The sound of reaching your goals

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Turn on your right brain

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A rotating animation of the human brain showin...
A rotating animation of the human brain showing the left frontal lobe in red within a semitransparent skull. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is sometimes also included in the frontal lobe. Other authors include the ACC as a part of limbic lobe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Turn on Your Right Brain

This morning I sat down to write about how we can all learn to better use the right hemispheres of our brains-
For 30 minutes, I tapped restlessly
at a laptop. Nothing much happened, idea-wise. Flat beer.

Finally I resorted to a strategy I call the Kitchen Sink. I read bits
of eight books: four accounts of brain research, one novel about India,
one study of bat behavior, one biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and one
memoir of motherhood. Next I drove to my favorite Rollerblading
location, listening en route to a stand-up comic, a mystery novel, and
an Eckhart Tolle lecture. I yanked on my Rollerblades and skated around,
squinting slack-jawed into the middle distance. After a while, a tiny
lightbulb went on. “Well,” I thought, “I could write about this.”

The Kitchen Sink, you see, is one way to activate your brain’s
creative right hemisphere. Every writer I’ve ever met uses some version
of it, as do Web designers, cartoonists, TV producers—all “content
creators” who regularly face the terrifying thought, “Well, I’ve gotta
come up with something.”

If you’re not a content creator, wait a while. The 21st century is to
content creators what the Industrial Revolution was to factory workers:
In a world where information is superabundant, unique and creative
ideas are hot-ticket advantages both personally and professionally. More
and more people are finding more and more ways to parent, make money,
find friends, and generally live well by relying on creativity.  The
demand for creative thinking is both a challenge and an opportunity. It
requires us to use more than the logical left-brain skills we learned in
school. These days, we all need to get back into our right minds.


Historically, most brain science came from studying people whose
brains had been damaged. Depending on the injury’s location, these
patients had varying disabilities: If you lost one brain section, you
might be unable to do long division; wipe out another patch, and your
lace-tatting days were over. The famous Phineas Gage had an iron rod
rammed all the way through his head, permanently losing the ability to
be nice. One can hardly blame him.

People with left-hemisphere brain injuries may have trouble thinking
analytically or making rational decisions. Many with damage to the right
hemisphere, on the other hand, can still pass their SATs but become
unable to connect parts into a meaningful whole. Oliver Sacks wrote
about such a patient in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
This gentleman saw perfectly but could identify what he saw only by
guessing. If you showed him a rose, he might say, “Well, it’s red on
top, green and prickly below, and it smells nice…. Is it a flower?” One
day, while looking for a hat to put on, he reached for his wife instead,
perhaps thinking: “It’s familiar, and it goes with me everywhere…. Is
it my hat?” I’m sure this was awful for his poor wife, though it could
have been worse (“Well, it’s the size of a small house and it needs
cleaning…Is it my garage?”). But still.

For most of Western history the right side of the brain was
short-shrifted by neurologists intent on helping people think
“rationally.” Only in recent years have experts begun to laud the
creative, holistic right hemisphere. Interestingly, left-hemisphere
strokes appear to be more common than right-hemisphere strokes. Perhaps
we’re overusing our left hemispheres to the point of blowout. Or perhaps
illness is trying to nudge us back to the mysteries and gifts of the
right brain. Fortunately, we now know we can effect this change
deliberately, without having to survive neurological disaster.

In his fascinating book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
describes how the brain reacts when a person develops a new skill.
Performing an action involves firing an electrical signal through a
neural pathway; each time this happens, it thickens the myelin sheath
that surrounds nerve fibers like the rubber coating on electrical wires.
The thicker the myelin sheath around a neural pathway, the more easily
and effectively we use it. Heavily myelinated pathways equal mad skills.

Train yourself with deep practice

Throughout your education, you myelinated the left-brain pathways for
thinking logically. You were prepared for predictability and order, not
today’s constant flood of innovation and change. Now you need to build
up myelin sheaths around new skill circuits, located in your right
hemisphere. To do this, you need something Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the same no matter what the skill. First visualize
an ability you’d like to acquire—swimming like Dara Torres, painting
like Grandma Moses, handling iron rods like Uncle Phineas. Then try to
replicate that behavior. Initially, you’ll fail. That’s good; failure is
an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors,
noting exactly where your performance didn’t match your ideal. Now try
again. You’ll still probably fail (remember, that’s a good thing), but
in Samuel Beckett’s words, you’ll “fail better.”

