Category Archives: Thinking and the Brain

Screen Time
From the Headmaster—Guest Author Jon Maksik

“Think” – Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

GUEST AUTHOR Jon Maksik writes:

I sometimes joke that in a few millennia humans will have evolved into stooped beasts able only to look down at whatever glowing device they hold in one hand. But, how naïve; of course, Apple will trump Darwin and implants will preserve our posture. What though of our ability to distinguish between virtual reality and…well, reality? What of our ability to pay attention to one another and to the world around us?

Alarmist hyperbole? Walk into any restaurant, any sporting event, any school, any place at all where people are gathered, and look around. How many people do you see looking at a screen—or two? How often do you see a family of four eating together when each of them is looking at a phone? How often do you see people sitting next to one another, each on a device and never exchanging a word or a look? Exactly.

This is old news by now, so old that we barely remember the quaint days of yore when we scoffed at people bellowing pressing news into their cellphones: “I’m in the vegetable aisle at the market. Where are you?” As we’ve become increasingly inured to the beeping, pinging, quacking, barking, and ringing that intrude on our lives, we veer from grudging acknowledgement of a problem to celebrating the cleverness of the marketing geniuses who sell us so much of what we so rarely need. What we don’t do is address the problem for what it is: an addiction.

More alarmist hyperbole? Ok. How often do you check your email, texts, and social media? How often without justifying it, without thinking that you might better spend your time in other ways? Do you dare to calculate the number of hours in a day, week, or year that you spend on your devices, “connecting” with other people or, more accurately, their avatars? What is the first thing you do in the morning and the last before you go to sleep? Can you cut back? Can you stop? No, you can’t, but, really, so what? How harmful is this so-called addiction?

We’re beginning to find out, to go beyond the anecdotal and actually find out. Two recent studies provide some answers: We risk brain function; we risk our ability to engage with other people; we risk the ability to pay attention to one thing for very long. We risk our cognitive ability; our emotional equilibrium, and we risk depression. We risk altering or destroying relationships with the people we love because we don’t pay attention them. We risk friendships and, yes, we risk that vague notion of “happiness.”

Have a look at some specific findings.

“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

“Your Smartphone Reduces Your Brainpower, Even If It’s Just Sitting There”

When I showed these articles to a friend of mine, she asked me how I thought parents might best talk to their children about the problem. I think a better question is how adults and children can talk with each other about it. Two parents wielding cellphones and warning children about the dangers of too much screen time is akin to two parents wielding martinis and warning children about drinking. Besides, it is axiomatic that children have robust powers of observation. Even very young children miss little that occurs in their families; adolescents miss next to nothing. We adults aren’t fooling anyone. If it’s true that young people stand to lose the most from “screen addiction,” it’s also true that adult addiction can have an equally profound impact.

So, how do we talk with our children about all of this? We can save time and avoid the, “When I was your age” trope; and we can skip the Luddite vs. techno-savvy argument because we share the same addiction. Given those time-savers, we might consider discussing what’s important in our lives, what’s wonderful about what we share as families, what’s cool and useful about our devices and what isn’t, about what we gain and what we risk losing. Certainly, we might share some persuasive evidence, like that noted in the articles above, but hold the pontificating. This is one of those times when we are enmeshed in the same fast-moving phenomenon and we are no less vulnerable than our children. That’s an advantage, as it turns out, because it allows us to begin a collaborative conversation

And, perhaps vulnerable is a good word to consider. We are, demonstrably, every bit as vulnerable as our children and it’s good for them to see that vulnerability, to understand that this is not about “responsibility” or taking out the trash. We have no other motive than to help one another to live in the world—the real one, the off-screen world, the world of our friends and loved ones. Those are the people with whom we need to connect.

by Jon Maksik, Ph.D., who served as headmaster of the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, from 1987 until his retirement in 2006.

Read Jon Maksik’s “The Truth About Success” and other articles.

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.