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How to Rewire Your Brain For Success
What's the Big Idea?
Until the 1980s, the scientific consensus was that the nervous system was fixed and incapable of regeneration. Growth of neurons was considered most active during prenatal development. As we age, neurons atrophy, the thinking went. Now scientists believe new neurons are continually born throughout adulthood.
Several breakthrough studies suggest that we may have more control over how our brains function and develop throughout adulthood—our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions—than previously assumed.
Why does this matter? Because by learning how to control our mentality, we may be able to deliberately reshape our neural pathways and rewire our brains to make ourselves more successful and fulfilled. In other words, shape your brain and you can shape your life.
Practice and Thinking Rewire the Brain
In 2007, Harvard Medical School conducted a study with volunteers in a lab who were asked to learn and practice a five-finger piano exercise. A neuroscientist instructed half of the volunteers to play as fluidly as they could, trying to keep to the metronome's 60 beats per minute, two hours a day for five days. The other half were instructed to merely think about practicing the piano, holding their hands still while playing the music in their heads. At the end of the five days, both groups underwent a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation test, which enabled scientists to infer the function of neurons.
The test results showed that in both groups, the stretch of motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas. The finding was in line with a growing number of discoveries showing that greater use of a particular muscle causes the brain to devote more cortical growth to it. Practice rewires the brain. More startling, however, was that the same region of the brain had expanded in the volunteers who merely thought about playing in a disciplined way.
There are two big implications here: 1.) that mental training may have the power to change the physical structure of the brain, and 2.) that the brain doesn't distinguish between a real or imagined exercise.
The Downside of Neuroplasticity
In neuroscience, the previous prevailing belief had been that the adult human brain is essentially "hardwired," so that by the time we reach adulthood we are stuck with what we have. Now we understand that the adult brain retains impressive powers of "neuroplasticity"—the ability to change its structure and function in response to experiences real or imagined.
The downside of neuroplasticity is that negative experiences can have a deleterious effect on our brains. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroendocrinology at Stanford University, has shown that stress is associated with neural degeneration. His research found that long-term stressful life experiences cause elevated production of cortisol, which results in the shrinking of the hippocampus area of the brain. The hippocampus is one of the few regions of the brain known to be able to produce new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.
What's the Significance?
How to Apply These Concepts in Business
We can use these new findings about the brain to help us become better performers at work, more successful in our business dealings, and more fulfilled professionally. By consistently training our thoughts, like those imaginary piano players, we can expand the number of branches and synaptic connections in our hippocampus, potentially leading to an increased ability to retain new information and adapt to new situations. Here are a few practical ways to apply these concepts.
Control your environment.
Because our brain cannot distinguish between real and imagined practice, if we subject ourselves to 30 minutes of watching sensationalized news stories, or find ourselves listening to a 30-minute dose of complaining and gossiping with those people around us, the effect on the brain is the same as if we had lived those experiences ourselves. The good news, according to Sapolsky, is that the negative effects of excessive stress can not only be stopped, but also reversed “once the source, psychological or physical, is removed or sufficiently reduced.” Limit your exposure to negativity by staying away from people, environments, and sources that are negative.
Resist the urge to use self-defeating language. We've all experienced a colleague saying, "You look tired." All the air goes out of our sails and suddenly we feel tired and depleted as we respond, "Yeah, I guess I've been under a lot of stress lately." We do the same thing to ourselves. If you don't feel well, never say it aloud to anyone. Instead, say, "I could use more energy." Also avoid the use of limiting words. Never say cannot when referring to yourself. Instead, reach for a higher-energy statement such as "When I can…" Other limiting words include hopefully, perhaps, one day, and maybe.
Begin and end all communications positively. Today this is especially important when using electronic media, as your messages live in cyberspace forever and continue to define you. It's imperative that the last thing you type is a positive word leading to positive thoughts. Try "Cheers" or "Best" or "Keep smiling." Your brain reaps the benefit of this positive thought, and the recipient gets an upbeat impression of you. It's a twofer.
Begin and end your day positively. Before you go to sleep at night, thank yourself for a great day. When you wake up, the first words in your head should be something like, "I feel absolutely fantastic, glad to be alive. I know today will be successful for me."
Make use of superlatives. In business, we are supposed to be subdued. But when someone asks you how you are, notice the difference between saying, "I'm fine," and "I feel absolutely amazing and vibrantly healthy." Using superlatives bumps your energy to a higher level.
Think bigger than what you actually desire. If all you really want is to land a specific client, by setting this as your intention and thinking of it every day, you will no doubt get it. But if you set your intentions much larger than your core desire—say, to acquire ten new significant clients this year—you trigger several positive psychological benefits. As you daydream and imagine a larger scenario, your core desire starts to feel easy and much more attainable.
A simple way to apply the science of neurogenesis is to be conscious and consistent in thinking positive, proactive thoughts—about your potential, your dreams, your goals, and your achievements. Taking control of your thoughts in this way will help you actually become that accomplished, positive person.
In his new book, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life (BenBella, 2012) , Trevor Blake outlines recent evidence for neuroplasticity and offers several ways to defend oneself against effects of negative stimuli in our everyday environment.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Bangkokhappiness.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.