1. februar 2015

The Amazing Findings of Exercise on the Brain and Mind

In my last post, I described in some detail the importance of sleep on the brain and the mind.  I also discussed suggested some do’s and don’t’s for getting a decent nights sleep.  One of the factors that I did not explore was the benefits of exercise on sleep, the brain and the mind.  I wanted to address that in this post as well as the other benefits that exercise has on the brain and the mind.


The basic unit of measurement of everything we eat and drink are measured in calories. Calories even more specifically refer to the amount of energy we consume  through physical activity.  For example, a banana may have 90 calories and going for a brisk one-kilometre walk may burn 70 calories.

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water by one degree celsius.  Calories are required by the body in four major ways:

  • to keep the body’s cells, tissues and organs at resting state (alive)
  • to heat the body
  • to digest food
  • and to fuel mental and physical activity

The calories burned for the first three activities are pretty much a fixed amount.  It is the energy needed for mental and physical activity as well as the number of calories consumed that determines a person’s weight.


The two categories of exercise that are fueled by calories are anaerobic and aerobic exercise.

Anaerobic exercise includes exercises such as weight lifting, pull-ups and pushups.  These and other similar types of exercise are used to promote strength, power and speed. These forms of exercise are called anaerobic because they involve going beyond the muscle’s capacity to burn oxygen for energy.  When you do this you feel the familiar burn of lactic acid in your muscles.

Aerobic exercise are exercises, like running, cycling, swimming and brisk walking, that are sustained over a long distance at a moderately high level of intensity.  The emphasis of aerobic exercise is on exertion.  This means getting your heart rate up high enough that you feel out of breath, sweat, and feel physically exhausted.

Aerobic literally means ‘with oxygen’.  It refers to the use of oxygen being consumed in the energy-generating process in muscles.  This process involves using oxygen to burn sugar (i.e. carbohydrates) and fat.  The first to burn is the sugar glucose that floats free in your blood stream.  The next to burn is glycogen that is sugar stored in your muscles and liver.  Finally, oxygen is used to burn stored fats and free fatty acids and triglycerides floating around in your bloodstream.  All this ‘burning’ of sugars and fat becomes adenosine triphosphate (ATP) , the primary energy currency for every cell in our bodies.

In the first stage of aerobic exercise, glycogen is broken down into glucose to convert into ATP.  After about 30 minutes when the the body has burned through it’s glycogen storage and any remaining glucose in the bloodstream, the body begins to burn fat for its energy source.  When the fuel source changes from glucose to fat, runners call this switch ‘hitting the wall’ and there is a noticeable drop in performance. 


There are definite benefits of yoga on the brain and the mind.  Firstly, in the sense of triggering the rest/digest branch (the parasympathetic nervous system) of your autonomic nervous system making you feel calm and relaxed.  Secondly, the mental benefits of meditation on keeping you focused and present.  However, yoga doesn’t provide the biochemical benefits that aerobic exercise gives us as I outline below.


You can ask almost any medical doctor and they will tell you that exercise is one of the best ways known to hammer anxiety, crush stress, rebalance moods and increase positive feelings.  Exercise creates chemical responses in our brains that lead to temporary and, most beneficially, long-term mental health.

When we feel negatively stressed or anxiety-ridden we can feel and experience a number of things:

  • cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • high-blood pressure
  • feelings of fear, dread, panic, uncertainty or uneasiness
  • sweating
  • reduces or even negates appetite

All of these symptoms of stress are due to certain chemicals swimming through our brains and bodies.  Adrenaline is the stress hormone that raises your heart rate and boosts your blood pressure. Cortisol is the stress hormone linked to feelings of fear, dread and uneasiness.  these chemicals have a direct affect on your mood and motivation, supresses your digestive system and alters your immune system.  As a side note, high levels of cortisol are associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  Increased levels also have deleterious effects on the hippocampus significantly impairing the ability to learn and form new memories.

Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is a brilliant way to burn off any excess adrenaline and/or cortisol swimming in your bloodstream. On top of this, there is a growing amount of evidence that it has strong anti-anxiety effects by changing the brain in a multitude of ways.  This is the reason why so many doctors prescribe exercise as a treatment for anxiety.

Let’s take a moment and look at the benefits of a 30 minute brisk walk, a 20 minute jog or any other exercise that gets your heart pumping and your sweat glands working.  The brain begins to generate neurotransmitters (brain-chemicals) such as GABA, acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which keep us energized, calm and positive.

GABA is the major inhibiting neurotransmitter in the brain and which has strong calming effects on the mind.  Exercise has the same effects like Valium and Ativan (benzodiazepines) that work on the GABA system to create a sense of calm.  But like these drugs, exercise has no side effects or negative addictive qualities.

Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter key to memory and attention. Alzheimer’s disease is marked by a significant decrease in acetylcholine level.

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that give us a sense of well-being and hopefulness.  It’s levels increase when the body breaks down fatty acids to fuel the muscles.  Low levels of serotonin are linked to some forms of depression.  

Dopamine is the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter It is responsible for a sense of pleasure, success, achievement and even euphoria.

Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter that allows us to focus and shift our attention.  It also works with dopamine to help us ‘feel good’.

BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is a protein substance is produced as a result of aerobic exercise. It is responsible for many functions, such as consolidating the connections between neurons; promoting myelin growth to make neurons fire more efficiently,; and generating new neurons in the hippocampus from stem cells.

