Tag Archives: neuropsychology

Mirror Me

When you yawn I want to yawn.

When you smile I want to smile.

When you complain I want to complain.

Neurologists have an explanation for this. We have what are called mirror neurons. They pick up cues from people around us and tell our brains to do the same stuff. (It’s not quite as severe as, “if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too,” but it’s not far off.)

That means we don’t just empathize. We actually physically feel the same emotions.

So how you act has a real tangible effect on others. And who you choose to spend time with will affect your emotions, whether you want it to or not.

Choose wisely.


The Hidden Brain, post 3

This is my third of (12) 3 posts on The Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedantam.

Pop quiz: How would you create a political ad with your candidate? Should the candidate have a direct path to the camera or is it better to sit behind a desk?

Answer: It depends.

White men should be up close and personal with the camera. It promotes feelings of comfort and familiarity. Women and people of color are better off sitting behind a desk where they appear less confrontational.

Pop quiz #2: Which is the more likely way for a police officer to be shot and killed – at the hands of an armed criminal or the hand of a police officer?

Answer: Police officer.

Police officers commit suicide using firearms more than twice as often as they are killed in the line of duty. Vedantam offers many interesting facts about assumptions and generalizations we make based on intuition that is often completely false.

For example, since September 10, 2001 the US has suffered more than 200,000 more deaths from suicide than from terrorism. Our hidden brain thinks we are in control of ourselves and not of terrorists. So terrorists seem like a bigger threat. But suicide dwarfs the risk of terrorism.

This book was fascinating from start to finish. Next up I will explore another book not on the 2012 reading list, The Experience of Meditation, edited by Jonathan Shear.

Emotional Life of Your Brain, post 3

The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard Davidson with Sharon Begley, was the third book from my 2012 reading list. This is my third of (1, 2) 3 posts on the book.

Davidson describes Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as the most widely taught secular form of meditation in academic medical centers in the western world. MBSR is essentially non-judgmental awareness of your current state – physically, emotionally, cognitively. It is a process of observing the thoughts and feelings that come into your mind and, without judgment, recognizing them and letting them go.

MBSR can start as simply as focusing your attention on your breathing. It can then progress to recognizing the physical sensations in each area of your body, noticing your emotional state, and paying attention to your thoughts, in each case recognizing and letting go of the thought without judgment.

Essentially MBSR retrains your brain. We all currently have neural paths that are stronger and weaker in our brains based on genetics, experience, and habit. Most of these paths are pretty automatic. We experience an angry spouse, stubborn child, setback at work, criticism from our boss and the objective awareness of this travels from our prefrontal cortex (where we intellectually understand it) to our amygdala (which attaches intense negative emotion).

MBSR trains your brain to stop the connection from that intellectual understanding to the intense negative emotion. You practice noticing without judgment. Davidson describes,

“Ugh, I have to stop worrying about work,” becomes, “Oh, how interesting that a thought about problems at work has entered my consciousness.” “Ouch, my knee is killing me,” becomes, “Aha, a signal from my knee has reached my brain.” If these observations start spinning off into judgmental thoughts, as they tend to (“I should have finished that project sooner than two minutes before the deadline!), try to return to the process of mere observation.

Sounds simple and easy. Far from it.

Also might sound like, for lack of a better term, woo-woo BS. Far from it.

How do we know? In Davidson’s experiments 8 weeks of MBSR led to lower anxiety and greater left side prefrontal cortex activity. The left side of the prefrontal cortex is connected to positive emotions, the right to negative. In fact, this left side prefrontal cortex activity tripled for the MBSR practicers while their right side prefrontal cortex activity fell. They also produced 5% more antibodies, showing stronger immune system response.

So MBSR leads to more positive and less negative emotion, stronger immune defenses, less anxiety, and therefore better ability to deal with and respond to stress. Davidson also found that MBSR increased brain networks involved in attention, thus improving practicers’ ability to focus.

I certainly highly recommend Davidson’s book if you want to learn more, or to go to a resource that is MBSR specific (disclaimer: I have not reviewed this item) one of the founders of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has an audio on the topic.

Read along with me as next up I explore The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Your Brain at Work, Post 3

Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, was my first reading choice from my 2012 reading list. This is the second of three posts on the book.

Rock explains in neuroscience terms why prioritizing is one of the most brain energy draining tasks we have. As a result few of us do it. And when we do, we often fail to do so when our brains are at their most energized.

However, if we take our highest energy time early in the day and prioritize the rest of our day, we can make maximum use of our brain power. First, we will do our prioritizing when we have the energy to do it effectively. Second, we can schedule our other high brain energy activities (e.g., creative thinking, important decision making, planning) when we know we usually have lots of energy. Then we can allow our brains some rest during the off times to handle the more mundane tasks.

Next book I’m reading if you want to read along: Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel.

Your Brain at Work, Post 2

Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, was my first reading choice from my 2012 reading list. This is the second of three posts on the book.

Rock explains the powerful difference between toward and away goals and why top performers most often use toward goals. Toward goals (e.g., listen more, exercise more, speak up) affect your brain in significant ways. They prime your brain to notice the positive behavior and so make more connections. As soon as you make these connections your brain gets boosts to its sense of certainty and releases dopamine. So toward goals build new neural networks faster. You experience more early wins. And the goals are more likely to self-reinforce and be met.

Away goals (e.g., stop smoking, don’t yell, lose weight) focus your brain on the problem. This problem focus reinforces all the neural networks already associated with bad behavior. So the more you think about this goal, the more the brain reacts negatively, threatening your SCARF variables, and discouraging you from reaching your goal.

So set your goals wisely, always moving toward your new behavior.

Next book I’m reading if you want to read along: Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel.

Your Brain at Work, Post 1

Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, was my first reading choice from my 2012 reading list. This is the first of three posts on the book.

First, it’s a fabulous book that everyone should read. Though it is slightly frustrating that the most exciting stuff comes toward the end. Possibly the biggest idea is that our brains react in the same way when our survival is threatened (think saber tooth tiger) as they do when we receive threats to our status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness (i.e., connectedness to others), and fairness.

Rock offers this in the acronym SCARF. And this point alone could be life changing. When survival is threatened the thinking centers in our brains shut down. We flood with adrenaline and cortisol. Stress shoots up, and our bodies prepare for fight or flight. So threaten any of the SCARF factors and you immediately cut off someone else’s ability to think clearly.

On the other hand, you want to have a tough conversation with someone? You can use this positively. Bolster their SCARF. Give them a bump to their status with a compliment. Share something personal to increase relatedness. Ask questions to give them a sense of control. Their brains will flood with dopamine and serotonin, calming them and helping them engage the tough topic.

Next book I’m reading if you want to read along: Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel.