Even before he was born, it was clear that the boy’s brain was unusual—so much so that his expecting parents flew from rural Alaska to Seattle, where specialists could attend to their son from birth. That is how James Bennett first met the boy, then a days-old infant struggling to breathe. The baby’s head was too big. The structures in his brain looked wrong. Bennett, a pediatric geneticist at Seattle Children’s, was tasked with figuring out why.
The answer was ultimately stranger than doctors could have imagined: The boy’s brain was missing an entire type of cell, called microglia, the result of mutations in a single gene, called CSF1R. Doctors had never seen anything like it.
Microglia make up 10 percent of the brain’s cells, but they are not neurons and therefore have long been overlooked. The boy’s case makes their importance unmistakable. In the absence of microglia, the boy’s neurons still grew to fill his skull, but they ended up in the wrong places and made the wrong connections. Microglia, scientists have started to realize, guide the development of the brain.
“There wasn’t any part of the brain that wasn’t involved and affected in this child,” Bennett says. A part of the baby’s cerebellum jutted at an odd angle. His ventricles, normally small fluid-filled cavities in the brain, were too large. And a dense bundle of nerves that is supposed to connect the brain’s left and right hemispheres, called the corpus callosum, had entirely failed to develop.
In petri dishes and in animals, scientists had previously observed how microglia guide developing neurons to the right locations, creating the highly organized layers that make up the brain. They also prune connections between neurons. “Things get off track pretty quickly when you start manipulating the functions of microglia,” says Stephen Noctor, a developmental neurobiologist at the University of California at Davis who was not involved in examining the boy. To better understand the CSF1R gene, Bennett teamed up with zebra-fish biologists. In fish, turning off the gene disrupts a cellular pathway necessary for corpus-callosum neurons to grow in humans.
Kim Green, a neurobiologist at the University of California at Irvine, notes that mutant mice lacking microglia have broadly similar patterns of disorganization in their brains. These mice models essentially predicted what would happen in a human. Green had just never expected to see a person without microglia. “It’s absolutely remarkable,” he says.
The boy’s brain helped unlock these scientific mysteries. But he was ultimately still a boy, a very sick one with worried young parents. Their son’s condition was so severe, it turns out, because he had inherited two faulty copies of the CSF1R gene—one from each parent. His parents happened to carry the same rare mutation because they are cousins.
In adults, just one copy of a CSF1R mutation can lead to a brain disorder called adult-onset leukoencephalopathy with axonal spheroids and pigmented glia, which causes memory loss and eventually dementia beginning in one’s 40s. When the boy’s DNA-sequencing results came back, Bennett realized that he had to explain to the parents their own CSF1R mutation and their risks of developing the disorder. They were relieved, he says, to understand what was wrong with their child, but perhaps too overwhelmed to fully take in what it meant for their lives. The couple spoke with a genetic counselor before their son’s DNA sequencing, and Bennett says he arranged to have them meet with another genetic counselor back in Alaska, where they returned home.
This story has no miracle cure or happy ending. The boy died in Alaska at 10 months old of likely related causes, and Bennett says the family agreed to an autopsy. They have since lost touch. The phone numbers he has for them no longer work. He told me that he recently got hold of the mother’s sister, in an attempt to tell the family about the research made possible by their child. It’s a delicate balance: He feels a duty to inform, but he understands that the parents might not want to be reminded of their dead son.
A pediatric geneticist’s job, Bennett said, is often to diagnose extremely rare conditions, which push up against the limits of the human body. “On any day, you can find a patient you spend the rest of your career thinking about,” he said. The boy is one of them.
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Neuroscience has answers. I’ve discussed this subject before and it was so popular I decided to call an expert to get even more dead simple ways to start your brain feeling joy.
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So let’s get to it. Alex has some great suggestions for simple things you can do to feel happier every day …
1) Listen To Music From The Happiest Time In Your Life
Music affects the brain in an interesting way: it can remind you of places you have listened to it before.
Were you happiest in college? Play the music you loved then and it can transport you to that happier place and boost your mood. Here’s Alex:
One of the strong effects of music comes from its ability to remind us of previous environments in which we were listening to that music. That’s really mediated by this one limbic structure called the hippocampus which is really important in a thing called “context dependent memory.” Let’s say college was the happiest time of your life. If you start listening to the music that you were listening to at that time, it can help you feel more connected to that happier time in your life and makes it more present.
