torsdag 12. juni 2014

THE NEUROSCIENCE BEHIND HOW SLEEP CLEANS YOUR BRAIN

We know that getting even a measly extra hour of sleep a night can havemajor benefits for us--like more memories, less anxiety, and happier genes. But scientists have tested another hypothesis for why we need to spend so much time horizontal: Sleep cleans our brains.

Ian Sample, the appropriately named science writer for the Guardian,summarizes the phenomenon this way:

Through a series of experiments on mice, the researchers showed that during sleep, cerebral spinal fluid is pumped around the brain, and flushes out waste products like a biological dishwasher.

The process helps to remove the molecular detritus that brain cells churn out as part of their natural activity, along with toxic proteins that can lead to dementia when they build up in the brain, the researchers say.

We might want to take these conclusions with a grain of cerebral salt, given that human brains are more mightily complex than those of mice. Still, the results are super fascinating. As published in the journal Science, University of Rochester professor Maiken Nedergaard led a team that found out that the brain cells of mice shrink while they sleep--creating a space between them that's 60% bigger, which allows for the cerebral spinal fluid in their brains to flow 10 times faster while sleeping than while waking.

Then they wanted to see how the mice brains did with toxins, so they injected them with proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease--and found the proteins were cleaned up faster in the brains of sleeping mice.

This is super fascinating because we've known about the effects of better sleep, like the memory consolidation that we need to remember our lives, but Nedergaard's research sheds light on the actual mechanics of what's happening while we're not waking. If the same holds true for humans, then sleep may be a key to fighting dementia and other degenerative diseases, since it's the time that your brain sweeps clean the toxins that are laying about.

"You can think of it like having a house party," Nedergaard said in a statement. "You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can't really do both at the same time."

The takeaway for us knowledge workers? If we want to keep our knowledge working--and staycreative into our 80s, we need to figure out how to get amazing sleep.

Hat tip: the Guardian.com

lørdag 17. mai 2014

The Science behind why we get bored

You might think it’s your fault you’re dozing off in a classroom or office, but that’s not always the case. There are clear categories of boredom triggered by one’s environment, says pioneering researcher Dr. Thomas Goetz from the University of Konstanz in Germany.

What is the most common misconception about boredom?

It’s important to recognize the different types, and clearly define the differences.

You say apathetic boredom is the worst — how bad can it get?

The problem is that it makes every experience negative and the potential for arousal is low. You can’t do anything against this state and it can become a big problem related to depression.

What puts us at risk?

Some people tend to a specific state but only to a small degree; each experience is based on situations. It’s important that people recognize the forms. Often the problem is a lack of freedom, such as at school. Teachers should be aware and try to find individualized methods that give students choice.

Is there a risk that teaching boredom could cause more boredom?

There is an argument from anxiety research that awareness increases the problem, but in this case it is about knowing and realizing, and this goes hand in hand with resolving it.

What follow-up research is needed?

We didn’t measure the effects. We need diagnostic instruments to show the experiences of boredom.

Types of boredom

  • Indifferent boredom. A relaxing, possibly positive type – “a general indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world.”



  • Calibrating boredom. Wandering thoughts — “general openness to behaviours aimed at changing the situation.”



  • Searching boredom. “Actively seeking out specific ways of minimizing feelings of boredom.”



  • Reactant boredom. Causes sufferers “to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid those responsible for this situation (e.g., teachers).”



  • Apathetic boredom. Impossible to break from this mode – “dangerous, similar to depression.”

torsdag 15. mai 2014

How your brain works during meditation

How your brain works during meditation

Your brain processes more thoughts and feelings during meditation than when you are simply relaxing.

Mindfulness. Zen. Acem.  Meditation drumming. Chakra. Buddhist and transcendental meditation. There are countless ways of meditating, but the purpose behind them all remains basically the same: more peace, less stress, better concentration, greater self-awareness and better processing of thoughts and feelings.

But which of these techniques should a poor stressed-out wretch choose? What does the research say? Very little – at least until now.

See alsoLanguage is in our biology

Ingen vet helt hvordan hjernen fungerer når man mediterer. Foto: Thinkstock

No one knows exactly how the brain functions when a person meditates. Photo: Thinkstock

Nondirective or concentrative meditation?

