Nutritional Psychology Answers Why Diet Impacts How We Think and Feel

The waitress of the fast food joint asks, “Would you like fries with that?” The customer quickly requests a super-sized meal, while the woman at the neighboring orders a grilled chicken salad. Whichever dietary choice resembles your own, nutrition has a vast impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Why? Nutritional psychology explains how nutrition determines cognitive skills, mood disorders, and intelligence.

Nutritional Psychology can help us understand how—and why—we eat the way we do

What is Nutritional Psychology?

Nutritional psychology is the study of nutrition and how it pertains to mood, behavior, and mental health. The foods we eat influence psychological, behavioral, cognitive, perceptual, sensory, and psychosocial patterns. This area of study has the goal to implement education and nutrition to connect diet with mental health.

Nutritional Psychology: The Enteric Nervous System

The nervous system is known to describe the brain and spinal cord; however, most are surprised to learn that a large portion of the nervous system is in our gastrointestinal tracts. From chewing food to absorption and even elimination, the gut is home to millions of nerve cells, hormones, and enzymes that perform a variety of functions. This is why it is commonly referred to as our second brain. Together, the gastrointestinal tract and all it entails is called the enteric nervous system.

Nutritional Psychology: Hormones

Gut bacteria line the stomach and intestines to facilitate digestion. These bacteria manufacture neurotransmitters not only to regulate digestion, but to control key cognitive processes like memory, mood, and learning. Serotonin is a particular prominent neurotransmitter in the gut. Bacteria create nearly 95 percent of the body’s serotonin—a neurotransmitter imperative to stabilize mood and trigger peristalsis (i.e. contractions of the stomach and intestines to digest food).

When serotonin is off, it can cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and constipation. But serotonin is not the sole neurotransmitter, GABA and dopamine are also relevant. Studies have allowed experts to document observations like mood changes in the presence of functional gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. It was once thought that emotions and disorders like anxiety and depression result in bowel symptoms, but scholars at John Hopkins now believe that an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract leads to anxiety and depression.

Nutritional Psychology: Food and Brain Structure

The food we consume literally has the power to alter brain structure. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reveals an increased volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex shown on brain imagine in patients who made food choices based on whether a food item is healthy rather than on taste or indulgence. Judging grey matter volume in these areas is a helpful predictor of various eating disorders including obesity and anorexia nervosa.

Neurons, nerve cells in the brain, are also affected by food. Diets with a high fat and sugar content have fewer synapses in the brain’s hippocampus—the connections that transmit signals to other cells in the body. The brain is less efficient at neuroplasticity. It cannot adapt as quickly. Instead, the hippocampus becomes inflamed as the cells respond to harm.

Nutritional Psychology: Obesity

The term obesity is described as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. There are more than 400 million obese adults worldwide. Being overweight has a vast impact on the body. Although someone who is obese is prone to developing heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, the brain is particularly effected. Scientists have attributed multiple cases of cognitive impairment with obesity.   

The brain of obese individuals is vulnerable to cerebral atrophy. The brain literally shrinks. As the brain volume decreases in size, the likelihood of memory impairment increases with age. A lack of brain volume makes it difficult to refrain from excessive eating, which fuels the cycle.

Nutritional Psychology: Caloric Intake

The first line of defense against the obesity epidemic is to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle. Diet and exercise are key to shedding the extra pounds because it burns more calories than one expends. However, restricting caloric intake is potentially detrimental to psychological health.

Studies show that caloric restriction is linked to depression—a mental health disorder characterized by feeling unexplained sadness, anxiety, loss of interest, low motivation, and interrupted sleeping and eating patterns for more than 2-weeks. Male subjects went from consuming 3,200 calories to 1,600 calories of foods such as potatoes, turnips macaroni, milk, bread, chicken, and rutabagas. These men reported a multitude of symptoms: dizziness, cold intolerance, fatigue, muscle aches, edema, reduced sex drive, low attention spans, poor concentration, and psychological distress. Some were even sent to a psychiatric hospital for self-mutualization and suicide attempts.

Contrarily, other studies conclude that the risk for dementia and cognitive decline is lessened by a lower caloric intake. The combination of studies supports that the quality of food choices are important. For our brains to thrive, we require a range of foods from all food groups to avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Nutritional Psychology: Carbohydrates and Cognition

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. As carbs are consumed, the body breaks the carbohydrates down into glucose. The nerve cells utilize the glucose in the bloodstream for energy. Restricting carbohydrates, like so many of modern day dieters do, is depriving the body of its main source of fuel. Thus, cognitive skills are affected. Researchers at Tufts University tested this hypothesis. Women were placed into groups based on “low-carb” and “low calorie” diets. Their cognitive skills were tested before the study, during, and after. Those on low carbohydrate diets presented with poor memory performance within a week of their diet.

In the average Western diet, the type of carbohydrates has an impact too. Refined, processed carbohydrates result in repeated spikes in blood glucose levels which triggers the rapid release of stress hormones that increase anxiety and mood disorders.

Nutritional Psychology: Fatty Acids and Cognition

70 percent of the human brain is comprised of fat. Fats are critical for brain development. When the body does not have sufficient carbohydrates available, it uses fat to perform necessary functions. Psychiatrists at Harvard University discovered that the amount of fat an individual consumes has little impact on brain function; however, the form of fat does.

Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial dietary fats. They are found in fish, walnuts, and chia seeds. Other fats, like saturated fats, are good in moderation and come from meat, coconut, and dairy products. Hydrogenated fats (i.e. trans fats) are best avoided in foods that are processed or deep-fried.

Nutritional Psychology: Vitamins and Minerals and Cognition

Vitamins and minerals are also related to brain function. The body is exposed to free radicals. Free radicals are unstable cells that damage healthy cells. The result is disease, aging, and illness. Vitamins and minerals contain radical fighting substances known as antioxidants.

The following vitamins and minerals are essential:

  • Iron—Adults and children who are anemic score lower on cognitive tests.
  • B Vitamins—B vitamins for the brain include B12, B6, and B9 (folate). When B vitamins are lacking, the body cannot convert homocysteine into protein. As homocysteine accumulates, cognitive performance suffers.  
  • Vitamin C—Vitamin C aids in iron absorption, but it does affect the brain directly. It is responsible for building the myelin sheath that allows the nerves to communicate. Vitamin C partakes in manufacturing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
  • Vitamin D—Vitamin D is absorbed from both dietary sources and sunlight. Similar to vitamin C, vitamin D facilitates nerve growth. Experts claim vitamin D activates certain enzymes to produce neurotransmitters and reduce inflammation.
  • Vitamin E—Vitamin E is the main vitamin that combats neurodegeneration in the brain by reducing oxidative stress. When compounded with other vitamins, it improves memory and cognitive thinking processes.
  • Zinc—Deficiencies in zinc reflect issues with language and numbers. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have a zinc deficiency, which provides evidence that zinc aids in cognitive function.
  • Magnesium—Unrefined grains (i.e. buckwheat), green leafy vegetables, and nuts (i.e. almonds, cashews) are sources of magnesium. This deficiency is common in third-world countries and vegetarians.

Dietary Psychology: Can Your Diet Lower Your Risk of Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for neurodegenerative illnesses that cause impaired cognitive skills. Those with dementia experience memory loss, confusion, difficulties with language, and problem-solving abilities that inhibit normal daily functioning. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Published in April 2020’s edition of American Academy of Neurology, people who primarily eat snack foods (i.e. cookies, cakes), processed meats, and starchy foods such as potatoes have a higher risk of dementia than individuals who consume foods from a diverse range of food groups. Additionally, previous studies confirm that greater caloric intake is associated with Alzheimer’s.  

Abiding by dietary guidelines proposed by the Alzheimer’s Association is actually a treatment for the condition. Patients have an increase in memory and an overall reduction in the progression of the disease. Two diets are recommended to fight dementia:

  • DASH Diet—DASH stands for The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It promotes a diet to lower blood pressure, which reduces stress on the nervous system. Someone following the DASH diet is encouraged to reduce their intake of excessive amounts of sodium, fats, red meats, full-fat dairy products, sweets, sugary beverages and to consume lean meats (i.e. poultry, fish), whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
  • The Mediterranean Diet—The Mediterranean diet limits red meat, replaces butter with healthy alternatives and focuses on a diet of fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Fish and poultry are eaten twice weekly and spices replace salt.

Nutritional Psychology: Foods That Are Harmful To Your Brain

Much like a diet of fruits, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and seeds are healthy for the brain, there are many foods that have the opposite effect. The chemicals in the foods we eat are stored throughout the body, including the brain and nervous system.

Soft Drinks

Sugary soft drinks include high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. The inflammatory substance incorporated into our favorite beverages is known to impair memory. For example, high fructose corn syrup affects brain function because of it leads to insulin resistance. When the body is unable to bring blood glucose levels to normal ranges, the increase levels are damaging to the brain.

Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are processed grains like white flour. They have a high glycemic index in which the body responds with a spike in blood sugar levels. Studies of the elderly population proved that the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment is nearly doubled in the population who received over half of their dietary caloric intake from unhealthy carbohydrates. Whole, unrefined grains, fruits, and vegetables are healthier alternatives.

Trans Fats

While naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products are not dangerous in controlled amounts, hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, pre-packaged desserts, frosting, and shortening are foods hiding the brain’s silent killer. Synthetic trans fats are harmful to cognitive function, as well as cardiac health. It advances inflammation.

Artificial Sweeteners

“Sugar free” is not always the healthier option. Aspartame and artificial sweeteners are in sugar free products. Aspartame is made from the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. If aspartame is consumed, the body breaks it down into methanol which is toxic in large amounts.

Studies show artificial sweeteners provoke behavioral changes, depression, and learning difficulties. Participants consumed 11 mg of aspartame for every pound of body weight. After eight days, they scored lower on cognitive tests, were irritable, and had increased rates of depression in comparison to control subjects.

Alcohol

Alcohol impairs the way in which the brain communicates and decreases brain volume. Those who frequently consume alcohol typically develop a B vitamin deficiency, which is connected to poor cognitive transparent pharmacy functioning. While the majority of detrimental effects stem from episodes of binge drinking, it is recommended that young people avid alcohol because it interferes with brain development. Teenagers who drink are susceptible to risky behaviors and alcohol dependence into adulthood.

Nutritional Psychology: Which Diet Is Best For Your Brain?

So, what diet is best for your brain? Low carb, high carb, high fat, low fat, calorie restriction? Optimal eating habits are not any single diet. It is learning to be intuitive with your body’s nutritional needs, consuming a diet as colorful as the rainbow, and incorporating a variety of foods from all food groups. It is about establishing a balance that allows your body and brain to thrive.

References

American Academy of Neurology. (2020, April 22). Which foods do you eat together? How you combine them may raise dementia risk: Study finds ‘food networks’ centered on processed meats, starches may raise risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 22, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200422214038.htm

Harvard University. Protect your brain with “good fat.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-with-good-fat

The Definitive Guide to the Human Brain

THE ANATOMY OF THE HUMAN BRAIN

The brain is a powerful and vital organ that is essential to being alive. With that said, it would not hurt to have knowledge of the main parts of the brain and their functions. Basically, the brain has 3 parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Each of these parts provides different functions for the brain, and we cannot survive without them.

The anatomy of the brain

The Cerebrum:

Also known as the cortex, the Cerebrum is by far the largest portion of the brain and weighs about two pounds. For the record, the entire brain weighs three pounds. The cerebrum is home to billions and billions of neurons. These neurons control virtually everything we do. It controls our movements, thoughts and even our senses. Since the cerebrum has so many functions, if it’s damaged, there are many different consequences.

The cerebrum consists of four different lobes that control all of our movements. The four lobes include: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and the occipital lobe.

The Frontal Lobe

The biggest lobe in the cortex. It is located in the front, right behind the forehead. It extends from the anterior to the central sulcus. It is the control center of your brain. The frontal lobe is involved in planning, reasoning, problem solving, judgement, and impulse control, as well as in the regulation of emotions, like empathy, generosity, and behavior. It is linked to executive functions.

The Parietal Lobe

It’s located between the central sulcus and the parietal-occipital sulcus. This part of the brain helps to process pain and tactile sensation. It is also involved in cognition.

The Temporal Lobe

It is separated from the frontal and parietal lobe by the lateral sulcus and the limits of the Occipital lobe. It is used in auditory and language processing and is also used in memory functions and managing emotions.

The Occipital Lobe

It is delimited by the posterior limits of the parietal and temporal lobes. It is involved in visual sensation and processing. It processes and interprets everything that we see. The Occipital lobe analyzes aspects like shape, color, and movement to interpret and make conclusions about visual images.

Finally, the cerebrum consists of two layers: the cerebral cortex, which controls our coordination and personality, and the white matter of the brain, which allows the brain to communicate.

The Cerebral Cortex

A thin layer of gray matter that grooves around itself, forming a type of protuberance, called convolutions, that give the characteristic wrinkled look to the brain. The convolutions are delimited by grooves or cerebral sulci and those that are especially are deep are called fissures.

The cortex is divided into two hemispheres, right and left, and they are separated by the interhemispheric fissure and joined by a structure called the corpus callosum which allows transmission between the two. Each hemisphere controls a side of the body, but this control is inversed: the left hemisphere controls the right side, and the right hemisphere controls the left side. This phenomenon is called brain lateralization.

White Matter

White matter is the subway of the brain. It connects the different parts of gray matter in the cerebrum to another. Like a subway/metro, this type of matter remains underneath it all (the surface in life, gray matter in the brain) and this underneath part is filled with different passages, links, and paths to take- each one with a different destination and purpose.

It’s known to be white because this type of matter is myelin rich. Myelin is a fatty-rich substance that causes the matter to appear white. In reality, the matter is a pinkish-white. In adults, the matter is about 1.7-3.6% blood and takes up about 60% of the brain!

The Limbic System:

Your limbic system functions range from regulating your emotions to storing your memories to even helping you to learn new information. Your limbic system is one of the most essential parts of the brain that help you live your daily life. The primary structures that work together in your limbic system are the amygdala, the hippocampus, the thalamus and hypothalamus, the cingulate gyrus, and the basal ganglia. All these parts help you to be active in society, engage in social relationships, and be a well-rounded person. To learn more about the interesting ways your limbic system impacts your life, sit back and get in-tuned with all of its hard-working employees!

The Amygdala

Shaped like a small almond, the amygdala is located in each of the left and right temporal lobes. It’s known as  “the emotional center of the brain,” because it is involved in evaluating the emotional intake of different situations or emotional intelligence (for example, when you feel happy because you received an awesome grade on your math exam or when you might be frustrated because the heavy traffic is making you late for work).

The amygdala is what makes the brain recognize potential threats (like if you are hiking in the lone woods and suddenly you hear the loud footsteps of a bear coming toward you). It helps your body prepare for fight-or-flight reactions by increasing your heart and breathing rate. The amygdala is also responsible for understanding rewards or punishments, a psychological concept known as reinforcement coined by the classical and operant conditioning experiments of Ivan Pavlov.

The Hippocampus

The Hippocampus is a small subcortical seahorse shaped structure that plays an especially important role in the formation of memory, both in classification and long-term memory. Among its main functions are the mental processes related to memory consolidation and the learning process. As well as processes associated with the regulation and production of emotional states and spatial perception.

The Thalamus

It is similar to the re-transmission station of the brain: it transmits the majority of perceived sensory information (auditory, visual, and tactile), and allows them to be processed in other parts of the brain. It is also used in motor control.

The Hypothalamus

It is a gland located in the center area of the base of the brain that has an especially important role in the regulation of emotions and many other corporal functions like appetite, thirst, and sleep. The functions of the Hypothalamus are essential to our daily life. It is responsible for maintaining the body’s systems, including body temperature, body weight, sleep, mating, levels of aggression and even emotional regulation. Most of these functions are regulated by a chain of hormones that inhibit or release between themselves.

The Cingulate Gyrus

This part is located in the middle of your brain next to the corpus callosum. Not much is known about the cingulate gyrus, but researchers suggest that this is the area that links smell and sight with pleasurable memories of previous experiences and emotions because it provides a pathway from the thalamus to the hippocampus. This area is involved with your emotional reaction to pain and how well you regulate aggressive behavior.

The Basal Ganglia

This area is an entire system within itself located deep in the frontal lobes. It organizes motor behavior by controlling your physical movements and inhibiting your potential movements until it gets the instructions to carry them out, based on the circumstances that you are in. The basal ganglia also participate in rule-based habit learning; choosing from a list of potential actions; stopping yourself from undesired movements and permitting acceptable ones; sequencing; motor planning; prediction of future movements; working memory; and attention. It is made up of a few structures, such as:

The Caudate Nucleus

The caudate nucleus sends messages to your frontal lobe, specifically to your orbital cortex (just above the eyes) which alerts you that something is not quite right with the physical situation you are in (usually during tense or anxious moments), so you should take action to fix your uneasiness.

The Putamen

The putamen lies directly underneath the caudate and controls your coordinated automatic behaviors, like riding a bike, driving a car, working on an assembly line, and any other task that doesn’t really involve upper-level thinking.

The Nucleus Accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is a brain part involved in functions such as motivation, reward, or positive behavioral reinforcement. The role of nucleus accumbens is to integrate motivation along with the motor action. Its function is to transfer relevant motivational information to the motor cells in order to obtain a certain reward or satisfaction. An imbalance is related to many psychiatric and neurological disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disorder, obesity and drug abuse.

The Cerebellum:

From Latin, meaning “little brain,” the cerebellum is a two-hemisphere structure located just below the rear part of the cerebrum, right behind the brain stem. Representing about 11 percent of the brain’s weight, it is a deeply folded and highly organized structure containing more neurons than all of the rest of the brain put together. The surface area of the entire cerebellum is about the same as that of one of the cerebral hemispheres.

The cerebellum is the second largest part of the brain, and it plays a significant role for our motor skills. It is located at the base of the brain, and damage to it can lead to decline in your motor skills. Besides motor control, the cerebellum has other different functions. One function that it has is to maintain our balance and posture. Another major function of the cerebellum is that it helps control the timing and force of various muscles.

Motor learning is another function of the cerebellum, and it has the biggest impact on skills that require trial and error. Even though it is mostly associated with motor control, the cerebellum has some control of our cognitive functions, such as language.

The Brain Stem:

Even though the brainstem is small, it controls many important functions in our bodies. Some functions of the brainstem include breathing, arousal, awareness, blood pressure, heart rate and digestion. It also controls our sleep patterns, body temperature, heart rhythms and even our hunger and thirst. In addition, it regulates the central nervous system.

The brain stem is the oldest and deepest area of the brain. It is often referred to as the reptilian brain because it resembles the entire brain of a reptile. The brainstem is also the smallest part of the brain and sits beneath your cerebrum in front of your cerebellum—and it connects the cerebrum to the spinal cord. Parts of the brainstem include: the midbrain, medulla oblongata and the pons.

The Midbrain

It is the structure that joins the posterior and anterior brain, driving motor and sensory impulses. Its proper functioning is a pre-requisite for the conscious experience. Damages to this part of the brain are responsible for some movement problems, like tremors, stiffness, strange movements, etc.

The Medulla Oblongata

It helps control our automatic functions, like breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, etc.

The Pons

The Pons, also known as the Annular Protuberance, is the portion of the base of the encephalon that is located between the medulla oblongata and midbrain. It connects the spinal cord and the medulla oblongata to the superior structures in the hemispheres of the cerebral cortex and/or the cerebellum. It is used in controlling the brain’s automatic functions and it has an important role in the awake-state levels and consciousness and sleep regulation.

The Spinal Cord:

The Spinal Cord is a long, whitish cord that is located in the vertebral canal and connects the encephalon to the rest of the body. It acts as a type of information highway between the encephalon and the body, transmitting all of the information provided by the brain to the rest of the body.

Learn more about the anatomy of our brain:

THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: NERVES, NEURONS, & NEUROTRANSMITTERS

Have you ever stopped to think about how the Nervous System works? How is your body organized? How does it really work? What structures make up the Nervous System?  We are full of tracks that come and go loaded with data, electrical currents, chemicals, etc. at different rates and for different purposes.

The nervous system and the brain

Cranial Nerves:

12 pairs of cranial nerves enable us to perform our daily routine in a comfortable and efficient way, as they take part of the information of our senses to the brain and the brain to some of our muscles and viscera. Here is a small guide to know a little more about what are the cranial nerves, their anatomy, their classification, and their function.

As shown in the image above, the 12 pairs of cranial nerves have an associated Roman numeral. These numbers range from 1 to 12 corresponding in each case to the pair in question.

Each cranial nerve has a specific function. The next image shows how this person’s head is portrayed through numbers according to the cranial nerve functions.  Would you dare to say what function each cranial pair has according to its number in the drawing?

Before starting, it’s important to point out the order that this explanation will have will be according to the corresponding Roman number assigned to the cranial nerve.

The Olfactory Nerve (I)

It’s the first of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It’s a sensory nerve, in charge of transmitting olfactory stimuli from the nose to the brain. Its actual origin is given by the cells of the olfactory bulb. It is the shortest cranial pair of all.

The Optic Nerve (II)

This cranial pair is the second of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves and it is responsible for conducting visual stimuli from the eye to the brain. It is made of axons from the ganglion cells of the retina, that take the information of the photoreceptors to the brain, where later it will be integrated and interpreted. It emerges in the diencephalon.

The Oculomotor Nerve (III)

This cranial nerve is also known as the common ocular motor nerve. It is the third of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It controls eye movement and is also responsible for pupil size. It originates in the midbrain.

The Trochlear Nerve (IV)

This nerve has a motor and somatic functions that are connected to the superior oblique muscle of the eye, being able to make the eyeballs move and rotate. Its nucleus also originates in the mesencephalon as well as the oculomotor nerve. It is the fourth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Trigeminal Nerve (V)

It is a mixed cranial nerve (sensitive, sensory and motor), being the largest of all cranial nerves, it is the fifth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. Its function is to carry sensitive information to the face, to convey information for the chewing process. The sensory fibers convey sensations of touch, pain, and temperature from the front of the head including the mouth and also from the meninges.

The Abducent Nerve (VI)

It is also known as the external ocular motor cranial nerve and it is the sixth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It is a cranial motor pair, responsible for transmitting the motor stimuli to the external rectus muscle of the eye and therefore allowing the eye to move to the opposite side from where we have the nose.

The Facial or Intermediate Nerves (VII)

This is another mixed cranial pair since it consists of several nerve fibers that perform different functions, like ordering the muscles of the face to create facial expressions and also send signals to the salivary and lacrimal glands. On the other hand, it collects taste information through the tongue. It is the seventh of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Vestibulo-Cochlear Nerve (VIII)

It is a sensory cranial nerve. It is also known as the auditory and vestibular nerve, thus forming vestibulocochlear. He is responsible for balance and orientation in space and auditory function. It is the eighth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Glossopharyngeal Nerve (IX)

It is a nerve whose influence lies in the tongue and pharynx. It collects information from the taste buds (tongue) and sensory information from the pharynx. It leads orders to the salivary gland and various neck muscles that help with swallowing. It also monitors blood pressure. It is the ninth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Vagus Nerve  (X)

This nerve is also known as pneumogastric. It emerges from the medulla oblongata and supplies nerves to the pharynx, esophagus, larynx, trachea, bronchi, heart, stomach and liver. Like the previous nerve, it influences the action of swallowing but also in sending and transmitting signals to our autonomous system, to help the regulate activation and control stress levels or send signals directly to our sympathetic system. It is the tenth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Accessory Nerve (XI)

This cranial pair is named the spinal nerve. It is a motor nerve and could be understood as one of the “purest”. It governs movements of the head and shoulders by supplying the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles in the (anterior and posterior) regions of the neck.  The spinal nerve also allows us to throw our heads back. Thus, we would say that it intervenes in the movements of the head and the shoulders. It is the eleventh of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Hypoglossal Nerve (XII)

It is a motor nerve which, like the vagus and glossopharyngeal, is involved in tongue muscles, swallowing and speech. It is the twelfth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

What are Nerves Made From:

Neurons are the building blocks of the central nervous system. A neuron’s primary role is to communicate information. It communicates via electrical impulses or using specific chemicals such as neurotransmitters (what are the different types of neurotransmitters?). The neuron has 3 distinct parts. The dendrites, the cell body and the axon. Each structure plays a specific role in ensuring neurons are able to send and receive signals and connect with other neurons.

The dendrites are connected to the cell body. They conduct messages from axon of other neurons and pass the message onto the cell body. The cell body sits between the dendrites and the axon. It determines the strength of the message it receives from the dendrites. If it is strong enough, it will send the message down the axon. The axon is connected to the cell body. It conducts the message from the cell body and passes it on to other neurons.

The Dendrites

Dendrites are branch-like structures structures surrounding the cell body. They receive electrical and chemical messages from other neurons, which are collected in the cell body. These messages are either inhibitory or excitatory in nature. If the message is inhibitory, the cell body will not transmit the message to the axon. However, if the message is excitatory in nature, then the cell body will send the message down the axon and pass it to other neurons.

The Soma (or Cell Body)

Also known as the soma, the cell body is a ball-like structure. It contains the control center of the neuron, also known as the nucleus. Together, the cell body and the nucleus control the functions of the nerve cell. To be able to do this, the cell body contains organelles or really tiny organs in the nucleus.

Each organelle has a unique job. First and foremost, the most important organelle, the nucleus, regulates all cell functions. It also contains the cell’s DNA, which is essentially the neuron’s blueprint. The nucleus is another organelle that serves a vital purpose to the functioning of the neuron. It nucleolus produces ribosomes, which are essential to protein production. The cell body is also home to the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and mitochondria. The mitochondria is the neuron’s fuel source, it produces all the energy needed for the nerve cell to function properly.

The endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus, work together, with the rest of the organelles in the nucleus to produce and transport protein. The protein produced by the cell body, are the key ingredients, to build new dendrites. Building new dendrites enable the neuron to make new connections with other neurons. As well as making proteins, the cell body is also responsible for making chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, which neurons use as signals. Neurotransmitters can serve and inhibitory or excitatory function to the neuron.

