Did you know that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are experienced by the conscious mind? We explored this in our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain,’ where we saw that subtle changes in mood are often experienced first in the body and only afterwards by the conscious mind.
The physiological effect of emotions was demonstrated by a group of scientists at the University of Iowa. The scientists set up a gambling exercise in which participants were asked to pick cards from a red deck or a blue deck. In the course of the game, the participants all eventually realize that over time it’s only possible to win by taking cards from the blue deck. But most people didn’t realize that until turning over 80 cards. However, the significant part of the experiment occurred before each participants consciously realized that the red deck was disadvantaged. About 40 cards into the game, their palms began to sweat when reaching for a card from the red deck—a clear sign of nervousness. Their body knew there was something wrong with the red deck 40 cards before their conscious mind was aware of it.
You may have heard a lot about mindfulness recently in the news and popular magazines. If you’re like a lot of people, you may find yourself becoming confused about what mindfulness even is.
Currently newsstands throughout America are featuring a special edition of Time Magazine devoted to Mindfulness. It includes everything from ways to bring greater intent into your life to recipes for healthy smoothies. On my bookcase I have a little book Moments of Mindfulness in which each page offers an inspiring picture from nature with a short tidbit of positive psychology.
Faced with resources like these, a person might be forgiven for thinking that mindfulness is a blanket term covering anything that makes a person feel good.
In our previous post, ‘EPPP Anxiety Part 1: Anxiety and Your Brain,’ we looked at how to use focused meditative breathing to relieve anxiety, including the type of anxiety experienced by those preparing to take the EPPP. I promised to share research on how this type of meditation can actually increase the size of the brain, improve social skills, make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus, in addition to increasing emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience.
Before jumping into this research, let’s review three reasons why slow breathing is so powerful for maintaining a positive orientation in the mind and body.
Here at TSM we talk a lot about anxiety management, and with good reason. We are in the business of preparing psychology students to take the psychology licensure exam, known as the EPPP. This is one of the hardest exams a person can ever take, with 225 multiple-choice questions spanning topics everything from legal issues to psychopharmacology. It’s not unusual that those studying for this test experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
But even if you aren’t preparing to take the EPPP, we all need help managing anxiety. Ironically, it is often the people who need help with anxiety the most who are least aware of it, since anxiety has become such a way of life that it can start to feel normal.
In our earlier post ‘Your Smart-Phone May be Harming Your Brain Without You Realizing‘, we shared some research on electronic distractions from Time Magazine’s Special Edition on Mindfulness. However, digital distractions were just one of the many topics covered in this issue. Time also brought together a team of reporters to share research on ways that mindfulness techniques (breathing, meditating, taking control of our hectic brains, etc) can increase our focus, effectiveness and physical health.
Here are a few more nuggets from the Time issue:
Ever since cell phones first came out, people have been debating whether or not they’re bad for the brain. In a recent Special Edition of Time Magazine devoted to Mindfulness, journalist Markham Heid summarizes a body of research which suggests that the neurological toll exerted by hand-held electronic devices may be even worse than originally supposed.
In fact, electronic devices negatively effect the very areas of our brain needed for effective work, study, thought and memory.
Heid’s article, ‘Are My Devices Messing With My Brain?’ is available to read on Time Magazine’s website, and points out that:
- “switch cost” (the loss of focus when we’re pulled away from a task, even if only for a split second to glance at a message) has an effect on the brain’s ability to focus that lasts up to 15 or 20 minutes.
- Research suggests that the types of multi-tasking we do when we are working or studying in the presence of hand-held electronic devices is associated with a decline in gray matter in the part of the brain involved with thought and emotional control.
- Studies show that hand-held electronic devices bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in willpower and decision-making.
- “…there’s evidence that as your brain becomes accustomed to checking a device every few minutes, it will struggle to stay on task even at those times when it’s not interrupted by digital alerts.”
