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Below is a collection of unintended consequences that frequently show up in the wake of abandonment and neglect. Each one of the topic headings below is a hyperlink that will take you to the relevant research. The good news is that once we understand the implications, we can begin the work of creative restoration …

Lack of Modeling

When a parent abandons the family one of the main things that goes missing is the energy that person expended to operate inside and outside the home. They can no longer serve us as models – good or bad – for how to make sense of our nescient, unfolding nature. They also take with them any creative capacity, earning potential and/or the promise of a safe and manageable future. Two parents increase the odds of feeling cared-for and protected by competent adults. Anxiety and uncertainty often rule daily life when one checks out. And as this brain study reveals, anxiety and uncertainty literally unravel our brain’s neural network.

Diminished Novel Life Experience

The hippocampus in each of our brain’s temporal lobes is constantly appraising our environment for novelty. When it finds it, feel-good hormones get triggered. But when only one parent is left to do all the heavy lifting necessary for sustaining a household, novel experiences often are required to take a back seat to the urgency of meeting basic survival needs. Novelty, so critical for growing new brain cells and expanding existing neural networks, ends up getting literally lost in the shuffle.

Impaired Thinking Ability

Molly's scarf unraveledThe brain is a network formed in much the same way a knitted or crocheted scarf is. It works best when strong connections can easily move energy and information about. When there are tears in the fabric (the neural network), it can’t readily perform its proper function. Thinking ability is one of the functions that a brain with holes (lacunae) in it begins to have difficulty with, often without us ever realizing it, or ever knowing what to do about it!

Increased Stress and Poverty

When one of the parents leaves the family, we’re 4 times more likely to be poor, in contrast to families with both parents in the home. With poverty comes all kinds of additional stressors that lead to things like the inability to manage Executive Functions (see below), weak connections to friends and family and a serious lack of social skills.

Little Reliable Guidance

The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience identifies that the more positive, kind, competent, caring people we have around us, the better our life will be overall. Losing a parent removes a significant source of the reliable guidance upon which the Golden Rule rests. And the older we get, the increasingly difficult time we have finding such people to help us.

Reduced Resilience

Resilience is the ability to adapt and overcome risk and adversity, such as being raised in a one-parent family.

Being resilient doesn’t mean living a life free from stress and pain. Resilience means we’re able to work through the difficult emotions and effects of stress and painful events. But without the parental resources in the home to help with that, many of us never learn how.

Resilience can develop as we get older and gain better thinking and self-awareness and more knowledge. It can also come from supportive relationships with parents, peers and others, as well as cultural beliefs and traditions that help us cope with the inevitable bumps in life. Fortunately, resilience can be learned and developed across the lifespan. And that’s a good thing.

Compromised Executive Functioning

Here is a list of the so-called Executive Functions:

  • Planning and Prioritizing
  • Time Management
  • Organization of thinking and environment
  • Working Memory
  • Metacognition
  • Response Inhibition
  • Easy Self-Regulation of Emotions
  • Task Initiating
  • Flexibility of Thinking or Behavior
  • Goal-Directed Persistence
  • Sustaining Attention
  • Disengaging Attention
  • The Ability to Regulate Information Processing Speed

How many of these abilities do you struggle with?

Degraded Impulse Control

Impulse Control can be defined as the inability to resist an impulsive act or behavior that may be harmful to yourself or other people, places or things. Impulsive acts are mostly not premeditated or considered in advance. They are usually acts which a person has little or no control over. There are six area where poor impulse control mostly shows up Trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Pathological Gambling, Kleptomania, Pyromania, and Not Otherwise Specified. Not Otherwise Specified covers all kinds of difficulties where we struggle to exert consistent self-control. Think eating, drinking, sex, exercising, over-talking – anything that runs the risk of becoming addictive or beyond our ability to easily control.

Increased Vulnerability to Drugs or Alcohol Abuse

drugs_by_outofworkNationally, drugs and alcohol abuse costs the country over half a trillion dollars annually. And that’s not even taking into account what we know it does to the brain – significantly reduces the brain’s ability to regulate and readily process energy and information – or what it does to future, unborn generations.

