Science of the Spirit


Identifying with your future self can help overcome the tendency to procrastinate

"I love deadlines," English author Douglas Adams once wrote. "I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

We've all had the experience of wanting to get a project done but putting it off for later. Sometimes we wait because we just don't care enough about the project, but other times we care a lot - and still end up doing something else. I, for one, end up cleaning my house when I have a lot of papers to grade, even though I know I need to grade them.

So why do we procrastinate? Are we built to operate this way at some times? Or is there something wrong with the way we're approaching work?

These questions are central to my research on goal pursuit, which could offer some clues from neuroscience about why we procrastinate - and how to overcome this tendency.


Emotional intelligence: Choosing our responses in unpleasant circumstances

We often assume that our emotional responses are dictated by the situation. When we experience an upsetting event, we believe that we have no choice except to react to it. Any other response seems unnatural, or even impossible. But is it?

Sometimes we can choose not to get upset by a situation that normally would have upset us. To succeed, we must think through the situation, recognize that we have a choice, consider the consequences of our response, and then be deliberate about our reaction.

Several years ago, I had an interesting experience that illustrates the ability to choose. I was flying from Charlotte to Bangkok, Thailand to participate in a counseling clinic for American missionaries serving in China. My flight went from Charlotte to Minneapolis to Tokyo and finally to Bangkok.

After a layover in Minneapolis, I boarded a plane for the 13-hour trip to Tokyo. The plane filled with passengers and the attendant closed the cabin door. I got out a book to pass the time.

With the plane still at the gate, the pilot came over the intercom, saying, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but we have a little problem with the plane. One of the computers isn't working and we have called in technicians, so we should be under way in about 20 minutes." I didn't think this would be a problem because I had a four-hour layover in Tokyo.

Comment: Traits of emotionally intelligent people and the things they don't do

Che Guevara

A neuro-scientific examination of the elusive concept of bravery

© Shutterstock
What makes some people suppress their worst fears and do the right thing?
In the book The Red Badge Of Courage, an 18-year-old soldier named Henry Fleming must face his first battle in the Civil War. After months of glorifying and anticipating combat, Fleming finds himself on the front lines of battle, but as soon as the skirmish begins, he finds he is too afraid to fight, so he retreats in cowardice. Fleming is ashamed, morbidly yearning for a wound that would act as a "badge" of his bravery.

Though Fleming later engages in battle and proves his courage, he wonders why he fled in the first place. From writers to philosophers to heroes themselves, people for generations have pondered the question: what makes people act bravely? Thanks to recent research into fear regulation in the brain, neuroscientists are starting to answer such questions, revealing how people think about the interplay between individual and societal benefits. Understanding the intricacies of the fear response could someday lead researchers to new treatments for mental illnesses like PTSD, but for now, they have more questions than answers.


The real reason why you haven't healed your trauma, heartbreak, depression

The prevailing psychological wisdom of our time tells you that your current dysfunctions are probably a result of your past experiences, e.g., your painful childhood, your stupid parents, your abusive first love, and the wars, famines, and hurricanes you were forced by fate to go through. If you're metaphysically inclined, you may even believe that your present pain has its roots in a past life, a past past life, a past past past life. (By the way, after talking to many who claim to have recovered memories from past lives, I can assure you that nobody on earth has ever had a great life in the past. Since there's nothing new under the Sun, it's safe to assume that a great life will not exist in the future, either. So you can stop looking now.)

You were told that healing from past pains would get you happiness. But if you're reading this, you probably have been on the "healing path" for a long time, under the assumption that once you heal your past, you'd finally find fulfillment and freedom. That was how I looked at my life, for a long time. I went from one healing modality to another, on a quest for the Holy Grail that would bestow bliss to eternity.

Such a quest is useful, until it is not. After years of professional counseling, shamanic sessions, cleansing retreats, and chocolate cake fixes, I realized that the healing journey simply would not end on its own. If you look for them, you can always find traumas in yourself, old and new, to be healed and cleansed. A completely healed human is a mythological construct. And the quest for healing can be a rat race that is easy to get on, but hard to step off.

You could never be fully healed because healing is a concept that only exists in a world of duality where experiences are dichotomized into good and bad, right and wrong, happy and sad. Light cannot be known without darkness. Similarly, you won't be able to define healing in yourself without also identifying trauma in yourself. As long as you live in a narrative of personal history, of how you came to be the way you are and how you're being fixed and improved from a state of brokenness, the story of your healing journey will continue just like time extends to infinity.

Comment: See also:


Appropriately channeled anger proves beneficial to health and relationships

According to society, anger rarely pays. That's partly true, but the unfortunate omission according to what is socially acceptable is the difference between the type of anger that leads us to spiraling out of control, and that which has a positive role in not only our individual growth, but the entire world's. Constructive anger can aid intimate relationships, work interactions and social expressions, including many types of responses that can change humanity.

