Category Archives: Thinking and the Brain

Clutter in your surroundings causes clutter in the mind:
“I don’t have time to deal with this mess.”

“Clarity” by Mimi Stuart ©

Disarray clutters the mind

Clutter in your environment creates clutter in the mind and vice versa. Clutter in your home, office, and car tends to correspond to the clutter in your mind, in your relationships, and in your life.

Living in an environment where it is difficult to find things and difficult to think leads to chaos and indecision. In such an atmosphere, the anxiety of being overwhelmed by stuff stifles your focus and potential.

Accumulation of clutter has its basis in fear

Some people fear never having enough. People who have experienced deprivation during their lifetime, whether through war, poverty, or hard times, understandably find it difficult to throw things out, fearing they may need them in the future.

Others equate possession with security. Being surrounded by possessions gives them the feeling of having value or being loved. Acquiring and retaining things makes them feel more secure.

Many people simply dread the task of re-organizing and removing clothes, papers, and stuff. They dislike the emptiness they feel when doing something so tedious. Instead, they focus on more stimulating activities — like shopping for more stuff!

Clutter is oppressive

By avoiding the tedium of organizing and throwing out possessions, you basically become hostage to them. Your possessions ultimately possess you and create chaos in your life. Disorganized papers, for instance, can lead to unpaid bills, fights about money, wasted time, and family disorder. A cluttered, messy home is depressing and weighs a person down with the burden it creates.

Making room for possibility

A de-cluttered home provides an atmosphere of serenity and possibility. There’s no need to swing to the extreme of immaculate orderliness that may create a feeling of sanitary lifelessness. It’s a reasonably clutter-free environment that creates harmony around us, and makes room in our lives for a range of new possibilities.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Order and Spontaneity.”

Text… phone call… email…
“Oh…what were you saying?”

“FIRE” — Jarome Iginla by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

What happens to your memory when you multi-task? It turns out that texting or cell phone interruptions mingled into face-to-face conversations weakens your memory. Fragmented attention does not allow you to focus on any one thing long enough to code it into your memory well. Poor memory leads to making frustrating mistakes and wasting time. Research shows that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a given task and will make 50% more mistakes.

More importantly, fragmented attention does not make the person you’re talking to feel valued. Plus it’s just rude!

Focused attention is essential to working memory. Neuropsychologist John Arden explains that, “if working memory is impaired, long-term memory will experience a famine of new information. If the road to long-term memory through working memory is blocked, the ‘supplies’ or memories can’t get through.”

If, for example, you are texting during dinner while conversing with your family, your focus will be fragmented and your working memory jeopardized. When you are distracted, you forget the detail of the story being told — your working memory hasn’t been encoded into your prefrontal cortex yet. So you have to ask, “What were you just talking about?” after glancing at a text.

Paying attention is key to good memory. Arden recommends the following to cultivate memory:

1. Resist having your attention fragmented.

2. Schedule social media, text messaging, and phone calls to specific times of the day, when others are not wanting your attention.

3. Focus your attention on each task until it is completed. With better prefrontal cortex activation, your working memory will function well enough to code information into your long-term memory.

It pays off considerably to pay full attention to the work at hand and the people around you — it enhances your memory, makes you more effective, and improves your interaction and relationship with others.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference and great reading: John B. Arden’s “Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.”

Irrational beliefs: “I feel like a failure because I failed a class.”

"Think" - Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

“Think” – Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

Einstein learned to speak late, at the age of four. Bill Gates’ first business venture failed. Walt Disney got fired for his lack of imagination and good ideas. Are any of these people a failure? Of course not. Most of us who are not famous are not failures either, even though we may have failed a class, gotten a divorce and much more.

Irrational thinking

Yet people often unknowingly hold faulty beliefs that cause them to suffer from their own self-imposed negative emotions. For example, people hold mistaken beliefs such as “In order to be a worthy person I must get great grades, I must make a marriage work, I must get the best job, or I must have the perfect life.”

Unfortunately, such irrational thinking will have unhealthy consequences. It may cause a person to feel depressed and miserable, which in turn will make him or her less effective and less capable of dealing with or improving any given situation.

The cognitive approach to psychology holds that unhappiness often stems at least in part from our irrational beliefs. These irrational beliefs distort the way we see others, ourselves and the world. If either our thoughts are inaccurate or our reasoning is irrational, our emotions and behavior can become disturbed and inappropriate, causing harm to ourselves and others.


1. Identify the irrational belief.

2. Analyze the facts more objectively.

3. Re-interpret your belief based on reality.

4. Adapt to improve the situation.

Our thoughts have great influence over how we feel about ourselves. Most of us are unaware of all the assumptions we continuously make. Therefore, the key is to learn to monitor your thoughts and then check them against reality by discussing them with your friends or a therapist.

Example: “I failed in my marriage.”

By exploring the assumption that divorce is a failure, for example, we find that there is no evidence that one must have a good marriage to be a successful, worthwhile and happy person. A good marriage might be great for some, but it is not necessary for health, fulfillment and happiness. Besides it takes two motivated and compatible people to have a good marriage. It is wishful thinking for someone to think that one person can be responsible for a good marriage on his or her own.

