Saturday, July 31, 2010

Can You Change Your Mind by Changing Your Sensations?

Does the body affect the mind, or the mind affect the body? Tony Robbins has been featured on the Living section recently with his "Breakthrough" series, and one of his favorite sayings is if you don't like something in your life, simply "change your mind."

Yet, Dr. John A. Bargh of Yale may disagree, and has shown our mind is constantly being shaped by the things we encounter in the physical world, right down to the hardness of our chair. "The old concepts of mind-body dualism are turning out not to be true at all," Bargh said. "Our minds are deeply and organically linked to our bodies."

Bargh is a professor of psychology and cognitive science, and coauthor of several studies exploring the powerful influences of our senses in a decision making process. In 2008 he conducted a study with Yale Ph.D. student Lawrence Williams, now of the University of Colorado, which found that people judge other people to be more generous and caring after they had briefly held a warm cup of coffee, rather than a cold drink.

People were asked to hold a cup of either hot or cold coffee for a moment before answering questions, and had no idea it was part of the experiment. They were then asked a few questions and offered cash for themselves, or a gift certificate for a friend as a thank you gift. Those who held hot coffee were more generous, and chose a gift certificate for a friend, and those who held the cold cup chose to keep the cash. Remarkable such a quick and simple change of sensation affects an impulse like generosity at a primal level.

Imagine the power of such knowledge. Want to get a really nice gift from your spouse? Give them a hot java right before going into the store -- so calculating. Need to be a tough negotiator for a critical meeting? Hold on to an iced tea and then get in there ready to rumble. Is it that simple?

Bargh has just released a new study that expands this concept of our physical sensations affecting our decisions with a new series of experiments. They discovered if interviewers held a heavy clipboard, compared to a light one, they thought job applicants took their work more seriously, and subjects who read a passage about an interaction between two people were more likely to characterize it as adversarial if they had first handled rough jigsaw puzzle pieces, compared to smooth ones. Think of the terms "hard-hearted" or an "old softy."

Price negotiations were part of the experiments, and those sitting on hard chairs were not as open to negotiation as those on comfy chairs. "We have a basic idea of hardness being resistant to change -- that is what hardness means. We also have an idea that softness has a greater ability to give," said Bargh.

Maybe the hot summer is making me a bit cheeky, but perhaps we can take this information to Congress. Can you imagine if all senators on the floor be required to sit in soft, cushy chairs to be more amenable to negotiation, handle soft puzzle pieces while reading a particular bill to lessen the venom of debate, and drink only hot coffee before pontificating on the floor to think kind thoughts of their colleagues. Maybe THEN we could actually see some compromise, resolution and movement in getting things done!

And maybe I will arm myself with this knowledge as a parent. When the kids are in trouble, I get the hard chair, and they get the soft couch for extra emphasis. When it is time to discuss why one child made the other cry, they first have to hold a hot drink before we begin our instructive chat to encourage a peace treaty. Get the idea? Manipulating the subtle aspects of our environment impacts our thinking, so why not make it conscious?

According to Bargh in an interview on NPR, the yogis had it right that the only way to experience true thought is to have a level of sensory deprivation like going into a dark cave with no stimulation. Otherwise, we are constantly being affected by the world around us, and the physical environment we interact.

As we grow, toddlers explore their world strictly through their physical experiences which form the basis for more abstract concepts like a "warm smile" or a "hard negotiator"-- abstract terms to describe the connections from body to mind. If you touch something warm, the idea of warmth is activated and translates to people being warm. You behave more warmly, generously and pro-socially than if you had touched something cold.

Making breakthroughs is never easy. Learning to overcome our fearful thoughts, negative emotions and inner judgements is incredibly powerful when training the mind with meditation, therapy or empowerment techniques - but maybe some of the answers are to be found right under the seat of our pants.

What say you, Huff Po readers? Let's explore some of the connections between our bodies and our mind, and all the common phrases that demonstrates the ongoing link between sense and reality. (Just grab a hot cup before you comment please!)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Benefits of Fathers as Primary Caretakers

How often do we equate the word "father" with "caretaker?" Until fairly recently, most men were expected to garner power, fame and fortune outside of the house, and serve a more ancillary role in raising kids. Not anymore. The number of fathers solely responsible for the care of their children is growing at a rate almost twice that of single mothers, and now numbers over 2 million.

