|By Madisyn Taylor|
When we approach children with the awareness that they can teach us, we become more present ourselves.
As grown-ups, we often approach children with ideas about what we can teach them about this life to which they have so recently arrived. It’s true that we have important information to convey, but children are here to teach us just as much as we are here to teach them. They are so new to the world and far less burdened with preconceived notions about the people, situations, and objects they encounter. They do not avoid people on the basis of appearance, nor do they regard shoes as having only one function. They can be fascinated for half an hour with a pot and a lid, and they are utterly unself-conscious in their emotional expressions. They live their lives fully immersed in the present moment, seeing everything with the open-mindedness born of unknowing.
This enables them to inhabit a state of spontaneity, curiosity, and pure excitement about the world that we, as adults, have a hard time accessing. Yet almost every spiritual path calls us to rediscover this way of seeing. In this sense, children are truly our gurus.
When we approach children with the awareness that they are our teachers, we automatically become more present ourselves. We have to be more present when we follow, looking and listening, responding to their lead. We don’t lapse so easily into the role of the director of activities, surrendering instead to having no agenda at all. As we allow our children to determine the flow of play, they pull us deeper into the mystery of the present moment. In this magical place, we become innocent again, not knowing what will happen next and remembering how to let go and flow.
Since we must also embody the role of loving guide to our children, they teach us how to transition gracefully from following to leading and back again. In doing so, we learn to dance with our children in the present moment, shifting and adjusting as we direct the flow from pretending to be kittens wearing shoes on our heads to making sure everyone is fed and bathed.
We are all generally aware of the benefits of gratitude—which include a more positive outlook on life, and even physical benefits such as a reduction in the symptoms of stress. Especially as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we make a mental note to be more grateful. Less appreciated, however, are the potential organizational benefits of practicing gratitude.
A summary of the science of gratitude by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley sheds light on how being grateful can improve both performance and culture in the workplace. Formal research into gratitude is a relatively new field. In 2000, there were only three peer-reviewed articles on the subject.
Fifteen years later, there are hundreds of such papers. Of particular interest to business leaders is research on what social scientists call “upstream reciprocity”—basically a fancy way of talking about paying it forward.
Gratitude connects us
When someone is nice to us, and we return the favor, that is a form of direct reciprocity that we expect. However, it turns out that people who are the recipients of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, and who make a point of feeling grateful, are also more likely to help a third party.
The ripple effects of that kind of indirect reciprocity are a powerful tool for business leaders looking to build a strong organizational culture.Robert Emmons is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. As he points out, feeling grateful is a two-step process. First, we recognize the presence of something positive in our lives. Second, we acknowledge it comes from an external source, often another person.
Gratitude involves a humble recognition that we are interdependent, that we need one another. In this way, gratitude can become a kind of “social glue” connecting not just individuals, but organizations. One study suggests the potential for organizations to “institutionalize” gratitude by making such expressions part of workplace culture.
The authors note a “significant relationship between gratitude and job satisfaction” and suggest that “organizational leaders can boost job satisfaction by regularly prompting grateful emotions.”
This is your brain on gratitude
In its summary of the benefits of gratitude, Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center cites recent research showing how feeling grateful enhances functioning in regions of the brain governing social bonds, and our ability to read others. Moreover, even though we think of gratitude as an emotional state, it also enhances cognitive functioning and decision-making.
In one study, writing gratitude letters produced measurable brain changes that lasted months after the intervention.This research confirms Barbara Fredrickson’s assertion that gratitude has a “broadening” effect on how we think, and at how we look at the world. It allows us to “discard automatic responses and instead look for creative, flexible, and unpredictable new ways of thinking and acting.”
When we are grateful, we are more inclined to seek support from others, to reframe challenging situations through a positive lens, and to engage in creative problem-solving.
Gratitude is a kind of mindfulness
It is no accident that the benefits of gratitude resemble those of mindfulness. Both practices ground us in the present. If we are thankful for what we have, we are less likely to ruminate over the past, or anxiously anticipate the future.
