How to Develop Your Memory and Intelligence – and Why

Posted 21 Apr 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Brainpower, Productivity

Do you have trouble remembering phone numbers and grocery lists, or adding up three-digit numbers in your head? Although technology relieved us from having to perform calculations in our head or remember lists of things, memory and intelligence are indispensable tools for every human being. Stop exercising these abilities and you will find that they quickly weaken over time! If you want to keep your brain healthy into your eighties and nineties and prevent brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, remember to put your cognitive abilities to use regularly (1). Everyone must understand the importance of working memory and intelligence in day-to-day life. It is easy to develop both of them immensely, and hence enjoy a better quality of life.

It boils down to working memory

The term ‘working memory’ refers to our short-term memory, which we use in a fashion similar to a scratchpad. Our working memory typically has a very small capacity and can hold only a few number of things temporarily for recalling quickly. Things you make a mental note of, when reading, analysing a problem in your head, or when performing a calculation; go into your working memory first. If nothing is done about these items for a while, they quickly vanish, making you forget what you were previously working on. People with short attention spans cannot stay in one train of thought for too long, because they usually have a small working memory.

While the measure of a person’s intelligence is dependent on many aspects of his/her mental performance, the most significant among them is working memory. Limited working memory is usually the bottleneck to a person’s day-to-day performance in tasks requiring intelligence. The most common problems of life require the ability to efficiently manage multiple tasks or mental processes in order to attain desired goals. This coping skill of a person is largely defined by their working memory. Solving life’s problems also requires learning; and learning and managing new knowledge efficiently so it can be applied it to one’s problems is again a test for one’s working memory.

If you experience symptoms of ADHD, just improving your working memory sufficiently will probably make them disappear (2). A Good working memory is also a crucial factor in exercising relentless focus in the face of distractions.

Recent research shows that working memory can be greatly improved with practice. As you can guess by now, improving your working memory will also develop your intelligence by the same degree (3).

A ‘fun’-da-’mental’ exercise

One of the best ways to train your working memory is to do the classic ‘n-back task’ commonly used in studies on working memory. There are numerous variations of this exercise such as dual n-back, triple n-back and so on; but the basic objective of the exercise is to recognize repeating stimuli occuring ‘n’ times ago in a stream of stimuli presented. In dual or triple n-back, there are multiple streams of the stimuli (audio, position, and color). For an n of 2, you have to recognize repetition two stimuli apart. 2-back is easy, 3-back needs your attention, and 4-back stresses an average person without any training. There are people who have gone up to a dual 11-back with practice, however.

The following two reasons are why it is best to use ‘n-back’ to regularly train your intelligence.

1. ‘n-back’ increases your generalized performance (meaning the improvement is not task-specific) in working memory and fluid intelligence.
2. It is a challenging and fun activity for everyone, and there is no limit to how much you can improve regardless of your current abilities. Simply keep training at the peak of your ability and your working memory and cognitive skills keep improving!

Our recommendation for n-back on the PC is the open-source Brain Workshop game. There are so many options in the game that you can’t ask for more. It’s simply the best n-back practice program available for Windows and Linux, for free.

Physical activity and aerobic exercise

We already know exercise is good for everyone to improve blood circulation throughout the body and brain. But the importance of regular physical activity, for those trying to improve their cognitive abilities, simply cannot be stressed enough. Mental exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons, but physical exercise boosts it further and maintains it! Research has shown over and over again that physical exercise plays a crucial factor in brain growth (4,5,6). Furthermore, aerobic exercise increases the dopamine receptors in your brain (7,8), which is suggested to lead to better motivation, mood, and even creativity (9,10). Make sure you routinely perform activities like running, climbing, cycling, and weight lifting to make sure your body and brain are getting their regular dose of health benefits.

Diet

Like exercise, diet has a profound effect on mental performance. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the calories and nutrients we eat are consumed by the brain. A balanced diet consisting of wholesome foods will naturally supplement your brainpower training.

Other ways to train the working memory

Language learning
Language learning is an interesting way to train your working memory. The effectiveness of this method as a working memory stressor is currently unknown; however, it is recommended for two reasons: 1. Learning one more language is always both fun and useful, allowing you to interact with and learn from different cultures and societies. 2. There are studies (11,12) that show that a good working memory is essential to learning languages; so we can safely assume that language learning is a good exercise for the WM.

Mnemonics
Regular use of mnemonics is a great exercise to develop your memory to the extreme, whether you realize it or not. Many memory experts know that the more they try to remember, the more their brain capacity grows. Using mnemonics to remember new things will naturally force your brain to form more neural connections and prompt the growth of new brain matter, making your memory more efficient. Used properly, mnemonics can help you learn new languages in a short time. Using mnemonic devices to crack puzzle games like Sudoku can be a quick way to stimulate memory growth.

Brain games
There are other fun ways to improve your working memory and intelligence, and some of them can be addictive. The author’s favorite way to train the brain so far is to work on NP-hard brain games like Chess or Sokoban. NP-hard problems are solved by visualizing a tree of possible moves, and then tracing back frequently. This stresses the working memory significantly, and progressing in game complexicity is usually an indicator of improved working memory.