The Axon

The axon is long and slender, and it projects electrical impulses away from the cell body. The axon communicates with other neurons. When the electrical or chemical message reaches the axon terminal (end of the axon), The axon terminal release neurotransmitters into the synapse (small junction between two neurons). The neuron uses the synapse to communicate and send messages to other nerve cells.

How Nerves Communicate:

How does the brain communicate?

A synapse is the space between two neurons which allows for neural communication, or synaptic transmission. Synapses are found throughout the body, not just located in the brain. They project onto muscles to allow muscle contraction, as well as enable a multitude of other functions that the nervous system covers.

As a synapse is the gap in between two neurons, we need to establish which neuron sends out the signals and which neuron receives those signals.

The Presynaptic Neuron

The presynaptic neuron is the neuron that initiates the signal. At many synapses in the body, presynaptic neurons are vesicles filled with neurotransmitters. When the presynaptic neuron is excited by an action potential, the electrical signal propagates along its axon towards the axon terminal. This excitation signals the vesicles in the presynaptic neuron, filled with neurotransmitters, to fuse with the membrane of the axon terminal. This fusion allows for the neurotransmitters to be dumped into the synaptic cleft.

The Postsynaptic Neuron

The postsynaptic neuron is the neuron that receives the signal. These signals are received by the neuron’s dendrites. When there are neurotransmitters present in the synapse, they travel across the gap in order to bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. When a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor on the postsynaptic neuron’s dendrite, it can trigger an action potential. That action potential can then be propagated and influence further communication.

In the nervous system there are two main types of synapses: chemical synapses and electrical synapses. Thus far, for simplicity and understanding the basics of how a synapse functions only chemical synapses have been discussed. This poses the question: why does the nervous system need two types of synapses?

Chemical Synapses

Chemical synapses are any type of synapse that uses neurotransmitters in order to conduct an impulse over the small gap in between the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons. These types of synapses are not in physical contact with each other. Since the transmission of a signal depends on the release of chemicals, a signal can only flow in one direction. This direction is downward from presynaptic to the postsynaptic neuron.

As previously stated, these types of neurons are widely spread throughout the body. The chemicals released in these types of synapses ways excite the following neuron. The neurotransmitters can bind to the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron and have an inhibitory effect as well. When inhibition occurs, signal propagation is prevented from traveling to other neurons.

Chemical synapses are the most abundant type of synapse in the body. This is because various neurotransmitters and receptors are able to interpret signals in a large combination. For instance, a neurotransmitter and receptor combination may inhibit a signal on one postsynaptic neuron but excite a large amount of other postsynaptic neurons.

Chemical synapses allow for flexibility of signaling that makes it possible for humans to engage in high-level tasks. However, this flexibility comes at a cost. Chemical synapses have a delay due to the need for the neurotransmitter to diffuse across the synapse and bind to the postsynaptic neuron. This delay is very small but still is an important point when comparing the two types of synapses.

Electrical Synapses

Electrical synapses are types of synapses that use electricity to conduct impulses from one neuron to the other. These synapses are in direct contact with each other through gap junctions. Gap junctions are low resistance bridges that make it possible for the continuation of an action potential to travel from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron. Due to their physical contact, electrical synapses are able to send signals in both directions, unlike chemical synapses. Their physical contact and the use of sole electricity make it possible for electrical synapses to work extremely fast.

Transmission is also simple and efficient at electrical synapses because the signal does not need to be converted. Another key difference between chemical and electrical synapses is that electrical synapses can only be excitatory. Being excitatory means that an electrical synapse can only increase a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. As opposed to being inhibitory, which means that it decreases a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. This can only be done by neurotransmitters. Despite being extremely fast, these types of excitatory signals cannot be carried over great lengths.

Electrical synapses are mainly concentrated in specialized brain areas where there is a need for very fast action. The best example of this is the large amount of electrical synapses in the retina, the part of the eye that receives light. Vision and visual perception are our dominant senses, and our eyes are constantly receiving visual sensory information. This information also runs on a feedback loop when we interact with our environment, which means that we receive information from our surroundings and immediately create an appropriate response to it. This is why it makes sense that electrical synapses are seen in a large concentration here. The fast action, multiple directions, and efficiently all allow for prime functionality.

How Nerves Communicate – Neurotransmitters:

You’ve probably heard of how dopamine plays a role in feelings of pleasure, or how serotonin levels influence depression. But neurotransmitters do so much more than make us feel happy or sad. Not only do they influence our mood, but they also influence how our hearts beat, how our lungs breathe, and how our stomachs digest the food we eat.

Neurotransmitters interact with receptors on the dendrites of the neuron, much like how a lock and key work. The neurotransmitters have specific shapes that fit into a receptor that can accommodate that shape. Once the neurotransmitter and the receptor are connected, the neurotransmitter sends information to the next neuron to either fire an action potential, or to inhibit firing. If the neuron gets the signal to fire, then the whole process starts over again along the chain of neurons.

Here are some of the most important neurotransmitters:

Dopamine

Dopamine plays many different roles in the brain, depending on the location. In the frontal cortex, dopamine acts as a traffic officer by controlling the flow of information to other areas of the brain. It also plays a role in attention, problem-solving, and memory. And you’ve probably heard how dopamine plays a role in things that give us pleasure. So, if you were to eat a piece of chocolate, dopamine would be released in some areas of the brain, allowing you to feel enjoyment, motivating you to eat more chocolate.

Serotonin

Serotonin is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it doesn’t give the next neuron the signal to fire. Serotonin is involved with mood, as well as your sleep cycle, pain control, and digestion. In fact, the majority of serotonin in the body can be found in the gastrointestinal tract, and only about 10% is located in the brain. Aside from aiding in digestion, serotonin can also help with forming blood clots and increasing sex drive.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine (ACh) plays a major role in the formation of memories, verbal and logical reasoning, and concentration. ACh has also shown to help with synaptogenesis or the production of new and healthy synapses throughout the brain. Acetylcholine comes from the chemical known as choline, which can be found in foods such as eggs, seafood, and nuts.

Acetylcholine also plays a significant role in movement. A nerve cell can release ACh into a neuromuscular junction, which is a synaptic connection between a muscle fiber and a nerve cell. When ACh is released, it causes a series of mechanical and chemical reactions that result in the contraction of muscles. When there is a lack of ACh in the neuromuscular junction, the reactions stop, and the muscle relaxes.

GABA

GABA is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to balance any neurons that might be over-firing. This inhibitory ability becomes especially helpful when it comes to anxiety or fear because the release of GABA helps to calm you down. In fact, caffeine actually works to inhibit GABA from being released, so that there is more stimulation in the brain.

GABA also plays a role in vision and motor control. Some drugs work to increase the levels of GABA in the brain. This increase helps with epilepsy and helps to treat the trembling found in patients with Huntington’s disease.

Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)

These might sound like two big and confusing words because you’ve probably heard about adrenaline (epinephrine) before. Before we go any further, let’s define these terms. Another name for adrenaline is epinephrine. Epinephrine is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal gland, which is a gland that rests on top of the kidneys. Hormones are molecules that are released into the bloodstream. Noradrenaline is also known as norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter, meaning that it is used for interactions between neurons. Noradrenaline is an excitatory neurotransmitter that helps to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your “fight or flight” response to a stressor. Norepinephrine also plays a role in attention, emotion, sleeping and dreaming, and learning. When it is released into the bloodstreams, it helps to increase heart rate, release glucose energy stores, and increase blood flow to the muscles.

Learn more about our nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters:

BRAIN SCANS & RESEARCH

The human brain is an incredibly complex feat of nature. Capable of creating complex social structures, languages, culture, art, and science. Our brains allow us to explore and understand the universe better than any other animal on the planet ever has. But even with all of this knowledge, we are only just beginning to understand the human brain itself.

Brain scans can tell us a lot about how our brains work

Types of Brain Scans & Imaging Tools:

Today we still do not have a clear-cut picture of the whole brain in itself. Not every network has been mapped, but we have moved forward a substantial amount. The development of non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging methods and their use for research and medical purposes was a definite breakthrough.

We have methods that can view the cortical areas of the brain. Other techniques look at cortical columns and different layers. We have methods that can record a single cell by itself. Going even further, we can look at the soma of the neuron, the dendrite and, separately the axons. We can even look at the synaptic connections between the two neurons.

Here are some of the most common types of brain imaging tools:

PET Scan

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to show which parts of the brain are active at a given moment. By injecting a tracer substance into the brain and detecting radioactive isotopes in the tracer, we can see what parts of the brain are actively using glucose, a sign of brain activity. As a specific brain region becomes active, it fills with blood, which delivers oxygen and glucose, providing fuel for that region.

These areas become visible in the PET scan, thanks to the tracer substance, and allow us to create images of which areas of the brain are active during a given activity. The PET scan can only locate generalized brain areas, not specific clusters of neurons. In addition, PET scans are considered invasive and costly to perform.

CT Scan

Computed tomography (CT) scans are used to create images of the brain by recording the levels of X-ray absorption. Subjects lay on a flat table, which is connected to a large cylindrical tube-shaped apparatus. Inside the tube is a ring that holds an X-ray emitter. As the X-ray emitter moves along the tube, sensors on the opposite side of the ring detect the amount of X-rays that pass through. Since different materials–such as skin, bone, water, or air–absorb X-rays at different rates, the CT scan can create a rough map of the features of the brain.

MRI Scan

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans are imaging tools used widely in the field of psychology. Using a strong magnetic field, MRIs create alignment within the nuclei of atoms within the tissues of the body and brain. By measuring the changes as the nuclei return to their base states, the MRI is able to create a picture of the brain’s structure.

As a non-invasive procedure, with little risk to health, MRI scans can be performed on a broad range of subjects, including infants, the elderly, or pregnant mothers. Because of this, they can also be used multiple times on a single individual to map changes over time. The main difference between MRI and fMRI is that while basic MRI scans are used to image the structure of the brain, fMRI are used to map our the activity within the brain structures.

fMRI Scan

An upgrade from the MRI – Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging detects the blood-oxygen-level dependent contrast imaging (BOLD) levels in the brain which are the changes in the blood flow and it not only gives the anatomical structures but the functions as well. Various colors will change depending on which part of the brain is active.

The big drawback with this technique is the fact that it does not directly measure brain activity, but BOLD signal so we cannot for sure say that the activity that we find via fMRI studies is fully accurate and is produced by neurons.

DTI Scan

Diffusion Tensor Imaging, a technique based on MRI and it measures the way the water can travel through the white matter in the brain. It can show the activity as the colored area on the image. It’s particularly good in detecting concussions so can be used in clinical applications which is a huge advantage. Again, it does not measure direct brain activity which is a huge disadvantage and sometimes it also distorts the images. DTI has a quite low spatial resolution.

EEG Scan

Electroencephalography (EEG) allows us to measure brain activity by placing electrodes on the scalp of a subject which sense electrical activity. EEG scans are non-invasive and allow researchers to record changes in brain activity down to the millisecond, making it one of the best options for understanding changes in the brain as they occur.

MEG Scan

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a method of imaging the electrical activity in the brain through the use of magnetic fields. Extremely sensitive devices known as SQUIDs capture the activity in the brain, allowing researchers, doctors, or other professionals to understand which areas of the brain are responsible for various brain functions, or to determine the location of a pathology.

NIRS Scan

Near-infrared spectroscopy is a brain imaging technique that uses infrared light to measure oxygen levels in the brain. By shooting infrared light through the skull and measuring the light on the other side, NIRS scans can detect brain activity in a non-invasive, though indirect, way.

TMS Scan

The electric field that TMS, or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, is able to generate is able to interfere with the action potentials that are happening in the brain. It’s a highly invasive technique and is able to be used in research applications for the workings of many diseases and pathologies. What we do know is that repetitive TMS is able to produce seizures so, obviously, it has some sort of side effects and needs to be used with caution.

Learn more about how doctors and researchers see our brains:

BRAIN HEALTH & FUNCTION

Once upon a time, researchers and scientist theorized that the brain stops developing within the first few years of life. The connections the brain makes during the ‘critical period’ are fixed for life. However, there is mounting evidence, from human and animal studies, that this view underestimates the brain. The brain has a remarkable ability to continually make new connections throughout our life, it has an extraordinary ability to compensate for injury and disease by ‘rewiring’ itself. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, refers to this ability to form new connections, reorganize already established neural networks and compensate for injury and disease.

The brain is a complex organ that continues to change over time

Brain Plasticity:

There are many types of brain plasticity. Positive brain plasticity, which enhances healthy functioning of the brain. Negative brain plasticity, which promotes unhealthy functioning of the brain. Synaptic plasticity occurs between neurons, whereas non-synaptic plasticity occurs within the neuron. Developmental plasticity occurs during early life and is important for developing our ability to function. Injury induced plasticity is the brain’s way of adapting to trauma.

Positive Neuroplasticity

Positive brain plasticity involves changes to structures and functions of the brain, which results in beneficial outcomes. For example, improving the efficiency of neural networks responsible for higher cognitive functions such as attention, memory, mood.

There are many ways in which we can promote neuroplastic change. Positive brain plasticity is when the brain becomes more efficient and organized. For example, if we repeatedly practice our times tables, eventually, the connections between different parts of the brain become stronger. We make less errors and can recite them faster.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, and mindfulness can all promote brain plasticity. These practices improve neural function, strengthen connections between neurons.

Negative Brain Plasticity

Negative brain plasticity causes changes to the neural connections in the brain, which can be harmful to us. For example, negative thoughts can promote neural changes and connections associated with conditions such as depression, and anxiety. Also overuse of drugs and alcohol enhances negative plasticity by rewiring our reward system and memories.

Synaptic Plasticity

Synaptic plasticity is the basis for learning and memory. Furthermore, it also alters the number of receptors on each synapse (synapses are the connections between neurons that transmit chemical messages). When we learn new information and skills, these ‘connections’ get stronger. There are two types of synaptic plasticity, short-term and long-term. Both types can go in two different directions, enhancement/excitation, and depression. Enhancement strengthens the connection, whereas depression weakens it.

Short-term synaptic plasticity usually lasts tens of milliseconds. Short-term excitation is a result of an increased level of certain types of neurotransmitters available at the synapse. Whereas short-term depression is a result of a decreased level of neurotransmitters, long-term synaptic plasticity lasts for hours.

Long-term excitation strengthens synaptic connections, whereas long-term depression weakens these connections. As synaptic plasticity is responsible for our learning ability, information retention, forming and maintaining neural connections, when this process goes wrong, it can have negative consequences. For example, synaptic plasticity plays a key role in addiction. Drugs hi-jack the synaptic plasticity mechanisms by creating long-lasting memories of the drug experience.

Non-Synaptic Plasticity

This type of plasticity occurs away from the synapse. Non-synaptic plasticity makes changes to the way in which the structures in the axon and cell body carry out their functions. The mechanisms of this types of plasticity are not yet well understood.

Developmental Plasticity

In the first few years of life, our brains change rapidly. This is also known as developmental plasticity. Although it is most prominent during our formative years, it occurs throughout our lives. Developmental plasticity means our neural connections are constantly undergoing change in response to our childhood experiences and our environment. Our processing of sensory information informs the neural changes. Synaptogenesis, synaptic pruning, neural migration, and myelination are the main processes through which development plasticity occurs.

Synaptogenesis

Rapid expansion in formation of synapses so that the brain can successfully process the high volume of incoming sensory stimuli. This process is controlled by our genetics.

Synaptic Pruning

Reduction of synaptic connections to enable the brain to function more efficiently. Essentially, connections that aren’t used or aren’t efficient are ‘pruned’ or ‘disconnected’.

Neural Migration

this process occurs whilst we are still in the womb. Between 8 and 29 weeks of gestation, neurons ‘migrate’ to different parts of the brain.

Myelination

This process starts during fetal development and continues until adolescence. Myelination is when neurons are protected and insulated a myelin sheath. Myelination improves the transmission of messages down the neuron’s axon.

Injury-Induced Plasticity

Following injury, the brain has demonstrated the extraordinary ability to take over a given function that the damaged part of the brain was responsible for. This ability has been noted in many case studies of brain injury and brain abnormalities. Some stroke sufferers have displayed remarkable feats of recovering functions lost due to brain damage.

Neurogenesis:

You may have heard at some point in your life that you cannot grow new brain cells. You may have been taught that from the moment you are born to when you die you can only lose brain cells. It is believed that this is due to hits to the head, consuming alcohol and narcotics, and from lack of cognitive stimulation. Well do not despair because your brain is not in danger, you can in fact “grow” new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University‘s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI) have used a new combination of neural imaging methods to discover exactly how the human brain adapts to injury.

When one brain area loses functionality, a “back-up” team of secondary brain parts immediately activates, replacing not only the unavailable area but also its confederates (connected areas), the research shows.

The research found that as the brain function in the Wernicke area decreased following the application of rTMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), a “back-up” team of secondary brain areas immediately became activated and coordinated, allowing the individual’s thought process to continue with no decrease in comprehension performance.

The Brain-Body Connection:

The human brain is a marvel of evolution, capable of creating breathtaking works of art and music, developing complex systems of culture, language, and society, and uncovering mysteries of the universe through science, technology, and mathematics. But even a healthy brain couldn’t do any of these things without a healthy body to support it.

Anyone who has had to perform on stage or give a speech in front of a large group of people knows that the stress and anxiety, supposedly mental phenomenon, can manifest in physical discomforts such as “Butterflies” in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate.

Similarly, when we find ourselves receiving praise or affection, the feelings of happiness and euphoria we experience are readily apparent when our cheeks blush, our eyes dilate, and in extreme cases, we can even begin to cry from joy.

By taking care of our bodies, we can help to ensure our brains are functioning at their best. Although there is no single exercise or diet that is right for everyone – each person should speak to their nutrition or health professional to understand the best regimen for themselves – there are specific general rules of thumb for exercise and diet that can help just about anyone improve their brain health.

Learn more about brain health:

BRAIN VARIATIONS

Each person’s brain is unique

Every person thinks and acts a little differently than the other 7 billion on the planet. Scientists now say that variations in brain connections account for much of this individuality, and they’ve narrowed it down to a few specific regions of the brain. This might help us better understand the evolution of the human brain as well as its development in individuals.

Each human brain has a unique connectome – the network of neural pathways that tie all of its parts together. Like a fingerprint, every person’s connectome is unique. Researchers found very little variation in the areas of the participants’ brains responsible for basic senses and motor skills.

The real variety arose in the parts of the brain associated with personality, like the frontoparietal lobe. This multipurpose area in the brain curates sensory data into complex thoughts, feelings or actions and allows us to interpret the things we sense.

Brain Differences Based on Gender

There are some differences found in the brains of males and females, however it’s important to note that factors influencing brain development in both males and females include, not only biology, but also the environment. We must keep in mind that culture, and social constructions have an important role in how our brains develop.

In 1989,  the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) initiated a large-scale longitudinal study of typical brain development, which to date has acquired data regarding brain development and function from over 1000 children (including twins and siblings) scanned 1-7 times at approximately two-year intervals. This study has provided much of the information we know today about the differences between the developing male and female brain.

Studies utilizing this data have found that the peak brain size in females occurs around 10.5 years, while the peak occurs around 14.5 years in males. The other areas most frequently reported as being different are the hippocampus and amygdala, with the larger size or more rapid growth of the hippocampus is typically reported in females, and the amygdala is larger or grows more rapidly in males. The hippocampus controls emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, and the amygdala is responsible for instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. Because of the larger hippocampus, girls and women tend to input or absorb more sensory and emotive information than males do.

Brain Differences Based on Handedness

The brain has two hemispheres, that each specialize to govern specific tasks. The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and is associated with mainly spatial perception tasks, face recognition, and understanding music. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and is associated with more computational tasks such as math and logic. The specialization of each side of the brain is important because it allows for maximizing neural processing.

Handedness can correlate to what function each hemisphere specializes in, which allows the brain to be almost anatomically symmetrical, but functionally asymmetrical. Functional asymmetry, or lateralization, allows for each hemisphere to work in tandem when processing the world around us.

Brain Differences Based on Age

We often forget we were once teenagers ourselves. Their angst, impulsivity, and the crazy desire to live for fun makes them seem as if they are from another world. These characteristics are due to the teenage brain. The teenage brain undergoes a series of changes during cognitive development and is easily influenced by a number of factors. Physically, an adult and a teenager are near the same size.

But when it comes to the brain, there are vast differences. The teenage brain relies on the amygdala. The amygdala is reactive, stimulating a strong emotional response. When making decisions and problem solving, a teenager relies mainly on emotions. An adult’s cognitive processes are carried out using the developed prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that causes us to think prior to behaving. Thoughts and decisions of an adult are less reactive and more logical and rational.

Learn more about how the brain can vary between people:

BRAIN & DRUGS

Consuming drugs affects the brain’s limbic system. This brain structure is in charge of awarding the satisfaction of our vital needs with a pleasant sensation or pleasure (when we are hungry and we eat, we feel pleasure). When we consume drugs, we feel a similar sensation based off of artificial pleasure, which is what leads to the start of a drug addiction.

Drugs happen to be chemical substances and they are able to affect the brain in various ways. They usually do so by interfering with how neurons communicate with one another. They can either enhance or diminish the sending, receiving and processing information functions. In the normal functioning after the neuron sends the information onto the next neuron and the neurotransmitters or chemical messengers are not needed website anymore, they are re-uptaked back or ‘cleaned’ up. Some drugs will block this re-uptake, therefore, leaving an enormous amount of these neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft which causes the message to be enhanced and disrupts further communication. Amphetamine and cocaine do that.

Other drugs like heroin and marijuana are able to mimic a neurotransmitter by attaching themselves to the post-synaptic receptors. Therefore, they can activate other neurons but not in the same way as a neurotransmitter would. Because of that, they will send different messages along the pathways of the network, therefore, altering its normal functioning.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

When people use drugs continuously for a very long period of time their brain becomes used to this much amount of dopamine. The brain will start to compensate by naturally either making a smaller amount of dopamine and decreasing the receptors where dopamine binds in an attempt to regulate things back into homeostasis. Dopamine will therefore not be able to produce as much pleasure anymore, for any activities. That’s why it’s so difficult for a person who abuses drugs to get back into normal life – the pleasure they used to feel from regular activities diminishes.

How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Although there are many neurotransmitters, dopamine and GABA are the two altered from cocaine use. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, oversees the body’s pleasure and reward system. Cocaine acts on dopamine by signaling a sudden release of dopamine in the area between neurons (synapses) and tricking the brain’s pleasure response. The abundance of dopamine is why users feel euphoria upon exposure. Normally a second neurotransmitter known as GABA counteracts the raised dopamine levels. However, the process is unsuccessful because cocaine blocks its release. Continual use of cocaine overwhelms the nervous system. Eventually, neurons in the brain can no longer communicate when the drug induces a rush of dopamine. The dopamine receptors are damaged. 

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

The endocannabinoid system is a biological system to maintain homeostasis. For the body to function properly, its conditions require balance. The heart rate must be within normal limits, temperature cannot be too hot or cold, and more. Cells in the body naturally produce endocannabinoids, which communicate with the nervous system and perform this role. Endocannabinoids attach to cannabinoid receptors on the surface of cells and are eventually destroyed by metabolic enzymes.

Marijuana, however, interferes with the endocannabinoid system. Cannabinoids from marijuana like THC bind to cannabinoid receptors, overloading the system and preventing naturally produced endocannabinoids from their regular tasks. The reward system consists of a series of brain structures from the ventral tegmental area to the hypothalamus that mediates reward. Neurons in these brain areas release dopamine upon pleasurable behaviors such as food or sex. Marijuana acts on the brain’s reward system.

As the THC attaches to cannabinoid receptors, the reward system is activated, and the user no longer responds as strongly to other pleasurable experiences. This is evidence of the addictive nature of marijuana. Scientists have taken a recent interest in how marijuana interacts with the brain’s reward system. Published in the journal, Human Brain Mapping, long-term marijuana users had more activity in the reward system on magnetic resonance imaging when shown marijuana related objects than non-users, and they had a reduction of brain stimulation when given alternative cues like their favorite fruit.

How Prescription Stimulant Use Affects the Brain

Scientists have discovered college-aged individuals who occasionally use stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines and prescription drugs such as Adderall, display brain changes that may put them at higher risk for developing a serious addiction later in life.

A study from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that occasional users have slightly faster reaction times, suggesting a tendency toward impulsivity. The most striking difference, however, occurred during the “stop” trials. Here, the occasional users made more mistakes, and their performance worsened, relative to the control group, as the task became harder. The brain images of the occasional users showed consistent patterns of diminished neuronal activity in the parts of the brain associated with anticipatory functioning and updating anticipation based on past trials.

Learn more about the effect drugs can have on our brains:

BRAIN FACTS

The Human Brain is (relatively) BIG:

Relative to size, human brains are much bigger than other mammals. In fact, our brains are over three times bigger than mammal’s brains similar in size. As you can imagine, there is no correlations between the animals’ absolute brain sizes and cognitive abilities. Cows, for example, have larger brains than just about any species of monkey, but unless they are very, very good at hiding it, cows are almost certainly less cognitively capable than most, if not all, “lesser-brained” primates.

The Human Brain is Inverted:

The right side of the brain interacts with the left side of our bodies, and the left side of the braininteracts with the right side of our bodies. Both sides of the brain have specific functions, but sometimes the two sides of the brain interact and work together. The right brain focuses on the expression and reading of emotions, understanding metaphors, and reading faces while the left brain is far more logical, focusing on language skills, analytical time sequence processing and skilled movement.

Size Doesn’t Always Mean Power:

Having a bigger brain does not mean you are more intelligent. Clearly, there is more to intelligence than brain size, or Albert Einstein, one of the smartest people who ever lived, who had an average brain size, would have been out of luck! It is important to take into consideration how to actually define intelligence.