I hope you weren’t happiest in elementary school because it’s going to be weird if you’re playing the Barney song or the Sesame Street theme around the house.
(To learn more about what the music you love says about you, click here.)
Now you can’t listen to music everywhere you go. What does neuroscience say you should do when you have to take those earbuds out?
2) Smile — And Wear Sunglasses
The brain isn’t always very smart. Sometimes your mind is getting all this random info and it isn’t sure how to feel. So it looks around for clues. This is called “biofeedback.” Here’s Alex:
Biofeedback is just the idea that your brain is always sensing what is happening in your body and it reviews that information to decide how it should feel about the world.
You feel happy and that makes you smile. But it works both ways: when you smile, your brain can detect this and say, “I’m smiling. That must mean I’m happy.”
So happiness makes you smile, but smiling can also produce happiness. Feeling down? Smile anyway. “Fake it until you make it” can work. Here’s Alex:
That’s part of the “fake it until you make it” strategy because when your brain senses, “Oh, I’m frowning,” then it assumes, “Oh, I must not be feeling positive emotions.” Whereas when it notices you flexing those muscles on the side of the mouth it thinks, “I must be smiling. Oh, we must be happy.” When you start to change the emotions that you’re showing on your face, that changes how your brain interprets a lot of ambiguous stimuli. Since most stimuli that we experience is ambiguous, if you start to push the probability in the positive direction then that’s going to have a really beneficial effect.
In fact, research shows smiling gives the brain as much pleasure as 2000 bars of chocolate, or $25,000.
And so what’s this about sunglasses? Bright light makes you squint. Squinting looks a lot like being worried. So guess what biofeedback that produces? Yup. Your brain can misinterpret that as being unhappy.
Sunglasses kill the squint and can help tell your brain, “Hey, everything is okay.” Here’s Alex:
When you’re looking at bright lights you have this natural reaction to squint. But that often has the unintended effect of you flexing this particular muscle, the “corrugator supercilii.” Putting on sunglasses means you don’t have to squint and therefore you’re not contracting this muscle and it stops making your brain think, “Oh my God, I must be worried about something.” It’s really just a simple little interruption of that feedback loop.
So smile. And wear those sunglasses. They can make you look cool and make you happier.
(For more on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
So you have your music playing, you’re smiling and wearing your sunglasses. But you can still be stressed about things. What should you think about to kill your worries and keep yourself happy?
3) Thinking About Goals Changes How You See The World
And I mean, literally. Researchers flashed a bunch of circles on a screen in front of study subjects. One of the circles was always slightly different than the others. It was brighter or smaller, etc.
But when they told people to prepare to point at or try to grab the circles something crazy happened…
If they thought about pointing at the circles, they became better at noticing the brighter circle.
If they were told to think about grabbing a circle, it was easier for them to identify the smaller circle.
What’s that mean? Having a goal literally changed how they saw the world.
So when you’re feeling stressed or challenged, think about your long-term goals. It gives your brain a sense of control and can release dopamine which will make you feel better and more motivated. Here’s Alex:
The goals and intentions that you set in your prefrontal cortex change the way that your brain perceives the world. Sometimes when we feel like everything is going wrong and we’re not making any progress and everything is awful, you don’t need to change the world, you can just change the way you are perceiving the world and that is going to be enough to make a positive difference. By thinking, “Okay, what is my long-term goal? What am I trying to accomplish?” Calling that to mind can actually make it feel rewarding to be doing homework instead of going to the party because then your brain is like, “Oh yeah. I’m working towards that goal. I’m accomplishing something that’s meaningful to me.” Then that can start to release dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and that can start to make you feel better about what you’re doing.
(To see the schedule the most successful people follow every day, click here.)
Sometimes you can try all these little tricks and it doesn’t feel like it’s making a bit of difference. That’s often because you’re missing something that’s really key to good brain function …
4) Get Good Sleep
We all know depression messes up how people sleep. But what’s interesting is it’s actually a two way street: bad sleep also causes depression. Here’s Alex:
They took all these people with insomnia and followed them for a few years and it turned out that the people with chronic insomnia were much more likely to develop depression. Depression causes sleep problems but sleep problems are also more likely to lead to depression.
So how do you improve your sleep? Alex has a number of suggestions:
Get bright sunlight in the middle of the day. At night, try and stay in a dimly lit environment. Having a comfortable place to sleep and having a bedtime ritual so that your brain can prepare to go to sleep are also good. Trying to go to sleep at the same time every night and keeping a gratitude journal can also improve your sleep.
