Category Archives: Neuroscience


Ever since I watched Dr. Sam Wang’s 36-part educational series entitled Neuroscience of Everyday Life, I’ve been fascinated with the brain. I’ve done additional research and written a few blog posts on the subject. This week’s installment on memory comes courtesy of Dr. Catherine Sanderson and her series entitled Introduction to Psychology.

memoryMost of us think that our memory processing works like a computer. We receive input through our five senses, we encode the data, and we place it in storage. When we want to retrieve the data, we go back into our data repository and pull it back up. While we might admit that we don’t quite capture or retain all of the data, we generally believe that the parts we store accurately reflect the source data.

The truth of the matter is that memory is a constructive process. As discussed in an earlier post, memories get stored in shorthand based on what the brain considers important. In particular, we pay attention to certain bits of data and ignore the rest. There’s also good evidence that we erase and re-write our memories every time we recall them, often changing them in the process. And, we invent details to fill in the gaps and create a more coherent story.

Of all of the memories that we might think we’d retain accurately, those related to major life events would top the list. Dr. Sanderson refers to them as “flashbulb memories” – e.g., where you were and what was happening when the twin towers fell on 9/11. Yet even those memories are subject to change, in part because we tend to process them a lot. And with each recall, we make subtle changes to the story arc. At first, we might get a twinge to suggest that something isn’t quite right. Over time, those small adjustments become entrenched. As my father used to say about one of my relatives: “The first time she tells a lie, she knows she’s made it up. The second time she tells it, she’s believes it’s true because she has heard it before.”

Here are a few other factors that put a monkey wrench into our total recall:

  • Memories fade over time, especially when they lack periodic reinforcement (a.k.a., the Decay Theory).
  • Similar memories compete with one another when vying for our attention (a.k.a., the Interference Theory). With proactive interference, old stuff interferes with our ability to learn new stuff. With retroactive interference, new stuff interferes with our ability to remember old stuff.
  • We remember some piece of information, but we don’t remember where we picked it up (a.k.a., Source Amnesia). This issue can prove troubling in the medical or political realm because we can be manipulated into believing false information.
  • We block out information that we don’t want to remember (a.k.a., Motivated Forgetting) – e.g., how much buttered popcorn we ate while watching TV.

Based on our current understanding of neuroscience, Dr. Sanderson offers the following advice for those who’d like to improve memory:

  • Chunk it. When tasked with learning (or memorizing) something new, break the information down into manageable units. Focus on processing a chunk at a time.
  • Create retrieval cues. Exercise your creatively to come up with devices that help you retrieve information. Use acronyms or clever phrases to prod memory. For example, musicians use the phrase “Father Cooks Good Dinner Always” to remember the order in which sharps appear in a key signature (F, C, G, D, A).
  • Organize it. Create an outline to identify the major points and the associated details. Focus on the major points first and create a memory structure to solidify them.
  • Repeat it over and over. Studies show consistently that we do best when breaking up our study periods into multiple sessions and reviewing content at each session. By contrast, cramming is an ineffective way to learn. We’re handicapped in the moment, and our long-term retention suffers mightily.
  • Focus on it. Really pay attention to what you’re doing when learning something new. Stop multitasking. Bring your full senses to bear on the task.

One final little tidbit from Dr. Sanderson: Our most vivid life memories form between the ages of 15 and 30 because that’s when many of our first-time life events occur. Perhaps those of us on the far side of 30 should try squeezing in a few novel experiences!

Cultivating a Healthy Brain at Any Age

keep sharp

As noted in a previous blog post, I’ve experienced being a caretaker for folks with cognitive impairment. My father suffered from geriatric dementia for several years prior to his death; my mother had full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. So, I took a keen interest in Sanjay Gupta’s latest book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. As the title suggests, Dr. Gupta’s book carries a message of hope for those of us who fear loss of mental competency as we age. Here are a few encouraging facts based on the latest research:

From the day we’re born to the day we die, the brain shapes and reshapes its synaptic connections and neural networks in response to experiences, learning, and even injury. The more we learn and challenge ourselves, the more extensive (and agile) our neural networks. This phenomenon is referred to as neural plasticity.

The brain can also manufacture new brain cells throughout our lives – a process known as neurogenesis. Each of us maintains a reservoir of neural stem cells in our hippocampus. These cells can differentiate into the different types of brain cells that we need. And when the reservoir depletes, the brain can replenish its supply.

Much like a muscle, the brain needs stimulus and challenge to grow. It also needs regular work outs to maintain its existing “muscle mass.” For example, people with memory training and other specialized cognitive skills must continue exercising them to retain them. (The brain works on the use-it-or-lose-it plan.) However, we can’t simply work existing skills and expect growth in our neural networks. We need to acquire new skills and knowledge. You might say that the brain wants new places to go if it’s going to build new neural roads.

While some cognitive skills decline with age, we never lose our capacity to learn. Moreover, the elderly outpace their younger counterparts in vocabulary, character assessment, social communication, diplomacy, and emotional regulation.

Brain function can be impaired when refuse creates arterial blockage (plaque) or embeds twisted insoluble fibers within neural cells (tangles). While plaque and tangles can damage neural pathways, brains with extensive neural networks can re-route with no perceived loss of function. In particular, Dr. Gupta noted that autopsies of nonagenarians may reveal similar levels of plaque and tangles in the brain. Those with agile neural networks avoided cognitive impairment because their brains figured out how to route around the blockages.

So, what are the factors that contribute to a healthy brain?

