Why Cheating Is Like A Drug

Every so often a news story comes out about a celebrity caught shoplifting. The standard response is “Why?” The reason isn’t lack of money, and it’s certainly not that getting arrested is good for the celeb's career, so what would make an A-lister take the chance?

New research suggests that, for some people, stealing or cheating has much in common with doing a line of cocaine – it’s all about the buzz.  Psychologists call it the "Cheater’s High."

Researchers from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington conducted three experiments to test the theory.  The first used a cash reward as the carrot for solving word puzzles. The researchers set up the experiment in such a way that participants had a chance to illicitly get a look at the correct answers, with the expectation that many of them would use the answers to cheat on the test. As predicted, more than 40% of the participants cheated. After the test, participants were asked to report on their emotions. Researchers found that the cheaters consistently reported a bigger boost in positive emotion (such as a sense of “self-satisfaction”) compared to those who didn’t cheat.

In a follow-up study, the research team removed the financial-reward factor (which by itself could spark positive emotions) and asked a different group of participants to solve a series of math problems on a computer.  Once again, the test was set up so that participants could—if they chose—get a peek at the answers. This time almost 70% of participants cheated, and once again they reported higher levels of positive emotion than the non-cheaters, despite not winning any money.

In the final study, the research team used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey site to recruit 205 people online and offered them a chance to win cash for solving word puzzles. The researchers sent a portion of the participants a message that they were on the “honor system” when reporting their answers because the researchers wouldn’t be able to tell if they were cheating (in truth, they actually could tell). The purpose of the message was to remove the possibility that cheaters weren’t aware that they were cheating, or that they might “play dumb” about having cheated. The message also implied that if the participants chose to cheat, they were in effect stealing the money.

The results in this case were even more significant: not only did the cheaters report more positive emotion than non-cheaters, but the cheaters who received the warning message reported even greater self-satisfaction than cheaters who didn’t get the message.

The research team’s takeaway from all three experiments is that the cheaters high is sparked by the thrill of getting away with it.  The final experiment showed this most clearly, because the plain face truth that participants were knowingly cheating actually increased their “high.”

Since this study only focused on cheating and stealing, it's not clear that the same dynamic plays out in cases where someone directly harms another person, which would of course be hard to test for obvious reasons.

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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

Posted on December 4, 2013 .

Study: Making Direct Eye Contact Is Not An Effective Way To Persuade

Few popular beliefs are as unshakable as, “If you want to influence someone, always make direct eye contact.” But new research suggests that this bit of sturdy pop lore is hardly gospel – in fact, in many circumstances a direct gaze may result in the exact opposite effect.

Researchers from Harvard, the University of British Columbia and the University of Freiberg used newly developed eye-tracking technology to test the claim during two experiments.  In the first, they had study participants watch a speaker on video while tracking their eye movements, and then asked how persuaded they were by the speaker. Researchers found that the more time participants spent looking into the speaker’s eyes, the less persuaded they were by the speaker's argument. The only time looking into the speaker’s eyes correlated with being influenced was when the participants already agreed with the speaker’s opinions.

So the first takeaway is: when a speaker gives an opinion contrary to the audiences’, looking into her or his eyes has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

In a second experiment, some participants were told to look into the speaker’s eyes and others were told to watch the speaker’s mouth. Once again, participants who looked into the speaker's eyes were less receptive to his opposing arguments, and also said they were less inclined to interact with advocates of the speaker’s argument.

Which leaves us with another takeaway contrary to the popular belief: if your audience is already skeptical of your arguments, looking into your eyes will not only reinforce their skepticism, but also make them less likely to interact with others expressing your views.

According to Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-lead researcher of the studies, “The findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it's more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations.”

Her advice to everyone from parents to politicians: “It might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you're trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you.”

In the next round of research, the team is going to investigate whether eye contact in certain situations correlates with patterns of brain activity associated with responding to a threat, and an increase in stress hormones and heart rate.

There’s a corollary to these findings that’s found throughout the animal world, one that everyone who deals with everything from dogs to gorillas already knows – looking directly into a potentially aggressive animal’s eyes is not a good idea. The gesture is taken as a threat and might draw an attack.

Quoting another of the researchers, Frances Chen, “Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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

Posted on December 1, 2013 .

How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow

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


Research into “neurogenesis”—the ability of certain brain areas to grow new brain cells—has recently taken an exciting turn. Not only has research discovered that we can foster new brain cell growth through exercise, but it may eventually be possible to “bottle” that benefit in prescription medication.

The hippocampus, a brain area closely linked to learning and memory, is especially receptive to new neuron growth in response to endurance exercise. Exactly how and why this happens wasn’t well understood until recently. Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we’re breaking a sweat. Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses – the connection points between nerves – and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.

What this boils down to in practice is that regular endurance exercise, like jogging, strengthens and grows your brain. In particular, your memory and ability to learn get a boost from hitting the pavement.  Along with the other well-established benefits of endurance exercise, such as improved heart health, this is a pretty good reason to get moving. If jogging isn’t your thing, there’s a multitude of other ways to trigger the endurance effect – even brisk walking on a regular basis yields brain benefits.

Now researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School (HMS) have also discovered that it may be possible to capture these benefits in a pill.  The same protein that stimulates brain growth via exercise could potentially be bottled and given to patients experiencing cognitive decline, including those in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

"What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain," said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber and HMS and co-senior author of the research report with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.

In the new study, the research team artificially increased BDNF in the brains of mice by using a harmless virus to piggyback FNDC5 molecules through the bloodstream of the mice.  After seven days, researchers found a significant increase in BDNF in the hippocampus area of the mice brains – the brain area crucial for memory and learning.

"Perhaps the most exciting result overall is that peripheral delivery of FNDC5 with adenoviral vectors (i.e. a virus) is sufficient to induce central expression of BDNF and other genes with potential neuroprotective functions or those involved in learning and memory," the authors said.

The research team cautions that since this is an animal study, it’s far too early to conclude that the same effect will work in humans, but the significant results of this study show promise for future research into delivering cognitive benefits to the human brain via a similar mechanism. Cognitive boost for suffers of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other debilitating diseases in the form of a brain-growth pill may not be too far off.

More immediately, neurogenesis research has provided yet another great reason to get up, get out and get moving.

The research report was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative.

Posted on November 14, 2013 .

How Neuroscience Could Make Your Resistance Futile

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


Comply. That’s an uneasy watchword at the very center of social cohesion. Without enough social norm compliance—such as the norm that stresses fairness in our dealings with others—humans aren’t great at getting along. The question is, what’s at the heart of our willingness to comply with social norms?  Are our brains pre-packaged with compliance wiring? Or do we bend to the dictates of fairness and equal treatment only because our laws press us into compliance? Or is it some of both?

Neuroscientists are quite interested in these questions, and they’ve even made some progress answering them. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have identified brain areas that appear to be involved in our decisions about when and why we treat others fairly or unfairly. These studies have shown, for example, that a region in the right hemisphere of the brain called the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC) is activated when people comply with social norms (or "rules"), suggesting that the rLPFC is an important part of a neural network that could be considered our brain’s social-norm wiring. But as with all fMRI results, brain activity does not conclusively prove a causal relationship between a given brain area and a given behavior—the results can only suggest it.

new study from researchers at the University of Zurich took all of this a big step forward by using a painless and harmless electrical charge to positively or negatively stimulate the rLPFC  (something called “transcranial direct current stimulation”) while study participants took part in a computerized fairness game.

