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Archive for the ‘Brain’ Category

lip and eye

It starts here.

9pm, heading home from pub trivia at a busy spot near my office. Down on the metro platform, the orange line train pulls in. Only six stops to my station. I’ll be walking the dog by 9:30.

The doors slide open onto a car bubbling with chatter. Summer in DC, the weekend lasts all week. Between nuzzling couples and clusters of young people, a few wilted office drones slouch and sleep. I take one of the few unoccupied seats. Bar hoppers stream out around me.

 

Manspreading.

He takes up a row. Briefcase on its side next to the window, legs splayed, foot halfway into the aisle. As I settle into a corner perpendicular across the car, he catches my eye. I ignore him, pull out my journal and start writing.

The sensation a prickle, a tiny persistent sting against scalp and skin.

He’s still looking.

(more…)

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unwavering

Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .


– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.


– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.


Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”

 

 

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creaturehood

As I shift, so does my son.  I invite him to “special time,” a goofy name for a powerful connection, and he first rolls his eyes. “I’m not doing that.”  The idea of playing just with me for 30 minutes is near the bottom of his list.

“You get to be in charge,” I explain.  “It just has to be between here and the park.”  Also, no screens, and no one’s hurting anyone else.  Other than that, we can do anything he wants.

“Anything?”

“Anything.”

“Can I throw pillows at you?”  His eyes have stopped rolling and now they’re fixed on me.

“Sure, as long as you’re not hurting me.”

“Can we go outside and play a tag game?”

I laugh “Of course.”  Tag is the one thing that I almost always resist when he suggests it.  Chase  my son endlessly around the neighborhood?   I’d rather stay in and clean hair out of the bathtub drain.  As it turns out, it’s not tag or pillows.  “Pirate ship!” he shouts, and runs into the living room to start moving furniture.  We pull out the ladder for scaffolding, king-sized sheets for the mast.  Bug creates turrets using plastic wine goblets.  He also creates something called a “maker” which is a kind of on-deck factory that turns raw materials into weapons.

If someone asked me to describe my son with naked honesty, I might say obstinate, aggressive, bright and powerful.  Curious but easily frustrated.  Sometimes cold and snubs emotional connection.  The boy hates to lose.  He’s an Eeyore on steroids.

If that same someone were to walk into our house during our first shot at Special Time, they’d see an entirely different boy.  Here is a child who is eager and spunky.  He’s creating an elaborate game with unclear structure, and he’s persevering with enthusiasm.  As he turns the form of Minecraft into a real-life activity, he’s engaging me in fizzy conversation.  He’s cracking jokes.

The visitor in our house would meet a boy who is close to his mom, sharing and cooperating, confident enough to be fine with uncertainty.  Here is a Piglet who is ready for anything.

So which boy is he?

We like to think of personality as fixed.  That person in our life is a certain set of characteristics:  maybe kind, a little introverted has good follow-through on commitments but fumbles in front of crowds. This is the person we know, and because we know she’s this way, we have a sense of predictability in our friendship, workplace, or marriage.  If people are changeable, how could we function in our roles?

Indeed, we haven’t needed to ask this question much because most of the common (if mistaken) personality theory that dominates our lives reinforces the notion of consistency.  It’s how we end up with ENFJs in workplace training with ISTPs, figuring out how to cooperate on a team.  Nevertheless, as anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) knows, the test has its flaws.  A question comes up:  “As a rule, you proceed only when you have a clear and detailed plan.”  The test-taker then has to think, In a project meeting with my co-worker?  When coaching my kid’s basketball team?  Cleaning my closets?   Working out at the gym?

Which rule for “as a rule”?  The trainer is little help.  She’ll say, “pick one area of your life and stick with that.”  This test is supposed to map a person’s defining characteristics yet allows the random selection of context and perspective?  A little skepticism is fitting.

The fact that organizational leadership and development professionals still rely heavily on the MBTI is not confirmation of its reliability.  Indeed, there is no replicable research to back it up, and the science is flimsy at best.  The lack of connection to any empirical evidence about “personality type” should gut its foundation and release its hold on us.

“What concerns me is the cultlike devotion of many consultants and practitioners to it without the examination of the evidence,” says Adam Grant, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.


– Lillian Cunningham, “Myers-Briggs: Does it Pay to Know your Type?” in The Washington Post, December 14, 2012.

Corporate training is a $50 billion a year industry.  Its influence is one reason we still believe so firmly in fixed personality traits.  Another is based in the theory that we simply see what we want to see, that we seek out examples of certain traits and fix them to people.  Personality, then, is an illusion.

Yet another curious idea is that personality, while unfixed and changeable overall, is consistent in a particular context.

Lee Ross, a psychologist at Stanford University, has another intriguing idea. . . He thinks we actually are seeing consistency in human behavior, but we’re getting the reason for it wrong. “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation,” he says.  Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, Ross says. And since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.”


– Alix Spiegel, “Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?” from Invisibilia on NPR.

