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Originally posted on August 14, 2014.

 

In my last post, I reviewed research that showed that Ritalin, compared with a placebo, helped research volunteers overcome mental fatigue. Now I would like to give you five healthier and safer ways to conquer your mental fatigue.

Everyone experiences mental fatigue, whether it is the 3:00 pm “slump” or extreme sleep deprivation. Two weeks ago, I was awake for 40 consecutive hours as I helped a friend complete the Badwater 135 ultramarathon. Eighteen hours later, I was back in the office working. So, I know about fatigue and how to deal with it.

1.     Increase rest. This is the easiest, safest, and cheapest way to overcome mental fatigue. Increase your sleep until you reach at least seven to eight hours each night. If you’re sleep deprived, schedule extra time to catch up on your missed sleep. Once you’re caught up, your body will find a natural groove of how much sleep you need. Some people brag about how little sleep they need. Start bragging about how much sleep you get.  

2.     Play offense against your environment. Open your windows in the morning. When we see the morning sunlight, retinal proteins trigger signals to something called the suprachiasmic nucleus (SCN). The SCN, in turn, helps our bodies produce less of our body’s natural sleeping hormone melatonin. In the evening, turn off your lights. Don’t go to sleep in front of your iPad, iPhone, or other brightly lit decide. The darker your room, the faster you’ll fall asleep.

3.     Exercise. Yes, exercise excites us. But exercise also bathes our minds with neurotransmitters that settle us down and boost our happiness. Try to avoid early morning and late evening exercise. A late afternoon walk, jog, or swim works best.

4.     Work smarter, not harder. Most of us have fallen prey to the mistaken idea that working more hours means that we are doing higher quality work. Yet few among us keep track of our daily activities. For example, how many minutes per day you do write, read, and check email? I use various websites and programs to help me accomplish my daily goals. Online-stopwatch.com is one of my favorites. I set the clock for four hours. When time is up, that means I’m done writing. Period. I also bought the “Freedom” program. It locks me out of the Internet. Freedom helps me plan my writing sessions (Will I need that document? Do I need to copy and paste this email?) and avoid lingering distractions. You’ll work fewer hours, making you less fatigued.

5.     Take the mind out of the middle. When we’re tired, it’s tough to make decisions. Try something different: Make a contract with yourself ahead of time. Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls these little contracts implementation intentions. For example, if you want to make sure you get your exercise, tell yourself, “When I get home from work, I will exercise for 20 minutes.” This way you’ve already made the decision. Instead of trying to rely on your groggy mind to make a good decision, refer to the mental contract you already drafted and signed.

So, how did I overcome the extreme mental exhaustion I experienced post-Badwater? I followed each step. I prioritized my sleep. I soaked up as much sunlight as possible. I exercised each day. I set specific work goals to accomplish. I made implementation intentions so that I knew my decisions were made ahead of time. Finally, I relaxed and took it easy.

Originally posted on August 28, 2014.

 

When your friend tells you about her terrific first date, you will eventually ask the question. You might stall by inquiring about the food she ate, the jokes he told, and the outfit she wore. Eventually, you’ll ask: Is he cute?

Recent research suggests that you’ll know how she arrived at her answer.  An in-depth analysis of 1,000 facial images identified three main ingredients of attractiveness:

  • Approachability, or how friendly a person seems. A large mouth, wide nose, and curvy bottom lip were some of the strongest predictors of approachability.
  • Youthful-attractiveness. Here, the eyes have it. To seem youthful, have large eyes. You should also avoid sporting a moustache or beard.
  • Dominance. Looking dominant relates to having angular cheeks, large eyebrows, and slightly dark skin.

These are some of the strongest predictors of each attractiveness ingredient. Of course, they don’t tell you much about people’s sense of humor, clothing style, or hobbies. For that, you’ll have to take the plunge and actually meet them. She might have large eyes and a curvy bottom lip, but would you want to date someone who never laughed at your jokes? I doubt it. Or what about an angular-cheeked, naturally tan man who always turns heads but also is profoundly dull and shallow? Maybe give him a fake phone number when he asks for yours.

