5 Psychological Habits That Limit Your Ability to Think

4. Overanalyzing rejection

Our brain is like a computer processor: It has a finite amount of processing power, or intellectual resources, that can be used in a given moment. Any competing task (or emotional state) that occupies too much of our intellectual firepower impacts our ability to concentrate, focus, problem-solve, be creative, or use other cognitive abilities; as a result, our functioning IQ is temporarily lowered.

To demonstrate this principle, try walking while counting down from 1000 by sevens (1000, 993, 986, etc.). You will soon stop walking. Why? Your brain has to work so hard to do this math that it doesn’t have enough resources left to tell your legs to put one foot in front of the other.

Most common competing tasks do not have a significant impact on our ability to work or study. Most of us can do homework while listening to music and can become absorbed in a book while eating.

However, some psychological habits consume such huge amounts of intellectual resources that they diminish our cognitive capacities. Few people are aware that these psychological habits have such a detrimental effect, so they are unlikely to pause what they’re doing—and this can seriously affect a person’s ability to perform a task at full capacity.

5 Common Psychological Habits that Impair Intellectual Functioning

1. Brooding

Replaying upsetting, frustrating, or distressing events over and over again—especially when doing so frequently or habitually—can make our minds race with thoughts or stir us up emotionally, severely taxing our intellectual resources. In addition to impacting our cognitive functioning, brooding (also known as ruminating) can present real dangers to our emotional and even our physical health. (See The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding.)

2. Unresolved Guilt

We all feel guilty from time to time. When we do, we typically apologize or take some kind of action to resolve our guilty feelings. However, when guilt is not addressed and repeatedly pops into your mind, it creates a huge cognitive distraction that seriously impairs cognitive functioning. The solution is to put guilty feelings behind you as best you can. (See The Secret of Effective Apologies.)

3. Ineffective Complaining

Most people are likely to share their frustrations with friends than discuss them with someone who could help to resolve them. The problem is that, each time we tell our tale, we become frustrated and annoyed. Anger and frustration require significant processing power and enable ineffective complaints to become a regular drain on our brainpower.

4. Overanalyzing Rejection

Rejection creates emotional pain that significantly impacts our mood and has a serious impact on cognitive functioning. It also causes us to become self-critical, a habit that further damages our self-esteem, extending the duration of our emotional distress—and with it, our compromised cognitive abilities. (See 10 Surprising Facts about Rejection.)

5. Worrying

Many people don’t consider worrying harmful. “I’m just a bit of a worrier,” we might say with a wry smile. But worrying creates an uncomfortable and unpleasant emotional state, and it can be seriously distracting. When we’re worried about something, it tends to take priority in our minds, and push everything else to the side. Fortunately, it’s easier to address and resolve worry (by thinking through potential solutions) than it is anxiety. (See The Difference between Anxiety and Worry.)

Guy Winch, PhD

The Surprising Benefits of the “Bromance”

Male bonding can make guys healthier, happier, and better dads as well.

Whether it’s a movie starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, or it’s Joey and Chandler from Friends, Hollywood tends to portray male friendships in a comedic light. But a good “bromance” makes for more than just bachelor parties and fist bumps.

The Health Benefits of Male Friendship

A new study which appeared in Neuropsychopharmacology highlights the benefits of male friendship. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, studied how friendship affects male rats. When housed together, male rats frequently displayed aggression toward one another. They often fought over food and water. After experiencing mild stress, however, the rats became more cooperative and increasingly social. They stopped fighting and they treated each other in a much more civil manner. They huddled together and sought comfort from one another. Huddling with the other rates led to increased oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin, also known as the “feel-good hormone,” appeared to help the rats cope with stress.

The researchers concluded that a good bromance will release oxytocin in the human brain as well—and increased oxytocin can help men live longer, healthier lives. (Although some also refer to oxytocin as “the love hormone,” emotionally intense platonic relationships also increase oxytocin.)

