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Bad Habits Broken Here! 4 Steps To Breaking The ‘Habit Loop’

habitsSOURCE AND AUTHOR CREDIT: Put Your Habits to Work for You: Your worst habits can become your best friends Published on June 26, 2012 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. in Fulfillment at Any Age at Psychology Today

Victimized by your bad habits? Believe that you’re stuck with them for life? According to Charles Duhigg, a well-respected author and New York Times columnist, you may want to hone rather than scrap your well-polished sequences of behavior. Habits can be put to either good or bad use, depending on the situation. At their worst, they cause destructive, addictions and dependence. At their best, habits allow you to boost your efficiency and effectiveness.

The term “habit” has acquired a bad reputation because it is associated either with addiction or mindlessness. However, because habits can routinize the boring and mundane aspects of your life, they are among the most efficient and effective of all the behaviors in your repertoire.  They allow you to offload your mental energy from routine daily tasks so you can devote more resources to the tasks that require real thought and creativity. They can also, despite what you may have been told, be controlled.

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In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Duhigg takes us through a compelling personal and scientific narrative that, dare I say it, proves to be habit-forming on its own.  The doubter in you will be convinced by the many examples he provides of successful habit use that include corporate marketing, promotion of pop songs, overhauls of big business, and resounding of sports teams. He also shows us the downside of habits when they lead to inflexibility and inability to respond to changing circumstances among everyone from hospital workers to London Tube employees. As is true for the most tormented drug addict, it may take a crisis to break through the dysfunctional habits built into a large organization when its employees become too locked into “business as usual.”

The key to unlocking the power of habit for you is to understand that habits are formed and maintained through a cyclical process called a “habit loop.” Your habit loop begins to form when a behavior you perform leads to an outcome that you desire. If you want to get that reward again, you’ll repeat the behavior. Then, for the loop to be complete, you also need a cue to trigger your craving for the desired outcome.

There are plenty of examples throughout the book of habit loops for everything from winning the Super Bowl to improving safety records at an aluminum plant. Of the many compelling examples, perhaps the easiest to summarize here are is the habit loop involving the mall-based Cinnabon stores, those ubiquitous purveyors of some of the most dangerous food on the planet.  The habit, in this case, is eating the delicious calorie-packed morsel. The reward is the pleasure that comes from eating it. The cue—and this is the main thing— is the smell. As you’re making your way from Foot Locker to the Gap, that cinnamon scent hits you with full force. You may have no interest whatsoever at the moment in having a snack, and in fact have sworn off all sweets, but then that unmistakable scent overwhelms you and puts you under its spell. Your brain wants that treat and nothing else in the world can shut down that need (or so you feel at the time).  You stop everything and grab that Cinnabon, knowing that you’ve just made it that much harder to fit into those chinos you were planning to buy at the Gap.

This diagram shows the general habit loop. The Cinnabon loop works like this: Cue (Cinnabon scent)–> Routine (eating Cinnabon) –> Reward (sweet taste) –> Cue (next time you smell the scent). In a true addiction, you may not even wait until the scent hits you between the nostrils. You only have to imagine the scent, and it’s off to the next Cinnabon store you can find. The book is sprinkled with simple diagrams such as the basic habit loop shown here that cleverly and clearly illustrate the main points.Marketers capitalize on the habit-producing nature of powerful product cues.  Duhigg chronicles case after case of advertising campaigns designed to create cravings that make you want something you didn’t even know you needed.  For example, the rewarding feeling of being “clean” leads us to purchase products from toothpaste to air fresheners to produce that sensation over and over again, even if we’re not particularly dirty.  The product labels become the cues that trigger the craving, which in turn leads to the habit, which in turn leads to the reward, and so on.  Advertisers have convinced us that we not only have to be clean, but we need to feel clean, preferably with their trademarked products.

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Businesses can also capitalize on the habitual behaviors of their customers to market strategically to people who show predictable patterns of behavior.  Ever wonder why certain ads pop up on certain websites or why you keep getting coupons in the mail perfectly targeted to your needs? As Duhigg shows, marketers have figured out how to read not only your keystrokes but your habitual browsing and shopping habits. It may creep you out to think that Target knows a woman is pregnant by her shopping habits, but by using the psychology of habits, that is just what Target (and many other businesses) do to pinpoint your buying needs.  Fair warning: if you’re convinced that corporate conspiracies reside everywhere, you may want to skip some of these chapters or you’ll never set foot in a store again. Of course, that would be unreasonable, so you should read these chapters and at least you’ll understand both the how and the why of the many ways that advertisers manipulate us.