Attractiveness matters, especially during the initial passionate stages of a relationship. But there are many ingredients that are far more important than attractiveness when selecting a mate. Trust is key. Think about it: Would you rather date an attractive compulsive liar, or a less attractive person who always tells the truth? Self-control also fosters relationship success. Highly self-controlled people, compared with their sluggardly counterparts, are more forgiving, generous, and less aggressive.

So, it’s natural to wonder whether your friend’s date is cute. You might not ask whether he has a large mouth, angular cheeks, or big eyes. But if she says, “Yes, he’s gorgeous,” you can be confident that he received an extra helping of some of these attractiveness ingredients.

Originally posted on September 2, 2014.

 

Graduation brings few guarantees. Jobs are scarce, job security is even more difficult to find, and many people earn less and receive fewer employee benefits than they anticipated. But graduation often brings at least two things: pomp and presents. When I finished graduate school, my parents bought me a dog. I knew he had basic emotions, such as happiness and fear. Now I know he also gets jealous.

Finnegan, an English golden retriever, is one of my best friends. Early in my professor job, I would bring him to the office with me. He slept while I wrote papers. He even participated in some of my research studies. [Not to worry, a graduate student ran the experimental sessions. When we discussed the studies in front of Finn, I covered his ears to keep him blind to condition. ] We would take walks around campus. Students would pop in and pet him. When I left the office to teach, he would yelp a little before settling down and falling asleep.

Then something happened. I got engaged. My fiancée Alice (now wife of more than six years) moved to Kentucky and started sleeping on Finnegan’s side of the bed. Suddenly, he wasn’t top dog anymore. I was happy. Finnegan wasn’t. 

But then another major event occurred. We purchased another dog, Finnegan’s half-brother, and named him Atticus. We wanted Finnegan to have a playmate. Things went well. Finnegan and Atticus played and wrestled and did all of the cute things that make YouTube videos go viral. Finnegan did show a curious new behavior, however. He seemed to get jealous when I petted Atticus.

Was Finnegan’s jealousy an illusion? It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that animals can do more than they can. For examples, dogs don’t know they are dogs. They don’t have that kind of self-awareness. Dogs also don’t have strong belief systems. Sure, they might like to eat my pizza, pretzels, and shoes. But it would never occur for one dog to ask another, “Do you avoid eating meat pizza for health or ethical reasons?” They just gobble and go.

According to a recent study, dog jealousy is real. The researchers tested 36 dogs. Just how might you evoke dog jealousy? Have a dog’s owner interact with a stuffed dog that barks, whines, and wags its tail. The owners also were instructed to ignore their own dogs while they played with the stuffed dog. To provide comparison conditions, owners also ignored their dogs to interact with a jack-o-lantern or a book.

Boy, the dogs got jealous when their owners ignored them! The dogs acted needy and tried to “shoo the rival [dog] away.” They fixed their gaze on the interloper. They even got a little nippy.

The dogs only got jealous when their owners paid attention to another dog. They didn’t mind their owners playing with the jack-o-lantern or a book. Just like my Finnegan, the dogs only started to show pangs of jealousy when they felt they were being replaced.

The moral of the story is that dogs experience complex emotions. Jealousy can sour relationships. Fortunately, humans and dogs can overcome their jealousy and learn to include others in their lives. Finnegan loves Alice, and Atticus is his best friend. Finn got over his jealousy. In that way, old dogs might be able to teach us some new tricks.

Originally posted on September 25, 2014.

 

Most of our daily lives hum along effortlessly. We automatically rise when we wake, speak when we wish to communicate, and eat when our empty bellies grumble. These behaviors helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. But we also need to size up situations and people that might threaten us. How well do we do this?

