What Cirque du Soleil can tell us about the neuroscience of awe

“Fans and critics alike have been calling our shows ‘awe-inspiring’ for more than 30 years now, and yet when we asked fans as marketers, ‘How do you feel? How do we connect with you?’ they were not able to explain it,” says Cirque du Soleil’s chief marketing and experience officer Kristina Heney. “We would get the proverbial world cloud of ‘Oh, my god, wow, you have to go, amazing, life-changing,’ but we couldn’t understand that emotional bridge.”

Neuroscience defines awe as: first there is surprise, then comes a sense of wonder and a desire to understand the surprise.

Cirque du Critteres by Peggy

A group of neuroscientists, artists, and technologists at Lab of Misfits, an experimental research lab, looked at what happens in people’s brains as they watched a Cirque du Soleil show. They recruited 282 members of the audience and put EEG caps on 60 of them.

 The caps measured neurological responses during the show.

  • The moment the audience member reported experiencing awe, brain activity in their prefrontal cortexes (The part of the brain that is in charge of “executive function”, which makes plans and decisions.) decreased. They were not focusing, but were taking in what was happening. 
  • Simultaneously, activity increased in the part of the brain that is active when you are daydreaming or imagining. (The part associated with creative thinking).

The audience recruits who did not wear the caps were given several test, some before the show, some after and asked to rate the awe they felt during the show.  Those who experienced awe reported:

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley who studies awe:

 “We’ve got a lot of findings in that vein. Humans have to fold into social collectives. It’s essential to our survival, and awe helps us with that. Empirically, we find people feeling awe are more humble, and their sense of self diminishes, their sense of network expands, they become more altruistic. They have a quieting of self-interest and a turning to people around them.”

“We define awe as having two key appraisals, which is how we ascribe meaning to what we’re perceiving,” Keltner said. “The first is a sense of vastness that makes you feel small, and then the second is when you don’t understand what’s happening.

cirque-du-soleil-lab-of-misfits-neuroscience-awe

 

“What? Me Worry?”

If you worry you have a evolved brain.

Powerful emotions, like anger, fear, anxiety, are products of our neurology and created largely for survival.  It’s just that our brains no longer know we are not living in caves and threatened by being eaten alive.

Alfred E. Neuman was  an iconic figure in the comic book MAD in the 1950’s*.  MAD’s first editor, Harvey Kurtzman identified him: “It was a kid that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief.”  Few of us don’t have a care in the world and most of us worry.

If you are someone who tends to worry or be anxious (probably most of us), listen to what Professor B.L. Chakoo has to say:

Worry

” Worrying is primarily the result of poor communication between the thinking prefrontal cortex (which is the whole surface of your brain) and the anterior cingulate which notices all your mistakes and contributes to ‘the tendency to dwell on everything that is going wrong’.”

Anxiety

Anxiety, by comparison, is mediated by some circuits within the limbic system which is the emotional part of the brain and is responsible for things like fear, anxiety and memory.  So, there is no reason to get upset with yourself for feeling anxious or worrying too much.  It is just a by-product of your brain’s evolution.”

“Yes, it would be a marvelous world if we never felt worried or anxious, but that is not the way our brains are ‘structured or wired’. We as human beings worry about the future, ‘regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present’. We get upset, feel angry, frustrated when we cannot have what we want, and sad, irritable or disappointed when what we desire ‘ends’.”

He also says that our brains make things up, and so you can worry about something that has not happened yet, as well as regret what did happen.

The Good News

If the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be its “cure.”  Understanding  why you worry or are anxious will help your brain will develop the ability to right itself. Decades of neuroscience inquiries have shown us how to modify our brains and change the levels of different neurochemicals.*

We can also grow new neurons and improve the way our brains work to reduce stress: 

  • Movement – walking, jogging, gardening or even walking up and down stairs – increases ‘the firing rate of serotonin neurons’, which causes them to release more serotonin.
  • Exercise with moderate intensity increases norepinephrine which helps with concentration and deep thinking.
  • Activity outside is best since sunlight improves serotonin production . . . as does . . .
  • . . . Interactions with others.

All these activities increase serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex, which help keep you from thinking about negative experiences.

And that means having an easier time saying “What? Me worry?”

