Six words you hate hearing at work

“I have some feedback for you.”

Most people react viscerally when someone says that to us because we fear we’re about to be skewered and spit roasted over the scorching fire of character assassination personal appraisal.

Immediately, your brain’s alarm centers roar into action to face the threat. Maybe you get clammy hands, moist upper lip, increased heart rate and dilated pupils. Maybe it’s dry mouth and sweaty armpits.

Your hypothalamus releases chemicals to your pituitary gland which releases hormones to your blood, one of which activates the release of stress chemicals from your adrenal glands on your kidneys, the levels of which are monitored by the hypothalamus which will adjust accordingly, closing the feedback loop.

This is to help you manage the threat that’s bearing down on you.

All for these six words.

And then we make it worse

As if “feedback” isn’t bad enough by itself, we then formalize it into the once a year, Annual Performance Review. It sometimes goes by an alias, but you know what it is. You might even know when your next one is. Maybe you’re even preparing for it.

Our brains are far more readily attuned to threat than reward, to loss than gain, so getting ready for “feedback” requires us to overcome some significant biological constraints in order to take it constructively. Research out of Kansas State University suggests that nobody likes negative feedback reviews, even those who love to learn for the sake of learning.

Lead researcher Satoris Culbertson, assistant professor of management, notes that motivation, commitment and performance can all be affected by negative feedback, and managers need to be mindful of the impact of their feedback.

But feedback is a two-way street

To be fair, many managers and colleagues don’t like having hard conversations like this, and giving negative feedback can be extremely unpleasant. Moreover, it can be difficult to give feedback knowing that the person on the receiving end may be tying themselves in all kind of emotional knots, and particularly if you have a good personal relationship with them.

That said, being open to feedback from your manager or a colleague requires significant trust in them, insofar as you trust them to be honest and compassionate at the same time, while providing information that is for your benefit and given without strings or fish hooks. It’s no mean feat.




Feedback and politics

In fact, research from Rice University shows how the social environment can either encourage or inhibit that feedback. Jisoo Ock, lead author and Rice doctoral candidate in psychology, notes that “anecdotal evidence has shown that interpersonal political considerations are nearly always a part of the employee review process.”

Managers are, by and large, genuinely concerned about motivation, commitment and performance and can tend to avoid accurate but low ratings to minimize the negative consequences on the employee and, therefore, the business. Ratings are frequently clustered at the higher end, softening the blow for the employee, but at the same time shortchanging them of valuable information and the company of higher performance and better productivity.

It’s worse for colleagues.  When asked to score a co-worker’s performance, the social context plays a major and singularly discomfiting role. In short, we rarely like to criticize our friends, especially if we have to keep working together.

We’re usually not set up for it

What often makes these conversations difficult is not always the nature of the conversation, but the organizational structures that lead to them. Having a once a year performance review asks you to present, in an hour or so, compelling information and examples from the past year to evidence your outstanding performance.

Moreover, because organizations usually favor some kind of rating system like a 1-5 score, or something like ‘achieved below expectations’ through to ‘exceeded expectations’, we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve received or delivered an objective evaluation.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece recently arguing that ratings perhaps reflect more of the employer than the employee, and that they do more harm than good, sometimes for months after the rating. According to WSJ, execs however, still like them. Every year they get a view of how people perform against each other, keeping a healthy tension between employees’ performance, while allowing rewards to be distributed equitably.

Distributing rewards on this basis assumes that the ratings are accurate, not gamed by the employee or employer, not subject to internal politics and environment, and are an accurate and objective analysis of performance when assessed only once, or maybe twice, a year.

Preparing for the Annual Performance Review is best done all year, by carefully collecting artifacts for your performance portfolio while matching them against your position description and performance targets with an appropriate commentary.

It’s just that most people don’t do this, and most managers don’t keep track either. Consequently, when we get to the Annual Performance Review, we’re forced by the vagaries of memory to build an entire review on standout highlights or lowlights and/or recent evidence, all of which are affected by significant, unacknowledged cognitive biases.

We’re left with a blunt instrument that lacks the subtleties and finesse required to actually improve performance.

Getting decent, accurate, useful feedback

Imagine a top sports performer, it doesn’t matter who. Then imagine that their coach sits them down once a year and they discuss how they each think the player has performed in the past year. They have only one hour, and the outcome will determine if the player still has a job, and how much they will earn on top of salary in the next 12 months. This will come down to a score out of 5.

Sounds silly when you put it like this, no?

A top sports performer will get regular, frequent and immediate feedback on their performance, so that they can make the continual small adjustments necessary to improve performance. Constructive feedback given regularly like this overcomes the brain’s perception of threat created by the Annual Performance Review and facilitates an accumulation of evidence with which performance can be more accurately measured.

So here’s the take home bit

Change is easiest when it’s small. Incremental changes are easier to make than large change, and can more easily overcome the brain’s threat response.

So, performance needs regular input, with frequent coaching. Performance reviews are best done as an accumulation of small steps, rather than as a one-off attempting to cover the whole year.

What do you think?

For more on this, drop us a line at the Brain Fitness Institute.

Key words

Annual Performance Review, coaching, brain, threat response, performance

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness seminars and coaching here.

Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it! 

Posted in General, Motivation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Is your brainstorming costing you money?

Problem-solving and brainstorming in a rut?

Problem-solving and brainstorming in a rut?

When thinking gets stuck

I’m sure you’ve seen it.

You know, when the team is called together around the table to brainstorm. You’re all supposed to suggest brilliantly clever ideas in enormous quantities without necessarily judging or condemning any other ideas

Except it doesn’t really work that well. Does it?

Usually, the classic brainstorm becomes a shoutfest where the earliest, loudest voices get the most airtime and grab the most attention, and subsequent ideas become variations on the already established themes.

By and large, if this is your experience of brainstorming, you’ll appreciate it doesn’t work. You’ll also see how, once we have a concept in mind, we can easily get fixed on it.

Like candles and pliers.

A cognitive problem

Duncker's (1945) candle problem

Duncker’s (1945) candle problem

Here’s a puzzle. If you have a candle, some matches and a box of thumbtacks, how would you attach the candle to the wall?

This is a great old puzzle that illustrates the simple end of a classic cognitive problem. For sure you’ve had it happen to you, and no doubt you’ve witnessed it. It’s also a problem in the workplace where, increasingly, creativity is a highly-prized ability.

And so to overcome this problem we have a brainstorm…

The problem is that once we see something one way, it can be remarkably difficult to see it another way.

The candle problem solution

The candle problem solution

In this case, we often see that the items need to be used in only one way. Properly, this is known as functional fixedness, where the function of something is seen to be fixed.

Recognising an alternate use or, more conceptually speaking, an alternate combination of information, can take quite some effort.

Here’s another one

This is another classic.

The two cords problem

The two cords problem

Now that you know to look for multiple uses of items, see how you go.

In this puzzle, unimaginatively called the two cords problem, you have two cords hanging from the ceiling.

