Should you help your kids with their homework?

Courtesy of John Alvin

How much do you do for your kids?

As dad to a teen and a tween, it still surprises me how they seem to take more time as they get older, not less, and particularly with homework.

For example, the seemingly innocuous “Can you help me with my essay on Pearl Harbour?” went from a 3 second reply to a full metal jacket two-hour tour of duty. While I didn’t suffer any injuries I did lose my Tuesday evening.

I was subsequently recalled to duty for a second tour. Sayonara Thursday night.

Not being a masochist or martyr by nature I put it down to my intrinsic motivation to help my kids with their homework.

And there’s the rub

Was I intrinsically motivated, or did I just not want my kid to fail, or even to do a bad job? Was it just parental pride on the line? Am I helping her learn how to research and write better, or buttressing her work with mine? After all, who’s homework is it? There are more questions I could ask.

And how much should I help anyway?

It all depends on what kind of parent you are

Maybe you’ve heard of Tiger Mom Amy Chua who wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In response we got Panda Father. We have free range parents, snow plough parents and a number of others, including helicopter parents, and it’s this last group that caused me to wonder.

Because the investment we make in parenting is so huge and involves so much of ourselves, we can be touchy around what others think of our parenting. But as a discipline, parenting is a reasonably well articulated field of study, thanks in part to early work by Diana Baumrind. (There’s a section at the end that explains her work, using her key parental determinants of Responsiveness to kids and Demandingness of them.)


Helicopter parents are so named because of their tendency to hover over everything their child does and be overinvolved in it. This overparenting is particularly applicable to schoolwork and, by extension, homework.

In 2013, clinical psychologist Dr Judith Locke noted that overparenting generally falls into one of three classes:

  • Very high responsiveness: a parent tries to become best friends with the child, thinks their child is always right, or is in constant contact with them;
  • Low demands on a child: a parent helps their child avoid an unpleasant life by driving them everywhere or catering to all of their requests, or a parent demands the child’s school alters its policies in areas such as discipline to suit their child;
  • High demands on a child: a parent places high emphasis on their child’s achievements in their school and social life and overschedules the child’s time.

Locke’s recent work out of QUT, using 866 Brisbane parents and looking at the question of parental involvement in homework, drew some interesting conclusions.

Overinvolvement in homework

Overinvolvement can manifest in a few ways. See if these apply. It may be that parents edit or complete assignments of adult children, choose their subjects, and pester teachers or lectures for good or changed grades.

Locke identified that when parents are this involved, adult students tend to disengage and she noted increased depression and greater dissatisfaction with life.

The natural consequence is that a helicopter parent becomes more involved, “continuing to be highly involved in their adult child’s academic life” ostensibly to make up for the increasing shortfalls of their child.

“Parental involvement in a child’s school experience is considered an important factor in their academic success and homework is a key aspect of that. However it seems some parents may take the notion too far and continue to assist children at an age the child should be taking most of the responsibility for their academic work, such as the senior school years.”

Goldilocks and homework

The key is finding the ‘just right’ spot.

Being involved with your kids’ homework is great. Too much has a negative effect.

The 'just right' amount

The ‘just right’ amount

Essentially this is a picture of ‘all things in moderation’.

Each child requires a different level of input and on different things, but finding the sweet spot is the key.

People who overparent are likely to hinder their child’s development by overinvolvement in their homework.

The impact of the parent being too involved is that the child fails to learn to take responsibility for academic development and progress, and has lower awareness of the consequences of their behavior.

Certainly , it impacts resilience, independence and self-regulation while promoting a sense of entitlement.

Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan suggest “helicopter parenting is negatively related to psychological well-being and positively related to prescription medication use for anxiety/depression and the recreational consumption of pain pills.”

Perversely, the drive to gain academic success can lead to undermining it.

So here’s the take home bit

Should you help your kids?


Locke says “Parental help can be constructive by showing interest and coaching them to complete their work, but unconstructive assistance includes telling a child the right answer or taking over from them when they are completing school tasks.”

Moreover, assistance should decrease as the child ages, to the point where limited involvement is sufficient during adolescent school years. Think Goldilocks.

What do you think?

[Baumrind’s parenting model below]

Key words

Helicopter parent, overparenting



Baumrind’s parenting model

Baumrind (and subsequently Maccoby and Martin) would define your parenting style based on two principal aspects: Responsiveness and Demandingness.

Responsiveness means how much you respond to the needs of your kids. Demandingness means how much you expect responsible, mature behavior from them.

This resulted in the Goldilocks’ bed model:
Authoritarian (“Too Hard”): highly demanding, low responsiveness. Usually harsh, demanding and unbending.

Permissive (“Too Soft”): low demandingness with high responsiveness. Overly responsive to the child’s needs, usually inconsistent in applying discipline and rules.

Authoritative (“Just Right”): High demandingness and very high responsiveness. Parents are firm not rigid, responsive not indulgent, interactive with kids while not overbearing. Can adapt to situations.

Maccoby and Martin added a fourth, which is Neglectful: very low demandingness and very low responsiveness.


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What’s the one goal to achieve for a better 2016?

There’s little achievement without effort

How did you start the year?

Maybe you bounded into 2016 full of hopes and dreams. Maybe you stumbled into it full of cynicism and sarcasm.

Maybe you’re past the wish and hope New Year’s resolution phase and the year is stretching out ahead of you and you’re wondering what will be different this year.

We want to talk about making little changes. Actually just one small change to lead to greater changes, for a better 2016.

Your goal

It’s simple, if a little painful, but then you’ll know that few worthwhile goals are achieved without any effort and within your comfort zone.

Here goes… make sure you keep reading.

Get up at the same time every day.

Yes, every day, regardless of the day.

Weekends too.

If you regularly sleep in, I appreciate this can be difficult, but it’s worth the effort.

Even after late nights and parties.

If you have a partner or family, do it together.

Your rhythm

We all have a natural bodily rhythm over the course of a day and night, known as our circadian rhythm. (Circadian means ‘about a day’, and your circadian clock is managed in the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN which is a little group of cells in your hypothalamus.)

So imagine a 7am start. We get up and our internal alerting drive helps us focus in the morning while our sleep drive decreases. Most of the morning is a really productive, high functioning period. Early after lunch our body temperature drops and we experience a lower, more tired period (siesta time, also called the post-prandial dip) before our alerting drive rises again through to mid-evening after which it drops in anticipation of sleep.

Some of us are larks who naturally get up early. Some are owls who get up late. Most of us are in the middle somewhere. Your tendency to get up early or late is called your chronotype. Regardless of chronotype, all of us follow the same daily pattern, just earlier or later.

Overnight, as you dream of a better 2016, your brain is busy keeping you asleep, consolidating memories and cleaning itself and, as you near morning, it starts the complicated process of waking you up.

Your body chemistry alters and you produce chemicals such as cortisol which help you wake and feel alert, while your body temperature rises in preparation for wakefulness.

