Why Your Mindset Might Be Throwing You Curveballs

Are you wired for success? And by “success”, I’m not necessarily talking about monetary reward.

In her paper “The Mindset of a Champion”, psychology professor Carol Dweck discusses the almost-professional baseball career of Billy Beane.

You might remember Billy Beane from Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball. Beane was the famous Oakland A’s general manager who enjoyed numerous successful seasons by combining competent scouting with a wonkish handle on baseball statistics.

Beane as a player is another story.  In high school, he was a natural athlete who enjoyed interest from professional teams in baseball, basketball and football. He was considered to be the next big thing, and yet his chosen career in baseball came up short. After stints with several different teams, he eventually washed out of the major leagues.

Was Billy wired for success as a big league player? Carol Dweck doesn’t think so. Dweck’s research focuses on the concept of mindset. The idea is that people’s brains are basically wired up through environmental interaction towards one of two mindsets.

To fixed mindset people, your abilities—or lack of abilities—are fixed traits, like your height or your deadly soy allergy. “In this view,” Dweck writes, “talents are gifts—you either have them or you don’t.” The fixed mindset sees setbacks as powerfully discouraging, since any bump along the way could be a hint you were never blessed with true talent.

What’s the other option? The growth mindset, which holds that people can cultivate and improve their abilities through hard work and learning. To those with a growth mindset, drawbacks and extra practice opportunities are simply part of the game. While the fixed mindset camp sinks their time into proving themselves, the growth mindset followers focus on improving themselves.

According to Dweck, growth mindset people tend to be more successful in a wide variety of endeavors because they demonstrate more grit in the face of adversity, and because sustained incremental improvement tends to pay off over time.

You may be like Billy Beane, born with exceptional talent, but like the tortoise and the hare parable, it’s the willingness to hang in there and keep plodding along on the road of self-improvement that eventually brings the win.

Unfortunately, Billy Beane’s natural talent combined with a history of being rewarded for skill over work ethic probably led him towards a fixed mindset. The reasoning goes something like this: superstars don’t and shouldn’t need to practice all that much. That’s why they’re a cut above, that’s what defines them as superstars.

The problem with this approach is that when adversity shows up, the ‘superstar’ has developed absolutely no mechanism for overcoming it. The need for additional help or practice is seen  as only highlighting one’s personal flaws.

The good news? Since mindset is just that, a state of mind, and since the plasticity of the brain means neural rewiring is an ongoing opportunity; Beane was ultimately able to pick up more of a growth mindset. Dweck believes this contributed to Beane’s eventual success as a GM with the A’s.

Interested in success? What mindset are you?

The Reptile Brain Fights Back: Extinction Bursts

Let’s suppose that you’ve got a habit you want to break. You’ve followed the following five habit-breaking rules:

1. Tell a friend you’re going to break a habit to help put pressure on yourself to actually follow through

2. Be persistent; whether making or breaking a habit, it’s generally believed you need about 60 days of reinforced behavior to cement a change

3. Enlist a friend for moral support when you find your will weakening

4. Plan out a meaningful reward to give yourself once the habit is eradicated

5. Keep track of your daily progress towards breaking the habit to reinforce positive habit-breaking behavior

Everything’s going smoothly, and then just when you think you’ve rewired your brain, you’re blindsided by a sneak attack from within.

Once you understand that your rational brain is up against an internal conspirator, you might not be surprised to discover the nemesis is your emotional brain, sometimes known as your reptilian brain, which has some habit maintenance shenanigans up its proverbial sleeve.

The shenanigan in question is known as extinction burst. And your reptilian brain cleverly waits to spring the trap only after you’ve essentially overcome your bad habit, and you are literally in the very final stage of habit change, with a given habit all but eradicated.

An extinction burst is much like a Hail Mary play in football, where desperation drives an all-or-nothing strategy for success. Your reptilian brain makes a final push to reestablish your old habit.