The Human Brain is Full of Fat:

The brain is composed nearly 60% by fat, because without it, we could not live. People who eat a diet low in omega 3 fatty acids are more likely to suffer accelerated wear and tear on the brain. The brain is regarded as the fattest organ in our entire bodies. It has the highest concentration of fat present in a single organ in a healthy human being.

The Electrical Activity Produced by The Brain Forms A Pattern of Brain Waves:

This electrical activity of the brain changes depending on the activity that is being done. For example, the brainwaves of a sleeping person are very different from the brainwaves of someone that is awake.

The Texture of The Brain Is Similar To Tofu:

Experts say our brain has a consistency similar to that of tofu or gelatin. Fatty tissues, blood vessels, and water found in the brain give it that same consistency.

The Brain Feels No Pain:

Since there are no pain receptors in the brain, it is incapable of feeling pain. This feature explains why neurosurgeons can operate on brain tissue without causing a patient discomfort, and, in some cases, can even perform surgery while the patient is awake, as we saw before.

Emotions Are Found in The Primitive Structure of Your Brain:

The limbic system is composed of a set of cerebral structures that are considered very primitive in evolutionary terms, being placed in the superior part of the brainstem, below the cortex. These structures are fundamentally involved in the development of many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival such as fear, anger, and emotions linked to sexual behavior.

Learn more facts about the brain:

Sleeping Well Improves Memory: Advantages of Being Well-Rested

Sleeping well improves memory? Who hasn’t had problems concentrating at work after a poor night’s sleep? In 2013, a study showed that this common complaint among those who slept poorly wasn’t subjective, but a true reality: People who don’t get the reparative sleep at night that they need and those who suffer from some type of insomnia show memory and concentration problems. So, is it true that sleeping well improves memory?

Illnesses that cause memory loss or memory problems like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia tend to be accompanied by sleep disorders or insomnia. Scientists continue to argue about if sleep deprivation is related memory problems. What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Recovery sleep has turned into one of the main recommendations for maintaining and enjoying good memory. In the last few years, more and more people have begun to talk about the benefits that a good night’s sleep can offer us. Some of the conclusions of these studies have been:

1. Sleeping well improves concentration.

2. It can help you get better grades.

3. Sleeping well helps you be more creative.

4. It combats depression

5. It helps you maintain a healthy weight.

6. It facilitated the oxygenation of the cells because breathing slows down while we sleep.

7. It protects the heart.

8. Sleeping well strengthens the immune system

9. Increases life span.

How sleeping well improves memory

There’s no doubt that a good rest is important, but we still don’t know the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. A few days ago, a team of researchers at Bristol’s Center for Synaptic Plasticity at the University of Bristol have brought to light new evidence about the mechanisms that explain why sleeping well improves memory. The basic research study provides new keys to understanding how and why we are able to learn while we sleep.

In the investigation, the team lead by Dr. Mellor saw how some of the brain activity patterns that were produced during the day repeat themselves faster at night. This repetition takes place in the hippocampus (the brain structure related to memory), which strengthens neural connections between active nerve cells, which is essential for consolidating new memories and skills. The study also looked at the repeated diurnal patterns of brain activity during sleep depended on the emotional state that the subject had while they were learning.

According to the investigators, this is very important and may have practical implications for the design. For example, new teaching strategies that keep the student’s emotional state in mind to facilitate learning and memory.

Hopefully, this study brings to light why there is a relationship between sleep and memory. Now it’s our turn to make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Tips For Sleeping Better and Improving Memory

1. Exercise. You don’t need to spend all day at the gym, but doing some type of exercise, like walking or jogging for 20-30 minutes a day. With a little bit of exercise, we’ll fall asleep quicker and sleep better.

2. Keep a routine. It’s important to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.

3. Don’t overdo caffeinated beverages during the day. Try to avoid coffee and soda in the afternoon. Try some decaffeinated tea.

4. Drink less alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t help us sleep well. Even though it helps us fall asleep by depressing our nervous system, it also makes us wake up more at night. Summary: We sleep poorly.

5. Only use the bed for sleeping (or sex). We should try to avoid doing anything else in our beds, like reading, watching movies, playing on our phones or tablets… All of these things disturb our sleep patterns.

References

Sharp-Wave Ripples Orchestrate the Induction of Synaptic Plasticity during Reactivation of Place Cell Firing Patterns in the Hippocampus” by Sadowski, JHLP, Jones, MW and Mellor, JR in Cell Reports. Published online January 19 2016 doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2016.01.061

Memory trace replay: the shaping of memory consolidation by neuromodulation by Atherton, LA, Dupret, D & Mellor, JR (2015) in Trends in Neuroscience. 38, 560-70.

Reading VS. Television: Why Books Are Better For The Brain

Would you prefer to watch TV or read a book? The vast majority would likely choose the first option as their preferred entertainment. However, my fellow Netflix watchers are about to be sorely disappointment. Binge watching your favorite series may not be as healthy for the brain. Documented research favors reading to watching television, as it encourages brain neuroplasticity, enhances cognitive skills, and even strengthens cardiac function which encourages blood flow to the brain.

Photo by Min An from Pexels

Reading VS. Television: Brain Neuroplasticity

The human brain has over 80 billion brain cells called neurons. Neurons have dendrites, which are branches that leading to synapses that connect them to other neurons.  With these specialized brain cells, the brain is able to communicate signals to the body. The area of the brain dedicated to reading is the cortex.  As we learn new skills like reading, the connection between neurons become stronger. This is especially true for children. Brain imaging research shows exposure to reading and phonics encourage brain plasticity—growth and reorganization of vital neural networks in the brain.

Reading VS. Television:  Sensory Processing

Sensory skills are skills involving the receiving of information. For example, vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and proprioception are sensory processing skills. Both watching television and reading are sensory experiences but differ greatly. Reading does not overload visual processing like the flashing colors of a television screen. Along with strengthening brain connection, reading is important for the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for responding to sensory information such as movement and pain. Readers think about the events depicted in books. Thus, reading a book about riding a bike activates the same brain area as physically riding a bike. Books offer a multitude of experiences causing the reader to deeply contemplate and connect a story.

Reading VS. Television: Verbal Communication

There are many forms of communication: verbal, written, listening, visual, and non-verbal (i.e. gestures, signing, eye contact, etc.). Research correlates lower verbal test scores with increased hours spent watching television. The frontal lobes of individuals who watch television are thicker, which is associated with lower verbal reasoning.  

This is because reading provides all aspects of communication that are not included in books. Through words, readers are exposed to verbal dialogue, writing, interpreting character gestures, and more. Television does not portray as many details. Reading goes further into depth about what characters think, feel, and how they react. Readers must concentrate to think about the themes of the book and make inferences about the material.

Reading VS. Television: Vocabulary and Language

Although television is made of mostly dialogue, reading develops vocabulary. The words written in books are, on average, twice as complex than words spoken through television characters. Reading forces a person to look at unknown words and interpret their meaning through context clues. The increased vocabulary is not only helpful for writing, but for expression in everyday conversation. Books provide repeated exposure to known words, which tests knowledge and understanding.

Even listening to a book via audio or read aloud has better results on vocabulary than watching television. However, experts have found that the effect television has on vocabulary is neutral. As long as the time spent reading is not sacrificed for television watching, it does not reduce vocabulary.

Reading VS. Television: Attention Span

Whether a series or a lengthy movie, television condenses a story. The scenes are rapidly changing with shifts in camera angles. The plot is broken up for advertisement breaks. Most people are preoccupied with other tasks simultaneously such as doing homework, browsing the computer, sending text messages, or are engaged in a craft. The act of watching television does not involve equal levels of thinking in comparison to reading.

Reading requires constant attention. When reading, readers are often engrossed in the story and are not completing other tasks at the same time. They can process the material at their own pace instead of attempting to keep up with rapidly changing television scenes.

Reading VS. Television: Emotional Intelligence

The term emotional intelligence describes the awareness and the ability to control emotions. Expert psychologist’s at York University and Emory University found that literary fiction is related to a greater capacity for empathy, as readers imagine what it would be like if they were in the character’s shoes.

During the process of reading, we are uncovering the emotions of various characters and predicting their actions in response to those emotions. This translates to interactions in daily life. Readers are more apt to understand the actions and intentions of others because they are trained to do so from character perspectives. Readers observe interactions between characters and compare them to their lives. It is a key aspect of functional relationships.

 Reading VS. Television: Imagery

Can you recall a movie or television series that is better than the book in which it is based? Probably not. This is due to imagery. Reading is far superior to television as it pertains to imagery. Television provides complete visual and auditory images. There is little left to viewers to imagine. Reading, however, is up to the discretion of the individual. No two interpretation is identical. One reader’s vision may be entirely different than what another perceives.

Reading VS. Television: Memory

Memory, comprised of short-term, long-term, and working memory, is a cognitive process the brain relies on to store and retrieve information. The mind is a muscle and functions optimally with practice. Reading is an exercise for memory. It presents information that readers can go back and review as many times as necessary to form their conclusions, recall words and their meanings, and processing letters.  It leads to enhanced memory for situations outside of written language like the working memory involved in memorizing a phone number to call a friend.

Cognitive skills such as memory decline with age. Reading is known to prevent cognitive decline with age, as well as that associated with the development of dementia. Studies report that avid readers have lower levels of beta-amyloid—a protein deficient in Alzheimer’s patients.

Reading VS. Television: Behavior

Evidence that excessive TV watching impacts behavior is obvious through studies with child subjects. Children and adolescents are impressionable. They learn by modeling those in their environment. This includes the television and media they are exposed to like the presence of risky behaviors (i.e.  violence, sexual situations, etc.) depicted in their favorite television series. Studies prove the violent behavior persists into adulthood.

Similarly, reading also has an effect on behavior. Readers adopt characters’ experiences. For example, a study including 82 undergraduate college students reading stories about the 2008 presidential election had startling results! The students who read first-person stories were over twice as likely to vote simply because reading influenced their behavior.

Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Reading VS. Television: Stress Reduction

The hustle and bustle of life is stressful. Juggling work, school, health, and relationships can be overwhelming. When your brain is running one-hundred miles a minute, reading lessens stress by 68 percent. The act is a distraction from stressful events, allowing us to live in the world of characters. It is truly an escape from reality. The brain reroutes energy to concentrating on the story instead of fueling the harsh effects of stress on the body.

Reading VS. Television: Improves Cardiac Function

Just 6 minutes of reading has amazing benefits for physical functioning. As the body relaxes, the muscles are not as tense. In addition to relaxation, reading lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Cardiac function is connected to the brain. Poor heart health is frequently seen with higher cholesterol levels, which causes injury to the brain’s white matter. However, reading improves blood flow and circulation to the brain.

Does Genre Alter the Benefits? 

Similar to how watching an educational television series has an opposite effect on the brain as a drama, different genres of books do change the effect reading has on the brain. A wide variety of genres is optimal, as it broadens the experiences readers submerse themselves into and that strengthens the brain’s neurons. For example, biographies tend to evoke effects on emotions, whereas classic literary fiction focuses on vocabulary and thrillers are an exciting distraction to shift perspective and to reduce stress. To receive all of the benefits of reading, pick books you enjoy!

References

Ennemoser, M. & Schneider, W. (2007). Relations of television viewing and reading: Findings from a 4-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2):349-368. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.349

Goldman, C. (2012). This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html

Psychologist of the Month: Why Elizabeth Loftus is Out to Change Your Mind About What You Remember

Elizabeth Loftus. Photo from Wikipedia

When we think about famous psychologists, we often think of older men from long ago who did experiments with pigeons or who talked about peoples’ relationships with their mothers. But, like any scientific discipline, psychology is a continually evolving field full of dedicated clinicians, researchers, and academics who are searching for new truths to uncover and new ways to prove or disprove the beliefs we have held for so long.

One of the most exciting areas of modern psychologic research is in the field of memory and recall, and there are few psychologists more important to this field than Elizabeth Loftus.

Early Work on Memory & Recall

Dr. Loftus, who currently holds the position of affiliate professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington, has been at the forefront of research on human memory and recall for nearly 50 years, studying how memories are formed and how recall of these memories can be affected over time.

Her research in this area has led to a number of awards and honors, as well as a place as the highest-ranked female on the list of 100 most influential psychological researchers of the 20th century from the Review of General Psychology.

After receiving her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1970, Loftus went on to begin her first academic appointment at the New School for Social Research in New York City, studying the semantic information in long-term memory.

Dr. Loftus quickly realized that research in memory and recall could have a much more significant social impact in other areas, and in 1973 accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of Washington and began researching how memory affects real-world situations.

One of her earliest studies focused on understanding whether eyewitness memory can be altered after the fact by information supplied by outside sources. This study built on previous research which had established that memories were constructions created using past experiences and other external manipulations, and not entirely accurate representations of events. These early studies provided clues that the way in which questions are presented, including the wording of questions, can affect how a person recalls events.

Building on these findings, Elizabeth Loftus began looking at what other ways misinformation could be presented to a person, the effect this misinformation has on recall, and how this erroneous recall can have serious, real-world consequences. This research led to the development of the paradigm known as the Misinformation Effect.

The Misinformation Effect & Eyewitness Testimony

Through her research, Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated the pliability of human memory and recall. She has shown how memories can be affected by exposure to incorrect information, leading questions, or any number of sources of false information.

The Misinformation Effect is an example of what is known as retroactive interference, a phenomenon where the information presented in the present or future can affect the ability of a person to retain previously learned information correctly. An example of retroactive interference is when you have a telephone number for a long time. When you switch to a new number, after memorizing the new number, it becomes much more difficult to remember the older number.

Her research, and that of her colleagues in the field of memory and recall, has changed our understanding of how memory works and how long-term memories are not fixed, unchanging ideas stored forever in a frozen state waiting to be remembered, but are, in fact, mental constructs based not only on what happened at the time, but what we have learned and experienced in the time since the event has passed.

Our memories are affected by what we learn from others who recount their versions, by the expectations of those who want to hear what we remember, and from our own mind filling in gaps in our memory with information we received after the fact.

How Elizabeth Loftus’ Work Continues to Impact the World

Elizabeth Loftus’ work has a huge effect on the legal field. Photo by Saúl Bucio on Unsplash

The Misinformation Effect has powerful and dangerous implications for many areas of society and has generated hundreds of additional studies exploring the phenomenon.

There is likely no area where memory and recall, and the ways in which the Misinformation Effect can alter those memories, play a more critical role than in the legal field in general, and in eyewitness testimony in particular.

Much of how our modern legal systems around the world function is based on the testimony of witnesses who experienced the events. The fact that trials and questioning can happen months or even years after the events occurred can leave witnesses open to significant alterations in how they recall the events. And the fact that there are multiple sides invested in specific outcomes, there is plenty of opportunity for incorrect or incomplete information to seep into the recollections of eyewitnesses, whether they intend to or not.

One way this misinformation can have an unintended effect is when the witness identifies a suspect. When presented with a series of photographs, or a lineup of individuals, an eyewitness may read body language and other subtle clues from the interviewer and select the response the questioner is hoping for. This is similar to Hanz, the horse that could do math. Though the horse could not actually do math, when asked to add two numbers, he would tap his hoof to count, stopping once he reached the correct answer. He did this by reacting to the expressions of the questioner, who would likely show signs of excitement as the horse got close to the correct answer.

In this same way, the eyewitness, who may only remember vague details such as the color of the clothes, the hairstyle, and other generic information, may look at the lineup of potential suspects and unconsciously select the person for whom they receive the strongest body-language reaction from the questioner.

Similarly, the way questions are presented in questioning can affect the recall of witnesses. For example, a neutrally-worded question such as “what was the person who robbed the store wearing that day?” will not get the same information as a leading question such as “Other witnesses have told us that the person robbing the store was wearing a red sweater and blue pants, is that what you remember?” The second of these questions is potentially providing incorrect information, which may lead the witness to misremember the events based on both the expectations of the questioner and the supposed recollections of other witnesses.

Conclusion

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has spent her entire career studying the way memory and recall works and has been a crusader for ensuring the misinformation effect is understood within the legal community. Her research has changed what we know about memory and continues to play a role in understanding the complex systems humans use to understand and remember their world.

How Does Your Brain Tell Time (And Why Does It Seem to Go So Slow Sometimes)

How does our brain tell time? Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Time flies when you’re having fun…and seems to stand completely still while you’re waiting for your food to cook in the microwave. We know that (complex metaphysical theories aside) time always moves at the same speed. We can look at our watch and see that a minute lasts just as long when you’re out with your friends as it does when you’re sitting in a dull office meeting about the new rules for how to use the printer.

So why is it that our body clock tells time in wildly different ways depending on what we’re doing and how we are feeling?

How Does the Brain Keep Track of Time?

Our brains are actually managing not one, but two separate systems for measuring time.

We have one system which our body uses to track our temporal location throughout the day and night cycle. This clock, which is responsible for controlling our regular daily cycles for things like eating, sleeping, digestion, and even our immune system, is known as our circadian rhythm.

This system—though controlled internally through the continuous production and breaking-down of proteins in our cells in 24-hour-long cycles—is highly reliant on external stimuli such as the light and dark cycles due to the rotation of the earth (which is why looking at the bright screen on your phone right before bed makes it so hard to sleep, because the light is causing your brain to mistakenly think it is morning and time to stay awake). This is the same system that tells nocturnal animals to go out at night and that tells sunflowers to change position throughout the day.

In addition to this internal clock responsible for synchronizing our body’s many systems and functions, our brain also is able to track time in the moment, allowing us to keep track of how much time has passed in a specific moment and to create mental estimates of temporal durations. For example, this tracking clock is what allows us to perform activities in a normal amount of time, it allows us to know whether the amount of time we have been waiting for something to happen is appropriate, and it is what is responsible for allowing us to estimate how quickly to react to something such as when waiting to catching a ball.

This clock processes time in a much different way than our circadian system. Dean Buonomano, associate professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the university’s Brain Research Institute believes that whenever the brain processes sensory information “it triggers a cascade of reactions between brain cells and their connections. Each reaction leaves a signature that enables the brain-cell network to encode time.”

Our brain’s clock for tracking and estimating the passage is a complex system which requires not only that we measure the time as it passes, but also that we are constantly recording the amount of time that has passed.

Why Does it Feel Like Sometimes Time Flies and Others it Seems to Stand Still?

How do you tell time? Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

Recent research published in the Journal of Neuroscience may explain what causes the sensation that time sometimes seems to go faster, and other times seems to drag on, and on, and on…

The study found that neurons in a part of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus (SMG) fire at specific intervals in response to external stimuli. When we are exposed to repeated stimuli that cause these neurons to continually fire over long periods of time the supramarginal gyrus becomes fatigued and the firing of neurons begins to slow down slightly. Because the other systems in our brain continue to fire at their normal speed, the relative change between the system that measures time and the other systems makes us experience time as moving more slowly.

How Did Researchers Study Our Perception of Time?

The researchers, Hayashi and Ivry, studied the brain activity of healthy human subjects using fMRI. While the brain activity study participants was being measured, the researchers gave them tasks involving comparing time intervals.

To begin with, the participants we shown a fixed-duration visual stimulus (a grey circle) 30 times in a row. After the patients viewed the repeated stimulus, they were then shown a test stimulus and asked to estimate the duration of the test stimulus.

The researchers found that when the initial stimulus was short, participants tended to overestimate the length of the test stimulus, whereas when the initial stimulus was longer, participants underestimated the length of time.

When viewing the brain activity of the subjects, the researchers found a strong correlation between how accurately a subject perceived time and the activity in the SMG region, as SMG activity decreased participant’s estimates became less accurate.

How Does This Finding Affect Our Understanding of How We Tell Time?

In the past, one prevailing idea was that a region of the brain called the striatum was responsible for nearly all of our body’s inner timekeeping duties. This new study, combined with others showing the importance of the hippocampus in determining and remembering long periods of time, are showing that we may actually use much more of our brain to keep track of time than previously thought.

45+ Exciting Games For Seniors To Help Stimulate The Brain

Chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, Go fish—and once upon a time, I bet most of you were addicted to Candy Crush. Games are not solely a form of childhood amusement. In fact, even senior citizens reap the benefits of having fun. Games for seniors improve cognitive skills, stimulates the brain to prevent dementia, and provides socialization for healthy well-being.  

Games for seniors can help keep the mind young. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The Aging Brain: Cognitive Skills During Senior Adulthood

The brain consists of two types of gray and white matter. White matter tissue is home to specialized cells called neurons and the nerve fibers known as axons. The axons are encapsulated with myelin—a fatty sheath that facilitates the exchange of chemical messages throughout the nervous system. Learning and various other brain functions are possible because white matter allows communication between different areas of the brain.

As an individual ages, overall brain volume decreases, especially the amount of white matter. This leaves the elderly prone to memory loss, as well as a decline in other cognitive skills like attention. These subtle changes in white matter are considered normal. However, a more pronounced loss or damage to white matter is associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Researchers (Liu, 2017) have found that an older brain is susceptible to lesions, cerebral bleeding, and disease.

The Benefits of Games For Seniors

The benefits of games for seniors are vast. With the sharp reduction in brain matter during the aging process, playing games strengthens neural connections in the brain. As the brain grows stronger, it can regenerate those damaged connections in the white matter. They are less likely to become affected by disease. The New England Journal of Medicine documents studies reflecting a decreased incidence of dementia in seniors who partake in board games and card games as leisure activities.

Games are also beneficial for mental health. Playing games that are enjoyable increases feelings of happiness. Additionally, games typically involve multiple players which foster the opportunity for socialization and forming friendships that boost mood.

Online Games For Seniors

Most seniors are not known for being computer savvy. Still, research proves that 38% of adults over the age of 50 play video games. Whether online through a laptop or desktop computer, a gaming console, or a smart phone application, virtual games are helpful for repetition of tasks focused on cognitive abilities.

  • Candy Crush—A match-three puzzle game with the goal of matching three or more pieces of candy of the same color by swapping candy pieces vertically or horizontally.
  • Words With Friends—The virtual version of Scrabble where players are given seven letter tiles that are each assigned a point value. Players must form words and strategically place them on the board to earn the most points.
  • Bejeweled—Similar to Candy Crush, players must swap gems to create vertical or horizontal chains of three or more gems of the same color.  
  • Tetris—Based on tetriminos, the aim of Tetris is to clear rows by horizontally arranging falling blocks of varying shapes and speeds without empty rows of space.
  • Elevate—A gaming app for games that improve vocabulary, grammar, and speaking and listening skills.  

Card games For Seniors

Card games are a classic! Cards are inexpensive, do not require extra tools or equipment, and they encourage socialization because they involve multiple people to play. For seniors, card games stimulate the brain by testing the player’s strategy and chance.

  • Uno—Players match card numbers, colors, or words until one card remains.
  • Phase 10—The object of Phase 10 is to be the first to complete all of the 10 phases using cards dealt at random.
  • Crazy Eights—Match cards to the card on top of the starter pile in suit or number until the winner discards all of their cards.
  • Go Fish—Try to get four suits of the same rank by requesting cards from other players.
  • Bridge—Bridge is played in partners or teams and the team who wins does so by making bids and tricks.
  • Rummy—Players rush to order all of their cards in the same rank or sequence.
  • Solitaire—In ascending order, organize cards by suit.
  • Poker—A betting game where players make bets on who has the better hand of cards that are of the highest value.  
  • SkipBo—Stack the cards in your hand in sequential order to use all of the cards in the stockpile.
  • Lowdown—By placing nine cards in rows of three, replace high scoring cards with low scaring cards to have the least number of points out of all players.

Number Games For Seniors

Paying bills, shopping, measuring ingredients while cooking—numbers are frequently applied to everyday tasks. Games that involve numbers refine math skills in ways more fun than calculating tedious equations.

  • Yahtzee—A dice game where players roll and decide which combinations of numbers to keep or which to roll again.
  • Farkle—Roll dice until the score equals 500.
  • Sudoku—A puzzle game with the goal of each column and row in the 9×9 grid contains all digits from 1 to 9.  
  • Count Backwards—Practice counting backward from various starting points, patterns, and sequences.
  • Color By Numbers—Coloring by numbers combines the ability to count with the art and creativity of coloring.  

Word Games For Seniors

Word games challenge vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and communication by testing logic and reasoning. The brain is fully engaged, as games involving words strengthen the connections in both the right and the left side of the brain.

  • Scrabble—Arrange tiles in a crossword-style on a grid to form words with the highest point score.
  • Scattergories—Roll a dice to choose a letter and then name as many objects as possible on a list using the same letter.
  • Boggle—16 letter cubes are contained in a domed grid. Shake the grid to mix up the letters. Players must form as many words as possible using connecting letters (i.e. adjacent letters).
  • Word Search—Hidden amongst a grid of miscellaneous letters, find specific words on a list. The words can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, or backward. Word search puzzles are featured in newspapers and gamebooks.
  • Taboo—Guess the word on the player’s card using hints listed on the card.
  • Bananagrams—Each player is given a set of letter tiles contained in a banana pouch. The first to build a crossword grid with all of their tiles wins.
  • Upwords—Upwords is similar to Scrabble, but the letter tiles can be stacked on top of each other.
  • Rhyming Ball—The starting player throws a ball to another player while saying a word. The player with the ball has to come up with a new word that rhymes before throwing the ball to the next player.

Board Games For Seniors

Board games are a popular form of entertainment for seniors. The majority of board games can be played sitting down, which is optimal for those with mobility concerns, and the rules can be modified to accommodate physical challenges. Board games are versatile, as the object of the games differ to target a variety of cognitive abilities. Including at least two players, studies report evidence of board games reducing the occurrence of depression in the elderly population.

