Tag Archives: brain areas

Daydreaming: what is it, why do we do it, can it be dangerous?

You are now entering Lala land (no, not the one with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, unfortunately) but a land where it’s all about you. We have all had those moment sitting in class, at work and all of a sudden 10 minutes have gone by and you have no idea what actually happened. Your mind has taken over and you were in a haze or maybe even a daydream. Where did your mind go in those 10 minutes? Did you see yourself in a perfect fantasy? What is Daydreaming? Does it happen to everyone? Daydreaming is a part of everyday life! 

daydreaming

What is a daydream?

A daydream is when your mind wanders and your attention shifts from the task at hand whether it be physical or mental, to a place that is entirely your own. Daydreams consist of little videos of yourself in past, future and present events. What you wanted to happen, replaying certain events over and over again, daydream about future events where you see yourself in 10 years and even daydreaming about what you will be doing later tonight. It has been noted that about 30 to 47% of our conscious day is spent spacing out, drifting and daydreaming.

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Men who daydream frequently and women who daydream vividly tend to be less satisfied in their life. But if you daydream about family and friends, people report higher levels of satisfaction in their daily lives. It has been found that there are two types of daydreams: positive-construction daydreams and dysphoric daydreams.

  • Positive-constructive daydreams are usually upbeat and include imaginative thoughts.
  • Dysphoric daydreams include visions of failure and punishment.

These two common themes of the conquering hero and the suffering martyr are experienced differently by men and women. Men are usually daydreaming about the playing the conquering hero while women are daydreaming about being the suffering martyr.  It is human nature for us to daydream more when we are stressed, bored, tired, or in a hectic environment. But on the other hand, the only time where we do not day dream is during sex. All of our attention and focus is at that moment, however, this does not mean you cannot fantasize which is different from daydreaming.

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” -Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Why do we daydream?

Daydreams allow your mind to run freely and even increases productivity in some cases. Remember in class there was that one kid who was doodling or staring out the window and the teacher would usually yell at them for not paying attention? Well, it turns out, these kids might have had the right idea. Daydreaming enhances creativity which is why you have an ah-ha moment and sudden insight about a situation. Daydreaming allows your to uncover thoughts and ideas you did not realize you even had and looks underneath the surface thoughts. Your mind in a way becomes unhinged is allowed to roam freely.

Daydreaming is a great exercise because it gives you an outlet to imagine scenarios without risk or any real consequences. When you daydream, you can make new associations and connections from your conscious mind to unconscious thoughts which can help you in a situation that you have been thinking about for a while. When you daydream you escape your reality even if only for a short amount of time. Daydreaming is an essential cognitive tool to help us explore our inner experiences.

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Much like nighttime dreaming, daydreaming can also help the brain consolidate learning. Daydreaming may also help people to sort through problems and achieve success. Researchers found that different brain areas are activated when daydreaming that are compatible with those associated with problem-solving.

Daydreaming Purpose

Daydreaming has been shown that it can serve an evolutionary purpose. The more we replay an event and think about the variables that can affect an event, the more practice and more comfortable we get with the idea of something similar. Daydreaming can be a soothing method to get someone more comfortable with somethingFor example, in Grey’s Anatomy episode, “Magic Moment” the team of doctors practices a very important surgery. This is similar to what happens when we daydream. It is one big dress rehearsal for the real show, your life.

Daydreaming- Grey’s Anatomy

Daydreaming also assists us in making moral decisions. It also gives us an outlet to plan as well as problem-solving in a safe space. A possible explanation as to why we daydream is that we are trying to understand others’ thoughts. We do not know what others are thinking but we can daydream about what we think they are thinking or even about how we want them to this.

The neurological systems behind daydreaming

When you daydream your brain is actually using a different network called the default network. This network includes areas of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex which helps to imagine ourselves and the thoughts and feelings of others, the posterior cingulate cortex which shows personal memories from the brain, and the parietal cortex which has connections to the hippocampus that stores episodic memories

The default network is only activated when people switch their conscious mind from an attention-demanding task to wandering or daydreaming. For this reason, this network is considered our default setting, when our brain is not paying attention to the present, it reverts to this setting. This network allows our daydreaming to be an autobiographical mental imagery by generating our own sense of self. The default network is extremely active when we do not notice we have lost focus and our mind wanders on its own. A product from the default system is something called stimulus independent thought. These are thoughts about things other than events that originate from the outside environment, aka they make up the things we daydream about.

Daydreams are all about you

“I try to maintain a healthy dose of daydreaming to remain sane.”-Florence Welch

You might have mundane daydreams but you are also more than capable of having extravagant fantasies as well. What all daydreams have in common, is that they are always all about you! You tend to daydream in your own little world and you are the main focus. We imagine who we think we are, who we want to be, and how we believe others perceive us. Our daydreams confirm what we already know about situations by presenting information in a new or different way. Daydreams allow us to have a self-to-self channel of communication. In our daydreams, we are the center of the universe because it is our world at that moment in time. In our daydreams, we are the center of the universe because it is our world at that moment in time.