Endocannabinoids is the chemical compound that plays a key role in processing appetite, mood, memory and pain sensation.  It is also key to reducing the hormones that trigger the HPA axis, (which plays a significant role in the fight/flight response of the reactive mindset). 

Endorphins are natural neuropeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain and have potent pain-killing effects.  Often referred to as the ‘runner’s high’.

Many of my clients have stressful jobs and a majority of them find it difficult to unwind when they get home.  If you are not one for the gym or like running, then take a brisk walk.  Walking requires very little in the way of sports equipment and can be done almost anywhere.  Even a 10 minute brisk walk will give you 90 minutes of energy and burn any excess cortisol. 


The timing of learning is important when exercising.  If you are going to do any thinking or learning while your run, cycle or swim it is best to do it at the start of your training.  After about 30 minutes into your aerobic exercise, blood is directed away from your prefrontal cortex (the home of your higher thinking) to help your body deal with the demands of your physical exertion.  After you finish exercising, the blood shifts back to your prefrontal cortex.  This is also a perfect window for clearer thinking and easier learning, because of the increased capacity for focus.


  • exercise lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol and raises good (HDL) cholesterol, which prevents arteries from getting stiff and narrow 
  • lowers blood pressure
  • promotes repair mechanisms to deal with physical stress that not only promote recovery but strengthen the entire body, including the brain
  • makes the heart beat more efficiently 
  • boosts the body’s sensitivity to glucose, which lowers the risk of diabetes 
  • increases levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin that provide you with the neurochemistry to not only boost your energy but keep you calm and focused
  • brisk walking for just 3 hours a week is enough to generate new brain cells in your frontal lobes, your hippocampus, and the corpus callosum
  • lowers a compound in blood that makes blood clots called fibrinogen and thus lowers the risk of stroke


Now that we are aware that exercise helps with stress, anxiety, depression and improving sleep, it is time to apply the science.  So get out there, lace-up, hit the gym, jump on your racer or whatever your thing is and generate a good sweat!  It’ll do wonders for you.

15. januar 2015

Sleep, The Brain and The Mind - Part 2 of 2

Welcome to the second part of out post on Sleep, The Brain and The Mind.

Over the years working with a host of clients I have found the following to be very effective to improve the quality of sleep, which in turn improves the functioning of the brain and mind.

Reduce the amount of caffeine
Whenever you’re awake, a chemical called adenosine slowly accumulates in your brain.  And this adenosine binds to receptors which slow down brain activity.  This simply means the more adenosine there is, the more tired your brain feels.  So the longer you’re awake, the more tired you become. Conversely, while you sleep, the concentration of adenosine declines, gradually promoting wakefulness. 

The reason why a great majority of us turn to coffee as a pick-me-up is caffeine is incredibly similar to adenosine in structure. The caffeine works it’s way through your bloodstream and into the brain, where it starts to compete and binds with adenosine receptors. Since caffeine is not adenosine you don’t feel sleepy.

After you have knocked back a coffee or two caffeine molecules are parked in many of the adenosine receptors.  This means adenosine can no longer bind and it’s calming properties are diminished. This great for you when you’re feeling tired and still need to work.  This is not so great if you need to get to bed.  Adenosine levels in the brain are quite vulnerable to caffeine several hours after consumption.

Over the long term, using caffeine as a stimulant your brain will responds by creating more adenosine receptors.  This means even more caffeine is  needed to give you that jolt. It also means that when you try to quit drinking coffee or miss your daily intake, you might experience some withdrawal symptoms and feel more tired than you would have before you ever drank coffee. 

Caffeine is also very good at stimulating the production of adrenaline, which is the fight/flight hormone. This increases your heart rate, gets your blood pumping, and even opens up your airways.

My suggestion to you is to cut your caffeine by the late afternoon and your chances of getting a good night sleep increases dramatically.

Light and the Brain
The brain is quite sensitive to the light.  The presence of light or it’s absence affects sleep.  How does this work?

In the centre of the brain is a tiny structure called the pineal gland.  It secretes a sleeping hormone called melatonin to help you go to and stay asleep.  The production of melatonin is dependent on the signals the pineal gland receives from the retina.  If the signal indicates it is dark then melatonin is produced helping you to fall asleep.  Conversely, the pineal gland will halt the production of melatonin if it receives a signal that there is light.   Therefore, bright light in the late evening will trick your brain into keeping you awake because it prepares you for daytime

Many of us have gotten into the habit of crawling into bed and checking our smart phones, tablets or laptops.  Some of us might even have a television in the bedroom.  These glowing devices are a direct message from the retina to your pineal gland to shut off production of melatonin.  You are pretty much creating artificial day light. 

My advice to you is to avoid staring into any of these devices just before you go to bed.  Start winding down your evening with soft light and use the chemistry of your brain to your advantage.

Food and the Brain
What you eat in the evening has a major effect on the quality of your sleep. The best foods to consume in the evening are those that are rich in tryptophan.  The reason is tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to serotonin (the chemical responsible for maintaining a proper sleep cycle) and the all-important melatonin (the sleeping hormone you learned about in the previous section).

Foods like turkey or other poultry are rich sources of tryptophan.  Fish, such as tuna, halibut, cod, sardines, scallops and salmon are also a treasure trove.  Nuts and seeds, like cashews, almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds are also a brilliant source.  Lastly, there are legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, black beans and split peas.