Between your circadian clock, and sleep wake homeostasis, your body manages the need for sleep versus time awake. It’s a very complex balancing act which is extremely sensitive to change, and why shift workers have such a hard time getting good rest.

It’s very helpful to your brain if this happens at the same time every day, because your brain loves routine and efficiency.

Here’s how we mess up…

You start Monday getting up at 6.45m, aided by the snooze on your smartphone which started sounding at 6.15am. You know you can afford until 6.45 so you hit snooze, snoozing away the final 30 minutes your brain could have used productively.

Your brain learns that 6.15 is the time you get up so begins to work to that schedule. It will take two to two and a half weeks for this to be well established.

Then Saturday comes and you get up late.

Aaaaah, your brain thinks to itself. I made a mistake with the whole 6.15am thing. My person actually wants to get up at 9am!

So it starts to work on this time. Maybe you sleep in on Sunday too. By Monday morning, it’s now learned that 9am is your preferred rising time and, consequently, will not increase your cortisol or raise your body temperature, or prepare you for waking at all, in time for 6.15am. After all, you told your brain 6.15am was wrong, and that 9am is right.

Monday morning is hard, no? You feel groggier, and your brain doesn’t function as well as it could. It was expecting another few hours sleep, which you deprived it of. To compensate, you amp up the coffee to jumpstart your nervous system, and find yourself craving sweet, sugary foods, especially in the afternoon.

Fortunately for you, it takes only a couple of days to begin to adjust. And just as it’s starting to get the hang of 6.15am again, BOOM, it’s Saturday, and you’re about to sleep in again!

Your brain would love it if you stuck with the same time.

Why this is a fantastic goal?

  1. Your brain has more resources to dedicate to other things.
  2. A regular routine makes daily functioning easier.
  3. This really is a habit that can take hold within 30 days. Sleep patterns can be settled within 14-17 days.
  4. There’s good evidence that succeeding in a small habit will lead to success in other habits. Try listing habits of increasing significance next.
  5. We are better at cognitive tasks, which flows into problem solving, decision making and emotional regulation.
  6. We perform better across mental and physical tasks with better routine
  7. Shortchanging your sleep leaves you with a sleep debt. One way or another, your brain will make you pay the debt back.
  8. Sleep is when we consolidate memories. Not enough sleep equals poorer memories and learning.
  9. If we run our rhythm late by sleeping in on the weekend, then force it to work before it’s ready, or if we snooze for more than 20 minutes, we risk interrupting sleep during the deeper stages of sleep. The brain isn’t designed for this, and it causes significant shock. We are supposed to wake after the brain enters light sleep first. Most heart attacks happen around the time we get up.
  10. Too little sleep decreases the hormone leptin, and increases the hormone ghrelin. Leptin suppresses appetite, while ghrelin initiates eating. If we’re tired, we want to eat more. Less, and poor, sleep is correlated with greater body weight and body mass index and implicated in obesity and diabetes.
  11. Short sleep deprives the brain of opportunity to self-clean. During the day, we create waste in the brain which is cleared with good sleep. This waste is made of the same protein that accumulates in Alzheimer’s Disease. People with diabetes are up to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and insulin has promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. Note the link between lifestyle factors and Alzheimer’s.
  12. When we lack sleep, our brain chemistry alters to resemble that of someone with a head injury.

What to do if you’re tired

If you’re tired, the solution is to go to bed earlier, rather than sleep in. If you prefer, a nap in the early afternoon is good too, when your body temperature naturally drops. Because we sleep in cycles of 90 minutes try, where possible, for naps of about 90 minutes. If this is unrealistic, look for naps of 15-20 minutes, which is how long most of us spend in the first stage of sleep, after which you won’t feel too groggy.

Note: If you’re really tired, get whatever sleep and naps you can; any sleep is better than no sleep, and all sleep grogginess wears off sooner or later.

So here’s the take home bit

It’s a great, achievable goal with multiple benefits.

Are you up for it?

What do you think?

Key words

Circadian rhythm, suprachiasmatic nucleus, hypothalamus, sleep debt

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How we fool ourselves out of keeping New Year’s resolutions

My resolution was to not make resolutions…

It’s week 2, 2016. Have you broken any of your New Year’s Resolutions yet, even little ones? Be honest.

As you’ll know, a resolution without a detailed plan and effort is otherwise known as a vain hope. Additionally, you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to lose weight, get fitter, save more, or change a habit of any kind, that change is really hard, so having hope as your only weapon is about as effective a strategy as attacking Mt Doom with a can of sliced peaches.

There’s loads of good, evidence-based material about on how to change habits, (and some old but still good advice on goal setting below) so what we want to focus on here is a particular mental quirk we have that can help or hinder us when it comes to change and, hopefully, help us keep one of those resolutions plans. Particularly, we use it to avoid difficult conversations with ourselves.

You may have come across it before. It’s called cognitive dissonance. You’ll recognize it in others and yourselves, and getting to grips with it can be illuminating and useful. We have Leon Festinger to thank for developing the concept, which goes like this.

How cognitive dissonance works

Festinger (1957) proposed that we pay attention to real or perceived conflicts between our attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. These conflicts cause us mental tension, which we are driven to reduce.

For example, I might claim to eat healthily, and yet regularly eat cream donuts. This discrepancy between my thoughts and actions would cause dissonance and discomfort in my thinking, which I would seek to reduce.

The level of discomfort is determined by how important the issue is to us, and how large the discrepancy is. Naturally, if the discrepancy is small or inconsequential, we ignore it and accept that we can at times act contrary to our beliefs without feeling like we’re being duplicitous or dishonest.

At other times, putting our inconsistencies side by side can be extremely confronting. What if you knew something about the awfulness of factory farming but ate their products anyway? What do you do?

The experiments

In Festinger’s original experiments, he asked people to do incredibly boring tasks, and then offered to pay them to tell the next candidate how interesting the tasks were. Those paid $1 rated the tasks as more fun and enjoyable than those paid $20.

But $1 isn’t enough money to pay you for lying, which created dissonance in those people. Somehow they had to overcome the tension, which they did by determining that the tasks were, genuinely, interesting and fun. Being offered $20 for a boring job is reason enough, so there was no dissonance.

Because we seek to keep our attitudes and behavior consistent, there are a few ways we can reduce dissonance.

