Why we think attractive people are also smarter and funnier

Have you ever had someone tell you not to judge a book by it’s cover? Or that appearances don’t matter? Turns out our brain is wired to make these quick judgments based on appearances because of a mental shortcut called the Halo Effect.


Basically the Halo Effect is the tendency we have to use how likeable/attractive we think someone is to gauge other qualities like intelligence and humour. The more attractive or likeable a person is the more likely we are to see them as smart, kind, and funny. Our brains use our first gut impressions and feelings about someone to make other quick decisions about their personality.


Edward Throndike first coined the term in a 1920 paper where he asked military officers to rate their subordinates on a number of personal qualities like leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, and loyalty. What he found was that when people were rated high on one quality, they tended to have high ratings in all other qualities. So if they rated someone as attractive they were also likely to say the person was a good leader and was loyal. And those people rated low in one area tended to be rated low across areas (less attractive people were rated as weaker leaders and less loyal).


This finding has been repeated many times. When we rate people as good looking we also tend to believe they are funny and smart. One study even found jurors were less likely to believe that attractive people were guilty!


Marketers take advantage of the Halo Effect by placing celebrities next to products so our positive feelings toward that celebrity will transfer to the product. Hey look at this celebrity they’re such a great person, well then you should also like our product!


Job applicants can benefit from the Halo Effect too. If an applicant is rated as attractive or likeable they are also more likely to be evaluated as intelligent and qualified.


Keep this in mind, first impressions and appearances count! Next time you are on your way to a job interview take a few extra minutes to pick out an outfit that you know makes you look good and also makes you feel confident. Remember the more confident we are the more attractive we seem, so it’s not only about looking good, it’s about feeling good that will create that winning first impression.

Four Good Reasons to Smoke

Yes you read that right. I said there are four good reasons to smoke. There are good reasons that we do any behaviour, otherwise we wouldn’t do it! If you want to change a behaviour like quit smoking, you need to find ways to overcome the good reasons for that behaviour.


Let’s take a look at smoking. Here for good reasons to keep smoking;

  1. Nicotine is addicting - This means that you have to find ways to overcome your body’s biological addiction to nicotine in order stop smoking. Thankfully this reason is actually the easiest one to overcome! There are many nicotine supplements available such as gums, lozenges, or patches that will give your body that access to the nicotine that it’s addicted to, without all the harmful chemicals in cigarettes. You could stay on a nicotine patch indefinitely if that solves the physiological addiction problem for you. Like I said, the actual physiological addiction is the easiest good reason to smoke to overcome.

  2. Stress management – Do you smoke more when you’re stressed? If you have a busy day at work do you find yourself reaching more often for that pack of cigarettes? Or have a fight with your spouse and reach for the cigarettes? Then smoking probably is a coping strategy that you use to help manage stress. This means if you want to stop smoking you need to find something to replace the stress management benefits. Some alternatives for stress management might be meditation, yoga, going for a brief walk, working on a hobby you enjoy (I love adult coloring books!), or anything else that helps you find a sense of calm without smoking. Unfortunately, many people replace smoking with eating to manage stress, which leads to the next good reason to smoke.

  3. Weight management - Smoking tobacco can help manage weight. Smoking suppresses our appetite. As well, if you are using smoking to manage stress then we want to be careful about replacing smoking with stress-eating. Again, if we are going to quit smoking we need to find some way to overcome this good reason to smoke (e.g. a regular meal routine, adding regular physical activity).

  4. Social factors - Why did you start smoking in the first place? Were your friends and family smoking? Did you want to fit in so you started smoking? How about when you smoke now. Do you smoke more when you’re around friends that smoke like at parties or bars? Are you going for cigarette breaks with colleagues and chatting? If I stop smoking this will impact my social life. Now I have to be around friends and family who smoke, I start missing smoke breaks with colleagues, or maybe I stop going to the same events I used to because I no longer smoke. Something needs to fill that social gap or we will start smoking again.


What do you think? Looking at these good reasons to keep smoking can you see why it might be hard to stop? In order to stop smoking we have to have a strategy to overcome the physiological addiction, to manage stress, to maintaining our weight after we stop smoking, and to fill the social role interaction that might be lost by quitting. The good news is because we know the good reasons to smoke and the reasons we are smoking, we can plan strategies to avoid falling back into this behaviour in the future.

The Rewards We Pick in Childhood Might Make Us More Successful As Adults

If you were given the choice between having one marshmallow right now and having two marshmallows if you wait 10 minutes which would you choose? Be careful. Your choice could impact your future success!


Second part of the question. How do you think kids today would perform on this task compared to 50 years ago? Would they choose the instant reward, or chose to wait for a greater prize?


The ability to wait for a bigger reward is called delayed gratification. The popular belief is that newer generations are less able to wait for rewards. “When I was little I could have waited all day for that marshmallow but kids today with their newfangled technology and whatnot can’t wait a second.” Right? Actually, we’re wrong. Recent research suggests our ability to delay gratification is improving with each generation.


Let’s go back a few years to the start of our story. It’s the 1960s and we are at Stanford University where Walter Mischel developed “the marshmallow test”. Mischel took 3 to 5-year-old kids who were the children of employees at Stanford University and placed two plates in front of them. On one plate there was a small reward (like one marshmallow or one cookie) and on the second plate there was a larger reward (like two marshmallows or two cookies). Mischel next told these kids that he had to leave the room “to do some work”. They were told if they could wait until he came back they could have the plate with the bigger prize. But if they weren’t able to wait until he came back they could have the smaller prize at any time. Then the researcher would leave the room and record how long kids would wait to eat the marshmallow, up to 10 minutes.


They tracked these kids over time and what they found was that this marshmallow test was a powerful predictor of future success, at least amongst the white children of well-educated parents. Those who held out longer for the bigger prize tended to do better in school, they had higher SAT scores, they had higher self-esteem, better coping skills, and were less likely to abuse drugs as adults.


In contrast, children who weren’t able to defer gratification and hold out for the bigger reward were more likely to be overweight or obese 30 years later, and were generally in worse health as adults.


The marshmallow test has been replicated many times over the years with the same results. At least for white middle-class kids, the longer you are able to delay gratification when you are young the more successful you are as an adult.


In 2018 Stephanie Carlson and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota were interested in whether this effect had changed over time. They looked at the original 1960 data (from kids who are now in their 50s), data collected in the 1980s at Columbia University (from kids who are now in their 40s), and a cohort of children studied in the 2000s at the University of Washington (who are now in their late teens to early 20s) to see how performance changed over time.


The results were not what you would expect. The length of time kids are able to hold out for the big reward has slowly increased over the years. Children tested in the 2000s waited on average two minutes longer than children did in the 1960s, and one minute longer than children in the 1980s. Children were getting better over time at delaying gratification!


Carlson and her colleagues attribute some of this improvement across generations to changes in educational practices. For example in the 1960s only about 15% of 3 and 4-year-olds in the United States attended preschool, but by the year 2000 more than half the children that age attended preschools. As well, both formal education and information education (such as television programs and games for kids) have increasingly emphasized social skill development and self-control over the years. We are being taught more and more about the importance of being able to wait for better rewards.


So, we are getting better at delaying gratification and waiting for the bigger reward. Does this mean we are raising a group of kids who will be more socially adept and more successful? We will have to wait and see, but the research to date certainly suggests this might be the case. Today’s Millennials who seem hesitant to commit to long-term jobs or big houses might be cleverer than us older generations. Maybe they know that a bigger reward might be still to come!


An interesting caveat to this research; there have been some studies conducted more recently that suggest that this “marshmallow effect” or the long-term benefit of being able to delay gratification in early childhood only applies to Caucasian middle-class families. This effect doesn’t seem to generalize to lower income families.

5 Questions I Get Asked the Most About Memory

When I tell people that I’m a neuropsychologist the first question usually get asked is “what the heck is that” or “did you make that word up”? When explain that I study how changes in brain health impact our thinking and behaviour I usually get a lot of questions about how memory. Here the most common questions I get asked


1.       Am I going to get Alzheimer’s?

This question usually start something like “my grandpa had Alzheimer’s am I going to get Alzheimer’s?” There are some factors that increase our risk of dementia like Alzheimer’s disease. Some factors we can control and generally are what we call cardiovascular risk factors (e.g. smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity). Some factors we can’t control like age (risk goes up with age). There is a genetic component in some families, with some families having very high rates of dementia. These familial cases are quite rare. Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease are what we call sporadic which they aren’t associated with any one factor but likely represent a combination of factors. The best things that we can do to prevent dementia of any type are to maintain our physical health through diet and exercise, and keep our brains active.