With the ongoing impact of the recession, 80 percent of people being laid off are men, and tens of thousands of fathers are being thrown into new roles at home. Whether the role of full time Dad comes as a conscious decision to spend more time with the family, or due to circumstance - fatherhood is evolving.

Women have dedicated the past 40 years establishing an equal footing in the professional world, and have now achieved a 50 percent presence in the workplace. Now, a quiet but powerful revolution is beginning to happen on the other side. More men are staying home and not only liking it, but discovering how powerful and important their presence is for child development.

When guys are home parenting, you can bet there are a lot more games of Superman crashing through the house, soccer outside and creative meals made in one pot, but studies show kids benefit equally from a house run by a single mom or dad. As many modern parents know, the old adage that men 'aren't as good at parenting' reflects more a fact of lack of practice or opportunity, than aptitude.

Jeremy Adams Smith, is author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Fathers, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family, now available in paperback. He is holding the primary parent role in his family, and has done extensive research into parental roles. He writes:

Where once it was thought that the minds and bodies of men were hardly affected by fatherhood, today scientists are discovering that fatherhood changes men down to the cellular level. For more than a century, it was assumed that mothers, not fathers, were solely responsible for the care, life choices, and happiness of children. In recent years, however, we have discovered that father involvement is essential to a child's well being, and that dads provide unique kinds of care and play that mothers often do not.

In so many ways, raising a family remains slanted in our collective psyche towards the more feminine interests and styles. Full time Dad's often feel awkward at the library "play groups" and feel like an outcast on the playground. Yet, when men become involved with their children, it helps bolster their self-esteem, improve performance at school and keeps them from high risk behaviors. While women have demonstrated different, but equally effective methods of leadership in the boardroom, men are standing up to redefine how to run a household.

One of the most creative and effective ways to explore the complexities of changing social systems is through storytelling. So, for all you Dad's who are out there manning the stove, changing diapers, driving the teenagers and taking primary responsibility for watching the kids, have I got a wonderful summer reading book for you. After all, I highly doubt the "Twilight series" is on the top of any macho reading list.

Home, Away is a new fiction book about a Major League Baseball player who quits the big leagues in his prime -- and gives up a $42 million contract -- to care for the son he lost in a custody battle years before. Written by Jeff Gillenkirk, freelance writer and former speechwriter for New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the story evolves from his own experience as the divorced father of a teenage son.

"This is a story about someone struggling with the conflict between work and family that so many people face: how can I have a career and raise a kid?" said Gillenkirk as we chatted by phone this week. Part of this story is inspired by divorced Arizona star Matt Williams, a major league baseball player who decided to leave the sport to spend more time with his family -- a brave move in a very masculine sport.

Whether or not you like baseball, have been in a divorce or raised a child single-handedly, this is a fun and quick read that reflects the complexities of relationships, the up's and downs of life, and the necessary sacrifices that are often required of both men and women in the long journey of parenthood.

Publicist David Jacobsen of Chin Music Press commented, "A stay-at-home dad myself, I can attest to the fact that there are really no novels that grapple with the conflict between a man's ambition and the love of parenting. Home, Away is about that conflict, set against the dramatic backdrop of professional baseball."

Gillenkirk is an advocate for educating men about the importance of early involvement in their children's lives. He plans to use his fiction novel as a tool to help men talk about the importance of being involved with their kids, as they are going through mandatory parenting classes before formal divorce. He meets with prison inmates to explore the generational toll of absent fathers, and high risk behavior.

"If Dad's get involved at the beginning, they become bonded and so involved, it stays for the rest of their life," said Gillenkirk. "It often boils down to men not taking the opportunity to parent, and always default to work taking precedence."

If books are not your cup of tea, there is a great new documentary out called The Evolution of Dad, written and directed by New Jersey-based stay-at-home dad Dana Glazer, who sees the shifting landscape of fathers, and recognizes this is a time unlike the generation before, or the generations to come. According to The New York Times, "Dads like Glazer are redefining the role, rejecting old expectations while still answering to them, knowing they don't want the earlier model but not yet certain what the new model should be."

Check out this emotion-filled YouTube clip of the film that this is sure to awaken the special place Fatherhood holds in our collective hearts.


Evolution of Dad - Introduction from Evolution of Dad on Vimeo.

