Recent blog posts

The Spiral of Learning

An hour ago, I was staring at a problem on the 4clojure website. Last weekend, I found myself wandering through Zed Shaw’s Learn C the Hard Way. Three days before that, I was taking a stab at figuring what kind of visualizations would make sense if you want to come up with the mother of all comparison’s between two of football’s greatest ever players. Four days before that, I was looking at some classifiers. Five weeks ago, I was totally lost in Learn You Some Erlang, and three weeks before that I was trying to make sense of all the hype around Node.js.

This is a pattern that I have experienced throughout the last three years of my life. The technologies and tools might have been different, but the experience and the pain that leaves me in have been consistent and consistently high, respectively. I would pick up something, throw all my energy at it and would learn some stuff. And then, the day when I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for anything comes up. I would sit there jumping between Wikipedia pages. This loss of interest would be temporary, and the following day I would have all the energy and enthusiasm in the world. And then the bad thing happens – I don’t go and pick up what I left mid-way. I would get fascinated by something totally new or something I had left halfway through two weeks ago.

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The Paradox of Automatic Planning

Fiery Cushman is Assistant Professor, Cognitive, Linguistic, Social Science, Brown University

I want to tell you about a problem that I have because it highlights a deep problem for the field of psychology. The problem is that every time I sit down to try to write a manuscript I end up eating Ben and Jerry's instead. I sit down and then a voice comes into my head and it says, "How about Ben and Jerry's? You deserve it. You've been working hard for almost ten minutes now." Before I know it, I'm on the way out the door.

This is a problem for psychology not, regrettably, because I was writing anything terribly important, but rather because it highlights a deep tension in a dual process theory of the mind. From one perspective my desire for Ben and Jerry's is the product of automatic or intuitive responses—literally gut feelings in this case—and then it's a controlled, effortful, deliberative process that tries to focus on the paper and put thoughts of Ben and Jerry's out of mind.  On the other hand, it would truly be bizarre to say that when I went to Ben and Jerry's it was an automatic response. I mean, I have to go through a process of goal-oriented planning. I've got to get my shoes on, I've got to get out the door. There's a mismatch between the willpower perspective and the goal orientation perspective.

Read the full article...

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When You Criticize Someone, You Make It Harder for that Person to Change


“If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in ten years?”

Such a question opens us up to fresh possibilities, to reflect on what matters most to us, and even what deep values might guide us through life. This approach gives managers a tool for coaching their teams to get better results.

Contrast that mind-opening query with a conversation about what’s wrong with you, and what you need to do to fix yourself.  That line of thinking shuts us down, puts us on the defensive, and narrows our possibilities to rescue operations. Managers should keep this in mind, particularly during performance reviews.

That question about your perfect life in ten years comes from Richard Boyatzis, a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western, and an old friend and colleague.  His recent research on the best approach to coaching has used brain imaging to analyze how coaching affects the brain differently when you focus on dreams instead of failings. These findings have great implications for how to best help someone – or yourself — improve.

As I quoted Boyatzis in my book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,  “Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down.”

Working with colleagues at Cleveland Clinic, Boyatzis put people through a positive, dreams-first interview or a negative, problems-focused one while their brains were scanned. The positive interview elicited activity in reward circuitry and areas for good memories and upbeat feelings – a brain signature of the open hopefulness we feel when embracing an inspiring vision. In contrast, the negative interview activated brain circuitry for anxiety, the same areas that activate when we feel sad and worried. In the latter state, the anxiety and defensiveness elicited make it more difficult to focus on the possibilities for improvement.

Of course a manager needs to help people face what’s not working. As Boyatzis put it, “You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive. You need both, but in the right ratio.”

Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, finds that positive feelings enlarge the aperture of our attention to embrace a wider range of possibility and to motivate us to work toward a better future. She finds that people who do well in their private and work lives alike generally have a higher ratio of positive states to negative ones during their day.

Being in the positive mood range activates brain circuits that remind us of how good we will feel when we reach a goal, according to research by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. That’s the circuit that keeps us working away at the small steps we need to take toward a larger goal – whether finishing a major project or a change in our own behavior.

This brain circuitry — vital for working toward our goals — runs on dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, along with endogenous opioids like endorphins, the “runner’s high” neurotransmitters. This chemical brew fuels drive and tags it with satisfying dollops of pleasure. That may be why maintaining a positive view pays off for performance, as Frederickson’s research has found: it energizes us, lets us focus better, be more flexible in our thinking, and connect effectively with the people around us.

Managers and coaches can keep this in mind. Boyatzis makes the case that understanding a person’s dreams can open a conversation about what it would take to fulfill those hopes. And that can lead to concrete learning goals. Often those goals are improving capacities like conscientiousness, listening, collaboration and the like – which can yield better performance.

Boyatzis tells of an executive MBA student, a manager who wanted to build better work relationships. The manager had an engineering background; when it came to getting a task done, “all he saw was the task,” says Boyatzis, “not the people he worked with to get it done.”

His learning curve involved tuning in to how other people felt. For a low-risk chance to practice this he took on coaching his son’s soccer team – and making the effort to notice how team members felt as he coached them. That became a habit he took back to work.

By starting with the positive goal he wanted to achieve – richer work relationships – rather than framing it as a personal flaw he wanted to overcome,  he made achieving his goal that much easier.

Bottom line: don’t focus on only on weaknesses, but on hopes and dreams. It’s what our brains are wired to do.

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Naturally Produced Compound Rewinds Aspects of Age-Related Demise in Mice

Dec. 19, 2013 — Researchers have discovered a cause of aging in mammals that may be reversible.

The essence of this finding is a series of molecular events that enable communication inside cells between the nucleus and mitochondria. As communication breaks down, aging accelerates. By administering a molecule naturally produced by the human body, scientists restored the communication network in older mice. Subsequent tissue samples showed key biological hallmarks that were comparable to those of much younger animals.

"The aging process we discovered is like a married couple -- when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down," said Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics David Sinclair, senior author on the study. "And just like with a couple, restoring communication solved the problem."



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The Most Astounding Thing in the Universe

The startling discovery that reality is observer-created challenges everything we know about ourselves and our relationship with the world. Although the "meaning" of quantum physics has been debated since it was first discovered in the 1930's, we're no closer to understanding it now than we were then. The "theory of everything" that for decades was promised to be just around the corner, has been stuck for decades in the abstract mathematics of string theory, with its unproven and improvable assertions.

Our understanding of the fundamentals of the universe is actually retreating before our eyes. The more data we gather, the more we've had to juggle our theories or dismiss findings that simply make no sense.

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Some patients are better off without antipsychotic drugs

About 60 years ago, a group of drugs was discovered that appeared to quiet the voices, improve the clarity of thought and lessen the preoccupation with delusion beliefs. Originally called major tranquilizers and later renamed antipsychotic drugs, these have been considered essential for the treatment of people with schizophrenia.

Once it was clear that these drugs were helpful in the short term, questions arose over how long people should remain on them. Studies done in the 1970s and 1980s looked at people who were stabilized after being treated with antipsychotic drugs for several months and then followed them for up to two years. Some continued on the drugs, while others stopped taking them. The relapse rate was much higher in the group that stopped the medications. Based on these studies, treatment guidelines now state that people should stay on anti-psychotics indefinitely.

The problem with “indefinitely” is that antipsychotic drugs have many troubling side effects. They can cause muscle stiffness, tremor and something called tardive dyskinesia, where muscles in the face or limbs move uncontrollably. But the belief — my belief — was that this was the unfortunate price paid to help people who were suffering.

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A Breakthrough in Epigenetics

Two genetically identical mice look vastly different—one is lean and brown, the other is fat and yellow. How is this possible? Epigenetic pioneer Randy Jirtle explains the breakthrough study that gives us new clues into the understanding of obesity and diabetes in mice—and possibly humans.


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Scientists have discovered a second code hiding within DNA. This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

J Stam

Genome scientist Dr. John Stamatoyannopolous led a team that discovered a second code hidden in DNA.

A research team led by Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington associate professor of genome sciences and of medicine, made the discovery. The findings are reported in the Dec. 13 issue of Science. The work is part of the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project, also known as ENCODE. The National Human Genome Research Institute funded the multi-year, international effort. ENCODE aims to discover where and how the directions for biological functions are stored in the human genome.

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Studies of napping have shown improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking, and memory performance. As I mentioned in my post about the body clock and your body’s best time for everything, we’re naturally designed to have two sleeps per day:

The idea that we should sleep in eight-hour chunks is relatively recent. The world’s population sleeps in various and surprising ways. Millions of Chinese workers continue to put their heads on their desks for a nap of an hour or so after lunch, for example, and daytime napping is common from India to Spain.

Naps can even have a physical benefit. In one study of 23,681 Greek men over six years, the participants who napped three times a week had a 37% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Not to mention a host of other positive outcomes that might occur from regular napping:

Sleep experts have found that daytime naps can improve many things: increase alertness, boost creativity, reduce stress, improve perception, stamina, motor skills, and accuracy, enhance your sex life, aid in weight loss, reduce the risk of heart attack, brighten your mood and boost memory.

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Global Depression Rates Map

The Middle East and North Africa suffer the world’s highest depression rates, according to a new study by researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland -- and it’s costing people in the region years off their lives.

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investing $70 million to develop a new implant that can track, and respond to, brain signals in real time.

The goal of the new project, dubbed “Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies” (SUBNETS), is to gather new information via more advanced brain implants in order to reach the next level of effective neuropsychological treatment. DARPA is hoping to have the new implant developed within five years.


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Next time you have a wannabe in the studio, send them to this link....

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Pulvinar neurons reveal neurobiological evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes

Snakes and their relationships with humans and other primates have attracted broad attention from multiple fields of study, but not, surprisingly, from neuroscience, despite the involvement of the visual system and strong behavioral and physiological evidence that humans and other primates can detect snakes faster than innocuous objects. Here, we report the existence of neurons in the primate medial and dorsolateral pulvinar that respond selectively to visual images of snakes. Compared with three other categories of stimuli (monkey faces, monkey hands, and geometrical shapes), snakes elicited the strongest, fastest responses, and the responses were not reduced by low spatial filtering. These findings integrate neuroscience with evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, herpetology, and primatology by identifying a neurobiological basis for primates’ heightened visual sensitivity to snakes, and adding a crucial component to the growing evolutionary perspective that snakes have long shaped our primate lineage.


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Is love just the product of lousy Neurons?

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A team of linguistics experts from the U.S., Great Britain and New Zealand has found evidence that suggests a core group of words used in a common language thousands of years ago has survived to this day. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers claim that some core words used in modern languages are related to some spoken 15,000 years ago

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A team of linguistics experts from the U.S., Great Britain and New Zealand has found evidence that suggests a core group of words used in a common language thousands of years ago has survived to this day. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers claim that some core words used in modern languages are related to some spoken 15,000 years ago

Read more at:

A team of linguistics experts from the U.S., Great Britain and New Zealand has found evidence that suggests a core group of words used in a common language thousands of years ago has survived to this day. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers claim that some core words used in modern languages are related to some spoken 15,000 years ago

Read more at:

A team of linguistics experts from the U.S., Great Britain and New Zealand has found evidence that suggests a core group of words used in a common language thousands of years ago has survived to this day. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers claim that some core words used in modern languages are related to some spoken 15,000 years ago

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