2.       Do nutritional supplement improved memory?

Short answer is no. A recent evidence review completed by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) determined that the scientific evidence does not support the use of any supplement to prevent, slow, reverse, or stop cognitive decline or dementia. The GCBH concluded that for most people the best way to get nutrients for brain health is from a healthy diet. In addition to not actually improving memory, in some cases nutritional supplements can make health including memory works. The supplements are not well-regulated and can interact with other medications that you are taking. When in doubt talk to your pharmacist about how nutritional supplements might interact with any medications.


3.       Should I buy brain training games?

Only if you find them fun and can afford them. There is not enough evidence in the research to suggest that brain training games that you can buy for your computer or your iPad improve thinking skills in daily life. With practice you will get better at the game, but this practice doesn’t transfer to other skills. So you won’t get better at remembering your to do list just because you get better at these games. Regular reading can help maintain brain health. If you don’t like these games, save your money and go to the library to get a book.


4.       How come I forget things?

There are many reasons that we have trouble keeping track of things day-to-day. Distraction is usually the biggest one. For example I’ve been trying to remember to pick up stamps for about a week. I have a note on the fridge at home and I look at it every day but as soon as I leave the house I start thinking about other things I need to get done and so I forget to pick up stamps until I get home again. It is normal to forget things from time to time, we all do it. The best way to help our memory in these situations is to use reminders. Write things down that you need to remember in a place that you will see it when you need it (like I should put a note in my car to remember stamps)!


5.       What’s the number one thing I can do to improve my memory?

If I had to recommend one thing to improve brain health and memory it would be regular physical exercise. Hands down. Exercise is the factor that we have the best research support for maintaining brain health. This doesn’t have to be really difficult exercise either. Even 20 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise such as a brisk walk can improve brain health and memory.

Are You Too Stressed Or Not Stressed Enough? The Key To Productivity Is Anxiety.

Did you know there is an ideal level of stress that will make you more productive? And it’s not what you might think. The ideal level of stress is not zero stress! It has to do with how our brains focus on information.


Think back to when you were in high school or college. Did you ever find yourself procrastinating on an assignment for weeks and then at the final hour you found the motivation to write that paper? Part of the reason we procrastinate is that our brain needs to be at the optimum level of anxiety to take action.


The Yerkes-Dodson Law explains how anxiety impacts our performance. Take a look at the graph at the top of this blog. It looks kind of like a hill right? As you move from the bottom to the top of the graph performance improves, and as you move from left to right across the graph stress increases. As you can see there is a peak in the middle of the graph were performance is at the maximum.


We need a certain amount of stress (in psychology what we call mental arousal) to get us to do anything. If we don’t have enough stress/arousal/motivation we don’t act. Go back to that time when you procrastinated on an assignment in school. You didn’t have enough pressure to get started sooner, so you waited until the pressure was high enough to kick your butt in gear. Lack of stress leads to inaction.


On the opposite end of the curve, too much stress can also impact our performance. We know that when we are too stressed or under too much pressure our performance is less efficient, we make more mistakes, and we end up being less productive. It’s probably pretty easy to come up with an example at this end of the curve too. Maybe a time where you were trying to get something done quickly to make a deadline but ended up not giving your best performance.


There is a qualifier in this relationship between stress and productivity. The amount of stress you need to achieve maximum productivity depends on the task you are doing.


If the task is something new, or difficult we need a lower level of stress to perform our best. It takes less stress/pressure/arousal to concentrate on something new because our brain likes new things. The novelty of the task is enough to get us engaged. On the opposite end, too much stress when learning something new can a bad thing as our brains can become quickly overwhelmed when working on a new task.


We need a higher level of stress/arousal to stay focused on simple or tedious tasks. Think of the last time you had to do something boring or repetitive (for me it’s book keeping!), it was probably hard to stay focused right? It takes more stress/pressure to keep focused on less challenging tasks. Sometimes we need to set deadlines for ourselves (like a looming assignment deadline) to keep peek stress and get the task done.


The next time you are trying to get a task done, evaluate your level of stress. Is your stress too low and so you are procrastinating? Try setting a deadline to increase the pressure and your motivation. Is your stress too high and so you are feeling overwhelmed or making mistakes? Setting deadlines and breaking tasks down into more manageable chunks can help bring our brain to the maximum stress level for success.

Time Saving Hack: Create A “Do Not Do” List

Have you ever found yourself brushing your teeth at the end of the day and wishing you had more hours in the day? Saying to yourself there’s just not enough time to get everything done! I know I’ve been saying this a lot lately. If I only had three more hours in the day look how much I could do! So I started staying up later, or getting up earlier trying to squeeze more out of my day. Working through my lunches. But it still wasn’t enough. I was still feeling overwhelmed like I had too much to do each day.


I was watching a webinar on my lunch break today about time management from a businesswoman named Jenna Kutcher (who has a 6 month old baby by the way, and makes 7 figures a year with her businesses). She said “Beyoncé has the same number of hours in a day as you do!” So how does Beyoncé (or anyone hugely successful) find enough time?


They use a “Do Not Do List”.


Here’s how the Do Not Do List works:

Step 1: Make a list of everything you do in a day for one week. All the tasks you do around the house, your work tasks, chores, time spent with family, watching TV, playing on your phone, etc. and keep track of how much time you are spending on each task.

 Step 2: Look at your list of weekly activities and highlight anything you can

  • Automate,

  • Delegate, or

  • Eliminate

The idea here is that by automating tasks, delegating tasks, and eliminating tasks that don’t help us reach our goals we free up time. We have busy lives and it is unlikely that we will be able to find huge chunks of free time. But by making small changes we can find small bits of time that add up over the year.


I know I was really skeptical of this idea at first. I was raised with the belief that you shouldn’t pay someone else to do something you can do for yourself.


For me I had to change my mindset about how much my time was worth. If I can automate or delegate a task for less $$ than I can earn in that same time then it’s worth it.


Here’s my example of this process. We recently hired someone to come in every few weeks and help with some of our cleaning. Actually I don’t mind some housekeeping tasks. It’s good exercise and I feel like I accomplished something when I clean. But housekeeping doesn’t move the needle towards my goals. If I can hire someone to clean my house for $15 an hour and I can use that hour to make a new business contact that will pay me $50 or $100 then it’s a better use of my time to delegate the task.


What really help me shift to buying into this weird idea of the Do Not Do List was delving into my ultimate goals. What gets me excited to wake up and start the day? Sometimes people call this their “why”. The reason that they’re doing what their doing.


My why is to make a difference in the world so the generations that come after me, including my kids, have a better place to live. I do this through inspiring others to change the way they see themselves and the world so they can change their actions and make the world a happier, healthier place. What drives me is the goal of knowing that I want to make an impact on the world. This is my why.


Keeping my why in mind keeps me stay motivated each day. But I’ve also found that when I think about my why it’s easier to say no to tasks that don’t help me move the needle towards that goal. It’s easier to find tasks to delegate, automate, or eliminate because they don’t serve my why, my ultimate goal, my destination. I can say no to things that don’t align with what I really want in my life. Those things go on my Do Not Do List.


Try this this week. Write down every task that you do, no matter how small, throughout the week. Then take a look at that list.

  1. Is there anything you can automate? For example can you get an app to help with your scheduling, or can you set up automatic bill payments.

  2. Is there anything you can delegate? Maybe your kids can help more with chores. Maybe you can have your groceries delivered rather than going to pick them up. Maybe there’s something at work that would make more sense for someone else to do and take off your plate.

  3. Is there anything you can eliminate? Maybe it’s procrastination, spending too much time watching television, or spending too much time on social media.


While you’re doing this I want you to think about your ultimate goals. Ask yourself if it was a year from now and I just had the best year of my life what would that year look like? What would I have done, what would I achieve, how would I feel? This will help you find your why and your ultimate goal. When you’re going through your list it will be easier to put activities on the Do Not Do List if you have a strong purpose and goal in mind.


Keep your sights set on where you want to go. At the clearing at the end of the rapids. Don’t look at the rapids and the obstacles in your way, those are things that go on the Do Not Do List. By focusing on goals and eliminating distractions we are more successful.

How To Train Your Brain For Success With Your Eyes Closed

Have you ever watched someone who is incredibly successful and wondered how did they get so lucky? We often associate other people’s success with luck and it’s pretty easy to think of a story of a singer who was “discovered” in a grocery store and became an overnight success. What we don’t see is all the years of practice and hard work that got their skill to the level where they could take advantage of opportunities.


