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Your Brain is Not Your Friend – October 13, 2007

Filed under: How-To — hairbygio @ 4:01 pm

Your Brain is Not Your Friend –

Your Brain is Not Your Friend

Your Brain is Not Your Friend

A mind is a terrible thing. Whether because of the brain’s internal structure or the way social and cultural pressures cause our minds to develop and function, in the end the result is the same: minds that are not only easily deceived and frequently deceptive in their own right, but when caught out, refuse to accept and address their errors. If you have a mind — or even half a mind — you might be best off losing it entirely. Barring that, though, there are a few things you should know about the enemy in your head. Before it hurts someone.

I see red pandas.

In 1978, a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam zoo. Hoping to enlist the public in finding this rare and distinctive-looking animal — it looks a bit like raccoon crossed with a small bear, but bright red — the zoo contacted the papers and stories ran in the local press with descriptions and contact information in case the poor creature was seen. Just as the story ran, the panda was found, dead.

Over the next few days over a hundred red panda sightings were reported. Keep in mind, red pandas are indigenous to tropical India, not temperate Holland. There is no chance that some other red panda was being seen and reported to the authorities. It’s also not likely that people were hallucinating, either. What is likely is that people were seeing some other animal or something else they couldn’t identify immediately, and interpreting it as a red panda.

When confronted with an unknown phenomenon, the brain immediately attempts to impose some kind of pattern or meaning onto it. Apparently, the brain can’t stand not knowing what something is. What happened in Rotterdam is that the news stories primed people to recognize anything mysterious or otherwise unexplainable as “red panda”, despite the unlikeliness. In other conditions, the template for the unknown might be an angel, Sasquatch, a UFO, faeries, or a will-o-wisp. Since the brain is working with so little evidence, it essentially makes it up, making our observations highly suspect.

Speaking of Priming

The suggestability of the brain extends to more than just the unknown and unusual. As it turns out, even everyday events can be shaped by subtle cues in our environment. In one study, two groups of subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and offered a crumbly biscuit by a research assistant afterward. In the room where the survey was administered to one of the two groups, there was a hidden pail of water with a splash of cleaning fluid, filling the air with a slight scent.

The survey was a McGuffin; the real object of the study was to see what subjects would do after they ate the crumbly biscuit. What happened is this: the participants in the room where the smell of cleaning fluid hung in the air were much more likely to clean up the crumbs left by the biscuit than the others.

A subtle effect to be sure (they ought to try it with teenagers!) but a good example of what psychologists call “priming”. Priming calls on deep memory associations in the brain — like the association of the smell of cleaning products with the act of cleaning — which seems to trigger responses without any conscious awareness or intention on our part. Isn’t that great?

Hey hey, good looking!

It’s not just priming that can subtly and unconsciously affect the way we behave; as it happens, the beliefs other people have about us, even if they don’t know us, can also affect our behavior. For example, psychologists set up telephone conversations between a man and a woman. Neither could see the other. Before the conversation started, the man was shown a photograph of the woman he was going to meet on the phone. However, the photograph was actually picked randomly, and depicted either an attractive woman or an unattractive one (how this was determined I don’t know).

Men who believed they were talking with an attractive woman were much more friendly, active, and open during the conversation than men who believed they were talking to an unattractive woman. What’s more, the women — who did not know whether their partners believed they were attractive or unattractive — responded differently depending on the beliefs of their partner. Women who were believed to be unattractive were more detached, cold, formal, and even rude than those who were believed to be attractive.

Clearly these women were picking up on and responding to unconscious clues in the way their male partners spoke to them. When men were friendly and talkative, the women responded with warmth; when men were distant, women responded accordingly. But the subjects themselves did not report any difference in the way they thought they had acted — for them, they were just “normal”.

But there’s more. In interviews before the conversation took part, the men were asked to describe what they expected their partners to be like. Men who thought they were about to talk to an attractive woman said they expected her to be warm, open, friendly, and so on — which in most cases is exactly what she was. Men who expected their partner unattractive thought they would also be cold, distant, and unfriendly — and lo and behold, she was. In our minds, attractive people are better people — and apparently thinking makes it so.

