Beliefs I’ve grown out of

Continuing the discussion of ideologies that silently grow into our lives and take hold, I will admit to my own.

I was brought up in a culture where education was the centre piece of the altar. I think this is still the case for a lot of people. In theory, education is the answer to a lot of problems, but difficulties come to the fore when you realise that there is big difference between education and formal education. I suppose the difference is analogous to the difference between morality and organised religion. Even when you go to educate yourself, the authority-loving methods learnt during formal education betray us. It took me a long time to start reading books without looking for ready-made answers to life’s problems.

When I got a little older, I went on a major health kick, only to realise that humans did not evolve to be orthorexic with a regular HIIT exercise schedule. I rejoice at articles like this.

In my late twenties, my ideological difficulties centre around the subjects of family and meaningful work. Family has always been a confusing subject for me. I think that families are fascinatingly different. Second wave feminism was going strong as well when I was a child and I am sure it affected me. I was recently reading a memoir of a woman who lived in the Ukraine during the October Revolution. It seemed that nothing really mattered to her so long as she had her family. I also read a lot of essays by secondary school (high school) students and interestingly the film Juno is on the curriculum. Most students conclude that your friends are your real family, not your biological relatives – and not just from Juno, but in their personal essays as well. Is that just a sign of the times?

One thing I learnt is that it’s dangerous to become too focused on just one aspect of life, even if it is the most virtuous thing you can think of.

Anyway, I am more interested in hearing about ideologies that you lived through and debunked.

The neuroscience of creativity

As my readers will have noticed, I don’t publish as much any more. That’t not to say my commitment to this blog has lessened (I have big plans for it!) Having gone through a period of stress, I realised just how damaging it is to creativity. I blame my reduced creative output on my increased adrenal output. It is well known that the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic), not the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) system is associated with complex cognition and creative problem solving.

Where else would my brain then lead me other than to research the neuroscience of creativity?

neuroscience of creativity

1. Listening to happy music

Gene Rowe et al used a sort of a verbal IQ test and had the subjects listen to either happy music, sad music or read a bunch of neutral facts. The participants’ mood was predictably affected by the music. Indeed, the test performance was correlated with the mood level.

I am not sure whether this will get me to delete the Amy Winehouse tracks off my Spotify account, but as far as my n=1 observations go, there is indeed a relationship between one’s ability to function at a given time and a playlist.

There will some people who will want to discredit this study, but I want to note that there is nothing in this study to say that getting out of a bad mood with happy music will lead to creativity.

Indeed, I would say that listening to happy music when you’re sad can be awful. I would say that something energetic rather than cheerful is in order. I guess I will be working on a playlist in the next while.

Interestingly, a test used to assess the ability to focus yielded the opposite results when it came to music: results were improved with sad music and worsened by happy music. The proposed explanation is that happy music broadens our perception and makes us consider alternative solutions which is so important for creativity.

The interesting lesson here is that being creative means being distractible, not focused.

My encounters with people with bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia come to mind: there is often no keeping them on topic when they aren’t well. The people who suffer with these are also known for their creativity.

I’ve been taught that distraction is a menace. Studying to be a doctor involves a lot of hours in silence, pouring over books, where the only distractions are laziness and loss of the will to carry on. Menace. The job, incidentally, is nothing but distraction. In a hospital, it is impossible to even walk down a corridor without getting five different requests from patients and staff. And it’s no excuse that you’re in the middle of something. In a world obsessed with focus and productivity, it seems anything that seems to be a distraction is disallowed. Maybe, sometimes it pays to chase our distractions.

what makes your brain more creative

2. Walking

I am surprised by the robustness of the finding, though not the finding itself: walking is associated with boosting happiness and creativity. Marily Oppezzo got participants to carry out a creative task while sitting in a chair, standing, walking inside or outside, or being pushed in a wheelchair. Walking won.

I would imagine that sports would also help with being creative. N. N. Taleb also mentioned that he walks a lot and went so far as to say that he gets x amount of pages per y amount of walking (something like 1000 words per mile?) My two cents are that sometimes I feel compelled to go walking. It’s the endorphins, the fresh air, the change of scenery. In fact, whatever it is, it works.

3. Variety

The more varied the participants’ typical activities, the higher they score on tests of creative thinking. People who are in a routine aren’t usually associated with creativity. It has become en vogue to say that everything is a habit, that the best writers have a strong discipline, that Anthony Trollope got up and wrote for 3 hours every morning… There is a difference between emphasising the importance pushing yourself to create and saying that the pushing itself produces creation.

It’s pretty obvious that creativity is the secret sauce, not the bread and butter of actually creating something.