It’s probably equally as easy to think of an example of someone you know that works hard every day but they never seem to get ahead. Working hard isn’t enough. We need to know the tricks and strategies that separate those who are at the top of their field from the rest of us.


One trick that many very successful people take advantage of is the knowledge that our brain is not able to distinguish imagination from reality! Athletes are great examples of this trick. Last time I was watching the Olympics I noticed that the competitive swimmers sit before their race with their eyes closed and their headphones in. While you might be inclined to think that they’re just trying to pump themselves up for the competition, part of what they are doing is mentally rehearsing their movements.

The swimmers are imagining themselves performing the perfect stroke as they swim down the lane. They are imagining what it will feel like for their arms and legs to pass through the water. What they will hear as they rush through the water and the crowd cheers them on. Imagining how the water will taste. Imagining how their body will feel. Imagining the adrenaline, and excitement they will experience.

When we imagine ourselves performing an activity, particularly if we imagine it so vividly that we can see ourselves doing the action and feel it in our body, our brain responds as if we are actually performing the activity! We know from studies of athletes that when athletes are visualizing their movements there are changes in their metabolism, their breathing, and their muscles that are the same as if they were actually doing the movement.

This is amazing! This means that we don’t have to physically do the action for our brains to learn. We can learn through the power of our mind to imagine ourselves in these situations.

It’s not just athletes who can take advantage of this brain trick. Public speakers mentally rehearse themselves giving speeches. Business people mentally practice leading meetings, or completing negotiations. We use imagery in medicine as well to promote relaxation, manage pain, and manage stress.

We know our brain learns by practice. Repetition is key. Mental practice and rehearsal triggers this learning in the brain. The more I imagine myself giving a speech the easier it will be when I actually deliver it.

When we are practicing this mental imagery or mental rehearsal we want to make the image as lifelike as we can. Imagine yourself actually performing the action. Imagine what you will see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. And imaging what emotions you will experience. The stronger an emotional reaction you can get when practicing mental imagery the better your brain will learn. Our brain learns faster and stronger with an emotional connection.

Here’s an imagery exercise I do several times per week to help me keep on track towards my goals.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, your feet planted firmly on the floor, your hands resting comfortably on your lap, and your eyes closed.

  2. Take five deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose as you count to five and then breathe out slowly through your mouth as you count to five.

  3. Picture in your mind yourself achieving one of your goals. What would that be like? What would you see, what would you hear, what would be going on around you? How would you feel if you had succeeded and you were in that situation of success? Let that feeling of success and achievement fill you up. I start smiling when I do this exercise because this feeling is so powerful.

  4. Keep that picture in your mind of you achieving your goal for one minute. If you find your mind starting to drift or you get distracted, just bring yourself back by refocusing on that mental image of you achieving your goal.

  5. After you’ve done this for one minute, picture yourself achieving a second goal for one minute.

  6. Then picture yourself achieving a third goal for one minute.

This exercise takes less than five minutes. The goal is to imagine yourself reaching your goals with so much detail that it’s almost like you are there. You can feel what it will be like to reach that goal.

By mentally picturing our goals we are training our brain to point towards success. Just like an athlete trains their movements in their mind, we are training our brains to reach our goals.

Try it for a week and see how you feel. I bet by the end of the week you will feel more motivated and energized to keep working towards your goals. Just like learning any skill, with practice this mental imagery becomes easier, and you will train your brain for success. All with your eyes closed!

Can You Survive a Metal Rod Through Your Head?

Short answer is yes. Yes you can. Let me tell you the story.

 On September 13, 1848 a 25-year-old man named Phineas Gage was working to help prepare a railroad track near Cavendish, Vermont. Part of his job involved removing heavy rocks that were in the path of the railroad. He was using an iron tamping rod to pack explosive powder into a hole. The rod was about a metre long, and 1.25 inches in diameter. Picture it. He is repeatedly shoving a metre long metal rod the width of a toonie into a hole full of explosive powder. You can guess what happened next. The powder detonated sending the rod hurtling upward towards Mr. Gage. The rod went through his left cheek and out the top of his head. The picture above is a photo of his skull and the actual rod involved (if you are reading this on your phone turn the phone to landscape to see the whole image horizontally). Take a look, it is helpful to picture just how big the rod was and how much damage was done. The rod was travelling with such force that it went entirely through his skull and landed 80 feet away.

 Imagine you’re Mr. Gage. A giant metal rod has gone through your cheek and out the top of your head. You’d expect there to be some consequences right? Interestingly, for Mr. Gage, not right away. Mr. Gage not only survived, but he was able to speak normally and within a few moments he was able to get up, and walk to a cart to be taken to the doctor.

 Soon after he was seen by Dr. John Harlow who noted that even later that night Mr. Gage was conscious, he was able to state the names of his friends and coworkers, and he was commenting that he felt that he would be back to work in a day or two!

 Unfortunately his good luck was not to last. Mr. Gage subsequently developed an infection and spent a month in a coma. He did gradually improve after that, and was able to leave hospital and return to his parent’s home. He spent some time recovering at his parent’s home and his doctors noted that while he had lost his vision in his left eye and had obvious scars he was overall in good physical health and appeared recovered.

Much of what we know about the brain we’ve learned from these studies of individuals who have had an injury. If you take a look at the picture of the skull and the rod above, you can easily picture how much of his brain was damaged.

Initially his doctors thought he had recovered without difficulty. He was walking, talking, and able to complete all his daily tasks. Maybe this part of the brain isn’t necessary?

But his family and friends described significant changes in Mr. Gage’s personality. Prior to his injury they said he was hard working, pleasant, a smart businessman, very energetic, and able to successfully organize and plan tasks. After his injury his friends say he was “no longer Gage”. Reports from his family and friends describe how he became surly, aggressive, and obstinate. He showed a lack of care for others, and became prone to episodes of swearing.

Mr. Gage’s experience prompted neurologist to start studying the role of the frontal lobes, and more specifically the prefrontal lobes (the part of the brain damage in Gage’s case). Through cases like Mr. Gage we began to understand what happens when we injure specific parts of the brain, and we can develop our understanding of the roles of the parts of the brain. We now know that the prefrontal lobes play an important role in regulating behaviour (so we aren’t swearing out of control), social awareness, emotional control, problem solving, and planning.

Interestingly, the frontal lobes are the last part of our brain to fully develop. Studies estimate that these areas become fully developed in our early 20s for women, and closer to our late 20s for men. I will just leave that observation there for you to think about.

 You might be wondering what happened to Mr. Gage. Reports are inconsistent but it appears he traveled for a while with the tamping iron acting as a circus side show to earn money. He also spent some time at the stagecoach driver in Chile. His health began to gradually deteriorate, however, and after suffering from a number of seizures he died on May 20, 1860 almost 13 years after his accident. His skull and the tamping rod are now on display at the Harvard University School of Medicine in Boston.

4 Ways To Change Your Thinking And Be More Successful

The language we use is incredibly powerful. It shapes how we see ourselves and the world. In neuroscience we often talk about the “dominant half” of the brain when we are talking about the half of the brain the controls language skills. We call this side our dominant hemisphere because language has so much impact on how we perceive and interpret the world.

Think about a simple example. What if I told you the chair I was sitting on was “plush, cozy, and luxurious”. Can you picture the chair in your mind? What if instead I told you my chair was “soft, squishy, and unsupportive”. Does your mental image of this chair change? Plush, cozy, luxurious probably made you think happy thoughts about a great chair, but soft, squishy, and unsupportive made you picture the lumpy chair in your basement. In reality, all those words are ways to describe a soft chair. But the language we use changes our perception.

Because language has such a large impact on how we perceive the world, by changing the language we use we can change our perception, our outlook, and our mindset.

Let’s take another example. Say I am walking down a path and there is a large wall suddenly in my way. If I describe the wall as an obstacle, a barrier, or a problem I’m likely to take one look at that wall, turn around, and go back the other way. But what if I use different language to describe that wall. What if I called the wall a hurdle to success, a chance to overcome the challenge, or a new opportunity. I might be more likely to find a way to go over or around the wall.

I wrote last week about how our brains focus where we point them. If I focus on the negative then that is the way my brain is going to go. I will continue to notice negative things in my life and be drawn toward them like the rapids in a river. But if I direct my brain towards where I want to go, to the clear spot beyond the rapids, I stay focused on the positive and I move in the direction of growth. By changing the language we use we can switch our brain from focusing on the negatives and the problems to focusing on where we want to go.

Here are 4 phrases to keep an eye out for in your language. If you find yourself using these phrases your brain is probably pointed in the direction of the negative, directed at what you want to avoid rather than where you want to go.