Take healthy eating, for example. Suppose you’ve managed to avoid dessert for weeks and you’ve seen your hard-earned reduction in sugar intake showing in a positive way on the bathroom scale. It’s that big piece of chocolate cake that up until now you’ve been able to walk past that seems to reach out and grab at you, taunting you like the sirens in the Odyssey.

You can thank your reptilian brain for ramping up the chocolate cake craving to almost unbearable level. This might explain why dieters succumb to binging behavior after they’ve been so diligent in their efforts to kick their sugar addiction.

One theory for why your emotional brain might initiate a final extinction burst is that the wiring for a longtime habit is so deeply ingrained that the habit could be misidentified by part of your brain as something vital to survival. In much the same way that your body’s immune system can misidentify a food source as allergen.

Extinction bursts are extremely dangerous, largely because they are part of a process that originates from inside your brain. Unfortunately, there is no well established playbook for fending off an extinction burst.

Odysseus solved his problem and fear of succumbing to the siren song of temptation by having his shipmates lash him to the mast of his ship. That might have worked for the famous Greek, but ship masts aren’t always easy to find, especially when it comes to the dessert isle of your grocery store.

Want a Brain Boost? Try a Jog—or a Curry

Exercise: you know you should, and yet for many, vanity might not be enough to get you on the old treadmill first thing in the morning.

So if that isn’t getting you out of bed and into your sneakers, perhaps your brain might do it. No, not do your exercise, but rather, provide the best argument for working up a sweat.

It turns out that during strenuous physical activity, your brain produces a neural chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF for short.

In his book Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise, Harvard psychiatrist John J Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Why the fertilizer reference? BDNF strengthens the brain’s electrical connections by boosting their strength and vitality. This means that BDNF plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to rewire itself, often referred to as plasticity.

In an interesting study done in Germany, two groups faced off on treadmills. The first group supplemented their 45-minute exercise routine with two separate 3-minute intervals of intense sprinting. The control group didn’t include the high intensity sprinting intervals.

In subsequent memory tests, the sprinting group showed a 20% increase in word acquisition over the non-sprinters. Not surprisingly, the sprinters showed increased levels of BDNF, where the non-sprinters showed no difference.

Neuroscientist John Medina recommends in his book Brain Rules that we exercise 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day at an aerobic level. Recent Scottish studies support the German findings: extra bursts of brief, high-intensity exercise have a profound effect.

Memory improvement not convincing enough for you? How about kicking your mood up a notch? The neurotropic factor released during exercise appears to increase the output of dopamine and serotonin. Both are associated with well-being and enhanced mood.

Not into exercise? What about Indian food?

Another way to boost your BDNF is by consuming curcumin. It’s one of the main components of the spice tumeric, and according to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s also “a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.” You can find tumeric in most commercial curry powders, or on its own as a flavoring and a natural food dye.

So tomorrow morning, do your brain a favor and jump on the treadmill. Afterwards, sprinkle a healthy helping of turmeric on your Cheerios. Or better yet, treat yourself to a nice yellow curry at your favorite Indian haunt tomorrow evening. Or do both—your call.

Are You Brainwashed? Hopefully Yes.

When you think of brainwashing, the name Patty Hearst might come to mind. Daughter of the late newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst, in 1974, the then nineteen-year-old was kidnapped by a fringe terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Several months later, she resurfaced, calling herself Tania and wielding a gun for the SLA during an attempted bank robbery. In September 1975, the local police and the FBI apprehended Hearst in an apartment in San Francisco, along with another SLA member. That January, she was tried for her involvement in the robbery.

The Hearst family’s legal team claimed Patty had been operating under a “classic case” of Stockholm Syndrome. They argued that after weeks of rape, torment, and imprisonment in a closet, she could no longer withstand an SLA indoctrinement.

The prosecution argued that she had willfully decided to aid the SLA, given some circumstantial evidence and her refusal to name names or turn anyone else in. The jury agreed. She served two years of a 35-year jail term before President Carter commuted her sentence. Twenty four years after that, President Clinton issued a full pardon — one of his last official actions in the Oval Office.