As Ed and Deb Shapiro often cite here on HuffPo, "Be the Change." How are men redefining the role of caretaker in your experience? Love to hear your comments and stories below. Feel free to click on "Become a Fan" to receive weekly updates.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Caffeine and Alcohol: a New Fad with a Bad Buzz

Red Bull, Rock Star, Jolt, Monster, Amp -- heard of these beverages? As the summer sun blazes, and late night parties abound, there are a lot of sleepy folks out there reaching for energy boosting drinks to get through the day. And if that was not enough caffeine for you, when it's time to hit the bar scene, move over Carrie Bradshaw and the girlie Cosmo -- the beverage of choice at local hot spots is blending high caffeinated drinks like Red Bull with vodka. The common belief is that "You can dance all night on Red Bull cocktails."

Red bull is a heavily caffeinated energy drink spiked with additional stimulants, and when mixed with vodka or other liquor, it can diminish the awareness of drowsiness, feelings of un-coordination and intoxication. However, studies show the added caffeine only makes you think you are more in control. A new breed of high caffeine and high alcohol drinks are now on the market, like Joose and Four Loko, with double the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee, and double the amount of alcohol as a beer. The drinks are currently being outlawed in Europe for kids under 12. There is no legal age limit to purchasing energy drinks, and about 30 percen of 12- to 17-year-olds admit to regular use.

This week, New York Sen. Charles Schumer is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing of flavored alcoholic beverages with caffeine that appear to be explicitly designed to attract underage drinkers. In a letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Senator Schumer said that the colorful cans of new drinks like Joose are designed to befuddle parents and police with labels that resemble nonalcoholic energy drinks, and use very small print to disclose alcohol content of up to 12 percent.

Researchers in Brazil examined the motor skills performance of people who had drank an equivalent amount of alcohol, but half had drank it with red bull mixers, and the other half with non stimulant mixers. The group that drank the red bull cocktails self-reported feeling less drunk on a number of measures than the non red bull drinking group, but when tested on motor skills performance, and other quantitative measures of intoxication, performed equally badly.

Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration notified more than two dozen manufacturers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that it has never specifically approved the addition of caffeine to alcoholic drinks and began studying whether it is unsafe and should be outlawed. The agency noted the mix's growing popularity among up to 26 percent of college students and its potential health and safety issues. They included a Wake Forest University study that students who combine caffeine and alcohol are likelier to suffer alcohol-related injuries than those drinking alcohol without caffeine.

Dr. Yifrah Kaminer, Professor of Psychiatry & Pediatrics, and researcher at the Alcohol Research Center (ARC) at the University of Connecticut said:

"To appeal to adolescents and young adults, many energy drinks carry names that have clear marketing reference to psychoactive drug use such as Cocaine and Blow, whereas others have names that glamorize antisocietal behavior like Pimp Juice and Venom. These beverages have been marketed as legal alternatives to gain status as cool beverages."

While some of this is not new, the rate has been rising. Approximately a quarter of college students reported mixing high-caffeinated drinks with alcohol during the last month. A majority of students studied listed the main reasons for drinking high energy drinks and mixing them with alcohol include coping with insufficient sleep, increasing energy, and increasing fun with alcohol at parties. Regular consumers of high energy drinks tend to consume alcohol more frequently than nonusers.

These students got drunk twice as often as those who consumed alcohol only and were far more likely to be injured, require medical treatment, or ride with an intoxicated driver. Among college students drinking high caffeinated drinks, weekly jolt and crash episodes were experienced by 29 percent, headaches by 22 percent, and heart palpitations by 19 percent. The combination of fluid loss from sweating and the diuretic properties of caffeine can also lead to dehydration, particularly among athletes and party goers.

What is all this about? The use of caffeinated drinks in general has soared in the past five years. In 2008, annual sales of high caffeine energy drinks accounted for $3.2 billion in the United States and $7.8 billion worldwide.

Caffeine is best known for its "wake-up," effect. Consuming 600 milligrams (about six cups of coffee) or more daily, can cause nervousness, sweating, tenseness, upset stomach, anxiety and insomnia. It can also prevent clear thinking and increase the side effects of certain medications, and represents a significant health risk. Caffeine can be mildly addictive. Even when moderate amounts of caffeine are withdrawn for 18 to 24 hours, symptoms such as headache, fatigue, irritability, depression and poor concentration are common.