Gratitude is similar to mindfulness in another respect as well: it helps increase our resistance to stress. As one researcher states, it is an extremely effective way “to fill the resilient tank.” Other research finds that gratitude acts as a natural anti-depressant.
We are just beginning to tap into the benefits of deliberate gratitude. Organizations that practice gratitude will attract and retain top talent and create a culture conducive to innovation and thriving.
By Naz Beheshti
Most elderly individuals’ brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- “Super-agers” seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
- New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
- It’s not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.
At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.
As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can’t always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That’s part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.
But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old “super-agers” perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.
Just as sharp as the whippersnappers
To find out what’s behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.
First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants’ brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.
The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we’re not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one’s self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.
The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item “sticks out”). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.
How to ensure brain health in old age
While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how “gracefully” the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. “We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager,” said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. “It’s not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That’s one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to.”
To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of “use it or lose it” appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it’s unlikely to help you keep your edge.
Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There’s also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.
For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don’t have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.
ABy Matt Davis @BigThink
By Erin Magner.
Think back to your elementary school playground. If it was anything like mine, it was a case study in how to have fun in a pure and free way, completely devoid of any self-conscious thoughts. On the blacktop of my alma mater, a group of gym-class heroes played kickball with World Cup-level intensity. In front of the school, the popular girls jumped rope and practiced their older sisters’ cheerleading routines until their voices were raspy. Yet another adventurous clique would flip and leap from the monkey bars, while across the street, the less athletically inclined kids (AKA me) would lose themselves in some elaborate game of make believe. The through line here is that we were all having joyful, thrilling fun. As I’ve grown up though, the very concept of fun has fallen victim to adulteration, a word whose very definition implies the act of corrupting something to make it impure. Basically, I’m confused about fun: how to do it, what it should feel like, and whether or not it’s even possible for adults.
On the whole, it’s safe to say that when we talk about adult revelry, the mood is usually a bit more… well, serious than it is when watching kids at play. Society has conditioned us to believe that adulthood means “acting your age” and adopting a calmer, more contained demeanor in order to fit in—even when you’re enjoying yourself. It’s hard for many people to break free of that construct (without the aid of a happy hour drink, that is), which is partly why, for me, sitting on my balcony with a good book and a coffee is peak “fun,” even though it probably wouldn’t look that way to many others.
While my reading oasis is restorative and happiness-boosting for me, is it exhilaratingly joyful, the way recess was during playground days? Definitely not. And for many of my peers in their thirties, those moments of really letting loose are few and far between, and when they do come about, it’s tough to stay present in the moment. And, according to mental-health pros, this widespread fun confusion came to be for a number or reasons—none of which are our fault, per se.
All work, no play makes you a millennial adult
Many millennials were raised to value hard work and success over fun and frolic, says therapist Marly Steinman, MFT. “If your parents were Boomers, there was this concept of working hard, having goals, and achieving things,” she says. “There’s a feeling that you have to burn the candle at both ends and work in a way that’s never-ending.” That adds up, because how can you not skew serious when you’re working wild hours to pay off your student loan debt and afford your overpriced rental apartment?
That feeling of always having to strive for something more can prevent a person from letting their guard down fully, which is critical for having fun. “Let’s say you are out with a group of friends, having dinner and catching up,” says therapist Alison Stone, LCSW. “If a large part of your mind is distracted—by the upcoming meeting you have, unreturned emails, a stressful project you’re behind on—it is difficult to be fully present in your current experience.”
When taken to extremes, the physical symptoms of stress and burnout make it even harder to kick back and have fun, says Steinman. If someone is drowning in deadlines and social obligations, their endocrine system dials up the production of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and it takes time for the body to come back into balance. This is why, even when a person goes on vacation, it sometimes takes a few days before they’re able to truly relax.
Instagram vs. reality, or the paradox of fun
Work obligations aside, there’s another reason the nature of fun changes with age: the fact that many people feel pressure not just to have fun, but to also curate and document it for the world to see. “Before social media came into the picture, the only people who witnessed our free time was ourselves,” Steinman says. “Now, the perception of fun has become more important—it’s about what’s going to look desirable in a post. [When you’re at a big concert,] how many times have you seen more people taking videos of the concert than enjoying the concert?”