In one recent investigation, researchers from Australia and the United States argued that angry faces tell a specific story that takes little effort to understand. Rather than being a simple threat signal, angry faces gives us information about people’s physical strength, which is the crucial element in determining their fighting ability. Using some cool facial morphing software, the researchers showed participants faces and then manipulated the seven primary facial muscles involved in an angry facial expression. Some faces flexed all seven angry facial muscles; others flexed fewer than seven.

The more angry muscles the faces flexed, the more participants rated the person as being physically strong. The key is that participants did not need to take a course on the biology of human emotion to make their ratings. They didn’t need to know the seven facial muscles that comprise an angry facial expression. Participants automatically knew the strongest and angriest face when they saw it.

So, the next time you get a twinge of terror when you see an angry face, don’t sweat it. Your mind is automatically telling you something aimed at keeping you safe and sound.

Originally posted on October 2, 2014.

 

Everything psychological is biological. Stress wreaks havoc on our immune system, increasing our risk for many diseases. Psychological disorders can make us feel physically sick. We feel the sting of rejection as real pain. Might a healthier body help us have a stronger mind?

To find out, a group of Brazilian researchers recruited a group of women who underwent bariatric bypass surgery. Before and after their surgery, the women completed a measure of executive function — a test of how well people manage their mental processes.

Not surprisingly, the bariatric bypass surgery caused the women to lose weight. It also reduced their inflammation and boosted brain activity in regions associated with cognitive function. But the coolest finding was that the women’s executive functioning improved. A healthier body related to a stronger mind.

No matter how disconnected our mind and body might seem, they are close friends who rely on each other for everything. By improving our physical health, we can change not only the shape of our bodies but also strengthen our minds.

 

http://www.talkpsych.com/talk-psych-blog/2014/9/22/can-a-lean-waist-strengthen-your-mind#commenting

Originally posted on October 9, 2014.

 

Have you ever just met someone, learned his name, and immediately forgotten it? This happens all of the time. People try all sorts of tricks to remember names, driving routes, or the location of your favorite Hong Kong noodle house. But we might be looking in the wrong spot. All we need is a healthy dose of electricity.

In a brilliant study, a group of Northwestern University researchers recruited volunteers and had them undergo a stimulating treatment. Each day for five days, the volunteers had a part of their brain stimulated using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The brain stimulation sessions lasted 20 minutes and targeted the hippocampus, which aids memory. To have a basis of comparison, the same volunteers also completed a week of sessions in which they did not receive brain stimulation. The trick was that the volunteers didn’t know when their brains had been zapped and when they hadn’t.

Did the brain zapping improve memory? It did. The brain stimulation also improved how well the hippocampus “talked” to other nearby brain regions, an effect called functional connectivity. My favorite finding was that the brain stimulation effects persisted 24 hours after the volunteers underwent the treatment. Stimulate now, remember better later. 

What does this mean? Should we forgo other memory strategies and instead buy a brain stimulation machine? I think not. These findings simply shed light on how the mind works and new ways we can improve how it functions.

Nathan DeWall

The Power of High a Five

Posted by Nathan DeWall Jul 20, 2016

Originally posted on October 16, 2014.

 

One of my earliest memories is my dad giving me a high five. He was training for a marathon and agreed to take me, his talkative four year-old, on a run. I ran an entire mile. When I finished, red-faced and smiling, he said, “Give me five, son.” It was my first high five.

According to a new study, high fives go a long way in motivating children. Five and six year-old children completed a task in which they imagined experiencing success. Next, the children received different types of praise. Some children received verbal praise that would highlight an individual trait (“You are a good drawer”), whereas other children received a high five.

What motivated the children more, clear praise for being good at something or a high five? The high five won handedly. When the children bumped into a setback, those who received a high five persisted more than the other kids did.

We might reconsider how we praise children’s behavior. If we tell children they’re geniuses, we’ve told them that they have a stable trait that isn’t under their control. If they fail a test, the responsibility can’t be theirs because they have a trait that should guarantee success on all intelligence test. Blame the teacher. Criticize the test. Give up and find something else to do. Don’t find a better way to study.

