Christmas, the Holiday Season, and our Psychology

Christmas and the Holiday Season represent much to the human psyche and have for thousands of years. Some will experience great joy, others a deep sense of reflection, and still others sadness. This will be a time of family reunion and an opportunity to rekindle relationships and heal wounds. Above all, it represents a time of spiritual connection and religious conviction.

Each of these emotions, good and bad are certainly related to and a product of brain function. We have some control over the feelings we experience, again an adaptive capacity of our brain. While there may be a reasonable sense to head in the emotional direction of sadness or bitterness you might try to divert to a more positive and happy emotion this Holiday Season.

Some practical steps towards happiness include:

1.    Give thanks for your ability to experience this Holiday.
2.    Take a moment and look at your family members.
3.    Pray for those less fortunate.
4.    Enjoy this day, it may be our last.
5.    Give away some of your possessions to the needy.
6.    Hug the little ones in your life.
7.    Hold the hand of an older one in your life.
8.    Tell those around you how much they mean to you.
9.    Stop what you are doing and close your eyes.
10.    Enjoy the few moments of happiness that can lead to more.

I wish everyone on our planet a very Merry 2010 Christmas, a joyous Holiday Season, and a 2011 New Year filled with happiness. I pray the people of this Earth live in harmony and peace with the understanding that is true greatness comes from working and living together.

Personal Thoughts on Education

Fifteen year-old students in the US ranked 25th out of 34 nations on an international math test and ranked in the middle in science and reading. This again raises concerns for America’s youth being able to compete in a global economy.

Teens from South Korea and Finland led in almost all academic categories on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment. This is according to the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that represents 34 nations. U.S. students ranked 17th in science and 14th in reading.

The Obama administration is promoting national curriculum standards and a revamping of teacher pay that stresses performance, rather than credentials and seniority. According to Secretary Duncan, “other countries are ahead of the US and improving more rapidly.”

The OECD’s international test, first administered in 2000, is given every three years, aims to measure skills achieved near the end of compulsory schooling. In the US, 165 public and private schools and 5,233 students participated in the two-hour paper and pencil examination.

A total of 470,000 students participated in a 65 nations and economies. For the first time Shanghai region was considered distinct and they scored even higher than South Korea and Finland.

Some suggest the US is placed at a disadvantage due to its heterogeneous and immigrant population. Some thought is also given to the idea that the US fails to put the most talented teachers in the challenging classrooms.

From a policy perspective the top scoring nations on the test offer clues to the US. Successful countries provide comparable opportunities to all students, regardless of wealth, offer autonomy to individual schools in terms of curriculum and prioritize teacher pay over smaller classes.

From a brain enrichment perspective, the argument for heterogeneity of population does not hold as everyone has a brain and the brain will react to proper stimulation with an outcome of learning. Some of the following suggestions might be considered by policy makers:

1.    Schools need to be considered brain health environments and we should apply our latest research on proper environments and nutrition to the school environment.

2.    The school day is not scheduled according to proper sleep-wake cycles and thus impairs learning. Our children are not getting proper sleep. Start the school day later and end later. This will also help students have time to eat breakfast. Our     students are also too stagnant during the day while all research indicates a relationship between mobility and enhanced learning.

3.    National Standards are good because they permit valid comparisons of performance.

4.    I agree with the report that autonomy (I call it freedom) is critical for schools. Teachers and students should have the freedom to be innovative and creative. To     this end Unions need to be significantly reduced or removed from the equation.  Bureaucracy tends to limit and reduce achievement, stifle innovation, and breed mediocrity. Is there anyone out there who wants to be limited? Teachers are a  talented and motivated group generally and they should be given the freedom to create and innovate.

5.    Curriculum is best learned when it is personal and applied.

6.    Scores should be considered a by product of other more primary mechanisms such as what motivates teachers and students, what stimulates peak brain function, and how the function of learning in school can be applied with a personal meaning.

7.    Money is clearly not the answer. Greatness can be achieved with a stick and stone if delivered in a personal and brain stimulating way.

8.    The student can overcome most obstacles if he or she is motivated to do well and enriches his or her brain through study, repeated exposure to the material,  application of the material to life, and prioritizes his or her education as     important. Family/parental input is critical here.