(To learn everything you need to know about having the best night’s sleep ever, click here.)
All this little stuff to feel better is good. But if you’re not getting stuff done at work it’s going to be hard to stay happy. What’s neuroscience say about building good habits and conquering procrastination so you can stay smiling?
5) How Neuroscience Beats Procrastination
Your brain isn’t one big ol’ lump of grey goo that’s perfectly organized. Far from it. Think of it a little more like a bunch of your relatives arguing at the dinner table during a holiday get together.
When it comes to the choices you make and the things you do, Alex says there are 3 regions you need to be concerned with. You don’t need to memorize the names. It’s just important to realize they all get a vote:
- The Prefrontal Cortex: The only one thinking about long-term goals like, “We need to prepare that report for work.”
- The Dorsal Striatum: This guy is always voting to do what you’ve done in the past, like, “When it’s time to work we usually start by checking email 9 times, then Facebook, and then watching Netflix.”
- The Nucleus Accumbens: The party animal of the three. “Email, Facebook and Netflix are fun. Work sucks.”
So guess what you end up doing? Yeah… Ouch.
But when you exert effort, the prefrontal cortex can override the other two and do the right thing. Repeat this enough times and you rewire the dorsal striatum: “We usually start reports quickly. I vote we do that again.”
That’s how the brain builds good habits. So why don’t we do that more often? Often the culprit is stress. Here’s Alex:
I have a friend who always says, “Stress takes the prefrontal cortex offline.” Stress changes the dynamics of that conversation. It weakens the prefrontal cortex. That part of your brain doesn’t have infinite resources. It can’t be eternally vigilant and so while it’s not paying attention, your striatum is like, “Let’s go eat a cookie. Let’s go drink a beer.” Anything that you can do to reduce stress can help strengthen the prefrontal cortex’s control over your habits.
Procrastination is often a vicious circle because you delay, then you have less time to complete the project, so you get more stressed, procrastinate more, have even less time, which makes you even more stressed and … well, you get the idea.
So what’s the answer? After a little something to reduce stress, find one small thing you can do to get started. This focuses you and prevents the overwhelm that knocks the prefrontal cortex out of the conversation. Here’s Alex:
When the prefrontal cortex is taken offline by stress we end up doing things that are immediately pleasurable. Instead of getting overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What’s one little thing that I could do now that would move me toward this goal I’m trying to accomplish?” Taking one small step toward it can make it start to feel more manageable.
(To learn 5 weird but effective ways to conquer chronic procrastination, click here.)
Time to round up everything we learned. Alex gave us six great …
Wait. Did I only say “5” in the headline? Okay, you’re getting a bonus. Keep reading for Alex’s #1 easy thing to do to cause an upward spiral of happiness in your life …
Here’s what you can learn from Alex about how neuroscience can bring happiness:
- Listen to music from the happiest time in your life: Let’s hope you had good taste when you were happiest.
- Smile and wear those sunglasses: You don’t have to wear them indoors. That would be dumb.
- Think about your goals: It changes how you see the world and releases happy chemicals in your noggin.
- Get your sleep: Depressed people don’t sleep well. And people who don’t sleep well get depressed.
- Beat procrastination by reducing stress and doing a simple thing to get started: Listen to those happy-era tunes and then assemble all the materials you need to get cranking.
And what’s that #1 thing that Alex says can start an upward spiral of happiness? It’s dead simple:
Go for a walk outside every morning, preferably with a friend.
Yup, that’s it. How can something so incredibly simple be so powerful? Here’s Alex:
I think the simplest way to kick start an upward spiral is to go for a walk outside every morning, and if possible, do it with a friend. The walk engages the exercise system and when you’re walking outside the sunlight you’re exposed to has benefits on the sleep systems and can impact the serotonin system. If you do it every day, then it starts getting ingrained in the dorsal striatum and becomes a good habit. If you can do it with a friend, that’s even better because you get the social connection.
Right now: share this post with a friend and ask them to join you for a walk tomorrow morning. That’s it. (And wear your sunglasses.)
Go outside. Put one foot in front of the other. Smile with a friend. And you’re on your way to neuroscientific happiness.
Looks like it really is the simple things in life that bring us joy.
