When a person stops thinking about one thing and starts thinking about something else, often the switch in thoughts is triggered by an emotion. Specifically, moving from one thought to another can be described as removing one thought from conscious thinking, and replacing it with another thought into conscious thinking.

Why do you start thinking a new thought? Why does a new thought move into your conscious thinking? It might be that you start thinking a new thought because you touch, see, and hear something (Damasio (1999)), because you have a feeling and that triggers this thought (Damasio), because you have a thought that triggers this thought (Damasio & LeDoux (1996)), or because you become for an instant more self-awareness (LeDoux). And there are probably even more other stimuli that may trigger a new thought.

I’m interested in looking at emotions as triggering a thought moving into conscious thinking. Part of Merriam-Webster’s definition of emotion is that it is “subjectively experienced as a strong feeling . . . typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” An emotion is a set of sensations.

How can emotions trigger thoughts? Not every emotion has to trigger a change in thought. For example, a person can have three different emotions while thinking about the same topic, but on the fourth emotion, the person may switch to thinking about a different topic.

What is the basis for the assumption that emotions can trigger thoughts?

  1. First of all, it appears that on a biological level, feelings come before thoughts. Myers describes that researchers have identified pathways in the brain that allow feeling to precede thinking. Myers describes that brain research by Joseph LeDoux and Jorge Armony shows that there is an emotional pathway that goes from the eye to the amygdala (feeling) and this bypasses the intellectual cortex (thinking). Myers concludes, “This makes it easier for our feelings to hijack our thinking than for our thinking to rule our feelings” (p. 37).
  2. Additionally, Ekman (2003) says that emotions arise when something that matters to a person happens or is about to happen. Why would emotions be able to trigger a change in thoughts? Ekman says, “The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behavior” (p. 19). Thus, an emotion of boredom at work may trigger a desire to be in the emotion of joy, and that may trigger the behavior of taking a break from work in order to get ice cream.
  3. Another reason for this assumption of feeling triggering thought is that Haidt postulates that people have an initial reaction to most events in their lives (and he refers to this reaction as the like-o-meter: “do I like this thing?”). Haidt describes a model of moral judgment and his studies around that model. According to his experiments, feelings come first, and then people attempt to rationalize the conclusion of those feelings.

In summary, various research points to the assumption that feelings often trigger thoughts – the biological explanation, the Ekman explanation of emotions motivating behavior, and the Haidt research pointing to initial reactions being motivated by feelings ahead of thoughts.

More to come later this week and next!

Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc.
Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions Revealed. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Goldberg, E. (2005). The Wisdom Paradox. New York: Gotham Books.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Myers, D. (2002). Intuition: Its Power and Perils. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Alvaro Fernandez has started a wonderful blog: the Sharpbrains blog, all about brain fitness! I posted once about the company that Alvaro runs, Sharpbrains, and the interesting articles on that website.

Here are some of my favorites from his posts so far:

And today’s Sharpbrains post relates to both #2 mind-body and #3 decision-making: Mind/Body and the Role of Emotions in Decision-Making.

My favorite section of the sharpbrains blog is the brain exercises section. This section, which is updated with a new brain puzzles every few days, has you shuffle around different parts of your brain – sometime doing estimates and calculations, sometimes interesting word exercises, and my favorite is that Alvaro puts up many visual puzzles, such as the penny question, the Stroop test, and the classic old-lady/young-lady (see the post for an explanation of the below image):

Old Lady / Young Lady

So enjoy Alvaro’s blog! And he says that any questions you have on the brain to email him or to post comments on the blog.

In closing, here is the New Yorker’s recent update of the Old Lady / Young Lady discussion. :)

Turning Into

Given this article Stress Can Shrink Your Brain that we talked about here, if stress may damage the brain, then how can people diminish the effects of stress on their brains?

EXERCISE! is mentioned frequently in the article as an important way to diminsh the effects of stress. Additionally, the Forbes article says, ‘ “Everything we already know about fighting off chronic disease, like getting sufficient sleep, staying active throughout life, and having a healthy diet” may stave off premature aging of the immune system….’

Also, please see this marvelous article by Marian Diamond that includes thoughts on exercise being great for the brain. Here are a few parts of the article:

    “Very important about exercise is that it is essential for bringing oxygen to all parts of the body, and, as I will explore now, especially to the brain. One particular brain structure is most vulnerable to a lack of oxygen, and that is the hippocampus. Early anatomists thought that the hippocampus resembled a seahorse.

