousness of one’s thoughts and feelings; they’re mindful of the messages that their bodies are sending them. This capacity plays a crucial role in empathy for others. Those low in this capability may manifest emotions in their bodies (e.g., anger, stress) yet be completely unaware of them.
  5. People who exhibit Sensitivity-to-Context are attuned to their social environment and possess a keen awareness of the prevailing rules and expectations. Those who lack this ability are prone to inappropriate speech and behavior.
  6. People who rate high on the Attention scale can sustain focus even in the midst of a gaggle of distractions. They can zero in on a single conversation in a noisy party; they can forge ahead on projects and tasks in the midst of emotional turmoil. They’re also less susceptible to “attention blink,” a heightened response to a stimulus that causes “blindness” to a secondary one in close succession.

Prevailing wisdom suggested that “emotional styles” form early and stay with us throughout our lives. Dr. Davidson and his colleagues disproved this assertion. Sensory experience can rewire the brain. Thoughts and intentions increase or decrease the amount of cortical real estate dedicated to specific functions. And cognitive-behavioral therapy can alter brain activity in fundamental ways.

While Dr. Davidson does not place value judgments on one’s positioning on the six dimensions of emotional styles, he makes the case that certain patterns seem to be associated with better life outcomes and greater happiness. To that end, he practices meditation and encourages others to do so.

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) enhances left prefrontal cortex activation which has been associated with Fast-to-Recover resilience.
  • An intensive period of mindfulness improves selective attention and reduces attentional blink.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to encourage a Positive Outlook.

Also included in his prescription for happier lives: Pay attention to positive characteristics in yourself and others. Express gratitude. Compliment others regularly.

Exercise Your Brain!

For those of us who’ve traversed the mid-life mark, it’s easy to see the signs of aging on our bodies no matter how much effort we put into maintaining them! We may fail to recognize that the impact of the passing years is just as prevalent on our brains. If we could catch a glimpse of plaque formation and tangles amid our gray matter, we might get motivated to do something about it – especially those of us who have cared for parents or grandparents with geriatric dementia.

exercise is good for the brainIn The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young, Dr. Gary Small tells us that it is far easier to prevent the loss of cognitive ability than to attempt to restore it. Fortunately, much like our muscles, our brains are designed to become more effective the more we exercise them. As a case in point, people who engage in mentally challenging jobs or pursuits enjoy a substantive measure of protection from future memory losses.

Dr. Small’s book provides a time-tested prescription for maintaining youthful brains. Here are a handful of techniques he recommends.

LOOK, SNAP, CONTEXT: Look actively at what you want to learn or remember. Slow down. Pay attention. Take in all of the sensory information. Create mental snapshots of memories. Fix them into long term memory by creating vivid and memorable images of the source material. For example, to remember that someone’s name is “Pat,” imagine a giant pat of butter melting on that person’s head! Connect all of these snapshots together into a cohesive story or chain. Use acronyms or other memory devices to help you.

MINIMIZE STRESS: Stress wears away at our brain fitness and overall memory performance. Avoid overloaded schedules, sleeplessness, ruminating, worrying, pessimism. Rather, set realistic expectations, pace yourself, schedule time outs, shrug things off, laugh, and relax!

TAKE ON HEALTHY CHALLENGES: Stretch yourself cognitively. (Use it or lose it!) Give yourself new mental mountains to climb. Introduce yourself to unfamiliar situations that you’ll have to master. Work on puzzles and brain teasers. And stay connected to the biggest brain teasers of all – other people! Yep – socialization is great for the brain.

EAT WELL: Those unhealthy diets that clog up the arteries in your heart also clog up the arteries in your brain. As such, eliminate processed foods, limit animal fats, and increase consumption of whole grains, fresh vegetables, and fruits. Healthy diets also help control blood pressure which reduces the risk of stroke.

EXERCISE: Physical activity and aerobic conditioning promote brain fitness. Exercise improves executive functioning – making plans, scheduling and carrying out activities, coordinating events, controlling adverse emotional states.

EXPAND YOUR MEMORY POWER: Put effort into writing effective notes; they’ll serve as useful memory aids. Be strategic about where you put things and hold fast to those decisions (e.g., wallet, car keys, bills to be paid). Use daily planning lists and weekly/monthly planning calendars. Place Post It notes where you’ll see them for important reminders. Create good habits that you’ll carry out without thinking much about them. (And avoid grooving on bad ones!) Follow a daily routine.