  • Chess—A two player strategy game where each person takes turns moving pieces of contrasting colors across files and ranks.
  • Monopoly—Taking turns rolling dice, players move around the board while securing properties, developing them, and trading them with other players until a player declares bankruptcy.
  • Cranium—Players are assigned a piece that moves around the board. They battle to complete activities before the timer runs out. Activities include drawing, answering trivia questions, filling in the blank, or acting out an activity written on the card.
  • Pictionary—One player chooses a card from a deck and draws the object written on that card. Other players try to guess the word.  
  • Checkers— Using a checkered board, players move their pieces diagonally to jump over and collect all of the opponent’s pieces.
  • Sequence—The object of Sequence is for players to create columns, rows, and diagonals on the board with spaces based on all of the cards in a standard 52-card deck.
  • Trouble—Players roll the dice to be the first to move all four of their pieces around the board.
  • Sorry—Much like Trouble, players roll a dice to move each of their pawns to their home base.
  • Backgammon—A two-player game where each player moves their checkers between 24 triangles according to the number on the dice.

Physical Activity Games For Seniors

Exercise is an important part of maintaining physical and mental health. Being that seniors are prone to medical complications, physical activity is crucial to their health routine. Lifting weights, walking, or doing repeated reps of body weight exercises is tedious for some. Instead, physical activity games allow seniors to reach their allotment of physical exercise that incorporates their hobbies or interests. Research even shows “physically active older adults showed greater increases in white matter volume” (Colcombe, 2006).

Common games involving physical activity that are appropriate for seniors providing they receive medical clearance from their physician. These include activities such as golf, dance, badminton, tennis, crochet, frisbee, horseshoes, shuffleboard, whiffle ball, and swimming.

Craft Games For Seniors

Seniors like an outlet to express their creativity. While card games, board games, and virtual games are enjoyable, they are limited in artistry. Crafting triggers the brain to release dopamine, which creates feelings of happiness and initiates the process of building new neurons in the brain to fight the effects of aging. Physicians who are published in the American Journal of Public Health have introduced crafting to patients with dementia and have had memory improvements of up to 70 percent!

Basic crafts like painting, sewing, knitting, are great. Consider unique crafts like constructing and decorating a birdhouse, jewelry making, designing greeting cards for friends or other loved ones, or scrapbooking to preserve cherished memories.

Group games for seniors. Photo by Şahin Sezer Dinçer from Pexels

Group Games For Seniors

Many board and card games are multiple players, which encourages group or team cooperation. However, there are games that are played in much larger groups than the usual game of cards. This socialization is needed to keep their minds sharp through intellectual conversations with peers. Seniors with consistent, active social lives are generally less anxious, are not as likely to develop depression, and a have higher self-esteem than seniors who remain isolated.

  • Bingo—The purpose of Bingo is to have 5 connecting spaces on the board called. Bingo is the most common game played in group homes because it accommodates large groups and is inexpensive. It stimulates the senses (i.e. hearing, sight, touch).
  • Twister—The traditional Twister is not senior-friendly, as most are not physically able to contort their bodies. However, bean bag Twister is played by tossing bean bags on the mat. Each color on the board is allotted a point system, and the number of points given depends on what color the beanbag lands on.
  • Game Show Games—Recreating favorite game show games like “The Price Is Right,” “Family Feud,” and “Wheel of Fortune” engages large groups.

Memory Games For Seniors

Out of all of the cognitive skills, memory is the skill most effected by aging. Playing games that focus on memory tasks specifically reducing the extent of memory loss. Seniors with dementia especially benefit from games targeting memory.

  • Memory Tray—Miscellaneous items are put on a tray. After players look at the tray, it is covered up. Later, they must try to remember the items on the tray.
  • Memory Match—An interactive memory game for seniors where cards are placed face down on a surface and players flip over two cards at a time in attempts to find a match. Once the cards are matched, they are remain flipped over upright.  
  • Simon—An electronic memory game where players have to remember and repeat color sequences on a device.  
  • Grocery List—Using memory recall, players memorize a shopping list and are required to place every item in a hypothetical shopping cart. The first to fill the cart correctly wins!
  • Trivia—Trivia games test the knowledge on subjects such as science, history, facts about musicians, or television shows. These games train memory, as players have to retrieve the answer from their memory.
  • Finish the Phrase—Players are supposed to finish the sentence of phrases.

Resources

Colcombe, S. J., Erickson, K. I., Scalf, P. E., Kim, J. S., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., et al. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. J. Gerontol. A Biol. Sci. Med. Sci. 61, 1166–1170. doi: 10.1093/gerona/61.11.1166

Liu, H., Yang, Y., Xia, Y., Zhu, W., Leak, R. K., Wei, Z., Wang, J., & Hu, X. (2017). Aging of cerebral white matter. Ageing research reviews34, 64–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2016.11.006

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. American journal of public health100(2), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497

Emotional Connection to Human Lookalikes: What Is the Uncanny Valley and What Can It Tell Us About How We Connect To Each Other?

What is the Uncanny Valley? Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

Pixar, the company behind some of the most successful animated films of all time, released its first film, Toy Story, all the way back in 1995. Toy Story was the first film in the history of cinema to be created entirely using computer-generated graphics. In the time since then, technology has inarguably advanced in leaps and bounds, our ability to develop digitally-animated feature films, Saturday morning cartoons, and even short films has grown exponentially—giving rise to some truly unique stories.

But have you ever wondered why even when these studios are able to create almost lifelike representations of plants and animals and even minute details such as beautifully curly hair, individual blades of grass, and nearly perfect recreations of the real world environments we interact with every day…why do they almost always create the characters as if they were traditional cartoon caricatures? And why when they try to create lifelike human characters, they just look so darn strange?

What is the Uncanny Valley?

The Uncanny Valley is a theory that came from Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist who worked in the fields of robotics and automation. When he came up with the idea in 1970, he had noticed that there is a positive correlation between the way humans develop a greater connection and affinity for artificial humans as they become more realistic, but that at a certain point, when these artificial humans become almost perfect, there is a steep drop in our affinity with them as we begin to see them a human but begin to notice slight differences that cause a disconnect between the realness of the artificial human and our expectation of a true human form.

The Uncanny Valley – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

For example, when we look at an industrial robot that looks nothing like a human, we feel little to no connection to this robot. But when we interact with a cute child’s toy that looks like a humanoid robot, we may feel basic emotions and form shallow bonds with this humanlike toy.

If we were to interact with a robot like the famed C-3PO from the Star Wars films, we may even begin to build what could be described as a friendship with this robot due to its humanlike personality traits and humanlike form.

But if we were to see a robot that looked exactly like a human but who was unable to move their eyebrows or form familiar facial expressions when speaking, we would feel strange interacting with this robot because we would expect a ‘human’ to be able to do these things. When our expectations were not met, we feel a discomforting disconnect.

Examples of Human Lookalikes: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly…

There are plenty of examples of human lookalikes—from movies and television to robots that help provide services such as serving food or patrolling shopping centers alongside other law-enforcement agents—and each one evokes a slightly different reaction from the public.  

Here are some examples of human lookalikes from all across the spectrum, from feel-good friends to utterly cringeworthy.

The Good: Human Lookalikes that Make Us Feel an Emotional Connection

As mentioned above, Pixar has a special way of creating unique animated characters with just enough human traits to help us form strong emotional connections, but cartoony enough to keep them well away from falling into the Uncanny Valley.

One of my favorite examples of this is the animated film Up. The first five to ten minutes of this film create one of the most emotional experiences in all of modern cinema. But, how does Pixar create these characters in a way they makes them so easy to connect to?

Part of what makes them so relatable without becoming off-putting is the over-exaggeration of facial and body features such as large noses and eyes, overly squared or rounded facial structures, or head-to-body ratios that are cartoonishly inaccurate.

By creating these characters in this way, they allow us to view them as non-humans doing humanlike things, which we often find appealing, similar to how we often anthropomorphize animals or objects that look or act in ways we typically understand as ‘human.’

The Bad: Human Lookalikes that Tried Too Hard and Didn’t Quite Make it

But not all examples of human lookalikes are found in film and pop culture. There is a growing trend of trying to create humanlike robots that can be used in offices and other public spaces to interact with humans.

One example of this is the Actroid robot created by the Japanese firm Kokoro Company Ltd.

As you can see, this android is aiming to be humanlike, with typical body ratios, natural-looking facial structure, and clothing that would be appropriate for a human to be wearing in a similar situation.

And while this is obviously aiming to be as humanlike as possible, it is quite evident that it is a robot and doesn’t quite elicit the uncomfortable feelings we might experience from the Uncanny Valley.

The Ugly: Human Lookalikes that Made us Cringe

Actor Tom Hanks is no newbie when it comes to voicing animated characters in films, but not all of his animated films have received the same warm welcome from critics and fans.

One such film is the 2004 animated Christmas movie The Polar Express.

Though this movie was given high praise for its overall visual appeal and unique story, many who saw the film left with an uneasy feeling brought on by the strange, waxy emotions of the human characters.

This is a perfect example of how a human lookalike being too authentic-looking can cause us to feel uncomfortable.

Since we saw what looked like humans, we expected to see human actions and movements, especially those small micro-movements in the eyes and face. When we don’t see those, we feel a disconnect between what we expect and what we actually see.

Why Do We React So Strongly to Human Lookalikes?

When humans interact with each other, we don’t merely interact using spoken words. We also read each other’s body language and facial expressions for additional clues and context about what is being said.

For example, if someone says, “I am so excited,” this could mean several things based on the context. We could understand it as authentic excitement if the person says it with a slightly high-pitched tone and with raised eyebrows and a slight flush in the cheeks. But if the same person says the same thing with a deeper, slower tone, slight downward turn at the corners of the mouth, and a slight slouch in their spine, it might be a sign that what they are saying is sarcastic.

When we interact with human-lookalikes that are cartoonish, we can expect to skip the micro-movements and subtle clues and read into the more obvious things like tone. Still, when we interact with an almost lifelike human lookalike, and we don’t receive these same micro-clues we expect from a human, it seems strange.

Does Everyone Experience the Uncanny Valley Effect the Same?  

As demographics change across the globe and the average age of populations continues to increase, especially in industrialized nations, there is an increasing interest in using robots to provide services and act as caretakers to the older generation, freeing up more of the younger generation to enter into the workforce.

With this push comes interesting questions about how the Uncanny Valley affects people from different age groups.

At least one research project has found that while the Uncanny Valley Effect is prevalent among younger and middle-aged adults, adults in the older cohorts did not show the same negative reaction to humanlike robots—in fact, they actually preferred interacting with robots that appeared more human.

Conclusion

How does the Uncanny Valley Affect How We Connect to Human Lookalikes? Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

The idea of having robots to help us throughout our lives is not a new one. Cartoons such as The Jetsons, which aired for the first time in 1962, were already toying with the idea of robot helpers to do all manner of tasks around the house.

Today we are closer than ever to fulfilling this dream. We have digital assistants in the form of Siri and Alexa, we have cars that can drive themselves (at least under specific circumstances), and we even have robotic security guards.

But as these digital helpers become more advanced, we are starting to enter into the realm of the Uncanny Valley, and we must tread carefully if we want people to feel comfortable with these new additions to public life.

B. F. Skinner: 4 Interesting Experiments from the Father of Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner Sure Did Love His Pigeons Photo by sanjiv nayak on Unsplash

There are few names in psychology more well-known than B. F. Skinner. First-year psychology students scribble notes as their professors introduce him and his work to the class, and doctoral candidates cite his work in their dissertations as they test whether rat’s behavior can be used to predict behavior in humans.

Skinner is one of the most well-known psychologists of our time. Still, like many larger-than-life figures, for many, he has become little more than a meme of himself, reduced to the two-paragraphs of notes dedicated to him in the notebooks of those bright-eyed freshmen. “Oh, yes. The father of operant conditioning!” we say at dinner parties, hoping the topic changes before our limited knowledge becomes apparent.

But how did he become such a central figure of these Intro to Psych courses, and how did he develop the theories and methodologies cited by those sleep-deprived Ph.D. students?

B. F. Skinner’s Famous Works & Contributions to Psychology

Skinner, born in Pennsylvania in 1904, spent his life studying the way we behave and act, and how this behavior can be modified.

Viewing the classical model of behavioral conditioning championed by Ivan Pavlov, another mainstay of modern psychological study, as being too simplistic a solution to fully explain the complexities of human (and animal) behavior and learning, B. F. Skinner began looking for a better way to explain why we do what we do.

Basing his early work on Edward Thorndike’s 1989 Law of Effect, Skinner went on to expand on the idea that the prevalence of a given behavior is directly related to the consequences which follow said behavior. His expanded model of behavioral learning, known as operant conditioning, is centered around the concepts of behaviors, the actions an organism exhibits, and operants, the environmental response directly following the behavior.

These responses, often referred to as consequences—though this is somewhat misleading due in part to the fact that there need not be a causal relationship between the behavior and the operant—can either come in three forms. The first is reinforcers, which present the organism with a desirable stimulus and serve to increase the frequency of the behavior. On the other end of the spectrum are punishers or environmental responses that present an undesirable stimulus and serve to reduce the frequency of the behavior. Finally, there are neutral operants which, as the name suggests, present stimuli that neither increase nor decrease the prevalence of the behavior in question.

Throughout his long and storied career, Skinner performed a number of strange experiments trying to test the limits of how punishment and reinforcement affect behavior.

4 Interesting Experiments from B. F. Skinner

Though Skinner was a professional through and through, he was also quite a quirky person… and his unique ways of thinking are readily apparent in the strange and interesting experiments he performed while researching the properties of operant conditioning.

Here are four of the most famous experiments from throughout his career:

Experiment #1: The Operant Conditioning Chamber

The Operant Conditioning Chamber, better known as the Skinner Box, is a device that B.F. Skinner used in many of his experiments. At its most basic, the Skinner Box is a chamber where a test subject, such as a rat or a pigeon, can be placed and must ‘learn’ the desired behavior through trial and error.

B.F. Skinner used this device for several different experiments. One such experiment involves placing a hungry rat into a chamber with a lever and a slot where food is dispensed when the lever is pressed. Another variation involves placing a rat into an enclosure, which is wired with a slight electric current in the floor. When the current is turned on, the rat must turn a wheel in order to turn off the current.  

Though this is the most basic experiment in operant conditioning research, there is an infinite number of variations that can be created based on this simple idea.


Experiment #2: A Pigeon That Can Read

Building on the basic ideas from his work with the Operant Conditioning Chamber, B. F. Skinner eventually began designing more and more complex experiments.

One of these experiments involved teaching a pigeon to read words presented to it in order to receive food. Skinner began by teaching the pigeon a simple task, namely, pecking a colored disk, in order to receive a reward. He then began adding additional environmental cues (in this case, they were words), which were paired with a specific behavior that was required in order to receive the reward.

Through this evolving process, Skinner was able to teach the pigeon to ‘read’ and respond to several unique commands.

Though the pigeon can’t actually read English, the fact that he was able to teach a bird multiple behaviors, each one linked to a specific stimulus, by using operant conditioning shows us that this form of behavioral learning can be a powerful tool for teaching both animals and humans complex behaviors based on environmental cues.


Experiment #3: Pigeon Ping-Pong

But Skinner wasn’t only concerned with teaching pigeons how to read. It seems he also made sure they had time to play games as well. In one of his more whimsical experiments, B. F. Skinner taught a pair of common pigeons how to play a simplified version of table tennis.

The pigeons in this experiment were placed on either side of a box and were taught to peck the ball to the other bird’s side. If a pigeon was able to peck the ball across the table and past their opponent, they were rewarded with a small amount of food. This reward served to reinforce the behavior of pecking the ball past their opponent.

Though this may seem like a silly task to teach a bird, the ping-pong experiment shows that operant conditioning can be used not only for a specific, robot-like action but also to teach dynamic, goal-based behaviors.


Experiment #4: Pigeon-Guided Missiles

Thought pigeons playing ping-pong was as strange as things could get? Skinner pushed the envelope even further with his work on pigeon-guided missiles.

While this may sound like the crazy experiment of a deluded mad scientist, B. F. Skinner did actually do work to train pigeons to control the flight paths of missiles for the U.S. Army during the second world war.

Skinner began by training the pigeons to peck at shapes on a screen. Once the pigeons reliably tracked these shapes, Skinner was able to use sensors to track whether the pigeon’s beak was in the center of the screen, to one side or the other, or towards the top or bottom of the screen. Based on the relative location of the pigeon’s beak, the tracking system could direct the missile towards the target location.

Though the system was never used in the field due in part to advances in other scientific areas, it highlights the unique applications that can be created using operant training for animal behaviors.


How B. F. Skinner’s Work Continues to Impact Psychology and Beyond

B. F. Skinner is one of the most recognizable names in modern psychology, and with good reason. Though many of his experiments seem outlandish, the science behind them continues to impact us in ways we rarely think about.

The most prominent example is in the way we train animals for tasks such as search and rescue, companion services for the blind and disabled, and even how  we train our furry friends at home—but the benefits of his research go far beyond teaching Fido how to roll over.

Operant conditioning research has found its way into the way schools motivate and discipline students, how prisons rehabilitate inmates, and even in how governments handle geopolitical relationships.

Mathematics & Mental Health: How Are Our Children Coping with Returning to School in the Age of Coronavirus?

Students Return to School After Quarantine. Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash

Sanitizer, medical masks, and…colored pencils? As the summer heat starts to wind down and schools begin to open up and air out the classrooms after an extended break from in-person lessons, parents and students alike are beginning to confront the topic of returning to the classroom after what has been a very strange, to say the least, academic year that ended this past Spring.

Even in a typical year, going back to school after the summer break can bring with it a mix of emotions for students: the joy of seeing their friends, the anxiety of whether they will like their teachers or classmates, a bit of sadness that they can no longer sleep in until noon every day… But this isn’t a typical year, and this won’t be a typical back to school.

On top of the usual emotional rollercoaster that comes every fall semester, this year, students are having to deal with the possibilities of becoming infected with COVID-19, including the fears of bringing the disease back home to their parents, siblings, and even grandparents.

How are students supposed to handle the complex emotions brought on by returning to school in the midst of a global pandemic, and what are schools doing to help them prepare?

Our Children Are Returning to School in A Very Uncertain Time

How is Back to School During COVID-19 Affecting Student Mental Health? Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

After nearly six months of online learning—and in some cases, even more—students all around the world are preparing to head back to the classroom to have in-person lessons with their teachers and classmates.  

In many instances, governments and school administrators still haven’t put in place plans for minimizing infections or for dealing with outbreaks when they inevitably do occur.

Teachers, many of whom have preexisting health conditions or who are in an age group that puts them at higher risk for Coronavirus, are concerned about returning to the classroom, but also understand the importance of in-person classes on the learning outcomes of their students, especially the youngest and most vulnerable.

Parents—who have been forced to work from home and take on dual duties of office worker and ad hoc math, science, and literature tutor, or who have been thrust onto the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, either as healthcare professionals or essential workers, who now have had to worry about not only putting in their time at work, but also how to care for their children when sending them to school was no longer an option—must now grapple with the impossible decision of whether to send their children back to school and return to some semblance of ‘normal,’ though with the ever-present specter of Coronavirus infection hanging over their heads, or keep their children safe at home and try to keep their heads above water as they navigate an increasingly stressful work-life balance.

Throughout all of this, students are looking on with confusion and uncertainty. They see parents, teachers, administrators, medical professionals, and even politicians discussing plans to open school or continue with distance-learning measure, or both, or neither…

How are our children, the future of the world, handling the prospect of returning to the classroom—whether on campus or online?

Student Mental Health Triple Threat: Quarantine, COVID, & Back to School

For students of all ages, this has been an exceptionally challenging year. The global spread of the novel Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and the ensuing quarantines which shut down much of the economic and social activities in countries around the world, has presented unprecedented challenges for nearly everyone.

Still, it could be argued that it is the youth who will be most affected by this pandemic. The youth who are seeing their sports seasons, proms, and graduations moved online; The students who are now forced to attend school from home; The students who are now seeing what very well may be their primary source of healthy meals, psychological support, and a sense of community and belonging disappear almost overnight.

These students who have had to deal with the complete upheaval brought about by the virus are still reeling from the loss of stability so many of us took for granted, complained about, and even mocked in movies and television, yet which we relied on for so much of our success and understanding of who we are, are now being forced to confront returning to those same classrooms, starting a new school year knowing full well that the danger is far from over.

Now, as these students—still carrying the emotional weight of a year defined by uncertainty and fear—return to the classroom, they are being asked to act as Guinea pigs on the front lines of the pandemic, while at the same time being unsure whether the education they are receiving will be as effective as what came before.

This return to school is going to be difficult for even the youngest backpack-toting pupils, but for students old enough to understand the full magnitude of the pandemic, dealing with the ‘normal’ emotional turmoil which often accompanies the first days and weeks of class may simply be too much to handle.

How Can Parents & Teachers Support Mental Health When They Are Suffering, Too?

But the students aren’t the only ones affected by this transition back to the classroom, which has no equivalent in contemporary history.

We often hear the African proverb which posits that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ but what happens when the parents, teachers, and village elders we have always looked to for teaching our children how to navigate the complex relationships and emotions they deal with in the classroom and beyond are feeling just as lost and confused as the children they are meant to be raising?

Parents, who undoubtedly want what is best for their children and their children’s future, are confronted with impossible choices where what is best for their academic and professional future may also put them at risk of becoming infected with a deadly disease, calling their very future into question.

They are, at the same time, dealing with the emotional consequences of working from home or working a job where they are forced to venture out into the world every day into communities where the virus is still far from being under control.

The issue is even more acute for many teachers, especially those who work with the youngest cohort of bright-eyed students. For those who have dedicated their lives to a vocation who often value the hugs and thank-you cards they receive at the end of the year more so than the checks they receive at the end of each month, the thought of returning to the classroom brings with it its own set of emotional challenges.

Parents and teachers, as they always do, will try their best to give these students the support they need—a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand to pull them up, and a stern but loving push to get them to step out of their comfort zones and reach their full potential—but without additional resources, it simply may not be enough.

Schools Are Investing More in Mental Health, but Is It Enough?

Schools are Trying to Protect Students from Coronavirus. Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

School districts, universities, and local governments are already voicing concern about the mental health needs of students returning to campuses this fall. Regional and national governments around the world are providing frameworks and guidelines for returning safely to the classroom, some are even earmarking additional funds for students’ mental health for the coming academic year and beyond, but even with the increased focus on students’ wellbeing, schools, which have never truly had the resources to provide the full support their students need, are beginning to question how to meet the increased demands of returning to reading, writing, and arithmetic in the shadow of Coronavirus.

In some places, governments are launching programs aimed toward providing additional mental health training for teachers and educators—turning thousands of history, science, and art instructors into an army of counselors for their students. But can we really expect to rely on teachers, who were already pushed past their limits before the coronavirus upheaval, to bear the brunt of the responsibility for ensuring our children are capable of managing the complex emotions of returning to the classroom while at the same time ensuring they are capable of using the Pythagorean theorem correctly?

The issue isn’t merely that students are feeling anxious about starting the school year and they need a comforting word from a trusted adult. We aren’t just dealing with preteens who are feeling down because they think they aren’t going to be able to keep up their academic profile and may not get into a good university.

What is so problematic about the situation in which we now find ourselves is that we are facing all of these same issues we have struggled with for so long while simultaneously having to deal with the complete disintegration of the social structures upon which these children have typically relied. Children and adolescents, who often benefit significantly from the structure and predictability of the traditional school setting, are having their routines and interactions with their peers turned utterly upside down.

The real issue is that we still don’t understand the full extent of the mental-health damage that the Coronavirus outbreak has had on our children or how returning to school may exacerbate these and other mental health issues. Even though teachers, parents, politicians, and mental health professionals are doing the best they can with the resources at their disposal, the question remains: will it be enough?

Conclusion

While many talk about how children are incredibly resilient and capable of bouncing back from hardship, the truth is that even when they do bounce back, they often carry with them emotional scars that can affect them well into adulthood.

There may be no easy answers for how to open up our societies, economies, and schools after one of the worst disease outbreaks in living memory, but what is certain is that if we aren’t able to find a way to support the students, as well as the parents and teachers, as the school year kicks into full swing, we may be at risk of trading a medical crisis for a mental health one.

Decision Making: 7 Incredible Ways Our Brains Process Information To Make Better Choices

How many decisions have you made today? Not just the big ones, like what job you want or where you want to go to university… Not just the important daily ones, like what clothes to wear or what to eat for lunch… But all of them. Decision making is part of everything we do. How many times has your brain encountered a set of choices and had to decide which was the best of the possible outcomes?

We are constantly making decisions, as many as 2,000 per hour. Deciding whether to go to Jenny’s party or Billie’s.  Deciding whether we want the chicken or the fish. Deciding whether to check the notification we just received. Deciding whether we should scratch our nose. Deciding if we want to keep reading a blog.

We are constantly making decisions, large and small, and much of the time we don’t even realize it. So how do we handle so many choices without going crazy?

How our brains process information

Part of the reason we are able to make so many decisions is that our brains are incredibly efficient at absorbing and processing information. We gather details about our world from our eyes and ears and skin and a wide range of sensory organs and almost instantaneously process the information based on our entire life history. Almost without even noticing, we decide that we do want another sip of coffee after all.

Our brains use several cognitive abilities to make these split-second decisions, and we follow a similar process for more significant decisions as well.

Information Processing in the Brain

  • Starting with input from the sensory organs, we use our attention, perception, and short-term memory to access the information and pass it on to the part of our brain which processes the information.
  • Using our ability to focus our attention, we filter out irrelevant information and—using cognitive processes such as working memory and reasoning—we evaluate the information against past experiences held in long-term memory.
  • Once our brains have accessed, filtered, and evaluated the information, we rely on our executive functions to decide the best choice.

Our brains are incredibly efficient at evaluating and making decisions and have several tricks to make decisions faster and require less energy. Mental ‘shortcuts’ help us to avoid decision overload and allow us to reserve energy and processing power for more critical tasks. However, sometimes shortcuts can cause us a bit of trouble as well.

