Being kind to yourself is a surefire way to improve your mental health and reach your goals, a growing body of work suggests. Now research has revealed an easy way to boost this self-compassion—by showing kindness to others.
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Researchers in the fairly new field of music neuroscience are finding that kids who learn to play a musical instrument also develop important skills related to literacy, math and mental focus.
Ani Patel, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and the author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,” says that while listening to music can be relaxing and contemplative, the idea that simply plugging in your iPod is going to make you more intelligent doesn’t quite hold up to scientific scrutiny.
“On the other hand,” Patel says, “there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have impacts on other abilities.” These include speech perception, the ability to understand emotions in the voice and the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.
Patel says this is a relatively new field of scientific study.
“The whole field of music neuroscience really began to take off around 2000,” he says. “These studies where we take people, often children, and give them training in music and then measure how their cognition changes and how their brain changes both in terms of its processing [and] its structure, are very few and still just emerging.”
Patel says that music neuroscience, which draws on cognitive science, music education and neuroscience, can help answer basic questions about the workings of the human brain.
Researchers report that a single, 20-minute session of Hatha yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control, two measures of brain function associated with the ability to maintain focus and take in, retain and use new information. Participants performed significantly better immediately after the yoga practice than after moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for the same amount of time.
How your sense of humor can improve your health, get you pregnant, and even save your life.
Laughter is the best medicine, or so the cliché goes. Actually, given the choice between laughter and, say, penicillin or chemotherapy, you’re probably better off choosing one of the latter. Still, a great deal of research shows that humor is extraordinarily therapeutic, mentally and physically.
Research continues to show that our hunt for the eureka moment may be in vain. The most recent example comes from Joel Chan and Christian Schunn of the University of Pittsburgh, who sought to understand how "thought A led to thought B that led to breakthrough C."
Instead, creativity is a series of small steps. "Idea A spurs a new but closely related thought, which prompts another incremental step, and the chain of little mental advances sometimes eventually ends with an innovative idea in a group setting," they say. They also found that analogies helped lead from one idea to the next.
For the first time, neuroscientists have used fMRI scanners to track the brain activity of both experienced and novice writers as they sat down — or, in this case, lay down — to turn out a piece of fiction.
The researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, observed a broad network of regions in the brain working together as people produced their stories. But there were notable differences between the two groups of subjects. The inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch, the scientists argue, showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports.
Children who are physically fit have faster and more robust neuro-electrical brain responses during reading than their less-fit peers, researchers report.
These differences correspond with better language skills in the children who are more fit, and occur whether they’re reading straightforward sentences or sentences that contain errors of grammar or syntax.
Even as the emphasis shifts to the keyboard, experts say that .
Does handwriting matter?
Not very much, according to many educators. The Common Core standards, which have been adopted in most states, call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.
But psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.
Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.
The human brain is a marvel of power and flexibility, and a pair of new studies out Monday demonstrates that when it runs up against the limits of its capacity to take in and store information, the brain often relies on its agility to fill the gap. In the process, however, information can be lost.
Two unrelated research studies published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explore how people visually process and remember information about a panorama of similar and dissimilar objects. The new research supports the idea that our brains use different sites in the visual cortex to interpret different categories of visual stimuli -- suggesting that, when confronted with too much of the same thing, those circuits can be overloaded. And it tells us that when we upload such groupings for long-term storage, we leave by the wayside objects that our experience tells us don't really fit into the picture. Although efficient, such selective memory can be wrong.
New research has shown that kids who practice gratitude display many positive benefits, including better moods, more optimism, and better social relationships. Grateful teens, they found, have higher life satisfaction, better grades, and are more engaged with school and hobbies. So, gratitude is not just good for Mom; it’s good for the kids, too.
High self-esteem does not make you a more effective leader, a more appealing lover, more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle, or more attractive and compelling in an interview.
A growing body of research, including new studies by Berkeley’s Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, suggest that self-compassion, rather than self-esteem, may be the key to unlocking your true potential for greatness.
Why is self-compassion so powerful? In large part, because it is non-evaluative — in other words, your ego is effectively out of the picture — you can confront your flaws and foibles head on. You can get a realistic sense of your abilities and your actions, and figure out what needs to be done differently next time.
When your focus is instead on protecting your self-esteem, you can’t afford to really look at yourself honestly.
Pamir Kiciman's insight:
Here's an earlier post that goes into much more detail about this vital subject: http://sco.lt/8RgyYb
What would make you more likely to reduce your carbon footprint: Knowing that climate change is a threat to people—or to birds? New research has some surprising implications.
One might think that presenting climate change as a threat to humans would be more likely to move people to action than framing it as a threat to birds. But a recent study published in The Journal of Environmental Education finds that’s not true.
