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Sleep deprivation is killing your career

Eupraxsophy:

Some practical advice to consider implementing, when or if possible. I have definitely seen big benefits in many areas of my personal and professional life from adequate sleep, but I am fortunate to have a work and lifestyle schedule that accommodates most of these suggestions. What is most important is experimenting with these and other ideas, since sleeping needs vary wildly by individual.

Originally posted on Quartz:

The next time you tell yourself that you’ll sleep when you’re dead, realize that you’re making a decision that can make that day come much sooner. Pushing late into the night is a health and productivity killer.

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.

Why you need adequate sleep to perform

We’ve always known that sleep is good for your brain, but new research from the University of Rochester provides the first direct evidence for why your brain cells need you to sleep (and sleep the right way—more on that later)…

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Sleep and Ethics

Coming shortly after my blog about the consequences of sleep deprivation, a common issue in our society, Mic.com published an article about a Harvard study that found yet another negative effect from insufficient rest: bad ethics.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to become more unethical as the day goes on, but the Harvard team wanted to see if people with different sleeping patterns had different responses to temptation. So the researchers separated study participants into morning larks and night owls and gave them two different decision-making tasks that actually tested their honesty.

The Harvard team found that “larks will be more unethical at night than in the morning, and that owls will be more unethical in the morning than at night” — the more tired people felt, the more they were inclined to lie.

Here’s a chart showing the correlation between lack of energy and lack of ethical scruples:

The results are not too surprising, given that lack of sleep has been linked to a wide variety of mental and emotional problems, including increased likelihood of irritability, depression, impaired judgement, and so on.  It stands to reason that a mind weakened by lack of sleep would under-perform in other areas as well.  You simply won’t be thinking as much or as clearly.

As with my previous post on the subject, the implications of this finding take us back to the socioeconomic paradigms of our society: namely a business culture that makes people work increasingly unpalatable hours that are simply not conducive to optimal physical or mental performance. The Mic article makes a similar note:

Studies like this challenge the notion of a traditional 9-5 workday: If people are naturally inclined to be more productive and ethical at different hours of the day, isn’t it inefficient and ultimately dangerous for a company to ask everyone to work the same hours?

The Harvard team think so. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.”

As technological advances make it easier for people to telecommute or restructure their schedules, it’s up to managers to decide whether they want to allow flexible workdays. If you can get people to operate at optimum efficiency and moral uprightness for their shift, does it matter when they do the work?

Unfortunately, Americans employers overall have a bad track record of heeding, much less implementing, such evidence-backed recommendations. There has already been good evidence, not to mention historical precedence, showing that people are more productive when paid better and given more leisure time; yet the trend has increasingly been in the opposite direction, regardless (for their part, most government agencies and school administrations have not followed suit either).

Barring a few forward-thinking and largely niche businesses, it does not seem likely that the average employer will be willing to provide that much flexible without legal and/or organized pressure (though in fairness, I could see some individual local managers in non-9-to-5 jobs designing their schedules to work with their employees’ preferences).

Otherwise, we should do our best, whenever possible, to maintain schedules that are more conducive to the wellness of our minds, bodies, and souls. The connection between our physical health and mental health cannot be understated.

The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Sleeplessness seems to be an intractable part of modern living. Nowadays, few people seem to consistently get the right amount of sleep they need — estimated between seven to nine hours — in order to function optimally. The subsequent day-to-day struggle for energy is increasingly becoming the norm, as a recent article in Mic.com noted:

Just 59% of American adults surveyed by Gallup in 2013 got enough sleep — way down from the 84% who reported sleeping that much in 1942. Just 14% said they got five or fewer. That’s enough to seriously endanger health and well-being in most people. According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is an “epidemic,” with a survey conducted by the agency finding 35.3% of people get less than seven hours of sleep on average. A surprising 37.9% reported being tired enough to doze off during the middle of the day in the past month, while an unnerving 4.7% admitted to sleeping at the wheel of a car.

Aside from the obvious lack of productivity and the increased likelihood of accidents, lack of sleep has been linked to such myriad issues as declining intelligence, numbed sex drive, impaired memory, weight gain, depression, and possibly even permanent damage to brain cells (namely those associated with wakefulness).

