Does Your Brain Lag in the Morning? Put On Your Thinking Cap-puccino

Does a shot of espresso before walking into an exam make a difference?

 

While the dominant theme in education is focused on the current pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her vigilance in implementing voucher programs, not as much is being discussed regarding the broader conditions surrounding performance. For example, one argument states students should have later start times, given that teenagers have an especially hard time waking up in the morning. Proper sleep is a chronic elephant in the room in modern education.


A research team lead by Boston College’s Stephanie Sherman decided to test a particularly popular mechanism during students’ non-optimal time of day, early morning hours: caffeine.

Morning, the researchers write, is a terrible time for testing one’s memory, especially college students. During those hours they’re at a physiological low point. All-night cramming has been shown to decrease performance—sleep, we know from over a century of research, is essential for memory formation. But does a shot of espresso before walking into an exam make a difference?

Sixty students were spread across two groups. The first drank caffeinated coffee while the other drank decaf (while thinking they were sipping the good stuff). Two sessions were tested: a morning, or non-optimal time, group; and afternoon crew, when their bodies were physiologically normal.

Another experiment was later conducted, with one group performing vigorous cardiovascular exercise, the other gentle stretching. Forty students were included in this experiment to test the specificity of caffeine’s effect during early morning hours, which was the researchers’ primary focus. Both exercise and caffeine affect the locus coerueus, the brain’s principal site for the production of norepinephrine, which mobilizes us for action.

It is well understood both exercise and caffeine arouse the mind and body, but the question here has to do with memory. Did students perform better thanks to the java?

Not during the optimal time of day; students tested in the afternoon showed little difference. Surprisingly, exercise did not seem to help memory performance either (more on that below). Early morning test takers valued those 200 milligrams of caffeine, as it resulted in higher explicit memory performance—information consciously recalled. The coffee had no apparent effect on implicit memories, however. For test takers, though, that is irrelevant.

This has broader implications for how we test students. The researchers write:

Most college instructors simply assume that grades on these tests accurately reflect a student’s ability, but this is likely not the case. Several studies in academic settings suggest that a student’s time of day preference impacts overall academic performance.

By and large modern educators do not address basic physiological, emotional, and anatomical realities of their students. Sitting all day on hard surfaces is terrible for children’s (and adult’s) bodies. It’s hard to pay attention when the main joints in your body are in chronic flexion. Lack of movement has profound effects on our emotional and mental well-being, including memory formation.

Which is why exercise having no impact is a surprising aspect of this study. Harvard’s John Ratey has shown that initiatives like the Zero Hour PE program at Naperville Central High School—an optional before school cardiovascular training program—is highly effective at increasing test performance. School counselors stack the students’ most challenging classes at the beginning of the day, right after their workouts, to maximize the effect of exercise, as it tapers as the hours go by.

Sherman and team address the lack of improvement from cardiovascular exercise to one potential cause:

Our finding is consistent, however, with research suggesting that the cognitive benefits of exercise build gradually, rather than acutely. For example, Bugg et al. (2006) found that older adults who engage in an active lifestyle do not experience a decline in working memory performance across time-of-day compared to sedentary older adults. These authors argue that habitual exercise leads to increased calcium levels, which are necessary for the metabolism of dopamine and norepinephrine. This increase in calcium occurs gradually and is maintained through consistent exercise.

Caffeine, they continue, quickly blocks adenosine receptors. Norepinephrine is released, which might be a major mechanism for the consolidation of new memories. Ratey’s long-term findings are qualitatively different from a single run, as in the above study. So keep your heart pumping.

Still, caffeine should be celebrated. Ninety percent of North Americans and 80 percent of the global population consumes it. Outside of sugar it is our most sanctioned drug. If you have to remember information early in the day when your body and brain are not yet fully functional, it seems to provide just the boost you need.

The real value of this study brings into question how we’re educating the youth. A Secretary of Education favoring voucher programs and charter schools in which the government is hands-off—which translates, we know from her history, to more religious instruction—is not going to fundamentally address many problems students face. Time of day does matter in performance. Restructuring the school day to honor our evolutionary and biological realities simply makes more sense. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.