Posts Tagged ‘Goleman’

Some Thoughts About Donald Trump

March 14, 2019

If you’ve read the preceding posts about emotional intelligence based on Daniel Goleman’s book, you’ve already read some hints that Trump’s behavior might be governed in some part by deficiencies in his brain. Trump does not behave like a president, and he is an embarrassment to the United States. When HM and his wife go on a cruise, they try to pass as Canadians. Trump behaves like a schoolyard bully. He uses degrading nicknames and fires back at whatever he regards as an insult or a failure to pay him proper respect. He does not speak the truth because he lives in his own reality that determines what he regards, at the moment, as the truth. He has no regard for facts, because what is true already exists in his mind. He disregards science and ignores the best intelligence system in the world.

If Trump’s actions are, at least in part, due to deficiencies in his brain, then he warrants sympathy, or maybe even pity. Unfortunately, he also warrants fear for a variety of reasons. Foremost is his control over nuclear weapons. He also is destroying international relations. He has already caused an enormous deficit and knowledgeable economists predict economic failures due to his policies.

Although Trump might warrant sympathy, the same cannot be said of the Republican Party, where the Republican Congress has ignored their constitutional responsibility to keep watch on the President. Instead, they have protected him and lied about the effectiveness of his policies. All genuine Republicans have left the party. Those who remain are either members of Trump’s base, viz., Nazis or White Supremacists, or want to maintain positions of power so they can enrich themselves.

It has been noted that Trump is likely to try to stay in power even if he loses the next election. He constitutes a genuine threat to the rule of law and our democracy.

The Republican Party died, a causality of the stupidity pandemic. What a shame. The loss of the GOP. The loss of the party of Lincoln.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Social Emotional Learning

March 12, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman is a strong advocate of the movement in social/emotional learning (SEL), school-based programs that teach the whole spectrum of emotional intelligence abilities. This topic has been addressed in a previous healthy memory blog post (see “Schooling the Emotions”). The best programs run from kindergarten through high school, and teach these abilities at every age in a developmentally appropriate way.

All the emotional intelligence skills develop in the curriculum of life, from childhood on—but SEL gives every child an equal opportunity to master them. That’s why Goleman co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at Yale (CASEL) (Now at the University of Illinois at Chicago).

The brain is the last organ in the body to become anatomically mature. When you see the changes from year to year in how a child thinks, behaves, and reacts, what you’re really looking at is how their brain is developing. For example, when it comes to creativity, children are fabulously open and imaginative, especially young children. But there are two stages of brain growth that change this. The first is called the five-to-seven shifts, where the emotional circuitry comes under stronger prefrontal control. So children are better able to control their impulses, and to coordinate their imaginative efforts, to say nothing of them being better behaved.

At puberty there’s what is called a sculpting of the brain, a huge loss of under-used neurons. We are born with many more neurons that we use later in life, and the principal is use-it-or-lose-it (this is not the same as a steady deterioration. This occurs during puberty. This is not the same as a steady deterioration throughout life. Neurogenesis still creates new neurons daily, throughout our lives).

Social Emotional Learning programs are designed to give children the near lessons they need as their brain grows. This is what developmentally appropriate means.

On the wall in every SEL program there’s picture of a stoplight with its red, yellow, and green lights. It says, “When you’re getting upset, remember the stop light, stop! Calm down ad think before you act.” Stop is behavioral inhibition: activate the left prefrontal circuitry that can manage your amygdala impulses. Calm down shows that you can change your state to a better one. Think before you act teaches a critical lesson: you can’t control what you’re going to feel, but you can decide what you do next. Then, yellow light—think of a range of things you might do and what the consequences would be, and pick the best alternative. And green light: try it out and see what happens. This is drilled into kids. And this kind of lesson, along with all the others in the SEL program actually works.

Roger Weissberg, the psychologist who directs CASE analyzed data at over 200 SEL programs that were compared to schools without them, involving a total of 270,000 students. He found that , on average, SEL programs reduce anti-social behavior like misbehaving in class, fights, or substance abuse by about ten percent. The biggest gains are seen in the schools that need it the most.

Moreover, academic scores went up by eleven percent. Goleman suspects that this has to do with a large part of how the hypothalamic pituitary, amygdala (HPA) axis arousal interferes with cognitive efficiency and learning. If you’re a kid who’s preoccupied by worry, anger, distress, anxiety, or whatever stress causes in you, you’re going to have a diminished capacity to pay attention to what the teacher is telling you. But if you can manage those emotional upsets, your working memory, the capacity of attention to take in information increases. SEL teaches you how to manage these disruptive feelings—not just through lessons like the stop light, but through learning how to get along better with others kids (a major source of turbulent feelings). This lets you be a better learner.

For us adults at work, this identical skill set will make us better performers. And it’s never to late to develop further strengths in emotional intelligence.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

March 10, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Every day the brain generates 10,000 stem cells that split into two. One becomes a daughter line that continues making stem cells, and the other migrates to wherever it’s needed in the brain and becomes that kind of cell. That destination is often where the cell is needed for new learning. Over the next four months, that new cell forms about 10,000 to created new neural circuitry.

The state of the art in mapping this neural circuitry coming out of labs like Richard Davidson’s have massive computing power. Innovative software tools for brain imaging can track and show this new connectivity at the single-cell level. Neurogenesis adds power to our understanding of neuroplasticity, that the brain continually reshapes itself according to the experiences we have. If we are changing a habit like trying to get better at listening, then that circuitry grows accordingly. However, when we are trying to overcome a bad habit, we’re up against the thickness of the circuitry for something we’ve practiced and repeated thousands of times. Goleman asks, “So what are the brain lessons for coaching or for working on our own to enhance an emotional intelligence skill?”

Number one, is to get committed. Mobilize the motivating power in the left prefrontal areas. If you’re a coach, you’ve got to engage the person, get them enthused about achieving the goal of change. Here it helps to draw on their dreams, their vision for themselves, where they want to be in the future. Then work from where they are to what they might improve to help them get where they want to go in life. Change this section from the third person to the second person for self instruction.

Be very practical. Don’t take on trying to learn too much all at once. Operationalize your goal at the level of a specific behavior. Make it practical, so you can know exactly what to do and when. For example, say someone has a bad habit of multi-tasking and essentially ignoring others, which undermines the full attention that can lead to rapport and good chemistry. You have to break the habit of multitasking. So the person might make up an intentional learning plan that says something like: at every naturally occurring opportunity-when a person walks into your office, stand, or you come up to a person—you turn off your cell phone and your beeper, turn away from your computer, turn off your daydream or your preoccupation and pay full attention. That gives you a precise piece of behavior to try to change. Goleman continues, “So what will help you with that? Noticing when a moment like that is about to come and doing the right thing. Doing the wrong thing is a bit that you have become an Olympic level master at—your neural working has made it a default option, what you do automatically. The neural connectivity for that is strong. When you start to form the new better habit, you’re essentially creating new circuitry that competes with your old habit in a kind of neural Darwinism. To make the new habit strong enough, you’ve got to use the power of neuroplasticity—you have to do it over and over again.

If you persist in the better habit, that new circuitry will connect and become more and more powerful, until one day you’ll do the right thing in the right way without a second thought. That means the circuitry has become so connected and thick that this is the brain’s new default option. With that change in the brain, the better habit will become your automatic choice.

For how long and how many times does an action have to be repeated until it’s hard-wired? A habit begins to be hard-wired the first time you practice it. How often you have to repeat so that it becomes the new default of the brain depends in part on how strong the old habit is that it will replace. It usually takes three to six months of using all naturally occurring practice opportunities before the new habit becomes more natural than the old.”

Mental rehearsal is another practice opportunity that can occur whenever you have a little free time. Mental rehearsal activates the same neural circuitry as does the real activity. Olympic athletes spend off-season running through the moves in their brain. This counts as practice time. It increase their ability to perform when the real time comes.

Goleman writes that Richard Boyatwzis has used this method with his MBA students at the Weatherhead School of management at Case Western University. He’s followed these students into their jobs as much as seven years later and found the competencies they had enhanced in his class were still rated as strong by their co-workers.

The Dark Side

March 9, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman begins, “Psychologists use the phrase the dark triad to refer to narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths.” As for examples, look no further than President Trump. He has hit the trifecta here. Goleman continues, “These types represent the dark side of emotional intelligence: such people can be very good at cognitive empathy, but lack emotional empathy—not to mention empathic concern. For instance, by definition the sociopath does not care at all about human consequences of their manipulation, and has no regrets about inflicting cruelty. Their feelings of any kind are very shallow; brain imaging reveals a thinning of the areas that connect the emotional centers to the prefrontal cortex.”

Goleman outlines deficits in emotional intelligence. Sociopaths have deficits in several areas key to emotional intelligence: the anterior cingulate, the orbitofrontal cortex, the amygdala, and insula, and in the connectivity of these regions to other parts of the brain. It is possible that deficits such as these can account for much of Trump’s behavior.

Gender Differences

March 8, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” On average, women have better emotional intelligence than men. However, this is on average. Think of two bell curves. The curves for men and women would overlap but they would be displaced and the averages would differ. There are many men with higher emotional intelligence than women, but there are more women with higher emotional intelligence than men.

The neuroscientist Tania Singer has brain data that relates to these trends. She was looking at two emotional systems, one for cognitive empathy and another for emotional empathy. Singer has found that women tend to be more highly developed in the mirror neuron system, and so rely on it more than men do for signals of empathy. In contrast, men tend to have a burst of the mirror neuron system and then go into a problem-solving mode.

Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University provides another way of looking at male-female differences in EI. She says that there’s an extreme female brain which has lots of mirror neuron activity and is high in emotional empathy. In contrast, the extreme male brain excels in systems thinking and is poor at emotional empathy. These brain types are at the far extremes of a bell curve, with most of us somewhere in the middle. However, he does not mean that all men have the male brain, nor all women the female brain. Many women are adept at systems thinking, and many men excel at emotional empathy.

Ruth Mallow of the Hay Group in Boston has looked at gender differences on the “Emotional and Social Competence Inventory.” Her analysis found that while, in general, you find gender differences among the various competencies, when you only look at the pool of star performers (people in the top ten percent of business performance) those differences wash out. Across the board, the men are as good as the women are as good as the men.