I highly recommend staying away from simple carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, white pasta and sugars.  Eating these types of foods increases the blood glucose and contribute to shallow sleeping and can often result in awakening during a sleep cycle.  Instead, eat foods that are rich in tryptophan.

Alcohol and the Brain
I am quite confident that most of you are quite aware of the effects of alcohol on our brains.  Let’s simply take a little deeper look at how it affects our sleep. 

Your body has two sorts of neurotransmitters (brain-chemicals); one that excites you (keeps you awake) called Glutamate and one that relaxes you called GABA. Glutamate is most active during your waking hours. Conversely, GABA is most active during your hours of sleep.  So when you fall asleep your brain Glutamate levels should drop and your brain GABA levels should rise. This facilitates a deep and restful sleep.

When we drink alcohol it has a very calming effect on us.  We tend to feel more relaxed and at ease.  We feel some of our inhibitions fall away.  There is the notion that a glass of wine in the evening has the affect of relaxing us and helping us to fall asleep.  This is true to some extent.

Alcohol has an initial sleep inducing effect, but that is where it ends.  When the alcohol is broken down by the body it can lighten sleep and cause frequent and early awakening.  Simply put, alcohol is the arch enemy of a good nights sleep.

Alcohol acts like GABA and parks itself in the GABA receptors.  This in turn dampens down glutamate activity making you feel mellow and relaxed.  That is the reason why that glass of wine in the evening can make you feel drowsy after a long day at the office.

The problem is that alcohol creates a counterfeit GABA effect.  Initially, you feel tired and may fall asleep, but 3 to 4 hours later when the effects of alcohol begin to taper off the excitatory effects of glutamate kick in.  This means your body and brain start to feel agitated and you awaken.

Since the GABA receptors were all occupied by the alcohol, the brain thinks it has produced enough GABA and thus turns off production.  So there is now not enough GABA, which is the principle inhibiting neurotransmitter of the brain, to counter the excitatory effects of the glutamate swimming around in your head.

The major problem with alcohol consumption in the evening is mid-sleep cycle awakening.  There is no problem getting to sleep, but you can’t stay asleep.  Simply put, alcohol really messes up with your sleep maintenance.

If you find yourself waking up in the wee hours of the morning with your mind racing and you are unable to get back to sleep, ask yourself if you really need that glass of wine in the evening.


I truly believe more knowledge means more informed choices.  Knowledge itself is interesting but it is not power.  Applied knowledge is the actual power. 

Now that you know some of the brain science behind sleep, you can make more informed choices to get a better nights sleep.

As I wrote in the opening paragraph…A healthy mind sustains a healthy brain.  A healthy brain sustains a healthy mind.  There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. It is this very relationship that determines the quality of our lives in the present and into the future. 

In my next post, I will be discussing in greater detail the effects of exercise on our brain.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying the findings of brain-science to your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no

You can also follow at: https://www.facebook.com/MINDtalkCoach

8. januar 2015

Sleep, The Brain and The Mind - Part 1 of 2

A healthy mind sustains a healthy brain.  A healthy brain sustains a healthy mind.  There is a symbiotic relationship between the two.  It is this very relationship that determines the quality of our lives in the present and into the future.

Over the next few posts I want to focus on how to maintain a healthy brain and a healthy mind.  I will dedicate each post to a specific topic where I will explore the science of maintaining the brain and the mind.  After I have explored each issue I will list a series of actions that you can employ to keep your headspace in tip-top shape.

Let me be straight with you right here, right now.  There is no light-switch solution.  What I mean by this is that you can’t simply flip the switch and everything is good.  Like any other improvement in life it requires an investment in time and effort.  If you follow the simple actions outlined in each post and stay dedicated, determined and disciplined you will start to see improvements in two to three weeks.

With that said let’s jump into the first post, which will be presented in two parts.  Let's take a look at Sleep, The Brain and The Mind.

We spend a good third of our lives sleeping.  So if you are fortunate to live to the decent age of 85 years old you will have spent 28.3 years sleeping.   This number may seem quite shocking, but trust me your brain needs your mind to be off line in order for it to do some must-needed house cleaning. 

The activity of sleeping is crucial to our health and well-being as much as nutrition, breathing and exercising.  The reason why we need sleep is still under investigation by various fields in science and the picture is not complete, yet.  What each of us does know is how much more energized we feel and how good our mood is after a solid nights sleep.  The question that still remains: what’s really happening in our brain and body when we are at rest?

Most people are under the assumption that when we fall asleep the brain quiets down.  As counter intuitive as it may seem the brain actually stays active when we sleep.  What quiets down is our mind - the conscious part of our brain.  The chemical signals and the electric firing between the  neurons in our brain are just as active in sleep as during the waking hours. 

Sleep happens in cycles of approximately 90 minutes.  There is a general consensus among sleep experts that a good nights sleep ranges between 6 to 8 hours.  This means that on average we need between 4 to 5 sleep cycles of 90 minutes to feel invigorated and refreshed.

Within one sleep cycle our brains move through a range of depths of sleep, which are often referred to as sleep waves.  The waves frequencies and amplitude are measured by an instrument called an electroencephalogram (EEG).  As we sink deeper into a cycle of sleep the amplitude of these waves increases, while their frequency diminishes correspondingly.

