How complaining affects the brain

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The positive brain versus the negative brain

“Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses, just do the best you can do,” said UCLA coach John Wooden.

It turns out coach was on to something.

Recent studies show that complaining every day changes the structure of the brain.

Harmful behaviors such as complaining, if allowed to loop within the brain continually, will inevitably alter thought processes. Altered thoughts lead to altered beliefs which leads to a change in behavior.

Our brain possesses a something called the negativity bias. In simple terms, negativity bias is the brain’s tendency to focus more on negative circumstances than positive.

Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist and author of Buddha’s Brain, explains negativity bias:

“Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intensive positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly.”

Fortunately, the brain is plastic, which means it can allow more positive emotions to work alongside more negative ones. Writes Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

“In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision making and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of all those circuits. And once a pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.”

Your hopes and fears may be in your genes, but that doesn’t spell doom. One of the most practical things we can do to counter negative thinking is practicing meditation. “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” said neuroplasticity pioneer Donald Hebb. 

If forcing positive thinking feels inauthentic, try watching your thoughts instead. Being a neutral observer will help you rise above the whole notion of emotional sidedness. As with any self-improvement mechanism, daily practice and momentum is the key to long-term success.

You can redesign your brain

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gif via GE

“Who you are depends on what your neurons are up to, moment by moment,” writes David Eagleman in his book The Brain: The Story of You.

The classical textbook tells you that you’re immutable after a certain point, that in fact, you can no longer change. After your teens, your neurocognitive code is set in place.

But today’s neuroscience studies show that the mind is elastic. Staying challenged and interested in new experiences, you can plant even more brain cells and make even more connections. Writes Sharon Begley in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain:

William James, the father of experimental psychology in the United States, first introduced the word plasticity to the science of the brain, positing in 1890 that “organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.”

It’s therefore vital that the information you choose to digest and the pathway you decide to take enhance the brain’s flexibility rather than deteriorate it.

You may be born with a set number of preconditions, but that will never account what you can gain from trial and error. Neuroplasticity ensures that you can redesign your brain if you so wish.

The benefits of spacing out

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Default mode network connectivity via Wikipedia

Our mind never turns off. Even when we’re doing nothing, the brain is always active, processing, remixing, and imagining in what neuroscientist Marcus Raichle calls a ‘default mode network.’ Writes Manoush Zomorodi in “What Boredom Does to You:”

The default mode, a term also coined by Raichle, is used to describe the brain “at rest”; that is, when we’re not focused on an external, goal-oriented task. So, contrary to the popular view, when we space out, our minds aren’t switched off.

Boredom prompts daydreaming. When we let our mind wander, we’re giving it permission to chew on past, present, and future events; all real, imaginary, or blended.


It turns out that in the default mode, we’re still tapping about 95 percent of the energy we use when our brains are engaged in hardcore, focused thinking. Despite being in an inattentive state, our brains are still doing a remarkable amount of work.

Mulling over possibilities makes ‘boredom an incubator lab for brilliance.’ There is no reason to rush to a stimulation of dopamine when creativity begs us to take our time and let the hard egg boil into ‘the winning equation or formula.’

We suffer from closeupness which is often disguised as mindlessness. Some of our best thinking happens when we think we’re not thinking at all, instead disconnecting to the spontaneity of mind-wandering.

We forget the mundane and remember the weird

You’ll never forget it. (via giphy)

We tend to forget the mundane and remain loyal to the weird. What’s uninteresting remains unremembered. What peers into the mind eye’s with a little humor and exaggeration is the stuff that sticks.

Too ordinary becomes unextraordinary, not silly enough to make a significant dent.

Try not thinking about a purple cow, rainbow-striped zebra, or dog driving a pick-up truck. Now try to forget it 😉

You have to fake sleep to get to sleep. See! It’s the weird that binds.

Procrastinators can be finishers

Procrastinators can be finishers

We are told to ship it; release it before it’s finished, get it out of our hands so we can get the feedback we need to iterate and perfect our product. It’s a grueling process that fires up the anxiety. Is this thing going to work or go out to the void?

In his latest op-ed Why Do Anything? A Meditation on Procrastination Humanities professor and author Costica Bradatan writes:

Procrastination and mourning are tied tightly together: for to procrastinate is to mourn the precariousness of your creation even before you bring it into the world.

We are stuck between thinking and action, for which we have no choice but to finish what we started:

The procrastinator is both contemplator and man of action, which is the worst thing to be, and which is tearing him apart.

Procrastination is the purest form of idleness. And it is brain’s neurons that dictate what we decide to do. “Who you are depends on what your neurons are up to, moment by moment,” says David Eagleman in his book The Brain: The Story of You.

So if neurons predict our fate but the mind is plastic, we should be setting up the entire system to prepare for better decision-making. For starters, we can make a list of the things we can control. But there will never be any guarantees that it’ll work. That’s where the habits and enthusiasm come in to help us overcome the fear.

gif via MIT

Mental retirement 


Wouldn’t it be great to retire by thirty or forty years old? What sounds good in theory though has negative consequences for the brain. 

Indeed, a lot of work is repetitive and unnecessarily political, as we jump through hoops to make it up the ladder. And while our work may not be the most stimulating thing to do, it keeps our brain active. 

Studies show a correlation between retirement and memory loss.

The researchers find a straight-line relationship between the percentage of people in a country who are working at age 60 to 64 and their performance on memory tests. The longer people in a country keep working, the better, as a group, they do on the tests when they are in their early 60s.