There’s one primary reason we use drugs or alcohol (and that includes tobacco) – in order to feel better. What we mostly want to feel better about is how stress hormones, constantly flooding the brain and body, make us feel. The unfortunate thing is drugs, tobacco and alcohol work, and they work quite well … in the short run. It’s the unintended consequences of the long run that turn out to be the much greater problem.

No Positive Answer to The Big Brain Question

The brain living in those of us who have been abandoned and neglected in life, by the very nature of abandonment and neglect, fails to have this fundamental question answered positively. We often spend much of the remainder of our days unconsciously looking to recover and reclaim what has been lost to us. Usually, without us ever realizing it, much of our drive and life’s motivation is to find people who might finally have the strength of heart, ways and means to answer The Big Brain Question – “Are you there for me?” – unfailingly in the affirmative.

Because this early wound is so deep and so global, our compulsion to try to heal it turns out to be so profound that we will often unconsciously devise rigorous tests for the people around us, to see if they can stand the pressure and come out the other side still by our side. More than a few good relationships have crashed and burned in the aftermath of these kinds of challenges. To be successful in skillfully passing such tests, researcher Andrew Boyd points out … we have to commit ourselves to the wrong person, but not just any wrong person. They must be the right wrong person. Turns out the right wrong person is not so easy to find for those of us with complex early abandonment and neglect histories.

For suggestions about how to address and resolve some of these dynamics, click HERE.

Will you help by taking this One Question Survey?

For most of this year the readership, engagement and public commentary on the blog has been steadily declining. While it’s probably to be expected after 7+ years, it’s my belief that whatever use and value readers used to get from my research and writing, they no longer get. So, that suggests I need to either change things up in ways that actually do provide use and value for the time and energy people spend reading what I write each week, or I need to consider moving on and devoting my own time and energy to something that will provide better benefit.

Changing Things Up

change_by_rantlWith that in mind, here are my current plans for changing things up going forward.

1. It’s become clear that I’m not going to be able to read and review books for The Enchanted Loom AND do the research and writing for the blog every week. My own time and energy constraints necessitate that I do one or the other.

2. Nevertheless, I choose both.

3. Starting this week, The Enchanted Loom, a graphic review of neuroscience books that have profoundly influenced how I think about the brain and how its function can be radically set right, will be the focus on alternating Sundays .

4. Every other week will be a blog post based upon recent evidence-based neuroscience that will be framed by me asking one primary question: How can this information make people’s lives better? This will not only give me some part of an extra week for researching and editing, but the opportunity to go into subjects to much greater depth.

Going Forward

So those are the changes I’m putting in place beginning this morning. They will take us through to the end of the year, when, depending upon how things look then, I’ll consider making further changes.

So, with this bit of clarification, here’s a link to my review of Tara Swart’s, Kitty Chisholm’s and Paul Brown’s outstanding exploration of Neuroscience for Leadership.

Finally, you can help by taking this One Question Survey.

“A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart.” – Jonathan Swift

Here are 3 changes plus a bonus that will almost certainly affect your money brain in good ways…

Make more friends.

Every spiritual economics book I’ve ever read counsels that the greatest riches come from the close connections we obtain in community. It’s magical when we find our tribe (and if you believe Dunbar’s Number your tribe will have 150 members in it, plus or minus). Healthy communities become rich in many ways. An exemplary example in my mind is represented in the research by social and biological scientists that resulted in the description of Authoritative Communities entitled, Hardwired to Connect (Note: I would actually change that title to – Live-Wired to Connect, since it more accurately reflects what goes on in our brains).

Here are ten characteristics of Authoritative Communities as identified by the Commission on Children at Risk. Notice how many of them mirror the workings of a healthy brain:

a community hand image

An Authoritative Community 1) is a social institution that includes children and youth; 2) it treats children as ends in themselves; 3) it is warm and nurturing; 4) it establishes clear boundaries and limits; 5) it is defined and guided at least partly by non-specialists; 6) it is multi-generational; 7) it has a long term focus; 8) it encourages spiritual and religious development; 9) it reflects and transmits a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person; 10) it is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor.

Make a few enemies.

The old shibboleth, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” actually turns out to have some relevance to neuroeconomics. If we posit that growth shows up in the brain as FACES – the acronym UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel offers for a super-healthy brain – such an organ would be Flexible, Adaptable, Coherent, Energized and Stable. Basically, able to meet the world in the moment wide awake but not hyperaroused, especially when it comes to money. Only our brains can’t grow and become integrated like that unless we practice. Enemies offer us just the practice opportunities our brain needs.