Lest you wonder, at this point, whether my blog’s title was false advertising, rest assured that there is plenty of good that our habits can do for us. Duhigg shows, again in fascinating detail, that the very habit loops that lead us to buy products that we don’t need can also lead us to become capable of remarkable successes. For example, it’s valuable to have an automatic response to an emergency situation for which there’s no time to think. You want to get your hand out of the way of a closing car door before you have time to ponder your course of action. It’s also helpful to relegate repeated and mundane behaviors to habit status so that you can think about other things. For example, while folding all that laundry you’re folding because you’re programmed by advertisers to do the laundry, you don’t have to think in detail about your actions. You can think about something else.  If you had to stop and ponder every habitual action you complete over the course of your daily routines, you’d never be able to reflect on how to solve the real problems that face you at your work or in your close relationships. When you’re riding the elevator or walking to work, it’s helpful that you can put your brain on autopilot while you figure out how you’re going to settle the argument you’re having with your best friend.

Your habit loops can give your brain a break when you need it for real work, then, but they can also pave the way for you to get rid of the habits you want to change or eliminate. This is particularly true of addictions. Let’s take the case of problem gambling. According to Duhigg, one of the most significant contributors to problem gambling is not that gamblers win (otherwise casinos wouldn’t make a profit!). No, the main contributor to problem gambling is the near win. In a near win, you get, for example, 2 out of 3 matches on a slot machine. You’re not actually being rewarded, then, for your gambling habit, but because you see yourself as so closeto winning you become convinced that you’ll certainly win the next time around. Small wins can actually set you up for big habits that you’ll find almost impossible to break. However, habit change is not completely impossible.

Using the psychology of the habit loop, change becomes possible when you use the cue to trigger a new behavior that itself leads to a reward, perhaps different than the original reward, but a reward nevertheless.  Problem gamblers see the near win as a reason to keep gambling. Non-problem gamblers reward themselves for the near win (which they correctly interpret as a loss) by leaving the casino without losing more of their money. Understand the cues that trigger the behavior, substitute a new routine, and make sure that the new routine reaps its own reward. You’ll soon be craving the reward produced by the new routine, according to this logic.

On that note, Duhigg provides a 4-step plan for breaking a bad habit loop and substituting it with one designed to produce new habits that will benefit your mental and physical health. Unfortunately, habits are harder to break than to build, but this 4-step program can get you going in the right direction.

  1. Identify the cue, routine, and reward. Draw your own habit loop for the behavior you’re trying to change. As is true for mindful eating, just thinking about what you’re doing can often stimulate habit change right then and there. Your habit changes to eating less, or more healthily, when you realize what’s triggering your bad snacking habits.
  2. Find alternative rewards. Winning is clearly a reward for gambling, but for problem gamblers, near wins begin to take on highly rewarding value. To stop the gambling you need to find an outcome that will be even more rewarding for you. Because everyone’s reward structure is slightly different, you need to determine which reward will lead to the new craving that triggers the new, non-gambling, behavior.
  3. Figure out the actual cue. You may think that your constant online shoe shopping is due to a desire to look stylish, but perhaps there’s something else that triggers this habit of overspending. Using a tried and true method in behavior analysis, isolate the actual cue among the many possible stimuli operating on you when the habit kicks in. Duhigg suggests that you go 5 for 5 on this and look at the possible 5 categories of cues: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. Your desire to fill your closet may have nothing to do with your wanting to dress to impress but instead because you feel lonely, anxious, or spend time with friends who themselves are overly preoccupied with appearance.
  4. Make a plan to change. You may think that you can’t control your habits, but if you anticipate your characteristic response to a situation, you can change that response. Let’s say that you’re most likely to drink too much when you’re watching your favorite sports on TV, perhaps just because you needed something to do instead of just sitting there. Make a plan so that when the game is on you’ve got another activity you can engage in that would also give you something to do, particularly during the lulls in the action when your habitual response was to take another swig of beer. It could be playing an online (non-gambling) game, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a magazine. By building a reward into the new behavior (doing something enjoyable while bored) you are increasing the chances that, over time, you can instill a new and healthier habit.

There’s no reason to let your habits dominate and possible ruin your life. Instead, you can use them to build large gains on small wins, redirect behavioral sequences that cause you to become addicted and improve your mental productivity. Old habits die hard, but they can die.

Follow Susan Krauss Whitbourne on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join her Facebook group, “Fulfillment at Any Age,” 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012


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September 17, 2013 Posted by | Addiction, Books, brain, Cognition | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MythBusters: The Human Brain Edition


Source Credit: 7 Myths About the Brain
Separating Fact From Fiction
By Kendra Cherry, Guide

The human brain is amazing and sometimes mysterious. While researchers are still uncovering the secrets of how the brain works, they have discovered plenty of information about what goes on inside your noggin. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of brain myths out there.

The following are just a few of the many myths about the brain.

Myth 1: You only use 10 percent of your brain.

You’ve probably heard this oft-cited bit of information several times, but constant repetition does not make it any more accurate. People often use this popular urban legend to imply that the mind is capable of much greater things, such as dramatically increased intelligence, psychic abilities, or even telekinesis. After all, if we can do all the things we do using only 10 percent of our brains, just imagine what we could accomplish if we used the remaining 90 percent.