Here are just a few benefits men gain from increased oxytocin in the brain:

  • Pain relief. Oxytocin has been associated with decreased pain and improved healing speed. Studies show it can even raise your pain threshold.
  • Lower cortisol levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can have harmful effects on your body, ranging from increased abdominal fat to decreased immunity. Studies show oxytocin reduces the amount of cortisol that releases in response to stressful situations.
  • Increased generosity. Oxytocin has been shown to boost altruism. In one study, participants who received oxytocin were 80% more generous than others who received a placebo.

Why Women Should Encourage Bromance

Some wives and girlfriends may be tempted to complain about the amount of time a man spends with his friends, but a partner’s bromances could actually lead to an improved romantic relationship: The oxytocin which releases when a man spends time with friends promotes social bonding with anyone perceived to be in the individual’s “inner circle.”

A 2012 study in Biological Psychiatry found that oxytocin could help fathers bond more with their babies: Dads who got a boost of oxytocin via a nasal spray played more closely with their babies than dads who didn’t get the spray.

Oxytocin may also help men stay faithful to their partners. One study found that oxytocin led men in monogamous relationships to keep a greater distance between themselves and an attractive woman during an initial encounter. Researchers suspect this may be to avoid signaling romantic interest toward other women.

Male friendship won’t just improve the quality of a man’s life—it just might impact the length of it.

-Amy Morin, LCSW, What Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

My Brain Made Me Do It! Neuroscience for Kids Who Need It

How the basics of brain science can help kids change troubled behaviors

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in the hallway of my school building talking with a student who was feeling distraught after her involvement in a heated conflict with several classmates.  The young girl had lashed out verbally at a group of students during recess.  What I’m really trying to say is, she let them have it!   I’m talking no holds barred, every-insult-a-third-grader-can-think-of, have it!

After giving her the chance to calm down and talk about the events leading up to the epic tongue-lashing, my student had a lightbulb moment.  “My brain just took over my mouth for a few minutes!” she said.

I nodded.

“You probably think I’m just making excuses,” she insisted, “but it’s true!”

I nodded again and affirmed for her, “I understand.”

“You do?” she asked, surprised.

“I do,” I confirmed.  “I can help you understand what is happening in your brain, too, during these times when you get very upset.  I think this is a very important conversation for us to have because learning about how your brain works when you’re stressed out can help you know how to prevent problems like the one that happened outside today.”

“Am I in trouble?” she asked.

First things are first with kids, right?  They need to know that they are safe before they can truly focus on anything else.  I assured her that I would help her work through the problem.  She nodded and I knew she was ready to move forward.

First, I asked her to raise her make a fist* with either hand.  Then, I challenged her to fold her thumb into the palm of her hand and bend her fingers over it.  “Believe it or not,” I told her, “this is actually a pretty close model of your brain!  Your brain is amazing and has a whole lot of specialized parts, but to help you learn about what happened at recess, we are going to focus on three powerful jobs of your brain for now.

Here’s how I broke it down, as my student and I sat in the hallway that afternoon:

Brain Stem

Your wrist represents the brain stem—the part of your brain that connects to your spinal cord (represented by your forearm).  This part of your brain controls your heart rate, your breathing, and basically all of the things that your body needs to live, but that you don’t really have to think much about on a daily basis.

Limbic system

Your thumb represents your limbic system.  This is the part of your brain that helps you feel your feelings.  Lots of times, people call this the “emotional brain.”  That sudden and strong rush of anger you said you felt after the girls told you that you couldn’t play soccer with them at recess—that was your limbic system being activated!

Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

Together, your brain stem and limbic system control something called your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response.  In any stressful situation—whether it is a charging animal that is about to bite you or a classmate who is telling you that you’re the worst soccer player in the whole third grade—this part of your brain can direct how you respond.  For example, when classmates say cruel words and leave you out, you might:

Freeze up and not know what to do or say.
Immediately fight back with your fists or your words (or both!)
Run away or take flight from the soccer field as quickly as possible.

These near-instant responses are all times that your brain stem and limbic system have taken charge of your body!

“Which way do you suppose your limbic system was responding today at recess?”  I asked.

“Fight!”  she declared.