Finding a new connection between two pieces of information (i.e. being creative) will only occur if the two areas of the brain that hold those two pieces of information are active at the same time. The more variety there is in the activation pattern of one’s brain, the higher the chance of a new connection forming.

making your mind more creative

4. REM Sleep

‹REM sleep is that part of the sleep cycles when we see dreams. It seems to be particularly important for memory formation and creation of associations, the direct input of creativity.

Denise Cai got a bunch of sleep-deprived participants to do IQ-like tests focusing on associations and analogies. The participants did some questions, but the real test started after the break. The break was different for the participants who were split into 3 groups: 1) those who got to sleep and enter REM. sleep, 2) those who got to sleep but not enter REM sleep and 3) those whom didn’t get to sleep. When all the participants returned to answer more test questions, the REM sleep group did significantly better than the other two.

This also explains why sleep deprivation results in a functional but lacklustre existence. When we sleep for 8 hours a night as opposed to 6, we get disproportionately more REM sleep. This is because REM periods get longer as you spend more time asleep. So when we cut down on sleep from 8 to 6 hours, we may only lose 2/8= 25% of our entire sleep, but we lose a much bigger percentage of our REM sleep.

A few remarks on the anatomy of the eureka moment

Mark Beeman’s studies focus on moments of insight when trying to solve complex problems. He used fMRI and EEG to reveal that a particular region in the anterior superior temporal gyrus became active shortly before a person reported having an insight. Interestingly, this region is associated with associating distant verbal relations or finding connections between information that is only loosely related.

Pulling it all together

All of the above studies are using crude proxies to creativity. Figuring out what French, cork and list have in common isn’t really creativity (it’s wine, by the way). On a personal level, I feel many of the above tips are useful. Let me know what has worked for you in the comments!

P.S. WordPress tells me I have over 1,000 followers. Thanks so much guys: I really enjoy the company 🙂

12 tips for thinking more clearly and making better decisions

This is one of those articles that I wrote for myself: for those mornings when the only things you want to do are browse Facebook and watch BBC1, or at least you think you do. Then you remember that you’ve about 20 problems to solve that day and get that feeling in your stomach like both your adrenal glands just emptied their contents into your bloodstream.

1. Enter into deep work mode

Wall off some distraction free time. The phone goes on airplane mode. Close all the tabs you don’t need.

Let’s be honest, if you are reading this, you are probably dealing with quite challenging and cognitively demanding.

These things require extreme levels of focus and uninterrupted immersion for an effective resolution.

As such, the goal is to enter into a state of flow. It is a paradoxical mix of mindfulness and being very goal-directed at the same time. Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

how to think more clearly deep work

2. Do a brain dump

If you are at a loss, the thoughts are messy and you don’t know where to start, an unstructured flow of consciousness style “brain dump” is required. It straightens out circular ruminations and allows the writer to identify what is really wrong. There is something liberating about getting things down on paper. You can always throw it out. Nobody has to see it. It is only for you to see.

In the best possible way, it lowers expectations and gives you the licence to be really honest.

I am putting my money where my mouth is with this tip: a lot of this blog is really me writing for me. I often reread what I have written because it answers questions that bother me (and catch a few typos on the way!) It turns out that the same questions bother a lot of people, hence our little community.

3. Draw a spider diagram

Difficulties in solving problems often arise from the fact that problems are interdependent, they are not isolated. Drawing a spider diagram (a mind map) is a very good way to figure out what’s going on.

how to think clearly

As a one-time medical student in the rather fundamentalist anatomy department, I had to learn everything about the brachial plexus (pictured above).  The structure was just the starting point of what I needed to know. The the origins at the spine and the muscle activation were at least as complex on top of that. I drew a spider diagram.

When my father was splitting from his second wife and I arrived home to find my stuff packed away in boxes by the latter, well, I also drew a spider diagram. Because I needed to understand what’s going, what everyone is thinking and where to move (not just literally) from there.

This approach to thinking is resonant with the structure of our brain with its nodes and links.

4. Make a to-solve list (not a to do list) and tell a story

Lists are great, says the ENTP. Even checklists. They really are great because they give us a sense of control. I have studied motivation in great detail as I deal with students doing their final school exams to get into college. They keep asking me about motivation. These 17 year olds have the most fine-tuned BS filter on the planet, so I really need to try hard. I finally found a solution for them, which is: a sense of control.

Feeling in control is the key to being motivated.