EXERCISE is the single most important thing we can do for a healthy brain. Physical inactivity is a BIG risk factor cognitive decline. We need at least 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise alongside strength training and stretching/balance work. Ideally, we should log 450 minutes of aerobic exercise – which can include brisk walking – and find ways to move in acts of daily living.

PURPOSE, LEARNING, and DISCOVERY provide stimulus for the brain that increase the density of neurons, synapses, and dendrites. Brain networks that operate with greater efficiency, complexity, and reserves are less susceptible to disruption or decline. A few ways to stimulate the brain outside of work include learning to speak a foreign language, learning to cook or paint, taking up a musical instrument, programming a computer, taking ballroom dancing, or writing a novel. Don’t worry about whether or not you are any good at the activity. Your brain loves a challenge!

SLEEP. The brain needs 7-8 hours of good quality sleep every night to regenerate, store memories appropriately, and clear out its refuse. Chronic sleep deprivation carries elevated risk for dementia, depression, mood disorders, high blood pressure, weight gain, and fall-related injuries. We also need to RELAX during our waking hours. Healthy practices include meditation, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery.

EAT NUTRITIOUS FOOD. A heart healthy diet is a brain healthy diet. Here are the A-B-Cs of Dr. Sanjay’s diet:

A: Consume Regularly B: Include these foods C: Limit these foods:
Fresh vegetables, especially dark leafy greens
Whole berries
Fish and seafood
Healthy fats
Nuts and seeds
Beans and other legumes
Whole fruits
Low sugar, low-fat dairy
Whole grains
Fried food
Pastries, sugary foods
Processed foods
Red meat
Red-meat products
Whole-fat dairy

BUILD HIGH-QUALITY SOCIAL CONNECTIONS. Close ties with family and friends as well as participation in meaningful social activities keeps a mind sharp and memories strong. Social engagement proves most protective when centered around a challenging activity. Socially connected folks are healthier, happier, and live longer.

Is Happiness All in Your Mind?

“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and, on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.” ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

happy facePersonal development coaches often tell us that we are in the driver’s seat when architecting lives full of purpose, fulfillment, and pleasure. If we control our perceptions of reality, we control the world in which we live. Armed with a rosy outlook and confidence in our ability to co-create the future, we can point our ships toward fruitful destinations and take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way. At best, we find this perspective empowering and use it to enrich our lives and those around us. At worst, we berate ourselves when we’re unable to find or capitalize on our personal mojo.

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Dr. Jonathan Haidt sheds light on this mind-over-matter psychology with the benefit of scientific research.

Our brain structure reflects millions of years of evolutionary development. While we have an oversized neocortex relative to other mammals, we retain ancient structures – i.e., the limbic system or “lizard brain” – geared toward ensuring our survival. It responds to stimuli in ways that that call for feeding, fornication, fight, flight, and freezing. It also sets off a gaggle of other bodily responses with the intent of protecting our lives and/or propagating our species. When the limbic system runs the show, it takes a good deal of effort for the neocortex to bring our behaviors into awareness and exercise control.

As I discussed in Our Guts Have Minds of Their Own, the human body also comes equipped with a “second brain” (dubbed the enteric nervous system) with 100 million nerve cells to manage our gut’s biochemical activities. Haidt suggests that this lower body intelligence may do more than simply digest food and manage immune function. It may respond to sensory input in a way that drives insights, decision-making, and behavior beyond our conscious control. One might say that there’s thought behind our gut feel.

As with the enteric nervous system, our brains attend to most of its daily functions without the benefit of conscious thought. The autonomic nervous system regulates bodily functions, such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, pupillary response, skeletal muscular activity, and sexual arousal. We’re also creatures of habit. When learning a new routine, our brain activity remains high from start to finish. Once a routine has been mastered, brain activity elevates only when encountering the initial cue and when reaping a reward for a completed task. We’re on autopilot between points A and B. (That’s why it’s so hard to break engrained habits!)

Finally, our brains are highly adept at rationalization. As Dr. Baba Shiv and others have demonstrated, we make decisions emotionally and then filter all subsequent facts through a lens that supports our previously rendered judgment. Feelings come first; reasons are invented on the fly. Again, it’s how we evolved to survive. Per Haidt, this internal “wiring” explains why it is so difficult to win an argument. Morality is like beauty; it lives within the eye of the beholder. Once entrenched, it’s hard to dislodge and even harder to persuade others of its merits.

So, what does all this have to do with happiness? It tells us that our consciousness is not as powerful as we might have thought. Haidt likens it a rider atop an elephant, where the elephant represents all the parts of the brain over which we have little or no control. The rider has the ability to influence the elephant’s path, but only if the elephant is motivated to move in that direction.

If life is indeed shaped by how we perceive it, Haidt reminds us that such perceptions happen quickly and (largely) unconsciously. Furthermore, our survivalist nature causes us to give far greater weight to perceived threats, setbacks, and violations than it does to opportunities and possibilities. It takes effort and training to overcome this negative bias. We need to work with our “elephant brain” to move it in forwarding directions. Haidt advocates three methodologies:

  • Meditation to focus attention non-analytically and break attachments, thereby taming and calming the elephant
  • Cognitive therapy to catch negative thoughts, name the distortions, find alternate patterns of thinking, and change behaviors accordingly
  • Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) to ease symptoms of moderate to severe depression, as needed

In my next post, I’ll dive into Haidt’s formula for happiness and explore evolutionary responses to achieve it.

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 helped 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 a second look at it 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 clinical 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.

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.