There are typically four stages of sleep with their own individual wave frequency ranges.  These are measured by an EEG trace. So if your sleep cycle was being measured this is what would be picked up:

 Fig 1: EEG reading of the different sleep waves.
Courtesy of Sleepdex - Resources for Better Sleep

Fig 2: The stages of sleep waves with frequency and amplitude.
Courtesy of Sleepdex - Resources for Better Sleep


Cleaning the Brain
In 2013, a number of studies found that sleep gave the brain a chance to  wash out damaging molecules that built up during waking hours.  What was discovered is that the space between neurons (brain cells) increased when asleep aiding in the efficiency to clean out damaging molecules accumulated during waking hours.

The scientists at the University of Rochester found that these ‘toxic’ molecules were associated with speeding up neurodegenerative diseases - a wasting away of neurons indicative of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  Sleep is crucial for literally cleaning and maintaining the brain.

Archiving Experiences & Consolidating Memory
Another major benefit of sleep is that it allows time for the brain to form new memories and to consolidate older memories with more recent ones.  

The hippocampus is the structure in the brain that is involved in memory creation by consolidating the events we have experienced and lessons we have learned.  Sleep also plays a very important role in learning, because it helps us to solidify new information through better recall, while reducing the likelihood of forgetting.

More specifically, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is key to consolidating procedural memory (how to use your iPhone or drive a car) and deep sleep (non-REM sleep) is key to consolidating explicit memory (remembering a phone number or address).  Sleep deprivation can significantly affect the hippocampus’ function to form memories.

Normally, the activating brain-chemicals (neurotransmitters) norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol subside at night as we drift into a more relaxed mind state readying ourselves for sleep.  These brain chemicals are usually more present in awake and stressed states of mind.  The lack of sleep increases the level of these activating chemicals and has a direct affect on the proper functioning of the hippocampus.

Improving Performance
To expand on the previous point sleep is key to consolidating our procedural memory.  This is the type of memory related to motor tasks, like learning to ski, swinging a golf club or putting on your pants so they become automatic behaviours.

During REM sleep there are short bursts of brain waves at strong frequencies that are called sleep spindles.  During this period of sleep the the brain moves short-term memories stored in the motor cortex to the temporal lobe, where they are stored as long-term memories.  Simply put, sleep is essential to improving the performance of any physical skill.

Improving Innovative & Creative Thinking
When the conscious mind is offline and the unconscious brain can let loose the mental sparks can begin to fly.  When we are sleeping the unconscious brain can make some astounding new connections.  Watson and Crick, the discovers of the DNA helix, said the solution came to them in a dream state.  They dreamt of rolling a newspaper and a profound ‘a-ha’ moment exploded.  The shape of double-helix sprang forth that explained how DNA was structured. 

The sleep state can make new associations that may not be possible in a waking state.  In 2007, a study at the University of California at Berkeley found that sleep can help to make completely unassociated connections that can lead to awe-inspiring insights of innovation and creativity.  The study found people were 33 percent more likely to make connections between seemingly distantly related ideas.

  • The lack of sleep can lead to an increased risk of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. In addition to this, the lack of sleep can mimic many of the signs of aging and the seriousness of many medical conditions, while causing changes to metabolism as well as to the endocrine system.  
  • The lack of sleep also suppresses the immune system resulting in more body stiffness and aches. Stress increases the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine, and they also decrease the amount of slow-wave sleep.
  • The lack of sleep can lead to weight gain even after only 6 to 7 days.  The reason for this is there is an increase in the production of ghrelin.  The hormone responsible for promoting appetite.  At the same time, there is a decline in the production of the leptin.  The hormone responsible for reducing appetite.  To throw more on top of this, your increased munchies due to the lack of sleep increases your need to consume food that is heavily loaded with calories.  This will also include foods that are sweet, starchy and made up of simple carbohydrates.  (I will spend an entire post looking at diet and nutrition as it relates to the brain).
  • The lack of sleep lowers glucose tolerance, increases the activity of the reactive mindset (the fight/flight response) and increases activating brain-chemicals associated with stress (cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine)

Our next post is Sleep, The Brain and The Mind - Part 2 of 2

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying the findings of brain-science to your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no

You can also follow at: http://on.fb.me/1BQtCRE

1. desember 2014

The Science of Finding Happiness at Work

There has been a massive volume written about happiness and work.  Much of what has been written is excellent and has practical application.  Here is the challenge I see working with organisations, specifically the larger ones that number in the thousands of employees, changing a company culture can be tantamount to moving mountains with the speed of continental drift.  Now don’t get me wrong there are a few examples out there where change has literally been revolutionary, but these are few and far between.

So where does that leave the individual professional who is seeking greater happiness?  Well that leaves them turning to themselves.  To some degree happiness has its external triggers, but a majority of it lies in the internal work each person has to do.  

Let me elaborate…

A great majority of your happiness is going to be determined by how you invest your attention.  Not too long ago a survey was conducted by an accident prevention charity. About 80% of the respondents admitted to going through life on autopilot.  Actions like arriving at the end of a car journey with no memory of driving there, buying the same item twice without realising, and turning up at the office on a day off. 

So what?  Well, this means we are very much like preprogrammed machines nearly oblivious to most of our actions.  We are all creatures of habit, spending our days playing out ingrained behaviours and responses over which we exert no control. 

The upside of is automating routines is that we don’t have to constantly be conscious of how to breathe, how to the walk, how to eat or drink.  But like every coin there is the flip-side.  Treading the well-worn paths of habit, we easily get stuck in jobs, relationships or ways of thinking that make us miserable, in lives we'd never have consciously chosen.

