Posts Tagged ‘Life’

It’s Great Aunt Mimi’s birthday party, and the family is together for the first time in months. Your cousin Susan is a little tipsy, and your straight-laced Uncle Todd has already given his new business cards out to everyone in the room. A couple hours in, everybody is caught up on how everybody is doing, who’s been having health problems, and who got promoted at work. Stalled for topics, your father brings up the coming election to the inward groans of half the room, and the outward groans of the second half. Opinions are stated, laughingly at first, then seriously, then angrily and derisively, and suddenly, it’s Thanksgiving dinner all over again.

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What do you mean, you support healthcare reform? And WHO ATE ALL THE MASHED POTATOES?!

During a political debate, people usually think they’re arguing for the obvious side. That’s because when a topic is ambiguous, people tend to perceive only the information that confirms the opinions they already hold. This filtering of opposing viewpoints isn’t intentional; we think we’re judging the conversation accurately. When evaluating new information, our minds under-emphasize the examples that would make our preconceived notions seem faulty and put greater value on the examples that make our conclusions seem infallible. In fact, when presented with contradictory opinions, the part of our brains that deals with reasoning, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is suspiciously quiet, while the areas of the brain that are used in the processing of emotion (the orbital frontal cortex), conflict resolution (the anterior cingulate), and moral accountability (the posterior cingulate) become more active.

If that weren’t enough to make talking politics a ripe cause for a family rift, there’s also research to suggest that attitudes polarize in groups (such as political parties). Decisions formed in groups are more extreme than when made by individuals, making the middle ground seem like a dangerous concession to our belief system. On your own, you may be moderate in your opinions on fiscal policy, but as a member of a party, your beliefs jump two miles down the line.

Ironically, this information on confirmation bias could make it easier to dismiss the opinions of the people with whom we’re debating. We’ll think we’re making sound arguments against their extreme opinions, and their minds are just dismissing the information we’re presenting because it doesn’t fit with what they already believe.

Come to think of it, this blog really won’t make political debates any easier. Sorry about that.


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.

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“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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.)

Like many optimistic people with a little too much faith in themselves, I make New Year’s Resolutions. This year, for instance, I promised myself I would go to the gym, write that novel I’ve been planning for two years, and learn to play the piano. And I’m definitely going to keep them. Sure, since January, I’ve only gone to the gym about eight times, written thirty pages, and learned the beginning of Fur Elise on the keyboard, but there’s still plenty of time left. It’s only…wait a minute…is it really almost July? That can’t be right. Where did the time go?

Does walking up stairs count as exercise? Because I can probably round the number of gym trips to nine.

Time is a tricky thing. Although we mark the passing of dates on the calendar and hours on the clock, our perception of how much time has passed depends on our memory of the events in our lives. Our minds treat the passage of time as a series of experiences. We all have life goals we set for ourselves–learning a new instrument, finding a fulfilling relationship, finishing a special project. If we haven’t made any progress toward our goals, then it feels as if no time has passed since we we set them. When we actively try for the goals we want to achieve, time strolls briskly along; when our list of resolutions remains untouched, the interval of time stretches, waiting for us to do something that would fill it.

It doesn’t help that time seems to pass more quickly as we age. To a child, a year seems like a lifetime. Each day is filled with novel events that differentiate it from the rest of the year. As we get older, we start to perceive time as a percentage of the whole, making  a day seem like an hour and a year feel like a month in the grand view of our lives. Our days lack the new experiences and overt challenges that make each day seem separate from the last.

Last Thursday, Friday, and Monday.

But don’t feel too bad if you haven’t made progress on what you thought you would accomplish this year. According to our minds, next year should spring up in a couple of months from now, anyway.

We’re lucky to live in a time when technology has progressed so rapidly. Why, even the idea of a blog, the ability to post information online, at any time, almost anywhere, by anyone, would have been inconceivable to people only a few decades ago. All I have to do to research this week’s topic, for instance, is to run a quick Google search, easy, just as soon as my wireless kicks in, as soon as my computer unfreezes, as soon as the page loads, as soon as the internet reconnects again. Damn it, all I wanted to do was research a blog about tech rage! Load, damn you, you stupid bunch of plastic, load! Oh, there it goes.

The average reaction to computer problems.

People get pretty angry at technology. Tech rage refers to the intense frustration that springs up when a piece of technology isn’t working the way we want it to. One out of ten people have physically lashed out at their malfunctioning gadgets, hitting or kicking it, even throwing it across the room. The response is understandable; we rely on our technological equipment to get through most aspects of daily life. Need to research a company for a potential new job? Hop onto their website. Need to find your way to a friend’s house for dinner? Plug their address into your GPS. Need to lose ten pounds before your vacation? Turn on your MP3 player and start up the treadmill.

Low battery? I guess this jog is over.

To me, this frustration is not only understandable; it’s logical. Usually, that broken piece of technology was vital to the entire process we were trying to complete. When it breaks, the plan devolves into catastrophe. Sure, there are occasionally other ways to finish what needs to get done—call your manager on the phone, ask for directions to your friend’s home, go jogging around the block. But why would we expect to revert to the long form when the short form is almost always one quick fix away?

There are some methods to handle tech rage, including keeping a back up of your files, making an effort to stay calm when technology goes wrong, and focusing on the things you can accomplish while the problem is being resolved. Or you could try bashing the stupid gadget against your desk. Who knows? Maybe this time it will work.

How do you deal with your tech rage?