Through any disappointing relationship we learn about ourselves and others. We may learn, for example, that we need to set better boundaries, to have more fun, to be less controlling, to avoid people who are controlling, etc. By viewing a marriage and subsequent divorce as a meaningful experience including both joy and suffering, rather than a failure, we can learn from the experience, and perhaps even cherish some of the memories.

Example: “I feel like a failure because I failed a class.”

Similarly, when you realize that getting a bad grade does not make you a failure, your emotional response to bad grades might be sadness or frustration rather than self-loathing or depression. Sadness and frustration are often healthy negative emotions that may lead you to transform a situation, e.g., to study harder, get a tutor or change classes. Such emotions trigger reflection and the realization that something needs to be changed. Disappointment in life is inevitable, but can pave the path to improvement and change.

By becoming more objective, you can avoid feelings of self-loathing that cause people so much grief and make it difficult to move forward in life. Instead, appropriate negative feelings cause us to reflect and to focus on making changes rather than dwelling miserably on perceived failure.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Commonly attributed to Darwin

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Irrational thinking: ‘I’ll reject them before they reject me.’”

Read “Mind reading: ‘You just don’t like spending time with me!’”

Read “Catastrophizing: ‘I failed my test. Now they’ll know how stupid I am. I’ll never get into college and get a decent job.’”

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

“I hate it when I’m judgmental.”

"Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr" by Mimi Stuart Live the Life you Desire

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr” by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

While judging too harshly or quickly may be harmful to you and your relationships, being discerning and making quick judgments is a critical skill for survival as a human being.

Making judgments is necessary.

First, we need to determine when making quick judgments is useful and necessary, and when it is inappropriate or harmful.

Our life experiences allow us to make quick general assumptions in order to survive in the world and save time. We don’t have the time to thoroughly get to know every person we meet or to completely analyze each situation. So we make certain assumptions from a myriad of subtle clues, such as the way someone talks, dresses, moves, and glances around the room. Our assumptions may be wrong, but on the whole they save us time and often avert danger or disagreeable circumstances by enabling us to make quick judgments based on intuition and the given circumstances.

Imagine being interviewed for a job by someone who cruelly reprimands her secretary right in front of you. While she may be responding to other stresses in her life, your quick decision or judgment not to work for her may save you a lot of heartache in the future.

Now imagine walking down a dark city street and approaching several young men in pants sagging to the ground walking with a tough-guy swagger. While these young men may be on their way to the library and pose no danger to you, through experience, you may conclude that young men dressed that way are more likely to be dangerous than a group of older women dressed in suits. While such stereotypes may not be a reason to arrest someone, they may be a reason to remain alert.

Harsh judgments or intolerance is destructive.

It is important to avoid overly severe or disparaging judgments. When we judge harshly and treat other people with hatred, contempt, or intolerance, then we are causing ourselves to live in a small-minded state of fear which diminishes our well-being as well as that of others around us.

“When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself”

~Earl Nightingale

Intention and balance are key.

Yet we deceive ourselves if we think we can live with total tolerance and thereby avoid making judgments. Very often, especially in critical moments, we don’t have time to gather full information; nor do we need it. In fact, we would be naïve, waste time, and harm ourselves if we stopped making judgments, including snap assessments.

Throughout life, intention and balance play key roles. Depending on the circumstances, if we balance tolerance with discernment, understanding with self protection, and our past experiences with an openness to the unexpected, we are probably on the right track.

Avoid being overly judgmental toward yourself as well.

Ironically, when you say that you hate it when you’re judgmental, you are being judgmental about yourself. The implication is that you are bad or hateful. That is overly-harsh, which is not the most effective way of adjusting your judgments. If you are trying to become more tolerant, then be more understanding toward yourself as well. Don’t punish yourself for a natural process of learning from past experience. Just attempt to be less severe in all your judgments.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Watch “Distinguishing Harmless from Malicious Gossip.”

Watch “How To Respond To Malicious Gossip.”

Read “Judgment: ‘My co-worker is an idiot.’”

Read “Gossip: ‘I can’t stand malicious gossip, but sometimes I end up participating in it!’”

Read “Important Decision Making: ‘I’ve looked at the pros and cons, and think I should buy this home.’”

“I’m overcome with sadness about this divorce.”

"Glissando" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Emotions of sadness and grief often expose the depth of a person’s feelings of loss, love, or longing. Cutting off those feelings may result in losing connection to the heart. If there is no time for grieving, the feeling of loss mounts until you develop a fear of the hollow place inside.

However, dwelling too long in a state of sadness can cause you to cultivate a chronic state of sadness. Neurologist John Arden shows that sustained thoughts and feelings of sadness can lead to a neurological perpetuation of sad thoughts and feelings.

For instance, in grieving about a divorce, people may have thoughts such as, “How could I have let this happen?” or “I’m no good at relationships,” or “I’ve been so stupid.” If sadness turns to brooding over thoughts like this, the thoughts become neurologically connected with the feeling of sadness. A person then can become stuck in a rut of obsessive negative thinking.