Can daydreaming be dangerous?

If you daydream too much, it can become addictive. When we think about the best versions of ourselves and imagining a perfect world or perfect outcome to a situation it can become dangerous. Ruminate daydreaming are daydreams where you are rehashing and analyzing the past as well as worrying about what can do wrong in the future. This can lead you down a dangerous path. Once people are aware that they are doing this, it is rather difficult for them to turn it off. It can also lead to concentration problems and procrastination. Learn more about overcoming procrastination

Daydreaming can be used as a way to escape from stress and pressures that are going on in our reality and they become a way for us to retreat from reality. We can rather daydream about a more idealized situation. For example, many people in prison can spend much of their days daydreaming about what life would be like if they were out. This can become dangerous because people will use daydreams to avoid the reality of situations rather than dealing with them. The best way to try to break this daydream cycle is to have positive distractions such as social gatherings, exercising and being aware and mindful when you start to daydream too much.

Daydreaming effectively- Tips

The best time for the mind to daydream is when you are engaging in a mildly challenging task. This seems to allow people to access ideas that are usually not readily available on the conscious level. Daydreaming provides a place for the mind to wander off to which can then give insight into the conscious mind. If you daydream about people you know, such as family or friends, they can make you happier.

There are some times when you need to focus at the task at hand. The professor is talking about what will be on the exam next week is maybe not the best time for you to zone out and daydream. Do your best to tune out default network when situations like this occur.

Daydream positively: You are the maker of your daydreams and if you do not like what you are daydreaming about, change it, you have the power to do that!

You can actually help your improve your memory by daydreaming about events as long as they are relatively close to reality. This can actually help enhance your memories of the experience and therefore you will have a better chance of remembering them in the future.

Finally, daydream when you can, it allows you to be more creative. Even though there is a moment in time where you want to be paying attention, everyone needs a break and it is important to allow your mind to daydream.

Hope you enjoyed this article and that you continue to daydream!

References

Dell’Amore, Christine. “Five Surprising Facts About Daydreaming.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 14 June 2017. Web. 20 June 2017.

Jones, Lawrence. “What is a Daydream in Psychology? -Definition & Disorder.” Study.com. Study.com, n.d. Web. 20 June 2017.

Lehrer, Jonah. “The Virtues of Daydreaming.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19 June 2017. Web. 21 June 2017.

Nissan, Colin. “The Science of Daydreams.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19 June 2017. Web. 20 June 2017.

“What your daydreams reveal about you.” Psychologies. N.p., 03 Mar. 2010. Web. 21 June 2017.

Whitbourne, Susan Krauss. “Why and How You Daydream.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 June 2017.

Brain seizures: When The Brain Has Too Much Energy

Brain seizures: Some of us have to deal with them every single day, whilst others can be witnesses of someone having a  brain seizure. Most commonly, people having to experience someone suffering from a brain seizure are overwhelmed when their loved ones jerk uncontrollably and subsequently lose consciousness. Not only are the witnesses clueless about which steps to take, but also the patients if his/her seizure occurs for the first time. This article will give you a guide on what brain seizures are, their symptoms, treatments and what steps to take in order to increase the quality of life of the patient. 

What are brain seizures?

What are brain seizures?

Brain seizures are changes in the brain’s electrical activity. This change can cause dramatic, noticeable symptoms or it may not cause any symptoms. Patients that experience brain seizures possess abnormal neural activity which is uncontrolled and happens spontaneously.

The brain function, however, is often not abnormal. The involuntary change in neural activity is considered epilepsy, in which the brain seizures are the symptoms. Though, brain seizures can also be induced in a normal brain under a variety of conditions different species, from humans to flies. Brain function is not abnormal but cognitive aspects might be threatened by many brain seizures.

Brain Seizures Types

Generally, we differentiate between three different types of seizures. Usually, they are dependent on the number of brain cells showing abnormal activity. This is crucial in order to select a suitable treatment for the patient, as different medications have to be used for each seizure type.

  1. Generalized onset brain seizures: In this case, there is no identifiable onset meaning a starting point in the brain cannot be determined. The seizure starts and spreads too quickly making a reliable decision about the trigger impossible. For this reason, treatment using surgery to suppress the symptoms is not available.
  2. Focal onset brain seizures: Whereas in generalized onset seizures the location is not known, in this type of brain seizure, doctors are able to determine the starting point of the seizures. Focal brain seizures can start in one area of the brain or in a specific group of cells either in the left or right hemisphere. Furthermore, patients can have full or impaired awareness during their fit.
  3. Unknown onset brain seizures: If the nature of the seizure cannot be determined, they belong to this group. This is mostly at the beginning or if the patient lives alone without witnesses observing the person with the seizure. As more information is obtained, the seizure is later classified as generalized onset brain seizure or focal onset brain seizure.

How is a brain seizure caused?