The game works like this: participants are given an amount of money and told to share it with a randomly assigned partner. In one game scenario, they are allowed to make the decision of how much money to give away without the threat of a penalty for being unfair.  In another scenario, they are told they can still make the decision, but their partner will be able to penalize them if they act unfairly.

In the first phase of the study, participants played the fairness game without experiencing the electrical charge. The social norm of fairness dictates that people give away an equal or near equal portion of the money, but without the threat of a penalty most participants only gave away between 10-25% of their stash. With the threat of a penalty, the percentage increased to between 40-50%.

Researchers then had the participants play the game again, but this time while experiencing a positive electrical charge designed to increase activity in the rLPFC.  Participants receiving the positive charge increased the amount of money they gave away by about 33%. When researchers switched to a negative charge (which decreased rLPFC activity), participants decreased the amount they gave away by about 22%.

But here’s the twist: these results only held true when a penalty was threatened. Without threat of a penalty, the positive and negative charges to the rLPFC actually had an opposite effect.  Researchers also checked to see if the electrical charges changed the participants’ expectation of how strong or weak the penalty would be, and found no change in threat expectation.

What this means is that stimulating the brain region didn’t make people fairer -- it made them more sensitive to threats of being punished if they didn’t act fairly.

The implications of this finding are potentially massive, and more than a little alarming. If we can biochemically alter activity in the rLPFC with a pill, just as these researchers did with an electrical current, then we’re looking toward a brave new pharmacological world that serves up a daily dose of compliance via threat sensitivity (assuming, of course, that there might be a market for such a drug). On a more positive note, the finding opens a door to treat people with damage to their rLPFC, who may be dangerously non-compliant with social norms.

However you choose to view the results, the research is significant because it bridges a chasm between seeing brain activity in relation to a behavior (in an fMRI brain scan) and changing behavior by manipulating brain activity. And while that's also a little frightening, it's a necessary step toward figuring out where ambiguous concepts like "social norm compliance" play out in the brain. This study is just a tiny taste of what's to come.

Posted on November 6, 2013 .

10 Things You Should Know About Goals

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.


Setting and reaching goals is a mainstay topic in research across a range of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, marketing, and communications. Below is a survey of 10 recent findings about goals, chosen from these and other topic areas, that throw some light on the ups and downs of goal achievement.

1. Giving up a goal takes a psychological and physical toll.

First a word of caution – goal achievement is risky business. If setbacks start accumulating, and you begin doubting whether you can reach your goal, you’re on your way to what psychologists call an “action crisis.” This is the crucial point at which you experience an internal conflict about whether you should keep going or give up. Research has shown that experiencing an action crisis increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, which is your brain’s way of sounding a body-wide alarm in response to the internal conflict. The problem is, the extra cortisol doesn’t help your performance, and may contribute to giving up sooner. It also increases blood pressure, which takes a toll on your blood vessels.

2. Being more specific can help you reach your goal.

We like flexibility in our lives, but some recent research (PDF) from consumer psychology suggests that being more specific and less flexible may be more effective in goal achievement.  The premise is simple but not easily accepted: specific steps, accomplished in strict order, seem harder to do at first, but ultimately lead to greater goal achievement than an ambiguous plan.  The problem is that more ambiguous, flexible plans seem much more appealing upfront.

3. Our brains may have an internal guidance system for reaching goals.

Research from neuroscience suggests that our brains use the neurotransmitter dopamine as an internal guidance system to reach goals. An animal study showed that the dopamine signal in the brain gets stronger as the goal gets closer. It’s sort of a “Marco Polo” effect that influences choices made to direct action toward a goal, and adjusts expectations about how close or far away the goal really is.

4. Your inner voice is a potent goal-achievement tool.

Reacting impulsively can thwart goal achievement, and research shows that your inner voice is an effective way to control impulses. A study suggests that simple things like telling yourself “Keep going, you can do it” while you’re exercising really does help keep you moving, and sidetracks the impulse to give up because the activity is getting harder.

5. Fist power could keep you from choking.

study earlier this year showed that clenching your left (but not right) fist can prevent you from choking under high pressure situations, as you might experience on your way to achieving a physical performance goal. The effect was studied across three experiments with athletes as test subjects, and the results were consistently significant. The researchers believe that left fist clenching primes the right hemisphere of the brain, aiding automatic skill performance (the opposite of conscious deliberation, which is thought to be controlled in the left hemisphere and actually contributes to choking).

6. Sharing your goals with friends improves your chances of reaching them.

More research from this year indicates that writing down your goals, sharing them with friends, and sending your friends regular updates about your progress can boost your chances of succeeding. The study showed that people who merely thought about their goals and how to reach them succeeded less than 50% of the time, while people who wrote goals down, and enlisted friends to help them by sending regular progress reports succeeded closer to 75% of the time.

7. Overmotivation can undermine goal achievement.

Motivation is essential to goal achievement, but overmotivation can lead to exactly the opposite. When your brain is in a hyper state of arousal about wanting something, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods your brain’s reward circuits. Research shows that when this happens, your chances of failing increase no matter how hard you try. Mental focus and precision are deluged by the flood.  The trick seems to be to find the happy motivation balance that keeps you moving forward without tripping on your brain’s in-built foibles.

8. And so can fantasizing.

Even though it’s tempting, research suggests that fantasizing too much about your dream job or any other major goal can undermine success. It's all about expectations. Realistic thinking fosters more realistic expectations; fantasizing blows expectations out of proportion, obscuring vision of what must actually be done to reach a goal.

9. And so can overthinking.

Although an incredibly powerful organ, the brain can get in its own way (in many ways) – and, ironically, thinking too much is one of them.  A study indicated that there’s an interesting connection between memory and performance. Once the right skills for a given task are internalized (like the many parts of a perfect golf swing), thinking about them when trying to perform doesn’t help, it hurts.

10. Finally, try to stay optimistic.

While easier said than done, keeping an optimistic mindset appears to enable people to deal with stress more effectively -- a key to goal achievement. Looking on the bright side actually is good for you, and an effective way to help reach your goals.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Posted on October 26, 2013 .

The Big Stink About Anxiety: It Changes How Our Brains Process Odors

Anxiety causes a slew of unpleasant symptoms that all of us have experienced to greater or lesser degrees. Sweating, rapid heartbeat, churning stomach, and fear – these are just a few symptoms of an anxious mind. One lesser known symptom is that when we’re anxious, things don't smell quite right.

A new study explored this odd effect by focusing on the role of stress in rewiring the brain.  Two brain circuits that don’t typically “talk” to each other—one linked to our sense of smell and another linked to emotional processing—can become cross-wired when we experience stress-induced anxiety. The result is that stressful experiences transform normally neutral odors into bad ones.