“Nothing more than a dog’s breakfast”

Well, that’s brains for you — ” three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge” in Kurt Vonnegut’s colorful estimation. Somehow, this little bundle of nerves and fat manages to guide us through our days, most of the time without getting us killed. Along the way, though, these little quirks — and a host of others, which I’ll revisit at a later date — can cause a lot of trouble. Good people’s talents are overlooked because we don’t like the looks of them. The worst aspects of our personalities are brought to the fore because of a subtle environmental cue, like a briefcase on a table. We imagine things that aren’t there — and get offended when others have the audacity to question our observations. We find ourselves doing things with no rational explanation for why were doing them — and even worse, sometimes we don’t find ourselves doing them, we do them without even knowing!

It all seems rather hopeless, but I’m optimistic. Knowing how our minds get in their own way, we can catch these behaviors and put them right — or put them to work for us. It takes work — individual work for sure, and in some cases the work of our entire societies. But I’m convinced we can think of ways to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive.

If only we didn’t have to rely on the same brains to figure that out…


Accomplish More By Doing Less – Dumb Little Man

Filed under: How-To — hairbygio @ 3:59 pm

Accomplish More By Doing Less – Dumb Little Man

Accomplish More By Doing Less

Posted by: Jay White on 10/12/2007 | Join the Discussion (2 comments)

The ‘Einstein Principle’ is very simple. It basically states that we are most productive when we have fewer projects to devote more of our time on. Common sense, right? This way of thinking, if practiced, leads to some interesting results that most definitely increase productivity. If all your attention is spread over less projects, those projects will benefit.

Cal Newport at StudyHacks takes this principle and adapts it to real life so we’re not just purging projects left, right and center.

It involves separating projects into professional, extracurricular, and personal categories [or the like] and marking important projects with stars while removing those that you could leave to rot with no consequence.

With the remaining items, develop a 1-3 week plan for each project, as Cal explains.

Once you completed your crunch plan you’ll be left with only a small number of important projects. In essence, you have purged your schedule of all but a few contenders to be your next Theory of Relativity. Here’s the important part: Try to go at least one month without starting any new projects. Resist, at all costs, committing to anything during this month. Instead, just focus, with an Einsteinian intensity, on your select list.

The great thing about this kind of focus with goals is that it doesn’t only apply to college life. Make these same distinctions with your own projects and focus on what’s important to see some great results.

The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less – [StudyHacks]


Top 10 Ways to Sleep Smarter and Better – Lifehacker

Filed under: How-To — hairbygio @ 3:55 pm

Lifehacker Top 10: Top 10 Ways to Sleep Smarter and Better – Lifehacker

Top 10 Ways to Sleep Smarter and Better

Nothing kills your ability to get things done faster than a bad night’s sleep. Studies show that sleep deprivation costs Americans significant work productivity; yawning employees can’t stay alert, make good decisions, focus on tasks or even manage a friendly mood at the office. There are lots of ways to beat insomnia, increase the quality of your sleep, and master the power nap. Today we’ve got our top 10 favorite sleep techniques, tips and facts. Photo by dkaz.

10. Reduce Screen Time Before Bed
nightcomputing.jpgStop checking your email or watching TV just before bedtime and you’ll sleep better. A recent study shows that people who consume electronic media (read: stare at a backlit screen) just before bedtime report lower-quality sleep even when they get as much sleep as non-pre-bedtime screenheads. Lifehacker reader JFitzpatrick says this makes perfect sense:

Using a light-emitting device before bed like a flickering TV or computer monitor stimulates the brain in a different way than the way the body was intended to move towards sleep (gradually as the sun set) That’s why it is so easy to waste sleepless hours flipping from channel to channel (or reading Lifehacker or Digg). The exposure to light stimulates the brain and creates a false alertness and stimulation.