Aspects of the brain affected by different brain seizure

The emergence of a brain seizure can be down to several reasons, but determining the exact cause has proven to be challenging. At least half of all patients display idiopathic seizures meaning the cause is unknown. Nevertheless, depending on the age of the patient, determining the trigger of a brain seizure can be narrowed down.

Generally, genetics plays a large role whether someone will experience a seizure in their lives or not. Pinpointing the specific genes which are responsible for the symptoms though is a struggle. This diagnosis is mostly very vague as the relationship between the genes in the brain and the nature of seizures is poorly understood.

What is known on the other hand is a prevalence of about 3 out of 10 patients having a change in brain structure which leads to some sort of brain seizure. Mostly this is the case for children born with alterations in brain regions.  For the elderly, incidence such as a stroke is usually the cause of developing recurrent seizures.

When suffering from epilepsy, an imbalance in the brain’s chemistry is frequently observed. This refers to the neurotransmitters being present in the wrong concentrations (too little or too much in the brain). In general, everybody has got two kinds of neurotransmitters with opposing functions: Neurotransmitter of excitatory and inhibitory qualities, with the former increasing the firing rate and the latter reducing the activity of the neurons. The balance of both kinds has to be maintained and if not given, can result in hyperactivity of the neurons causing epilepsy.

The best-studied neurotransmitter is GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, which possesses inhibitory qualities counterbalancing neuronal excitation. GABA’s counterpart glutamate, the principal excitatory neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in the initiation and spread of brain seizures. This was demonstrated by During and Spencer in 1993 when they tested the concentration of these two neurotransmitters in the hippocampus before and during a seizure. Before seizures, the glutamate concentration in this brain area was found to be higher than in the control group, whereas the concentration of GABA was observed to be lower. During the seizure, GABA concentrations increased in both groups, however in the control group a greater increase was found. Consequently, drugs to treat epilepsy revolve around these two neurotransmitters, by either reducing the concentration of glutamate or by increasing GABA content in the synapses in order to reduce hyperactivity of the neurons.

Brain Seizures Symptoms

Clinicians group the symptoms into two categories, generalized and partial or focal seizures, in order to find out if a patient suffers from epilepsy.
The different types are:

Generalized brain seizures (produced by the whole brain)

  • “Grand Mal”: The most known form where the patient loses consciousness and collapses. The body stiffens and violent jerking begins usually lasting for about 30-60 seconds. Afterwards, the patient goes into deep sleep.
  • Absence: Individuals experiencing an absence seizure stare into space for a few seconds. They are most common in children and a brief loss of consciousness is reported.
  • Myoclonic: These seizures are brief, shock-like jerks or twitches of a muscle or a whole muscle group. This usually does not last for a long time (only about 1-2 seconds) and the person experiencing it retains full consciousness.
  • Clonic: This type of seizures is very similar to the myoclonic seizure with the difference of a more regular and sustained jerking.
  • Tonic: The muscle tone, the muscle’s normal tension at rest, is highly increased leading to tense feelings in arms, legs or body in general. Awareness usually does not change much and the symptoms subside within 20 seconds.
  • Atonic: Atonic seizures are substantially the opposite of tonic seizures. Instead of the muscles becoming stiff, a person experiencing an atonic seizure will feel their muscles going limp. For instance, a person standing might fall to the ground when suffering an atonic seizure. As tonic seizures, they do not last for a long time either.

Partial or Focal brain seizures

Focal brain seizures are known to originate from a specific brain region causing a variety of symptoms depending on the brain area affected. Generally, doctors differentiate between seizures causing a (partial) loss of consciousness and the ones where consciousness is preserved.

Symptoms of focal seizures with impaired awareness (once called complex partial seizures) could be the following:

  • Staring into space
  • Response to the environment is abnormal or impaired
  • Execution of repetitive movements (hand rubbing, chewing, walking in circles, etc…)

Symptoms of focal seizures without loss of consciousness (once called simple partial seizures):

  • Change of emotions
  • Difference in perception
  • Involuntary jerking of a body part
  • Sensory symptoms (eg. tingling, dizziness and flashing lights)

Note: If an individual experiences seizures repeatedly (once a week or even once every single day), their symptoms will most likely remain similar.

Brain seizures: Diagnosis and what to expect when visiting a doctor?

If a person suffers from a brain seizure (or thinks they have suffered one), the first stop will be consulting your general practitioner. Make an appointment and if the seizure was witnessed by someone, ask this person to join.

Depending on the type of seizure, most likely you were unconscious which makes it difficult for you to describe what happened. However, the doctor will ask you a series of questions, also called the medical interview, in which he will ask you about your general health and incidences before, during and after the seizure. Especially for the medical interview, it is advisable to have someone near you answer questions which you might not be able to answer.

The doctor will most likely be able to diagnose a brain seizure based on the answers of the patient. However, to obtain a clearer idea of the clinical picture of the patient, more tests will be necessary.