Franz de Waal, the famed researcher on primate behavior at the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta has made many interesting observations. Among them is the following: When a chimp sees another chimp in distress—either from an injury or a loss of social status—the first chimp mimics the behavior of the distressed chimp, which is a primal form of empathy. Many chimps will then go over and give some solace to the upset chimp such as stroking it to help it calm down. Female chimps offer this kind of solace more often than male chimps do—with one interesting exception. The alpha males, who are the troupe leaders, give solace more often than do female chimps. It seems that one of the basic functions of a leader is to offer appropriate emotional support.

The Varieties of Empathy

March 7, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman notes that there are three kinds of empathy. One is cognitive empathy. I know how you see things. I can take your perspective. Managers high in this kind of empathy are able to get better than expected performance from employees because they put things in terms that people can understand. Executives higher in cognitive empathy do better in foreign postings, because they pick up the unspoken norms of different cultures more quickly.

Emotional empathy is a second kind of empathy: I feel with you. This is the basis for rapport and chemistry. People who excel in emotional empathy make good counselors, teachers, client managers, and group leaders because of the ability to sense in the moment how others are reacting.

Empathic concern is the third kind of empathy: I sense you need some help and I spontaneously am ready to give it. Those with empathic concern are good citizens in a group, organization, or community, who voluntarily help out as needed.

Empathy is the essential building block for compassion. We have to sense what another person is going through, what they’re feeling, in order to spark compassion in us. A spectrum runs from total self-absorption (where we don’t notice other people) to noticing them and beginning to tune in, to empathizing, to understanding their needs and having empathic concern. Next comes compassionate action, where we help them out.

Distinct brain circuitry seems be involved in different varieties of empathy. Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany studies emotional empathy. Singer sees the role of the insula as key to empathy (this is one of the neural areas that is crucial to emotional intelligence) The insula senses signals from our whole body. When we’re empathizing with someone, our mirror neurons mimic within us that person’s state of mind. The anterior area of the insula reads that pattern and tells us what that state is.

Singer has found that reading emotions in others means, at the brain level, first reading those emotions in ourselves; the insula lights up when we tune into our own sensations. She’s done fMRI studies of couples where one partner is getting a brain scan while seeing that theater partner is about to get a shock. At the moment the partner sees this the part of his or her brain lights up that would do so if he or sh were actually getting the shock, rather then just seeing the partner get it.

The recommended route to developing greater empathy abilities, involves getting feedback on what the other person actually is thinking—to verify or correct our hunches. Another means for boosting empathy has people watch a video or film without the sound and guess the emotions being depicted onscreen, checking their guesses against the actuality. Giving the neural circuits for empathy feedback on how the other person actually feels or thinks helps this circuitry learn.

The Social Brain Online

March 5, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Here the question is how do social brains interact when we’re sitting looking at a video monitor instead of directly at another person? There was a major clue about the problems ever since the beginning of the internet, when it was just scientists emailing on what was called ARPAnet. The problem was, and still is, flaming. Goleman writes, “Flaming happens when someone is a little upset—or very upset—and with their amygdala in firm control, furiously types out a message and hits “send” before thinking about it—and that hijack hits the other person in their inbox. Now the more technical term for flaming is cyber-disinhibition, because we realize that the disconnect between the social brain and the video monitor releases the amygdala from the usual management by the more reasonable prefrontal areas.”

Online the social brain has no feedback loop: unless you are in a live, face-to-face teleconference, the social circuitry has no input. It doesn’t know how the other person is reacting so it can’t guide our response—do this, don’t do that—as it does automatically and instantly in face-to-face interactions. Instead of acting as a social radar, the social brain says nothing—and that unleashes the amygdala to flame and cause a hijack.

A phone call gives these circuits ample emotional cues from tone of voice to understand the emotional nuance of what you say. But email lacks all these inputs.

One reason personal connection is so important for online communication has to do with the social brain/video monitor interface. When we’re at our keyboard and we think a message is positive, and we hit send, what we don’t realized at the neural level is that all the nonverbal cues, facial expression, tone of voice, gesture and so on, stay with us. There’s a negativity bias to email: when the sender thinks the email was positive, the receiver tends to see it as neutral. When the sender thinks it’s neutral, the receiver tends to interpret it as somewhat negative. The big exception is when you know the person well; that bond overcomes the negativity bias.

Clay Shirky, who studies social networks and the web at New York University, tells an example of a local bank security team that had to operate 24 hours a day. In order for them to operate well, it was critical that they use what he calls a banyan tree model, where key members of each group get together and meet key members of every other group, so that in an emergency they can contact each other and get a clear sense of how to evaluate the message the group was sending. If someone in the receiving group knows that person well, or has a contact there whom he can ask about the person who sent the message, then the receiving group can better gauge how much to rely on it.

Goleman says that one enormous upside of the web is what you might call brain 2.0. Shirky points our, the potential for social networking to multiply our intellectual capital is enormous. It’s sort of a super-brain, the extended brain on the web. In the healthy memory blog, this is termed transactive memory.

Goleman writes that the term group IQ refers to the sum total of the best talents of each person on a team, or in a group, contributed at full force. What Goleman does not say is that the group can be more than the sum of its parts due to beneficial interactions within the group. He does note that one factor that makes the actual group IQ less than its potential is a lack of interpersonal harmony in the group. Vanessa Druskat of the University of New Hampshire has studied was she calls group EQ—things like being able to surface and resolve conflicts among the group, high levels of trust and mutual understanding. Not surprisingly, her research show that groups with the highest collective emotional intelligence outperform the others. Goleman notes the when you apply this to groups working together online, one core operating principle is that the more channels that come into the social brain, the more easily attuned you can be. So, when you video-conference, you have visual, body and voice cues. Even if it’s a conference call, the voice is extraordinarily rich in emotional cues. In any case, if you’e working together just through text, it’s best when you know the other person well, or at least have some sense of them in order to have a context for reading their messages, so you can overcome the negativity bias. Best of all is leaving your office or cubicle and getting together to talk with the person.

The Social Brain

March 4, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Dr. Daniel Siegel is the Director of the MIndSight Institute at UCLA. Mindsight is the term he uses for the mind’s ability to see itself. His research makes a strong case that the brain circuity we use for self-mastery and to know ourselves is largely identical with that for knowing another person. In other words, our awareness of another person’s inner reality and of our own, are in a sense both acts of empathy. Dr. Siegal is a founder of the field of interpersonal neurobiology, which emerged only as science discovered the social brain. (Enter “Siegel” into the search block of the healthymemory blog https://healthymemory.wordpress.com/

The social brain includes a multitude of circuitry, all designed to attune to and interact with another person’s brain. When researchers started to study two brains in two people while they interacted open a wealth of discoveries.

One of the discoveries was mirror neurons that activate in us exactly what we see in the other person: Their emotions, their movements, and even their intentions. This discovery likely explains why emotions are contagious. Psychologists had known about this contagion for decades because of experiments in which two strangers come into a lab and fill out a mood checklist. They then sit in silence, looking at each other for two minutes. Afterward, they fill out the same checklist. The person in that pair who’s most expressive emotionally will transmit his or her emotions to the other person in two silent minutes. This is done via mirror neurons (and other areas like the insula, which maps sensations throughout the body), via what amounts to a brain-to-brain connection. This subterranean channel means there is an emotional subtext in every one of our interactions that is extremely important to whatever else goes on.

Consider the study where people were given performance feedback—some negative, some positive. If they were given negative performance feedback in a very warm, positive, and upbeat tone, they came out of there feeling pretty good about the interaction. If they were given positive feedback in a very cold, judgmental tone, they came out feeling negative, even about the positive feedback. So the emotional subtext is more powerful that the overt, ostensible interaction that we’re having.

This means that we are constantly impacting the brain states in other people. In Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence Model, managing relationships means, that we’re responsible for how we shape the feelings of those we interact with—for better or for worse. So relationship skills have to do with managing brain states in other people.

So, who sends the emotions that pass between people, and who receives them? For groups of peers, the sender tends to be the most emotionally expressive person in the group. But in groups where there are power differences, in the classroom, at work, in organization’s generally, it is the most powerful person who is the emotional sender, setting the emotional state for the rest of the group.

In any human group, people pay the most attention to, and put the most importance on, what the most powerful person in that group says or does. There are many studies that show if the leader of a team is in a positive mood, that spreads an upbeat mood to the others and that collective positivity enhances the group’s performance. Should the leader project a negative mood, that spreads in the same way and the group’s performance suffers. This result has been fun for groups making business decisions, seeking creative solutions, and even erecting a tent together.

The emotional contagion happens whenever people interact, whether in a pair, a group, or an organization. It’s most obvious at sporting events or theatrical performances, where the entire crowd goes through the identical emotion at the same time. This contagion can happen because of our social brain, through circuitry like the mirror neuron system. Person-To-Person emotional contagion operates automatically, instantly, unconsciously, and out of our intentional control.

“There was a study done of doctors and patients during a psychotherapy session. The interaction was videotaped and physiology monitored. The patients reviewed the tape, identifying moments when the doctor empathized with them—when they felt heard and understood, in rapport with the doctor, versus feeling really disconnected, thinking “My doctor doesn’t get me, doesn’t care about me.” In those moments when patients felt disconnected there was no connection in their physiology either. But at those moments when the patient said, “Yes, I felt a real connection with the doctor,” their physiologies moved in tandem. There was also physiological entrapment, with the doctor and patient’s heart rates moving in tandem.

That study reflects the physiology of rapport. There are three ingredients to rapport. The first is paying full attention. Both people need to tune in fully to the other, putting aside distractions. The second is being in synch non-verbally. This synchrony is orchestrated by another set of neurons, called oscillators, which regulate how our body moves in relationship to another body. The third ingredient of rapport is positive feeling. It’s a kind of micro flow, an interpersonal high. Goleman would expect you’re seeing prefrontal arousal for both people. These moments of interpersonal chemistry, or simpatico, are when things happen at their best, no matter the specifics of what we’re doing together.

An article in the Harvard Business Review calls this kind of interaction a “human moment.” How do you have a human moment at work? You have to put aside whatever else you’re doing and pay full attention to the person who’s with you. That opens the way to rapport, where emotional flow is in tandem. When your physiology is in synchrony with someone else you feel connected, close, and warm, You can read this human moment in terms of physiology, but you can also read it experientially, because during those moments of chemistry we feel good about being with the other person. And that person is feeling good about being with us.”

Optimal Performance

March 3, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Goleman writes that “the relationship between stress and performance has been known for a century in psychology. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.” It’s likely that Yerkes and Dodson were unaware of this relationship. They were describing the relationship between motivation and performance. The relationship is an inverted U. Performance is poor at low levels of motivation and at very high levels of motivation. It is at moderate levels where performance is best.

