Tag Archives: brain

I grew up in an Asian family, where one believes in fate.  Born at a certain time, day, month, year, preferably “Year of the dragon” – you’ll sail towards the golden sea, without hard work.  I was not born under such lucky stars – and hence embraced American style motivational thinking with open arms.  You can be what you put your heart too.  Is this true?

As a Myers Briggs Type Indicator facilitator and career coach, I am now inclined that nature, nurture and “will” or adaptation through self awareness can help us modify our behaviors.

In “Quiet, the power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop Talking” (Ch 5),  author Susan Cain, interviewed Dr Carl Schwartz, Director of the Developmental Neuroimaging and Psychopathology Research Lab, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines if introverts and extroverts behave differently.  Specifically, through measuring the activity of the amygdala – in shaping the personalities of introverts and extroverts.

In an experiment using a slideshow projecting a crowded room of strangers or some familiar faces, Schwartz found that the amydalae of high reactives (introverts) reacted more to the photos of strangers than low reactives (extroverts). Using a longitudinal study, found that the footprint of a high or low reactive temperament never disappeared in adulthood (what Carl Jung assumed all these while).  Susan Cain calls this the “rubber band theory” of personality.  “We are like rubber bands at rest.  We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much.”  Nature and nurture. Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton.

What’s being processed in the Introvert’s brain in a cocktail party?

A lot.

1. When we greet a stranger in a party, the amygdala (the ancient part of the brain), goes into overdrive.

2. For those relatively skilled in social situations, the neofrontal cortex kicks in to tell you to calm down, and what to do next – shake hands, smile. But conditioning and learning only suppresses the activity of the amygdala, not erase the fear.

3. During times of stress, unwarranted fears came go haywire,  – “when the cortex has other things to do than soothe an excitable amygdala”.  => Solitude and time for meditation works for both introverts and extroverts as you don’t want your amygdala to spin out of control on you.

What should we do:

To conquer fear of public speaking, small talk with strangers etc.

1. Desensitise yourself (and your amygdala) in small doses, over and over again – in a safe environment.

Reassuring. Something I’ve known intuitively.  Don’t just jump into the deep end. Bad advice.  As Japanese say, “Kaizen” or small improvements daily is better. A case in point was when I learnt to ride a bicycle “in one hour” in my forties at the harassment of my husband.  Instead of buying a beautifully crafted bicycle meant for racers as my first bike, so that it can still be used 3 years later and not out-grow it, as he put it, I bought a safe one which I would put my feet on the ground “safely”, to minimise my fear of falling.  Also, I took to “Youtube” and watched many, many bicycle training videos to desensitise myself.

A “one hour miracle”, was actually hours of practice soothing my amygdala which cannot tell the difference between real practice and what the eye sees.

2.  Find your sweet spot.

Once you discover your preferences, organise your life around “optimal levels of arousal“, what Susan Cain calls “sweet spots”.   If you’re happily reading your book in a quiet place, and after 30 mins find yourself re-reading a sentence 5 times, you’re understimulated.  Call a friend, go out for tea.  Now you’re back into your sweet-spot.  But if your extroverted friend who needs a higher level of stimulation, persuades you to follow her to a party after this tea, you may find yourself having to make small talk with strangers, and soon, find yourself “overstimulated“.

What next?  Pair off with someone for in-depth conversation, or go back to your book. Understanding your sweet spot, can increase satisfaction in every area of your life and more.

Ask: How much time does your work require you to behave out of your sweet spot? Too much time in a research lab, and not enough time interacting with people? Or too much time socialising and schmoozing and not enough time to research in your cubicle.

3. Find out what’s meaningful for you

Can we act out of character? How then do famous strong introverts speak in public effectively?  Susan Cain introduces us to the Free Traits theory, created by Professor Brian Little, former Havard University psychology lecturer. “According to the Free Traits theory, we are able to act out of character in the service of core personal projects. ” Introverts can behave like extroverts to accomplish work/causes they regard as important, people/ projects they value highly.

