How Complaining Can Alter Our Perception

It is intuitive that a negative attitude and constant complaining are bad for us, but can it really affect our brain? It turns out that there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that negativity can alter our perception of life by changing the connection of the neurons in our brain. This would then result in increased stress levels, which is linked to chronic diseases and mental health problems.

A common perception of complaining or “venting” is that people feel better after getting their emotions out. Contrary to popular belief, however, studies have shown that expressing negativity can be bad for the mood of both the complainer and the listener, and here we briefly discuss a few findings on how negativity can impact our well-being.

Do Negative Thoughts Affect the Wiring of Synapses in Our Brains?

The synapses in our brain are separated by spaces known as synaptic clefts. When we think, synapses “fire” and send signals across these clefts to other synapses. This forms a bridge by which signals and information and transferred. The exciting thing here is that upon each trigger of an electrical charge, the synapses involved are actually brought closer in proximity to each other. This increases the likelihood that the correct synapses will share the appropriate link and fire together. Consequently, it becomes easier for that particular thought to be triggered.

What all this means is that thinking about something initially makes it easier to think about it again in the future. As such, if a person is constantly unhappy, it makes it more likely that he or she will continue to have negative thoughts if nothing is done about it. On the bright side, though, this also suggests that if we make a conscious effort to think positive thoughts, the positive feedback cycle helps us to become a more optimistic personality as well.

By repeating pessimistic thought processes, synapses that represent these negative inclinations gradually grow closer. Given that the thought that is most likely to surface is the one which can form a bridge between synapses in the shortest period of time, it is unsurprising then that in this case a pessimist would be more likely to remain the way he or she was.

Who We Spend Time With Can Change Our Thinking Subconsciously

In view of how negativity can change our behaviour, it is perhaps not all that surprising that who we spend our time with influences our brain as well. The basis of this is primarily linked to how we empathize with others. For instance, when we see another person experiencing some emotion such as joy, sorrow or anger, our brain attempts to fire the same synapses to relate to the observed emotion.

By trying to imagine what the other person is going through, this rewiring of our brain (or the phenomena of “mirror neurons”) can in fact contribute to our patterns of thought without us realizing it – in fact, the activation of this mirror neuron system has been shown in a study to be altered in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These findings were reported based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data on how brain activation differs between the ASD group and the control group when inferring the intention of an action. Therefore, it would then be logical that if we surround ourselves with people who are generally optimistic, our inclinations towards happy interactions would be greatly enhanced.

Stress Can Affect Our Health More Directly Than We Think

In addition to hurting our mental well-being, the act of venting can be detrimental to our physical health as well. For example, anger-related synaptic firing can be bad for our immune system when coupled with an increase in blood pressure, as well as a higher risk of conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems.

The main contributing factor to all the negative effects of stress is a hormone in our body known as cortisol. This has been dubbed a “stress hormone”, as the levels of this hormone in our body are drastically elevated when we feel stressed out. In this regard, the release of cortisol by our adrenal glands in response to stressors such as fear is an integral component of our fight-or-flight mechanism. However, prolonged release leads to impaired learning and memory, higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.

To date, there are numerous studies which demonstrate the profound negative effects of stress on our physical and mental health. For example, it has been shown that cortisol production induced by social aggression and isolation can be a powerful trigger for mental disorders and reduced resilience, particularly for adolescents. To this end, scientists subjected mice that were genetically predisposed to mental illness to social isolation during adolescence. This triggered marked behavioural abnormalities that persisted even when the mice were returned to the group. More importantly, the effects of isolation stretched all the way into adulthood, implying that adolescent stress can cause long-term damage to mental health.

In another study, scientists specifically bred mice to be “bullies”, and then subjected other mice to aggression from these bullies. They found that the “bullied” mice would release cortisol that subsequently led to increased social aversion to other mice. Moreover, this “scared” behaviour in bullied mice disappeared when the cortisol receptors were blocked, indicating that excessive cortisol could lead to decreased resilience.

