First, a picture depicting how your brain turns itself into reality …

Brain Developing

The process begins when the zygote (fertilized egg) develops sufficiently to give rise to the neural plate, a key developmental structure that serves as the foundation for growing the whole brain and the extended nervous system. Cells in the neural plate begin to lengthen and narrow as neural folds raise each side of the plate up and move them together, forming the neural tube, a process known as neurulation.

But here’s the important part, operating throughout the whole brain development process: signaling proteins aid in differentiating the cells and tissues destined to become what we call a brain. Signaling energizes differentiation and proliferation, tells progenitor cells to become progenitor cells, stem cells to become stem cells and Cajal-Retzius cells to become Cajal-Retzius cells (proliferation). Cajal-Retzius cells produce the signaling glycoprotein Reelin, the primary driver of positioning and migration accomplished by cell-to-cell communication – in other words, feedback loops. “Migrate to this position and let me know when you get there so I can stop signalling.” In other words … Contingent Communication. Another term for Contingent Communication is Collaborative Communication. All the elements the neural plate gives rise to are in constant collaborative communication through the whole brain (and body) development process.

Collaboration Makes It Happen

Contingent Communication is involved every step of the way, from migration to aggregation to axon proliferation to synapse formation to neuronal death (apoptosis). Brains don’t get built without it. Cells don’t die and become removed from the brain without it. In case you’re wondering, here’s how Wikipedia describes cell death and how the maintenance crew gets called to dispose of the dead cell bodies:

Phosphatidylserine(s) are actively held facing the cytosolic (inner) side of the cell membrane by the enzyme flippase. However, when a cell undergoes apoptosis (dies), phosphatidylserine is no longer restricted to the cytosolic side by flippase. Instead scramblase catalyzes the rapid exchange of phosphatidylserine between the two sides. When the phosphatidylserines flip to the extracellular (outer) surface of the cell, they act as a signal for macrophages to engulf the cells.

Contingent Communication makes life (and death) and cleanup afterwards happen at our innermost fundamental level. It also makes dreams happen at the outermost fundamental level.

My Main Dream Driver

I have a dream to reduce suffering in the world. I will personally be a huge beneficiary if suffering is reduced in the world. So will all my friends and family, and by extension, most everyone the world over. truth-of-suffering-web.jpgThat dream is what eventually led me to study neuroscience. By closely observing my own behavior and the behavior of other people, over time it became clear that much of the suffering in the world is a direct result of structural vulnerabilities and limitations inherent in the body and brain. If I want to reduce suffering in the world, it might help to introduce people to a few of those vulnerabilities and limitations. By understanding them, we can begin to increase the probability that they don’t stand in the way of us making our best dreams come true.

Here are some brain-based practices I believe we all would be well-served to take up in the service of striving to make our dreams come true.

  1. We have to understand our brains are vulnerable and have limitations, at different times more than others. We have to incorporate that understanding and develop creative workarounds. For example, without training, few of us think clearly under excessive stress. Don’t make important decisions after someone close dies, or if you’ve just gotten divorced. Or you’ve just lost your job.
  2. We have to learn and practice the three elements of Contingent Communication. And practice. And practice. And practice. You can find the three elements here.
  3. Our best work is often done together with members of our tribe that we strongly resonate with. My mother often repeated the observation that “many hands make light the work.” Many hands, all working to make a common dream (like building a whole, massively integrated brain) come true, exponentially increase the probability.
  4. We would be extremely well-served to develop an Adrenal Management Practice (AMP). The adrenal glands “produce hormones that help the body control blood sugar, images.jpgburn protein and fat, react to stressors like a major illness or injury, and regulate blood pressure.” A few activities to start your AMP might include: Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, avoiding junk food, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. Not really news, right?
  5. We absolutely need to develop some personal intentional practices for keeping our bodies (and by extension our brains) functionally fit. Most of the neurons in the brain are dedicated to moving the body. If you keep them active and firing into old age, those brain cells will do their part in keeping the foundational structure of the neural network in good repair. Whatever we do to benefit one part of the network often positively benefits the whole network. At the heart-to-heart level as well.

