– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Sleep is only beneficial when you wake up. That’s not only true in some funny way but it’s also a great metaphor. Our life and much that we experience may only be of value to us in terms of our psychological and physical health when we wake up to it.

The person who you are today is the lifelong interplay of your genetics and your life experience. This interplay shapes the workings of our bodies, minds and behaviour. We learn a mind-boggling amount and that learning is critical to getting by, surviving, coping, thriving. But it’s not all pearls and gems. Some experiences are more like slivers than gems. Some of these slivers are sharp irritants and others may be large and dangerously placed.

Our body ‘knows’ how to heal a cut. But a sliver keeps that healing from happening. When you have a sliver you have two ways to go – in or out. If you leave it in you’ll have to protect it from getting rubbed, which would feel like the original injury. A bunch of slivers left in your hand would require some pretty complicated changes in how you go about your daily activities. Just getting ready in the morning using only one hand would be a challenge best left for Mr. Bean, but over time you’d learn how to use your knees and elbows in whole new ways.

Removing slivers hurts for sure and requires some bravery, but afterwards we’re as good as new.

Many of the past emotional injuries in our lives are like slivers, sharp, deeply painful and still lingering. And if we don’t face them they continue to cause pain and complication.

We automatically change how we live so as to protect those ‘slivers’ from being rubbed, without even knowing it. We get anxious about all kinds of situations because our mind rapidly registers how close each situation might be to rubbing a ‘sliver’. When we’ve suffered loss or have been abused, bullied, abandoned, belittled, we might instinctively shy away from situations that have any similarity at all to the original injury. We may feel anxious public speaking, going to a new class or a party, being touched, returning a phone call, going to a family dinner, talking openly with our boss, asking someone out on a date. We get sick with stress and our life gets more complicated and smaller as our mind-brain automatically navigates around and away from all the possible brushes with past injuries. We get bent out of shape, make mountains out of mole hills, lash out or freak out or seem ‘sensitive’, and we may not know why. All the juggling and wiggling we do to keep our slivers safe can cause even more slivers through lost opportunities, embarrassments and uncomfortable questioning and challenges. And still the original slivers remain.

If we were lucky enough to have attentive and supportive parents, we received protection and comfort and were helped to work with our injuries, learning that we can face them and feel better. Even so, wonderful and attentive parents may miss things, like school yard jabs and our private worries. When we’re not so lucky, the world and our own families can inflict terrible injuries, and we may not learn how to face pain at all.

Any and all healing of life’s injuries requires that we pay courageous attention to them. That’s the way our experience can “come on line” in our mind-brain and get sorted out. It does hurt. It can sometimes be overwhelming to look with awareness at our traumas. The idea is to go slowly, respectfully, kindly, safely, with someone.


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Let’s take a break from our usual consideration of stress and the human mind and travel to a new topic – holidays.

The beach, the backyard, the summer fair, the road, the lake all take us away from the routine of work and school, interrupting the rigid patterns of life. The sense of relief that comes from legitimately vacating the stresses of work schedules, pressures and demands makes summer holidays a cherished landmark.

Family vacations contribute to healthy family functioning. Healthy holiday-time together acts as a kind of glue, promoting family bonding and communication and the emergence of new identities (Hey, mom actually knows how to have fun!). This cohesiveness isn’t some sort of mushy frill that we can do without. Family bonding is deeply healthy for teens and parents alike, reducing the incidence of just about every calamity you can imagine. Pre-holiday, as the members of a family dwell in their individual ruts, the barriers from work and school, technology and emotional avoidance chop a family up. The healthy holiday shifts the focus to shared experience if not to each other, giving time and space for loved ones to reconnect, joke around and open up.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to ‘healthy’ holiday time. Many people see holiday time as an opportunity to set personal bests for getting drunk and stoned or worse. Addiction researchers are quite concerned by the impact that binging holidays have both in the short and long term, particularly with young people. During resort holidays, alcohol and drug use increases significantly for both habitual users and those who refrain at home. That hangovers just get worse as the drinking days wear on says our bodies detest the toxicity, and that a holiday from the holiday is needed.

But increased intoxication is not restricted to any one age group. Advertisers have been clearly teaching us that the good life requires a flow of alcohol and, by extension, drugs. And so vacationers obediently shop the LCBO. While sun screen protects us from the raw rays, protection from the high levels of social pressure isn’t so easy. We wish to belong, and shading ourselves from the social demands to get wasted can be a challenge. Reminding ourselves often of why we’re taking a holiday is one way to keep to ourselves on our own path.