At this point it would be good to review a previous healthy memory blog post, titled “How Our Bodies Respond to Stress.” Two stress hormones are cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). These two hormones are released by our adrenal glands during times of stress, but they serve different roles. Cortisol helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves the ability of the body and brain to use that energy. Cortisol also surpresses some biological functions that are less important during stress, such as digestion, reproduction, and growth. On the other hand, DHEA is a neurosteroid, which is a hormone that helps the brain to grow. Just as testosterone helps the body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps the brain grown stronger from stressful experiences. DHEA also counters some of the effects of cortisol. For example, DHEA speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function.
We need both these hormones. Neither is a “good” or “bad” stress hormone. But the ratio of these two hormones can influence the long-term consequences of stress, especially when stress is chronic. Higher levels of cortisol can be associated with worse outcomes, such as impaired immune function and depression. In contrast, higher levels of DHEA have been linked to a reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease neurodegeneration, and other diseases we typically think of as stress-related.

The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response. A higher growth index helps people thrive under stress. It predicts academic persistence and resilience in college students, as well as higher GPAs. A higher growth index was associated with greater focus, less dissociation, superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms during and after military survival training.

It is also useful to remember the posts based on Dr. McGonigal’s book, ““The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” The key to good stress is that it is interpreted as being beneficial rather than harmful.

The goal is to be at the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson arc. This is the zone of optimal performance. Ideally one wants to experience what Mihaly Csikszenmentmihalyi terms “flow.” Flow represents a peak of self-regulation, the maximal harnessing of emotions in the service of performance or learning. During flow we channel positive emotions in an energized pursuit of the task at hand. Our focus is undistracted, and we feel a spontaneous joy, even rapture.

The flow concept was developed from research where people were asked to describe a time they outdid themselves and achieved their personal best. People described moments from a wide range of domains of expertise, from basketball and ballet to chess and brain surgery. No matter what the activity, the underlying state they described was one and the same.

Goleman continues, “the chief characteristics of flow include fast unbreakable concentration: a nimble flexibility in responding to changing challenges; executing at the top of your skill level; and taking pleasure in what you’re doing— joy. That last hallmark strongly suggests that if brain scans were done of people while in flow we might expect to see notable left prefrontal activation; if brain chemistry were assayed, we would likely find higher levels of mood and performance enhancing compounds like dopamine.

This optimal performance zone has been called a state of neural harmony where the disparate areas of the brain are in synch, working together. This is also seen as a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. Getting into flow lets you use whatever talent you may have at peak levels.”

At this point HM needs to intercede and provide a reality check. Although flow is a desired state, it is rarely reached. Consider that people who have mastered a domain of expertise and who operate at the top of their game typically have practiced a minimum of 10,000 hours and are often world class in their performance. Tellingly, when such experts are engaged in their skill, whatever it may be, their overall levels of brain arousal tend to become lower, suggesting that for them this particularly activity has become relatively effortless, even at its peak.

We have ample opportunity to observe these experts at athletic events. There might be rare occasions where an individual might appear to be in flow, but they are indeed rare. Professional athletes repeatedly fail and make errors. HM does not play golf and has difficulty understanding why others play golf. He does enjoy watching professionals play golf. But it seems like they are constantly making errors and ending up in undesirable areas. If HM could make the money successful professional golfers make, he would play golf. But as a normal hacker, he cannot understand where the pleasure is in the game.

There are times that one sees a skier skiing down the slopes in what appears to be a state of flow. But then he falls and the medics show up to take him off the course.

Goleman does discuss the benefits of regularly practicing methods that enhance concentration and relax us physiologically. There are voluminous healthymemory blog posts on the relaxation response, meditation, and mindfulness techniques. Use the search block on the healthy memory blog to find this posts.

He gets back on track by writing, “Anything that truly relaxes you helps, like playing with kids or taking the dog for a walk, or whatever is going to get you in a relaxed state. The more you can break the cycle of the right prefrontal capture by the amygdala, the more you’ll be to activate the beneficial circuitry of the left prefrontal cortex.

Managing Stress

March 1, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” The stress manager can be found in the prefrontal cortex, which holds circuitry that can inhibit amygdala-driven impulses that help us maintain emotional balance. The left prefrontal area also contains circuits active during positive states like enthusiasm, energy, and engagement.

Richard Davidson, the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin has done research on the left versus right prefrontal areas. His research group has found that when we’re in the grip of a hijack or under the sway of distressing emotions, there are relatively high levels of activity in the right prefrontal cortex. When we’re feeling great the left prefrontal area lights up. People who have more activity on the left than right are more lively to have more positive emotions. Those with more activity on the right are prone to having more negative emotions.

Davidson has also done research on what he calls emotional styles, which are really brain styles One motional style tracks how readily we become upset: where we are on the spectrum for a hair-trigger amygdala—people who easily become upset, frustrated, or angered—versus people who are unflappable.

A second style looks at how quickly we move from our distress. Some people recover quickly once they get upset, while others are very slow. At the extreme of slowness to recover are people who continually ruminate or worry about things. They are suffering, in effect, from ongoing, low-grade amygdala hijacks. Chronic worry keeps the amygdala primed, so you remain in a distress state as long as you ruminate. To learn more about emotional styles, and there are six of them enter “emotional style” into the search block of the healthy memory blog. There is also information on how emotional styles can be changed.

Goleman offers a few strategies to cultivate greater strength of activity in the left prefrontal areas that generate positive emotions. One is to take regular time off from a hectic, hassled routine to rest and restore. Schedule time to do nothing: walk your dog, take a long shower, whatever allows you to let go of leaning forward into the next thing in your on-the-go state.

Daniel Siegel has an elegant analysis of the brain area involved in mindfulness. In the most popular form of mindfulness you can cultivate an ever-hovering presence in you experience and in the moment, and awareness that is non-judgmental and non-reactive to whatever thoughts or feelings arise in the mind. It’s a very effective method for decompressing and getting into a relaxed and balanced state. To learn more about Daniel Siegel and his work, enter Daniel Siegel into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Mindfulness-Based Stress /reduction has been developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Enter Jon Kabat-Zinn or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Davidson has done brain studies before and after the mindfulness program. Before, most people’s emotional set point was tipped to the right, indicating they were hassled. After eight weeks of mindfulness, they had begun to tip back to the left. Their own reports made clear that with this shift toward the more positive zone of emotions their enthusiasm, energy, and joy in their work surfaced. Davidson concluded that mindfulness seems a good choice for strengthening the dominance of critical zones in the prefrontal cortex, and the biggest bang for the buck from mindfulness in terms of shifting the brain’s emotional set point comes at the beginning of the practice. Although you don’t have to wait for years to feel the improvement, you probably need to continue practicing daily to maintain the shift.

Traditionally ,people end their daily mindfulness session with a period of loving thoughts toward other people. This is the practice of lovingkindness. This intentional generation of a positive mood enhances vagal nerve tone, the body’s ability to mobilize to met a challenge and then to recover quickly. The vagus nerve regulates the heartbeat and other organ functions, and plays a major role in calming down the body when we get distressed. Better vagal tone enhances our ability to arouse ourselves to meet a challenge and then to cool down rather than staying in high gear. To learn more about loving kindness meditation go to
https://healthymemory.wordpress.com and enter “loving kindness” into the search block.

Having good vagal tone helps us not just to recover from stress, but also to sleep better and guard against the negative health impacts of chronic stress in life. The key to building better vagal tone is to find a method we enjoy, and practice it daily like a workout for the vagus nerve. The methods include everything from simply remembering to count slowly to ten when you are starting to get ticked off at some, to systematic muscle relaxation, to meditation.

It should also be mentioned here that there is an upside to stress. In fact that is the title of a book by Dr. Mcgonigal, who is a health psychologist at Stanford University. The subtitle of the book is “Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” (Enter “Mcgonigal” in the search block of the healthy memory blog (https://healthymemory.wordpress.com)

Goleman writes, “There are many kids of meditation each using a different mental strategy: concentration, mindfulness, and visualization to name a few. Each meditation method has specific impacts on our mental states. For example, visualization activates centers in the spatial visual cortex, while concentration involves the attention circuitry in the prefrontal cortes but not the visual area. A new scientific field, contemplative neuroscience, has begun mapping exactly how meditation A versus meditation B engages the brain, which brain center it activates, and what the specific benefits might be. An early book in this area is Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” There are many healthy memory blog posts on this book.

Self-Mastery

February 27, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Self-awareness and self-management provide the basis for self-mastery. Competencies like managing emotions. focused drive to achieve goals, adaptability, and initiative are based on emotional self-management. These domains of skill are what make someone an outstanding individual performer in any domain of performance—and in business an outstanding individual contributor, or lone star.

Self-regulation of emotion and impulse relies on the interaction between the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the emotional center in the midbrain, particularly circuitry converging on the amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex is the key neural area for self-emulation. This area is guiding us when we are at our best. The dorsolateral zone of the prefrontal area is the seat of cognitive control, regulating attention, decision-making, voluntary action, reasoning, and flexibility in response.

The amygdala is a trigger point for emotional distress, anger, impulse, and fear. When this circuitry takes over, it leads us to take a actions we might regret later.

Dr. Goleman writes, “The interaction between these two neural areas creates a neural highway that, when in balance, is the basis for self-mastery. For the most part, we cannot dictate what emotions we are going to feel, when we’re going to feel them, not how strongly we feel them. They come unbidden from the amygdala and other subcortical areas. Our choice comes once we feel a certain way. What do we do then? How do we express it? If the our prefrontal cortex has its inhibitory circuits going full blast, we’ll be able to have a decision point that will make us more artful in guiding how we respond, and in turn how you drive other people’s emotions, for better or worse, in that situation. At the neural level, this is what ‘self-regulation’ means.

The amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. Our brain was designed as a tool for survival. In the brain’s blueprint the amygdala holds a privileged position. If the amygdala detects a threat, in an instant it can take over the rest of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, and we have what is called an amygdala hijack.”

The hijack captures our attention and focuses it on the that at hand. If an amygdala hijack occurs at work, we can’t focus on what our job demands. We can only think about what’s troubling us. We remember most readily what’s relevant to the threat, and can’t remember other things well. We can’t learn during a hijack and we rely on over-learned habits, ways we’ve behaved time and time again. Innovation flexibility are not available during a hijack.