What’s a Killeen Brain you want to know, right? Well, you can recruit a friend or two and attend a class that a colleague and I have been co-creating for the last year – When Health Practitioners Become Healers – and find out that and much, much more, or … you can keep reading and find out a little more.

Listen Up!

A decade into the 21st century I designed and offered a class intended to teach aspiring clinical and counseling psychologists listening skills. I’d been success- fully training volunteer grief counselors such skills for a number of years, and it was clear to me that when it came to listening, many accomplished professionals didn’t know what they didn’t know. And the result was that they really sucked at listening, while at the same time being totally unaware victims of The Dunning-Kruger Effect. If you polled any of them, the would have assertively proclaimed themselves above average.

Listening-ear-heart.jpgAt the conclusion of this first course offering, every single one of the 24 students agreed that they had no idea how much there was to know about listening, aspects and elements – fine granularity – that they had absolutely no clue about. From the way brains filter and distort people’s stories when the listener is under stress, to the way painful stories can close down a listener’s cognitive functioning, to the way the brain makes up definitions for words it doesn’t really know the meaning of and pretends it does (e.g. take the word specious – do you really know what it means? Click on it for the actual definition and find out for yourself). As one student put it: “Trying to improve listening skills without practice or knowing what to practice is like trying to learn the piano without practicing or knowing about notes, keys, rests and stops.”

With that experience in hand, along with the high ratings of the students, I met with the department chair to talk about offering the class again for the subsequent semester. Turns out, for many specious reasons, the chairman gave me a thumbs down. Needless to say, I was surprised and disappointed. I thought about badgering and pressing him, but not for long. That would represent … Idiot Grit – continuing to persevere and push on with something that promised little chance of success. No, instead what I did was take the offering to UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz Extension where the course found a welcome home for many semesters.

Creatively Embracing Killeen Brain

So what is Killeen Brain and what does it have to do with my success or failure as a teacher of listening skills? Simply this: when I repeat a task over and over – teaching a class, writing a blog, walking the dog – my brain accommodates and acclimates. The same brain cells operate over and over again for repeated activities. Little new neural pathways grow or make new connections in novel ways. The brain quickly gets tired of the old same old, same old. In protest, it will very often turn me away from teaching, research and writing about listening and toward one alluring distraction after another. In other words, it will grind down my grit and produce … Killeen Brain.

I’m not a bad person because the world is full of juicy enticements that I can’t resist. And neither are you. Killeen Brain is a result of my neural networks having structural vulnerabilities. I’ve named this particular vulnerability after Peter Killeen, a behavioral neuroscientist at Arizona State University. Here’s how one writer describes this particular interest-diverting brain vulnerability:

If we grossly simplify the process, it looks like this –


Professor Peter R. Killeen

After 12 seconds of effort, your neurons are running on empty. They first look to glial cells for lactate, a readily used sugar. If glial cells can’t find lactate, they look for glycogen, which they store up at night and later convert to energy.

If your neurons can’t find lactate or glycogen, they get exhausted––enabling other parts of your brain to call for attention. It’s sort of like your brain is a super–excited third–grade classroom: The star student––that is, whatever you’re trying to focus on––will get most of your attention. And if the star student got enough to eat and enough rest, it can be called on periodically throughout the day. If not, other excitable parts of your brain will get your attention. Then your mind will start to wander.

My brain needs novelty. So does yours. Without it, energy stores necessary for operating my neural network on familiar tasks, quickly become depleted. In order to revitalize, I need to activate other networks that are fresh and powerfully energized. The Gritty Way to do that, however, isn’t to simply turn away from listening research, writing and teaching completely; it’s to look and think about listening and listening skills in novel ways with new eyes using strongly energized available neural networks. The result for me: three wholly unique and challenging listening classes, six different listening books (a seventh is in the works – Naked Listening, and – just for fun – this free listening poster I made last year. It’s been 15 years of continuing to try and spread the Listening Gospel. Are you listening for how important the need is for each of us to develop true listening grit? To realize that often, what’s IN the way IS the way?