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You make countless decisions every day that range from mundane to incredibly important, but what part of you is actually making those decisions? We all assume that our brains are focused on whatever task we’re tackling, but a new study suggests that your brain is usually working a few steps ahead all on its own, and it makes your decisions long before you consciously think about them.
The study, which was published in Scientific Reports, reveals that what we often think of as free will and our ability to make decisions on the fly isn’t nearly as cut-and-dry. Your brain, it turns out, might be running the show largely in the background.
The experiment was fairly straightforward, tasking volunteers to decide between two patterns with different colors and orientations. Their brains were being monitored in an fMRI machine while the images flashed before their eyes, and the researchers were able to match brain activity patterns with whatever choice the subject was making.
That part isn’t particularly surprising, since scientists have long known that repeatable brain patterns can correlate with decision making. But what’s interesting about this research is that the team found the participants brain activity could predict their eventual choices before the individual was even asked to make a choice.
“We believe that when we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations,” Professor Joel Pearson, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In, other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity.”
Put simply, the path you’re about to choose when you make a decision can sometimes be pre-determined before you even actively consider your options. The researchers found that they could predict the outcome up to 11 seconds before the subject began to weigh their decision.
“This would explain, for example, why thinking over and over about something leads to ever more thoughts about it, as it occurs in a positive feedback loop,” Pearson said.
Because sleep often becomes increasingly lighter and more disrupted as we get older, the study reinforces and potentially explains the links among aging, sleep deprivation, and heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
“Sleep is critical to the function of the brain’s waste removal system and this study shows that the deeper the sleep the better,” says Maiken Nedergaard, codirector of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and lead author of the study.
“These findings also add to the increasingly clear evidence that quality of sleep or sleep deprivation can predict the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
The study, which appears in the journal Science Advances, indicates that the slow and steady brain and cardiopulmonary activity associated with deep non-REM sleep are optimal for the function of the glymphatic system, the brain’s unique process of removing waste. The findings may also explain why some forms of anesthesia can lead to cognitive impairment in older adults.
WASHING AWAY WASTE
Nedergaard and her colleagues first described the previously unknown glymphatic system in 2012. Prior to that point, scientists didn’t fully understand how the brain, which maintains its own closed ecosystem, removed waste. The study revealed a system of plumbing which piggybacks on blood vessels and pumps cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through brain tissue to wash away waste. A subsequent study showed that this system primarily works while we sleep.
Because the accumulation of toxic proteins such as beta amyloid and tau in the brain are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have speculated that impairment of the glymphatic system due to disrupted sleep could be a driver of the disease. This squares with clinical observations which show an association between sleep deprivation and heightened risk for Alzheimer’s.
In the current study, researchers conducted experiments with mice anesthetized with six different anesthetic regimens. While the animals were under anesthesia, the researchers tracked brain electrical activity, cardiovascular activity, and the cleansing flow of CSF through the brain.
The team observed that a combination of the drugs ketamine and xylazine (K/X) most closely replicated the slow and steady electrical activity in the brain and slow heart rate associated with deep non-REM sleep. Furthermore, the electrical activity in the brains of mice administered K/X appeared to be optimal for function of the glymphatic system.
“The synchronized waves of neural activity during deep slow-wave sleep, specifically firing patterns that move from front of the brain to the back, coincide with what we know about the flow of CSF in the glymphatic system,” says Lauren Hablitz, a postdoctoral associate in Nedergaard’s lab and first author of the study.
“It appears that the chemicals involved in the firing of neurons, namely ions, drive a process of osmosis which helps pull the fluid through brain tissue.”
The study raises several important clinical questions. It further bolsters the link between sleep, aging, and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have known that as we age it becomes more difficult to consistently achieve deep non-REM sleep, and this study reinforces the importance of deep sleep to the proper function of the glymphatic system.
The study also demonstrates that enhancing sleep can manipulate the glymphatic system, a finding that may point to potential clinical approaches, such as sleep therapy or other methods to boost the quality of sleep, for at-risk populations.
Furthermore, because several of the compounds used in the study were analogous to anesthetics used in clinical settings, the study also sheds light on the cognitive difficulties that older patients often experience after surgery and suggests classes of drugs that could help avoid this phenomenon. Mice in the study that researchers exposed to anesthetics that did not induce slow brain activity saw diminished glymphatic activity.