To thine own self be true. – Shakespeare

How to identify core personal projects?

4. Pay attention to your actions

Can you fake it till you make it? Yes, to a certain extent according to studies by research psychologist, Richard Lippa comparing introverts who pretend and act like extroverts, with actual extroverts. Some psuedo-extroverts are surprisingly convincing.

Pay attention to how your face and body arrange themselves when you’re feeling confident and adopt the same position when it comes time to fake it. Studies have shown that behavior can lead to emotions. Smiling makes you feel stronger and happier and frowning makes you feel angry.

There is a limit to the control of self-presentation – beware of behavioral leakage. When you act out of character for a project you don’t care about, your discomfort can come across strongly and detected by the other party, sometimes as “freudian slips”.

5. Restore

Professor Little advises, find as many restorative niches as possible in your daily life, recommended by “The Introvert Advantage” – a quick read, practical guide. Surprisingly for a sedentary person like myself, going for a walk in the park, or jogging in the gym is a restorative process. After a day of lecturing, I recharge with a 20 min treadmill time, then off to a dinner with my husband’s colleagues and then supper with his friends.

While some of the recommendations are not new, it has given credibility that I am not abnormal, and allowed me to negotiate with my husband, an extrovert, who wants me to go everywhere. Professor Little calls it “Free Trait Agreement”,

Read more about this inspiring book, Quiet by Susan Cain.

There are more nuggets in this book not covered by my blog. Watch Susan Cain’s TED introduction, but she’s too modest in promoting her book.

Source: Photo taken by L in Japan

In recent years when I started working part-time, I found that my level of stress has not abated. Himself suggested that I walk, to simulate a “fight or flight” response for my body.

Some of you may find this obvious, but not to me. My family doesn’t exercise, and my mom claims that her doctor told her not to exercise. In school, my teachers would get us to exercise at 10am, and resume classes in our sticky tropical sweat. At my first workplace, my bosses scoffed at “farmers”. All brawn and no brains. Thus begins my research and excitement when I read some of the experiments cited by Reynolds.

Thus began my love-hate relationship with exercise, especially given that my favourite past-time was eating, I had to exercise to keep my Asian frame in respectable-husband-worthy form.

I’m reading “The First 20 minutes – the surprising science of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer” by Gretchen Reynolds

In Ch8 of her book, Reynolds opens with a story of the sea squirt, which has long sections of DNA similar to our own. Movement of the sea squirt seems to strengthen their brain and the nervous system connections.

These are the benefits of exercise cited by Reynolds:

Creation of new brain cells
Pumps up existing ones
Improves mood
Aids in multi-tasking
Blunts aging-related memory loss
Sharpens decision making
Dulls stress
Enfeebles bullies
Improves thinking

The experiments were initially tested on mice by Fred Rusty Gage, a world renowned professor in the Department of Genetics and his colleagues on a Morris water maze which was the rats equivalent of an IQ test. The difference between the smart mice and those that failed the test was exercise. Later the experiments were done on brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research.

Again Dr Gage saw new neurons, centred almost exclusively in the hippocampus.

In another experiment conducted by Dr Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist at a recent American College of Sports Medicine conference presented studies that showed that exercise, even a single bout of it (in the experiment it was 30 mins on a stationary bike), can have a robust prophylactic effect against the buildup of anger. The volunteers still became upset but it helped them to hold their anger in check.

In another experiment by Dr Lehmann of the National Institute of Mental Health, exercise helps to achieve emotional resilience. The researchers gathered two groups of male mice. “Some were strong and aggressive. The others less so. The alpha mice got private cages and acted like thugs. They had to be restrained from harming the smaller mice when the partition was removed for 5 mins… Under such conditions, the smaller animals were predictably twitchy and submissive… After two weeks, the weaker mice became nervous wrecks.”

In a separate group of mice that had been allowed access to running wheels for several weeks before they were housed with the aggressive mice, they appeared stress resistant. Although these mice were wisely submissive when confronted by the bullies, they didn’t freeze or cling to dark spaces in unfamiliar situations. They explored.