Strategies for Effective Learning

New York Times science writer Benedict Carey put together a fascinating book entitled How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. The book provides a rudimentary understanding of how the brain works and covers a large body of research on how to improve its functioning.

effective learningAs I’ve covered in prior posts, the brain is not a computer. It’s a survival machine that has adapted over the millennia to sense a vast quantity of data, filter out what it deems irrelevant, and embed data and memories in complex, overlapping networks. It may augment sensory data with its own contrivances to fill in any gaps in information. It may access and rewrite memories multiple times, changing the content ever so slightly with each processing. And it may establish relationships between seemingly unrelated pieces of data, intertwining old memories with new ones.

The author is a self-described nose-to-the-grindstone kind of learner. He recalls all the stress and strain of studying as well as the frustration when other students found success with far less effort. So, he was keenly interested to unearth strategies to improve his learning process.

Here are some of the interesting findings from his book…

Memory has two components: a storage strength (how well something is learned) and a retrieval strength (how readily it can be drawn back to mind). The harder we work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent increase in storage and retrieval strength. To that end, distributing one’s study time across multiple sessions supports deeper learning than concentrating one’s effort in a single session.

One downside of concentrated study is the false impression that we’ve mastered the material. We perform well on recall in the immediate aftermath of our efforts, but we have trouble with recall a short time later. And while “cramming” can get us through a test, it has limited efficacy in content retention over time.

Varying the background while learning enhances effectiveness. Music, light, background, colors can positively impact storage and retention. It also helps the brain adapt more readily to a testing environment that’s different from the study environment.

Pre-testing and “pop quizzes” increase the likelihood of performing well on a subsequent test, even if one does poorly on them. They help the brain focus on what’s important when studying.

The standard phases of problem solving include: (i) preparation (working on the problem until the point of impasse), (ii) incubation (ruminating on the problem in background), (iii) illumination (the “aha” moment), and (iv) verification (checking to see that the flash of insight proves true). During incubation, the mind is sensitive to information that might bear on the problem. Input may arrive piecemeal or all-at-one; it may change baseline assumptions about the problem. Time spent percolating often results in substantive breakthroughs and creative insights.

People demonstrate higher recall of unfinished or interrupted assignments than completed ones. There’s something about starting work that gives it psychological weight. It engenders a desire for fulfillment and tunes the mind toward collection of relevant input. It can be thought of as another form of percolating. It suggests a strategy of starting work on larger projects ASAP to build internal commitment and launch percolation… even if it’s just knocking out the small stuff.

Repetition of a specific skill set creates a powerful illusion of mastery (e.g., running scales on the piano). But skills improve quickly and then plateau. A better approach involves varying the content of practice and accepting the slower apparent rate of progress in each discipline (e.g., scales, music theory, repertoire). This interleaving produces stronger, longer lasting results… and works for motor and cognitive skills.

A new frontier of “perceptual learning” exploits the brain’s ability to detect differences in similar looking objects and use those insights to decipher new, previously unseen material. It introduces concepts, ideas, or meaning without detailed explanation and lets the students learn experientially. An example given in the book revolved around identifying works of art by historical period. The subject used randomized collection of flash cards and made impressive strides in knowledge by trial-and-error rather than reading through detailed characterizations of the various periods. The technique has also been used with great success to accelerate the learning curve for new pilots as they acclimate to reading and interpreting gauges on their dashboards.

The final piece to the learning improvement: Get a good night’s sleep. During sleep, the brain is consolidating memories, making connections, and separating the important from the trivial. It clarifies memories and sharpens skills.

Renewed Interested in Mind-Expanding Substances

mind expansionIf you were old enough to experience the cultural tides of the 1960s, you most certainly would have heard of Dr. Timothy Leary. He was the flamboyant Harvard professor whose research on psychedelics led him to believe that “the effects of consciousness expanding drugs will… transform our concepts of human nature, of human potential, of existence.” In that spirit, he also admonished America’s youth to: “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.” Such commentary and the associated moral panic contributed to rendering all such drugs illegal in 1970.

That’s pretty much all I knew about psychedelics until I picked up Michael Pollan’s latest book, How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. He serves up a modern history of these substances, a first-hand account of their use, and a bit of neuroscience to explain their effects.

Scientific research on psychedelics started in the mid-20th Century after a Swiss biochemist by the name of Albert Hoffmann synthesized LSD in 1938. He was searching for pharmaceutical relief for those with terminal illness or psychiatric disorders. His invention did not gain much traction until he took at second look at it in in 1943. He used himself as a test subject and realized that he had something very powerful on his hands. In 1958, he identified the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms (psilocybin) and devised a mechanism to synthesize it.