Neural imaging has shown that when someone is really upset the right amygdala is highly active, along with the right prefrontal cortex. The amygdala has captured the prefrontal cortex, hence amygdala hijack, driving it in terms of the imperatives of dealing with the perceived danger at hand. We get the classic fight-flight-or-freeze response when this alarm system triggers. From a brain point of view this means that the amygdala has set off the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) releasing a flood of stress hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenaline.

Unfortunately, the amygdala often makes mistakes. While the amygdala gets its data on what we see and hear in a single neuron from the eye and ear, that’s super-fast in brain time, it only receives a small fraction of the signals those senses receive. The majority goes to other parts of the brain that take longer to analyzedthe inputs and get a more accurate reading. In contrast, the amygdala gets a sloppy picture and has to react instantly. Coleman writes, “It often makes mistakes, particularly in modern life, where the “dangers” are symbolic, not physical threats. So we overreact in ways we often regret later.”

Coleman identifies the five top amygdala triggers in the workplace:

Condescension and lack of respect.
Being treated unfairly.
Being underappreciated.
Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard.
Being held to unrealistic deadlines.

Here are Goleman’s suggestions for minimizing hijacks. Pay attention. If you don’t notice that you’re in the midst of an amygdala hijack and stay carried by it, you have no chance of getting back to emotional equilibrium and left prefrontal dominance until you let the hijack run its course. It is better to realize what is going on and to disengage. The steps to ending or short-circuiting a hijack start with monitoring what’s going on in you own mind and brain, and noticing, “I’m really over-reacting,” or “I’m really upset now,” or “I’m starting to get upset.” It’s much better if you can notice familiar feelings tat a hijack is beginning—such as butterflies in your stomach, or whatever signals that might reveal you are in the cycle of a hijack. It is best to had it off to the bare beginning of a coming hijack.

And here is what Goleman recommends if we are caught in the grip of an amygdala hijack. First, you have to realize that you’re in one. Hijacks can last for seconds or minutes, or hours, or days or weeks. There are are lots of ways to get out of a hijack, if we can realize we’re caught and also have the intention to cool down. A cognitive approach is to talk yourself out of the hijack. Reason with our self, and challenge what you are telling your self in the highjack. For example, “This guy isn’t always an S.O.B. I can remember times when he was actually very thoughtful and even kind, so maybe I should give him another chance. Or you can apply some empathy and imagine yourself in that person’s position. This might work in those very common instances where the hijack trigger was something someone else did or said to us. You might have an empathic thought: Maybe he treated me that the way because he is under such great pressure.
There are also biological interventions. We can use a method like meditation or relaxation to calm down our body. But a relaxation or meditation technique works best during the hijack when you have practiced it regularly, at best daily. Unless these methods have become a strong habit of mind, you can’t just invoke them out of the blue. But a strong habit of calming the body with a well-practiced method can make a huge difference when you’er hijacked and need it most.

As readers should be aware that the healthymemory blog is a strong advocate of meditation and mindfulness, and there are many healthy memory blog posts on meditation and mindfulness.

The Creative Brain

February 26, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” The chapter begins,
“‘Right brain good, left brain bad.’ That belief about creativity and the right and left hemispheres of the brain dates back to the Seventies, and reflects a very outdated bit of neuromythology. The new understanding about left and right hemispheres is more specific to the topography of the brain: when it comes to left versus right, do you mean left front, left middle, left rear?”

The right hemisphere has more neural connections both within itself and through the brain. It has strong connections to emotional centers like the amygdala and to subcortical regions throughout the lower parts of the brain. The left side has far fewer connections with itself and beyond to the rest of the brain. The left hemisphere is made of neatly stacked vertical columns, which allow the clear differentiation of separate mental functions, but less integration of those functions. The right hemisphere is more of a mix structurally.

Brain studies on creativity reveal what goes on that “Aha!” moment, when we get a sudden insight. When EEG brain waves are measured during a creative moment, it turns out there is a very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. This gamma activity indicates the acting together of neurons, as far-found brain cells connect in a new neural network as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters consciousness.

This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, a center on the side of the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and gets jokes. This high gamma spike signals that the brain has a new insight. At that moment, right hemisphere cells are using these longer branches and connections to other parts of the brain. They’ve collected more information and put it together in a novel organization.

In spite of what you might have read or heard, there are two primary modes of creative thinking. The first is to concentrate intently on the goal or problem. The next stage is to let go. During this stage you are relaxing and letting your non conscious brain do its creative thing. This stage is characterized by a high alpha rhythm, which signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, or daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas. This sets the stage for novel connections that occur during the gamma spike. Of course, after that “aha moment” you need to return to concentration to evaluate the creative idea and asses how adequately it addresses the problem.

In all but rare cases, this is an iterative process. And this iterative process can occur over the course of years. There are documented cases of mathematicians trying to solve a problem. The problem appears to be intractable, because the “aha” moment never seems to come. But, sometimes it eventually appears seemingly from nowhere.
The name of this process is incubation, because you are not consciously trying to solve the problem. However, your non conscious mind has been working on this problem, perhaps even when you thought you were sleeping.

Goleman concludes the chapter with a final state, implementation. Here’s where a good idea will sink or swim. He remembers talking to the director of a huge research lab. He had about 4,000 scientists and engineers working for him. He told Goleman,”We have a rule about a creative insight: if somebody offers a novel idea, instead of the next person who speaks shooting it down—which happens all to often in organizational life—the next person who speaks must be an angel’s advocate someone who says, ‘that’s a good idea and here’s why.” Goleman writes, “Creative ideas are like a fragile bud—they’ve got to be nurtured so that they can blossom.”

Different creative people use different processes, so there is no optimal way of being creative. Each creative person creates her own creative process, which might even vary from problem to problem.

Self Awareness

February 25, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” There was a corporate lawyer who had a brain tumor. Fortunately, that tumor was diagnosed early and operated on successfully. But during the operation the surgeon had to cut circuits that connects key areas of the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and the amygdala in the midbrain’s area for emotions.

After the surgery on every test of IQ memory and attention, the lawyer was as smart as he had been before the surgery. But he couldn’t do his job anymore. He lost his job and found that he couldn’t keep any job. He ended up living in his brother’s spare bedroom and, in desperation, he went to the neuroscientist Damasio to find out what was wrong.

The lawyer was fine on every neurological test. The clue to the problem became clear when Damaisio asked the lawyer, “When shall we have out next appointment?” Although the lawyer could provide rational pros and cons of every hour for the next two weeks, he could not decide which was best. Damaisio concluded that in order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts— and the lesion created during surgery meant he could no longer connect his thought with the emotional pros and cons.

These feelings come from the emotional centers in the midbrain, interacting with a specific area in the prefrontal cortex. When we have a thought its valences either positive or negative are evaluated by these brain centers. This helps us shuffle our thoughts into priorities, like when would be the best time for an appointment. Lacking that input, we don’t know what to feel about our thoughts, so we can’t make good decisions.

Our basal ganglia extracts decision rules as we go through every situation in life. Our accumulated life wisdom is stored in this primitive circuitry. However, when we face a decision, it’s our verbal cortex that generates our thoughts about it. But to more fully access our life experience on the matter at hand, we need to access further inputs from that subcortical circuitry. Although the basal ganglia have some direct connection to the verbal areas, it turns out also to have very rich connections to the gastrointestinal tract—the gut. So when making a decision, a gut sense of it being right or wrong is important information, also. It’s not that you should ignore the data, but if it doesn’t fit what you’re feeling, maybe you should think twice about it.

Coleman writes, “That rule-of-thumb seems to be at play in a study of highly successful California entrepreneurs who were asked how they made crucial business decisions. They all reported more or less, the same strategy. First, they were voracious consumers of any data or information that might bear on their decision, casting a wide net. But second, they all tested their rational decisions against their gut feeling—if a deal didn’t feel right they might not go ahead, even if it looked good on paper.”

The answer to the question,’Is what I’m about to do in keeping with my sense of purpose, meaning, or ethics?’ doesn’t come to us in words; it comes to us via this gut sense. Then we put it into words.”

Readers might remember that Trump says he thinks with his gut. However, unlike the entrepreneurs mentioned above, he is not a voracious consumer of data. In fact, he ignores data and depends on his gut. In this case what he gets from his gut is similar to what we find in our toilets.

A review of cortical and subcortical functions taken from Goleman follows:

The neocortex contains centers for cognition and other complex mental operations. The subcortex is where more basic mental processes occur. Just below the thinking brain, and projecting into the cortex, is the limbic center, the brain’s main areas for emotion. These areas are also found in the brains of other mammals. The more ancient parts of the subcortex extend down to the brainstem, known as the reptilian brain because we share this basic architecture with reptiles.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

February 24, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of another book by Daniel Goleman. The previous book on which many healthy memory blog posts were based was “Emotional Intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is by far our most important intelligence. Dr. Goleman writes, “In this book I want to provide new updates, sharing with you some key findings that further inform our understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply this skill set.”

There is a brain basis for emotional intelligence. This comes from neural imaging and lesion studies. Neural imaging allows the identification of where the activity in the brain is occurring. Lesion studies are from injuries or surgeries done on parts of the brain to see what functions are lost.

The right amygdala (there are two, one in each brain hemisphere) is a neural hub for emotion located in the midbrain. Patients with lesions or other injuries to the right amygdala showed a loss of emotional self-awareness—the ability to be aware of an understand our own feelings.

Another area crucial for emotional intelligence is also in the right side of the brain. It’s the right somatosensory cortex; injury here also creates a deficiency in self awareness, as well as empathy, the awareness of emotion in other people. The ability to understand and feel our emotion is critical for understanding and empathizing with the emotions of others. Empathy also depends on another structure in the right hemisphere, the insula, that senses our entire bodily state and tells us how we’re feeling. Tuning in to how we’re feeling ourselves plays a central role in how sense and understand what some else is feeling.

Another critical area is the anterior cingulate, which is located at the front of a band of nerve fibers that surround the corpus callosum, which ties together the two halves of the brain. The anterior cingulate is an area that manages impulse control, which is the ability to handle to handle our emotions, particularly distressing emotions and strong feelings.

Finally, there is the ventral medial strip of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is just behind the forehead, and is the last part of the brain to become fully grown. This is the brain’s executive center; the abilities of solve personal and interpersonal problems, to manage our impulses, to express our feelings effectively and to relate well to others resides here.

