Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Blogging at the Huffington Post

Great news: I have been invited to be one of the bloggers at that fun news and blogging experiment called The Huffington Post. I appreciate very much the opportunity to engage a broader community around the latest research on brain fitness and the brain fitness market, and around how to “exercise our brains” for happiness, health, lifelong learning and peak performance.

You can take a look at the first post: How “Saying Thanks” Will Make You Happier. will keep being our main blog. Thank you for all your support!

Enhance Happiness and Health by Cultivating Gratitude: Interview with Robert Emmons

Robert Emmons Thanks(Dear reader: Here you have a little gift to continue the Thanksgiving spirit. Enjoy the interview, and thank you for visiting our site.)

Prof. Robert Emmons studies gratitude for a living as Professor of Psychology at UC Davis and is Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. He has just published Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, an interdisciplinary book that provides a research-based synthesis of the topic as well as practical suggestions.

Alvaro Fernandez: Welcome. Prof. Emmons, could you please provide us an overview of the Positive Psychology field so we understand the context for your research?

Robert Emmons: Sure. Martin Seligman and colleagues launched what was called “positive psychology in the late 90s as an antidote to the traditional nearly exclusive emphasis of “negative psychology” focused on fixing problems like trauma, addiction, and stress. We want to balance our focus and be able to help everyone, including high-functioning individuals. A number of researchers were investigating the field since the late 80s, but Seligman provided a new umbrella, a new category, with credibility, organized networks and funding opportunities for the whole field.

And where does your own research fit into this overall picture?

I have been researching gratitude for almost 10 years. Gratitude is a positive emotion that has traditionally been the realm of humanists and philosophers, and only recently the subject of a more scientific approach. We study gratitude not as a merely academic discipline, but as a practical framework to better functioning in life by taking control of happiness levels and practicing the skill of emotional self-regulation.

What are the 3 key messages that you would like readers to take away from your book?

First, the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve – a few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, that cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time.

What are some ways to practice gratitude, and what benefits could we expect? Please refer to your 2003 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, where I found fascinating quotes such as that “The ability to notice, appreciate, and savior the elements of one life has been viewed as a crucial element of well-being.

The most common method we use in our research is to ask people to keep a “Gratitude Journal”  where you write something you feel grateful for. Doing so 4 times a week, for as little as 3 weeks, is often enough to create a meaningful difference in one level of happiness. Another exercise is to write a “Gratitude Letter” to a person who has exerted a positive influence on one’s life but whom we have not properly thanked in the past, and then to meet that person and read the letter to them face to face.

The benefits seem to be very similar using both methods in terms of enhanced happiness, health and wellbeing. Most of the outcomes are self-reported, but there is an increasing emphasis on measuring objective data such as cortisol and stress levels, heart rate variability, and even brain activation patterns. The work of Richard Davidson is exemplary in that respect, showing how mindfulness practice can rewire some activation patterns in Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Wellness: Train Your Brain to Be Happier

I am delighted to participate in LifeTwo’s “How to be Happier” week with this post. Happiness is still largely unchartered territory for neuroscience. It sounds like a hidden, elusive El Dorado. However, once one follows positive psychology research and Harvard’s Dr. Ben-Shahar’s advice, “The question should not be whether you are happy but what you can do to become happier”, the happiness quest starts to become more tangible and workable according to latest neuroscience research.

We are now going to explore the four key concepts of Dr. Ben-Shahar’s statement — 1) “you”, 2) “can”, 3) “do”, and 4) “happier” — from a neuropsychological perspective.

1) Who is “you”? According to latest scientific understanding, what we experience as “mind”, our Frontal Lobesawareness, emerges from the physical brain. So, if we want to refine our minds, we better start by understanding and training our brains. A very important reality to appreciate: each brain is unique, since it reflects our unique lifetime experiences. Scientists have already shown how even adult brains retain a significant ability to continually generate new neurons and literally rewire themselves. So, each of us is unique, with our own aspirations, emotional preferences, capacities, and each of us in continually in flux. A powerful concept to remind ourselves: “you” can become happier means that “you” are the only person who can take action and evaluate what works for “you”. And “you” means the mind that emerges from your own, very personal, unique, and constantly evolving, brain. Which only “you” can train.

2) Why the use of “can”? Well, this reminds me a great quote by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who said that “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain“. Each of us has immense potential. However, in the same way that Michaelangelo’s David didn’t spontaneously appear out-of-the-blue one day, becoming happier requires attention, intention, and actual practice.

Attention: Every second, you choose what to pay attention to. You can focus on the negative and thereby train your brain to focus on the negative. You can Read the rest of this entry »

Best practice for top trading performance: biofeedback (EmWave personal stress reliever)

Brett N. Steenbarger , Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, active trader for over 30 years, former Director of Trader Development for Kingstree Trading, LLC, author of The Psychology of Trading and the new Enhancing Trader Performance, and of the blog TraderFeed: Exploiting the edge from historical market patterns, is writing a great collection of best practices for traders (many of which are very relevant for all high-pressure occupations).

He wrote a great article a few weeks ago on the value of biofeedback in achieving self control, and now deepens the discussion with this best practice for traders.

Both articles are a fun read-here go some quotes from the most recent one

  • This best practice describes biofeedback as a tool for performance enhancement among traders. It emphasizes that the role of biofeedback is to keep us in touch with our (implicit) knowledge, not to eliminate emotion from the decision-making process.”
  • “we want to control the level of cognitive and physical arousal so that we retain access to expertise that is already present. Biofeedback is a powerful tool for achieving such cognitive and physical control.”
  • “Through structured practice, people can learn to systematically improve their ability to enter and remain in states of calm focus. Such ability is important to trading (and many other performance activities), not because it eliminates emotion, but because it preserves our access to the somatic markers that represent our market feel. The heart rate variability feedback is particularly user friendly, because it is computer based and can track progress both in practice sessions and in real time performance.”
  • “Using the Freeze-Framer program, audible signals tell the user when he or she is experiencing high, medium, or low “coherence”, which is a measure of emotional regulation. On-screen games require the user to keep a floating balloon in the air, for instance, based upon sustained medium and high readings. I recently had an interesting experience during one feedback session: I sustained a high level of the balloon, but then clicked a wrong button on the screen and erased my data accidentally! After that frustration, it was *much* harder for me to keep the balloon in the air. It was a nice illustration of the impact of frustration even several minutes after an event.”

You can learn more about this best practice for Traders and other high-pressure occupations where learning how to identify and manage our emotions and levels of stress is critical for performance.

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