Your goal is to grab hold of both cords, but they aren’t long enough for you to hold one, and then grab the other. On a nearby table are some pliers. They don’t help you reach either, but you’ll try it!

What will you do?

I’m sure you figured it out.

The two cords solution

The two cords solution

The trick here is to see the pliers simply as a heavy weight, rather than a tool for holding things, or an extension of your own arm and reach.

If you tie the pliers to one of the ropes, you can then use their weight to swing the rope.

You can now take hold of the stationary rope and then catch the swinging rope.

Merely understanding that we make this error can help us overcome it. So often though, we simply get stuck, and think in ever-decreasing circles.

Does it limit you?

This stuckness can manifest itself in many ways, including one known as the Einstellung effect. Merim Bilalić (Department of Psychology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria) explains in a recently published study.

“Our brain generally prefers a familiar, trusted solution, rather than exploring alternatives.” As a result, we’ll stick with the tried and true, or just fail to identify other possibilities.

Bilalić continues, noting that this bias can present in any number of areas. A quick bit of reflection would show you possibilities for errors in medical diagnoses, corporate decisions, relationship conflicts, career decisions, day to day problem solving, crime investigation, teaching and so forth.

“We believe that we generally approach problems with an open mind. However, the brain unconsciously steers our attention towards previously stored knowledge. Any information that does not match the solution or the theory we have already internalized, tends to be ignored or masked.”

Or are we fooling ourselves?

The brain strives for efficiency, so will resort to its ‘go to solutions’ rather than develop new ones. Sometimes this is enormously beneficial, as you don’t have to create new things for familiar situations. Additionally, pattern recognition is something that the brain is astonishingly good at.

On the other hand, at times it can feel as if your brain is working against you by doing the very things it’s so good at.

For example, Bilalić’s team noted the problem in chess players who persisted with a more complex strategy, even when shown a simpler one. Moreover, eye tracking technology showed they were looking only at the squares that supported their view.

But not only did they keep their gaze on squares they had already identified as part of their move sequence, they were adamant that they had not! They insisted they had looked for, and considered other alternatives but were, in reality, blind to them (nod to the confirmation bias and inattentional blindness here too).

Consequently, you can see how this might affect creativity, problem solving and decision making in many domains.

So here’s the take home bit

In the workplace, in the traditional brainstorming session we looked at to begin with, options quickly become limited and views fixed. We tend to think about things based on existing relationships and patterns, and tend to not consider alternative combinations of information.

Alternatives are really only variations of an early idea. Worse, we might fail to consider any real alternatives and yet fool ourselves into thinking that we have. Rather than brainstorming helping us move out of a stuck situation, our cognitive weaknesses can foster more of the same.

I would wager there are bottom line impacts if we trust this process for development and innovation.

What do you think?

For seriously effective creativity, drop us a line at the Brain Fitness Institute.

Key words

Einstellung effect, cognitive bias, functional fixedness

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness seminars and coaching here.

Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it! 

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Want an effective nap? Start with a coffee.

A quick sleep on the job can be beneficial

A quick sleep on the job can be beneficial

Ever fallen asleep at work? 

Even just a quick little nod off before you snapped awake. Maybe, as I have, you’ve dropped off in a meeting, woken, and hoped your colleagues thought you were just concentrating…

If this is you, here’s a hack you might find useful.

The trick to a good nap is timing. You want to be a bit refreshed, while at the same time not too groggy.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, arranging a nap with a good hit of coffee is an excellent tactic.

Let’s look at coffee, or more particularly caffeine, then sleep, then join the ideas together.


We class caffeine as a stimulant but it isn’t actually the caffeine that does the stimulating. More accurately, caffeine binds extremely well with the numerous adenosine receptors in the brain, leading the brain to believe that it has plenty of adenosine and doesn’t require more.

Consequently, the brain doesn’t produce adenosine, and the normal effects of adenosine are overridden.

Adenosine is an inhibitory substance that, among other things, is responsible for promoting sleep, and inhibiting arousal. It’s a byproduct of the brain’s activities and builds up of a day.

So, if you don’t produce adenosine, you won’t promote sleep, and you won’t prevent arousal because you’ve removed an inhibitory substance, and you’ve let natural stimulants like dopamine and glutamate run amok.

Or in other words, you’ll feel more awake, more stimulated and more alert. Dopamine and glutamate are the stimulants, caffeine just releases the handbrake of adenosine.

Once you’ve had a coffee, it takes approximately 20 minutes for the caffeine to reach your brain.


Adults sleep in approximately 90 minute cycles, getting four or five cycles a night. Each cycle comprises two different types of sleep, which are probably familiar to you.

REM Sleep, short for Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, is one.

NREM Sleep, short for Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, is the other.

NREM accounts for most of your sleep each night, and it’s further divided into different stages: Stages 1, 2 and 3.

Throughout the night, sleep follows a largely predictable pattern, looking something like this.

  • Awake
  • Stage 1
  • Stage 2
  • Stage 3
  • Stage 2
  • REM

Stage 1

Between sleep and wakefulness, we’re reasonably easily woken, and we’re here for 5-10 minutes.

Stage 2

Brain waves are slowing and core body temperature is dropping, while we become increasingly harder to rouse. Stage 2 lasts up to 20 minutes.

Stage 3

About half of our time is in Stage 3, which is deep sleep. If we sleeptalk, sleepwalk, have night terrors or wet the bed, it’s usually in Stage 3. We’re especially hard to wake, and it’s most likely here that memories are consolidated.

REM Sleep

The key characteristic of REM Sleep is obviously the rapidly moving eyes, clearly visible beneath the eyelids. The other key feature is a lack of muscle tone, so people are floppy and relaxed.

The interesting thing about REM Sleep is that the REM brainwaves look very much like those of an awake, alert brain, leading us to the nickname of paradoxical sleep.

About a quarter of our nightly sleep is in REM. Additionally, we spend more time in REM with each successive sleep cycle overnight. The last two, cycles four and five, are especially rich in REM. This is another reason we look for a good and full night’s sleep.

A little trick you need to know

Here’s a key to remember.

Sleep clears adenosine from the brain. Adenosine receptors then become available for competing substances, such as caffeine.

Sleep cycle optimization. With a caveat

Optimally, we need to aim for complete sleep cycles wherever we can. If this isn’t possible, next best is to aim for naps of approximately 20 minutes, as this is how long we’d usually spend in Stage 1 and 2, before we start to transition into Stage 3.

Once we get into Stage 3, we ideally need to get the whole cycle done. Otherwise, we’ll wake real groggy and take some time to fully wake up.

But the caveat is this. If you’re tired, and you just need to sleep, it can be awkward or impossible to get an optimal amount. 10 minutes might be all you can get. 90 minutes means you might lose your job!

So if push gets to shove, any sleep is better than no sleep, so if you need it and you can get it, then take it.

Yes, you might wake a little groggy, but this will pass.

Nap optimization: putting caffeine and sleep together

You now know that an ideal nap time is about 20 minutes.

You also know that caffeine takes about 20 minutes to hit your brain.

