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Our brain has a mind of its own

Memory 2

Alzheimer's“There are times when the brain contains hidden wisdom that if monitored could help us in various ways, whether in marketing, in lie detection, or even in predicting daily stock market fluctuations. People might not ‘know’ these things, but it’s possible there is diagnostic information waiting to be uncovered in the folds of the brain, the most sophisticated computer in the known universe.”

This statement by Matthew Lieberman, in his 2013 book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, was made in connection with the author’s scientific study of the effectiveness of advertising campaigns designed to help smokers quit. Three campaigns, referred to as A, B and C, were tested on smokers wanting to quit by asking them which campaign ad they though would be most effective. Each ad ended with “Call 1-800-QUITNOW, the National Cancer Institute’s anti-smoking hotline.

The smokers said that the Campaign B ad would do the best, A ad would be second, and C ad would do the worst. But activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain (determined with functional MRIs) indicated they really thought that the C ad would be the most effective.

In actual fact, although all ads were successful, Campaign C ad did have the best response, increasing call volume more than thirty times over.

Sometimes it seems as though our brain is smarter than we are. It can sense danger before we are consciously aware of it, feel the pain when someone else gets hurt, assess the character of someone we barely know, anticipate what someone is thinking before they even speak, and in some cases even heal “incurable” diseases.

Never has there been more research conducted on the brain to discover what make it tick. Never has there been so much knowledge about the brain – everything from where memories are stored to its neuroplasticity and ability to change itself throughout our lifetime. And the biggest discovery in the last ten years is that there is so much more to discover.

One thing we do know –that dwarfs the importance of everything else we have learned – is that we can do much to keep our brain healthy so that it can continue to work its miracles. This includes physical and mental exercise, proper diet and the avoidance of excessive stress and harmful substances.

We should never take this “most sophisticated computer in the known universe” for granted.

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The healing power of nature

Nature 2At the start of the 20th century cancer was absent in many populations in the world. According to John Ratey and Richard Manning, in their recent book, Go Wild: Free Your Body from the Afflictions of Civilization, cancer among Native Americans was extremely rate. Fiji, with a population of 120,000 native people yielded only two deaths from cancer while cancer deaths were common in cities like New York. The authors claim diseases increased as people adopted Western diets and lifestyle.

Some people argue that thanks to advances in medicine and medical procedures we are living longer; but are we living healthier? In many cases we are simply taking longer to die. Diseases such as cancer and Type 2 diabetes are affecting children as well, so we can’t blame poor health on longevity. Type 2 diabetes results from eating sugar and refined carbohydrates.

In their book, authors Ratey and Manning list the top 12 risk factors for death and debilitation worldwide. In order, they are high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol, household air pollution, low fruit consumption, obesity, high blood sugar, low body weight, outside air pollution, inactivity, high salt intake and low nut and seed consumption. For the most part these are self-inflicted factors resulting in what the authors refer to as diseases of civilization.

Researchers have noticed a link between nature and healing for some time now. For example, patients in hospital rooms with a window view require less pain medication and spend less time in the hospital. Even staring at pictures of outdoor scenes has been linked to pain relief, stress recovery and mood improvement, according to a brief article in the January/February, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind.

Scientists have determined that exposure to nature contributes to your wellbeing, reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones.

Hundreds of years ago our environment consisted mainly of fields, trees, plants and water as opposed to the steel, concrete and pavement of today’s cities and the boxed-in offices of the business world.

We can’t all revert to hunting, fishing, and farming in order to regain a connection with nature. But we can get outdoors as much as possible; cultivate plants on our balconies or in flower pots and use nature scenes in picture hangings and as computer screen savers. We could walk in parks, go on camping trips or take a drive in the country.

There are examples on the University of Minnesota’s website of people who eased depression, decreased blood pressure, lost weight, increased energy and improved mood through interacting with nature in various ways.

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All memory loss is not equal –nor serious

Memory 2Age-related memory loss is normal; but it is not inevitable. Normal memory loss, as opposed to MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment), involves forgetting information that is not terribly important to you – such as the name of that stranger that you met briefly at a party last night, or where you tossed keys when you got home.

