Good Habits, Bad Habits, and the Brain

Do you have any bad habits you want to get rid of?

Are you always late for appointments and other events? Many are, and though you always seem to have a reason for your tardiness, it’s clear that lateness is a bad habit. Do you habitually put off your studies until you’re forced into cramming mode? I bet you could create a list of some of your worst habits with only a few minutes of thought.

And do you do good things every day without realizing they’re actually habits?

Do you work out every morning before breakfast? Are you always on time (or early) for appointments?  I’m sure that, on reflection, many of the things you do are good habits that you don’t really have to think about. You just do them.

Well, on today’s Associated Press web site there’s a fascinating article on habit formation and the brain.  Here are a few of its key ideas.

As it turns out, when you repeat an action over and over, especially at the same time every day, the neuron connections in your brain actually change to fit the pattern of the habit. Neurologists and other brain scientists have known for some time that the brain in “plastic” –that is, it changes depending on a wide variety of stimuli.

So you crave chocolate? Why? Well, because it tastes good, right? Yes, but only to a certain extent. I like chocolate too, but I don’t crave it. I can go indefinitely without it, but some people have great difficulty resisting. Why?  Because the “reward circuits” of your brain have become habituated to the pleasure you get from chocolate.  It forms a habit of chocolate eating.

Okay, so how to you break a bad habit? Well, you acquired the habit in the first place by repeating the action you took over and over until your brain formed a neuron path that then prompts you to go on repeating it. To break a habit, you use the plasticity of your brain to form a new path. Instead of eating chocolate when you crave it, eat an apple (or anything else, for that matter) instead. Before long, your old habit will be replaced by the new one.

According to the AP article, “New Year’s resolutions? Brain can sabotage success,” the science of habit formation has enormous implications for various addictions, including drugs and alcohol. It also can relate to the establishment of attitudes that you bring to your life and your work.

What is an attitude? It’s simply a habit of thought, and it is formed (or broken) the same way any habit is.

Here’s an example of an attitude: suppose you think or say, “I’m not any good at math.” Now, that statement could be merely factual and supposedly provable by concrete evidence: scores, grades, and the like. But do you know why you fail with mathematics? Usually not, and often it’s used as a kind of excuse, a “cop out.” But now think of that statement as an attitude, a habit of thought, formed early in your schooling as a result of a few bad experiences. You then repeated the habit over and over thereafter.

What this means is that all these years you’ve been giving and reinforcing input– an instruction–to your brain. You’ve been telling your brain you can’t do math. Well, after that kind of conditioning, it’s no wonder your brain has complied and turned your attitude into a reality. You’ve “rewired” your brain to block comprehension of mathematics.

Can this habit be broken?

Sure, just replace it with a new one: “I do well with mathematical concepts and problems” (phrased, like the bad attitude, in present tense). Repeat that again and again, over a period of time, and you will have a new attitude. Your plastic brain will rewire those portions of itself that deal with symbolic reasoning, and that’s what math is. Don’t be surprised that as you then practice doing math problems with a new attitude you will get better and better.

Life is getting more and more complex and demanding of our mental resources. The last thing any of us need is to have our own brains working against us. Click on the link above and take a look at the article. It’s fascinating.

If you comment on this posting and the AP article, relating them to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).

Becoming an Expert

There’s good news for those who want to excel in their work and leisure-time activities.  A number of studies over the years have shown that “talent” is a myth, and that anyone who will practice, practice, practice, can become an expert virtuoso in any pursuit.  Those who say, “I’m not good at ——” (fill in the blank) bring a negative attitude to the task and they have simply not practiced enough.

[Note: If you comment on this posting and the HBR article, relating them to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).]

These studies looked at a wide range of pursuits from music to sports to chess to, and to the professions that require “expert” knowledge such as medicine and law.  They could find no direct correlation to age, I.Q., gender, and several other variables for most pursuits.  In athletic pursuits, researchers have found that age, body size, and gender significant, but only because the body is the principal tool an athlete uses.  For most other pursuits, it’s the mind that counts, and its capacities can always be improved (barring brain injury or other mental incapacity) through focused and frequent practice over time.