You know that sleep clears adenosine.

And you know that caffeine binds to adenosine receptors.


That’s a match.

This gives you a perfect 20 minute window of opportunity to grab some sleep and wake feeling pretty refreshed. By the time you’re looking to wake up, you’ve cleared adenosine from your brain by sleeping, and the caffeine is acting in your brain to give you a little jumpstart by filling the now empty adenosine receptors.

Good little hack, no?

Maximizing your optimizing

A couple of tips to make this the most effective.

Make sure you drink the coffee quickly. Otherwise, while you’re dawdling through your coffee it’s entering your bloodstream from your intestines, and making its way to your brain. Caffeine crosses easily through the blood-brain barrier and enters your brain where it begins to plug in to your adenosine receptors. By the time you put your head down, it might be most of the way there and will start working too early, negating what good effect you might have achieved.

You need also to ensure that it’s been some time since your last sleep. This won’t work if you’ve been up for only an hour or two. Usually we have a bit of a dip after lunch, in the siesta time. This is an excellent time for an optimized nap

So here’s the take home bit

For excellent performance, have a good quick cup of coffee, then nap for 20 minutes. You’ll wake up refreshed and sharper.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Adenosine, sleep cycle, NREM Sleep, REM Sleep

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!

Posted in General, Neuroscience, Sleep | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Could you beat Bolt if you practiced for 10,000 hours?


Usain Bolt. Fastest man alive. Could you beat him?

Usain Bolt. Fastest man alive. Could you beat him?

I cheated on my spelling tests 

We got lists from school, and I flat-out lied to my parents that I’d done them, naively forging my mother’s signature in my childish handwriting to prove I’d learned them, and deadpan lying about the signature too.

It’s a trivial example really, but illustrative.

For I’m an excellent speller. Always have been. Never needed to try, just knew how to do it.

Had I an unfair practice advantage? Had I more time at it than other kids? No. Had I had 10,000 hours? C’mon, I was already really good. Was I an elite performer? I wouldn’t know – I never competed. With some practice, maybe, but surely not 10,000 hours.

And there’s the rub

There’s been a fuss in the last month or so over the utility of the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, 10,000 hours over 10 years is pitched as a guideline for becoming an expert in an endeavor. Thanks largely to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s one of those neat and tidy factoids you can wrap in pink paper, tie off with a bow and store safely in your bag for later display at various social functions.

Diehard, extremist proponents might claim that 10,000 hours in 10 years can make you expert in, well, anything, almost regardless of the position from which you start.

We’ve talked before about situations where this might not be the case, where pre-existing conditions will be an advantage, and where fewer than, or more than, 10,000 hours might be required.

Suffice to say, it’s not that simple.

Take sprinters for example

In The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle points out that of the last 10 Olympic champion sprinters, men and women, none of them are the eldest child. They rank on average, as 4th out of 4.6 children. Coyle suggests that younger children, being naturally smaller than their older siblings, might have to try harder to keep up, and so become faster. In this instance, birth order, and behavioral context could be key elements.

That might be true.

They are also almost always of West African descent.

Black is beautiful. And fast.

So it might also be true that there’s something about the genetics, anatomy or physiology of being black that contributes to their preponderance at elite level.

Maybe it’s naturally faster muscle twitch that provides more explosive power.  Maybe it’s their higher concentration of the protein Alpha-actinin-3 found in fast twitch muscle fiber. Maybe it’s that black people have a wider knee joint which facilitates a more fluid, longer stride.

Grand Valley State University researchers Michael Lombardo and Robert Deaner would tell you in a paper published in June this year, that outstanding speed before beginning formal training is a requirement for achieving world-class times. Moreover, Lombardo and Deaner would add that this speed is evident within 5 years and, for more than half of the Olympic champions, within three years.

At least for sprinters (and the shot putters, javelin throwers and discus throwers they studied) they argue that talent must play a significant part. Clearly, physical characteristics and strengths help shape expertise in these endeavours.

And there’s the chess players…

In 2013, Michigan State’s Zach Hambrick found similar things with chess and music, which require more dexterity and cerebral power than they do strength and speed. According to Hambrick practice, even deliberative practice, isn’t enough. He writes “The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”

The age at which you began, parental involvement, working memory capacity and general intelligence are all likely contributors.

In July 2014, Hambrick published with Brooke Macnamara from Case Western Reserve University and Frederick L. Oswald from Rice University. They found that practice could explain only 12% in mastering skills in different fields, from music, sports and games to education and professions.

The importance of practice was:

  • 26% for games
  • 21% for music
  • 18% for sports
  • 4% for education and
  • less than 1% for other professions.

Intrinsic motivation, positive and negative feedback, confidence and risk taking may all be implicated in developing expertise.

Is it self-evident?

Now if you were to ask a coach, I wager this might not be such a revelation.

A coach might say there’s no doubt that starting young with someone born at the right time in the right place in the family using deliberative practice with immediate and detailed feedback on tasks that can be made interesting in an environment where someone is rooting for you along with your own intrinsic motivation and clear goals that are within reach but out of grasp and sometimes some competition or tailored incentives with the help of the right body can help you improve in areas of your game you need to work on.

Maybe even get really, really good.

Teachers might agree. For basic reading, writing and arithmetic these other considerations are surely important. And practice will certainly improve your game.

But 10,000 hours alone. No.

So what gives?

Sitting alongside this is an enormous industry of aptitude tests, personality and behavioral profiling, skill analysis and so forth. We use this information at schools, universities, in Human Resource departments, career counselling services, dating sites and the like to help find careers, passions, partners and so forth.

Some of them are excellent and can tip us into fulfilling careers and relationships.

They exist because we believe we’re naturally better at some things than others, and we like to do more of the things we’re good at.

So here’s the take home bit

Excellent performers exploit their advantages to become elite, but only with the right combination of inputs.

The rest of us can do the same to improve in the things we do.

If the practice is going nowhere, find something else or somehow else to practice, even though we can’t all be number one. Usain Bolt is safe for now.

And maybe I’m a better speller than him anyways…

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

10,000 hours

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!


Posted in General, Learning, Motivation | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Women, men and why women are more empathic when stressed.




What are you like when stressed? Moody and sullen? Outgoing and distracted? Withdrawn and isolating? Plate-throwing and shouldn’t be let near sharp objects?

It might be absurdly self-evident to suggest that you respond to stress differently from other people.

It could also help your office dynamics and team cohesion if you had something of a yardstick to benchmark people by, and an understanding of how and why we might respond the way we do.

There are still some things that make us all the same

No matter who you are, there is a standard pattern of physiological response to stress. Stress activates what’s called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is a branch of the autonomic nervous system which is itself a branch of the peripheral nervous system. It’s called ‘peripheral’ to differentiate it from the ‘central’ nervous system.

Consider the SNS an accelerator, revving our bodily systems. Heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, pupils dilate, digestion and excretion stops, and blood flows to the large muscle groups, preparing us for action.

The brain directs the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands (on the kidneys) for short-term stress, and cortisol for long-term stress.