Visual training
Sokoban by itself stresses the working memory sufficiently, but you can also train the WM by visualizing large game trees in the head (like a chess player does), instead of actually pushing the pieces and undoing them on a screen. It is also possible to learn holding the level maps in your memory and play the game entirely in your head (remembering positions for a number of pieces as you move them). Although the author is still an infant at this, practice is what develops his ability to do it, as with n-back. With this technique you can further develop your visualization and focusing skills as well.

If you are aware of any other methods to train the working memory, please let us know!

Benefits of an improved working memory

The side-effects of an even a slightly improved working memory can be tremendous. One may notice an increase in mental focus, multi-tasking ability, and reading speed as a consequence of WM training. The anxiety and irritability that creep up when planning out big goals in your head will fade significantly. You may no longer need to reread a paragraph twice or thrice to properly comprehend what is being said, even in a paper filled with technical jargon. If you’re a writer, you might be able to quickly and effortlessly deliver a stream of thoughts into the word processor. Frequent training will also improve the long term memory considerably — letting you hold on to any thoughts and ideas that pop up at random time in the head for days. The author has experienced all the aforementioned benefits with just a few weeks of working memory training. If you don’t believe him, start your own training schedule and discover for yourself how impactful a developed working memory can be on all aspects of your life.

References

1. Haederle, M. (2012, February 8). Exercising the Body, Using the Brain May Ward Off Alzheimer’s Disease. AARP. Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-02-2012/exercising-may-prevent-alzheimers-health-discovery.html

2. Dingfelder, S.F. (2005, September). A workout for working memory. Monitor, 36(8), 48. Retrieved fromhttp://www.apa.org/monitor/sep05/workout.aspx

3. Sternberg, R.J. (2008). Increasing fluid intelligence is possible after all. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 105(19), 6791-6792. doi:10.1073/pnas.0803396105

http://www.pnas.org/content/105/19/6791.full

4. Molteni, M., Zheng, J.Q., Ying, Z., Pinilla, F.G., & Twiss, J.L. (2004) Voluntary exercise increases axonal regeneration from sensory neurons. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 101(22), 8473–8478. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0401443101 Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/101/22/8473.full

5. Wu, C.W., Chang, Y.T., Yu, L., Chen, H., Jen, C.J., Wu, S.Y., . . . Kuo, Y.M. (2008). Exercise enhances the proliferation of neural stem cells and neurite growth and survival of neuronal progenitor cells in dentate gyrus of middle-aged mice. J. Appl. Physiol., 105, 1585-1594. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.90775 Retrieved from http://jap.physiology.org/content/105/5/1585.full

6. Cotman, C.W., Berchtold, N.C., & Christie, L.A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(9), 464-472. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2007.06.011 Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223607001786

7. Vučcković, M.G., Li, Q., Fisher, B., Nacca, A., Leahy, R.M., Walsh, J.P., . . . Petzinger, G.M. (2010). Exercise elevates dopamine D2 receptor in a mouse model of Parkinsons disease: In vivo imaging with (18F) fallypride. Movement Disorders, 25(16), 2777-2784. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273304/

8. MacRae, P.G., Spirduso, W.W., Cartee, G.D., Farrar, R.P., & Wilcox, R.E. (1987). Endurance training effects on striatal D2 dopamine receptor binding and striatal dopamine metabolite levels. Neurosci Lett., 79(1-2), 138-44.

9. Wise, R.A. (2004, June). DOPAMINE, LEARNING AND MOTIVATION. Nature Reviews NeuroScience, 5, 1-12. Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://www.ohsu.edu/nod/documents/2007/04-30/Wise%202004.pdf

10. Drew, M.R., Simpson, E.H., Kellendonk, C., Herzberg, W.G., Lipatova, O., Fairhurst, S., . . . Balsam, P.D. (2007). Transient Overexpression of Striatal D2 Receptors Impairs Operant Motivation and Interval Timing. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(29), 7731–7739. doi:10.3410/f.1089942.543104 Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://clm.utexas.edu/mdlab/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Journal-of-Neuroscience-2007-Drew.pdf

11. Atkins, P. W. B., & Baddeley, A. D. (1998). Working memory and distributed vocabulary learning. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 537–552. doi:10.1017/S0142716400010353 Retrieved from http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2750996

12. Baddeley, A. (2003). Working memory and language: an overview. Journal of Communication Disorders, 36, 189–208. doi:10.1016/S0021-9924(03)00019-4 Retrieved from http://istina.imec.msu.ru:7099/static/pl-2012_html/documents/Baddeley_Working_Memory_2003.pdf

My Productivity Cheat Sheet

Posted 21 Apr 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Health & Strength, Productivity, Wellbeing

There are people like Steve Pavlina who claim to have adopted a polyphasic sleep schedule to achieve up to 20+ hours of productivity per day. While I don’t suggest that we go to such extremes to gain a few extra hours each day, I have designed my planner to make every minute of my waking time as productive as possible without compromising my wellbeing!