A team of researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Oslo and the University of Sydney is now working to determine how the brain works during different kinds of meditation.

Different meditation techniques can actually be divided into two main groups. One type is concentrative meditation, where the meditating person focuses attention on his or her breathing or on specific thoughts, and in doing so, suppresses other thoughts. The other type may be called nondirective meditation, where the person who is meditating effortlessly focuses on his or her breathing or on a meditation sound, but beyond that the mind is allowed to wander as it pleases. Some modern meditation methods are of this nondirective kind.

“No one knows how the brain works when you meditate. That is why I’d like to study it,” says Jian Xu, who is a physician at St. Olavs Hospital and a researcher at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at NTNU.

Two different ways to meditate

Fourteen people who had extensive experience with the Norwegian technique Acem meditation were tested in an MRI machine. In addition to simple resting, they undertook two different mental meditation activities, nondirective meditation and a more concentrative meditation task. The research team wanted to test people who were used to meditation because it meant fewer misunderstandings about what the subjects should actually be doing while they lay in the MRI machine.

The results were recently published in the journal “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience”.

Nondirective meditation led to higher activity than during rest in the part of the brain dedicated to processing self-related thoughts and feelings. When test subjects performed concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was almost the same as when they were just resting.

A place for the mind to rest

“I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person’s thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused,” said Xu. “When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network.  And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation.”

Provides greater freedom for the brain

“The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation,” says Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, and co-author of the study.

“This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest,” says Davanger.

Meditating researchers

Most of the research team behind the study do not practice meditation, although three do: Professors Are Holen and Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU and Professor Svend Davanger from the University of Oslo.

Aktiviteten i hjernen var størst når tankene fikk vandre som de ville. Foto: Thinkstock

Brain activity was the greatest when the meditators’ thoughts wandered wherever they wanted. Photo: Thinkstock

Acem meditation is a technique that falls under the category of nondirective meditation. Davanger believes that good research depends on having a team that can combine personal experience with meditation with a critical attitude towards results.

“Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people. It is important that we find out how this really works. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in international research on meditation. Several prestigious universities in the US  spend a great deal of money to research in the field. So I think it is important that we are also active,” says Davanger.

onsdag 9. april 2014

Blocking Off Time

Do you ever wish you could just put the world on pause so you could get stuff done? Imagine what you could accomplish if all those little interruptions and minute tasks just went away (if only for a few hours so you could focus)! 

It’s true that the hardest part of getting stuff done finding time to just sit down and focus on one task until it’s complete. As chronic multi-taskers, we often jump between multiple tasks only to become frustrated with our lack of progress on any of them.

That’s why it’s important to schedule those power work blocks into your calendar. While it’s unlikely you could dedicate an entire day to grinding through priority tasks, it’s easy to set aside an hour or two, maybe even three, every day to focus on what you need to get done.

Ways to block off time

Block Off Your Calendar — Set aside the same time every week so you get in the habit of using that time for work (and others know not to expect to be able to reach you during those time slots). Once a time slot is designated as a power work block, never allow anything else to be scheduled during that time (or even worse, allow non-priority tasks to sneak in there).

Designate a Project — Decide in advance what project you are going to tackle in each of your power work blocks. Try to match the type of activity to the work block. So for example, schedule product development work when you are the most energized and creative, and save monotonous tasks for later in the week  when you’ll be ready for a brain break.

Prepare in Advance — Get everything you need to handle the project quickly and efficiently ready to go beforehand. That may mean assembling research materials, gathering files or asking people to submit their input the day before. Do whatever you need to do to allow yourself to sit down and get it done! Your power work block is about powering through stuff, not getting ready to do the work.

Turn Off the Distractions — Make a no interruptions rule during your power work blocks (and that includes self-interruptions, like checking email, responding to alerts and popping onto social media to inform that world that you are getting a lot done today). This is why it’s useful to have regular power work blocks so others get used to the idea of you not being available during those time slots.

Front Load Your Week — Whenever possible, try to fit more power work blocks into the first half of your week because a) that’s typically when you have more energy to power through projects and b) if something is going to derail your productivity, it has less chance of doing so early in the week.

fredag 28. mars 2014

Opening Minds To Open Offices

Over the past several years many organizations have torn down physical walls and psychological barriers to transform how their employees work. The reason is clear: An open environment enables better communication that leads to innovation and more satisfied customers.