When the stress appears to have reduced, the parasympathetic nervous system (consider this a brake) restores the pre-stress levels. Pupils constrict, heart rate and blood pressure drop, digestion and excretion resume, and blood flows back to the internal organs.

The same pattern occurs in men and women.

But when and how that pattern might be activated, can be different. And if we step back from the purely physiological, we’ll see striking differences, particularly in how we behave.

The fun chemical

Dopamine is now famous for its role in reward. We all usually have plenty of it. In a typical brain, dopamine is released by a nerve cell, it acts on those nerve cells around it, and is then absorbed by the original cell. Over and over again, for billions of cells, and trillions of connections.

Too much dopamine though, and we get overwhelmed, can’t think straight, can’t remember, can’t manage to think clearly.

Some of us clear dopamine away at lightning speed, but risk poor performance by being understressed. These people need stress to perform well. Others clear it away at slow speed. They’re better under lower stress.

In nearly all of the brain, a transporter protein does this clearing job quickly and efficiently.

Except, that is, in your high-powered prefrontal cortex. This is your brain’s executive suite. But here, there are very few dopamine transporter proteins, and dopamine uptake is terrible. We rely on a back up, called COMT (catechol–O–methyltransferase).

And here’s what’s fascinating about COMT. It’s not as good as the regular transporter protein. And it’s affected, substantially, by a hormone.


Estrogen suppresses the function of COMT so it performs a bad job even worse than usual.

For women, when estrogen levels are high (twice a month, at ovulation and just before menstruation) dopamine levels are also very high, as it’s just not being removed. At these times, awash in estrogen and dopamine, women are more susceptible to stress, and more likely to feel pressure.

When you create this situation in the lab, stress resulted in women making fewer, slower, less risky, less successful decisions. Men made faster, more risky, but more calculated and more profitable decisions.

When faced with tasks, stress helped the men, and hindered the women.

Men might not have noticed…

In fact, work from Vienna, city of cafes, culture, and the original consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud, suggests that men and women react in opposite ways when taxed.

Fights or friends?

Psychologist Claus Lamm and his University of Vienna team demonstrated that the typical male pattern stress response was egocentric. That is, he looked inwards, looking to protect himself, conserving energy and resources for the anticipated fight or flight. He became less aware of the needs of others and less able to take their perspective.

Stress narrowed his perceptions, and his ability to understand others, but he became very task focused.

Women, on the other hand, demonstrated an approach that was typically outward looking, looking for social support and heightening their ability to take another’s perspective, known as a tend and befriend approach. They were more likely to look to offer empathy to others, and even more so than they might have been before the stress.

Naturally, I’m overstating a little to draw the contrast, but you get the point.

Claus and team note some possibilities for why this difference might be so marked, including the release of oxytocin, a social chemical found in higher quantities in women’s brains that men’s.

Maybe, but there’s more

Women, it seems, are wired for this tend and befriend approach. In another series of studies published in 2012 by Nichole Lightfoot and collaborators, subjects had their brains scanned during a stressful event. There was a key difference between their male and female subject groups.

At the back of the brain, in the part of the brain known as the occipital lobe, the cortex of which is chiefly responsible for processing visual inputs, is a small area for identifying familiar objects, including faces. It’s called the fusiform gyrus, and sometimes the special little bit of the gyrus is called the fusiform face area. Especially, it helps us recognize and scan faces to read the various emotional shades, nuances and cues that the face displays.

In women under stress, activity here increases in a way not seen in the brains of men under stress.

In actual fact, activity in this area decreases in men; it’s suppressed. They tune out the faces of other people, and will most likely fail to recognize many social cues. Women, already better than men at reading social cues anyway, now excel at it.

Men, already the poorer at it, are now worse.

And then…

Moreover, men tend to process stressful emotional conversations with their right hemisphere, which is great for remembering only the gist. This may explain why he’s over it in 3 seconds and moving on, and doesn’t really remember too much about why she was mad….

Women tend to process stressful emotional conversations with the whole brain, and more especially the left hemisphere, which is great for detail. So she will remember the words, the tone, and everything, across many more data points than he can imagine, and will most certainly not be over it in 3 seconds, given the amount of data she has to work through.

And given that when she’s stressed she’s likely to be more emotional, while he’s likely to become more calculated, which easily becomes argumentative…

So here’s the take home bit

Now imagine those men and women in the same team. Subject the team to pressure, and note how differently they’ll look to cope with the stress, and how easily miscommunication and misunderstanding can arise. Maybe you’ve been there yourself?

Imagine a team with a minority of women. She might find the male majority unsupportive and disinterested. She looks to tend and befriend but finds nobody in the team available. They find her needy and annoying and wish she’d just get on with it.

By contrast, imagine a team with a minority of men. He might find the female majority cloying and overbearing and wish they’d leave him alone. He’ll handle it thanks. They find him disengaged, not a team player, separatist, aloof and difficult to deal with.

What about a boardroom where she feels stressed and becomes emotional, given the data points she has, while he glibly mocks her for emotions in his unempathic way.

Or, as you can guess, you could imagine it at home. If a man and woman are getting into an argument, and stress is starting to rise… you can see where this is going.

A misunderstanding, or lack of appreciation of how and why we naturally respond to stress, given our gender-specific wiring, can lead straight to more stress, and more miscommunication, and so on, in an escalating cycle.

How might we coach teams?

How might we teach relationships?

When might we start?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Dopamine, Oxytocin, COMT, Catechol-O-methyltransferase

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!


Posted in Children, Emotion, General, Memory | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What 12 years a slave teaches about our minds

12 years a slave

A slave and your mind  

12 years a Slave won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, with its depiction of the abduction, often brutal slavery, and restoration to freedom of Solomon Northup.

You may not have seen it, but the psychology of it will be familiar.

In our last post we saw how telling lies is evidence of a developing theory of mind, as lies are the attempt by one mind to influence another. 12 years shows another aspect of recognizing one’s mind is unique and separate, which is the denigration, dismissal, or destruction of one mind by another.

What’s familiar about the psychology of it is that we all do it.

To understand how, we’re going to cram into one blog four famous experiments, prisons, electric shock, eagles, rattlesnakes, and children with differently colored eyes.


In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes the dehumanization practised by his Nazi captors while he was a prisoner of war.

Some prisoners managed to come through with their minds. Others had their minds broken. Frankl describes prisoners who, having lost hope in life, were the first to die, defeated not by starvation or disease, but by lack of hope. Their minds had been overcome, their resources overwhelmed.

As others would attest, Frankl’s experiences are not unique, and nor are these experiences found only in Auschwitz, or even only in the Holocaust. The same forms of behavior are recorded in communist regimes, dictatorships, interrogation routines, gang wars, prison, and most places where one group is in a position of power over another and there might be few or only gentle consequences for those in charge. Abu Ghraib is perhaps a contemporary example.

These behaviors seem beyond the pale for most people.

Unless you’re Philip Zimbardo.