Techniques for reducing dissonance

  1. We can shift one of the elements to remove the conflict, such as realigning an attitude to match our behavior. I can decide that I ‘generally’ eat healthily and acknowledge that treats are ‘normal’, so a few donuts are fine. This works more easily for attitudes and beliefs than for behaviors, which are notoriously hard to change. It’s harder to cut out donuts than it is to shift our attitude to them.
  2. We can look for new information that can override a conflict. Let’s say I drink a lot of beer, while at the same time knowing that it puts weight on and I’m already overweight. Then I discover, ta daaaa, that beer is actually good for me! Conflict resolved. I’ll still drink it (and put on weight) but I now have “evidence”. In some cases, contrived evidence is good enough.
  3. The last thing is to minimize the conflict by reducing its importance. If you work in an office, you may have heard that ‘sitting is the new smoking’ as long periods of staying sedentary, common for office workers, is bad for your health, and you want to be healthy. You can decide therefore that other areas of your life, such as walking to and from the train, can cancel out the costs of sitting, and the importance of the sitting issue just reduced.cognitive-dissonance

How we use it to suit ourselves

Cognitive dissonance can be a neat way of rationalizing our way out of almost anything, including New Year’s Resolutions. For example, maybe you’re feeling the tension between knowing you’re overweight and yet still gorging yourself helpless over the Christmas and New Year period? Then just reduce the importance. You were going to start that exercise plan in January anyway, weren’t you?

Struggling to reconcile your very low savings with your high credit card debt from blowing money over the break? Easy. Convince yourself that you’ve plenty of time to save for the future (reduce the importance) that you’re generally good with money but Christmas is one of those times you have to spend more (shifting an element) and, voila, conflict gone.

Proponents of the theory note how it commonly leads to all kinds of mental gymnastics to make sure we don’t actually change. For example, in his recent book ‘Black Box Thinking’, Matthew Syed devotes a large chunk of space fair amount of time to how healthcare professionals use it to avoid facing failure (and thus improving things), in contrast to pilots who have an immediate, robust and transparent process for dealing with error and implementing change.

So here’s the take home bit

We’re pretty adept at resolving dissonance, and it can work extremely well. Unfortunately, we’re often unaware we’re doing it, but we’re very good at seeing it in others. This is another reason to share goals and have consequences; other people know when we’re deceiving ourselves and can help keep us honest.

Sometimes it doesn’t work, and we just ignore it, even for items of significance. Feeling guilty is a good sign we might be fooling ourselves, and unpacking our thinking can help us to avoid the same traps in future.

Good luck with your plans.

What do you think?

Key words

Cognitive dissonance

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SMART goals

Here’s a quick review of crucial elements you need in order to help goals stick

Use SMART goals. This is an old but effective tool, which highlights five important elements of setting goals. There is a little variation in what each of the letter can stand for, but this will give you the idea.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Accountable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Timed

Specific means detailed, rather than vague. ‘Be able to run 5km’ is specific. ‘Get fit’ is vague. A good question to ask is: ‘what will achieving your goal allow you to do that you can’t do now?’

Measurable means that we’ll know when we’ve reached the goal. 5km is easily measurable. Run without getting puffed is harder to measure. Get fit is harder still!

Accountable. Make the goal public by sharing it with others, or visible by putting a progress chart on the fridge or Facebook. Also, consider a penalty that you know will be exacted by a trusted friend. For example, I will donate $1,000 to a cause/charity I disagree with if I do not achieve the goal. This can be strong incentive, but it must be carried out. And you must write it down!

Realistic. Good goals are within reach but out of grasp, meaning that you’ll need to stretch, but it feels as though you have some control over the outcome by putting in some effort. ‘Win an Olympic medal in the marathon’ might be unachievable. ‘Run 5km’ is more realistic, while still needing effort.

Timed means there is an end point. ‘By 31 August 2016’ is time-limited. And if your goal is  long-term, break it into smaller, timed, sub-goals.

So. We can now turn ‘get fit’ into ‘Run 5km by 31 August 2016 sharing progress and distances on Facebook for support’ or ‘swim 1km in under 20 minutes by 1 July 2016 or donate $250 per month to a charity I dislike until I succeed’.

Good luck!

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Six words you hate hearing at work

“I have some feedback for you.”

Most people react viscerally when someone says that to us because we fear we’re about to be skewered and spit roasted over the scorching fire of character assassination personal appraisal.

Immediately, your brain’s alarm centers roar into action to face the threat. Maybe you get clammy hands, moist upper lip, increased heart rate and dilated pupils. Maybe it’s dry mouth and sweaty armpits.

Your hypothalamus releases chemicals to your pituitary gland which releases hormones to your blood, one of which activates the release of stress chemicals from your adrenal glands on your kidneys, the levels of which are monitored by the hypothalamus which will adjust accordingly, closing the feedback loop.

This is to help you manage the threat that’s bearing down on you.

All for these six words.

And then we make it worse

As if “feedback” isn’t bad enough by itself, we then formalize it into the once a year, Annual Performance Review. It sometimes goes by an alias, but you know what it is. You might even know when your next one is. Maybe you’re even preparing for it.

Our brains are far more readily attuned to threat than reward, to loss than gain, so getting ready for “feedback” requires us to overcome some significant biological constraints in order to take it constructively. Research out of Kansas State University suggests that nobody likes negative feedback reviews, even those who love to learn for the sake of learning.

Lead researcher Satoris Culbertson, assistant professor of management, notes that motivation, commitment and performance can all be affected by negative feedback, and managers need to be mindful of the impact of their feedback.

But feedback is a two-way street

To be fair, many managers and colleagues don’t like having hard conversations like this, and giving negative feedback can be extremely unpleasant. Moreover, it can be difficult to give feedback knowing that the person on the receiving end may be tying themselves in all kind of emotional knots, and particularly if you have a good personal relationship with them.

That said, being open to feedback from your manager or a colleague requires significant trust in them, insofar as you trust them to be honest and compassionate at the same time, while providing information that is for your benefit and given without strings or fish hooks. It’s no mean feat.




Feedback and politics

In fact, research from Rice University shows how the social environment can either encourage or inhibit that feedback. Jisoo Ock, lead author and Rice doctoral candidate in psychology, notes that “anecdotal evidence has shown that interpersonal political considerations are nearly always a part of the employee review process.”

Managers are, by and large, genuinely concerned about motivation, commitment and performance and can tend to avoid accurate but low ratings to minimize the negative consequences on the employee and, therefore, the business. Ratings are frequently clustered at the higher end, softening the blow for the employee, but at the same time shortchanging them of valuable information and the company of higher performance and better productivity.

It’s worse for colleagues.  When asked to score a co-worker’s performance, the social context plays a major and singularly discomfiting role. In short, we rarely like to criticize our friends, especially if we have to keep working together.

We’re usually not set up for it

What often makes these conversations difficult is not always the nature of the conversation, but the organizational structures that lead to them. Having a once a year performance review asks you to present, in an hour or so, compelling information and examples from the past year to evidence your outstanding performance.

Moreover, because organizations usually favor some kind of rating system like a 1-5 score, or something like ‘achieved below expectations’ through to ‘exceeded expectations’, we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve received or delivered an objective evaluation.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece recently arguing that ratings perhaps reflect more of the employer than the employee, and that they do more harm than good, sometimes for months after the rating. According to WSJ, execs however, still like them. Every year they get a view of how people perform against each other, keeping a healthy tension between employees’ performance, while allowing rewards to be distributed equitably.