Every so often, I look up exes to see where they’ve wandered.  It’s a rare indulgence — rare enough that when I find them again, they have crossed oceans of life.  One fellow was all braggadocio masking incompetence and sloth.  He was stuck in debt and working a customer-service job he hated.  Now runs his own business.  His company lead tours in the mountains and edu-tains high school groups in the nation’s capital.  The contrast is startling.  It’s a marvel that he’s so completely not who I thought he was. . . or rather, that the man he was at that time and place was only one slice of a much larger, evolving person.

Traits may not be as inherent as we assume.  Change the context, and the person himself can change.

If I want to become someone different (as indeed I do, with regard to how I approach my career and family), it’s not going to work for me to do so in the current stage-set of my life.  If an environment rewards mediocrity, how can a person develop drive?

Shifting the situation invites a reworking of the self.

Taking on a project in a volunteer setting, or stepping into a leadership role in the kiddo’s school, or diving into HOA budget management, or committing to a regular childcare exchange with other parents in the community. . . these are just a few of the ways to “become” someone different.  A new role in a new context allows for the cultivation of qualities not yet fully formed in the familiar self.

My son and I are not “who we are,” despite the inane it is what it is trope that comforts our dissonance and excuses our inertia.  If we aim to invite a fuller version of ourselves, then we must change what we do, and where, and when, and how.


 Image:  Micah Bazant from the Trans Life & Liberation Art Series

 

 

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fairy pot

When we stop trying to find the solution, the solution finds us.  The idea of “adding in the good stuff” is all the rage healthy living.  Don’t worry about giving up cheese fries and soda.  The pull of the food industry is powerful, and fighting it grinds our sense of efficacy down to sawdust.  Instead, do a few leg lifts while brushing teeth.  Put leafy greens beside whatever else is on the plate.  Keep the focus on adding the wholesome.

This same bubbly counsel showed up in a recent parenting class.  When an attendee began slipping down the shame spiral about their ineffective parenting, the instructor reminded us not to worry about what we’re doing wrong.  “Do more of the good stuff,” she said.  Put special time on the schedule.  Focus on connection over correction.

Eventually (the theory goes) these little bits of goodness will crowd out the destructive patterns.

If this works with diet and family, why not mental health?

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Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.


-Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

The last slide on the budget PowerPoint lays out our school’s financial plan:

  • Increase revenue
  • Decrease spending

(Seriously?)

The boss man knows enough to apologize for it but not enough to skip it altogether.  None of us wants to hear it again.  We are familiar with the formula. Every pixel of internet clickbait loops us back around to yet another listicle that peddles yet another version of the same recipe.

Want to get fit?  Exercise more, eat less.

Tackle the day?  Fewer screens, more sleep.

Be a good friend? Listen more, talk less.

A good lover? Less grasp, more give.

Scale it up and the formula breaks down. Good luck giving global overpopulation the “less babies, more birth control” treatment.  Large-scale social problems have to reckon with the complexity of human cultures, histories, and economies.

This is why we love the personal self-improvement principle almost as much as we loathe it.  While its simplicity balms the wounds of chaos, its refusal to acknowledge complexity drives us batty.

Too hooked on your fix? Use less, breathe more.

Struggling with social anxiety or loneliness? Isolate less, connect more.

Stuck in your career? Hide less, lead more.

Anyone who has ever come up against a tough challenge knows that paths are crooked and terrain that at first appeared solid turns to quicksand in a blink.  It’s only when we’re far on the other side of it — or perhaps when we’re judging some other poor sucker’s fight — that we apply the simplicity principle.

I’m not the only one in the room looking at those PowerPoint bullets through rolling eyes.  As if.

As if all our problems could be solved so easily.

But now I wonder.

What if Mr. Micawber is right after all?

Not for everything, but for one thing in particular: when it comes to this life-choking, spirit-sucking, too-many-decades-in-residence depression, what if Mr. Micawber’s formula is exactly the one I’ve never really tried?

More happy, less misery.

Of course it can’t be that easy.  Not for most of us anyway, and definitely not for the hard core clinical pits into which I stumble, body and mind shattered, bruised and slick with mud. . .

Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of metaphor that costs me twenty pounds nought and six.

Happy = revenue.  Misery = expense.

How might this look?  Here’s an example:  When I remember yet again that awful phone call from Friday in which I learned that Bug and I missed an opening from a many-years waitlist for family camp because I called one minute (the registration lady told me) after the last person who got in. . . I say to myself, “Rehashing this makes me sad. I’m going to think about something else now.” Then I cast around for something nice to notice and remind myself that we’re going to have our own adventure this summer, whatever it is.

Or it looks like this: When my kiddo scowls and tells me yet again that he doesn’t love me and in fact I stink like a rotten poop-eating skunk, I consider how much better laughing feels than fussing. I clap my hands in delight and say I love eating rotten poopy skunk carcasses, they’re even better if they’ve been marinated in worm puke. Then we’re giggling and tickling, and our smiles bounce off the walls.

Or it looks like putting on music when I’m home alone and dancing while I do the dishes. Or texting a girlfriend just to say hello. Or carrying colored pencils in my bag so I can doodle while my son carries on with his buddies at a birthday party.

Or just frittering away my time stuck in traffic counting off the day’s 100 blessings.