Taken together, the aforementioned findings highlight the negative effects of stress and could be implicated in the development of treatments for depression and other devastating psychiatric disorders. Additionally, they also suggest that in adolescents predisposed to mental illnesses, efforts to protect them from social stressors such as bullying and neglect could go a long way in reducing the risk of getting these diseases.

An Effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tool to Help You Stop Emotional Eating

-Karina Melvin, MSc, MA

Artful Eating ABC SHEET










We are all familiar with the term “emotional eating” and it’s the number one reason why people eat when they are not hungry. I’m going to share an effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tool which will help you address the triggers that lead to emotional eating. 

It’s really important to be able to discern between emotional hunger and physical hunger, and to be able to address the cause of the emotional eating.  While the two sensations feel very similar, it is only as we become attuned to our body that we can differentiate between them.

The biggest problem with emotional eating is that it does not make you feel better, less stressed, whole, or happy. Unfortunately, it has the exact opposite effect, and actually makes you feel worse. After eating something due to an emotional trigger you end up feeling guilty and frustrated with yourself.

Two simple principles to help you distinguish between emotional hunger and actual hunger:

  1. Emotional hunger is a sudden and impulsive feeling.

Whereas actual hunger is gradual and doesn’t become urgent until you are starving. Typically when you are hit with an urgent pang for a particular food then some emotional trigger is involved.

  1. Emotional hunger cannot be satiated with food.

When you eat as a result of an emotional trigger, as opposed to a physical trigger, you will find that you can continue eating. You may be familiar indeed with bingeing, which is an extreme form of emotional eating. This is where you can eat the whole packet of biscuits and not feel satisfied. Food cannot fill the emotional deficit that you are experiencing. Physical hunger is easily satiated and once you eat something the feeling of hunger is replaced by a feeling of fullness.

Like anything, the more you practice tuning into your body the easier it will be to identify emotional hunger.

How to overcome emotional eating?

Two simple and extremely effective steps:

  1. Awareness
  2. Recognize and address emotional triggers

The most important thing when it comes to addressing emotional eating is awareness.

Put your attention right now into your body.

Put your attention right now in your stomach.

Are you hungry right now for food at this moment?

Every time you’re about to put food in your body, ask yourself, am I hungry right now?

How hungry am I?

What am I hungry for?

Use the huger scale to establish when to eat, this is a powerful tool which you can find out more about here. 

Emotional hunger is different.

Typically when you are hit with an urgent pang for a particular food then some emotional trigger is involved. If you trace back your thoughts to the moment before you felt the urge, you’ll discover that there was a dialogue taking place in your mind. So many people turn to food as a way of trying to cope with something else that they are struggling with.

Whenever you feel yourself getting stressed, anxious, sad, bored, upset, or are experiencing pangs of emotional hunger I have a very effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercise that I want you to use. It’s called an ABC sheet. My clients absolutely love this tool and find it extremely helpful in addressing emotional hunger, so please use it!

The key with this is that you must physically go through the exercise in written form. It will only take a couple of minutes and will help recognize and address the triggers that lead to emotional eating.

Below there is an example of a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ‘ABC sheet’ to help you learn to address emotional eating. The first row provides the headings and the second row tells you what to do.  Try it out whenever you feel yourself experiencing the pangs of emotional hunger. Going through the process of actually writing the thoughts out is really cathartic and will help reduce and often eliminate the bad feelings.


Artful Eating ABC SHEET

Whenever you notice yourself feeling at that point where you want to eat for emotional reasons, as opposed to feelings of actual hunger, do an ABC Sheet. Whether it be boredom, sadness, emptiness, stress, loneliness, anger…or whatever the feeling is!  To see a filled-in example, click here.

This very simple formula can help you overcome emotional eating:

  1. Differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger
  2. Use the ABC sheet whenever you feel the pangs of emotional hunger

By now I hope you are clear on how to differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger, and you have a powerful tool to use whenever you feel the pangs of emotional hunger.