Enemies can become the fruit we get to put in our spiritual and economic juicer in order to practice creatively growing and integrating our brain’s (and heart’s) neural networks. They are the people who can trigger us and catapult us over the hyperarousal hump. We probably don’t have to go out of our way to deliberately make enemies like that, though. In any community of 150 people our brains are quite capable of accessing and transferring traumatic memories which will morph more than a few of them into pulp fiction – static stories our brain loves to make up about people and set them in the concrete so necessary for us to keep doing our work. We probably want to keep their numbers to a manageable minimum, though.

Offer the world more value.

None of us receives even a dime but that other people give it to us. And there are two primary reasons people give other people money: 1. They receive something of value in exchange; or 2. They love … often, us (refer back to No. 1 just mentioned). That’s it.

A Money LoveIf we have a job and receive a paycheck, then our boss is giving us money for the value she places on the time and energy we devote to making the business successful. If we work for ourselves, then people only pay us for goods or services that they receive in exchange. In order to receive more money, find creative ways to increase the real and perceived value of the goods or services you provide.

Additionally, consider spending increasing amounts of time with … people who truly love.

Turn yourself into a master CAO

Everything that’s challenging with each of the above guidelines is challenging primarily for one reason: one way or another they transmit an electrochemical signal that semi-automatically tells our adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones. Among a number of distressing physiological actions, stress hormones tighten the muscles in the body, usually in response to one thing: the scary stories/thoughts our left hemisphere constantly makes up about people, places and things. Continually walking through the world with a tight jaw and tensioned abs doesn’t really feel all that great.

One way to address this surreptitious stress hormone situation is to begin practices that will allow you to become a master CAO – Chief Adrenal Officer (This is where those enemies above come in). CAOs are constantly experimenting with ways to gain conscious mastery over what actions their adrenal medulla and adrenal cortex take throughout any day.

So, there you go. Take on any or all of these directives and be amazed at what happens to your “net worth,” guaranteed.

For those of you who might want to play around with further changing your brain, click HERE to explore my one-of-a-kind, month-long exploration into … Money Relationships and the Brain.

“I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.”       ~ Steve Martin

I’ve made a LOT of mistakes with money over the years. I wish I could say I learned something valuable from each of them, but I can’t. I’ve made some of the same mistakes over and over again. It’s by examining the mistakes I’ve made repeatedly that I’ve probably learned the most. One small example: Stop borrowing big money to spend on non-appreciating assets.

The Gift of Gelt

In my early 20s I was fortunate enough to start a lucrative business with a friend. We provided custom manufactured airplane parts to the U.S. Navy and Air Force. At that time, the military had little concern with costs – they needed the things we supplied and they needed them NOW. There was a war to win.

Well, NOW was expensive. And extremely profitable. By age 24 I owned a house, a new Triumph motorcycle, a fancy sports car and I was partners in a fishing boat and a private plane. We also owned our own manufacturing building and all the machinery in it.

a should mustBy age 27 it was all gone and I had opted out for what I was intending to be a much simpler, back-to-the-land lifestyle. I’d hit the crossroads between Should and Must. In retrospect, what that move was really intended to do was find a way to manage the stress hormones constantly flooding my brain and body by my adrenal glands. At bottom, moving back to the land was an attempt by me to become my own CAO – Chief Adrenal Officer. When there was no one being the boss of me, there would be no one stressing my neurobiology. Or so I thought. I somehow managed to leave myself and my own story-generating brain out of that equation.

Living the Bliss Life

But for a handful of years it worked wonderfully. I lived in a small college town in upstate New York (New Paltz). I built houses in the Spring, Summer and Fall, and began pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in psychology during the winter months. I put a down payment on a 25 acre woodlot with the intention to one day hand-build my own house on it, perhaps a log cabin hewn from the very trees growing on the land.

But gradually, the failure to mindfully attend to my mind-stories and sufficiently manage the stress hormones continually being thrown off by my adrenals sent my life into a scramble and all of those plans down the poop chute. The problem was compounded by the fact that I knew so little about my own biology. I didn’t know what adrenal glands even were, let alone the importance of learning to manage their output. The dots between biology, brain and well-being only got consciously connected for me in my late 50s!