As I have mentioned in “Circadian Rhythm, Morning Motivation, and Productivity,” if you want to maximise your productivity, it is extremely important to stay in sync with the biological clock. I made it a point to wake up between 4:00 and 5:00 AM to make sure I’m chock-full of energy through the day. My usual bedtime is between 11:00 PM and 12:00 AM; so on the average day I sleep for about four to five hours. Sleeping more than 6 hours can be a signal that something is wrong with your health.

Early in the morning, between 4 and 6 AM, I avoid touching the computer or doing mentally stimulating activities. I use this time for some contemplation, an hour of meditation, and watching a sunrise while I go jogging. If you have a faith, you can add in prayer during this time.

I made it a habit to drink water soon after waking up. Any quantity is fine, as it rehydrates and cleanses the body after a long period of sleep. It also helps me stay hydrated through a short morning jog. Somehow, I feel that along with the morning physical activity, it improves my mood through the day.

After 6:30, around the time when a sharp rise in blood pressure occurs in us, I take a refreshing cold shower to develop my immunity and to stimulate myself to prepare for the day. By around 7:30 I would have finished my daily chores and breakfast, and I then sit down to review the day planner. If it’s an ‘HIIT’ (High-Intensity Interval Training) day, I go and break my previous sprinting records on the bike till about 8:00 AM.

(Remember, the hours 7:30 AM – 9:30 AM are great for very high intensity exercise, and I schedule my biweekly high-intensity exercise sessions during this time, whether it’s weightlifting or cycling.) With HIIT, even a few minutes of exercise per day results in significant improvements over your performance.

Since I usually plan my weeks ahead, the day’s planner is nothing but monitoring progress and assigning my daily tasks a time-frame so I can time-box through them during the day. I also use some time to journal and jot down any new ideas or thoughts I have with regards to work or the management of my schedule. By 8:00 I sit down to start working on the day’s goals. Since I’m not currently working a 9 – 5 day job, and being just a freelance writer; there’s no travel involved letting me save a lot of time. If you’re working a day job, it is still a great idea to be prepared for the day by 8:00 AM just as I do. You will experience great peace of mind as you reach your workplace if you do this.

Between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM we probably experience the peaks of our mental performance in terms of alertness, coordination, and focus. I can cruise through my tasks until lunch, which usually happens for me after 12:00 noon. I prefer to play 30 minutes of brain games after lunch, which helps me settle down as the food begins to digest. (I’m also an intermittent faster who has little dinner so lunch is my biggest meal and the major nutrient source for the day.) It’s too demotivating to go back to work immediately after eating, so work is a no-no until I solve a sudoku puzzle or sokoban level. I then take a short walk to celebrate my achievements and sit back for work. ;) I continue on until about 4:30 in the evening when my body aches for a little exercise!

If you work a job and come home at around 5:00, make it a point to refill your batteries with a short but intense cardio or weightlifting session. This will keep you in optimum shape in the long run.

I am a big fan of cycling so I generally go for a medium distance sprint on the bike. A very short burst of exercise but it makes my evenings a lot more cheery. Either way, I exercise on at least 4 days of the week for a total of about 3 – 5 hours of cardiovascular stimulation, which is more than enough to keep anyone healthy. If you’re ready to put in 20 hours of overtime into a 40-hour workweek but can’t afford a few hours of physical exercise, sorry but you’re doing it wrong.

By 6:00 PM, I finish any left over chores for the day, and start working on learning tasks. By learning tasks I mean learning new languages or skills, reading up a new subject, improving my n-back scores or any activity that involves neuroplasticity and knowledge gathering but doesn’t stress my creative and physical abilities. By 9:00 PM I know I can no longer focus my best on any mentally demanding tasks, so I eat dinner and perform less serious reading and knowledge-sorting tasks later on. I can still churn out a few easy articles as a writer, but if there is anything requiring serious brainpower, I postpone it for the mornings. In summary, I use my evenings mostly for activities like reading, learning and casual research. If I use the late evening for mentally demanding tasks like solving problems or serious writing, I always end up procrastinating. No surprise my creativity suffered heavily when I was living the life of a night owl.

I meditate for about 30 minutes before going to bed, to clear my head of all stress and tension that accumulates through the day. (I think it also helps me get wonderful dreams in sleep.) After a little stargazing and appreciating the night’s breeze and moonlight, I head straight to sleep. It’s my rule to go to bed before 12:00, and I know breaking the rule will be very expensive in terms of productivity.

While I might sound like a busy person with a fixed schedule, very few people come close to me when it comes to being flexible with scheduling. I make up for lost time easily by using my time effectively rather than painstakingly. I know my capabilities and limitations well, so I use my body clock and instincts to tell me what is right to do at any given moment. Ironically, the secret to excellent productivity is not being stringent on my day plans but keeping myself healthy, eating a proper diet full of wholesome and natural foods and getting enough exercise and mental nourishment! Read the brainpower and fitness articles to learn how you can do the same!

How to Develop Good Habits That Last

Posted 14 Mar 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Behavior, Productivity

Let’s face it. How many times did you put off reading the latest “How to be more productive” book after the first two chapters? Or tried to floss your teeth everyday like the dentist said, only to drop it on the fourth day?

