The Multitasking Myth

downloadA mom holds her baby while stirring a pot of spaghetti on the stove and talking into the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear.  A salesman, running late for his next appointment, glances at the client information laid out in the passenger seat of his car while singing the tune on the radio and whizzing along the highway.

Multitasking.  We all do it.  At times, it simply can’t be avoided. Life often demands that we do more than one thing at a time.  But are we really doing ourselves any good?

The idea of multitasking was originally used to describe a computer’s parallel processing capabilities and has become shorthand for our brains attempting to do many things simultaneously.  However, your brain is not built to work that way.

Oh sure.  You can walk and talk at the same time, but when it comes to paying attention, your brain operates sequentially focusing on one thing.  Research shows that our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when people think they are multitasking is that they’re shifting their attention back and forth and utilizing short term memory.

New studies have shown that, while the brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once.  Studies show that a person takes longer to complete a task when interrupted and makes about four times more errors.

Talking on a cell phone while driving is the perfect example.  John Medina, neuroscientist and author of Brain Rules, writes in the online article, The Brain Cannot Multitask:

Until researchers started measuring the effects of cell-phone distractions under controlled conditions, nobody had any idea how profoundly they can impair a driver. It’s like driving drunk. Recall that large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks. Cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes in emergencies, slower to return to normal speed after an emergency, and more wild in their “following distance” behind the vehicle in front of them.

If someone appears to be an adept multitasker, they are really showing good use of working memory.  It becomes much easier to switch back and forth with less errors when the tasks are familiar.

Your brain is a sequential processor no matter how much multitasking is valued in our society, and research clearly shows that it decreases productivity while increasing mistakes.  The bottom line is slow down, turn distractions off, and tune in.  You and your brain will be happier.

 

 

There Is No Such Thing As Normal

1920087_711127878937377_655502853_nAbout a year after my brain injury, I had regained some semblance of my “before brain injury” life back.  Although my two sons had moved to a different state with their father, I was living independently and driving again, had learned skills to compensate for my memory deficits, and could speak somewhat understandably instead of just making sounds.  But, my solitary life, in which I struggled to do the stuff other people do every day – that I too used to do without a thought: go to the grocery store, pay bills, mow the yard – looked very different than it had before or than I thought it should or would at this point in my life.

I remember telling my brother, “I can’t wait to get back to my normal life.”  A very wise soul, he looked me in the eyes and said, “This is your normal life, Debbie.”

It took me another year to quit desperately trying to get back to the person I used to be before the injury and realize that that person was gone forever.  Over the next couple of years, I gradually began to accept the “new Debbie” with her way-less-than-perfect speech, handwriting, and memory.  And, in another couple of years, I began to even sort of like her.

Recovering from the brain injury taught me a valuable lesson.  I learned that there is no such thing normal.  Normal is an illusion.  It’s an idea we get in our heads about what our lives should look like influenced by society, the media, friends, family and a million other things.  Searching for normal is denial of and resistance to whatever is happening right here and now which results in struggle and pain.  ( See blog:  Life Gets Better By Managing Expectations) Wherever I am in my life and whatever is happening IS normal whether it’s what I wanted or expected or not.

Eckhart Tolle said, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”  I have learned not to judge any situation as good or bad when it arises. It’s my job to find the good in it for me, whatever “it” is.  Good is always present. (See blog: One Little Question)  By taking this attitude, things always turn out good because “good” is up to me.

So, although finding out that I have to move may be unsettling and my mind’s first inclination is to try to stay right where I am comfortable now, the normal, it turns out that I get to move into a cooler house that I can make into a real home for me and my animals.

At the outset, the dog getting sick doesn’t seem to have any upside to it.  But, his being puny made me realize how much I appreciate him and how much he’s added to my life over the years.