9. Exercise to Enhance Sleep
race_running_speed_267198_l.jpgYou already know that exercising provides lots of good health benefits—a good night’s sleep being one of them. But make sure you exercise in the morning or afternoon, not at night, to see the benefits while you dream. CNN reports:

The National Sleep Foundation reports that exercise in the afternoon can help deepen shut-eye and cut the time it takes for you to fall into dreamland. But, they caution, vigorous exercise leading up to bedtime can actually have the reverse effects. A 2003 study found that a morning fitness regime was key to a better snooze. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center concluded that postmenopausal women who exercised 30 minutes every morning had less trouble falling asleep than those who were less active. The women who worked out in the evening hours saw little or no improvement in their sleep patterns.Oh yeah, exercise enhances that other bedtime activity, too: sex. (But that’s a whole other top 10.)

8. Eat to Enhance Sleep
Some foods are more conducive to a better night’s sleep than others. You already knew about warm milk, chamomile tea and turkey, but Yahoo Food lists others, like bananas, potatoes, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread. You find yourself fighting off afternoon droopy eyelids at the office? Here are some pointers on eating a less nap-inducing lunch.

7. Master the Power Nap
sleeppod.jpgSlowly but surely, the benefits of the classic, 20-minute power nap are getting more recognition, with big companies installing sleep pods at the office and more software applications like Pzizz helping to set the right power nap aural scene. Here’s how to get the perfect nap from the author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, and more on how and why power naps work.

6. Avoid the Soul-Shattering Alarm Buzzer
No one likes starting the day by getting ripped out of bed by that evil BEEP BEEP BEEP of the alarm clock, but some sleepyheads ignore anything gentler. Lifehacker reader Jason beats the buzzer with a dual clock radio system:

Put one alarm clock on your nightstand, the other across the room and make sure they’re in sync. Set the alarm clock on your nightstand to go off at, let’s say, 6:30 a.m., if that is when you need to get up. I set that one to use the radio, and make sure it is loud enough to wake me up, but not too loud (I don’t want to wake my wife on purpose). The second alarm clock on the dresser is set to go off exactly one minute later, but using that dreadful buzzer. So, when my alarm goes off in the morning, it doesn’t startle me like the buzzer. Then, I know I have about 60 seconds to get up and turn the other one off before I hear a buzzing sound. At that point, I am out of bed, and no buzzer.Of course, some particularly talented sleepers can program themselves to wake up before the alarm clock goes off naturally. (The rest of us hate you.)

5. Solve Problems in Your Sleep
Wrestling with a tough decision, stuck in a creative rut or having a hard time solving a complex problem? Studies show that a little shut-eye can help you tackle problems and make tough decisions.


4. Beat Insomnia with Visualization
There’s nothing worse than laying awake throughout the night, watching the clock tick away seconds knowing you’ll be a zombie the next day. When insomnia’s kicking your sleepy butt, use a self-directed meditative visualization technique to quiet the whir of a racing mind. Guest contributor Ryan Irelan runs down how to beat insomnia with “Blue Energy.”

3. Shortcut a Long Nap with the Clattering Spoon
spoon.jpgArtist and napper Salvador Dali had an interesting nap technique, based on the idea that your body benefits from just getting to sleep as much as a couple of hours worth of shut-eye. He purportedly used a spoon to wake himself up just as he lost consciousness. According to Question Swap (via 43F), here’s what you do:

Lie down or sit in comfy seat holding a spoon in your fingertips. you should be holding it in a way that – when you loose consciousness (sleep) you drop it… the Clatter (put a big plate on the floor under your hand) will wake you…. and you get woken JUST as you enter the best “dreamy” bit of your sleep. Alternatively, hold a bunch of keys: same effect.

2. Take a Caffeine Power Nap

Need a turbo boost to beat the sleepy doldrums pinch? Try a cup of coffee followed by a quick 15-minute nap to reboot your brain and get you going again.

1. Teach Yourself to Lucid Dream
crazydreams.pngArrive at school naked in that terrible dream last night? Turn nightmares around by knowing you’re dreaming while you do it. Lucid dreaming opens up all sorts of possibilities for controlling where and how your dreams go. Teach yourself to lucid dream by keeping a dream journal and learning reality checks and dream extending techniques. (Some great comments here by lucid-dreaming readers, too.) Intrigued? Here are more lucid dreaming FAQs.