Shadow Play

Nevertheless, they did get connected unconsciously in my 20s, 30s and 40s. And money definitely played a precipitous part in the neurobiological mix. Either too much or too little money has a funny way of highjacking the adrenal glands (No one ever told me that there’s a Goldilocks Zone of Annual Income. It turns out to currently be around $75,000 for most households).

Those unconscious connections mostly showed up in my 20s, 30s and 40s in me mirroring the larger world with its boom and bust cycles. There’s a reason many wisdom teachings advocate for a Middle Path. As Canadian palliative care physician, Gabor Maté points out in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, boom and bust cycles take a huge toll on the health of the body and brain. And unskillful adrenal management lives at the root of it.

Gradually, I began to wake up to what money stresses were doing to my body and brain. Also to the need for making changes that would more effectively manage the money regularly flowing through my life. To address that adrenal-management need, I’ve developed a host of flexible, personal contemplative practices. From formal sitting mindfulness practice, to breathing practices, to “hot tub practice,” to deep relaxation practice, to puppy-cuddle practice, to Golden Rule of Neuroscience practice – whatever actually works for me personally to reduce the levels of stress hormones cascading through body and brain on any day, I happily place into service.

Lucky Stones

lucky-stonesJohn Kabat-Zinn points out that “even a stone can be a teacher.” As a calming, “transitional object,” much like a cell phone or a child’s teddy bear, stones can also be effective totems I can place into service to help me become a skillful CAO. Mine happen to be four stones that I carry around in a little felt pouch. We used to give them as parting gifts to the children leaving our grief counseling program when they were done. Three of the stones are shiny and polished. They represent the healing work already done. The fourth is rough and dull, symbolizing the work remaining. My fourth stone is really rough and pretty dull. It’s also substantially larger than the pretty polished stones. Go figure.

“With money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome, and you sing well, too.” ~ Yiddish Proverb

Take this short, three-question, multiple choice quiz from the Atlantic Monthly

  1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.
  2. Money_is_a_Beautiful_Thing_by_fotophiDo you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer.
  3. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

The correct answers are 1-A; 2-B; and 3-C.

How did you do? Did you respond correctly to all three questions? If you did, then you belong to a shockingly small global minority.

If you got all three correct and live in Russia, you have very little company – only 4% of the population got all three answers right; in Sweden only 21% were spot-on; in Japan, 27%. In the United States only 30% of the population got all three answers correct. What’s up with that?

How the brain develops structurally, how it’s affected by stress, and how it fails to learn how money works both personally and globally lies at the root of such dismal performance in my estimation.

Why Your Money Brain Loves to Eat the Marshmallow

One significant difference between the brains of the 10% who own 85% of the wealth in the America and the other 90% of us is that when it comes to money, the 10% know the value and importance of something called “delay discounting.” Delay discounting is the tendency for far off outcomes to have less value than what’s pleasurable right now. Distant benefits affect the pleasure centers in our brain very differently than immediate ones do. One famous example of delay discounting is Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiments at Bing Nursery School on the Stanford University campus. Kids were given the choice to eat one marshmallow immediately, or wait while the experimenter left the room; they would get to eat two marshmallows when he came back. All kinds of benefits accrued in later life to the kids who were able to exert strong impulse control and not immediately gobble up the single marshmallow.

With respect to money, the feel-good chemicals produced in the brain by buying things today, doesn’t feel anywhere near as good as saving that money and watching it grow through investments and compound interest year after year.

The Good Money News

The good news is that we know that neural plasticity can change the way those two different experiences feel in the body and brain. So, for example, we can begin learning and practicing doing simple things with small amounts of money that do manage to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brain and at the same time, contribute to our personal sense-reality of wealth and well-being. Whatever the brain pays increasing attention to tends to expand.

Diffusion_Tensor_Imaging

The Enchanted Loom

In my own case, I take 10% of every dollar I earn and invest it in something I consider to be a potential appreciating asset (something that will gain in value, as opposed to a depreciating asset which turns out to be what most of us spend our money on). Investing in appreciating assets can transform our spending from “hot” to “cool.” One thing I invest in is new books about neuroscience. Learning about how my brain works makes it both feel better and work better – buying neuroscience books pays me big dividends in the dopamine delivery process (dopamine is the predominant neurotransmitter most closely connected to pleasure). Not only does my knowledge increase, but so does my creativity, which is an additional great source of pleasure.