Researchers first asked a group of subjects to rate several smells, all of which were  inoffensive neutral odors.  The subjects were then hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) while they watched a series of  disturbing images, like car crashes and graphic war scenes, accompanied by equally disturbing text messages.

After the fMRI, the subjects were exposed to the same set of smells and asked to rate them again. This time, the majority of subjects changed their rating of the smells from neutral to offensive.

"After anxiety induction, neutral smells become clearly negative," explains Wen Li, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center, who led the study. "People experiencing an increase in anxiety show a decrease in the perceived pleasantness of odors. It becomes more negative as anxiety increases."

The fMRI brain scan—which allowed the researchers to watch what was happening in the subjects’ brains in real time—suggests that stress-induced anxiety from watching the disturbing images and reading the messages triggered a cross-wiring between the smell and emotion brain circuits.

"In typical odor processing, it is usually just the olfactory system that gets activated," says Li. "But when a person becomes anxious, the emotional system becomes part of the olfactory processing stream."

The researchers think that this effect accumulates over time.  The more anxiety we experience, the more the cross-wiring between these two brain circuits strengthens – resulting in more and more otherwise neutral smells turning into bad ones.  The vicious cycle triggered by this effect is that the smells themselves contribute to more anxiety.

According to Li, "We encounter anxiety and as a result we experience the world more negatively. The environment smells bad in the context of anxiety. It can become a vicious cycle, making one more susceptible to a clinical state of anxiety as the effects accumulate. It can potentially lead to a higher level of emotional disturbances with rising ambient sensory stress."

This isn’t the first study, by far, to examine the link between emotions and sense of smell. Journals are full of research explaining why, for example, we think of the holiday season when we smell pine cones, or remember family gatherings when we smell cookies baking.  But it is one of the first to explore the specific role of anxiety in causing a bridge between these brain circuits, and that understanding may help psychologists untangle the bundle of anxiety triggers in people diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Posted on October 19, 2013 .

Your Brain On Buzz: Why Some Ideas Go Viral And Others Go Nowhere

Why do certain ideas go viral while others never make it past a second set of eyes (or ears, or lips)?  A new neuroscience study attempted to answer this question by finding out if our brains react differently to buzz-worthy ideas. The results suggest that we’re wired to pass along certain ideas from the moment we see or hear them – even before we realize that we will.

The study was conducted in two parts. In the first, a group of UCLA students were presented with 20 or so ideas for potential television shows (including a reality show about former beauty queen mothers coaching their daughters to become beauty queens, and one about contestants sent to brave harsh environments around the world), while they were hooked up to an fMRI (brain imaging) machine.  The students were told to evaluate the ideas as if they were television interns who would be pitching the best ideas to TV producers, and their assessments of the shows were videotaped.

A larger group of students were told that they were the TV producers and were asked to watch the first group’s videotaped assessments of the shows, and then make their own evaluations of which ideas were the best.

The researchers wanted to know if the brains of the “interns” who most effectively pitched the show ideas reacted differently than those who didn’t successfully persuade the “producers” to buy the ideas.  The results showed quite convincingly that they did.

Brains of the would-be interns who were most persuasive in passing along their ideas showed significantly more activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) at the moment they were first exposed to their chosen pilot ideas. Brains of students who weren’t successful in pitching the ideas didn’t show the same TPJ activation. The researchers called this difference in activity the “salesperson effect.”

The fact that this activity was noted “at the moment” they heard the ideas is crucial, because it at least partially rules out the possibility that brains of more persuasive people simply have more active TPJs.  Instead, what this study seems to show is that once a buzz-worthy idea hits the brain—the very instant it hits—the brain’s buzz alarm goes off indicating that “this is something that needs to be passed along to more people!”

Once that happens, the recipient of the idea becomes a better evangelist for its replication, thus increasing the likelihood that the idea will become “contagious” for the next set of brains. What’s really intriguing is that the brain activity is evident even before a rational determination is made to pass along the idea. In other words, our brains are triggered to replicate certain ideas before we consciously decide to do so.

The TPJ is an important part of the brain’s mentalization network. In neuroscientific parlance, "mentalizing" is the ability to place ourselves inside the minds of others to think as they think.  We mentalize multiple times a day as a normal part of navigating interpersonal relationships. The ability to empathize hinges on mentalization, because we have to place ourselves in another person’s mental shoes to envision and feel what she or he is experiencing.

It makes sense that mentalization would be key to passing along buzz-worthy ideas, since what we’re really doing is envisioning how others will react to the ideas. This study suggests that our brains are subconsciously at the viral cusp well before we're consciously selling others on the ideas, and this subconscious priming makes us better sellers.

Will this study lead to more effective means of persuading people to buy into certain notions – providing neural high-octane gas for advertisers?  In the near term, I doubt it. But it does lift the lid on an effect that we know for certain is real, but haven’t known how or why our brains are triggered to pass along certain ideas while others immediately hit the cutting-room floor.  The study falls short of showing exactly why ideas with no evident persuasion-push behind them go viral (many YouTube sensations, for example), but the discovery that our brains seem wired to jump on potentially viral ideas sheds light on that dynamic as well.

Future research will delve more deeply into the connection between the brain’s mentalization network and idea contagions – and eventually we'll be talking about a "brain map" for buzz.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Posted on August 28, 2013 .

Your Brain Sees Even When You Don't

The unconscious processing abilities of the human brain are estimated at roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Compare that to the estimate for conscious processing: about 40 pieces per second.*

Our conscious processing capacity isn’t insignificant, but clearly it’s just a retention pond compared to the ocean of the unconscious. And more and more research is uncovering abilities of the unconscious that defy reason. Two recently published studies on how the brain “sees” illustrate the point--the first one is cool, the second borders on incredible.

The first, published in the journal Psychological Science, wanted to find out if the brain can track visual targets even when the eyes are duped into believing the targets aren’t there. Researchers at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario exposed participants to an optical trick known as the “connectedness illusion” that causes viewers to underestimate the number of circles (targets) on a screen.

Two groups of circles are presented, one group on the left side of a screen and one on the right.  The circles in one group are connected to tiny lines, but the circles aren’t connected to each other. In the other group, the circles are connected to each other via the lines.  What consistently happens is that our eyes perceive fewer circles in the connected group than in the disconnected group, even though the number of circles in both groups is exactly the same.

The connectedness illusion is a proven way to trick the eyes, and it worked like a charm in this study: participants didn’t see all of the connected circles. But when they were given a task to “act” on the targets, researchers found that participants shifted from visual “seeing” to what you might call brain-sight. They were able to strategically plan actions that included all of the targets even though they didn’t visually perceive them.

The reason seems to be that visual processing operates along two paths. The first is the one we’re most familiar with—how we visually perceive the world. The second is what our brains are unconsciously up to while we’re focused on merely “seeing."

Said lead researcher Jennifer Milne, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario:   "It's as though we have a semi-autonomous robot in our brain that plans and executes actions on our behalf with only the broadest of instructions from us."

That was cool, but the next study--published in The Journal of Neuroscience--flirts with the incredible. Researchers wanted to know if the brain can “see” someone else's actions even when the ability to visually see has been destroyed.