How to Cure your Road Rage October 12, 2007

Filed under: How-To — hairbygio @ 12:20 pm

Quoted from

How to Cure your Road Rage

from Dumb Little Man – Tips for Life by Jay White @ DLMRoad RageDo you find yourself getting angry while driving? Is that an understatement? Does your blood boil? Do you curse like a sailor and secretly wish to launch projectiles at fellow drivers? Would you like to break this cycle of road rage? Well you can and it’s not that hard to do.

Controlling anger offers two great benefits. You will put less stress on your body which will keep your blood pressure down and you’ll also feel better. Secondly, you will you can lower your risk of an accident, since driving while angry makes you more likely to get into an accident.

Tips to Control Anger While Driving:

  1. Commitment
    This is the first step. You must know why you want to change. This way when your triggers occur you can remind yourself of the benefits that will stem from becoming a more relaxed driver.
  2. Analyze
    Take a few moments right now to simply jot down all the things that trigger your anger. Also identify the scenarios that trigger your anger. Examples: getting cut off, heavy traffic, running late, tailgating, being passed, etc.
  3. Prepare
    Next, write down the positive new actions you can take when these triggers occur in the future. Here are some examples:

    • Getting Cut Off – I will ease off on the gas and mentally welcome others to go ahead of me. I know that it won’t make much of a difference in when I arrive. I realize I’m not in a race.
    • Heavy Traffic – I will make a choice to enjoy the ride. I won’t mentally fight situations that I can’t control. I will relax with the slow pace. I will look for and prepare ways to enjoy the ride such as listening to music, talk radio, audio books, or talking to friends on my cellphone headset.
    • When I’m Late – I will plan to arrive early from now on so traffic won’t bother me. If I am late, I won’t get mad at other drivers. It’s not their fault I left late. I won’t get mad at myself. I will simply call ahead to my destination to announce that I will be late. I will accept it. What’s done is done. I will choose to relax and enjoy the ride regardless.
  4. Adopt New Habits
    • Arrive Early. Always plan to leave 15-30 minutes earlier than you normally would. It’s amazing the amount of stress that this prevents. This one habit has made a huge difference in my life. Always bring something to occupy your time when you arrive such as reading or writing material.
    • Intention Power. When you get into the car, before you turn the ignition, close your eyes. Take 5 slow deep breaths. Consciously relax your body. Blow out any stress or tension you are holding onto. Then commit in your mind to drive slowly, to remain calm & peaceful, and to enjoy the ride. Now smile and turn on the car.
    • Yield. Make it a habit to yield to others both on the road physically and in your mind. Assume the best about people. Give the benefit of the doubt. Smile. Wave people on. What have you got to lose? (Not time. Remember you’ve left early, right?) And, next, expect nothing in return. Do this simply for your own benefit, not for gratitude.
    • The Journey Philosophy. Every time you drive remind yourself that you’re not in a race. Wrap your mind around a completely new philosophy of loving and enjoying the journey. Save your racing instincts for when you are running, biking, or some other sport.
    • Handling Kids. Make the ride fun. Talk, sing, and laugh with your kids. If the kids are unruly, always start off on a positive but firm note. Use sugar first. Appeal to them as if you are all on the same team. Ask them to help you out by not fighting or making too much noise. Refrain from sounding exasperated. That negative energy will make the situation worse. If you don’t get cooperation, simply state a consequence that is realistic, time-bound, and that you will follow through on. For instance if you are going to the County Fair, don’t make the consequence that you’ll turn around and go home (unless that is what you would prefer). Make it that the child will lose the privilege of their favorite toy for a day. Or something that only impacts the child and not everyone else. Your children will heed future warnings and comply if they know that you always follow through.


Our Lady of Perfection: books

Filed under: Book Review — hairbygio @ 12:07 pm

Quoted from

Our Lady of Perfection: books

Book review: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud


I’ll probably only review books that I really like — I’ll tell you what I liked, and if it sounds appealing to you, you might like the book as well.

The Emperor’s Children is a model of character development, and has an omniscient narrator, which I love. This narrator, this author, seems to understand everything about everybody, and has a real eye and ear for people’s motivations, behavior, and foibles. None of the characters are perfect, here, but all are understandable and perfect in their own way.