This inconvenient and time-consuming memory loss can be avoided in many cases by simply paying attention and concentrating on what you hear and where you put things. Writing things down also helps to solidify memories. The brain does not transfer to long tern memory anything that doesn’t seem important to you.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is more serious and could be a sign that you’re not keeping your brain in tip top shape. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff, physician and professor at Harvard Medical School, there are two types of MRI – amnesic and non-amnesic.
People with non-amnesic MCI have problems with cognitive functions other than memory, such as finding the words to express themselves or changing a printer cartridge. To improve or prevent any cognitive impairment, you should eat a healthy diet, stay socially active, and remain both physically and mentally fit.

Scientists have shown that exercise staves off both age and disease-related declines in brain function. A March/April, 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind reported on a study that indicated exercise did so by producing new microchondria, tiny structures inside cells that supply the body with energy. J Mark Davis, a physiologist at the University of South Carolina involved in the study, was quoted as saying “The evidence is accumulating rapidly that exercise keeps the brain younger.”

As for diet, there are many foods believed to keep the brain sharp, such as blueberries, salmon, kale and chamomile tea, and supplements such as EPA omega 3 fish oil and gingko balboa. One thing in particular to avoid, according to the American Heart Association, are foods high in trans fats such as French fires, potato chips, doughnuts, pies and waffle mixes, which are linked to a decline in memory for men under the age of forty-five. A study by a UC San Francisco team revealed that those who consumed the most trans-fat remembered 10% fewer words than those who consumed less of it.

MCI increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, and a study by Baycrest Health Services’ Rotman Research Institute indicates that the risk is increased even more by anxiety. For MCI patients with mild, moderate or severe anxiety, the risk of Alzheimer’s increased by 33%, 78% and 135% respectively. Dr. Linda Mah, a Toronto psychiatrist and lead author of the study, suggests that to relieve anxiety, we should make sure we get adequate sleep and exercise, and stop worrying about the future.

Worrying about the future no doubt includes worrying that you may already have MCI and are on the way to Alzheimer’s. Thinking this way may actually make it happen. The next time you find yourself peering into the refrigerator wondering what you are doing there, laugh it off. At times I have even forgotten my brother’s name, couldn’t find where I had parked my car, and went outside with my slippers on.

Today, more than at any other time, we are in an environment conducive to forgetfulness and inattention. Simply eat healthy food, exercise both your body and your brain, build your social network, and laugh often. And it might also help to slow down, think more about the present than the future, and control your use of technology and the Internet.

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Procrastination revisited

BiologicalWhen it comes to procrastination, it seems like our brain has a mind of its own. According to Esther Landhuis, writing in the January/February, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, you can trick your brain into meeting any due date by thinking differently about deadlines. When we think of a deadline as something occurring in the present, we are more likely to begin the task.

For example, something due this week would be perceived by the brain as something more urgent than something due this month; something due this month would be perceived as being more urgent that something due next month, and so on – even though the actual number of days to the deadline are identical.
So a project due date of March 31st set on March 21st would prompt action faster than a due date of April 1st set on March 20th even though you had the same number of days to complete the task.

Research confirms this. One experiment, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, involved asking 100 students when they would start a data-entry task if they had 5 days to complete it. The ones who were assigned the task late enough in April so the deadline fell in early May were less likely to start the task right away compared to those whose deadline fell in March – even thought they had the same number of days to work on the task.
Since the brain seems to divide time into segments, we could use this fact by issuing assignments early enough so the deadlines fall in the same week, month or year. This might necessitate breaking the longer tasks or projects into shorter sub-tasks with shorter deadlines.

It might also suggest that making New Year’s resolutions might be best moved to the middle of the year rather than the end of the year so that the deadlines fall in the same year. After all, leaving a resolution until next year when you thought of it this year could be construed as procrastination.

