The Importance of Sleep

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Your word for the day is ‘soporific’ , meaning ‘something that causes sleep’. If this column is a soporific for you I’m not offended in the least, because sleep is important and my only intention here is to be helpful. You see, sleep and your brain and your health are intimately linked.

We think of sleep as a kind of shutting down, the opposite of being active. But when we sleep the boss of the show, our brain, is doing anything but sleeping while it’s busy, er, sleeping. Brain recordings during sleep show many distinct types of activity throughout the brain, the most pronounced being the 90 minute see-saw shift between the rapid eye movement (REM) stage and the non-REM stage. This activity is like a continuous 90 minute wave at the home of the Blue Jays, but with lots of other busyness going on at the same time.

Sleep is commonly disturbed by conditions such as pain, depression, bullying, stress and anxiety, by drug and alcohol consumption, trauma and many medical illnesses, making things even more difficult for us.

We might feel like sleep is a soft luxury that we can do without, something that some teens treat like a rented mule. But there’s a huge range of bodily and neural processes that depend on sleep which would be beyond the mother of all soporific textbooks to summarize. Here’s a quick survey to highlight the importance of sleep for all of us, from young to old.

The effect of sleep on our well-being starts before we know it. Women who are having sleep problems before they conceive their baby are more likely to have babies with a sleep disturbance. Children with an elevated body mass index may undergo sleep-related changes in hormonal processes that result in yet more fat storage. The possibility that childhood sleep problems may contribute to adult obesity has been noted for quite some time.

Children’s sleep problems may both be caused by and worsen emotional and behavioural problems. Sleep problems in childhood, as in adulthood, may be a sign of unspoken stress, anxiety or depression, or may be a biological marker for the later development of teen substance abuse.

Sleep helps us learn, and learning is crucial to all that we do. We have brain systems to remember what we’ve done, how to do things, for facts, for feelings. Memory first requires that our experiences in life be properly stored, like a book placed in the correct spot at the library, so that we can find it later. Sleep helps this process of learning at those spooky, ‘plastic’ cellular levels, those places that make us who we are. Research shows that sleep helps the brain’s ability to physically change, which is behind the ability to store and learn. Lots of research is showing that, when we sleep less, we are more forgetful and can have more difficulty learning new things. Sleepy people should be put to bed before being asked to make complex decisions, or fly planes.

Long term alcohol abuse harms sleep patterns even after a long period of sobriety.

Better sleep at night reduces that afternoon dip. Older adults experience more fragmented sleep, greater daytime sleepiness and they nap more often than younger adults. Extremes of sleep duration effect immune and inflammatory systems in the body.

There are lots of ways to improve your sleep hygiene and I suggest you continue to educate yourself. Reduce caffeine use – take none after the morning. Avoid napping because it can be like snacking before a meal. Alcohol and nicotine hurt restorative sleep. And establish a regular sleep schedule (brains love rhythms!). Sweet dreams!

The Trouble with Wanting

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Wants and appetites; compulsions and impulses; desires and addictions.

We want what we want when we want it. Want want want want. Say the word enough times and it starts to sound as fuzzy as a want just might be. Do we ask what it is that we really want, what the wanting comes from, why it’s so urgent? Wanting might be fine, but it’s the habit of wanting that bites. Is all this wanting, in this incredibly rich first-world world of ours, something that we pay a price indulging?

Maybe wanting comes from appetites that are just a part of our nature. During our mind-brain evolution, when the urgency of survival was lived moment to moment, hanging out in the food chain, a want was highly related to a need. Ask Survivor Man if he wants for a new car or granite counter tops when he hasn’t had water for a few days. The need for survival is charged with urgency and emotional power and it focuses all of our senses and mental abilities. More dreamy and delightful things are left until we’re safe and sound. But even then, coming out of the same brain, a want can be charged with a similar emotional power and urgency.

If we have a want and all we see is the want, then we can get swallowed up by it, like a zombie obedient to the want. Troubles might follow when wants are not chaperoned by a frame of reference. A frame of reference helps us to see something in relation to something else. One helpful frame of reference comes from simply knowing that we have a want. “I really want these shoes” may be all it takes to slap down the credit card. But if I can step back, aware of my want, I might see that this is just a want and that I might have enough shoes already and that I really could do better with my money.