It’s hard to sum up what the book is “about” — events, some romantic, some work-related, some violent, befall the characters and have an impact on them. I think the most appealing aspect for me was that everyone’s errors are really understandable in light of who they are and where they’ve come from.

The title, of course, refers to the sartorially challenged emperor of the fairy tale, and at first I thought it meant that the children of the “emperor” — in this case, Murray Thwaite, a cultural critic who isn’t necessarily wiser than the rest of the culture — were all fakes and phonies. But now I think it’s more that Messud shows them all as they are, alone in their rooms, stripped of the pretense we all wear to appear in the world.

As Murray’s daughter, Marina, his nephew, Bootie, and Marina’s friends, Danielle and Julius move through the book, all are making great efforts to grow up and find themselves. It’s like a coming of age book, but most of them have already “come of age” — they are taking on the next phase of their adult lives, most of them for the first time becoming disillusioned with Thwaite and the culture he represents — which, much to Messud’s credit, she herself does not condemn, representing this disillusionment as a necessary part of the growth of a new generation. Murray is not a one-sided figure of fun; he is, in his own way, as sympathetic a character as any of the “young people.”

One of my favorite parts of the book was an episode in which Danielle muses on laughter and how it changes in adulthood. There are many such touches in the book — many observations about modern and not-so-modern life that are especially apt.

I had a bit of trouble getting into this book at first — the characters didn’t seem very likeable — but soon I was mesmerized. I highly recommend it.


How to Read a Painting – October 6, 2007

Filed under: How-To — hairbygio @ 3:16 pm

How to Read a Painting –

How to Read a Painting


How to Read a Painting

Art is a great status symbol in modern society and because of that it can be quite intimidating to the casual viewer. For many the first impulse is to blow it off, to see it as a worthless plaything for the rich and boring. This is too bad, not only because art can be a great source of pleasure in our lives, but because even a passing acquaintance with art can enrich and deepen our understanding of the world around us.

Fortunately, developing a casual understanding of art is not all that difficult. It is true that some people devote their entire lives to studying the minutest details of an artists’ work, but there’s no need to become an expert to have a meaningful relationship with art. All it takes is a moderate attention to detail, a little bit of patience, and a willingness to reflect on your own feelings.

Here, I’ll show you a quick way to approach and appreciate a painting, although the ideas here can be applied to works in other mediums (sculpture, drawing, even architecture and fashion) quite easily. There’s no shortcut to understanding I can give; great art rewards the hundredth viewing as much as he first, and you can spend a lifetime pondering the decisions an artist made in one painting. Instead, I’ll try to give you a process to follow that will help you get the most out of a painting the first time you see it.

While I’m on the subject, a word about “great art”. Andy Warhol said that if you want to tell a good painting from a bad one, first look at a thousand paintings. There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a piece great, mediocre, or bad; remember, Van Gogh’s work was once considered amateurish and forgettable. There are, of course, standards that matter within the professional art world, but you don’t owe the professionals anything, so don’t worry too much about what they think qualifies as “great”.


Take a Look


Art should appeal to you first through your senses. That doesn’t mean a painting has to be beautiful to be good, but it must grab your eye in some way. Give a work a moment to do its thing — some works are intriguing in subtle ways. A work might grab your attention through its subject matter, it’s use of color, an interesting juxtaposition of objects, it’s realistic appearance, a visual joke, or any number of other factors.

Breughel's Tower of Babel

Once you’ve gotten an overall look at the painting, ask yourself “what’s this a picture of?” That is, what is the subject of the painting? The subject might be a landscape, a person or group of people, a scene from a story, a building or city scene, an animal, a still life (a collection of everyday items like a bowl of fruit, a pile of books, or a set of tools), a fantasy scene, and so on. Some paintings won’t have a subject — much of the work of the 20th century is abstract, playing with form and color and even the quality of the paint rather than representing reality.

The painting above, by the Dutch artist Breughel, represents the Tower of Babel. Scenes from the Bible or from classical mythology are popular in older work; since the end of the 19th century, scenes of everyday life have become more common. If you know the story, you’re one step ahead of the game, but it’s possible to enjoy the work without knowing the story it illustrates.


What’s That All About?