It is a slippery slope. Many youth today think they need caffeine to stay awake in school, need alcohol to wind down and now need both to stay awake while relaxing with friends. Most adults are the same. Have we lost our ability to rely on our inner rhythms of life? What the matter with being a "clean machine" role model for kids and college students? Let's start a conversation about this subject. Should youth be allowed to drink massive amounts of caffeine, and is it safe to drink high-dose energy drinks and alcohol? Love to hear your thoughts and comments below.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Independence Day Starts From Within

The Fourth of July holiday brings classic poolside picnics, hot summer nights, ice cream cones and local parades. At night, fireworks explode in the sky -- sometimes synchronized to the 1812 Overture -- and Americans have an opportunity to celebrate the exquisite privilege of living in a free country.

Except, the problem is, despite the fundamental freedoms created by our founding fathers, many modern Americans don't feel free at all. Countless citizens are half-heartedly waving tiny flags, eating hot dogs and staring at the explosions of color in the sky, while suffering an inner imprisonment about how to pay next month's mortgage, find a new job with flexible hours, grasp the extent of the oil spill's damage, or mend a broken heart.

Ever feel sort of like a colonist: nothing is going right, someone is holding the strings of your life and all attempts to break free end in further pain and suffering? It's hard to wax sentimental about the greatness of our country when the inner life feels beholden to the "King George" tryanny of fear, negative self-talk or emotional dependence on others.

It doesn't have to be that way. Independence Day starts from within. Every July, for the past 234 years, Americans take the time to celebrate our Independence from oppressors. And, since the outer world always mirrors the inner world, perhaps the Fourth of July is a perfect time for a little introspection, liberation and celebration as well. Wasn't it Emerson who penned, "the unexamined life is not worth living?"

How do we declare a "Declaration of Inner Independence" this year? Let's start with the original words from the Declaration that freed our Nation as a model, and apply it to ourselves:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Life. What holds you back from fully engaging in life? Are you afraid to let go of the past and take a giant leap of faith towards manifesting your dreams? If you could do one big thing before you die, what would it be? Light a little sparkler and allow the childlike thrill of watching the sparks fly serve as a guiding symbol of your resolve to do whatever it takes to suck the marrow of life's bones. If our founding families could do it, so can we. Celebrate your life, and make it count every day.

Liberty. Do you feel free -- really free? If not, what is holding you back? Is it voices from the past, telling you that you are not good enough, can't do it, aren't smart enough, not capable enough or don't deserve it? Make a declaration to unshackle your spirit from the tyrannous fears that have prevented you from experiencing deep liberty -- freedom. Having liberty means trying something you didn't think you could do, and failure is a wonderful teacher; infinitely more satisfying than being tied to the sidelines.

Pursuit of Happiness. Why do so many of us deny ourselves the value of seeking happiness? Notice the key of this final phrase in the Declaration lies in the word "pursuit." It matters not if your invention ever becomes a reality, if your book is ever published or if your paintings ever go beyond the walls of your home. The ability to pursue that which makes us happy, purely for the sheer joy of it, is an unalienable right we so often neglect. Declare your independence by doing something crazy, silly and altogether useless -- just for the fun of it!

Air Your Grievances. The power of the Declaration of Independence revolves around the careful construct and genius of the Founding Fathers. First, the document describes the unalienable rights of humankind to pursue their freedoms. Second, it lists a long string of specific grievances against King George of England to justify their ultimate conclusion of severing all ties, and vowing to be "enemies in war and friends in peace" as a free nation.

The next step in constructing a personal Independence Day document is to consider what inner grievances you have to air out. Time to be honest here. Make a list of the qualities that have held you back over the years. Maybe it is being critical of others, being judgmental without considering another side, living in fear, shutting down emotionally to others, feeling angry for no good reason, shutting off loved ones from your life or not speaking up when you know you should.

By writing down these qualities that no longer serve, you can give yourself permission to let them go. The infamous Tony Robbins always said, "if you have a limiting thought, change it." Imagine replacing each grievance you have with a more positive option, and imagine the exhilaration of how it would feel to live life that way.

The final portion of the Declaration bespoke of the steadfast alliance the original 13 colonies developed in order to break free from England:

"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

Certainly many of the colonies had vast differences in perspectives, yet they understood the power of community and mutual solidarity. The colonists used the Declaration as a compass rose -- a guide to serve them individually and collectively towards creating a way of living never yet attempted in the world.

It takes bravery to make such a Declaration. Maybe someone you know and love is living an inner life that is not overflowing with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How can you serve as an inspiration to them? Creating a Declaration of "Inner Independence" is a wonderful exercise to explore over dinner with your partner or family. Whether or not you live in the USA, happy Independence Day to all HuffPo readers worldwide.

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