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art class

A Penn State Medical School student participating in the “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” course – Image: Patrick Mansell via news.psu.edu

Educators have been hearing a lot about STEM the past decade. STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and there has been a big push to increase STEM courses and STEM skills in all levels from elementary school through college.

I am a proponent of STEAM which includes the arts and humanities into the mix.  So, I was pleased to read that students in the Penn State College of Medicine take a required humanities course in their fourth year to help broaden students’ perspectives and encourage them to bring a humanistic approach to their work.

Scientists and engineers are often designing products for human use, but their med school curriculum doesn’t usually include much humanities like psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature or art. The STEM fields increasingly need to consider biases, ethical problems and social inequities that are part of those other fields.

How about some impressionist painting? A seminar on “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” engages students with the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. Is this art history? No, the exercises range from “observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists… and through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.”

Art does good things to your brain – literally (see video below)

But we have a history of separating the humanities from the sciences. Think about how while industrialist Andrew Carnegie was donating lots of money to higher education, he was pointing out that the study of “dead languages” and other humanities subjects were useless pursuits. Industrialist Richard Teller Crane said back in 1911 that no one with “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness… are those who are useful.”

I think Aristotle was all for STEAM and with the creation of universities, medieval thinkers used the “Liberal Arts” of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) as a way to provide a balanced education.

Neil Degrasse Tyson asks “Suppose they did that back in Renaissance Europe? What would Europe be without the support and interest in art? We measure the success of a civilization by how well they treat their creative people.”

And although I’m thinking about art and literature here, I will note that Albert Einstein seemed to get a lot of use out of his violin that went beyond musical thinking.

 

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As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

brain

A brain dump is letting out all your thoughts. Not in a barrage of conversation, but via pen to paper. It’s a form of release. It is a way to face reality. It means putting thoughts somewhere else.

I came across several articles lately about how to do a brain dump. Try brightontheday.com and lifehack.org. I originally read about it in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It seems so simple – too simple – to be effective, but it does seem to work.

I look at Weekends in Paradelle (and perhaps my other blogs too) as a kind of brain dump where I work out and organize my thoughts.

Brain dumps also have another application that is less noble. On forums and social media sites, students ask for answers to exams. Some requests are not so lacking in academic integrity and may want training material or practice items. In academic circles,  a brain dump is when a test taker goes from an exam online to dump everything that they can recall about the test questions and answers. Yes, it is cheating.

It can also be the transfer of a large quantity of information from one person to another or to a storage and retrieval medium. In slang, it can describe a hurried explanation of a system, job, skillset. In computing, the phrase describes the taking of a snapshot of the internal state of a knowledge database for transfer or archiving purposes.

For a legitimate brain dump of yourself, you might want to start by trying doing one before heading to bed for the night. You dump all the things still lingering in your mind onto a piece of paper and let them go. The idea is to get out everything that has the potential to keep you up at night. Don’t make it a To Do list for tomorrow. That will just keep you up! But if upcoming things are on your mind, put them down, but let them go.

According to “the rules,” after you write down anything and everything, you should start a new page and organize. This is where I depart from the rules because I don’t like turning the dump into a To Do list, and putting categories and priorities to the list does just that.

I do find it useful to just write my thoughts in little group in the corners of a page. One corner for concerns, one for errands, places I want to go – whatever things seem to be filling my head. I have seen actual brain dump pads online, but a blank sheet works for me and you could just make a sheet that works for you on your computer and print out a few. I also have seen brain dump journals and perhaps keeping your sheets in one place might be useful to look back on later – but a blank book would work fine and is probably cheaper.

Is this a daily practice? Not for me, but I suppose it could be a daily practice. I seem to do it when I need it. It often happens late at night.

I know that academic brain dump is all about getting access to other people’s brain dumps, but I think the real value is in examining your own thoughts.

There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.

skull400pixa

Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.

Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.

One term used  in these discussions is  “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.

You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.

An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.

When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.

“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.

“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.

And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police,  lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.

And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.