Look for symbols. A symbol, very simply, is something that means something else. The Tower of Babel is a well-known symbol in Western society, representing both the dangers of pride and the disruption of human unity. Often a painting will include very clear symbols — skulls, for instance, were often included in portraits of the wealthy to remind them that their wealth was only worldly and, in the grand scheme of things, ultimately meaningless. But just as often the symbolism is unique, the artist’s own individual statement. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to figure out “what the artist meant”; focus instead on what the work says to you.


How’d They Do That?


Vermeer's Milkmaid

The next consideration is style, which is essentially the mark of the artist’s individual creativity on the canvas. Some artists follow well-established styles — many Renaissance portraits look almost exactly alike to the casual viewer, for instance — while others go out of their way to be different and challenging. Some artists create closely detailed, finely controlled works, others slap paint around almost haphazardly creating a wild, ecstatic effect.

It may not seem as obvious as the subject and symbolism, but style can also convey meaning to a viewer. For example, Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings convey the motion and freedom of the artist in the act of creation, despite being completely abstract. Vermeer’s Milkmaid, on the other hand, is notable for it’s incredibly fine detail and careful application of thin glazes of oil paints (which doesn’t come across in a photograph, alas) which create a luminous quality, imparting a kind of nobility and even divinity to the simple act of a servant pouring milk.


My Kid Could Do That!


A large part of the appeal of art is emotional — some artists go out of their way to inspire strong reactions ranging from awe and lust to anger and disgust. It’s easy to dismiss work that upsets our notion of what art could be, and any visitor to a gallery of modern art is likely to overhear at least one person complaining that “any three-year old with a box of crayons could do that!”

Knowing that an artist may be deliberately evoking an emotional response, it pays to take a moment and question our immediate reactions. If a work makes you angry, ask yourself why. What is it about the work that upsets you? What purpose might the artist have in upsetting you? Likewise, if your feelings are positive, why are they positive? What about the painting makes you happy? And so on — take the time to examine your own emotions in the presence of the painting.


This is by no means a complete introduction to art, let alone a complete course, but it should help get you started in appreciating art. The more you know, the better the experience will become, but you don’t need to know much to get at least something out of a painting. Keep in mind these 4 concepts (I’m trying not to call them the “Four Esses”) — subject, symbolism, style, and self-examination — and pay a visit to your local art museum or gallery and see if you don’t find something worth your time.

Artwork courtesy of Nicholas Pioch’s WebMuseum.


Health and Marriage

Filed under: How-To — hairbygio @ 2:54 pm


Health and Marriage: the way you fight with your spouse is more important than how often you fight


from LifeTwo blogs by Wesley

Add “how you argue with your spouse” to such lifestyle choices as diet, exercise, and smoking in determining your health profile. If you really want to be healthy, after you finish your daily run and are munching on your organic greens, tell your spouse what you really thing. This advice is based on a study of 4,000 men and women and how they handle verbal marital disputes and reported in the New York Times.

Researchers asked participants whether they typically vented their feelings or kept quiet in arguments with their spouse.

Notably, 32 percent of the men and 23 percent of the women said they typically bottled up their feelings during a marital spat. In men, keeping quiet during a fight didn’t have any measurable effect on health. But women who didn’t speak their minds in those fights were four times as likely to die during the 10-year study period as women who always told their husbands how they felt, according to the July report in Psychosomatic Medicine. Whether the woman reported being in a happy marriage or an unhappy marriage didn’t change her risk.

The Times piece also noted that other research on those who bottle up feelings during arguments showed psychological and physical health risks including depression, eating disorders and heart disease.

What was not tested, and may or may not be relevant, is what would happen if instead of speaking up, and instead of “bottling it up”, if participants worked on just “letting it go.” While it would be difficult to test for this admittedly overly-subjective conflict strategy, it does bring up an important point. Many things that are argued about are simply not worth arguing about. Yes, speaking your mind appears to be better for your health than holding it in, perhaps there is something better than dishing it back out. Regardless, the results are pretty clear, from the perspective of your personal health, if you can’t let go, it is better to speak up than not. (Note: if you don’t agree with this you are better off leaving me a comment telling me so than holding it inside.)