Self-improvement tends to be exceedingly hard in its popular forms.

Our brains inherently detest messages like, “wake up early,” “watch no more than half an hour of TV,” and “only two bites of chocolate cake.” But in the name of self-improvement, you keep passing these conflicting interests to your decision-making brain. Is it any surprise that your brain repeatedly resolves, “Meh, self-improvement isn’t just worth it” and leaves you berserk?

We hear the quote too often,

“We become what we repeatedly do.” — Sean Covey

..and desperately want to learn new habits that we know are good for us! Simply motivating yourself, though, doesn’t always help you form a new habit. But there is no need to panic, because I am just about to show you how to do it without fail every time.

Let me begin with some good news for you: habit forming is easy. Don’t believe me? Haven’t you noticed how little time it took John Doe to turn into an alcoholic, after just a beer? Well, addictions are habits too, and the secret to forming a habit that lasts is technique. People use it all the time, unknowingly, to form bad habits. Why not uncover this technique to help ourselves form good habits, after all?

Understanding habits

A habit is a behavior, or a series of behaviors. For the sake of clarity, let us define behaviors as actions we take:

1.in response to something, and/or
2.in anticipation of something.

Despite the simple definition, habits can be very complex at the core. A seemingly simple habit can actually be a host of behaviors intermixed with each other. It is therefore no surprise that overcoming certain habits is something very hard to do.

Let us examine the previous example of drinking. Many problem drinkers once enjoyed their first drink by associating it as an escape from something unpleasant. They may thus start to use it regularly as self-medication; to forget the pain of how much they hate their job, or spouse, or life, or anything else. Quickly they learn additional behaviors, such as getting aroused by the smell or sight of alcohol, or associating all social and emotional cues with getting drunk. This forms a habit complex that makes it very hard for an alcoholic to break away from.

While the dark side of habit formation is distressing, it is indeed interesting to know that there is hope for those of us who want to form good habits that last, and do so very easily and quickly!

The secret recipe: conditioning yourself

What is behind our quick inclination to certain behaviors is explained well by psychology using the concept of conditioning. In simple words, conditioning is the unconscious association of specific behaviors in response or anticipation to something, until the behavior becomes automatic.

The more rewarding (resulting in a favorable outcome) the behaviors are, the easier they are to be repeated automatically and the more likely they are to persist, i.e., the stronger the habit is.

As children, we are all taught by our parents to clean ourselves. Thanks to conditioning, it has fortunately become a habit. We form new habits all the time, but the ones that stay are always the ones that are properly ‘reinforced’. Reinforcement is again a term borrowed from psychology; meaning strengthening a behavior by providing rewards (or by withdrawal of punishment).

Psychology and Self-reinforcement

Sometimes the reinforcement is external, like rewards or punishments enforced by someone or an environmental outcome. At other times, the reinforcement can be intrinsic, such as satisfaction or a feeling of accomplishment (or a release from unpleasant thoughts). Either way, it is important to understand that reinforcements are the key to successfully forming new habits.

While there is still some debate in modern psychology about the effectiveness of self-reinforcement, such as giving yourself a chocolate drink after a difficult workout or taking a fun break after each hour of homework; make no mistake about the importance of conditioning yourself when initially trying to form a habit.

You can condition your habits by both positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is to provide a reward after the desired behavior while negative reinforcement involves the taking away of an unpleasant stimulus. As an example, to learn a habit of studying every evening for an hour, you can use both of these approaches equally well:

1. After studying, you may play your favorite video game for 15 minutes (positive reinforcement — provides pleasurable reward)
2. Postpone the snack until you finish studying (negative reinforcement — takes away hunger, an unpleasant state of mind)

A combination of both may work even better!

In either case, remember to provide reinforcement immediately after the desired behavior is performed. When starting to learn a new habit, the reinforcement must be provided over a period of time until the habit becomes unconsciously tolerable. You will soon see that the habit goes on to be performed on auto-pilot, even after withdrawing the reinforcement.

Tips to get you going

Sometimes you want to have certain good habits before you can improve upon many aspects of your life. Such habits can be making a day plan or to-do list everyday, journaling, exercising, meditating, etc. Make them your priority and finish them first in the morning, reinforcing them generously with your favorite rewards (or by taking away unpleasant stimuli such as hunger).

If you’re trying to learn an important habit such as waking up early, or meditating a few minutes everyday, the best reinforcement is to reward yourself immediately with an extremely pleasurable stimuli that you just can’t go wrong about (reading the newspaper or watching your favorite TV show). Implemented properly, the reinforcement very soon becomes redundant because the activities are pleasurable by themselves.

If you’re overweight or want to learn to eat only at specific times of the day, you can try the “putting on cue” method. For conditioning yourself, you wait until you’re hungry at each time of the day, and eat only in a specific room in your house or workplace (or even a particular restaurant). After a while, your brain will associate this cue with your breakfast or lunch and you will stop feeling hungry during other times or at different places.

You can overcome bad habits like anger or addiction using similar principles.

To overcome laziness or to routinely perform particularly boring tasks throughout the day, remember to use the Premack’s principle.