Reality check: Research suggests that all areas of the brain perform some type of function. If the 10 percent myth were true, brain damage would be far less likely – after all, we would really only have to worry about that tiny 10 percent of our brains being injured. The fact is that damage to even a small area of the brain can result in profound consequences to both cognition and functioning. Brain imaging technologies have also demonstrated that the entire brain shows levels of activity, even during sleep.

“It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time. Let’s put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body’s weight and uses 20 percent of the body’s energy.” – Neurologist Barry Gordon of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Scientific American

Myth 2: Brain damage is permanent.

The brain is a fragile thing and can be damaged by things such as injury, stroke, or disease. This damage can result in a range of consequences, from mild disruptions in cognitive abilities to complete impairment. Brain damage can be devastating, but is it always permanent?

Reality check: While we often tend to think of brain injuries as lasting, a person’s ability to recover from such damage depends upon the severity and the location of the injury. For example, a blow to the head during a football game might lead to a concussion. While this can be quite serious, most people are able to recover when given time to heal. A severe stroke, on the other hand, can result in dire consequences to the brain that can very well be permanent.

However, it is important to remember that the human brain has an impressive amount of plasticity. Even following a serious brain event, such as a stroke, the brain can often heal itself over time and form new connections within the brain.

“Even after more serious brain injury, such as stroke, research indicates that — especially with the help of therapy — the brain may be capable of developing new connections and “reroute” function through healthy areas.” –

Myth 3: People are either “right-brained” or “left-brained.”

Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as either left-brained or right-brained? This stems from the popular notion that people are either dominated by their right or left brain hemispheres. According to this idea, people who are “right-brained” tend to be more creative and expressive, while those who are “left-brained tend to be more analytical and logical.

Reality Check: While experts do recognize that there is lateralization of brain function (that is, certain types of tasks and thinking tend to be more associated with a particular region of the brain), no one is fully right-brained or left-brained. In fact, we tend to do better at tasks when the entire brain is utilized, even for things that are typically associated with a certain area of the brain.

“No matter how lateralized the brain can get, though, the two sides still work together. The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the words, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is actually more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.” – Carl Zimmer, Discover

Myth 4: Humans have the biggest brains.

The human brain is quite large in proportion to body size, but another common misconception is that humans have the largest brains of any organism. How big is the human brain? How does it compare to other species?

Reality Check: The average adult has a brain weighing in at about three pounds and measuring up to about 15 centimeters in length. The largest animal brain belongs to that of a sperm whale, weighing in at a whopping 18 pounds! Another large-brained animal is the elephant, with an average brain size of around 11 pounds.

But what about relative brain size in proportion to body size? Humans must certainly have the largest brains in comparison to their body size, right? Once again, this notion is also a myth. Surprisingly, one animal that holds the largest body-size to brain ratios is the shrew, with a brain making up about 10 percent of its body mass.

“Our primate lineage had a head start in evolving large brains, however, because most primates have brains that are larger than expected for their body size. The Encephalization Quotient is a measure of brain size relative to body size. The cat has an EQ of about 1, which is what is expected for its body size, while chimps have an EQ of 2.5 and humans nearly 7.5. Dolphins, no slouches when it comes to cognitive powers and complex social groups, have an EQ of more than 5, but rats and rabbits are way down on the scale at below 0.4.” – Michael Balter,

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Myth 5: We are born with all the brain cells we ever have, and once they die, these cells are gone forever.

Traditional wisdom has long suggested that adults only have so many brain cells and that we never form new ones. Once these cells are lost, are they really gone for good?

Reality Check: In recent years, experts have discovered evidence that the human adult brain does indeed form new cells throughout life, even during old age. The process of forming new brain cells is known as neurogenesis and researchers have found that it happens in at least one important region of the brain called the hippocampus.

“Above-ground nuclear bomb tests carried out more than 50 years ago resulted in elevated atmospheric levels of the radioactive carbon-14 isotope (14C), which steadily declined over time. In a study published yesterday (June 7) in Cell, researchers used measurements of 14C concentration in the DNA of brain cells from deceased patients to determine the neurons’ age, and demonstrated that there is substantial adult neurogenesis in the human hippocampus.” – Dan Cossins, The Scientist

Myth 6: Drinking alcohol kills brain cells.

Partly related to the myth that we never grow new neurons is the idea that drinking alcohol can lead to cell death in the brain. Drink too much or too often, some people might warn, and you’ll lose precious brain cells that you can never get back. We’ve already learned that adults do indeed get new brain cells throughout life, but could drinking alcohol really kill brain cells?

Reality Check: While excessive or chronic alcohol abuse can certainly have dire health consequences, experts do not believe that drinking causes neurons to die. In fact, research has shown that even binge drinking doesn’t actually kill neurons.