The following infographic pretty much sums up the potential risks (the likelihood and severity of which vary from person to person).

One of the key characteristics of 21st century society is its constant activity: 24-hour cycles have gone from novelty to norm, whether for business, news, entertainment, or even daily routines. Based on anecdotal evidence, not to mention personal experience, it is not unusual to stay up all night just reading, watching TV, or doing some other mundane activity.

Any number of factors could be responsible for the decline of restful sleep, ranging from the ubiquity of technology (particularly the Internet) as a source of distraction and over-stimulation, to an economic system that demands ever more work at the expense of free-time and energy. It is difficult to find time to sleep when there never seems to be enough time for neither leisure nor work.

Speaking from experience as a former night owl, I can definitely vouch for the positive benefits of getting good sleep. Everything from my depression to my physical fitness have improved markedly since I have made regular sleep a habit. But it took a long time to develop the habits and lifestyle adjustments needed to sleep well: avoiding meals and electronic screens at least an hour before bed, willing myself to cut outings with friends short, and so on.

Eschewing sleep has become so common that it is little wonder so few people even try. Even I continue to flounder at least one or twice a week despite knowing the consequences and benefits firsthand. As usual, taking the long view with regards to health is not easy, especially in our fast-paced and restless society.

 

Walking and Thinking

For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed walks. From brief strolls through my neighborhood, to long forays across several blocks, my mind and mood noticeably improves thereafter. Indeed, whether it is sadness, stress, or writer’s block, there seems to be nothing that a walk can’t alleviate (I am forever grateful that my writing job allows me to step out and walk periodically to recharge my brain).

As it turns out, I am hardly alone in this experience. A recent piece in The New Yorker by Ferris Jabr notes that all sorts of people throughout history — including prominent writers, thinkers, and other creatives — have attested to the positive benefits of moving one’s feet:

Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

Funny enough, as I write this, I happen to be listening to Johannes Brahms, another accomplished figure known for his love of walks. Of course, one does not have to be an especially ingenious character to know the joys and advantages of walks. Humans in general benefit from physical activity of all manner and degree, especially amid the prevalent sedentary and insular lifestyles of the modern world. There is quite a lot of research to back it up, as the following article excerpt explores:

When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

The piece goes on to cite what may be the first set of studies to more closely measure how walking immediately influences creativity. The four experiments, which altogether involved 76 Stanford students, yielded some interesting results:

In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Another experiment required volunteers to contemplate a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and generate a unique but equivalent metaphor, such as “an egg hatching.” Ninety-five per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only fifty per cent of those who never stood up. But walking actually worsened people’s performance on a different type of test, in which students had to find the one word that united a set of three, like “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake.” Oppezzo speculates that, by setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought, walking is counterproductive to such laser-focussed thinking: “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

In short, walking helps with certain kinds of thought, the kind we’d consider to be more “out of the box”. A further study discovered that where one walks has an impact as well: generally, spending time in green spaces like parks and forests is more effective than doing so in urban settings, which are often rowdier and more distracting. Nevertheless, walking in one’s neighborhood or city can still offer some form of relief, especially if you’re looking for greater sensory stimulation (the article suggests that a bit of both is ideal depending on the circumstances).

What is most interesting to me is just how complementary these two seemingly distinct activities (walking and thinking) are:

Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.

All I can say is that walks have been keeping me sane for as long as I can remember, and I cannot imagine how much more severe and frequent my bouts of anxiety and depression would be without those brief forwards outside and into my own mind.

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The complete guide to procrastinating at work

Eupraxsophy:

The perfect post for starting the post-Labor Day workweek. I can certainly relate with a lot of what is stated here, in both my personal and professional life. It is nice to see more scientific attention centered on what is no doubt an increasingly common issue in the modern world. As it turns out, there is a rhyme and reason to procrastination beyond mere fatigue or laziness — in fact, it is a completely different creature altogether.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Some research says the best way to spark creativity is to walk away and that the best ideas come from those least-expected “aha!” moments. So maybe procrastination isn’t such a bad thing after all. Or is time spent on those cat memes taking its toll? Can procrastinating ever be a source of productivity?