“Cognitive impairment after anesthesia and surgery is a major problem,” says coauthor Tuomas Lilius with the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “A significant percentage of elderly patients that undergo surgery experience a postoperative period of delirium or have a new or worsened cognitive impairment at discharge.”
Additional researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of Copenhagen contributed to the study. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute on Aging, the Adelson Foundation, the Sigrid Juselius Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, and the Lundbeck Foundation supported the research.
Source: University of Rochester
Have you ever wondered why two people can share the exact same situation, yet experience it differently?
Neural pathways are often described as a type of super-highway of nerve cells, the function of which is to transmit messages. Much like a walking track in the bush, the more you walk over it, the more trodden and clear it becomes. The same thing happens when we engage in behaviors such as thinking certain thoughts with a high degree of regularity.
You see the brain consumes between 20-30% of the caloric burn in our body at rest. It uses so much energy because it’s so complex and so it has needed to evolve and adapt in order to automate various processes as a way of conserving energy. This is why and how regular behaviors become habits (or things we seemingly do without a great deal of conscious thought).
Think about something simple like brushing your teeth. You can brush them just fine, no problem but what if I asked you to use your non-dominant hand to do that instead? You’d suddenly have to think about the action of your arm and the motion of your wrist or hand. It would be hard at first because it’s unfamiliar, but if you persevered with it, over time, it would become easier as the task became more familiar. This is an example of neuroplasticity and can be thought of as “re-wiring your brain.”
So now you know in general terms how neural pathways work and their function, we can proceed to look at beliefs. Perhaps you are familiar with the famous metaphor of the iceberg where the tip represents conscious thought and everything below the water line represents subconscious thought. The subconscious mind holds our beliefs, many of which we acquired as we were growing up. The function of a belief is in part to help us make sense of the world around us. It creates a filter for our brain to receive, store, interpret and recall information picked up from the world around us by our senses and it automates the way our brain processes information.
In order for a thought (which occurs in the conscious mind) to become a belief, it must be repeated. It’s this repetition that allows a neural pathway to be created. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine that growing up, you heard your parents say things like “you have to work hard to get ahead.” You heard it a lot. Now imagine that you too now hold the belief (without realizing it) that you have to work hard in order to make money. So you work long hours nearly every day. It affects your marriage, you stop seeing your friends due to your work commitments, and you stop going to the gym. You don’t sleep well at night and you are often irritable or grumpy because you feel pressured to make the money.
If you hold a belief that “you have to work hard to make money”, then that is what will show up in your reality. Your mind will filter out all of the information that it thinks is unimportant and will only bring you the information you’ve told it is important with your belief. So that’s all you see when, in fact, the reality might be very different.
Sometimes beliefs are healthy and other times, they work against us. The good news is that there is a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System or the RAS and part of its role is to actively seek out the information that you tell it to. So, if you want to change a belief the RAS can be your greatest asset! The RAS transmits information between the conscious and subconscious minds and the other beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t question you at all. Whatever you tell it, it will believe because it does not distinguish between fact and fiction. It simply obeys commands from your conscious mind.
But changing a belief takes time and consistent practice. There are many ways to help your subconscious mind adopt new thinking styles though and these include things like visualization, using your imagination, meditating, acting as-if, using journal prompts to uncover beliefs and develop healthier alternatives, using affirmations (they work on repetition and hence create new neural pathways) and through the use of story.
Hypnosis is another effective way of speeding up the process of changing beliefs because it goes almost directly to the subconscious. It can be more efficient than some other approaches but as with all interventions, is not without its limitations so won’t work for everyone.
One very effective tool that you can use to change a belief is listening to audio narrative such a meditation recording or an affirmation recording. This works best in the last five minutes before you go to sleep and in the first five minutes upon waking because that is when the subconscious mind is most receptive to information. You can prime your brain to develop the neural pathways that you prefer to have by doing things like listening to audio at these times.
When you change your beliefs by redirecting your conscious thought, you can change your belief (filter) and when you change your filter, you change your experience of the world around you, otherwise referred to as your reality. If you are consistent with your practice, you will be begin to see things differently in no time.
How would you prefer to feel today?
Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive Psychology (Third ed., pp. 24-76). N.p.: Linda Schreiber-Ganster.