“Scientific medical research has actually demonstrated that the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills and memory than is abstaining from alcohol. Moderate drinking doesn’t kill brain cells but helps the brain function better into old age. Studies around the world involving many thousands of people report this finding.” –

Myth 7: There are 100 billion neurons in the human brain.

If you’ve ever thumbed through a psychology or neuroscience textbook, you have probably read that the human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons. How accurate is this oft-repeated figure? Just how many neurons are in the brain?

Reality Check: The estimate of 100 billion neurons has been repeated so often and so long that no one is completely sure where it originated. In 2009, however, one researcher decided to actually count neurons in adult brains and found that the number was just a bit off the mark. Based upon this research, it appears that the human brain contains closer to 85 billion neurons. So while the often-cited number is a few billion too high, 85 billion is still nothing to sneeze at.

“We found that on average the human brain has 86bn neurons. And not one [of the brains] that we looked at so far has the 100bn. Even though it may sound like a small difference the 14bn neurons amount to pretty much the number of neurons that a baboon brain has or almost half the number of neurons in the gorilla brain. So that’s a pretty large difference actually.” – Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel
More Psychology Facts and Myths:


Balter, M. (2012, Oct. 26). Why are our brains so ridiculously big? Slate. Retrieved from
Boyd, R. (2008, Feb 7). Do people only use 10 percent of their brains? Scientific American. Retrieved from (2012). Myth: Brain damage is always permanent. Retrieved from
Cossins, D. (2013, June 7). Human adult neurogenesis revealed. The Scientist. Retrieved from
Hanson, D. J. (n.d.). Does drinking alcohol kill brain cells? Retrieved from
Herculano-Houzel S (2009). The human brain in numbers: A linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 3(31). doi:10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009
Randerson, J. (2012, Feb 28). How many neurons make a human brain? Billions fewer than we thought. The Guardian. Retrieved from
The Technium. (2004). Brains of white matter.
Zimmer, C. (2009, April 15). The Big Similarities & Quirky Differences Between Our Left and Right Brains. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from
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September 9, 2013 Posted by | Alcohol, brain, Cognition, Education, Health Psychology, research, Technology | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Winners Are Grinners: Even If There’s Nothing to Win!

Whether it’s for money, marbles or chalk, the brains of reward-driven people keep their game faces on, helping them win at every step of the way. Surprisingly, they win most often when there is no reward.

Read Abstract Here

That’s the finding of neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis, who tested 31 randomly selected subjects with word games, some of which had monetary rewards of either 25 or 75 cents per correct answer, others of which had no money attached.

Subjects were given a short list of five words to memorize in a matter of seconds, then a 3.5-second interval or pause, then a few seconds to respond to a solitary word that either had been on the list or had not. Test performance had no consequence in some trials, but in others, a computer graded the responses, providing an opportunity to win either 25 cent or 75 cents for quick and accurate answers. Even during these periods, subjects were sometimes alerted that their performance would not be rewarded on that trial.

Prior to testing, subjects were submitted to a battery of personality tests that rated their degree of competitiveness and their sensitivity to monetary rewards.

Designed to test the hypothesis that excitement in the brains of the most monetary-reward-sensitive subjects would slacken during trials that did not pay, the study is co-authored by Koji Jimura, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher, and Todd Braver, PhD, a professor, both based in psychology in Arts & Sciences. Braver is also a member of the neuroscience program and radiology department in the university’s School of Medicine.

But the researchers found a paradoxical result: the performance of the most reward-driven individuals was actually most improved – relative to the less reward-driven – in the trials that paid nothing, not the ones in which there was money at stake.

Even more striking was that the brain scans taken using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed a change in the pattern of activity during the non-rewarded trials within the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), located right behind the outer corner of the eyebrow, an area that is strongly linked to intelligence, goal-driven behavior and cognitive strategies. The change in lateral PFC activity was statistically linked to the extra behavioral benefits  observed in the reward-driven individuals.

The researchers suggest that this change in lateral PFC activity patterns represents a flexible shift in response to the motivational importance of the task, translating this into a superior task strategy that the researchers term “proactive cognitive control.” In other words, once the rewarding motivational context is established in the brain indicating there is a goal-driven contest at hand, the brain actually rallies its neuronal troops and readies itself for the next trial, whether it’s for money or not.

“It sounds reasonable now, but when I happened upon this result, I couldn’t believe it because we expected the opposite results,” says Jimura, first author of the paper. “I had to analyze the data thoroughly to persuade myself. The important finding of our study is that the brains of these reward- sensitive individuals do not respond to the reward information on individual trials. Instead, it shows that they have persistent motivation, even in the absence of a reward. You’d think you’d have to reward them on every trial to do well. But it seems that their brains recognized the rewarding motivational context that carried over across all the trials.”