  1. “Should” or “must” statements - If you find yourself suddenly developing a case of the “should” pay attention. This is your brain pointing at the negative. Pointing out what you should do is the same thing as focusing on the rapids that you’re trying to avoid. The shoulds are a negative thinking pattern for your brain. Instead, focus on where you want to go, what you want to do, how you want to be successful.

  2. “Yes, but…” - When we say “yes but”, what were really saying is “no because”. Yes I want to go to the gym but I don’t have any time today is really me saying no I don’t want to go to the gym because it’s too hard and takes too much time. Don’t let your brain trick you into these excuses!

  3. Always and never - Our brains are really good at falling into the trap of thinking in extremes. I never do anything right. I’m always going to be poor. This feeling is never going to go away. In reality, these extremes are rarely true. If we think hard enough we can come up with evidence that challenges the extreme. Maybe I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never do anything right, and here are some examples of what I did right today. Keep an eye out for these extreme words that can suggest our brain is pointing towards the negative.

  4. The what-ifs - What if this doesn’t work out. What if I’m not successful? What if that person gets mad at me? We are pointing our brain towards the negative when we fall into the what-ifs. We can’t predict the future. And worrying about things that are out of our control is a sure fire way to feel stressed in daily life.

Watch for these mental traps. The next time you hear yourself using one of these words or phrases, even if it’s just in your own head, catch it. Recognize these phrases for what they are. Your brain pointing towards the negative and toward what you want to avoid. Instead challenge yourself to focus on the positive, on the end goal, or where you want to go. Just like learning any new skill, the more that we interrupt these thinking patterns, and the more we point our brain toward success rather than towards obstacles, the easier it becomes until it is second nature for our brain to focus on success.

Apple or Apple Pie? How to Make the Healthy Choice and Change Habits

A number of years ago I was watching a seminar for people who were on the wait list for bariatric surgery. These are people who have struggled throughout their lives to maintain a healthy weight, and they are waiting to get surgery to help with weight management. There were probably 50 people in the room. The clinic nurse and the surgeon got up in front of the group and talked about how amazing the surgery is. They talked about how the surgery can help you lose weight, how you can feel happier, how you can feel healthier, and how the surgery itself is relatively low risk. As they were talking the crowd was getting really pumped up. I could feel the energy myself. These are people that have struggled for years to lose weight. They have tried every diet and exercise program you can find.  And someone is finally giving them a solution!

I was a student at the time and when the session was over I turned to my supervisor excitedly and said wow what a great program! This is so amazing for these people! My supervisor looked at me and said Nicole most of these people are not going to lose weight even if they have the surgery. I looked at him shocked. What do you mean? You heard the same talk as me. The surgery is amazing and works! He said yes the surgery works. The surgery reduces your stomach size so you can’t eat as much. But, the surgeon and nurse were only acting like cheerleaders. They gave all the great reasons to lose weight, and they advertised the surgery as instant success with minimal work. The problem is there are many good reasons to stay overweight and it is possible to “out eat” the surgery.

What is this crazy man talking about? Good reasons to be overweight? What does that even mean!?

Any behaviour we do has benefits, even if we aren’t aware of what they are. If a behaviour didn’t give us benefits, we wouldn’t do it!

Take overeating for example. Here are some GOOD reasons to overeat or to be overweight;

  • Stress management – Ever had a bad day and wanted a bowl of ice cream? Our brains have a strong emotional attachment to food. It makes us feel better. In the short term at least.

  •  Social contact – Eating is often a social activity. We eat with friends and family. It’s fun to go out and indulge in a nice meal. Our brains like this. It feels good.

  •  Biology - There are complex biological processes that get in our way when we are trying to lose weight. You can probably think of someone you know who has lost a ton of weight only to put it all back on and more. Our brain can shift into starvation mode if we lose weight too fast. We start conserving resources, and we don’t lose weight.  

  •  Our brains hate change – Our brains will always want to stick to the status quo. That’s why it’s so hard to change habits, including losing weight.

  •  Our brains will always prioritize seeking pleasure, and avoiding pain. Our brains want to feel good and avoid any type of discomfort. Exercising daily and eating a plate of vegetables instead of chocolate cake doesn’t feel good, at least in the short term.

All of these examples are SHORT TERM benefits of overeating. Like I said, the brain prioritizes short term benefits (feeling good and avoiding pain).

To overcome this brain pattern we need to train our brains to focus on the LONG TERM consequences of healthy behaviours. We have to convince our brains to choose the apple over the apple pie. To choose exercising over sitting on the couch. To choose moderation over overeating.

Let’s take another example. Short term and long term impact of exercise versus watching more TV.

Watching TV

  • short term benefits = feels good, easy, relaxing, saves time going to the gym

  • long term consequences = weight gain, high blood pressure, poor body image

Going to the gym

  • short term consequences = takes time, hard work, muscles feel sore

  • long term benefits = better weight control, better mood, better sleep

In order to get our brains to agree to go to the gym the items listed under long term impact have to be stronger than the short term impact. The benefits of regular exercise (i.e. healthier lives) have to outweigh the short term negatives (i.e. it’s hard work and doesn’t feel good). The long term risks of too much television watching (i.e. weight gain, poor health) have to be stronger than the short term benefits (i.e. it feels good and is easy).  

Again it can be helpful to think of our brains like a muscle. We need to retrain our brains to think beyond the norm, to think outside the box, and to challenge our typical patterns of thinking to make significant changes.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re choosing between the apple and the apple pie, remind yourself of the long term goals. Remind yourself of the long term benefits of choosing the healthy option, and the long term consequences of repeatedly choosing the less healthy option. Over time your brain will learn to focus on these long-term benefits and won’t be so tempted by the short-term distractions.

How to Point Your Brain Towards Success

I heard a really interesting story the other day that got me thinking about how our brains get in the way our success. The story goes something like this. A man, let’s call him Mark, who’s been teaching people to white water raft for years. Mark says “when I started teaching young kids to white water raft I would always be pointing out the dangers. I would point and say don’t hit that rock! Don’t hit that tree! Look out for this, look out for that!” Mark was always focused on what he wanted these kids to avoid when they were paddling the raft. Then he noticed whenever he said to avoid something, the kids ended up steering right for it! After years of this Mark changed his tactic. Now the first thing he says to people when giving a rafting lesson is “I’m going to point where I want you to go. Look where I’m pointing and go that way!” As a result, the kids steer the raft towards the calm water that Mark is pointing at, and avoid the obstacles without even focusing on them! Eureka!

Maybe you don’t white water raft but it works the same way for something like riding a bike. I’ve heard my husband tell our son a million times to look where he wants to go when he’s riding his bike because that’s the way he will steer. Don’t look at the bump or the hole that you want to avoid or you’ll end up going right for it. Makes sense right? We do this when we are driving too. We don’t look at the pothole. We look beyond the pothole to where we want to go and then we avoid it.

Our brains work the same way when setting goals. It’s really easy for our brains to come up with things that we don’t want, or we want to avoid in our life when goal setting. Think about your own goals. If you picture yourself a year from now and say you had the best year of your life what happened? Your list might sound something like this;

  • I don’t want to be in debt anymore

  • I don’t want to be overweight

  • I don’t want to be tired all the time

  • I don’t want to be working paycheck to paycheck

Do you see a common theme here? All of these goals are worded in a way that focuses on the PROBLEM, the things I want to AVOID in my path. When I list my goals by focusing on the negatives, and what I don’t want, it pulls my brain’s focus to those negatives and I start paying more attention to those problems.

I gave the example a few weeks ago of sleep and how we can trick our brains into thinking we had a good sleep by telling ourselves we have a good sleep, and avoiding complaining about how bad our sleep was. This is the same idea. The more I think about what I DON’T want, the more my brain gives attention to those negatives, and I am more likely to continue on a negative path. Whatever we focus on we will find more of in our lives. Our brains are really good at this. But if we focus on what we want to avoid, or on the negatives, our brains will find more of that day to day.

Instead of focusing on with what I want to avoid I need to point my finger in the direction of what I do want. Where I want to go. Not focusing on the potholes, or the rocks, or the branches in my way, but focusing on the endpoint, the safe point, the happy point.

I’ll ask the question again. A year from now if I’ve had the best year of my life what does it look like? Now I’m going to reword the points about what I DON’T want to focus on what I DO want.

  • I am debt free

  • I exercise regularly and am a healthy weight

  • I have energy during the day

  • I have surplus income each month

Can you see the difference? Look where I’m pointing my finger (my brain) now. I’m pointing at where I want to go (positive) not at where I want to avoid (negative). It may seem like a subtle distinction but this small language change and mindset change makes a big difference for my brain. If I word my goals as positives, as where I want to go, my brain is going to focus on that positive endpoint and I’m going to be more successful.