System One & System Two

In Daniel Kahneman’s influential book, Thinking, Fast and Slow he describes two systems of thinking - system one and system two.  System One is fast thinking and is the home of unconscious attention and automatic processing.  This system is responsible for our ingrained responses and behaviours.  System Two is slow thinking and is the home of conscious attention and deliberate reasoning.  This system is engaged anytime we are called upon to learn something new or take on a new perspective.

Since the brain wants to constantly conserve energy, it tries it’s very best to quickly automate any new behaviour.  That is, to move it from system two to system one.  Learning anything novel whether it is a new physical skill or a new way of thinking requires vast amounts of energy (system two).  But once it has been learned system one takes over and runs with extraordinary efficiency requiring minimal energy costs.

Is There a Key to Happiness?

The key to happiness comes down to how you invest your attention.  What you attend to drives your behaviour and that in turn determines your happiness. The key to happiness by design is to notice what you pay attention to and then to organize your life in ways that actually make you happier without having to think to hard about it.

In the context to this blog entry happiness is made up of two-parts - pleasure and purpose. There is pleasure (or pain) and purpose (or pointlessness) in all that you do and feel. They are separate components that make up your overall happiness that comes from what you experience.  You are happiest when you manage to strike a balance between pleasure and purpose that works best for you.

Attention is the Glue

There are two elements here.  The first is attention, which is the glue that holds your life together.  The second is happiness, which is ultimately about the pleasure-purpose principle over time.   As time is the only truly scarce resource, we should all be seeking to use our time in ways that bring us the greatest overall pleasure and purpose for as long as possible.  Our life clock is more like a timer which counts down.  You cannot neither recover lost time nor lost happiness.  There are no resets and no rewinds. 

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for us to pay more attention to what we think should make us happy rather than focusing on what actually does. Too often we evaluate something as satisfactory even when the actual experience is not pleasurable, leading to poor choices about what really gives us happiness.

Happiness is something you can achieve by becoming more conscious of what actually contributes to it. More specifically day-to-day happiness is composed of pleasure and purpose.  This means you don't want to just feel good, you also want to feel that you are doing good. With this mindset, you can tolerate short term strife if you know that it is being suffered for a purpose. At the same time, pleasure must be included in the calculation as it is fundamental to feeling happiness.

From my experience working with a wide range of professionals, most of the time we are not even conscious of the ways we hinder our own happiness.  I think many of us think we are going to be happy from acquiring new toys but that usually wears off rather quickly.  Along with this we do not give enough credit to the happiness of experiences and in turn we don't value them as much. To our own detriment, we tend to focus on accumulation rather than participation.

London Cabbies and Hippos

Before someone can actually become a London cabby they must pass a difficult test that requires them to navigate 25000 streets.  Those that pass the test, which is only half of the test-takers, have larger hippocampi.  This is the part of the brain that is responsible for forming long term memories and spatial processing.  The growth of the hippocampi was a result of studying for the test and as they learned more and more. So paying attention can literally change your brain.

The brain is a highly complex and sophisticated processing system, with billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections, and you can learn to focus your attention on more meaningful stimuli that contributes to your sense of pleasure and your sense of purpose.   The first step is then to be aware of what brings you pleasure and purpose.  The second step is to keep your attention on these stimuli.  The reality is that most of us don’t do this.  

Situational Blindness

One of the fundamental mechanisms of attention is when you attend to one aspect of your environment you do not attend to another. This can lead to a mental phenomenon referred to as situational blindness, whereby you are so focused on one aspect of your surroundings that you fail to notice the bigger picture.  Follow this link to test your own situational blindness (http://bit.ly/1gXmThe).  It takes less then two-minutes.

One way of overriding situational blindness is to trigger your conscious attention.  This is when deliberately direct your focus on something.  The following exercise will help you to overcome situational blindness.

Moving Forward Exercise

If you want to be more happy then you need to make the conscious effort to identify what brings you a sense of pleasure and what gives you a sense of purpose.  It means you literally need to stop-up and think what aspects of my job meet these two criteria.  At first, it may seem like a difficult task.  Give it some time and be patient.  Your brain may not be use to thinking in this manner.  Let your brain warm up and settle in.  Believe me, after awhile your brain will start spitting out answers.

Here is a simple exercise I take clients through.  I ask them to scale their answers from 0 to 10.  0 meaning not-at-all.  10 meaning completely.

Step 1: On an average day, how satisfied are you with your work?

Step 2: On an average day, to what extent do you feel your job gives you a sense of purpose?

Step 3: What do you want to do in order to increase your answers in Step 1 and 2  by one value? (e.g. moving it from    
                     a value of 5 to 6)

If you want to increase the level of happiness in your professional life much of the ownership lies with you.  You want to take deliberate action to identify what functions and aspects of your job gives you a sense of pleasure and purpose.  This effort of consciously focusing your attention engages system two - slow thinking and conscious reasoning.

Similar to the brains of the cabby drivers that grew in response to learning to navigate the streets of London, your brain will grow to automatically search for the elements of pleasure and purpose in everything you do and experience.  This is the mental shift I mentioned earlier - from System 2 (conscious reasoning) to System 1 (automatic processing).