Over the next week I want you to really start to listen to your body and check in every little while and practice body awareness. If you recognize that you’re not actually hungry, don’t eat!

If you recognize that you are experiencing a craving due to emotional hunger, then I want you to pull out a piece of paper and go through the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ABC exercise. It’s really important that you physically write out the exercise as opposed to just thinking it. The idea here is that you are interrupting the feelings, acknowledging, and addressing them. This will help combat the need to fill the feeling with food and will help you overcome emotional eating for good!

Building a Romantic Connection

By Aaron Karmin

building a romantic connection

When you form a connection with your partner, it means there is an implied understanding of values, a common frame of reference, a series of shared experiences, and a sense that you are both on the same page. These connections form the bonds that foster trust and promote intimacy.

Having a connection is like cooking a meal. All the parts combine to create something new and distinct. No different than all the flavors that make meal, all the traits two people share combine to build a connection.

For example, even if you don’t like eggs, you may enjoy cake. And you would most likely favor a cake that has eggs in it, over a cake that doesn’t. Similarly, human qualities don’t exist in a vacuum. Traits that seem undesirable as an isolated personality characteristic, can promote a connection when combined with a host of other qualities.

One way we can connect with our partner is by fostering inside jokes. These are words, phrases, tones of voice, or facial expressions that remind you both of a funny incident. When you laugh with your partner, you create a positive bond, which is what connecting is all about.

Inside jokes come from shared experiences such as:

– parties, birthdays, anniversaries
– travel experiences
– playful moments with pets
– silly actions by children
– funny movies or TV shows
– self-deprecating remarks
– goofy singing or dancing

Another way to connect with your partner is with your body language.

Many important pieces of communication are non-verbal; that is they are not delivered through words alone. For example, our tone of voice, the speed of the voice, the intensity and pitch of the voice, all give our partner clues to our underlying emotion and mood.

Making eye contact with our partner also helps to promote a connection. Establishing eye contact when talking or listening is a way of saying, “I am here in this place and moment with you. I’m not looking at a screen or giving priority to anything else. I’m making you my priority.”

For example, say your partner comes in while you are watching a TV show and begins a conversation. You have a choice. You can turn off or pause the show and respond to the invitation for a conversation. You can continue watching without saying a word. Or you can leave the show on and respond with the distraction of the show still in the background. By turning off all music, televisions sets, computers and cell phones you are choosing to make a connection and emphasizing that this conversation is a priority.

Connecting with your partner has one variable that is not found in any other other relationship, romance. Romance involves the expression of sincere loving feelings and is the fuel that feeds the connection in our love life. Romantic gestures can be very dramatic or very small. However, if you constantly hold back what you really feel, then you may convince yourself that you don’t have a romantic side. But anyone who is capable of falling in love, and who wants to enter a relationship, has the ability to be romantic.

There are an endless variety of little things partners can do to connect with each other on a daily basis. A few examples include writing love notes or sending special e-mail messages, helping each other with a project, and preparing a favorite breakfast. Performing small, simple acts regularly can have a dramatic impact upon being connected with your partner.

Think You’re a Good Listener? Prove it

-Holly Brown, LMFT

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and this week I had the pleasure of attending Rosh Hashanah services and hearing a sermon on the value of listening. As a therapist, I listen for a living. But in my personal life, sometimes I can be a little lax.

I imagine that’s true for all of us: We can get used to thinking we know how our partners feel, and we don’t actually check it out. Here’s why that’s a mistake, and how to correct it.The sermon was about how, as a society, listening has become a lost art. When it’s all about monologue (and even a tweet can be a micro-monologue), that’s where we get into trouble. We disconnect from ourselves, each other, and our ideals. We screen out ideas that don’t agree with our own. We can become narrow and judgmental. We lose touch with our empathy.

I couldn’t agree more. So this year, the rabbi issued a challenge: Listen more than ever, and start with an exercise.

The exercise he recommended is one that I remember from a training I once attended. It’s deceptively simple, and very enlightening. It won’t take long, but it will take effort.