Examples of people engaged in deep practice are everywhere. Think of American Idol
contestants improving their singing, or Tiger Woods perfecting his golf
swing. I once saw a television interviewer present Toni Morrison with
the original manuscript of one of her masterpieces. Morrison became
slightly distracted, running critical eyes across the page, wanting to
make changes. She clearly can’t stop deep practicing. That’s why she won
the Nobel Prize.

Deep practice is hard. It makes your brain feel like a piece of raw
hamburger. It’s also weirdly rewarding, dropping you into rapt
concentration, yielding quick improvement, and (if you’re lucky)
producing good work. Here are some tricks you can deep practice to buff
up your right hemisphere.

1. Sign your name every which way.

My favorite teacher and artist, Will Reimann, was brilliant at getting his students
to use the right side of their brains. There were many squinty eyes in
Reimann’s studio, much neural myelination. Here’s one of his exercises:

Sign your name.


Okay, now things get gnarly. Sign again, but this time, do it in
mirror writing—right to left, rather than left to right (just moving
your hand backward fires the right brain hemisphere). Got that? Now sign
upside down. Then backward and upside down. Repeat this until you can
sign in all directions. Good luck.

2. Have a bilateral conversation. For this exercise,
take a pencil in your right hand (even if you’re left-handed) and write
the question: “How’s it going?” Then switch to your left hand, and
write whatever pops up. Your nondominant hand’s writing will be
shaky—that’s okay. The important thing isn’t tidiness; it’s noticing
that your twin hemispheres have different personalities.

The right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, will say things you don’t know that you know.
It specializes in assessing 4cd2b76c2fec5bf0ec61c12400830822your
physical and mental feelings, and it often offers solutions. “Take a
nap,” your right hemisphere might say, or “Just do what feels right;
we’ll be fine.” You’ll find there’s a little Zen master in that left
hand of yours (not surprisingly, left-handed people are
disproportionately represented in creative professions).

 3. Learn new moves. You need your right hemisphere
to move in an unfamiliar way, whether you’re learning a complicated
dance step or holding a new yoga posture. Or cutting your own hair
(actually, don’t—I speak from experience).

Try this: Walk a few steps, noticing how your arms swing opposite
your legs. Now walk with your right arm and right foot going forward
simultaneously, then the left hand and left foot. Is this difficult? No?
Then do it backward, with your eyes closed—any variation that’s
initially hard but ultimately learnable. You’ll master a new skill,
sure; more important, you’ll build your overall right-brain facility.

4. Toss in the kitchen sink. Time to push your newly
awakened right hemisphere into useful service. Think of a problem
that’s had you stumped for a while: Your preschooler won’t nap, you
can’t make yourself exercise, you need to cut expenses without
sacrificing quality of life. With this challenge in your mind, read a
few paragraphs in several totally unrelated books. Then relax. Play with
your cat, wash the dishes, watch the neighbors through binoculars.
Think of the problem periodically, then drop it again.

This process encourages eureka epiphanies, like those moments in TV
dramas where the brilliant doctor or sleuth gets the “ping” of insight
that solves the case. Your first few ideas may not be perfect—many will
be awful—but there are more where they came from. Once you begin
encouraging the right brain to churn out solutions, it will do so more
and more abundantly.

Turning on your right brain is a skill, one that grows steadily
stronger the more you work at it. Trigger the sensation of deep practice
by mastering any unfamiliar task, feed challenges and stray information
into your right brain’s database, and see new ideas begin to emerge. As
they do, you’ll move more confidently and productively through an
increasingly complex world. When I see you out Rollerblading, eyes
locked in a vacant yet squinty stare, I’ll know you’re getting the hang
of it.





Reading is good for you

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Michelle Ryan as Maria Bertram in the Mansfiel...
Michelle Ryan as Maria Bertram in the Mansfield Park aired on PBS as “The Complete Jane Austen” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How Reading Impacts Your Brain

By  | Posted July 5, 2013 | 

readingbigJane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a complex, challenging novel read by millions. And now a recent collaboration between Stanford neurobiologists and English Postdoctorate Natalie Phillips suggests that complex novels such as Mansfield Park can activate key brain areas.