    The hippocampus deals with the processing of recent memory and visual spatial processing. As we age and our blood vessels become less efficient, it is very important to get the oxygen through the vascular system up to the hippocampus, as well as to the rest of the brain and body.”

So, to relieve stress, consider getting more oxygen to the brain.

Also, check out the Change or Die article that I mentioned a couple of days ago about the importance of lifestyle. This article takes the view that people should stop blaming genetics or thier environment, and in fact, should start diligently exercising and eating well.

I’m sitting on my couch reading a fiction book a friend of mine gave me when I look over at my plant and realize… it’s time to water it. I figure, well, ok, when I get up for a glass of water, or maybe just after I finish this chapter, or just later, or maybe tomorrow. After I read a little longer, I look back up – again, I remember the plant, and that it needs water right about now – today or tomorrow. So I tell myself I’ll water it for sure if not tonight then tomorrow. Then I get up to get something from the kitchen, and when I come back, I realize the plant is right there.

Finally, and only after reminding myself that “doing something can be easier than not doing!,” do I go into the kitchen, get some water and water the plant, and the one in the next room too.

When you recognize that something needs to be done, and then you put off doing it, you start to occupy the brain with an extra thought. Yes, you can write it down, and then you occupy the brain less. (You’ll only occupy the brain when you return to the list and see “water the plant” on it and then schedule that activity into your day.) But think about it! How long does it take to water the plant? How long does it take to write down “water the plant” and then schedule the time when you’ll do it? EXACTLY!!! :)

This is one of David Allen‘s biggest points: you want to get organized so that your brain has more free time! Less stress on the brain, less minute things to remember and to juggle.

This is like Dave Seah says in describing his father visiting him: “If you clean up after yourself constantly, you will have a clean house! When he walks around the house, he automatically sees things that need to be arranged better or cleaned.”

Maybe it’s starting to sound pretty appealing to just do something at the moment you think of doing it? Maybe it’s starting to sound like an easier way to live? …But what if you start an action (like going through your mail for example) and it turns into too big a project, and then you get behind on your other obligations? That’s a valid concern. David Allen suggests that if something is going to take two minutes – that’s right, two minutes – then do it now. If more, then write it down and plan it.

And the biggest reason to do things rather than putting them off? You can reduce stress on yourself. Trying to remember is occupying your brain. Trying to remember too much may be stressing your brain. In the latest Forbes issue is the article Stress Can Shrink Your Brain. There’s been research on rats that stress physically shrinks parts of the brain. So give your brain a break – don’t burden it with unnecessary stress! Do something rather than remember another ‘todo’ item.

Hi, today’s post is a few links to research about the brain.

Sharpbrains.com – I’m a big fan of this site, especially the resources section, and within the resources section, scroll down past the “books” section to the “articles,” and click on:
* “Change or Die” – Which of these three is the greatest contributor to health – lifestyle, genetics, or environment? The answer may surprise you.
* “Juggling Juggles the Brain” – The brain can physically change.

Emotion vs. logic in investing. A couple of articles:
* Lizards, rats & the investor’s primitive brain – Some examples of emotions winning out over logic.
* Emotion rules the brain’s decisions – What does the brain reveal about your motivation when you think about investing? As shown through brain imaging.

Two friends of mine both just pointed me to one of the best articles that I’ve read in a long time. It’s called The Expert Mind by Philip Ross in the Aug 06 issue of Scientific American.

The main points are:
* Expertise is Trainable (in the argument of nature vs. nurture, nurture appears to often win in developing experts)
* Expertise is Developed through Practice
* The Practice That Has the Best Results is Repetition with Increased Difficulty (This article emphasizes Anders Ericsson‘s words of “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.”)

Expertise is Trainable (Nurture Wins!)

In the argument of nature vs. nurture, it seems that each side is always looking for evidence to support it. In this article, the author Ross several times repeats that nurture wins. He bases most of the article on the work of Herbert Simon and on the work of Anders Ericsson, and uses chess throughout as the study case.

Here are some examples of practice proving to lead to expertise (the first two are from a 2001 Economist article):
1) A 26-year-old man could in a few seconds find the fifth root of a ten-digit numeral or could raise a two-digit number to its ninth power. The most interesting part is that he had taught himself how to do such calculation-intensive math by studying math-specific memorization for four hours a day – but having started this only at age 20!