Use external reinforcement wherever possible. Tell a friend you’ll pay them 50 bucks if you can’t submit the thesis on time. Or challenge your roommates to catch you procrastinating red-handed. It generates additional motivation to succeed in your tasks, while also conditioning you in the long-term.

Sometimes, gradually reducing the reinforcements in magnitude (yes, they can become habits too) works better than going cold turkey on them. Either way, it’s always better not to use addictive behaviors (such as video games) as reinforcements.

Is it really that simple?

While conditioning explains habit formation fairly well in humans and helps us learn new habits quickly in controlled environments, it is often not the only factor affecting our behavior in the real world.

Thinking patterns, beliefs, and environmental stimuli can sometimes interfere with habit formation, especially when no serious attention is paid to them. In the worst case, our ‘other’ habits affect the learning of new habits too! Habits can be confusing at times!

The secret to learning habits successfully comes from understanding all these factors and devising methods to counter the opposition to proper conditioning. This comes with practice, and often also, patience — which in itself is a good habit to learn!

Let me know if this helped you form a new habit!

Circadian Rhythm, Morning Motivation, and Productivity

Posted 12 Mar 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Productivity, Wellbeing

You must have had the occasional experience of waking up too early and leaving for school or work before your family was fully awake. No doubt such days are usually the most productive and memorable ones you can recall. Remember how energetic you have been throughout such days with so little sleep, when even a 9-hour sleep just doesn’t seem to cut it on most days?

Early to rise, easy to motivate!

The secret behind this strange phenomenon is a biological clock in our bodies, which keeps us warm and alert during just the ‘right’ times of the day. When our sleeping habits are properly in sync with this biological clock, dubbed the circadian rhythm, we experience a burst of energy throughout the day extending into the late evenings. However, we are also easily prone to fall out of sync with this natural cycle of day and night; developing an unnatural sleep cycle and a poor appreciation of life. It’s probably the reason why our elders have always warned us, “Early to bed, early to rise.”

Image of Human Biological Clock -- The circadian rhythm
Human Biological Clock — The circadian rhythm

 

The infographic above illustrates how we go through significant changes in our physiology throughout the day, having been influenced by our biological clock.

One obvious consequence of this natural cycle is that we’re wired to be highly productive only during the morning hours. As seen in jet lag, interfering with the circadian rhythm can seriously disrupt the body and make us restless, fatigued, and demotivated. Furthermore, prolongedly unnatural sleeping habits can become the root cause for a host of degenerative diseases in the long run. Is it any surprise that “morning people” who are in tune with their circadian rhythm are more motivated, accomplish more on an average day, and are healthier; all with just a few hours of sleep? As self-help enthusiasts, we must understand the connection between the circadian rhythm and productivity; and use it fully to our advantage!

If you wake up early, you simply have more of the morning hours when getting things done comes naturally. Add to it the psychological rewards of a productive morning and you can see how easily it adds up for a morning person to keep himself/herself motivated through the day. The boost in motivation that a morning schedule produces, is key to accomplishing more through the evening and keeping your checklists ticked off.

Can only some do it?

The biggest myth about morning productivity is a mistaken belief that people are predisposed as to to being morning people or not. There is no science proving this, and humans seem to quickly re-adapt to be a morning person simply by altering their activity patterns to match their circadian rhythm. This is a natural function of the body. (But if you are a caffeine addict, only giving it up will show you how quickly this happens.) In my own experience, there have been times I lived as a night owl, and those when I was a morning lark; and even times when I hung somewhere between the two. So put your doubts aside and start going to bed early!

The secrets of a morning person

See my “Productivity Cheat Sheet” to learn how I accomplish everything I want to on a typical day simply by listening to my body!

Cold Showers and Cold Adaptation: The Secrets of Superhuman Immunity, and The Dangers of Escapism

Posted 10 Mar 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Behavior, Health & Strength, Natural World, Society, Wellbeing

I have always had a fascination for cold showers, because I thought it to be the natural way for us to bath. It would be ridiculous to suppose that our species had access to warm water before fire was discovered. Even with the technological prowess, imagine how many civilizations before ours would have even had mass access to water heating or hot water springs. As a rule, most of our ancestors showered regularly (if they were lucky) in the cold water a lake or river near to them offered.

As you can observe in nature, most of the animal kingdom takes pleasure in lavishing the cold water directly from rivers and streams for cleaning themselves throughout the year. It is natural to suppose then that humans, doubtlessly the most advanced species on the planet, must have certainly been prepared by evolution to deal with cold water on their skin. (Examples of such adaptation are the Mammalian diving reflex and Cutaneous vasoconstriction.) And if there’s any truth to the ice-age theories, early humans and primates (with less than ideal clothing and shelter) must have routinely been exposed to below freezing temperatures for a long time during their evolution.

That leaves modern proponents of hormesis with an interesting question, is there more benefit to (really) cold showers than mere stimulation? It seems plausible because we have evolved through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution where our bodies were in contact with very cold water and air. Indeed, our bodies have adapted to many other environmental stimuli and eventually reaped benefits out of them. The theories of evolutionary biology show that we have adapted to use stressful stimuli like intense physical activity and even starvation to our advantage in survival.