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Obesity can decrease your health & well-being

thMore than a quarter of Americans depend on fast food, and over 30% of people consume some fast food on any given day. Americans spend over $134 billion on fast food each year, according to the October, 2010 issue of Psychology Today.

In 1995, no state in the U.S. had an obesity rate above 20%. By 2011, all but one state had an obesity rate above 20%. (Source: Globe & Mail, July 8, 2011). A CTV news program aired around the same time as the Globe & Mail article mentioned that Canadians consume an average of 700 calories per day more than we did back in 1970.

Skipping breakfast is no way to lose weight. Australian research reported in the June, 2011 issue of Chatelaine magazine indicated that kids who skip breakfast have a higher risk of heart disease as well as obesity.

Obesity is not good news. A study published in the journal Neurology showed that people who are obese in middle age have almost 4 times the risk of developing dementia later in life than those of normal weight. (Source: Globe and Mail, May 4, 2011). And you have an 89% lower risk of developing diabetes if you are not overweight or obese, (Source: Archives of Internal Medicine)

Adequate sleep is important when it comes to avoiding obesity. A study of 68,000 women by Harvard Medical School found that women who sleep only 5 hours a night are 32 percent more likely to gain 30 lbs. or more as they get older – compared to those who sleep 7 hours or more. (Even when the women who slept longer ate more, they still gained less than women who slept less.)

More exercise would help stamp out obesity. But only 5% of Canadian children and youth and 15% of adults are meeting physical activity guidelines according to Christa Costas-Bradstreet, a physical activity specialist with ParticipAction.

According to Statistics Canada, only 13% of Canadian adults aged 49 to 59 and 11% of those aged 60 and above meet the guidelines for moderate physical activity (defined as 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week in bouts of 10 minutes or more, in addition to muscle and bone strengthening activities using major muscle groups at least two days a week.

Exercise has many benefits besides weight control. For instance, studies conducted throughout the world indicate that your lifetime risk of dementia is cut in half when you participate in aerobic exercise on a regular basis. The risk of Alzheimer’s Disease is reduced by more than 60 percent. (Source: Brain Rules by John Medina)

To increase the amount of time in your life by avoiding obesity, it appears we should avoid fast food and junk food, watch our diet, eat a healthy breakfast, get adequate sleep, and exercise as much as possible.

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The price of technology

Technology 2Technology helps increase our personal productivity, provides instantaneous access to information, answers any question we might have, and opens the world to us – everything from and products and education to news and social media. But everything has its price.

According to a January 10, 2009 article in the Toronto Star. Nine children out of ten under the age of two watch TV, some up to 40% of the day – and too much TV for children under the age of two, whether it’s educational or not, might be partially to blame for the tenfold increase in ADHD cases. A study by psychologists at Iowa State also found that kids who exceeded the recommended two hours per day of screen time were one and a half to two times more likely to have attention problems in the classroom.

A survey of 340 business students conducted by researchers at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, revealed that time spent on social networks lowers academic performance. Also the longer a student spends on these online networks, the shorter the students’ attention span. (Source: Globe & Mail, November 12, 2012.)

One third of wired Canadians use Internet-ready digital devices before getting out of bed in the morning, according to an Angus Reid/Vision Critical poll conducted for the Toronto Star and reported in their January 26, 2013 issue. According to research by Nielson, and reported in the book, The end of absence: reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection, by Michael Harris, the average teenager now manages upward of 4000 text messages every month.

A study of over 200 students at the University of Rhode Island found they were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week because of their cell phones. (Source: Toronto Globe & Mail, November 22, 2011). Sleep requirements for those 18 years of age and older are 7 to 9 hours a night.

Most people think they need less than 7 hours sleep a night; but according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, only 1 to 3 percent of the population actually needs less than 7 hours of sleep a night. The rest are sleep deprived. Those who sleep at least seven hours per night are nearly 50% less likely to develop precancerous growths in the colon than those who get less than six hours sleep. (Journal of Cancer, reported in Woman’s World, May 6, 2011.) If you get less than five hours or more than ten hours of sleep, there’s a double mortality rate. (Source: Dr. Michael Breus, author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, reported in the May, 2011 issue of Zoomer Magazine.) Inadequate sleep has also been linked to obesity.

