How to teach an old dog new tricks – Cognitive Science of Habits

Research shows our brains are plastic, moldable and easy to please and despite sayings to the contrary, you can, in fact, teach an old dog (or cat) new tricks. But you have to give your brain a reason to get started.  

Here are excerpts from the article:

On the Mind: How Habits Work and How to Make Them

“Our brains like treats, MRI scans are clear about that. The reward pathway involves several parts of the brain, including areas such as the prefrontal cortex. Food, water, sex and pleasurable activity light up these areas and travel around the brain. If you want to build a habit, make it fun.

“Overall, recent brain scans show that certain areas of the brain light up when a new behavior is started, and the most effective way to keep the areas lit and happy is through rewards. Otherwise, we’re programmed to be lazy and efficient.”

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“In the past year, neuroscientists and psychologists have teamed up to study habit learning and how the brain reacts to new behaviors. They’ve found that some neurons, the cells that fire information across our brain and tell us what to do, are linked to motivation, reward association and habit learning.

Rewarding Right Behavior by Peggy

“When we like a new action, our brain pumps out feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, and we’re more likely to repeat the action to get the same pleasurable response.”

“Just like Pavlov’s dog, if we can motivate ourselves to repeat an action with a reward several times, we can potentially make it stick. And if we lump two or three of those habits together, they can cascade in the brain and lead to the likelihood of sticking with several good habits at once. Hey, even monkeys can learn how to build habits through repetition without much instruction, Brown University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers reported.”

Key Takeaways

1.  Make a Plan for 2 months . . . or longer!

Figure out what works for you, and don’t get discouraged by what seems to be common knowledge. Pop culture has promulgated the idea that it only takes 21 days, or 3 weeks, to form a new habit, but research shows that, depending on the person and habit, changes can take two months or longer.

“To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards,” which may take days or weeks, Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit. “During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change … think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.”

2.  Be Realistic

Don’t set yourself up for failure or place your expectations too high.

“ . . .   it’s common for people to set their sights cripplingly high in a moment of ambition, only to feel crushed when they fail to live up to those unrealistic goals.”

“That crushed feeling sends negative pulses rushing through your neurons, which destroys good associations with the habits you’re building. Try the smallest steps possible . . .  to feel happy about the smallest success you can accomplish.”

3.  Reward Yourself

“If you want to be motivated, you have to do something you enjoy and feel comfortable doing.”

Read entire article: Habits and How to Make Them

 

4 easy ways to GET HAPPY

There are studies which indicate happiness is over-rated and we should strive instead for contentment.  I say we should strive for happiness and be grateful when we are simply content.  

How to get happy in a hurry, according to neuroscience

From the book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb

Know what Prozac does? It boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude!

1. “Write a running gratitude list or simply ask yourself what you’re grateful for: A warm house, a pet you love,  new shoes, a cellphone – doesn’t matter how big or small.  Gratitude boosts both dopamine and serotonin, the two most powerful neurotransmitter chemicals involved in giving you a feeling of calm and well-being.”

“Don’t worry if you can’t immediately find things to be grateful for. The mental search for gratitude alone will begin to elevate the level of those pleasure chemicals”.

2. Label negative feelings.Simply saying to yourself “I’m sad” or “I’m anxious” almost too easy for happiness.  Yet in one fMRI study – ‘Putting Feelings into Words,’ participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Each participant’s amygdala [the brain’s fight-or-flight alarm bell] activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.”

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sad . . . bordering on disdain. . .

3.  Make a decision. Just deciding to do something can reduce worry and anxiety right away.  “Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals – all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety.”

“Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which can pull you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world – finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

“And you don’t have to worry about making the “right” decision?  The “good enough” decision is good enough to make our brains go into at-ease mode.  AND you can decide not to decide or change your decision!”

4.  Touch people, appropriately! This is one of the easiest ways to release oxytocin  which is the pleasure-inducing ‘cuddle chemical’]   It can be as simple as a handshake or a pat on the back.

“A hug is the best but if you don’t have anybody to hug get a massage which has been shown to boost your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels.”

The Chemistry of Joy . . . (and other emotions) from your kitchen

One of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless) “hates” me because I weigh about the same I did when we went to high school together.  (“Hate” may be a bit too strong but she’s been known to say that to my face.)

I can’t help it that I’m just not a glutton like one of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless).

I can’t help it that I eat healthy in moderation unlike one of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless).

When I found this research I thought I might share it with you and one of my long time friends (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless).

The Chemistry of Joy

Our mood, our outlook and our energy levels are determined to a huge extent by the chemicals serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine and their relationship to one another.

We feel good when they are in balance. Beta endorphins also create a feeling of well-being, connectedness to others, and emotional stability. They even help us tolerate pain.

  • If levels of norepinephrine and dopamine are low, people will slow down, sleep a lot, have trouble concentrating and find it hard to motivate themselves. They can have a “sluggish” depression.
  • On the other hand, people with high levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, and possibly low levels of serotonin often feel angry, resentful and despairing. They can be critical and demanding. This would be an “agitated ” depression.
  • A third kind of depression can occur with low levels of serotonin, which results in people feeling fearful , worried and inadequate. This is an “anxious” depression.

