Thursday, October 7, 2010

This Blog Has Moved to

I am big time now. Check out my new, very spiffy website at

Visit and "like" me on facebook also at The Best Brain Possible.

See ya there!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Carrot on a Stick

As every manager or parent knows, if you want to motivate someone to be more productive, you dangle a prize, a reward, a bonus or something else which you think will make them salivate in front of them. That is what bonuses and allowances are for, right?! Hold on! Not so fast.

In their book, The Winner’s Brain, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske tell of studies done at Harvard that actually show that productivity and external rewards are inversely related after a certain threshold. Yes, inversely!

External rewards, such as money and other material things, encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible, and to take fewer risks. The focus becomes the prize, not the process, and, people begin to feel as if they are being controlled by the reward. This causes them to become less invested and less determined which, in turn, causes the creative juices to dry up. Focus on extrinsic rewards erodes intrinsic interest and motivation.

Motivation is the second strategy outlined in their book that anybody’s brain can develop and use to achieve success in life. They define motivation as the ability to translate potential and intention into action.

The research shows that, while external incentives do work to get people moving and give them an extra push to get them over the initial, short term hump, they do not motivate long term. For someone to stay motivated over the long haul, personal meaning and intrinsic value have to kick in.

Surprisingly, staying motivated and achieving long term goals boil down to the kinda new age-ish concept of staying in the present moment and celebrating the small victories. Framing everyday, ordinary tasks positively towards an outcome and finding inspiration in them causes the amygdala in your brain to stay active and gives your brain a dopamine bath as a reward which helps keep you going in the right direction. Achieving in the here and now allows you to succeed later.

I remember in the first winter of my recovery from a brain injury, I went to a “jump and pump” aerobics class where you work out with jump ropes. I could not jump rope to save my life. It was sad. I ended up just having to hold the rope and jump up and down in place. I could do that. I bought myself a jump rope soon thereafter and vowed that I would jump rope again like a third grader, dammit! – minus the pigtails. What a goal. I remember how happy and proud I was when I could jump 20 times without getting all tangled up. Imagine that!? A grown woman feeling good about being able to jump rope. Now, I still can’t do the double dutch bus, mind you, but I wouldn’t get laughed off the playground either.

You can develop motivation and reinforce this trait in your brain by celebrating the minor accomplishments and by practicing finding the positive in the mundane situations. There really is some scientific basis for this “feely good” stuff. Plus, when you approach the small, every day events with optimism and appreciation, it makes the journey so much more enjoyable along the way.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Love ya. Mean it. Miss ya already.

This is a special post. Today is my brother's birthday, Chris. He would have been 48. He died 15 years ago of AIDS at the age of 33. Yes, he was gay...and fun, and hilarious and lived full out while here. He was also my best friend.

The below was written by a good friend of his, Mike Mason. It perfectly captures Chris' spirit and energy which I wanted to share with you today.

Chris Hampton was a man with a genius for living. He knew what clubs to go to, what CD's to buy, which thrift stores were cool, which gym everyone was at, where to get a custom 50's swimsuit, who to call, who to insult, when to arrive, when to leave, how to go all weekend without sleep, how to keep the boss from suspecting on Monday morning.

Over the years, I saw him on a hundred dance floors, a small whirlwind pulling friends into a joyous orbit, and today I cannot bring myself to understand that the center of so much has collapsed.

Here's the first thing I learned about Chris: He was not a guy to shrink from battle. Ten years ago, he worked as a waiter at a restaurant on Peachtree Street called Cafe Society. It went bankrupt suddenly, and one of the first conversations I had with Chris concerned his determination to sue the owners for back wages. This was not to be an exceptional conversation.

For as long as I knew him, there were disputes - dramatic, almost Shakespearean - involving car accidents and rent deposits and breakups and jobs. Chris was quick to draw his sword, sing a war whoop, and charge the enemy. I loved that about him.