Distributing rewards on this basis assumes that the ratings are accurate, not gamed by the employee or employer, not subject to internal politics and environment, and are an accurate and objective analysis of performance when assessed only once, or maybe twice, a year.

Preparing for the Annual Performance Review is best done all year, by carefully collecting artifacts for your performance portfolio while matching them against your position description and performance targets with an appropriate commentary.

It’s just that most people don’t do this, and most managers don’t keep track either. Consequently, when we get to the Annual Performance Review, we’re forced by the vagaries of memory to build an entire review on standout highlights or lowlights and/or recent evidence, all of which are affected by significant, unacknowledged cognitive biases.

We’re left with a blunt instrument that lacks the subtleties and finesse required to actually improve performance.

Getting decent, accurate, useful feedback

Imagine a top sports performer, it doesn’t matter who. Then imagine that their coach sits them down once a year and they discuss how they each think the player has performed in the past year. They have only one hour, and the outcome will determine if the player still has a job, and how much they will earn on top of salary in the next 12 months. This will come down to a score out of 5.

Sounds silly when you put it like this, no?

A top sports performer will get regular, frequent and immediate feedback on their performance, so that they can make the continual small adjustments necessary to improve performance. Constructive feedback given regularly like this overcomes the brain’s perception of threat created by the Annual Performance Review and facilitates an accumulation of evidence with which performance can be more accurately measured.

So here’s the take home bit

Change is easiest when it’s small. Incremental changes are easier to make than large change, and can more easily overcome the brain’s threat response.

So, performance needs regular input, with frequent coaching. Performance reviews are best done as an accumulation of small steps, rather than as a one-off attempting to cover the whole year.

What do you think?

For more on this, drop us a line at the Brain Fitness Institute.

Key words

Annual Performance Review, coaching, brain, threat response, performance

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Is your brainstorming costing you money?

Problem-solving and brainstorming in a rut?

Problem-solving and brainstorming in a rut?

When thinking gets stuck

I’m sure you’ve seen it.

You know, when the team is called together around the table to brainstorm. You’re all supposed to suggest brilliantly clever ideas in enormous quantities without necessarily judging or condemning any other ideas

Except it doesn’t really work that well. Does it?

Usually, the classic brainstorm becomes a shoutfest where the earliest, loudest voices get the most airtime and grab the most attention, and subsequent ideas become variations on the already established themes.

By and large, if this is your experience of brainstorming, you’ll appreciate it doesn’t work. You’ll also see how, once we have a concept in mind, we can easily get fixed on it.

Like candles and pliers.

A cognitive problem

Duncker's (1945) candle problem

Duncker’s (1945) candle problem

Here’s a puzzle. If you have a candle, some matches and a box of thumbtacks, how would you attach the candle to the wall?

This is a great old puzzle that illustrates the simple end of a classic cognitive problem. For sure you’ve had it happen to you, and no doubt you’ve witnessed it. It’s also a problem in the workplace where, increasingly, creativity is a highly-prized ability.

And so to overcome this problem we have a brainstorm…

The problem is that once we see something one way, it can be remarkably difficult to see it another way.

The candle problem solution

The candle problem solution

In this case, we often see that the items need to be used in only one way. Properly, this is known as functional fixedness, where the function of something is seen to be fixed.

Recognising an alternate use or, more conceptually speaking, an alternate combination of information, can take quite some effort.

Here’s another one

This is another classic.

The two cords problem

The two cords problem

Now that you know to look for multiple uses of items, see how you go.

In this puzzle, unimaginatively called the two cords problem, you have two cords hanging from the ceiling.

Your goal is to grab hold of both cords, but they aren’t long enough for you to hold one, and then grab the other. On a nearby table are some pliers. They don’t help you reach either, but you’ll try it!

What will you do?

I’m sure you figured it out.

The two cords solution

The two cords solution

The trick here is to see the pliers simply as a heavy weight, rather than a tool for holding things, or an extension of your own arm and reach.

If you tie the pliers to one of the ropes, you can then use their weight to swing the rope.

You can now take hold of the stationary rope and then catch the swinging rope.

Merely understanding that we make this error can help us overcome it. So often though, we simply get stuck, and think in ever-decreasing circles.

Does it limit you?

This stuckness can manifest itself in many ways, including one known as the Einstellung effect. Merim Bilalić (Department of Psychology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria) explains in a recently published study.

“Our brain generally prefers a familiar, trusted solution, rather than exploring alternatives.” As a result, we’ll stick with the tried and true, or just fail to identify other possibilities.

Bilalić continues, noting that this bias can present in any number of areas. A quick bit of reflection would show you possibilities for errors in medical diagnoses, corporate decisions, relationship conflicts, career decisions, day to day problem solving, crime investigation, teaching and so forth.

“We believe that we generally approach problems with an open mind. However, the brain unconsciously steers our attention towards previously stored knowledge. Any information that does not match the solution or the theory we have already internalized, tends to be ignored or masked.”

Or are we fooling ourselves?

The brain strives for efficiency, so will resort to its ‘go to solutions’ rather than develop new ones. Sometimes this is enormously beneficial, as you don’t have to create new things for familiar situations. Additionally, pattern recognition is something that the brain is astonishingly good at.

On the other hand, at times it can feel as if your brain is working against you by doing the very things it’s so good at.

For example, Bilalić’s team noted the problem in chess players who persisted with a more complex strategy, even when shown a simpler one. Moreover, eye tracking technology showed they were looking only at the squares that supported their view.

But not only did they keep their gaze on squares they had already identified as part of their move sequence, they were adamant that they had not! They insisted they had looked for, and considered other alternatives but were, in reality, blind to them (nod to the confirmation bias and inattentional blindness here too).

Consequently, you can see how this might affect creativity, problem solving and decision making in many domains.

So here’s the take home bit

In the workplace, in the traditional brainstorming session we looked at to begin with, options quickly become limited and views fixed. We tend to think about things based on existing relationships and patterns, and tend to not consider alternative combinations of information.

Alternatives are really only variations of an early idea. Worse, we might fail to consider any real alternatives and yet fool ourselves into thinking that we have. Rather than brainstorming helping us move out of a stuck situation, our cognitive weaknesses can foster more of the same.

I would wager there are bottom line impacts if we trust this process for development and innovation.

What do you think?

For seriously effective creativity, drop us a line at the Brain Fitness Institute.

Key words

Einstellung effect, cognitive bias, functional fixedness

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Want an effective nap? Start with a coffee.

A quick sleep on the job can be beneficial

A quick sleep on the job can be beneficial

Ever fallen asleep at work? 

Even just a quick little nod off before you snapped awake. Maybe, as I have, you’ve dropped off in a meeting, woken, and hoped your colleagues thought you were just concentrating…

If this is you, here’s a hack you might find useful.