The primary physician will ask a neurologist to take a look at the inside of the individual’s brain. Every single brain is different and finding the most suitable treatment for a patient is far from straightforward. The following tests are used when attempting to diagnose brain seizures in detail:

  • Blood tests: The most common blood test is the CBC (Complete Blood count) in which the doctor determines important parameters in your blood, e.g the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, etc. Therefore a blood test serves to determine the appropriate medication for infections, allergies, and other abnormalities are revealed.
  • Metabolic tests: This test assesses the functioning of your organs, more specifically your body’s ability to metabolize. The evaluation is also done via a blood sample and includes an assessment of the content of important molecules in your blood. The sodium, potassium and blood sugar levels are evaluated. Not only will this help determine an electrolyte imbalance, but also reveal any malfunction of the kidney or the liver. The importance of looking at these organs is to find out whether a disease could trigger the brain seizures, which was found to be the case for instance in patients with diabetes. In this case, doctors focus on treating the symptoms of the illness causing the brain seizures (in this case diabetes) rather prescribing drugs targeting the brain seizures directly.
  • An EEG (electroencephalography) test: The term might sound familiar to most of us, but what is this exactly and how can it help doctors make a more accurate diagnosis? An EEG can reveal the electrical activity of the brain and in which regions abnormal/normal activity is present. The specialists can make conclusions if the brain seizures come from a single area or are more widespread looking at the EEG pattern.
  • CT and MRI scan: Computer Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) are two techniques that will look into your brain. The aim here is to find physical abnormalities that cause the seizures. Although for a lot of people suffering from brain seizures the test results will be negative, it is still an important procedure. In cases where brain seizures are very frequent and strong, determining the exact cause is crucial since the possibility to undergo surgery could be an adequate treatment option.

What to do and not to do when faced with a brain seizure?

If we see our loved-ones suffering from a seizure, it would be normal to be frightened and expect the worst. However, most brain seizures are not dangerous and the person regains his/her normal state within a few minutes without permanent damage. Fact is: Once a seizure is going, you cannot simply force the person to stop jerking, however, you can protect the person inflicting damage to his own body.

The DO’S!

  • Make sure other people are not standing too close to the person having a seizure
  • Remove sharp or hard objects from the surroundings
  • Do not stop the movements of your friend
  • Take a look at his/her watch to record the seizure duration
  • To keep the airway clear, put the person on his/her side
  • And most importantly: Keep calm!

The DONT’S!

  • Do not restrain the person as you might injure him or get injured yourself
  • No offering of food or drinks to the sufferer: A sip of water might be a trigger for choking
  • Do not insert anything into his/her mouth! They will not swallow their tongue
  • No CPR (unless the patient is not breathing after the seizure)

Tips to reduce brain seizures

Since the underlying trigger for a brain seizure is often unknown, it is crucial to reduce the odds of a brain seizure to a minimum. Take the following provisions:

  • Reduce stress by getting enough sleep (it is best to adhere to a regular sleeping schedule)
  • Physical activity or yoga may help feeling more relaxed, as well as deep breathing
  • Limit noise sources and make sure the room is well illuminated when watching TV or when playing video games
  • When going for a run you should do it in the park, rather than in high-traffic areas or unpaved trails
  • But most importantly: Stick to your medication your doctor prescribed you unless he/she tells you otherwise!

Have you witnessed a brain seizure or are you suffering from this condition? Please feel free to comment below.

Non-Native Accent in the Job: The Problems

In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, a mix of different cultures becomes more prevalent in our job and also our private life. For this reason, being exposed to peers speaking in a non-native accent has become very natural. Especially prominent are non-native accents in English, as this is considered the universal language of communication nowadays. With the trend of the world becoming a smaller and smaller place, so increases the number of people speaking with a non-native accent. Foreign languages and accents gain more importance especially in the job sector which we generally consider a positive development. However, evaluating the psychological burdens of placing a non-native speaker in an environment of native speakers is a necessity. Especially large are the problems of discrimination. Although the judging of people based on physical characteristics has decreased, foreign accents are still used as a way to discriminate certain cultures.

 What is a non-native accent?

A non-native accent is described to have a different pronunciation of vowels and consonants, and a difference in stress and tone is seen when compared to a native accent. The speaker with the non-native accent often applies some of the rules and sounds of his native language. If a sound in the second language is not present in the speaker’s native language, that phoneme will be substituted by the most similar phoneme in the native language causing it to sound different in the second language. Though individuals with a foreign accent are very proficient in that language, the accent is what remains and is not easily lost after a developmental window has closed. Until puberty, an individual is able to learn a foreign language and at the same time acquire the native accent. However, for any language that is acquired later in life, the non-native accent is almost impossible to get rid of. Nevertheless, the ease of obtaining a native accent in a foreign language also depends on the years the person has lived in the foreign country and how similar the phonemes are to the native language.