Here’s the complete guide to procrastinating at work:

Clever people procrastinate smartly

The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of a particularly intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found the group procrastinated productively. Some used procrastination as a trigger for a helpful amount of stress needed to ignite positive action. Others saw it as a “thought incubator”: They put off making a decision because they wanted to fully process it before finding a solution.

Procrastinate using your to-do list

The same study also found that the tasks the science competition winners were doing while avoiding work were helping in other areas of their…

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The comprehensive, fully caffeinated guide to coffee at work

Eupraxsophy:

The perfect post to start a Monday with.

Originally posted on Quartz:

The cardinals who are gathered at the Vatican take a very important daily pause during their deliberations to choose a new pope.

“There’s a coffee break for about 30 minutes at a special buffet area in the front part of the audience hall,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica told CNN. “Cardinals have an opportunity to go down and mix and mingle.”

Whether you’re a prince of the church or a cubicle-dwelling drone, there seems to be an unbreakable bond between work and coffee: The boss provides the java and the java fuels the workers, keeping them revved up, connected, and toiling away at their given tasks.

Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about coffee at work, but were too over- or under-caffeinated to ask:

Surprise! Coffee keeps you alert

Caffeine, the most commonly consumed psychoactive drug in the world, is a stimulant. It blocks the adenosine receptors…

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The Most Important Lesson From 83,000 Brain Scans

Daniel Amen is an American psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist who is a strong advocate of utilizing single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) as a diagnostic tool for better identifying and treating mental illnesses. In the following TED Talk, he discusses his research involving the use of SPECT (including several touching success stories resulting from its application) and highlights its importance in improving the efficacy of psychiatric treatment.

Personally, I found Amen’s points to be compelling and reasonable. The growing prominence of psychiatric problems in our society, coupled with issues of inaccurate diagnosis and inadequate treatment, makes his argument for the wider use of SPECT seem self-evidently true.

However, after doing some research, I dug up quite a lot serious skepticism and criticism towards Amen’s claims, as well as his professional endeavors (apparently, he hawks a lot of pseudoscience while making hefty profits from his private practice). Much of the controversy and debate is cited and expanded upon in this article from Science Based Medicine, a source I deeply trust.

Personally, I remain undecided, as I just came across Amen and his subsequent detractors. I will have to look into these matters more deeply when I have the time, but I invite you all to see the video, read the criticism, and decide for yourselves. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts here. Thanks for reading.

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Gym workouts and sunbathing do more for your brain than crosswords and Mozart

Eupraxsophy:

This could certainly explain why my mind feels sharper on days or weeks when I workout more regularly. As it has long been observed, the health of mind, body, and spirit (even in the secular sense of mood and attitude) are inextricably intertwined.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Doing puzzles and listening to classical music might improve your concentration momentarily, but they don’t actually make you any smarter. That is, they don’t improve your long-term brain function, according to The Economist’s interview of Nicholas Spitzer, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California and editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org.

“Let me dispel a brain development myth,” Spitzer told The Economist. “Many people think classical music is going to enhance brain function (the Mozart effect) or playing particular games sharpens one’s cognitive function. These theories have been looked at in detail and they don’t stand up. It is disappointing in a way, but what we have learned is that exercise is the key thing for brain function.”

By exercise, he means general activity and—more importantly—exposure to sunlight. In a recent study (paywall), he found that rats produced different brain-altering chemicals based on environmental factors. He thinks that our…

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The Magic of Music Therapy

There can be little doubt that music has a remarkable impact on the human mind, not only in terms of emotion and feeling, but even with regards to mental health. The Guardian offers a glimpse into the benefits of music therapy, which is catching on as a treatment for people suffering dementia and other mental afflictions. It begins with the case of Vera and Jack Burrows.

Five and a half years into their very happy marriage, Jack had a stroke while roasting a chicken, and has never returned home. Ever since he’s been living in Station House care home in Crewe. Now 86, he’s lost his speech and has increasing memory problems, but his bawdy sense of humour is very much intact.

