On cyberbullying and online disinhibition

The Internet is a bunch of interconnected computer networks, senseless and indifferent to the types of messages they transmit.  It is capable of spreading love as quickly as it spreads hate.  It doesn’t blame and it doesn’t absolve.  It provides, however, fruitful ground for social experimentation, often fueled by our hard-wired desire for status, social approval and authority.  The recent tragic death of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi shows the dark side of such social experimentation.

We might as well have a sign pop up on our screens every time we load a browser, “Leave your inhibitions at the click of a mouse.”  Psyhologists have a name for it – the “online disinhibition effect.”  In its negative expression, it may go as follows:

“I feel important when many eyes follow, read, and watch.  If I can get your attention, it must mean, I am worthy of your attention, so you will acknowledge me.  I prefer to be invisible, though, because that way, if things go wrong, I won’t lose my face…because you won’t see my face.  Every act needs an audience, and I know you are there somewhere.  I can’t see your reactions, but I can conjure them up in my mind.  That makes me bold and even reckless, and I like it. Nobody would describe me as bold or reckless in my real life.  What’s real, anyways?  I’ll role-play a little.  I’ll be a villain.  Villains are powerful, and I want power.  I want to dominate and control.  I hope you like my show, and if you don’t, chances are I will never know because you won’t have the time or feel the need to tell me.  You may say, “That’s just awful,” or “I am confused,” or “Somebody must have already reported this stuff,” and click away.  I can handle that.  Now, I just need a victim because “How can I be a villain without a victim?”  All of cyberspace is a stage, after all.  Why should I feel responsible for what happens online?  Watch my avatar in action.”

Fortunately, the “disinhibition effect” is no defense to malice, hate, or stupidity online.  We, human beings, are given a wonderful gift of awareness and consciousness that we might as well use to rewrite the discourse above and make social networking a safer and more empowering experience for all of us.  The safety of our social networks is everybody’s responsibility.  Perhaps, a better approach would be…

“I feel my connection to the larger world out there when many eyes follow, read and watch.  I will work hard to share my best with you because your attention is a precious gift that I honor and will never take lightly.  Although you cannot see me right now, you will know my name and I will carry responsibility for everything and anything that I choose to share with you.  I promise to treat you with integrity and respect that you deserve.  I speak to all as I would speak to every single one of you face-to-face.  It is my choice to use the Internet to nurture relationships and collaboration.  I will take time to state my intentions clearly, to communicate in a sensitive and respectful way and to avoid unnecessary conflict and hurt feelings.  I will speak my mind and encourage you to do the same. I will listen and acknowledge your opinions even if I may disagree with you.  I will be fair.  I will intervene when I see an injustice.  Perhaps, together we can make this social network a welcoming place.”

How can we make our social networks safer and better for everybody?

P.S.  For a positive example of what social networks can do to counteract bullying,  visit the It Gets Better project on YouTube, created to show the LGBT teen victims of bullying that “it gets better” through personal stories.

By | 2010-10-04T14:34:30+00:00 October 4th, 2010|Change, Communication|0 Comments

How NOT to talk about money

Golden Nest EggThis happened years ago when I was still practicing law, but the episode is etched in my memory, perhaps, because it stirred many emotions and emotions make memories stronger. A middle-aged couple walked into my office to talk about a loan they were considering. There was nothing unusual about them or the beginning of our conversation. We made introductions, exchanged a few niceties, then, it was time to explain the terms and conditions of the loan. The man had some questions, which I began to answer, when he suddenly stopped me and pointing towards his wife, said, “Could you please talk to her? I have cancer. She has never had to deal with finances. She needs to know…”

Writing about this conversation still makes me sad because, unfortunately, I know, there are many couples out there who don’t talk about money in a way that empowers them to plan for the future. The way we talk about money often involves too much blame, stress and confusion. These are difficult conversations that need to happen but don’t. The tragedy of this silence often becomes evident when it’s too late.