But figuring out how to achieve that goal can be dicey. Facility executives are still refining approaches for switching to open offices. Certainly it can be a difficult change for all involved.

Here are some tips for helping to ensure the success of this major transition:

  • Know exactly why you want to move to open plan. Don’t make a move until you can clearly express to senior management and all levels of the workforce why it’s best for your organization.
  • Make informed decisions about the specific aspects of open plan work environments you want to incorporate. From creating non-assigned seating plans to adding huddle rooms and cafes, options come in many flavors.
  • Follow a thoughtful change management plan. A big part of moving from enclosed offices to open plan involves overcoming the workforce’s resistance to change.

Why an Open Plan?

There’s no doubt companies can cut occupancy costs by squeezing more people into less space in open plans. But there are often deeper, more strategic motives than simply cost savings.

Many companies want to motivate employees to work together by moving into collaborative, team-oriented environments. An open plan can help address problems related to isolation and siloing of information. Networked information exchange is a logical outcome when people engage their colleagues in corridor and workspace conversations.

Open plans with fewer hierarchical standards make a statement about a company’s “flat” culture. They also provide more flexibility. Instead of housing different levels of staff in spaces of 250, 200 or 150 square feet based on hierarchy, you can place them into smaller, interchangeable spaces designed to enhance function. This saves time and money because you won’t have to demolish and reconstruct an office when someone receives a promotion or transfers to a different team.

Open offices can also be the green choice. With energy conservation moved to the front burner these days, there is an explosion of interest in sustainable building design. Fewer private offices means fewer walls, simpler air handling systems, and less construction waste and materials. An open plan — particularly if you don’t place the remaining private offices along the windows — creates opportunities to bring daylight into the interior, reducing lighting and cooling loads.

For many organizations, the decision to move to open offices boils down to the simple idea that it’s just easier to have the right workspace in the right location at the right time for the right person.

Moving to Open Plan Offices

A key step in moving to open offices is developing a clear vision for the new open workplace by collaborating with senior management. Should the character of the open offices be inspiring, collaborative and energizing? Or is your culture better-suited for an environment that’s calmer and more contemplative? Maybe you want a little of each, with multiple settings where employees can move to different environments such as touchdown spaces or privacy rooms based on the work they’re doing.

You should evaluate employees’ specific jobs to decide if they’re suited for open plan. Do some groups have confidentiality or security issues? Do some require a high degree of privacy? It doesn’t make sense to put your software engineers, for example — people doing heads-down work that requires complex thinking — next to a copier or in a highly traveled corridor.

The best approach is one that asks employees for their input and involves them throughout the planning process. You can do this by holding employee meetings and using an electronic survey tool to inquire about their attitudes and desires for the workplace.

Truly assessing organizational readiness requires studying information about the current state of user group functions, a workforce demographics profile and attitudes, organizational history, business affinities and desired synergies. Incorporate the findings into the design of both the physical space and the change strategy.

Before Nissan North America moved its executive offices to an open plan setting to foster teamwork, strategic visioning sessions explored the company’s business goals and executives were interviewed about their work styles and workplace needs. All aspects of the company’s business functions were examined, including communications, work processes, work-life balance, reward and recognitions systems, compensation, and performance evaluations. Out of this study emerged a plan for a high-tech teaming environment that would enhance collaboration within the cross-cultural management team directing the company’s competitive repositioning.

For Warner Music’s move to a new open workplace in Toronto, key company stakeholders were tapped to help create a strategic plan to establish the project vision. The company established a “money well-spent” strategy focused on three priorities: improving team efficiency, creating a central square as the community hub for interacting, and telling a multimedia music story. Based on this vision, an open, community-based workplace was created that balances the opposing cultural and functional needs of heads-down business groups and “volume-up” music promotions teams.

Making the Change

Are you prepared to overcome the “Heck no, we won’t go!” mentality you’ll encounter? Employee resistance to major changes such as a move to open offices — where people may perceive they are losing something by being pulled out of a private office — is inevitable.