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The finding sheds more light on the workings of the lateral PFC and provides potential behavioral clues about personality, motivation, goals and cognitive strategies. The research has important implications for understanding the nature of persistent motivation, how the brain creates such states, and why some people seem to be able to use motivation more effectively than others. By understanding the brain circuitry involved, it might be possible to create motivational situations that are more effective for all individuals, not just the most reward-driven ones, or to develop drug therapies for individuals that suffer from chronic motivational problems.Their results are published April 26 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Everyone knows of competitive people who have to win, whether in a game of HORSE, golf or the office NCAA basketball tournament pool. The findings might tell researchers something about the competitive drive.

The researchers are interested in the signaling chain that ignites the prefrontal cortex when it acts on reward-driven impulses, and they speculate that the brain chemical dopamine could be involved. That could be a potential direction of future studies. Dopamine neurons, once thought to be involved in a host of pleasurable situations, but now considered more of learning or predictive signal, might respond to cues that let the lateral PFC know that it’s in for something good. This signal might help to keep information about the goals, rules or best strategies for the task active in mind to increase the chances of obtaining the desired outcome.

In the context of this study, when a 75-cent reward is available for a trial, the dopamine-releasing neurons could be sending signals to the lateral PFC that “jump start” it to do the right procedures to get a reward.

“It would be like the dopamine neurons recognize a cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and tell the lateral PFC the right action strategy to get the reward – to grab a spoon and bring the ice cream to your mouth,” says Braver. “We think that the dopamine neurons fires to the cue rather than the reward itself, especially after the brain learns the relationship between the two. We’d like to explore that some more.”

They also are interested in the “reward carryover state,” or the proactive cognitive strategy that keeps the brain excited even in gaps, such as pauses between trials or trials without rewards. They might consider a study in which rewards are far fewer.

“It’s possible we’d see more slackers with less rewards,” Braver says. “That might have an effect on the reward carryover state. There are a host of interesting further questions that this work brings up which we plan to pursue.”

Source: Washington University in St. Louis,

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April 28, 2010 Posted by | Addiction, brain, Cognition, research, Social Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Brain Training Or Just Brain Straining?: The Benefits Of Brain Exercise Software Are Unclear

You’ve probably heard it before: the brain is a muscle that can be strengthened. It’s an assumption that has spawned a multimillion-dollar computer game industry of electronic brain-teasers and memory games. But in the largest study of such brain games to date, a team of British researchers has found that healthy adults who undertake computer-based “brain-training” do not improve their mental fitness in any significant way.

Read The Original Research Paper (Draft POF)

The study, published online Tuesday by the journal Nature, tracked 11,430 participants through a six-week online study. The participants were divided into three groups: the first group undertook basic reasoning, planning and problem-solving activities (such as choosing the “odd one out” of a group of four objects); the second completed more complex exercises of memory, attention, math and visual-spatial processing, which were designed to mimic popular “brain-training” computer games and programs; and the control group was asked to use the Internet to research answers to trivia questions.

All participants were given a battery of unrelated “benchmark” cognitive-assessment tests before and after the six-week program. These tests, designed to measure overall mental fitness, were adapted from reasoning and memory tests that are commonly used to gauge brain function in patients with brain injury or dementia. All three study groups showed marginal — and identical — improvement on these benchmark exams.

But the improvement had nothing to do with the interim brain-training, says study co-author Jessica Grahn of the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Grahn says the results confirm what she and other neuroscientists have long suspected: people who practice a certain mental task — for instance, remembering a series of numbers in sequence, a popular brain-teaser used by many video games — improve dramatically on that task, but the improvement does not carry over to cognitive function in general. (Indeed, all the study participants improved in the tasks they were given; even the control group got better at looking up answers to obscure questions.) The “practice makes perfect” phenomenon probably explains why the study participants improved on the benchmark exams, says Grahn — they had all had taken it once before. “People who practiced a certain test improved at that test, but improvement does not translate beyond anything other than that specific test,” she says.

The authors believe the study, which was run in conjuction with a BBC television program called “Bang Goes the Theory,” undermines the sometimes outlandish claims of many brain-boosting websites and digital games. According to a past article by Anita Hamilton, HAPPYneuron, an example not cited by Grahn, is a $100 Web-based brain-training site that invites visitors to “give the gift of brain fitness” and claims its users saw “16%+ improvement” through exercises such as learning to associate a bird’s song with its species and shooting basketballs through virtual hoops. Hamilton also notes Nintendo’s best-selling Brain Age game, which promises to “give your brain the workout it needs” through exercises like solving math problems and playing rock, paper, scissors on the handheld DS. “The widely held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population lacks empirical support,” the paper concludes.

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Not all neuroscientists agree with that conclusion, however. In 2005, Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, used brain imaging to show that brain-training can alter the number of dopamine receptors in the brain — dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in learning and other important cognitive functions. Other studies have suggested that brain-training can help improve cognitive function in elderly patients and those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but the literature is contradictory.