The Stanford Prison experiment

They might seem extreme behaviors, but in his classic Stanford Prison experiment, psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed these same dehumanizing behaviors could be swiftly and powerfully created and manifested, even in an artificial situation.

Zimbardo’s now famous experiment with a group of college students randomly allocated to be either a guard or a prisoner inside Zimbardo’s fake prison raised a number of issues. Crucially, it showed how a seemingly innocuous group of college students could, in the right context, become feared and despised prison guards, displaying the behaviors we’re talking about here.

One of the key outcomes of behavior like this, in which we devalue, denigrate, or dehumanize the mind of another, is that it creates a psychological distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, by establishing or increasing the sense of superiority one has over another.

It’s an important concept.

Electric shocks

In Stanley Milgram’s equally famous electric shock experiments, he demonstrated a critical effect of psychological distance. (Geographical distance is also relevant and helps contribute to psychological distance.)

Milgram showed that creating psychological distance, which we do in various ways, such as by enlarging the physical distance between people, by elevating oneself, by denigrating another, by making them less human – that is less capable, inferior or defective some way – allows us to perpetrate harm.

It does so because the distance we create insulates us from, and allows us to be less cognizant of, the mind of the other. It allows us to believe or to consider that the other doesn’t have a mind as good as ours, or that they don’t have a mind at all. They are less than us.

Inflicting harm becomes easier and easier. The greater the distance, the less obvious the consequences for us, so it’s easier to inflict harm, and the more harm we can inflict.

A little closer to home

These are extreme examples, but they make the point because they’re so clear. Zimbardo and Milgram both showed that we can inflict harm on another if the context is right, and we can do so through psychological distance.

You see these behaviors in war, genocide, enslavement, persecution, bigotry and prejudice. They’re perhaps the obvious examples.

You also see them in negative stereotypes, labels, ‘them vs us’ language, insults and name calling, which are the thin edge of the same wedge.

They are the representation that one mind is superior to another, because the other is less human, somehow defective, or otherwise generally unworthy.

You probably do it too, because you see it when we create in-groups and out-groups, at school, college, work, and even within families.

Here’s how easy it is.

You might remember these?

Eagles and Rattlers

It all looked like a normal 1954 summer camp, when the summer camp is organized by social psychologists like Muzafer Sherif that is. The Robber’s Cave is another classic, demonstrating how in-group and out-group behaviors developed, and the resulting progression of behavior. Sherif’s intent was to create and then resolve intergroup conflict.

Simply, two groups of boys attended a summer camp at Robber’s Cave, not knowing there was another group. When this was revealed, each group quickly adopted a name (Eagles and Rattlers) and began a process of us versus them, in-group and out-group behavior that would degenerate from competitiveness to insults, to raiding each other’s campsite, to developing weapons (rocks in socks), to physical confrontation where boys had to be forcibly restrained from each other.

The process followed a familiar, deteriorating pattern as each group sought to establish their superiority and the other’s inferiority.

And there’s this…

Jane Elliott and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children

In response to the shooting of Martin Luther King, and in an exercise designed to promote discussion of racism, teacher Jane Elliot devised this in-class experiment. The concept comes from Mila 18, Leon Uris’ 1961 novel about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Uris’ book, one way of determining who went to the gas chamber was eye color.

On Friday, April 5, in her classroom of eight year olds, Elliot designated blue-eyed children as superior, and had them wrap collars around the necks of brown-eyed children, identifying them as the inferior minority. Blue-eyed children received special privileges at school (more food, access to the new climbing frame) and were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed kids.

She prohibited shared drinking fountains, and highlighted negative aspects of the brown-eyed children.

While she encountered resistance, this melted when she told them that the melanin that made kids blue-eyed, was linked to their superior intelligence and learning.

Subsequently, the ‘superior’ children became bossy, arrogant and offensive, while their academic performance improved, including on tasks that had previously been too hard. The ‘inferior’ children became submissive, timid and subservient, and their grades dropped, including on tasks that had previously been easy.

They were only eight.

It took less than a day.

Have a look.

So here’s the take home bit

Minds are powerful things.

These things we do,  in minimizing others, racial insults, denigrating comments, sexism, office bullying, marginalizing family members, negative stereotyping and so on, create a psychological distance that facilitates further infliction of harm.

How did you learn it?

What are you modelling?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Theory of mind, dehumanization

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!


Posted in Children, Emotion, General, Memory | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No one likes a liar. So why teach our kids to tell lies?



Liar, liar.

Ever noticed that we simultaneously disapprove and approve of our children telling lies?

Actually, it’s worse than that.

Ever noticed in yourself the flagrant hypocrisy that would allow you to reprimand or punish your children for lying, while at the same time actively coach them in exactly how and why to do it?

Be honest… it goes something like this.

“Don’t tell me lies” we’ll tell our little miscreant, frowning darkly.

And then, in How to be an Awesomely Consistent Parent 101, we’ll say “Tell Grandma how much you like the lovely sweater she knitted especially for you”.

“Thanks Grandma. I love my new sweater you knitted especially for me…”

Precious little darling isn’t he? So kind to Grandma.

Ba boom.

Now note if you’re smiling awkwardly and/or immediately rationalizing to yourself that the story to Grandma isn’t really lying. Now note if you’re rationalizing your rationalizing.

Awkward isn’t it.

Apart from following the well-worn maxim that you can’t be polite and honest in the same sentence, this is a confusing piece of parenting. I’m pretty certain most of us are guilty of this at some stage.

But it is incredibly revealing.

What’s going on?

We’re wired for each other.

It’s a rare human that doesn’t feel the need for others; avoidant personality disorder and some computer programmers aside.

Your brain is a social brain. It’s affected by, and affects, the brains of others. That you probably know this is evidence of what’s called Theory of Mind (ToM), which is the ability to know that you have a mind, and that other people do too, and that their intents, feelings, attitudes and so on, are different and independent from yours.

It’s an extraordinary ability we seem to be able to learn and employ with ridiculous ease, so much so that we’re usually gloriously unaware of it.

You started doing it early

ToM develops from about the age of three and, through age three and four, children become aware of themselves as an independent agent in their environment, and that you and others are independent agents too. Moreover, they learn that you have a different mind from them, and that what they do can influence your mind.

That makes for fascinating timing, because it’s also at this time that children start to tell lies designed specifically to deceive your mind. Some children lie before this in order to hide something they’ve done; this isn’t directed at your mind just at covering up what they did.

But at three and a half, or thereabouts, these lies reveal the monumental advances your child’s brain has made. Now when she lies, she is doing so from a worldview that recognizes you are a different agent from her, that you have different goals, and that she can construct an alternate reality for you that will alter your mind.

While she hasn’t the insight, language, or cognitive ability to articulate what she’s doing, her brain, and her theory of mind are by now complete enough to manage this astonishing feat.

At three and a half.

Staggering. The brain’s ability to learn about other brains and minds is inbuilt, incredibly powerful, and extremely useful.

Remarkable power

As we said, we’re wired for other people, hardwired, for good and bad.