Sit with someone, allow them to talk for five minutes without interruption, and then tell them, in your own words, what you heard. Then reverse, and you’re the speaker, and they’ll be the listener.

During the training I attended years ago, as therapists, we assumed the paraphrasing would be a breeze. What we found was that we were often wrong. By paraphrasing and then inviting correction, we developed a deeper understanding of the speaker.

It was eye-opening. Often, we don’t check our assumptions. We’re too sure of what we’ve heard, and we then move forward with erroneous assumptions.

Think of what that means in terms of our relationships–if we’re habitually “listening” but coming away with the wrong understandings.

Try the exercise yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. Listening truly is an art and a skill. Don’t let it be a lost one in your home.

This is an exercise that can be repeated regularly–when there are disagreements, or just important topics where you really want to be understood. You can also use a version of it daily, by simply checking in quickly: “So what you meant is…?” Allow yourself to be corrected, respectfully. Correct your partner, respectfully. Your relationship will be better for it.

And move it outward, to other relationships, to your community. The world will be better for it.

To Be Average Is to Be Happy: A Lesson from the Danes

-Lindsay Dupuis

Ah, Denmark: the little Scandinavian country that is home to tall, beautiful blondes, tastefully designed homes, students who get paid to go to university — and some of the world’s happiest people.

For a country that seems to have it all, the Danes have an unusual way of remaining humble about their good fortune. Sure, it could be their extremely high taxes, dark and dreary winter weather, or that they’ve lost more wars in history than possibly any other country, that keeps them grounded, but many suspect it’s an unusual little law known as the Jante Law that keeps the Danes’ heads on straight. (Many Danes claim that Jante Law isn’t all that serious, and some are even embarrassed by it, but it continues to play a role in defining Danish culture and values.)

Developed by Danish-Norwegian author Axel Sandemose in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, Jante Law is a set of rules:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Ouch. Pretty harsh, isn’t it? Or is it?

On the surface, while Jante Law appears to be pretty brutal, it’s widely theorized that these ten little rules might actually be grounds for not just the Danes’ very humble ways, but also (and, perhaps, quite ironically) for their very happy ways.

If you’re consistently told that you’re no better or any worse than anyone else, then you’re essentially being told that you’re a very average person. You’ll probably set your sights on living a very average life. With such a mentality, you’re likely to be quite content when life hands you very average things. On the other hand, if life happens to hand you something above and beyond average, you’ll likely feel pleasantly surprised, and in most cases, pretty darn happy.

Compare this to the United States, where people are raised to shoot for the stars and beyond, and to put their blood, sweat, and tears into living the American Dream: ”You deserve the absolute best in life, and anything else is simply unacceptable.”

Of course, some good may come from this mentality, but generally, big dreams often are just that. With expectations set so high, the attainment of anything less is viewed as nothing short of a disappointment, and depression soon sets in.

Interestingly, in 2014, neuroscientist Robb Rutledge and colleagues of University College in London put this theory of expectations and happiness to the test and determined that happiness is, indeed, relative to how well we’re doing compared to how we expect we should be doing (Rutledge, Skandali, Dayan & Dolan, 2014). In other words, if performance matches or exceeds expectations, happiness ensues. On the other hand, if performance falls short of expectations, unhappiness ensues. With this being said, we can see why the Danes have the upper hand when it comes to levels of happiness.

The next time someone tells you to “set your sights high,” perhaps you ought to question them a little, and even refuse to set them high (or, at least, not set them too high). When it comes to our happiness, maybe we ought to learn from Rutledge, and of course, from the Danes. But try not to strive too hard in doing so; otherwise, you are simply bound to be disappointed.

How to treat Perfectionism in young people, and what causes it.