Nature vs. Nurture 2) Ericsson trained volunteers to increase the size of their memory significantly. Regular people can remember up to about seven digits easily. Ericsson trained volunteers in increasing their memory, and after one year of practice, two of the volunteers could remember up to 80 and 100 digits at a time.
3) A third example in both the Economist and the Scientific American article is of Laszlo Polgar, who trained his three daughters to become one masters and two grandmaster at chess. Interestingly, Polgar wrote a book called “Bring Up Genius!” before he had children. Then he followed his own techniques, including giving his daughters six hours of chess exercises per day. The youngest is now the 14th best chess player in the world.

Expertise Through Practice. (Not All Practice is the Same.)

Increasing “Chunking”. Increasing the Quality of Connections.

neural connections Now the article gets a little more involved, but I’ll give you just the summary here. How are experts able to remember and recall so much more information, and with such detail and complexity? There’s the Herbert Simon concept of chunking: this means, for example, grouping several different chess game openings into one. Or if you’re a chef, grouping several different ways that you might serve tomatoes into a list of the five best ways.

Using chunking, you are creating a memory “well-organized system of connections,” describes Philip Ross. And the brain remembers best in maps.

Using those well-organized connections, expert chess players are able to look quickly at a chess board that’s had a game in process and even if you were to overturn the pieces, the experts would be able to quickly reconstruct where the pieces had been. But…! (and here’s an example from the article) if you “asked players of various strengths to reconstruct chess positions that had been artificially devised–that is, with the pieces placed randomly on the board–rather than reached as the result of master play,” the opposite would happen! When it came to randomly arranged pieces, the chess experts did not recall the placement of the pieces any better than the amateurs, and in fact, they recalled the placement worse than the amateurs! Because the chess experts were used to recalling piece placements in chunks.

(Here I’m not summarizing, but this is my favorite example from the entire article!)

Mary Had a Little Lamb “Take the sentence “Mary had a little lamb.” The number of information chunks in this sentence depends on one’s knowledge of the poem and the English language. For most native speakers of English, the sentence is part of a much larger chunk, the familiar poem. For someone who knows English but not the poem, the sentence is a single, self-contained chunk. For someone who has memorized the words but not their meaning, the sentence is five chunks, and it is 18 chunks for someone who knows the letters but not the words.”

10,000 Hours and 10 Years

In this 1994 NYTimes article on Peak Performance, author Daniel Goleman describes Herbert Simon’s and Anders Ericsson’s research on expertise. Goleman writes, “The old joke — How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice — is getting a scientific spin.” Ericsson’s research led him to conclude that virtuoso violin performers often have 10,000 hours of practice by the time they are in their early 20’s. Ross in the SA article writes, “Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. ”

10,000 hours or 10 years. This has come to be a calling card for expert knowledge: the 10/10,000 rule.

Dave Seah breaks down the 10,000 hours into more manageable groupings, and he has fun ideas on how to use those hours towards becoming your own “niche” of expert. Alvin describes the trainable structure of expertise and discusses how to increase the impact of your training through – suprisingly and very interestingly to me – your five senses.

Best Practice: Repetition with Increased Difficulty

Nadia Comaneci Tiger Woods

Larry Bird One of my friends who pointed out this article to me said, “it’s not about hitting a golf ball 100 times, it’s about hitting each time at the edge of your abilities.” At that edge, at the brink of challenge, that’s where you can grow. So the best thing you can do to improve within a field is to have an incredible coach, who can lead you along your brink of challenge – or to keep yourself on a very increasingly difficult carefully-paced training system.

Ericsson says that what matters is not experience but “effortful study” and specifically “continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence.”

So, in summary,
expertise is trainable at any age,
practice, practice, practice,
and increase the difficulty continuously!

If you tend to describe a friend by saying, “she’s nice, but a real gossip,” then people may start to associate “gossip” with you. If you call someone dumb, people may start to associate dumbness with you. If you decribe how beautiful your friend is, then people may think of you as beautiful.

She's hot

So shows the research by Mae, Carlston, and Skowronski (1998). David Myers summarizes the Mae et. al. research as a particular tendency that people have “when hearing someone say something good or bad about another, to associate the good or bad trait with the speaker.” Furthermore, Myers points out that this could mean that bearers of bad news get disliked, as do strangers that may remind someone of a disliked person.