Here’s an excellent article from the Harvard Business Review on the “Making of an Expert” (appears in a new window or tab):  HBR Article

New Studies on Binge Drinking

According to the Washington Post, 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States is by people age 12 to 20, and most of that is in the form of a “binge”–consuming five or six drinks (beers, shots) within two hours.

It seems to even be a regular thing that people that age (and even into the later college years) consider “blackout” drinking (consuming so much you retain no memory while you are drunk) or even “passout” drinking–consuming so much you lose consciousness–to be good sport.

Both seem to be seen as games, even here at SOU.

The trouble is, younger brains are even more susceptible than those of older adults to serious and permanent damage as a result of such drinking.

By the way, that old idea that you have brain cells to spare–that we only use 10% of them and if some are wiped out by drinking it’s no great loss–that’s nonsense! As a neurologist.

Here’s a shortened link to the Washington Post article:

If you don’t drink now, don’t start. If you do and you think you need help stopping, there is a solution. If you’re interested, let me know.

What People Do

What People Do ImageHere’s a little intellectual exercise that won’t earn you any points toward your GPA, and it certainly won’t earn you any money.

Take one of those yellow legal pads of paper and begin to create a list of “things that people do.”  That seems simple enough, but it will take you some time before you actually have drained from your head all the things you can think of.

Be careful to include both good and bad things, and after each item indicate in parentheses at what level the thing takes place: at the personal, family, institutional, church, state, national, or global levels.

If you are really interested in this exercise, you might consider creating your list on a computer spreadsheet like Excel. If you do, you will be able to sort the list in a variety of revealing ways.

In addition to the level at which the thing takes place, you could add another column on frequency or probability–how often does the thing happen or is likely to happen, and at what levels? For instance, if you were to sort the list alphabetically, war would end up near the bottom. But if you were to sort the list in order of frequency or probability, surely war would end up much higher on the list.

If you added a fourth column, somehow placing each item in some kind of category such as violence, you would certainly have to place war in that category, but you’d also have to place spousal abuse and schoolyard bullying, and  whole lot of other things.  Use the computer to sort the list on violence and see how far up the whole list it appears.

You could add two more columns if you wished.  One would be to record a simple binary state: is the thing good or bad? Don’t be afraid to make value judgments here–it’s your list.  The other new column would also be binary: past or present–that is, was the item of human activity confined to the past or does it still take place today?

This all sounds like quite a project, but since there’s no academic credit to earn, there’s also no due date.  Give it a shot. You might discover a number of very interesting things about the world.

How to Protest Without Making Things Worse

Protest signThere are many people, at Southern Oregon University and elsewhere, who would say that I’m about the  last person to consult on how to successfully interact with other people.  Some  days it seems as though I’ve been issued a punch card with only so many spaces to be punched each time I annoy or offend someone.  I’ve used up all my punches on many an occasion.

Nevertheless, SOU is, after all, a place of learning and I’ve learned a few things over the years on how to get my point across without pissing people off.

Here’s a few of those things.

1. Assume the person or persons with whom you vexed have the best of intentions in spite of your disapproval of his, her, or their actions.

2. Assume whomever you disagree with has carefully considered other options and has tried hard to make the best decision.

3. Make sure you know what you are talking about when you address the issues at hand, and that the supposed problem you wish to protest might not exist anymore, or has in some other way been addressed.

4. Do not do anything to deliberately piss people off.  It may feel good at the time, and there are some spectacular examples of how direct civil disobedience has worked in the past.  In reality, however, such cases are rare.  If you keep assumptions #1 and #2 in mind, you will find that a simple letter, or a respectfully-phrased petition, will do more good than picket signs and bullhorns.

5. Carefully consider that those in positions of power might suspect that student protesters where organized and egged-on by a department or by a specific member of the faculty.  Such suspicions can serve no useful purpose. It can, however, create a corrosive relationship between faculty members, academic departments, and the upper administration.