We need challenges. We need some type of mind games to keep our brains fresh as we age. If we can’t recall how to act like inquisitive children who willfully fail, we need something more than physical exercise to hold up neurological plasticity. 

While work can be depressing, it’s keeps the brain cells running. Excess relaxation is what dulls the mind. Use it or lose it. 

Hardware of the head


The phone is negentropic; it gets better through software. Similarly, the human head carries a brain that improves over time.

Scientists have shown again and again that the mind, like a piece of software, is elastic. We are the sum of a hundred billion neurons that strengthen through knowledge and experience. Our skull evolves within a gooey flesh.

But there has to be a cap on human acuity, surely. At some point, exponents can’t go any further. We can’t get any smarter, nor pinpoint the largest number which is infinity and beyond. Even “Moore’s Law peters out, “as microchip components reach the atomic scale and conventional lithography falters,” says computer scientist Scott Aaronson.

The chances of maxing out our neurons or counting to the last number are just as slim as downloading the entire internet; it’s an impossibility, no matter how much time, cloud space or algorithms try to lead us there.

So we remain, fulfilled but never finished, searching beyond the robot and frazzled by immensity.

Call to mind

photo by Wells Baum

When an image comes to mind, it goes from dreamy obscurity to reality.

Images don’t exist until our eyes give them an interpretation. They wait for the brain’s chaotic cellular information to connect. Our visions act like an aperture on the iPhone, rendering the highest pixel resolution.

What brings life into existence is the stimulus of biology. Otherwise, images, thoughts, and things are loose pieces of triviality. We make objects important.

Information is the sum of parts

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The brain is just a collection of tangled wires with neuron connectivity levels. We call its output ‘information’ because we need some way of describing chemical synchronicity.

The computer works the same way. On the inside, it’s a collection of chips and wires with various voltage levels. What we see on screen is what we label as information.

Information is the same name we give to brain chemicals and computer voltage to describe the organized chaos. And the chaos is why it works.

Read: Does Information Smell?

Outsource Your Brain

Knowledge has become a kind of obesity of the mind in the digital age. Why remember anything or master a skill if you don’t have to? Could knowledge become a commodity? Perhaps people who know things without using Google or Photomath will be considered superior, maybe even genius.

Humans aren’t going to be running the show too much longer. The machines are learning fast and securing our dependency on them. They don’t just fix our brains; they ARE our brains.

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“Point your camera toward a math problem and Photomath will magically show the result” Photomath

And all I had was the TI-89 calculator!

The answers are already here at our fingertips. Not just for math but for foreign languages and all types of knowledge. What’s the capital of Uruguay? Just google it or ask Amazon’s Alexa. Can’t decide which photo to use? Ask an algorithm like the Roll to identify your best photo. Facebook automatically identifies people in photos just in case you can’t recall that person’s name from last night’s dinner party.

Knowledge has become a kind of obesity of the mind in the digital age.

Why remember anything or master a skill if you don’t have to? Could knowledge become a commodity? Perhaps people who know things without using Google or Photomath will be considered superior, maybe even genius.

Humans aren’t going to be running the show too much longer. The machines are learning fast and securing our dependency on them. They don’t just fix our brains; they ARE our brains.

Perhaps all that’ll make us human is the ability to feel emotion and dream. But is that enough?

Well, at least if the cars pilot themselves we can do more thinking about how human brains were once considered computers.

This Is Your Brain on Rhythm

 Adam Gazzaley, a superstar neurologist on why we need focus: 

“It allows us to interact with the world through our goals and not be led by or be a slave to our environment. It has allowed us to do every remarkable achievement — creation of society, culture, language. They are all dependent on being able to focus on our goals.”

Focus is a bicep curl for the brain.

Harnessing Brain Power

Everything is just a matter of organization. The way we organize our thoughts, our fears, and our work helps us understand, perceive, and make decisions in the world around us.

There is no such thing as the perfect organization. There’s only a system that works for you or doesn’t work at all and needs change. But most people prefer to accept their own confusion as stupidity and ignorance rather than a disassembly of thinking systems. The brain is no different than a notepad and a shelf, it just needs to be sorted out so it can remember where it put things.

Smart people may actually have a bigger brain than you, but they also know how to leverage the brain’s hard disk space to create a critical system of folders that allows them to connect different pieces of information more quickly. They also excel at focusing, knowing when to use their brain’s bandwidth at its maximum capacity.

You’re not stupid, not at all, but possibly mentally disorganized. The good news is that brain is malleable and can be cleaned up.

Limited Storage

Our brain capacity is limited.  Our ability to digest new information dwindles with each piece of new information we take in.  That’s why people are taking deliberate breaks away from the Internet.  The only way to fight feed-based culture is to turn it off completely, whether that’s through a 5-minute meditation or more intensively, through a 5-day digital retreat.  

This may sound obvious but the a fundamental way to reset the brain is to sleep more.  Our brain works like a dishwasher draining unnecessary filler when we sleep.  If we’re stoic enough, we can also choose to sit there and do nothing.  

‘Always on’ is a recipe for a clouded, confused brain that confuses multitasking with hard work.  At the same time, the Internet is the most amazing invention since the railroad.  At the end of the day, maybe we should all just daydream more and create our own memorable fantasies. 

Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 28, Henry Miller

After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever, or even talking to someone you’re not vitally interested in. You’re working, your mind is working, on this problem in the back of your head. So, when you get to the machine it’s a mere matter of transfer.

Your best thoughts occur when you’re not working, when your mind and body step away from your desk. But even in those dull moments your mind is working. And then you just copy-paste your thoughts at the computer. The hard part is the editing.