This is part of a set of research called “spontaneous trait inference,” which includes infering something about a person based on how you may hear that person describe others. (Also within this field, researchers study the effects of describing, for example, a sad event while drinking coffee, and then the trait of sadness being spontaneously from that point on associated unconsciously with coffee).

One study in this field by Mae, Carlston, Skowronski, and Crawford (1999) works like this: participants are asked to memorize some photo and text pairings, such as a photo of a woman and a description about her character, and then later participants are asked to rank the woman on her character. In the same study, another group is asked to memorize pairings of a photo of a woman and a quote that she uses to describe a friend of hers, and then later participants are asked to rank the woman on her character, and the conclusions drawn about the speaker’s character are the same as if she had been describing herself and not her friend.

Even when in a different study, participants are told that pairings of photos and text are random, participants still describe (when asked two days later) the person in the photo as “cruel” or “kind” depending on the random text that had been written next to the photo. Another study in the Mae et. al. (1999) paper is when participants watch a videotape of actors pretending to be college students that describe their friends. Again, people tranfer those descriptions of friends onto the “college students” themselves.

Here is a cute article in Self-Help Magazine about being careful with gosssip. In the Mae et. al. (1999) study, the authors end the paper with their thoughts, “This has significant practical and theoretical implications. It suggests that gossip and other forms of social discourse may have rather surprising, and often unintended, implications for a communicator. Thus, it supports the cliche that if one cannot say something nice about someone, one ought not to say anything at all. It also indicates that self-presenters may achieve desired trait attributions merely by talking about others who have the desired traits.”

Here, here, and here are some additional articles in this field. Could it then be that you are what you say?

If you’re at a loud party and someone says your name from across the room, you will usually turn. There are things that your mind pays attention to, and things it doesn’t pay attention to. And this is different for different people. So if you “wanna be talkin’ to me,” for each particular person, it can help to know how that person thinks best.

Lila mentioned in her comments here that different people have different ways of remember things. For example, she said, for best retention, some people need to see a list of items while others need to hear them. True that, double true.

I was thinking, “What are the different dimensions along which people learn and think differently?” When you search for “learning styles,” the two main topics that you’ll find are Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic and MBTI, but there are so many others. Today, we check out some of the dimensions along which people think differently!


* Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic
You may have heard this when you were in college: some people absorb information best when it is seen (visual), heard (auditory), or touched/sensed/experienced (kinesthetic). The typical examples are the equation that is written on the board, the equation that is repeatedly spoken in the classroom, and the lab experiment that you perform. Here and here are summaries of the three different styles. Here is a quick assessment you can take to determine your style among the three.

* Myers-Briggs dimensions
I was surprised that there is a lot written about teaching to the four different dimensions of the MBTI type. I was introduced to the MBTI in a business context, and so I’ve never thought of it as a thinking styles assessment, but more as an overall personality assessment – especially for the business context. However there are some sites out there that particularly discuss the learning styles of the MBTI: here and here.
Continue reading

Write as if you, yourself, are a map. Interweave how you come to discover conclusions with the conclusions themselves. I’m reading a book that does this wonderfully.

People remember best in maps. This was the first and most important point of long-time coach David Rock when he spoke at the International Positive Psycholgy Conference last year. We remember best if we can touch it or walk it.

A lot of childhood learning is based on associating learning with body kinesthetics: sing a nursery rhyme and bounce the child up and down, and suddenly, the child learns the rhyme easily. There was a study done with children where researchers asked children to sit in front of a tv and watch a cartoon, and afterwards, the researchers asked the children to explain what happened in the cartoon. The children used their hands to demonstrate while they talked and talked and described the whole story. Then in the test group in same study, the researchers sat children down in front of a tv, and tied their hands to the sofa chair while they watched the cartoon. Afterwards, they asked the children to describe the cartoon (while still not being able to use their hands to gesture since the hands were tied down), and they found the children remembered very, very little of the content of the cartoon. Using the physical space, such as gesturing with hands – and even imagining using the physical space – allows us to remember better.