Dr Lehmann expounded that one of the mysteries of mental illness is why some people respond pathologically to stress and some seem to be stress resistant. The answer, according to Dr Michael Hopkins at Dartmouth University, may at least, in part be workouts. Possibly that the “positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms.”

How much exercise is needed?

Dr Lehmann doesn’t run. He walks everywhere (has no car) and does not believe that hours of daily exercise are needed or desirable. “The mice in his lab ran only when and for as long as they wished.” [NB: To our Minister of Transport, maybe the solution is not cycling but walking!]

Some experimenters demonstrated that aerobic exercise was better. Others showed that weight training was more suitable, in experiments involving older women of 60 yrs and above. And the studies showed that people with low efficacy and low confidence showed injuries. Hence its better for them to get some kind of coaching help.

To find out more, read this book!

“Your mind is the garden, your thoughts are the seeds,  the harvest can either be flowers or weeds.”  William Wordsworth Longfellow

Flowers at the Furano train station, Hokkaido

Flowers at the Furano train station, Hokkaido

Words can Change your Brain by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman
Mark  Robert Waldman  is a therapist and an Associate Fellow at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, University of Pennsylvania

Out of approx. 500,000 words in the English language, how many do you use habitually?Although our working language may be 2000 words, what about our use of words? Research says its something like 200 (habitual) words. If we pay attention to our thoughts, there are some we repeat all the time.  My 10 yr old nephew recently asked me why he had to learn some English words for his spelling test such as “exhilarated” when most people speak like 5 yr olds. Ouch, but true, Out of the mouth of babes. Although we know many words, we may not use them.

How many thoughts do we process a day? Possibly 50,000 to 90,000 thoughts a day.  How may of these thoughts are the same every day? Do we think the same thoughts? [Oft used quote: Insanity is doing the same thing every day, and expecting different results. I’m guilty as charged.]

Some self-help gurus may advise us to listen to our inner voice. But do we confuse our inner voice for inner chatter?  How do we differentiate the two?  For some of us, our inner voice sounds more like a negative inner speech.

The authors examine the evolution of our brains and through experiments have isolated that the thalamus helps us in performing adaptive decision making to abrupt changes in the environment. However, the thalamus relates outside information as real. It doesn’t distinguish inner and outer reality. If we ruminate on imaginary fears, the brain interprets them as real.

Consciousness shapes the world we live in.

However, often our consciousness is interpreted through cultural lenses. People relate to a word differently, depending on the background they were raised, e.g. “You were beautiful” may be taken as an insult, even when we are using the same words.

Secondly, our everyday consciousness is a snapshot of reality. It does not reflect the entire reality simply because the average listener can only pay attention to a limited amount of information. Average of 3-4 chunks. Chunks of information can only be held for 20 sec, then it gets dumped. Our consciousness acts as a sieve, sifting out what we want to hear.

Thirdly, our consciousness amplifies. Our Inner speech preoccupies.  It gives voice to the world around us, helps us assert self control of our impulse.  Higher frequencies of inner speech lower levels of psychological distress. In 1926, Jean Piaget noticed that children between 3-5 yrs old verbalise their actions, what he calls “ego-centric speech”.  Language dominates our daily lives. Inner speech helps us rehearse what we’re about to say. This begins in the first few years of life, and occurs in the left side of our brain and helps us orientate us towards other people. Each emotional state, anger, joy, contentment has its own voice.

Severe trauma can activate these inner voices. We can become self-critical – “Its not good enough, the boss is going to complain”.  We see a piece of dress. “You can’t afford it”. “But I deserve it”. Sometimes, our negative inner dialogue can be destructive…

Change your inner speech, you change your behavior.
1. Close your eyes, and cease thinking.
If you’re new to this, your mind can cease thinking but not before mental chatter kicks in.

2. Become aware of continuous mind shifts, judgments, opinions.  Be aware of how the inner chatter shuts off other insights, e.g. comments such as “This is stupid”.