Does a holiday do a good job of smoothing and soothing? Studies have shown that levels of stress and burnout do decrease heartily during a holiday. For the most part we feel better physically and emotionally, sleep better, get along better. For how long does the relief last? Not as long as we’d like. After 3 weeks most of us are back where we left off, indicating that relief fades as quickly as a tan. But the more recuperation we experience during the holiday, the more we’re protected against post-vacation workload stress.

I find it interesting that studies show that more conscientious workers have better moods during holidays, as if taking a break with a clear conscience is cleaner. Here, the rich just get richer. So to get the most out of our holiday it looks like we should get our work done, tie up the loose ends, and resist starting the holiday before it begins.

When you’re planning your upcoming holiday, consider the opportunity at hand. If you’re taking time with your family, look at how you might use that time together for togetherness. I found no research telling us that how much money we spend matters. Whether it’s playing monopoly or travelling to new places, it’s how we vacation that matters.

The Genuis of Women

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

I marvel at my secretaries and at my wife, at their necromancer memory, at their ability to somehow organize office or Christmas chaos, to thrive when there’s too much to do and to complain otherwise, at knowing where my file or the ketchup is. And then there’s spare brain juice for simultaneously making a zillion other observations and judgements, with kindness all the way. Guys, we’re in the presence of genius.

Evolution delivered the big and spatially competent males who could roam far and wide to snag meat, shelter and materials and, at home, to provide protection, to tinker and make tools and to divine answers to the questions about survival. The lesser muscled females worked the portfolio of life nearer home, which included the minor matter of offspring, food organization, safety, social equality and getting along, and knowing the immediate surrounds and contingencies.

Today, our Stone Age mind-brains may set up a David vs. Goliath story in many families. Female brains have got the goods for managing much of the complexity of raising a family, while muscles matter less. Verbal fluency, knowing how everyone is feeling and doing, being graced with a frighteningly detailed and always handy diary-mind, and doing the work of a bees nest give women the nod.

Sex differences are many. Male and female brains show different motor (movement) and visual abilities depending on how far away the action is. Females work more skilfully in near (here) space and men in far (there) space.

In critical ways male and female brains appear to use different strategies to achieve the same result. For example, male rats and male humans are the same (ladies, don’t get too smug just yet, there’s more) in that they depend on directional (left-right, north-south) cues to navigate space. Here’s the equalizer – female rats and female humans both work better with positional (beside the bus station) cues.

And the superabsorbent female brain unintentionally soaks up information about their immediate surrounds while male brains, um, well, you know.

More to the point, neurobiological evidence indicates that females automatically attend to emotion in most of its forms, while men’s brains seem pre-dialed in to anything related to power.

Socialization adds to these differences. A baby in a blue blanket is handled in a manly way. The same baby in a pink blanket receives gentle coos and cuddles.

Males are taught to restrict their experience and expression of vulnerable emotions (like sadness, fear or guilt), while females more often receive acceptance and support. As a result, men have a harder time identifying and tolerating feelings, which may underlie the fact that men are way more violent than women.

Lots of studies have shown that women prefer working with people and that men prefer working with things. So while young guys perfect specific skills, like their slap shot and free throw, females work on nurturing (dolls), values (chick flicks) and communicating.

The female mind can be highly attuned to inner lives, theirs and others. No wonder men feel some disadvantage when the complexities of raising a family arrive. The ancient residue of Father Knows Best calls for men to lead, but the genius of women places the competence to stick handle the complexity of family more often with them.

A recent paper in the Journal of Individual Differences showed that men overestimate their abilities more than women overestimate theirs. What makes men think they’re so smart remains a good question.

Another study found that the biggest predictor of marital success was the husband’s willingness to readily buy-in to his wife’s judgment. So it’s good advice to be humble anytime, and particularly when you’re in the presence of genius!


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

“Sit up and pay attention!” Remember those words? For many of us they probably reflect the total of the education and guidance that we’ve received about how to pay attention. And it wasn’t a bad start, were it said just a little more kindly.

The thing is that today’s culture is saturated in technology and habits that further undermine, as opposed to strengthen, our ability to pay undivided attention. This undermining may begin in earnest when we introduce TV and videos to our babies. No wonder, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, we live in ADHD Nation.

We all know what we’re like when we don’t pay attention – we’re only able to do things automatically, we get distracted easily, and it’s like we can’t hear or see or plan or know.

Notice that when someone gives you a phone number to hold in mind you can’t do anything else that requires attention. We can still do automatic, skilled things, but not much else. If we’re distracted the number just goes.

Attention is like a spot-light that lets us see, a mental workspace for planning and creativity, the vital energy that animates our intentions. Attention researchers have determined that attention is like the mind’s director, asserting that a goal remain in an active state while pushing away any interference.