There is a mountain of evidence about this. However, a small study done on nursing home residents really illustrates it best. Some people who go into nursing homes don’t do well and fade away in less than 6 months. Others seem more alive than any of us. What’s the difference? Well, as one of the lively 85 year olds explained: “I trade my chocolate desert for a piece of fruit from one of the other guys at every dinner”. Why? Doesn’t he like chocolate? The answer lies in the fact that now he has control: in an environment where you are told when to sleep, where to sit and when to take your tablets, it is crucial to eke out a sense of control by being in charge of something small like that.

How do you structure a list? There are two great ways:

  • list of problems to solve
  • a chronological story-plan

A plain to-do list just makes you feel like you are doing chores. A list of problems to solve automatically gives both purpose and perspective.

As for the story plan, there is something about our brains that makes us dead set of prioritising stories over any other kind of information. It is therefore important to tap into that. A fair portion of NLP is snake oil, but their emphasis on story-telling is right on. Things seem far less daunting if you write them down on a piece of paper as bite-sized steps. For example, recently, I have been moving between countries. It’s an overwhelming amount of paper work, a complex process with many catch-22’s to machete through like you need a lease to set up utility bills, and a utility bill to set up a bank account and a bank account to set up a lease. By writing it down, it is easier to see solutions and the impossible soon becomes possible. There are 2 reasons for this:

  • we find it difficult to store long sequences in our heads, so a written down prop is key (this is mentioned a lot in Thinking Fast and Slow and GTD)
  • by going through the steps required to build out the story, we think of the entire contexts – the things we would have otherwise forgotten about

think more clearly write things down

5. Snap out of being on rails by getting perspective

It’s precisely when we are “on rails”, when we have some kind of contagious emotion unfolding in us, when we want to “just get this done”, that we need to pause and switch to something else. Ideally, we would go straight to taking 10 minutes to be mindful, but for most of us mortals that just seems impossible. Instead, it is a good idea to think of something completely different.

Let’s say there is an enraging email that you can’t wait to respond to so as to make it go away. Mindfulness? Now? No!…

To ease yourself out of the hijacked state, think of something completely different, preferably something even more challenging, that makes the original issue seem like nonsense.

Recently, I was dealing with an unruly real estate agent who just wouldn’t listen and kept sending me emails with unreasonable demands. I thought to myself: there are lots of people who don’t have this problem – because they simply cannot afford to live on their own. It’s not even that it made me feel grateful and empowered, that’s not the point, but it gave me perspective and an ability to deal with the tyrant in a way that accomplished my aims rather than just telling them “for the n-time, will you…”

6. Take 10 minutes to meditate

It is when we are busiest that we need to take the time to be mindful.

I recall Ray Dalio talking about it. Yes, the guy is filthy rich, but I can just imagine him losing a billion bucks (it happens in that business) and going into his office to do his TM routine. What else would he do? Shout at the researchers for not seeing into the future? The traders for not getting out of the trade earlier? There is no point. It is much better to get centred again and then do what is actually going to help the situation.

7. Have a cup of matcha, or any good green tea

I’ve always loved green tea. However, after my trip to Japan, it became clear to me that there is something quite magical about certain varieties of green tea. I am a big fan of Ippodo and specifically Ummon-no-mukashi.

Like salbutamol opens the bronchioles, this stuff clears the head.

For those who aren’t keen on concentrated green goo, a cup of Hosen Sencha will do wonders too. The way the Japanese drink tea is more or less an exercise in mindfulness, so I would make use of that aspect too. It is part of my morning routine. It is especially something that people who can’t drink coffee should consider. Unlike coffee, matcha doesn’t give you a jolt of energy and then a come down, but a steady state of clarity.

thinking more clearly mindfulness meditation

8. Listen to some upbeat classical music you’re not very familiar with

Listening to something you know well calls in all kinds of associations and other hardcoded Pavlovian nonsense we don’t always need.

Thankfully, there is so much classical music out there, we’re unlikely to ever be stuck. Some may prefer house music. Sometimes house music has lyrics or distracting sexy sounds. My personal recommendation would be listening to Béla Bartók or anything played by Lang Lang, a virtuoso pianist. You may also like some great apps for mindful focus.

9. Jump in for a very short burst of exercise

Even two minutes of HIIT or a quick few sets of sun salutations are likely to be quite refreshing. In an upcoming post, a neurologist will explain that

our adrenal medulla – the seat of the flight-or-fight response, the ultimate thinking and creativity saboteur, is controlled more by the motor cortex than it is by the conscious decision making centres.

10. Don’t even attempt it if you are tired

Sleep is massively undervalued in today’s society. Sleep deprivation has incredibly significant effects. Not that much sleep deprivation at all will give you the insulin resistance of a type 2 diabetic.

All the most intelligent people I know sleep at least 8 hours a night and don’t even attempt anything cognitively taxing unless they are refreshed.