This is a trick that my friend (whom I sometimes call “the memory guy” because he competes in memory competitions) told me once. He uses this to remember long strings of words. Here, I’ll show you how this works. But first, let’s see how fast you can memorize something anyway.
1) Memorize this list in order fast (actually, get a watch with a second hand, or open up the Date and Time Properties on your computer. ) Keep looking at this list until you can repeat it, in order, without looking. Stop when you can repeat the list having turned your back to the computer and with your eyes closed. Highlight the following line with your cursor:
List (in order): lemon, teddy bear, watermelon, camel, rubik’s cube, rubber duck, baby pacifier, golf club

2) Now, let’s try it the mapping way. First, think of an apartment or house that you know well. Now, think of two specific rooms in the apartment. Now think of the four corners of the two rooms. When I show you the list, imagine walking into one room, looking at it and scanning clockwise each of the four corners, then going into the next room and scanning each of the four corners clockwise. Now, the way you’ll memorize this second list is in your head put one object each into each corner, so when you go to scan, you see that object there along with the other items that really exist in that corner. So, for example, if the first word were dinosaur, then you’d put a dinosaur in the first corner of the first room, setting the dinosaur in your head on top of your real bookshelf in that corner, and seeing him surrounded by those books. And keep setting objects around the corners of room. After the first room, you immediately go into the second room…
Ok, ready? Get ready to time it. Again, you can stop when you can repeat the list in order turned away from the computer and with your eyes closed. Here is the second list:
List (in order): water slide, yoyo, ice cream, white tshirt, strawberry, basketball, scissors, lollipop

Ok, which one did you do faster?
I would bet it’s the second one. Why? Because you used a map. You used the map of the two rooms. And you used your visual and memory processes together to remember the list in order. Associating learning with body kinesthethics.

Another map memory trick is to see in your head the route you take from your home to the grocery store (or any other frequent destination). Then, if you want to memorize a list of items, place those items along the road in your path to the grocery store: at turns and at stop signs. For example, you might place a huge oversized avocado at the corner gas station before you turn left, and three full red tomatoes perched on the following stoplight before you turn right, and so on.

I’m reading The Executive Brain by Elkhonon Goldberg. He’s a clinical neuropsychologist and cognitive neuroscientist. The last paragraph of his introduction is so simple and clear: it tells how he will be describing how he came to some conclusions at the same time as describing those conclusions. So, in essence, he gives us a map for following and understanding when and how he reaches his conclusions in neuroscience. And that map is the timeline of his life.

Goldberg says, “I believe that ideas are best understood when considered in the context in which they arise. Therefore, interwoven with the discussion of various topics of cognitive neuroscience are personal vignettes about my teachers, about my friends, about myself, and about the times in which we live.”

Enjoy mapping things out, and playing map-memory games with yourself whenever you have a four-item or eight-item grocery store list (you know, you could do non-multiples of four as well: just don’t fill every corner of each room). :)

And play with writing about ideas in the manner in which they had come to you – unpacking the way in which you figured something out – that story of how you figured it out is sometimes the driver of what it was that you figured out.

Take-away: Write as if you are a map, and as if you’re describing yourself.

Here it is, simple and real:

When you say something good to someone, DO NOT put in anything bad.

That’s it. That simple. When you’re saying good things, keep them good! That’s all. How simple is that?

It frustrates me to no end to hear…
… in the office, “What you did was superb, wonderful, but I just wish you did it all the time.”
…as a couple, “You really matter so much to me, and what you did by coming to my graduation instead of to that conference really matters. I don’t even mind it so much that you’ve missed my last two chamber performances. Thank you.”
…to a friend, “That outfit looks really good on you. And much better than that thing you wore to the charity gala, remember that?”
…with children, “You make me really proud of you. Two A+’s in one week, and a great note from your math teacher! You really should just straighten up in your room a little more.”

There is no high! There is no benefit when you mix the message. What am I saying? That the messenger should be killed? Well, no, ok, I’m not going that far. I’m just pointing out that good combined with bad is semi-good/semi-bad. Here’s the math:
1) good + good + good = good (three pieces of great news or three compliments… together the result is good)
2) bad + bad + bad = bad (three insults…together make a large insult)
3) good + bad = bad (good and bad… together that’s bad)
4) good + good + good + good + good + good + good + bad = bad (n number of good things and one bad thing … together the result is somewhat bad)

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because the brain remembers bad things more easily than it remembers good things. In the fourth example, the brain overweights the bad. That’s just how brains work. It has to do with being on the lookout for danger in the caveman era. If you don’t see the dangerous animal once, you’re gone. If you don’t always observe the butterflies in the sunshine, you’re still ok, you live. Continue reading