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Thursday
Jan092014

Eat More Of These Four Things For A Stronger, Healthier Brain 

Remember these four letters: DDFM.  If it’s easier, think of them as call letters for a cheesy radio station, “Double D FM!” The letters stand for four nutrients critical to brain health that you probably aren’t getting enough of: Vitamin D, DHA, Folate and Magnesium.

Research suggests that our diets are increasingly low in all four, and our brains are suffering for it.

Vitamin D

Why it’s important:  I stumbled across the importance of vitamin D when a routine blood test revealed that my level was low and my doctor recommended that I begin taking three 2000 i.u. vitamin D3 supplements a day. I’d always thought being out in the sun was enough to keep vitamin D levels high, because the human body uses sunlight to manufacture the vitamin. But research shows we’re frequently low in this essential vitamin and that’s potentially dangerous. Low levels are associated with free radical damage to brain cells and accelerated cognitive decline.  In addition to boosting brain health, there’s also evidence suggesting that vitamin D aids in muscle strength and repair.

Deutsch: Schweizer Emmentaler AOC, Block

How to get more of it:  Eat oily fish like wild salmon* and eggs. You can also get a boost by eating cheese, and if you go this route I recommend swiss cheese because it also contains a high level of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) that has shown promise in helping reduce abdominal fat.  Another decent source is Greek yogurt, but avoid brands with excess sugar (I’m not recommending milk for that reason – it’s naturally high in sugar). If your vitamin D levels are especially low—and it’s best to determine that via a blood test—consider taking a vitamin D3 supplement at a level your doctor recommends.**

DHA

Why it’s important:  DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) plays a vital role in keeping cell membranes flexible, resilient and healthy. Healthy cell membranes are less susceptible to oxidative stress, the damage caused by free radicals, which can lead to cell mutation and, ultimately, cancer. DHA also appears to help brain cells regulate their energy use and protects them from inflammation—a condition linked to an array of degenerative diseases including Alzheimer's. In addition, low levels of DHA have been linked to depression, memory loss, and even elevated hostility. Suffice to say, there's enough credible research out there on DHA now to support a strong statement that it's essential to brain health.

How to get more of it: Eat more oily fish like wild salmon and sardines, though if you eat canned sardines try to find brands that are not packed in cans containing BPA, a chemical linked to a host of toxic badness. If you don't mind the taste, kelp (aka seaweed) is another excellent source. You can also get ample DHA in Omega 3 fish oil supplements. Just make sure that you are buying a brand that is filtered to remove mercury and has a high level of DHA (the EPA and DHA levels will be listed in the ingredients; try to get a supplement with at least 200mg of DHA per capsule).**

Folate

Why it’s important: Folate, a water-soluble B vitamin, has long been established as critical to brain development in infants; pregnant women are strongly advised to take a folate supplement to fend off birth defects. But research has also shown that folate is important to brains of all ages, and deficiencies are correlated with cognitive decline particularly in the elderly. Studies have linked folate to improved memory function and mental processing speed—two things that typically take a hit as we age. There's also evidence indicating that folate deficiency contributes to psychiatric disorders such as depression.

How to get more of it:  Eat unsalted peanuts. The little legumes are folate powerhouses, and they’re also packed with heart healthy monounsaturated fat.  If crunching nuts isn’t your thing, try natural peanut butter. Just stay away from peanut butter with added sugar and salt – stick to the kind that’s all peanuts. Other good sources include asparagus, black eyed peas, spinach, broccoli and egg yolks.

Magnesium

Why it’s important:  In the brain, magnesium acts as buffer between neuron synapses, particularly the NMDA receptor that plays a role in several cognitive functions including learning and memory. Magnesium “sits” on the receptor without activating it, in effect protecting the receptor from over-activation by other neurochemicals, especially the neurotransmitter glutamate. If there isn’t enough magnesium available to protect NMDA receptors, glutamate constantly triggers the receptors causing an “excitatory” response. That’s why you often see magnesium advertised as a calming nutrient, because it blocks glutamate from too-frequently activating the NMDA receptors in your brain. The most important thing to remember is that without magnesium, over-activation of NMDA receptors eventually becomes toxic to the brain, leading to progressively worse damage and steady cognitive decline.

Spinach

How to get more of it:  Eat spinach, it's loaded with magnesium. Other sources include almonds and black beans. Just be sure to eat raw or roasted almonds that are unsalted and not coated in sugar (even though those taste so good). Peanuts are also a decent source of magnesium, which makes them a double-whammy snack because they're also high in folate as mentioned above.

If you decide to take a magnesium supplement, be sure to find a readily absorbable form of magnesium such as magnesium citrate, and avoid the less absorbable (but widely sold) form of magnesium oxide. **

*In each case where I recommended eating more fish, you'll notice that I said "wild salmon," and that's because there's troubling evidence to suggest that farm-raised salmon are a significantly less healthy choice for the brain and the heart.