Klingberg has developed a brain-training program called Cogmed Working Memory Training, and owns shares in the company that distributes it. He tells TIME that the Nature study “draws a large conclusion from a single negative finding” and that it is “incorrect to generalize from one specific training study to cognitive training in general.” He also criticizes the design of the study and points to two factors that may have skewed the results.

On average the study volunteers completed 24 training sessions, each about 10 minutes long — for a total of three hours spent on different tasks over six weeks. “The amount of training was low,” says Klingberg. “Ours and others’ research suggests that 8 to 12 hours of training on one specific test is needed to get a [general improvement in cognition].”

Second, he notes that the participants were asked to complete their training by logging onto the BBC Lab UK website from home. “There was no quality control. Asking subjects to sit at home and do tests online, perhaps with the TV on or other distractions around, is likely to result in bad quality of the training and unreliable outcome measures. Noisy data often gives negative findings,” Klingberg says.

Brain-training research has received generous funding in recent years — and not just from computer game companies — as a result of the proven effect of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to remodel its nerve connections after experience. The stakes are high. If humans could control that process and bolster cognition, it could have a transformative effect on society, says Nick Bostrom of Oxford University‘s Future of Humanity Institute. “Even a small enhancement in human cognition could have a profound effect,” he says. “There are approximately 10 million scientists in the world. If you could improve their cognition by 1%, the gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But it could be equivalent to instantly creating 100,000 new scientists.”

For now, there is no nifty computer game that will turn you into Einstein, Grahn says. But there are other proven ways to improve cognition, albeit only by small margins. Consistently getting a good night’s sleep, exercising vigorously, eating right and maintaining healthy social activity have all been shown to help maximize a brain’s potential over the long term.

What’s more, says Grahn, neuroscientists and psychologists have yet to even agree on what constitutes high mental aptitude. Some experts argue that physical skill, which stems from neural pathways, should be considered a form of intelligence — so, masterful ballet dancers and basketball players would be considered geniuses.

Jason Allaire, co-director of the Games through Gaming lab at North Carolina State University says the Nature study makes sense; rather than finding a silver bullet for brain enhancement, he says, “it’s really time for researchers to think about a broad or holistic approach that exercises or trains the mind in general in order to start to improve cognition more broadly.”

Or, as Grahn puts it, when it comes to mental fitness, “there are no shortcuts.”



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April 23, 2010 Posted by | Age & Ageing, Books, brain, Cognition, Education, Health Psychology, Internet, research | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Real “Rain Man”: A Fascinating Look At Kim Peek

Kim Peek, diagnosed by Darold Treffert with Sa...

Kim Peek 1951-2009 Image via Wikipedia

Kim Peek was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Peek, who passed away last year at the age of 58, lived with his father Fran. Peek suffered from a brain development disorder known as agenesis of the corpus collosum. Malformation and absence  of the corpus callosum are rare developmental disorders that result in a wide spectrum of symptoms, ranging from severe cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism to relatively mild learning problems.

While Kim was able to perform extraordinary mental feats, particularly related to memory of historical facts, he struggled with many of the day to day tasks of life. This is a fascinating short video of Kim’s visit to London and his explanation of his condition. Enjoy!Vodpod videos no longer available.

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April 4, 2010 Posted by | Aspergers Syndrome, Autism, Books, brain, Cognition, Resources, video | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Multitasking: New Study Challenges Previous Cognitive Theory But Shows That Only A Few “Supertaskers” Can Drive And Phone

Read The Original Research Paper HERE (PDF – internal link)

A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.

These individuals – described by the researchers as “supertaskers” – constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. They are so named for their ability to successfully do two things at once: in this case, talk on a cell phone while operating a driving simulator without noticeable impairment.

Jason Watson, a University of Utah psychologist, negotiates cybertraffic in a driving simulator used to study driver distractions such as cell phones and testing. While many people think they can safely drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, Watson's new study shows only one in 40 is a "supertasker" who can perform both tasks at once without impairment of abilities measured in the study. Credit: Valoree Dowell, University of Utah

The study, conducted by psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

This finding is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone – the study confirms that the vast majority cannot – but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Further research may lead eventually to new understanding of regions of the brain that are responsible for supertaskers’ extraordinary performance.

“According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist,” says Watson. “Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we’d probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. In fact, the odds of being a supertasker are about as good as your chances of flipping a coin and getting five heads in a row.”

The researchers assessed the performance of 200 participants over a single task (simulated freeway driving), and again with a second demanding activity added (a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems). Performance was then measured in four areas—braking reaction time, following distance, memory, and math execution.

As expected, results showed that for the group, performance suffered across the board while driving and talking on a hands-free cell phone.