On average, it takes about 60 days to set the foundation for a new habit - mental or physical.  From my experience working with a broad spectrum of professionals, a definite shift in mindset and overall happiness begins to happen in those 60 days. It simply becomes so much easier for people to discover those factors that make life more meaningful.

Take Home Message (THM)

The first THM is to stay attentive to the aspects of your job that bring you a sense of purpose and that bring you a sense of pleasure.

The second THM is to be dedicated to the change, disciplined to stick with the change, and decisive to take the actions necessary to sustain the change.

Happiness is not simply some enigmatic state of mind.  Happiness is a result of our efforts to direct our attention, which in turn has concrete and tangible biological and chemical effects on our brains.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments. 

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no

13. november 2014

Money Doesn't Buy Happiness, But Time Can

Philosophers and other thinkers have been trying for thousands of years to get a grip on the elusive 
emotion of happiness, which arises with a rush of endorphins and can dissipate just as quickly.

Cassie Mogilner, a professor at The Wharton School, is one of those people who has been trying to tie down what makes people happy, in papers she's co-authored including "The Shifting Meaning of Happiness" and "The Pursuit of Happiness: Time, Money and Social Connection." Through years of academic research, Mogilner believes she has nailed down a the chief sources that elicit joy.

"I have found that focusing on time leads to greater happiness than focusing on money," she tells The Wharton School's blog Knowledge@Wharton in a video interview.

In one study, Mogilner asked people to fill out a survey while they were entering a café. The survey was a "sentence unscrambling task," which either focused on time-related words or money-related words. She then observed  the subjects while they were at the café talking, eating, or working. "As they left the café, we conducted another survey asking how happy they felt. Those who were led to think about time on their way into the café spent more time connecting and left happier than those who were led to think about money," she says.

For a second study, Mogilner scoured millions of blogs for sentences like "I feel" or "I am feeling happy," and then dissected the content. She found two forms of happiness--the feeling of being excited and the feeling of being calm. The study revealed that people in their teens and 20s were more likely to express excited happiness than calm happiness; people in their 30s were equally as likely to express one as the other; and people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were more likely to express calm happiness than excited happiness. She concludes that "the way that we feel happy changes over the course of our life."

When it comes down to working on your own personal happiness levels, Mogilner says her research reveals the importance of changing focus. She suggests "to shift attention away from money, which is a resource that tends to absorb most of our attention and our thinking and planning on a daily basis, and shift attention to this fundamentally precious resource of time."  Making that shift "will remind you and motivate you to behave in ways that are happier, and to spend your time in more fulfilling ways."

An important thing to remember, she says, is to be self-aware and understand what makes you happy. If you love taking it easy on the weekends and binge-watching Netflix, then do it. If you find happiness making it rain in the club, well, make it rain already.

The most important thing to remember: "Even the way that you feel happiness will or has changed over the course of your life." If you're not a young buck anymore, do what makes you happy, instead of beating yourself up for watching Bogart kill it in The African Queenfor the millionth time.

Contribution by Inc.com

31. oktober 2014


One of the aspects of my job that I am very passionate about is helping individuals, groups and companies to find their mojo.  That is, to help them discover the values that fuel their passions and that drive them forward to do what they do.

I recently conducted an Introspection Workshop for a small start-up that were in the incubation stage of their business. They had a solid idea of what niche they wanted to target and were also clear about the tangibles of their new venture - the product and service.

When it came to the intangibles that was a different story.  They were still wandering around in the dark with arms out-stretched searching for their elusive values. They could feel them, but the challenge was to articulate them into concrete terms.  Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why calls these values the why.  The whys being the purpose of the business that is above and beyond it’s product and/or services.

On an individual level I've worked with scores of individuals.  One person who stands out that I’ve worked extensively with is Inge Solheim who led Prince Harry and company on the Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge in 2013.  Even for an experienced adventurer such as Inge, who leads parties to some of the most extreme climes on the planet, going through an introspection exercise every so often helps him to adjust his decisions and realign his direction based on his internal compass.

What is the over-arching principle of human behaviour?

Human behaviour is driven by the major principle of pleasure and pain.  Every choice we make and every action we take is driven by this principle.  The general human tendency is to move towards pleasure and away from pain.  This is true as much for an individual as it is for an organization.

Every emotion we feel is simply a derivative of either pleasure or pain.  The word we use for a specific emotion defines the degree of intensity of the pleasure or pain we experience.  In the English language there are approximately 3000 words to describe emotions.  There are exactly 2286 words used to describe negative emotions and 1051 words to describe positive emotions.

What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion?

In the Anglo-Saxon world we tend to use the words feelings and emotions as synonyms. In actuality, they have their own unique definitions.  In the context of this blog, a feeling is a raw sensation that is communicated to the brain through one of our five senses like sight and smell.

When these raw sensations make it to the limbic system, the emotional centre of our brains, we assign meaning to that feeling.  Depending on if we assign a positive or negative meaning it will evoke motion (an e-motion) either toward something or away from something. 

For example, if your eyes register the raw sensation (a feeling) of a  bright blue sky you may assign the meaning that is is a beautiful day.  This means you will most likely feel a positive emotion like optimism and happiness.  The opposite is true if you assign a negative meaning to an overcast day.

Take a moment to look at the equations below:




What are Values?

When people talk about values they are simply referring to either positive or negative emotional states.  That is, they are stating what pleasures they are moving towards and what pains they are moving away from.  The key point to remember here is that values are emotions. 