Heid’s observations were echoed by Mandy Oaklander, who also contributed an article to the Special Edition of Time. Oaklander points out that, “Even if you’re not using it, simply being able to see a cellphone hinders your ability to focus on tough tasks, a pair of 2014 studies found.”
Bottom line: when you need to concentrate on something important, whether its studying for the EPPP or performing a task at work, make sure your smart-phone is in another room and your email is turned off.
Whether caused by a full schedule or life circumstances, stress can be an unwanted guest at your EPPP study session. There are quick ways to relieve stress that won’t get in the way of the time you have carefully set aside to study.
Psychology Today published 7 Stress Relief Strategies You Can Do in 10 Minutes or Less Here are some highlights of the quick tips author Paula Davis-Laack J.D., M.A.P.P suggests to cope with stress. Continue reading
I used to think it was just me.
I used to think that my brain was an anomaly in the way it always gravitated towards the negative and seemed to fixate on what was wrong in my life instead of being grateful for what was good.
After being worn down by anxiety and thought-induced stress, I decided to study about the brain to see if science offered any solutions on how to turn off my negative brain.
As I began researching I discovered I was not alone: millions of people today struggle with negative thinking and with a running monologue of complaints, anxieties and thought-induced stress.
Interestingly, the research shows that this epidemic of negative thinking does not necessarily correlate to what is actually happening in a person’s life. If someone is weighed down by negative thoughts, they tend to be tormented by their brain even when things are going comparatively well. Similarly, if someone’s brain is filled with positive thoughts like gratitude and compassion, they tend to have peace of mind even when things are going wrong in their life. Continue reading
This is the third of a 4-part series covering Dr. Taylor’s conversation with Robin Phillips about the brain. To read the other posts in this series, click here.
Graham Taylor: At TSM we do a lot of work with the various theories of memory and learning. In fact, we have seamlessly integrated over a dozen theories of memory and learning into our learning platform. I’m curious to have your take on the relationship between these mental fitness skills and the various theories of memory and learning, such as Mind-Mapping, Method of Loci, Spaced Learning, Neuro-Transmitter Depletion Avoidance, and so forth?
Robin Phillips: Great question, Graham. It’s when we start looking at some of these theories of memory and learning that we realize just how mentally unfit most of us are today. How was it that medieval monks were able to memorize the entire Psalter while we struggle to even memorize our closest friends’ phone numbers? It wasn’t that people in the past had more time on their hands, although that’s part of it. And it also isn’t that we’re more stupid than our ancestors. Rather, we have a tendency to focus exclusively on content while neglecting the actual mechanisms of learning. Mary Carruthers has a great book called The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture in which she documents various techniques prevalent throughout the Middle Ages that people used for training their memory. One example of this is the Method of the Loci that you mentioned, which has received some recent popularity because Sherlock Holmes uses it in the series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock’s “mind palace” is basically the Method of Loci, whereby memories are stored in the rooms of an imaginary palace. This memory technique goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. A very enjoyable book about this technique is Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. Foer tells how he went from being an ordinary guy with an ordinary brain to becoming America’s #1 memory champion. He did this simply by following ancient methods of memory and learning, especially the memory palace method.
This is the first of a 4-part series covering Dr. Taylor’s conversation with Robin Phillips about the brain. To read the other posts in this series, click here.
Graham Taylor: Thank you so much for joining me this morning, Robin.
Robin Phillips: It’s a pleasure. I love what you’re doing here at the Taylor Study Method and I consider it an honor to speak with you this morning.
GT: Excellent. I want to jump right into the topic of this interview about brain fitness. In your writings you’ve suggested that brain fitness rather than smartness should be the goal of learning. Why is that?
RP: Great question, Graham. In our culture the notion of “being smart” often invokes a truncated and one-sided paradigm of mental ability that may not be consistent with overall cognitive health. I prefer using the term “brain fitness” as a way to emphasize a more well-rounded and holistic approach to cognition, which has implications to how we approach the whole learning process.