Friday, September 22, 2017

Deliberately and with actual intention

I want to comment on the concept and activity of "being deliberate".  I mean the same thing as doing something with intention, premeditation, consciously trying for one reason or another. A while back, I read Merzenich's "Soft-wired: How the New Science of Plasticity Can Change Your Life".  I think it did change my life a little.  It made clear that what we do repeatedly makes us different.  Not all that shocking information but it is news to brain scientists that our brains take a different shape, parts of it grow, parts of it decrease in size, depending on what we do, including what we think.


It is no surprise that the amygdala does this and the hippocampus does that.  (One author advised to answer "hippocampus" to any question on a brain exam you didn't know the answer to.)  It is no surprise that parts of the brain have to do with alarms, noticing danger and getting the body ready to fight, flee or freeze.  So, it follows that if we get alarmed, surprised, frightened repeatedly, the part of our brain that handles alarm prep will enlarge to take care of all the incoming business.  


One thing I remember from Merzenich is the difference between habitual action and deliberate, conscious action.  Other scientists felt that he had overestimated the difference between my turning a switch without paying attention and my turning it deliberately.  However, he showed that it does make an important difference to the brain. That is why he and others emphasize that in stopping an old habit or building a new one, it is important to stop the old actions deliberately, consciously and to do the new deliberately.  Granted that can be difficult, but stopping the old and starting the new, important for educating yourself and training yourself into a new way works better, more efficiently and more effectively, if you stop intentionally and start with attention.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Frequency and duration

Some of the research and commentary I read about exercise and about meditation focuses on duration: usually something along the line of "how much have these people practiced meditation" or "how many years have they been running?"  To me, this measure, equal to the total, is misguided.  I think a better total is frequency.  


It seems better to me to ask "What % of days does exercise or meditation get carried out?"  Consider the activities that keep us alive: breathing and eating/drinking.  We don't approach the topics with the questions

For how many years has this person been breathing?  

How many years has this person practiced eating?  


Time passes, you know.  We are much more interested in questions like this:

Is the person breathing now?

How long has it been since his last breath?

How long has it been since he ate?

Is he eating too frequently?


If we want to get better at understanding and appreciating ourselves and each other, it will help, I think, if we focus on people as ongoing processes, not permanent states.  We are alive, not rocks, although even rocks have beginnings and histories and endings.


A good model of another approach is "The Quieting Reflex" by Charles Stroebel, MD  Aside of anything to do with meditation, Stroebel advises taking 6 seconds at a time to deeply relax.  He advises grabbing 6 seconds here and there, when it is convenient and when you think of it.  For me and my experimentation with meditation and reading about breath and yoga and conscious effort and concentration, I am getting so that I am more conscious of each involuntary breath I take.  So, I am getting more aware of each breath.  I don't want to overdo it but I feel that it is helpful in keeping me aware of being alive, of the beauty and reality of life and of its essential materiality.  I remember that I am a living creature and have a material body.  I also remember C.S. Lewis' comment: "Of course God loves material.  He made so much of it."

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

There's Waldo!

I am paying strong attention to "Altered Traits" by Goleman and Davidson.  It's about research on meditation.  As always happens with research, concepts and meanings get clarified.  Distinctions are made.  New angles and facets are uncovered.  


Then, when important discoveries are made, the results have to be communicated to someone like me, someone interested but not deep in the research and even unwilling to get deep into special terminology and equipment use.


I try to find several snatches of time throughout the day to fit in 15 or 20 minutes reading the book.  That works well because any given paragraph may well hit me with an important concept that wows me, pauses my brain, reveals something exciting. When I strike something golden, first I get wowed.  Then, I use my finger and the Kindle free software to highlight the passage, usually sharing it on Twitter with my followers.  


That's what happened yesterday with attention blinks.  The authors used the well-known children's book "Where's Waldo?" to illustrate what they were writing about.  You may well be familiar with the Waldo figure already:

goo.gl/W67BhN - shortened link by Google Shortener to see some about Waldo and remind yourself of his appearance

The scientists' point is that a young child will have a moment of delight when he spots Waldo in the midst of a crowded, confusing drawing of people and objects, some distractions that look similar at first glance but aren't our guy.  During that moment of delight, the child's perception is on pause.  He can't detect a 2nd Waldo during that moment of joy.  