Casual versus critical reading

Researchers from the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging took brain scans of several literary PhD students as they read a chapter from Mansfield Park. First, the PhD students were asked to read the book casually, for fun. Then students were asked to switch to a critical reading mode similar to how they might analyze it in a literature classroom

This switch in reading modes created a significant shift in brain activity patterns on fMRI scans. Casual reading activated pleasure centers while critical reading increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the executive functions heavily involved in attending to tasks like reading.

Executive function and the brain

Executive function is responsible for more than just attentive reading: this brain function helps moderate how you divide your attention, use your working memory, and generally direct your brainpower. It plays a powerful role in decision-making.

While the findings of the Stanford study are preliminary, they make a good case for further research on the impact of reading on cognition. Philips posits that critical reading could serve as a type of training, “teaching us to modulate our concentration.”

There is other evidence that reading can be good for your brain. A 2007 study from the Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology found that avid readers benefited from increased cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the concept that challenging intellectual activity — like reading or brain training — can protect the brain against negative cognitive impacts later in life.

Sticks and Stones: Brain Releases Natural Painkillers During Social Rejection

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Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Michigan Health System.

Journal Reference:

    1. D T Hsu, B J Sanford, K K Meyers, T M Love, K E Hazlett, H Wang, L Ni, S J Walker, B J Mickey, S T Korycinski, R A Koeppe, J K Crocker, S A Langenecker, J-K Zubieta. Response of the μ-opioid system to social rejection and acceptance. Molecular Psychiatry, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/mp.2013.96


Note: If no author is given, the source is cited instead.


The sound of falling left or right

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“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving” ~ Albert Einstein

 / 22 hours ago

Daniel H. Pink, author of several bestselling books about the changing work world, drew on international research regarding left brainers vs. right brainers and compiled it in his book A Whole New Mind.

“The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, is sequential, specializes in text, and analyzes the details,” writes Pink. “The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, is simultaneous, specializes in context, and synthesizes the big picture.”

Lead Life Institute’s founder and author of Right Brain/Left Brain Leadership and Right Brain/Left Brain President Dr. Mary Lou Décosterd further describes the differences between right and left brainers: “You could say that left brainers are more focused on the here and now.They are more verbal, tangible (need to see it to believe it), and pragmatic. Right brainers are visionaries and innovators, interested in what might or could be. They are more intuitive and emotional — they trust their gut.”

She further explains how this relates to leadership. “Left brain leaders excel in and target the sheer volume of a leader’s day-to-day tactical demands. Left brain leadership is about in-the-moment planning, communicating, stabilizing and driving,” she told us. “Right brain leaders excel in and target the development of a desired state. Right brain leaders look out at possibilities and from those possibilities identify opportunities for change.”

Andrea Learned, a sustainable business leadership and marketing to women expert, told us that gender has had a traditional role in what people perceive left and right brain thinking to be. “Women are thought to ‘tend’ to be guided by those right hemisphere characteristics. Meanwhile, men are thought to ‘tend’ to be guided by the more left hemisphere characteristics, because that is what they’ve traditionally been most rewarded for (making money, winning, thinking linearly…),” Learned said. “If you look at social media and social business today, it is pretty clear that the right hemisphere characteristics will find more of the reward in the 21st century.”

Is it possible to use your whole brain? Would doing so create some sort of superhuman? Dr. Décosterd says President Obama is a good example of someone who uses both. “His is a fully integrated right and left brain approach. While high level leaders can be adept at certain right  and left brain abilities, most leaders get caught up in their preferences…More to the point, a leader is less likely to shift style from right to left brain thinking or vice versa with the ease as Obama does.”

So can someone who tends to be more of a right brainer train themselves to develop their left brain and vice versa? Dr. Décosterd believes so. “The best way to encourage a shift in brain style is to make your brain more pliable. To do so you could introduce novel stimulus to your brain — new sights, tastes, scents for example, as well as being OPEN to new ways of thinking — listen to differing views without being dismissive,” she told us. “Another way to encourage a shift is through engaging in behaviors that are more alter-brain.”