“Right,” I said.  “The good news is, there’s still one more part of your brain that we are going to talk about and it’s the part that can help you make good choices, even when your first thought is to ‘fight.”

Pre-frontal cortex

The front part of your fingers, when wrapped over your thumb, represent the pre-frontal cortex—the part of your brain that controls good decision-making.  The pre-frontal cortex is also known as your “logical brain” because it gives you the ability to stop and think before acting on the impulses of your emotional brain.

This is very important because during a conflict with friends—or in any stressful situation—you have the ability to think through your choices and make the best decision for how to respond.

My student looked at me, seeming confused.

What I’m telling you is that even though you were right when you said that your brain took over your mouth for a few minutes, this is not how things have to be!  Your amazing brain gives you the power to make good choices, even in bad situations!  How cool is that?

My student agreed with me that her brain was pretty cool!  She had lots more questions after that—like why it was that her heart felt like it was pounding out of her chest when she got really angry, and why yelling at kids feels so good in the moment even when it just brought her more problems later on.  We sat for a while longer and talked about it all—how the activity in her brain stem accounted for her rapid heart rate (and her hot face), how her limbic system directed her fighting words, and how her pre-frontal cortex allowed her to engage in a thoughtful conversation with me once she was calm.

We went on to talk about specific strategies for getting and staying calm during stressful situations, so that she could always let her logical brain be in charge, instead of having her emotional brain take over.  To be honest, this student and I had had many previous talks about strategies for calming down, but this time, the conversation was different.  Something clicked.  Connecting stress management and relaxation strategies with age-appropriate brain science has proven to be a pathway of insight and self-regulation for this child that no previous amount of talking, skill-practicing, role-play, or therapeutic games ever achieved.

Did a chance lesson on neuroscience eliminate all of my student’s troublesome behaviors from that day forward?  Of course not.  Anyone who knows anything about the human brain knows that behaviors are patterned and that change takes time.  Can I honestly tell you, however, that this third-grade student has been able to stop herself from lashing out at peers on a far more frequent basis since our hallway science chat?  Absolutely.  Does she make use of more of the relaxation strategies I had been trying to teach her all year, now that she knows how calming her limbic system can help her access the logical decision making abilities of her pre-frontal cortex?  You bet!  She gets it, she is proud of herself, and she is the first to notice that her classmates no longer walk on eggshells around her.  Knowledge is, indeed, power.

*The hand model of the brain, referenced above, is adapted from Daniel Siegel’s Brain Hand Model.  For more information and to enhance your understanding of how the human brain responds to stressful incidents, check out Siegel’s brief YouTube video, “Dr. Daniel Siegel Presenting a Hand Model of the Brain.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw

-Signe Whitson, LSW

Can You “Grow Out Of” ADHD?

Research shows ADHD can causes lasting changes.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is typically thought of as a childhood illness. When you use a search engine to look up signs and symptoms of the disorder (for instance, shortened attention span, impulsivity, excessive speech and restlessness) or treatments (such as behavioral therapy and medications), many of the websites focus exclusively on children. ADHD in adults is often ignored entirely or left as a mere footnote.

It’s not surprising that the literature is so sparse—for whatever reason, ADHD seems to be more common in children than adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 10.2 percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD. Meanwhile, a study conducted in 2009 estimated that only 2.5 percent of adults met the diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

Still, the number of adults living with ADHD is greater than the number of adults who live with obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia. In fact, recent research shows that some adults with ADHD did not even have symptoms in childhood.

These days, more and more researchers recognize the necessity of studying ADHD beyond childhood and adolescence. If so many children live with ADHD, why do so few adults have the diagnosis? Can ADHD, much like certain forms of epilepsy, be outgrown? Or does the damage associated with ADHD stick around for the long term despite what clinicians once believed?

Unfortunately, research published last August in the scientific journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry points toward the latter.

Young adults diagnosed with ADHD as teenagers have a smaller caudate nucleus

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, U.K., and the University of Oulu, Finland, aimed to determine whether or not young adults who had been diagnosed with ADHD as teenagers had significantly different brain structures than their neurologically healthy peers.