What happens if we don’t pay attention to what our own minds are up to?

The evidence indicates that attention is critical for regulating our emotion and stress. Remember that emotions evolved as reactions to threats and losses and are essential to survival. The thing about human emotion is that it turns on in a snap but then it can stay turned on and on and on. And we commonly react to our reactions (I’m an idiot to be so worried).

Furthermore, our human mind-brain can vividly imagine future and past situations. We can run epic simulations and plan accordingly, a tremendous ability to be sure. The big trouble today is that our minds have a strong inclination to wander off and get lost in the simulations of past regrets and future worries. Major psychological problems, including depression and anxiety, can follow from the runaway use of this natural ability.

Because attention happens at the moment of intersection of the past and the future, where life is happening, attention is key to regulating this overused simulation process. Paying attention is a way of seeing what’s on our mind; not to avoid it but to know it. And seeing can open up new ways of dealing with something.

What is a thought? When we don’t pay attention to a thought (This appointment today will be terrible) it can have a power and scope of control that can warp our behaviour and shackle us to a perspective that feels as firm as cement – the thought feels like reality. But when we pay rich attention to what we’re thinking, what does the thought become? It can be become as robust as nothing, evaporating under attention, losing its power to direct and bend us.

Being mindful of our mind can reduce our stress significantly. And what problems might follow if we don’t pay attention to our bodies? To our children? To our partners?

In hindsight it’s quite remarkable that our culture had not hit on the idea of teaching paying attention to kids, teens, adults and oldsters alike. Many varieties of mindfulness training are now appearing and the research examining the application of mindfulness to emotional and physical health is very exciting. Funny that the core of the training is to “Sit up and pay attention.”


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

From our abilities to love and imagine through to our raw capacities for reason and rage, we are all the embodiment of ancient systems of relating and survival. Unlike computers we have seen no major genetic upgrades or redesigns in, oh, about 50,000 years. In contrast, technology continues to rocket forward keeping pace with Moore’s Law, which anticipates that digital technology will double in speed every two years.

Where family had once been the hub of our lives, our touchstone to and experience of values and beliefs, now everything digital shapes and informs the development of minds. Dear reader, it is a huge, huge shift.

Gadgets like VCRs and computers began to babysit our little ones from the 80’s onward. Some research points to the brain-shaping effect of quick edit and fast-paced videos and games, perhaps contributing to the erosion of our ability to pay attention for more than four seconds.

The earliest papers on the social implications of internet communication offered pessimistic predictions of users suffering thin, less nourishing human connection. We’re now marinating in Blackberries, Twitter and texting. All of these technologies have highly addictive qualities, scream for impulsive use and relay little of the richness of our lives. Research shows that a fraction of the meaning relayed in a face-to-face communication comes from the words alone, that voice, face and body communicate much more – we can’t be reduced to emoticons.

Interestingly, a gender imbalance is developing in internet use along the predictable lines of women going for connection and men opting for information.

Tech-connect is typically used with friends and acquaintances. Texting simulates time together, drawing on our imagination to fill in the gaps. Or we can easily tune out. While technology has expanded the size of our social groups dramatically, the costs are in the quality of the contact and in losing contact with those in the same room.

Professor Sara Konrath reported on an ongoing, 30 year study of almost 14,000 students at the University of Michigan. They found a recent 40% drop in empathy scores in undergraduates. One reason may be that the new mass farming of friendships cultivates less love. Perhaps our violent videos and games numb youth to others’ pain, resulting in flabby empathy and a callous funny bone.

So there’s the good, the bad and the ugly for families from connection technology. The bad and the ugly must include all of the time and life wasted with mindless and inconsequential involvements, isolated hyperconnectedness, online gaming and the underworld of porn, cyberbullying. Remember that technology is about business first and consumption before healthy experience.

And the good for family includes texting as an expanded family awareness system, an aid to keeping in touch with each other and a means for safety when kids are out. The internet brings to us an indescribable amount of information, the quality of which is improving in many ways. There are lots of parenting resources, advice and affirmation. Parental concerns that were kept in embarrassed privacy before can now be googled.

Please work hard to keep some balance in the family. There is no substitute for real (and healthy!) connection. A firm finding is that teens from families that regularly have meals together – and not in front of the TV! – are less likely to act out. More family dinners leads to less running away, drinking, drug use, violence, theft and vandalism.

Finally, for much more consider Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget. He brought us the term ‘virtual reality’ and is a computer scientist who has deep concerns about technology uprooting our humanness. Or perhaps take some time and just consider the book’s title.