For those who were not supertaskers and who talked on a cell phone while driving the simulators, it took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed and following distances increased 30 percent as the drivers failed to keep pace with simulated traffic while driving. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and the ability to do math problems fell 3 percent.

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However, when supertaskers talked while driving, they displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved 3 percent.

The results are in line with Strayer’s prior studies showing that driving performance routinely declines under “dual-task conditions” – namely talking on a cell phone while driving – and is comparable to the impairment seen in drunken drivers.

Yet contrary to current understanding in this area, the small number of supertaskers showed no impairment on the measurements of either driving or cell conversation when in combination. Further, researchers found that these individuals’ performance even on the single tasks was markedly better than the control group.

“There is clearly something special about the supertaskers,” says Strayer. “Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned.”

Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots under the assumption that those who can pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to have extraordinary multitasking ability.

The current value society puts on multitasking is relatively new, note the authors. As technology expands throughout our environment and daily lives, it may be that everyone – perhaps even supertaskers – eventually will reach the limits of their ability to divide attention across several tasks.

“As technology spreads, it will be very useful to better understand the brain’s processing capabilities, and perhaps to isolate potential markers that predict extraordinary ability, especially for high-performance professions,” Watson concludes.

Information from University of Utah

Read The Original Research Paper HERE (PDF – internal link)


March 31, 2010 Posted by | anxiety, Books, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, research, stress, Technology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sticking To The Status Quo: Why Habits Are So Tough To Break

Read the original Research Paper HERE (PDF internal link)

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. @ Psychology Today (excerpted)

A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what many confused shoppers, dieters, and investors know first-hand: when a decision is difficult, we go with the status quo or choose to do nothing. [..

..] Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London created a computerized decision-making task. Participants viewed a series of visual tests that asked them to play a referee making a sports call (e.g., whether a tennis ball bounced in our out of bounds).

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Before each test, participants were told that one of the responses (in or out) was the “default” for this round. They were asked to hold down a key while they watched. If they continued to hold down the key, they were choosing the default. If they lifted their finger, they were choosing the non-default. Importantly, the default response (in or out) switched randomly between rounds, so that a participant’s response bias (to make a call in or out) would not be confused with their tendency to stick with the status quo.

The researchers were interested in two questions:

1) Does the difficulty of the decision influence the participants’ likelihood of choosing the default?

2) Is there a neural signature for choosing the default vs. overriding the status quo? [..

As the researchers].. predicted, participants were more likely to stick with the default when the decision was difficult. It didn’t matter whether the default was in or out. If they couldn’t make a confident choice, they essentially chose to do nothing. And as the researchers point out, this tendency led to more errors.

What was happening in the participants’ brains as they chose? The researchers observed an interesting pattern when participants went against the default in a difficult decision. There was increased activity in, and increased connectivity between, two regions: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and an area of the midbrain called the subthalamic nucleus (STN). The PFC is well-known to be involved in decision-making and self-control. The STN is thought to be important for motivating action.

The researcher’s analyses couldn’t determine for sure what the relationship between the PFC and STN was, but the observations were consistent with the idea that the PFC was driving, or boosting, activity in the STN.

These brain analyses suggest that going against the default in difficult decisions requires some kind of extra motivation or confidence. Otherwise, the decider in our mind is puzzled, and the doer in our mind is paralyzed

Knowing this can help explain why changing habits can be so difficult. If you aren’t sure why you’re changing, don’t fully believe you’re making the right choice, or question whether what you’re doing will work, you’re likely to settle back on your automatic behaviors. That’s why self-efficacy-the belief that you can make a change and overcome obstacles-is one of the best predictors of successful change. The decider and the doer need a boost of confidence.

It also helps explain why we love formulaic diets, investment strategies, and other decision aids. Formulas feel scientific, tested, and promising. They also give us a new default. We can rely on the rules (no eating after 7 PM, automatically invest X% of your income in mutual funds twice a month) when we’re feeling overwhelmed. A new automatic makes change much easier.

So next time you’re trying to make a change, figure out what your current default is, and remind yourself exactly why it isn’t working. Then look for ways to change your default (clean out your fridge, set up direct deposit) so you don’t have to fight the old default as often. And feel free to be your own cheerleader when the going gets rough. Look for the first evidence (a pound lost here, a dwindling credit card statement there) that what you’re doing is paying off. The status quo is seductive, and we all need a little encouragement to lift our fingers off the keyboard..

Study cited:

Fleming, S.M., Thomas, C.L., & Dolan, R.J. Overcoming status quo bias in the human brain. PNAS. Published online before print March 15, 2010. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910380107

Read the original Research Paper HERE (PDF internal link)


March 30, 2010 Posted by | Books, brain, Cognition, research | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Viva La Siesta!: A Nap Significantly Boosts the Brain’s Learning Capacity

BERKELEY — If you see a student dozing in the library or a co-worker catching 40 winks in her cubicle, don’t roll your eyes. New research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Indeed, the findings suggest that a biphasic sleep schedule not only refreshes the mind, but can make you smarter.

