Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brain news: proving the attention span analogy

Time, which does think Americans are just stupid (whereas some politicos in this country are betting on the fact that we are stupid and proud of it), nevertheless proves my point about the Skinner box of email in this week's issue. Some fact nuggets from "Getting to No: The Science of Building Willpower":
  • Kelly McGonigal: "Short bursts of dopamine that come from things like e-mail make it hard to focus on long-term goals."
  • Addiction specialists doing brain scans of gamblers and non-gamblers found out that when there's a "near miss" on the slot machine screen (i.e., two cherries on one line and one cherry on the line down), non-gamblers' brains are all "eh, who cares" and see it as a loss, whereas gamblers' brains are on fire with "SO close!" and see it as a win.
  • Replacing a habit is possible if you maintain the same trigger and reward system. When you get home from work, set your running shoes beside the door and go for a run instead of sitting on the couch. You can then reward yourself with tv or whatever. Soon you will not want to sit down and will totally want to run because of the reward, or so they say.
  • Instead of getting up, thinking about the day's activities, racing out the door, and reading the always-depressing news online, we should "lie awake in bed, following our thoughts where they lead (with a pen and paper nearby to jot down any evanescent inspirations). We'd stand a little longer in the warm water of the shower . . . take some deep breaths" and drink some coffee, because "Caffeine increases the brain's level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of motivation and reward when we hit on a great idea."
  • This bullet is for Sisyphus, who longed for M & M's: turns out your brain "needs a lot of glucose" and that test subjects who drank sugary sodas were able to defer rewards better than this who drank artificially sweetened ones, presumably since the glucose gave the test subjects better wherewithal to plan and use their willpower.
  • The halo effect--when you go to the gym and figure, "aw, I deserve these fries after that workout"--is a real brain feature, as is the "what-the-hell" effect when you eat a little ice cream and decide that as long as you've broken a diet, you might as well eat the whole thing. I think this would apply to "I haven't written yet today, so it's a total loss and I might as well give up and not look at my work from yesterday."
In other brain-related news:
The writing-related takeaway? Give your brain some rest, a warm shower, and some time to relax and be creative, preferably with caffeine.

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