This piece from Jeff Haden (who can count me among the 100,000 readers he has on LInkedIn) reflects new developments in motivational psychology: we now talk about identity (and marketers live for that, right?), rather than personality.

Here it is…

We all have huge personal goal we want to accomplish: A big, challenging, amazing goal. We think about it, dream about it, obsess about it… but we never accomplish it.

That could be because we also talked about it, because according to some studies, people who talk about their intentions are less likely to follow through on those intentions.

Say you want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, a grueling five- to seven-month trek from Georgia to Maine. (Having completed about 2% of it, I’m not so well on my section-hiking way, much less thru-hiking.)

You’re having dinner with friends and you tell them all about it. “Oh, wow!” one exclaims. “That sounds amazing. But won’t it be super hard?”

“Indeed it will,” you say, puffing out your chest, and you share what you know about tent sites, shelters, infrequent showers, and the cool trail name you’ll get.

It’s fun. It feels awesome to bask in the glow of people who admire you for wanting to take on such a huge challenge.

It feels… it feels like you’re already on the Trail.

It also means you’re less likely to someday be on the Trail, because according to this study, “When other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”

In short, you already got a huge kick out of people thinking of you as a Trail hiker… so now you’re less motivated to actually be a Trail hiker.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? Aren’t we supposed to share our intentions so other people can support and motivate us?

According to NYU psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, one of the authors of the study, that’s not always the case. Gollwitzer thinks the issue lies in our sense of identity. Each of us wants tobe certain things, so we naturally declare those intentions even if we have not yet becomethose things.

Describing how I plan to run a marathon, how I bought running shoes and joined a gym and created a training plan, certainly makes me feel good… but it also makes me feel like I’m already part of the way to being a marathoner even though I haven’t trained at all.

Sometimes declaring what we want to be and how we will get there causes us to feel we are farther along the path of becoming who we want to be, and therefore makes us less motivated — even though we’ve actually done nothing but talk.

So try it. Pick a goal. Create a plan to achieve it. Get help, get guidance, get input from other people who have accomplished that goal… but otherwise keep your goal and your plan to yourself. Don’t talk about it: Focus solely on doing the work required to achieve your goal.

Then, when you do achieve your goal, hey, feel free talk all you want. If nothing else you’ll enjoy how surprised your friends are when they realize you’ve accomplished something awesome, something they didn’t even know you were attempting.

But my guess is you won’t talk about it, since the personal satisfaction of achievement is infinitely sweeter than public acclaim.


New research from Oxford University shows that large doses of supplement B Vitamin could halve the rate of brain shrinkage – a physical symptom associated memory loss and dementia in the elderly.

The effects were so dramatic that the scientists behind the work believe it could revolutionise the treatment of the disease.

Brain shrinkage or atrophy is a natural part of ageing but it is known to be accelerated in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – a kind of memory loss and forgetfulness – and Alzheimer’s.

Scientists at the University of Oxford conducted a trial on 168 people and found that taking high doses of three vitamin B supplements every day reduced brain shrinkage associated with dementia by up to 53 per cent.

They said the results were so strong that it should open up a debate as to whether the tablets should be prescribed to everyone with MCI – half of whom develop Alzheimer’s disease.

MCI affects 16 per cent of people over 70 – 1.5 million people in the UK.

Professor David Smith, a pharmacologist who co-authored the study, said the results were “immensely promising”.

“It is a very simple solution: you give someone some vitamins and you protect the brain,” he said.

“This is the first trial that has shown a glimmer of hope and success. It is the first one of its kind that has worked so clearly. I think it will change the whole direction of Alzheimer’s research.

“500 people a day develop Alzheimer’s in the UK. If we can cut that down by just 10 per cent it will have a big impact. I personally believe that it will.”

The research, published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, is controversial because it defies current scientific dogma about the way to tackle Alzheimer’s.

It suggests simply taking vitamins can achieve results that have so far evaded pharmaceutical companies, despite millions of pounds being spent on experimental dementia drugs.

The brain naturally shrinks in volume as we get older and when you get to 60, it is shrinking by as much as half a per cent a year.

But in those with MCI it is accelerates to one per cent a year and in Alzheimer’s Disease by 2.5 per cent a year. This is accompanied by severe memory problems, slower thoughts and confusion.

Current research centres around tackling so-called tangles in the brain which are thought to “silt up” the brain’s thought processes.

The team at the University of Oxford set out in a new direction – targeting the abnormal physical shrinkage of the brain.

They knew that a substance called homocysteine, an amino acid found in the blood, was associated with this shrinkage.

Elderly people with higher levels of homocysteine, had higher levels of brain shrinkage.

They also knew that vitamin B regulated levels of homocysteine and that the more vitamin B in the blood, the lower the levels of the harmful amino acid.

The researchers used an advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique to study brain shrinkage in 168 volunteers over the age of 70 with diagnosed MCI.

Over a period of two years, half were given a daily tablet containing high doses of the B vitamins folic acid, B6 and B12. The rest received a “dummy” placebo pill with no active ingredients.

At the end of the trial the effects of the vitamin treatment were found to be dramatic, and most pronounced in participants who started out with the highest rates of brain shrinkage.

On average, taking B vitamins slowed the rate of brain atrophy by 30 per cent, and in many cases reductions was as high as 53 per cent were seen.

Prof Smith said: “This is a very striking, dramatic result. It’s much more than we could have predicted.

“It is our hope that this simple and safe treatment will delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease in many people who suffer from mild memory problems.”

Although the trial was not designed to measure thinking ability, the researchers found that individuals with the lowest rates of shrinkage had the highest mental test scores.

Prof Smith said it was still early to say exactly how vitamin B worked.

“The treatment lowers homocysteine, lower homocysteine reduces brain shrinkage and that reduces cognitive decline,” he said.

The scientists stress that the doses of B vitamins used in the trial are much higher than would be obtained from diets and additives or normal health supplements.

The “TrioBe Plus” pills, prescribed under medical supervision in Sweden but not available in the UK, contain around 300 times the recommended daily intake of B12 and four times recommended folate levels.

However it is possible to copy the dose by buying three separate supplements from health food shops in Britain for as little as 10 pence a day.

The long-term effects of taking big doses of the vitamins were not known, and there was some evidence that high folic acid intake could be linked to cancer, he said.

While Prof Smith said anybody thinking of taking them should consult their doctor first, he personally felt they would be effective.

He said: “These are big doses. Should we take it? The person must be worried about their memory and then I would recommend going to their doctor first. But if I had MCI I would take it.”

Professor Helga Refsum, his co-author at University of Oslo who is a visiting academic at Oxford, said more trials were needed but the evidence was strong.

“As a scientist I am not happy with just one trial and there will be a large debate. But as a clinician sitting in front of a patient I would say vitamin B supplements are fairly safe, they are not expensive and what we have found here is extremely convincing. It is very difficult to argue against its use.”

The study was cautiously welcomed by other scientists although they said more studies were needed to back up the findings.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, which co-funded the study, said: “These are very important results, with B vitamins now showing a prospect of protecting some people from Alzheimer’s in old age.

“The strong findings must inspire an expanded trial to follow people expected to develop Alzheimer’s, and we hope for further success.

Chris Kennard, chair of the Medical Research Council’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, which also provided funding, said: “The findings are very encouraging and we look forward to further research that is needed in order to test whether B vitamins can be recommended as a suitable treatment.”

Paul Matthews, Professor of Clinical Neurology, Imperial College, London said: “This well-conducted study adds substantial new data to previous information suggesting that dietary B vitamins could have beneficial effects on neurodegeneration with ageing.”

A spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Society said:”This is an interesting study which could change the lives of thousands of people at risk of dementia.

“However, previous studies looking at B vitamins have been very disappointing and we wouldn’t want to raise people’s expectations yet, as we have not specifically seen any benefits in preventing the onset of the symptoms of dementia.”

(Source: The Daily Telegraph 9th Sept 2010)

[Source: FlickR CC Photographer: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino]

ScienceDaily (Jan. 9, 2009) — The International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), which is based in Norway, have studied which leadership qualities could help employees return from sick leave early. Being considerate, understanding and able to maintain contact with the sick-listed are the most important leadership qualities, according to the study.

“The manager has a key role when it comes to sick leave. He or she is often the best available measure for promoting health in these cases. A manager with good qualities can have a great impact on how long the employee is off sick”, says senior researcher Randi Wågø Aas, at IRIS, which is owned by the University of Stavanger and Rogalandsforskning.

Norway has the highest sick leave figures in Europe, and the authorities are constantly looking for new measures to get numbers down. The latest research effort from IRIS on the topic studied the relationship between the employees who are signed off sick, and their managers. Part of this work has now been published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.

Previous research has revealed a strong link between management and sick leave.

The risk of long term sick leave rises proportionally to the lack of support from the manager.

“That is why we think it is interesting to look at which qualities in managers are considered important”, says Ms Wågø Aas. Researchers followed 30 people on long term sick leave over the course of eight months. Both the employees and their managers were asked which management qualities they felt were the most important in the follow-up work. Researchers got 345 descriptions of important qualities, which were naturally grouped in 78 specific management qualities. The three most often mentioned were Ability to make contact, Consideration and Understanding.

In other words, the study shows that people on sick leave first and foremost need to feel cared for.

“The employees find it important that their managers are understanding, supportive, attentive, empathetic, warm and friendly. When they are on sick leave, people are in a position of vulnerability. Many of them talk about feeling suspected, and say their problems are not taken seriously”, says Ms Aas.

The 78 manager qualities which emerged from the investigation were divided into seven categories, which each represent a given type of manager. The one mentioned the most frequently, is nicknamed The Protector, who has caring qualities. Number two is The Problem Solver, who is the best at adapting. The third most important is The Contact Maker, and then it is The Trust Creator, The Recognizer, The Encourager, and The Responsibility-maker. Each of these types contains groups of qualities which emerge in the interviews. Ideally, managers with staff responsibilities should have a bit of each of the seven in them, but what is the most important will vary.

“The perfect manager can take steps which are tailored to the individual’s needs. The survey shows that there are great differences in what the individual considers good follow-up. It is also clear that a combination of different management qualities is needed. A great many people need both a pat on the shoulder, and to be welcomed back to work”, says Ms Aas. According to her, it also seems that contact ability is a necessary quality in order to achieve the combination of protection and problem-solving.

Researchers also found age differences in the individual’s needs while on sick leave. Younger employees had the greatest need for protection and recognition, while those over 45 were more concerned with problem solving and being held responsible.

“Older people are probably more concerned with adaptation of their work environment, to make sure they can get back to work. Younger employees are possibly more vulnerable, and need more encouragement”, she says.

A third important find in the study, is the difference in what the employees and the managers thought was important. The employees emphasised recognition and encouragement more than the managers, who were more concerned with accountability, and problem solving.

“If employees have different needs from what the managers are aware of, and this is not communicated, there is a big problem. It is easy to view management as mainly about adapting all practical and formal matters for the employee. For most employees however, it is more important to be understood and included. For instance, many managers think they are protecting the employee by telling them that they do not need to work. In reality, they are simply extending the sick leave, since the employee does not feel included. After all, many are able to do things even though they are ill”, says Senior researcher Ms Wågø Aas.

IRIS will continue to study the interview material. They also wish to develop a feedback tool, which aims to improve communication between managers and employees on sick leave.

Here are the types of managers identified in the study:

1. The Protector

Protects the employee, understands the situation, helps and includes. Shows compassion, is discreet, warm and friendly.

2. The Problem Solver

Professional, solution oriented and creative. Can, among other things, change the tasks or in other ways adapt them so that the employee can continue to work. Takes responsibility, and gives individual treatment.

3. The Contact Maker

Gets in touch with the employee to inform of what is happening in the workplace. Is also interested in how the employee is doing, and proves a listening and able conversationalist.

4. The Trust Creator

Is discreet, predictable, attentive, honest and open. Creates trust and a feeling of safety.

5. The Recognizer

Behaves acknowledging, confirming and without prejudice towards the employee.

Shows respect and confidence.

6. The Encourager

Has a positive attitude, and is generous and happy. Motivates, inspires and is available. This type of manager has a sense of humour, as well as being just, patient, and encouraging.

7. The Responsibility-maker

Assertive, fearless, challenging, and direct. Is honest, to the point and not afraid to establish boundaries or confront. Gives the employee challenges and responsibility for his or her own situation.

Adapted from materials provided by The University of Stavanger.

Source FlickR: Peter McDonald

Source FlickR: Peter McDonald

How we use Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Quotient in teams and organizations matters.

While we will be dealing with metrics, alignment, and implementation, initially we need to consider the fundamental purpose of emotions and how they work when at work.

Let’s see how EI can improve sales teams for a starter. And an environmental approach to keep talent.

Rather than look at Goleman’s or Bar-On’s overwhelming contributions to EI initially, I would like to start on another more empirical track, and hopefully we’ll converge along the way and see how these threads tie together.

As stated in the introductory post, Emotional Quotient (EQ) and Emotional Intelligence (EI) has little to do with “being emotional”. Again, emotional intelligence is not how emotional a person is. It is a set of skills that enable me to be emotionally stable and mature: clever, if you will, at handling emotions.

It took several of the most brilliant medical minds of the pre-War period to understand the simple formula:

See Bear -> Feel Fear -> Run or Freeze

Through a set of extremely precise experiments psychologists, all previously medical doctors, sought the answer as to how and why we react the way we do. Especially to fear.

It led to some fundamental discoveries in the neurobiology as to how the brain and body create, react, and learn of and from emotional responses.

Bear -> Fear -> Run is otherwise known, in Walter B Cannon’s own words, as the flight or fight response. Cannon with Philip Bard proposed what has become the best known theory of emotional response. Some 50 years earlier, William James, the father of modern rigorous psychology in America and Carl Lange in Denmark both separately proposed what has come down to us as the James-Lange theory.

In the James-Lange theory the suggestions is: see bear, your body reacts before your cognitive mind does, your mind recognizes these reactions of the nervous system, and calls it fear (Or love, or whatever emotion you feel). Cannon-Bard on the other hand states that the emotions come first, i.e. your brain reacts and then your body does it’s flight or fight stuff.

Chicken or egg? A little.

And we still don’t really know the answer. What is accepted is that see bear have a physical reaction is normative. It would seem more holistic to suggest that the two are working in unison, that the amygdala (the reptile base of the human brain responsible for among other things the survival instinct) is programed to kick in both a cognitive response and a physical simultaneously as we need to survive.

What is certain is that I need my senses to recognize danger – however, just to muddy the waters, it appears, from recent experiments that the brain works faster than the physical nervous system. We seem to literally know fear before our body does – giving weight to the Cannon-Bard theory. What we can be absolutely certain of is that we do call that normative reaction an emotional reaction.

And, what has this got to do with Emotional Quotient and Emotional Intelligence?  As we will see EQ and EI are our not only about our emotional reactions, it is rather about our emotional awareness. It is from the combined efforts of Drs William James, Carl Lange, Walter B Cannon and Philip Bard that we developed a working understanding of emotion and the part of the brain that deals with and generates the neurochemical responses to environmental change: the limbic pathway.

The limbic pathway is the part of your brain that deals with emotions. Not just crying, fear, love, happiness, but rather the much more subtle and important stuff: our daily interaction and reactions with people and objects and out thoughts etc; these happen all the time, when we sleep, when we’re awake, and so on. The limbic pathway keeps on working out our emotional, cognitive state.

The Limbic Pathway

It is linked to both the hindbrain (the reptilian brain in humans controlling your most basic physical needs) and the higher brain functions (thought, memory, imagination) and releases dopamine (which makes you calm) and serotonin (which makes you happy).

What we are looking for at first is the correct mix of both of those neurotransmitters, if they are in balance we have emotional homeostasis.

This is a fancy way of saying we are able to be at our most optimal performance wise and keep our stronger emotions in check.

We exhibit one of the key indicators of Emotional Intelligence: self-control. We are calm. Even when driven to distraction, we are calm, self-controlled, and in check. All the time. We use our limbic pathway to keep calm, to assert ourselves without raising our voices, and we are still genuinely in relation to others – we are not artificially calm or stiff, or withdrawn, but neither are we shouting, stamping, and frothing at the mouth.

Such a person is not given to outbursts, or to total withdrawal. They have a mature developed sense of self. Their interaction with others is not based on subversive or agenda-based behaviors like narcissism, self-interest, psychotic manipulation, and so on. Emotional intelligent people are composed, detailed, focused and on point, they are calm, deliberate, but emotionally engaged. They do not sound or act like an automaton, but neither are they manic. Again, it is what we would all instinctively recognize as balanced behaviour.

In a 360° survey we might want to ask:
Does the person control themselves?
When stressed what is their reaction?
To fight? Or withdraw? Or to assert?

Assertive behaviour is more than don’t mess with me you’ll come off worse than me. Assertiveness is the ability to influence and engender respect in the other party. And here, high EI and EQ pay massive dividends. This is more than appearance and body language, it is a fundamental brain set, from the limbic pathway, that will not be rattled, that holds its position, that listens, and states clearly and precisely their position in a calm, measured, and considered way while still using emotions.

This is exceptionally useful for sales personnel who need to exude more than confidence. They need to exude professionalism, knowledge, and a keen self-awareness.

This has top line and bottom line effects.

In Strategic HR we might define this as a good indicator of maturity in young talent. They need to also show real engagement, drive, and results as well.

If the companies goal is to keep talent, and it should be a central HR goal of companies to retain the talented, the best, then helping them achieve early maturity in an excellent idea. This must be aligned with other factors such as motivation, rewards, respect, and inclusion otherwise it will be ineffective.

In the next post, we will look at other components of Emotional Intelligence and how scaling them up in an organization drives business results.

Day Four: Keys To Success And Motivation


Pompidou Center (Flick-r Phil H)

Picking up on Day Three: after Maslow and Carl Rogers and the developments of the Humanistic school pf psychology or the third wave, the idea that emotions can be mastered, controlled, and developed was seen as an integral part of a positive, evolutionary process. This was a fundamental development that gave real results in psychotherapy and to the field of general psychology.

Rogers is a very important historical figure in psychology as he broke the Freudian mold that looks for the problems in the human psyche and rather proved by experimentation and observation, and not just by philosophizing, that all life from plant to animal to human seeks the optimal opportunities for growth if given the environment to thrive. This is of fundamental importance to work psychologists and architects: the work environment, both physical and cultural makes a fundamental difference to the overall performance of the organization. While Maslow tends to concentrate on the fundamental, large blocks, there is ample proof that even simple adjustments in the workplace seem to make a real difference.

This branch of psychology is commonly called Environmental Psychology, but may be called socio-architecture etc; and is concerned with the interaction of people and the space around them. One of the outstanding thinkers in the branch was Konstantinos Doxiades who in 1943 coined the term Ekistics. Ekistics is the study of human settlement. His masterwork “Introduction to Ekistics”, published in 1968, is still an outstanding example of what good research and a clear mind can produce. Oh, and in case we begin to think that this is purely theoretical and impractical Doxiades was also an extremely good architecture on a massive scale and responsible for much of the design of Islamabad. The capital of Pakistan was commissioned by then President Ayub Khan in the 1960s to replace Karachi and to be the model for urban living in a new, modern Pakistan.

Further, there was a fundamental shift in psychology to cognitive psychology.

This is tricky. Initially, it seems that the third wave is on to something of real standing: the human self and how we think about ourselves, and that if we are able to sort that out then we would emerge, almost as butterflies from the pupae, as evolved, stronger people. There is a lot that is entirely positive and right about this, but it also has a negative aspect. Can introspection and the desire to improve ouselves result in achievement or do we need to understand that how we think must be in relation to others around us?

Albert Bandura, working on reciprocal determinism and self-esteem, Vroom working on the Expectancy Theory on motivation, and David McClelland working on understanding the need for achievement and status all provided important new insights in social psychology and solid experimentation that threw light on work and why people succeed or don’t succeed mentally at work.

McClelland in particular. N-Ach, N-Pow, N-Affil, the Need for Achievement, Power, and Affiliation is very good modeling of human behaviour. We all show a combination and spread of all three – and the really important discovery was that too much in any one area leads not to more success but to disaster: the person who must achieve no matter what tends to take undue risk, the one who must control no matter what tends to lack emotional intelligence and is socially manipulative, and the one who has too strong a need for affiliation tends to smother, crowd in, and annoy. Too little and the person simply fails to achieve their goals and others either ride roughshod over them, or simply overtake them. So the question is: how much is enough?

McClelland found throughout his experiments that those who set targets that stretched, challenged, and gave a greater sense of motivation were the succeeders. Those who set targets that were too high or too low failed. Probably the most famous of these utilized the old fairground game of the ring toss. A wooden board with pegs that you toss rope rings onto. People were allowed to set their own degree of difficulty. The key to success was to set it so it was difficult but not impossible: even if these people failed they had a sense that they tried. As a corollary, McClelland also noted that feedback was an essential part of personnel and personal development that allowed people to develop self-awareness and to be able to judge their success in perspective.

The insights for work are obvious Goals should be high but not impossible. Do not employ those who are too ambitious, unless that can be tempered with social skills, emotional intelligence, and structured feedback and coaching. And above all, give reasons for people to want to succeed!

From Wired.com

By Alexis Madrigal



Scientists used a modified version of the n-back test, which is schematized above, to achieve gains in fluid intelligence previously thought impossible. The image shows how users were forced to remember both visual and auditory information streams.
Courtesy Martin Buschkuehl

Brain researchers for the first time claim to have found a method for improving the general problem-solving ability scientists call fluid intelligence, otherwise known as “smarts.”

Fluid intelligence was previously thought to be genetically hard-wired, but the finding suggests that with about 25 minutes of rigorous mental training a day, healthy adults could improve their mental capacities.

The method, if commercialized, could be a boon to the growing, multimillion-dollar market for “brain fitness” software like Nintendo’s Brain Age.

“The most important point of our work is that we can show that it is possible to improve fluid intelligence,” said Martin Buschkuehl, a psychology researcher based at the University of Bern, Switzerland. “It was assumed that fluid intelligence was immutable.”

Fluid intelligence measures how people adapt to new situations and solve problems they’ve never seen before. Fluid intelligence differs from crystallized intelligence, which takes into account skills and knowledge that have been acquired — like vocabulary, grammar and math.

It’s not hard, for example, for students to improve their IQ scores by taking lots of IQ tests.

Trouble is, learning how to take IQ tests doesn’t improve the underlying smarts. The students just get better at taking tests. In practical terms, people can get better at taking tests, but in daily life, don’t have a blazingly quick new brain.

And that’s where Buschkuehl’s research, which appears today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claims to be groundbreaking.

In a limited trial, he and his team were able to make 34 test subjects significantly better at answering IQ test questions after training them on a completely separate memory task.

David Geary, a professor at the University of Missouri and author of The Origin of Mind, who was not involved with the study, said training in one test generally doesn’t generate gains on a different test.

“Transfer is tough to get,” Geary said. “Training in task A doesn’t typically improve performance on task B.”

But in this case, subjects trained on a complex version of the so-called “n-back task” — a difficult visual/auditory memory test — improved their scores on a set of IQ questions drawn from a German intelligence measure called the Bochumer Matrizen-Test. (The Bochumer Matrizen-Test is a harder version of the well-known Ravens Progressive Matrices).

Initially, the test subjects scored an average of 10 questions correctly on the IQ test.

But after the group trained on the n-back task for 25 minutes a day for 19 days, they averaged 14.7 correct answers, an increase of more than 40 percent. (A control group that was not trained showed only a very slight performance increase.)

Buschkuehl’s team postulates that the n-back task improves working memory — how many pieces of information subjects can keep in their head — as well as the ability to control the brain’s attention. Fluid intelligence tests require those types of thinking, and the training improved performance in these underlying skills.

“These are intriguing results,” Geary said. However, Geary noted that to claim actual increases in fluid intelligence, the subjects would have to show the performance gains over a long-term period — or even permanently.

The Michigan researchers are now engaged in studying the long-term effects of training. They are also working to increase the amount of training that users undergo. In the experiment reported in PNAS, the researchers did not find the upper-limit for improvement, suggesting that more training could yield even better mental performance gains.

“The improvement seems to be dosage dependent,” Buschkuehl said. “We saw a linear increase in performance with increase in training time.”

In the simplest version of the n-back task, a sequence of images is presented every few seconds and subjects are asked to match a picture to an identical one that came previously, say two pictures before it. (For example, in the picture above, the blue square should be in the same location.)

Buschkuehl’s subjects, however, also heard a second stream of letters and had to match the sounds at the same time as they matched the visuals. This makes the task very challenging. And as the subjects got better, the gap between matching pictures and letters got bigger, making the task progressively more difficult.

The team has developed a new n-back computer program called Brain Twister, which they have translated into English, but is not available online.

They do not plan to commercialize the software, but with mental gyms like Vibrant Brains in San Francisco springing up, and brain training software companies like Posit Science drawing big-name investors, you can bet you’ll be seeing the n-back task on sale sooner rather than later.

In fact, revenue from “brain-fitness software” reached $225 million in 2007, according to SharpBrains, a market-research firm.

Neurobehavioral Sciences also offers a 45-day free trial of their neuroscience stimuli program presentation, which is primarily a research tool, and only available for the PC.


You may think that you’re a pretty positive person. But we’re betting no matter how hard you try, you wouldn’t be able to out-happy Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk who’s been nicknamed “the happiest man on earth.”

Seem like a stretch? We’re not just claiming that title based on the fact that Ricard is never seen without a smile, or that monks are generally a pretty beatific bunch – he’s got science on his side, too. In 2004, researchers at University of Wisconsin conducted a study on the brain patterns of hundreds of volunteers from different walks of life. The bell curve of the MRI measurements fell between +0.3 (a Sylvia Plath acolyte, no doubt) to -0.3 (Richard Simmons, perhaps?). But Ricard alone achieved an astonishing score of -0.45 – a level of joy so far above the others that his score was nearly off the chart.

So how did Ricard become the world’s happiest man? The 60-year-old monk didn’t always live a quiet life in the Himalayan mountains – as a young man, he was lauded as one of the world’s most promising biologists. But in 1972, he dropped out of the stressful world of French academia, trading in his laboratory for a monastery in Darjeeling, India, where he studied under Tibetan master Kangyur Rinpoche. In the years since, he has become well known as an author and photographer, and he serves as the Dalai Lama’s personal translator in France. He has devoted his life to the study of Buddhist philosophy and the art of happiness – and he firmly believes that the rest of us can achieve his incredible level of joy, too.

“The mind is malleable,” Ricard told The Independent. “Our life can be greatly transformed by even a minimal change in how we manage our thoughts and perceive and interpret the world. Happiness is a skill. It requires effort and time.”

To fill your life with joy, he said, you must recognize what already makes you happy, and work to change your mental balance. “You have to identify what it is in that situation that makes you happy. It’s as though you’re making a journey, and you look in your rucksack to find it half filled with provisions, half with stones. You need to take out the stones and put in more provisions.”

In his new book, Happiness, Ricard serves as your own personal cross-trainer in the art of happiness, with advice on meditative exercises to increase peace of mind, and his own philosophies on how to fill your life with joy. With his help, you might just be able to tune out your noisy neighbor’s Metallica cover band for a few minutes, and imagine you’re relaxing on a private beach instead. If you can’t make it out to visit a Buddhist monastery any time soon, his book might just be the relief you need.

<a href=http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/191>Here</a> is video of Ricard speaking at the 2004 TED conference.

Wynton Marsalis - Lincoln Center Orchestra - Photographer: Volume12 - CCFlickr

 Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra, De Bijloke, Ghent
Source:  Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A pair of Johns Hopkins and government scientists have discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.

This keyboard was specially designed for a study to assess brain activity in jazz musicians during improvisation. Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnets could attract.

The joint research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, sheds light on the creative improvisation that artists and non-artists use in everyday life, the investigators say.

It appears, they conclude, that jazz musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.

In a report published Feb. 27 in Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, the scientists from the University’s School of Medicine and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders describe their curiosity about the possible neurological underpinnings of the almost trance-like state jazz artists enter during spontaneous improvisation.

“When jazz musicians improvise, they often play with eyes closed in a distinctive, personal style that transcends traditional rules of melody and rhythm,” says Charles J. Limb, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a trained jazz saxophonist himself. “It’s a remarkable frame of mind,” he adds, “during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous.”

Though many recent studies have focused on understanding what parts of a person’s brain are active when listening to music, Limb says few have delved into brain activity while music is being spontaneously composed.

Curious about his own “brain on jazz,” he and a colleague, Allen R. Braun, M.D., of NIDCD, devised a plan to view in real time the brain functions of musicians improvising.

For the study, they recruited six trained jazz pianists, three from the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory where Limb holds a joint faculty appointment. Other volunteers learned about the study by word of mouth through the local jazz community.

The researchers designed a special keyboard to allow the pianists to play inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a brain-scanner that illuminates areas of the brain responding to various stimuli, identifying which areas are active while a person is involved in some mental task, for example.

Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnet could attract. They also used fMRI-compatible headphones that would allow musicians to hear the music they generate while they’re playing it.

Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.

In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.

Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.

Limb and Braun then analyzed the brain scans. Since the brain areas activated during memorized playing are parts that tend to be active during any kind of piano playing, the researchers subtracted those images from ones taken during improvisation. Left only with brain activity unique to improvisation, the scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians were doing simple improvisation on the C-major scale or playing more complex tunes with the jazz quartet.

The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.

The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

“Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Limb notes that this type of brain activity may also be present during other types of improvisational behavior that are integral parts of life for artists and non-artists alike. For example, he notes, people are continually improvising words in conversations and improvising solutions to problems on the spot. “Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn’t have advanced as a species. It’s an integral part of who we are,” Limb says.

He and Braun plan to use similar techniques to see whether the improvisational brain activity they identified matches that in other types of artists, such as poets or visual artists, as well as non-artists asked to improvise.

This research was funded by the Division of Intramural Research, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health.

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