Cortical blindness refers to the loss of vision that occurs when the primary visual cortex no longer functions, generally as the result of injury. There’s no longer an ability to visually perceive the world in the sense with which we’re most familiar (even though the eyes still technically work), but that doesn’t necessarily mean the brain no longer sees.

In this study a patient with full cortical blindness could still react to another person's gaze. While in an fMRI machine, the patient was exposed to gazes directed at him and gazes directed away from him. On the face of it, neither should matter. His visual cortex couldn’t perceive any sort of gaze. But the brain scan indicated that another part of his brain definitely could.

The patient’s amygdala, the brain area associated with figuring out whether external stimuli is a threat, showed a distinctly different activation pattern when the gaze was directed at the patient than when directed away from him.

In other words, it didn't matter that his visual cortex couldn't catch the gaze—another part of his brain did regardless.

Exactly what's going on here isn't known, but there's a certain intuitive sense about the reaction even as it defies conscious reason. Our brains are adaptive marvels, and adapting around impediments to survival is essentially what our magical cranial clay does. If one system goes down, in this case external visual processing, it makes adaptive sense that another system would fill the gap (how that happens--well, that's the question).

We are only touching the jagged frozen tip of the iceberg with studies like these, and the second one in particular shows just how much we don't know about the brain's unconscious mojo. But we're learning more all the time, and piece by quixotic piece, the puzzle is only getting more intriguing.

*For more on conscious versus unconscious brain processing power, check out Timothy Wilson's excellent book, Strangers to Ourselves.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Posted on August 11, 2013 .

Breathing And Your Brain: Five Reasons To Grab The Controls

The advice to “just breathe” when you’re stressed may be a cliché of Godzilla-sized proportions, but that doesn't make it untrue. The substance behind the saying is research-tested—and not only to manage stress.

Breathing is an unusual bodily function in that it is both involuntary and voluntary. Other major functions—take digestion and blood flow, for example—occur without conscious influence, and for the most part we couldn’t influence them if we tried. They are involuntarily managed in the vast processing system of the unconscious mind.

Breathing is also managed in the unconscious, but at any moment we can grab the controls and consciously change how we breathe. We can make our breathing shallow or deep, fast or slow, or we can choose to stop breathing altogether (until we pass out and the unconscious takes over again).

Since we are breathing all the time, the oddness of this dual-control system doesn’t usually dawn on us—but it’s this control flexibility that makes breathing especially worthy of attention. We can change how we breathe, and to an extent change how breathing affects our bodies.

Controlled breathing, also known as “paced respiration,” “diaphragmatic breathing” and “deep breathing,” has long been a feature of Eastern health practices. It became more visible in the West after Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, “The Relaxation Response”, hit shelves in the mid 1970s. Whatever you choose to call controlled breathing, the dynamic at work is full oxygen exchange: more oxygen enters the body and more carbon dioxide exits.

The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.

Benson argued that controlling breathing in this way triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to come online and counter our sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response to daily stresses. In effect, the relaxation response is the anti-fight or flight response. Subsequent research has backed up and expanded Benson’s argument.

What follows are five science-based reasons for paying more attention to an ability most of us aren't maximizing.

1. Managing Stress.

This is the most direct application of controlled breathing and the one we hear about most. Our brains are routinely on high alert for threats in our environment—we’re wired to react defensively to anything that hints of imperiling us physically or psychologically.

Controlled breathing may be the most potent tool we have to prevent our brains from keeping us in a state of stress, and preventing subsequent damage caused by high stress levels.  The relaxation response is a built-in way to keep stress in check.

2. Managing Anxiety.

The means by which controlled breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system is linked to stimulation of the vagus nerve—a nerve running from the base of the brain to the abdomen, responsible for mediating nervous system responses and lowering heart rate, among other things.

The vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that catalyzes increased focus and calmness. A direct benefit of more acetylcholine is a decrease in feelings of anxiety. Stimulating the vagus nerve may also play a role in treating depression, even in people who are resistant to anti-depressant medications.

3. Lowering Blood Pressure and Heart Rate.

Research suggests that when practiced consistently, controlled breathing will result in lower blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn results in less wear and tear on blood vessels.  As described above, the vagus nerve plays a key role in this response.

Over time, using controlled breathing to lower blood pressure and heart rate can help prevent stroke and lower risk of cerebral aneurysm.

4. Sparking Brain Growth.

One of the more intriguing research developments involving controlled breathing is that when it’s used to facilitate meditation, the result can be an actual increase in brain size. Specifically, the brain experiences growth in areas associated with attention and processing of sensory input.

The effect seems to be more noticeable in older people, which is especially good news because it’s the reverse of what typically happens as we age—gray matter usually becomes thinner.  The result is consistent with other research showing an increase in thickness of music areas of the brain in musicians and visual-motor areas in the brains of jugglers. As in those cases, the key is consistent practice over time.

5. Changing Gene Expression.

Another unexpected research finding is that controlled breathing can alter the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. The study uncovering this finding was co-authored by none other than Herbert Benson himself, some 40 years after he brought controlled breathing into the spotlight with his book.

And this isn’t the first study linking controlled breathing to changes in genetic expression. Benson was also involved in a 2008 study indicating that long-term practice of the relaxation response results in changes to the expression of genes associated with how the body reacts to stress.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It will hit store shelves on November 12.

Posted on July 4, 2013 .

To Get More Sleep, Get More Sunlight

The struggle to get more and better sleep seems never-ending for many of us, and increasingly the sleep-deprived are opting for chemical relief. In 2012, 60 million Americans filled prescriptions for sleeping pills, up from 46 million in 2006 (as reported in The New York Times).

But considering the potential dangers of taking sleep meds, natural alternatives are definitely worth considering. A recent study suggests that one of these alternatives—perhaps one of the best we can get—is available just outside your window. Sunlight could be the cure for what ails millions of insomniacs.

The study focused on the sleep quality of 49 day-shift office workers (27 in windowless workplaces and 22 in workplaces with windows). Researchers wanted to find out if more natural light exposure during the day resulted in more restful sleep at night. Using an evaluation tool called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and a monitoring technique known as “actigraphy,” they were able to determine if office workers with windows fared better in dreamland than their walled-off counterparts.

The results showed that they did. Compared to workers in windowless offices, those with windows received 173 percent more natural white light exposure during work hours and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night.

Workers who get more sunlight also tend to be more physically active according to this study. And an additional analysis of overall quality of life suggests that they’re generally happier, too. Office workers without windows reported more physical ailments and lower vitality, along with lower sleep quality.

The difficulty with studies like this, of course, is that many people aren’t just without windows, they’re without options. If you work in an office dungeon designed without sunlight in mind—perhaps sequestered in a cube farm—you're likely limited to getting outside during breaks and maybe working in a few daily strolls by perimeter offices that do have windows (at least the offices of folks who don’t keep their doors shut).

However you can do it, the results of this admittedly small study indicate that you should get as much natural light exposure during the day as possible given the confines of your workplace. You can also try getting more sunlight first thing in the morning before you arrive at work; research suggests that morning sunlight exposure is linked to sounder sleep (more on that at this Discovery Health article).

The research findings were presented at the 27th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, and were published in an online supplement to the journal Sleep.