If this is the case, why does the average modern man shiver at the thought of surviving a winter night outside? Why are we too scared to step into a cold shower? Why do we so crave the comfort of warm water?

Enter the Iceman

While science may not have definite answers to these questions yet, a 54-year-old Dutch man who broke 20 world records certainly has. Popularized throughout the world as The Iceman, Wim Hof is an ordinary man with an extraordinary ability — to withstand the lower extremes of temperature with nothing but his bare skin. Forget frostbite, Wim enjoys being immersed in ice for hours together infront of popeyed spectators. Wim also has the uncanny ability to run a half-marathon barefooted in a -20C (-4F) weather above the polar circle (also wearing only shorts). When you ask Hof or the scientists who studied him whether he is a genetic freak or has a different physiology than the rest of us, the answer you receive is a definite “NO!”

Wim Hof himself states that anybody can be like him with training; and conducts workshops around Europe where he trains people to become icemen and icewomen. Wim is not just an iceman but also an experienced rockclimber who conquered his fears by executing many difficult climbs without any gear. He explains why we need to face the cold in a natural way:

“To keep our bodies strong, we need to train ourselves in nature. The cold is a powerful voice with a wise lesson. With the right adaptation we can bring back control over the internal workings of our body. It helps us be more alert and reactive to any negative disturbances in our body.”

Wim says in his workshops, “Practicing gradual exposure can lengthen the amount of time you are able to stay in the cold.”

However, the real treat is when you understand the Iceman, who is also an extraordinary philosopher, through his lectures and books. This man is fighting a cause, and it is to conquer disease by mastering our bodies and minds. Wim believes that “if we can go deep enough into our minds to influence the autonomic nervous system, as well as the immune system, we can prevent diseases from harming our body.

Wim Hof explains the way our body can be trained to withstand both cold and disease:

“The cardiovascular system is made up of muscles that we can train. By exposing them to natural stimuli, such as the cold, we can make the muscles stronger. This is easy as taking a 5-minute cold shower after a warm one.”

“With cold exposure, the muscles in the arteries are trained. The opening and closing of the muscular walls are like lifting weights at the gym. With training, it builds up strength.”

“With each cold shower, the body improves immensely. The onset of natural adaptation happens rather quickly. Once the muscles in the arteries are strong enough, you will be ready to go on to the next phase.”

Indeed, Wim’s pulse is an exemplary 39 times a minute, a figure that outstrips even the world’s most well-trained athletes.

The essence of Wim’s extraordinary technique of taking control of the autonomic nervous system and the immune system starts with mastering the body’s response to cold.

“In the next phase a psychological aspect comes in. Here, you don’t want to take a warm shower before turning on the cold. Try stepping directly into a cold shower. This takes a lot more determination. The aim of this exercise is to be able to close your veins by sheer will.”

Wim Hof is not just a theorizer however; he demonstrated his mastery over immunity by getting away with just a headache in the Endotoxin experiment, which would normally induce a host of unpalatable symptoms in a young and perfectly healthy person.

Wim, a nature lover, also practices and teaches breathing exercises to supplement the nervous system’s ability to conquer cold. He is also a regular practitioner of meditation, which has helped him master his mind to the point of confronting his worst fears.

The true answer to fear

Modern science recognizes that all disease starts in the brain (neurochemically), as it is the seat of the nervous system that controls the body. A healthy brain reflects itself through a healthy body, which is quick to adapt to any challenge nature presents to it. However, the most dreadly disease that our brains frequently get infected with, owing to our separation from nature, is to escape fear by means of comfort.

If you understand by now why we crave the comfort of a warm bath, you would be quick to realize the impact fear has throughout our lives. We have become overly lazy and constantly try to live in a comfort zone that we work hard to create throughout our lives — avoiding confrontation with the truth or the raw elements of nature. While nature is the only teacher we have, we avoid her like the plague, wary of facing our true fears. When it comes to learning something new or adapting to a difficult situation, we hate being the first to answer the difficult questions, and we learn to quiet our inner child when it’s too curious. Instead of using our fears to discover the answers, we learned to avoid the questions themselves. Why? Because we think the easiest way to survive is escapism.

Wim shows us just one way to end the consequences of this escapism so ingrained in modern culture — by going back to nature to master ourselves. Whether it’s meditation, or cold showers, or even rock climbing, you start by confronting your fears head-on, rather than escape them through creative means.

(Julien Smith also offers the remedy to this modern disease in “The Flinch.”)

Have they really died from cold?

Imagine how many lives could have been saved from the danger of hypothermia, if humans were properly educated and trained to adapt to the cold, before being exposed to it in the wild. Sometimes the limiting beliefs that a culture of escapism instills in us can cost lives.

Instead of misteaching our children to fear the cold as a merciless demon and hide from it till they face a helpless situation, why don’t we teach them how to conquer it, to develop invincible spirits and lead healthier lives?