3 types of shortcuts for decision making

There are several shortcuts, known as heuristics that we use to make decisions which help us to make decisions more efficiently:

  • Availability – The availability heuristic is the brain’s way of using readily-available information to speed up a decision. The more examples of something in your memory, the more likely it is to be relevant. Imagine a hunter-gatherer going out to look for food when they come upon a fork in the road. They remember several times they saw a saber-toothed tiger when going down one of the paths and quickly decide to choose the alternate route.
  • Representative – We use the representativeness heuristic to make quick decisions based on a ‘representative’ mental model of the situation. If you go outside and see that it is cloudy, the sky is dark, and the wind has started to pick up, you may choose to grab an umbrella because—in your mental models, at least—when these things happen together, they are also accompanied by rain.
  • Affect – The third shortcut is known as the affect heuristic. This is our way of using the emotions we feel to speed up decision making. When we are feeling happy, we are more likely to take risks and try new things, whereas when we are feeling down, we may avoid these things, opting for more comfortable or familiar choices.

These heuristics are powerful ways that we speed up and automate the thousands of choices we are faced with each day. Still, it is important to understand the downside of mental shortcuts, as they can lead to unintended consequences and cause harm to ourselves and others.

4 biases that can affect decision making

How can something that speeds up decision making and makes our cognitive processes more efficient end up being a bad thing? The problem stems from the fact that we think we know the answer to something before we take the time to learn all the facts.

Some of the most common biases that affect decision making are:

  • Confirmation BiasConfirmation Bias happens when we are making a choice and find information that confirms our existing beliefs. We may take this information as proof that our initial thoughts we correct and stop looking for more details or ignore mountains of evidence to the contrary.
  • Anchoring – Anchoring, also known as ‘first impression’ bias, is the tendency to judge new information based on the first information received. An example of this is when you go to a restaurant, and they offer the first bottle of wine for $100 and a second for $15; the second sounds much more attractive than if the first bottle had been $2.
  • Conformity BiasConformity Bias is the tendency to agree with the group even if your own initial opinion was different. Sometimes called ‘herd mentality,’ this can stifle innovation and lead to group-think.
  • False Causality Bias – Attributing events in a series as being caused by the first is known as the false causality bias. Roosters always crow after the sun comes up, but that doesn’t mean the sun caused the roosters to crow.  Though this example is quite silly, false causality bias can have serious consequences. For example, someone might look at an immigrant neighborhood with high rates of crime and assume that the crime is due to the immigrants who live in the community. Had they taken the time to investigate further, they could have seen that, in reality, it could be due to any number of socioeconomic root causes and has nothing to do with where the residents come from.

There are many other ways our decision-making processes can be negatively affected by mental biases. So it is essential to stay mindful and always try to double-check whether your choices are the result of informed cognitive processes or biases.

How a healthy brain is better at making decisions

Staying healthy is one of the best ways to improve our decision-making capabilities. As anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping while they were hungry knows, things like hunger, stress, or how tired we are can have a significant effect on the decisions we make.

Just like someone who eats healthy food before heading to the grocery store is more likely to choose healthy foods, a person who has plenty of sleep, well-managed stress, and maintains a healthy exercise routine will be better equipped to make better decisions in all parts of their lives.

Conclusion

If you or someone you know are interested in learning about your brain health, check out our cognitive assessments and brain training here.

A Picture of (Brain) Health: Powerful Brain Scans and Assessment Batteries We Use to Understand Our Most Complex Organ

The human brain is an incredibly complex feat of nature. Capable of creating complex social structures, languages, culture, art, and science. Our brains allow us to explore and understand the universe better than any other animal on the planet ever has. But even with all of this knowledge, we are only just beginning to understand the human brain itself.

Scientists, biologists, and medical professionals are on a neverending quest to learn about the brain, and thanks to innovative brain scan technologies, we are closer than ever to unlocking the mysteries of how the brain works.

But why is it so difficult to understand how our brains function?

Brain Anatomy

The human brain is made up of billions of neurons, or brain cells, each connected in a web of synapses so dense there are more connections in a single human brain than there are stars in the observable universe.

If we zoom out a little and take a holistic view of the brain, we see that the neurons are grouped into three main parts: the brainstem, the cerebellum, and the cerebrum. Each of these parts plays a unique role in how our brains function and how we think, act, and perceive the world.

The Human Brain, in Three Parts:

  • Brainstem – The brainstem is located at the bottom of the brain and connects the brain and the spinal cord. Many of the automatic tasks our body performs–such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, vomiting, and more–are controlled by the brain stem.
  • Cerebellum – The cerebellum is located near the bottom of the brain as well, behind the brain stem. This region of the brain is responsible for coordinating sensory input–such as what we hear, see, and smell–with our muscle movements so that we are able to understand our location within our surroundings and are able to maintain balance and posture.
  • Cerebrum – The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain, covered in greyish wrinkles and folds, and is what we typically think of when we think of a ‘brain.’ Tasked with many of our higher-level brain functions, the cerebrum is responsible for interpreting what we see, hear, and gather from our various senses, as well as learning, reasoning, speaking, and emotion. Many of our fine motor movements, such as the movements required to play a musical instrument, are also controlled by this region of the brain.

Major Zones of the Cerebrum:

Each of the hemispheres of the Cerebrum is further divided into four distinct zones called lobes.

  • Frontal Lobe – The frontal lobe is found on the top, forwardmost part of the brain. Many of our executive functions, such as planning, organizing, and problem-solving, are linked to this region. The frontal lobe also plays a role in short-term memory, creativity, and critical thinking.
  • Parietal Lobe – The parietal lobe, found on the top of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, is responsible for helping us interpret sensory information such as taste, touch, and temperature.
  • Occipital Lobe – The occipital lobe, found near the back of the brain, helps us to interpret visual information from our eyes and combine this information with past memories and experiences.
  • Temporal Lobe – The temporal lobe, which can be found on the side of the brain under the frontal and parietal lobes, helps us process smells, tastes, and sound information. This part of the brain is also involved in the storage of memories.

What Tools Do We Use To Understand the Human Brain?

Though we still have a long way to go to unlock all the secrets of the human brain, new technologies, methods, and tools such as brain scans allow us to understand more about the human brain than ever before.

Brain Scans & Imaging Tools:

Photo by Robina Weermeijer
  • PET Scan – Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to show which parts of the brain are active at a given moment. By injecting a tracer substance into the brain and detecting radioactive isotopes in the tracer, we can see what parts of the brain are actively using glucose, a sign of brain activity. As a specific brain region becomes active, it fills with blood, which delivers oxygen and glucose, providing fuel for that region. These areas become visible in the PET scan, thanks to the tracer substance, and allow us to create images of which areas of the brain are active during a given activity. The PET scan can only locate generalized brain areas, not specific clusters of neurons. In addition, PET scans are considered invasive and costly to perform.
  • CT Scan – Computed tomography (CT) scans are used to create images of the brain by recording the levels of X-ray absorption. Subjects lay on a flat table, which is connected to a large cylindrical tube-shaped apparatus. Inside the tube is a ring that holds an X-ray emitter. As the X-ray emitter moves along the tube, sensors on the opposite side of the ring detect the amount of X-rays that pass through. Since different materials–such as skin, bone, water, or air–absorb X-rays at different rates, the CT scan can create a rough map of the features of the brain.
  • MRI Scan – Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans are imaging tools used widely in the field of psychology. Using a strong magnetic field, MRIs create alignment within the nuclei of atoms within the tissues of the body and brain. By measuring the changes as the nuclei return to their base states, the MRI is able to create a picture of the brain’s structure. As a non-invasive procedure, with little risk to health, MRI scans can be performed on a broad range of subjects, including infants, the elderly, or pregnant mothers. Because of this, they can also be used multiple times on a single individual to map changes over time. The main difference between MRI and fMRI is that while basic MRI scans are used to image the structure of the brain, fMRI are used to map our the activity within the brain structures.
  • EEG Scan – Electroencephalography (EEG) allows us to measure brain activity by placing electrodes on the scalp of a subject which sense electrical activity. EEG scans are non-invasive and allow researchers to record changes in brain activity down to the millisecond, making it one of the best options for understanding changes in the brain as they occur.
  • MEG Scan – Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a method of imaging the electrical activity in the brain through the use of magnetic fields. Extremely sensitive devices known as SQUIDs capture the activity in the brain, allowing researchers, doctors, or other professionals to understand which areas of the brain are responsible for various brain functions, or to determine the location of a pathology.
  • NIRS Scan – Near-infrared spectroscopy is a brain imaging technique that uses infrared light to measure oxygen levels in the brain. By shooting infrared light through the skull and measuring the light on the other side, NIRS scans can detect brain activity in a non-invasive, though indirect, way.

Other Tools & Methods:

Though we have new tools and technology to aid us in understanding the human brain, that doesn’t mean that brain scans are the only tools we have at our disposal. Some of the best methods for understanding our brains don’t require any medical equipment at all.

Photo by cottonbro
  • Interviews – When a patient suffers brain damage, doctors and psychologists will often perform interviews with the subject to understand how the damage to the brain affects behavior, memory, senses, or other aspects of our mental capacity.  Since we already know what areas of the brain are affected by brain damage, any changes in mental ability, personality, or other brain functions may be good areas to perform additional research.
  • Assessments – One of the best ways to study brain development or functioning is to have subjects complete tests or assessments. There are many assessments available for a variety of brain functions. Some of the most significant advantages to these types of evaluations are their low cost, the fact that they can be administered in nearly any setting (so you don’t have to go to a research lab or hospital) and they can be performed multiple times with no adverse effects on the health of participants. Because of this, many researchers use assessments to record changes in brain function across years of study.

Conclusion

As we continue to unlock new mysteries of the brain and create more and more powerful tools for exploring the human mind, we will continue to grow our ability to treat patients and improve the lives of people all over the world. Brain scans allow us to peak into one of the most complex systems we have ever seen. Still, it is essential to remember that it is the tool that gives us the answers, but the researchers and medical professional who interpret the results.

Healthy Food, Healthy Brain: Exploring the Link Between Healthy Eating and Brain Health.

The human brain is a marvel of evolution, capable of creating breathtaking works of art and music, developing complex systems of culture, language, and society, and uncovering mysteries of the universe through science, technology, and mathematics. But even a healthy brain couldn’t do any of these things without a healthy body to support it.

Our brains and bodies are inextricably linked through a variety of systems, working in parallel. When these systems are working at their peak performance, our brains also are able to reach their full potential.

When our body’s systems slow down or begin to function poorly and become unhealthy, our minds struggle to perform. They can suffer from fatigue, stress, or any number of adverse mental consequences.

If you want to test your cognitive abilities, try CogniFit’s brain training programs!

How Are the Body and Mind Connected?

Anyone who has had to perform on stage or give a speech in front of a large group of people knows that the stress and anxiety, supposedly mental phenomenon, can manifest in physical discomforts such as “Butterflies” in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate.

Similarly, when we find ourselves receiving praise or affection, the feelings of happiness and euphoria we experience are readily apparent when our cheeks blush, our eyes dilate, and in extreme cases, we can even begin to cry from joy.

But just as our brain can affect our body, so too can our bodies have a powerful effect on how our brains function.

A cup of coffee in the morning helps us focus and feel more alert. A glass of alcohol can give us a euphoric feeling, reduce social inhibitions, and drastically slow down our ability to react to stimuli.

While these are extreme examples of the brain-body connection, the interconnectedness of our mental and physical selves means that nearly everything we do to our body, from taking medications, running a marathon, or sitting on a couch all day playing video games, to something as simple as drinking a glass of water can have an effect on how we feel and how well our brains perform.

Exercise and Eating Right Help Keep A Healthy Brain

By taking care of our bodies, we can help to ensure our brains are functioning at their best. Although there is no single exercise or diet that is right for everyone – each person should speak to their nutrition or health professional to understand the best regimen for themselves – there are specific general rules of thumb for exercise and diet that can help just about anyone improve their brain health.

Exercises for a healthy brain:

  • Aerobic Exercise – Exercises that increase your heart rate and breathing are great ways to improve your overall health. These are great for maintaining a healthy body mass, toning muscles, and improving cardiovascular function, which in turn means your body becomes more efficient at delivering oxygen to your body and brain.
  • Anaerobic ExerciseAnaerobic exercises include activities such as High-Intensity Interval Training, strength training, or calisthenics. These activities are a great way to keep your body toned and build muscle. As these exercises burn stored energy from your body, they are an excellent choice for managing fat and weight loss.
  • Mind/Body Exercise – Not all exercises require you to run long distances or lift heavy weights to have a substantial positive impact on your physical wellbeing. Activities such as yoga, Pilates, or many martial arts – Which combine physical stamina, balance, and flexibility with mental focus and concentration – can be a great way to keep your body and mind in tip-top shape.

Essential Nutrients for a healthy brain:

  • Proteins – Our body needs plenty of protein to function correctly. It helps us repair cells, it is integral in building and maintaining muscle, it promotes growth in children and adolescents, and it provides many of the building blocks our cells need to keep us healthy.
  • Fats – Though fats have a bad reputation, they aren’t inherently bad for us. In fact, our bodies need a certain amount of fats to function properly. Fats can provide certain amino acids our bodies need to work and can help with absorbing nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin D, and Vitamin E. It is essential, however, to be careful, as any fat that our body doesn’t break down for these essential tasks can be converted to stored energy in the form of body fat.  
  • Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates, like fats, get a bad rap. But just like fats, our bodies actually need a certain amount of these nutrients to function properly. Carbohydrates are the fuel that our body uses to power our internal organs and keep us healthy. Certain carbohydrates also have additional benefits, such as fiber, which helps us to feel fuller for longer.
  • Vitamins – Vitamins are a group of micronutrients our bodies require in order to perform a variety of functions. Vitamins can help maintain healthy skin, strengthen bones and teeth, and much more. There are a total of 13 essential vitamins which we can get by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.  
  • Minerals – Similar to vitamins, our body needs a variety of minerals to maintain proper functions, maintain bone and heart health, regulate levels of water, salt, and Ph in our bodies, and more. Minerals are typically divided into two categories: Macrominerals and trace minerals. Macrominerals are far more prevalent in our bodies and include minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur. Trace minerals are less prevalent and include minerals such as iron or sulfide.

What Are Some Healthy Foods to Eat for a Healthy Brain?

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

Eating healthy and providing your body and brain with all the essential nutrients doesn’t mean you have to give up the foods you love. Plenty of delicious foods provide fuel for brain health!

  • Avocados – These fantastically fresh-tasting vegetables are a great source of healthy fats and vitamins. Place them on whole-grain toast for some additional fiber as well as some lean, sliced turkey breast for some protein, and you have a healthy breakfast option to start your day off with plenty of energy for a healthy brain!
  • Blueberries – These powerful little berries pack a tremendous amount of nutrients such as antioxidants that promote brain health and are an excellent choice for a mid-morning snack, especially combined with a handful of healthy nuts such as almonds.
  • Fish – Seafood can be an excellent choice for a light yet filling lunch. Delicious fish such as salmon, anchovies, or trout provide plenty of healthy fats and omega-3s to boost brain function. Pair a baked filet with some broccoli, another food filled with healthy nutrients, and your body and mind will still be going strong even as your coworkers begin to feel tired and grumpy as they enter the afternoon slump.
  • Dark chocolate – If you are looking for a sweet snack to make it through until dinner, dark chocolate may be the right choice for you. Cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, is packed full of a special type of antioxidant known as flavonoids, which excel at boosting brain health. Pair a small amount of dark chocolate with a cup of your favorite coffee (just go light on the cream and sugar), and you have a great snack to keep your mind sharp throughout the afternoon.
  •  Tomatoes – These versatile fruits are packed with healthy nutrients, including lycopene, which promotes a healthy brain and can help keep our minds sharp as we age. Pair these with fresh leafy greens such as spinach, a dash of olive oil, some healthy nuts such as walnuts, and lean white meat and you have a tasty dinner salad that is perfect for any day of the week.

If you are looking for a healthy, natural way to boost your brain health, speak with a trained nutritionist or medical professional and learn more about how a healthy diet and exercise can keep your mind sharp.

Memory Exercises: Help strengthen your memory

Memory—it’s tied to everything that forms our person. The vivid images in our minds are how we recall our favorite moments, communicate with those we love, learn new information, and even perform routine behaviors. With memory involved in daily life, this cognitive skill is highly beneficial. There are many memory exercises to strengthen and improve all types of memory.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

What is Memory?

Memory is a cognitive process. When applied, it is how the brain encodes, stores, and then recalls or retrieves information from the environment and previous experiences. Encoding is taking in information through the senses, learning it, and relating it to past knowledge. In the memory process, storing memory is retaining that information over time until retrieval, which is accessing the information as it is needed. Without memory, language, behavior, and personal identity are impossible because we would have no concept of recalling past events.

Types of Memory

There are three types of memory that can be divided into subcategories and improved in various ways!

  1. Sensory Memory—Information is taken in through the sense (i.e. sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell), processed by the nervous system, and is stored for mere seconds after the initial stimuli are no longer present before being transferred to short term memory

  2. Short Term Memory—The ability to hold or store current information for a limited time (between 15 and 30 seconds) and capacity, meaning only several items can be held until they are forgotten or moved to long term memory
    • Working Memory—The process of temporarily storing current information and then manipulating it for use
  3. Long Term Memory—The unlimited capacity to store any information occurring over a few minutes ago for an extended period of time; information is encoded and manipulated  
    • Explicit—Memory that is easily recalled unconsciously and unknowingly influences thoughts and behavior
    • Implicit—Memory that is remembered intentionally with work like recalling a phone number
    • Declarative—Recalling factual information like dates, events, concepts, faces, or words
    • Procedural—How to perform a skill, action, or behavior
    • Episodic—Remembering personal experiences and events
    • Semantic—Remembering general facts

Why Should We Use Memory Exercises To Improve Memory?

Memory is involved in every facet of our lives. Essentially, it makes us who we are. So, to become the fullest version of ourselves, it is important to use memory exercises to prove memory. Memory naturally declines with age as the number of neural synapses (nerve cells and their connections) decreases. While genetics and environmental factors do play a role, practicing memory exercises can potentially prevent such a drastic reduction in memory skills.

Concrete or Abstract Memory Exercises: Which is Best?

Concrete and abstract are two types of thinking. Concrete thinking includes concepts derived from information taken in through the senses. It is literally and focused on the physical world as facts, objects, and definitions. Contrarily, abstract thinking is ideas that are not tangibly related to the physical world. It is a more complex manner of thinking that allows us to understand and make connections about the information processed through concrete thinking. Examples of abstract thinking are concepts such as freedom, love, and metaphorical language.

A combination of both forms of thinking is useful for memory exercises. However, concrete exercises are beneficial because they target specific goals. Abstract thinking cannot occur without real, physical experiences of the concrete.

Memory Exercises: Learn A Language

Memory is an integral component of learning. Learning a new skill is a memory exercise because it challenges the brain to recall information. It utilizes the brain’s neuroplasticity to do so, which is how the brain forms neurons (nerve cells), strengthens the connections between those cells, and repairs damage. One study of bilingual participants with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrates how learning multiple languages delays symptom onset like that of memory loss by up to 4.5 years.

Memory Exercises: Visualization

Visualizing is the act of creating images in your mind. The sense of sight is incredibly powerful—lingering in the memory more so than hearing, smelling, tasting, or the sensation of touch. Visualization trains short term memory by enhancing the encoding process. When visualizing, including information from all of the senses ensures the clearest, most vivid image. That also increases the likelihood of remembering. Visualization exercises can range from trying to reproduce a picture you previously observed, an object, a person, or a location. Begin by looking at the image you wish to recreate in your mind for one minute.  

Memory Exercises: Numeracy Games

Numbers games foster logical thinking. Doing math, especially without pencil and paper, requires you to repeat and rehearse numbers in your head. That heavily relies on memory and is considered a memory exercise because of the amount of information held in short term memory necessary to complete the math problem. Examples of numeracy games are Sudoku or simply performing math equations such as choosing a number and adding or subtracting digits from that number multiple times to arrive at the correct answer.

Ex: 3(46 x 7 – 18)

Memory Exercises: Repeat and Recall

Repeat and recall may seem to be a simple practice, but it is an extremely effective memory exercise. This is one reason why you repeat a phone number in your mind to dial it later. The repetition of the repeat and recall process commits it to long term memory because short term memory can only hold the phone number for merely seconds. To train the brain, repeat and recall conversations, numbers, song lyrics, poems, or even books read. In conversations, repeat and recall exercises are beneficial for listening skills. Listening skills are often lacking, and repeating a conversation makes the main idea of the conversation more clearly.

Memory Exercises: Physical Exercise

Physical exercise does not solely exercise the body. It works out the brain too! Aerobic exercises are particularly helpful for memory. Firstly, the body’s physiological response to exercise serves as a protection against memory loss. As one exercises, the blood flow increases the amount of oxygen available to the brain. When the brain has more oxygen, the body is less susceptible to cardiovascular disease and various forms of dementia which both impair memory. According to leading neurologists at Harvard University, exercise also boosts neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain. Studies suggest that those who avidly exercise have more volume in the regions of the brain that control memory and cognition.

Memory Exercises: Teach A Skill

They say practice makes perfect! The same concept applies to memory. Teaching a skill is a memory exercise because it gives the opportunity to practice the skill being taught. As a teacher, you have to refine your own technique as you are explaining it to somebody else. This repetition trains the memory.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Memory Exercises: Change Your Routine

The brain needs diversity. Sticking to the same routine day after day does not challenge the brain. Altering your routine, however, does. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that stores long term memories. Changing your routine in any way, like working out in the morning instead of the evening, going out for lunch rather than staying at the office, or taking a new route to class stimulates the hippocampus to improve memory.

Memory Exercises: Observe Details

Details are in everything—the people we surround ourselves with, the places we go, the movies we watch. Observing these details can be an effective memory exercise. For the observation exercise, intentionally observe and note at least four details of a stimulus in your environment. For example, committing to memory that the restaurant you are dining in has checkered floors, red walls, six tables, and a green jukebox in the corner. Later, try to recall those details. This is referred to as passive memory training. It trains the memory not only to retain information but to easier access the details stored in memory.

Memory Exercises: Social Connections

Humans are social creatures. Research analyzing the social connection patterns of patients with Alzheimer’s disease establishes a connection between patients with active social lives and those who remain more isolated. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, “women with the larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks” (Crooks et al., 2011). Daily connection is key, as the chance of developing dementia is then lowered by nearly half. This is because the brain is stimulated as we respond to others. Additionally, group activities that bring about socialization (i.e. exercise) encourage healthy behaviors and lend emotional support during times of trial. A contented emotional state is imperative for building strong brain connections for cognitive skills such as memory.

Memory Exercises: Eat Breakfast

Diet is linked to memory function. Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is the first step to successful memory exercise. To retain information, pay attention, and perform other cognitive skills related to memory, the brain requires a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and antioxidants. It cannot function optimally without energy to do so. Foods with high levels of vitamin E are also essential to building memory function. These include nuts and seeds, eggs, and green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli. The typical breakfast foods like sugary cereals, processed meats, and pastries do not provide the brain with enough nutrition for optimal brain function.

Memory Exercises: Read

Reading is a memory exercise most beneficial in old age. It stimulates the occipital and parietal lobes, which are the areas of the brain associated with visual information and reading comprehension. As the occipital and parietal lobes are “exercised,” the brain can more effectively process visual information of other stimuli in the environment that we store to memory.  

Neurobic Exercise = Memory Exercise

Each of these memory exercises is known as neurobic exercises—the idea that cognitive skills like memory can be maintained and enhanced through exercising the brain. They reflect how actions like reading a book, taking up a hobby or having a conversation potentially train the brain with minimal effort.

References

Crooks, V.C., Lubben, J. Petitti, D.B., Little, D., & Chiu, V. (2011). Social Network, Cognitive Function, and Dementia Incidence Among Elderly Women. American Journal of Public Health, 98(7). DOI: https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2007.115923

Diament, M. (2008). Friends Make You Smart. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-11-2008/friends-are-good-for-your-brain.html

Harvard Health Publishing. (N.d.). Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills

Cognitive Health: What is its meaning and how to improve it.

Do you forget things lately? Have you lost the skills you used to have? Many people worry about memory loss and skills as they get older, and feel a decline in their cognitive function.

In this article we will talk about what are the causes of this decline, what is cognitive health and steps to strengthen it. Read this article to keep your brain healthy as you get older.

Cognitive health: definition and meaning

How can we define Cognitive health? What is its meaning? Cognitive health refers mainly to thinking, learning, and memory. It also can include other components as the motor function (how the person controls movements), emotional function (how a person can manage their emotions) and sensory function (how a person feels and respond to sensations as pressure, pain, temperature, etc). A person with good cognitive health is a person who can think, learn and remember.

Therefore, “Cognition” is an important element of the brain health, and to have good cognitive health means that the brain is fit and ready to carry out life and work demands. In conclusion, cognitive health is related to brain health and its complete function. It includes areas such as memory, language, learning, emotional function, sensory function, motor function, etc.

Cognitive health and cognitive reserve: definition and difference

Now that we have defined what is cognitive health, it is important to mention a crucial concept to the understanding of cognitive health: cognitive reserve.

Cognitive reserve is your capacity of developing several thinking abilities during your life. It is also known as the ability of the brain to improvise and find other ways of completing a job. People with good cognitive reserve are more protected against memory losses and the decline of their mental skills. Cognitive reserve is developed throughout a life of education and curiosity, which helps your brain to cope with any deterioration that has to deal with. Cognitive reserve is the mind’s defense to brain damage.

The cognitive reserve is based on using the brain networks that we have in a more efficient way or on a greater capacity.

Considering all the information above, it is important to keep in mind that cognitive reserve is very important to protect people against losses and damage that can occur through aging. It could be said that cognitive reserve is a tool that helps people to develop resilience and to have more reserve to call on an older age.

Cognitive health: issues and meaning

Everyone forgets something sometimes, like misplacing your keys or blanking out on a name. That is completely normal, but if these episodes become recurrent or interfere with daily life, you may need to pay attention to your cognitive health and go to a specialized professional. If that happens to you, you may have Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI, which is an intermediate state between normal aging and dementia.