The strange case of Patty Hearst, and indeed, the very concept of brainwashing, is still hotly debated. That said, as a clinical diagnosis, it has yet to gain a foothold in the psychological community.

Yet recently the idea of brainwashing has resurfaced with a whole new twist — minus the terrorists, kidnapped heiresses, or attempted bank heists. Still, if you’re a neuroscience buff, you might find this case even more exciting. It concerns the dreaded brain disease known as Alzheimer’s.

According to a story by John Hamilton entitled Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep, researchers discovered that brain cells shrink during sleep. This makes room for cerebral spinal fluid to circulate around the cell walls. It’s theorized that this circulation flushes out harmful proteins, the waste product of extracting energy from the blood’s glucose.

“It’s like a dishwasher,” says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and author of study in Science magazine.

This buildup of toxic proteins, sometimes referred to as ‘brain plaque’, has long been associated with Alzheimer’s. According to Nedergaard, a variety of sleep disorders might interfere with the cleansing — leading to some substantial problems later.

Why does this mental rinse cycle only happen during sleep? Since the process uses a lot of resources, she theorizes it’s an energy- saving strategy.

Furthermore, says Nedergaard, it could “explain why we don’t think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person.”

Nedergaard’s team first observed the process in laboratory rats, and since then it’s been observed in baboons. Scientists haven’t detected it yet in humans, but Nedergaard believes it’s only a matter of time.

This kind of brainwashing might not have the headline appeal of a kidnapped newspaper heiress gone rogue, but its implications extend to millions of people who may be suffering from plaque-related brain disorders.

If Nedergaard is right, it might turn out that brainwashing is something each and every one of us will be glad we are a party to.

The Robert Frost Quandary, or How Irrational Thinking Might Save Your Life

You stumble out of the wilderness, having had no contact with humans for at least ten days. You’re weak from hunger and fatigue and you find yourself at a crossroads, power lines stretching out along each of the separate roadways. It’s decision time. You think about Robert Frost’s poem, and wonder if his advice to take the road less traveled might not just lead to your demise. What do you do, or more importantly, which brain system should you use to make this crucial decision?

Daniel Kahneman, famed psychologist, winner of the Nobel prize for prospect theory and author of Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow might be the one guy to call, assuming your existential crossroads gets cellphone reception.

Kahneman explains that we have two systems for making decisions. He refers to them simply as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is reflexive, automatic, and impulsive. It takes a constant reading of your surroundings and generates short-term predictions, all operating on a level beneath your everyday notice. When Freud talked about subconscious associations, he was discussing a function of System 1.

System 2, by contrast, is what allows you to focus on boring tasks, search your memory to identify something unusual, monitor the appropriateness of your behavior, and so on. You can think of it as the rational mind if you’d like, although it can be lazy to intervene on System 1’s shenanigans.

Your gut might tell you to take the road on the right. This is System 1 at work, unaware that being right-handed has over the years biased you to feel more comfortable moving in that direction. Studies show that whether entering a building or looking at products on a lineup, we tend to gravitate toward the side of our dominant hand.

On the other hand (so to speak), if you force your System 2 in play, you survey the situation and launch into analytical mode. Rejecting hunches or easy answers, you look for wear in the roads. Perhaps even the litter along the grass might give up clues as to what lies ahead or behind you. This might be a matter of life and death, so extreme deliberation is called for.

Your analytical brain might even recognize your own System 1 bias towards your dominant-hand side, so you are especially determined not to be led down that rabbit hole without a fight. Despite your hunger and thirst, you will use whatever information you can glean from your surroundings to make the most informed decision possible.

But as Kahneman points out, when we’re hungry and tired, our rational thinking and personal willpower begin to suffer mightily. The erstwhile fighter Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In Tyson’s case, the insight was probably quite literal. Taken in a broader context, it tells the story of the brain’s limited ability to stay on task when confronted with a degradation of food, sleep or energy.