He was restless. I suspect that he hated silence and emptiness, that he cherished noise and furor and friends and a full Filofax. For the last few years, he insisted to me that he'd become a homebody. I never believed it. This was the guy who dragged me to a Christmas party where a leather-clad woman with a bloody nose let her Doberman eat his way through the buffet. This was the man who showed up at a Halloween party looking like a cross between Peter Fonda in Easy Rider and Liza Minelli in Cabaret, with just a dash of Pee Wee Herman.

To this day, there is a ball of crumpled metal underneath the front bumper of my car because Chris said something, I can't recall what, that made me laugh so hard I drove over a parking curb at 4am at the Cove.

I remember Chris rising out of the Chattahoochee River, a laughing tangle of love beads and algae, yelling as our raft sailed past: "love ya, mean it, miss ya already!" Somehow he was waiting for us at the end of the race. That much was typical: I often felt he was waiting patiently for the rest of his friends to catch up.

Here is what AIDS wants: It wants us to stop living as fully as Chris lived. AIDS is a dark angel passing overhead, and it reaches for the brightest of us, like Chris, because it hopes that by extinguishing their stars, it may also snuff the spirit of an entire community. It hopes that those who are left behind will lead compromised lives, perhaps lives not even worth living, because of the losses we have suffered.

Today, I think the dark angel has lost a battle and Chris has won. The sicker he got, the more we learned from him about living fully, and drawing our swords, and refusing to compromise. Imagine the mortification above. The dark angel of AIDS looks down upon us now and instead of seeing a light extinguished it sees scores more burning brighter.

Occasionally, I have a dream about the day a cure is found. On that day the dark angel comes crashing to earth and I am there when it lands, miraculously, in Piedmont Park, among rows of gay men lying on the grassy hillside. We are not pleased. I find I am holding the love beads Chris Hampton used to wear. So, I walk over and wrap the necklaces tight around the monster's greasy neck. Before long, the fallen angel is flapping angrily along the ground, toward the sewer, unable to fly again because the crowd has ensnared it in love beads.

Goodbye Chris. Love ya. Mean it. Miss ya already,

Friday, September 24, 2010

If you like where you are, you can't complain about how you got there.....

It was a whimpering sound like a wounded animal would make. It was something in between a wail and a moan. It came from way down deep. I couldn’t not do it or suppress it. It was like an involuntary gag reflex. You don’t want to throw up and you try really hard not to, but it just comes rushing up to the top of your throat anyway.

I sat outside the courtroom on a wooden bench. The air became very thin. I couldn’t breathe and gasped as the pitiful sound continued to heave up from somewhere inside me. They told me to put my head between my knees. There was a very real, visceral sensation of pain somewhere in the depths of my gut. It was like the queasy, hollow feeling you have when you have drank too much the night before and you just feel all empty and inside out the morning after, but much more immediate and intense.

The judge had just announced his decision to take custody of my two sons away from me and give it to their father. Not only that, he had also decided that he was allowing my ex-husband, who lived in the same city at the time, to move out of state with them.

I had tried to commit suicide three months earlier and was brain damaged and still emotionally unstable even though I tried very hard, not at all convincingly unbeknownst to me at the time, to put on a charade of being neither. While I definitely did not think so then, it was absolutely best for the kids and myself.

I could not and would not have devoted the energy needed to heal from my brain injury or focused on my emotional healing had the kids stayed here…even living with their Dad. Being without the kids has allowed me to mature emotionally (about time), determine who I am and what I am about other than being a mother, find and develop strength I did not even know I had, and, among other things, learn to be comfortable with solitude. I even prefer it now. Go figure.

The children, on the other hand, have gained an invaluable opportunity they would not have had otherwise to get to know their Dad. Teenage boys need their Dad. I cannot teach them how to be a man. He has also modeled for them a whole different way of life than I would have and exposed them to a vast array of things. Great for them. They have even had the experience of gaining a younger brother. So, my youngest, has gotten to be both the youngest and the middle child. Interesting. I think he kinda likes being the older one now.