An effective change management program can help staff overcome their anxiety about a new way of working and, most importantly, get excited about your vision for improving their work lives. An experienced design consultant can help guide you through the steps. Make sure you’re working with an experienced team with a proven process — and that the chemistry between your two organization feels right.

Here’s a 10-step guide to an effective change management program:

  1. Make a quantitative case. Experience shows that it’s critical to gather hard data and make solid business case recommendations to management. 

    Outside design firms can have a tendency to emphasize values-based, Mom-and-apple-pie rationale such as “It’s just the right thing to do for people” or “It looks better.” That’s great, but when your boss looks you in the eye and asks, “Would you spend $50 million of your own money on a program like this?” you’d better have some hard data to support your recommendations. These days many employees are shareholders. Show them how many dollars per share of earnings this move to open offices could save in terms of occupancy cost decreases and productivity increases.
  2. Make a qualitative case. While the numbers are important, you also should factor in how work environments can improve the quality of work life, creativity, innovation, and recruiting and retention. It’s always a good thing when people enjoy being in their work environment.
  3. Communicate with employees. Articulate, publicize and socialize your vision for the space throughout the company. People fear the unknown. When they don’t hear anything, many will envision the worst possible scenarios. Make sure they understand the benefits and keep them involved throughout the transition. Tell them what’s going to happen, why it’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen and how it will affect them.

    A change management communication program can include e-mails, newsletters, internal Web sites and Web-based and in-person “town hall” meetings.

    For example, one organization needed a change management and communication strategy to help transition to 90 percent open plan. The first step was to identify barriers to change and concerns through user-representative focus groups, Web-based surveys and informal workplace observation. The findings were presented to workplace champions and corporate leaders. Once that group came to a consensus, the message was refined and kick-off meetings with workplace champions were scheduled at the appropriate locations. These were followed by town hall lunch events and pre-move orientation meetings with employees.

    Newsletters and communiqués sent on a regular basis kept people informed. An open house allowed employees to tour their new workplace before move-in. Finally, post-occupancy surveys documented lessons learned and provided an opportunity to make minor adjustments going forward.
  4. Enroll a leader in the organization to champion the new open offices. Aim as high as possible up the organizational ladder. Former Intel Chairman and CEO Andy Grove used to sit in an 8-by-9 foot cubicle like the rest of his employees. And he didn’t do this to prove a point. He did it because he thought it was the most productive way to work.
  5. Give employees choices. People feel more empowered when they have input in the design of their new workstation. Give them options for personalizing the space in ways that support how they need to work and that help them feel at home.
  6. Create bonus features that don’t exist in your current workplace. Employees upset about losing a private office could feel better if they are gaining an amenity like a fitness center, war rooms, game tables or a coffee bar.
  7. Incorporate employee feedback. Furnishing workstation mock-ups and tours engage the workforce in designing their future workplace and build enthusiasm for the impending change. Build a workstation mockup and invite employees to see it, touch it and suggest improvements. 

    The work environment at Biogen Idec’s office and research campus in San Diego is 70 percent open plan and 30 percent enclosed offices. The company selected new systems furniture options for open plan workstations and offices organized a competition that included mockups by four manufacturers. The open plan workstations were designed to provide a high degree of privacy while also inviting collaboration. This vision was shared with employees through design presentations at various stages of the project.
  8. Train people how to use the new space. Don’t assume that everyone knows how to use each piece of furniture. Show them how to use the new systems with meetings, DVDs or online training.
  9. Develop a pilot project in which you test the open office concept on a floor or business group. Track the results of this pilot project and change your plan accordingly before rolling it to other groups.
  10. Conduct post-occupancy evaluations and make adjustments. Post-occupancy evaluations will help you gauge new business synergies, measure operational efficiencies and performance improvements, and generate lessons learned. Communicate to everybody the improvements you make over time.

Your organization may not have the time or resources to take all these steps. But, like any business process improvement effort, the more you involve your people in the process, the easier and more successful the transition will be.

By MARTHA G. RAYLE 



onsdag 25. desember 2013

The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Brains


Brain5Let’s review some good lifestyle options we can follow to maintain, and improve, our vibrant brains.