System 1 and System 2, which is believed to be the newer, shinier system, both have unique characteristics and given a particular situation work amazingly well.

System 1 can get a bad rap. It’s irrational, and it gets us into trouble sometimes. It weighs some pieces of information over others and it loves shortcuts. (Flaws in your System 1 thinking are why you can be fooled by optical illusions.) It also has a huge bias towards noticing and avoiding danger. While this generates plenty of false alarms and irrational fears (System 1 reacts emotionally to even seeing the word ‘crime’), sometimes you want to jump to conclusions.

As you were pondering your two roads dilemma, if a semi truck happened to come roaring around the corner from out of nowhere, you’d hope it wouldn’t take much analysis to dive out of the way. You could thank System 1 for letting you make that leap without waiting to find out the make and model of the truck as it bore down on you.

Luckily, the scenario I describe is theoretical. Besides, you would have never hiked out into the wilderness without GPS, an adequate food supply, and a backup power supply for your smartphone. Planning and preparation are what the boy scouts and System 2 share in common.

But let’s face it, System 1 is probably the real hero of the story. Without your impulses, emotions, and warm memories of the smell of pine, what’s the chance you’d actually martial the energy to go out in the wilderness hiking in the first place?

The beauty of System 1 is that it’s there to remind you just how lazy you truly are. And as it’s done for countless generations before you, it’s there primarily to keep you alive.

Why a Massage Might Be the Smartest Thing You Do This Year

In 1960, psychologist Harry Harlow did a set of experiments with baby rhesus monkeys to determine the importance of touch. Harlow offered the infant monkeys two synthetic substitute mothers. One was covered in soft terry cloth, the other was a wire apparatus that held a baby bottle filled with milk. And which mother did those little monkeys overwhelmingly prefer?

No contest: again and again, the monkeys chose the terry cloth substitute they could cling to, even though it contained no life-sustaining milk. The sense of touch is a pretty big deal for humans, too. Your skin contains a myriad of touch receptors to help you better understand the world around you. Your face contains more of these receptors than all of the rest of the body combined. Have you ever had a massage therapist gently rub your temples?

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Beware of Angels and Snackwell Cookies

When is the last time you ran into an angel? Not “angle”–we’re talking harp, robes, and halo. Well, it turns out you don’t have to actually encounter an angel to get the headwear. Neuroscientists coined the term ‘halo effect’ to describe the irrational behavior that follows when we grant one positive detail too much sway.

According to Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct, the halo effect is a “form of moral licensing which allows us to say ‘yes’ to temptation.  For example, we feel so good about ordering something healthy, our next indulgence doesn’t feel sinful at all. Researchers have found if you pair a cheeseburger with a green salad, diners estimate that the meal has fewer calories than the same cheeseburger served by itself.”
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The Information Diet: Slimming Down on Brain Clutter

Let’s talk about diet. No, I’m not going to lecture you on your food choices this week. This entry is designed to make everybody feel a little crummy (I mean enlightened), regardless of the contents of your fridge.

This is a story about what you’re feeding to your brain–your information diet, if you will. In The Information Diet: a case for conscious consumption, Clay Johnson likens the explosion of information technoligies to the industrialization of the food business.

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Getting Smart About Intelligence

So what is intelligence, or more importantly, how does it work? The U.S. federal government recently announced it has budgeted some 3 billion dollars to mapping the human brain in hopes of answering these kinds of questions. (I would be happy to know why I struggle with driving directions.)

The larger question for the scientific world is: how does the brain make sense of the trillions of data bits thrown at it everyday? Continue reading

The Real Da Vinci Code

Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Vinci, April 15th, 1452.  In his lifetime, he painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He was a sculptor, musician, engineer, scientist and inventor. His sketchpads were filled with designs for helicopters, tanks, parachutes, paddleboats, bicycles, and even a repeating rifle.

By the time he died sixty-seven years later, he was considered to be one of the greatest minds of his century. Today there is plenty of support for the idea that Da Vinci might be, in fact, the greatest mind of all time.

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