Coincidentally enough, this week’s Enchanted Loom reviews one of my own best, best-selling listening books, Noble Listening. Click HERE and be surprised at what you don’t know you don’t know! 😉

… But How Our Brain Makes Us React Often Is

Recently my good friend Murray made an important promise to me and then threatened not to keep it. He agreed to handle his half of the finances in our business partnership for the next two years. Then, three months later he disclosed that he unilaterally decided he would only handle those finances for one year. He had other things he was choosing to spend the promised money on.

Promises made and then not kept are always a challenge for me. I organize my life and my world – not to mention, my brain – around other people keeping their promises. Broken promises seriously compromise my ability to think straight and manage my emotions. How do I know they do that? Because my brain starts generating thoughts of distancing, disconnection, and retribution in an effort to relieve the discomfort my body is feeling.

The Issue Is Rarely the Issue

Chill-Pill-Front.jpgOver time I’ve repeatedly learned the hard-won lesson that when these thoughts of distancing, disconnection and retribution arise, along with the attendant somatic distress, I need to take a Time Out. I need to take a Chill Pill. Why? Because I’m caught up in believing what I think when it hurts. And neuroscience has taught me that such believing is a slippery slope that only travels me, and many around me, down the road to Suffering Town.

My Brain Made Me Do It

From a clinical neurobiological perspective, broken promises are almost always the consequence of a less-than-clear-thinking brain. Why would someone deliberately not keep a promise unless their thinking was disorganized? “I promised to pay half the expenses for the next two years. But, now I don’t want to. How will that impact my partnership?” They forget that being impeccable with our word, with the promises we make, is a fundamental requirement for wholeheartedness.

Obviously, this kind of thinking or questioning rarely goes into such decision-making or behavior. Something else goes on. When I break promises to other people, I have little or no concern about how the broken promise might affect them. I’m mostly trying to remedy some discomfort or distress in myself. It’s often my own short-term self-regulation – distress abatement – that I’m focused on. In this case – I want to spend the money on something that will make me feel better than spending in ways I promised to over the next two years. Unfortunately, much of this kind of decision-making happens outside conscious awareness for most of us. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you what often results.

The Missing Ingredient: Goal Science

Until I listened to an interview with Carolyn Adams Miller recently, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Goal Science (Carolyn’s book, Getting Grit was the subject of last week’s Enchanted Loom review). Turns out it’s emerged out of the Positive Psychology movement. brain-image6-300x198-e1402952312632.jpgYou’re probably already familiar with some of the Positive Psychology leading lights: Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Dan Gilbert, etc. Names you may not be so familiar with in the Goal Science branch of Positive Psychology are Cecil Mace, Angela Duckworth and Edwin Locke. They actually researched literature, devised experiments and tested elements of goal-setting and achievement. Their work eventually led John Doerr (the Silicon Valley superstar venture capitalist) to introduce the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) protocol at Google, and the rest is history.

This Is a Test; This is Only a Test

So, how did Murray and I resolve the problem of his broken promise? We’re still working it out, but after I poured down the requisite number of Chill Pills (one wasn’t enough), I was able to stay engaged and let him know that I wanted him to keep his promise. Was whatever else he needed to spend the promised money on worth seriously compromising our friendship, our partnership? As I suspected it would be, the answer was No, it was not worth it.

From there we are now exploring ways he can reorganize his expenses and generate additional income and setting OKR Goals with clear objectives to help turn his either/or perspective into a both/and possibility. I expect it will work out, and things may need some tweaking along the way. I’ll keep you posted on how things go.