-Joseph Sacks, LCSW

A perfectionist is someone who deep down inside feels terrible about himself and tries to redeem himself from that poor self-image by achieving a perfect performance or by accomplishing truly amazing things. He feels that if he can finally get things just right, then and only then will he be a worthwhile person, but if he achieves any less than perfect he remains with feelings of being a failure. However in considering how to treat perfectionism in young people, we must remember that this goal is an illusion that never succeeds, since even the most perfect performance cannot cure low self-esteem. No matter how great his achievement, he notices that it does not relieve his poor feelings of self-worth, and concludes that only higher levels of perfection must be achieved to redeem himself. This mechanism involves severe self-imposed pressure and self-criticism and can generate significant anxiety since because consistent perfection is practically impossible, he is terribly anxious over his likely perceived failure. It can cause depression as he feels helpless and hopeless to ever achieve perfection and redeem himself from his low self-esteem, and he gives up and falls into a depression. It can cause obsessive-compulsive disorder as he drives himself endlessly to get every detail perfect. It can even generate back pain, migraines and a whole host of psychosomatic illnesses as his mind creates these physical illnesses to distract him from overwhelming feelings of worthlessness.

How does a young person get this way?

 To answer this question we have to go back to the most important thing in any person’s life, his early relationship with his parents. A perfectionist is usually someone who was born with a sensitive temperament and raised by loving, well-intentioned parents who unfortunately made some common errors such as being overcritical, showing lack of approval or showing love only conditionally. When the child does something wrong many parents reason that they’re helping out their child by calling attention to their errors so that they will improve and correct themselves, but unfortunately criticism, even so-called constructive criticism if administered on a regular basis is devastating to a child’s self-esteem. He feels that he just can’t get things right and that he is defective, and he forms a plan in order to rescue himself from these unpleasant feelings. He resolves to accomplish amazing things, to achieve near perfection and then and only then will he be a beyond the reach of the criticism of his parents.

In addition, if the parents display love and approval of the child only when he performs well he learns to think, “My value depends on my performance. I must have a superior performance otherwise I am worthless.”

Marital conflict or abandonment partially by one parent can also generate the condition, as the child thinks, “If I could just be perfect, mommy and daddy wouldn’t fight or break up. If I could just do amazing things he would see my value, pay attention to me and love me.”

Therefore if the patient is still young we need to educate the parents about providing an extremely non-critical, approving and accepting attitude towards their child.

How do we treat perfectionism in young people?

In therapy we will have a young person understand the whole maladaptive thought process how it got that way, how it is futile and how perfect performance will never restore his self-worth. Rather he needs to develop the habit of shooting for decent performance, for moderate goals, that less than perfect is also good. This takes considerable time and review as the habit of striving towards perfection is extremely strong. However the patient will begin to experience the profound beauty, joy and satisfaction of a mundane, average accomplishment. Yes one of the greatest pillars of mental health for everyone is appreciating the value of moderate, average, halfway decent performance. Since by definition most of what people accomplish in life falls in that range we need to learn to embrace it and celebrate it. Such appreciation will indeed create true self-esteem as the person will see true value in the many ordinary things he does. Furthermore the patient must avoid self-criticism at all costs! Developing an attitude of self-acceptance is accomplished by understanding that considering the difficulties he went through in childhood, he is actually doing fantastic! In addition in therapy the patient needs to gain a conscious awareness of his authentic feelings, his emotional life. This further create self-esteem as the person thinks, “I perceive my feelings, thoughts, needs, desires and values as real and worthy.” Furthermore the patient needs to mourn and grieve the unfortunate events in his childhood that led to his condition. This way the drive towards perfection is reduced and replaced with moderate, reasonable, healthy goals and the accompanying anxiety, depression and mental health issues also subside.

Never underestimate the power of this great work. In months it can bring tremendous relief.

This school replaced detention with meditation. The results are stunning.

-James Gaines

Imagine you’re working at a school and one of the kids is starting to act up. What do you do?

Traditionally, the answer would be to give the unruly kid detention or suspension.

But in my memory, detention tended to involve staring at walls, bored out of my mind, trying to either surreptitiously talk to the kids around me without getting caught or trying to read a book. If it was designed to make me think about my actions, it didn’t really work. It just made everything feel stupid and unfair.