What kind of thinker are you? Left brain, right brain, or both? Last week, we asked you to give us some examples of each. After receiving a ton of feedback via Twitter and Facebook (and after much deliberation), we’ve selected a few of the many great examples you gave us to create this updated version of the infographic.


Also, be sure to take a look at some of the explorations of how the infographic came to be below.

Creative Leader versus Do Leadership Infographic from Mindjet

Stressful content in a relaxed environment

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 Dear Nico

For me, the meaning of life is meeting people. When I discovered your blog, something pulled me towards it again and again, and I was so happy when we started to talk to communicate. I found Nico an incredible woman, whom I immediately liked and honored. To my delight, she also got something back from our conversations, and she eventually started to write for “free psychology”. Since then, she has published a lot of interesting posts about psychology. She has written her personal story, but also manage to integrate it with theory and own thoughts, and I admire that. For me, she`s an example of how it`s possible to truly follow your dreams, no matter where you come from.

I just want to thank you, Nico, for all the wonderful posts you`ve produced so far, and look forward to a conversation on skype. I`m glad I met you, and hope we can keep in touch for a long time.

Warm hugs from the other side of the world  

Stress and Memory From a Neuroscience Perspective


Stress and Memory From a Neuroscience Perspective

 “From a neuroscience perspective, amnesia in the absence of brain damage can be partially explained in biochemical terms. Stress causes a chemical reaction that affects regions of the brain responsible for memory. With repeated overwhelming stress, neurotransmitters and stress hormones are released in the brain in such excess quantity that they can adversely affect portions of the brain responsible for emotional memories as well as other kinds of memory.”i'm not out to convince you or draw upon your mind*Image Credits (all work used with permission through CC license)–
“i’m not out to convince you or draw upon your mind” by Andrea Joseph
“Standing at the Gates of Hell” by Shane Gorski  

Source:  p. 33, The Wandering Mind: Understanding Dissociation from Daydreaming to Disorders by John A Biever, M.D. and Maryann Karinch.

Related :

The Amazing Ways Your Thoughts Create Your Brain (philosophers-stone.co.uk)

The sound of swan song

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How much do you know about the brain? consisting of 100 billion neurons that each can connect to from 1000-10000 others, it hides the secrets of our being, and the path to enlightenment. The most fascinating feat of this grey-wrapped supercomputer, is how it can be influenced by the world around us. Lately, I have read an amazing book about dissociation where I found information about near-death experience. The author explained how”near-death” sound like certain experiences people have when they dissociate. And now I found even more information about the subject, on another blog. Enjoy!  

More information:

(The stranger in the mirror)

 The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
    A Flight of Mind, The Act of Dissociation Can Protect Children Emotionally From Trauma, but Repeated Use May Cause Lasting Harm

  • Yale Scientific
    The Shattered Self: Understanding Dissociative Disorders

  • Clinical Psychology News
    Are Dissociative Disorders Unusual or Ubiquitous?

  • Science News
    Interviews Unmask Multiple Personalities

  • Psychiatric Times
    Advances in Diagnosis and Treatment of Dissociation: The SCID-D in Clinical Practice
  • Many Voices
    Dissociation and Trauma: A Professor’s Perspective

The brain’s swan song: hyperactivity near death

TL;DR: Near-death experiences are ‘electrical surge in the dying brain? …But dude, what does it all mean?

Swan-Song-detail-2 copy

We often think of death as flipping a switch: one minute you’re there, next all lights go out. But this is a simple caricature of the dying process: sparks of activity still linger in the brains of those undergoing cardiac arrest, in whom both breath and heartbeat flutter and abruptly halt. Researchers have long thought that these sad, sparse bouts of activity characterize the brain’s descent into permanent unconsciousness. However, a new study suggests that the complete opposite – a surge of heightened connectivity – paradoxically marks the final step towards death. Although a long (and I mean LOOOONG!) stretch, the authors propose that the observation may partially underlie the enigmatic near-death experience(NDE).

