November 27, 2013

The Miracle of Neuroplasticity

Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and construct new neural pathways throughout your life. Every time you engage in new activities, think in novel ways, learn a skill or do things differently, new pathways are forged and your cognitive reserve expands. This process, called neuroplasticity, has been a revelation in neuroscience.

Numerous studies have helped us to understand how learning transforms the brain. Take, for example, a landmark German study of a group of people who had never juggled before. After giving them three months of juggling training, the investigators scanned the newly minted jugglers’ brains and found an increase in volume of areas that process complex visual motion. Although the change was temporary, the study demonstrated an anatomical modification as a result of learning.

Another study by German researchers looked at the effect of intense studying on brain structure. Medical students preparing for their board exams underwent MRI scans of their brains before, during and three months after they completed their exams. The students experienced a significant volume increase in various brain regions including the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) over time.

And what’s even more exciting is that three months after they stopped studying for exams, the student’s hippocampi continued to enlarge. This is thought to be due to the proliferation of new neurons induced by learning.

Every part of the brain serves a special function. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of research in the field of neuroplasticity. Using MRI technology, the brains of athletes, musicians, video gamers and even cabdrivers have been studied. This has provided a new understanding of how the brain is shaped by the way it’s utilized. For example, the scan of an accomplished pianist will show expansion of the cortical areas associated with finger dexterity while those of experienced cabdrivers reveal enlargement of regions dedicated to spatial navigational skills.

Researchers have even begun looking at how brain structure may be molded by online social networks. They’ve found that college students with more friends on Facebook had enlargement of various brain regions, including an area linked with the task of putting names to faces. This kind of research underscores the fact that the brain you have at this very moment mirrors the way you have spent your time. But more importantly, the future structure of your brain is yet to be determined.

Enrich Your Mind

High quality social connections appear to protect against cognitive decline. Recent studies show a 25 percent reduction in the risk of developing dementia among seniors who report feeling satisfied with the relationships in their lives. Having an interesting and fulfilling social life into your golden years is just one of several factors that may help preserve the brain’s store of knowledge and memory, a concept known as cognitive reserve.

A robust cognitive reserve is essential for keeping your mind sharp as you age. One recent study reported that nearly 40 percent of people who die without any measurable cognitive deficits have evidence of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains. These include the hallmark plaques and tangles.

How can this be? We now understand that some people seem to tolerate the pathologic brain changes of Alzheimer’s pretty well. It appears that having a well-funded intellectual savings account somehow compensates for whatever damage has accumulated in the brain. When there’s a pile-up or traffic jam on your main neural highways, cognitive reserve serves as an alternate route for information to travel. So, even if your preferred cognitive route is blocked, you still have a side exit and smaller streets available to get you to your destination. True, it may take you longer to get there, but at least you won’t be stuck indefinitely.

Scientists didn’t always believe there were ways to build up cognitive reserve throughout an entire lifetime. They used to think the brain behaved like cement: Young, freshly poured neural pathways could swiftly absorb materials and impressions but eventually these pathways would become set in stone, hardened and intractable with age. We now know this is far from true: The brain is more like a glorious garden, capable of growing, blooming and sending out new roots when the conditions are favorable. Research has shown that stimulating experiences and new learning, like sunshine and rain, allow this garden to flourish — and that’s true whether you are young or old.

November 26, 2013

Being your own boss

Discovering a real need

You might be a great potential entrepreneur but you still need to spell out exactly what it is you plan to do, who needs it, and how it will make money. A good starting point is to look around and see if anyone is dissatisfied with their present suppliers. Unhappy customers are fertile ground for new businesses to work in.

One dissatisfied customer is not enough to start a business for. Check out and make sure that unhappiness is reasonably widespread, as that will give you a feel for how many customers might be prepared to defect. Once you have an idea of the size of the potential market you can quickly see if your business idea is a money making proposition.

The easiest way to fill an endurable need is to tap into one or more of these triggers:

Cost reduction and economy. Anything that saves customers money is always an attractive proposition.’s appeal is that it acts as a ‘warehouse’ for unsold hotel rooms and airline tickets that you can have at a heavy discount.