Liou, S. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. In web.stanford.edu. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from http://web.stanford.edu/group/hopes/cgi-bin/hopes_test/neuroplasticity/
Martindale, C. (1991). Cognitive psychology: A neural-network approach. Belmont, CA, US: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
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Victor Habbick Visions / Getty
Unlike a bicep or a quadricep, we can’t see or feel when our brain is turning into mush through either disuse or misuse. Instead, any atrophy will instead make itself known when we’re struggling to remember a very common word, getting hopelessly lost in a part of town we’re intimately familiar with, or being driven to tears trying to figure out how to set up a personal hotspot. That last one happened to me about 90 minutes ago.
While the brain isn’t literally a muscle, its function can be positively and negatively affected by the behaviors we engage in—and ones that we don’t—each and every day. Below is a litany of habits you can pick up that could help you stop fucking with your grey matter and help enhance its function instead. If you change your ways, your chances of regaining your sparkle are good.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, sleep is extremely important to all aspects of our health. Unfortunately, we’re getting less of it than ever. As recently as the mid-1900s, people slept around nine hours per night. In 1970, that number had fallen to around 7.5 hours per night. According to the CDC, over a third of American adults getting less than seven hours shut-eye per night. “Sleep is essential for optimal neuropsychological ability,” says Virginia-based neurologist and sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter. He elaborates on this in his book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. “From interpreting nonverbal cues and emotional content to managing concentration and organizing information in our minds, sleep is vital—and restricted sleep can dramatically impact cognitive performance.”
Another sleep-related thing to consider: naps are not just for cranky toddlers. A small study from 2010 looked at the academic performance of two groups of young adults: nappers and non-nappers. In the experiment, every participant completed a rigorous learning task. After the first task, one group took a 90-minute nap while the other stayed awake until a second task was administered hours later. The participants who napped in between tasks did significantly better on the second task and also showed signs of improvement and learning.
The non-nappers, on the other hand, became worse at learning and their ability to retain information decreased. “Napping helps raise levels of alertness and can help with memory,” says clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus. He explains that a 20 to 25 minute cat nap can help you to stay sharp when you just didn’t get enough sleep the night before, but that getting more nighttime sleep is the best solution.
Caffeinate (in moderation)
Many of us are well acquainted with coffee’s ability to get us moving in the morning, but it can also help you process things more quickly. Winter says that caffeine’s role as a performance-enhancing drug has long been known. “It helps with concentration, focus, and memory processing as well as recall,” he says. According to a study from 2012, 200 mg of caffeine (about as much as you’d find in a 12-ounce cup of coffee) can improve a person’s verbal processing speed. By providing a group of adults a 200 mg caffeine pill in the morning and then asking them to complete word-recognition tasks, researchers discovered improved speed and accuracy compared to when they completed these tasks without caffeine.
Put the bottle down once in a while
In a study in the British Medical Journal, researchers looked at the impact of moderate alcohol consumption on the brain through the cognitive ability of more than 500 adults over 30 years. It was demonstrated that people who drank between 15 and 20 standard drinks per week were three times more likely to suffer from hippocampal atrophy—damage to the area of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation.
Overall, drinking doesn’t “kill your brain cells,” but drinking too much too often can damage the part of your brain responsible for remembering things, which is almost as bleak. That actually leads me to my next suggestion.
Give Google a break
If you’re older than say, 35, you can probably remember a time when you had at least a dozen phone numbers committed to memory. You may also recall certain mental tricks you may have employed to help you do so, such as associating certain number sequences with the location of their keys on the dial pad, or “clustering” the numbers into groups to help you retain them. Guess what? That’s called using your brain.
In today’s connected world, we’re storing information basically everywhere else. In a 2011 paper entitled Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, college students were shown to recall less information when they knew they could search for it instead. Winter says that stress can be helpful in memory formation. Knowing that you have access to all the information you’ll need “might reduce memory capacity,” he says.
Have more sex
Sometimes, after a long, hard day, the thought of energetic humping can seem so daunting that you and your partner agree to a half-assed snuggle instead. But if you’re not making sex a priority at all, it might be worth checking out some of the research that touts the benefits it might have on our brain function.
In a small 2017 study published in the Journals of Gerontology, researchers asked a group of older adults questions about their sex lives and then had them to take a standardized test. This revealed a link between sex frequency and intelligence: People who claimed to engage in sexual activity weekly wound up having higher test scores than people who did not. It’s important to note that we can’t be certain of the direction of this effect—people who feel sharper might be more likely to be having more sex.