I’m going to be writing over the next few weeks with a focus on setting and achieving goals including tips and strategies to change our thinking, to overcome mental obstacles, and to be more successful in our goals. Let me know what you think and send any questions my way!

5 Ways To Make Your Thinking More Efficient and Improve Your Productivity

We all want to be more productive. To get more accomplished in the day. To be more successful in our lives. Unfortunately, some of the strategies we use to try and save time actually make our thinking less efficient and can reduce our productivity! Here are five things that zap brain resources, make your thinking less efficient, and reduce productivity followed by some tips to improve your performance.

1.       Multitasking - Our brains aren’t actually able to multitask. What we do instead is switch really quickly back and forth between two competing tasks. As a result, it makes sense that when we try to do two things at once we end up being less efficient at both tasks. For example have you ever been talking to a friend while you walked in the mall and gone right past the store you are looking for? Try this instead

  • Focus on one task at a time - Work on one task until it’s done then move on to the next task. This includes avoiding things like talking on the phone while driving. Even if you’re using a hands-free device your brain is still trying to divide attention between the conversation and your driving skills.

2.       Distractions - Any distractions in your surroundings will reduce your brain’s efficiency. Say you’re trying to read a book and the TV’s on. Your brain is having to ignore the TV to stay focused on the book. This is using more brain resources and making your thinking less efficient. Try this instead;

  • Eliminate noise distractions - Turn off the TV or the radio when you’re working on tasks, work in a quiet room, and put your phone on silent. All of these things will make you more efficient and more productive.

  • Eliminate visual distractions - A messy work space is a distraction for your brain. If you have papers piled all over your desk or you have clutter around your house this will pull your brain’s focus away from your task. Try cleaning the clutter off your desk before you start work for the day and see if your thinking feels clearer!

3.       Stress - Our brain only has so many resources to help us cope with our daily tasks. If I have stresses and worries on the back of my mind that means my brain has fewer resources to focus on what I’m doing. This means I’m more easily distracted and less productive. Try this instead;

  • Take breaks - If you’re starting to get distracted take a break. Get up and walk around or do something else for a few minutes and come back when your brain is refreshed.

  • Try a few minutes of meditation – Even 10 minutes of meditation can improve thinking efficiency and make you more productive.

4.       Not enough physical activity - Regular physical activity improves our brain’s efficiency and thinking speed. Try this instead;

  • Even 20 to 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity (something like a brisk walk) daily can have benefits for both our physical health and our cognitive health.

5.       Lack of sleep - Again it’s a matter of brain resources. If our brains are tired it’s harder to focus on tasks and our productivity goes down. In the short term maybe it’s helpful to stay up late finishing a project, but over the long term you will be less productive. Lack of sleep does drains brain resources, negatively impacts our physical health, and increases our stress levels. Try this instead;

  • Take a nap - A short nap, even 15 minutes, can be enough to improve focus and productivity. Taking a brief nap after you study can even help you remember the information you studied! Sleep helps our brain form new memories.

  • Have a regular sleep schedule - Our brains really like routine. Routine makes our brains more efficient. Going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time will increase the quality of our sleep, and help improve our thinking efficiency.

There are many factors that can impact our productivity and how efficient our thinking is day-to-day. What I like about these five factors is that they are within our control. Small changes in any of these areas can result in sharper thinking, increased productivity, and happier and healthier lives. Pick one to try for the next week and see if your thinking improves or if you get more accomplished!

How to Trick Your Brain Into Better Sleep

It’s recommended that adults get seven or more hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately we live busy lives and often do not get the sleep we need. How many times in the past week have you joked with your coworkers about being tired? Or griped about a case of the “Mondays”? Feeling tired or that we didn’t get enough sleep is a pretty common complaint.

Poor sleep quality can impact our mental and physical health. When we are sleep deprived our thinking is slower and less efficient. We are more likely to make mistakes, forget to complete tasks, become distracted, and have trouble coming up with words. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The simplest way to increase the hours we sleep is to go to bed earlier or get up later. Easier said than done! There are also many ways to improve the quality of our sleep, but they require work like getting regular physical exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet, sticking to a regular sleep routine, and turning off electronics like the computer or phone for several hours before bed.

Researchers at Colorado College might have found a way to trick our brains into feeling like we had better sleep without much work!

This research relies on a concept called the placebo effect. You’ve probably all heard about placebos before. The placebo effect occurs when there is an outcome that is not attributed to a specific treatment, but rather to an individual’s mindset about the kind of treatment they are receiving. In other words it doesn’t matter what’s in the medication. What matters is what you believe the medication will do. For example research shows that people given placebo pills and told they contain caffeine (when in fact they do not) have more energy and perform better on cognitive tasks.

Like I said research on placebo effects has now been applied to sleep. Christina Draganich and Kristi Erdal published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014 that demonstrated this concept. Here’s what they did in this study:

  • They asked undergraduate students to rate how deeply they had slept the night before on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being very deeply).

  • Next, all participants were told that on average normal adults spend between 20% and 25% of their sleep time in REM sleep and that individuals who spend less than 20% of their time in REM sleep perform worse on tests of learning and memory.

  • Participants were then hooked up to a machine that recorded EEG readings (their brain waves) for five minutes. They were told this machine would help estimate their REM sleep the night before (which wasn’t true, the researchers made this part up).

  • Participants could watch their brain waves being recorded and they were told that their data was being automatically downloaded to the database.

  • Students in the study were randomly assigned to an “above average” or “below average” sleep quality condition. This group assignment had nothing to do with how they reported their sleep the night before, and nothing to do with their brain wave ratings, it was random.

  • If they were in the “below average” condition they next watched the experimenter calculate that they had obtained 16.2% REM sleep on a fake spreadsheet. If they were in the “above average” group they watched the experimenter calculate that they obtained 28.7% REM sleep on the fake spreadsheet.

  • Next participants completed a number of tasks that look at their ability to maintain attention, quickly respond to information, and quickly come up with words.

What they found in this study was that self-reported sleep quality didn’t impact performance on the cognitive tests. In other words, participants that said they had a bad sleep the night before didn’t do any worse than participants is said they had a good night sleep before.

What did impact cognitive performance was what participants were told about their fake REM sleep quality data. Participants who were told that their brain waves suggested they had below average sleep quality did worse on the cognitive tests than participants who were told they had above average sleep quality. Remember, these REM sleep quality numbers were made up by the experimenters. They had nothing to do with their actual brain waves or sleep quality.

What this study showed was that our mindset can impact our performance. If we think we had a good quality of sleep we do better on tasks in daily life. The opposite is true as well. The more we complain about how tired we are or how bad our sleep was the night before the worse we will perform in daily life.

In this way we can trick our brain into feeling more alert and performing better simply by convincing ourselves that we had a good quality sleep.

Try this for the next few weeks. Every morning when you get up think to yourself “I had a great sleep I’m going to feel rested all day”. See how you feel at the end of the two weeks. I bet you will feel better than if you had woken up each day and told yourself “I had a crummy sleep today is going to suck”. Our minds are powerful tools and have great influence over our body. This means we can use our mind and our mental strength to perform better and feel better in our daily lives.

Check out this link from the Mayo Clinic if you are interested in more tips to improve sleep quality.

Pain and the Brain: Is It All In Our Heads Part 2

Last week I introduced the idea that the brain and the body are constantly interacting. Changes in our mental and emotional health can impact our physical health. Changes in physical health can impact how we feel mentally and emotionally. One interesting example of this mind-body connection is pain.

We’ve all experienced pain before. From small daily pains like stubbing your toe or bumping in to a table with your hip, to more noticeable pain like breaking a bone. Our body is constantly processing signals from our environment and perception of pain is one of those signals.

Our experience of pain is a combination of neurological (brain) and psychological (mind) factors. At a basic level, there are specialized nerve endings called nociceptors in our tissues (e.g. skin, organs, bones, and joints) that are alerted when there is damage to the tissue that our brain perceives as pain. For example if you place your hand on a hot stove these nociceptors will perceive the damaged tissue and send the signal alerting your brain to danger. The signals travel from the site of the injury to your spinal cord, then up to your brain.

There are many parts of the brain involved in processing pain including sensory areas of the brain (to identify where the pain is in your body), motor areas of the brain (to respond to the pain), and the areas of the brain that process emotion and memory. Because these higher cortical areas involved in memory, emotion, and complex thought are involved in experiencing pain, our past experiences will impact our perception of pain. For example if you have touched a hot stove before and felt pain, the next time you see a hot stove you are going to react faster and maybe even before you touch the stove because your brain has learned to avoid the stove and the associated pain.