Fear and security. Products that protect customers from any danger, however obscure, are enduringly appealing. In 1998, two months after Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), one of America’s largest hedge funds, was rescued by the Federal Reserve at a cost of $2 billion, Ian and Susan Jenkins launched the first issue of their magazine, EuroHedge. In the aftermath of the collapse of LTCM, which nearly brought down the US financial system single-handedly, there were 35 hedge funds in Europe, about which little was known, and investors were rightly fearful for their investments. EuroHedge provided information and protection to a nervous market and five years after it was launched the Jenkins’s sold the magazine for £16.5 million.

Greed. Anything that offers the prospect of making exceptional returns is always a winner. Competitors’ Companion, a magazine aimed at helping anyone become a regular competition winner, was an immediate success. The proposition was simple. Subscribe and you get your money back if you don’t win a competition prize worth at least your subscription. The magazine provided details of every competition being run that week, details of how to enter, the factual answers to all the questions and pointers on how to answer any tiebreakers. They also provided the inspiration to ensure success with this sentence: You have to enter competitions in order to have a chance of winning them.

Niche markets. Big markets are usually the habitat of big business –encroach on their territory at your peril. New businesses thrive in markets that are too small to even be an appetite wetter to established firms. These market niches are often easy prey to new entrants as they have usually been neglected, ignored or ill-served in the past.

Differentiation. Consumers can be a pretty fickle bunch. Just dangle something, faster, brighter or just plain newer and you can usually grab their attention. Your difference doesn’t have to be profound or even high-tech to capture a slice of the market. Book buyers rushed in droves to Waterstones’ for no more profound a reason than that their doors remained open in the evenings and on Sundays, when most other established bookshops were firmly closed.

Dispelling Common Anger Myths

Before you can manage your own anger, you need to be aware of what anger is and isn’t. Unfortunately, myths about anger seem to abound. Here are some of the myths I want to dispel right from the get-go:

Males are angrier than females. If by angrier you mean how often people experience anger, it’s simply not true that men are angrier than women. Surveys show that women get mad just as frequently as men - about once or twice a week on average. On the other hand, men tend to report more intense anger, while women tend to hang on to anger longer.

Anger is bad. Anger serves a variety of positive purposes when it comes to coping with stress. It energizes you, improves your communication with other people, promotes your self-esteem, and defends you against fear and insecurity. (Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all angry men — but they turned that anger into social reform that made the world a better place.)

Anger is good. When it leads to domestic violence, property damage, sexual abuse, drug addiction, ulcers, and self-mutilation, anger is definitely not good.

Anger is only a problem when you openly express it.  Few as 10 percent of people act out their feelings when they get angry. The other 90 percent either suppress their anger (“I don’t want to talk about it!”) or repress their anger (“I’m not angry at all — really!”). People who express their anger are the squeaky wheels who get everyone’s attention; people who repress or suppress their anger need anger management just as much.

The older you get, the more irritable you are. It’s the other way around - as people age, they report fewer negative emotions and greater emotional control. People - like wine and cheese, they do tend to improve with age.

Anger is all in the mind. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Emotions are primarily physical in nature. If anger were only a state of mind, why would someone say, “I feel like I have a big fist in my chest when I get that angry”? Believe me, when you get mad, that emotion is instantly manifested in muscles throughout your entire body, the hairs on the back of your neck, your blood pressure, your blood sugar levels, your heart rate, your respiration rate, your gut, even your finger temperature warms up, which is long before you’re aware of what’s happening.

Anger is all about getting even. The most common motive behind anger has been shown to be a desire to assert authority or independence, or to improve one’s image — not necessarily to cause harm. Revenge is a secondary motive. A third motive involves letting off steam over accumulated frustrations — again with no apparent intent to harm anyone else.

Only certain types of people have a problem with anger. It involves and relates with all types of people — truck drivers, college professors, physicians, housewives, grandmothers, lawyers, policemen, career criminals, poor people, millionaires, children, the elderly, people of various colors, nationalities, and religions. Anger is a universal emotion.

Anger results from human conflict. This notion can be debatable. One of the leading experts on anger has found that people can get angry by being exposed to foul odors, aches and pains, and hot temperatures where none of which involve (or can be blamed on) the actions of others.