Recently the country of Jordan repealed Article 308 in their Penal Code. It allowed a rapist to “restore a woman’s honor” by marrying her. Lebanon followed their example only a few weeks ago. But a surprising number of countries, like Egypt, Guatamala and Iraq, still have laws in their lands that allow rapists to marry their victims and escape criminal prosecution.

Doubly Cruel and Unusual

From a neuroscience perspective, marrying your rapist might not be optimal for healthy brain development. Rape, by definition, is non-consensual. Non-consensuality invariably involves high levels of stress hormones. Being forced to be constantly associated with, or in the proximity of, people who violate the sovereignty of another person’s mind, body and spirit, is immoral and profane. It’s also bad for the brain.

file-20170606-16856-gqwp6g.jpgAs forensic psychologist, David Lisak points out, the high levels of natural opioids and stress hormones that sexual assault releases, ends up “disintegrating” the wiring in a victim’s brain. They literally cannot think straight. They cannot clearly tell the story(s) of what happened to them because the stress hormones and opioids have disconnected fibers crucial for neural network integrative functioning. A “coherent narrative” is then almost impossible to put together and clearly express.

I Don’t Know What’s Wrong With Me

And it’s not just about the traumatic assault. Emotional self-regulation in many other walks of life also ends up being compromised. For example, the ability for a woman (who’s been assaulted by a man) to be fully present and cognitively and creatively engaged in the presence of a “threatening” male – which subsequently tends to be potentially ALL males – is frequently compromised. This kind of brain disorganization and self-regulation struggle often pervades daily living for decades. We tend to place labels on it – Borderline Personality Disorder or Bi-Polar Disorder, but the truth is it’s not a “disorder” at all. It’s the vulnerable brain’s best response to a criminal assault. What we need though, aren’t labels; we need knowledgeable, effective and compassionate understanding, treatment and care.

Nectin 3When our internal ability to easily and automatically self-regulate the rise and fall of stress hormones in the body becomes compro- mised by the enzyme MMP-9 severing the Nectin-3 adherence proteins that hold our neural network together (see illustration at the left), human beings have little choice but to seek out and deploy external means of accomplishing that regulation. Nicotine, opiods and alcohol do a marvelously effective job. So does food and sex. Shopping and social media also can take us away from our dysregulated neurobiology.

But only for a limited time. Eventually, the discomfort re-arises and dysregulates our nervous system all over again, leaving us little recourse but to reach once again for the all-too temporarily effective external regulator. Without them, though, how many of us would be doomed to spending much of the time of our lives in the red or yellow zone below?


A better possibility might be to become involved in a program such as Life Course Health Development (LCHD), headed by Neal Halfon, a medical researcher and pediatrician at UCLA. LCHD emphasizes the importance of intervening and pre-empting an event’s ability to generate adverse neurobiological and epigenetic change. Unfortunately the women in countries with laws such as Article 308 have no access to such enlightened policies or programs. Not only will they suffer, but their children and their grandchildren will suffer as well. If you dare to see a more comprehensive list of all the ways that suffering can show up after a rape, please go here: A Joyful Heart.

Threat-Free Living: an Essential Developmental Need

Each of us should be free to choose the people we wish to be regularly associated with. To be required by law to be in the regular company of people who pose unpredictable threats to our health, safety and well-being goes against everything any country operating under the rule of law would willingly impose upon its citizens. It’s not a stretch to think that rapists generally pose such unpredictable threats. As such, many more of the brain’s resources will necessarily need to be devoted to threat-detection and self-protection, leaving us very often with significantly delayed development across crucial areas of human functioning. The result, on a country-wide scale, is often one that invariably causes widespread suffering.

Finally, here is a thematically appropriate Enchanted Loom review of Caroline Adams Miller’s recent book, Getting Grit.