Deceit is only one thing, and we do it all the time in knowing and unknowing ways. And we’re deceived by others, and ourselves, frequently. Yet understanding other people is how we get on in life, and it requires that we are constantly assessing people, gathering information, and making predictions about their mind which we can see outworked in their behavior now or later.

Making predictions is something the brain works hard to do, for it’s extremely beneficial. Given the amount of information raining upon it at any one time, it filters, sorts, decides what’s important, ascribes meaning to it, then determines if action is required and, if so, what action and how quickly. Then it stores this pattern for later use.

This is serious computational power, at work, all the time. And it helps us build trust, make friends, decide on enemies, adopt shared goals, form alliances, betray others and so on.

An application

When a positive pattern is re-triggered, such as seeing a good friend again, the brain bathes in happy chemistry. Anticipatory dopamine is released, and then oxytocin. Oxytocin is a social glue, and both oxytocin and dopamine are involved in reward. Friends make the brain feel good.

Enemies activate threat networks, warnings and fear in various measures. No happy chemistry here, but focused attention on the threat and how to negotiate it, rather than on feel goods.

If you think about how often you pay attention to someone else and adjust yourself to suit, you realize how much attention we pay to the minds of others, and the impact of others’ behavior on us.

As a rule, women are much better at interpreting social situations than men. Some people lack this social brain, to a greater or lesser degree, as with some of the autistic conditions, which makes interactions incredibly difficult. Some people understand the minds of others extremely well. If they care about the other person we say they’re empathic. If they understand others well but don’t care about the other and want to exploit them then they’re probably a sociopath.

But navigating our way through life requires that we rub shoulders with all kinds, and that we figure out a way to get along. That we understand their minds.

So we do.

We learn how to understand others’ minds, intents, feelings, attitudes and goals.

And we tell lies.

And we teach our children how to tell lies. Just little ones mind…

So here’s the take home bit

You’ve heard that nobody has a good enough memory to be a perfect liar. True enough.

But when children start to lie it is direct evidence of the maturing brain and the capacity it is developing. It’s normal for children to begin lying, and it’s akin to re-imagined, shared memory. Typically, the better the liar, the more creative they are too.

For some people, lying becomes a means to an end, and a convenient way of negotiating many relationships. For others it’s a simple way of getting past awkward truths which might have little consequence.

For all of these the brain is seeking to predict, forever searching for meaning and looking for patterns, and with it comes the knowledge of  how to influence the brain and mind of another.

At the same time, our brains and minds are being influenced by others, some negatively, some positively.

So, be honest.

What do we teach our children?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Theory of mind, Dopamine, Oxytocin

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!


Posted in Children, Emotion, General, Memory | 4 Comments

How the mafioso in your brain keeps your business running

There is a guy who gets things done

He lives in the in-between spaces.

He’s the guy who takes care of business. The guy who takes out the trash. The ‘removal man’. The ‘eraser’. The mafia call this guy ‘the cleaner’.

Your brain has one too.

He’s the brain’s hired gun, removing the corpses, executing the soon to be corpses, and disposing of the bodies.

He takes care of the grey matters.

You should meet him.

The grey matter

It’s common to hear the brain referred to as ‘the grey matter’. And, in truth, some of it is.

Most of it isn’t.

The grey matter, formally known as the Substantia grisea, is packed with the cell bodies of neurons, and has a very light grey tinge, given by the density of the cell bodies.

In a cross-section of your brain you can see the grey matter easily, as it’s in contrast to the rest of your brain, seen as white. Simply, white matter refers to the stuff in your brain that isn’t grey. It’s whiter due to having fewer cell bodies, and is made up primarily of myelin, and glia, or glial cells.

Only 15% of your brain’s volume is grey matter. The remainder is the white matter, the myelin and glia.

The white matter

Myelin is the fatty stuff that wraps itself around the long, rope-like axon of neurons, giving them a chain of sausages appearance and helping facilitate the nerve impulse from the cell body down the axon to the end of the cell. In a brain cross-section, you see it particularly in fibres that join one part of the brain to another, either within the cerebrum (the cortex or outer layer of the brain and a few structures underneath it) or between the cerebrum and structures deeper in the brain.

Glial cells, often considered the brain’s glue (glia comes from the Greek meaning glue), are remarkable, and more than simple glue. Myelin is actually an outgrowth of glial cells, and glia also helps maintain structure in the brain by surrounding neurons and holding them in place. The fattiness of glial cells helps insulate neurons, and they provide oxygen and nutrients to brain cells.

But as R. Davidson Fields pointed out in The Other Brain, (no affiliate link) his unfolding of our growing awareness of glia’s abilities, scientists discovered that glia even have their own communication network, in parallel to the more familiar communication system. It’s not electrically governed but manages still to spread information broadly across the brain.

And it’s one of these glial cells, the microglia, that takes care of your messy business, of the clean up.

The cleaner in your brain

Comprising about 15% of glial cells, microglia are roving removal men, efficiently eliminating dead cells, mercilessly executing dying cells and disposing of their bodies. They hunt for the waste byproducts of mental activity such as plaques (deposits of beta-amyloid protein seen in Alzheimer’s disease) and look for infection to deal with. They’re related to white blood cells which perform the same functions outside the brain.

They always seemed to be cannibalistic, living on dead and dying neurons. But more recent work shows they have a broader diet…

A glial diet

At birth, brains have limited white matter, but begin a journey of progressive myelination. Additionally, in the young brain, innumerable new connections are made. Neurons send out fibres from their body, to join with partner neurons nearby, or in different parts of the brain. These connections and pathways are critical for the massive cognitive power the brain harnesses. You’ll remember that the connecting point between two neurons isn’t really a touchpoint, but a microscopic gap-the synapse-where all kinds of mental magic happens.

It’s the synapse across which neurotransmitters flood when released by one cell, to join with receptors on the adjacent cell, activating it or preventing it from activating. It’s in the synapse that psychiatric medications typically work, affecting the quantity and effect of the neurotransmitters there.  The more you use a synapse, the stronger the connection between those two cells becomes. It’s an extraordinary place.

But in the developing brain, amidst the morass of new connections, many turn out to be poor quality or wrongly connected, and must be expertly and ruthlessly pruned off. But it’s not a random pruning. This selective cutting literally shapes the developing brain, and is crucial to its connectivity. Removing unnecessary synapses allows room for growth and, like any gardener knows, prune some off and the remaining ones grow stronger.

They must be cleaned up, and microglia feed on the synapses also.

Cornelius Gross, and colleagues, from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Monterotondo, Italy, showed how this happened back in 2011, by demonstrating that proteins found inside the synapse, are found also in the bellies of microglia, evidence of their diet.

Sometimes, they don’t eat enough

Overabundance of connections impairs the ability of connections to grow in strength, as there are simply too many connections to feed, and activity is frenetic and weak rather than deliberate and strong.

Building on his earlier work, Gross and collaborators at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), in Rovereto, and La Sapienza University in Rome, published new research this week in Nature Neuroscience. They note that for many people with autism (and other neurodevelopmental disorders), different parts of the brain communicate poorly, a result of the microglia failing to prune hard enough because there simply weren’t enough of them.