While I don’t expect you to jump into an ice-bath right away, my sincere advice to you is to start conquering your mind and body by gradually adapting to the cold. Just as a weightlifter exercises his/her muscles to their limits to grow bigger and stronger, you must exercise your mind and willpower to face the challenges of life better. For anyone starting on the conquest of cold and fear, I highly recommend the book “Becoming the Iceman – Pushing Past Perceived Limits” by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.

How the Premack’s Principle Saved Me from A Bad Childhood of Procrastination

Posted 02 Mar 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Behavior, Productivity

I recently read about the Premack’s principle on Todd Becker’s excellent Getting Stronger blog. It has been a shocking revelation to me however, as I have unknowingly used this principle throughout my childhood! Even more shockingly, I started procrastinating in my teenage right after I had stopped using it!!

The Premack’s principle, informally called the Grandma’s rule (although my grandmother never taught it to me), suggests:

You can improve your tolerance to unpleasant activities by rewarding them with pleasant activities.

In other words, you solve the hardest challenges first, and then immediately reward yourself by doing pleasurable activities. Over time, you will find that these hard challenges become very tolerable, and even pleasurable as a side effect. This is the holy grail of habit forming.

If you have a list of things to do in a day, you do them in the order of descending hardship.

As a kid I somehow understood this, although in a different manner.

And this was my childhood version of the Premack’s principle:

You can escape the bitter nature of unpleasant-to-do chores, by finishing them off first and not letting them linger on your mind. You can also turn enjoyable activities into extremely pleasing ones, by doing them right after an unpleasant chore.

Such was my motivation to make life more pleasurable as a kid, that I purposely tackled the hardest challenges first thing in the morning! (Also read ‘Circadian rythm and morning motivation‘.) And I successfully formed good habits in childhood that many children had difficulty trying (although I had my own set of bad habits too).

Indeed, there is evidence which shows that children commonly practice delayed gratification to deal with overwhelming distractions, while developing their own plans for a big reward or payoff. As children we tend to learn on our own the three most important tenets of self-development, namely self motivation, self-evaluation and self-reinforcement. (The last is an important but often neglected aspect in self-help. Read about self-reinforcement in “How to develop great habits that last.”)

The secret behind the Premack’s principle is the peculiar way our limbic brains cope with unpleasantness. When you place pleasurable rewards next to hard tasks, you positively reinforce performing the task and make it more tolerable (unconsciously), according to the principles of behavioral psychology. If you’re a fan of old school psychology, this may be seen as an application of Freud’s pleasure principle, which states that all of human behavior is in essence motivated by anticipation of pleasure or by avoidance of pain.

And thus, without knowing it, I used a powerful psychological principle to have an awesome childhood. It was especially helpful in dealing with my mother — a particularly hard person to please. (Don’t tell her!) I have eventually earned good childhood points from everyone at home, using this very technique.

The sad part, however, was losing this wonderful habit during my teenage when I needed it most (for better motivation and grades in college).

I eventually gave in to the easy distractions that life offered. I disregarded my exclusive little secret and started delaying the unpleasant tasks and even avoiding them altogether. The result? I was a chronic procrastinator in no time.

Don’t make the same mistake, now that you know about the Premack’s principle.

The more you escape the unpleasant tasks, the more your procrastination habit grows. And the deeper you are in a quicksand that engulfs you.

So, start beating procrastination today! Remodel your day plans to tackle the not-so-pleasant tasks first, and then generously reward yourself with the more pleasant ones!

(Also see “a quick and dirty hack to beat procrastination and get things done“)

Further reading:

1. Delay of Gratification: the Experiments of Walter Mischel

A Quick and Dirty Hack to Beat Procrastination and Get Things Done

Posted 27 Feb 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Behavior, Productivity

Our friend Max of MotivationHacker.com has recently posted an excellent productivity tip on his site. His perspectives on self-help are strikingly unconventional but quite exciting and very practical nevertheless. I put this particular idea of his to the test.. and yes.. IT JUST WORKS! Thanks Max!

The hack is to simply ask yourself nicely whether you want to do something. Instead of saying ‘I have to finish my homework’ or ‘I want to finish my homework’, you now try ‘Do I want to finish my homework today?’ for a change. As simple as it sounds, the theory behind is actually quite intriguing. Like I discussed in “Why do we procrastinate”, it is our unconscious mind that makes the decision whether or not to act on something, based on its past experiences. However, these past experiences are not very pleasant ones for a procrastinator, as procrastination is commonly a learned response to unpleasant authority (as Stefan Molyneux humorously discusses in the following video). As a result of the strong aversion to authority, the procrastinator can no longer drive action by simply commanding his/her unconscious to just ‘do something’.

However, this new approach seems to differ by removing authority from the equation, and subtly prompting and motivating the unconscious to take action. Being a curiosity engine, the unconscious must naturally be responding to a question such as “Do you want to try something new today?” with a resounding “yes!” It also has to do with avoidance; when you ask yourself whether you want to do something instead of creatively hiding the real issues, you prevent yourself from switching to the procrastination mode. (The real issues hiding behind your procrastination habit become obvious with this straight-forward approach.)