In addition to these attention problems, sleep loss and possible health issues, our privacy could be compromised as well. You reveal a lot about yourself by the “likes” you post on Facebook, according to a study of 60,000 volunteers by the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre. Researchers could predict with varying degrees of accuracy (up to 95%) such things as a person’s sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, IQ and even whether the person smoked or had divorced parents. It seems like marketers may be taking a closer look at social media. The study was published in March, 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The highest price we pay is what we have to give up in order to be spending such a large amount of time on our computers, electronic devices, and the Internet. This could include time with our family, our friends, and even time alone – doing what is important and meaningful to us.

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How to gain control of your life

Control 2In a previous blog article I discussed how gaining control of your life affects both your health and productivity. But controlling events and projects in your life are not easy. The fact that only about 10 percent of people accomplish their New Year’s resolutions in the following year attests to this difficulty.

Michele Solis, writing in the February, 2015 issue of Scientific American Mind, claims that getting discouraged by setbacks is one of the most common reasons that people fail to reach their goals. So attitude is of paramount importance. Look at each setback as just that – a temporary setback that provides a learning experience that helps you to adjust your approach to the goal.

Recognize also that gaining control, resisting frustration, and developing persistence all require energy that can be quickly depleted. Self-control is like a muscle, and when it becomes fatigued, it needs time to recover.

When facing a number of setbacks in life, many people become frustrated redouble their efforts and try even harder, depleting their energy and making the task even more difficult. It would be wiser to simply take a break and relieve any stress and frustration through exercise, relaxation or meditation before resuming the project.
Self-control, like a muscle, gains in strength the more it is worked; but it should never be worked to the point of exhaustion. Pace yourself, get adequate sleep, watch what you eat, and keep physically and mentally fit.

Matthew Lieberman, in his book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect (Random House, 2013.), claims that people with higher levels of self-control have higher incomes, higher credit scores, better health and better social skills from childhood to adulthood and they report being happier in life.

There is little doubt that self-control is a brain-based executive skill well worth strengthening.

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Go ahead; waste a little time.

Wasting timeIt has been nearly forty years since I presented my first time management seminar to an enthusiastic group of young managers. They were anxious to improve their personal productivity and eagerly took notes and absorbed everything I told them, from getting up an hour earlier in the morning to making use of the final ten minutes of the workday.

We didn’t have laptops or smart phones or iPods or iPads in those days, but I was able to suggest that a pocket recorder go with them in their car, and that they should have a “waiting kit” to utilize any idle time in waiting rooms or line-ups. I told them how to cut meeting time in half, intercept unscheduled visitors, avoid non-productive phone calls, and reduce socializing during office hours.

I’ve learned a lot in forty years. I wish I could find those same managers and apologize for telling them never to waste time – if by wasting time we mean such things as conversations at the water cooler, or joking around at the start of a meeting, or socializing during a business call.

I no longer believe those things are a waste of time. When you chat with customers in a coffee shop or help someone struggling to put groceries in their car or offer assistance to a stalled motorist, you are not wasting time, you are participating in life. When you spend a lunch hour doing crossword puzzles or watch a baseball game on TV at night or bounce a tennis ball off the garage door for ten minutes before leaving for the office, you are not wasting time, you are enjoying life. And at the office, if you take a break from that overwhelming project by staring out the window and marveling at how the wind sculpts human images from the clouds, you are not wasting time, you are savoring life.

Time is in the eye of the beholder. What one person may consider a waste of time, another may consider a gift of time. It’s your time. It’s your life. It’s your responsibility to manage it. When you are in your seventies or eighties or nineties, you will reap what you have sowed. But I do urge you to be in the driver’s seat. Don’t give up control to technology or feel you have to keep pace with everyone around you. Go at your own speed. Accomplish what is important to you. Live according to your own values, and make your own memories.

Those memories will represent your lifetime.