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_E._Neuman

*To read the entire article by Professor B L Chakoo

Click here: http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/depression-and-neuro-science/

Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

Perhaps you haven’t heard that the hype about mindfulness is backed by hard science? Recent research provides strong evidence that practicing non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (a.k.a. mindfulness) changes the brain.

 Your anterior cingulate cortex

“The first is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure located deep inside your forehead, behind the brain’s frontal lobe. The ACC is associated with self-regulation, meaning the ability to purposefully direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly.”

“People with damage to the ACC show impulsivity and unchecked aggression, and those with impaired connections between this and other brain regions perform poorly on tests of mental flexibility: they hold onto ineffective problem-solving strategies rather than adapting their behavior.”

Meditators, on the other hand, demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators. They also show more activity in the ACC than non-meditators. In addition to self-regulation, the ACC is associated with learning from past experience to support optimal decision-making. Scientists point out that the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.”

Your hippocampus

“The hippocampus, a region that showed increased amounts of gray matter in the brains of a 2011 mindfulness program participants. This seahorse-shaped area is buried inside the temple on each side of the brain and is part of the limbic system, a set of inner structures associated with emotion and memory. It is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and studies have shown that it can be damaged by chronic stress, contributing to a harmful spiral in the body. People with stress-related disorders like depresssion and PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus. All of this points to the importance of this brain area in resilience.”

Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to

  • perception
  • body awareness
  • pain tolerance
  • emotion regulation
  • introspection
  • complex thinking
  • sense of self.

Mindfulness can be integrated into your religious or spiritual life, or practiced as a form of secular mental training.  When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.

(A team of scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected. They identified at least eight different regions.)

“Spaced-out” Learning

“What we know about how memories are made at a neuroscience level is that it’s not just important to repeat a stimulus, but it is important to leave spaces in between,” . . . “There are changes that happen to the genes and proteins on a neuron that help fix the memory if there are spaces between learning something.”

The latest neuroscience shows students who took part in spaced learning, where lessons are broken up by activities such as juggling, improved their attainment.

Training teachers to break up lessons with 10 minute “distractions”, such as juggling or model making, has been found to significantly boost pupils’ learning, early research has shown.

“A study involving 2,000 pupils revealed that information is more easily learnt if it is delivered in intense 12-minute bursts and broken up by 10 minute periods of an unrelated activity. The project, called SMART Spaces, is based on the latest neuroscience, which shows that information is better absorbed and more easily recalled when it is repeated a number of times, but spaced out with distractions.”

Whoops . . . wrong “space”

Spaced learning

“In Sheffield England technique as part of their revision lessons ahead of students’ GCSEs. Pupils had an intense 12 minute Power Point lesson in chemistry, then juggled for 10 minutes. After that they had 12 minutes of physics before another 10 minutes of juggling. The lesson was then finished with 12 minutes of biology. This was then repeated over two more days. Other schools broke up their lessons with plasticine model making and games of Simon Says. Mr Gittner said the study led to some significant gains in learning, and there are plans to implement a full-scale randomised controlled trial involving up to 50 schools.”

“The idea for the project came after Monkseaton High School in Newcastle made headlines in 2009 for teaching its pupils to pass a GCSE after just three days of learning. They were able to pass a sixth of a GCSE in just 60 minutes. Distractions boost results Mr Gittner said such approaches were not to counteract shrinking attention spans, adding that the techniques were backed up by the latest developments in neuroscience.

“It fits with the generally accepted views that people can only really focus for 20 minutes, even adults. Students that took part in our trial were able to concentrate fully because they new in 15 minutes they were going to get to to juggle,” 

https://inews.co.uk/essentials/news/education/juggling-lessons-boosts-learning/

For the latest Curious to the MAX post, click on this picture

 

Meditating can give you the brain of a 25-year-old

My meditation practice has always been sporadic and I’m not just talking about my “monkey mind” that leaps and roams . . . or falls asleep.  Needing a bit of discipline I joined a meditation group and in two months my brain will be younger and smarter.

Want proof?

There is an ever-increasing body of research evidence that shows that meditation decreases stress, depression, and anxiety, reduces pain and insomnia, and increases quality of life.

 One  study looked at long-term meditators (seven to nine years of experience) versus a control group. “The results showed that those with a strong meditation background had increased gray matter in several areas of the brain, including the auditory and sensory cortex, as well as insula and sensory regions.”