Typically, native speakers find it fairly easy to spot a person talking in a non-native accent and to them, it is perceived as foreign or even “wrong”.  According to United Nations reports, today more than 232 million people live in a country different from the country they were born in.

Brain areas involved when speaking in a non-native accent

Learning a new language is highly recommended for anyone. According to a Swedish study, a brain scan of adults learning a foreign language and therefore speaking in a non-native accent revealed increases of gray matter in language-related brain regions. Depending on how well they performed in learning the foreign language and their efforts they put in, their brain areas developed differently. The most profound observation was the growth of the hippocampus and three other brain areas to be associated with better language learning. Even though this study only took into account short-term changes, there is no doubt a more developed brain through learning languages will be beneficial for older ages. One of the benefits, for instance, is the later onset of Alzheimer’s in multilingual compared to monolinguals.

A different study looked at brain activity when native English or native Japanese were asked to identify between the English /r/ and /l/. From experience, we know native Japanese speakers to have trouble differentiating between these two particular English phonemes. Also in the study, the Japanese speakers had problems differentiating and producing the two phonemes. The reason for this was found to be a difference in activity of specific brain regions when comparing the two groups. These areas are responsible for the perception of speech.

Non-native accent: The problems of discrimination in the job

With an influx of immigrants, the selection of foreign potential employees of a company becomes bigger as well. Discrimination of minorities is unfortunately still commonplace. A correlation between physical appearance and employability is often observed. However, we should not only look at visual markers but also direct our attention to the several non-native accents of the immigrants when they learn a foreign language. In short, the question is whether discrimination only happens on the physical level or if we are prone to judging people depending on their non-native accents.

A study has looked at this question and conducted an experiment with five groups (Mexican speakers, Indian speakers, Chinese speakers, American speakers and British speakers), each speaking in a particular non-native English accent. They were asked to attend a job interview over the phone. Each group prepared a short sentence containing identical words they had to recite. Obviously, the pronunciation of the individual words due to their accent differed depending on the group. Managers were then asked to listen to each sentence and subsequently evaluate how probable it would be for them to hire each employee based on the sentence they were hearing. Most surprisingly, even the sentence was only different in pronunciation and not content, a speaker with a non-native accent was less likely to be hired than a speaker with a native accent (which was, in this case, an American accent). Nevertheless, one observation was striking: The British speaker group was more likely to be selected by the managers when compared to the native group.
This shows a tendency to discriminate employees whose country is not as highly developed as America. If a person emigrates from a country that enjoys a similar economic status, that same person is not discriminated, in this case, the British group.

In another paper, we see a preference to cooperate with peers speaking the same accent rather than a person talking in a non-native accent.
The results of both studies suggest not only discrimination to happen on a physical level, but also in language. It is a problem which should definitely be considered and tackled as the job recruitment process should not take into account non-native accents if the applicant is able to communicate as well as his native peers. Often, however, the decision to reject a speaker with a non-native accent is made subconsciously with the employer being unaware why the applicant with the foreign accent did not happen to fit into the profile.

Why are non-native accents difficult for our brain?

One possible reason employers might discriminate non-native accent employees has to do with the credibility of the speaker. The manager perceives the employee with the foreign accent to be less credible as he is speaking. This is explained by cognitive fluency referring to the ease with which the brain processes stimuli. If a foreign accent is heard, cognitive fluency is reduced resulting in a more difficult processing of the person receiving the message from the speaker. We see a similar phenomenon in the stock market. Psychologists have shown shares with an easy-to-pronounce name to outperform shares with a hard-to-pronounce name. Similarly, if factual statements are manipulated to be processed easier (writing it in an easier-to-read font), the receivers’ judgment of the statement changes. Cognitive fluency, therefore, plays a crucial role in decision-making suggesting that the employer selecting a native speaker in favor of a non-native speaker cannot really be blamed for his decision.

Ways to reduce prejudices against non-native accent speakers

We might be aware of racial segregation considering physical appearance or religion of an individual. However, it is of paramount importance to add foreign accents to the list of factors contributing to racism. Experiencing racism using non-native accents compared to physique or race is however much more subtle. Judging foreign accents is very subjective (one person considers a foreign accent as very pronounced whereas another person might experience the same person to have only a marginal non-native accent). As a consequence, in real life situations as in the job sector, it becomes challenging to know whether a person’s foreign accent indeed contributed to discrimination. Nevertheless, as the studies have shown, a non-native accent leads to changes how an employer might think about a foreign applicant. As the prevalence of non-native accents is going to increase, we need to be aware of this problem and at best develop strategies to view everyone equally based on their accent. Here are a few things you can do when communicating with a person who is difficult to understand because of his or her non-native accent:

  • Do not pretend to understand the foreign speaker. Instead, ask the person to slow down his speech if you have difficulty catching his or her words.
  • At the same time, you should speak slowly too. This benefits the receiver with the non-native accent to pick up the sounds more easily.
  • Don’t raise your voice. You might think you are speaking too quiet, however, it is most likely not a problem of speech volume, but simply that the foreign speaker is not used to the different pronunciation.
  • If the accent of the person is too strong to understand the message, don’t act rude! It might come across impolite to say “Hey, I don’t understand you!” Instead, ask them to repeat the sentence.
  • But most importantly, focus on the content of the message! Do not waste time evaluating how the pronounced words of the non-native speaker sound.