Reports of NDE are nothing new. The luckily revived few often re-emerge from “the other side” with realer-than-real stories of long tunnels, intensely vivid visions and meetings with those bygone. NDEs are treated by some as proof of an afterlife, or by others, the existence of a “mind” beyond the brain and body. Spiritual connotations aside, the biological underpinnings remain mysterious, although abnormal dopamine and glutamate transmission may be involved (and probably everything else – the brain IS dying!). Here, the authors turned the focus away from individual neurotransmitters, and instead asked: after the heart stops, what happens to the oscillating waves of neural activity in the brain?

Jimo Borjigin et al. 2013. Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. PNAS. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1308285110 

Researchers fitted 9 rats with electrodes to measure their brain waves – rhythmic brain activity generated by feedback connections between large numbers of neurons that differ in frequency. Alpha activity, for example, is often detected during relaxed wakefulness, while the faster theta activity is linked to cognitive processing. Gamma waves – the most recently discovered component – are particularly interesting to cognitive neuroscientists (and pseudo-science marketers) studying consciousness.

Why? The low gamma band, oscillating at 25-55Hz, has long been linked to visual consciousness, or the perception and awareness of visual stimulation. It seems to promote associative learning, and is also present during REM sleep (and slow wave sleep/deep sleep as well), which involves dreaming and complex visuals. Gamma bands also appear during transcendental mental states, as measured in Tibetan monks told to generate feelings of compassion as they meditated. Some even propose that gamma bands are behind the heightened sense of consciousness and bliss following a meditative bout. Sounds pretty magical, eh? As things goes, it’s also a tough band to measure with EEG – in fact,there are even skeptics who doubt its existence.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 11.28.24 AM

Back to the study. After fitting rats with electrodes, researchers monitored changes in each brain wave component as the rats passed through three states: awake, under ketamine-induced anesthesia and after cardiac arrest. Unsurprisingly, after the loss of heartbeat and oxygen flow, the strength (“power”) of all brain wave frequencies measured tanked – except for low gamma bands, which spiked in power and became the dominant frequency in the spectrum as you can see above.

After cardiac arrest, gamma waves also showed higher levels of synchrony – that is, the neural activity in various brain regions became more “in tune”, even compared to an awake state. This high level of coherence between different brain regions is often associated with a highly “aroused” brain – that is, a state in which high levels of information processing may occur. Thus the authors concluded that the brain might exist in a hyper-conscious state for tens of seconds after the heart stops.

Sounds a bit too philosophical? I feel you. Where to start? First, the data really doesn’t tell us much. We already know that for a brief time following clinical death (which will most likely be redefined in the future), the brain remains active – so that’s nothing new. The increase in gamma wave power and synchrony is intriguing, especially since it appeared in all 9 rats (but really, just 9?), and the magnitude of the changes were large. But to link those changes to hyper-consciousness (what does that even mean?) and near-death experiences (NDEs) is going a step too far.

For one, there is absolutely no direct proof that gamma waves reflect NDEs. It has never been recorded in people there-and-back-again. While it’s true that high power gamma activity is often measured during conscious brain activity (and dreaming), its presence does not “lead to” conscious perception. Hence we can’t conclude, for example, that the rats were experiencing heightened awareness like NDEs – if they even have the ability to – because they show increased gamma oscillation. Along the same lines, higher gamma activity in the visual cortex does not necessarily mean there is more visual awareness and sensation. It may let you watch your life flash before your eyes, or it might just be a random quirk in the brain before all lights go out.

I’m not bashing research on consciousness. I just dislike interpretations that take data completely out of the realm of scientific discussion. I’d perk up if the authors repeated this experiment on people who have undergone cardiac arrest and experienced NDEs, and found the same pattern of changes in gamma waves. But even then it wouldn’t really tell us much. Now if only we had the ability to experimentally manipulate gamma (or any other) bands and “implant” an NDE in those still alive…

Note: I’d love for the EEG experts out there pitch in. How hard is it to measure and isolate gamma band from noise? What conclusions (if any) would you make out of this study?

Borjigin J, Lee U, Liu T, Pal D, Huff S, Klarr D, Sloboda J, Hernandez J, Wang MM, & Mashour GA (2013). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID:23940340

color the boxes of defintion

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Lifting old thoughts from dusty ruts. Polishing them carefully before putting them on a display. It will be a proper display with matching, beautiful colors that shine along with their value. 