Funny, how what scares us the most and what we try to flee from like a bat out of hell, oftentimes, proves to be the most beneficial with the most growth and wisdom for us if we relax and allow ourselves to move through the experience, let things just unfold, and not tense up and resist.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, in her book When Things Fall Apart writes:

We regard discomfort in any form as bad news. ….feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy and fear instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we are stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s wherever we are.

When something “bad” happens, don’t be so quick to judge the situation. Nothing is good or bad in and of itself. “Good” and “bad” exist in your thoughts, in your perspective, in your brain, and you have the power to change and control this.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Without a Word

Years ago, I had a blind date set up by one of those expensive, exclusive match making agencies where rich men turn to find arm candy. It was not a good match on any level. This guy showed up looking like some gangster straight out of a cheesy movie with pounds of gold around his neck, a bad suit, and his shirt unbuttoned way too far. In North Carolina?? I could not stop staring at the hair plugs half way down his forehead even though I kept telling myself not to. While my mouth was saying cordial things, I am sure my body language was saying something very different.

It takes your brain mere seconds to interpret what someone is saying, but the brain takes about only 200 milliseconds to gather information from facial expressions. Quick, huh!? The amygdala responded vigorously in test subjects even when researchers flashed photos so fast that people couldn’t tell at what the heck they were looking. The amygdala is the reptilian region of the brain associated with sounding the danger alarm. Assessing stimuli here really quickly would be a good thing in order to not be something’s lunch.

According to Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, in their book The Winner’s Brain, a person constantly, unconsciously makes “micro-expressions” which are so fast that they don’t even register them and cannot control them.

These nonverbal cues convey emotions and ideas, oftentimes, more powerfully than words. This is the first form of communication learned and used by infants. There are about half a dozen facial expressions that are recognized universally across all cultures. I mean, we all know what pissed off looks like, right? There is no mistaking it.

Even after we learn to speak and understand language, the brain’s right hemisphere reads these nonverbal cues. Being able to accurately interpret this information and respond authentically and appropriately is crucial to a good sense of self awareness which is one of the key ingredients to a winner’s brain according to Brown and Fenske.

In their book, they cover eight traits great minds use to achieve success. “Win factors.” Rather than just recite the usual, positive thinking fluff, these attributes are backed up by neuroscience. They are traits anyone can develop to create a “failure-resistant” brain. This is my kind of stuff. I know, I am such a dork.

Possessing a highly evolved sense of self-awareness allows someone to assess interactions with others more accurately and to be perceived as more confident and authentic. It also allows a person to take advantage of their talent and honestly understand their limitations. They define self-awareness as the ability to “know thyself.”

All of us maintain a public persona to a certain extent. It is absolutely necessary. An example would be putting on a happy face at work when you feel anything but happy or being nice to a blind date when you really want to run the other way. In a winning sense of self-awareness these two selves are pretty similar most of the time or, at the least, there is a conscious understanding of how, why, and when they are different. Also, a winner’s brain tends to have a very stable sense of self regardless of the present circumstances.

These two selves used to be quite different in me. I used to have one self I showed to my significant other, to my parents, and the public. She was the people pleaser and did not make waves. However, the other me was always fuming because she never was authentic. It was so tiring keeping that mask on all the time. Now, what you see is what you get…like it or not.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Nothing To Hold On To

There is an anonymous saying that, in order to live the life that is waiting for you, you have to let go of the life you have. Three years ago, when I swallowed handful after handful of pills and tried to commit suicide, my life as I knew it ceased to exist from that moment on. OK. That is taking it a little too literally.

In the months that followed, I lost custody of my children as they moved with their Dad to a different state. In the following year, I gradually lost all friends and became isolated as I did not return phone calls or socialize. I couldn’t. All I could do was take care of me and exist.

The things which had been so important like the latest, killer clothes, a flawless appearance at all times (even did the Botox thing), and having a house which looked like it came right out of some magazine complete with the sparkle and fresh smell, were not a consideration anymore. Not even on the radar. I used to pride myself on my yard never hinting at the fact that a single woman lived here. It was all I could do just to keep it from looking run down and unkept. I think I even saw a few tumbleweeds blow through.