I have come to appreciate all of life’s ups and downs and swerves and curves.  It’s all part of it, and it’s all normal.  I used to wish for a calm life with no surprises, but now think of how numb and boring that would be.  To live a rich, full life, I have to be willing to embrace, yes embrace, whatever comes my way and find the joy and meaning in it.  Without any little part of it, life wouldn’t be the multi-textured, colorful tapestry it is.  I’ll take that over normal any day.

 

Games Your Brain Plays

images (6)Your brain has natural tendencies, of which you probably aren’t even aware, to keep it feeling happy and safe.  While these inclinations were built-in to help our species survive, they color our perceptions, can be problematic, and tilt a person towards unease and unhappiness.

Your brain is wired to ensure your physical survival, which makes it happy, but doesn’t help you find and stay in a happy place. Two things have to happen to counteract this natural slant of your brain: awareness and action.

In What Makes Your Brain Happy And Why You Should Do The Opposite, David DiSalvo writes:

Awareness of why we are doing what we are doing is a crucial step toward action because it initiates a change in thinking – we have to pause to examine what’s going on. And this why science-help is more useful than typical self-help.

He explains ways, drawn from research, in which our brains tilt away from peace and happiness and offers suggestions to elevate awareness and take action.

Slow down

Although not always possible, slowing down and behaving with conscious intent can avoid and diffuse many problems.  Although your brain is wired to react, there is usually enough time to pause and consider options, intentions, motivations, and possible consequences.   You want to learn to pause and respond.  (See: Are You Responding Or Reacting?)

Be aware of the influence your pre-existing beliefs are exerting on your current thinking

Everyone’s thoughts are biased by beliefs influenced by parents, education, religion, and society.  (See: Stepping Out Of The Shadows)  These subconscious beliefs color how a person sees the world, determines happiness, impacts relationships, and are resistant to change.  However, if someone becomes aware of their patterns, challenges them, and consciously chooses their thoughts, these incremental changes can, with persistence and time, add up to big differences.  (See: The Law Of Little Things) This is how happiness becomes a choice.

Check your availability bias

Your brain tends to make judgments with the most accessible and available information which, as we know, is not always the most accurate.  DiSalvo cites the example that people typically judge the crime rate being much higher than it actually is because that is all the news focuses on.  The same phenomenon occurs when someone becomes strongly affiliated with a political party or religion.  The group’s view-point becomes the most readily available to a person and becomes the “right” one.  (See: My Reality Is Not Your Reality) The way to combat this bias is to become aware of it, challenge your thinking, and try on different perspectives.

Act on short-term rewards that yield long-term benefits

Your brain has a natural tendency to focus on the short-term.  Knowing this, you can work with your brain by setting short-term, tangible goals that will lead to accomplishing long-term goals. Whether quitting smoking, losing weight, or sticking to an exercise routine, your brain will keep more motivated and you’ll have more success by breaking the goal into smaller steps.  Don’t forget to celebrate and internalize your accomplishments along the way.  (See: Motivating The Grey Matter)

The hunt is more exciting than the capture

Have you ever focused on a reward and then when you received it, felt a sense of loss? Blame your brain.  It’s all too easy to get caught up in a cycle of wanting, getting, and regretting, like bidding on eBay for example, and before you know it, an addiction has been formed.  (See: Sex On The Brain) Becoming aware of this tendency of your brain and stopping the cycle is key.  A person has to realize that what they are doing is no longer in their best interest and walk away.  Easier said than done, but it can be done.

Feeling right is not the same as being right

To your brain, uncertainty is a threat which sets off the alarms.  Your brain wants to feel “right” to return to a sense of calm.  Because of this, it’s all too easy to confuse being right with the feeling of being right.  Knowing that this is your brain’s tendency, considering all available information and perspectives, and learning to be comfortable with uncertainty can counteract this slant.  (See:  Uncertainty…The Only Thing That’s Really Certain)

The Gap Between Knowing And Doing

Man jumpAlthough the difference between the two words is just a few letters, the gap between knowing and doing can be as wide as a universe.