Posted on June 28, 2013 .

Think Fast, Are We Really Getting Dumber?

new study suggests that people living today are considerably less intelligent than people living a couple centuries ago, to the tune of 14 fewer IQ points on average.

The metric evaluated to reach this conclusion isn't one most would guess. Rather than comprehensive IQ test scores declining over time, researchers focused on declining reaction times--a metric that correlates with general intelligence for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

In psychological parlance, the study of reaction times is called mental chronometry. If you participated in a mental chronometry study, you would be presented with a stimulus (let's say an intermittently flashing blue light on a monitor) and asked to react to the stimulus as quickly as possible (in this example by pushing a button when the blue light flashes).  How quickly you react is thought to be a measure of your brain's processing speed.

General intelligence (also called the "g factor") is comprised of multiple parts, mental processing speed among them. And it's this speed that researchers analyzed using psychometric data from the Victorian era beginning in 1884, up through 2004, culled from 14 intelligence studies conducted during that span (the handy thing about reaction time is that it's testable with several different methods, and older methods are still considered valid).  The results aren't flattering to us moderns: IQ, as measured by reaction time, dropped 1.23 points per decade, for a total of 14 points in the hole.

Before I throw a little devilish advocacy at this troubling conclusion, it's first worth asking what could possibly be the cause of declining intelligence if the finding is accurate?  Researchers who conducted this study believe the drop is related to "dysgenic fertility" -- murky jargon for the theory that smarter people have fewer kids.

The theory goes something like this: smart people are more creative and industrious than the masses, and their energy—consumed by productive pursuits—is less available for bringing children into the world. Kids are, after all, energy and time intensive, and the richest brains don’t have the energy or time to raise a brood.  As the years pass, this proclivity for productivity results in the genetic selection of less intelligent people emerging on the scene generation after generation.

Whether or not that argument is airtight is a topic for another day; suffice to say for now that it has many supporters who believe it’s the tidiest way to account for a snowballing decline in general intelligence. And it’s also what makes the Victorian era, noted for its geyser of prodigious innovation, such a strong starting point for this research.

Having said that, let’s now toss a couple wrenches into the works.

First, the study results run counter to a well-studied phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect.”  Named after James Flynn, a political scientist who first discovered it in the mid-1980s, the Flynn effect is the surprising trend of increasing intelligence over time.

Flynn found that IQ increases about 3 points every 10 years, based on results of well-established tests of intelligence including the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and its adult counterpart. That’s nearly a 10-point increase per generation. Rather than accounting for one aspect of intelligence, like processing speed measured by reaction time, the Flynn effect considers a range of factors cutting-across verbal and mathematical aptitudes—and in general it evidences a clear advantage for the modern mind.

The reasons for the Flynn effect are likely many, but the biggest one is that ever since the industrial revolution we’ve been the beneficiaries of more education, more technology, and more opportunities for sharpening our minds than our pre-industrial ancestors. In other words, the Flynn effect shows undeniably strong societal and cultural influences on intelligence.

The takeaway from the Flynn effect is not that our forebearers were stupid, but rather that as time passes we'd do well to recalibrate what “general intelligence” really means. Comparing your intelligence with that of someone living half a century before the industrial revolution isn’t apples-to-apples; at best, it’s a comparison of apples grown in radically different soils and climates.

The second wrench to fling (not nearly as significant as the Flynn effect) is that reaction time appears to be changeable. Research suggests that it may in fact be changeable by doing something as simple as chewing gum.

If reaction time is so easily altered, we might ask if it’s such a sturdy indicator of general intelligence after all. At the very least, we might ask if sweeping arguments about the advancing dumbnification of the Western world should be built on something that gnawing a few sticks of Big Red can tweak.

At any rate, it would seem that rumors of our stupidity have been somewhat exaggerated. We may or may not be significantly smarter than those who came before, but the evidence isn’t pointing to us being alarmingly denser. It's even possible, if not probable, that we’re right where we should be.

Posted on June 10, 2013 .

A Rocket Scientist Explains How a Sleep Study Can Change Your Life

Once upon a time, before medical science started nosing around your bedroom, snoring was a nocturnal annoyance and little more. Sawing logs in the wee hours, while the bane of spouses and significant others, wasn’t a health concern – just cause for housemates to wear ear plugs.

But over the last couple of decades, science has pulled the covers off snoring, revealing that in many cases—far more than anyone expected—it’s not only irritating, but the symptom of a potentially lethal condition known as sleep apnea. People suffering from this condition experience limited breathing multiple times during the night, depriving their brain of oxygen and consequently increasing blood pressure and putting enormous strain on their organs, most notably their heart.

Studies linking sleep apnea to heart disease have been adding up, and the evidence is pointing to one inescapable conclusion: snoring could be your body’s alarm letting you know that something is wrong along the vital brain-heart highway. The best way to find out for sure is undergoing a sleep study.

Does it take a rocket scientist to explain what a sleep study is and why it’s important?  Probably not, but that didn’t stop me from finding one. John Cunningham is a Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT) who runs sleep studies for Total Sleep Management, Inc. In a previous life, he was, in fact, a rocket scientist, but over the course of time his engineering interests turned from the aeronautic to the biologic.

John ran a sleep study I took part in not too long ago, and is a walking wealth of knowledge on all things sleep. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions about what happens during a sleep study, what anyone thinking of having one can expect, and why doing it could improve your health and your life.

David: First, tell us what we’re all wondering – do sleep techs laugh at what people do during the night?

John: You know, sleep is such a personal thing. Inherently personal. You’ve slept all your life without wires or a mask on your face. For some people coming to the lab is the first night they will spend away from their spouse in 20 years. No joke. Some people are creeped out by the cameras. They are being watched! But the truth is we are not staring at you all night. The cameras are just a tool and nothing to be worried about. So I’m not going to say we don’t sometimes see something funny when running the tape, but no, rest easy. We’re not laughing.

Ok a few basics. If you snore, do you definitely have sleep apnea?

No. People can snore for many reasons, including anything from allergies to loose skin in the back of their throat. Snoring is a potential symptom of apnea but not an absolute one.  It’s important, though, to tell your doctor if you snore because it could be the starting place to eventually diagnose apnea.

And sleep apnea occurs when someone stops breathing while asleep?

They don’t necessarily stop breathing altogether, but someone with apnea will experience limited breathing multiple times during any given night. That’s one of the main things we track during the study using polysomnography, the comprehensive diagnostic tool that shows us all the biophysical changes your body undergoes while you are asleep. Some people will experience limited breathing hundreds of times, and that’s extremely dangerous because oxygen flow is reduced each time. The chief mechanism by which apnea damages your body is oxygen crashing hard and fast in your blood.  You can still breathe in many cases, but not enough air gets through your partially or totally collapsed throat muscles.

So is apnea a disease?  

Apnea is a structural problem—not a disease or chemical imbalance—which is why you can’t treat it with a pill. As you relax in sleep, your throat and chest muscles relax (so you don’t act out your dreams – but that’s another topic). Your throat is pitted against gravity, which is why the primary cause of apnea is age; the older we get the looser our muscles become. Because your throat and chest muscles partially or fully collapse, your breath decreases significantly. In the majority of apnea cases, your chest muscles are still trying to take in air, but you can’t get enough air to pass through and your blood-oxygen level crashes rapidly. That’s when the damage begins.