6. Keep in mind something the (Liberal) novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote: “Radicals are people who take a bad situation and make it worse.”

Well, with some of you, I may have just used up today’s punch card.  So be it.  I won’t be the first time.

Would You Pick Your Nose in Public?

Here’s an excerpt from an article in today’s Washington Post about people who are obsessed with staying “connected” on their smartphones:

You see these tethered souls everywhere: The father joining in an intense Twitter debate at his daughter’s dance recital. The woman cracking wise on Facebook while strolling through the mall. The guy on a date reviewing his fish tacos on Yelp. Not to mention drivers staring down instead of through their windshields.  Physically, they are present. Mentally, they are elsewhere, existing as bits of data pinging between cellphone towers. “My wife has physically pulled the thing out of my hands a couple times,” said Ferrari, who has been nabbed checking his Twitter feed at, among other places, his in-laws’ dining room table. “She says it’s like I’m picking my nose in public.”

Here’s the link to the full article:

Philosophy of Teaching: Postulate #13

13. Teaching and learning are subversive in both their motives and their effects. The fundamental purpose of education is to change the status quo.

Status Quo Cartoon

Changing the status quo does not necessarily mean taking action in the streets in protest of government policy , nor does it necessarily mean overturning particular aspects of the legal or social order. It might sometimes  take those forms, but the biggest change in the status quo at the university will take place within the learner him or herself, and not directly in society at large. Education will change you. The most significant way it will do this is to make you aware of alternatives to what you have already known. The knowledge of alternatives will not necessarily compel you to adopt them, but you will find many of them attractive and compelling. Education can enlarge your mind, your heart, and your soul.

[If you comment on this posting, relating them to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).]

As wonderful as all that sounds, there is good cause to take it all in with caution and deliberation. It will almost  certainly be the case that not all of your old friends and family members have had or will have the same mind-heart-and-soul expanding experience. If you are not careful, your education can build walls between you, your friends, and your loved ones. We professors act as if we have offered you the gift of the gods themselves, usually without caring about your relationships with others not sharing your same educational experience. But it is a matter that you must handle with great care and tact. Though we have lectured to you, don’t lecture to your friends and loved ones. Though you may no longer find racial or sexist jokes funny, find some way of being tolerant of loved ones who still do. If you go about it carefully, you will not antagonize them or play the know-it-all, but you can act as a positive force for good and change–one person at a time.

Philosophy of Teaching: Postulate #12

12. The necessary posture of the teacher is duty. His first obligation is to the student and not the institution that employs him.


The word “duty” might lead one to conclude that teaching is always undertaken in a spirit of reluctance, one that can only be overcome by a sense of duty. Let’s face it: Americans talk far more about their rights than they do their duties. “Duty” is beginning to take on an antique, archaic cast. But when I speak of the duty of a teacher, I do not mean to imply a grudging acceptance of a mere necessity. I mean duty in the sense of vocation–a calling–that either emerges before the acquisition of a body of knowledge–that is, something to teach–or it can come along with an earnest interest in a subject from which there are few options for securing a livelihood other than teaching. History is one such subject.

It is widely believed that professors at “research” universities are far more interested in their reputation as scholars than as teachers, that hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions made at such institutions take teaching effectiveness as a given and consider the production of “scholarship” to be of far greater importance. Statistically, this is probably true, but not by much. There are many, many world-class scholars in all fields who are known by their students and former students as superb, world-class teachers. That is, they take their duty to their students seriously, prepare for lectures and other classroom activities assiduously, and offer as much help as they can to students–all while building impressive reputations as working researchers and scholars in their fields. Teaching and “scholarship” need not be at odds, and I have had many professors during my years as a student whose courses were deeply enriched by whatever book or article they were writing for publication.

At Southern Oregon University, the mix of teaching versus research and scholarship are reversed from that of the so-called research universities. Teaching plays a far greater role in the professional lives of the instructors and professors at SOU, but we are also required to engage in research, publishing, and other forms of professional “scholarship,” just in a smaller proportion than might be required by a member of the faculty of, say, the University of Oregon.

The important thing to remember, at whatever university one finds oneself at, is that a teacher’s first obligation is to the student and not to the university that employs him or her. It has happened, and it will continue to happen, that when asked I have advised SOU students to attend a different university–that SOU could not serve them as well as some other institution, for whatever reasons. As an employee of Southern Oregon University I should be working to encourage as many students to come here as possible–enrollment figures plays an important role in the calculation of SOU’s budget. But as a teacher, my first obligation is to my students, and when there might arise a conflict between those two obligations, students will come out on top every time.

The University and the “Quality Question”

This month the Chronicle of Higher Education–a sort of Wall Street Journal for those of us who work at colleges and universities–began a series on the question of quality in higher education.  What is quality in that context, how is pursued, and how is it measured? Those are the issues the CHE seeks to explore.  I wish them and every one of those involved in the project God speed.  I’ll read every word they print on the subject, but I’ll be surprised if any new insights or breakthroughs in the making of a quality education will come of it.  It’s not so much that I’m cynical or jaded, but I do have some notion that the Chronicle has taken a bite of something that has choked a lot of people over a lot of years.

After all, trying to get to the bottom of what quality is (or isn’t) has driven more than one person nuts. The example who comes most readily to mind is Robert Persig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Lila (1991), its sequel.  The main character of both novels refers to himself in the third person as Phaedrus, an allusion to a figure in several of Plato’s dialogs.  In Zen, Phaedrus was the shadowy former self of the first-person narrator before electrotherapy restored the narrator’s sanity.  He had driven himself insane while teaching at a state college in Montana as he dug deeper and deeper into the question of Quality–always spelled by Persig with a capital Q.  For him, Quality is a noun, not an adjective.  It is something tangible rather than being a word with which other things are described or characterized.  Seemingly sane at the beginning of the cross-country ride that forms the background for Zen, the narrator descends again into insanity and, by the end of the novel, is forced back by his relentless thinking about Quality during the trip.  Pirsig picks up the theme again in the sequel Lila, but has dropped both the first-person narrative and the pretense of sanity.  Though this is a matter capable of debate, as far as I’m concerned Pirsig got no closer to even a working definition of Quality in Lila than he had in Zen.  He gets an “A” for effort, but that’s it.

My own forays into the question of quality began more than thirty years ago. To put myself through graduate school, I spent a handful of years as a quality-control engineer for an upper-atmosphere physics research laboratory.  We did most of our work for the Air Force, but some also for NASA and a few other research agencies.  I had spent some time before graduate school as a quality-control technician in the electronics industry, also working mostly on military contracts.  For both NASA and the military, “quality control” and “quality assurance” were imperatives, though sometimes only pro forma.   For neither the government agencies nor for the private-sector industrial-electronics firms we worked for was the word “quality” equated with “goodness.”  In fact, it was theoretically possible that something could pass quality assurance and be no good at all.  It happened all the time that what we produced was not as “good” as we could have made it.  Generally, in manufacturing quality does not mean good, it means conformance to specified requirements.

Consequently, the question of “goodness” is not the province of quality-control technicians and their procedures.  It’s the province of engineering and of management: they are the ones who specify the requirements (and therefore the “goodness” to be built into the product in question).  By the way, if you think the “quality” of manufactured goods in on the decline, don’t blame the “American Worker” for poor workmanship.  He’s not allowed to exercise his own judgment in such matters, and anyway he just tends the machinery that does the actual work.  Quality is literally out of his hands.

“But,” you pounce, “Quality is not out of the hands of college and university professors.  They have direct control over both the specification of requirements and the process of assuring those requirements have been met.”  To this, I can only say “you’re are correct, but not on point” (what a dirty professorial thing to say, eh?).  It is true that in higher education (at least at four-year institutions), it’s the teaching faculty who come up with the requirements for majors, degrees, and most obviously the individual courses each of them teach.  It’s also undeniably true that the same faculty designs and uses the assessment mechanisms (exams, etc.) that will determine grades, scholarships, entrance into graduate or professional schools, and the like. What is mostly lacking, though, is the question of Goodness–what it is and how it can be assured.