Here is where he kitchen comes in:

In the Kitchen by Peggy

  • Sluggish Depression – Eating to INCREASE norepinephrine and dopamine: 
    Eat high quality proteins throughout the day, lean beef, low-fat meats and fish.
  • Agitated Depression – Eating to DECREASE norepinephrine and dopamine:
    eat the same as to increase serotonin but eat very small amounts of protein. A vegetarian diet would be good.
  • Anxious Depression – Eating to INCREASE serotonin:
    Increase carbs, eat tryptophan, which is in nuts, dairy, and meats. Eat regularly throughout the day. Get some protein, but not a large amount.

SUGAR (also alcohol) elevates beta endorphins, which may be why people have sugar cravings. This elevation only lasts a short time, because the body metabolizes it quickly. This results in a “low” that follows the sugar “high”, and you want more sugar! My long time friend (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless) can avoid this by eating complex carbs and protein.

Cholesterol helps the brain make the chemicals we need. So if you are depressed, eat some fat: Halibut, salmon, grains and nuts that have omega 3 and animal fat with omega 6 are both needed in balance.

     *     *     *     *     * 

And so my long time friend (who shall remain nameless but who I closely work with on a blog – which also shall remain nameless)

THIS is a brain healthy diet:
Fats 30%
Sugar 10% or less
Caffeine drinks a day, 2 or fewer ( a cup of coffee is 6 oz)
Complex carbs, whole grains, lean protein, fresh fruit and dark green, leafy vegetables – A lot!

Maui had a “ball” – You can too.

“Maui’s Mini Tail”

Maui had a yellow ball.

Maui loved to chase a small yellow ball around the house. He would grab it with his paws and throw it up in the air, or bat it across the floor!  He loved  playing with the yellow ball, constantly chasing it around the house and batting it across the room.

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I should have learned a thing about feeling good from Maui but it took a book to teach me what Maui knew.

Peggy had a beach ball

When I was working with patients with major mental health problems (Schizophrenia, severe depression, manic depression), I read The Biopsychology of Mood & Arousal by Richard Thayer. I was surprised to learn that if you do a brisk activity for only 10 min, your mood goes up and stays up for 4 hours. It sounded almost too easy.  I found  a beach ball to put it to the test.

At the beginning of the next patient’s group therapy session I  asked everyone to rate their current mood on a scale of 1 to 10. One = horrible/awful/terrible/bad. Ten = wonderful/elated/ joyful/good.

I tossed the beach ball in the air and everyone joined in batting the ball to each other.  Sometimes we missed, sometimes we got hit in the head, but everyone swung at the ball, waved their hands around and had a little exercise.   AFTER 10 MINUTES we stopped and rated mood again.

Take a look at the chart below showing how each patient rated their mood at the beginning of the session, in blue, and where each patient rated their mood after tossing the ball for 10 minutes,  in green.

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Would the mood elevation last? After 3 1/2 hours, everyone rated their mood again.  All moods were still up with one exception. It had worked making my own mood elevated.

The chart below shows each patients mood before the ball toss started,  in blue, and where each patient rated their mood after 3 1/2 hours, in purple.

hourslaterchartThe average improvement in mood was 30%! In TEN MINUTES.

Of course, negative events can bring mood down again. (as happened to the one patient – letter i – in the group) but this is one of my favorite “tricks” to stay happy.

Maui always knew . . .  playing ball is good for you.

THE SCIENCE 

In his 1989 book The Biopsychology of Mood and Arousal, Robert E. Thayer discusses how 10 minutes of brisk exercise improves mood for four hours.  He describes how each of us has a daily biorhythm of ups and downs in energy (There’s a chart in the book on how to  figure out your own biorhythm).

Exercise is shown to boost endorphins and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine both of which improve mood.

Not only does exercise grow your muscles, it also grows neurons in your brain. Such neuron growth is associated with improved mood.  Research shows:

Regular exercise can relieve depression just as well as medication over a 4 month period, and even better after 6 months.

I personally use this concept to get and keep my own  mood up.  Ten minutes of activity is a cheap price for creating 4 hours of feeling good (or at the very least, feeling ok).

(PA)

How do you elevate your mood?  Let us know in the comments.

Click here for Time article It’s All in the Nerves: How to Really Treat Depression 

 

 

 

My Will Power vs My Won’t Power

I admit it –  My will power is puny.  The more I try to eat healthy foods the more I scarf down sugar laden carbs.  About 3-4 days is my limit for exerting will power.  Finally!  Research has confirmed I’m normal (sort of).

It turns out that everyone has will power, but only a limited amount to use each day. 

Research shows that just the act of resisting temptation wears out will power and we are more likely to lose the ability to discipline ourselves later. This includes not only stopping oneself from dong something unhealthy or unhelpful, but also depletes the ability to concentrate on doing something you want to do.

Rather than depend on will power, it is easier to put ourselves in situations where little or no will power is needed: Easier not to buy ice cream, than to have it at home and not eat it;   Easier to put a loud alarm clock far from bed so you have to get up than to have the snooze button next to the bed that you can tap (over and over) with your eyes shut and your head on the pillow. 