To change how we talk about money is to work against the wiring of our brains. Our brains can easily filter out the subject matter we don’t enjoy. We don’t invest a lot of mental energy into things that we don’t want to think about. The short-term rewards are much more exciting to the brain than long-term projections. Tangible things are more likely to grab our attention than abstractions. A new 3D TV or a pair of shoes can captivate the brain in a way that no 401K ever could.

Second, the brains prefer status quo, the familiar patterns of behavior. We may have inherited these patterns from our families or developed our own ways of dealing with money, which the brain turned into habits overtime. The point is we all have money stories already in our subconscious mind that drive our behavior and choices although we may not always realize it.

Finally, difficult discussions are stressful and often unpleasant, and the brain is wired to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Our status and the sense of fairness are often challenged in money conversations. The brain has evolved to be sensitive to status and fairness as indicators of our position in society. No wonder, we avoid difficult conversations altogether.

As a young lawyer, I learned a lesson from that episode. Whenever I talked to my clients, I reminded myself to make an eye contact and talk with all the parties, not just the most active ones with most questions. I began thinking of myself not only as an adviser but also an educator. As trusted advisers, we get the opportunity to probe, influence, engage, and maybe, initiate a conversation that would not have happened otherwise. We can’t waste such opportunity.

For my own good, I also made it a habit to ask myself the question, “What conversations am I avoiding?” Facing the truth is the first step to making a change. And to make the money concept more concrete and exciting to my brain, I keep a picture of Louboutins on my desktop as a symbol of rewards to come…shallow, I know, but whatever works…we are dealing with the mammalian brain here.

What else can we do to rewire our brains for more effective money conversations?  How do you handle money talk?

By | 2010-09-29T18:59:38+00:00 September 29th, 2010|Brain, Change, Communication|0 Comments

Looking to the brain to shape persuasive messages

In a recent study on persuasion, UCLA neuroscientists have shown they can use brain scanning to predict whether people will use sunscreen during a one-week period following public service announcements even better than the people themselves can. ScienceDaily reports:

The participants had their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center as they saw and heard a series of public service announcements. They were also asked about their intentions to use sunscreen over the next week and their attitudes about sunscreen.

The participants were then contacted a week later and asked on how many days during the week they had used sunscreen.

Scientists discovered that increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with self-awareness and reflection about preferences, values and desires, correctly predicted that people were more likely to increase their use of sunscreen the following week, even beyond the people’s own expectations.

There is plenty to be learned about what makes messages persuasive to the brain.  Here are a few highlights:

First, the study confirms that people are bad at predicting what they will do.  Keep this in mind next time somebody fails to meet your expectations.

Second, the neuroscience of persuasion may allow us to learn more about how people form and change perceptions.  Influence and perception are two sides of the same coin.  Influence is about projecting messages out.  Perception is about taking them in.  The word “perception” comes from the Latin words perceptio, percipio, and means “receiving, collecting, action of taking possession, apprehension with the mind or senses.”  Messages often change as they travel from the source to the recipient. The context, environment and our own unique brain maps play a role in creating the perceptions we ultimately end up with.  Will we be able to identify perceptions in the brain?  What role reasoning, emotions, and relevancy play in attitude and behavior change?

In the future, we are likely to see more practical applications of the research.  In neuromarketing, for example, “neural focus groups” may help advertisers test which messages will be effective while monitoring the brain activity of their subjects.  Neuroscientists are also exploring the issue of “creating buzz” – what brain regions are involved in persuading people to tell or e-mail their friends about a health message, product or service.

Finally, while this study focused on hearing and viewing public service announcement, other neuroscience studies provide evidence that doing, experiencing, and even imagining (mental rehearsal) may change behavior and the brain itself as a result of neuroplasticity.  When done consistently, activities, such as meditation, playing a musical instrument, or juggling, lead to structural changes in the brain.  Sometimes, the best way to facilitate change is to create experiences and engage.

By | 2010-06-28T20:41:33+00:00 June 28th, 2010|Change, Communication|0 Comments

15 Amazing Examples of Neuroplasticity in Action

If you ever doubt your ability to change, or feel stuck in your old ways, or wonder if it’s too late, what I am about to share with you may surprise or amaze you.  That was my reaction.  The current science of the brain changed what I learned about the brain in the mid-1990s when I studied linguistics and cognition, and it wasn’t even that long ago.

