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Sunday
Aug122012

Why Taking a 10-Minute Nap Every Day is a Good Idea

Few of us enjoy jobs that allow an afternoon siesta, but we’d probably all be better off if they did--including our employers.  According to new research, all we’d really need is a solid 10-minute power nap to boost our focus and productivity.

Researchers tested four nap time spans: 5, 10, 20 and 30 minutes (and a control group that didn’t nap).  They then tested participants across several benefits for three hours after the nap.  Here’s a summary of the results:

The 5-minute nap produced few benefits in comparison with the no-nap control. The 10-minute nap produced immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance), with some of these benefits maintained for as long as 155 minutes. The 20-minute nap was associated with improvements emerging 35 minutes after napping and lasting up to 125 minutes after napping. The 30-minute nap produced a period of impaired alertness and performance immediately after napping, indicative of sleep inertia, followed by improvements lasting up to 155 minutes after the nap.

The problem is that naps are awfully hard to cut down to 10 minutes; once you get a little taste, it's tempting to just keep sleeping.  But as this and other studies indicate, longer naps are not the best naps.  Snooze for just 30 minutes and you fall into sleep inertia,  the feeling of grogginess and disorientation that comes with awakening from a deep sleep.

Another thing to remember about naps is that timing is everything.  If you nap too late in the day, you'll interfere with your body's circadian rhythm and will probably sleep poorly at night.  Best times to nap are mid to late morning or early afternoon.


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Saturday
Aug042012

What Does Caffeine Really Do To Your Brain?

I recently stopped drinking coffee. Yeah, I know, why would anybody do that? For me it was a combination of health-related reasons, and overall I can say I’m happy I did.  If you had asked me a few days after I kicked it, though, I would have told you it was one of the dumbest things I ever even thought of doing – that is, if my head stopped pounding long enough to answer you in a complete sentence.

This radical life adjustment made me curious about caffeine and its effects on the brain, so I did some research. The most surprising thing I found was that caffeine doesn’t really jack up the volume in our brain the way most of us think it does -- the story about how our favorite drug works isn't nearly so straightforward.

First, what caffeine does not do.

Caffeine does not, by itself, make you a super productive, super fast, super talky jitter machine.  That venti Café Americano is not the sole reason you’re able to cram 6 hours of work into 45 minutes, or that you’re shockingly charming between the hours of 8 to 11 am.

What caffeine does do is one heck of an impersonation. In your brain, caffeine is the quintessential mimic of a neurochemical called adenosine. Adenosine is produced by neurons throughout the day as they fire, and as more of it is produced, the more your nervous system ratchets down.

Your nervous system monitors adenosine levels through receptors, particularly the A1 receptor that is found in your brain and throughout your body. As the chemical passes through the receptors, your adenosine tab increases until your nervous system pays it off by putting you to sleep.

The remarkable talent of caffeine is to mimic adenosine’s shape and size, and enter the receptors without activating them. The receptors are then effectively blocked by caffeine (in clinical terms, caffeine is an antagonist of the A1 adenosine receptor).

This is important not only because by blocking the receptors caffeine disrupts the nervous system’s monitoring of the adenosine tab, but also because of the players who make an appearance as this is happening.  The neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate, the brain’s own home-grown stimulants, are freer to do their stimulating work with the adenosine tab on hold, and that’s the effect you feel not long after downing your triple shot skinny mochachino.

In other words, it’s not the caffeine that’s doing the stimulating. Instead, it’s keeping the doors blocked while the real party animals of the brain do what they love to do.

As every good coffee drinker knows, this effect lessens over time.  It steadily takes more and more caffeine to achieve the same level of stimulation from your excitatory neurotransmitters. This is the irritating dynamic we all know as “tolerance.”

The reason it seems that coffee and tea became a morning ritual is that caffeine helps fight off the sleepy feelings we’re left with after a night of paying off a full adenosine tab. That’s something our favorite legal drug is quite proficient at doing.

What it’s not so good at doing, though we’d like it to be, is keeping us chugging away no matter how much sleep we miss.  For a little while it might seem like caffeine is warding off sleep deprivation, but the effect won’t last. Eventually the nervous system wins (it pays to remember: the house always wins).

Of course, these effects vary depending on many things, including body type, weight and age. For some one cup of coffee will help kick things up; for others it might take three cups. And as mentioned, tolerance of caffeine is a major variable no matter what source you prefer for your drug of choice.

So if you decide to kick the habit, how long will it take to work through withdrawal? That depends on how much caffeine you routinely consume, but for the average two or three-cup a day coffee drinker, expect up to 10 days of symptoms like headaches, fatigue and a general feeling of wanting to shout loudly into peoples' faces.


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Thursday
Jul262012

Why Do We Love to Hoard? 

BBC Future has an excellent piece on the perplexing psychology of hoarding. This is a hot topic in pop media right now, but BBC Future delves into hoarding at a level reality shows can't touch. From the piece:

Question: How do you make something instantly twice as expensive?

Answer: By giving it away.