Unwary wanting may lead us in to romantic affairs, terrible debt, seconds of dessert, gambling and other addictions, you name it! I hear about affairs starting when unmet emotional needs abound. Rather than making a big mess of things, wouldn’t it be wiser and healthier to step back and face and address the emotional hurt – slowly, patiently and persistently – first? If you notice some attraction or want, ask more deeply, “Why is this coming up for me now?”

That frame of reference is always available if we stop and look at what we’re up to. It’s always available because no matter where you go, there you are. It’s hard to do but it gets easier with practice.

If we can carry forward the intention to watch our wanting, we’ll pay more attention. Our better judgment is more likely to catch a want if we practice paying attention and being mindful. We can then catch the wanting and know what it’s more deeply about. Maybe I’m shopping because I’m just feeling down or ripped off about something. Maybe I want that thing or that person because I’m not feeling good about myself, or because I want to celebrate something else. Wouldn’t it be wiser and healthier to take just a light moment to acknowledge this other feeling, and see where that takes you?

In our life the true ‘durable goods’ might be the deeper knowing about what motivates and moves us, not the new leather belt or bowl of ice cream. We might savour some wants and appetites, enjoying the want being fulfilled. But most wants are a yellow flag that says, “Look out, here you come!”

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.

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.

Making Decisions

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Many have said that life is about making decisions. Of course, if we are each the master of our own ship, we would chose our own course in life deliberately and wisely, giving our choices the care that they deserve. After all, it is our very life that we’re tending and we all want what’s best for us.

But how do we really go about making choices in our life?

We know that we’re much more skilled in making decisions when we have good existing knowledge. Also, less complicated decisions benefit from conscious deliberation more than complex ones. Decisions made under stress more often take less or too much time and deliberation, using too little or too much of the information at hand.

Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman and others have amassed a big bag of evidence that wags a finger at us, showing that we humans make even simple decisions illogically, emotionally and from the muck of our biases and idiosyncratic conditioning.

There’s little question that the past conditions of our life, the repetition of our ways of seeing and reacting, and the present conditions in our life influence our intuitive judgment and Malcolm Gladwell’s rapid cognition.

No one would argue that we steer a premeditated course toward any of the many ruinous places that seem to outnumber the ‘happily-ever-after’ ones. Instead, we may be pulled like a space-station by the steady gravity of invisible forces into lower and lower orbits around trouble. Another way to look at how the illusion of deciding about the directions in our life develops is to consider a domino of reactions, rippling forward over the moments.

Who in their right mind would have an affair, cheat the law, hurt loved ones, court addictions, embrace hobbling debt or veer toward pain. Well, rather quite a few of us. Actions often precede awareness, and our actions can be doozies. Although we might feel confident, this confidence might be just a feeling of mastery that precedes seeing the real situation accurately.

If we stop and review what guidance we have had in learning about making decisions, for many of us the education has been meagre. For the majority of us, many major life ‘decisions’ seem to be less a matter of clear deliberation under the sun of brave honesty and thorough review of the issues at hand. While reason and logic may make cameos while we navigate choices, in the company of some amount of conscious agonizing, the reality is that much of our unconscious nature acts as our guide to choices that determine the eventual landmarks of our lives.

The forks in the road are more often navigated by processes outside of our awareness. We may be like passengers looking out the window at aware moments, exclaiming about the dangers or that we like what we see, yet submitting to the general course set by some unseen driver. Maybe that’s why blaming someone else can be so easy.

When we meet choices and crossroads, sometimes doing nothing for a while may be our best course of (non)action. You could try that with one of the decisions that’s stalking you these days. When we take some time we may become acquainted with the underlying motives, unmet needs or emotional imperatives that highjack choice. Distinguish between wants and needs. Filter out irrelevant and distracting issues. Look in the mirror to discern whether some choice reflects an aversion to some discomfort or pain that we’re better off to face and know more clearly. Boredom, anger, insecurity, ego, feelings of entitlement and fantasy can push up impulsive ‘solutions’ like mushrooms from old soil – not all of them edible, if you know what I mean.