The trick to a good nap is timing. You want to be a bit refreshed, while at the same time not too groggy.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, arranging a nap with a good hit of coffee is an excellent tactic.

Let’s look at coffee, or more particularly caffeine, then sleep, then join the ideas together.


We class caffeine as a stimulant but it isn’t actually the caffeine that does the stimulating. More accurately, caffeine binds extremely well with the numerous adenosine receptors in the brain, leading the brain to believe that it has plenty of adenosine and doesn’t require more.

Consequently, the brain doesn’t produce adenosine, and the normal effects of adenosine are overridden.

Adenosine is an inhibitory substance that, among other things, is responsible for promoting sleep, and inhibiting arousal. It’s a byproduct of the brain’s activities and builds up of a day.

So, if you don’t produce adenosine, you won’t promote sleep, and you won’t prevent arousal because you’ve removed an inhibitory substance, and you’ve let natural stimulants like dopamine and glutamate run amok.

Or in other words, you’ll feel more awake, more stimulated and more alert. Dopamine and glutamate are the stimulants, caffeine just releases the handbrake of adenosine.

Once you’ve had a coffee, it takes approximately 20 minutes for the caffeine to reach your brain.


Adults sleep in approximately 90 minute cycles, getting four or five cycles a night. Each cycle comprises two different types of sleep, which are probably familiar to you.

REM Sleep, short for Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, is one.

NREM Sleep, short for Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, is the other.

NREM accounts for most of your sleep each night, and it’s further divided into different stages: Stages 1, 2 and 3.

Throughout the night, sleep follows a largely predictable pattern, looking something like this.

  • Awake
  • Stage 1
  • Stage 2
  • Stage 3
  • Stage 2
  • REM

Stage 1

Between sleep and wakefulness, we’re reasonably easily woken, and we’re here for 5-10 minutes.

Stage 2

Brain waves are slowing and core body temperature is dropping, while we become increasingly harder to rouse. Stage 2 lasts up to 20 minutes.

Stage 3

About half of our time is in Stage 3, which is deep sleep. If we sleeptalk, sleepwalk, have night terrors or wet the bed, it’s usually in Stage 3. We’re especially hard to wake, and it’s most likely here that memories are consolidated.

REM Sleep

The key characteristic of REM Sleep is obviously the rapidly moving eyes, clearly visible beneath the eyelids. The other key feature is a lack of muscle tone, so people are floppy and relaxed.

The interesting thing about REM Sleep is that the REM brainwaves look very much like those of an awake, alert brain, leading us to the nickname of paradoxical sleep.

About a quarter of our nightly sleep is in REM. Additionally, we spend more time in REM with each successive sleep cycle overnight. The last two, cycles four and five, are especially rich in REM. This is another reason we look for a good and full night’s sleep.

A little trick you need to know

Here’s a key to remember.

Sleep clears adenosine from the brain. Adenosine receptors then become available for competing substances, such as caffeine.

Sleep cycle optimization. With a caveat

Optimally, we need to aim for complete sleep cycles wherever we can. If this isn’t possible, next best is to aim for naps of approximately 20 minutes, as this is how long we’d usually spend in Stage 1 and 2, before we start to transition into Stage 3.

Once we get into Stage 3, we ideally need to get the whole cycle done. Otherwise, we’ll wake real groggy and take some time to fully wake up.

But the caveat is this. If you’re tired, and you just need to sleep, it can be awkward or impossible to get an optimal amount. 10 minutes might be all you can get. 90 minutes means you might lose your job!

So if push gets to shove, any sleep is better than no sleep, so if you need it and you can get it, then take it.

Yes, you might wake a little groggy, but this will pass.

Nap optimization: putting caffeine and sleep together

You now know that an ideal nap time is about 20 minutes.

You also know that caffeine takes about 20 minutes to hit your brain.

You know that sleep clears adenosine.

And you know that caffeine binds to adenosine receptors.


That’s a match.

This gives you a perfect 20 minute window of opportunity to grab some sleep and wake feeling pretty refreshed. By the time you’re looking to wake up, you’ve cleared adenosine from your brain by sleeping, and the caffeine is acting in your brain to give you a little jumpstart by filling the now empty adenosine receptors.

Good little hack, no?

Maximizing your optimizing

A couple of tips to make this the most effective.

Make sure you drink the coffee quickly. Otherwise, while you’re dawdling through your coffee it’s entering your bloodstream from your intestines, and making its way to your brain. Caffeine crosses easily through the blood-brain barrier and enters your brain where it begins to plug in to your adenosine receptors. By the time you put your head down, it might be most of the way there and will start working too early, negating what good effect you might have achieved.

You need also to ensure that it’s been some time since your last sleep. This won’t work if you’ve been up for only an hour or two. Usually we have a bit of a dip after lunch, in the siesta time. This is an excellent time for an optimized nap

So here’s the take home bit

For excellent performance, have a good quick cup of coffee, then nap for 20 minutes. You’ll wake up refreshed and sharper.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Adenosine, sleep cycle, NREM Sleep, REM Sleep

What do you think?

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Posted in General, Neuroscience, Sleep | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Could you beat Bolt if you practiced for 10,000 hours?


Usain Bolt. Fastest man alive. Could you beat him?

Usain Bolt. Fastest man alive. Could you beat him?

I cheated on my spelling tests 

We got lists from school, and I flat-out lied to my parents that I’d done them, naively forging my mother’s signature in my childish handwriting to prove I’d learned them, and deadpan lying about the signature too.

It’s a trivial example really, but illustrative.

For I’m an excellent speller. Always have been. Never needed to try, just knew how to do it.

Had I an unfair practice advantage? Had I more time at it than other kids? No. Had I had 10,000 hours? C’mon, I was already really good. Was I an elite performer? I wouldn’t know – I never competed. With some practice, maybe, but surely not 10,000 hours.

And there’s the rub

There’s been a fuss in the last month or so over the utility of the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, 10,000 hours over 10 years is pitched as a guideline for becoming an expert in an endeavor. Thanks largely to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s one of those neat and tidy factoids you can wrap in pink paper, tie off with a bow and store safely in your bag for later display at various social functions.

Diehard, extremist proponents might claim that 10,000 hours in 10 years can make you expert in, well, anything, almost regardless of the position from which you start.

We’ve talked before about situations where this might not be the case, where pre-existing conditions will be an advantage, and where fewer than, or more than, 10,000 hours might be required.

Suffice to say, it’s not that simple.

Take sprinters for example

In The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle points out that of the last 10 Olympic champion sprinters, men and women, none of them are the eldest child. They rank on average, as 4th out of 4.6 children. Coyle suggests that younger children, being naturally smaller than their older siblings, might have to try harder to keep up, and so become faster. In this instance, birth order, and behavioral context could be key elements.

That might be true.