And what can happen if someone doesn’t have their sleep apnea treated?

The connection between apnea and cardiovascular disease is very strong. Your blood pressure increases and you are at far greater risk of stroke with untreated apnea. You’ll also suffer from sleep deprivation, which has a number of negative consequences, including fatigue, mental exhaustion and reduced immune system response. Aside from dire health concerns, quality of life is simply lower with apnea. Plus, your snoring is probably annoying people you live with, but that’s not necessarily a health concern, unless they get really angry.

Give us a general sense of what someone can expect when their doctor orders up a sleep study and they arrive at your lab.

They aren’t going to encounter anything alarming—a typical doctor’s office setting with rooms in the back—but everyone arrives with questions, which is of course natural. My explanation from when they come through the door right into and including the hook-up stage of the study—when we place wires on their body—has been honed by answering patients varied questions and concerns over the years I’ve been doing this. When I’m in the zone (and I’m not always there, but when I am), everything I say while hooking them up is to answer questions before they ask them. And by the way, it’s worth mentioning that the rooms patients sleep in are rather nice, like a decent hotel room – not a sterile, clinical cell that some people envision.

So the tech’s first job is to read people when they walk in and try to anticipate their concerns.

Yes, because contrary to the obvious assumption, my job is art. This is not research, strictly speaking; it’s human diagnostics, which always contains an element of the emotional, the erratic, the unpredictable. In short, the human.

With so much in the news lately about the dangers of apnea, are you finding people more informed when they arrive at the lab?

I’ve found that people have heard about it in general terms, but most of their practical information about apnea and its medical solutions come from the sleep technician.  Apnea is rising for two main reasons: age and weight. Arguably, more people over 50 are overweight than ever before. So amidst growing concerns about obesity, there’s no question that more information about the warning signs of snoring and the dangers of apnea is out there, but the technical specifics usually don’t hit home until someone comes to the lab.

How do you put someone as ease who seems a bit freaked out by the prospect of being hooked up to wires and sleeping in a strange place with cameras running all night?

Much like special effects in movies, a good tech can tailor and weave solutions to the subtle, often unspoken human needs of the patient without them even knowing it. The less they notice it, the better the movie, so to speak. All the while, I’m spouting beneficial technobabble, cleaning, scrubbing and slapping on pieces of technology to create the perfect sleep cyborg for analysis.

Sleep cyborg?

Just a term I use for describing what someone looks like once we have the technology hooked up, and to underscore the point that you can’t forget, no matter how much technology is layered on, that this is a human. And it’s the human who follows through on treatment. Actually, better stated: it’s the human with the unanswered questions and the unaddressed fears that doesn’t follow through with the treatment.

And if someone is diagnosed with sleep apnea, the treatment is a CPAP mask, correct?

CPAP is the gold standard solution. There are a few other options, but they are about 50/50 in effectiveness—surgery and mouth pieces. These remedies can become ineffective over time.  CPAP can change with you as your body changes (essentially by increasing the air pressure of the device), which is what makes it the preferred standard.

Many of the concerns I try to answer are about the possibility of having to wear a CPAP mask (which stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) if the diagnosis is apnea. The reality is wearing the mask is going to feel weird. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. But it’s totally do-able, and with time it will become normal. Most importantly, will it help? Without a doubt. I genuinely believe CPAP helps people live better, longer lives.

I often tell patients the facts about wearing a CPAP straight up, and getting the simple facts out in the open can be very helpful. I often notice people will then lower their shoulders a bit and hit me with their more personal concerns, their real worries, almost as if I have given them permission to vent their anxieties.  I wear a CPAP mask myself and have been in the exact same chair they are in, having the same electrodes placed on my slightly itchy, recently scrubbed skin and had to wash the white goopy paste out of my hair the next morning.

What’s the most important thing someone facing having to wear a CPAP should keep in mind?

It’s simply this: find a mask that you like. From a technical point of view, whether a mask is big or small, they both do the exact same thing. A patient needs to find a mask that is comfortable. My technical opinion on this point doesn’t matter – the truth is, if you like it, you’ll wear it. If you don’t like it, you won’t wear it, even if I tell you otherwise. It will be that dress behind that “gorgeous” polka dot number that a clerk sold you on but that you secretly don’t believe makes you look good. Same with the CPAP mask. If it fits well and you like it, ditch the polka dots and choose the lowcut tye-dye.

Ok, so let’s say someone undergoes a sleep study and is diagnosed with apnea. They select their CPAP mask. Then what?

Well first off, be realistic. It will take you two months to get used to it. You’ll try it, you’ll hate it, it’ll be weird, then it’ll be great, then you’ll hate it again.  It’s ok. This is all normal.  You may experience some nasal swelling, but it’s temporary so don’t worry. You may wake up some mornings with the mask across the room. Again, normal, don’t be discouraged.

On the plus side, the snoring will disappear. That’s huge for most people. And you’ll likely experience REM rebound, because you’ll begin enjoying deeper REM sleep. When you have apnea and stop breathing several times throughout the night, your sleep is fragmented, and good, solid REM is hard to come by. With the CPAP mask, that will change and you may find yourself dreaming for the first time in a long time.

What's the big takeaway you'd like to leave with readers of this interview?

Don't fear the sleep lab.  Seriously, if you snore, tell your doctor and if he or she suggests going to a sleep lab to check for apnea, go ahead and do it. We're going to take good care of you and the results could change your life.

Posted on May 12, 2013 .

10 Reasons Why We Struggle With Creativity

“There is always room, if only in one’s own soul, to create a spot of Paradise, crazy though it may sound.”

--Henry Miller, Preface to Stand Still Like the Hummingbird

“I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.”

--Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

“The fact that order and creativity are complementary has been basic to man's cultural development; for he has to internalize order to be able to give external form to his creativity.”

--Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

Anyone who says “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” is seriously underestimating their skeleton.  More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.

My contention in this article is that creativity is an integral part of being human, and to deny its expression is like denying the expression of other crucial human elements that we intuitively realize we'd be miserable without. How about a life without sex, to use one bare-knuckled example? Creativity is no less a part of who and what we are. What follows are 10 reasons why we frequently struggle to get into a creative space, along with suggestions on how to get there.

1. Your brain is always putting out fires.

Cognitive science research tells us that our brains are equipped with sensitive threat-alert systems (of which the amygdala is a significant part), and these systems are older than we are, evolutionarily speaking. In our brains, the limbic system--home of the well-known fight or flight response--is ready to click on with a micro seconds's notice. That's a good thing. The problem is that it's ready to click on with a micro second's notice. As with many paradoxes within our brains, the good is also the bad depending on context. Because we are so neurobiologically predisposed to looking for the next fire, it's challenging to carve out a "safe space" for creativity.

What can we do about that?  The video at the end of this article, featuring the inestimable creative genius John Cleese, offers some quality suggestions.