The truth is that we are continuously changing although we may not always realize it.  For example, most of the cells and tissues in the human body keep regenerating and are much younger than the person in which they are found.  You may have heard a statement that our body changes every 7 years.  The average age depends on the types of cells and tissues, some take much less time to renew, others take longer.  You habits and your lifestyle all have an impact on how your body turns out.

Neuroscientists tell us now that our brain can also rejuvenate and improve itself.  Our brain forms new neurons throughout our lives, and the connections and functions in the brain change as well. What we do day to day influences our brain’s function, and we can participate actively and consciously in the rewiring of our brain. The brain’s ability to rewire itself as a result of life experiences is called neuroplasticity.  That’s right, our brains are plastic.

Norman Doidge in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science” talks about a paradox of change.  The forces that enable us to change are also responsible for keeping us stuck.  If we keep doing the same, we may think nothing changes, but in fact, the more we repeat a certain behavior, the stronger the corresponding pathway in the brain grows, making it more difficult to unlearn the pattern.  The good news is that the same principle applies when we learn a new skill or habit.  The more attention we pay to it and the more we practice it, the easier it will become.

As you read the following remarkable examples of neuroplasticity in action, consider how much power you actually have to shape your brain and your life.  It’s never too late to change and build new good habits.

1.  The adult human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons.  Education increases the number of branches among neurons, increasing the volume and thickness of the brain.  Brain is like a muscle that needs mental work-outs.  Learning and brain exercises slow age-related mental decline and even improve brain function.

2.  Physical exercise promotes creation of new neurons in the brain, the process known as neurogenesis.  It also stimulates sensory and motor cortices and helps the brain’s balance system.

3.  As we age, we tend to shift cognitive activities from one lobe in the brain to another.  There is also an indication that we use both hemispheres as we age for the tasks that used to take place in just one hemisphere.  Perhaps, the brain optimizes itself to compensate for any weaknesses.

4.  Specifically designed brain exercises have been shown to strengthen weak brain functions in children and adults with learning disabilities. For example, rote memorization can help the auditory memory.  Handwriting strengthens motor capacities, and adds speed and fluency to reading.

5.  Stroke patients recover some lost abilities when the brain reorganizes itself to move functions from the damages location to a new one.

6.  Because the brain physically changes its state as we think, it is possible to measure the changes electronically.  As a result, there’s technology that allows completely paralyzed people move objects with their thoughts and interact with computers.

7.  V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, uses imagination and illusion to restructure brain maps and help people manage their phantom pain and some forms of chronic pain, which he believes to be a construct of the brain that is projected on to the body.  For example, his invention of the mirror box helped many amputees get rid of the pain in the phantom limb. The brain is tricked into believing that the phantom limb is moving when the patient sees a mirror reflection of the moving good limb in the mirror box.

8.  People can improve performance through visualizations because action and imagination often activate the same parts of the brain.  When we need to learn a physical skill, mental practice of this skill can produce the same physical changes in the motor system as the physical practice.  This effect has been achieved in experiments that involved people learning to play the piano, as well as athletes in training.

9.  If you were to wear blindfolds for two days, your visual cortex would reorganize itself to process sound and touch.  Once you take the blindfolds off, the visual cortex will stop responding to tactile or auditory signals within twelve or twenty-four hours.

10.  The Sea Gypsies, Nomadic people who live in a cluster of tropical islands in the Burmese archipelago and spend most of their lives in boats on the open sea, can see clearly under water at great depths because they learn to control the shape of their lenses and the side of their pupils, constricting them 22%.  Most of us can’t do that, and pupil adjustment has been considered to be affixed, innate reflex.  However, in one study, Swedish children were able to learn the trick, and their brains responded to the training.

11.  London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus compared to bus drivers.  It’s because this region of the hippocampus is specialized in acquiring and using complex spatial information in order to navigate efficiently. Taxi drivers have to navigate around London whereas bus drivers follow a limited set of routes.