“The perception of fun has become more important—it’s about what’s going to look desirable in a post.” —therapist Marly Steinman, MFT
This has led many of us to start equating fun with big-ticket experiences that require money and access—and there’s a subtle misperception that one needs to go big in order to counteract all the stress in their lives. “I think it has started to feel like ‘getting away’ and attending specific events are our rewards for working so hard,” says Stone. “It’s important to have things to look forward to, but it’s also important not to feel that spending money or traveling are the only ways we can unwind and let loose.”
It’s possible to relearn how to have fun
So how does an overworked, Instagram-loving gal get out of her head and just live, already? According to both Steinman and Stone, the first step is to ditch your phone when you’re trying to have fun. That means no checking texts while your date’s in the restroom, no snapping pics of your dinner, and no scrolling through Instagram to see who’s having a more photogenic Saturday night than you. “All of this takes away from what we are supposed to be doing in the moment, which is enjoying others’ company, making new memories, listening to our friends or partners, laughing, joking, observing, people watching, and experiencing small moments of authentic joy and happiness,” says Stone.
If you want to have fun, you should also prioritize the activities that truly bring you joy, and obviously not just what you think is going to look good to other people, says Steinman. She also recommends taking time to decompress with meditation, a workout, or a walk in the fresh air before you embark on any sort of play time. These things will help you release any lingering tension and clear your mind of the day’s stressors so you can be fully present for fun.
Finally, although it may sound counterintuitive, Steinman and Stone both say that deliberately scheduling out downtime can actually make it easier for some personality types to loosen up. “Many people find scheduling to be anxiety-reducing,” Stone says. “You can have fun, and be present and uninhibited as a planner—not everyone is spontaneous.”
Ultimately, having childhood-level fun really just requires you to tap into your childhood self—pre-career and pre-social media. “Think of kids—they’re silly, they have no inhibitions, and they’re not worried about what they look like,” says Steinman. If that’s the case, my upcoming weekend is going to involve lots of friendship-bracelet-making and choreographing dance routines to Paula Abdul songs—how about you?
Neuroscience has proven that our brains are constantly changing in response to incoming stimuli from birth to death. In every moment of your life, everything of which you are aware – sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings – and even that of which you are not aware – unconscious mental and physical processes – are based in and can be directly mapped to neural activity in your brain. What you do, experience, think, hope and imagine physically changes your brain through what is called neuroplasticity. The neurological explanation of neuroplasticity gets involved, but the basic concept is simple: every minute of every day you are shaping your brain. While it’s true that the brain is much more plastic in the early years and capacity declines with age, neuroplastic change happens all throughout your life. Harnessing neuroplasticity as an adult does require extra effort and specific circumstances, but it can be done.
Neuroplasticity Can Help and Hurt You
Neuroplasticity follows what’s known as the “Hebbian rule.” Neurons that fire together wire together, meaning the connections between neurons get more easily activated and new neurons grow when they are repeatedly stimulated in a coordinated pattern. The reverse is also true. Neurons that don’t, won’t.
You’ve got a “use it or lose it” brain. Information rarely accessed and behaviors seldom practiced cause neural pathways to weaken until connections may be completely lost in a process called “synaptic pruning.”
Neuroplasticity can hurt or help your brain and your mental health. It’s just as easy to degrade your brain’s function as it is to improve it, intentionally or unintentionally. Dr. Michael Merzenich, one of the original UCSF scientists confirming neuroplasticity and author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life calls backward neuroplastic change “negative learning” and writes:
It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”
Neuroplastic change occurs in response to stimuli processed in the brain which can originate either internally, with mindfulness, meditation, visualization or externally, with behaviors and experiences.You can harness neuroplasticity at any age to improve your brain, mental health, and life.
At fifteen, Lisa Wimberger, who had been a healthy, active teenager woke up confused and scared on the bathroom floor after her first blackout. These blackouts continued undiagnosed until her thirties when she just happened to have one during a doctor’s appointment for a routine exam.