Touching a hot surface is an example of acute pain. Our brain is really efficient at reacting to acute pain so that we get away from the source of the pain (take our hand off the stove) and start to heal. This type of acute pain reaction is our brain’s response to danger and helps us survive.

Another type of pain is chronic pain. Chronic pain is pain that lasts beyond normal injury recovery time. For example say I fall and sprain my knee. The sprain heals in 6-8 weeks, but six months later I still have pain. The injury has healed but my brain is still reacting as if I am experiencing acute pain. This pain is an example of chronic pain. Sometimes the original cause of the chronic pain is known like in this example but often it is not. Chronic pain can develop gradually over time such as chronic back pain, or chronic headaches.

Like I said from an evolutionary perspective pain is beneficial. It helps us avoid danger and protect our bodies. However, in chronic pain this normal brain response goes awry. Because pain is partly a learned process, sometimes our brains can overreact to situations and interpret pain as more severe or more dangerous than it should be. Rather than becoming less bothered by pain over time as the injury heals, individuals prone to chronic pain can become very alert for pain, they start to avoid activities that will trigger the pain, and this results in the brain becoming less tolerant and less able to cope with pain. Just like my example from last week of the individual who starts avoiding bright lights because they are aggravating, individuals who start avoiding situations that might cause pain lose physical and mental tolerance/stamina/strength to tolerate pain. I feel pain, so I stop the activity that causes pain, so my body and my brain have less strength and tolerance to cope with pain, so next time I go into the situation my brain is going to perceive it as more painful and I will further limit my activities. Think about if you had broken your arm and it had to be in a cast for several months. When I take my cast off my arm is going to be weak. When I start using the arm again it is going to hurt because my muscles are weak. If I avoid exercising my arm, it’s going to get even weaker over time, and I’m going to be in even more pain when I try and use it again. This is how chronic pain can develop.

So why do some people have more tolerance for pain? When a pain signal reaches the brain it passes through brain regions involved in emotion, decision-making, and physical sensation. How we react to pain is determined by a number of individual factors. In this way pain is all in your head because it’s impacted by her past experiences and her brains perception.

Psychological factors impact our perception of pain. We know that chronic stress, anxiety, low mood, and poor sleep can increase perceived pain. We feel pain as more severe when we are stressed. Experiences we had in childhood or throughout our lives can also impact how we perceive pain. For example, if our family members struggle with pain management we are more likely to struggle with managing pain. As well if we’ve had past negative experiences in situations associated with pain we are more likely to have a stronger pain reaction. For instance if you’ve had a bad experience at the dentist before with lots of pain even a minor dental procedure can be perceived as more painful. Again, our brain learns to react to situations that might cause discomfort or pain from our past experiences.

The good news is we have many strategies that can help us retrain our brains to have higher tolerance for pain. Again it can be helpful to think of the brain like a muscle. We slowly increase our exposure to activities that cause pain and our brain learns that it can handle situations, the pain is not a signal of something horribly wrong with our body, and over time our brains get stronger at managing pain. Think back to my example of elite athletes last week. While we can’t all be professional athletes, we can develop mental strength like an athlete to help manage pain. I would encourage you to check out the Canadian Psychological Association fact sheet on chronic pain for more information.

There are also some strategies that can trick our brain into managing acute pain better. Here are some strategies for helping with acute pain:

  1. Rub the area - If you stub your toe or bump into your desk, rub the area. This will help the pain go away faster. According to gate control theory of pain by rubbing the area around where the injury occurred we stimulate the nerve fibers that recognize touch and this inhibits the pain receptors. So the pain becomes less intense.

  2. Swear like a sailor - Next time you stub your toe let the profanities fly. Research suggests that uttering curse words helps with acute pain management. This is because of how pain signals pass through the parts of brain that are involved in preventing us from doing socially inappropriate things (like swearing). You have to use profanities though, just yelling random words doesn’t work.

  3. Distract yourself - Another option to manage pain is distraction. If we are able to find another task we like doing it helps manage pain.

Remember pain is an experience that combines the mind and the body. This means that we can learn to have more control over our pain and improve our quality of life.

Is it all in our heads? How mental and physical health interact.

Have you ever been in a situation where you started to feel physical symptoms in your body in response to stress? We all have. It’s pretty common actually. Think about the last time you were stuck in rush hour traffic. Did you notice your shoulders were getting closer to your ears? Or your neck got sore? Or your stomach got upset? Physical symptoms that our body develops in response to stressors are called somatic symptoms.  

There are strong interactions between our mental and physical health. Changes in physical health can impact our mental or emotional health. Think about the last time you had a cold, or had an injury and were in pain, your mood probably felt a bit down right? It is also very common to experience sadness, stress, and worry after receiving a major health diagnosis like cancer. The opposite also happens where changes in our emotional health impact our physical health. Stress, anxiety, and depression can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke for example. Stress also changes our immune functioning and can make us more prone to catching a cold or flu.  

Like I said these somatic symptoms are really common. We all have them from time to time. Other common examples are stress headaches, stomach upset when public speaking, or hands trembling when you are nervous. These are normal signals that our body sends us to tell us we are under stress or pressure.

Some people are more prone to developing somatic symptoms and experience them more often, or experience more severe symptoms. For example somatic symptoms can include convulsions, blindness, paralysis, abnormal walking, or severe tremors.

Significant somatic symptoms that interfere with our daily lives are also very common. Up to 40% of individuals who come to a neurology clinic have somatic symptoms (often referred to as functional neurological disorders).

Rather than these symptoms being due to a physiologically based medical condition (like epilepsy, or a movement disorder), they are psychologically produced. This does not mean these symptoms “aren’t real” or are “all in your head”. Rather we generally think of these symptoms as the body’s learned response to coping with stress.

For example one type of personality that is prone to developing somatic symptoms are individuals who are described by others as “the go-to person” in the family, or “the one we can all count on”, or “the one that keeps the rest of us sane”. While this can be a very admirable trait, helping others, often what happens when we are the caretaker in the family is we take on all of the stress and worry of those around us. That stress can be internalized or pushed down deep inside. This can work for a while, and can help us be very successful in some situations. We are able to push through hard times by ignoring the stress. However, they body can only take this for so long. Eventually the body send up the white flag, says enough is enough, and develops physical symptoms.

Another way that our brain learns to be prone to developing physical symptoms in response to stress is through our early experiences. For instance sometimes we are taught when we are young that mental health (e.g. stress, worry, sadness) are not appropriate topics, but physical symptoms are okay to experience. These individuals learn that physical health concerns are acceptable, but stress is not, and so their brains are more likely to develop somatic symptoms.

A third common pattern occurs where there is some triggering event for the development of somatic symptoms. For example someone might have an acute episode of dizziness (maybe due to an ear infection or other illness) but when the reason for the initial symptoms resolves, the dizziness persists. Individuals prone to somatic symptoms tend to be more alert for physical symptoms. Therefore rather than the brain becoming less concerned with these symptoms over time as whatever caused the initial symptoms resolves, individuals become more focused on symptoms and begin avoiding situations that make their symptoms worse. This results in the brain having reduced tolerance for symptoms and symptoms get worse rather than better. Think about this example. Say my dizziness gets worse when I’m in a bright room. So I start avoiding bright lights. Then my eyes get more sensitive to light, and my brain has less strength to tolerate bright lights. Therefore each time I go into a bright room my symptoms get worse, and I avoid lights more. Even though my brain is trying to protect me by avoiding lights, this avoidance is actually making my brain weaker and my symptoms worse.

The good news is that we can build our mental strength to help overcome physical symptoms. I have talked about people who are more prone to somatic symptoms, but there are also people who have remarkable tolerance for physical symptoms. Athletes are a great example. My favorite example of this mental strength to overcome physical symptoms comes from the 1996 Olympics. An American gymnast named Kerri Strug was the last up for her team on an event called vault where the gymnast runs down a runway, flips over an apparatus like a sawhorse (the vault), then lands on the other side. Kerri Strug landed her first attempt somewhat crooked and hurt her ankle. We learned later that she actually broke her ankle in this first attempt. But she needed to finish her second attempt to win gold for the American team. She was able to run down the runway, flip over the vault, and land essentially on one leg to win gold before collapsing. Marathon runners are another great example. They are able to push themselves past what should be physically possible to complete the race, before collapsing just past the finish line when their bodies give out.

