It’s Spring! Get outside and open your mind!

This time of year seems to bring out our loosey-goosey side. Polish people have a spring tradition of dousing each other with water and chasing each other around with Pussywillow switches. South Asians pelt each other with colored powered as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. And then there’s Mardi Gras – ‘nuff said. We tend to go a little wild.

This kind of behavior can be cathartic after a winter’s worth of suffering, but there’s evidence that it might be good for you, too.

It’s a given that cold weather can dampen spirits. Depression that returns during the winter months each year—seasonal affective disorder—goes by the extremely apt acronym “SAD.”

Warm weather doesn’t really have the opposite effect, though. A number of studies, including one based on 20,818 observations in Dallas, Texas, found that there was no significant correlation between mood and temperature.

So, if it’s not just the warmer weather that affects us, then what is it?

In a study published in 2005 by Psychological Science, researchers put volunteers through a series of tests to gauge how the weather and the amount of time they spent outside affected their mood, their memory, and how receptive they were to new information.

In the first test, researchers measured the temperature and barometric pressure (high pressure is typically associated with clear, sunny weather) on several days when 97 people reported their mood and how much time they spent outside. Then, the participants were asked to remember a series of numbers. They were also given a short, favorable description of a fake employee, and then given additional, unfavorable information about that same person, and then asked to assess the employee’s competence and performance. The more open-minded among them, the researchers thought, would be able to update their initial impressions with the new information before passing judgment.

All three metrics hinged on the weather and how much time the participants had spent outside. On days with high pressure—the clear, sunny ones—people who spent more than 30 minutes outside saw an increase in memory, mood, and flexible thinking styles. Those who spent the time indoors, though, saw a decrease.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 121 subjects to either spend time inside or outside on a warm, clear day. Among participants who spent more than 30 minutes outside, higher temperature and pressure were associated with higher moods, but among those who spent 30 minutes or less outside, this relationship was reversed.

A third test was done to determine whether the first two tests were tainted by the fact that they took place in the spring in a northern climate. Data was collected through a website from 387 respondents who lived in various climates, and they correlated the submissions with the weather in each city for that day. They found that the participants who spent more time outside during the spring, but not during other seasons, had better moods.

Temperature changes toward cooler weather in the fall did not predict higher mood. Rather, there appears to be something uniquely uplifting about warm days in the spring.

In summary, across the studies, spending more time outside on clear, sunny days, particularly in the spring, was found to increase mood, memory, and openness to new ideas. People who spent their time indoors, though, had the opposite effect, and one possible explanation for this result is that people consciously resent being cooped up indoors when the weather is pleasant in the spring.

People in industrialized nations spend 93 percent of their time inside, but researchers suggest that if you wish to reap the psychological benefits of good springtime weather, go outside!

This just might be the perfect time of year to turn off your computer and lay a Post-it note on your desk (with a copy of this article) that says “OUT OF OFFICE”. Catch an afternoon ballgame, go fishing or just frolic around a park. You’ll feel better, smarter and become more open-minded. If your boss asks ‘what’s up?’ – just say “I’m brain training!”

Stop Your Complaining!!

complainWe all complain.

Even if you are the happiest person in the world, you still complain sometimes.

So, why do we do it?

Most people don’t realize how often they complain because it has become a habit and, like all habits, it tends to be so familiar that it becomes invisible.  There is a basic desire in human beings to connect with one another.  People use  complaining as a conversation starter because it’s an easy way to find common ground. We use complaints as icebreakers. We often (and without even thinking about it as complaining) start a conversation with a negative observation because we feel that will help us connect with strangers.  For example, in a closed space like an elevator, we might say “It’s really hot out there today!”  When strangers complain about the weather in order to initiate a conversation, or when airline passengers complain about their flight delay, it helps build solidarity.

Despite having definite negative connotations, complaining can also be a feel-good factor for the complainer.  We sometimes complain to get acknowledgement and sympathy or to simply  vent and get something ‘off our chest’.

Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable –complaining isn’t good for you.

When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future — so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.  You can’t blame your brain.  Who’d want to build a temporary bridge every time you need to cross a river?  It makes a lot more sense to construct a permanent bridge.  So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent.  Scientists like to describe this process as, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely.  Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.  Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

Another reason we tend to complain is that it’s easier to complain than it is to solve the problem.

Research has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought.  Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

Complaining is also bad for your health.

While it’s not an exaggeration to say that complaining leads to brain damage, it doesn’t stop there.  When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival.  One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.

All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.

It’s not just you…

Human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy.

The down-side is you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects of complaining. Be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything.  Complainers want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves.  Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers.

Tips to help you stop complaining:

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.  When you feel like complaining, shift your attention to something that you’re grateful for. This isn’t merely the right thing to do; it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%.  People who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels.  Any time you experience negative or pessimistic thoughts, use this as a cue to shift gears and to think about something positive.  In time, a positive attitude will become a way of life.

When you have something that is truly worth complaining about, use solution-oriented complaining.  Think of it as complaining with a purpose. Solution-oriented complaining should do the following:

  1. Have a clear purpose. Before complaining, know what outcome you’re looking for. If you can’t identify a purpose, there’s a good chance you just want to complain for its own sake, and that’s the kind of complaining you should nip in the bud.
  1. Start with something positive. This helps keep the other person from getting defensive. For example, before launching into a complaint about poor customer service, you could say something like, “I’ve been a customer for a very long time and have always been thrilled with your service…”
  1. Be specific. Address only the current situation and be specific. Instead of saying, “Your employee was rude to me,” describe specifically what the employee did that seemed rude.
  1. End on a positive. If you end your complaint with, “I’m never shopping here again,” the person who’s listening has no motivation to act on your complaint. In that case, you’re just venting, or complaining with no purpose other than to complain.  Instead, restate your purpose, as well as your hope that the desired result can be achieved, for example, “I’d like to work this out so that we can keep our business relationship intact.”

Is playing video games good for the brain?

“Is playing video games good for the brain?” I have been asked this question many times and have always answered “with moderation,” as the problem solving and hand eye coordination involved could certainly have positive impacts.  Growing research has begun to increasingly support this claim, which often elicits the parental response of “but do we really need all the weapons?”. Sadly enough, the answer is yes. Research supports that games with the most powerful neurological effects are the most controversial as well, the first person shooters.

The January/February issue Scientific American Mind offers a good overview of the positive and negative qualities associated with playing video games.  While 90% of all kids play video games, the average age of a gamer is 33, and many adults indulge in the sensory delight as well.

Gamers of all ages have been found to have: *  Better detail detection   * Better eye hand coordination   * Improved eyesight and visual attention   * Better spatial attention   *Better decision making when a quick response is needed   * Better at assessing new visual information   * Able to manage multiple streams of information

There is no doubt that the rich graphics and the complex story lines stimulate the brain reward system, releasing dopamine that is associated with pleasure.  While that dopamine release sparks learning, it also encourages continuous play, which brings about the even more controversial notion of gaming addiction.  A recent Harris poll shows that 8.5% of the children in the U.S. show signs of addiction to video games.

Another question that follows in tandem with the above is whether video games trigger aggression? The body dumps stress hormones during game play, reacting to the stressful stimuli by preparing for a fight.  It doesn’t usually last long after the play is disengaged, but this may affect the way the child perceives the world.

All being said, my answer on the subject of video games and learning stays the same; “everything in moderation.” Gaming is here to stay, and by embracing it and seeking a better understanding of its effects on cognitive development, we can maximize its benefits and mitigate its shortcomings.

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