Aside from the question of Goodness, much of the time we do not even know our students have learned what we want them to learn.  If they have, then exactly what?  Do examinations really assess student learning, or do they merely test the function of their short-term memory?  It’s depressingly common to hear a student complain, “but that was last term” (or even the beginning of the current term) when a professor is disappointed by the inability of the student to recall.  “Last term, then, I suppose you learned nothing” is what the seething prof thinks but dares not say.  It would lead to the filing of a complaint.

One of the psychological problems many college and university teachers face is the lack of much in the way of “accomplishment feedback” from their work.  From their research and publishing activities they get a fairly concrete sense of accomplishment: a book, an article, a conference paper, and the like.  These are tangible, touchable things.  A professor can say, “I spent the last three years writing my latest book” and he can hold it (or at least the manuscript of it) in his hand.  Such a concrete sense of accomplishment is not so easy to come by from teaching.  Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of Political Science at Queens College, has been teaching for more than fifty years and has won numerous student-generated awards for doing so.  Still he can assert: “I couldn’t say objectively or reliably what I do for students” (from “Why Teaching is not Priority No. 1,” CHE, Sept. 10th, 2010, p. 6).  There’s no way he can open up the heads of his students to see what they’ve really learned or what effect that learning will have.

Without knowing what learning really takes place among college and university students, how can the question of Quality be addressed with any precision or even with any sense?  How do professors know they are accomplishing anything at all?  It’s not surprising, then, that they resort to the merely “objective” and lean on specified requirements in the hope of touching something real. So, in advising a student hopeful of graduating soon, a member of the faculty takes mental (or actual) clipboard and checklist in hand and checks off each requirement, as long as it was completed with the specified minimum grade or grade-point average.  “Yes,” he says with pleasure or relief, “you’ve satisfied requirements.”  The student is pleased, because in the largest number of cases that’s all he set out to do in the first place–fulfill requirements.  His parents and other benefactors (some public, some private) are pleased because they want the best for the students, and because the expense of fulfilling all those requirements is at an end.  All breath easier.  “Thank God . . . no more requirements.” But who is really satisfied? Not the teachers, at least not this teacher–I can tell you that.

So, this teacher, at least, awaits the news from the Chronicle of Higher Education on how to achieve and measure Quality at the university, and on faith alone he believes, in the interim, he isn’t just wasting everybody’s time, including his own.

Philosophy of Teaching: Postulate #11

11. The necessary posture of the learner is humility, the realization he has things to learn.

Right off, care must be taken so that “humility” is not reflexively understood to be lowliness, humbleness, or subservience. It certainly should not be confused with “humiliation.”  In its true sense, humility is simply the understanding of oneself as one really is in the larger world. It does not imply stupidity or ignorance, nor does it assume an utter lack of understanding or preparation. It’s simply knowing which way the wind blows, and where one stands in relation to it. No adult student arrives at a college or university without significance learning and knowledge. No student comes devoid of the skills needed to ultimately make his or her way through the maze of baccalaureate requirements. Any student with the interest, drive, and humility to take up higher education can succeed with the help of the university faculty and staff.

That does not mean, though, that there might not be deficiencies and preparations that need to be “caught up” before college-level work can begin. In a few subjects such a mathematics and foreign language a workably-accurate assessment of student preparation can be made to identify whatever backtracking may be needed. Though these may seem to be set-backs, they more accurately should be seen as just part of the process.

Aside from the possible need to catch up when required, a successful student must be “teachable.” This means a willingness to learn, or at least the suppression of resistance against it. There are people–a goodly number in fact–who think they already know it all. Often, preconceived or merely-inherited notions or beliefs condition a person’s openness to learning. Many have built internal defenses that are called upon to deal with any challenge to their self-image as a knower. You know who I’m talking about.

[Here is the original article, “My Philosophy of Teaching” (opens in new window).  For all the articles in this series, click on the Teaching Philosophy link below or under Categories to the right.]