“We show that a deficit in microglia during development can have widespread and long-lasting effects on brain wiring and behavior,” says Cornelius Gross, “It leads to weak brain connectivity, decreased social behavior, and increased repetitive behavior, all hallmarks of autism.”

Microglia have a significant impact on the developing brain, and directly affect its connectivity and performance. But beyond even their impact in the early years of life, the sheer amount of white matter we have affects us throughout our lifespan.

It changes as we age

We know that in the early years of life the brain proliferates cells and prunes, and then undergoes a similar, slightly smaller-scale process around late childhood/early puberty. White matter, also, changes as we age, and age-related differences in white matter are linked to specific cognitive abilities in childhood and adulthood. And in a study published this week in Biological Psychiatry, Dr. Bart Peters and colleagues of the Zucker Hillside Hospital, investigated age and neurocognitive performance, in relation to nine white matter tracts, from childhood to late adulthood.

“Our study identified key brain circuits that develop during adolescence and young adulthood that are associated with the growth of learning, memory and planning abilities. These findings suggest that young people may not have full capacity of these functions until these connections have completed their normal trajectory of maturation beyond adolescence,” commented Peters.

“Our brain is changing throughout our lives. These changes underlie the capacities that emerge and are refined through adulthood,” explained Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “There are clues that the steps that we take to preserve our medical health and stimulate our minds also serve to further refine and maintain these connections. For good reasons, attending to brain health is increasingly a focus of healthy aging.”

So here’s the take home bit

Microglia, a subset of your glia, perform the dirty work of removing dead and dying cells. But more than just housekeeping, they are actively responsible for pruning synapses, directly shaping the brain and how it communicates with itself.

Additionally, overall white matter is critical for long-term cognitive performance, and it continues to develop and refine as we age.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Substantia grisea, microglia, glial cells

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!


Posted in General, Neuroscience, Sleep | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How your macho ego is slowly destroying your brain.

Macho Man - Randy Savage

Macho Man – Randy Savage

Maybe you’ve done it too

The report isn’t finished, the deadline is tomorrow, and it just has to be done.

You have no choice.

So you’ve loaded up on Red Bull, No-Doz, whatever legal upper you can get, and got busy.

You worked through the night.

You got it done.

You’re a legend.

And maybe it’s killing you.

The all-nighter

When it’s occasional, we can usually feel fine within a few days. The day immediately after the all-nighter itself, is usually manageable.

The next day is a killer.

The day after slightly less so, but still pretty ugly.

Going without sleep for only a single night substantially disrupts our daily clock, our circadian rhythms, and the brain takes considerable time – days that is – to get things back in order. Regularity is crucial for sleep, and so the brain seeks to restore it, including how much time it spends in each of the stages of sleep.

Broken sleep, such as when you have a new baby, is different again, in that we seem constantly tired, sleep is disrupted every night, and it can take months to get on top of our own sleep.

But make no mistake… if you deprive the brain of sleep, incurring a sleep debt as you go, your brain will, one way or another, make you pay. It wants to restore the balance it had, and the routine it was used to. Now that you’ve gone and messed it up, the brain wants it back.

There is always a cost, and sleep debt comes with interest.

Debt and interest

Research from the Divisions of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, both of Boston, showed that prolonged sleep restriction, with concurrent disruption of the brain’s circadian rhythms, altered metabolism to the point that we increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Moreover, one night’s sleep loss makes the brain hungrier, affects the ability to choose proper foods, and increases the calories and grams of food we purchase the next day.

Then a recent study from Uppsala University, Sweden, identified an increase in morning bloodstream concentrations of two molecules, namely NSE and S-100B, after a night without sleep. The trick is, these molecules are typically found in the brain, and higher concentrations in the blood are indicative of conditions of brain damage, suggesting that lack of sleep, even for only one night, might contribute to loss of brain tissue, and contribute to neurodegenerative disorders.

In New York, researchers from the University of Rochester and New York University used two-photon imaging to show that sleep allowed a 60% increase in the space between brain cells, vastly increasing the flow and reach of cerebrospinal fluid, into the nooks and crannies of your brain that it can’t reach during waking hours.

The benefit of this increase in space is that waste products such as beta-amyloid proteins, which are the waste byproduct of the brain’s daily activity, are cleared much faster. Sleep deprivation interferes with this process and this potentially neurotoxic waste remains lurking in the brain. Beta-amyloid plaques are a feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, Chris Phoenix and Aubrey D.N.J. de Grey argue that aging is, in short, the accumulation of damage. By this they mean the “accumulation of the intrinsic molecular and cellular side-effects of metabolism”, just as beta-amyloid is a byproduct of the brain’s activity.

We know also that severe sleep deprivation kicks the immune system into action, showing the same kind of response seen during exposure to stress. 

These effects are extra to the already well-known effects of sleep loss on concentration, attention, cognitive performance, physical performance, mood, memory and so on.

So what does that mean?

Is is too much to say that sleep deprivation causes brain problems?


Can we say that sleep deprivation causes brain disease, such as Alzheimer’s?

Maybe, maybe not.

But they’re clearly strongly correlated, and although a bi-directional relationship exists, the evidence is looking more and more like sleep deprivation can be a weighty contributor to the development of dysfunction like this.

Why then, do we persist with the all-nighter, the overdone hours, and the appearance that sleep, as author Alan Derickson writes, is for sissies.

Sleep is for sissies

In a new book, Alan Derickson (2014, University of Pennsylvania Press) makes the point that in modern American culture (which we’re extending to similar cultures) it’s a price we, and particularly men, are encouraged to pay. Stamina equals manliness.

For women, (although the book is primarily about men) with the added expectation that they look after the lion’s share of home chores, it’s not necessarily that they’re encouraged to deprive themselves of sleep, but by having to work the two jobs of employment and home, and then with the masculine expectations of the workplace to boot, they face an even steeper hill to climb.

Dangerously Sleepy explores the fraught relations between overwork, sleep deprivation, and public health. Health and labor historian Alan Derickson charts the cultural and political forces behind the overvaluation—and masculinization—of wakefulness in the United States.”

Naturally, there are standout examples of the potentially tragic consequences of sleeplessness, and Derickson references the events of Three Mile Island, and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, along with industries notable for their ‘sleep is for sissies’ mentality and the prevailing dogma that minimizes the need for rest. 

Given what we know about both the short, and long-term consequences of sleeplessness on the brain, are we setting ourselves up for later costs? And what message are we sending those new to the workforce?

So here’s the take home bit

Is your macho ego destroying your brain.

I think so.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Beta-amyloid, neurotoxic

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!


Posted in General, Neuroscience, Sleep | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can a pill make you a singing star by rewiring your brain?

Justin Timberlake


I am a terrible singer.

I can’t sing a very good range, and I can’t sing notes within that range very well.