Do you have a non-accent experience you would like to share? Please feel free to comment below!

The comfort zone: What it is and is it beneficial? Tips to break out

The comfort zone. It contributes to making us feel mentally safe in our everyday life. Developing a routine such as arriving to work always at the same time using a fixed mode of transportation or cooking a good meal we have a lot of experience with contribute to reaching a higher productivity in these tasks. However, on the other hand stepping out of this powerful state of comfort has proven to be even more beneficial for the individual. But how can this be when we are constantly told to follow a routine in order to achieve maximum performance? Keep reading to find out.

The comfort zone

What is the comfort zone?

The word “comfort zone” is widely accepted in the English language and appears frequently in everyday life.

It generally describes a “behavioural state within a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk”.

What this suggests is a steady performance if the person does not experience a change in anxiety. If however fluctuations in anxiety and skills are seen, a change in performance, either upwards or downwards, will be observed as a result.
To grow as a person, it is essential to break out of this state of comfort every once in a while by exposing yourself to a change in anxiety. Nevertheless, it is a difficult process stepping out of our comfort zone as at the beginning of this process, the person doing so will experience more anxiety than before.

Why do we feel at ease inside the comfort zone?

A lot of reasons exist why humans are wired to stay within the comfort zone.
Each of us has our own “comfort zone” where we feel at ease. It implies familiarity, safety and security keeping our anxiety and worry at a minimal level. Challenging yourself by stepping outside this zone of comfort would mean increased levels of anxiety and stress triggering a hormonal cascade. Human beings are naturally wired to avoid these changes in anxiety and stress.

Why is it so hard to leave our comfort zone?

  • Stress and Anxiety: Whenever we break out of our comfort zone, a stress response followed by anxiety is triggered. The natural response is to remove the stressor as quickly as possible. The only way to achieve this is mainly returning back to the comfort zone which makes keeping yourself out of your comfort zone extremely challenging.
  • Uncertainty: This will be a natural consequence if someone leaves his or her comfort zone. For the majority, the feeling of uncertainty leads to insecurity and can be perceived as a threat activating a stress response. The more uncertain you are, the higher will be your levels of stress mentally and physiologically.
  • New situations require extra energy: Inside your comfort zone, the person has established a routine allowing him or her to perform the tasks automatically (without a lot of thinking). These processes are run by the basal ganglia (a brain area responsible for executing habit-based behaviour), tasks such as shaving, brushing our teeth or bathing. If we stay within the comfort zone, the associated tasks are run by this area of the brain operating very energy efficient.
    Novel tasks, on the other hand, require the input of the prefrontal cortex (a brain area responsible for logical reasoning) which consumes a lot more energy than the basal ganglia. If the energy is depleted (which happens quickly in the prefrontal cortex), we feel discomfort as the prefrontal cortex is tightly linked to the amygdala (the emotional centre of our brain). According to these points, remaining inside the comfort zone seems highly favourable. It provides a state of mental security leading to regular happiness, low anxiety and reduced stress. However, we are often told to leave this state of comfort. This is achieved by expanding your comfort zone and is highly recommended. In order for this to happen though, we temporarily need to abandon this state of comfort, a task which is not so easily accomplished.

The comfort zone, the optimal performance zone and the danger zone

Before we can talk about leaving the comfort zone, we have to understand the core concepts, mainly the existence of three different zones:

  1. The comfort zone
  2. The optimal performance zone
  3. The danger zone.

We first look at an early experiment conducted with mice in 1907 by Yerkes and Dodson.
The study revealed “anxiety to improve performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.”

This suggests an increase in performance when anxiety levels are higher than normal. However, if the person is too anxious, performance will drop again. This relationship can be applied to the three different zones. We find ourselves in the comfort zone when anxiety levels are minimal. Depending on what extent we leave our comfort zone, anxiety levels can increase sharply or only marginally. In the case of a marginal increase of anxiety levels, the person experiencing it will be in the optimal performance zone. This is a state where increased skills are seen and where the elevated anxiety levels can be kept under control.

A real-life example would be an important job interview. If the person is not required to attend the interview, he or she is in the comfort zone and anxiety levels are minimal. However, as soon as the day of the interview has come, anxiety levels rise. When conversing with the manager, the potential employee is not only able to control his/her anxiety levels, but most of the times even possess increased communicative skill. He is now operating in the optimal performance zone.