After the break up of my eighteen year marriage and the end of a subsequent three year relationship, I found myself in the dark, confusing chasm between knowing and doing. Goodness knows, I’d read enough books to confidently label myself a co-dependent, over-reactive, passive aggressive, people pleaser with low self esteem, PTSD, and obsessive compulsive tendencies.  But, knowing all of this didn’t help….yet.

I was a self-help junkie, always searching for my next fix and seeing myself in every book I read.  Yet I was never quite able to take the wise words from the pages and work them into my day-to-day life. While I could easily diagnose my deficits and wanted to do better, really changing anything was beyond me.

Because of this predicament, I found myself in a most uncomfortable place, the space between knowing how to do better and actually doing it.  When I didn’t know any better, I was blissfully ignorant.  I could be all justified and smug in my victim role and right-ness.  Everything was always someone else’s fault.

However, once I knew better, I had to look at myself, question my behaviors, and see how I contributed to situations.  I had to start taking responsibility for myself and my life. When you are used to blaming everyone else, believe me, this is not any fun!  But, it is a necessary first step to doing things differently.

Byron Katie writes in Loving What Is:

If you begin by pointing the finger of blame outward, then the focus isn’t on you.  You can just let loose and be uncensored.  We’re often quite sure about what other people need to do, how they should live, whom they should be with.  We have 20/20 vision about other people, but not ourselves.

…Eventually you come to see that everything outside you is a reflection of your own thinking.  You are the storyteller, the projector of all stories, and the world is a projected image of your thoughts.

I knew that I wanted to tell a different story.  I knew that I wanted to think and act differently and create a very different reality and future for myself.  My motto at the time was an Einstein paraphrase:  ”If you want different results, you have to do something different.” The problem was in the doing.

For a while, I existed in the uncomfortable place between knowing and doing and sometimes was harsh and critical of myself for not doing like I knew I wanted to.  At these times, I knee-jerk reacted back to my old fear based behaviors.  At other times, I extended understanding and compassion to myself while measuring my progress in 1/16s  of an inch.

Over time (and I mean years) with dogged determination, I did adopt new behaviors which became my go-to responses. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically change structure and operation based on stimuli, behaviors, and thoughts, new neuronal connections were made which became the main pathways in my brain.

Neuroplasticity is the super power we all have to change ourselves and our lives for the better and to close the gap between knowing and doing.  By consciously acting with mindful intent over years and continually encouraging and forgiving myself, all those micro measurements added up.  I still don’t always do as I know, but I’m happy to say it’s more often than not these days

 

 

 

The Law Of Little Things

download (4)In order to survive, our ancestors’ brains were wired to notice and remember the bad while ignoring the good.  Recalling a near miss and deadly predator’s territory was much more likely to pass on the genes than remembering a nice nap in the sunshine. Although this negativity bias developed for an important purpose, it leaves us worried and stressed in today’s world.

Over time, lots of little bad memories can add up to take a person to an unhappy and painful place. To give your brain a positive tilt, you have to intentionally make an effort to notice and take in the good.

No matter what your current circumstances, there is always good in the present.  Even if it’s something as small as you turned on the faucet and water came out or you flipped a switch and the light came on.  You ate today.  You woke up.  You can talk to a friendly voice on the phone.  A good tune is playing.  There was good in your past, there is good in the present, and there will be good in your future, but you HAVE to notice it and make it count.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson writes:

...each day is like a winding path strewn with pearls and diamonds, emeralds and rubies, each one an opportunity for a positive experience.  Unfortunately, most people hurry by without noticing them. And even when they do see a jewel, they rarely feel anything about it. Jewel after jewel, left behind, lost forever.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  With a little intention and skill, you can take some seconds here and there each day to weave a handful of these jewels into the fabric of your brain, your being, and your life.  Little moments of ease, pleasure, calm, determination, joy, insight, and caring become neural structure.

You can put the law of little things to work for you.   All you need to do is notice a few positives, jewels, every day that will add up to give your brain a more positive slant.