Well, here we are at the end of the second year of our small group money experiment. You may recall it was intended to change the fiber networks in the brain each of us has been using to navigate our money relationships in the world. We’ve all managed to pretty much stay the course over these last two years. And, for all intents and purposes, it looks like the Neural Dictum – “Whatever our brain pays positive attention to tends to increase,” is true. My money brain has definitely changed, and for the better. Here’s one way …

hqdefaultIn my mid-forties the dot-com boom was all the rage in Silicon Valley. Instead of coming up with a brilliant idea and getting venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park where I lived to fund it, I thought it would be a meta-brilliant idea to trade shares of stock in the companies they did fund. Not just bad, but a horrendous idea. I didn’t know anything about stock trading. And I continued to know nothing enough to lose money in the stock market now … for 21 years straight! Who loses money for 21 straight years and keeps taking his lumps year after year? I’m sure many of you are familiar with the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well, when it came to stock trading, I have been the Poster Boy for this unique form of insanity.

Until this year, that is. This year, through persistence, determination, True Grit and the help of a number of smart, successful stock market people, I’m going to finally have a profitable year in stocks. How do I know when the year’s not even over? Because my portfolio is currently up 57% this year and, except for a few small positions and a short hedge, most of my money is currently on the sidelines. It’s going to remain there through at least the rest of the year, too. I currently have too many other things I want to do that don’t allow paying daily attention to market fluctuations. It’s about time. And money. And the fact that Work, as we’ve known it, is radically transforming.

But our Money Relationships and the Brain Group isn’t all or only about me. Part of it is about learning how to use money as a Happiness Tool. Here are a few perspectives from a couple other participants who’ve been along for the ride for the whole two years …

Dory Jo: Healthy Relationships Make It Happen

A year into our group, I still felt pretty overwhelmed and was wondering why. I thought that the support I had at the time ought to be plenty. If it wasn’t enough, then I must be The Problem. Why was I so slow to get rolling with income generation?

In November I joined an online fellowship specific to earning money, following a conversation with a friend who’s in that fellowship. Until that conversation, I had no knowledge of this organization; it’s shared only by word of mouth.

Are-you-underpaid-Self-help-group-can-help-J8261DUJ-x-largeAlmost immediately I noticed how my brain and body changed, calmed down. I also noticed getting clearer and more open to doing things I’d been too afraid or too addled to do before.

This new organization and my readiness reminded me that I’ve always needed more support than I thought I ought to need for the major challenges in my life, including the current one of earning without the structure, guidance, and support of an employer.

Still, and again, I learn this fundamental lesson: look for and find more support. My brain and body let me know when I have enough – and the right kind – by calming down and letting me get on with the challenge.

Penny: It’s Not the Money, It’s My Brain!

When we started the group two years ago, I was quite sure that EVERYONE was much better at managing money and emotions around money than me. I realize now how old those stories are…and how not true!

I have never been part of a group where it is really okay to be open and vulnerable, without needing pretense. I don’t like pretense; it has a terrible stink to it! However, pretense seems to have been a lesson I learned early and often in my life. Along with pretense was the naked truth that I am just me, but growing up others didn’t really want to know ME. They wanted me to be who they needed me to be! And I did my best to live up to their expectation.

money-flies-500x357Joining our calls at first was a journey into my inner world. Money was the medium for exploring my own feelings, reactions without need to BE someone for everyone else. What a gift.

As we developed our bonds and our trust, I could be vulnerable and be okay. Through our journey together I have witnessed a shift in my relationship with money. I have witnessed a shift in my life such that, earlier this year when my body was battling with mercury fillings from old dental work, our Friday morning talks were a safe place for which I am so grateful.

Having never aspired to be “rich”- whatever that means – I now have a very fluid relationship with money and I don’t get scared, nor do I belittle my occasional lack of fiduciary nimbleness. I trust that I can check in with my inner wisdom and bring it to our little group and get nitty gritty, compassionate feedback. Thanks to all.