Still, other recent research has demonstrated a strong link between getting wild and getting smart. In 2017, another study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior looked at the effect of sex on the cognitive abilities of 78 women aged between 18 and 29. Controlled for other factors such as menstrual phase and relationship length, researchers found that women who had sex more often had better recall of abstract words on a memory test. In fact, the bulk of research done on the benefits of sex on the brain revolves around memory. People who are getting some on a regular basis may be less depressed and more emotionally satisfied too, Winter says. This, he adds, could line up with sex being cognitively beneficial and helpful with focus.
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A new study finds that “night owls” — those whose internal body clock dictates they go to bed and wake up very late — appear to have fundamental differences in their brain function compared to “morning larks.”
This suggests that night owls could be disadvantaged by the constraints of a normal working day.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham discovered that night owls, who typically have an average bedtime of 2:30 am and a wake-up time of 10:15 am, have lower resting brain connectivity in many of the brain regions associated with the maintenance of consciousness.
Importantly, this reduced brain connectivity was tied to poorer attention, slower reactions and increased sleepiness throughout the hours of a typical working day.
According to the Office for National Statistics, around 12 percent of employees work night shifts. It is well-established that night-shift workers often face huge negative health consequences due to the constant disruption to sleep and body clocks.
However, this type of disruption can also result from being forced to fit into a societal 9-5 working day if those timings do not align with one’s natural biological rhythms. Since around 40-50 percent of the population identify as having a preference for later bedtimes and for getting up after 8:20 a.m., the researchers say much more work needs to be done to investigate any negative implications for this group.
“A huge number of people struggle to deliver their best performance during work or school hours they are not naturally suited to,” said lead researcher Dr. Elise Facer-Childs, from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health. “There is a critical need to increase our understanding of these issues in order to minimize health risks in society, as well as maximize productivity.”
For the study, the researchers looked at brain function at rest and linked it to the cognitive abilities of 38 individuals who were identified as either night owls or morning larks using physiological rhythms (melatonin and cortisol), continuous sleep/wake monitoring and questionnaires.
The participants underwent MRI scans and then completed a series of tasks, with testing sessions being undertaken at a range of different times during the day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. They were also asked to report on their levels of sleepiness.
Self-identified morning larks reported being least sleepy with their fastest reaction time during the early morning tests, which was significantly better than night owls. Night owls, however, were least sleepy and had their fastest reaction time at 8pm in the evening, although this was not significantly better than the larks, highlighting that night owls are most disadvantaged in the morning.
Interestingly, the brain connectivity in the regions that could predict better performance and lower sleepiness was much higher in larks at all time points, suggesting that the resting state brain connectivity of night owls is impaired throughout the whole day (8 a.m.-8 p.m.).
“This mismatch between a person’s biological time and social time, which most of us have experienced in the form of jet lag, is a common issue for night owls trying to follow a normal working day. Our study is the first to show a potential intrinsic neuronal mechanism behind why ‘night owls’ may face cognitive disadvantages when being forced to fit into these constraints,” said Facer-Childs, who is now based at the Monash Institute for Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences in Melbourne, Australia.
“To manage this, we need to get better at taking an individual’s personal body clock into account — particularly in the world of work. A typical day might last from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., but for a night owl, this could result in diminished performance during the morning, lower brain connectivity in regions linked to consciousness and increased daytime sleepiness.”
“If, as a society, we could be more flexible about how we manage time we could go a long way towards maximizing productivity and minimizing health risks.”
The findings are published in the journal Sleep.
Source: University of Birmingham
As it turns out love is encouraged and mediated by a temperate-mathematic entity; every kiss and hug funded by a network of hypothalamic animations. But oxytocin doesn’t retire once bonds have been successfully established between mates.
The neuropeptide is expressed primarily in women as it helps with increasing uterine contractions during labor and cervical dilation. It promotes the nurturing maternal link by surging in accordance with things like a child’s cry and suckling.
Oxytocin levels increase in recent father’s as well, though its stimulation belongs to different factors; arousing play, focus on joint exploration, and stimulatory touch specifically.
More grimly, the neurotransmitter has been proven to inspire intolerance. A study conducted back in 2014, examined two groups of Dutch men: one group given oxytocin, the other given placebos.
Both groups were tasked with choosing five men they would give lifeboats to. The ones on oxytocin were found to be more likely to reject Muslim or German-sounding names, while the placebo group’s decisions were notably less informed by superficial factors.
