Category Archives: Thinking and the Brain

“I knew the negative consequences, but couldn’t resist.”

"Wisdom" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a momentous study on the significance of the ability to delay gratification.* A preschool child would be seated at a table in front of a marshmallow, and was given the choice to eat the marshmallow immediately or to receive a second one if he or she could resist eating it for fifteen minutes.

A minority ate the marshmallow immediately while 30% were able to control their impulses long enough to get the second marshmallow. Most tried to resist temptation but soon gave up.

Many years later, the original researcher, Dr. Mischel, discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification became significantly more competent, emotionally balanced, and dependable than those who could not resist instant gratification. They also scored 250 points higher on the SATs, worked well under pressure and in groups, were more confident, and reported being happier in their lives.

Brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (more active in the more impulsive children, an area also linked to addictions.)

Mischel’s studies suggest that the ability to wait for a reward involves the “strategic allocation of attention”, that is, the ability to purposely focus one’s attention away from the desirable object. The successful preschoolers, for instance, would distract themselves by moving around, pretending the marshmallow was a stuffed animal, covering their eyes, tapping their fingers, or looking at anything other than the marshmallow.

They also had the ability to consider and hold in their minds the future outcome rather than being swept away by the present temptation. Either through a genetic predisposition or by having been raised in an environment where they learned to wait for what they wanted, they had the capacity to act on the basis of long-term satisfaction rather than instantaneous pleasure.

Ideally, we can learn to enjoy much of the present while working toward a desirable future. In fact, once we’re able to consider both the present and the future simultaneously, then instant gratification loses some of its allure when we know that it could harm our future.

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

~Albert Einstein

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

* The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel.

Recommended video showing the Marshmallow test by Dr. Walsch who wrote the book “No: Why Kids–of All Ages–Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.”

Read “I feel terrible about not being able to buy my kids what all their friends have. But I can’t afford to buy them new ipods and shoes right now.”

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

"Intuition" by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

When you make a big decision, do you think it’s best to:

A) Make an immediate decision,

B) Take some time to think about the pros and cons and then decide, or

C): Consider the pros and cons, then forget about it and do something else, and later come back to make a decision?

It turns out that people are happiest with their decisions when they do C), that is, take some time, get distracted from thinking about the issue, and then make a decision based on reason and their intuition.

While the unconscious gets blamed for a lot of emotional upheaval, when decisions are complex, the unconscious is able to contribute vital information inaccessible to the conscious mind.

Conscious thought focuses well on straight-forward issues. Conscious decision-making processes, such as listing pros and cons and studying statistics, are best used when there are just a few concrete variables in the decision, like deciding what lawn mower to buy.

The unconscious, on the other hand, has a holistic ability to do parallel processing and access countless hidden clues about people and situations that the conscious mind does not access easily. It can pick up obscure patterns and connections, as well as hidden emotional and physical sensations.

The unconscious works best on a particular problem when the conscious, rational mind is not interfering with the unconscious because it is distracted by some other endeavor. “I better sleep on it,” is a wonderful way to allow the unconscious to uncover those key factors in deciding whether to buy a particular home, for example. Such factors might include the emotional impact on you, the feeling of the neighborhood, the subtle cues like smells and views, and perhaps clues of construction quality not picked up consciously.

In this age of rapid communication, people might make better decisions when they resist the temptation to make snap decisions or even to simply list the pros and cons. In addition to using objective reasoning, they might take a bike ride, sleep on it, watch a movie, or take a couple of weeks for big decisions and see what the unconscious has to contribute.

It is no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else. Sometimes it is years before I see the way forward. In the case of information loss and black holes, it was 29 years.

~Stephen Hawking

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Recommended: David Brooks “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.”

Read “Black and White Thinking: ‘I used to think she was fantastic but it was all a facade. She’s really horrible.'”

Changing your neural synapses: “It’s just the way I am. I have a bad temper and can’t change it.”

"Non-conformist" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

According to the research in neuropsychology, people can change personality traits. However, it takes a great deal of determination and repetition of the new behavior to do so. For example, if you tend to lose your temper easily when frustrated, it takes a lot of effort to stay calm.

Yet, each time you succeed in repeating your new desired behavior, such as staying calm or generating a good mood, it becomes just a bit easier and quicker to transition into that mood the next time.

The neuroplasticity of the brain allows new neural connections to be formed throughout your life. Every time you repeat a new behavior, the networks in the orbitofrontal cortex become a little more efficient at re-enforcing that behavior—the neural pathways run more quickly, like a road that’s being cleared of obstacles and then paved.