Reminds me of the sleight of hand experts I have seen who pass through the audience meeting and greeting and then once again to return the wallets, watches and purses they lifted during the first pass. Here's an example: http://blog.ted.com/the-art-of-misdirection-apollo-robbins-at-tedglobal-2013/


The book's point is that the initial surge of joy (dopamine in the brain) obliterates the senses for a moment.  Meditators calm the initial surge some and have a better chance of being alert sooner.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New over and over

Everything is exciting all the time.  Watch a baby  or a puppy. For them, everything is new and amazing.  We can settle into the habit of keeping our minds in the "it's the same old thing" gear and take everything into stride immediately.  If I am really determined to be unruffled, calm and unreactive even, I can do it.


But a little bit each day, it is fun to pay attention to the fact that the very second you are reading this is a second that has never ticked by before.  It is never going to come again.  Let's salute this second and respect its unique existence.  If you get in the mood, you can celebrate the particular evening you had yesterday.  Or, take the moment this morning when you first realized you were awake.  You never woke up to be that exact age before and you never will again.  You never woke up with that particular night of sleep slept in just that way.  Pretty neat!


We can label them repeats, lump them together, call them all "nights" but each is a bit different.  Humanity, what with better education and better insight into genetics and individual differences, may be entering a period of better awareness of the exact nature of each of its members.  Maybe we are getting to the point of sensing and remembering the way I am different from you.  Maybe even the way I am different now from who and what I was on this day of last week or this day of last month.


I have read that human minds naturally search for patterns but maybe I can develop deeper, sharper insight into anti-patterns, ways that days and people and personalities differ. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Thought contents matter

I like the image David Eagleman uses in "Incognito" to depict a conscious mind assuming credit, taking ownership of the body and the brain, like a passenger on a great modern oceanliner taking credit for the whole ship and the whole voyage.  That image makes clear that a great deal goes on in me that I don't know about: my heart beating, my breathing continuing, my digestive system adding energy and many other processes I cannot detect or control consciously.


So, I was surprised to read that Goleman and Davidson in "Altered Traits" research the mind and parts of the brain with different expectations depending on what sort of thoughts I am harboring.  Since I rather figured that one thought is like another, I didn't think it would matter much what I thought about.  But as I consider it more carefully, I guess it is not so surprising.  


If I think about being in a physical fight, I get one set of reactions.  I might get a bit aroused and my fight, flight or freeze system might get warmed up some.  If I think about the world's worst sheep dog video I saw on Facebook, I smile and can even laugh.  In those situations, I don't find it odd that parts of my brain and of my body react differently depending on what I am thinking about.  When I have trouble remembering FDR's middle name or the year of the Star-Spangled Banner being composed, I would not be surprised if different parts of my brain get used.  


I thought thoughts were all the same more or less, much as I think of all words being similar.  Thinking of a looming deadline might make me feel nervous, anxious but I didn't think the thoughts involved used different parts of my brain/mind than the parts thoughts of lying in the warm sun on a nice beach use.  


Sharon Salzberg and others emphasize meditation/concentration sessions that focus on thinking, feeling and emanating loving-kindness and compassion.  Brain scientists know that when I feel compassion for another, a particular part of my brain gets used, the amygdala.  Experiments have been done when seminary students, charged with giving a sermon about the Good Samaritan, had to pass by a person in need of aid.  I am confident that I am the sort of person who would be thinking of my coming sermon and not notice that poor soul.  Might be a dirty trick on the part of the experimenters to test me in that way.  