** Always check with your doctor before beginning any supplement regimen.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Tuesday
Dec312013

Two Incredible Speeches About Thinking To Begin 2014

Widely regarded as two of the most influential commencement addresses ever given, I offer you David Foster Wallace's speech "This is Water" from his commencement at Kenyon College in 2005, and Steve Job's commencement speech at Stanford, also in 2005.  As the New Year begins, I urge you to listen to both and spend some time thinking about the messages from these two remarkable thinkers from different parts of culture who had important lessons to teach us about our own thinking.

Happy New Year. 

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Dec282013

Why The Future Of Online Dating Relies On Ignoring You

According to a new studyNetflix and Amazon have much to teach online dating sites. Netflix doesn’t wait around for you to tell it what you want; its algorithm is busy deciphering your behavior to figure it out. Likewise, say researchers, dating sites need to start ignoring what people put in their online profiles and use stealthy algorithmic logic to figure out ideal matches – matches that online daters may have never pursued on their own.

Kang Zhao, assistant professor of management sciences in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, is leading a team that developed an algorithm for dating sites that uses a person's contact history to recommend partners with whom they may be more compatible, following the lead of the model Netflix uses to recommend movies users might like by tracking their viewing history.

The difference between this approach, and that of using a user’s profile, can be night and day. A user’s contact history may in fact run entirely counter to what she or he says they are looking for in a mate, and usually they aren’t even aware of it.

Zhao's team used a substantial amount of data provided by a popular commercial online dating service: 475,000 initial contacts involving 47,000 users in two U.S. cities over 196 days. About 28,000 of the users were men and 19,000 were women, and men made 80 percent of the initial contacts. Only about 25 percent of those contacts were reciprocated.

Zhao's team sought to improve the reciprocation rate by developing a model that combines two factors to recommend contacts: a client's tastes, determined by the types of people the client has contacted; and attractiveness/unattractiveness, determined by how many of those contacts are returned and how many are not.

“Those combinations of taste and attractiveness,” Zhao says, “do a better job of predicting successful connections than relying on information that clients enter into their profile, because what people put in their profile may not always be what they're really interested in. They could be intentionally misleading, or may not know themselves well enough to know their own tastes in the opposite sex.”

Zao gives the example of a man who says on his profile that he likes tall women, but who may in fact be approaching mostly short women, even though the dating website will continue to recommend tall women.

"Your actions reflect your taste and attractiveness in a way that could be more accurate than what you include in your profile," Zhao says. The research team’s algorithm will eventually “learn” that while a man says he likes tall women, he keeps contacting short women, and will unilaterally change its dating recommendations to him without his notice, much in the same way that Netflix’s algorithm learns that you’re really a closet drama devotee even though you claim to love action and sci-fi.

"In our model, users with similar taste and (un)attractiveness will have higher similarity scores than those who only share common taste or attractiveness," Zhao says. "The model also considers the match of both taste and attractiveness when recommending dating partners. Those who match both a service user's taste and attractiveness are more likely to be recommended than those who may only ignite unilateral interests."

After the research team’s algorithm is used, the example 25 percent reciprocation rate described above improves to about 44 percent --  a better than 50% jump.

Zhao says that his team’s algorithm seems to work best for people who post multiple photos of themselves, and also for women who say they “want many kids,” though the reasons for that correlation aren't quite clear.

If you’re wondering how soon online dating services could start overruling your profile to find your best match, Zhao’s team has already been approached by two major services interested in using the algorithm.   And it’s not only online dating that will eventually change. Zhao adds that college admissions offices and job recruiters will also benefit from the algorithm.

The age of Ignore is upon us, though safe money says we’ll continue thinking we’ve “chosen” the outcomes anyway.

The research was published in the journal Social Computing, Behavioral-Cultural Modeling and Prediction

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Saturday
Dec212013

Neuroscience Explains Why the Grinch Stole Christmas 

"You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch."

But why?

We all know Dr. Seuss's iconic tale of the green ogre who lives on a mountain, seething while the Whos in the village below celebrate Christmas. The happier they are, the angrier he gets, until finally he can't take it anymore and hatches a plan to steal away their joy.

Dr. Seuss was a brilliant intuitive psychologist, and I'd have loved to chat with him about the core of the Grinch's rage, but, alas, he left us too early. So I'm turning to another impressive thinker who has taught me a great deal about the neurobiology of emotion: Dr. John Cacioppo, a pioneer in the field of social neuroscience and co-author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

Cacioppo has conducted a wealth of research about the effects of loneliness on the human brain. We're not talking about physical loneliness (although that can be part of the equation); we're talking about a sense of loneliness that someone in the midst of thousands of people can feel.  I saw an interview with John Bon Jovi who was describing the feeling he gets after he leaves the stage. Surrounded by tens of thousands of fans, you might think that he'd have no reason to feel lonely—but when he goes back to his hotel room, those thousands of people screaming his name may as well not exist at all. He feels alone despite being the center of a publicity universe.