Reference:  Switch, How to change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Maui’s “Mini-Tail” of Will Power

Scratch by Peggy

by Peggy

There it sat, in the middle of Maui’s path, taunting him with texture. Maui knew his human would be upset if he scratched this BIG, TEMPTING scratching post called couch.  

” Don’t scratch the couch.  Don’t scratch the couch.  Don’t scratch the couch” 

He had lost count of how many times he heard this.  But every time he passed by that couch, his brain remembered how great the rough fabric felt and directed his claws to come out, longing for a manicure. 

Did Maui scratch?  Yup.  Just like humans, the stress of resisting continual temptation wore out his will power.  I can’t blame him.  Maui can’t remove the couch, he can’t go outside where he would be free to scratch whatever and where ever he wanted . . .

. . . unlike me who could throw out all the junk food and not buy anymore . . . if I had the will power . . .

 

 

 

Bet you’ve had an Emotional Hangover and not known it

I have little, VERY little, memories of my childhood or adolescence – or adulthood for that matter.  It concerned me when a therapist colleague said that was an indication of repressed memory of probably horrible childhood trauma.  Ai yiiii yiiiiii.  Maybe I was beaten, or worse, and all these years believing I had nice parents.

I told a psychiatrist friend about my memory “affliction” thinking he would suggest decades of psycho-analysis at best and in-patient treatment at worst.  He looked passively at me and without the slightest hesitation said, “All that indicates is your childhood was boring.”

This is one of my aha moments that I DO remember and spurred me to investigate the neuro-biology of emotion.  What does that have to do with hang-over?  Read on!

Hung Over by Peggy

Excerpts from:

You already know without a doubt that most of your memories are ones that were highly emotional experiences.

“Emotional experiences can induce physiological and internal brain states that persist for long periods of time after the emotional events have ended, a team of New York University scientists has found. This study, which appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience, also shows that this emotional “hangover” influences how we attend to and remember future experiences.”

“How we remember events is not just a consequence of the external world we experience, but is also strongly influenced by our internal states–and these internal states can persist and color future experiences,” explains Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science and senior author of the study.”

“‘Emotion’ is a state of mind, . . . findings make clear that our cognition is highly influenced by preceding experiences and, specifically, that emotional brain states can persist for long periods of time.”’

” . . . data showed that the brain states associated with emotional experiences carried over for 20 to 30 minutes and influenced the way the subjects processed and remembered future experiences that are not emotional.”

“We see that memory for non-emotional experiences is better if they are encountered after an emotional event,” observes Davachi.

I’m so relieved!  Not only wasn’t I beaten . . . or worse . . .  the biggest hang-over I’ve experienced was the news I’ve led an exceptionally boring life.

(jw)

To read the entire article, who the author are and the research behind it click HERE.

Catattude – Neuroscience gives me a pass for “laziness”

My earliest memory was my mother waking me up.  It was dark outside and chilly inside.  I don’t remember how many times she came into my room to get me out of bed.  I do remember pulling the covers over my head and refusing to get up in the dark and cold to get ready for pre-school . . .  

Mom was the first to give up in our morning battle and I started kindergarten with “learning deficits”.  Decades later I continue to not want to greet the new day until it is DAYtime. Morning and me ain’t buddies.

Furthermore, people, like my husband, who bound out of bed alert and cheerful are jarring at best and obnoxious at worst.  

I take umbrage at being labeled “lazy” by you early-morning-worshipers who think those of us who understand that moving any extremity in increments larger than a few inches is not natural before 10 am.  

NOW!  FINALLY I’m vindicated!!!  Read this excerpt!

As anyone who struggles to get out of bed in the morning knows, fighting laziness is a losing battle. From beneath the covers, the world outside seems colder; the commute to work seems longer; the number of e-mails to answer unbearably high. Authority figures may chalk our lethargy to lack of self-discipline, but . . . 

. . . new research suggests that we’re just being our true selves: Choosing the path of least resistance, scientists argue, is hard-wired into our brains.” (What a relief.  I thought my wiring was simply “lose”)

“Outlining the results of their work in a new paper in eLife, the researchers conclude that human brains seem to be wired for laziness. “Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest,” said lead author Nobuhiro Hagura, Ph.D.,. . . ”

“When we make decisions to act (or not), the brain thinks like an economist and runs a cost-benefit analysis. If the “cost to act,” as the researchers call it, is too high, it can bias our decision-making process, making us less likely to do things. Applied cleverly, their findings can help us do things that we should be doing — and those that we should be avoiding. For example, going to the gym in the morning could seem more effortless if you sleep in your sweats, just as stashing your booze on a hard-to-reach shelf might make drinking it seem like more effort than its worth. There’s no guarantee that these hacks will work, but . . . “

“. . . if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that we’ll always take the easy route when it’s available — and becoming less lazy may simply come down to avoiding that option altogether.”

If you don’t believe me read the article: Neuroscientists Just Gave Lazy Humans a Free Pass