They are also almost always of West African descent.

Black is beautiful. And fast.

So it might also be true that there’s something about the genetics, anatomy or physiology of being black that contributes to their preponderance at elite level.

Maybe it’s naturally faster muscle twitch that provides more explosive power.  Maybe it’s their higher concentration of the protein Alpha-actinin-3 found in fast twitch muscle fiber. Maybe it’s that black people have a wider knee joint which facilitates a more fluid, longer stride.

Grand Valley State University researchers Michael Lombardo and Robert Deaner would tell you in a paper published in June this year, that outstanding speed before beginning formal training is a requirement for achieving world-class times. Moreover, Lombardo and Deaner would add that this speed is evident within 5 years and, for more than half of the Olympic champions, within three years.

At least for sprinters (and the shot putters, javelin throwers and discus throwers they studied) they argue that talent must play a significant part. Clearly, physical characteristics and strengths help shape expertise in these endeavours.

And there’s the chess players…

In 2013, Michigan State’s Zach Hambrick found similar things with chess and music, which require more dexterity and cerebral power than they do strength and speed. According to Hambrick practice, even deliberative practice, isn’t enough. He writes “The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”

The age at which you began, parental involvement, working memory capacity and general intelligence are all likely contributors.

In July 2014, Hambrick published with Brooke Macnamara from Case Western Reserve University and Frederick L. Oswald from Rice University. They found that practice could explain only 12% in mastering skills in different fields, from music, sports and games to education and professions.

The importance of practice was:

  • 26% for games
  • 21% for music
  • 18% for sports
  • 4% for education and
  • less than 1% for other professions.

Intrinsic motivation, positive and negative feedback, confidence and risk taking may all be implicated in developing expertise.

Is it self-evident?

Now if you were to ask a coach, I wager this might not be such a revelation.

A coach might say there’s no doubt that starting young with someone born at the right time in the right place in the family using deliberative practice with immediate and detailed feedback on tasks that can be made interesting in an environment where someone is rooting for you along with your own intrinsic motivation and clear goals that are within reach but out of grasp and sometimes some competition or tailored incentives with the help of the right body can help you improve in areas of your game you need to work on.

Maybe even get really, really good.

Teachers might agree. For basic reading, writing and arithmetic these other considerations are surely important. And practice will certainly improve your game.

But 10,000 hours alone. No.

So what gives?

Sitting alongside this is an enormous industry of aptitude tests, personality and behavioral profiling, skill analysis and so forth. We use this information at schools, universities, in Human Resource departments, career counselling services, dating sites and the like to help find careers, passions, partners and so forth.

Some of them are excellent and can tip us into fulfilling careers and relationships.

They exist because we believe we’re naturally better at some things than others, and we like to do more of the things we’re good at.

So here’s the take home bit

Excellent performers exploit their advantages to become elite, but only with the right combination of inputs.

The rest of us can do the same to improve in the things we do.

If the practice is going nowhere, find something else or somehow else to practice, even though we can’t all be number one. Usain Bolt is safe for now.

And maybe I’m a better speller than him anyways…

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

10,000 hours

What do you think?

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Women, men and why women are more empathic when stressed.




What are you like when stressed? Moody and sullen? Outgoing and distracted? Withdrawn and isolating? Plate-throwing and shouldn’t be let near sharp objects?

It might be absurdly self-evident to suggest that you respond to stress differently from other people.

It could also help your office dynamics and team cohesion if you had something of a yardstick to benchmark people by, and an understanding of how and why we might respond the way we do.

There are still some things that make us all the same

No matter who you are, there is a standard pattern of physiological response to stress. Stress activates what’s called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is a branch of the autonomic nervous system which is itself a branch of the peripheral nervous system. It’s called ‘peripheral’ to differentiate it from the ‘central’ nervous system.

Consider the SNS an accelerator, revving our bodily systems. Heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, pupils dilate, digestion and excretion stops, and blood flows to the large muscle groups, preparing us for action.

The brain directs the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands (on the kidneys) for short-term stress, and cortisol for long-term stress.

When the stress appears to have reduced, the parasympathetic nervous system (consider this a brake) restores the pre-stress levels. Pupils constrict, heart rate and blood pressure drop, digestion and excretion resume, and blood flows back to the internal organs.

The same pattern occurs in men and women.

But when and how that pattern might be activated, can be different. And if we step back from the purely physiological, we’ll see striking differences, particularly in how we behave.

The fun chemical

Dopamine is now famous for its role in reward. We all usually have plenty of it. In a typical brain, dopamine is released by a nerve cell, it acts on those nerve cells around it, and is then absorbed by the original cell. Over and over again, for billions of cells, and trillions of connections.

Too much dopamine though, and we get overwhelmed, can’t think straight, can’t remember, can’t manage to think clearly.

Some of us clear dopamine away at lightning speed, but risk poor performance by being understressed. These people need stress to perform well. Others clear it away at slow speed. They’re better under lower stress.

In nearly all of the brain, a transporter protein does this clearing job quickly and efficiently.

Except, that is, in your high-powered prefrontal cortex. This is your brain’s executive suite. But here, there are very few dopamine transporter proteins, and dopamine uptake is terrible. We rely on a back up, called COMT (catechol–O–methyltransferase).

And here’s what’s fascinating about COMT. It’s not as good as the regular transporter protein. And it’s affected, substantially, by a hormone.


Estrogen suppresses the function of COMT so it performs a bad job even worse than usual.

For women, when estrogen levels are high (twice a month, at ovulation and just before menstruation) dopamine levels are also very high, as it’s just not being removed. At these times, awash in estrogen and dopamine, women are more susceptible to stress, and more likely to feel pressure.

When you create this situation in the lab, stress resulted in women making fewer, slower, less risky, less successful decisions. Men made faster, more risky, but more calculated and more profitable decisions.

When faced with tasks, stress helped the men, and hindered the women.

Men might not have noticed…

In fact, work from Vienna, city of cafes, culture, and the original consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud, suggests that men and women react in opposite ways when taxed.

Fights or friends?

Psychologist Claus Lamm and his University of Vienna team demonstrated that the typical male pattern stress response was egocentric. That is, he looked inwards, looking to protect himself, conserving energy and resources for the anticipated fight or flight. He became less aware of the needs of others and less able to take their perspective.

Stress narrowed his perceptions, and his ability to understand others, but he became very task focused.

Women, on the other hand, demonstrated an approach that was typically outward looking, looking for social support and heightening their ability to take another’s perspective, known as a tend and befriend approach. They were more likely to look to offer empathy to others, and even more so than they might have been before the stress.

Naturally, I’m overstating a little to draw the contrast, but you get the point.

Claus and team note some possibilities for why this difference might be so marked, including the release of oxytocin, a social chemical found in higher quantities in women’s brains that men’s.

