Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Anxiety Effects the Brain

“Being under pressure alters how different areas of the brain communicate. In a nutshell, the prefrontal cortex works less well and decouples—or stops talking to---other brain areas that are important for maximal cognitive horsepower.  When a particular brain area stops communicating with other areas, this can have dire consequences for our thinking and memory capabilities.” Sian Beilock, Choke 

Some people are more prone to worry, anxiety and self-doubt than others. As if these vexing feelings of inadequacy and lack of competence were not enough, the mental performance of these individuals is also negatively impacted.

According to Sian Beilock, an expert on cognitive science at the University of Chicago, a person suffering from worry will have diminished cognitive function. Specifically, the working memory of the self-doubting individual will be impaired, simply because they are perplexed with worry and anxiety.

When a person is overcome daily by worry, fears of failure and self-doubt (stressors to the brain) the prefrontal cortex of their brain is less able to communicate with other regions of the brain when performing cognitive tasks. It’s as if just the mere presence of worry shuts down the normally fluid connections between the various portions of the brain and the individual ends up with fewer mental reserves to draw from when performing intellectually demanding tasks. The anxiety-riddled person is truly at a disadvantage.

Sian Beliock discusses a very interesting study. Generally speaking, students with higher working memory tend to be more prone to worry and anxiety during tests whereas students with lower working memory experience less anxiety and worry during tests

It isn’t clear why people who score higher on tests of working memory are more prone to worry (especially during test-taking situations).

Could it be that individuals with higher working memory take things more seriously, internalizing test scores as diagnostic of their ability, which ends up creating an influx of worry? These students unwittingly create a “do or die” situation in their brain and worry intensifies. Once worry and self-doubt enter the brain, cognitive performance declines.

For those of us who are chronic worriers…self-doubters…it is very crucial to make efforts to work through this.  The book highlights the importance of venting—verbally expressing how one feels or, even better, writing down how you feel.  You need to find a way to prevent feelings of worry and inadequacy from entering. Because, once these feelings arise, they direct mental energy away from important cognitive functions—like coming up with a creative idea, performing well on a test, or playing a musical piece to perfection.

It is also a very good idea to avoid and actively ignore negative, critical people if you are a worrier. After all, you already have to deal with the harsh criticisms regularly generated by your own brain, you don’t need additional help from other people.

What's the good news? According to Beilock, for those of us continually plagued by worry, we are not performing at optimum cognitive capacity and there is GREAT room for improvement. (However, if you are not a worrier, you are probably already performing at your optimum cognitive capacity.)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Happiness is...Lowering Your Expectations?

“The amount of pleasure and satisfaction we derive from experience has as much to do with how the experience relates to expectations as it does with the qualities of the experience itself.”   The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, 

Are many people unhappy these days due to the surfeit of choices? Developed nations are richer and offer their citizens more choices than at any other time in human history.  The internet offers us access to unlimited information, entertainment and things to spend our money on. Arranged marriages are becoming increasingly rare. Some grocery stores offer as many as 30 different types of jams and jellies.  Yet, despite so many choices, depression is on the rise in developed nations and people seem to be remarkably disappointed by many (or most) of their daily experiences and the choices they make.

As Barry Schwartz puts it in his book “The Paradox of Choice”

“If I’m right about the expectations of modern Americans about the quality of their experiences, almost every experience people have nowadays will be perceived as a disappointment, and thus regarded as a failure—a failure that could have been prevented with the right choice.”

Choices for education, careers, kitchen appliances and partners abound. Having many choices increases a person’s expectations of what is possible for them. This may set the individual up with such high expectations that almost any choice they do make, ends up being a disappointment in comparison to that amalgamated mental expectation that they had derived from all those choices they were exposed to.

I see it like this: When you have a lot of choices it results in you inadvertently summing up all the good qualities from the gamut of those choices.  At this point, you have the expectation that someone or something (job, career, education, mate, sex, kiss, hobby, dinner, fluffy cat, etc) will amount to your new, heightened expectation of it. If the person/thing/event is even just slightly less than your expectations, you experience emotionally negative feelings of disappointment and sometimes, bouts of depression.

If you live throughout every day with such high expectations, don’t plan on ever being extremely happy; plan on being regularly disappointed. The key to happiness is lowering your expectations and relating your experience to a situation that could be worse (not better). This action creates gratitude because then you are happy about your situation, realizing it could be much worse.

Happiness doesn't necessarily require fewer choices, but it does require the ability to modulate our expectations of those choices.  If you are one of those people who frequently says, “I’ve heard/seen/had better” you probably have high expectations and frequently experience disappointment/boredom/and/or lack of contentment in your life.

The more choices you have the more opportunity costs come at you, assault you, and niggle at your mind.  You may have been okay or happy with the one choice presented to you—but, when you have a bunch of choices presented to you and you make a choice, the choice that you do end up making becomes difficult (and less wonderful) because you are evaluating this choice in light of the other choices that were also available. You begin to reflect upon what you lost from not choosing any of those other choices. Disappointment ensues. 

According to the Barry Schwartz, high expectations (due to choices) and disappointment is very common--most people think in this way. The good news is that we can change this kind of thinking by resorting to downward couterfactuals. Downward counterfactual thinking is conjuring up states of existence that are worse than reality. So...basically...lower your expectations?