Athletes build this mental strength and resilience through practice. Just like learning any new habit, it takes a lot of practice, repetition, and hard work to change our brain’s learned behaviours. Psychologists are great resources to learn how to implement some of these strategies in daily life. Check out the Canadian Psychological Association website for some great resources regarding the role of psychologists.

Do Brain-Training Programs Work?

I often get asked questions about the various brain-training programs available. Questions like “will these programs really help me improve my memory” or “will these programs help prevent Alzheimer’s disease”.

 You’ve probably heard these programs advertised on TV, radio, or online. Most of these brain-training programs involve computerized activities that require you to solve puzzles, or briefly remember information. Some people find these programs fun and enjoyable, others find them frustrating and challenging.

Many of these programs make broad claims about the benefits of using the program. Lumosity’s website says “sharpen the skills you use every day” and “just a few minutes a day for 3 brain games – that’s all it takes”. The website for CogniFit says the program “help stimulate cognitive functions and improve brain plasticity”.

So do these programs actually work as they claim?

Let’s take a look at just what these brain-training programs are claiming to do. Often these companies promote their products as being helpful for a wide range of problems, everything from improving your school performance, to reducing the risk of developing dementia. Even just thinking practically it is hard to believe that just a few minutes each day with one program can help with so many different cognitive problems!

Many of these brain-training programs claim to improve what’s called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is simply the brain’s ability to adapt and develop by forming new connections. Some areas of the brain are more adaptable than others, but our brain shows neuroplasticity every day. Each time we learn a new fact or a new skill our brain is forming new connections. This isn’t some incredible advance that these companies have figured out, it’s a normal brain function.

We know that our brains can learn. It makes sense that the more you practice a skill the better you get at it, right? Just like learning any skill, the research suggests the more you practice these brain-training programs the better you will get at them.

But the companies that advertise these products aren’t just claiming you will get better at the games, they are implying that getting better at the games will improve your memory and other cognitive skills in daily life.

What these brain-training programs claim to rely on is a concept of transference of learning. This is the finding that in some situations learning one task will make it easier to learn a second task. Transfer of learning only works well with tasks that are very similar, however. For example if you learnt how to use one type of coffee pot you will be faster in learning how to use a new coffee pot because the tasks are so similar. Learning does not transfer well to different tasks, however. Just because you can operate a coffee pot doesn’t mean you can fly an airplane. This sounds facetious I know, but this is the type of claim many of these programs make (i.e. you will prevent Alzheimer’s by playing a computer game). The evidence in the research says that just because you get better at a brain-training program does not mean you are going to improve your memory in daily life. Getting better at the brain-training program is not going to make it easier for you to remember where you put your keys, or to keep track of the list of groceries you need to pick up. There is even less evidence to suggest that these programs will reverse any cognitive decline or cognitive difficulties.

Interestingly, the concern regarding the validity of the claims made by these brain-training companies was so significant that the US Federal Trade Commission became involved. In January 2016 the FTC announced that it had charged Lumos Labs, the people who created Lumosity, with “deceptive advertising” regarding some of the claims the company made about Lumosity’s efficacy. Lumos Labs agreed to settle with the government and pay a $2 million fine while agreeing to change some of its sales and marketing practices. The FTC stated that Lumosity did not have the science to back up their claims about the benefits of the program on school performance, work performance, and reducing cognitive impairment.

It’s important to keep in mind that most brain training companies are privately held. In 2013 the market research firm Sharp Brains reported that American adults directly spent about $322 million on digital brain-training products. These products are not just a business, they are a big business.

When deciding if you want to participate in one of these brain-training programs I would encourage you to consider the costs and benefits. If you like these types of computer activities, great. Participating in activities that challenge your thinking skills and that you enjoy has health benefits. However there is no evidence to suggest that these programs (which you pay for) are better than free activities (like regular reading) at preventing cognitive decline or improving cognitive performance.

If you’re looking at ways to maintain your cognitive health I would encourage you to stick with what we know works and that includes regular physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, participating in social activities (like spending time with friends and family), and participating in activities that keep your brain active (like reading a library book or participating in hobbies that you enjoy).

Can we learn after removing large parts of the brain? What patient H.M. taught us about memory

When you think about memory what comes to mind? Do you think about an important event from your past, or the list of groceries you need to pick up on your way home from work today? There are many different types of memory, which require different brain processes. Memories from important events in our past are called episodic memories, and remembering to pick up groceries on the way home requires prospective memory. Some memories are clearly tied to a specific point in our life, like our favorite birthday. But other memories aren’t tied to a time and place. For instance do you remember when you learnt what an apple is? Probably not. But you know that an apple is a fruit that grows on trees. Your knowledge of an apple is part of a different memory system called your semantic memory, or your memory for facts and information.

Some types of memory are made even without us being consciously aware of them through what’s called implicit learning. For example the more that we repeat an action more ingrained it becomes in our minds and the less effort is needed to use the memory. Think about learning to ride a bike. When you were young it took a lot of effort. You to think about staying balanced, peddling, keeping the handlebars straight, and so on. But as an adult even if you haven’t ridden a bike and over 10 years, once you get on a bike your body will remember how to ride. Just like the phrase “it’s just like riding a bike”, some skills once we learn them we have them for life, even if we don’t practice them regularly. Knowing how to ride a bike is a procedural memory, which is part of our implicit memory system. We know how to do it even without consciously thinking about the skills required.

Our knowledge that there are many different types of memory, and that certain brain regions are important for learning is relatively recent. Before the 1950s we thought memory was tied to intelligence and perception.

We have a famous patient named Henry Molaison (commonly referred to as patient HM), and a Canadian Neuropsychologist named Brenda Milner to thank for our modern understandings of memory.

Henry Molaison developed seizures when he was 10 years old. His seizures started small, but progressed to convulsive seizures before he was 16. He was able to work for a while as an adult, and worked on an assembly line. But in 1953, when Henry was 27 years old his seizures became so incapacitating he was no longer able to work or lead a normal life. Anticonvulsant medications weren’t helping Henry. A neurosurgeon named William Scoville offered Henry an experimental procedure that involved removal of parts of his bilateral temporal lobes (which are on the sides of your brain, from about your temples back over your ears). We now know that the temporal lobes, which include a structure called the hippocampus, play a critical role in our ability to make new memories. But we didn’t know this when Henry had his surgery.

After the surgery Henry’s epilepsy was controlled, but he developed severe memory impairment. Dr. Milner was asked to travel to his memory difficulties.

What Dr. Milner observed when she met Henry was someone who forgot daily events almost as fast as they happened. Henry described to Dr. Milner that he felt “like waking from a dream… every day is alone in itself”. He forgot names of people he was introduced to almost immediately, and after working with Henry for 50 years Dr. Milner had to introduce herself each time they met. He would also say his own age wrong because he was not able to remember that time had passed, and would incorrectly state the year.

Although Henry would forget information very quickly, other components of his thinking skills remained strong. His intelligence was preserved. Henry also had a remarkable ability to maintain attention and he could remember some information for a brief time after he heart it. As a result, he could carry on conversations, and he was able to remember information as long as he kept repeating it in his mind. But if he was distracted he completely forgot what he was trying to remember, and didn’t recall ever being asked to remember something in the first place!

Henry was also able to learn new skills, even if he didn’t remember ever doing the task before. For example Dr. Milner would have him perform repetitive motor tasks like copying a star that was reflected in a mirror. His performance would improve over time, and when asked to do the same task days later his performance would remain strong, even though he would insist he had never done the task before. This type of memory is called procedural memory, which is a type of non-declarative or implicit memory.

Henry could also remember things that had happened before his surgery. He remembered important events from his past, and famous people from before his surgery. When he was show pictures of people that became famous after his surgery, however, he did not recognize them, even if they were regularly in the news.

Henry died on December 2, 2008 at the age of 82. Although Henry did not remember the contributions he was making to neuroscience from day to day, his story forever changed how we understand memory and the brain. Thank you Henry Molaison and Dr. Milner for your contributions to science.

How to maintain cognitive health as we age

The population in most developed nations, including Canada, is aging with the Baby Boomers. For the first time in 2016 there were more people over age 65 then under age 14 in Canada. There were more older adults than there were children. Not only is our population aging, more people are living well into our retirement. What can we do to maintain our health as we age so we can get the most enjoyment out of our later years?

There are some changes in cognition and brain health that are part of normal, health aging. For instance did you know that our thinking efficiency and response speed reach a peak in our 20s? After that our thinking starts to slow. But not every skill declines as we age. Our vocabulary and our store of knowledge grows throughout our lives. Just because our speed declines, however, does not mean we are worse off.