3. Bring it to inner silence.
Inner dialogue never seems to stop.  Your job is not to stop it, but to be aware of it. Learn to stay in the state of awareness –  you might even act with greater generosity to others.

4. Observe your inner speech.  Listen with your inner ear.
Get a sheet of paper, take a few deep breaths, yawn and stretch for 20 sec. Relax. Remain silent.  Try not to think of anything.

[Immediately, fragmentary thoughts drifting in and out. write them down, and the feelings or sensations. Let it float away like a cloud.  Remain neutral. Note and let go.

5. Transform negative inner speech.  Inner speech helps modify social behaviour.
Mindful observation + Optimistic Thinking = Add two years of life

6. Intuitional insight – we live in a world of language driven experience.

7. Learn to value silence
If you don’t pause in between, listeners cannot catch up.  Great speakers know value of silent pause, it creates deeper connection.  Let the other person talk.

Divine Trees by Clement Briend

Divine Trees by Clement Briend

Last night, I posted photos of the Divine Trees at the Night Festival. An illusion of faces created by play of light and shadows projected on the trees by Clement Briend. Knowing that the museum had no power over pruning of the trees along the museum grounds, I kept thinking about this illusion.

Clearly my eyes cannot be trusted. Gestalt psychologists have told us that. Our mind tricks us to see two faces and a vase by the play of black and “space”.

A very good book I’ve pushed off reading, is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman talks about the “experiencing self” vs the “remembering self”.

Most people make a mistake in the focusing illusion to give attention to selected moments. We neglect what happens at other times.  The mind is good at telling stories. When we look at a sparkling diamond ring, we think it would make us a very happy married couple.  Neglecting that working off the debt to pay for this ring, may cost us our very happiness.  Several young couples here in this country have found themselves heavily in debt, after splurging more than they could afford on their wedding celebrations.

Experiments have shown that our experience and our memories of an experience may differ. There’s a brilliant and funny TED talk by Daniel Gilbert, “The Surprising Science of Happiness“. I have his book, Stumbling on Happiness.  (

“Our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy. And these quirks in our cognition make humans very poor predictors of our own bliss.”

Shakespeare once said, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. 1 Thess 5:18 “In every circumstances, give thanks…” advised Apostle Paul.

Too much choice actually cripples you.

Prof Gilbert cites an experiment at Harvard.  A black-and-white photography course was conducted where students could learn how to use a darkroom. Students took 12 pictures with the University’s cameras; selected their best 2 pictures, blew them into 8-by-10 in the darkroom. [Here’s the catch.] They had to choose one picture to keep and give up the other one to the school as evidence of the course.

Students were randomly divided into two groups. First group was allowed to change their mind on which photo to keep and return. You ever want to change your mind, it’s totally returnable.”

Second group was told they can’t change their mind: “Make your choice. You will never see the picture that is returned to Headquarters.”

Which group of students do you think will come to like the picture they kept?

When asked, students think “they’re going to come to like the picture they chose a little more than the one they left behind”. It doesn’t much matter whether they were in the reversible or irreversible condition.

The Havard team found that five days later, students “stuck with the picture, who have no choice, have come to like it a lot!  Those who were deliberating — “Should I return it? Have I gotten the right one? Maybe this isn’t the good one? Maybe I left the good one?” — have killed themselves. They don’t like their picture, and in fact even after the opportunity to swap has expired, they still don’t like their picture.”

This experiment was conducted on Havard courses, with two groups of students, first group given the opportunity to switch their course even after it had started. Second group given no choice to drop their course. Which group do you think would be happier. Ironically, same results were found. Those given the liberty to drop and choose new courses during the first two weeks of term were the least happy.  

The secret to happiness? “Be content in all circumstances”. Thinking what might have been, and that you have made a bad choice, can actually kill your happiness. What you experience is different from your memory of it.







There is another fascinating TED talk citing experiments on what motivates us at work by Dan Ariely.