It was determined that she had a condition where her vagus nerve, responsible for regulating breathing and heart rate in the brain stem, would randomly trigger the freeze response. When this happened, Lisa’s heart rate dropped to the point it stopped beating, then her brain, deprived of oxygen and blood, would shut down.
When conventional medicine offered no answers or help for her episodes, Lisa harnessed the power of neuroplasticity through a regimen of meditation and life practices to heal herself. Her episodes of seizures and flatlining disappeared. She calls the practice she developed and teaches others “neurosculpting.”
In her book, “Neurosculpting,” Lisa explains the practice like this:
Neurosculpting is a mental training process that quiets our fight or flight center and activates our prefrontal cortex, which is the mind’s seat of compassion and empathy. It also engages left- and right-brain stimulation and incorporates somatic awareness for a whole-brain and whole-body approach to meditation and rewiring. It’s a lifestyle of day-to-day exercises, nutritional tenets, and meditations designed to allow dialogue between compartmentalized and silenced parts of ourselves. It involves learning about a brain supportive diet, exercising, and identifying and enhancing opportunities for neuroplasticity throughout your day…”
The 5 Steps
The Neurosculpting® practice involves five steps:
- Step One: Down-regulates hyperactive stress activity and an engagement with the parasympathetic response.
- Step Two: Enhances focused attention to support with emotional regulation.
- Step Three: Increases the activity between our analytical self and our intuitive feeling self.
- Step Four: Links somatosensory, bodily sensation-based, engagement to perceptual shifts in patterns.
- Step Five: Enables the user to easily identify and replicate the process in day-to-day activities
A Typical Neuro-aware Day
- Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand and think about one of your favorite mantras.
- Do a five-minute gratitude meditation in the shower that looks something like this:
- Breathe deeply with attention for a few rounds, noticing the way the lungs effortlessly fill and empty.
- Think of the concept of gratitude. I imagine what it looks like to be in gratitude, I spell it in my mind, and I remember a time in which I was filled with that sentiment.
- Assign a color, texture, or vibration to the concept of gratitude and imagine it located and vibrating in the center of your palms.
- Wash each part of your body while imagining the color of gratitude pouring out of your palms and filling up each body part.
- Eat a balanced breakfast on a plate at the table after saying a brief statement of gratitude for the food.
- Shake for a few minutes in the afternoon to help normalize excess stress from the morning.
- Brush your hair with your nondominant hand.
- Eat a balanced lunch on a plate at the table.
- Look or walk in an outside environment for at least five minutes.
- Exercise in a way you enjoy, such as taking a brisk walk or a fitness class you love. (You might prefer to do this in the morning.)
- Engage in a nondominant hand gesture or activity while choosing a mantra to think about.
- Eat a balanced dinner on a plate at a table a least a few hours before bedtime. Minimize carbohydrates in order to support a full and deep night’s sleep.
- Shake for a few minutes in the evening to help normalize excess stress from the afternoon.
- Shut off electronics or television an hour before bedtime.
- Do a ten-minute evening meditation that goes something like this:
- Breathe deeply with attention for a few rounds, noticing the way the lungs effortlessly fill and empty.Think of your daily stressors. That might be conversations you’ve had, people you interacted with, or emotions that came up and seem unresolved.Assign a color, texture, or even a vibration to each of these.Imagine where you might be holding these colors or textures in your own body.Create a receptacle in your mind’s eye in front of you and imagine your body releasing these colors into it.When you’re done notice if you perceive you’ve made more space in your body.Imagine a concept that works well for you, like restfulness, ease, grace, joy, or any other idea. You might remember a time when you felt this, or maybe you focus on the concept and its definition, maybe you even spell it out in your mind’s eye.Assign a color, texture, or vibration to this concept and imagine your body filling up with this as you prepare for sleep.
Neuroplasticity has implications for every aspect of human nature and culture including medicine, psychiatry, psychology, relationships, education, and more. Where it stands to have the most potential is for the individual in their own life. Because you can learn to consciously control your thinking, reactions, and behavior, and some of the experiences you have, you can oversee your own “self-directed neuroplasticity” and invite change and healing into your life.