12.  Collaboration between Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dalai Lama explored the effects of meditation on the brain.  The researchers compared the trained minds of the monks and those of the volunteers.  The results showed much greater activation of powerful gamma waves in the monks than in the students during meditation.  Moreover, even when the participants were not meditating, the trained meditators’ brains showed a large increase in the gamma signal.  In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the meditators.  The intense gamma waves signaled higher mental activity and heightened awareness.

13.  Plastic changes also occur in musicians’ brains compared to non-musicians. Research shows that gray matter (cortex) volume is highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians in several brain areas involved in playing music: motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas and inferior temporal areas. There is also a dark side to neuroplasticity in musicians.  When a musician frequently uses two fingers together while playing the instrument, the brain maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse in such a way that the musician can’t move one finger without the other.  This is a condition called “focal dystonia.”  To play again, the musician’s brain maps have to be separated through special training.

14.  Learning to juggle can increase gray matter in the occipito-temporal cortex as early as after 7 days of training.

15.  Extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. Brains of medical students showed learning-induced changes in the parietal cortex and the posterior hippocampus – brain regions involved in memory retrieval and learning.


Begley, Sharon. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Ballantine Books.

Doidge, N. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York:Viking.

Davidson, R. J., J. Kabat-Zinn, J. Schumacher, M. Rosenkranz, D. Muller, S.F. Santorelli, F. Urbanowski, A. Harrington, K. Bonus, and J.F. Sheridan. 2003. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine. 65 (4):564–570.

Draganski, B., C. Gaser, G. Kempermann, H.G. Kuhn, J. Winkler, C. Buchel, and A. May. 2006. Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience. 26:6314–6317.

Gaser, C. and G. Schlaug. 2003. Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians. Journal of Neuroscience. 23:9240 – 9245.

Maguire, E.A., K. Woolett and H.J. Spiers. 2006. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 16:1091-1101.

Schwartz, J.M. and S. Begley. 2002. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Collins.

By | 2010-05-04T23:33:28+00:00 May 4th, 2010|Change|0 Comments

Rewire your brain to facilitate change

By nature, we don’t like change.  Our brains are wired to do lots of things on autopilot to conserve energy and resources.  This autopilot mechanism allows us to function in the world without being overwhelmed with the multitude of decisions we would have to make otherwise.   The downside is that the same mechanism interferes with our plans to build new habits by repeating and reinforcing our old behaviors.  The good news is that we can rewire our brains and change despite our natural propensity to maintain the status-quo.

Recent developments in the field of neuroscience shed light on how we can facilitate change.  Neuroscientists tell us now that the brain makes about 10,000 new cells ever day, and each cell makes around 10,000 connections to other brain cells over the successive period of four months.  We are continuously producing new brain cells and create new pathways in our brain.  The remarkable thing is that we can participate actively and consciously in the rewiring of our brains to produce healthier life habits. The brain’s ability to rewire itself is called neuroplasticity.   Depending on where we focus our attention, we are going to build different sets of connections and different pathways.  Our habits will develop accordingly.  (If you want to learn more about this amazing potential we all have, check out “The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley.)

Imagine that you are on a plane flying over a city at night.  You look down and see the city lights. They appear like a golden carpet, it’s a beautiful view.  As you look closer, you notice that some parts of the city are dark, and other parts are very well lit.  You can also identify big roads and highways by the lights that run alongside those roads. The whole infrastructure of the city is right there in front of your eyes.

Now, picture that the grooves in the brain are like those well-lit highways.  When certain information enters the brain, specific pathways are activated.  The pathways that light up a lot become our default routes that represent our familiar patterns of behavior.  For example, if we use food to relieve stress or negative emotions, after a while, it becomes our default behavior, and the hand goes for a cookie jar almost automatically.  If we want to change our behavior, we need to start creating new pathways in the brain and make them the new default through focused attention, consistency, and repetition.

What undesirable habits appear almost automatic in your life?
At which point do you decide to go down a familiar route of behavior?

Becoming more aware of your choices and actions is the first step to facilitating positive change and creating better alternatives.

By | 2010-05-04T23:22:02+00:00 May 4th, 2010|Change|0 Comments