2. Chunks of time are hard to come by.

Even when we can outwit our brain's threat-alert system, it's still difficult to find what the late, great management philosopher Peter Drucker advised we must find to be effective in any capacity: "chunks of time."  Spurts of time riddled with interruptions aren't conducive to creativity because each time our focus is wrecked, we struggle to get back to the point we'd reached in our creative "flow" (a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).  Creativity isn't like restarting a blu ray disk and picking up exactly where we left off. A great deal of energy went into getting to that place, and we must expend more energy to get into it again.

Cleese's video also offers suggestions for this problem, but in short -- we must set firm, impenetrable parameters for being creative. If you think you'll need two solid hours to get there, then make those two hours nonnegotiable.

3. The "self-efficacy" problem.

Pioneering psychologist Albert Bandura devoted a large part of his expansive career to figuring out how people can develop a necessary sense of self-efficacy--the outcome when accomplishment yields compounding confidence in one's abilities. The irony that Bandura uncovered is that we only get there when we've experienced enough failure to demonstrate the difficulty of our eventual accomplishment. Another way to say that is -- if it were easy, none of us would have a problem. But creativity isn't easy, and we're going to stomach failure--probably more than we think--before achieving something that starts depositing confidence in our cerebral bank accounts.

The thing to remember is that confidence compounds with time, and most people give up before they start earning a return on their investment.

4. The "governing scenes" problem. 

Two more great psychologists, Silvan S. Tomkins and Gershen Kaufman, devoted much of their careers to figuring out why shame wields so much power in our mental lives.  Tomkins (who is the father of "Affect Theory" and "Script Theory") coined the term "governing scripts," and Kaufman built on his work, later coining the term "governing scenes," which are the mental images of past experience that our brains conjure when we come across a "trigger" for that experience.

The tricky part is that our brains conjure governing scenes automatically--they arise from the unconscious. So when we experience a creative failure, our brains toss out vivid images--not just vague memories, but "scenes"--of past failures.  Kaufman saw this as the pivotal dynamic that makes shame such a potent emotion -- it's not just an externally triggered feeling, but also an internal saboteur.

What can we do about that?  Look to Albert Bandura's discoveries (#3 above) and get back to the hard work of overcoming, and overcoming, and, oh yeah, overcoming. In other words, don't quit, because in all likelihood you are giving up far too early.

5. The functionary temptation.

"So, what are you going to do with that?"  Tough question to answer for anyone trying to be creative, because there probably isn't an answer. What we seem to have a hard time getting our arms around is the fact that there also doesn't need to be an answer.  What would a world driven by purely functionary concerns look like?  Is that a world you'd want to live in?

The answer to this one is self-evident: stop asking the functionary question about everything in your life, or others' lives. The question itself is designed to drain creativity from your bones.

6. Fear of disruption.

Getting into creative flow can disrupt your life. Henry Miller referred to this disruption in Sexus with the pregnant term “primal flux.” It's a hard fact to handle, but the truth is that creativity isn't all sweetness and light -- it's a volatile, disruptive force that can shatter presumptions, undermine expectations, and dismantle unquestioned standards.  That's part of what makes it a frightening prospect for our threat-sensitive brains (see #1).

What can we do about that? Decide how much creativity your life can handle -- more precisely, how much you are willing to handle.

7. Misunderstanding the "background noise" dimension of creativity. 

For some reason we think that to be creative means constantly creating something tangible, but that's not how creativity works.  Much of the creative process goes on in the background of your conscious mind space and emerges in conscious flurries.  As discussed in #2, we need chunks of time to create something tangible, but leading up to those chunks of time is an enormous amount of background processing. This is also why #8 that follows is so important.

8. Opportunities slip through the cracks.

You know the old story about how writers keep a notebook by their beds in case they have an idea in the middle of the night?  There's only two things untrue about that story -- it's not just writers who do it (or at least it's not just writers who should do it) and it's not just in the middle of the night that a notebook or something to scribble on is invaluable to capture rapidly evaporating thoughts.  Those thoughts are creative opportunities, any one of which can open doors to new thoughts, fresh ideas, and untapped creative energy.

Easy fix for this one: get a notebook and a pen, and get ready.

9. It’s easier to get numb.

Irony of ironies, the same incredible organ in our heads that allows us to be creative is also perilously prone to brain-numbing distractions. Sure, those can be chemical distractions--drugs, alcohol, etc--but in this case I mean just the regular old "plug-in drugs" like TV (using the term coined by author Marie Winn).  The problem with TV, of course, isn't TV, it's the hours upon hours that it draws us in. At the very least, at that level it's a time sink that makes finding those essential chunks of time even harder. At worst, it's a brain backwater--a complacency refuge from the challenge of creativity.

What to do?  Regulate time. Distractions aren't the problem; it's our unregulated devotion to them that doesn't allow creativity to spark.

10. Limited exposure to the creativity of others. 

I'm a firm believer that creative inspiration isn't all about originality; it's more about being driven by the creative achievements of others. After reading a great novel, creative energy swirls in the brain like a newly spawned tornado. After watching an incredible movie, mental wormholes open to challenging ideas and possibilities. Same goes for museums and galleries and concerts and even electronics shows. It doesn't matter where the ideas originate -- it matters where they take you.  To the extent that we limit our exposure to an array of creative ideas (and focus instead on just one source; TV, for example), we limit our creative potential.

The solution: get up, get out, and get exposed.

And now for a final word from one of my favorite creative masters, John Cleese.

Posted on April 18, 2013 .

Results of My Kratom Experiment


This post is a follow-up to an article I wrote on Forbes entitled, The Kratom Experiment Begins.

First, I should explain why I am publishing this piece here instead of Forbes.  When I wrote the original piece, I mentioned that I would be using Lucky Kratom brand capsules for the evaluation. This set off a cascade of comments and emails telling me that I was making a mistake limiting myself to that brand, for a variety of reasons.

At the same time, several Kratom distributors contacted me offering free samples to use during my evaluation.  I decided to accept samples from three of these companies:

Mayan Kratom

Nutmeg Kratom

Online Kratom

Because I accepted these free samples, I felt it was no longer ethical to write the follow-up article on Forbes -- a venue for which I am paid to write.  Instead I chose to move the follow-up here, to The Daily Brain, a blog I own and derive exactly zero compensation from.

I am grateful to each of the companies that supplied samples, because they enabled me to conduct a much more thorough evaluation than would have been possible with only one brand (Lucky Kratom – a product I paid for myself, I should add).

Having said that, I will not be comparing products from different companies in this post. That was never my intention. Rather, I will simply provide you with my personal experience with the products in general. 

The two forms of Kratom I experimented with were powder and capsules. I also experimented with a variety of strains and “fusions” of different strains and extracts.  Generally speaking, I took Kratom in the morning, usually mixed with a small amount of orange juice. 

I did not experience a tremendous difference between strains, although the fusions that contained extracts were consistently more potent. Because the extracts lead to quicker tolerance, I spaced out my usage and tried to stick to regular strains most of the time.  I especially liked Bali, Maeng Da and Green Thai. 

Now for the effects.