Experiments have also been done that showed more compassionate behavior and bigger amygdalas in people who practice loving-kindness meditation. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fwd: Watching box sets with your partner can benefit your relationship

I have posted TED talks, Eric Barker's Barking Up the Wrong Tree and Maria Popova's Brainpickings, all free and all good and all can be subscribed for once a week delivery.  You could add BPS Research.  That is the British Psychological Society's research newsletter.  You may know that psych research is undergoing some special stress these days since quite a lot of the American stuff has not replicated, not shown the same results upon re-doing the research.  So, I say take research results with a grain of thought.  Bill
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: BPS Research Digest <rd@lists.bps.org.uk>
Date: Thu, Sep 14, 2017 at 1:32 AM
Subject: Watching box sets with your partner can benefit your relationship
To: olderkirby@gmail.com


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Watching box sets with your partner can benefit your relationship, claim researchers


My wife and I were ridiculously excited about watching the recent season finale of Game of Thrones together, writes Christian Jarrett – we'd watched all the previous 66 episodes together too, and the characters almost feel a part of our lives. Spending our time this way has always seemed like a guilty pleasure, but a team of psychologists led by Sarah Gomillion at the University of Aberdeen say that couples' shared enjoyment of TV, movies and books can help foster feelings of closeness and a shared social identity. Continue reading →

Believing widely doubted conspiracy theories satisfies some people's need to feel special


Unrelenting faith in the face of insurmountable contradictory evidence is a trait of believers in conspiracy theories that has long confounded researchers. For instance, past research has demonstrated how attempting to use evidence to sway believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories can backfire, increasing their certainty in the conspiracy. Could it also be the case that knowing that most people doubt a conspiracy actually makes believing in it more appealing, by fostering in the believer a sense of being somehow special? This question was explored recently in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Roland Imhoff and Pia Karoline Lamberty at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Continue reading →

How short-term increases in testosterone change men's thinking style

The hot-headed "macho man", who acts first and thinks later, has long been popular in movies. Now there's psychological evidence to support it. A new study in the Psychological Science finds that a short-term rise in testosterone – as might occur when in the presence of an attractive potential mate, or during competition – shifts the way men think, encouraging them to rely on quick, intuitive, and generally less accurate, judgements, rather than engaging in careful, more deliberate thought. Continue reading →

Learning more about yourself could help you better understand others

As social creatures, accurately recognising and understanding the mental states of others (their intentions, knowledge, beliefs, etc.) is crucial to our social bonds and interactions. In fact, in today's multi-cultural world and strongly divided political climate, this skill – known as Theory of Mind – is perhaps more important than ever. A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement proposes that an effective way to develop our Theory of Mind lies in learning to better understand ourselves. Continue reading →

Researchers asked these British mothers which personality traits they would most wish for their babies – extraversion came out on top


Ambitious and self-disciplined or affable and fun-loving? If you could choose the personality profile for your children, what would you prioritise? Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, put this question to 142 British mothers with a baby aged 0 to 12 months. Reporting their findings in Personality and Individual Differences, Rachel Latham and Sophie von Stumm say there was a clear preference among the mothers for most of all wanting their infants to grow up to be extraverted, especially friendly and cheerful, more so than conscientious or intelligent, even though these latter attributes are more likely to contribute to a healthy, successful life. Continue reading →

Increase the meaningfulness of your work by considering how it helps others


When we find our work meaningful and worthwhile, we are more likely to enjoy it, to be more productive, and feel committed to our employers and satisfied with our jobs. For obvious reasons, then, work psychologists have been trying to find out what factors contribute to people finding more meaning in their work. Top of the list is what they call "task significance", which in plain English means believing that the work you do is of benefit to others. Now Blake Allan at Purdue University has provided some of the first longitudinal evidence that seeing our work as benefiting others really does lead to an increase in our finding it meaningful. Continue reading →

Editor's archive pick: "A burden and a privilege" – clinical psychologists look back on their life's work


Anyone who knows anyone who is a clinical psychologist or other kind of psychotherapist will know about the stories they carry in their minds and hearts. Stories of other people's struggles, pain, trauma, hurt, love and sometimes, wonderfully, recovery. When the psychologist returns home, the stories stay with them, but now in a parallel world of partners, children, friends and mundanity. What is this life like for the psychologist and her loved ones? How do they cope? Some clues come from in-depth interviews with nine senior psychologists and three senior psychiatrists in Norway, published recently in Psychotherapy Research by Marit Råbu and her colleagues. Continue reading →

The Psychologist


The Psychologist is the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society. Visit our website for the September issue and latest online content, including a review of Adrian Owen's new book Into the Grey Zone. Also check out all our latest reports and feature articles and much more.
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