When I try to hold a note for longer than a nanosecond, it ends up being not one note but many notes as I wobble erratically around the intended pitch, and it’s so bad it makes small children cry.

The perfect pitch fairy never waved her wand at me. For that matter, neither did the regal nose, chiselled chin or piercing look fairies but that’s another story.

Researchers would say that perfect pitch is partly inherited, but mostly the result of early and frequent exposure and training in music (effort), during the critical learning period (timing), before the age of six. Two things to note here.

You’ll already know that the more effort we put into an endeavor, the more connections we can grow, and the more brain space is devoted to that endeavor. People with perfect, or absolute, pitch, show an increase in the size of their planum temporale, with both right and left structures enlarged, and the left planum temporale being larger than the right.

Critical periods are fixed windows of time in which we learn different skills easily and quickly, the effects of which long outlast the window. They usually occur early in life, and rely on the brain’s plasticity, or malleability, which enables swift and smooth reorganization to accommodate new information and experience.

Question is…

can you re-open them, for absolute pitch, and then other things?

Language for example, is learned most easily as a child, before about 8 years old. Learning a second language is the same. Move to another country with kids and they can pick up the language, and dialects, in no time at all with no effort, and no trace of an accent. They sound like natives.

Parents, on the other hand, carry the accent of their mother tongue into the newly acquired language, which they had to try much harder to learn. It’s not that they can’t learn it, it just seems so much more difficult. Wouldn’t it be great to absorb Spanish like a seven year old? (By the way, there’s a quick phonetics explanation and test after the guff at the bottom.)

Visual and auditory systems have critical periods, and the brain as a whole has periods of cell proliferation followed by cell pruning, so windows of development are a familiar concept.

Opening and closing them at will however, is a different story.

Recent proof of concept work by Takao Hensch, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Professor of Neurology, at Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, sought to discover whether opening these periods back up again might be possible. The implications of such a find are intriguing.

Neuroplasticity allows us to learn easily. A malleable brain can more quickly and easily adapt and incorporate new information. If we’re able to augment our abilities through manipulating neuroplasticity, after the period of plasticity has closed, then what might be possible? If one window opens, can we open others? Can we learn languages? Can we acquire other skills effortlessly? Can we learn more easily?

Critical periods

From birth, when the brain is overloaded with synapses (the connections between brain cells), the brain grows swiftly through to about age five, then slows to about age 20, carefully pruning as it goes, and discarding unnecessary connections. Critical periods occur during these early years, and are shaped by growth and pruning.

Chemically, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a nerve growth chemical, operates like fertilizer on tomatoes, generating growth. Particularly, this protein activates the nucleus basalis, a small brain structure that sharpens attention, and stays switched on throughout the critical period. BDNF also consolidates connections between cells, which is crucial for memory. Once the critical period ends, the nucleus basalis is switched off.

Hensch notes that “behaviorally induced plasticity in the healthy brain, typically after the end of the relevant critical period, can lead to improvement beyond normal or average performance levels”.

He would add that this usually involves specifically targeted training, beyond what we would consider regular use. The training needs to be repetitive, intense, and relevant.

So what if there were another way?

Hensch also knew that growing older, along with experiential events, conspire to close the windows of critical periods. One of these changes involves an enzyme known as HDAC (histone-deacetylase) which halts critical period learning, much like putting on a hand brake stops a car. Research in mice had already shown that inhibiting HDAC could remove the brake in the visual and auditory systems. Could it work in humans? Could Hensch teach absolute pitch beyond the critical period by chemically releasing the brain’s learning hand brake?

Could I be a singing star after all?


In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 24 males received either placebo, or VPA treatment. None of the men had musical training as children. Variations of VPA, or valproate, are commonly used for reducing seizures in epilepsy, stabilizing mood in bipolar disorder, and in other psychiatric conditions. It’s also a HDAC inhibitor.

Following a period of online ear training, Hensch tested the men on how well they could discriminate between tones. If the experimental group outperformed the placebo group, then there would be evidence that the window had opened.

And it had.

Confirming their hypothesis, performance varied by experimental group. In Hensch’s words “Normal male volunteers performed significantly better on a test of AP (absolute pitch) after 2 weeks of VPA treatment than after 2 weeks of placebo”.

As he should be, Hensch is cautious. This doesn’t open the floodgates for massive-scale pharmo-educational snake oil, biotech commercialization, super soldiers, overnight geniuses, or anything.


So here’s the take home bit

Specific skills like this don’t necessarily translate to improvements in other areas so, for example, general intelligence doesn’t necessarily improve. Transfer to related areas is possible, but not automatic.

Hensch notes his small sample size, and that the work needs to be replicated before we get carried away. Others note the potential side effects of chemicals. Hensch sees the crudeness of this approach but opines that, if replicated, their “study will provide a behavioral paradigm for the assessment of the potential of psychiatric drugs to induce plasticity”.

The subtext is that psychiatric conditions can be overcome by harnessing the power of plasticity, however that plasticity is unlocked. Already, cognitive behavioral therapy re-sculpts the brain and chemicals can open critical windows.

Can newer work in optics switch on the nucleus basalis. It’s the BDNF gene that maps BDNF. Could we turn this on through transcranial electrical stimulation thereby turning on the nucleus basalis.

We don’t know. But we can tell that the ground is moving.

As for absolute pitch and my latent signing career, I’m still waiting for the fairy.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)

What do you think?

Subscribe for FREE (top right) to get Bite sized brains in your inbox.

Check out our NZ Brain Fitness Seminars here.

Weekday Brain Teasers and other fun stuff at Brain Fitness on Facebook.

Like it? Share it on Facebook!

Want to tell others? Digg it!

Learning languages

By way of illustrating critical periods and learning languages, English has 44 sounds. Other languages have more, or fewer.

Say ‘tip’ aloud. Phonetically, the opening ‘t’ sound in the word tip, is represented as /t/. Structurally, your mouth and tongue make the same movements for /t/ as for ‘d’ in dip, represented as /d/. Remember this symbol represents the sound, not the letter. The difference is that to make /d/, you have to add voice. Same goes for /p/ and /b/.

Here’s a test. Put your fingers on your voicebox and say ‘pump’ followed by ‘bump’. Feel your voicebox vibrate for the /b/ sound, but not the /p/ sound? Other pairs are /f/ and /v/, /k/ and /g/ and so on. We also have diphthongs, which are sound combinations; the ‘dg’ sound in ‘judge’, the ‘ch’ of church’ and so forth. And by the way, ‘phonetics’ in phonetics, is /fəˈnɛtɪks/.

We learn our native sounds easily, and once they’re learned, we lose the ability to learn new ones as easily, as the ability to make them disappears with the closing of the critical window. Most of us don’t use the click consonants of the Bantu, or the ‘ll’ sound found in Welsh, or the back of the mouth sounds found in Arabic, and would have to learn to master them, mashing our mouth around the necessary tongue, lip and teeth positions, let alone adding voice.

A young child, within the window, with nucleus basalis switched on, would pick them up quickly, regardless of the language.

Posted in Children, General, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment