Archive for the ‘Time to Reflect’ Category

  • Neuroplasticity: Brain Boosting Lessons from Two Scientists and a London Taxi Driver!

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    Neuroplasticity has fascinated me for a long time, and two posts I found recently at SharpBrains.com provide not just fodder but hope for our and, of course, Hercule’s “little gray cells.”

    The first post, Brain Plasticity: How Learning Changes Your Brain by Dr. Pascale Michelon defines neuroplasticity for the unititiated:

    “Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to CHANGE throughout life. The brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells (neurons).”

    “Neuroplasticity,” she elaborates, “occurs in the brain: 1. At the beginning of life: when the immature brain organizes itself; 2. In case of brain injury: to compensate for lost functions or maximize remaining functions; and 3. Through adulthood: whenever something new is learned and memorized”

    The good news is that as, Dr Michelon notes,  For a long time it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity IS the capacity of the brain to change with learning. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change.”

    And, here’s where the London cabbie comes in…

    Dr.Michelon says, “when you become an expert in a specific domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill grow. For example, London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus (in the posterior region) than London bus drivers (Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006)…. Why is that? It is because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.”

    In the second, SharpBrains.com post, The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Brains, Alvaro Fernandez gives us 10 specific strategies for boosting brainpower.

    1. Learn what is the “It” in “Use It or Lose It”. A basic understanding will serve you well to appreciate your brain’s beauty as a living and constantly-developing dense forest with billions of neurons and synapses.
    2. Take care of your nutrition. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake? As a general rule, you don’t need expensive ultra-sophisticated nutritional supplements, just make sure you don’t stuff yourself with the “bad stuff”.
    3. Remember that the brain is part of the body. Things that exercise your body can also help sharpen your brain: physical exercise enhances neurogenesis.
    4. Practice positive, future-oriented thoughts until they become your default mindset and you look forward to every new day in a constructive way. Stress and anxiety, no matter whether induced by external events or by your own thoughts, actually kills neurons and prevent the creation of new ones. You can think of chronic stress as the opposite of exercise: it prevents the creation of new neurons.
    5. Thrive on Learning and Mental Challenges. The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them. “Use It or Lose It” does not mean “do crossword puzzle number 1,234,567″. It means, “challenge your brain often with fundamentally new activities”.
    6. We are (as far as we know) the only self-directed organisms in this planet. Aim high. Once you graduate from college, keep learning. The brain keeps developing, no matter your age, and it reflects what you do with it.
    7. Explore, travel. Adapting to new locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment. Make new decisions, use your brain.
    8. Don’t Outsource Your Brain. Not to media personalities, not to politicians, not to your smart neighbour… Make your own decisions, and mistakes. And learn from them. That way, you are training your brain, not your neighbour’s.
    9. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. We are “social animals”, and need social interaction. Which, by the way, is why ‘Baby Einstein’ has been shown not to be the panacea for children development.
    10. Laugh. Often. Especially to cognitively complex humor, full of twists and surprises.

    Illustration, Courtesy of Medi Belortaja

    You do not have to implement all ten strategies at once. You can begin with just one or two at a time and boost slowly. Speed does not always count; remember – slow and steady wins the race!

  • The Halo or Stepford Effect: Are Your Valuable Skills and Experience Really Being Trumped By Your Appearance?

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    To begin, let’s put this highly over-used concept, the “Halo Effect,” in context. The phenomenon was first studied in the early 1900s by psychologist E.L.Thorndike, who noticed that when an individual is found to possess one desirable trait, that individual is assumed to have many other desirable traits too.

    The matter achieved further prominence in 2007 with the publication of The Halo Effect, a book by business academic Phil Rosenzweig, in which he criticizes “pseudoscientific tendencies in the explanation of business performance.”

    Excellent though Rosenzweig’s critique is, it does not seem to have tamped down the corruption of the concept – rhetorically or scientifically.

    The “Halo Effect” was alive and thriving in Laura Sinberg’s  Forbes article, “Dress for Interview Success” where she asks us to:

    “Remember that Tide-to-Go commercial, the one where an interview candidate tries to explain why he’s the best choice for the job. But the interviewer is so distracted by a stain on the man’s shirt that he imagines the stain talking to him? The message is obvious: One tiny detail can have a big impact when it comes to getting the job. And what you wear has a lot to do with it.

    Although job-related skills an experience rank high in importance in whether or not you land the position, during the initial hiring process they have less power than most of us think. That’s because the first thing we notice about someone is their appearance, and more specifically, the way they are dressed.

    According to a study by Frank Bernieri, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University, within the first 10 seconds of meeting your interviewer – otherwise known as the meet-and-greet – that person has decided whether or not you’re right for the job. Those who come across as polished and pulled together are quite simply more likely to be hired than those who are seen as putting in less effort.”

    Sinberg goes on to delineate just what an individual should and should not wear, adding it’s not just sartorial style but those flashy cuff links or run in your hose that can tarnish your halo.

    The article also notes how one woman, Kim Zoller, created a business, Image Dynamics, to advise companies like Moet Hennessy and Louis Vuitton on image and communication skills. Zoller, who used to work at a staffing agency, started her business because “I saw women coming in to this agency, and they had great résumés, but they weren’t getting jobs because they didn’t know how to dress.”

    “If you’re not dressed well, you can say all the right things … but you won’t get the job when you’re being compared with a lot of other capable people who are dressed better,” explains Zoller.

    Sounds a little like Frank Oz’s “Stepford” to me… and isn’t that sci-fi?

    You must decide, but I tend to side with Rosenzweig and his critique of pseudo-scientific theories. To me, dressing well means dressing appropriately – in a manner that befits the organization where you’d like to work and in a manner that reflects the authenticity of your persona. Would you really want to work in an office that “required” suits and ties and conservative shoes when you’re truly a peacock? Do you think you could perform well under those sartorial restraints?

    Wouldn’t it be better to take one of your splendid feathers, dust off your halo and walk out in your own (unreflected) light?

  • “Bold But Not Brash:” Still Working and Blogging Full Time At Seventy

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    This morning I found “The 70-Something Blog” by June Kugel – thanks to Paula Span’s post in the the New York Times, The New Old Age: “A Blog About the Road Ahead.”

    Span writes, “Ms. Kugel believes in recording and reflecting on big transitions. In her 59th year, she had kept a journal in a loose-leaf binder, which she still rereads on occasion. On her next milestone birthday, updating her technology, she launched “The 70-Something Blog” and committed to posting twice a week. ‘I’ll let you know my triumphs and my low points,’ she promised her readers.”

    “I don’t write the blog for a million people to read,” she told Span. “I write it for me, to document this particular decade.”

    June Kugel is associate dean of students at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and she still bikes the two miles to and from her office everyday.

    Two of my favorite excerpts from her blog posts provide a flavor of her writing and her zest for her work and her life.

    This first is related to a bathroom refurbishing project she and her husband undertook:

    “We were efficient about choosing and ordering everything, and had the contractor all set. True, our project started four weeks later than scheduled, but that’s to be expected. Once the work started, it was just five days of disruption until the bathroom looked beautiful. A new shower curtain would be the final touch. That was a bit complicated, however, involving six visits to the Marimekko store. But on Thursday night we hung it and everything came together.

    When we went on our usual Saturday walk, Peter [her husband] and I commented on what a difference the shower curtain made, how it was worth all the trouble to get it. Peter called the shower curtain “bold (fearless and daring), but not brash (impudent or saucy).” I walked a few steps thinking about how he characterized the shower curtain and how I wished I could be described that way…. Maybe it’s not too late.”

    My second favorite is about her work at Harvard:

    “My new boss has been on board for eight weeks. I had mixed emotions about giving up ‘his’ position after being the interim boss even though, as I have written before, I did not want the job. I knew I could be helpful to him since I know the ropes, and I wanted him to succeed because I care deeply about the mission of our organization. But I could not predict how it would feel to have a boss who is the age of my children.

    “We’ve spent a lot of time together since he arrived. He’s smart. He gets it. He has a lot of good ideas. He is moving in measured steps, and he is very consultative with me (and others). He considers me a partner. We are developing trust for one another. All that is good.

    “But what is even better is that I feel like I have renewed energy, that it’s a whole new job, a whole new challenge. I’m seeing things through his eyes at the same time that I am giving him a lot of context and experience. I’m working as hard or harder than ever before, but I feel like I have a new purpose and a new challenge, even while staying at a place I’ve loved working at for almost thirty years.  Am I lucky or what?

    Yes she is lucky and so are we – her readers!

  • Singing Your Heart Out at 80 and Kicking Your Heels Up at 106!

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    Janey Cutler is living proof that you’re never too old to dream a dream!

    “Britain’s Got Talent” had a rare treat this past Saturday night when 80 year-old Janey Cutler sang Edith Piaf’s ‘No Regrets’ (‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien‘) from La Vie en Rose. She, like last year’s unexpected BGT star Susan Boyle, hails from Glasgow, Scotland – something in the water perhaps?

    YouTube Preview Image

    Although the 80 year-old was physically tremulous and had to be helped onto the BGT stage, there was nothing shaky about this chantreuse’s voice. Her deep, mezzo-soprano was powerful and passionate, and the audience rose en masse to give her a standing ovation almost as soon as Janey Cutler began to sing.

    When asked where she’d been all these years, she replied, ‘oh you know, me wee pubs and clubs’. The judges including Simon gave Janey Cutler ‘3000 and three yeses’ so she’s on to the next round. No doubt she will be singing before the Queen, who is, of course, also an octogenarian!

    Janey and Queen Elizabeth, however, are wee whippersnappers compared to Doris Eaton Travis, the last surviving Ziegfeld Girl, who died this Tuesday.

    Archival Photo: Doris Eaton Travis as a Ziegfeld Girl.

    In her NY Times obituary, Douglas Martin writes, “From 1907 to 1931, beneath towering, glittering, feathered headdresses, the Ziegfeld Girls floated across grand Broadway stages in lavish pageants known as the Ziegfeld Follies, often to the wistful tune that Irving Berlin wrote just for them: ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.‘ They were former waitresses, farmers’ daughters and office workers who had dreampt of becoming part of Florenz Ziegfeld’s own grand dream of ‘glorifying the American girl.’”

    Just a few weeks ago, she was back on 42nd Street kicking up her 106 year-old heels for her annual appearance at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS annual benefit.

    Doris Eaton Travis never stopped dancing; indeed, she had No Regrets!

    Mrs. Travis in 2009. Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

  • Ingenuity Is Essential: Could Tech Tools Have Helped Hansel and Gretel?

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    Would text messages have been more effective than their trail of breadcrumbs? Not really. Sure the birds gobbled up their tasty breadcrumbs, but their cell phone’s battery could have died just as easily or, deep in the forest as they were, they could have lost their signal. Far better to rely on your own ingenuity than any ancillary tools…

    Abandoned by their parents and lost in the woods, Hansel and Gretel soon learned they had to draw on their own resources to survive. Today, many of us have been abandoned by our employers – hopefully not as perniciously as the old woodcutter but still leaving us alone in the “bleak forest” of the job market wilderness.

    Arthur Rackham

    Several parallel lessons for today’s job seekers jump right off the pages of this cautionary fairytale.

    First, of course, don’t trust your parents – or more to the point, don’t trust that your current job is going to be there forever. Even if everything seems peachy in your office, external elements (for H&G it was the wicked step-mother) can quickly turn your life upside-down.

    Second, don’t be mislead by gingerbread houses. Some jobs may look luscious from the outside but once inside you may find you’re the tasty morsel.

    Third, while you may – in your desperation to secure any job – have been lured into the wrong situation, you can still escape.

    Gretel, pretending thermal ignorance, cleverly tricks the witch into popping her own head into the over to test the heat. Whereupon, Gretel shoves the witch all the way in and seals the oven door.

    Gretel then frees Hansel from the cage where the witch had kept him while he “fattened up,” and together they cavort about in joy.

    Alas, the story then begins to fall apart as a “little luck in the form of a white duck” escorts them safely home, where they discover their nasty stepmother has conveniently died.  Then, too, their instant forgiveness of their irresponsible father seems more than a bit of a stretch, but that’s fodder for a whole other story.

    In a more positive light, let’s reflect back on how Gretel’s ingenuity caused the witch’s demise…

    The good news is that such ingenuity is not only the provenance of youth or limited to fairytales. Last week, the NY Times published Tara Parker-Pope’s very reassuring interview with Barbara Strauch about her new book, “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.”

    Strauch defines the new middle age as 40-65, and she says research has shown that during this time, “if we’re relatively healthy our brains may have a few issues, but on balance they’re better than ever during that period.” In fact, during this period, “the new modern middle age, we’re better at all sorts of things than we were at 20.”

    When Parker-Pope asks, “what kinds of things does a middle-aged brain do better than a younger brain?” Strauch replies, “Inductive reasoning and problem solving — the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We’re better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution. They found social expertise peaks in middle age. That’s basically sorting out the world: are you a good guy or a bad guy?”

    “Good Guys and Bad Guys” – Good Jobs and Bad Jobs.” Sounds like we still have the mettle and ingenuity to avoid the gingerbread, identify the witch and nip her culinary aspirations in the bud. And that’s without a “lucky white duck!”

  • Multitasking: Why Two Tasks Work and Three Are Overwhelming

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    In today’s social media driven environment, opportunities to multitask at warp speed proliferate. Online, we can dance from snippet to snippet of news, music, e-books, webinars, job postings, how-to tips, etc, etc.  But how much of the “information” is our brain actually capable of absorbing?

    Two (I was going to cite three but thought better of it after reading article #2) fascinating articles shed much needed light on the highly vaunted “art” of multitasking.

    In The Myth of Multitasking, Karen Hopkins, reports, “when we think we’re getting better at multitasking, we’re really getting faster at switching back and forth between two different things at different times… training gets the ‘Thinking Brain’ to think a little faster. So we’re switching tasks quickly enough to appear to be doing them simultaneously. Which,” she continues, “is still nothing to shake a stick and sneeze at.”

    I almost missed that simultaneous “shaking a stick and sneezing!”

    In the second, more recent article published in Scientific American, How the Brain Keeps Track of Two Tasks at Once, Katherine Harmon points us to new research which”illustrates how the brain can simultaneously keep track of two separate goals, even while it is busy performing a task related to one of the aims, hinting that the mind might be better at multitasking than previously thought.”

    Etienne Koechlin, director of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Paris and coauthor of the new study shows that “rather than being totally devoted to one goal at a time, the human brain can distribute two goals to different hemispheres to keep them both in mind–if it perceives a worthy reward for doing so.”

    Caveat Emptor!  I said I was only going to cite two articles, but I’ll just point you to this third one by Naomi Kenner and Russell Poldrack which tries to explain What Happens When You Try To Do Three Things at Once?

    As I try to visualize this, the first thing that comes to mind is “visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads” but, then, they are all sugarplums, aren’t they?

    "Can You See What I See?" illustration by Walter Wick

  • Creating A Life: Never An Overnight Success

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    Rollo May, wrote in his book, The Courage to Create, that: “Creativity is the process of bringing something new into being… the creative act brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life.”

    I remembered his words this morning when I saw Lynn Saville’s remarkably creative photographs in her NY Times piece, Scenes From the Night Shift.

    Saville describes herself, “As a photographer, I work the night shift — when daylight gives way to moonlight, neon, and street light…”  and she discovers details barely discernible in the bright light of day.

    Many of us in this third stage of our lives have become entrepreneurs, composing our own lives. Freed from the restraints and requirements of our early and mid-years and not seeing a ready-made niche, we begin to create our own design for a purposeful life. Mary Catherine Bateson, author the classic Composing a Life, has written a new book to be published in September, 2010.

    In her new work, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, Bateson notes that,”with its unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources, aging today is an improvisational art form calling for imagination and willingness to learn.”

    No matter how powerful our imagination or willingness to learn, however, we cannot design a new life overnight. Success takes time, contemplation, testing, failing, reconsidering and trying again.  First, of course, we need to determine how we define success.

    Reflective inquiry is required to assess priorities. We need to allow time to uncover those rich details which were masked by bright light of day.  It is time, as any night photographer must, to open the aperture and extend the exposure to capture the hidden aspects and patterns integral to bring our new lives into being.

    Lynn Saville: "Fulton Landing Warehouse"

  • What Is One of Your Most Powerful Assets?

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    Positive Thinking! Yes, it may sound a bit hackneyed but if cultivated and nurtured it truly can change your life, your work and your well-being.

    The trick is not just to “think” in a vacuum but rather to mobilize positive thoughts so they become habit forming.

    Leo Barbuta, author of the Zen Habits blog offers a valuable condensed guide to help develop your positive thinking habit:

    • Realize it’s possible, instead of telling yourself why you can’t.
    • Become aware of your self-talk.
    • Squash negative thoughts like a bug.
    • Replace them with positive thoughts.
    • Love what you have already.
    • Be grateful for your life, your gifts, and other people. Every day.
    • Focus on what you have, not on what you haven’t.
    • Don’t compare yourself to others. But be inspired by them.
    • Accept criticism with grace.
    • See failure as a stepping stone to success.
    • Surround yourself by those who are positive.
    • Complain less, smile more.
    • Imagine that you’re already positive.
    • Then become that person in your next act.

    Once this becomes second nature to you, you will realize that it is your nature and every next step you take will be much easier.

  • What Do Stone Age Eggshell Engravings and Seniors’ Higher-Order Reasoning Have in Common???

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    60,000 Year-Old Engraved Ostrich Egg Shell Fragments

    Both illustrate the wisdom of the ages: early, pre-historic human wisdom and the evolution of higher-order reasoning among today’s seniors.

    Jim Emerman, Executive Vice President of Civic Ventures led me to this reassuring paper, “Reasoning about Social Conflicts Improves into Old Age”, from the National Academy of Sciences.

    “It is well documented,” the paper posits, “that aging is associated with cognitive declines in many domains. Yet it is a common lay belief that some aspects of thinking improve into old age. Specifically, older people are believed to show better competencies for reasoning about social dilemmas and conflicts.”

    …We show that relative to young and middle-aged people, older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”

    Bolstered by this encouraging news, I starting poking around the National Academy of Sciences’ site to see what other relevant bits of wisdom I might find.  Being Spring and just past Easter, I was drawn to their “Stone Age Eggshell Engravings” article about the earliest reliable evidence of an engraving tradition that continues to thrive today. Moreover, the eggs “represent a system of symbolic representation in which collective identities and individual expressions are clearly communicated, suggesting social, cultural, and cognitive underpinnings that overlap with those of modern people.”

    Hooked, I then Googled “Stone Age Eggshell Engravings” and found this article by Jonathan Amos, BBC Science correspondent, which refers to the National Academy of Science paper and includes the marvelous photos (above).

    Amos reports that, “the markings are almost certainly a form of messaging – of graphic communication…. Symbolic thought – the ability to let one thing represent another – was a giant leap in human evolution, and sets our species apart from the rest of the animal world… Understanding when and where this behaviour first emerged is a key quest for scientists studying human origins.”

    So, at 60,000 years plus 60, I’d say Savvy Seniors’ “little grey cells” are still functioning remarkably well!

  • Good Leadership and Moral Clarity in the Clear Light of Spring

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    Spring has sprung in Maine - at last!

    Yesterday, a reader emailed to comment on my post, Dancing to the Music of Leadership. I called the video brilliant and offered kudos to its creator Derek Sivers.

    My reader said, “Not sure this works for me —put a funny-looking mustache on the guy, have him wear a brown shirt, and you get another kind of crowd-pleasing ‘leadership’…  Crowds are not always right.”

    I responded: “You are so right. Your comment gives me goosebumps. But, moral clarity aside, I do love the simplicity in Derek’s commentary regarding how a movement is formed.”

    While I am delighted my reader pointed out something I should have grasped and addressed in my comments on this video, I also stand by my kudos for Derek’s ability to communicate in plain simple English just how a “crowd” or movement happens to follow a charismatic, entrepreneurial leader. It is, as many have said, easier to deal with the devil you know…

    The more we understand the underlying dynamics of a movement, the more opportunity we have to nip the malevolent ones in the bud. One the other hand, if we don’t have a clue, we might find ourselves swept away with the brown shirts or today’s tea cups before our moral clarity genes kick in. Once you’re in a “movement,” it can be cumbersome to extricate yourself. Here in the midst of New England’s mighty maples, we’d say you’ve been caught in the sap’s downward flow when you should have waited for the sugar to rise.

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