Archive for July, 2012

Life has been good to you, my friend. You’re graduating from college. You’re moving out of your parents’ house. You’re starting a career. It’s all just what you imagined being an adult would feel like. You’re proud to pay your own bills, proud to be working, or looking for work, in your field, proud to be starting your life. Or at least that’s how you know you should feel, and that’s half the battle, right? You definitely know that you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the choices available to you, terrified that you’re making the wrong decisions, trapped in a lifestyle that you chose only a few years ago. That’s not the adulthood that you signed up for.

A quarter-life crisis is the period around 25 when some people start screaming, “Stop this life, I want to get off!” Just like its counterpart, the mid-life crisis, it’s a time to reevaluate your decisions and figure out where you really want to be in life. Haunted with names like “adultescence,” it stems from the anxiety about achieving your goals and the wide range of opportunities that have to be sifted through before you choose the path that works for you.

Photo credit
“I’ll either be a doctor, or a filmmaker. Or open a bakery.”

The quarter-life crisis presents itself in five stages:

1. Feeling trapped.

2. Deciding you need to get out of what you’re doing and change your life.

3. Stopping the things in your life that are making you feel trapped and going through a period of finding yourself .

4. Starting over.

5. Finding careers and goals that are better suited to your interests.

This generation of 22- to 30-year-olds may experience the quarter-life crisis more strongly than previous generations, because they grew up in an affluent time with high expectations for what the future would hold–expectations that many are finding difficult to meet. As time goes on, and the difference between what you want to accomplish and what you’re actually accomplishing becomes apparent, you feel the need to right what went wrong and get your life back on track. Remember, quarter-life crises aren’t necessarily negative; in fact, 80% of people who reported going through this period considers it to have been a positive influence in their lives.

If you’re in the midst of the anxiety and frustration of a quarter-life crisis, it sounds like the best advice is to get out, get going, and figure out what you want. You’ve got work to do.

It was a bloody night. The masked serial killer, wielding his weed whacker like a saber, made short work of the teenagers who stumbled into the dilapidated and abandoned cabin. After the last survivor, whose fear for her life made her forget to wear anything but underwear and a torn shirt, ran screaming through the woods, the credits rolled to an eery, instrumental theme. And you left the theater as giddy as a kid who just found his favorite toy under the tree on Christmas morning.

Photo credit
He may be a killer, but no one can judge his commitment to lawn care maintenance.

I think it’s safe to say that getting hacked to bits by a stranger we picked up on the side of the road is a fantasy few of us share. In fact, our sense of safety occupies the second tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, landing one step above our need for food and sleep. So why do so many people spend their spare cash on vicarious thrills? It may be because of a cross in the fear and pleasure controls in the brain.

When we watch a horror movie, the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure located in the temporal lobe, is activated as if the events on screen are really happening to us. The amygdala is in charge of processing emotion, including both fear and pleasure. One theory suggests that when scary scenes trigger the amygdala, it responds with the mixed signals of both fear and enjoyment because of its shared circuitry. As if that wiring weren’t complicated enough, fear is also processed through the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center of the brain, releasing hormones that make it possible for you to feel both terrified and exhilarated.

But that doesn’t mean that we feel pleasure when involved in a truly dangerous situation. Fortunately for the audience’s blood pressure, the stimuli on screen are also reaching our prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that evaluates danger. While the amygdala and nucleus accumbens are working to process the emotional content of the film, the prefrontal cortex is working to make sure you know that the danger isn’t real, and that the axe-wielding maniac is just a character in a movie.

So when you’re sitting in the movie theater, whispering, “Don’t go in the basement!” to the character on screen, just sit back and let your amygdala enjoy the ride. Your prefrontal cortex will make sure you can still sleep that night.

Let’s say that you’ve been learning Spanish for two years now. You’re a dedicated student, and to fully immerse yourself in the language and culture, you’ve spent several months living in Madrid. Upon returning home, you happily try to talk to your friends and family about your excursions in a foreign country. While trying to communicate your recent experiences, such as your flight back, you find yourself inserting Spanish phrases in sentences that you know you meant to say in English and trying desperately to remember the word for “plane.”

Photo credit
“You know, WHOOSH”

If you’re worried that this word mix-up is a symptom of a brain disorder, you can stop panicking. The deterioration of language skills is called language attrition, and it’s a common phenomenon that comes from immersion in a second language. Second language acquisition can interfere with your first language in several ways, including word substitution (“I never drink leche in the afternoon”), syntactic interference (“If he were at the store yesterday, he would have been buying milk”), and forgotten vocabulary (“He went to the store to buy . . . something”).

Because immersion in a second language can result in partial loss of the first language over time, much of the research on language attrition has focused on the erosion of primary languages in immigrants once they have integrated into new cultures. Though this information may sound bleak, keep in mind that it showcases the mind’s inherent ability to adapt to change. If you are living in a new country, you need to exercise your second language more than you need to recall the details of your first. The brain’s ability to learn this new style of communicating allows people to thrive in different parts of the world.

See? Language attrition is good news, after all.

Imagine sitting in the cool office of a polite yet impassive human resources manager. Your suit is heavy, your throat feels as if you’ve been singing soprano all morning, and your smile is beginning to falter under the weight of its constant enthusiasm. The manager looks up from studying your resume—the twelfth he’s seen that day. You subtly wipe your palms against your pant leg and steel your nerve. You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re ready for anything he can throw at you. The manager tosses you a lowball—“Tell me about yourself.”

And your mind goes completely blank.

Photo credit
Well, I’m an excellent baker.

If you’re feeling hard on yourself for cracking during a job interview, keep in mind that it may be a sign you have a high working memory capacity. Working memory, which gives you the ability to hold and retrieve information during a long task, is operating on overdrive during an interview. You need to remember information about the company and the person interviewing you, to retrieve the tiny details of your work history, and to juggle the information in a way that paints the best picture of you as a potential employee.

In short, stressful events can overwhelm the working memory. During a high pressure situation, anxiety begins to use up energy that otherwise would be used to recall information. Those invading thoughts about how you are performing take up a portion of your working memory capacity, causing people with high capacities to perform worse than they would under easier circumstances. The pressure doesn’t make people with low working memory capacities perform any worse than they normally would, because they never had the capacity to use in the first place.

From here on out, you can wear your embarrassing interview stories as a badge of pride. You’re not bad at job interviews; you just have a high working memory capacity! You should bring that up to the hiring manager the next time you flub an interview question.

(To learn more about working memory, click on this previous post.)