But Robert W. Coleman Elementary School has been doing something different when students act out: offering meditation.

Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

Instead of punishing disruptive kids or sending them to the principal’s office, the Baltimore school has something called the Mindful Moment Room instead.

The room looks nothing like your standard windowless detention room. Instead, it’s filled with lamps, decorations, and plush purple pillows. Misbehaving kids are encouraged to sit in the room and go through practices like breathing or meditation, helping them calm down and re-center. They are also asked to talk through what happened.

Meditation and mindfulness are pretty interesting, scientifically.

Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

Mindful meditation has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Recently, though, science has started looking at its effects on our minds and bodies, and it’s finding some interesting effects.

One study, for example, suggested that mindful meditation could give practicing soldiers a kind of mental armor against disruptive emotions, and it can improve memory too. Another suggested mindful meditation could improve a person’s attention span and focus.

Individual studies should be taken with a grain of salt (results don’t always carry in every single situation), but overall, science is starting to build up a really interesting picture of how awesome meditation can be. Mindfulness in particular has even become part of certain fairly successful psychotherapies.

Back at the school, the Mindful Moment Room isn’t the only way Robert W. Coleman Elementary has been encouraging its kids.

After-school yoga. Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

The meditation room was created as a partnership with the Holistic Life Foundation, a local nonprofit that runs other programs as well. For more than 10 years the foundation has been offering the after-school program Holistic Me, where kids from pre-K through the fifth grade practice mindfulness exercises and yoga.

“It’s amazing,” said Kirk Philips, the Holistic Me coordinator at Robert W. Coleman. “You wouldn’t think that little kids would meditate in silence. And they do.”

I want to be as cool as this kid one day. Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

There was a Christmas party, for example, where the kids knew they were going to get presents but were still expected to do meditation first.

“As a little kid, that’s got to be hard to sit down and meditate when you know you’re about to get a bag of gifts, and they did it! It was beautiful, we were all smiling at each other watching them,” said Philips.

The kids may even be bringing that mindfulness back home with them. In the August 2016 issue of Oprah Magazine, Holistic Life Foundation co-founder Andres Gonzalez said: “We’ve had parents tell us, ‘I came home the other day stressed out, and my daughter said, “Hey, Mom, you need to sit down. I need to teach you how to breathe.”‘”

The program also helps mentor and tutor the kids, as well as teach them about the environment.

Building a vegetable garden. Photo from Holistic Life Foundation, used with permission.

They help clean up local parks, build gardens, and visit nearby farms. Philips said they even teach kids to be co-teachers, letting them run the yoga sessions.

This isn’t just happening at one school, either. Lots of schools are trying this kind of holistic thinking, and it’s producing incredible results.

In the U.K., for example, the Mindfulness in Schools Project is teaching adults how to set up programs. Mindful Schools, another nonprofit, is helping to set up similar programs in the United States.

Oh, and by the way, the schools are seeing a tangible benefit from this program, too.

Philips said that at Robert W. Coleman Elementary, there have been exactly zero suspensions last year and so far this year. Meanwhile, nearby Patterson Park High School, which also uses the mindfulness programs, said suspension rates dropped and attendance increased as well.

Is that wholly from the mindfulness practices? It’s impossible to say, but those are pretty remarkable numbers, all the same.

Emotional Impact after Quitting Fitbit

-Rick Nauert, PhD

Researchers are learning that personal tracking tools — technologies that meticulously count our daily steps, map our runs, account for each purchase — fall in and out of favor in users’ lives.

This finding is significant because many believe self-engagement is critical to improve personal health and reduce overall health care costs.

New research explores why people quit using the apps, how they felt when they quit, and how apps can better be designed to improve retention.

University of Washington researchers found that people abandon self-tracking for a variety of reasons. For some, the information provided by the Fitbit (or a financial tracking tool for that matter) may not be what they had hoped for thus they abandon the effort.

