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Thinking your way to a better brain

Can the mind influence the brain?

Can the way we think actually change the wiring, activation patterns, and physical landscape of our brains? In other words, can our mind, in a sense, control or at least influence the direction of our brain?


Our brains are incredibly flexible. Long after the exuberance (fast growth) and the pruning (cutting away of connections) of infancy and childhood, the brain's connections and structures continue to change, influenced both by internal factors—for instance, studies have shown that depressed and stressed individuals have a smaller hippocampus; the volume can increase back to normal once the emotional landscape shifts — and external factors — for instance, both physical and psychological trauma can significantly affect brain development, even in mature adults; extreme events during a sensitive period in adolescence, to name one example, have been linked to an increased risk of schizophrenia. But these changes seem to be incidental: it's not like we will bad things to happen, or our moods to darken. However, recent work points to the possibility of changing our brains for the better: a change in how we think can positively impact how our brains look, function, and make us feel.

Meditation-like thought causes neural change in the physical brain

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin instructed a group of individuals who were not in the habit of meditating in the following manner: Relax with your eyes closed, and focus on the flow of your breath at the tip of your nose; if a random thought arises, acknowledge the thought and then simply let it go by gently bringing your attention back to the flow of your breath. For 15 minutes, the participants attempted to follow these guidelines. Then, they were broken up into two groups: one group had the option of receiving nine 30-minute sessions of meditation instruction over the course of five weeks, and the other would have that option at the conclusion of the experiment, but not before. At the end of the five weeks, everyone completed the earlier thought assignment a second time.

The researchers found striking differences in the brain activity of the two groups. While prior to training, the two groups showed no differences in frontal EEG asymmetry, by the end of the study, those who had received additional training showed a leftward shift in asymmetry. In real terms, this means a move toward an asymmetry pattern that has been associated with positive and approach-oriented emotional states—and that change occurred without a significant time commitment, as those in the meditation training group averaged only five to sixteen minutes of training and practice a day.

The positive results are more accessible than you might think

What does that mean? First, unlike past studies of meditation, that asked for a very real input of time and energy, this experiment did not require extensive resource commitment, and yet still showed striking neural results. Moreover, the training provided was extremely flexible: people could choose when they would want to receive instruction and when they would want to practice. And — and perhaps more importantly — participants reported a spike in spontaneous passive practice, when, without a conscious decision to meditate, they found themselves thinking along the lines of the instructions they had been provided, in unrelated situations.

In my mind, what this study so nicely illustrates is something that many people have long believed: that meditation does not have to be scary or strange or foreign or invasive. It can be incorporated in a natural way into your everyday routine – and even that relatively minor incorporation will provide very real benefits in terms of structured, focused thinking and emotional stability, benefits that have their roots in the brain but effects that play out in actual behavioral terms.

Successful individuals have been using meditation techniques for a long time

To many a highly successful individual, this isn't news. Ray Dalio, the founder of the world's biggest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, meditates every morning before work, calling it, in his interview for the New Yorker, “just a mental exercise in which you are clearing your mind" – as good a way of putting it as I have seen, and one that doesn't have any of the negative connotations that so often accompany the word meditation itself. The Daily Trading Coach counsels for meditative techniques to improve trading ability and clarity of thought. And the list goes on.

The benefits of meditation are in your brain as well as in your mind, and they play out in very real terms, allowing you to make better decisions, maintain better emotional equilibrium, and work your way coolly through many a hot situation. If you don't like the way meditation sounds, just call it something else. Call it, to paraphrase Dalio, a mental exercise to clear your mind. The name doesn't matter; taking the time to do it and to train yourself to think differently as a matter of course is what makes the difference.

If you'd like to receive information on new posts and other updates, follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova

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Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
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  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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