What is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

We can say that Mild Cognitive Impairment is something between the usual cognitive decline expected with aging and the first signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 10% to 20% of adults older than 65 have Mild Cognitive Impairment, but it is difficult to detect.

Mild Cognitive Impairment could be categorized in two different types:

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment. It refers to problems with memory (for example forgetting recent information and details of conversations, or misplacing personal items).

Non-amnestic mild cognitive impairment. It refers to problems with other areas instead of memory, such as attention and concentration. It also can include difficulties in planning and decision making, language skills (for example, difficult to find or choosing words), etc. Although recognizing Mild Cognitive Impairment could be difficult, it is essential because it is the first step to identify it before it can get worse.

Cognitive Health: What are Cognitive disorders?

Related that we explained before, cognitive disorders or neurocognitive disorders are a group of mental health disorders that affect cognitive abilities such as learning, memory, perception, problem-solving, etc. In other words, cognitive disorders are a group of mental health disorders that affects some cognitive abilities. Cognitive disorders can also be defined as any disorder that affects cognitive function in a way that prevents a person from living a normal life.

The most common type of cognitive disorders are:

  • Dementia
  • Developmental disorders
  • Motor skill disorders
  • Amnesia
  • Alzheimer’s disease

To shed light on the question of what causes cognitive disorders, we need to think about a variety of factors. Some scientific studies point to hormonal imbalances in the womb, genetic predisposition, environmental factors during vulnerable stages of cognitive development, particularly during infancy, or substance abuse and physical injury.

What about the symptoms?

Cognitive disorder symptoms could vary depending on the particular disorder, but some of the most common symptoms are present in most disorders. Some of them include:

  • Confusion. The affected person may appear dazed too.
  • Problems with motor coordination. The affected person may have a lack of balance and normal posture.
  • Loss of memory. This could include a lack of coordination and other signs as forgetting names and significant faces.
  • Identity confusion. About who he is and his own identity.
  • Emotional symptoms. As suffering cognitive issues is frustrating, some people suffering from it react with emotional explosion. Other people with cognitive issues react with apathy.

Cognitive Health: What is the difference between Mild Cognitive Impairment and Cognitive disorders?

Although there are similar features between Mild Cognitive Impairment and Cognitive disorders, they are not the same: The symptoms developed in mild cognitive impairment do not cause any interference with normal daily life activities. On the other hand, cognitive disorders symptoms interfere with a person’s normal daily life.

If, after reading this, you believe that you or one of your loved ones may be suffering from Mild Cognitive Impairment or Cognitive disorders, you may need to contact a mental health professional who can evaluate your case.

How can you strengthen your cognitive health?: Cognitive health exercises and some advice.

Not everything is negative! The good news is cognitive issues can be prevented or delayed putting your brain in shape. People can maintain their brains fit through activities that are destined to improve cognitive functioning: attention, memory and concentration exercises, problem-solving, planning, etc.

So, what can you do to stimulate your brain and have a good cognitive health? Different researches and studies aimed that there are some different advice to follow:

1. Eat Healthy foods: a plant-based diet.

Different studies show that a diet based on high amounts of plant-based foods like fruits (especially berries), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and olive oil is associated with slower mental decline in older adults. It is important to drink enough water and other fluids too.

2. Be physically active: exercise regularly.

It is important to do at least 30 minutes to an hour of moderate-intensity exercise three to five times a week. We know that the benefit of exercising regularly is incredible to prevent or delay heart disease, diabetes and other diseases. Studies also show that physical activity has benefits for the brain too. Some studies have shown that exercise can help to improve learning and spatial memory. It is also important to take care of your health limiting the use of alcohol and quit smoking.

3. Get enough sleep.

Generally, experts recommend sleeping seven or eight hours each night. When you sleep, the functions of your brain are still active, processing information. It is important to have good quality and enough quantity of sleep as your brain can go through the five different stages of sleep. That helps you to process new information.

4. Manage your stress

Neurologists say that the best ally could be laughter. It is important to have a positive attitude towards life and avoiding or manage stress to take care of your brain.

5. Stay connected with social activities and contacts.

It is essential to visit family and friends and to join programs in your community. Participating in social activities may lower the risk of some brain decline and other health problems. Be connecting with other people through social activities and programs keep your brain active and also help you to feel part of a community and less isolated. This is essential to improve your well-being and to keep your brain safe.

6. Keep your mind active and continue to challenge your brain.

Many people who participate in volunteer programs or have hobbies claim that they feel happy and healthy. It is important to be intellectually engaged to fit and benefit your brain. Some ideas of activities that can keep your mind active: reading books or magazines, taking classes about something new, playing games, and, as we mentioned above, learning a new skill or hobby, volunteering…

All of these activities can benefit your brain, moreover: they can be fun! Now that you know all the steps to take care of your brain, start putting them into practice!

We don’t know for sure yet if these actions can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease, but some of them have been associated with reduced risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia.

If you have been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment, that doesn’t mean that you are going to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s for sure, it changes from case to case. While there is no method for preventing or slowing Mild Cognitive Impairment, some studies have found that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by applying the steps described above.

Cognitive health in older adults

Although cognitive health is a concern, it is important to know that serious decline is not imminent, even at old age, we can prevent it and slow it down. The brain is an organ that ages like the rest of the body. The aging process and how it affects one’s daily life differs from one person to another, but we know that some cognitive abilities, like memory, decrease with age. However, other mental abilities, such as knowledge and wisdom, tend to increase.

There are some recent studies about when cognitive decline reaches its peak, but it was found a considerable variability in the age at which cognitive abilities decline throughout life. In general, we can say that the areas that experiment some decrease:

  • Attention. Age interfere with attention, especially when it is necessary to multitask. It could be a challenge to pay attention to multiple traffic lanes while driving, for example.
  • Memory. It declines for many people over time, but again, differences have been found for each person.
  • Language skills. They are well retained during adulthood in general, but it could be a challenge to a person more than seventy years old to recall a particular word during a conversation.

However, as we say before, this process is not the same for everyone, and older people experience an improvement in other areas:

  • Knowledge. Strengthened by experience.
  • Vocabulary continues to improve into middle age and well retained throughout the life cycle. According to recent studies, adults can improve their cognitive health in older age by raising their fitness level. Cognitive health in old age is also influenced by other factors as “cognitive reserve.” This means that people who were more intelligent when they were younger or had better cognitive maintenance through education, occupation, or stimulating activities, maintain cognitive health better than people who were not.

Finally, some studies suggest that it is very important for the cognitive health of older people not to be alone. These studies indicate that it is essential to have an extensive social network and feel part of a group.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, L. A., & McConnell, S. R. (2007). Cognitive health: an emerging public health issue. Alzheimer’s & dementia: the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association ​ , ​3 ​ (2), S70-S73.
  • Everything ages, even your brain. Don’t worry so much. It’s probably not Alzheimer’s, Lenny Brillstein, The Washington Post, April 14, 2015. Recovered from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/04/14/everything-ages-even-your-braindont-worry-so-much-its-probably-not-alzheimers/
  • Hillman, C. H., Belopolsky, A. V., Snook, E. M., Kramer, A. F., & McAuley, E. (2004). Physical activity and executive control: implications for increased cognitive health during older adulthood. ​Research quarterly for exercise and sport ​ , ​75 ​ (2), 176-185.
  • Jedrziewski, M. K., Lee, V. M. Y., & Trojanowski, J. Q. (2007). Physical activity and cognitive health. Alzheimer’s & Dementia ​ , ​3 ​ (2), 98-108.
  • Laditka, J. N., Beard, R. L., Bryant, L. L., Fetterman, D., Hunter, R., Ivey, S., … & Wu, B. (2009). Promoting cognitive health: a formative research collaboration of the Healthy Aging Research Network. ​The Gerontologist ​ , ​49 ​ (S1), S12-S17.
  • Parletta, N., Milte, C. M., & Meyer, B. J. (2013). Nutritional modulation of cognitive function and mental health. ​The Journal of nutritional biochemistry ​ , ​24 ​ (5), 725-743.
  • Sperling, R. A., Aisen, P. S., Beckett, L. A., Bennett, D. A., Craft, S., Fagan, A. M., … & Park, D. C. (2011). Toward defining the preclinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease: Recommendations from the National Institute on Aging-Alzheimer’s Association workgroups on diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease. ​Alzheimer’s & dementia ​ , ​7 ​ (3), 280-292.
  • Stern, Y. (2009). Cognitive reserve. Neuropsychologia, 47(10), 2015-2028.

Social Media and the Brain: Is Social Media Healthy For the Brain?

Modern-day society is immersed in technology. Glued to smartphones and other devices, there is an app for everything—including socialization. Human connection has been reduced to words and photos on a screen rather than face-to-face communication with accounts like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Although fun and convenient, the positive and negative effects are enough to make one question: is social media healthy for the brain?

Social Media and the Brain: What is Social Media?

Social media is a broad term describing computer-based technologies that allow the sharing of ideas, communication, and interactive virtual communities. This includes email, instant messaging, and accounts like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat. We are surrounded by social media on a day-to-day basis. Communicating with others via computerized technology connects us with loved ones we may not otherwise have contact with.

Consisting of key platforms for marketing, social media is also beneficial for work and academics. Scholars easily share articles and reports with recent findings. Consumers purchase products because of social media marketing strategies applied by businesses, which furthers the economy. With the prevalence of social media, there’s no doubt its presence in our lives produces both positive and negative effects on the brain.

Positive Effects of Social Media on the Brain

Social media receives a negative stigma when judging its effects on the brain. Of course, there are countless pitfalls of technology-based social platforms, but social media is a positive presence in the lives of many. Brain activity in multiple areas of the brain responds to the stimuli by multiplying productivity, boosting mood, and expanding the learning of some key cognitive skills.

Enhanced Communication

Social media platforms foster open communication. The hustle and bustle of daily life do not leave as much time for face-to-face social interactions. Social media is a solution. Individuals can connect across distances and networks are formed with people who would otherwise be inaccessible. The increased connections with social networks also provide the opportunity to learn social and communication skills. Aspects of mental health are enhanced as the strengthened relationships contribute to “social capital and subjective well-being” (Bekalu et al., 2019).

Creativity

Creativity is the capacity to generate original ideas, techniques, or possibilities in useful ways. It is related to divergent thinking in which the ideas generated occur from a non-linear, free-flowing thought process by employing the brain’s executive functions. Social media is an outlet for creativity with its photos, text posts, GIFs, and videos. It is a resource to explore new ideas and to build upon information—all while receiving constructive input from others.

Improved Memory

Memory is a brain function that encodes, stores, and recalls information as needed to complete a task or perform a behavior. The process of memory recall—the ability to retrieve memories previously stored from the past by replaying neural activity—is made easier with the use of social media. One study of 66 students from Cornell University highlights how social media improves the brain’s memory. Each of the students was directed to document their experiences, rate them on emotional intensity, and were then asked about which of those experiences they shared on social media. After taking two quizzes a week apart, students better remembered the experiences they had shared online regardless of the emotional intensity rating.

Feelings of Happiness

Although social media can be a source of depression when users endlessly scroll through posts and compare their lives, physical appearance, or occupations to their friends, social media can provoke happiness. Feelings of happiness from social media use originate from social connections. Michigan State University conducted a study of Facebook users. Users who provided empathetic support through engaging in social media posts had an increase in well-being and self-esteem, whereas the passive users did not. Dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to nerve cells in the brain, are present when experiencing this social connection. The neurotransmitter release is associated with feelings of happiness and reward.

Emotional Support

Social media creates a sense of belonging. The aspect of emotional support is protective against mental illness. It brings together groups of people with similar struggles, missions, and goals. Additionally, people update about their lives on social media. The awareness of the lives of others creates the perception of emotional support even when there is no direct communication occurring. With emotional bonding, the pituitary gland at the base of the brain releases the stress hormone oxytocin that produces feelings of protection.

Negative Effects of Social Media on the Brain

On average, a person spends 144 minutes per day checking social media accounts. Although 81% say social media has a positive influence on their life, frequent use of social media has negative effects on the brain and nervous system that they do not realize. Social media users are at risk for mental health disorders, declines in cognitive skills like attention, and physical ailments.

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels

Reduced Attention Span

Scrolling through Facebook while watching TV and writing a paper may appear like multi-tasking at its finest, but what effect does it have on the brain?

There are four types of attention.

  1. Sustained—the ability to focus on one stimulus for a prolonged period of time
  2. Selective—the ability to select which stimuli to focus on
  3. Alternating—the ability to switch between tasks with differing cognitive stimuli
  4. Divided—the ability to complete multiple tasks at the same time

Sustained attention was once the most essential skill, but excessive social media users, display marked declines in sustained attention and an increase in alternating and divided attention. Enhanced multi-tasking probably seems like a positive aspect of social media; however, the increase does not apply to settings outside of social media.

The Technical University of Denmark performed a study that concluded social media is rewiring the attention process in the brain and reducing gray matter responsible for inhibitory control, memory, speech, and sensory perception (Lorenz-Spreen et al., 2019). The changes are similar to that of the brain of someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by inattention, hyperactive behavior, and impulsivity.

Vision Problems

On average, we blink approximately 15 times per minute. When exposed to electronics, that number is cut in half. Vision is regulated by the nervous system. It helps us focus on images in the environment as the brain processes visual information. Studies claim that the human brain processes images that the eyes see in 13 milliseconds. As the number of hours spent on social media increases, along with the visual content posted via social media sites, the result is blurred vision, eyes that burn, and headaches from straining the eyes. In fact, these vision problems are so common there is now a diagnosis for its symptoms—Computer Vision Syndrome.

Altered Sleep Patterns

The sleep-wake cycle is controlled by a hormone known as melatonin. Located in the brain, the pineal gland is triggered by darkness to release melatonin into the bloodstream. The light from social media technology inhibits the production of melatonin, leading to poor sleep quality. Further, scrolling through Facebook or Instagram before bedtime stimulates the brain. It prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, as it drives to physiological and emotional arousal.

Low Self-esteem

People are impressionable. Low self-esteem is common in adults, teens, and children who feel self-conscious and inferior as they seek to fit in with peers or make a good first impression at work or school. Social media compounds those harmful emotions because its media is centered around creating a presence. A 2012 study conducted by The Center For Eating Disorders found that over 30% of Facebook users feel sad when comparing themselves to photos of their friends posted on social media. One can edit photos for their Facebook account, but when face-to-face in the world, that is not an option.

Cyberbullying

Bullying is not limited to face-to-face interaction. Cyberbullying is a type of bullying through electronic communication. The threatening behaviors conducted while cyberbullying include not only the sending of threatening messages like rumors, sexual threats, and derogatory remarks but the sharing of personal information and photos intended to cause humiliation. With constant access to social media, cyberbullying is difficult to avoid. The information shared is likely permanent, having a significant impact on the individual’s reputation. The stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Aside from the mental health effects, studies show bullying decreases brain volume in the putamen and the caudate—two parts of the brain responsible for how memories are influenced future behavior.

Mental Health Disorders

Social media sites, particularly Facebook, have been associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and narcissistic personality. A variety of factors tie into the relation of psychiatric disorders and social media—bullying, a sense of inferiority, isolation. One study of teens and adolescents who visited social media platforms at least 58 times a week were found to be three times as more socially isolated because in-person interactions are made impersonal through social media. In a second study, 435 Utah college graduates reported feeling “life is not fair” after viewing Facebook posts of other users. The basic assumption that others are happier based solely on social media posts contributes to depression.

Social Media and the Brain: Childhood Development

A child’s brain is still developing. As a result, social media impacts them differently than an adult or adolescent. Childhood is the prime stage for developing brain architecture. This means the brain is growing new cells and connections necessary for cognition. More than a million neural connections are formed every second.

Interactions and experiences shape the developing brain—including social media. The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for attention, inhibition, problem-solving, and memory. Social media particularly influences those functions. While their attention spans are quicker at multi-tasking due to social media, they take longer to complete single tasks. Their cognitive skills show a decline rather than following the normal developmental patterns.

Interestingly, a study of 9 and 10-year-old children by the National Institutes of Health found that the type of social media does matter. Children who primarily used Instagram and text messaging experienced positive effects from social media such as less conflict, increased physical activity, and strong social skills, but the children exposed to general media via the internet and television were prone to sleep disturbances and increased family conflict.

Social Media and the Brain: Teenagers and Adolescents

With an emphasis on a strong desire for peer connection, teenagers use social media more frequently than any other age group. The prefrontal cortex of a teenager is last to fully develop. Since that area controls motivation and reward, it explains why teenagers are infamous for impulsive behaviors. They seek instant gratification. Social media provides them with the instant gratification they crave because they are able to access socialization at any hour.

The teenage brain also responds to environmental stimuli more quickly, leaving them prone to mental illnesses often exacerbated by social media (i.e. depression, anxiety, and eating disorders). However, the likelihood of mental illness is dependent on how the teen uses social media. According to adolescent psychologist Paul Weigle, M.D., social media can actually increase self-esteem and the risk of mental illness such as depression is relatively low if the teen has a strong social support system. They use social media to engage positively with their peers. Contrarily, teenagers without a support system are at risk for mental illness because they are not actively engaged in positive social media posts.

References

Bekalu, M.A., McCloud, R.F., & Viswanath, K. (2019). Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use. Health Education and Behavior, 46(2). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119863768

Chou, H.T., & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: the impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 15:117–121.

Lorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B.M., & Hövel, P. et al. (2019). Accelerating dynamics of collective attention. Nat Commun 10, 1759. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w

Talking to yourself: is it good for you?

Have you ever been caught absent-mindedly talking to yourself in public? It can be really embarrassing. Unless you have the quick wits to pretend that you’re wearing an ear-piece and talking to someone on the phone, people will probably assume that you’re crazy. But don’t worry, talking to yourself is quite normal. What’s more, it can even be good for you. Let’s take a look at some of the surprising benefits of self-talk

Is talking to yourself normal?

There is nothing strange about talking to yourself. It’s actually very common. We all do it, although most of the time, instead of saying things out loud, we talk to ourselves in our heads. 

There are two kinds of self-talk that people regularly engage in: internal and external self-talk. 

Internal self-talk refers to your internal monologue, your inner voice, which provides a constant flow of thought whenever you are awake. This type of self-talk is very healthy and plays an important role in organizing your thoughts, planning, consolidating memories and processing emotions. Our inner discourse – sometimes referred to metaphorically as a stream of consciousness – is vital because it improves our ability to control our actions and behavior. 

External self-talk, on the other hand, can be a vocal manifestation of this inner voice. When we talk to ourselves out loud, it’s usually because we’re experiencing an intense emotion like surprise, anger, sadness, nervousness, or heightened focus. This is what happens when you stub your toe and exclaim out loud even though no one else is around, or when you mutter under your breath before an important public speaking engagement.  

We also engage in self-talk when we’re facing a stressful decision, or trying to cope with difficult emotions. 

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Benefits of talking to yourself

Not only is talking to yourself perfectly normal, but it can also have a whole host of benefits. Research suggests that both inner speech and having a conversation with yourself out loud can have a positive effect on your cognitive performance.

Talking to ourselves isn’t just something that we do occasionally when we let our guard down – it actually plays an important role in human development. Children learn by repeating things they hear to themselves, and one study has shown that pre-schoolers do better on motor tasks when talking to themselves. (1)

 Here are some of the scientifically proven ways that self-talk can be beneficial for the brain

Talking to yourself boosts confidence

Feeling nervous about a test or an important meeting? Maybe you just need a motivational pep talk – from yourself. Talking to yourself has been linked to increased confidence – but only when it’s done in a specific way. 

In a compelling study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that it makes a difference what pronouns you use when talking to yourself in your head. (2)

Subjects were asked to participate in a public speaking challenge. When they referred to themselves in the second or third person during introspection, they experienced less anxiety attacks and performed better.

According to the researchers, this is because self-distancing – thinking about yourself as though you were someone else, from an observer’s point of view – increases self-regulation. When you change the language that you use to refer to yourself and move away from the egocentric, first-person point of view, you can look at your situation from a more objective, emotionally neutral place. This way, you are able to better control your thoughts, feelings and behavior, even in stressful situations. 

These findings are important because they confirm that motivational self-talk, if done right, can be an effective tool to boost confidence, personal growth and performance.

Can talking to yourself help you perform better at sports?

Motivational self-talk has been extensively studied in sports psychology. Research on the connection between sports performance and talking to yourself shows that self-talk can be intentionally used to focus attention, increase confidence, regulate effort, self-control emotions and ultimately enhance performance. (3)

Both overt and covert (external and internal) self-talk have been found to use similar brain structures, and they are thought to serve the same self-regulatory functions. 

Positive self-talk, in particular, appears to have benefits for sports performance (although it may not work for everyone, especially some people with low-self esteem). 

Self-talk is so powerful that it can have an impact on an athlete’s motor skills. A study conducted among basketball players with the aim of evaluating the effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on speed and accuracy found that participants who engaged in self-talk performed better at passing and shooting. (4)

So next time you take part in a sporting event, why not try to give yourself a verbal pat on the back? 

Talking to yourself improves control over goal-oriented tasks

In certain cases, saying something out loud works better than thinking the same thing to yourself. 

A study published in Acta Psychologica showed that verbal instructions improve control over goal-oriented tasks more than inner speech. (5) Participants were given a set of written instructions and asked to read them either silently or out loud. When the subjects read the instructions out loud, both their concentration and their performance improved. 

Much of this benefit appears to come from simply hearing oneself, as auditory commands seem to be better controllers of behaviour than written ones,” says Paloma Mari-Beffa, one of the study’s authors in an article published on The Conversation. (6)

Talking to yourself may seem strange, but as this study proves, it can help you focus on tasks and carry them out more efficiently

Talking to yourself improves search performance

So, if you were to deliberately use self-talk as a tool to focus your attention and make your brain work more efficiently, what else could you use it for?

Surprisingly, talking to yourself out loud can be very helpful when trying to find something, for example, your favorite shirt in a pile of other clothes or a specific fruit at the supermarket. As long as you can visualize what you’re looking for, saying the name of the object out loud may help you find it quicker. 

A study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology showed increased visual search performance when subjects said the name of the object they were searching for out loud. (7) 

The participants were asked to find a picture of a specific object (the target) – an airplane, a butterfly, an umbrella – among pictures of other objects (the distractors), and they were able to pinpoint it faster when they said the name of the object out loud. The researchers concluded that instructional self-talk appears to speed up cognitive processes and helps to improve search performance.

Talking to yourself: mental illness

In rare cases, talking to yourself may be associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, this type of self-talk is very different from the healthy internal or external speech that everyone experiences. 

What disorder causes someone to talk to themselves?

Schizophrenic auditory hallucinations cause patients to perceive their self-talk as if it were coming from an external source, from a different person. This may lead them to engage in conversations with people who are not there. In reality, they are talking to the voices inside their heads. This is a sign of a very serious mental disorder that requires medical treatment. 

Mindfulness and talking to yourself

Positive thinking and positive self-talk are often associated with mindfulness, the psychological process of bringing awareness to our thoughts and focusing on the present moment through techniques such as meditation. 

Mindfulness coaches often hail positive self-talk as the key to reducing stress. (8)

According to them, paying attention to your inner monologue can help you discern forms of negative self-talk, such as magnifying the negative aspects of a situation, blaming yourself for things you can’t control, anticipating the worst and seeing everything as either good or bad, with no middle ground. These negative thought patterns may lead to unnecessary stress. 

On the other hand, practicing positive self-talk and gratefulness may lead to better psychological wellbeing.

So is it OK to talk to yourself out loud?

Talking to yourself out loud is perfectly fine. You may get a few glances from strangers, but the truth is, it can help you rev up your brain and give your confidence a boost.

As we’ve seen above, there’s research to suggest that the language you use to speak to yourself in your head can influence your feelings, your behavior and your anxiety levels. Saying things out loud can help you perform better at certain tasks, like finding what you’re looking for in an assortment of objects. For athletes, self-directed verbal cues are especially beneficial, as they can boost sports performance. 

So, if you want to reap the cognitive benefits, don’t shy away from talking to yourself. 

References

https://www.sciencedaily.com/
https://www.doi.org/
https://oxfordre.com/
https://theconversation.com/
https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/

(1) George Mason University (2008, March 29). Preschool Kids Do Better When They Talk To Themselves, Research Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080328124554.htm
(2) Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304–324. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035173
(3) Judy L. Van Raalte, Andrew Vincent (2017). Self-Talk in Sport and Performance. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-157
(4) Shahzad Tahmasebi, Boroujeni Mehdi Shahbazi (2011). The Effect of Instructional and Motivational Self-Talk on Performance of Basketball’s Motor Skill. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 15, 3113-3117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.04.255
(5) Alexander James Kirkham, Julian Michael Breeze, Paloma Marί-Beffa (2012). The impact of verbal instructions on goal-directed behaviour. Acta Psychologica, 139(1), 212-219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.09.016
(6) Paloma Marί-Beffa (2017, May 3). Is talking to yourself a sign of mental illness? An expert delivers her verdict. The Conversation. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://theconversation.com/is-talking-to-yourself-a-sign-of-mental-illness-an-expert-delivers-her-verdict-77058
(7) Gary Lupyan, Daniel Swingley (2011). Self-directed speech affects visual search performance. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(6), 1068-1085. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2011.647039
(8) Dana Sparks (2018, September 26). Mayo Mindfulness: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic News Network. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-mindfulness-stop-negative-self-talk-to-reduce-stress/

Social Distancing: How it impacts the brain

As proposed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, humans are social creatures. We require human contact to thrive. But with relationships and intimacy comes situations that may require social distancing. That is, avoiding contact with others to prevent contagious disease. Does social distancing have negative effects? Let’s read how prolonged social distancing triggers a series of brain changes that impact the psyche, cognitive development, and physical function.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

What is Social Distancing?