This is obviously challenging for people with young children, for example, but if you can work to put yourself in a situation where you can be refreshed, it will really pay off.

11. Have a shower

Special troops are told to prioritise staying clean even in extreme circumstances. It raises morale. There is something life-affirming about water and cleanliness. The chemical changes, such as an oxytocin increase, is likely to have a positive effect on one’s emotional state.

12. Talk to a human being

We are social animals: that is just how we’ve evolved. Not all problems need to be attacked by the entire tribe, but calling in help is required sometimes because other will help us navigate through our weaknesses, see new perspective and just feel like a human being again.

think clearer mindfulness meditation deep work

Exercise and thinking

I recently chanced upon a study showing that aerobic exercise can be beneficial in mild cognitive impairment. It literally increases the size of the brain. The fact that we can now image brains in a way that detects this is exciting. Nobody is really quite sure what it means, but the fact that it is so tangible and obvious is really gratifying – and hard to argue with. Interestingly, mindfulness also changes brain structure on imaging.

There have been plenty of studies of this sort – including on healthy people. They show that exercise benefits one’s mood and working memory, enhanced cognitive strategies, hippocampal neuroplasticity – in short, exercise helps your brain do its thing. I wish this message was easier to spread. Exercise for a functional brain.

In my own subjective n=1 experience, exercise makes a huge difference to how I feel emotionally. It’s like a shield that keeps irrelevant noise out – and it was quite hard to believe how well it works until I tried it. At this point, I’ve been non-stop at it for over 3 years. My main motivator to stay going with exercise is how it makes me feel. Not immediately, not right after a gym session, but on average. Having said that, isn’t our motivation nearly always how it makes us feel? How I got into it was the classic monkey-see-monkey-do dynamic. Some like to call it having a role model. During my masters, I was surrounded by a bunch of health-freaks: they were all from continental Europe, wore fancy running shoes, drank a lot of coffee and read the Economist. The enthusiasm with which they discussed running routes for their new city, whether or not a Fitbit is worth the investment – and so on, rubbed off on me. I had to try this, ze fitness. I never stopped.

exercise benefits depression

I’ve experimented with running, spinning, HIIT, swimming, weights – pretty much anything that is solitary and non-competitive is good. During a particularly busy stint at the hospital, I injured a joint – meaning I couldn’t properly weight bear. I could barely get around the seemingly endless corridors of a large Dublin hospital with nobody to cover for me on call. Exercise was not on the menu. About a week into this state of affairs, I noticed that I was starting to get sad for no reason at all. It took some introspection to figure out that it was likely down to the fact that I wasn’t exercising. The biochemistry shifted, the chemicals released during exercise wore off – and now I was feeling down. I took corrective action: so I cannot weight bear. Time for abs of steel! As if. In any case, the change in my mood from a week of significantly diminished physical activity was stark.

This experience is echoed in the story of a patient I once saw in a psychiatric hospital. He was a young guy who exercised a lot: 20 miles on a bike every day, marathons, the works. For about a year and a half he attended a cardiologist about a chest pain. He had virtually every conceivable test done – none of these tests detected any abnormalities. By the time he saw me, he had had a few attacks of this chest pain in the space of a few days – and a very low mood. The week before two things happened: he twisted his ankle and his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Long story short, the man’s chest pain was psychosomatic. He had a perfectly healthy heart. The stress of his girlfriend breaking up with him, superimposed on not being able to exercise due to a twisted ankle, led to the mood collapse as well as the chest pains.

Clearly, exercise is addictive. This is part of the reason why people keep exercising despite pain. Before I discovered the absolute must that is a foam-roller, I caused a repetitive strain injury in my calf from running too much. I couldn’t really stop: I was so into it, I just gobbled down two Nurofen and off I went. If, six months previously, someone told me that I would be like this, I would never have believed them. My buzz was all about cuddling up with a book and drinking hot chocolate – not hopping around with a painful calf in the permeating Dublin rain.

Once a psychiatry professor came to talk to us during lunch. His opening question was: “What is the single most effective intervention for both physical and mental health?” Some annoying know-it-all raised their hand and said: “Exercise.” (Okay, okay, it was me). I would still say it though.

I think it is the perfect example of the 80/20 rule, or even a 99/1 version of it. Exercise takes up very little time – if you’re clever about it – and delivers unbelievable results. In short, exercise is definitely on the to-do list of anyone who is interested in having a clear head. It’s surprisingly easy to get carried away into fitness-junkie territory, however, it is definitely worth the risk. In any confusing situation, it’s mindfulness and exercise.

exercise for healthy brain and good mood