Maybe, but there’s more

Women, it seems, are wired for this tend and befriend approach. In another series of studies published in 2012 by Nichole Lightfoot and collaborators, subjects had their brains scanned during a stressful event. There was a key difference between their male and female subject groups.

At the back of the brain, in the part of the brain known as the occipital lobe, the cortex of which is chiefly responsible for processing visual inputs, is a small area for identifying familiar objects, including faces. It’s called the fusiform gyrus, and sometimes the special little bit of the gyrus is called the fusiform face area. Especially, it helps us recognize and scan faces to read the various emotional shades, nuances and cues that the face displays.

In women under stress, activity here increases in a way not seen in the brains of men under stress.

In actual fact, activity in this area decreases in men; it’s suppressed. They tune out the faces of other people, and will most likely fail to recognize many social cues. Women, already better than men at reading social cues anyway, now excel at it.

Men, already the poorer at it, are now worse.

And then…

Moreover, men tend to process stressful emotional conversations with their right hemisphere, which is great for remembering only the gist. This may explain why he’s over it in 3 seconds and moving on, and doesn’t really remember too much about why she was mad….

Women tend to process stressful emotional conversations with the whole brain, and more especially the left hemisphere, which is great for detail. So she will remember the words, the tone, and everything, across many more data points than he can imagine, and will most certainly not be over it in 3 seconds, given the amount of data she has to work through.

And given that when she’s stressed she’s likely to be more emotional, while he’s likely to become more calculated, which easily becomes argumentative…

So here’s the take home bit

Now imagine those men and women in the same team. Subject the team to pressure, and note how differently they’ll look to cope with the stress, and how easily miscommunication and misunderstanding can arise. Maybe you’ve been there yourself?

Imagine a team with a minority of women. She might find the male majority unsupportive and disinterested. She looks to tend and befriend but finds nobody in the team available. They find her needy and annoying and wish she’d just get on with it.

By contrast, imagine a team with a minority of men. He might find the female majority cloying and overbearing and wish they’d leave him alone. He’ll handle it thanks. They find him disengaged, not a team player, separatist, aloof and difficult to deal with.

What about a boardroom where she feels stressed and becomes emotional, given the data points she has, while he glibly mocks her for emotions in his unempathic way.

Or, as you can guess, you could imagine it at home. If a man and woman are getting into an argument, and stress is starting to rise… you can see where this is going.

A misunderstanding, or lack of appreciation of how and why we naturally respond to stress, given our gender-specific wiring, can lead straight to more stress, and more miscommunication, and so on, in an escalating cycle.

How might we coach teams?

How might we teach relationships?

When might we start?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Dopamine, Oxytocin, COMT, Catechol-O-methyltransferase

What do you think?

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What 12 years a slave teaches about our minds

12 years a slave

A slave and your mind  

12 years a Slave won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, with its depiction of the abduction, often brutal slavery, and restoration to freedom of Solomon Northup.

You may not have seen it, but the psychology of it will be familiar.

In our last post we saw how telling lies is evidence of a developing theory of mind, as lies are the attempt by one mind to influence another. 12 years shows another aspect of recognizing one’s mind is unique and separate, which is the denigration, dismissal, or destruction of one mind by another.

What’s familiar about the psychology of it is that we all do it.

To understand how, we’re going to cram into one blog four famous experiments, prisons, electric shock, eagles, rattlesnakes, and children with differently colored eyes.


In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes the dehumanization practised by his Nazi captors while he was a prisoner of war.

Some prisoners managed to come through with their minds. Others had their minds broken. Frankl describes prisoners who, having lost hope in life, were the first to die, defeated not by starvation or disease, but by lack of hope. Their minds had been overcome, their resources overwhelmed.

As others would attest, Frankl’s experiences are not unique, and nor are these experiences found only in Auschwitz, or even only in the Holocaust. The same forms of behavior are recorded in communist regimes, dictatorships, interrogation routines, gang wars, prison, and most places where one group is in a position of power over another and there might be few or only gentle consequences for those in charge. Abu Ghraib is perhaps a contemporary example.

These behaviors seem beyond the pale for most people.

Unless you’re Philip Zimbardo.

The Stanford Prison experiment

They might seem extreme behaviors, but in his classic Stanford Prison experiment, psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed these same dehumanizing behaviors could be swiftly and powerfully created and manifested, even in an artificial situation.

Zimbardo’s now famous experiment with a group of college students randomly allocated to be either a guard or a prisoner inside Zimbardo’s fake prison raised a number of issues. Crucially, it showed how a seemingly innocuous group of college students could, in the right context, become feared and despised prison guards, displaying the behaviors we’re talking about here.

One of the key outcomes of behavior like this, in which we devalue, denigrate, or dehumanize the mind of another, is that it creates a psychological distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, by establishing or increasing the sense of superiority one has over another.

It’s an important concept.

Electric shocks

In Stanley Milgram’s equally famous electric shock experiments, he demonstrated a critical effect of psychological distance. (Geographical distance is also relevant and helps contribute to psychological distance.)

Milgram showed that creating psychological distance, which we do in various ways, such as by enlarging the physical distance between people, by elevating oneself, by denigrating another, by making them less human – that is less capable, inferior or defective some way – allows us to perpetrate harm.

It does so because the distance we create insulates us from, and allows us to be less cognizant of, the mind of the other. It allows us to believe or to consider that the other doesn’t have a mind as good as ours, or that they don’t have a mind at all. They are less than us.

Inflicting harm becomes easier and easier. The greater the distance, the less obvious the consequences for us, so it’s easier to inflict harm, and the more harm we can inflict.

A little closer to home

These are extreme examples, but they make the point because they’re so clear. Zimbardo and Milgram both showed that we can inflict harm on another if the context is right, and we can do so through psychological distance.

You see these behaviors in war, genocide, enslavement, persecution, bigotry and prejudice. They’re perhaps the obvious examples.

You also see them in negative stereotypes, labels, ‘them vs us’ language, insults and name calling, which are the thin edge of the same wedge.

They are the representation that one mind is superior to another, because the other is less human, somehow defective, or otherwise generally unworthy.

You probably do it too, because you see it when we create in-groups and out-groups, at school, college, work, and even within families.

Here’s how easy it is.

You might remember these?

Eagles and Rattlers

It all looked like a normal 1954 summer camp, when the summer camp is organized by social psychologists like Muzafer Sherif that is. The Robber’s Cave is another classic, demonstrating how in-group and out-group behaviors developed, and the resulting progression of behavior. Sherif’s intent was to create and then resolve intergroup conflict.

Simply, two groups of boys attended a summer camp at Robber’s Cave, not knowing there was another group. When this was revealed, each group quickly adopted a name (Eagles and Rattlers) and began a process of us versus them, in-group and out-group behavior that would degenerate from competitiveness to insults, to raiding each other’s campsite, to developing weapons (rocks in socks), to physical confrontation where boys had to be forcibly restrained from each other.