That's much closer to the sort of loneliness Cacioppo studies, and it's especially relevant in the age of social media, where someone might have 2,000 Facebook friends and yet feel like they're completely alone in the world.  

If Cacioppo could persuade the Grinch to step into his MRI, he'd likely observe a result consistent with those of a 2009 brain imaging study he conducted to identify differences in the neural mechanisms of lonely and nonlonely people.   Specifically, he wanted to know what's going on in the brains of individuals with an acute sense of "social isolation"—a key ingredient in loneliness that has nothing to do with being physically alone, and everything to do with feeling alone. 

While in an MRI machine, subjects viewed a series of images, some with positive connotations, such as happy people doing fun things, and others with negative associations, such as scenes of human conflict.  As the two groups watched pleasant imagery, the area of the brain that recognizes rewards showed a significantly greater response in nonlonely people than in lonely people. Similarly, the visual cortex of lonely subjects responded much more strongly to unpleasant images of people than to unpleasant images of objects—suggesting that the attention of lonely people is especially drawn to human conflict. Nonlonely subjects showed no such difference.

In short, people with an acute sense of social isolation appear to have a reduced response to things that make most people happy, and a heightened response to human conflict.  This explains a lot about people who not only seem to wallow in unhappiness, but also seem obsessed with the emotional "drama" of others. Every office has a few people just like that.

The Grinch is easier to understand given these findings. He is physically isolated (except for his dog), but more importantly he's socially isolated. He feels no sense of connection to the citizens of Whoville, though they live just outside his mountain lair. Watching them surround themselves with happy things like ornaments and gifts and food ticks him off, so he determines to inject some strife into the festivities and revel in the fallout. 

Fortunately, the Grinch has an epiphany (a Gestalt moment) that makes him not only want to return everything to Whoville, but participate in the merriment as well. The real-life corollary would probably include a couple years of therapy, but Dr. Seuss makes the point well enough: there is redemption for those suffering from loneliness.  It requires genuine connection with others—not faces in a cheering crowd or numbers on a Facebook page. Those things might supplement real relationships, but they can't replace them. 

And that, it seems to me, is the heart of the holidays: they are ritualized reminders that none of us are islands, and that no matter how many people surround us, we're only at our best when we allow some of them to be part of us.  

Happy holidays.  

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Thursday
Dec192013

New Study Asks: What Kind Of Bored Are You?

Most of us think we already know what it means to be bored, and we’ll look for just about any diversion to avoid the feeling.  But according to recent research, boredom is not a one-size-fits-all problem — what triggers or alleviates one person’s boredom won’t necessarily hold sway for someone else.

According to researchers publishing in the journal Motivation and Emotion, there are four well-established types of boredom:

Indifferent boredom (characterized by feeling relaxed and indifferent – typical coach potato boredom);

Calibrating boredom (characterized by feeling uncertain but also receptive to change/distraction);

Searching boredom (characterized by feeling restless and actively searching for change/distraction); and

Reactant boredom (characterized by feeling reactive, i.e. someone bored out of her mind storming out of a movie theater to find something better to do).

The most recent study by the boredom-defining research team has now identified a fifth type--apathetic boredom--and it's the most troublesome of all. People exhibiting apathetic boredom are withdrawn, avoid social contact, and are most likely to suffer from depression. In fact, apathetic boredom could be considered a portal leading to depression.

The sort of remedy that would alleviate “searching bordeom”—actively pursuing change—would not help someone with apathetic boredom, because change itself represents too much of a threat. Apathetic boredom feeds on itself, perpetuating over and over the same feelings that make it so difficult to escape. The uncertainty of change is just another reason to stay cloistered away.

Study co-author Dr. Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz and the research team conducted two real-time experiments over two weeks involving students from German universities and high schools. Participants were given personal digital assistants to record their activities, experiences and feelings throughout the day for the duration of the study. The results showed that not only do different people experience different types of boredom, but also that people don't typically switch-hit between flavors of boredom – any given person will tend to predominantly experience one type of boredom far more than others.

The most alarming finding of the study is that apathetic boredom was reported by almost 40 percent of the high school students, suggesting a link between apathetic boredom and rising numbers of depressed teens.

The obvious drawback of this research is that participants self-reported their feelings and experiences during the study period, and self-reporting is often unreliable.  On the plus side, the researchers ran the study for two full weeks instead of just a few days, and had far more data to analyze as a result.

The research was published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.