I have often felt victimized in my life. From being born to a mother with alcohol addiction and an abandoning father with severe, war-induced PTSD from a moral injury, to being raised in poverty on welfare, to getting all kinds of poor direction and guidance through most of my primary developmental years. Early life experiences like these have seemingly provided me with an unconscious bias that ends up with me often feeling “less than.” Or, bizarrely at the opposite extreme – with an inflated sense of “superiority.”

portfolio-featured-katherine.jpgFortunately (and unfortunately) my brain is designed to meet these “environmental” challenges and adapt to them. That’s what brains do – they have this neuroadaptive, chameleon-like ability to operate to some degree of capacity by adjusting to whatever external circumstances they find themselves in. So, for example, when my elementary school, ranked in the bottom 5% of all elementary schools in Connecticut (still, after more than half a century!), turned out to be a very dangerous place to attend week after week, my brain grew in ways that ended up devoting a preponderance of its neuroplasticity to laying down robust threat-detection circuitry. I learned to easily spot dangerous people, places and situations days ahead and miles away. Then I would find creative ways to avoid them. One way was to end up being the kid with the worst attendance record in every public school I ever attended. And when I wasn’t able to skip, I acted out in ways guaranteed to get myself expelled (like the time in 6th grade after a snowstorm when I trudged up and down the hill behind the school in front of the 4th grade classrooms and spelled out the word – F**K. When Mr. Fisher, the principal met me at the bottom of the hill and demanded that I erase what I’d written, I trudged back up the hill and added – YOU!). Mission accomplished.

But when children are required to robustly grow their threat-detection circuitry at an early age, that adaptation comes at a cost – growth and development in other parts of the brain become seriously delayed. The prefrontal cortex is one area that markedly suffers from such delay. I’m pretty sure there is no way during any of my grade school days I would have been able to demonstrate the impulse control required to pass The Stanford Marshmallow Test (I struggle to forego dopamine-activating sweet treats even today!). As it was, I wasn’t able or ready to enroll in college until age 26! And that had to be a junior college.

Learned Helplessness

Over the years I’ve learned to pay creative attention to feeling like a victim. Often what’s being activated in my brain are old connections – early childhood learning rooted in helplessness. Helplessness, is afterall, each of our birthrights from the outset. If we’ve had relatively healthy parents, teachers and other members of the community paying sufficient attention to our organic growth and development, then they’ve set tasks and learning before us intended to facilitate growth that would take us fully onto each succeeding stage of development. For most of the people I know, that didn’t happen very deliberately. And when it did, it was mostly a slapdash, hit-or-miss affair.

buscrash.jpgRather, what happened for me instead is: I want to ride my bicycle through Westville traffic to school and the thought of me doing that calls up images in my mother’s brain of me being splattered by a city bus. Those images then flood her system with excessive amounts of stress hormones which immediately shut down her cognitive reasoning abilities – she’s got few neural resources available to accurately assess bus-splattering probabilities. With her adrenals out of control, the only way she can regulate them is to attempt to regulate me: “No, you will be taking the school bus to school just like the other project kids.” Either I helplessly give in, or I rebel and hide my bike near the school bus stop, keep the bus money, and ride my bike to school – or more often to the New Haven Public Library instead of school – without my mother realizing it. Until, of course, my Report Card shows all those “Days Absent.”

It’s a Good News Week

The good news is that much of the “damage” our brains suffer in childhood, much of the disorganization and learned helplessness mostly results in delayed development. And most of that delay has to do with prefrontal operations, i.e. Executive Functions. Interestingly, much of that “damage” can symbolically show up in relationship to money in our lives. If you look over this list of “symptoms” from Underearners Anonymous (identification provided for non-promotional and informational purposes only; information does, after all, want to be free!), you may see a pretty clear picture reflected pointing to any number of areas where your own brain development has been delayed. The more good news is, it’s never too late to remodel your brain’s Executive Suite. Might developing a healthy, mindful relationship with money serve realistically and metaphorically as a great place to begin unlearning learned helplessness?