The hormone’s mission to tend and defend makes us more prone to form allegiances towards those with similar characteristics and just as well more readily aware of distinctions.
We are genetically presupposed to crumble in the presence of tribalism.
There are less obvious by-products of the hypothalamus as well. Because oxytocin impacts our ability to process social cues, it indirectly correlates to our productivity in the workplace.
In an attempt to better comprehend the effect neurology has on a healthy corporate community, neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, successfully administered synthetic oxytocin into living brains during an experiment in the early 2000s. His team of researchers found increased levels of the hormones to have a clear effect on the firm’s profitability and the feelings of fulfillment in those cohabiting it.
According to Zak, productivity lives and dies by one stipulation: a strong community composed of members that have a clear understanding of their purpose within it.
Being rewarded trust by another increases levels of oxytocin significantly. Individuals with higher levels of oxytocin are found to have lower levels of stress, depression and be more apt at social interaction.
The same tend and defend mechanic can apply to a corporation. Employers are biologically incentivized to work harder for those they feel bonded towards.
Zak remarks: “These laboratory studies showed that when trust between team members is high, oxytocin flows and work feels less like, well, work, and more like doing interesting things with friends. ”
Organic methods of raising oxytocin
The production of oxytocin is all about catering to all the things that bring you joy. Considering the intimate things that make us happy is sort heretical in the corporate world, but it has an undeniable affect on its ability to thrive. Pet a dog, listen to music, copulate, take a bubble bath, hug a baby, (your own baby please).
The great thing about oxytocin though is that it responds equally to feeling good as it does to making others feel good. Giving gifts has been studied to raise levels of the hormone. Perfect timing too. People that receive chocolate and flowers exhibit higher levels of oxytocin, as do people that bequeath them.
It’s an evolutionary mistake not to revel in love and empathy.
You know the feeling. The alarm goes off and before you’ve found the button, your brain is already in the shower, fretting over the day ahead. So much work to do. How will you get it all done? Will you do OK in that big presentation? So many meetings you aren’t looking forward to. You want to pick up your daughter after school but secretly know you hardly have the time to do so.
Dread kicks in. What’s wrong with my life?
This is the scenario neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett paints in an interesting TED talk she gave in December 2017 and in her book How Emotions Are Made.
The good news is that you don’t have to be held hostage by this spiraling A.M. anxiety. Barrett’s research points to a surprising finding about our emotions: they’re linked to physical sensations your body is feeling. That’s right, your brain reacts to physical sensations you’re feeling in the form of emotions.
In other words, you might be feeling that sense of dread as soon as you wake up because you simply didn’t sleep well, because you’re hungry, or because you feel dehydrated.
As Barrett explains:
“Your brain is searching to find an explanation for those sensations in your body that you experience as wretchedness. But those sensations might not be an indication that anything is wrong with your life.”
So before you go off the deep end with your morning mental swim, Barrett says ask yourself one question about what you’re feeling, just seven words:
“Could this have a purely physical cause?”
I tried this and found that quite often the answer is, yes. For me, I often wake up parched and, like most of us, have nights where I just didn’t sleep well. I paid attention to this and noticed whenever I felt that sense of dread, it went away as I woke up, drank water, and had breakfast.
But I’d like to add another seven-word question to the mix that you can use when you’re feeling that morning dread; in case your emotions aren’t just based on a physical sensation you’re experiencing in the moment.
“Could this be a signal for change?”
Some have called it Sunday Night Dread–that pit in your stomach you feel as you wind down on Sunday night and think about the day ahead tomorrow. A general unease and unhappiness nags at you. That’s the front line. Ground zero is when you wake up in the morning and the dread is instant and intensified as you face the immediate prospects of the day ahead.
Experiencing this over and over may be a sign that it’s time to make a change and engage in a different line of work or make dramatic changes at the job you’re in.
I experienced this towards the end of my corporate days. I ignored the feeling at first, and then for too long, frankly. Eventually, I let it trigger deep introspection, which ultimately led me to leave corporate behind and embark on my current entrepreneurial journey. I’m so glad I didn’t ignore the signals my morning routine was sending me.
So don’t accept that feeling of morning dread as “just the way it is”. Use Barrett’s question to discern if there’s an underlying physical cause based on what you’re feeling that morning. Use my question so that you’re not just brushing off that dread as you’re brushing your hair. Instead, look in the mirror and get honest with yourself.