It looks like noticing when I’ve started to pay the inflated cost of ruminating while missing an opportunity to generate some pleasure revenue.  A person who tends towards depression needs only one thundercloud to knock the account all out of balance again. Building back up from that kind of debt is a wearying toil — an avoidable one, as it may happen.

When I have enough attention to notice, I might choose to forgo the temptation.  Do not overthink, do not give in to self-pity.  Like walking past the Cheetos at the supermarket.  Just don’t.  Sure, those things are familiar but they make me feel disgusting, and really, they don’t even taste that good.

Can it be this stupidly, improbably simple?

Give it a shot, Smirk.

Choose happy whenever possible.  Or colorful, or musical, or goofy. Choose anything that lifts and ignites over anything that weighs and chokes.  Marvel at the beets, smell a bunch of dill.  Imagine what new recipe to make.  Flirt with the butcher.  Hum while trundling down the aisles.  If it increases the happy income, do it.  If it exacts its price in misery, walk on by.

It makes me smile just to begin.

See? Already, I’m saving for happy.

Simple as that.


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Spring-Rain

In Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot every day.  That’s 100 blessings.

So you are or are not Jewish.  Or you are.  And you think maybe a blessing is something like prayer.  Or gratitude.  Maybe it’s different too.  Maybe it’s noticing the azalea bush at the foot of the stairs and the way its blossoms began as thin green threads and now, after their full explosion, rest like a grandmother’s hands against damp leaves.

Maybe it’s also praising the rain.

A blessing is all these things.  It is also more.  You discover this prism of a definition somewhere deep inside the recitation.  You also stumble out on its leading edge, that one you can only reach by covering ground that you hadn’t considered taking before.

Start with 1 (the public library).  Then 2 (the co-worker who always cracks a joke). Lurch and resist your way to 10 (the grandparents, long dead, whose welcome and affection was so complete, you took it completely for granted).

Catch your breath.

When you get to 25 (the neighbors who stop to say hello even when your head’s down and you’re radiating leave me alone and they choose friendliness anyway) you realize you’re one fourth of the way there.  You’ve hit your stride.  This pace is a marvel.  You thought when you started that that there’s no way, not enough good things, and never enough time to get them all in.

By 26, you begin to lift your gaze up and out of yourself (the teachers and the volunteer parents too).  From there to 50, your radius spools out across the community (the folks who volunteer on weekends to rip the invasive shrubs from the park).  By 51 (the friend raising funds for RAIN for Sahel & Sahara and the locals there who dig the wells), you’re spanning the globe.

Catch your breath.

Then cut the line and let it go.

Because you’ll look everywhere you’ve looked every day for years and see what you’ve never seen quite this way.

There will be 72 (Margot’s health)

And 75 (the field of buttercups behind Bob Evans)

And 80 (the way he let me cry and touched my face)

And 81 (all the women who’ve done it on their own and shown the rest of us we can)

And 92 (the web of bus and metro lines that WMATA workers map, maintain, and drive to get us where we need to go)

And 93 (the neighbor who sends a call out condo community listserv anytime there’s a lost dog in the neighborhood, and offers to lead up the search)

And 97 (a break in the clouds after days of rain).

Catch your breath.

Then toss it over the sky and let it sail its way

to 100 (the welcoming arms of this home).

You will see the multitudes, and marvel.  You will find yourself dancing in the living room and swiveling your hips right around the most stubborn ghosts.  You will turn towards your dear one and listen to what’s inside the words.  You will lift every blessing up into your throat and let it become the truth.  You will pause there before speaking, and when you do, it will be with a voice already lit with song.


 Image: “Spring Rain” by Julie Cady Ryan

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Rotary Phone

Paint it white. Remove the bottom and peer into its whispering guts. Lay out the parts in a row and dare your child to build a robot.

Make it ring.

Hang the dial in a sunny window. Measure spaghetti with the holes. Braid the cord into the unruly mane of a wild pony. Replace the numbers with photographs of monuments and dead jazz singers.

Walk through a train station talking into the receiver. For dinner, serve a bratwurst on the cradle. For dessert, a cannoli.

Put a tiny baby down to sleep. Ring the operator and ask for a line to Newark.

Scroll down.

Plant rosemary in it.

Call off the Enola Gay.

Scavenge parts to fix a radio. Smack an intruder in the head. String it across the door to catch your teen trying to sneak out.

Speak into it all the things you wished you’d said.

Hold it to your ear and hear the wheels and waves, Coney Island, Venice Beach.

Carry it into a small closet and put on your tights and cape. Fill it with birdseed and set it out after the first thaw. Open the front and store inside a tiny book filled with photographs of switchboards and phone booths.

Replace the dial with a mirror. A clock. A contour map of Mt. Kilamanjaro.

Stack tinder into its corners to prepare for winter. Stuff the seams with the names of those few still alive who knew you when you were young.

When you have lost your way (or maybe when you’re most sure of it), lift the receiver. Listen for the voice of an absent god.


Learn more about the Alternative Uses Test and divergent thinking.

 

Image: Trendhunter

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