Brain Function

Tetris, Take Me Away!

I’m into Sock Dye these days, a Facebook game that gives you a certain number of clicks to turn a field of socks all the same color. I play a couplafew games of Sock Dye every few hours during the day, and at night I wind down with Sock Dye and Jon Stewart.

I’ve been through a Freecell phase, a Word Drop phase, and Tetris is a longtime favorite. My husband has called it “sorbet for the mind,” which seems a perfect description. Some time with these games leaves me feeling calm and refreshed.

I also like them while I’m on the phone. I’m introverted and kinda ADD and not a fan of the phone. I have a hard time keeping my busy mind focused on a disembodied voice. Keeping half my mind engaged with an easy game actually helps me pay better attention to the call.

These games are powerful stuff, and it’s not all bad.


Parsing Denial: When We Know Better But Do It Anyway

Here’s a chilling news story, about a father who was texting while driving and rear-ended a pickup, killing one daughter and injuring the other.

This story makes me hyperventilate a little.

Then it makes me think about denial.

What is it that makes us do stupid things we know are dangerous? With all the information out there about the dangers of texting and driving, everything we hear about our brain’s inability to be effective at multitasking, all the highway fatalities we hear about daily, why do people still think they can text and drive? I can’t wrap my mind around that.

What is denial, really?

We know what it is, but what is it? I typed “denial” into a scientific journals database and results included articles on denial and cancer, heart disease, drug addiction, head injury, and one theoretical paper arguing that denial-like processes are at the core of the cognitive coping mechanisms we have evolved as humans.

Could be. Sometimes denial works for us.

Brain Function

Carrying a Torch? Here Are Words That Should Douse It

Love is a beautiful thing except when it isn’t.

Most people, when they realize a relationship isn’t working, go through a period of mourning and move on. Then there are the torch carriers—people who pine long past the point of good sense. People who can’t let go even after they’ve been rejected. I know about them. I’ve been there and I've done some casual research on the subject that I'll share with you.

Torch carrying feels like OCD—in fact, researchers have found that low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, addiction, OCD…and the first thrilling, obsessive stage of love. Is torch carrying a plunge of serotonin that gets stuck, like a toilet tank that won’t refill, causing that endless, irritating sound of rushing water?

And addiction sounds right, too--which is why cold turkey is probably the best way for torch carriers to end a relationship. It works for smoking, drinking, and drugs. Being friends is probably just methadone; you have to kick that eventually, too.


Two Stereotypes: Fat and Happy, Fat and Sad

The Dieticians Association of Australia used new research published in the Australia Health Review to help promote its Healthy Weight Week, which was January 23 to 30th.

The research found that:

Compared with individuals of the same age who were normal weight or overweight, participants aged 45-54 who were obese were more likely to report that emotional problems had affected their work, social or regular activities in the past month.

In addition, the participants aged between 45 and 54 years who were obese were less likely to have felt calm and peaceful in the previous month.



Obese people of a certain age are unhappier and more anxious than people of that age who are not obese.

We know that correlation isn’t causation. We don’t know if the unhappy/anxious obese study participants are unhappy because they’re obese or obese because they’re unhappy. We don't know what had happened in their lives during the month under discussion. We don’t know why they are obese. It’s possible (as these researchers acknowledge) that antidepressant medication caused this group to gain weight. Or maybe, as some people suggest, the stigma of being overweight led to their depression. Or maybe they got fat because depression saps energy and lack of activity causes weight gain.

Brain Function

Babies Have to Get Their Way Somehow

New research indicates that babies understand social dominance related to size. Scientists discovered this by showing babies two cartoons in which two blocks with faces come face-to-face. In one cartoon, the smaller block defers to the larger block and steps aside, in the other the larger block steps aside. The babies looked longer at the cartoon in which the large block defers to the small, which indicates that they were surprised by this turn of events.

There’s something almost scary to me about this image of babies gazing thoughtfully at the small block in charge. We seem to learn something new every day about babies’ capacity for understanding, so I imagine gears cranking furiously as the babies considered the possibility that they are more powerful than they realized. Were they just showing interest or were they planning a coup?


Passing Through the Tunnel of Adversity and Emerging Resilient

As a little girl, I sometimes tried to imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one, and concluded I couldn’t survive it. (I was a dark little thing.) Though I lost my grandfather when I was a teen, it wasn’t until I lost a brother, when I was in my 20s, that I fully experienced loss. It was hard. Very. A long, dark tunnel that I traveled for a long, dark time.

And yet, somehow, eventually, I came out the other side. And strange as this might seem—and as much as I still miss Oliver—I emerged feeling I had gained precious insight into life, death, and myself.

Brain Function

What Is the Opposite of Writing?

Not that I am in the habit of turning to semi-obscure TV sitcom stars for wisdom, but I once found in the newspaper a quote from Jenna Elfman that struck me as so wise, I clipped it and kept it over my desk for years.

Guru Elfman said, “Do other things. I don’t just act. It starts to feel like you’re digging into an open wound when you do the same thing all the time. It becomes achy, sore, and tiresome.”


Epiphany: Just One Step of the Journey

The conclusions drawn in a paper titled “The mental health of mothers in and after violent and controlling unions,” published in Social Science Research are of the “well, yeah” sort for me. Reviewing longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, the authors conclude that, "Overall, we find that women are still at risk for mental health problems even after leaving IPV [intimate partner violence] unions."

Among the reasons cited for the continued mental health problems of women leaving abusive relationships are the presence of children, which requires continued interaction with the abusive partner; the stress of being a single parent; and financial hardship. All of which are undoubtedly correct, and certainly this paper importantly highlights the need to provide ongoing mental health services for women who have left abusive relationships. The data used focused on mostly minority low-income women with children, so this information is especially salient in these days of ever-deepening budget cuts to social services.

But, not to trivialize the very serious matters of poverty and partner abuse, I’d like to toss one other interpretation into the mix, one that applies to everyone, not just people in such dire circumstances. It is this: Epiphany is just the beginning of change.

Brain Function

Baby on Stage: Music, Performance, and the Infant Brain

The other night I went to see a very entertaining jazz/swing band called the Jitterbug Vipers.

Adding to the fun, singer Sarah Sharp wore her five-month-old son, Angus, in a wrap carrier while she performed. Angus was cheerfully mellow about the whole business, so I’m guessing it was not his first time in front of an audience. You can watch some video of that show here. (Video, with sounds, starts automatically. And annoyingly.)

To preempt criticism, Sarah pointed out to the audience that Angus was wearing earplugs. They evidently were quite effective, because halfway through the set, Sarah turned him from facing out to facing in and he promptly fell asleep.