This might sound like a nonsensical riddle, but if you’ve ever felt overly possessive about your regular parking space, your pen, or your Star Wars box sets, then you’re experiencing some elements behind the psychology of ownership. Our brains tell us that we value something merely because it is a thing we have.

This riddle actually describes a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. The parking space, the pen and the DVDs are probably the same as many others, but they’re special to you. Special because in some way they are yours.

You can see how the endowment effect escalates – how else can you explain the boxes of cassette tapes, shoes or mobile phones that fill several shelves of your room… or even several rooms?

Read the entire piece at BBC Future (covered by Mind Hacks).

 


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Tuesday
Jul242012

Why Anyone Can be Conned 

We usually think of con artists in one of a few different categorical ways.  The first and most iconic is the charismatic slickster who talks you into a bad deal, or uses sleight of hand to take you -- something like the practiced cons in the movie "The Grifters".

Another is the anonymous con, the sort that runs Nigerian email scams and the like.  A more sophisticated version of this con artist is the sort that tricks you into providing personal information, usually through a phishing scam, some of which are quite elaborate (I've received two this week, both much more impressive than earlier versions).

And then there are the more difficult to categorize cons -- and it's these that I'd like to discuss, because they speak to a handicap all of our brains have whether we realize it or not.

Twice within the last couple of years I've been hit by a con that involved a college-age girl approaching me in the parking lot of a grocery store at night, claiming that her car had run out of gas and she didn't have enough money to put a few dollars worth in the tank to get home.  I've been approached with similar stories before in other cities, but never this convincingly.

In the first instance, the girl started crying as she spoke and appeared visibly shaken that she was alone at night and didn't know how to get home. She claimed that she had asked a few people at a gas station for help, but the attendants told her that it was against company policy to allow anyone to solicit their customers for money.  After asking her a few questions that I thought might uncover a possible con, I became convinced that she was telling the truth and gave her five bucks for gas.  She thanked me as if I'd just handed her a million dollar check and walked off in the direction of  the  gas station where she said someone had helped push her car off the road.

After I loaded my groceries, I decided to drive over to that gas station.  As you might now predict, there was no girl, no car, and after I walked in and quizzed the attendants about her story, it became embarrassingly clear that there never had been.

A few months ago I was approached with the exact same con in the parking lot of a different store in a different part of the city. Again, a college-age girl approached me at night with a story about her car running out of gas and "she just needed enough cash to get home." I let the entire con play out because I wanted to see just how similar it was to the first one; remarkably, it was almost as if these girls had attended the same con-class because blow for blow, she nailed every point.   This time, however, I smiled when she finished and went back to loading my car. She immediately dropped character and walked off into the dark.

The reason why anyone can be conned, even people who are usually discerning, is that our brains quite easily fall into what's known as the "Trust Trap."  The big hurdle for the con artist is not to make you trust them -- it's to convince you that they trust you.  Once they succeed, your trust will organically develop, and that's when the con is set.

Neuroscientist Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, has studied the trust trap extensively at the Claremont Graduate University Center for Neuoroeconomic Studies, and says that we all suffer a hard-wired disadvantage when it comes to identifying well-structured cons.  The problem is that our brain wants to extend trust once it has been extended to us.

Each of our brains are guided by a hormone called oxytocin in matters of trust.  The hormone works something like an on-off switch, in that we're usually able to determine whether or not trust is warranted in a given situation. Generally that system works well, but when someone games the system by outwardly mimicking trust, thus inducing an oxytocin response on our side of the cerebral fence, we could be on our way to getting taken.


The problem is, how do we know when someone is mimicking trust?  If he or she is skilled at doing so, much of the time we don't, so we're faced with the choice of taking a consistently hard line or taking a risk when we think the person might be genuine.

There isn't a right or wrong answer about that (everyone must make their own choices), but being aware of how effective cons work could give you enough of an edge to make the best decision.

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Monday
Jul232012

Why Marketers Want To Keep You Laughing

The BPS Research Digest has a terrific piece about research suggesting that humor reduces our resistance to aggressive marketing techniques. As always, BPS's review of the research is trenchant and revealing. From the piece:

Whether it's messages on smartphone Apps or the old fashioned way on billboards, radio and TV, advertisers bombard us relentlessly. Fortunately, our brains have an inbuilt BS-detector that shields us from the onslaught - a mental phenomenon that psychologists call simply "resistance". Ads from dodgy companies, our own pre-existing preferences, and a forewarning of a marketing attack can all marshal greater psychological resistance within us. However, a new study suggests that funny adverts lower our guard, leaving us vulnerable to aggressive marketing.

Madelijn Strick and her team exposed 86 Dutch university students to pictures of 12 foreign peppermint brands, each of which appeared together with one of four types of text: funny; positive but unfunny; distracting neutral (simple maths problems); and non-distracting neutral. Crucially, before they saw the brands and text, half the students were primed to be resistant. They were told that the experiment was being conducted in collaboration with a cunning local supermarket manager who was planning to bombard university students with email and text ads, and that he was even willing to use subliminal messages to make more money.

Read the entire piece at BPS Research Digest.

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