In my own experience I found it to be a refreshing way to motivate myself to take action. Having been a mild procrastinator during my past years, I still hesitate sometimes when starting to do something early in the morning. So today I put this principle to the test as the first thing in the morning, and it has worked very well to fix my ‘starting trouble’.

I now have another powerful tool in my kit to quickly kill procrastination, just as it happens.

Videos in this article

1. Putting Off Procrastination

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.

10 Tips to Overcome Information Overload and Stay Clearheaded Through the Day

Posted 08 Feb 2013 — by Krishna Teja Mokshagundam
Category Productivity, Technology, Wellbeing

Information overload is a common complaint of today’s tech-savvy generation. Thanks to the twenty first century; wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you may be bombarded with overwhelming and often useless information throughout the day.

Want to break free from this evil side of information technology? These 10 tips show you how to!

1. Draw the line between true necessity and compulsion

We may praise the connected world; but the more you aimlessly browse the internet, the more you lose your ability to focus on one thing at a time. The explosion of smartphones and other internet devices only made the situation worse. If you regularly overdose on information without a clear paradigm; you may often experience brain fog, restlessness, anxiety, or frustration. Studies show that heavy internet users exhibit symptoms of ADHD, and in some cases develop depression and hostility toward social situations (even if it might only be anecdotal evidence). Why not try abstaining from all connectivity for a few days and see how liberating it is? A fresh start will give you a fresh perspective and the chance to discern between necessity and compulsion.

2. Filter what you consume

Isn’t it funny how some people think they can’t live without the internet? What started as a useful resource sharing network has now turned into an grotesque monster that eats up most of our time and overfills our brains with often conflicting information. Do you really need to subscribe to twenty news sites, a hundred and fifty blogs, and five hundred newsletters? (Let’s not count the books lying unread on your shelf.) The irony is that the essence of hundreds of information sources in the same category, in most cases, seems to be 90% identical. The information industry is mostly a carnival run by skilled businessmen, each fighting to own your attention.

The cure? Cut out on the fluff and filter information sources like your life depended on it. Subscribe to the best sources, only on the subjects that your survival demands. The rest is mostly amusement that you pay for with your peace of mind.

3. Stop googling impulsively

The internet brings with it a new malady called OGD – Obsessive Googling Disorder. See whether you are familiar with these symptoms. It starts with a little curiosity, usually finding out what a new word means; and before you know it you have wasted away four hours reading hundreds of pages of wikipedia and internet forums, and watching how-to videos on youtube. The only way to end this paranoia is to keep your curiosity in check. Make notes of what you want to learn, and look them up later at a scheduled ‘knowledge time’.

4. Email for dummies

Most people use e-mail as a creative way to waste time, and not as an actual communication tool. No surprise it adds to their daily dose of information overload. Let’s face it, how many times did you feel that you wasted time reading an unnecessarily long newsletter or by obsessively checking email 20 times a day? Intelligent management of email comes in two simple steps:

a) Turn off alerts for e-mail.
b) Check email only at set times.

(Surprised? If you’re busy getting something done, it won’t matter so much anyway.)

5. Facebook or facehook?

Today’s social networking sites are mostly like porn, making you miss out on the real thing. Let’s face it, there’s a lot more to life than compulsively liking pictures on facebook. Keep tabs on your cyber activity, or you’re considered ‘facehook’ed.

6. Miss a few calls

Except those from the boss and clients, though. It’s good to reduce the authority that a ringing cellphone has over your life. How many times did you routinely pick up calls that you know to be unimportant beforehand, only to be distracted by the information they convey? Does the prospect of missing a few calls scare you? That’s exactly why you need to do it!

(As a bonus, you get to keep your brain safe from the side effects of cellular radiation.)

7. Prioritize

Information overload can result not only from the internet or other resources but from your own oversized list of goals and targets. A long term strategy is important, but keeping a year-long calendar filled with to-do entries is only counter-productive for your brain. The trick is to break it down into manageable chunks and prioritize your goals for the short term. I usually decide on what needs to be done in an year at the outset; but focus on only a three month period ahead, setting specific goals for each week. A strategy like this usually works for everyone with a little tweaking.

8. Utilize your weekends (hint: but not for work)

No matter how information-tidy you are, there will always be times when life and data overpower you. Which is why it’s important to take a break once in a while and recharge your batteries for maximum productivity. Switch all your information sources off on the weekends, and see it as an enticing opportunity for time with family and activities like nature trips, trekking, kayaking, or even paragliding.

9. Meditate

Practicing meditation regularly (especially mindfulness meditation) boosts your ability to resist all forms of restless thought and behavior, and maintain a balanced mind throughout the day.

10. Exercise your mental and physical abilities

Exercising can reverse the effects of severe information overload by improving circulation throughout your body and brain, and releasing natural painkillers and relaxants into the bloodstream. Physical exercise also rebuilds the dopamine receptors of your brain that are destroyed by information overload and compulsions, thus improving your motivation and coping skills. In conjunction with physical activity, mental exercise helps you build new brain cells and compensate for the overload of information in your life! Also read “How to improve your memory and Intelligence” or see the brainpower page.