1. Learn what is the “It” in “Use It or Lose It”. A basic understanding will serve you well to appreciate your brain’s beauty as a living and constantly-developing dense forest with billions of neurons and synapses.

  1. Take care of your nutrition. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but consumesgood brain foodover 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake? As a general rule, you don’t need expensive ultra-sophisticated nutritional supplements, just make sure you don’t stuff yourself with the “bad stuff”.
  2. Remember that the brain is part of the body. Things that exercise your body can also help sharpen your brain: physical exercise enhances neurogenesis.
  3. Practice positive, future-oriented thoughts until they become your default mindset and you look forward to every new day in a constructive way. Stress and anxiety, no matter whether induced by external events or by your own thoughts, actually kills neurons and prevent the creation of new ones.physical exercise for brain healthYou can think of chronic stress as the opposite of exercise: it prevents the creation of new neurons.
  4. Thrive on Learning and Mental Challenges. The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them. “Use It or Lose It” does not mean “do crossword puzzle number 1,234,567″. It means, “challenge your brain often with fundamentally new activities”.
  5. We are (as far as we know) the only self-directed organisms in this planet. Aim high. Once you graduate from college, keep learning. Once you become too comfortable in one job, find a new one. The brain keeps developing, reflecting what you do with it.
  6. Explore, travel. Adapting to new locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment. Make new decisions, use your brain.
  7. Don’t Outsource Your Brain. Not to media personalities, not to politicians, not to your smart neighbour… Make your own decisions, and mistakes. And learn from them. That way, you are training your brain, not your neighbour’s.
  8. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. We are “social animals”, and need social interaction. Which, by the way, is why ‘Baby Einstein’ has been shown not to be the panacea for children development.
  9. Laugh. Often. Especially to cognitively complex humor, full of twists and surprises. Better, try to become the next Jon Stewart

Now, remember that what counts is not reading this article-or any other-, but practicing a bit every day until small steps snowball into unstoppable, internalized habits…so, pick your next battle and try to start improving at least one of these 10 habits today. Revisit the habit above that really grabbed your attention, and make a decision to try something different today!

SharpBrainsGuide_3DContribution by a sharp brains

How learning shapes the brain

You may have heard that the brain is plastic. As you know the brain is not made of plastic! Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to CHANGE throughout life. The brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells (neurons).

In addition to genetic factors, the environment in which a person lives, as well as the actions of that person, play a role in plasticity.

Neuroplasticity occurs in the brain:

1– At the beginning of life: when the immature brain organizes itself.

2– In case of brain injury: to compensate for lost functions or maximize remaining functions.

3– Through adulthood: whenever something new is learned and memorized

Plasticity and brain injury

A surprising consequence of neuroplasticity is that the brain activity associated with a given function can move to a different location as a consequence of normal experience, brain damage or recovery.

In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science,” Norman Doidge describes numerous examples of functional shifts.

In one of them, a surgeon in his 50s suffers a stroke. His left arm is paralyzed. During his rehabilitation, his good arm and hand are immobilized, and he is set to cleaning tables. The task is at first impossible. Then slowly the bad arm remembers how too move. He learns to write again, to play tennis again: the functions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have transferred themselves to healthy regions!

The brain compensates for damage by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. In order to reconnect, the neurons need to be stimulated through activity.

Plasticity, learning and memory

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity IS the capacity of the brain to change with learning. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change.

Did you know that when you become an expert in a specific domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow?

For instance, London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus (in the posterior region) than London bus drivers (Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006). Why is that? It is because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.

Plasticity can also be observed in the brains of bilinguals (Mechelli et al., 2004). It looks like learning a second language is possible through functional changes in the brain: the left inferior parietal cortex is larger in bilingual brains than in monolingual brains.

Plastic changes also occur in musicians brains compared to non-musicians. Gaser and Schlaug (2003) compared professional musicians (who practice at least 1hour per day) to amateur musicians and non-musicians. They found that gray matter (cortex) volume was highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas.

Finally, Draganski and colleagues (2006) recently showed that extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of German medical students 3 months before their medical exam and right after the exam and compared them to brains of students who were not studying for exam at this time. Medical students’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the parietal cortex as well as in the posterior hippocampus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.

Contribution by sharp brains.