In fact, the study suggests that people appear more willing to take action if the perceived threat involves some kind of beloved creature other than them. And the reason is that, at least when it comes to climate change, people seem more motivated by empathy for non-human others than their own self-interest.
Pamir Kiciman's insight:
It's Earth Day 2014. Also remember that: "Numerous studies have shown that positive messages—such as those that emphasize the collective impact of carbon-cutting measures—are generally more effective than fear-based messages."
What does it take to foster compassion in men? To find out, Kozo Hattori interviewed scientific and spiritual experts.
1) Understand compassion as a strength
2) Get to know yourself
3) Transcend gender roles
4) Look for positive role models—and become one yourself
5) Spend time in silence
Pamir Kiciman's insight:
"Although many men in society see compassion and sympathy as feminine—which translates to a weakness in our patriarchal society—all of the compassionate men I interviewed view compassion as a strength."
— Kozo Hattori
When two psychologists, Carlo DiClemente and James O. Prochaska, studied people who were trying to quit smoking, they discovered five stages that can be used to assess a person’s readiness to make change. Their ideas about the stages of change have been applied to people who are creating a variety of changes in their lives, whether they are looking to establish new behavior or extinguish old habits.
Their research has become paramount to the Transtheoretical Model of Change. It shows that trying to force someone to change before he’s ready isn’t likely to be productive. For example, most New Year’s resolutions don’t last because people don’t go through the stages of change. Instead, they try to create change based on a date on the calendar, which may not coincide with a true readiness to transform.
"Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, note that it as an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss."
— Richard Davidson
The brain’s emotional circuits are actually connected to its thinking circuits, which are much more accessible to our conscious volition. That has been one of Davidson’s most important discoveries: the “cognitive brain” is also the “emotional brain.” As a result, activity in certain cognitive regions sends signals to the emotion-generating regions. So while you can’t just order yourself to have a particular feeling, you can sort of sneak up on your emotions via your thoughts.
A growing body of research shows that addiction is a complex brain disease that affects people differently. But the research also raises hopes about potential treatments.
As much of the country grapples with problems resulting from opioid addiction, some Massachusetts scientists say they’re getting a better understanding of the profound role the brain plays in addiction.
Their work is among a growing body of research showing that addiction is a complex brain disease that affects people differently. But the research also raises hopes about potential treatments.
Among the findings of some University of Massachusetts Medical School scientists is that addiction appears to permanently affect the connections between areas of the brain to almost “hard-wire” the brain to support the addiction.
They’re also exploring the neural roots of addiction and seeking novel treatments — including perhaps the age-old practice of meditation.
Age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to short telomeres.
One of the most effective interventions, apparently capable of slowing the erosion of telomeres – and perhaps even lengthening them again – is meditation.
So far the studies are small, but they all tentatively point in the same direction. In one ambitious project, Blackburn and her colleagues sent participants to meditate at the Shambhala mountain retreat in northern Colorado. Those who completed a three-month course had 30 per cent higher levels of telomerase than a similar group on a waiting list. A pilot study of dementia caregivers, carried out with UCLA’s Irwin and published in 2013, found that volunteers who did an ancient chanting meditation called Kirtan Kriya, 12 minutes a day for eight weeks, had significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group who listened to relaxing music. And a collaboration with UCSF physician and self-help guru Dean Ornish, also published in 2013, found that men with low-risk prostate cancer who undertook comprehensive lifestyle changes, including meditation, kept their telomerase activity higher than similar men in a control group and had slightly longer telomeres after five years.
Theories differ as to how meditation might boost telomeres and telomerase, but most likely it reduces stress. The practice involves slow, regular breathing, which may relax us physically by calming the fight-or-flight response. It probably has a psychological stress-busting effect too. Being able to step back from negative or stressful thoughts may allow us to realise that these are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality but passing, ephemeral events. It also helps us to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.
The prefontal cortex (that section of the brain right behind your forehead) is the part that helps us with things like decision-making and regulating our behavior. Self-control, or willpower, falls under this heading, and thus is taken care of in this part of the brain.
To be effective at controlling our urges and making sound decisions, the prefontal cortex needs to be looked after. That means feeding it with good-quality food so it has enough energy to do its job and getting enough sleep.
When stress builds up in the brain, it only has two ways out — one is the chemistry of the body. Stress changes the messenger molecules or neuropeptides that are bathing the nervous system and thus changes your mood. And those chemicals have a variety of effects all over the body, not just the nervous system.
But the other way that distress manifests itself is in patterns of tension. And the trouble with those patterns arises when they become lodged permanently as chronic tension patterns. Patterns that move are just fine. We get angry. We get un-angry. We get sad. We get un-sad. The trouble is with the things that come along and stay for a long time, like the unresolved anger or the unresolved grief.