By giving a high five, children know they have done something well. They also know that their success is under their control. I have run many miles since my first high five, but that first one with my dad will always hold a special place in my heart. It motivated me, either consciously or unconsciously, to continue to push my limits. For that high five, I’m grateful.

Originally posted on October 23, 2014.

 

No matter how many babies I meet, I’m always left wondering what they want. Does a short squeak followed by a shrill squeal signal that the baby is hungry? That I left the dog outside by accident again? Or is the baby simply testing out her developing vocal chords? Driven by confusion and frustration, I might insert a pacifier into the baby’s mouth. The baby seems soothed, and I can take a breather.

But according to one recent study, pacifiers disrupt our ability to understand a baby’s emotional state. Adult participants viewed pictures of happy and distressed babies. Sometimes the babies wore pacifiers and others times they didn’t. When the baby wore a pacifier, adults showed less intense facial reactivity and also rated the baby’s emotions as less intense. It didn’t matter whether the babies were happy or sad. The pacifiers numbed adults to baby facial expressions.

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Why did this happen? The idea hinges on the belief that we automatically mimic others’ emotional expressions. When I see people smile, I naturally mimic them because it helps me understand them and show empathy. Mimicking others is a great way to make friends. It lets others know we’re on the same team. Those who feel starved of social connection are the most likely to mimic others.

Pacifiers are mimic roadblocks. With a gadget covering your face, I can’t make out what you’re feeling. As a result, I mimic you less, empathize with you less, and ultimately judge your experience as less intense than it really is.

I don’t have a strong opinion about pacifiers. My sisters used them with their children, my parents used them with me, and I might use them when I have my own children. Like any consumer of knowledge, I’ll use this science to inform the choices I make. One thing is certain: I’ll never look at a pacifier in the same way.

Originally posted on October 30, 2014.

 

Tis’ the season for professional recognition. The world is abuzz with announcements of who won this year’s Nobel Prizes. Psychology doesn’t have a Nobel Prize (though one of our own, Daniel Kahneman, won one in 2002). But psychologists like to make lists.

 

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Daniel Kahneman

 

Recently, three researchers compiled a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists in the modern era (post-World War II). Several patterns caught my attention:

  • Most psychologists did not achieve great eminence until at least age 50. This number is at odds with some reports that scientists often make their major breakthroughs between ages 35 and 40.
  • The eminent psychologists experienced what I call the Publishing Paradox. They published many articles, but their eminence was due to only one or two publications. Few of their publications had any impact on their perceived eminence.
  • Women and members of minority groups compromised a small percent of the list. This is a cause for concern as we embark on a time in the academy when diversity of experience, perspective, and background is most needed.

What can the list teach us? Eminence requires hard work that takes place over a long period of time. There are no short-cuts. People also must accept that most of their daily work will have no bearing on their perceived eminence. Fall in love with the process. Stay the course. Let others decide the outcome.

 

Originally posted on November 13, 2014.

 

Success is mystery. What is it? How do we achieve it? And why does it often fail to live up our expectations? Success puzzles us because we don’t appreciate failure.

In “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars,” University of Kentucky alum and multimillionaire Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan suggest that there are a million ways to succeed. If you want to earn more money, you can start a business or sell a business. To improve your mental health, you can get hired or resign. One person’s path to weight loss will be paved with fruit and no fat; another person’s caveman diet will encourage fat consumption to lose weight. The point is that there are at least as many ways to succeed as there are people on the planet.

This is good and bad news. The good news is that everyone can find a unique path to success. The bad news is that your unique path won’t teach you much about success. To learn how to succeed, you must learn why you fail and how to avoid it.

This topic is near and dear to my heart. Last weekend, I completed the Javelina Jundred 100 mile ultramarathon. It was my best race yet. I knocked well over an hour off of my personal record time. Throughout the race, I felt good and ran a steady pace. After the race, I was happy and calm. (For proof, see my finishing picture.)

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Failure was the key to my success. Two times earlier this year, I failed to finish 100 mile races. Both times I got sick and the medical team pulled me. Last weekend, I didn’t focus on how to run faster. Instead, I concentrated on how to avoid the things that caused me to lose out on finishing those earlier races. By learning from failure, I could achieve my definition of success. 

I don’t know why failure is great learning medicine. One reason is that bad is stronger than good. When we fail, it grabs our attention more than success. Others argue that there are only a few ways to fail. Either way, failure is a great teacher that we should embrace instead of fear.

Originally posted on November 20, 2014.

 

Have you ever seen a baby so cute you wanted to snuggle it and take a bite out of it at the same time? Ever said to a new niece or nephew, “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up?”

Have you cried after a happy occasion, such as crossing the finish line of a race for which you’ve long prepared, or proposing to your girlfriend and getting a yes? Two weeks ago, I experienced these conflicting emotions when I shed several tears after finishing a 100 mile running race.

These conflicting concurrent emotions help us maintain emotional balance, according to research from Yale University.

An adult’s reaction to an adorable baby is to kiss them and coo at them. But an adult may also pinch, squeeze, and playfully nip at them. Knowing that most people don’t intend to actually harm babies, the researchers designed several experiments to find out why adults respond to them with aggressive behavior.

In one study, participants looked at and evaluated photos of different babies, some of whom appeared more infantile than others. The participants said they wanted to care for and protect the infantile babies, but they also reported higher expressions of aggression in response to the babies. Participants were also more likely to feel overwhelmed with very strong positive feelings in response to the more infantile babies.

What do these findings tell us? Being overwhelmed by positive emotion produce responses designed to bring us down to our emotional baseline. Ever in need of emotional equilibrium, people will engage in behaviors aimed at leveling off their extreme emotional reactions.

So the next time you cry during a happy scene in a movie, laugh nervously, or feel compelled to take a bite out of a cute baby, remember that it is just your body’s way of maintaining emotional balance.

Originally posted on December 4, 2014.

 

Walk down a sidewalk and someone will likely take notice. Just where do their eyes linger? You can tell a lot about whether they think you are Mr. Right—or Mr. Right Now—based on where their eyes gravitate.

So says recent research conducted at the University of Chicago. Students viewed photographs of people and reported whether they caused them to experience romantic love or sexual desire. The students also wore an eyetracker, which recorded which parts of each photograph captured their attention. The idea is that romantic love causes people to try to understand what another person is thinking. Sexual desire encourages people to pay attention to objects that reflect concrete sensations and feelings.

Romantic love drove people to fixate their attention on people’s faces. This makes sense. If I want to understand what someone is thinking, I should look at their face. Their facial expression might also give me a clue as to whether they return my interest. Sexual desire created a different picture. When people saw a photograph that caused them to experience sexual desire, their eyes stuck on people’s bodies.

This love versus lust response operates automatically. Participants didn’t think carefully about where to position their eyes. Their eyes simply gravitated toward bodily locations that were most relevant to romantic love or sexual desire. Just how big of a difference was there between how long participants spent looking at faces when they experienced love rather than lust? A little over 400 milliseconds. That’s a tad longer than an eyeblink.

But don’t let that slight difference take anything away from how cool these findings are. They show how efficiently our minds work to alert us to information that relates to our emotions and goals. By knowing this wrinkle about how the mind works, your walks may never be the same. 

Originally posted on December 11, 2014.

 

Even the most pleasant activities have low spots. I enjoy teaching as much as anything, but there are certain parts I like more than others. Course planning ranks as one of my least favorite parts of teaching. There are numerous questions that lack clear answers.

But as I built my online course shell today, I felt more confident than ever about how often I should test my students. Quite a bit.

In research conducted at the University of Texas-Austin, researchers gave students daily online quizzes that provided immediate, personalized feedback. At the end of the semester, the researchers compared the daily quizzed students’ grades with those who had previously taken a version of the course that did not include the daily quizzes. The result? Daily quizzes boosted class performance a half letter grade.

The daily quiz effect also spilled over into the students’ other classes. Even when the course material did not relate to their daily quizzes, students who were frequently tested continued to excel. That’s remarkable.

The most surprising part is how much students like frequent testing. Last year, I taught Introduction to Psychology while I was on sabbatical at Hope College. Knowing the benefits of frequent testing, I decided to give my students 22 quizzes throughout the semester. That’s about a quiz every class session.

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At the end of the semester, I asked students what parts of the course they would like to keep or discard. No student suggested getting rid of the quizzes. They said the quizzes kept them on track and gave them frequent feedback about how well they understood the material. Students also said that the frequent quizzes caused them to approach longer exams without much anxiety. S

So, as I spent today entering the many quizzes that my Introduction to Psychology students will take next semester, I know that frequent testing should help them earn the high grades they desire.

Originally posted on December 18, 2014.

 

Self-preservation is a core instinct, but sometimes people reach an emotional valley in their lives and the best way out seems to be self-harm. Unfortunately, a history of self-harm is one of the best predictors of future self-harm and death by suicide. Can psychotherapy weaken the cycle of self-harm and its relationship to death by suicide?

Yes, according to a recent study. The research examined a group of 22,712 Danish people who had engaged in deliberate self-harm. Some of them received psychotherapy, whereas others did not. Then the researchers determined whether people chose to hurt themselves again, died of any cause, and died by suicide one, five, 10, and 20 years later.

The results were striking. Psychotherapy reduced the risk of future self-harm, death by any cause, and death by suicide. The researchers estimated that “145 self-harm episodes and 153 deaths, including 30 deaths by suicide, were prevented.”

The findings offer hope to those at risk for self-harm and suicide. They also shed light on the power of psychological science to improve and potentially save lives. Some therapies work better than others. For some people, therapy might not work at all. But over all, this research suggests that therapy is worth a try.

Originally posted on January 22, 2015.

 

At the beginning of each year, millions of people reflect on the previous year and find things they could have done better. Exercised more, eaten healthier, watched less television, drank less alcohol. They vow—most knowing they won’t keep their promise—to make more of the new year, to become their best selves.

Ah, the New Year’s resolution. I’ve made many myself. Many of my resolutions have been health related; when I look back at the previous year, I see where I could have been much healthier. I compare myself to friends who ran more miles, enjoy a slightly leaner physique, and seem to never worry about whether their clothes getting snug. (Last year, for example, a close friend ran over 5,200 miles. That dwarfs my measly 2,525 miles.) Looking at their accomplishments makes me feel sluggish. So I vow to change, and the start of a new year seems like the perfect time to do so.

Unlike many resolution makers, I have had some success with New Year’s resolutions. Here’s why: I really wanted to change and was ready to do so. And that readiness to change is the key ingredient in committing to these self-improvement plans, according to Meg Baker, a wellness expert from the University of Alabama.

Many Americans make resolutions but don’t put a plan in place to successfully carry them out, she says. To increase your likelihood of success, Baker offers three suggestions:

  • Develop small, short-term, realistic goals that will fit into your schedule
  • Consider the benefits and reasons for the change
  • Share your plan with someone with whom you can be accountable

She also suggests that you consider modifying the plan as your needs change. For example, if your new exercise routine has gotten stale, mix it up. During the winter months, I sometimes get stuck running on the treadmill. To keep things interesting, I might spend a day cycling or trying to do a single pull-up. When you’re struggling to stick to it, Baker suggests reflecting on the reasons you made the resolution.

This year, I’m once again vowing to be healthier than I was last year. That means if I really want to see progress, I have to be willing to take the action to bring about change. To kick things off, I spent January 1st running the Hangover Classic 10 mile run in Louisville, KY and, a couple hours later, running the Resolution Run 5 mile run in Lexington, KY.

So here’s to a healthy, happy 2015. What’s your resolution?