When writing this HM wondered if deficiencies in these areas might, in part, explain Trump’s bullying, callous, and impulsive behavior. Perhaps such deficiencies might also explain his difficulties in keeping and recruiting staff.

Goleman’s Model of Emotional Intelligence has the following four generic domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Self awareness plays into both social awareness and self management. Social awareness and self management play into relationship management. And it is relationship management that has a positive impact on others.

The Brain and Mindfulness Meditation

April 2, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Bruce Lieberman in the Health & Science section of the 27 March 2018 issue of the Washington Post. His article was based on a recent article in the APS journal Perspectives on Psychological Science (Jan 2018) titled “Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research and Mindfulness and Meditation.” The title should tip off the reader that this article has a bias and it does. Healthymemory blog readers should be aware that there have been many posts on this topic.

The references include only three citations of Davidson, the most prolific and qualified researcher in the area, and only one for Goleman, who provided the incentive for research in this area. There is no reference to Dr. Benson, a physician and researcher at Harvard medical school who documented the benefits of the relaxation response. He also provided guidance and benefits of the relaxation response on Angina Pectoris, Anxiety, Depression, Hypertension, Stress-related infertility, insomnia, Menopausal, Perimenopausal, and Breast Cancer Hot Flashes, Nausea, Pain-General, Pain-Variations, Parkinson’s Disease, Phobias, Premature Aging, Premature Ventricular Contractions and Palpitations, and premenstrual syndrome. He does advise for treatment with a physician, but if the physician is hostile to meditation, then to look for a more accommodating physician. He also documents epigenetic effects in which meditation fosters healthy readouts from one’s genes. These effects are described in the healthy memory blog post “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind-Body Connection.”

HM was amazed by the kind and generous response by Dr. Davidson to the “Mind the Hype” article in his following paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, (Jan 2018) “Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation.” Dr. Davidson is one of the most conscientious and demanding scientists HM knows.

The “Mind the Hype” article does not cite the book by Goleman and Davidson titled, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”
This is the most exhaustive review of the literature currently available, and it does indicate how much is known about each topic. Dr. Davidson is his own most severe critic. So the best way to learn about the benefits and current limitations of mindfulness and meditation is to read this book. Short of that, read the numerous healthymemory posts that have been based on this book, along with the other healthy memory blog posts on this topic. Just use the search block for this blog. You can also go to Dr. Davidson’s website, https://centerhealthyminds.org/about/founder-richard-davidson

HM’s concern is that this article in the Washington Post based on this “Mind the Hype” review in the Washington Post will discourage people from meditating, in general, and from trying the relaxation response, in particular. There is much to be gained here and it is difficult imaging any risk.

Go to the healthy memory blog “An Update of the Relaxation Response Update” for guidance on how to do the relaxation response.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Master Aptitude

March 14, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” When emotions overwhelm concentration working memory is swamped. Working memory is where all information relevant to the task at hand is held. This information can be as mundane as the digits that comprise a telephone number, or as complicated as the intricate plot lines a novelist is trying to weave together. Working memory is the executive function that makes possible all other intellectual efforts, from speaking a sentence to tackling difficult logical propositions. The prefrontal cortex executes working memory and that is where feeling and emotion meet. When the limbic circuitry that converges on the prefrontal cortex is in emotional distress, one casualty is the effectiveness of working memory. We can’t think straight.

Here the role of positive motivation needs to be considered. The marshaling of feelings like enthusiasm and confidence enhance achievement. Studies of Olympic athletes, world-class musicians, and chess grand masters find their unifying trait is the ability to motivate themselves to pursue relentless training routines.

The added payoff for life success from motivation, apart from other innate abilities, is seen in the remarkable performance of Asian students in American schools and professions. A review of the evidence suggests that Asian-American children may have an average IQ Advantage over whites of just two or three points. Yet on the basis of the professions, such as law and medicine, where many Asian-Americans end up, as a group they behave as though their IQ were much higher—the equivalent of an IQ of 110 Japanese-Americans and of 120 for Chinese-Americans. It seems that for the earliest years of school, Asian children work harder than whites. Sanford Dorenbusch, a Stanford sociologist who studies more than ten thousand high school students, found that Asian-Americans spend 40% more time doing homework than did other students. Dorenbusch writes, “While most American parents are willing to accept a child’s weak areas and emphasize his strengths, for Asians, the attitude is that if you’re not doing well, the answer is to study later at night, and if you still don’t do well, to get up and study earlier in the morning.”

Goleman concludes, “To the way that our emotions get in the way of or enhance our ability to think and plan, to pursue training for a distant goal, to solve problems and the like, they define the limits of our capacity to use our innate mental abilities, and so determine what we do in life. And to the degree to which we are motivated by feelings of enthusiasm and pleasure in what we do—or even by an optimal degree of anxiety—they propel us to accomplishment. It is in this sense that emotional intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.

Although it is likely that most healthy memory blog readers are aware of the Marshmallow Test, its implications are important enough for it to be mentioned now. The first studies were done by psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s at a preschool on the Stanford University campus. The test involve placing a marshmallow before a four year old. The child was told that the researcher was going to leave for 15 to 20 minutes, but if they child could save the marshmallow until he retired, she would be rewarded with another marshmallow. Some children managed to resist and got the second marshmallow reward, and some didn’t. The ramifications of this study did not become clear until 12 to 14 years later. Those who had resisted temptation at 4 were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties. The children who had grabbed the marshmallow were just the opposite.

The children who were able to delay gratification were also much better students. But, perhaps what was most astonishing were SAT scores. The third of the children who at four grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and a quantitative scorer of 528. The third who waited the longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively—a 210 difference in total score.

Foul moods foul thinking. Being anxious about a test degrades both study and performance on the test. People who are adept at harnessing their emotions use anticipatory anxiety about an upcoming test to motivate themselves to prepare well for it, thereby doing well.

A mildly elated state called hypomania seems optimal for writers and others in creative callings that demand fluidity and imaginative diversity of thought. Here it is important to remember the inverted U shape relationship between motivation and performance. One wants to get to the peak of the inverted U. If euphoria gets out of control to become outright mania (not hypomania) as in the mood swings of manic-depressives, the agitation undermines the ability to think cohesively.

Good moods enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity. One was to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise—a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relationships and foreseeing the consequences of a given decision.

A great motivator is optimism. Optimism means having a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life, despite setbacks and frustrations. Seligman defines optimism in terms of how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. People who are optimistic see a failure as due to something than can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change.

Optimism is central to growth mindsets, which are much advocated in this blog. Enter “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog for relevant posts.

Goleman terms Flow as the neurobiology of excellence. Flow is the state defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi known to athletes as the zone where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappearing into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Goleman writes “flow represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing emotions in the service of performance and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. Yet flow (or a milder micro flow) is an experience almost everyone enters from time to time, particularly when performing at their peak or stretching beyond their former limits. It is perhaps best captured by ecstatic lovemaking, the merging of two into fluidly harmonious state.”

Goleman writes that “there are several ways to enter flow. One is to intentionally focus a sharp attention on the task at hand; a highly concentrated state is the essence of flow. There seems to be a feedback loop at the gateway to this zone: it can require considerable effort to get calm and focused enough to begin the task—this first step takes some discipline. But once focus starts to lock in, it takes on a force of its own, both offering relief from emotional turbulence and making the task effortless.”

Entry to this zone can also occur when people find a task they are skilled at, and engage in it at a level than slightly taxes their ability. Csikszentmihali told Goleman, “People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and when they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate cone between boredom and anxiety.”

Flow is a desirable state to achieve. However, the master aptitude is optimism. With optimism one proceeds to develop growth mindsets. This leads to successful lives and healthy memories.

Harmonizing Emotions and Thought

March 10, 2018

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” The hub of the battles or cooperative treaties struck between head and heart, thought and feeling are the connections between the amygdala (and related limbic structures) and the neocortex. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought, both with respect to thinking clearly and in making wise decisions.

Working memory is the memory we hold in conscious thought. The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. However, circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion—anxiety, anger, and the like—can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. This is why we say we “can’t think straight” when we are emotionally upset. Continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child’s intellectual abilities, and cripple the capacity to learn.

If subtle, these deficits are not always tapped by IQ testing. However, they do show up through more targeted neuropsychological measures, as well as in the child’s continual agitation and impulsivity. In one study, primary school boys with above-average IQ scores we still doing poorly in school. Neuropsychological tests found that they had impaired frontal cortex functioning. They were impulsive and anxious, often disruptive and in trouble. This suggested faulty prefrontal control over their limbic urges. In spite of their intellectual potential, they were at highest risk for problems like academic failure, alcoholism, and criminality—not because their intellect is deficient, but because their control over their emotional life is impaired. The emotional brain controls rage and compassion alike. These emotional circuits are sculpted by experience throughout childhood. We leave those experience utterly to chance at our peril.

Dr. Antonia Damaiso, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal-amygdala circuit. Their decision-making ability is terribly flawed. Still they show no deterioration at all in IQ or in cognitive ability. In spite of their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives. They can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment.

Dr. Damaiso argues that their decisions are bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning. The prefrontal-amygdala circuit is a crucial doorway to the repository of the likes and dislikes we acquire over the course of a lifetime. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past. Be it a favorite pet or a detested acquaintance, the stimulus no longer triggers either attraction or aversion. These patients have “forgotten” all such emotional lessons because they no longer have access to where they are stored in the amygdala.

This research has lead Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.

So it is a mistake to do away with emotion and put reason in its place, as Erasmus recommended. We need to find the intelligent balance between the two. The old paradigm held an ideal of reason freed from the pull of emotion. The new paradigm urges us to harmonize head and heart. And to do that well in our lives means we must first understand what it means to use emotion intelligently.

The Seat of all Passions

March 9, 2018

The title of this post is the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” In humans the amygdala (from the Greek word for “almond’) is an almond -shaped cluster of interconnected clusters perched above the brainstem, near the bottom of the limbic ring. There are two amygdalae, one on each side of the brain nested toward the side of the head. Our amygdalae are relatively large compared to that of any of our closest evolutionary cousins, the primates.

The amygdalae and the hippocampi (there is also a hippocampus on each side of our brains) were the two key parts of the primitive “nose brain” that gave rise to the cortex and the neocortex. These limbic structures do much or most of the brain’s learning and remembering; the amygdalae is the specialist for emotional matters. If the amygdalae is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness.”