But what happens in the event where anxiety levels do not increase only by a little, but significantly? The person would leave his or her comfort zone too but would end up in the danger zone in which performance is worse than in the comfort zone. The level of anxiety would simply be too high. Following the example, imagine the same job interview with a person suffering from autism (a disorder in which the affected person finds any social interactions extremely challenging). For this person, anxiety levels will be much higher when he or she is invited to the interview which leads him to perform worse (he skipped the optimal performance zone completely). For this individual, a task which would not have caused the anxiety to rocket would have been more appropriate in order to shift swiftly from the comfort zone to the optimal performance zone.

But why is it beneficial to leave the comfort zone?

A few benefits have become already visible, mainly the increase in performance and the acquisition of new skills when being pushed away from the comfort zone. However, the list of advantages does not stop there.

  • Increase in productivity: Comfort is a productivity killer. If we do not have the sense of uneasiness to complete a given work before a deadline, we tend to postpone and do the minimum work required. This phenomenon is often seen in students procrastinating. If the deadline for an assignment is far, the work they put in tends to be low. However, as soon as the deadline is approaching, they start to increase their productivity drastically as they are now in the optimal performance zone.
  • Radical changes become easier to handle: Some people always wish to stay within their state of comfort, however leaving the comfort zone sometimes just happens out of the blue and there is nothing you can do about it (change of job, move to a different home, change in a relationship, an illness). A person that has already left the comfort zone once or twice will be more able to handle also those life changes and transitions. It is important to be at peace with the unknown to combat the negative effects that change can bring. Leaving the comfort zone on a regular basis can help with exactly this.
  • Expansion of your boundaries in the future: Leaving the comfort zone creates a feeling of anxiety which has to be coped with. The more times you leave your state of comfort, the better you are able to cope with this increase of anxiety. This allows you to become accustomed to this state of optimal anxiety where you perform at your best. Ultimately you are willing to push yourself more when repeatedly exposed to the unknown.

Tips to break out of your comfort zone

  • Become aware what lies inside and outside of your comfort zone!
    What are the things that you want to accomplish but triggers a feeling of anxiety in you? Identifying these is of utmost importance in order to know how to expand your comfort zone. Draw a circle and write everything down you associate with discomfort outside of the circle. Inside the circle, you write down everything that triggers comfort. This process will allow yourself to identify not only your discomforts but also your comforts.
  • Consider failing as something positive!
    It sounds difficult, but try to see failure as your teacher. What did this negative experience teach you? You can use this knowledge to increase your chance of success for the future.
  • Surround yourself with people taking risks!
    If you are willing to improve your skills to leave the comfort zone, stick to people that do exactly that. The influence of them will certainly have an effect on your behaviour.
  • Honesty with yourself!
    We have all been there. A task that we are afraid of is waiting and we say “I don’t have time for this right now!” Most of the times though, you are lying to yourself. Instead be honest and say “I’m afraid to do this!”. Confronting your fears will increase your chances of moving forward more easily.
  • Take it slow!
    Start by taking small steps when moving out of your comfort zone. Try making a plan of goals you want to achieve. Try to not be overambitious in a short period of time or you risk becoming demotivated. It is essential for you, to return to your comfort zone from time to time as explained in the next paragraph.

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.

Brian Tracy

Why should we return to our comfort zone from time to time?

Though it is important to break out of your comfort zone, it is equally important to also return to this state of comfort from time to time. It is indeed beneficial to leave the comfort zone, but staying outside for too long and you might end up getting your stress and anxiety levels too high. Ultimately, you have to return to the comfort zone to prevent your anxiety levels from taking over and you end up in the danger zone. Once in this zone, your performance drops sharply and leaving the comfort zone for good becomes even more challenging than before. For this reason, allowing yourself some breaks from time to time is essential.

Korsakoff Syndrome: inventing memories to compensate forgetfulness

Korsakoff syndrome is a memory problem that is usually due to alcohol abuse or overly restrictive diets that lead to vitamin deficiency. Find out here what it consists of, what are its main symptoms, causes, treatment and how we prevent it.

Korsakoff Syndrome

What is the Korsakoff Syndrome?

Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder due to severe deficiency of thiamine, or vitamin B1.

Thiamin helps the brain produce energy from sugar. When levels fall drastically brain cells can’t generate enough energy to function properly and as a result, Korsakoff syndrome can develop.

It is believed that this deficiency causes damage to the thalamus and mammillary bodies of the hypothalamus. Mammillary bodies are brain parts or small structures with many connections to the hippocampus (an area closely related to memory). There is also general brain atrophy, loss, and neuronal damage.

Research has shown that this deficiency alters the substances responsible for transmitting signals between brain cells and storing memories. These alterations can destroy neurons and cause bleeding and microscopic scars throughout the brain tissue.

This syndrome is often, but not always, preceded by an episode of Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This consists of an acute reaction of the brain due to a severe lack of thiamine. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a medical emergency that causes severe life-threatening brain disturbance, mental confusion, uncoordinated movement and abnormal and involuntary eye movements. Because Korsakoff syndrome is commonly preceded by an episode of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the chronic disorder is sometimes called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, Korsakoff can develop without a previous episode of this encephalopathy.