While you consider that possibility, you might also take a look at fellow neuro-rebel David Linden’s book, The Compass of Pleasure, newly reviewed on this week’s Enchanted Loom.

Recently, in my imaginal brain, I invited myself to try a little experiment. I took two different timed tests intended to measure my ability to think straight. One is called the Automated Operation Span task, or the Ospan. Basically, the test had me read some words then add some numbers and then later try to recall as many words as possible. It’s intended to be a way to “measure working memory while keeping track of task-relevant information while also engaging in complex cognitive tasks.” In other words, it’s trying to measure how straight I can think.

The second test was called Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices. Psychologist John Raven developed the test to “isolate my capacity for abstract reasoning and understanding and solving novel problems (fluid intelligence), independent of any influence of accumulated knowledge or domain-specific skill (crystallized intelligence).” In other words he is trying to see how smart I am. Raven developed the test as a way to try to control for cultural and learned biases.

Each Raven Test has the same format: a 3 x 3 matrix in which the bottom right entry is missing, and must be selected from 8 alternatives. Solving Raven’s matrices type problems essentially requires figuring out the underlying rules that explain the progression of shapes. Here is an example that you can try to figure out yourself:

The variations of the entries in the rows and columns of this problem can be explained by 3 rules:

1. Each row contains 3 shapes (triangle, square, diamond).

2. Each row has 3 bars (black, striped, clear).

3. The orientation of each bar is the same within a row, but varies from row to row (vertical, horizontal, diagonal).

From these 3 rules, the answer can be inferred (*See the correct answer at the bottom).

ET – Leave Your Phone Home

So, here’s where the test got interesting. I had to turn my smart phone off and leave it in an adjoining room. Other people who took the test were also asked to turn their phones off, but they could keep them on a table nearby. Who do you think did better on the Ospan and the Raven tests?

Here is Professor Adrian Ward’s discussion of the results: The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand. “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process — the process of requiring yourself to not think about something — uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

Love Me, Love My Smartphone

The compulsive nature of smartphone usage is driven by many factors. NY Times science writer Sharon Begley cites one driver as FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. In addition, many people compulsively use their phone much like infants use pacifiers – as a way to manage the anxiety that often naturally arises in social situations. Proximate Separation can feel a lot less threatening than interacting with other live human beings.

Prefrontal AjnaBegley suggests that “one reason we often feel anxious if we’re not using every tiny slice of time is that we find it hard — even unpleasant and anxiety-producing — to be alone with our thoughts, as a 2014 study showed. Researchers led by (one of my favorites) social psychologist, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, gave volunteers two options: do ‘nothing’ for 15 minutes or give themselves a small electric shock (which three-quarters had previously told the researchers they’d pay money not to experience). Two-thirds of the men and one-quarter of the women chose the latter, so anxious were they for ‘something to do.'”

“The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” Wilson concluded.

Cause for Concern

This finding is of great cause for concern to my tutored mind. When you consider the discovery that long periods of contemplative activities deliberately work to train the discursive mind to single-pointed attention and the way that shows up on an fMRI as massively increased neuron numbers and connections of prefrontal and cross-hemispheric connectivity, it only makes sense that the constant interruption, distraction and addictive allure of “smart” phones would result in diminished Executive Function. Robust Executive Function is precisely what was not available to kids who failed the Stanford Marshmallow Test. Those kids were later found to have struggled in their later lives to a significantly greater degree than the kids who easily passed the test. Executive Function matters. But here’s the even bigger problem – there is currently no app for your phone that has Siri announcing: “Executive Functioning is currently not functioning optimally right now.” And I didn’t even mention the research suggesting that the “iGeneration” which smartphones may be creating, has the worst mental health ever.

One possible hack to caring for your brain: start taking regular “phone sabbaticals.”

*The correct answer to the matrix above is 3.