One of my greatest life challenges lies in curating the apps on my phone and the contents of my inbox. This combined failure has indirectly produced the contents of this rant/editorial (rantitorial? TM - Tara Giller, 2015).

I have an app for counting calories and monitoring physical activity. I don't use it anymore because it's boring and I despise thinking about calories. The provider of said app sent an email yesterday that sent me half-way into a rage spiral. The email was titled something like "enjoy patio season without sabotaging your diet." It had a picture of a group of women sitting outside drinking wine.

Sabotage - "to injure or attack". A pretty negative thing to do, which hardly seems to apply to eating nachos on a patio.

My first thought was, eff you for trying to take something as magical as patio season and tie it to something that society says I should feel ashamed of. I live in a mostly winter wonderland, so eff you, stupid email, for suggesting that I be concerned about something other than enjoying delicious food and drinks, while feeling the air on my pasty skin for the few months of the year it gets to breathe in tank tops and swishy skirts.

I understand that this language is mainstream and that the word "sabotage," is often used with the word, "diet." Staying away from this kind of guilt & shame inflicting content is the primary reason why I don't read most magazines that are marketed toward women.

Maybe I'm also angry because the issue has come up in two books I'm currently reading, written by brilliant and hilarious women ("Yes Please," by Amy Poehler and "Hyperbole and a Half," by Allie Brosh). In both of these books there are passages where they write about how their negative, guilt- & shame - provoking thoughts pile on top of each other to provoke a giant sense of badness.

All of this together, the email and the fact that even these brilliant women are feeling this way made me so irritated with how much guilt and shame are things that drive our behavior and affect our thoughts about ourselves.

We are more than our thoughts. Yes, our thoughts reflect our transient urges, wishes and fears, but they can also be irrational and inaccurate.

We can let our thoughts go. We don't have to do the things our thoughts are telling us to do. Here's an example, still keeping with the food analogy.

I'm pretty into anything that has cinnamon and that's made of bread. There's this place by my house that makes the best cinnamon buns and cinnamon bread EVER. Like, for realz.

Now, I could easily consume half a loaf of bread and several cinnamon buns. I also would very much like to do that because of above-noted deliciousness. I could respond to such urges with a shame spiral...

Ooh cinnamon buns, and bread! So delicious. Now I want to eat all the cinnamon things. Oh crap, no one else wants to eat all of the cinnamon things, so why do I? Am I some kind of cinnamon & bread beast that will stop at nothing until all the cinnamon is in my belleh? I'm gross. Oh, no, I can't stop thinking about the cinnamon things because I am a gross cinnamon monster. I'm going to eat them all. I can't stop myself. Oh crap, I ate too many cinnamon things. I'm going to barf.

Alternatively, I can respond with...

Mmmm cinnamon things. They are very compelling, I am noticing that I really want to eat a lot of them. I am an adult though, with self-control so I will only eat some of the cinnamon things because they are delicious. I get to choose what I do, but not always what I think. I am excellent at self-control, I would have owned that marshmallow test as a child....

My point is this: Thoughts are not always controllable, they slide into consciousness and try to make us feel badly for not being able to suppress them. Research shows that trying to avoid thinking about something only makes us think about it more. Plus, all this attempted thought suppression is tiring and makes us more likely to give in to what we're trying to avoid. Our best bet is to use mindfulness to acknowledge the thoughts for what they are, transient whims that we can choose not to act on.

Now, guilt and shame do have a place. These emotions help us repair relationships when we hurt people or do something that's damaging to our own goals. We should listen to these emotions, sometimes, but they shouldn't hold sway over the thoughts and feelings that come unbidden.

Again, we are more than our thoughts and we get to choose what we do.

Posted
AuthorTara Giller

Why your brain wants you to learn new things and have fun

A few years ago, a friend and I took a beginner ballet class for adults. It was a choice that occurred within the the heyday of the T.V. show, So You Think You Can Dance, and that elicited high levels of mockery from plenty of h8ers.

If only we'd known about neuroplasticity back then.

Neither of us believed that our new class would lead to successful auditions on the show, if for no other reason than there was not yet a Canadian version. Our citizenship stifled our dreams of seeing our very own names forged in glitter on audience constructed signs.