Psychedelics were used successfully in the 1950s and 1960s in controlled settings to treat addiction, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and end-of-life anxiety. Forty thousand people participated in clinic trials, and thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers were published. Unfortunately, all of the countercultural baggage associated with psychedelics put the kibosh on funded laboratory research.

For the next 25 years, psychedelic experimentation went underground. A dedicated group of practitioners continued to deploy these substances to help their patients. They acknowledged the importance of “set and setting” in delivering experiences that would prove forwarding. They knew that psychedelics had expectancy effects – i.e., one tended to have the experience for which one was primed. As such, patients had to be screened carefully, and trained guides needed to provide suitable instructions prior to administering the drug. Treatment rooms were appropriately pleasing with soothing sights, sounds, and smells abounding. And patients were told that they would not be left unattended during any part of their experience.

While many practitioners focused on attending to persons with physical or psychological challenges, another collective conducted experiments to measure the ways in which psychedelics might improve the lives of “healthy” individuals. Early research suggested the potential to transcend mental limitations and improve problem-solving skills. (Apparently, many Silicon Valley pioneers found this possibility compelling.) They could also become less judgmental, less rigid, more open, and less defended. Many participants reported that their use of mind-expanding substances occasioned mystical experiences for which there was sustained personal and spiritual significance.

In 2006, funded (legal) psychedelic research began anew to address intractable psychiatric problems for which the earlier research had shown promising results. These renewed efforts had the advantage of brain imaging technology that would enable neuroscientists to understand what was going on inside the brain during psychedelic trips. The results proved fascinating.

It turns out that our brains have what’s called a Default Mode Network (DMN) that sits atop the functional hierarchy of the brain. It filters incoming sensory data while coordinating signals across the brain regions. Formed in late child development, it is closely associated with our egos – who we believe ourselves to be, how we see ourselves in relation to the world, what we like/dislike, what we deem right/wrong, etc. While it gives us a sense of self, it also creates a sense of separation from others.

Test subjects demonstrate decreased blood flow (i.e., activity) in the DMN on psychedelics. When this part of the brain goes “off line,” a wholly new state of consciousness can emerge – one that opens the floodgates to sensory data while diminishing boundaries between “ME” and everything else. It also creates the opportunity for the disparate brain regions to forge new connections. As Pollan says, when the “superhighways” in the brain stop working, the regions start using the old country back roads to communicate. Lasting change can occur when exercising these new connections after the fact.

So why have these drugs been effective for treating folks in challenging circumstances? An overactive DMN can trap people in an endless loop of rumination. Breaking that cycle can provide relief. For example, patients with terminal illness can break free of their anxiety, depression, and “Why Me?” thoughts and focus on a heightened sense of connection with loved ones. Persons suffering with depression can experience relief from the mental prison that renders feelings of disconnection. Addicts may see the world as offering so many wonders that they’ll forgo destructive behaviors that rob them of exploring these possibilities.

As an interesting aside, highly experienced mediators generate states of consciousness (as measured by brain scans) that bear a striking resemblance to persons on psychedelic drugs. It’s yet another argument for finding a comfortable lotus position and developing this skill.

Pollan does a yeoman’s job describing the erstwhile indescribable feeling of being under the influence of a psychedelic substance. As one who went into the experience with a healthy dose of skepticism (and trepidation), he gives the experience its due without underselling or overblowing its merits. Suffice it to say, it piqued my interest.

Is Play Necessary?

polar bear and dog playIn the far Northern reaches, a group of sled dogs gain a much-needed rest from their master. Off in the distance, a hungry polar bear approaches, causing great alarm among the pack and their master. When the bear arrives, the lead dog signals the intent to play, and the bear goes along. Threat averted!

Play is pervasive in the animal kingdom. Yet it’s incredible to think that the desire for play can take precedence over the survival instinct. After all, to the casual observer, play is a seemingly purposeless expenditure of time that provides a pleasant diversion from the ordinary business of life. But the impulse to play is a biological drive. And as Dr. Stuart Brown details in Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Integrates the Soul, play has been proven scientifically to be an incredibly useful activity.

Our brains self-create as a function of the environments in which they operate and the experiences they amass. Play stimulates secretion of brain-derived neurotropic factors (BDNF) that the brain uses to build and maintain its cellular circuitry. BDNF improves neural function and helps enrich and shape neural connections. Play also helps the brain gain experience in contrived settings that can be deployed in real life circumstances – e.g., practicing karate with friends at a dojo that can be used if and when a physical threat arises. And, of course, play provides a low-risk setting to discover and cultivate all those wonderful skills.