Social distancing describes the measures taken to prevent the spread of disease by limiting physical contact between people. By maintaining a physical distance from others, the goal of social distancing is to decrease a healthy individual’s exposure to those who are carrying the contagious disease because the infection can be transmitted in the following ways:

  • Droplet contact—airborne, coughing or sneezing
  • Direct physical contact—touching, sexual contact
  • Indirect physical contact—touching a contaminated surface such as doorknobs, rails, etc.
  • Ingestion—contaminated food or water supply

The public health practice includes remaining home as much as possible. This means no unnecessary travel, not frequenting stores, dining in restaurants, visiting community facilities (i.e. libraries, gymnasiums, etc.), and school and non-essential businesses are transitioned remotely or may be canceled entirely. These extremes are not implemented for the common cold. However, for more serious illnesses that are considered a pandemic—an illness spreading rapidly across a large region—social distancing is life-saving.

Examples of Social Distancing Measures

Practicing successful social distancing demands the effort from government officials, business owners, and the general population. According to the CDC, social distancing requires “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Below are the additional steps taken at the first sign of a pandemic. Each of these social isolation measures creates the segregation of human contact, which presents the opportunity for extensive effects on the brain.

  • School closure—Colleges and grade school education is transferred to web-based online courses or homeschooling rather than attending large lectures.
  • Work closure—This includes reduction of work hours and/or closing all non-essential businesses. Businesses make accommodations (i.e. pick-up only dining).
  • Closing recreational facilities—All non-essential facilities like malls, libraries, community pools, youth clubs, sports teams, gymnasiums, childcare centers, etc.
  • No unnecessary travel—Public transportation (i.e. buses, airplanes, subways) are limited.
  • Restriction of goods—Few resources are imported or exported to avoid infected areas.
  • Cancellation of mass gatherings—Sporting events, films, concerts is refunded.
  • Canceling non-urgent medical appointments—This reduces the exposure of non-infected individuals to the population seeking medical care for the contagious disease.

Brain Changes From Social Distancing

Anyone is bound to have fluctuations in happiness and mood when staying home weeks to months at a time with little human contact. Imaging studies of the brain reflect variances in gray matter in those who are experiencing significantly loneliness (Kanai et al., 2012). Multiple brain regions are involved. Further studies by the California Institute of Technology using mice show that the activation of tachykinin regulated by the hypothalamus and amygdala, a protein released by the brain’s nerve cells, triggers a stress reaction in the body in response to social isolation exceeding 24-hours. As the body releases stress hormones and neurotransmitters, both of which are known to regulate mood, behavioral changes can be expected.

Can Social Distancing Effect Cognitive Development?

These alterations in brain chemicals are not restricted to mice. Humans are susceptible too. Prolonged social distancing does have an effect on cognitive development. Cognitive development is the growth and maturation process of thinking. As children age, skills like problem solving, perception, attention, language, logic, reasoning, memory, social development, and other aspects of cognition evolve. Acquiring these skills over time is cognitive development.

Social distancing can interfere with the natural development of cognition. Children especially need social interaction to learn. Studies show that lonely individuals have a decreased understanding of nonverbal communication along with a deficit in social skills. CogniFit has offered 300 million licenses to train your child’s brain. This may offer a solution to keep their cognitive skills in shipshape. Visit #stayathome to learn more.

Social Distancing: Social Equilibrium

Like food, water, and shelter, socialization is a human need. The brain and body undergo the process of social homeostasis to fulfill socialization. Scholars report three phases of social homeostasis occurring within numerous brain regions: (1) a detector that recognizes changes in socialization, (2) a control center to establish a “set point”—the amount of socialization required to meet needs—and how far off a change in a social situation is from that point, and (3) an effector which governs the return to the set social point.

Mental Health Effects of Social Distancing

Social distancing interferes with the equilibrium of social homeostasis leading to mental health effects. Firstly, social distancing presents stress factors. Examples of stressors from social distancing include fear of infection, boredom, financial hardship, and limited supplies (i.e. food, water, medical care). Increased stress is linked to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Mental Health Disorders

Psychiatrists agree that a range of mental health problems stems from social distancing. Those practicing social distancing are generally more anxious and hypervigilant displaying exaggerated behaviors because prolonged isolation induces chemical changes within the brain from the release of tachykinin previously discussed in the mice studies at the California Institute of Technology. Changes in mood, particularly anger and aggression, but also emotional exhaustion and insomnia, result.

The main mental health disorders caused by social distancing include:

  • Acute stress disorder—Acute stress disorder is crippling anxiety and dissociation developing within one month of a traumatic event. Other symptoms are flashbacks, hallucinations, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—Similar to acute stress disorder, PTSD is the symptoms of trauma that can occur months or years after the traumatic experience.
  • AnxietyAnxiety is extreme worry disproportionate to the situation. Those who experience anxiety have symptoms like increased heart rate, nervousness, trembling, weakness, difficulty concentrating, hyperventilation, panic, excessive sweating, and more.
  • Depression—Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent, unexplained sadness, apathy, and a loss of interest in regular activities that lasts three or more months.
  • Substance abuse—Substance abuse is the unhealthy dependence on drugs or other substances in harmful amounts. In the case of prolonged social distancing, substance abuse can develop from an attempt to cope with the anxiety and depression or by simply picking up a new habit for recreation to cope with the boredom of isolation.
Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

The Effects of Social Distancing Based on Personality

The idea of social distancing may not sound half bad to those with specific personality characteristics. To introverts, people who rely on their own thoughts and feelings, social distancing is a reprieve from the socialization they find mentally draining. They may even feel less stressed than before. Regardless, a decreased want of socialization does not spare them from the negative effects of social distancing. Their fondness for alone time can prevent them from connecting with people virtually while continuing to maintain distancing measures. They are most prone to alterations in mood from social distancing.

Extraverts are outgoing. They thrive on conversation, are energetic, and thoroughly enjoy social interaction. Social distancing is a more difficult concept to follow for these individuals. Anxiety levels increase when they cannot use socialization to process their emotions. During social distancing, it’s imperative for extroverts to socialize and partake in activities through technology.

Who is Most Susceptible to the Negatives of Social Distancing?

A specific subset of people is more susceptible to the negative mental, emotional, and physical impact of social distancing. They are:

  • Healthcare workers like doctors, nurses, and hospital staff—They put themselves at greater risk by treating infected individuals.
  • Lower-income families—Those with lower socioeconomic status have increased stress from the financial and economical burdens resulting from social distancing, as work hours decrease or they fear the risk of being laid off.
  • Public workers—Uber drivers, delivery services, grocery store staff: essential businesses continue to operate during social distancing to maintain the functioning of the economy and as a way to meet the basic needs of society. These workers are exposing themselves to the illness.
  • The elderly—Elderly individuals are already isolated due to poor health. Many also have a limited support system because family and friends have passed away.
  • Mental illness patients—Someone with a previously existing mental disorder is prone to the combined effects of social isolation with their illness. For example, the sadness and decreased interest in regular activities commonly exhibited in depression are exacerbated by the situation.

Technology and Social Distancing

In today’s modern times, socializing is possible while still abiding by social distancing protocols. Technology keeps family and friends connected despite not being in close proximity. Obvious options such as Skype, Facetime, and Zoom which allow video chatting comparable to face-to-face conversation. Easily accessible social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are great for long-distance communication. Of course, there are also traditional phone calls and text messages for verbal and electronically written chats.

However, technology is an integral component of social distancing in other ways. When isolated from society, the media accessed through technology (i.e. mobile phones, computers, and television) informs the social distancing population of the ongoings of the world. They can access updates on news stories. Additionally, computers support the economy. Businesses that would otherwise be shut down are able to operate remotely.

If social distancing, contact with others through technology provides the socialization and fun necessary to improve mood, reduce anxiety, enhance psychological functioning, and lead to better physical health.

Resources

Brooks, B.K., Webster, R.K., Smith, L.E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., & Greenburg, N. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. Rapid Review, 395(10227).

California Institute of Technology. (2018, May 17). How social isolation transforms the brain: A particular neural chemical is overproduced during long-term social isolation, causing increased aggression and fear. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 29, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180517113856.htm

Chopik W. J. (2016). The Benefits of Social Technology Use Among Older Adults Are Mediated by Reduced Loneliness. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking19(9), 551–556. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2016.0151

Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M. J., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain structure links loneliness to social perception. Current biology : CB22(20), 1975–1979. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.045

Matthews GA, Tye KM. (2019). Neural mechanisms of social homeostasis. Ann N Y Acad Sci. Dec;1457(1):5-25. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14016

300 Million Students Free Access to the Brain Training Program While Schools Are Closed Due to COVID-19

With 300 million students worldwide now stuck at home, parents are looking for solutions to challenge their children’s mind

After the safety restrictions due to the Covid-19, we at CogniFit want to help families manage their time at home and encourage them to make the most of this time to stimulate their minds with fun games.

As schools close due to the spread of coronavirus, there is an unprecedented need for supporting children with brain-challenging activities. CogniFit’s brain training programs are free for families through its CogniFit #StayAtHome program. This initiative helps families manage their time at home and encourages them to make the most of this time to stimulate their minds with fun games.

To learn more and to access CogniFit #StayAtHome, visit:

https://www.cognifit.com/stayathome

“As most K-12 students around the world have had school canceled for several weeks because of the coronavirus, parents worry about their children’s education and want to keep them mentally challenged,” says CogniFit CEO, Tommy Sagroun. “We at CogniFit want to address this concern because we understand how important it is for children to have continuity in their cognitive development and for adults to not be cognitively affected by lack of stimulation or anxiety and cope better with these isolated circumstances. To that end, we are making all of our brain training programs free for students for one month.”

Tommy Sagroun- CogniFit CEO

CogniFit Stay At Home seeks to help parents provide their children with fun and engaging challenging activities. This family-friendly platform is designed to help students and family members spend their time at home exercising their brain with more than 60 brain games. 

CogniFit’s cognitive training programs are designed for all ages from seven years old and above, to teenagers, to adults, to seniors. Using advanced algorithms, CogniFit’s patented technology automatically adapts and adjusts the training regimen to each user’s needs. 

CogniFit’s platform trains key cognitive skills, such as attention, memory, reasoning, which are critical when studying. This scientific platform exercises more than 20 cognitive skills that we use in our daily lives. CogniFit’s advanced technology has been developed to measure user’s performance consistently and adjusts the level and type of brain games to be performed automatically.

With this one-month free initiative, CogniFit seeks to help families and students manage their time at home and have an activity that is not only beneficial to the mind but also entertaining.

Affective Forecasting: Predicting your emotions

“Will I be chosen for the job interview?” “If I accept the offer, what is the likelihood I will enjoy my new position better than my old?” We all wish we could predict the future, as well as the feelings that accompany those predications. With affective forecasting, such an endeavor is possible! Affective forecasting allows us to predict our future emotional states. It is a critical asset to the decision-making process in day-to-day life and reveals both the positive and negative attributes of personality.

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What is Affective Forecasting?

Affective forecasting is the process of predicting a future emotional state or how you will feel in the future. In psychology, the term is derived from predicting one’s “affect,” which refers to the experience of feelings and mood. Affective forecasting involves our reactions to certain events, as well as how we feel if we were to finally obtain something we want. This type of predicting differs from anticipating the weather or whether you will win the next lottery. Instead, affective forecasting focuses on the feelings of such events. For example, you may believe winning the lottery may impact your happiness. The process of affective forecasting is relevant to guiding decision making, behavior, and preferences because we are constantly forming expectations regarding our emotional states.

History of Affective Forecasting

In the 1990s, social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson founded the concept of affective forecasting, which also took on the name of hedonic forecasting. Both Gilbert and Wilson studied the accuracy of affective forecasting. In the beginning, they did not focus as much on people’s responses. Their main concerns were the emotions underlying said responses.

Components of Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting is a multi-faceted concept. According to Wilson and Gilbert (2003), there are four distinct components:

  1. Valence—Will the emotion be positive or negative?
  2. Specific emotion(s) experienced—Do you feel happy, sad, anxious, etc.?
  3. Emotional Intensity—How strongly do you feel the specific emotion(s)?
  4. Duration of the emotions—How long do the emotions last?

Investigating these components, researchers conducted studies starting with the ways participants forecasted their specific emotions based on winning or losing a simulated dating game. Further studies by Woodzicka and LaFrance used with female participants who predicted they would feel angry and frightened if they were asked sexually harassing questions during a job interview. These studies each revealed that people tend to accurately predict what emotions they will feel about future events. However, they are often inaccurate in predicting which emotion will be felt most intensely. For example, in the Woodzicka and LaFrance study, the women were actually more frightened than angry.

Affective Forecasting Errors

Wilson and Gilbert proposed that people are prone to errors in predicting their future emotions about an event. Although they expect their general emotions about something occurring in the future (i.e. happy, sad, anxious, etc.), the following affective forecasting errors can potentially skew these predications.  

Projection Bias or “Mental Contamination”

Projection bias is the most common affective forecasting error. It is when current emotions impact the prediction of future emotions. For example, spilling coffee on your favorite blouse provokes a bad mood, and if you later forecast how you will feel about an upcoming work function, your negative emotional state can affect your prediction. This creates a biased view. We must be cognizant of our projection biases—or “mental contamination”—to have an accurate affective forecast.

Empathy gaps are the leading cause of projection bias, which is a cognitive bias characterizing the physiological arousal influencing one’s attitudes, preferences, and behaviors that the forecaster fails to consider.

False Consensus

Also a form of cognitive bias, false consensus is the overestimation of the extent to which personal opinions, preferences, values, and habits are normal. Someone displaying false consensus believes people generally feel the same way they do. False consensus involves the availability heuristic—a concept that, when attempting to determine how common something is, we notice the examples that easily come to mind. False consensus occurs because we surround ourselves with others who are similar in beliefs and values. Thus, our beliefs are most familiar and we are more likely to notice people who have mutual opinions.

Expectation Effects

Expectation effects are significant in affective forecasting. This forecasting error stems from expecting one outcome but experiencing another. Expectation effects influence perception, as well as behavior. There is a range of expectation effects that help explain how expectations can interfere with forecasting in situations pertaining to work productivity, education, medical treatment, and more. The placebo effect demonstrates this. Solely because they believe the treatment will be successful, a patient experiences positive treatment effects.

Focalism

Focalism includes the cognitive skill of attention. This describes the tendency for people to hyperfocus on specific details of an event or emotion while ignoring others. Focalism is an illusion that creates biased judgments, as it leads to an exaggeration of the factors receiving the most focused attention. As an example, considering the negative ways a disability impacts one’s life, an able-bodied individual may believe the disabled are not as happy and content as their healthy counterparts. Focalism also plays a role in social comparison. People focus on their own futures, abilities, and traits while underestimating their peers.

Temporal Discounting

Temporal discounting goes by the names of time discounting or time preferences. The forecasting error is the capacity for people to weigh future events with their present desires. A great number of the population prefers immediate gratification versus delayed gratification. If not cautious, emotions centered around the desire for obtaining what we want immediately obscure accurate predictions of how we will feel in the future.

Affective Forecasting and Personality

Researchers have extended much effort into studying how personality connects to affective forecasting. Various personality types do have an impact on the accuracy of future predictions. While forecasting, personality should be accounted for to accurately predict future emotions. Traits like optimism lead to generally positive forecasts. The chronically optimistic might diminish the negative feelings they will feel after receiving bad news. The inverse is also true. Those who are pessimistic may underestimate their happiness for good events.

Recent studies of the association between affective forecasting and the Big Five personality traits (i.e. openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) reflect that personalities high in introversion and neuroticism had more accurate predictions for negative emotions, whereas those who are extroverted and less neurotic predicted positive emotions more accurately (Hoerger, Chapman, and Duberstein, 2016).

Affective Forecasting: Happiness Versus Negativity

Related to personality, affective forecasting has lasting implications on happiness. We cope with negative emotions through affective forecasting, because the process assists us in maintaining realistic expectations of life events. As we anticipate positive future events and manage expectations, we are content in recognizing the value of happiness. We cherish the happy emotions rather than taking them for granted.

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Individuals who underestimate their positive feelings of a future event during affective forecasting are happier than those who overestimate how happiness. Overestimating happiness progresses to disappointment. However, underestimating boosts feelings of happiness because of increased positive emotions.

Affective Forecasting in Day-to-Day Life

Affective forecasting is not a foreign psychological topic that people rarely apply. It is relevant in many aspects of day-to-day life. In fact, it is so prevalent we do not even realize we are forecasting the future.

Social Relationships

Affective forecasting is applied while interacting in our social groups. Forecasting begins with our first impression judgments of another person, especially in those we do not already know. From there, we decide whether we are interested in spending time with that person. A favorable first impression leads to positive forecasts, as we predict we will benefit from that particular relationship. An unfavorable impression leads to negative emotions, and consequently, avoidance of that relationship.

Studies by Wilson and Gilbert (2008) demonstrate that differences influence affective forecasting. With students as participants, they overestimated their negative emotions when told they would be interacting with students from a different racial group.

Setting Goals

Setting goals are how we reach accomplishments in life. Affective forecasting, when appropriately utilized, optimizes goal setting. We set goals based on our predictions of the future. Affective forecasting encourages us to cultivate goals from the view of what we want instead of what will please others. Through affective forecasting, we predict how we will feel about a potential future accomplishment. For example, a career with a higher salary does not necessarily produce the same satisfaction as a job we are passionate about but earns less. This fosters hard work to achieve good outcomes consistent with our goals.

Decision Making and Self-Regulation

Affective forecasting is crucial to the processes of decision making and self-regulation. Similar to goal setting, other decisions are determined through the predictions of future emotions. This can range from expecting fulfillment from an evening outing for dessert because you have been craving vanilla ice cream all day to serious decisions such as planning which college you wish to attend out of the excitement of finally moving forward with a new life milestone. We are likely to make decisions forecasted to have good outcomes, yet inaccurate affective forecasting by not accounting for errors and bias drives negative outcomes. Along with decision making comes our behaviors. When affective forecasting is done effectively, we are better equipped at self-regulation—the ability to better handle emotions surrounding both positive and negative outcomes. We are also able to adjust our behaviors to prepare for a future event. Our lives are brimming with possibilities because of affective forecasting!

References

Hoerger, M., Chapman, B., & Duberstein, P. (2016). Realistic affective forecasting: The role of personality. Cognitive Emotion, 30, 1304-1316. doi:10.1080/02699931.2015.1061481

Kurtz, J. L. (2018). Affective forecasting. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of wellbeing. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 345-411.

Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00199

Discover What are Cognitive Learning Styles

Consider a problem you recently encountered. How did you solve it? Did you need to visualize the solution or were you likely to verbalize your thought process aloud? These questions all pertain to cognitive learning styles—a term used to describe the way an individual processes information from the world around them. Cognitive learning style is influenced by personality, environment, culture, and social interactions. Read further to understand more about your cognitive learning style, as well as how to develop your learning habits.

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What Is Cognitive Learning Style?

Thoughts, experiences, the five senses (i.e. sight, touch, smell, hear, and taste)—they are all ways in which we take in information from our environment and interactions with others. The mental action of acquiring that information is known as cognition. It is related to a term called cognitive learning style.

Cognitive learning style describes an individual’s habits of processing environmental stimuli (information). Cognitive learning style simply indicates the tendencies of certain behaviors that occur during thinking and learning.

Learning Style and Personality

Cognitive learning style is, in essence, a personality component. Leading institutions have used the Myers Briggs personality testing to connect specific personality types with learning processes. For example, someone who is extraverted and outgoing may not learn best through auditory learning where they are required to listen for long periods. Instead, hands-on-learning with plenty of social interaction is optimal. These variances in learning styles amongst people influence their attitudes, values, and relationships.

Why is Cognitive Learning Style Important?

Knowing an individual’s cognitive learning style is critical to learn at one’s full potential. The concept is applied to many settings, especially in education. Cognitive learning develops the capacity to think abstractly, which is important in a classroom. Rather than memorization, students who are aware of their cognitive learning style are able to fully comprehend the information they have learned. They understand the reasons behind complex topics and are more likely to retain information to further build on that knowledge. Training our cognitive skills can also help our cognitive learning styles. CogniFit trains up to 23 different cognitive skills.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Visual

As the name suggests, the visual learning style encompasses learning through the sense of sight. To effectively learn, a visual learner needs to visualize the information. They learn best by visualizing images, pictures, maps, and diagrams to organize and process learning material. This occurs by various visual attributes: spatial awareness, photographic memory, color or tone, and brightness or contrast. Visual learners can easily imagine their ideas to bring them to life, as they are skilled with imagery.

Personality habits of visual learners include being focused and well organized in planning. Many are not very talkative, yet are prone to frequent daydreaming. They have a good memory for faces and facts that are conveyed in images but tend to forget faces and verbalized information.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Auditory

Auditory learning is a type of cognitive learning style in which the individual learns by hearing or listening. They are very successful in the typical classroom lecture setting and excel at oral presentations, following verbal directions, and explaining topics aloud. Most auditory learners are talkative. In conversation, they are intuitive to changes in tone that underlie the meaning of speech.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Kinesthetic

The kinesthetic learning style is a tactile, hands-on approach to learning. It is an active form of learning based on physical activities rather than reading text or listening to a lecture/presentation. To learn through the sense of touch, incorporating motions into teaching new information increases understanding. Kinesthetic learners possess energetic, creative personalities. They are skilled in physical activities like sports and have developed coordination.

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Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Reading/Writing

The cognitive learning style reading and writing refers to a preference for learning through words. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the words used in what the individual is expected to know. Reading and writing learners best process information by utilizing glossaries, reading notes, and arranging lists of words into questions. They often enjoy reading and demonstrating comprehension of abstract topics expressed in their writing.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Field Dependent Versus Independent Model

Developed by psychologist Herman Witkin in 1962, field-independent versus independent model is a concept in cognitive learning styles. Field independence is marked by the ability to separate details from context. Field independent learners are independent. They are highly focused, working best individually while relying less on peer groups to process information. Reading and writing are two skills field-independent learners excel in because they can be performed alone without intervention from others.

Contrarily, field-dependent learning is characterized by the inability to separate details from context. In field-dependent learning, information is one “big picture.” Field dependent learners struggle to isolate the details that form the whole. These learners work most effectively in groups or with teacher support. They have strong interpersonal relationships and function well as part of a team. Although not as focused on field-independent learners, they exceed in processing information orally.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Reflection Versus Impulsivity

The cognitive learning model of reflection versus impulsivity was created by psychologist Jerome Kagan in 1958. This cognitive style can be determined by the ways someone approaches a problem. Those who display reflectivity in their learning consider alternative solutions, whereas impulsivity is spontaneously responding to a problem with little thought of the various possible solutions and their outcomes.

Studies show these differences in learning begin in pre-school years. In a classroom setting, reflective learners are conscientious. They do not rush to complete their assignments, taking time to ensure its accuracy. Impulsive learners make more mistakes and turn in their assignments quickly.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Leveling Versus Sharpening 

Leveling versus sharpening pertains to the cognitive skill of memory. The two learning variances differ in how an individual uses memories to process information. Those who apply to level to their learning apply numerous memories and prior knowledge to organize the new information. However, learners who lean towards sharpening depend on fewer memories to assimilate information. Studies reveal that sharpeners are more accurate in the information they are learning at present. This is because levelers blend so many pieces of their memories with the information they are expected to learn that some may be inaccurate.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Scanning

The learning style known as scanning refers to individual differences in a cognitive skill known as attention. Whether relevant or irrelevant to the information to be learned, scanners direct their attention to all features of their environment. They have a broader view of a problem.

Types of Cognitive Learning Styles: Serialist Versus Holist 

Serialist versus holist is a cognitive learning style stemming from Gordon Pask’s conversation theory. Serialist learners learn linearly in a sequential manner. Learning tasks are worked systematically one at a time. These learners are overwhelmed by excessive details, as it distracts from the task at hand. They prefer structured teaching.

Holists learn top-down, hierarchical fashion. They approach learning as a whole without breaking it down into sub-tasks. Overall, they work spontaneously. To process information, holists do not need structure and are able to think broadly about a subject.

How to Develop Your Cognitive Learning Style

While cognitive learning style differs from person to person, there are basic skills and techniques to develop your cognitive learning style:

  • Explore new ideas—Learning involves comprehending ideas taken in from the world around you. One idea inevitably leads to another. Do not be afraid to investigate those resulting ideas, as they provide the opportunity to practice applying your unique learning style.
  • Explain patterns of thinking—After learning occurs, explaining patterns of thinking displays a complete understanding of the subject. Being able to explain how you learn develops your potential to learn additional information.
  • Refine cognitive skills—Cognitive skills entail attention, memory, logic, reasoning, and auditory and visual processing. Regardless of one’s learning style, these skills are necessary for you to take in information and apply it to daily life.
  • Reflect on your learning experiences—Learning through your cognitive learning style means you must be intuitive about your learning habits. Reflect on instances when learning was successful as well as unsuccessful. What did you do? Is there something you could do differently in the future?
  • Reduce stress—Excessive stress distracts the brain from processing other stimuli in the environment. Keep stress levels low for optimal learning.
  • Sleep—The brain requires rest to heal and regenerate neurons (i.e. brain cells). Without proper rest at night, the brain cannot form the pathways for learning. Experts recommend 7 to 9 hours of sleep for the average adult.
  • Exercise the brain—Play brain training games, solve puzzles, play board games, or read books. Activities that stimulate the brain build the brain pathways for learning.

References

Messick, S. (1989). Cognitive Style and Personality: Scanning and Orientation Affect. Princeton, New Jersey: Educational Testing Service.

Sternberg, R. (1997). Thinking Styles. Boston: Cambridge University Press.

Positivity: 11 tips to change your negative mindset

If we believe that we are going to be successful in our work, it is much more likely that we will be than if we think the opposite. This is something that is well known by almost everyone, but that almost nobody applies in a conscious and rational way. In fact, the mindset that prevails is thinking that things will go wrong as if that were some kind of protective charm against bad luck. In this article, we encourage you to change your mindset in order to be a positive person!

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What is positivity?

I often meet people who are looking to make their lives full of positivity. However, positivism is formally a philosophical movement whose main idea is based on the definition of arguments that seek to determine whether a certain concept is true or false.