There are added pleasure benefits as well from this small financial investment: over the years I have managed to build out the pleasure centers in my brain through performing community service. That’s primarily what this blog and The Enchanted Loom are about: I’ve sufficiently changed my brain so that it derives great pleasure from being of service to the world. When it comes right down to it, much of life is about feeling good, and the good news is that money can be placed into creative service to sculpt the pleasure centers of the brain in precisely that fashion. Stay tuned to find out more about exactly how.

Last Novelty Reminder: Be sure to check out this week’s “Book Review in Pictures” – The Enchanted Loom!

Mine was a class in Social Psychology taught by Dr. David Schiffman at SUNY New Paltz. The first day of class I found myself surrounded by 26 other students – none of whom I knew – who were all at least a half dozen years younger than me – 20 and 21 to my 27.

desk_chairsAt the start of the semester, Dr. Shiffman walked in, handed out a syllabus and announced the name of the class – The Social Psychology of Tavistock Groups. Then he sat down at the front of the room in a desk-chair exactly like the ones we were sitting in. And for the next two hours, that’s ALL he did. He didn’t say another word. At most, he crossed and uncrossed his legs now and then, answered no questions, and only occasionally made eye contact with a student here or there around the room.

As you might guess, most of the students in the class, including me, found this approach to teaching somewhat confusing; not to mention anxiety-producing (to those it didn’t piss off).

The next class – now reduced in numbers to about 22 – found Dr. Schiffman offering us a bit more “instruction.” About every 20 minutes or so over the two hours he would make a dispassionate process comment. “People seem really upset about not being taught anything.” “The group seems to want different things.” “It doesn’t seem worth it to waste two hours each week doing nothing.”

The Benefits of Age

Since brain networks basically aren’t finished building out until roughly age 25, while I didn’t know it at the time, I enjoyed a significant advantage the rest of the class clearly did not: I could easily see a number of meta-teachings going on here.

One was: I essentially had two free hours when I could basically do anything I wanted and get course credit. I could study materials for my alternative housing class, I could analyze data from my experimental psych class, I could probably read a good mystery novel on my Kindle if Kindle had been invented then.

But what I mostly could see is how conditioned we all were to have teachers teach and students learn. Why did it have to be that way? Why couldn’t students learn AND teach (years later my friend and co-conspirator Dr. Ruth Cox and I would design college courses precisely that way).

Leaders Emerge

Over time two leaders emerged from the group. Both male. I wasn’t one of them. One leader wanted all the students to simply boycott the class and stop attending all together. The other wanted the students to agree on a petition for everyone to sign to bring to the department chair demanding that Schiffman be fired.

BoycottSchiffman didn’t seem especially concerned, making process comments throughout. “Many students seem content to let two people do all the talking.” “What is it that prevents more people from speaking their minds?” “No one seems to know the best course of action to take.”

The Takeaways

I took a lot of brain-changing learning away from my time in David Schiffman’s Social Psychology class. One significant takeaway was my recognition that, left to their own devices, for better or worse, groups invite leaders to emerge; and I don’t do well with self-appointed or self-proclaimed authority. Another learning was that groups with a majority of women operate more intelligently. Finally was the realization that no matter the purpose or place, groups go through developmental stages, perhaps best characterized by Ohio State professor Bruce Tuckman as:

  • Forming (pretending to get on or get along with others)
  • Storming (letting down the politeness barrier and trying to get down to the issues even if tempers flare up)
  • Norming (getting used to each other and developing trust and productivity)
  • Performing (working in a group to a common goal on a highly efficient and cooperative basis)
  • Mourning (the feelings that emerge as the group comes to an end)

Probably the most significant takeaway however, was the clear recognition that I wouldn’t necessarily be well-served by solely relying on teachers for my learning. For that I would be best served by taking responsibility by being the director of my own education and searching out what it is I wanted to learn and who best to get that learning from. It is a teaching that I still carry with me 40 years later.