Korsakoff Syndrome Symptoms

Korsakoff is characterized by memory problems but retaining consciousness. This may give the impression during conversations that he is in full possession of his faculties.

However, he has severe alterations in recent memory. The person will ask the same questions over and over again, read the same page for hours, and is not able to recognize the people they have seen several times in the course of his illness.

Memory problems can be very severe, both short-term memory and long-term memory with many memory gaps or memory loss, while other skills such as social or thoughts may be relatively intact.

The main symptoms are:

  • Anterograde amnesia: inability to form new memories or learn new information.
  • Retrograde amnesia: severe loss of existing memories, prior to the beginning of the disease.
  • Confabulations: invented memories that are believed by the individual himself as real because of memory gaps.
  • Conversation with low content.
  • Lack of introspection.
  • Apathy.

Individuals with Korsakoff syndrome may show different symptoms. In some cases, a patient may continue to “live in the past”, convinced that his life and the world remain unchanged since the beginning of the disorder.

Others may display a wide variety of confabulations. Retrograde amnesia does not happen to all memories alike but affects more in recent events. The older the memories, the more they remain intact. This may be because recent memories are not fully consolidated in our brains, therefore, being more vulnerable to their loss.

Confabulations in Korsakoff Syndrome

One of the most characteristic symptoms of people with Korsakoff syndrome is the confabulations. They often “collude” or invent information they can’t remember. It is not that they are “lying”, but actually believe their invented explanations. There is still no agreed scientific explanation as to why this happens.

Korsakoff Syndrome-Confabulations

Some people may show constant, even frenetic, conspiracies. They continually invent new identities, with detailed and convincing stories that support them, to replace the reality they have forgotten.

Causes of Korsakoff Syndrome

We know that excessive intake of alcohol can harm our nervous system. In fact, in most cases, Korsakoff’s syndrome is due to alcohol abuse and its consequences on our brain.

Research has identified some genetic variations that may increase the risk of this disorder. In addition, poor nutrition can also be an important factor.

Korsakoff syndrome can also be caused by eating disorders, such as anorexia, overly restrictive diets, starvation, or sudden weight loss after surgery. Also by uncontrolled vomiting, HIV virus, chronic infection or cancer that has spread throughout the body.

Treatment of Korsakoff Syndrome

Intervention for Korsakoff syndrome should be approached from a multidisciplinary point of view, in which doctors, psychologists, and neuropsychologists will work to achieve the best results.

Some experts recommend that people who consume large amounts of alcohol or have other risks of thiamine deficiency, take oral supplements, always under the supervision of a doctor.

It is also recommended that anyone who has had a history of alcohol abuse or symptoms associated with Wernicke’s encephalopathy be injected with thiamine. For people who develop Korsakoff Syndrome, treatment with oral thiamine, other vitamins and magnesium may increase the chances of symptoms improving.

A psychological intervention will revolve around maintaining alcohol abstinence. From the neuropsychological point of view, it will help to compensate for their deficits, so that the patient can integrate socially and lead a life as normal as possible. CogniFit is a tool that trains different cognitive skills affected by Korsakoff Syndrome. 

Prognosis of Korsakoff syndrome

Some data suggest that about 25 percent of people with Korsakoff syndrome recover, half improve but don’t fully recover, and another 25 percent remain the same.

According to these researchers, the mortality rate is high, between 10 and 20%. This is mainly due to lung infection, septicemia, liver decompensation disorder and an irreversible thiamine deficiency state.

Early attention and treatment for Korsakoff symptoms is very important. Early treatment of Wernicke’s encephalopathies may improve prognosis and prevent Korsakoff’s syndrome. For example, eye problems begin to improve in hours or days, motor problems, in days or weeks. Although some 60% of patients may have some residual symptoms.

According to these authors, once the Korsakoff syndrome has been established, the prognosis is quite pessimistic. Approximately 80% of patients are left with a chronic memory disorder. These can get to learn simple and repetitive tasks that involve procedural memory (motor memory).

Cognitive recovery is slow and incomplete and reaches its highest level of recovery after one year of treatment. Although recovery may occur, it depends on factors such as age or alcohol withdrawal.

Tips for Preventing Korsakoff Syndrome

Tips for Preventing Korsakoff Syndrome

The primary advice is to reduce your alcohol intake to a minimum. The less alcohol, the better. Although we think that drink very little, the fact is that even in small amounts, we are already damaging our body.

  • A healthy and non-restrictive diet will ensure the synthesis of the vitamins needed to function properly and in particular thiamine or B1.
  • Go to the doctor whenever we detect memory problems. He will establish if it is a problem associated with normal aging or some kind of dementia.
  • Maintain a good support system, since loved ones will be of help in case any disturbing symptoms appear.
  • If you think you drink more than you do and don’t know how to quit, go to a professional who will help you reduce your alcohol intake.

Feel free to leave a comment below.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.