Conversely, the more hours we spend awake, the more sluggish our minds become, according to the findings. The results support previous data from the same research team that pulling an all-nighter — a common practice at college during midterms and finals — decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40 percent, due to a shutdown of brain regions during sleep deprivation.

“Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” said Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the lead investigator of these studies.

In the recent UC Berkeley sleep study, 39 healthy young adults were divided into two groups — nap and no-nap. At noon, all the participants were subjected to a rigorous learning task intended to tax the hippocampus, a region of the brain that helps store fact-based memories. Both groups performed at comparable levels.

At 2 p.m., the nap group took a 90-minute siesta while the no-nap group stayed awake. Later that day, at 6 p.m., participants performed a new round of learning exercises. Those who remained awake throughout the day became worse at learning. In contrast, those who napped did markedly better and actually improved in their capacity to learn.

Matthew Walker, assistant psychology professor, has found that a nap clears the brain to absorb new information.

These findings reinforce the researchers’ hypothesis that sleep is needed to clear the brain’s shor

Students who napped (green column) did markedly better in memorizing tests than their no-nap counterparts. (Courtesy of Matthew Walker)

t-term memory storage and make room for new information, said Walker, who presented his preliminary findings on Sunday, Feb. 21, at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego, Calif.

Since 2007, Walker and other sleep researchers have established that fact-based memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus before being sent to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which may have more storage space.

“It’s as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail. It’s just going to bounce until you sleep and move it into another folder,” Walker said.

In the latest study, Walker and his team have broken new ground in discovering that this memory-refreshing process occurs when nappers are engaged in a specific stage of sleep. Electroencephalogram tests, which measure electrical activity in the brain, indicated that this refreshing of memory capacity is related to Stage 2 non-REM sleep, which takes place between deep sleep (non-REM) and the dream state known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Previously, the purpose of this stage was unclear, but the new results offer evidence as to why humans spend at least half their sleeping hours in Stage 2, non-REM, Walker said.

“I can’t imagine Mother Nature would have us spend 50 percent of the night going from one sleep stage to another for no reason,” Walker said. “Sleep is sophisticated. It acts locally to give us what we need.”

Walker and his team will go on to investigate whether the reduction of sleep experienced by people as they get older is related to the documented decrease in our ability to learn as we age. Finding that link may be helpful in understanding such neurodegenerative conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Walker said.

In addition to Walker, co-investigators of these new findings are  Bryce A. Mander and psychology undergraduate Sangeetha Santhanam.


Source: University of California, Berkeley
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February 28, 2010 Posted by | Cognition, Education, Health Psychology, Positive Psychology, Resilience | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scientists and Clinicians Meet to Better Understand “Rain Man”

UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) will host a workshop for clinicians and scientists seeking to better understand the syndromes associated with a brain development condition made famous in the movie Rain Man.
The workshop will feature some of the world’s leading experts in development of the corpus callosum – the largest fibre tract in the brain, which connects neurons in the left and right cerebral hemispheres.
Dustin Hoffman (right) played Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 movie Rain Man © 1988 United Artists Pictures Inc.
Malformation and absence (agenesis) of the corpus callosum are rare developmental disorders that result in a wide spectrum of symptoms, ranging from severe cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autism to relatively mild learning problems.
The Hollywood screenplay Rain Man was inspired by the very real abilities of an American man, Kim Peek, whose brain lacks a corpus callosum. Like the character portrayed in the movie, Mr Peek is capable of extraordinary mental agility, although he nevertheless faces many day-to-day challenges with seemingly simple tasks.

QBI’s Associate Professor Linda Richards said the workshop was an opportunity for clinicians and scientists to better understand the fundamental brain mechanisms that regulate the plasticity and formation of connections in the brain.

“Understanding what happens inside the brain during its development may hold the key to solving a wide range of neurological disorders,” Dr Richards said. “Advanced imaging techniques being developed at QBI and other research centres around the world are expected to play an important role in better understanding this condition.” Among the workshop’s objectives is to form an international alliance of clinicians and scientists working together to develop diagnostic tests and treatments for children and adults with agenesis of the corpus callosum.

“We’ve already identified about 30 candidate genes in animal models, and it is likely many of these genes regulate corpus callosum formation in humans,” Dr Richards said. “If we could more accurately identify the causes of agenesis of the corpus callosum we can develop therapies to treat people with this range of disorders.” Among the 12 leading scientists and clinicians speaking at the workshop will be Associate Professor Elliott Sherr (University of California, San Francisco), an internationally recognised leader in imaging and genetics of corpus callosum agenesis.

The workshop will be held at the Queensland Brain Institute on Tuesday, July 24.

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July 18, 2009 Posted by | Aspergers Syndrome, Autism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments