Posts Tagged ‘Relaxation’

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.

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.

Managing Stress

September 28, 2011

There is an interesting article on managing stress in a recent Scientific American Mind.1 The author outlines four general competencies in managing stress: Practicing Relaxation Techniques, Managing Thoughts, Managing Sources of Stress, and Preventing Stress from Occurring. Relaxation Techniques have been covered in this Healthymemory Blog (enter “Relaxation Techniques” in the search block of this blog). They can range from simple visualization and breathing techniques to intensive methods of meditation. Managing thoughts is a matter of trying to control your thoughts and reinterpreting stressful situations into something less stressful. If you seek counseling for your stress issues, the therapist is likely to coach you in thought management techniques. Managing sources of stress is a matter of arranging your workspace and time to avoid stress. Preventing stress from occurring is the practice of avoiding, when possible, stressful situations, planning your day, keeping a list of things to do, and having a clear picture of how you’d like your life to proceed over the next few years.

The author conducted a study of how people managed stress. The research participants completed a survey (which is accessible at http://MyStressManagementSkills.com) asking them how stressed they were, how generally happy they were, and how much success they had had in their personal and professional lives. The author expected that relaxation techniques and thought management would be the two most effective methods of managing stress. To his surprise he found that stress management and stress prevention were the two most effective methods. Presumably this reflects the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure. Although this is certainly true, it is also possible that relaxation and thought management techniques are both less well known and possibly, more difficult to practice. Of course, there is no reason not to practice all four techniques. And for those of us who are not that well organized, it is good that we have relaxation and thought management techniques to fall back on.

As a result of the study, the author offers six strategies for fighting stress before it starts.

  1. Seek and kill – (e.g., if your cell phone annoys you, get a new phone.)

  2. Commit to the positive – engage in healthy as opposed to self-destructive activities (e.g,, yoga)

  3. Be your own personal secretary – get organized.

  4. Immunize yourself – Through exercise, thought management, and the practice of daily relaxation techniques.

  5. Make a little plan – in the morning to prioritize and organize your activities for the day.

  6. Make a big plan – for the next few years of your life.

1Epstein, R. (2011). Fight the Frazzled Mind, Scientific American Mind, September/October, 30-35.

Restoring Attentional Resources

March 10, 2010

There are techniques for restoring attentional resources. See the Blog Post “The Relaxation Response.” Another approach comes from Attention Resource Theory (ART) 12. In the nineteenth century the famous psychologist William James made a distinction between two types of attention: 3 involuntary attention, when attention is captured by inherently important or intriguing stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, when attention is directed by cognitive-control processes. 

According to ART, directed attention involves resolving conflict when there is a need to suppress distracting stimulation, which depletes attentional resources. According to ART, interactions with nature can restore these attentional resources.

Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan 4 performed two experiments assessing ART.  In the first experiment there were two groups:  one group took a 50-55 minute walk in the city, while the other group took a 50-55 minute walk in the woods.  Both groups performed a tasks that both assessed and depleted directed attentional resources before and after their respective walks.   The walk in the woods group performed about 20% better than the walk in the city group.  A second experiment followed the same basic structure as the first, but this time the experimental participants viewed pictures of natural or urban settings rather than walking.  Similar results were obtained documenting the restorative effects of nature.

So attention is extremely important to memory and cognitive functioning.  Attention is depleted and needs to be restored.  Attentional resources vary throughout the day.  These are important points to remember when planning your day.  It is also important to engange in effortful Type 2 processing5.   As we age the vast repository of memory and experience makes it both easier and more likely to rely upon Type 1 processing.  Although this is one of the potential benefits of aging, there remains a need to continue to engage in appropriate Type 2 processes to ward off cognitive decline.

1Kaplan, S. (1995).  The restorative benefits of nature:  Toward an integrative framework.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15,  160-189

2Kaplan, S. (2001).  Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

3James, W.  Psychology:  The briefer course.   New York:  Holt.

4Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S.  (2009).  The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature.  Psychological Science, 19,  1207-1212. 

5See the previous post on this blog “The Two System View of Cognition”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.