Timothy Salthouse studied the performance of transcription typists (people who type while someone else talks) in a 1984 study. People in the study ranged in age from 19-72. What they found was that age and typing ability were not related. Although older individuals were slower at making individual key strokes, they were not slower in terms of the number of words they typed. Why? Because older individuals had more experience typing, they were able to compensate for age-related slowing by anticipating the next word in the sentence. They used their experience to help overcome their slower response speed.

Although not all skills decline as we age, we do know that many people experience negative changes in physical, mental, and cognitive health as they age. Statistics Canada estimates that the average Canadian can expect to live the last ten years of their life with some type of disability. How do we avoid this? What can we do to live healthy into our 80s and 90s?

A Swedish study (the Kungsholmen Project) followed 1810 individuals over age 75 for 18 years to see how lifestyle factors impacted longevity and health. They found that people who made healthy lifestyle choices lived longer. For example, people who were of normal weight lived on average one year longer than those who were underweight. Those who never smoked lived one year longer than smokers. Regular participation in leisure activities added a year to life expectancy. Those who had rich social networks (i.e. had regular contact with family and friends) lived 1.5 years longer. Those who participated in regular physical activity lived more than 2 years longer.

What can you do to live a longer, healthier life? Exercise. Exercise is one of the best research-supported activities to promote health aging. Even 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity activity (i.e. activity where you can still carry on a conversation but it is challenging, like a brisk walk) can improve health and brain functioning.

Keep your brain active. Participate in hobbies you enjoy or volunteer. These activities can improve your cognitive skills, but they can also improve mood, sleep, and physical health.

Keep socially active. Spend time with family and friends. This helps reduce stress but also keeps your brain active.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet. The Mediterranean diet which is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil is associated with brain health.

These activities don’t have to be expensive. Regular reading is associated with brain health. Many libraries offer free memberships or relatively low-cost memberships.

This sounds like a lot of work to stay healthy right? The good news is, if you can make it to your 90th birthday you can throw all these healthy habits out the window. The 90+ study in California followed 1600 people every six months who were over age 90 years. What they found was that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who abstained. People who were overweight lived longer than normal or underweight people. There was some evidence that high blood pressure in your 90s is protective, and that a higher calorie diet is also protective in the oldest old. So if you can make it to your 90s, enjoy those extra glasses of wine and extra pieces of chocolate cake.

Can Meditation Improve Our Decision Making

We make hundreds of if not thousands of decisions each day. Take a simple example of deciding what to eat for breakfast in the morning. You have to consider what’s in your pantry, how much time you have to prepare the meal, what you like/dislike, and even sometimes the time of year (what we eat on holidays is probably different from what we eat after New Year’s resolutions start). Once we have decided on what to eat then we have to make a whole host of other decisions in order to act. Say I pick toast. I need to know that toast is made from bread, that it needs to be toasted with some type of heat source, and how to operate the toaster. Once the toast is made I need to decide what to put on for toppings.

But it probably wasn’t this hard for you to decide on breakfast this morning. Why was it so much easier to make that decision?

In the 1960s and 70s the predominant theory in psychology and medicine was that our brains were like computers. We took information in, processed the information, and made reasoned judgments based on evidence.

Two Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman challenged this belief. They proposed that our brains use a number of mental shortcuts called heuristics to make decisions.

These heuristics are generally helpful and they save time and energy. Rather than thinking about all the potential choices our brains use shortcuts to make decisions faster. Unfortunately this means these heuristics are prone to error.

Here’s an example of how these errors can happen. Say I flip a coin and it comes up heads. I flip it again, and again, and again, and again and each time it’s heads. It’s been heads 5 times in a row. What would you bet on next? Tails? Heads?

What if I flipped 20 heads in a row? Would you change your bet?

After a coin lands on heads several times in a row we are more likely to bet tails. This is because of what’s called the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is the belief that strings of good and bad luck occur, and that after so many heads the odds have to “even out” and there will be a run of tails.

But that isn’t how probability works. When you flip a coin the chance of heads is 50/50 each time. The odds of each coin toss are independent. It doesn’t matter what was flipped the first time.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is sometimes called the Monte Carlo effect. On August 19, 1923 at the Monte Carlo Casino the ball fell on black 26 times in a row at the roulette wheel. People lost fortunes betting on red because of the belief that this run of luck had to run out eventually. The ball did eventually fall on red, but then people continued to lose money favoring red because of the belief that more red spins were likely after that long run of black. The chances of getting 26 black spins in a row of course are very low. But when betting on a coin flip or roulette spin you are not betting on the sequence, you are betting on the individual toss, with 50/50 odds each time.

Another heuristic or mental shortcut described by Tversky and Kahneman is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency we have to judge how often an event occurs by how easily we can think of examples. The easier it is for us to think of an example of an event the more frequently we think it occurs. This works well most of the time. It’s usually easier for us to think of examples of events that happen more often. The problem is that some events stand out more in our memory than others.

Here’s an example. Are you more likely to be killed in a shark attack or by a cow? Worldwide about 6 deaths per year occur due to shark attack. In comparison, cows kill about 20 Americans per year. We should really be terrified of mosquitoes because they kill three quarters of a million people per year due to transmission of malaria and dengue fever.

Plane crashes are equally low frequency. Your chance of being in a plane crash is about 1 in 11 million. You have a better chance of winning an Oscar, or drowning in your bathtub.

We fear shark attacks and plane crashes for a few reasons. The less common something is, the harder it is for our brains to judge how often it happens. Also, you can probably easily remember the last time you saw a news story of a fatal plane crash, but when is the last time you heard of someone being killed by a cow, or malaria. Media coverage significantly influences our perception of how frequent events are.

Tversky and Kahneman proposed a dual process theory of cognition. System 1 uses heuristics. It makes decisions fast with minimal effort, but can be prone to error. System 2 is slower and requires more effort to think through the possible choices. This means System 2 is more controlled, but this system uses up a lot of brain resources. We’ve probably all had the experience that it’s harder to make well thought out decisions when we are tired, under stress, or sick.

The good news is that we can change from System 1 to System 2 thinking in some circumstances. A 2013 study found that just 15 minutes of meditation led participants to make more well-reasoned decisions. It’s probably okay to leave easier decisions like what to have for breakfast to System 1 thinking. But if you need to make an important decision, like deciding on a new job or how best to approach a difficult conversation with a colleague, try stopping for 15 minutes of meditation before you make this decision. There are many great resources online for guided meditations (try the Calm app for example). You might find you make better decisions after this brief mental break.

Should we trust our memories? Consolidation and reconsolidation of memory.

Think about a special event from your past. Maybe a favorite trip, a wedding, or when you started your dream job. What do you remember about that day? Do you remember where you were, who you were with, what the weather was like, or maybe even what you were wearing? In psychology we call memories for important and emotionally charged events like these “flashbulb memories” because we often recall them so vividly it is like we took a snapshot of the event. Or so we think. There is a good chance that some part of that special memory you can see so clearly didn’t happen the way you remember it. You are remembering it incorrectly without even being aware. Why does that happen?


To make a memory of an event like the one you are thinking about we need to get the information into our memory, store it there, and then be able to get it back out when we need it. If a memory is strong enough it can become part of our long term memory storage.


For a long time our standard view of this long term memory storage process was consolidation theory. According to consolidation theory once memories formed in long term memory they are stable. This means each time you remember an event from your past you are recalling the original, stored memory. This theory views our brains like computers. We store memories in our brain’s hard drive, and when we want to think about a memory we open up a file, read the contents, and store it back again.


Reconsolidation theory challenges this view that our memories of our past are fixed, and there is research support for this theory from both cognitive psychology and the neurosciences (see this 2009 article in Karim Nader and Oliver Hardt in Nature Reviews Neuroscience for a review). According to the reconsolidation theory of memory each time we pull a memory from our memory storage it becomes unstable and susceptible to change. Just by thinking about that memory we can change the memory itself. As a result, when we send that memory back to the storage vault we are actually storing the modified memory. Each time we recall that memory the process repeats, resulting in small changes in our memory for the actual event. In effect, when we think about an event from our past we are not recalling the original memory, but a memory of a memory. Reconsolidation theory implies that we have some ability to change our memories, which might be of benefit for people who have experienced past traumatic events.


Perhaps it is better to think about our memories less like computers and more like that game of telephone we used to play when we were kids. Each time the message is passed down the line it is changed a little until “the car is green” becomes “by far the spleen”. So next time you are arguing with your partner about what you ate on your first date, keep in mind that you both might be wrong.