Here please indulge a digression by HM to one of the projects he did as a graduate student. It involved conducting surgeries and implanting electrodes into the amygdalae of rats. These rats were deprived of water for 24 hours and then given an opportunity to drink. An electric current was applied to the amygdalae of some rats when they drank the water. The control rats were not shocked. The following day, the rats that had been shocked refused to drink, whereas the control rats, of course, drank. If you find this study troublesome, so does HM. But it did provide definitive evidence regarding the role of the amygdalae.

A fellow human had his amygdalae surgically removed to control severe seizures. He became completely uninterested in people, preferring to sit in isolation with no human contact. Although perfectly capable of conversation, he no longer recognized close friends, relatives, or even his mother, and remained impassive in the face of their anguish at his indifference. Absent the amygdalae, all recognition of feeling as well as any feeling about feelings is lost. Life without the amygdalae is life stripped of personal meanings.

All passion depends on the amygdalae. Animals that have their amygdalae removed or severed lack fear and rage, lose the urge to compete or cooperate, and no longer have any sense of their place in their kind’s social order; emotion is blunted or absent. As the amygdalae were not destroyed in HM’s rats, the stimulated rats returned to normal.

Tears, an emotional signal unique to humans, are triggered by the amygdala and a nearby structure, the cingulate gyrus. Being held, stroked, or otherwise comforted soothes these same brain regions, and stops the sobbing. Absent amygdalae, there are no tears of sorrow to soothe.

Goleman writes, “the workings of the amygdala and its interplay with the neocortex are at the heart of emotional intelligence. When impulsive feeling overrides the rational—the newly discovered role for the amygdala is pivotal. Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala scan every experience for trouble. This puts the amygdala in a powerful position in mental life, something like a psychological sentinel, challenging every situation, every perception, with but one question in mind, the most primitive: “Is this something I hate? That hurts me? Something I fear?” If so—if the moment at hand somehow draws a “Yes”—the amygdala reacts instantaneously, line a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain.”

“When it sounds an alarm, it sends urgent messages to every major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s fight-or-flight hormones, mobilizes the centers for movement and activates the cardiovascular system, the muscles, and the gut. Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of emergency dollops of the hormone norepinephrine to heighten the reactivity of key brain areas, including those that made the senses more alert, in effect setting the brain on edge. Additional signals from the amygdala tell the brainstem to fix the face in a fearful expression, freeze unrelated movements the muscles had underway, raise heart rate and blood pressure, slow breathing. Others rivet attention on the source of the fear, and prepare the muscles to react accordingly. Simultaneously, cortical memory systems are shuffled to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the emergency at hand, taking precedence over other strands of thought.”

The extensive web of neural connections of the amygdalae allows them, during an emotional emergency, to capture and drive much of the rest of the brain—including the rational mind.

Research by LeDoux showed that sensory signals from the eye or ear travel first in the brain to the thalamus, and then—across a single synapse—to the amygdala; a second signal from the thalamus is routed to the neocortex—the thinking brain. So the amygdala can respond before the neocortex, which mulls information though several levels of brain circuits before it fully perceives and finally initiates its more finely tailored response.

LeDoux concluded, “Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex. Some emotional reactions and emotional memories can be formed without any conscious cognitive participation at all.” LeDoux conducted an experiment in which people acquired a preference for oddly shaped geometric figures that had been flashed at them so quickly that they had no conscious awareness of having seen them at all. Nevertheless, our cognitive unconscious will still have formed an opinion as to whether we like it or not, not just the identity of what we’ve seen. Goleman notes that “our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold view quite independently of our rational mind.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Our Two Minds

March 8, 2018

There are two fundamentally different ways of knowing to construct our mental life. The rational mind is the mode of comprehension of which we are typically conscious. It is more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. There is another system of knowing which is alongside it. It is the emotional mind. The emotional mind is impulsive and powerful, if sometime illogical. This emotional/rational dichotomy resembles the folk distinction between “heart” and “head.” Knowing something “in your heart” is a different order of conviction that is somehow a deeper kind of certainty than thinking with your rational mind. In “Emotional Intelligence” Goleman writes, “There is a steady gradient in the ratio of rational-to-emotional control over the mind; the more intense the feeling, the more dominant the emotional mind becomes and the more ineffectual the rational. This is an arrangement that seems to stem from eons of evolutionary advantage to having emotions and intuitions guide our instantaneous response in situations where our lives are in peril—and where pausing to think over what to do could cost us our lives.”

Goleman continues, “These two minds, the emotional and the rational, operate in tight harmony for the most part, intertwining their very different ways of knowing to guide us through the world. Ordinarily there is a balance between emotional and rational minds, with emotions feeding into and informing the operations of the rational mind, and the rational mind refining and sometimes vetoing the inputs of the emotions. Still, the emotional and rational minds are semi-independent faculties, each, as we shall see, reflecting the operation of distinct, but interconnected, circuitry in the brain.”

Most of the time these minds are well coordinated with feelings being essential to thought, and thoughts to feelings. However, when passions surge the balance tips: it is the emotional mind that captures the upper hand, swamping the rational mind.

To understand the potent hold of emotions on the thinking mind it is useful to understand how the brain evolved. Human brains, with their three pounds or so of cells and neural juices, are about triple the size of those in our nearest cousins in evolution, the nonhuman primates. Over millions of years of evolution, the brain has grown from the bottom up, with its higher centers developing as elaboration of lower, more ancient parts. The growth of the brain in the human embryo roughly retraces this evolutionary course.

The most primitive part of the brain for all species that have more than a minimal nervous system is the brainstem surrounding the top of the spinal cord. This root brain regulates basic life functions like breathing and the metabolism of the body’s other organs, as well as controlling stereotyped reactions and movements.

The emotional centers emerged from the brainstem. Millions of years later in evolution, from these emotional areas the thinking brain or “neocortex” evolved. The fact that the thinking brain grew from the emotional reveals much about the relationship of thought and feeling: there was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one.

New, key layers of the emotional brain came with the arrival of the first mammals. Because this part of the brain rings and borders the brainstem, it was called the ‘limbic’ system, from “limbus,” the Latin word for “ring.” This new neural territory added emotions proper to the brain’s repertoire. When we are in the grip of craving or fury, head-over-heels in love or recoiling in dread, it is the limbic system that has us in its grip.

The limbic system refined two powerful tools, learning and memory, as it evolved. These advances allows an animal to be much smarter in its choices for survival, and to fine-tune its responses to adapt to changing demands rather than having invariable and automatic reactions.

About 100 million years ago, the mammalian brain took a great growth spurt. Piled on top of the thin two-layered cortex-the regions that plan, comprehend what is sensed, coordinate movement—several new layers of brain cells were added to form the neocortex. In contrast to the ancient brain’s two-layered cortex, the neocortex offered an extraordinary intellectual edge.

Our neocortex, so much larger than in any other species, has added all that is distinctly human. It is the seat of thought; it contains the centers that put together and comprehend what the senses perceive. It adds to a feeling what we think about it—and allows us to have feelings about ideas, art, symbols, imaginings.

This new addition to the brain allowed the addition of nuance to emotional life. Limbic structures generate feelings of please and sexual desire. The addition of the neocortex and its connections to the limbic system allowed for the mother-child bond that is the basis of the family unit.

So the neocortex provided the basis for sophisticated interactions among humans.
However, problems can emerge when the neocortex loses the upper hand. Consider a nuclear war. Here it would be clear that the neocortex had lost the upper hand to the emotional mind. And it is possible that the neocortex justified the launching of a nuclear war and the extinction of homo sapiens. Such irony!

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If Emotion is so Central to Human Nature, Why Can it Be Harmful?

March 7, 2018

The answer is the same as why some of us tend to be overweight. In earlier stages of human development when starvation was commonplace, it was advantageous to eat foods that would load the body with fat. That time has passed and there is no longer a need to load the body with fat.

So in spite of social constraints, passions overwhelm time and time again. This is due to the basic architecture of mental life. The basic neural circuitry of emotion that we are born with is what worked best for the last 50,000 human generations not the last 500 generations. Goleman writes in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” “The slow deliberate forces of evolution that have shaped our emotions have done their work over the course of a million years; the last 10,000 years—despite having witnessed the rapid rise of human civilization and the explosion of the human population from five million to five billion—have left little imprint on our biological template for emotional life.” Given this explosive increase in population, the need for emotional intelligence has greatly increased. Unfortunately, our appraisal of every personal encounter and our responses to it are shaped not just by our rational judgments or our personal history, but also by our distant ancestral past. “In short, we too often confront postmodern dilemmas with an emotional repertoire tailored to the urgencies of the Pleistocene.”

Goleman continues, “All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us. The very root of the word emotion is “motere”, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e-“ to connote “move away,” suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion. That emotions lead to actions is most obvious in watching animals or children; it is only in “civilized” adults that we often find the great anomaly in the animal kingdom, emotions—root impulses to act—divorced from obvious action.”

Emotions have distinctive biological signatures:

*Anger— blood flows to the hands. This makes it easier to grasp a weapon or strike at a foe. Heart rate increases and crush of hormones such as adrenaline generates a pulse of energy strong enough for vigorous action.

*Fear—Blood goes to the large skeletal muscles, like the legs, making it easier to flee. This makes the face blanch as blood is shunted away from it (creating the feeling that blood “runs cold”). Simultaneously, the body freezes, if only for a moment, perhaps allowing time to gauge whether hiding might be a better reaction. Circuits in the brain’s emotional center trigger a flood of hormones that put the body on general alert. This makes it edgy and ready for action. Attention fixates on the threat at hand to better evaluate what response to make.

*Happiness—Here the main biological change is an increased activity in a brain center that inhibits negative feelings and fosters an increase in available energy, and a quieting of those that generate worrisome thoughts. There is no particular shift in physiology but a quiescence, which makes the body recover more quickly from the biological arousal of upsetting emotions. This configuration offers the body a general rest, as well as readiness and enthusiasm for whatever task is at hand and for striving toward a great variety of goals.

*Love—Tender feelings and sexual satisfaction entail parasympathetic arousal, which is the physiological opposite of the “fight or flight” mobilization shared by fear and anger. The parasympathetic pattern dubbed the “relaxation response,” is a bodywide set of reactions that generates a general state of calm and contentment, facilitating cooperation. [Entering “relaxation response” into the search block for the healthy memory blog will produce many posts on the relaxation response, to include how to induce the relaxation response, and the many benefits of the relaxation response]

*Surprise—The lifting of eyebrows in surprise allows the taking in of a larger visual sweep and also permits more light to strike the retina, allowing more information about the unexpected event, making it easier to figure out what is going on and concoct the best plan for action.