My overall takeaway is that Kratom has a two-tiered effect. Initially it provides a burst of energy very similar to a strong cup of coffee.  Unlike coffee, however, the energy I derived from Kratom was longer-lasting and level.  My experience with coffee is that the initial burst is strong but it tapers and descends rapidly, leading to the well-known caffeine crash. The energy from Kratom, on the other hand, would often last for three or four hours, but was subtle enough that at no point did I feel like I was jumping out of my skin. I also did not experience an energy crash with any of the Kratom products I sampled. 

The second-tier effect was relaxing, but fell short of being sedating. I never felt sleepy while taking Kratom, but I did experience a level relaxation that was pleasant, and balanced out the initial energy-boosting effects nicely. 

As to side effects, I can’t say that I experienced any worth noting. A few times I noticed that my eyes were bloodshot after I used a fusion containing an extract, but that was not a consistent side effect and it never obscured my vision, nor did it seem related to any other drawbacks. 

As to the difference between capsules and powder, I noticed that the powder worked faster, but the capsules seemed to be generally as effective, though with somewhat delayed effects. That makes perfect sense since it takes the stomach a bit longer to break down the gelatin containing the powder. 

My biggest concern with most of the products I sampled is that it’s not easy to nail down the specific amount to take. I used “bakers spoons” that indicated how many grams a spoonful contained, but I’d strongly recommend anyone who wants to take the product long-term to invest in a decent-quality digital kitchen scale. I am indebted to several people who have sold Kratom for years for offering free advice on how to arrive at the correct amount for my body type (I'm six feet, 225 lbs with an athletic build). 

In my case, about three grams was adequate to induce an effect, but I have been told by several regular Kratom users that amounts vary greatly by person.  I can’t make any recommendations on the “right” amount to use. I simply experimented with amounts (guided by the advice I mentioned) until I found one that worked well for me. 

My overall comment on Kratom is that it’s a lot like good coffee, but with a more even, long-lasting energy effect, and a much more pleasant “finish.” 

As to the results of stopping usage, I can tell you without hyperbole that getting off coffee is a far worse experience than getting off Kratom. I was able to stop taking Kratom for three days and at most I experienced a bit of sluggishness that wore off in a day or so.  Withdrawal from coffee, for me, includes at minimum two days of excruciating headaches that make me want to rip trees from the ground and toss them through store windows (something I've never actually done, mind you). Suffice to say, caffeine withdrawal is significantly worse than Kratom withdrawal, if it can even be called "withdrawal." There's no comparison whatsoever. 

Having now experienced the product myself for a number of weeks, I can see no reason why it should be banned, or on what basis such a product would be banned if people can walk into a typical coffee shop and buy an enormous cup of an addictive substance that’s arguably more potent than any Kratom available anywhere.

If you have any questions about my experience or would simply like to discuss further, please feel free to email me: 

disalvowrites [at] gmail.com

You can also leave a comment on this post. 

*A note on quoting from or reprinting/reposting this piece: overall I am flexible on reposts, but please contact me ahead of time by email to let me know when and where you'd like to repost. Thanks in advance.  

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Posted on April 5, 2013 .

Video: Computer Program Reveals Colors and Motions Invisible to the Human Eye

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a computer program that reveals colors and motions in video that are invisible to the human eye.  They can also run the program on existing video (as they illustrate with a clip from a movie in this demonstration) and uncover a new world that our eyes are normally unable to see. [YouTube video credit: The New York Times]


Posted on March 12, 2013 .

Support the "Think Tank" to Give Cognitive Science Education a Boost

What is pink and green on four wheels with a big, glowing brain on top? Granted he can fundraise $10,900 by March 13th, Tyler Alterman's cognitive science education station will be. Alterman is teaming up with artists and scientists from his lab to build a  lab-on-wheels called "The Think Tank." 
“Most think tanks have Washington, D.C. addresses,” notes Alterman, a researcher at the New School for Social Research. “But The Think Tank, as a literal and metaphorical vehicle, will roam New York streets (for starters) without an address, empowering kids and adults with the behavioral and brain sciences wherever it parks.” To join about 70 others in supporting Alterman's campaign--launched on Alterman and Darwin's birthdays--check out his video and crowdfunding page at http://igg.me/at/CogSciOnWheels.
The lab-on-wheels will be built out of a renovated box truck by Alterman and a team of artists headed by Christine Alaimo, a neuroscientist with a cupcake business in support of autism research. Alterman plans to bring classrooms and scientists aboard The Think Tank to teach the research process, collect demographically diverse data, and educate citizens with sidewalk talks about how the science of brain and mind can improve lives.
Created as Alterman’s senior thesis project, The Think Tank is a collaboration between theCUNY Macaulay Honors College senior and the New School for Social Research’s distinguished neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Casasanto, who holds a doctorate from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and contributes to Psychology Today.
After meeting his funding goal of $10,900, Alterman plans to unveil the vehicle at a public benefit, held in the Honors College's landmark brownstone neighboring Lincoln Center. The benefit will be headlined by the Amygdaloids, a rock band made up entirely of neuroscientists. Named for the part of the brain believed to register fear, the band is fronted by Joseph E. LeDoux, a leading authority in neural science, Director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety and author of such books as The Emotional Brain: the Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Other highlights include mini-lectures by noted experts and a screening of shorts from the Imagine Science Film Festival.
About the Think Tank team:
Tyler Alterman, who will graduate from Macaulay Honors College this spring, is a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York. The recipient of such prestigious awards as the Goldsmith Scholarship and the JK Watson fellowship, he is majoring in Cognitive Science, which combines
neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, anthropology and philosophy.
Daniel Casasanto, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research. He studies how linguistic, cultural, and bodily experiences shape the brain and mind. He received his doctorate from MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and completed post-doctoral training at Stanford University on a National Research Service Award. Casasanto's research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and by a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award. He has authored over 50 scientific publications which have been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Scientific American. He is a founding editor of the interdisciplinary journal Language and Cognition, an associate editor of Frontiers in Cognitive Science, and an editorial board member of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and of Psychological Science.
About Macaulay Honors College:
Macaulay Honors College offers exceptional students a uniquely personalized education with access to the vast resources of the nation’s largest urban university and New York City itself. Selected for their top high school records and leadership potential, every Macaulay student receives a full in-state tuition scholarship available to eligible New York State residents, a laptop and technology support, and a $7,500 Opportunities Fund to pursue global learning and service opportunities. For more information visit www.macaulay.cuny.edu.


Watch the video below for more information:

Posted on February 23, 2013 .

Welcome to the Age of Emotionally Relevant Robotics

Meet "DIEGO-SAN", developed by David Hanson (of Hanson Robotics) for the Machine Perception Lab at the University of California San Diego Institute for Neural Computation. With a face by David Hanson and Hanson Robotics, which mounts on a robotic body (not yet functional), this robotic baby boy was built with funding from the National Science Foundation and serves cognitive A.I. and human-robot interaction research.

With high definition cameras in the eyes, Diego San sees people, gestures, expressions, and uses A.I. modeled on human babies, to learn from people, the way that a baby hypothetically would. This is a major milestone in "emotionally relevant robotics"--taking the next step from A.I. that learns human movements to A.I. that learns human emotions.


Here's a link to a TED video in which David Hanson discusses the future of emotionally relevant robotics.

Posted on January 27, 2013 .