Brains, Stress, and Behavior

Brain electrodes by laimagendelmundo on Flickr
Brain electrodes by laimagendelmundo on Flickr

The NY Times had an interesting brain science article written by Natalie Angier.  It basically said that chronically stressed-out people’s brains change: their habit-forming neurons multiply while their decision-making neurons languish.

The result of these changes is that stressed-out people rely on habits, and that these habits can become “ruts” and downright counterproductive behavior.  From the article:

“Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”

Angier also emphasizes the plasticity of the brain, noting that the brain returns to normal when the stressors are removed.

Some interesting groups of stressed-out people whose brain chemistry might be favoring habits over goal-driven behavior:

  • Refugees and immigrants
  • People struggling to pay bills (be they heat or private college tuition)
  • Overworked, under-supported teachers
  • Doctors

This has some pretty interesting ramifications.  What I see applying to my students (many of whom are refugees):

  • they need a safe, relaxed, predictable environment to help them think
  • many would respond well to repetitive exercises, vocabulary drills, etc.
  • teaching them basic survival habits will help them through future stressful situations

Also, this talk of stress and habits in relation to the brain begs the question of how this research fits in with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addiction.  These conditions aren’t addressed in the article.

Interesting read!

Advertisements

Looking Back at College

Lifehacker and The Simple Dollar have been posting more content than usual geared toward college students, and it got me thinking about my own college experience.  It was a great one.  I worked hard, but I didn’t work smart at all, and because of that I’m not sure I lived up to my potential.

This isn’t intended to be a list of regrets.  I’m reflecting on a path I set out on when I was 17, and my perspective on it from my mid-twenties is understandably a little different.

What I Wish I’d Done In College

Basically, I wish I’d scheduled my time as though college were my 40 hour per week job.  Mind you that when I was in college I’d never had such a thing as a full-time job.  Still, I don’t think it would have been beyond me to:

  • set a regular (reasonably flexible) work schedule, planning to spend about 8 hours a day either in class or involved in studies;
  • spend time at the beginning of each semester marking not just mandatory class times on my calendar, but also project due-dates and my own draft due-dates;
  • make it my business to go to each prof’s office hours at least once;
  • treat class time more seriously (like it was a meeting or a conference) by taking notes and behaving in a more openly friendly way to my classmates.

I also wish I’d done a few less serious “school is your job” -type things, such as:

  • joining a club that would take me off campus on a regular basis;
  • sleeping more consistently;
  • spending more than one semester taking a karate class.

And honestly, I can’t help but wonder if taking a year or two between high school and college and doing AmeriCorps or some such work would have made the above wishes realities instead.

Again, no regrets.  I took interesting classes, did respectably well in them (except chemistry), made incredible friends, enjoyed participating in music programming, and reached out to some profs and acquaintences I hope I’ll still be acquainted with years from now.  I was also introduced to life in the Twin Cities and have continued living here since graduation.  I think of it all as a success.  And I’d have a different kind of success if I started it in September 2009 instead.

Lessons from Clothing Donations

notice the restless bag of clothes by revecca on Flickr
'notice the restless bag of clothes' by revecca on Flickr

I have had bags of clothes sitting in my apartment waiting for me to donate them for something like a year. Maybe longer. And last week, I finally donated them.

It was one of those unfortunate tasks that was neither important nor urgent but that would take more than a few minutes.  So I just sort of stopped seeing the bags of clothes being slowly shredded by my cats.  When I did occasionally notice them, it was never a good time to dive into such a big project (?) so I left them for “later.”

Lessons learned:

The factor that started me tackling this silly little project with its surprisingly large impact on my living space was a conversation that became a plan.  Those things are powerful.

My Latest Lists

At work, I’ll periodically get this sinking feeling that I’m forgetting to do something.

Juggling Now, Soon, and In Two Months is hard for me – they don’t feel like they should be on the same list. Also, a list with 25 things on it, some huge and some small, can be kind of scary.

Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr
Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr

I’ve tried Checkvist and liked it, and I’ve tried Google Calendar Tasks, but the main problem with both is two-fold:  it doesn’t feel concrete to me when it’s electronic, and I can avoid the list by just not opening the list’s webpage.  Lifehacker has an interesting poll on the five best To-Do List Managers, and for them as for me, pen and paper won.

My latest strategy:

  1. Write down every task or project I can think of. I work on this for a day or so to ensure it’s as complete as possible.
  2. Estimate time per task. In the left margin, I write in the estimated minutes it will take.  This step eliminates a lot of “this list is scary!” for me.  “60 minutes of stats” is easier for me to tackle than “annoyingly time-consuming volunteer stats.”
  3. Rewrite the list in two columns: Longer Term and Shorter Term.  I fill in some details like due dates and collaborators in Longer Term.  I just make a plain bulleted list of the shorter-term projects (which are usually 60 minutes or less).  The process of rewriting it helps me internalize it.
  4. Circle my first four tasks. This way I can evaluate what my next priority is in a quick and ongoing way.
  5. Check them off when they’re done. It feels gooood.  🙂
  6. Keep my list in plain sight. The list lives just to the left of my computer.  It does not get put away, it does not travel, it does not get buried.  And it gets more and more crossed off until it’s done.

It’s not perfect.  I think they keys that make it work for me are that I sit down and really think about it in terms of minutes and that it’s always on my desk and in my face.

What makes a To-Do system work for you?

Posting Schedule!

Compact Calendar Card - Design 3 by Joe Lanman on Flickr
Compact Calendar Card - Design 3 by Joe Lanman on Flickr

I think it’s time I add a little bit of method to my posting madness.  Trent says so.

Starting now, I will be posting once every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

I don’t know how this will work with future Five-Week Courses, or how vacations will fit in, or if the timing structure will cause me to add some content structure. We’ll see how it develops.

Is it cheating to make things easier?

Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr
Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr

Wednesdays are new student registration day at my learning center.  I’d never get anything done if I took new students whenever they walked in or called, so I have everyone come to fill out their application and take their placement test on one evening out of the week.

Yesterday I had 8 students signed up for registration, and I usually get additional people who haven’t contacted me.  That would have been pretty chaotic, even for me.  So I did the unthinkable.  I asked for help.

It was great.  My volunteer told people about the schedule and helped with the application.  Then I could focus on finding the right test for each student and monitoring their progress. We ended up only having five new students (it was about 3 degrees outside, so I wasn’t surprised) but it was still a much calmer, more controlled process than other nights with five or so intakes.

So I want to know why it took me so long to ask for help, and why it still feels a little like cheating to change the system so that I’m not needing to juggle five (or eight) people at once.

The Zone (and strategy) Paid Off

I have to say, I think today’s presentation went well.  I didn’t see anyone fall asleep even in the dim lighting, I got a few questions at the end, a couple offers for help, and people laughed.

Important Statistic
"Important Statistic"

I’m particularly proud of one of my images, a graph.  It was my one and only statistic.  I didn’t mention it yesterday because I wasn’t positive it would go over well.  My audience was appreciative, for which I was grateful.  Yay.  (Also, in case you were wondering, it is a real graph of the first 8 numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.)

The Jeopardy! rip-off game was really fun too.  It always surprises me how much fun that game can be.  We decided to have the teams wave a scarf in the air to buzz in with answers, and it actually worked really well.   Notable team names were “Bad Reflexes” and “The Table.”  The most popular category was “Two Truths and a Lie: Staff Edition,” in which teams had to pick the one lie out of three statements about me and my officemate.  The ESL and GED categories were fine too though.

Based on comments I got after the presentation, my chosen strategy of using pictures, a conversational approach, and an interactive (and not too difficult) quiz game was well-received.  I seem to have hit upon a lot of information that people were actually interested in by using this model.  I also had a “wish list” slide to talk about our big dreams, and a couple of coworkers came up to me to say we should schedule a time to talk about how their programs could fulfill some of my site’s wishes.  Sweet!

So I guess I’d call it a success.  Now for a nap.