After an initial period of shock and anger, came a profound stage of sadness and grief. In truth, the Debbie that had existed did die. Slowly, gradually, came acceptance and taking responsibility for the life I had lived thus far, the big mess I had created and the life I was going to live from that point on.

At this time, I started putting my energy into me and improving myself and my life. I knew I did not want to stay in the condition I was in, and I was the only one who was going to make it better. I have not stopped since. I have only gained momentum. You know what? It has worked. Yipee!

If a fortune teller had looked into their crystal ball and told me that I would be living without my kids, without a significant other, without a career, with a speech impediment, and basically with the same issues as when I tried to kill myself, but I would be happier than ever and be very optimistic about the future, I would have told them their ball must have a huge smudge. Yet, it is true.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty says that:

Wanting to find a place where everything’s OK is just what keeps us miserable. Always looking for a way to have pleasure and avoid pain is how we keep ourselves in samsara. (the vicious cycle of suffering) As long as we believe there is something that will permanently satisfy our hunger for security, suffering is inevitable. The truth is that things are always in transition. ‘Nothing to hold on to’ is the root of all happiness.

Things may not be perfect, but I am OK…great even. I have come to know that in uncertainty lies all possibility. Peace and joy are not found in having no wrinkles, a spotless house, or yard of the month. It is in my brain.

Friday, September 3, 2010

From Here to There

There is a sport called orienteering where participants receive nothing but a map and a compass and then have to find their way to locations on the map and back to the starting point. They are not limited as to how they can find the target locations except by their thinking. They can hike, ski, swim, or get creative. (I think using a vehicle of any kind is cheating.) They just have to get there. I have decided that life is a lot like this sport and, recovering from a brain injury has made me really good at it. Who would have thought?

In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge tells of Paul Bach-y-Rita, a scientist and rehabilitation specialist, who has developed a “tactile vision device” which allows cognitively blind people to “see” by their brains interpreting sensations from their skin. He has also developed a glove for NASA astronauts with sensors on the outside allowing them to “feel” and perform delicate movements. He has even developed a condom that allows males with spinal cord injuries to have orgasms. No lie! It is all based on the premise that these experiences occur “in the brain” and are just the brain’s interpretation of stimuli. If one way doesn’t work, the brain can reroute the signals - from the skin to the visual cortex for example.

He was inspired to develop these because his father, Pedro Bach-y-Rita, had stroke at 65 which left him paralyzed in his face, and in half of his body and unable to speak. He was given no hope of recovery by his doctors and was advised to be institutionalized. Instead, he was brought home and Paul and his brother, George, worked to rehabilitate him.

As is often the case I have found, not knowing anything and not listening to the “experts” was a good thing. They used the way a baby learns as their model for rehabilitation. Pedro first learned to crawl, then stood, and then walked. They played on the floor with him with coins and marbles. They turned everyday experiences into exercises. Washing the dishes became rehabilitation. He relearned to speak and to write and to do everything – even mountain climbing. He made a full recovery and went on to resume teaching at a college and even remarried. Go, old Geezer! He died at 72 of a heart attack.

This recovery and all Bach-y-Rita’s devices are possible because of neuroplasticity which is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself based on the input it receives. If one route is damaged or blocked in some way, the brain can actually grow new pathways based on consistent, repeated incoming stimuli.

Life is exactly like this. We have to develop a nueroplastic attitude towards living. A reader, Dr. Mark Langer, suggested the idea of this in a comment. I love it. Never thought of it that way before. He is exactly right.

Like the orienteering sport, we have to use what tools we have on hand right here, right now, and our creativity, our ingenuity, our guts, our determination, and our heart to get to the next checkpoint location or goal in life or just to the next day sometimes…whatever the case may be.

If the easiest path is not feasible, find a different way. Make it work. Even an inch is progress. It doesn’t happen nearly quick enough for most of us, (me included!) but it will happen. You can and will get from here to there.

Tell people where they are going and they may get there; inspire them with why they are going there and they will move mountains.”
~Christopher Novak