Others find collecting data a hassle, don’t quite know how to use the information, or simply learn what they need to know about their habits and move on.

“We got curious about what it’s like for people after they stop using self-tracking tools,” said Sean Munson, a University of Washington assistant professor of human centered design and engineering.

“Do they feel great, do they feel guilty, do they feel like they’ve gotten everything they need?”

For the study, researchers surveyed 193 people who had abandoned personal informatics tracking. The study team found many people experienced no real difference in their lives. Other emotions, however, ranged from guilt over not being able to keep it up to relief from the tyranny of self-tracking.

Now, in a paper to be presented at the 2016 International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp 2016), the researchers explore how different design approaches may better support people who have lapsed in their Fitbit use.

“People feel more guilt when it comes to abandoning health tracking, as compared to something like location tracking, which is more of a fun thing that people do for a while and move on from,” said lead author Daniel Epstein, a University of Washington doctoral student in computer science and engineering.

“We definitely don’t think that everyone should be tracking forever, but we wanted to see if there are design opportunities to better support people who have had different experiences using Fitbit.”

The research team surveyed 141 people who had lapsed in using Fitbit. They showed the subjects seven different visual representations and ways of framing previously collected data, to see if the data could offer additional support and encouragement to be healthy if portrayed in new and interesting ways.

Half of these Fitbit users described feeling guilty about their lapsed Fitbit use, and nearly all of those said they would like to return to activity tracking. Twenty-one said they got no value out of tracking, found it annoying, or struggled to connect the data to behavior change. Five participants felt they had learned enough about their habits, and 45 reported mixed feelings about abandoning their Fitbit.

The researchers found that lapsed users responded differently to seeing their old Fitbit data presented in new ways, depending on their personal tracking history.

Participants who had tracked their fitness levels for less than four months preferred visualizations that showed them which days of the week or time of day they were active, while those with a longer track record preferred visualizations that highlighted the length of their activity record.

Most people preferred social comparisons that made them look better than their peers, such as “you walked more than 70 percent of people,” over those that were framed negatively, such as “30 percent of people walked more than you” — even if the comparisons represented the same information.

The team also found that people who felt guilty about abandoning their Fitbit use were very receptive to recommendations that they return to tracking, while people who felt they had gotten what they had wanted out of self-tracking felt those same suggestions were judgmental and unhelpful.

The responses show, researchers say, that a one-size-fits-all design approach misses opportunities to support different types of users.

“Right now self-tracking apps tend to assume everyone will track forever, and that’s clearly not the case,” said co-author James Fogarty, a University of Washington associate professor of computer science and engineering.

“Given that some people feel relief when they give it up, there may be better ways to help them get better value out of the data after they’re done, or reconnect them to the app for weeklong check-ins or periodic tune-ups that don’t presume they’ll be doing this every day for the rest of their lives.”

Source: University of Washington

Moderately Vigorous Exercise in Midlife Tied to Greater Cognition in Old Age

-Traci Pedersen

Moderately vigorous physical activity in midlife is linked to better cognition 25 years later, according to a new study involving 3,050 twins from the Finnish Twin Cohort.

While traditional vascular risk factors (elevated blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, diabetes, and lack of exercise) have been associated with dementia risk, until now it has remained unclear whether exercise carries other unique benefits for cognition other than reducing these risks. But the link remained even after factoring these out.

“This suggests that the beneficial influence of physical activity on the brain and cognition is not solely based on decreasing vascular risk factors,” says researcher Paula Iso-Markku from the University of Helsinki.

The study was conducted by scientists at the universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, and Turku. The twins reported information on their physical activity through questionnaire surveys between 1975 and 1981 (mean age of participants in 1981 was 49), while cognition was assessed by validated telephone interviews between the years 1999 and 2015.

First, the link between exercise and cognition was examined in all participants, and then by comparing later cognition in pairs where one twin was more physically active than the other.

Iso-Markku says that “few long-term, high-quality, follow-up studies on physical activity and cognition have been published, and it has remained unclear what type and amount of exercise is needed to safeguard cognition.”