With those, the brain keeps sending out the same messages to the same muscles, and so you take on a specific postural pattern. And after a while, your mind has fit into that pattern, your muscles have fit into that pattern, your fascia has fit into that pattern, your distribution of energy has fit into that pattern, and that may in itself cause illness or lack of ability to move.
Daniela Schiller and a growing number of neuroscience colleagues have an ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories. “Fear takes over the lives of so many people. And there is not enough that we can do about it,” she said. "“I want to disentangle painful emotion from the memory it is associated with,” she said. “Then somebody could recall a terrible trauma, like those my father obviously endured, without the terror that makes it so disabling. You would still have the memory, but not the overwhelming fear attached to it."
These days, we tend to think of memory as a camera or a video recorder, filming, storing, and recycling the vast troves of data we accumulate throughout our lives. In practice, though, every memory we retain depends upon a chain of chemical interactions that connect millions of neurons to one another. Those neurons never touch; instead, they communicate through tiny gaps, or synapses, that surround each of them. Every neuron has branching filaments, called dendrites, that receive chemical signals from other nerve cells and send the information across the synapse to the body of the next cell. The typical human brain has trillions of these connections. When we learn something, chemicals in the brain strengthen the synapses that connect neurons. Long-term memories, built from new proteins, change those synaptic networks constantly; inevitably, some grow weaker and others, as they absorb new information, grow more powerful.
Memories come in many forms. Implicit, procedural memories—how we ride a bike, tie our shoes, make an omelette—are distributed throughout the brain. Emotional memories, like fear and love, are stored in the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons situated deep in the temporal lobe, behind the eyes. Conscious, visual memories—the date of a doctor’s appointment, the names of the Presidents—reside in the hippocampus, which also processes information about context. It takes effort to bring those memories to the surface of awareness. Each of us has memories that we wish we could erase, and memories that we cannot summon no matter how hard we try.
Parenting a small child requires the forethought of a crisis planner, the reflexes of a professional goalkeeper, the energy of a cheerleader and the empathy of a therapist.
After eons of practice at such caregiving, it's clear that mothers have evolved some brawn in those parts of the brain that weave together these many skills, and that practice strengthens them. But fathers can clearly develop the same cognitive and emotional muscle, and a new study finds that the more he cares for his offspring, the more a father's brain looks and behaves like that of a mother engaged in the everyday care of a child.
It turns out that the length of time you nap can impact the health benefits you gain from your snooze.
Around the world, the midday siesta is not just accepted, it's a part of the culture, built in to the afternoon for as long as anyone can remember. And recent neuroscience backs up this ancient knowledge; that not only can a 20-minute rest relax your body and mind, but it can also refresh you more fully than a cup of coffee for the afternoon ahead.
In fact, not only will you feel better, naps can actually make you smarter, by giving your brain a reset in the middle of the day.
“Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” said Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley in a university bulletin.
It's research like this that has led some companies to promote nap time for hardworking employees. Companies from Apple to the Huffington Post to Google promote the practice.
Working late on a project? Why staying up all night is the worst thing you can do.
When running up against a deadline, pulling an all-nighter may seem your only option to complete a project, but a recent study published in the Swedish journal, Sleep showed that, rather than boosting productivity, staying up all night is actually harmful to your brain.
The researchers measured blood levels of certain proteins associated with brain injuries such as concussions and found protein levels were 20% higher in those who pulled all-nighters compared to when they got a full night's rest. Although not as high as protein levels post-concussion, the study proves skimping on sleep can do real brain damage.
If you forgive a violent offender, are you a fool? If you forgive your abusive spouse, are you highly evolved? If you forgive the doctor who made a terrible medical mistake, are you a chump or a champion? What does brain science tell us—is forgiveness healthy or unhealthy?
The part of the brain associated with resolving anger is the same part that involves empathy and regulating emotions. Research shows that there is a neuronal foundation for the idea that resolving conflict and granting mercy are good for the brain and result in positive emotional states.
If you choose to follow the path of meditation, you are likely to encounter what are sometimes referred to as your "karmic knots" — those physical and emotional traumas you have accumulated throughout your lifetime.
There is one category of karmic knot that may be especially hard for you to deal with, as it is for many people. This is the emotional — some would say psychological trauma that may have occurred within your family of origin. It may involve your mother, father, or both.
This trauma may have been caused by a parent who was absent or overbearing, who committed inappropriate actions or failed to take positive action, or who took too little or too much interest in you. Or it may have been the interactions between your parents that was traumatizing to you. In meditation it is all grist for the mill of mindfulness.
A trauma involving the mother or father is sometimes referred to as a "wound" because it damages the body-mind, needs proper healing, and often leaves a scar or weakness in your body or emotional makeup.
Pamir Kiciman's insight:
"But sooner or later, the wound can carry us toward its own remedy, if we only let it."
— Henry Shukman