With each repetition, PET scan studies show that the associated brain regions work progressively more rapidly and skillfully. Axons branch out and new synapses are formed, creating greater efficiency and ease for the next attempt to resist the old behavior and employ the new behavior.

So there’s some truth to the old adage that it takes willpower to change a bad habit. The less you lose your temper, the weaker those neural connections responsible for that behavior become, and the less prone you are to lose your temper in the future.

The important thing is to repeat the desired habit, and soon it will become ingrained and quite natural—a new way of being.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

~Albert Einstein

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Facial expressions: She says I frown all the time. That’s just me.”

Read “Fears and phobias: I avoid going out in public because I don’t like talking to strangers.”

Asperger’s Syndrome: “Look me in the eye when I talk to you!”

"Cosmos Background" by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

In our Western culture we look people in the eye to show respect. However, this simple gesture is not an easy one for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a low-level type of autism.

Children with Asperger’s typically have normal language and intellectual development. They may have large vocabularies and a fine ability to organize and understand material objects.

Yet, they avoid eye contact during conversations because visual interference is distracting to them.

Most people can internally mirror facial expressions and tone of voice to improve their understanding of what a speaker intends to communicate. For someone with Asperger’s, however, mirroring—or reading emotional states—is difficult. They have difficulty reading people’s feelings through body language and facial expressions and may not recognize subtle differences in speech tone that alter the meaning of others’ speech. Thus, they often tend to miss social cues.

Yet, like most people, a person with Asperger’s wants to be liked and to have friends. When they feel rejected for being odd and lacking the ability to connect easily, they feel alone and hurt.

So when you see a child or an adult who doesn’t look you in the eye, don’t assume they are being disrespectful. Be compassionate and imagine being in their shoes.

Even if a child does not have Asperger’s, but is simply shy or thinking about other things, the effect of demanding that he or she look at you only increases the child’s desire to withdraw. It’s better to kindly explain to the child that it’s helpful in this culture to occasionally glance at people in a conversation because it generally signifies respect. After that, kindness and acceptance are the best way to relate to those with Asperger’s as well as those who are merely shy.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Reference: John Elder Robison’s “Look me in the eye: my life with Asperger’s.”

Read “Dont Blame: ‘Who tracked all this mud into the house?'”

“I often feel as though something bad is going to happen.”

"Vision" — Ernie Els by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

People who frequently have a premonition that something bad will happen often grew up in an environment where bad things occurred on a regular basis. These “bad” things don’t have to be dramatic such as violence or shouting. They might be more subtle, though equally agonizing, such as being ignored or receiving cold glares.

People growing up in such an environment can develop a defense system that keeps them on high alert for danger. This constant vigilance then gets internalized and leads to an ongoing sense of anxiety.

Neuro-plasticity research shows that you can change this high anxiety outlook —by replacing each thought with a reasonable substitute.

So, when you feel that something bad might happen, first check to see if everything is normal and safe. Then, consciously replace the worried thought with a positive thought. Finally add the thought, “Whatever will be will be,” or “Que sera sera.”

If the negative thought pattern is severe and getting in the way of your well-being, a psycho-therapist trained in EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) — an effective treatment for trauma — can often help you change those negative thought patterns.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Reference: EMDR Institute, Inc.

Read “I hate feeling so much fear.”

Fear: “I hate feeling so much fear. How can I get rid of it?”

"On the Edge" -- Theo Fleury by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you Desire

Fear is an emotional response that alerts you to potential danger like a car’s warning light. Without a warning, you could get into a lot of trouble.

On the other hand, if that warning light is as loud as one of those security alarm systems, which screech at you “INTRUDER! INTRUDER!” it will scare the day lights out of you. Being overcome by fear can cause mental paralysis and panic, and it will make it difficult to deal with situations rationally. As a result, the warning grows louder and the fear compounds.

It’s more effective to treat fear as an indicator telling you to be alert and look at your situation with an eye toward short and long-term consequences.

Obviously, if the danger is a life and death matter like a child falling into the road then you must act quickly in defense of the child. But in most cases we can take time to resolve things that we fear.

First, with a pen in hand and the serenity prayer* in mind, be creative and imagine various potential actions you could take. Second, look rationally at your priorities and carefully weigh the pros and cons. Third, figure out and take the appropriate first step.

Once you start creatively listing potential actions and thoughtfully analyzing those choices, you have engaged other parts of your mind. This will help alleviate the panic, as well as help avert or minimize any potential danger.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Catastrophizing.”

* The Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace…”