Importantly, the researchers discovered that cognitive benefits in old age did not continue to increase the more vigorously one had exercised in midlife. In other words, extremely vigorous exercise in midlife did not result in the most superior cognitive abilities later in life.

Instead, a moderate amount of physical activity was sufficient for memory-protecting benefits, and only the most inactive group of twins stood out with a significantly higher risk for cognitive impairment.

“Overall, the study shows that moderately vigorous physical activity, meaning more strenuous than walking, is associated with better cognition after an average of 25 years,” said Professor Urho Kujala from the University of Jyväskylä.

The new results are in accordance with findings on animals which have shown that physical activity increases the amount of growth factors in the brain and improves synaptic plasticity.

Cases of dementia have been on the increase among aging populations worldwide. Although the incidence of dementia seems to have decreased in younger seniors, the total prevalence of the disease is still expected to rise. While no cure exists for dementia as of yet, researchers have produced an abundance of new evidence regarding dementia prevention in the last decade.

The findings are published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

As the sea affects the brain

-Jennifer Delgado

Have you ever felt an incredible peace while walking along the sea, or maybe you felt more energetic and your mood was improved? The truth is that most people experience a feeling of calm, relaxation and well-being, when near the water. Why? Neuroscientists believe that the explanation lies in our brain.

The sea has a tremendous effect on our mind

In essence, the relaxing effect of the sea is due to the fact that represents a kind of “vacation” for our brain compared to the excess of the stimuli to which we submit it every day. In fact, we live in an environment overloaded of stimuli, these constantly bombard us causing an overstimulation that ends up generating a constant state of tension that prevents us to relax.

However, seeing the sea and hearing the sound of the waves allows us to disconnect from this chaotic environment, like we were creating a bubble around us. In fact, the movement of the sea and its immensity have an almost hypnotic effect, which generates a feeling of tranquility and well-being that allows us to regenerate ourselves.

– It induces a meditative state

The sound of the ocean waves induces a meditative state and stimulates an attitude of mindfulness. In fact, it is no coincidence that this sound is often used in relaxation sessions since it has been shown to cause changes in brain waves. In particular, the sound of the sea waves promotes the alpha waves, which have been linked to a state of attention without effort. These waves appear when we are relaxed and calm, so focused that the whole environment around us disappears, even time. Interestingly, these waves also promote a state of mental clarity and stimulate creative thinking.

– Stimulates creativity

When we are close to the sea, our brain changes its operational mode switching from “occupied” to “relaxed”. The interesting thing is that in this way it is activated the default neural network, which is exactly what has been connected to intuition and the appearance of the most original and creative ideas. What happens is that the sea allows us to forget our worries making sure that the prefrontal area of the brain transfers the control, letting creativity flow freely. In this state we are more open to new experiences and less critical.

– Generates a powerful state of awe and wonder

There’s nothing like watching the immensity of the sea to perceive a mixed feeling of awe and wonder in front of the immensity. In this regard, the psychologists of the universities of Stanford and Minnesota have found that this experience can foster a deep sense of well-being. This type of “expansionary” experiences force us to change the mindset through which we process what we are experiencing, so to produce a dramatic change in our way of thinking that also influences the decision-making process, making us think more about the others and be more generous. It was also shown that these experiences alter our perception of time, as if we were literally immersed in a big bubble.

– It improves cognitive performance

The environment we live in is full of ions, both negative and positive. It was discovered that the positive ions such as those that emit most of the electronic devices, drain our energy. Conversely, negative ions, which are present in large quantities in the sea, are generating a state of activation. In fact, a study conducted at Mount Carmel College in Bangalore revealed that negative ions have a positive effect on our cognitive performance. The researchers involved the participants into various tests of memory, attention and decision-making process and found that their performance were reduced when the air was full of positive ions and increased when there were more negative ions. Another study conducted at the University of California revealed that negative ions also stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain, a substance that helps us to relax while at the same time we feel full of energy.