Monthly Archives: December 2010

How Christmas Can Improve Your Brain

Christmas, Hannukah set are a time when we’re given the opportunity to renew or at least test some simple spiritual principles.  Interestingly, it turns out that these simple principles are key to the neurological and health, wealth

1. Here’s What Giving Gives You

Participants in a study at the University of British Columbia1 were each given $10, with the option of donating part of their capital to another participant.  Before and after the study, researchers measured the level of salivary cortisol.  Cortisol is a stress hormone and a major culprit in the link between stress and disease.  Over time, it causes wear and tear in the body that can shorten your life.  Cortisol has also been linked to cortical shrinkage; especially in the mid and prefrontal cortex (the brain’s CEO).  The result is a dampened intelligence.

How do we sustain wealth and health together, instead of wealth at the expense of health?  By giving part of our wealth away, the study suggests. The more money participants gave the happier they were and the lower the level of cortisol in their system.  The more money they kept the more shame they experienced and the more cortisol levels rose.   Other studies have shown that the brain quickly recovers executive functions once stress hormone levels drop and effectively reducing stress is critical to a healthy heart and functioning immune system.

It appears giving your money or volunteering your time pays dividends in terms of a longer, healthier and happier life.

1. E. Dunn, On the costs of self-interested economic behavior: how does stinginess get under the skin? Journal of Health Psychology. 2010 May; 15(4): 627-33.

Is Your Creativity Blocked? Get Unstuck In Just 30 Seconds

What makes a person highly creative?  It has a lot to do with how much two parts of our brain talk to one another.  Researchers have found that when the logical, analytical, linear left hemisphere is in dialogue with the intuitive, imaginative, brainstorming right hemisphere, it predictably produces highly creative, yet practical outcomes.   The greater the cross-talk, the greater the likelihood innovation will follow.

How do we get the two parts of our brain to talk to one another?

A study published in the prestigious journal Brain and Cognition (1) reports on an incredibly simple method researchers tested that appears to do the trick.   In the study, sixty-two subjects performed a task that required creative thought. They were given one-minute to dream up as many alternate uses for everyday objects like newspapers, brinks, paper clips, pencils, and shoes.

After performing the task, researchers asked half of the subjects to move their eyes horizontally right to left for 30 seconds.  The remaining subjects were instructed to stare straight ahead for 30 seconds.  The researchers hypothesized that horizontal eye movement would stimulate cross-talk between the hemispheres.  Why?  Prior research has suggested that people who have one hand that is dominant, so-called “strong-handers”, have less cross-talk between their brain hemispheres compared with people who are ambidextrous or “mixed handed.”

Following the eye exercise, all the subjects performed the creativity exercise again.  The results were astonishing.  Subjects who’d performed the horizontal eye movements showed significant improvement in their creativity.  They were more original and more prolific.  In contrast, subjects who’d stared straight ahead showed no improvement in creativity.    The beneficial effects of the eye movement exercise lasted nine minutes for originality and six minutes for variety.  It’s just enough time to get you unstuck and begin to build a head of steam, if your creativity has been blocked.

I first experimented with the eye exercise to push through writer’s block.  I had a book to write and although I had a vision of it, I couldn’t find a way to get started.  My efforts invariably turned into the proverbial wads of half written pages scattered about the office.   I had stumbled on this study while researching for a paper on creativity but didn’t try it.  It felt far fetched, even though it was based on research.  The pain of writer’s block made me receptive to giving it a try.

I stepped away from my desk, sat in a comfortable chair across from my bookcase and began move my eyes right to left and back again for 30 seconds.  When I was done I came back to my study, sat at my desk and for a few moments stared out the window.  My vision for the book came to mind as before, in its rough, organic and unformed state.  Then a moment later images of a coherent narrative began to spin in my head.  I turned to the computer and began to capture the flow.  An hour later I had written the first chapter of the book.  It was a chapter that not only laid out a clearer sense of the direction the book could take but also the style that would carry it.

The research shows that, if you’re one of the 3% of people who are ambidextrous (mixed-handed), the eye exercise is probably of no benefit.  But if you’re of the 97% who are strong-handed right or left, consider giving the eye exercise a try.    Especially if you creativity is blocked.

(1) Shobe ER, Ross NM, & Fleck JI (2009). Influence of handedness and bilateral eye movements on creativity. Brain and cognition, 71 (3), 204-14 PMID: 19800726