Most of the time, we use only one end or the other of a contrast at a time.  These ends are called characteristics or, especially in reference to the characteristics of people,  traits.   But the other end is a

Things float without a system

lways there, lurking in the background.  You can’t have one without the other — good without bad, up without down.

Please note that these contrast need not be verbal:  My cat knows the difference between the expensive cat food and the cheap stuff, yet can’t tell you about it;  an infant contrasts between mommy and non-mommy; wild animals contrast safe areas and dangerous ones, etc.  Even adult humans sometimes “just know” without being about to say — unconscious contrasts, if you like:  what is it about that person that you like or dislike?

Pieces coming together

Contrasts don’t just float around independently, either.  We interrelate and organize them.  For example, we can  define  a category:  “Women are adult female human beings.”  Or we can go a step further and organize things into  taxonomies,  those tree-like structures we come across in biology:  A Siamese is a kind of cat, which is a kind of carnivore, which is a kind of mammal, which is a kind of vertebrate….

Or we can put contrasts into more temporal structures, like  rules.   These are often called schemas or scripts.  You can find explicit examples in books about card games, etiquette, or grammar; but you know quite a few rule systems yourself, even if they have become so automatic as to be unconscious!

Not all organization of contrasts are so tightly structured.  We can  describe  something:  “Women are delicate.”  As the example is intended to suggest, descriptions, as opposed to definitions, need not be true!   Beliefs  are similar to, but looser than, taxonomies.  Whereas birds definitely (i.e. by definition) are vertebrates and have feathers, it is only my belief that they all fly — I could be wrong!  Stereotypes are examples of beliefs; so are opinions.  But some beliefs are so strongly held that we see them as definite.

There are also  narratives — the stories we have in our minds.  These are temporal, like rules, but are amazingly flexible.  They can be a matter of remembered personal experiences, or memorized history lessons, or pure fiction.  I have a suspicion that these contribute greatly to our sense of identity, and that animals don’t have them to the degree we do.





       Good night dear followers. Sleep tight. 





I will also get some sleep and dream up my next stories

More basic psychology on:



The Simplest Defintio and What Are We Really?

How we remeber, and how we forget: Trauma, denial and dissociation

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How We Remember and How We Forget: Trauma, Denial, and Dissociation

I “forgot” a good part of my life.  I “forgot” the 3-6 months I spent in foster care, the events that led up to it, and the intense grief of being returned to a biological family I felt no connection to.  I “forgot” being trafficked for sex by my own father.  I “forgot” being placed in a freezer, tied to a wall in the dark in the garage like an animal, and forced to hang myself.

For a long time, I “forgot” about appointments, bills, and things I had done and said within the last 24 hours.  Sometimes, I still do.

I know a lot about forgetting.

Since then, I’ve been working at remembering.  I know a lot about that too.

A diagram of a neuron.

We remember information, experiences, and ideas because there are robust neural pathways between them.  If I am trying to remember a person’s name, I will most likely start with a piece of information that seems like it will lead me there: the face, trivia about the person, our last conversation.  If I am really intent on remembering, I will continue to dredge up these bits of associated memory until I am able to locate it.  So, the more connections we have between something we want to remember and other things and the more robust those pathways, the easier memory becomes.

Neural pathways become faster and more efficient with use.  When we stop using a particular pathway on a regular basis, it becomes less robust, slowing us down when we try to use it.  We may not “forget” information so much as lose the connections that allow us to find it.

I suspect that denial and dissociation both affect memory because of how they impact the neural pathways between parts of a memory.

Both the cortex and the limbic system are involved in memory formation. The amygdala, in particular, plays an important role in emotional memories.

In the case of dissociation, I speculate that the lack of robust neural pathways occurs at the time of the event.  Sensory impressions, thoughts, and emotional reactions are recorded, but with very little connection between them.  Whether this is because the brain functions that create order and connectivity are suppressed during traumatic events or because the parts of the brain involved in forming memories during life-or-death situations are different and don’t form connections as well, I’m not sure.

But I am sure that it happens because of how my own memories arise for me.  A major part of working through the trauma I’ve experienced has been simply finding things and putting them together–connecting pictures to words, declarative knowledge to sensory impresssions, physical responses to my knowledge of feeling states.  I “remember” nearly everything significant that has happened to me, but when I first began to work with them these memories stood in no particular order and in no relation to one another.