*Disgust—An expression of disgust looks the same around the world and sends the identical message: something is offensive in taste or smell, or metaphorically so. The facial expression of disgust—the upper lip curled to the side as the nose wrinkles slightly—suggests a primordial attempt, as Darwin observed, to close the nostril against a noxious odor to to spit out a poisonous food.

*Sadness—A main function of sadness is to help adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of someone close or a major disappointment . It brings a drop in energy and enthusiasm for life’s activities, particularly diversions and pleasures, and, as it portends an approaching depression, slows the body’s metabolism. This withdrawal creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp its consequences for one’s life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings. This loss of energy might have been kept saddened and vulnerable early humans close to home, where they were safer.

Analytical Meditation

December 9, 2017

This is the advanced deep path meditation. Usually stabilizing meditation (see previous post) is preliminary to analytic meditation. This type of meditation is for the purpose of developing insight or correct understanding of the way things are, and eventually to attain special insight (Sanskrit: vipashyana) into the ultimate nature of all things. Analytical meditation brings into play creative intellectual thought and is crucial to our development: the first step in gaining any real insight is to understand conceptually how things are. This conceptual clarity develops into firm conviction which, when combined with stabilizing meditation, brings direct and intuitive knowledge.

It is doubtful that most readers will want to get into this level of meditation, and fortunately, there are many benefits to just using the relaxation response. However, others might want to try this and see if it is for them. This can lead to retreats and a high level of involvement.

Should you be interested in exploring analytical meditation a good book is “How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald. In addition to covering the basics, here is what she covers:

Meditations on the Mind which include meditation on the breath, meditation on the clarity of the mind, and meditation on the continuity of the mind.

Analytical Meditations which include Meditation on Emptiness, Appreciating our Human Life, Meditation on Impermanence, Death Awareness Meditation, Meditation on Karma, Purifying Negative Karma, Meditation on Suffering, Equanimity Meditation, Meditation on Love, Meditation on Compassion and Giving and Taking, Dealing with Negative Energy.

Visualization Meditations which include Body of Light Meditation, Simple Purification Meditation, Meditation on Tara, the Buddha of Enlightened Activity, Meditation on Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, Inner Heat Meditation.

And should you be interested in Prayers and Other Devotional Practices
Prayers, Explanation of the Prayers, A Short meditation on the Graduated Path of Enlightenment, Meditation on the Buddha, Meditation on the Healing Buddha, Meditation on the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, Prayer to Tara, Vajrsattva Purification, The Eight Mahayana Precepts, Prostations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.

P.S. HM finds parts of this post, which were taken from Kathleen McDonald’s book disturbing. “For example, This type of meditation is for the purpose of developing insight or correct understanding of the way things are, and eventually to attain special insight (Sanskrit: vipashyana) into the ultimate nature of all things.” Readers of this blog should be know that HM advises never be 100% certain of everything. For critical thinking there always needs to be room, however small, for doubt. So to claim eventually to attain special insight into the ultimate nature of things is a bit of an overshoot. So to meditate to develop insight or correct understanding of the way things are can be an aspirational goal. It is important to understand that there are different ways of knowing, and it is a mistake to pursue only one way. Science is a way of knowing. Contemplative practices of religions are a complementary way of knowing. These are two ways of knowing that complement each other. Unfortunately too many fail to realize this. HM thinks that the Dalai Lama is the first religious leader to use science to inform religious beliefs. He sends his priests to learn about science as he thinks this is essential to effective religious leadership

Lists of Paramitas

December 7, 2017

Paramitas means completeness or perfection. Lists of paramitas are virtuous traits that mark progress in contemplative traditions. Among the paramitas of the yogi’s discussed in “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body” are generosity, the giving away of material wealth or of oneself, and ethical conduct, not harming oneself or others and following guidelines for self-discipline.

Additional traits are: patience, tolerance, and composure. These imply a serene equanimity. The Dalai Lama told an MIT audience, “Real peace is when your mind goes twenty-four hours a day with no fear, no anxiety.”

The authors note that there are intriguing dovetails between scientific data and the ancient maps to altered traits. An eighteenth-century Tibetan text advises that among the signs of spiritual progress are loving-kindness and strong compassion toward everyone, contentment, and “weak desires.” The authors note that these qualities seem to match with indicators of brain changes that have been tracked: amped-up circuitry for empathic concern and parental love, a more relaxed amygdala, and decreased volume of brain circuits associated with attachment.

A Tibetan tradition proffers a view that we all have a Buddha nature, but we simply fail to recognize it. In this view, the nub of meditative practice becomes recognizing intrinsic qualities, what’s already present rather than the development of any new inner skill. According to this perspective, the remarkable neural and biological findings among the yogis are signs not so much of skill development, but rather the quality of recognition.

This is an interesting question to ponder. The authors point to an increasingly robust corpus of scientific findings showing, for example, that if an infant watches puppets who engage in an altruistic, warmhearted encounter, or ones who are selfish and aggressive when given he choice of a puppet to reach for, almost all infants choose one of the friendly ones. They say this natural tendency continues through the toddler years.

HM wonders if these same results are found with infants who are unloved. And if it occurs through the toddler years for unloved toddlers.

The authors note that historically meditation was not meant to improve our health, relax us, or enhance work success. They note that although these are the kinds of appeal that has made meditation ubiquitous today, over the centuries such benefits were incidental, unnoticed side effects. This was unfortunate, because the benefits that have made meditation popular today are very real, and can be achieved using the relaxation technique espoused by Dr. Benton for only 20 minutes a day.

What the Yogi’s are able to accomplish require many thousands of hour of meditation in the deep mode.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Two Remarkable Yogis

December 6, 2017

Two remarkable yogis receive considerable attention in Goleman and Richardson’s book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” Matthieu Ricard is not only a remarkable yogi, but one who also holds a Ph.D. in Biology. Initially yogis were reluctant to serve as research participants in Dr. Davidson’s lab. But once Matthieu assured his peers their participation might be of benefit to people, a total of twenty-one yogis agreed. Matthieu helped design the experimental protocol for the lab.

The next yogi to come to the lab was Mingyur Rinpoche, who was also the one with the most lifetime hours of practice 62,000 hours when he entered the lab. When he meditated on compassion there was a huge surge in electrical activity in his brain recorded by EEG. The fMRI images revealed that during meditation his circuitry for empathy jumped in activity by 700 to 800 percent compared to its level at rest. When he left the lab and went on a retreat as a wanderer for four and a half years the aging of his brain slowed. He was 41, but his brain resembled the norm for 33 year-olds.

It is appropriate to remember here what the goal of Siddhartha was on his way to becoming Buddha. His concern was how to deal with human suffering. Ultimately his finding was simple. Suffering is a matter of how the mind interprets conditions. Meditation is a set of techniques for controlling the mind so that one finds peace and rarely suffers.

Mingyur Rinpoche wandered for four and half years. He controlled his mind so that he wandered in a state of bliss. He did not suffer, was content and enjoying his existence. This was the goal that Buddha succeeded in achieving. And the techniques are there for all who want to use them.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Meditation as Psychotherapy

December 5, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter 10 of a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. The subtitle is “Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. Meditation was not originally intended to treat psychological problems. However, in modern times it has shown promise in the treatment of some disorders, particularly depression and anxiety disorders. A meta-analysis of forty-seven studies on the application of meditation methods to treat patients with mental health problems found that meditation can lead to decreases in depression (especially severe depression), anxiety, and pain. They were about as effective as medications, but had no side effects. To a lesser degree, meditation can reduce the toll of psychological stress. Loving-kindness meditation may be especially beneficial to patients suffering from trauma, especially those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Mindfulness as been melded with cognitive therapy to produce Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT has become the most empirically well-validated psychological treatment with a meditation basis. This integration is having a wide impact in the clinical world. Empirical tests of applications to an ever larger range of psychological disorders are underway. Although there have been occasional reports of the negative effects of meditation, the findings to date point to the potential promise of meditation-based strategies. The enormous increase in scientific research in these areas makes for an optimistic future.

Mind, Body, & Genome

December 4, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” None of the many forms of meditation studied in this book was originally designed to treat illness. Nevertheless, today the scientific literature is replete with studies assessing whether these ancient practices might be useful for treating illnesses. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; see the healthy memory blog post “Improving Selective Attention” for more information) and similar methods can reduce the emotional component of suffering from disease, but not cure the maladies. But mindfulness training— as short as three days—results in a short-term decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the molecules responsible for inflammation. With extensive practice this seems to become a trait effect, with imaging studies finding in mediators at rest lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, along with an increased connectivity between regulatory circuitry and sectors of the brain’s self system, especially the posterior cingulate cortex.

For experienced meditation practitioners, a daylong period of intensive mindfulness down regulates genes involved in inflammation. The enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular aging, increases after three months of intensive practicing of mindfulness and loving-kindness (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation).

Long-term meditation may lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Current evidence is inconclusive as to whether such effects emerge with relative short-term practice, like MBSR, to only become apparent with longer-term practice. Taken together, the hints of neural rewiring that undergird altered traits seem scientifically credible, although further studies for specifics are needed.

Lightness of Being

December 3, 2017

This post is based on a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson titled, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” When we let our mind wander, we hash over thoughts and feelings (often unpleasant) that focus on ourselves, constructing the narrative we experience as our “self.” The default mode circuits quiet during mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation). In early stages of meditation this quieting of self-esteem entails brain circuits that inhibit default zones. In later practice the connections and activity within those areas wane.

The quieting of the self-circuitry begins as a state effect seen during or immediately after meditation. However, with long-term practitioners it becomes an enduring trait, together with decreased activity in the default mode itself. This resulting decrease in stickiness means that the self-focused thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind have much les “grab” and decreasing ability to hijack attention. This is what is meant by “lightness of being.”

Attention

December 2, 2017

This title is the same as a title in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits:  Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”  William James, the founder of American psychology wrote: “The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will; an education which should improve this faculty would the the education par excellence.”

At its root meditation retrains attention, and different types boost varying aspects of attention. MBSR strengthens selective attention, while long-term vipassana (analytic meditation will be described later in the series of posts) practice enhances this even more. Five months after a three-month shamantha retreat meditators had enhanced vigilance, the ability to sustain their attention. But the beginnings of this enhancement also showed up after just seventeen minutes of mindfulness in beginners. This was no doubt a transitory state for the newcomers, and a more lasting trait for the experienced meditators. The same practice-makes perfect maxim likely applies to some other quickie meditation: just ten minutes of mindfulness overcame the damage to concentration from multi-tasking—at least in the short term; only eight minutes of mindfulness lessened mind-wandering for a while. About ten hours of mindfulness over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory. This also led to substantially improved scores on the graduate school entrance exam. Although meditation boosts many aspects of attention, these are short-term gains; more lasting benefits require ongoing practice.