The data was based within the 1986 Northern Finland Birth Cohort, a research project that has followed thousands of children born in 1986 from birth to adulthood. The researchers focused on 49 young adults within this cohort who were diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 16 and were now aged from 20 to 24 years. Only one participant had been prescribed medication. These participants were compared to 34 young adults who hadn’t been diagnosed with ADHD or any other developmental disability.

The researchers compared brain scans between the two groups and found that, compared to the group of healthy controls, individuals who had been diagnosed with ADHD had reduced gray matter in the caudate nucleus, a brain region that contributes to a wide variety of cognitive functions including memory.

The surprising thing, however, was that this brain difference was present regardless of whether or not the participant still met the diagnostic criteria of ADHD. In other words, young adults who had been previously diagnosed with ADHD in adolescence but no longer demonstrated clinically significant symptoms still had smaller-than-average caudate nuclei than people without a history of ADHD.

Young adults with a history of ADHD have disrupted memory, brain activity

To determine whether or not these structural differences resulted in cognitive impairment, the researchers took a subset of the participants (21 with a history of ADHD and 23 controls) and had them perform a memory task while in an fMRI scanner. FMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, is a neuroimaging technique that allows researchers to evaluate neural activity in various brain regions by measuring deoxygenated blood.

The results? One-third of the young adults who had been diagnosed with ADHD in the past failed the memory test compared with only one participant in the control group. Even the participants in the ADHD group who managed to pass still performed worse than the controls by an average of 6 percentage points.

Not only did people who had a history of ADHD perform worse on the memory task than controls, but their caudate nucleus was significantly less sensitive. Specifically, when controls were faced with a difficult memory question, their caudate nucleus demonstrated increased activity. When the participants who had been diagnosed with ADHD received more difficult problems, their caudate nucleus maintained the same level of activity as before, seemingly unable to adapt to the more challenging circumstances.

Graham K. Murray, Ph.D., the lead researcher with the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, explained:

“In the controls, when the test got harder, the caudate nucleus went up a gear in its activity, and this is likely to have helped solve the memory problems. But in the group with adolescent ADHD, this region of the brain is smaller and doesn’t seem to be able to respond to increasing memory demands, with the result that memory performance suffers.”

Once again, participants who had “recovered” from ADHD and participants who were still diagnosed with ADHD were no different. Both groups had altered activity in the caudate nucleus, and both groups performed poorly on the memory task.

What does this mean?

Even though it is less common in adults than children, ADHD can still affect adults. Not only can adults still meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, but adults who are technically “recovered” from ADHD may struggle with certain cognitive tasks, experience less-than-healthy neural activity and have irregular levels of gray matter in certain brain regions. ADHD doesn’t disappear just because symptoms become less obvious—its effect on the brain lingers.

Of course, this study is only one example of the research that is currently revolutionizing how we view ADHD. Two very recent studies—one led by Jessica Agnew-Blais, Sc.D., at King’s College London and the other led by Arthur Caye at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil—found evidence that some adults with ADHD never even experienced symptoms as children. In other words, it’s possible that there is such a thing as adult-onset ADHD. Researchers have yet to determine whether or not this form of ADHD is biologically distinct from the childhood form—after all, there are countless ways in which the brain can malfunction and interrupt a person’s ability to pay attention or retain memories.

The results of this study—and studies like it—stress the importance of treating developmental disabilities and mental illnesses not as a series of symptoms, but as physical illnesses with objective markers. We must understand how various illnesses and disorders impact the brain. With this knowledge, our ability to diagnose—and treat—these illnesses will increase tenfold.

-Courtney Lopresti, M.S.

Muhammad Ali and Where Determination Lives in the Brain

How hard we push ourselves is linked to our assessment of risk and reward.

Widely known by the moniker “The Greatest of All Time”, Muhammad Ali has died at age 74. He was born as Cassius Clay Jr. in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky and went on to win the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight gold medal in Rome. Ali began his 21-year career as a professional boxer in 1960 and stepped out of the ring for the last time in 1981; Muhammad Ali had 56 wins and 5 losses in 61 fights.
Including all titles from all sanctioning bodies, Ali held 8 championship belts. The longest stretch of maintaining his crown was between February 25, 1964 and February 6, 1967. During this almost 3 year stretch he was at the very top of his game and defended his title 9 times.

In an earlier post I quoted Ali talking about belief, determination, confidence and performance. When Muhammad Ali said that being a champion is much more than physical training that in addition champions “…have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

This concept of determination and will to succeed was clearly at the core of Ali throughout his life. Behaviorally we can think of determination as including a weighing of risk and reward. In the context of Muhammad Ali, a boxing champion risks a great deal to achieve the reward of success inside and outside of the ring.

In the context of neuroscience, recent work shows that we can consider the weighing of risk and reward in our brains as including an assessment of the effort required to achieve the reward. We also now know where some of this assessment and possible seat of determination may live–in the very basement of your brain. This has been revealed by work done in Parkinson’s Disease–and thus links even more to Muhammad Ali’s lived experience with that disorder.

A recent study “The human subthalamic nucleus encodes the subjective value of reward and the cost of effort during decision-making” was published in the journal Brain by Alexandre Zenon and colleagues from Belgium, France, and the UK. In this paper Zenon and collaborators studied the electrical signaling in a cluster of neurons called the subthalamic nucleus found in the basal ganglia deep under the cerebral cortex.

Because of it’s interactions within the basal ganglia and role in movement control, the subthalamic nucleus is a target for deep brain stimulation in efforts to improve the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Zenon and colleagues made made recordings of activity from the subthalamic nucleus while participants with Parkinson’s were asked to make choices on when and how strongly to physically squeeze an instrumented ball depending upon the perceived reward. The recordings from the subthalamic nucleus showed clear relationships between the level of effort and the reward to be achieved.

In the context of neuroscience, recent work shows that we can consider the weighing of risk and reward in our brains as including an assessment of the effort required to achieve the reward. We also now know where some of this assessment and possible seat of determination may live–in the very basement of your brain. This has been revealed by work done in Parkinson’s Disease–and thus links even more to Muhammad Ali’s lived experience with that disorder.

A recent study “The human subthalamic nucleus encodes the subjective value of reward and the cost of effort during decision-making” was published in the journal Brain by Alexandre Zenon and colleagues from Belgium, France, and the UK. In this paper Zenon and collaborators studied the electrical signaling in a cluster of neurons called the subthalamic nucleus found in the basal ganglia deep under the cerebral cortex.

Because of it’s interactions within the basal ganglia and role in movement control, the subthalamic nucleus is a target for deep brain stimulation in efforts to improve the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Zenon and colleagues made made recordings of activity from the subthalamic nucleus while participants with Parkinson’s were asked to make choices on when and how strongly to physically squeeze an instrumented ball depending upon the perceived reward. The recordings from the subthalamic nucleus showed clear relationships between the level of effort and the reward to be achieved.

This study reveals two major things. Relays through the subthalamic nucleus in the basal ganglia are strongly related to assessments of risk and reward. That is, part of our sense of determination may live here. Also, in the words of the researchers, this work shows that part of the Parkinson’s disease symptoms “…may be caused by a disruption of the processes involved in balancing the value of actions with their associated effort cost.”

Our adaptive human behavior is predicated on our ability to choose our actions based on how much effort and energy will be needed to achieve them. This fantastic example of evolutionary conservation of energy expenditure based on risk-reward and cost-benefit calculations is constantly occurring within the basal ganglia in all of us.

It is also tempting to speculate that, in the absence of neuropathology like Parkinson’s, our efforts–like those of the champions alluded to by the quote from Muhammad Ali above–can lead to beneficial changes within these circuits. Changes that can allow us to push ourselves to greater achievements.

Perhaps, in my attempt to paraphrase the late, great Ali, as our will becomes stronger than our skill our determination to achieve may grow greater still.

-E. Paul Zehr, PhD