The process followed a familiar, deteriorating pattern as each group sought to establish their superiority and the other’s inferiority.

And there’s this…

Jane Elliott and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children

In response to the shooting of Martin Luther King, and in an exercise designed to promote discussion of racism, teacher Jane Elliot devised this in-class experiment. The concept comes from Mila 18, Leon Uris’ 1961 novel about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Uris’ book, one way of determining who went to the gas chamber was eye color.

On Friday, April 5, in her classroom of eight year olds, Elliot designated blue-eyed children as superior, and had them wrap collars around the necks of brown-eyed children, identifying them as the inferior minority. Blue-eyed children received special privileges at school (more food, access to the new climbing frame) and were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed kids.

She prohibited shared drinking fountains, and highlighted negative aspects of the brown-eyed children.

While she encountered resistance, this melted when she told them that the melanin that made kids blue-eyed, was linked to their superior intelligence and learning.

Subsequently, the ‘superior’ children became bossy, arrogant and offensive, while their academic performance improved, including on tasks that had previously been too hard. The ‘inferior’ children became submissive, timid and subservient, and their grades dropped, including on tasks that had previously been easy.

They were only eight.

It took less than a day.

Have a look.

So here’s the take home bit

Minds are powerful things.

These things we do,  in minimizing others, racial insults, denigrating comments, sexism, office bullying, marginalizing family members, negative stereotyping and so on, create a psychological distance that facilitates further infliction of harm.

How did you learn it?

What are you modelling?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Theory of mind, dehumanization

What do you think?

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No one likes a liar. So why teach our kids to tell lies?



Liar, liar.

Ever noticed that we simultaneously disapprove and approve of our children telling lies?

Actually, it’s worse than that.

Ever noticed in yourself the flagrant hypocrisy that would allow you to reprimand or punish your children for lying, while at the same time actively coach them in exactly how and why to do it?

Be honest… it goes something like this.

“Don’t tell me lies” we’ll tell our little miscreant, frowning darkly.

And then, in How to be an Awesomely Consistent Parent 101, we’ll say “Tell Grandma how much you like the lovely sweater she knitted especially for you”.

“Thanks Grandma. I love my new sweater you knitted especially for me…”

Precious little darling isn’t he? So kind to Grandma.

Ba boom.

Now note if you’re smiling awkwardly and/or immediately rationalizing to yourself that the story to Grandma isn’t really lying. Now note if you’re rationalizing your rationalizing.

Awkward isn’t it.

Apart from following the well-worn maxim that you can’t be polite and honest in the same sentence, this is a confusing piece of parenting. I’m pretty certain most of us are guilty of this at some stage.

But it is incredibly revealing.

What’s going on?

We’re wired for each other.

It’s a rare human that doesn’t feel the need for others; avoidant personality disorder and some computer programmers aside.

Your brain is a social brain. It’s affected by, and affects, the brains of others. That you probably know this is evidence of what’s called Theory of Mind (ToM), which is the ability to know that you have a mind, and that other people do too, and that their intents, feelings, attitudes and so on, are different and independent from yours.

It’s an extraordinary ability we seem to be able to learn and employ with ridiculous ease, so much so that we’re usually gloriously unaware of it.

You started doing it early

ToM develops from about the age of three and, through age three and four, children become aware of themselves as an independent agent in their environment, and that you and others are independent agents too. Moreover, they learn that you have a different mind from them, and that what they do can influence your mind.

That makes for fascinating timing, because it’s also at this time that children start to tell lies designed specifically to deceive your mind. Some children lie before this in order to hide something they’ve done; this isn’t directed at your mind just at covering up what they did.

But at three and a half, or thereabouts, these lies reveal the monumental advances your child’s brain has made. Now when she lies, she is doing so from a worldview that recognizes you are a different agent from her, that you have different goals, and that she can construct an alternate reality for you that will alter your mind.

While she hasn’t the insight, language, or cognitive ability to articulate what she’s doing, her brain, and her theory of mind are by now complete enough to manage this astonishing feat.

At three and a half.

Staggering. The brain’s ability to learn about other brains and minds is inbuilt, incredibly powerful, and extremely useful.

Remarkable power

As we said, we’re wired for other people, hardwired, for good and bad.

Deceit is only one thing, and we do it all the time in knowing and unknowing ways. And we’re deceived by others, and ourselves, frequently. Yet understanding other people is how we get on in life, and it requires that we are constantly assessing people, gathering information, and making predictions about their mind which we can see outworked in their behavior now or later.

Making predictions is something the brain works hard to do, for it’s extremely beneficial. Given the amount of information raining upon it at any one time, it filters, sorts, decides what’s important, ascribes meaning to it, then determines if action is required and, if so, what action and how quickly. Then it stores this pattern for later use.

This is serious computational power, at work, all the time. And it helps us build trust, make friends, decide on enemies, adopt shared goals, form alliances, betray others and so on.

An application

When a positive pattern is re-triggered, such as seeing a good friend again, the brain bathes in happy chemistry. Anticipatory dopamine is released, and then oxytocin. Oxytocin is a social glue, and both oxytocin and dopamine are involved in reward. Friends make the brain feel good.

Enemies activate threat networks, warnings and fear in various measures. No happy chemistry here, but focused attention on the threat and how to negotiate it, rather than on feel goods.

If you think about how often you pay attention to someone else and adjust yourself to suit, you realize how much attention we pay to the minds of others, and the impact of others’ behavior on us.

As a rule, women are much better at interpreting social situations than men. Some people lack this social brain, to a greater or lesser degree, as with some of the autistic conditions, which makes interactions incredibly difficult. Some people understand the minds of others extremely well. If they care about the other person we say they’re empathic. If they understand others well but don’t care about the other and want to exploit them then they’re probably a sociopath.

But navigating our way through life requires that we rub shoulders with all kinds, and that we figure out a way to get along. That we understand their minds.

So we do.

We learn how to understand others’ minds, intents, feelings, attitudes and goals.

And we tell lies.

And we teach our children how to tell lies. Just little ones mind…

So here’s the take home bit

You’ve heard that nobody has a good enough memory to be a perfect liar. True enough.

But when children start to lie it is direct evidence of the maturing brain and the capacity it is developing. It’s normal for children to begin lying, and it’s akin to re-imagined, shared memory. Typically, the better the liar, the more creative they are too.

For some people, lying becomes a means to an end, and a convenient way of negotiating many relationships. For others it’s a simple way of getting past awkward truths which might have little consequence.

For all of these the brain is seeking to predict, forever searching for meaning and looking for patterns, and with it comes the knowledge of  how to influence the brain and mind of another.

At the same time, our brains and minds are being influenced by others, some negatively, some positively.

So, be honest.

What do we teach our children?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Theory of mind, Dopamine, Oxytocin

What do you think?

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Posted in Children, Emotion, General, Memory | 4 Comments