“This makes sense, since mindfulness meditation has you slow down and become aware of the present moment, including physical sensations such as your breathing and the sounds around you.”

Neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in the brain region, linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age.

Wowza!

Just to make sure this wasn’t because the long-term meditators had more gray matter to begin with, a second study was conducted in which they put people with no experience with meditation into an eight-week mindfulness program.

The results?

“Even just eight weeks of meditation changed people’s brains for the better. There was thickening in several regions of the brain, including the left hippocampus (involved in learning, memory, and emotional regulation); the TPJ (involved in empathy and the ability to take multiple perspectives); and a part of the brainstem called the pons (where regulatory neurotransmitters are generated).”

“Plus, the brains of the new meditators saw shrinkage of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression. This reduction in size of the amygdala correlated to reduced stress levels in those participants.”

How long do you have to meditate to see such results?

“The study participants were told to meditate for 40 minutes a day, but the average ended up being 27 minutes a day. Several other studies suggest that you can see significant positive changes in just 15 to 20 minutes a day”

In 8 weeks my brain will look and act half its age . . . .if only meditating could do the same for my body . . .

(jw)

Frankly Freddie – Flipp’n GOOD 2019 Calendar

Peggy & Judy were working on their book Hack Your Way to Happiness, based on neuroscience and decided to make a 2019 calendar with 12 of the book’s 22 Happiness Hacks.  (They aren’t quite done with the book . . .  they get diverted very easily . . .  I have a hard time keeping them on track.)

If I needed a calendar, which I don’t since I prefer to live in the moment, I would get their calendar. HOWEVER, the calendar has pictures of the Curious Critters but not ONE picture of me so I wouldn’t pay full price and would buy it with a 60% off Zazzle coupon, which is often available. 

ZAZZLE Shop

Here’s one of the Happiness Hacks from the book . . . don’t tell them I’m sharing it with you for free.

Flip’n Good

There are two sides to a coin, two sides to a pancake and two sides to every thought you have. When a negative thought bothers you, flip the thought to the positive side:

Imagine the opposite – something better, pleasurable, anything POSITIVE – is true and how you would feel. 

Positive thoughts signal your brain to release “happy” neurochemicals.

To see all 12 Hacks, Click HERE

Freddie Parker Westerfield

NOT a Hack

 

Your Brain on Chocolate Chip Cookies

What is your preference?

Soft and gooey?
Crisp and crunchy?
Semisweet chocolate?
Milk chocolate?
Bittersweet?

Some research suggests that ingredients in chocolate chip cookies may have additive properties. Take sugar: Evidence in humans shows that sugar and sweetness can induce rewards and cravings comparable in magnitude to those induced by addictive drugs, including cocaine.

Oh Noooooooooo

Then there’s the chocolate, which, in addition to sugar, contains small amounts of a compound known as anandamide. Anandamide is also a brain chemical that targets the same cell receptors as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in marijuana that is responsible for its mood-altering effects.
(That’s not to say chocolate will produce the same “high” as marijuana, but there may be a chemical basis for the pleasure we get from eating chocolate.)
“According to Gary Wenk, director of neuroscience undergraduate programs at the Ohio State University and author of “Your Brain on Food,” high-fat, sugar-rich cookies will raise the level of anandamide in our brains independent of what’s in the cookie, because it’s our body’s response to eating such a tasty item. “The fat and sugar combine to induce our addiction as much as does the anandamide,” Wenk said. “It’s a triple play of delight.”‘

Oh Nooooooooo

Texture and flavor: Key to a cookie’s addictive characteristics

The flavor of chocolate chip cookies is “. . . a beautiful amalgam of caramelized butter and sugar,” the result of the browning of butter and caramelizing of sugar while it bakes. The combination of the toasted grain with the browned butter, caramelized sugar, vanilla and chocolate are “the beautiful rich flavors that blend together in a chocolate chip cookie.  And as the chocolate melts, it becomes more aromatic and punches up the flavor.”*

A happy indulgence

“The main thing is not to think of food as good food and bad food. It’s all good. It’s how much you eat of it,”
So whether it feels like a true “addiction” or not, indulging in a chocolate chip cookie or two should be a happy experience.

Oh Yessssssssss

*Gail Vance Civille, founder and president of Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that helps companies learn how sensory cues drive consumer perceptions of products.
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