Hanson writes:

You can’t do anything about the past, but you do have the power to take in the good during the next few moments.  As a well-known proverb says:  If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

But how, exactly do you do this?  According to Hanson:

Taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory.  It involves four simple steps (the fourth one is optional.)  The first letter of each step forms the acronym HEAL.

Have a positive experience.

Notice a positive experience in the present or create one.  You can do this by becoming more aware of your current setting, recent events, or ongoing conditions, the people in your life, tuning into your body and inner speech, and thinking about or imagining positive memories, emotions, and actions.

Enrich it.

This requires that you deliberately apply your attention to the positive experience and sustain it.  Stay with and breath in the good feeling.  Give the experience a label such as “calming, relaxing, or safe.”

Absorb it.

This step heightens the installation of the good experience by prolonging and intensifying neural activity which builds neural structure.  This involves sensing or visualizing that the good is sinking into you like a gentle rain or rays of sunshine.

If taking in the good is like building a fire, step 1) is lighting it, step 2) is adding fuel to keep it going, and step 3) is feeling its warmth.

Link positive and negative material.

Hold both positive and negative in your awareness while keeping the positive more prominent.  For example, feel a positive emotion while feeling a negative emotion simultaneously in the background.  Know that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Over time, this practice will strengthen and form pathways in your brain to build a more optimistic and resilient default mindset.  With conscious effort, you can override nature to give your brain a positive slant, HEAL, and find happiness.

 

Float Away

float-tank-spaAfter shedding my clothes, I stepped into the foot-deep warm water, sat down, and pulled the heavy pod door shut with a loud “thunk.”  Easing back to lay in the unusually soft water, I felt completely supported as if I was resting on an under inflated air mattress.

As the salty water enveloped my body, I became acutely aware of every little cut that I hadn’t known existed a second ago. Extending my right arm, I switched off the faint green light which was casting an eerie glow in the watery cocoon. Total darkness.  Having already shoved the spongy ear plugs into my ears, I closed my eyes, relaxed, and began an hour without any stimulation in a sensory deprivation or float tank.

I’d planned to spend my session meditating, but, before I could get down to serious business, I had to play a little.  Floating comfortably spread eagle on my back, but not stretched to the max, I couldn’t touch the walls of the tank with my hands or feet. If I intentionally sank my leg, it quickly bobbed to the surface again. Settling in, I let my arms and legs land where they wanted as I began to focus on my third eye, the space on my forehead at the top of the bridge of my nose in between my eyes, and my breath.

I’d read that it was neat to hum or chant in the tank because of the cool echo effect.  When I did, the noise felt too loud and unsettling.  So, I concentrated on my breath.  In.  Out.  In.  Out. I’d read that a sensory deprivation tank experience can sometimes be similar to doing hallucinogenic drugs.  I waited for the show to begin. Nothing, but dark and quiet. After falling asleep a couple of times, I got into a good meditation state.  How long that lasted, who knows?  Time didn’t really exist.

Starting at my toes and working up my body, I performed a mental body scan.  Realizing that my torso and neck were tensed, I instructed my muscles to let the water do all the work and found a deeper level of relaxation. I then ran through a gratitude list, affirmations, visualizations, and found myself wondering how much longer I had and if anyone ever exited the tank early.  Soon, a voice came over the speaker, saying “Ms. Hampton, your float session is over.”

First developed by researchers at Washington’s National Institute of Mental Health, floating has been around since the 1950s and is making a comeback. The beneficial effects of floating have been scientifically validated for mental and physical health, resistance to addictive habits, accelerated learning, and elite sports performance.  Floating has also been shown to reduce stress and persistent pain with no side effects.

I just wanted to experience floating and didn’t have any specific ailments I was trying to improve.  I understand that, to see real benefit, you have to float a number of times with regularity.  A friend, sore from a car accident, said that a single float helped her tremendously. While I didn’t get the light show I had hoped for, my float experience was enjoyable, and I would jump at the chance to do it again, especially if dealing with a physical ailment.