9.    Local solutions are typically better than one-size-fit-all approaches. While there are general principles of learning and environmental changes that should be applied in all schools, the creative and innovative capacities are best left to the     brains that work and learn within each school.

10.    A nation that spends more than most and yet is behind most is a nation that needs to change and to stop approaching the important topic of shaping the brains of  children in a political manner.

11.    We should integrate our latest neuroimaging technology to the school system to better understand proper shaping of the young brain and to build curriculums that  have the outcomes desired.

Omega 3s

One of the five major pillars of my brain health lifestyle ® is nutrition and we have learned how important nutrition is for the brain. In fact, an entire field called “nutritional neurosciences” has emerged to reflect this reality. While the amount of what we eat is always important and we should all strive for some level of caloric restriction, the types of foods we consume are certainly also important.

The brain is composed of nearly 60% fat and it is thought that the lipid in the brain helps to insulate neural tracts and to propel information electrically in an efficient manner. The brain can slow down and function less optimally if the lipid is reduced or damaged. To this end, the study of omega 3 fatty acids, an essential fatty acid in the body, has been studied and continues to be a major area of interest in relationship to the brain.

Omega 3s including DHA and EPA are critical to optimal brain function. They can be found in fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. They are also found in unsalted nuts. Long chain omega 3s such as DHA is now found in other foods and in many different supplements on the market. DHA appears to be a credible and critical nutrient for the brain at all ages and helps with both neuropsychological and cardiac function. Fish are good sources of DHA because they consume algae in their own diet. Smaller fish that do not swim at deeper levels of the ocean also reduce the risk of mercury levels that might be a risk for humans.

A recent study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia revealed algal DHA (algal-900) improved memory in healthy older adults. The memory benefit was nearly equal to skills of those one three years younger. Similar cognitive benefits of DHA have been published elsewhere in healthy populations, but some question remains regarding the benefit of such nutrition in those already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. DHA may have a preventative effect more than a treatment effect and there may be a relationship between efficacy of DHA and the presence of APOE-4 genotype.

It is important that consumers speak to their physicians about any supplements they take and to be aware that many of the products across the counter have filler which have little if any benefit. Americans do not consume enough DHA omega-3 in their diet and supplements may need to be considered. In addition to the DHA supplement noted above, consumers may wish to review Moxxor ( for research on omega 3s.

Modern Day Socialization

One of the five main pillars of my Brain Health Lifestyle ® is Socialization. The human brain is nurtured with social interaction and the mental stimulation such human connection can promote. Research has consistently shown that humans who isolate and segregate have a higher risk of dementia, including that caused by Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

Traditional socialization includes gatherings of humans where face to face contact can occur. We have plenty of opportunity for this on a daily basis at home, work, school, sporting events, parties, meeting, and other such gatherings. There is a new type of socialization that has emerged, however, and I refer to this as “modern day socialization.”

Modern day socialization is born from the technology age and a generation of youth who communicate and interact via gadgets, not the mouth. Cell phones, computers, IPods, IPads, and videogames are the mechanics of such socialization. Programs such as email, text messaging, Ichat, Skype, and social media are used daily.

Research conducted at the University of Texas suggests that social networking sites like Facebook actually help in socialization. Findings indicate that Facebook does not supplant face to face interaction between friends and family. Indeed, such virtual social sites or social media actually promote opportunities for new expressions of friendship, debate, and even development of deeper relationships.

900 college students and recent graduates were surveyed about how and with whom they interact on Facebook. More than 60% of Facebook users said posting status updates was among the most popular activities, followed by 60% who wrote comments on their profile and 49% who posted messages and comments to friends.

Interestingly, the research indicated that while men and women use Facebook they do so in different ways (supports gender differences in brain function). Women tend to use more affectionate content and they are especially interested in connection. Men tend to use Facebook as a tool or as a functional means. As an example, women may post more pictures of social gatherings while men post pictures of hobbies or pop-culture link.

Facebook and other social media represent a new means for socialization. The underlying foundation of human interaction and the need for such interaction on brain health and overall wellbeing remains strong however. Technology will always advance, but the critical ingredients to human happiness will likely remain constant.