Primed for Love

December 1, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Goleman and Richardson’s book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” Learning about compassion does not necessarily increase compassionate behavior. From empathizing with someone suffering to actually reaching out to help, loving-kindness/compassion meditation increases the odds of helping. There are three forms of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern. People frequently empathize emotionally with someone’s suffering but then tune out to soothe their own uncomfortable feeling. However, compassion meditation enhances empathic concern, activates circuits for good feelings and love, as well as circuits that register the suffering of others, and prepares a person to act when suffering is encountered. Compassion and loving-kindness increase amygdala activation to suffering while focused attention on something neutral like the breath lessons amygdala activity. Loving-kindness acts quickly, in as little as eight hours of practice; reductions in usually intractable unconscious bias emerge after just sixteen hours. The longer people practice, the stronger these brain and behavioral tendencies toward compassion become. The authors conjecture that the strength of these effects from the early days of meditation may signal our biological preparedness for goodness.

A description of loving kindness meditation can be found in the previous healthy memory blog post SPACE. More will be written about loving kindness meditation later in this series of posts.

A Mind Undisturbed

November 30, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Goleman and Richardson’s book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” A key node in the brain’s stress circuitry, the amygdala, shows dampened activity from just thirty or so hours of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (enter MBSR into the search box of the Healthymemory Blog to learn more about MBSR). Other mindfulness training shows a similar benefit, and there are hints the these changes are trait like: they appear not simply during the explicit instruction to receive the stressful stimuli mindfully but even in the “baseline” state, with reductions in amygdala activation as much as 50%. More daily practice seems to be associated with lessened stress reactivity. Experienced Zen practitioners can withstand higher levels of pain and still have less reaction to this stressor. A three-month meditation retreat brought indicators of better emotional regulation, and long-term practice was associated with greater functional connectivity between the prefrontal areas that manage emotion and the areas of the amygdala that react to stress, resulting in less reactivity. An improved ability to regulate attention accompanies some of the beneficial impact of meditation on stress reactivity. And finally, the quickness with which long-term meditators recover from stress underlines how trait effects emerge with continued practice.

Altered Traits and the Deep Path

November 29, 2017

The deep path of meditation focuses on deep exploration of the mind toward a profound alteration of our being. An altered trait is a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice that endures apart from meditation itself. Altered traits affect how we behave in our daily lives, and not just during or immediately after we meditate. The concept of altered traits has been a lifelong pursuit of Goleman and Davidson, authors of “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body,”

For Goleman and Davidson, the most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, instead, a further reach toward our better nature. The research indicates that the deep path markedly boosts science’s models of the upper limits of our positive potential. The further reaches of the deep path cultivate enduring qualities like selflessness, equanimity, a loving presence, and impartial compassion, traits which we should all regard as positive traits.

Goleman and an Davidson wrote an article titled, “The Role of Attention in Meditation and Hypnosis: A Psychobiological Perspective on Transformations of Consciousness. Transformation of consciousness was their term for altered states, which they regarded as a psychological or neural shift. They contended that hypnosis, unlike meditation, produced primarily state effects, and not the trait effects that meditation did. At the time this article was written the fascination was not with traits but rather altered states. As Goleman and Davidson said, “after the high goes, you’re still the same schmuck you were before.”

Goleman and Davidson say that this basic confusion is still too common. Some people focus on the remarkable states attained during a meditation session, particularly during long retreats, and pay little attention to how, or even if, those states translated into a lasting change for the better in their qualities of being after they’ve gone home. Their point is that valuing just the heights misses the true point of practice: to transform ourselves in lasting ways day to day. The Dalai Lama has said, “The true mark of a meditator is that he has disciplined his mind by freeing it from negative emotions.”

Goleman and Davidson articulated the hypothesis: The after is the before for the next during. To elaborate, “after” refers to enduring changes from meditation that last long enough beyond the practice session itself. “Before” means the condition we are in before we start meditating. “During” is what happens as we meditate, temporary changes in our state that pass when we stop meditating. Repeated practice of meditation results in lasting traits—the “after.” Research in the book and in subsequent posts provide scientific support for meditation producing the “after.”

Flourishing

November 27, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” Aristotle posited the goal of life as a virtue-based eudaemonia, a quality of flourishing, a view that continues under many guises in modern thought. Aristotle said that virtues are attained in part by finding the “right mean” between extremes; courage lies between impulsive risk-taking and cowardice, a tempered moderation between self-indulgence and ascetic denial.

He believed that we are not by nature virtuous, but all have the potential to become so through the right effort. This effort includes what we would call today self-monitoring, the ongoing practice of noting our thoughts and acts. For the Stoics, one key was seeing that our feelings about life’s events, not those events themselves, determine our happiness. This is a fundamental insight at which Siddhartha, the Buddha, arrived. We find equanimity by distinguishing what we can control in life from what we cannot. That creed finds an echo in the popularized Twelve Step version of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Goleman and Davidson write, “The classical way to the ‘wisdom to know the difference’ lay in mental training. Greek philosophers saw philosophy as an applied art and taught contemplative exercises and self-discipline as paths to flourishing. Like their peers to the East, the Greeks saw that we can cultivate qualities of mind that foster well-being.

Goleman and Davidson write “In the Greco-Roman tradition, qualities such as integrity, kindness, patience, and humility were considered keys to enduring well-being. These Western thinkers and Asian spiritual traditions alike saw value in cultivating a virtuous being via a roughly similar transformation of being. In Buddhism, for example , the ideal of inner flourishing gets put in terms of ‘bodhi’ (in Pali and Sanskrit), a path of self-actualization that nourishes ‘the very best within oneself.’”

University of Wisconsin psychologist Carol Ryff, drawing on Aristotle among many other thinkers, posits a model of well-being with six arms:

*Self acceptance, being positive about yourself, acknowledging both your best and not-so-good qualities, and feeling fine about being just as you are. This takes a non-judgmental self-awareness.

*Personal growth, the sense you continue to change and develop toward your full potential—getting better as time goes on—adopting new ways of seeing or being and making the most of your talents. ‘Each of you is perfect the way you are,’ Zen master Suzuki Roshi told his students, adding, ‘and you can use a little improvement’—neatly reconciling acceptance with growth.

*Autonomy, independence in thought and deed, freedom from social pressure, and using your own standards to measure yourself. This, by the way, applies most strongly in individualistic cultures like Australia and the United States, as compared with cultures like Japan, where harmony with one’s group looms larger.

*Mastery, feeling competent to handle life’s complexities, seizing opportunities as they come your way, and creating situations that suit your needs and values.

*Satisfying relationships, with warmth, empathy, and trust, along with mutual concern for each other and a healthy give-and-take,

*Life purpose, goals and beliefs that give you a sense of meaning and direction, Some philosophers argue that true happiness comes as a by-product of meaning and purpose in life.

Ryff sees the qualities as a modern version of eudamonia—Aristotle’s “highest of all human good,” the realization of you unique potential. Goleman and Davidson write,”…different varieties of meditation seem to cultivate one or more of these capacities. More immediately, several studies have looked at how meditation boosted people’s ratings on Ryffs own measure of well-being.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fewer than half of Americans report feeling a strong purpose in life beyond their jobs and family. Healthy memory blog readers should remember that ikigai is the Japanese term for having a purpose in life. Many healthy memory blogs have emphasized its importance.

It was found that after a three-month meditation retreat (540 hours total), those participants who had strengthened a sense of purpose in life during that time also showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells, even five months later. Telomerase protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect how long a cell will live.

Another study found that eight weeks of a variety of mindfulness practices seemed to enlarge a region in the brain stem that correlated with a person’s well-being on Ryff’s test. But Goleman and Davidson caution that only fourteen people were involved in the study, so it needs to be replicated with a larger group before becoming more than tentative conclusion.

In yet another study, people practicing a popular form of mindfulness reported higher levels of well-being and other such benefits for up to a year. The more everyday mindfulness, the greater the subjective boost in well-being. Again the authors caveat this study by saying that not only was the sample size small, but also a brain measure rather than self-evaluations would have been more convincing.

Goleman and Davidson write, “Studies such as these are often cited as “proving” the merits of meditation, particularly these days, when mindfulness has become the flavor du jour. But meditation research varies enormously when it comes to scientific soundness—though when used to promote some brand of meditation, app, or other contemplative “product,” this inconvenient truth goes missing.”

The authors promise that they have used rigorous standards to sort out fluff from fact. They want to determine what science actually does tell us about the impacts of meditation.

Altered Traits and Neuroplasticity

November 26, 2017

There have been many healthy memory blog posts on neuroplasticity, which is a topic of continuing attention. The first evidence of neuroplasticity was of a negative effect. Bruce McEwen produced evidence of how stressful events produce lingering neural scars. The research used a tree shrew, a small creature, but the research had a gigantic effect. The thinking, or rather dogma of the day, was that the neural system was fixed and could not change. It was research by Marian Diamond and her psychologist colleagues that documented that enriched environments increase the size of rats’ brains. Previous research had focused on the nature vs nurture issue. Genes defined nature and the environment defined nurture. Arguments abounded about whether intelligence and many other topics of interest were affected more by nature or more by nurture. The truth is that there is an interaction between nature and nurture. Traits altered by meditation are further examples of neuroplasticity at the positive end and post-traumatic stress disorder at the negative end.

Goleman and Davidson’s interests go beyond the merely healthy spectrum to an even more beneficial range of wholesome traits of being. Extremely positive altered traits, like equanimity and compassion, are a goal of mind training in contemplative traditions. They use the term altered trait as shorthand for this highly positive range.

Neuroplasticity provides a scientific basis for how repeated training can create those lasting qualities of being they encountered in a handful of exceptional yogis, swamis, monks, and lamas, Their altered traits fit ancient descriptions of lasting transformation at these higher levels.

Goleman and Davidson write, “A mind free from disturbance has value in lessening human suffering, a goal shared by science and meditative paths alike. But apart from lofty heights of being, there’s a more practical potential within reach of every one of us: a life best described as flourishing.

This post is taken from Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”