Play optimizes the mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation. Transforming a learning experience from rote memorization to a playful game vastly improves engagement in the moment and retention after the fact. The more experimentation with the “game,” the greater the comprehension of how the subject matter at hand works.

Play confers skills that bolster emotional intelligence. Players learn how to cooperate, how to navigate difference, and how to establish and maintain trust. They also learn how to discern who has their backs and who is gunning for them. Belonging is an outgrowth of social play.

Play is essential for aging gracefully. Studies consistently link favorable health outcomes with adults who continue to explore, play games, and learn throughout their lives. They’re not only less susceptible to dementia, they’re less likely to suffer from heart disease and other ailments seemingly unrelated to the brain.

Play and work are mutually supportive. In both, we learn new things, exercise our creativity, develop our skills, forge relationships, stretch ourselves, and achieve goals. Play helps us cope with work-related stress and personal difficulties while providing a sense of expansiveness that allows for clear thinking. It can provide the space for the critical insight that solves a problem or illuminates an opportunity. And, as Dr. Brown notes, “true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work.”

How Do We Get Rid of Bad Habits?

Popular software programs provide a feature that enables users to capture programming sequences that they use habitually. It saves time and improves accuracy on repetitive tasks.

As it turns out, our brains have a similar mechanism. It manages this function in our behalf automatically. In fact, a 2006 study by Duke University revealed that 40% of our daily activities take advantage of these stored sub-routines. Charles Duhigg explores this fascinating subject in his book in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The brain’s basal ganglia provide the means to capture and store patterns of behavior, a process referred to as “chunking.” When chunks combine to form habits, our brains can process other thoughts, or simply enjoy a quiet moment.

Other members of the animal kingdom form habits. In fact, they’ve helped researchers figure out how habits work.

For example, scientists measured brain activity in rats as they learned to navigate a maze in search of cheese. During the learning phase, brain activity remained high from the time they entered the maze (their behavioral “cues”) until they reached their rewards (cheese). Once they’d mastered the routine, brain patterns were only elevated when encountering the initial cue and when reaping the fruits – or should I say, cheese – of their labors.

brain activity and habit formation

Of course, we don’t lock in on every pattern of behavior in which we’ve engaged. The reward must be sufficiently compelling to fuel anticipation for it. Craving powers the habit loop.

Once we’ve learned a habit, it remains in our memory banks indefinitely… or, at least, a really, really long time. Unfortunately, our brains don’t discern between “good habits” and “bad habits.” Even when we work hard at bypassing the latter, “bad habits” can re-emerge at any time.

So how can we reset our wiring so that we don’t get tripped up by our “bad habits”?

First and foremost, we need to amp up our awareness so that we don’t get caught operating on autopilot. We need to identify our “cues” – that is, the triggers that cause us to launch our bad habit loops. We also need to get crystal clear on the rewards that fuel these loops.

For example, suppose I find that I consistently break away from my home office at 3 pm to watch a little TV and nosh on whatever happens to be readily available in the refrigerator. I’d ask myself: What’s really going on at 3 pm that triggers this behavior? Am I bored? Fatigued? Restless? Tapped out? What payoff am I getting from watching TV? Am I simply looking for a way to give my mind a break? Or do I really think that I’m getting some form of creative input by my daily dose of Netflix? Moreover: Am I really hungry, or am I simply finding another avenue to relieve boredom?

After getting a handle on the cues (triggers) and cravings for reward, it’s easier to think creatively about launching different routines. For example, if my 3 pm date with the TV and the refrigerator reflects a need to take and break and clear my mind, I could simply take a short walk with my dog when the urge strikes.

Duhigg describes the Gold Rule of Habit Change as follows: Keep an old cue, deliver an old reward, but insert a new routine. A “competing response” disrupts an old habit. However, a new routine can only replace the old one when it is accompanied by faith that it will work – that is, faith that things will get better, and faith in one’s coping mechanisms when facing temptation, discomfort, or suffering.

When substantive lifestyle changes are at stake, it’s helpful to identify and strengthen keystone habits. When these habits shift, they have the power to dislodge and remake other patterns. For example, the keystone habit of regular exercise tends to make people eat better, smoke less, improve sleep patterns, experience higher productivity, and feel less stress. It creates a structure in which other forwarding habits flourish while delivering a series of self-reinforcing “small wins.”