Dr. Arden states,

The longer you stay in a low emotional state, the greater is the probability that those neurons will fire together when you are sad and will therefore wire together. As a result, this will become the chronic foundation of your emotional experience.

Succumbing to and remaining in a perpetual state of sadness can cause a vicious cycle that makes it hard to move onto other emotional states.

While it is necessary and healthy to feel sadness at times and to grieve, it is important to avoid creating an entrenched neuro-network of sadness. It becomes necessary to seek situations where one can experience other thoughts and feelings.

After experiencing some time of grieving for a loss, ask yourself “What could I learn from this?” By focusing on learning and growing, you break the negative emotional cycle. Ask yourself questions, such as, “What could I do to make my life more fulfilling?” or “What thoughts would make me feel more gratitude right now?”

Here are some ideas of how to step out of all-consuming sadness:

– Try calling a friend just to say hello.

– Play music from a time in your life attached to good memories.

– Volunteer at a local hospital, church, or community center.

– Pick a language, any language you’ve ever wanted to learn, and enroll in a course in person or online.

– Improve your vocabulary in your own language (

– Write a list of projects you’ve always wanted to do, but never had time for (painting, re-organizing, etc.), and pursue one and take the first step towards making that a reality.

Sadness is a deep human emotion that highlights the transience of life. It is a reminder that life wants to be lived whole-heartedly.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Tough Guys: ‘Everyone looks up to my uncle for being tough as nails, but he scares me and doesn’t seem to like me. Am I too sensitive?’”

Read “I found out my daughter has cancer. All I can do is cry and worry.”

Read “Transformational Vocabulary: ‘I’m angry, totally confused, and an emotional mess over these overwhelming problems.’”

Reference: Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life by John B. Arden.

Dependent Young Adults:
“We’ve given you every advantage! Don’t you want to do something with your life?”

"Take Off" — Blue Angels by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Many of today’s teenagers and young adults are smart and knowledgeable, but lack direction and self-sufficiency. Moreover, young adults who live at home often feel resentment toward their parents for enabling their dependence. With ambivalence, they readily take advantage of support being offered, yet feel resentful for being dependent. Even trust-funders of the super wealthy, who gladly accept financial support, often lack purpose and feel deficient as a result of their cushy dependence.

Initiative and Independence

In our Western culture, economic independence leads people to feel self-empowered and capable. It feels good to be able to rely on yourself, to take care of yourself, and to feel capable of pursuing your own goals.

Although parents may have the best intentions, they can handicap their children by over-protecting and coddling them. Teenagers who are given too much turn into adults who lack initiative and impulse control, often becoming under-achievers. They may act as though they willingly reject the ambitions of the mainstream, but often they are simply afraid of their own ability to persevere and to withstand failure.

The only way to learn perseverance and initiative is through experience, which usually occurs when you have no other choice. You get comfortable with the possibility of failing when you have to start trying and failing, and are no longer daunted by it.

Prefrontal Cortex Development

Until recently it was thought that the prefrontal cortex develops fully by age 20 or 25. More recent research shows that this part of brain development is not age dependent, but contingent upon experience, that is, the experience of controlling impulses, having to plan and use one’s judgment, and suffering the consequences for bad judgment. So children whose parents make all their decisions, and whose activities are limited to well-structured schoolwork and regimented sports, may have delayed prefrontal cortex development, despite high IQs and grades.

If our young adult children are living at home rent free, and we are cooking all the meals and doing all the laundry without them lifting a finger, they are missing out on developing their prefrontal cortex’s ability to plan, make judgments and develop the basic habits required for living on their own.

Moreover, the transition to moving out will be more difficult than if they have to pay rent, do their own laundry and contribute to shopping, cooking, and cleaning. In the latter case, the transition to live on their own will be quite easy, with only a few additional requirements such as signing a lease and paying utilities on time.

Increased Responsibility, Decreased Handouts

By making most of the decisions for our children, we weaken them. By allowing them to make decisions and requiring them to take responsibility for their actions, we strengthen them.

The least traumatic way to help children gain the habits of responsibility and self-sufficiency is through gradually increasing their responsibility and independence. Like anything we learn, progressive advancement is much easier than dramatic revolution. Running a marathon can kill us if we’re out of shape. Yet, almost anyone can do it if they take the time to train properly and continuously escalate their capabilities.

A loving environment at home that fosters independent thinking and appropriate decision-making and that encourages responsibility, self-sufficiency, and contribution, helps form children into capable young adults. Summer jobs are a worthwhile experience, and quite different from summer camp in that the child is not the client to be pleased, but the employee who needs to please the customers and the employer. Children learn the value of work and money when their parents pay for less and less, other than college tuition, and when they are responsible for contributing and for buying their own non-essentials as teenagers and most everything else as young adults.

Rather than projecting their feelings of inadequacy as resentment on their parents, self-empowered and independent young adults tend to feel gratitude and respect for their parents.

Nothing has more strength than dire necessity.


by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Watch the movie “Failure to Launch.”

Read “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” by Alison Gopnik.

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

Read “Self-control: ‘I really want to get this new ipod today Mom.’”