Positivity is basically related to seeing each activity in a beneficial way, seeing the world with winning eyes. Positivity is closely related to faith and self-confidence. Believing that everything will turn out well for us is not a simple matter, nor does it guarantee that it will, but it fills us with conviction and inner strength to try.

Basically, positivity is about putting aside the negative, isolating all feelings of failure and turning them into success and joy.

How can you include positivity in your life?

Positivity is a state of mind, it is nothing more than a way of seeing things, and therefore, it can be modified and transformed into a habit. Being positive is not achieved overnight, but it is easier than many people think.

If you spend a few hours of your day analyzing your thoughts, you will discover that you are actually more negative than you think, so there is indeed a way to improve and eliminate all the negativity, in order to increase positivity and its effects on your life.

Just with phrases like: “I hope everything goes well”, “I might win”, “I don’t think I did as well as I expected, etc.”, people condition themselves under a negative mental state, which does not allow them to visualize success within the possibilities.

Modifying such thoughts for others such as: “I know I will do very well”, “of course I will win”, “I did better than I expected, etc.” you will fill your mind with positive thoughts, and therefore, the results will also be positive.

Fear keeps positivity away

Fear makes us insecure, it restricts us, and it alienates us. Fear is something natural, it is that alarm that tells us, beware, something might happen. However, what will happen? There are only two options, broadly speaking. Something we feel as good, or something bad. Probably a fifty-fifty chance.

Does fear make sense then? Can’t we turn our fearful ideas, our fears, into hopeful, positive, and more enriching ideas?

It has been shown that people with a positive mind live longer and better than people with a negative mindset.

A positive mindset makes our day better and less stressful. We can wake up in the morning and think: “wow, it’s cloudy, it’s going to rain today, what a day, there will be traffic jams, I won’t make it into work, my boss will take it out on me, I won’t have time to finish everything I have to do, it’ s too much, it’s going to be a lousy day”.

Or: “wow, it’s a cloudy day, well its winter it makes sense. I’ll take my car but leave earlier so I can avoid traffic jams since I have a few things to finish today. Everything will be great!”

Those are two alternatives. One makes you go to work upset and predisposed to the negative aspects of your day, including maybe even arguing with your colleagues and family, and the other makes you smile, which activates in the brain substances that favor that state, allowing you to feel a positive mindset.

Being positive is almost synonymous with being happy

A day-to-day reality is that positive people relate better and have more friends and acquaintances because they give off positive energy and good vibes. You know that if you approach them you will have good feelings, and that is something we all like. You know that you will have fun, and maybe even feel that positivity they portray.

First impressions are a perfect example of this. When we see a person we don’t know smile, we “like” them better than someone who is next to them, serious and grumpy. This does not mean that we have to go around smiling at everyone laughing like crazy, however, being a positive mindset can make you more approachable.

Positivity is almost synonymous with happiness. Thinking about the future in a positive way can lead us to better decisions and get us closer to our hopes and dreams.

Positivity: Tips for being a positive person

It’s up to you.

You set your mindset: positive or negative. According to psychiatrists and psychologists, 50% of our character is determined by genetic factors; and 10% by our environment, but there is a 40% that depends only on us and our attitude towards life. It is this 40% that we must work on to keep a positive mindset and that this will help us to be happier and even to live more years in better health.

The happier, the healthier

It may surprise you, but being positive not only helps you reduce stress and anxiety, it also protects your health. According to a study from University College London, maintaining a positive attitude is linked to having a strong immune system and therefore fewer neuroendocrine, inflammatory and cardiovascular problems.

Changing your thoughts is possible

Having positive thoughts and facing life in an optimistic way is essential to be happy. It is something that our brain can learn. You can change your way of thinking and improve your life. To achieve this we propose some tips and tricks that will help you see the world with more optimism.

Look for the bright side

In everything that happens to us, there are both positive and negative aspects. The trick is to look for the bright side even in the negative. Even the worst criticism can be constructive.

Focus on finding something good in adversity. For example, there is no doubt that receiving negative criticism does not please anyone. But in the face of criticism you can choose to think that you didn’t deserve it and that they just wanted to hurt you, or reflect on what you’ve been told and, if you think there might be some truth in it, see how you can improve.

Focus on the solution

Whenever you find yourself in a difficult situation, instead of dwelling on the problem, which will lead you nowhere but to despair, concentrate on finding a solution and trying to define the steps that will allow you to reach it. This will help you to abandon the negative mindset. In general, setting goals (as long as they are realistic) gives us a more positive outlook on life and encourages us to move forward. If the problem or concern is something you can’t change, try to accept it and accept that life is sometimes “unfair”. It doesn’t make sense to waste your energy worrying. Constantly thinking about it will only make you more frustrated.

Pay attention to the subtleties

Avoid polarized thinking, it’s never all or nothing. Things are not just black or white; between the two extremes, there are many shades of gray. Instead of thinking about only two outcomes (one positive and one negative), make a list of all the possible outcomes that can happen between the two options. This will help you realize that the situation is not so dramatic.

Don’t blame yourself.

Don’t think you are responsible for everything that goes wrong. If your neighbor doesn’t greet you in the elevator doesn’t mean she’s upset with you, she’s probably having a bad day.

Runaway from the complaining

Constant complaining strengthens the chain of harmful thoughts. If we think in destructive or negative terms we end up making them happen. Your goal should be to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, and that should be noted in your language as well. Substitute expressions like “I’ve made a mistake” with “I’ve learned that” or “If I don’t make it through the job interview, I won’t be able to pay for the house” with “I’m confident in my abilities to get this job. Everything can be formulated in a positive way; the more you practice the easier it will be.

Visualize future achievements

The simple fact of imagining yourself getting what you want (making it to the end of the month, passing an exam, etc.) makes you feel more positive about the effort it takes to achieve those goals and unconsciously increases your self-confidence. Let your imagination run wild and visualize those scenes.

Nourish yourself with positive emotions

Positive thinking is certainly easier if you are also feeling positive. To encourage this, the best thing is to do activities that you like and that brings you joy, satisfaction, happiness, etc. Watching a funny movie, having a coffee with a friend or playing with your children are simple, everyday things that boost your positivity. The problem is that sometimes they go unnoticed or we get used to them, and when we consider them normal we stop appreciating them. To prevent this from happening, reflect at night on all the good things that the day brought you and write down in a notebook five things that made you happy that day.

Surround yourself with positive people!

Like smiles or yawns, optimism and pessimism are also contagious. Try to surround yourself with positive people, as this will be very beneficial for your mood. Likewise, avoid pessimists as much as possible. And if you can’t avoid the buzzkill try to counteract their negativity.

This article is originally in Spanish, it was translated to English.

Keys To Success: Use cognitive skills to reach your goals

What is success? Is it a college degree? Getting hired for your dream job? Finally, securing financial stability? Or is success about thriving relationships, connecting with your inner self, or finding happiness? Success is something we all strive for, but do not always know the best way to obtain it. Keep reading to discover the keys to success, as well as the underlying cognitive skills you can apply to reach your version of success!

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What is Success?

Success is the achievement of set goals and desired objectives. The term “success” is ambiguous—open to more than one interpretation—being that each individual possesses unique aspirations. While some endeavor to earn a six-figure salary and rank high in social status, others are content with a few strong relationships and a meager salary at a job they are passionate about. Neither version of success is wrong. Defining the concept of success simply depends if you meet your personal goals.

Why is Success Important?

Success is important because if done properly, it contributes a sense of well-being. Reaching your view of success brings happiness, fulfillment, and increases confidence. You know that if you were successful in achieving your goals despite the obstacles, you are equally capable of tackling whatever you set your mind to in the future. However, following another’s version of success is counterproductive. You cannot feel satisfied aspiring towards goals that are not your own expectations. Still, success can facilitate outside success. Accomplishing your aspired intentions benefits the productivity of businesses and the economy, which can inspire others to seek their own keys to success.

Keys To Success: Have Goals

The beginning key to success is to formulate realistic goals. Having a goal provides you with direction. You cannot “achieve” your desired outcome unless you know what it is you wish for in the first place.

Outline your goal(s). Write them down. Visualizing your goals on paper allows you to brainstorm how to go about achieving them. From there, you can divide the main goal into smaller, short-term goals, to increase your chance of success.

When mapping your goals:

  • Ask yourself, What are your values and priorities?”—Your inner beliefs are a guide through the decision-making process.
  • Consider your skills—What are you good at? What skills have proven beneficial in previous jobs?
  • Keep your goals realistic—While it’s important to aim high, you will eventually become burned out or discouraged if you create unrealistic goals.
  • Research—Have others been successful at your goal? How did they accomplish this? Learning from their mistakes may make reaching your goal easier.

Keys To Success: Strengthen Cognitive Skills

Now that you have a goal, you must framework each step necessary to successfully meet that goal. The complex thinking involved in doing requires cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are a set of higher-order thinking processes that allow us to reason, pay attention, learn, and remember. They are the skills we use to make sense of the world around us and to complete tasks with problem-solving. Cognitive skills are the keys to success because being successful entails overcoming problems and analyzing our environment.

Memory

There are multiple types of memory, but working memory is the most crucial key to success. Working memory is a form of short-term memory designed to temporarily hold the information we see and hear for our brain to work with it. Only a few pieces of information are stored in working memory at any given time. Remembering the digits of a phone number long enough to make a call is a prime example. Working memory is comparable to a mental sticky note. The process of working memory also assists in organizing information for long-term use if deemed important.

To be successful, working memory is imperative. You must recall information to meet your goals. Brain training games, like those offered by CogniFit, are great resources to strengthen working memory.

Attention

Attention describes the ability to selectively choose to focus on relevant stimuli in the environment and respond to it, while intentionally ignoring irrelevant stimuli. The cognitive skill of attention relied on our level of alertness, the amount of time we can attend to a stimulus, and the ability to alternate attention between multiple stimuli. Success demands attention because you need to focus in order to create and attain your goals. A tip to improve your attention span is to limit distractions in the room when working. This includes a cell phone or television.

Logic and Reasoning

Logic is the step-by-step method of problem-solving, whereas reasoning is abstract thought in which we deduct conclusions from premises. Together, logic and reasoning lead to using information for concept formation and problem-solving. These two cognitive skills are strengthened through stimulating the mind by trying new activities and hobbies. Because of logic and reasoning, you can think innovatively about your goals to become successful.

Processing

You easily visualize vivid representations as you conjure your inner thoughts, right? That is visual processing—the ability to think in images. Processing occurs with sound too. Auditory processing is blending and segmenting sound. Processing is also how we respond to the information we receive. Arriving at success calls for imagining what goals you seek to be successful at, along with the actions required (i.e. the response).

Keys To Success: Possess Confidence

Confidence is believing in your power to succeed. It really is the key to success because of the belief in your own abilities drives your actions. Ruminating on the ways in which you may fail or putting yourself down is a form of self-sabotage that confidence counteracts. If you possess confidence, you are more likely to pursue opportunities for success out of your comfort zone. Recent Princeton University research on mathematicians revealed that those who were confident in their numeric abilities had better financial outcomes and fewer instances of disease.

Keys To Success: Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is maintaining awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present. It is the state of accepting current experiences without judging them as good or bad. Mindfulness is developed through meditation training. During mindfulness meditation, the intention is to focus on breathing. As distracting thoughts enter your mind, you simply reroute your thoughts back to your breathing and do not attend to them. Mindfulness is important for success because it cultivates self-awareness, which is crucial to prevent biases and opinions from impacting decision-making.

Keys To Success: Connect with Values and Spirituality

Values are fundamental beliefs that motivate behavior. They are how we establish what is desirable so that we can generate a vision of how we want to be successful and what we have to do to get there without compromising our standards. Your values are sourced from your inner-core and spirit—who you are as a person. Studies of college studies indicate that spirituality provided students with a life purpose, thereby reassuring students of their academic plans and provided an ability to overcome barriers (Wood & Hilton, 2012). As you connect with your values and spirituality, you live an authentically honest life and are more likely to take responsibility for your thoughts and behavior, as well as having a matured sense of self-esteem.

Values and spirituality differ from individual to individual. For some, values are rooted in their religion (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.). But religion is not the sole form of spirituality. Prayer and are great, yet practicing environmentalism, humanism, or volunteering for social justice issues are also means of increasing spirituality for success.   

Keys To Success: Creativity

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Creativity is characterized as the ability to think abstractly, discover possibilities, produce innovative ideas, and then apply those ideas to real-world situations. Creativity sets people apart and makes them unique. It is beneficial for success because it adds to the available resources we need to reach our goals. While art and creative writing are obvious examples of creativity, the result of creativity is not always tangible. Successful creativity is:

  • Organization—Clearly state your goals and your plan of action to reach your goals.
  • Communication—You will notice success requires effective communication skills in both writing and in speaking orally. Communication also includes knowing which questions to ask regarding your goals and to whom.
  • Open-mindedness—The willingness to consider unconventional concepts or produce ideas others have not thought of is a key to success.
  • Physical activity—Exercise is a mode of expression. The endorphins released during exercise have a positive effect on the brain, which increases the use of complex thinking skills.
  • Mathematics—Connecting math for real-life situations is creatively thinking about numbers.

Keys To Success: Build Strong Relationships

Humans are social creatures. Although we may be content being alone for brief periods, friendships and interactions with others have many benefits to success. Firstly, relationships promote feelings of happiness. When we are happy, we are motivated to be productive.

Next, healthy relationships offer you the increased freedom to focus on your goals. You are less likely to have disputes with the people surrounding you (i.e. coworkers, classmates, etc.) if you have strong relationships. The attributes of a strong relationship include trust, respect, communication, integrity, and openness.

Further, nobody can be successful alone. Those people are available to help you reach your goals. Relationships offer a surplus of resources you would not have connections to otherwise.

Keys To Success: Use Effective Communication

Communication is how we exchange information between groups of people. Whether at work, school or in your personal life, effective communication is a key to success. Communicate may take the form of speaking orally, a written language like in a letter or email, and through bodily gestures. Communicating incorrectly leads to misunderstandings and controversy. While communicating for success, be specific about your goal. Say exactly what you mean. Ensure the information you are delivering is accurate and concise. To practice effective communication:

  • Listen—Engage in active listening. Truly hear the other person out before responding with your perspective. Do not interrupt them in the middle of their conversation.
  • Be constructive—Constructive feedback gives each party a central point to focus on, whereas destructive comments create tension and defensiveness.
  • Control your emotions—Communicating in an emotional state is not advised. If angry or upset, you are more likely to say something you regret or give inaccurate information without thinking thoroughly about your decisions.
  • Speak with purpose—Know what you are going to say and why. You cannot achieve your overall goal without a purpose.

Keys To Success: Establish A Healthy Routine

Routines are often viewed as boring or monotonous. However, when it comes to success, a healthy routine is anything but! Adopt a routine that incorporates all of the keys to success into your day. For example, setting aside twenty minutes to free-write daily fosters creativity and encourages a routine for success.

Ideas for a healthy routine include abiding by a sleep schedule, consuming healthy foods, exercising daily, and meditation. Eventually, these actions form consistent habits to more efficiently track your progress.

Keys To Success: Learn

Knowledge is power. The more you learn, the more successful you potentially become. Learning combines all of the keys to the success mentioned above. It gives you the skills to adapt to unexpected obstacles interfering with your end goal. The learning process initiates new ideas, and in turn, alters your perspective. Almost anything can be a potential learning experience. Yes, what you read in books imparts knowledge, but discovering information via technology, directly applying experiences from past situations, and observing others are additional opportunities for learning.

References

Peters, E., Tompkins, M., Knoll, M.A.Z., Ardoin, S.P. (2019). Despite high objective numeracy, lower numeric confidence relates to worse financial and medical outcomes. PNAS, 116(39), 19386-1939. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1903126116

Wood, J.L., & Hilton, A.A. (2012). Spirituality and Academic Success: Perceptions of African American Males in the Community College. Religion and Education, 39(1):28-47. DOI: 10.1080/15507394.2012.648576

Consciousness: Find out about a variety of mental states

Consciousness is a highly contested subject within a variety of different fields, so it’s no surprise that there are multiple accepted definitions. Some consider consciousness as one simply being awake and aware of their surroundings, while others consider it an individualized awareness of one’s own, unique mind. Depending on the context it’s being used in, it can range from being limited to internal volition and introspection, to including all types of experiences and perceptions. It’s also hard to separate consciousness into respective types or forms, because consciousness is used in describing such a large variety of mental states, and the interdisciplinary debate has yet to reach any conclusion.

In psychology, Sigmund Freud is regarded highly in academia for his base theory of divided human consciousness, where it separates into three levels of awareness: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.

  • The conscious level consists of what we are aware of, our internal understanding of ourselves and our external understanding of our surroundings.
  • The preconscious consists of things that are below of threshold of immediate conscious awareness but are able to focus in on at our own will.
  • The unconscious consists of things that are outside of all conscious awareness and are unable to be achieved. The unconscious is typically concerned with memories, thoughts, and urges that we repress, but still influence our behavior outside of our own understanding. The preconscious is considered unconscious when it is not being recalled, but it differs with the unconscious because it can be easily retrieved and understood. 

Altered States of Consciousness 

Now more than ever, mindfulness practices are becoming staples in peoples’ wellness routines. Mindfulness as a concept is rooted in Buddhist meditative practices and includes maintaining full awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings with full acceptance. The goal is to be fully immersed in the present moment and separated from thoughts related to the past or the future. In addition to its use in meditation, mindfulness is often used therapeutically, in order to confront latent emotions without judging oneself for them. Mindfulness is often achieved through practice in relaxed environments, breathing techniques, and sensory exercises. 

Metacognition, also known as “cognition about cognition”, “thinking about thinking”, or “awareness of one’s awareness” is known as a higher-order cognitive function. Metacognitive behaviors are used most commonly by those in school and higher academia as a tool to revise and understand their own learning behaviors. It is divided into two types: metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation. Metacognitive knowledge includes what learners know about their own preferred styles of learning, methods available for said learning, and the subjective ability to determine how best to approach a task. Metacognitive regulation involves planning, monitoring, evaluating, and reflecting upon a certain task. Those utilizing metacognitive regulation are able to recognize the task at hand, how it should be deliberately approached, and whether or not changes need to be made to optimize learning efficiency.

Many people report achieving spiritual awakenings or enlightenment, whether by religious practices, such as meditation and/or prayer, drug use, such as high doses of a psychoactive substance, or peak life experiences, such as a close brush with death or a thrilling rock climb. This is typically described as opening up one’s conscious awareness beyond the confines of their subjective reality, or their ego, and becoming aware of a higher sense of self. Humans are always driven by some sort of egoistic desire, whether it be hunger, thirst, success, self-confidence, etc… The mark of this higher state of being is that one is no longer driven by these basic human instincts but are instead able to simply exist. 

Freud, in conjunction with his consciousness studies, posits that the human psyche is divided into three essential components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is primitive and instinctive and includes biological aspects, like libido and the need to eat, and is selfish and irrational in fulfilling their needs. Babies are said to be born with only their id, and the ego and superego are said to develop later on. The ego is developed to mediate the irrational requests of the id and reality.

The ego is rational, working out the objectively reasonable and unselfish way, willing to compromise to avoid societal consequences; however, is still concerned with pleasure-seeking. The superego incorporates values learned directly from one’s parents of society. Instead of simply realistic, the superego strives to become moralistic in goal setting. The superego exists between two stages: conscience and ideal self. The conscience encourages us, through guilt and other methods, to achieve our ideal self, or the version of self that meets our ultimate goal. When the ego dissipates, there is no concern outside of being, and letting the rest work itself out. 

Deep and dreamless sleep is considered an unconscious state, but the dream world opens an entirely new conscious reality, separate from any kind of wakeful consciousness. For the most part, we cannot control our dreams, but we are not entirely passive within them; we are most often the main actors. The idea of dreams contributes new evidence to resolve the mind-body problem since the brain initiates consciousness in the absence of any other external stimuli. Scientists are still looking to fully answer the question of how and why the brain creates dreams, aside from its strong association with REM sleep and contributions from the audiovisual region within the junction between the parietal and occipital lobe. 

We do know that there a variety of different dream states, however. Lucid dreaming, for example, is where one can control their dreams and have a conscious awareness that they are, in fact, in a dream. Essentially, the mind is awake when the body is asleep while in REM sleep, and while it can be accidental, it is oftentimes purposefully induced to meditate or practice mindfulness. An extension of this is a phenomenon called astral projection, an esoteric, intentional out-of-body experiences wherein users claim their consciousness is separated from their physical body and capable of traveling on its own. However, there are minimal scientific studies that prove the existence of astral projection as an objective experience, out of body, consciousness separating experiences are known to be induced by dissociative and psychoactive drugs, deliberate spiritual practice and suspension of belief, sensory deprivation, and more.

Disordered States of Consciousness 

Following severe brain injuries, such as those following a vegetative state or coma, it is common for people in healing to have a slow recovery of consciousness, and this period is known as being in a minimally conscious state. They are inconsistent in their abilities to be self-aware and aware of the world around them. It is common for these people to falter when trying to follow simple instructions, can only sometimes speak in a manner that is understandable, and change in their ability to focus on a specific thing for a sustained period of time. Since these actions are so inconsistent, it can be hard to distinguish a minimally conscious person from a vegetative person.

The main difference is that the vegetative person has no level of conscious awareness, while the minimally conscious person can fluctuate between not having conscious awareness and having some level. Further along in the recovery process than a minimally conscious person, is a person in a confusional state. They are much more adept in paying attention, recalling memories, and following instructions. However, it is common for them to regularly become disoriented, hallucinate or become delusional, and experience severely impaired responsiveness and cognition. From this state, it is extremely likely that the person will make a full recovery and one day achieve normal levels of consciousness.

Dissociative disorders are the involuntary disconnection between one’s identity, memory, and consciousness. There are multiple different types of dissociative disorders, most commonly considered as dissociative identity disorder (DID), depersonalization and derealization, and dissociative amnesia and/or dissociative fugue. DID is characterized by a person that has a lack of connection between their consciousness and true identity, which often results as the person appearing as though they take on different personalities. It is most likely caused by severe, repetitive physical, sexual, or emotional trauma in early childhood. In rare cases, certain dissociated states can be concurrently conscious and understand themselves as distinct identity. Some philosophers theorize that evidence of operationally different, yet concurrent consciousness experiences in the brain, suggests a universal consciousness that gives rise to these dissociated personalities. However, it is most common for the alternate states to exist entirely separated from the primary consciousness that exists in accord with the body. 

Depersonalization disorder is characterized by periods of feeling disconnected from or foreign to one’s body or thoughts. It is frequently described as feeling like you are an outside observer to your own body, and the distorted consciousness state is often referred to as being dreamlike. Derealization is a feeling that one’s perception of reality is false, and a fear that their external reality is fabricated by their own mind.  Derealization is similar to depersonalization in that there is a detached consciousness, but in derealization, the idea is that one’s bodily-influenced consciousness is deceiving them, and depersonalization is more thought of like the disconnect of one’s body and mind. Both depersonalization and derealization are often brought on by heavy substance abuse, more severe personality disorders, seizure disorders, and trauma.

Dissociative amnesia results in an inability to recall important information. It is different from basic memory loss, since it includes gaps in memory for extended periods of time and often erase memories associated with the traumatic event, and it is not typical amnesia, since it does not result from any physical brain injury or disease, but rather, the result of a deeply repressed traumatic event. Dissociative fugue is extreme dissociative amnesia, where a person completely loses their sense of identity and all past memories. These people may wander aimlessly away from their homes, or even take on a new identity, with no recollection of their previous one. This, like many other dissociative disorders, is linked to severe stress and/or prolonged trauma. 

Theories & Research

The Ancient Mayans are credited as being some of the first groups to formulate some form of hierarchical consciousness structure. Understanding consciousness incorporates both internal and external stimuli, they regarded it as the most basic form of existence. In the 17th century, John Locke was one of the first philosophers to begin to ponder the mystifying world of consciousness. He was the first to say that our identity is tied to our consciousness, but it is not tied to our physical bodies and can sustain once the physical body dies. Rene Descartes, another 17th-century philosopher, hypothesized Cartesian dualism, or the idea that the mind and body exist in different domains. 

Modern-day psychologists have evolved a lot, but not without expounding upon, as well as criticizing these past theories. Development psychologists see consciousness as exactly that: a developmental process with the potential for reaching higher levels. Social psychologists view consciousness as a product cultural influence, and not something that is necessarily intrinsic to an individual. 

Neuropsychologists see consciousness as being highly ingrained in our neural pathways and structures. They believe there is a correlation to be found through subjective experiences as reported by an individual, and brain activity. There is not a definitive neural correlates for consciousness states, but rather, it is possible that all subjective and perpetually changing states of consciousness have specific neural correlates. While this may seem impossible to derive useful data from, neuropsychologists believe that inducing activity in particular regions and/or networks will allow them to find common causes among these different correlates. Neurobiology takes a different approach, evaluating the body in greater detail than the mind, considering neural results of consciousness as the cause of certain bodily responses, where consciousness is regarded as a state-dependent portion of a different biological system. 

Brain imaging has also been a recent tool in consciousness studies. Researchers believe that different patterns in brain waves, recorded by an electroencephalograph (EEG) could indicate the production of different states of consciousness. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI scans) are also commonly used to measure physical activity in the brain, and how this activity may correlate with various consciousness states.

Additionally, there are multiple areas of the brain implicated in consciousness, the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe being the primary candidates for more in-depth study. The prefrontal cortex is considered pertinent in triggering visual awareness throughout other areas of the brain, and the temporal lobe is essential in auditory processing, object and facial recognition, and the ability to utilize language. Damage to the prefrontal cortex can lessen one’s capacity of compassion, guilt, and other social emotions, which is a massive component of consciousness. Damage to the temporal lobe can result is a disturbance in auditory, visual, and language perception, comprehension, and output, as well as a disturbance in selective attention abilities.

Cognitive tests & brain training

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