"Don't you dare raise your voice in this house," says just about every parent in the modern world. Although anger directed at another human being can be hurtful and detrimental to our health, outward expressions of anger fueled to exercise or simply ease distress may help protect us from heart disease and stroke. Men with moderate levels of anger expression are less likely to have a stroke than those who rarely expressed anger.


Thriving in uncertainty

In the decades before WWI there were no serious wars. This left plenty of room for academics to theorize about how new technology might be used in war; in fact, WWI was possibly the most thoroughly planned war in history.

Yet from the first encounter, the theories unraveled in the face of situations that could never have been predicted. The most respected generals in the world were made to look like amateurs. Their faith in abstract planning blinded them to the reality of the situation. It took years of conflict before they began to really adapt to the reality of their situation.

These generals didn't realize that they were engaging in the world's first truly modern battles. These battles required the ability to improvise more than they required detailed plans.

The same transition is currently happening in business. A plethora of business books came out this summer building on the concept of The Lean Startup methodology introduced by Eric Ries. That is, it is cheaper in most cases to run an experiment than to create a plan. Even massive companies are starting to turn their focus towards quickly implementing a strategy on a small scale to test a concept before rolling out a massive change.

Comment: Prepping, as an example, entails great uncertainty. Though not mentioned specifically, the suggestions could prove useful.


Not just for kids: Coloring books can help adults relax too

© Thinkstock
Adult coloring has become a thing — and with good reason. Not only is the practice beneficial for people with specific conditions, like PTSD and those suffering the psychological side effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment, it's a good stress reliever for the general population.

It's also just plain fun.

So what makes coloring such an effective form of art therapy?

"The action involves both logic, by which we color forms, and creativity, when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills (coordination necessary to make small, precise movements)," psychologist Gloria Martinez Ayala told the Huffington Post. "The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress."

Put another way: When we focus on coloring, it blocks our brains from focusing on our troubles.

"Because it's a centering activity, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is involved with our fear response, actually gets a bit, a little bit of a rest," psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis told Fox News. "It ultimately has a really calming effect over time."

Take 2

The Damage is Done: Gabor Maté and Calgary performer team up to create play exploring trauma

© Margaret Gallagher/CBC
Actor and therapist Rita Bozi and Dr. Gabor Maté explore how trauma is passed down through generations in their play at the Cultch.
Hungarian-Canadian performer Rita Bozi grew up in a family scarred by war.

Her older brother was born to her parents in Hungary just shortly before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a nationwide revolt against the government of the time which was largely controlled by the Soviet Union.

During the uprising, which was violently crushed by the Soviets, her father fled, leaving her mother alone for eight years before they finally reunited and came to Canada.

Life Preserver

Helping others can alleviate your own pain and depression

Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, was once asked following a lecture on mental health: "What would you advise a person to do, if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?"

Most people thought he would say: "Consult a psychiatrist."

But he didn't. He surprised everyone when he replied: "Leave your house, find someone in need, and do something to help that person."

I know this is going to upset folks. When I posted it on my Facebook page, the reviews weren't so nice. One woman said that hearing things like this makes her feel worse because it is as though Menninger is saying that she's depressed because she's self-absorbed.

Another person was angry at me because he thought that spreading this kind of horse poop online deepens and thickens the stigma that we have to work so hard against. I get that.

For six years I experienced suicidal thoughts. In that time, I helped many people stuck in the Black Hole of Bile (depression) and volunteered my time to various programs. But I still wanted to die. I would try my best to lift someone up, and then return home to Google "Easiest ways to get cancer."

However, this perspective — transcending your pain in loving acts of service — is also full of hope, if you can look at it that way.

Comment: The power of kindness


Positive and life-transforming changes can result from traumatic events

There's a common misconception surrounding trauma. We assume that after someone experiences trauma, they might develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or return to their old life.

But many individuals also experience something else: positive change. In fact, in 1996 psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term "post-traumatic growth" to describe this phenomenon (in this paper).

In the book Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, journalist Jim Rendon writes: "In study after study, research shows that about half or more trauma survivors report positive changes as a result of their experience. Sometimes these are small changes — they feel that life has more meaning, that they are closer to their loved ones. For some the changes are life-altering, sending people on career and life paths they never would have considered before, transforming who they are and how they view the world."

In Upside, an inspiring, empowering and well-researched book, Rendon shares these transformative stories, along with the latest research on what fosters post-traumatic growth.

For instance, Rendon tells the story of Shane Mullins, who lives in Ireland. Ten years ago, Mullins suffered a traumatic brain injury after he ran his car off the road and a stone pillar struck his head. For months Mullins was on a feeding tube, confined to a wheelchair and had trouble saying what he wanted to say.