Yet, we persisted all the way to our recital, in which we danced a delightful medieval-inspired number, complete with masquerade-style masks. We curtseyed and plied for the rapt eyes of our friends and family members, who were all there to witness the marvel of adults trying to learn a new skill.

Neuroplasticity (1)

Broadly, neuroplasticity reflects our brains' capacity to change. It allows neurons (the cells that comprise our brains) to forge new connections and allocate space to the sensations and thoughts that are most used, and to allow unused connections to fade.

The idea that the adult brain can change used to be highly controversial, but was eventually accepted even by skeptics with the scientific community. This research is covered in Norman Doidge's amazing book, called The Brain that Changes Itself.

What does neuroplasticity have to do with bad dancing?

If we learn new and challenging things through adulthood, we're less likely to end up with Alzheimer's. So learning to dance could add a level of resiliency to my aging brain, especially if I have fun doing it.

It's easier to learn when we're having fun. This is because the combined release of brain chemicals associated with pleasure (dopamine), and memory sharpening (acetylcholine) heightens our ability to learn. When we succeed, we feel happy, and we remember that.

Learning

I've thought a lot about how this knowledge translates to how we structure our learning. It's not possible to have fun all of the time, and becoming skilled at something means that we have to practice the same thing over and over again, probably becoming bored.

I play piano, and during practice I think about neuroplasticity. When I begin learning a new piece it's exciting, and I can quickly see my improvement. As improvement slows, I resign myself to the idea of boring practice. After reading Doidge's book, I'm attempting to prime by brain to benefit most from repetitive practice, by beginning with fun pieces, and sprinkling them through the whole session. I'll just have to stay tuned to see if my new strategy works, besides, changing my brain is its own kind of fun.

Update: Although my friend and I have not ended up on So You Think You Can Dance, we're working on our own show called Grown-up Dance Starz.

References

Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. Penguin Books: New York.

 

 

 

Posted
AuthorTara Giller

Flow is an immersive experience of focused thought, forgotten time, and is absent of self-consciousness (1). The mind acts as an adaptive camera lens, widening and focusing in response to new information. You’re most likely to slip into flow state when success is possible, but not a given. It’s the feeling of potential - that soon you’ll master something new and you might think, “I got this.”

Flow state isn’t just a great experience, it’s a way to increase connection to personal goals, feel more positive and energetic, and offset the burden of self-control (2).  

Grow your flow

Before beginning a task, find a way to challenge yourself. What specific thing can you improve on in the next hour? Maybe you can perfect the musicality of a passage on the piano, or challenge yourself to think about a tough math problem in several new ways. Choose goals that are about improving your skills, not about your performance relative to others (3). Set goals that might be just out of reach.

People of the interwebs are always going on about how we live in an age of distraction, bombarded by the beeps and boops of technology, bazillions of advertisements, the faster pace of our lives, and the growing population. Maybe we are more distracted, maybe we aren’t. Either way, we could all benefit from practiced concentration.

Distraction is the enemy of flow state. This experience is something that requires deep mental processing. By splitting attention among tasks, you could be cheating yourself out of an experience that can make your goals more fulfilling and connected to your psychological needs.

But never fear! You can practice concentration skills through meditation and other immersive tasks like reading books made out of paper. Research shows that we process things on paper more deeply than when we read them on screens (4). Treat your concentration ability as a valuable skill that requires maintenance and practice.

Put down your phone, turn off the TV, tell whoever you live with to leave you alone (in a more tactful way, obviously), and tell your pet ferret (probably named Phineas) that fetch will have to wait.

Be patient with yourself, and be consistent. If you’re used to succumbing to distraction, then it will take practice and time to overcome that habit. You also can’t force flow, all you can do is set up your environment and actions to support it. If you practice, trust that flow will happen.

P.S. If any of you are getting a pet ferret, please name it Phineas because that is a seriously awesome name for a ferret, boy or girl.


References

1. Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K. E., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., Csíkszentmihályi, M., & Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 167-172.

2. Muraven, M., Gagné, M., & Roseman, H. (2008). Helpful self-control: Autonomy support, vitality, and depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 573-585.

3. Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5-12.

Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Bronnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61-68.

Posted
AuthorTara Giller