How the events were recorded in my mind in the first place has something to do with this.

Now, I know that the general wisdom is that we suppress trauma because we are trying to protect ourselves from the knowledge of what happened until we are in a position to deal with it.

I don’t entirely believe that.  I don’t think the memories are difficult to locate for the sole reason of emotional self-protection.  Partly, yes, but not entirely.

At the time of the event, we shut down certain types of awareness for two reasons that really come down to physical survival: one, we do this in order to suppress an awareness of physical pain so that our reactions to pain don’t interfere with doing what we need to do to survive.  Two,  we do this because conscious thought is the slow-track to action, and if we engage in it we could be killed before we’ve even come to a decision.  Much better to think like a lizard and just run away.

It is this state of suppressed conscious awareness that limits our ability to form connections between parts of a memory.  If a traumatic event is extremely intense, or if we have a lot of experience with being traumatized, touching on one aspect of the memory can re-start the process of suppressing conscious awareness, and our brains remain unable to form connections.

That is what PTSD looks like.  Elements of a memory are triggered, but instead of this access to the memory allowing us to form robust connections between parts of the memory, the connection is instead formed to whatever processes are involved in dissociation.  The more this happens, the better we get at dissociating as the pathways involved in dissociation get more and more robust.

But we may never figure out why red sweaters scare the bejesus out of us, or what happened after we put one on.  We may never link the scratchy feeling of the sweater with the color, or with the queasy feeling in our stomachs.  Not because we are avoiding that connection, but because we are busy doing something else.  We aren’t trying to protect our psyche.  We are trying to protect our bodies, and our brains don’t know that they can stop.

Denial, on the other hand, can lead to a kind of deliberate forgetting.  Every time the memory is accessed, we shift our attention away from it.  (For why, see Unsolicited, Bad Advice.)  The connections are there, but we train ourselves not to use them.  With time, the connections become tenuous, weak, frail.  They may break altogether.  The memory then becomes suppressed.  It is there, but we no longer know how to find it.

In dissociation, there may not be enough connections to the memory or between parts of a memory to start with.  In denial, we can intentionally remove them.

In the case of childhood trauma, the family can aid in this.  Children remember events partly because others in the family rehearse what happened with them later on.  Those pleasant sessions of “Remember when…?” reinforce and strengthen neural pathways between the details of events.  They also help children construct comprehensible narratives of what may be more fragmented impressions.

When traumatic experiences occur in the family, members often actively avoid doing this.  The message implicitly or explicitly stated may be that it would be better to talk (and think) about other things.  Without those rehearsals, children lose the connectivity between traumatic events and the rest of their lives and may have trouble accessing them as adults.  Or they may be able to access them, but assume the memories were simply bad dreams or the products of a fertile imagination.  The memories may not seem like memories because no one else seems to have them.

In cases of family abuse, both mechanisms involved in “forgetting” can work to “repress” a memory.  Elements of memory start out disconnected and isolated because of the functioning of the brain in the midst of trauma, and the connections that are there can become disused, slow, and inefficient because of denial within the family that means those pathways are deliberately avoided.

No wonder I feel like I’m giving my brain an extreme home make-over–cleaning, organizing, and re-designing.

Further reading:

The Brain Athlete. (2012)  Brain Plasticity Forms Who We Are.  Retrieved from: http://www.brainathlete.com/brain-plasticity-forms/

—-Neocortext and Not Hippocampus May Form Memories.  Retrieved from: http://www.brainathlete.com/neocortex-hippocampus-form-memories/

How to Forget Unwanted Memories.  (2012, October 20).  Medical News Today.  Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/251655.php

Plasticity and Neural Networks.  Canadian Institutes of Health Research.  Retrieved from: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cl/d_07_cl_tra/d_07_cl_tra.html

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Factsheet.  (2011, October 17).  National Institutes of Mental Health.  Retrieved from: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-research-fact-sheet/index.shtml


How positive thoughts influences you

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Brain scanning technology is quickly approachi...
Brain scanning technology is quickly approaching levels of detail that will have serious implications (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


How Positive Thoughts Build Skills, Boost Health, and Improve Work
Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But “positive thinking” is also a soft and fluffy term that’s easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like “work ethic” or “persistence.” But those views may be changing.

Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last longer than a smile. The impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied by people who are much smarter than me. One of these people is Barbara Fredrickson.

Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina and she published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and it’s impact on your skills. Her work is among the most referenced and cited in her field and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life. Let’s talk about Fredrickson’s discovery and what it means for you…

What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Play along with me for a moment. Let’s say that you’re walking through the forest and suddenly a tiger steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion—in this case, fear. Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When that tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.

In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick—but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you. This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don’t have to worry about stumbling across tigers in the wilderness. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way—by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.

For example, when you’re in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can’t think about anything else. Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actual start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your to–do list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you’re lazy, and how you don’t have any motivation.

In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress—just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.

Now, let’s compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain. This is where Barbara Fredrickson returns to the story.

What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into 5 groups and showed each group different film clips. The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment. Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion. The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.

Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…” Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.

In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that proved that positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options. But that was just the beginning. The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later…

How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skill Set

The benefits of positive emotions don’t stop after a few minutes of good feelings subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life. Let’s consider a real world example.

A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move athletically (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore and examine the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy prompt the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.

These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into a scholarship as a college athlete or the communication skills may blossom into a job offer as a business manager. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on. Fredrickson refers to this as the “broaden and build” theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.

As we discussed earlier, negative emotions do the opposite. Why? Because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger (like the tiger on the path). All of this research begs the most important question of all: if positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the Big Picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?

How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life

Find your talentWhat you can do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the “broaden and build” theory in your life? Well, anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love will do the trick. You probably know what things work well for you. Maybe it’s playing the guitar. Maybe it’s spending time with a certain person. Maybe it’s carving tiny wooden lawn gnomes.

That said, here are three ideas for you to consider…

1. Meditation: Recent research by Fredrickson and her colleagues has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long–term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.

Note: If you’re looking for an easy way to start meditation, here is a 10–minute guided meditationthat was recently sent to me. Just close your eyes, breathe, and follow along.

2. Writing: This study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses. (This blew me away. Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!)

Note: I used to be very erratic in my writing, but now I publish a new article every Monday and Thursday. I’ve written more about my writing process and how you can stick to your goals in this article and this article.

3. Play: Schedule time to play into your life. We schedule meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into our daily calendars… why not schedule time to play?

When was the last time you blocked out an hour on your calendar just to explore and experiment? When was the last time you intentionally carved out time to have fun? You can’t tell me that being happy is less important than your Wednesday meeting, and yet, we act like it is because we never give it a time and space to live on our calendars. Give yourself permission to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion. Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment and joy, and explore and build new skills.

Happiness vs. Success: Which Comes First?

There’s no doubt that happiness is the result of achievement. Winning a championship, landing a better job, finding someone you love — these things will bring joy and contentment to your life. But so often, we wrongly assume that this means happiness always follows success.

How often have you thought, “If I just get ___, then I’ll be set.”

Or, “Once I achieve ___, I’ll be satisfied.”

I know I’m guilty of putting off happiness until I achieve some arbitrary goal. But as Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory proves, happiness is essential to building the skills that allow for success. In other words, happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.

In fact, researchers have often noticed a compounding effect or an “upward spiral” that occurs with happy people. They are happy, so they develop new skills, those skills lead to new success, which results in more happiness, and the process repeats itself.

Where to Go From Here

Positive thinking isn’t just a soft and fluffy feel–good term. Yes, it’s great to simply “be happy,” but those moments of happiness are also critical for opening your mind to explore and build the skills that become so valuable in other areas of your life. Finding ways to build happiness and positive emotions into your life—whether it is through meditation, writing, playing a pickup basketball game, or anything else—provides more than just a momentary decrease in stress and a few smiles.

Periods of positive emotion and unhindered exploration are when you see the possibilities for how your past experiences fit into your future life, when you begin to develop skills that blossom into useful talents later on, and when you spark the urge for further exploration and adventure. To put it simply: seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. Your brain will do the rest.

The Science of Positive Thinking: How Positive Thoughts Build Skills, Boost Health, and Improve Work | James Clear

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to help you master your habits and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter. Or, download his 38-page guide on Transforming Your Habits.

Want to see your work on Lifehacker? Email Tessa.


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