Now, you may value many things such as your family, your house, your job, your friends and so on.  These are things that you value, but they are not values.  Your family, house, job and friends are all important to you.  But here is the important distinction.  Each of the above nouns are the vehicles that allow you to feel a certain way - to experience a certain type of emotion.

If I asked you, ‘What does your family give you?’  You may answer a sense of belonging, a sense of love, a sense of contribution and/or a sense of something greater than yourself.  It is how we want to feel that are the drivers behind our behaviour.  It is the emotions we want to experience that are our values. 

What are Moving-Toward Values (MTVs)?

As human beings we are constantly motivated to move toward pleasurable emotional states. However, there are always going to be some emotions you will value more than others. For example, what are the emotions that will give you the most pleasure – Love or Success? Freedom or Intimacy? Adventure or Security?

These pleasurable states that we value most are ‘Moving-Toward’ values (MTVs), because these are the emotional states that we will do the most to attain. Some examples of MTVs are success, freedom, intimacy, security, adventure, power, passion, comfort, and health.

It is very important to understand that we do not weigh all these values equally. Usually there are preferences. There is a hierarchy to our values and the emotions we want to experience.  It is this hierarchy that greatly influences the decisions we make from moment to moment - consciously and unconsciously.  For example, some people value comfort over passion.  Others value freedom over security, and still other people may value intimacy over success.

They key is to understand that we humans will always try to realize our highest values first.

What are Moving-Away Values (MAVs)?

Just as there are emotions we want to experience because they are pleasurable, there is also a list of emotions that we will do almost anything to avoid. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his book Thinking Fast and Slow there is a greater tendency for people to make choices based on avoiding pain than gaining pleasure, which directly impacts our decision-making.

As an example, you may be given the opportunity to present your work to the executive team of your company. You may have strong MTVs of recognition and feeling appreciated.  You may also have strong MAVs of not feeling embarrassed or vulnerable.  In the end, you choose to opt out of making the presentation and instead relinquish that task to someone else on your team.  You were driven more by avoiding the pain of potential embarrassment and vulnerability then by the kudos of receiving well-deserved recognition and appreciation for excellent work.

Just like MTVs, we have a hierarchy of MAVs that will heavily influence on how we make decisions.

How do you discover your MTVs and MAVs?

Depending on what aspect of your life you are attending to you will have different values.  In your professional life you may have values such as feeling professional and assertive in your working relationships.  Although theses values are important at the office, you may not consider them top of the hierarchy in your family life.

When I’m working with clients we focus on one slice of their life at a time.  Since the majority of my developmental dialogues are with clients focusing on their professional lives we tend to discover their MTVs and MAVs as it pertains to that aspect.

Here are the steps and some example questions of what I generally ask people when we are doing an introspection exercise:

Step 1 - Identifying MTVs

How do you want to feel at work?

What is important for you to feel professionally?

How do you want to feel about the quality of your work, your effort, your abilities and capabilities?

What is important for others to feel about you professionally, about your effort, about the quality of your work?

Step 2 - Prioritizing MTVs

The client then lists their MTVs in the order of priority. This exercise can be quite the eye-opener, because it reveals whether my client’s decisions are in line with their top values.

This insight can help my client to understand why he or she heads in a certain direction on a consistent basis. By articulating his or her hierarchy of MTVs my client can understand why he or she sometimes has difficulty in making decisions. This becomes easy to see when the values are written down in front of them and the MTVs can be contrasted and compared with one another.

Step 3 - Identifying MAVs

What emotions do you never want to experience at work?

What are some of the worst emotions you have experienced as a professional?

How do you never want other professionals to feel about you, your effort, your quality of work?

What emotions do you never want associated with your professional reputation?

Step 4 - Prioritizing MAVs

The client then lists their MAVs in the order of priority.

Step 5 - Reengineering MTVs & MAVs

In the final step, I help my client to reexamine their values and decide what values they want to add; what values they want to eliminate; and whether the hierarchy needs to be modified.

In Conclusion

By changing your values you change your life.  This is a very powerful concept which can bring a profound shift in someone’s life or to how a business does it’s business. 

You can literally change the way you think, feel and behave in virtually every area of your life simply by consciously selecting or redirecting the order and content of your values hierarchy system. 

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at Facebook or www.MINDtalk.no

15. oktober 2014

Making the move to an open-plan workspace

One of the biggest changes that can hit an organization and it's employees Is when they move offices.  Everything is going to be new. The route someone takes to work. The view outside the window.  The placement of the all-important coffee machine. The location of different meeting rooms. The list is endless.

What can make a move even more Earth-shaking for people is if they are one of the many companies moving from an individual office plan to an open-plan solution.  For the many who have never worked in an open-plan environment it can be very daunting. There be very little, and in many cases, no experience to draw from which significantly heightens the sense of uncertainty.  This in turn can quickly send someone into a reactive mindset.

In a reactive state of mind people tend to get hung up on the nitty-gritty of details; they tend to exaggerate the problems; their focus be on the things outside of their control; they may get emotionally hijacked; they tend to be more problem-oriented; they develop self-limiting beliefs; and have the tendency to make more reactive decisions.

Many of us have this natural reaction to change. This is especially true if it is change that we have not initiated, but which circumstance has forced us into.  Our ancient ancestors that lived on the open savannah 50,000 years ago tended to stay put if resources were sufficient and game could be had.   The brain tends to see things in very black and white terms - life or death.  One of the reasons the brain wanted our ancestors to stay put is certainty.  Certainty that our mental map of the territory was correct.  Certainty where water and food could be found.  Certainty of where the predators tended to lurk. Certainty where it was safe to spend the night.