Within the realm of keystone habits, willpower reigns supreme. Strengthen willpower in one area of your life, and you reap benefits in others. The bad news: Willpower is a bit like a muscle that can get fatigued by excess use. The good news: It is aided and abetted by tactics that conserve its energy – e.g., removing temptations, drawing attention away from triggers, consistently focusing on the prize.

Finally, as social creatures, we’re often helped (or sabotaged) by the company we keep. We increase our odds of success by placing ourselves within communities that support and reinforce habits that we hope to manifest every day.

The Biology of Behavior

Most of us like to think that we’re in complete control of our actions. We picture ourselves as rational beings capable of making the right choices at the right times for the right reasons. But as Dr. Jonathan Sapolsky writes in Behave: The Biology of Humans and Our Best and Worst, many factors influence the biology of behavior, some of which operate below conscious awareness.

Sensory input impacts our thought processes. For example, if we’re cradling a warm drink, we think warm thoughts about others. By contrast, cold drinks elicit a more frosty assessment. And if we’re in pain (or even really hungry), we’re more apt to be aggressive.

bad or good behaviorRapid response brain regions impact our decisions and behaviors. The amygdala perceives sensory data through the lens of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It evokes action to keep us from harm’s way and injects distrust and vigilance into decision processes. The hippocampus provides assistance by retaining information related to amygdala activity, thereby speeding response the next go around. They’re great defenders for real and present dangers; they’re troublesome for recovery from ingrained prejudice or past trauma (e.g., PTSD).

Hormones affect our perceptions and behaviors. For example, testosterone has been correlated with confidence, optimism, and aggression while decreasing fear and anxiety.

Neuropeptides (oxytocin and vasopressin) promote pair bonding and stimulate paternal/maternal behavior. While they elicit charitable behavior toward other members of our group, they increase aggression toward strangers when protecting loved ones.

The dopaminergic system regulates the pleasure center. In a healthy individual, it confers a sense of satisfaction in goal-directed behavior that anticipates future reward. Unfortunately, over-to-top sources of reward (e.g., sugar, alcohol, drugs, gambling) engender cravings, addiction, and habituation. The more we take in, the more we want.

The frontal cortex provides cognition, working memory, emotional regulation, rational decision making, and long-term planning. It’s the area of the brain that is least influenced by genetic inheritance and most sculpted by experience. It has the capacity to interpret sensory and emotional inputs and modulate our responses. For example, amygdaloidal neurons may fire in response to perceived threat, but the frontal cortex has veto power if it thinks the stimulus isn’t scary. That being said, the amygdala tends to carry the day for split second decision making; the frontal cortex requires deliberation.

As cognitive load on the frontal cortex increases, people become less empathetic, charitable, and honest. They’re more likely to succumb to temptation or make rash decisions. Habit formation proves an effective counterweight. It reduces cognitive load by rendering behaviors automatic. Other tactics for avoiding temptation include distraction (drawing one’s mind away from the stimulus) and reappraisal (changing the narrative of what’s happening in the moment). By contrast, good old fashioned willpower increases cognitive load.

Finally, culture exerts a profound impact on how we think and behave. Collectivist cultures emphasize harmony, interdependence, and conformity; individualist cultures stress autonomy, personal achievement, and individual rights. Stratified cultures (e.g., unequal incomes) foster more violence and less trust and kindness. Urban dwellers tend to have more reactive amygdalas, causing heightened fear and anxiety.

The biology of US versus THEM struck me as one of the more fascinating topics in Dr. Sapolsky’s book. We are biologically wired to process differences in race, ethnicity, gender, social status, and beauty. Our brains are especially attuned to skin color. We form US-THEM dichotomies within milliseconds of exposure to other human beings. Dress, ornamentation, and regional accent augment the visual cues as markers of values, beliefs, and ideologies. We feel a sense of obligation and reciprocity toward those we deem part of US, and we’re more likely make amends to those within our group. THEY can be viewed as threatening, angry, and untrustworthy. THEY might even evoke disgust.

us versus themWe all belong to several US-THEM groupings, and our affiliations vary over time. Yet we do not need to be held hostage to our biological or cultural biases. If we acknowledge that factions exist, we can choose to follow our better angels. We can focus on larger, shared goals. We can invest the time and effort to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and see the world from a different vantage point. And we can stop, question, think, and reason when confronting engrained biases.

It takes more cognitive load to empathize with people with whom there is less common ground. Social competency demands more processing cycles in the frontal cortex. Yet sustained contact among groups decreases prejudice while increasing knowledge and empathy.

The good news: We make neurons throughout our lives, and our neurons regularly remap. So even old dogs can learn new tricks!