 

island-pixa

This past week I saw on the local TV news the story of a 29-year-old New Jersey woman, Tirri, who is getting rid of all her high-tech gadgets for a year. She says it is so that she gets to spend more time with her children. Her Aha! moment came when she missed one of her 18-month-old twins’ first steps while she was checking on her phone.

Oddly, she says that she feels that she is part of “the last generation to have a childhood without technology.” I have two sons about her age and they hardly grew up without technology. It is probably more accurate to say that her parents in the mid-1980s did not have as many tech distractions while parenting her.

So, what do you mean by technology when you take a holiday from it?

Tirri is leaving behind her smartphone and computer and the email, Facebook, Instagram, videos and all that comes with the Net. But she will still use a touchtone landline phone, a record player, maybe the television too. Isn’t that technology? What about her microwave and her car, the home heating and cooling systems, her banking and bill paying and… Well, you get the point.

Plus, her husband will still have his smartphone. Did he miss those first steps too? Possibly, but he might have been in another room or at work or talking outside to a neighbor or…  We are distracted by more than just technology.

She grew up with technology. She even grew up in her teen years with the Internet. My grandfather had technology – a different kind, but technology nonetheless.

People have been fascinated with and frightened by technology since probably Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our ability to think and remember. Movies, radio, comic books, television, video games and plenty of other technologies old and new were seen as dangerous distractions. “Go outside and get some fresh air and just play” has been in the parenting script for centuries.

I could go tech-free, if you put me on a deserted island without any devices.  I’m all for “tech holidays.” Take a night, a day, a weekend, an actual vacation week away from your devices. See if you feel happier, or feel punished.

More importantly, take notice of how all this digital technology changes us.

There are pro and cons to many of the changes that have been documented concerning media and new technology. Devices encourage us to multi-task. Being able to do more than one thing at a time (the classic walk and chew gum joke) is essential. Tech makes it easy to switch between tasks. But research also shows that when we do two things at once, like listen to a podcast and read a book, both suffer in understanding and retention. On a single task, the new information goes into the hippocampus, home of long-term knowledge. When multitasking, the information can go to the striatum. That is the area that stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas. This means a kind of shallow storage that is less likely to be easily found in the future.

You might have read or heard of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.  The book’s title foreshadows Carr’s general feelings about the Net.

“It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”

Can you filter the important from the unimportant?

Carr included a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. Those kinds of deep emotions and thoughts are connected to the attentiveness that also forms deep connections with other people.

We also know that the digital world affects memory in good and bad ways. I am very happy to not memorize phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, shopping lists and other minutiae. But researchers tell me that cognitive offloading, that tendency to rely on digital memory rather than brain cells actually increases each time we use the digital alternative.

Does tech support and extend our memory, or does it decrease it?  We are deep into, and probably beyond, the Information Age, and information overload is a given.

It is still not clear that all this tech “hurts” our brains, even if it changes them.

Like older technologies, the general feeling is that the tech is also changing us in bigger and broader ways, like the way we think and our social and emotional cues.

One study I saw looked at reading on digital platforms and concluded that it seems to make us “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Not a conclusive finding.

The idea that heavy digital media use leads to a loss of cognitive control (our ability to control our mind and what we think about) is much more frightening. Are our brains becoming more attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important?

Do you get a nice rush of reward chemicals in your brain when you empty your inbox?  That is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of your brain feeling pleased, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. So, keep clicking the Like button on Facebook and favoriting tweets and Instagram photos to give your online “friends” some happy juice.

I have read that too much time in front of screens (a nice way to encapsulate net, social and media time) increases depression, anxiety and aggression and a distancing from reality. This past summer, I was amused by the delight people found in people actually going outside to use Pokémon Go.

 

But I could also cite a Pew study that found that Facebook users have more  “close friends, more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved compared to non-social media users” or one that found that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.

 

I wish Tirri luck with her tech-free experiment, and I hope she has lots of good times with her kids. She says she will chronicle her days in a paper journal rather than online, and if she makes it for a year, she’ll write a book. Put me on that deserted island for a few months and I might get a book done too.

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