Vera, a very glamorous 84 with turquoise eye shadow and a cloud of blond hair, had accompanied Jack to a special music session at the care home run by the music therapist Greg Hanford, director of MusAbility, and musicians from the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra.

Overseen by Manchester University, it is part of a 10-week pilot project called Music in Mind, funded by Care UK, which runs 123 residential homes for elderly people. The aim is to find out if classical music can improve communication and interaction and reduce agitation for people in the UK living with dementia – estimated to number just over 800,000 and set to rise rapidly as the population ages.

The Crewe project is the fourth Music in Mind pilot. An assessment of the first three, by the Manchester-based thin-ktank New Economy, found that some participants no longer had to be medicated after taking part. Carers reported reduced agitation, better moods and improved posture; residents who had been slumped in their chairs raised their heads to take an active role.

“The power of music therapy enables, excites, enthuses, entertains,” one musician told New Economy. “It’s like opening the window of a stuffy room and allowing scented fresh air to waft in, lifting the spirits, changing the nature of the room.”

Pretty touching stuff, to say the least. Whether or not music therapy has any clear physiological impact, the fact that it can improve moods, less anxieties, and encourage more activity makes this approach very promising.

What do you think?

The Amazing Language of Music

If you’re like me, you’ve had many a bad episode in life alleviated by music. Whether you’re stressed, sad, romantic, or energetic, there seems to be the right melody out there to help mitigate (or if need be, amplify) your mood. Similarly, there’s always the right song, band, or genre to listen to for a particular circumstance, from studying to work to exercise. Music serves as an incredibly versatile form of therapy, consolation, palliative, and more.

Now several studies have confirmed what many of us have long experienced: music has an amazing impact on our mood, cognition, and overall well-being. In fact, it stimulates and conveys ideas no differently than any spoken language, as concluded by a recent study reported in PolicyMic:

Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a 2008 study focused on observing the brain responses of musicians while they played music, while a 2013 study looked at the fMRI recorded brain activity of listeners as music was played. Taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of why exactly music influences us the way it does. It comes down to one simple truth: Music actually is a special kind of language, one that works on our emotions rather than our reason.

One needn’t look to closely to notice the sheer complexity of musical compositions, which look very much like a written script onto themselves. In fact, as a more detailed account of the study reveals:

In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put musicians into an MRI with an instrument and told them to play both memorized and improvised pieces of music. When the musician improvised, another musician was put in the control room to play along. The findings were striking: When the two musicians played together, their brains responded exactly as they do during spoken conversation, with one difference. The regions that generally process the meaning of language shut down — the music was simply a communication impulse in structure and intent.

But what, it gets more interesting!

Music acts on the brain of a listener as if a recorded musician were speaking to you too. The 2013 study by researchers from Finland, the UK and Denmark went even further. They exposed subjects to different types of music, ranging from the Beatles’ epic Abbey Road medley to a modern rendition of an Argentinian tango. The takeaway: The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.

The study found something even more striking, though. It isn’t just music in general that affects us: Every genre and every song is its own map to a unique combination of feelings and thoughts. As this video recording of an fMRI of a brain responding to tango music shows, our reactions to music can be profound.

This is precisely why quiet songs tend to make you more reflective or daydreamy, why upbeat, poppy songs energize you and make you want to dance, and why aggressive or fast-paced songs may inspire aggressive feelings or help drive the intensity of a workout. Music — like the words, tones, and ideas of any other spoken language — elicits a visceral reaction. And like the vagaries of language, different music has different effects on different people.

But perhaps the palpable finding is that music is as vital to our well-being as social interaction.

different study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University suggests that listening to music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,” even stimulating dopamine release in the brain — a chemical affiliated strongly with pleasure, reward and even addiction. Like speaking with a dear friend or hearing something sweet from someone you love, music is a conversation, one the brains of listeners and players alike need to keep having.

As someone whose recurring bouts of depression and anxiety are regularly kept in check by music and companionship alike, I can certainly vouch for this conclusion.