Novelty Reminder: Be sure to check out the new weekly Wednesday neuroscience “Book Review in Pictures” – The Enchanted Loom! You’ll instantly yummify your brain’s pleasure centers. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

So I’m standing in line at the grocery store pawing through People Magazine trying to take delight in some yummy morsels of celebrity gossip when suddenly a Chatty Charlie starts burbling away on his cell phone right behind me. Apart from whether it’s simple narcissism, lack of social awareness or some form of performance art, it’s more than what Charlie’s saying that’s bugging me. As far as I can make out he isn’t talking about me and his voice isn’t especially obnoxious. Other things are making me want to stare him down and adamantly encourage him to take the call outside.

Would you believe me if I told you that my brain was processing his “halfersation” … as a threat to my survival?

Halfersations Hurt My Brain

1 sparehalfologue-flashPrinceton neuroscientist Lauren Emberson and her colleagues have discovered that hearing half a conversation adversely impacts normal cognitive function. It does so in a number of ways.

Human brains learn best – that is, grow new cells and make new connections between existing brain cells through something attachment researchers call contingent communication – I say something; you say something in response; I say something related to your response; you say something further related to mine (people who have difficulty with auditory sensory processing as a regulatory function, i.e. they struggle to remain calm in response to words and sounds, will often use non-contingent non-sequiturs to steer conversations in more emotionally manageable directions).

Unlike a publically-presented speech or a monolog, one-sided conversations are non-contingent and unpredictable, since listeners are missing half the information. Unpredictable situations generate increased levels of stress, requiring me to more closely attend to Charlie for any threat that he might pose – for example overhearing the word “police” or “crazy” two or three times sprinkled through a conversation – will immediately put the threat detectors in my brain on Red Alert.

Tone It Down, Tony

But unpredictability isn’t the only threat. Michigan State sociologists Jonathan Forma and Stan Kaplowitz compared cell phone and in-person conversations for sound levels. Many of us tend to speak more loudly into cell phones. It’s as if we don’t trust the technology to clearly convey our decibel levels. Forma and Kaplowitz measured the actual loudness of conversations on cell phones versus face-to-face in public places. They found that people on cell phones speak 1.6 times as loud as people do chatting in person. Loud talkers also put the brain’s threat-detection systems on high-alert.

Beyond his loud mouth, as more and more of my attention is required to listen to Charlie’s conversation, considerable neural resources must be brought to bear, leaving me struggling to pay full attention to what’s troubling Brangelina or Kate and Harry’s new baby Princess. Being a momentary insider to celebrity gossip is the more enjoyable place I’d prefer to place my attention while waiting in a grocery line. Having restricted attentional choice imposed upon me by someone else makes me feel quite irritated. Inflicted, uninvited distractions are like that. Think: two undergrads loud-whispering in the library, or a baby crying on an airplane, or a street schizophrenic speaking word salad.

Sounds Threatening

As Brown University acoustic neuroscientist Seth Horowitz points out in his book, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, part of what makes halversations more challenging than visual, physical or olfactory distractions, for example, is that our ears are always on.

1 Loud Talk

Not only are our ears on while we’re awake and standing in the checkout lane at the supermarket, but they remain on all through the night, even during our deepest sleep. Sudden night noises alert us that something happened; it’s our ears’ job is to constantly listen for changes in the nearby environment that might represent a threat. Halfersations pose threats.

But the cognitive impairment that results from being subjected to one-sided conversations isn’t solely confined to the cell phone half-alogues of strangers. The evidence suggests that we are also subjected to similar distractions and increased cognitive demands while overhearing the halfersations of friends or family members. McGill neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in his book, The Organized Mind that the extra work required to task switch between the heard half and the unheard half of a one-sided conversation …

has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking….To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. Task-switching is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.

This kind of research suggests that much like they’ve done with Distracted Driving Laws, we would all benefit if states passed distracted grocery shopping laws for those of us who like others to keep their cell phone conversations safe, private and confined to just one other person.

As the grocery cashier begins ringing up my purchases, we exchange a glance instantly conveying our mutual irritation. In that moment I also feel that in addition to whatever cognitive price I may be paying, Charlie’s halfalogue also feels inconsiderate and disrespectful: the person on the phone warrants more importance and attention than the commoners right in front of him. These are good lessons for me to keep in mind next time I’m out in a crowd with my own cell phone.

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