On the other hand, picking up and moving meant uncertainty. It meant the brain had to use more energy to map a new territory, but more than that uncertainty also brought with it a high-degree of risk.  The brains prime-directive is to keep you alive.  Uncertainty and unpredictability are the arch-enemies of the brain and it will do its very best to try to dissuade someone from making a move. Better the risk you know than the risk you don't.

What is an organization to do?

From my experience, working both with small and large organizations moving into an open-landscape work space the key is to create as much certainty as possible. Communicate often and early enough in the process building up to the move. Predictability and certainty are going to be an organizations best allies to encouraging people to take a 'constructive' approach to a move. 

I consciously use the term constructive instead of positive.  The reality is an open- landscape has both it's advantages and disadvantages. By using the term 'positive approach' it has the unintended connotations of trying to sell the idea much like a used-car salesman. It doesn't matter how charismatic someone is or how persuasive their message, if a person is not in the mood to buy it will be an act of futility to try to sell them the idea. This is even more true if a person is already in a reactive mindset.

When in a reactive state of mind biased thinking proliferates.  Biased thinking is a type of thought process that limits our possibility to see solutions and opportunities, because our thinking becomes rigid and inflexible. We tend to only see one side of the coin and refuse to believe there is another side.  When it comes to change there are 5 types of biased thinking that are relevant to moving to an open-plan office.  I mention two of these below.

  • Confirmation Bias. People have an automatic and unconscious tendency to filter information that only supports their current belief. For example, if a person is negative toward the move they will have a greater tendency to read articles or have selective memory of stories and incidents that only highlight the disadvantages of open-plan environments.
  • Ownership Bias. You can see ownership in play when you conduct a meeting and you call for a break. When people return they will tend to sit in  the exact same place. Since they took that seat at the beginning their brains not only ‘own’ that particular seat, but the perspective of the meeting leader,  the location of their neighbors, the position at the table and so on.  Ownership bias becomes even more evident when someone has to give up  'their' office. People tend only to think about what they're losing and what they're giving up. It becomes nearly impossible to see the things that they are gaining or the advantages a new situation brings.  It also means it becomes even more difficult to find solutions for things that are not working and which need to be addressed.
From my experience, an organization needs to build a process in helping people to take a constructive approach to a move. By taking this approach it washes away a good proportion of the stink of trying to sell an idea.

What is a constructive approach?

As mentioned above, creating as much certainty and predictability early enough in the process is of fundamental importance. The other important element is creating a planned forum for people to voice their concerns, opinions and ideas. 

When I run these workshops for organizations the key is to to keep the participant numbers down to a size that encourages dialogue. If the group is too large and the group is highly negative then a constructive workshop can sour quickly. I have found that a good number is between 10 to 12 participants.

In order to put people into a constructive mode for dialogue I think it essential to prime peoples minds. I find the best way of doing this is to open each of my workshops by teaching people about about mindsets, about key-functions of the brain related to change, and about biased thinking.  The insights gained from this introduction help people to gain real-time perspective of how their thinking is actually affecting them physically and psychologically.  I can not stress how affective I have found this to be when helping organizations acclimatize to the idea and the reality of moving offices.  This part is key in putting people into a mind state that is objective, reflective and decisive.

In the second part of the workshop I find the following are some of the key areas that need to be addressed:

- how to engage people and hold conversations?
- what should we be aware of regarding our surroundings?
- how should we define phone etiquette in the office environment?
- what should we be aware of regarding focus rooms, meeting rooms, and social areas?

As mundane as these topics may seem it is actually here that create many of the flash-points of discontent and frustration with working in an open landscape. Under each of these areas it is important to ask a wide range of questions to capture a spectrum of thoughts and opinions.. The quality of the questions will  determine the quality of the answers and of the quality of the discussion that follows.

What are the end-points?

I think there are 2 overall end-points that should be achieved. The first, as has already been discussed, is the fact that there are dedicated workshops where people can voice and share their opinions, concerns and solutions.

Simply getting people to constructively discuss an issue where you examine both the advantages and disadvantages leaves a majority of the people more positive about a move. People get the opportunity to have many of their questions answered and to have many of their knowledge-gaps filled.  It is this increase in certainty and predictability that puts people into a more constructive state of mind.

The second outcome of the workshop is to compile a list of recommendations to create a code of conduct. This is simply document of suggested practices to encourage and remind people of behaviour that is conducive to an open-plan office.  Creating such a list allows people to feel a sense of control and influence. This is so essential since many times such a move is perceived as something that is forced on them and beyond their control.

These are only my experiences working with a number of companies that have made a move to an open-plan solution. Of course there are a few other issues that need to be addressed, but the core fundamentals mentioned above are important to build into any process.

In the end

I truly believe the owners of change need to take an active and engaged role in preparing people for a big move. They need to design a forum or a series of forums where the people who will be affected have a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns as a group.

From my experience, if the forum is structured and well-balanced and people learn something about themselves, their brains, and they're thinking it can lead to a very constructive dialogue.

In a future blog entry, I will share with you the process I follow-up with companies 6 to 12 months after they have made the move.  The post-occupancy process is a key element to getting people to acclimatize.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments. 

Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?

Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no