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What makes an extrovert?

Do you ever why some people seem naturally adventurous and outgoing, while others prefer their own company and a quiet night in?

The term ‘extrovert’ was coined by psychologist Carl Jung at the beginning of the twentieth century and we now know that where we sit on the introvert–extrovert spectrum is dictated by the way our brains respond to the world.

Studies using brain scans and genetic profiling suggest that this aspect of our personality is, at least in part, governed by genetics and how our brains process rewards. The studies indicate that when a gamble pays off extroverts show a stronger response in two crucial brain regions: the amygdala (known for processing emotional stimuli) and the nucleus accumbens (a key part of the brain’s reward circuitry and part of the dopamine system).

This reaction in areas of the brain relating to reward, learning and responses to novelty explains why extroverts are more likely to enjoy higher risk, more adventurous activities and social challenges like meeting new people. A heightened sensitivity to rewards, resulting from their reactive dopamine system means that extroverts also learn differently.

So whether you’re a carousing risk taker, lone wolf, or somewhere in between, the genes controlling your dopamine function play a crucial role in defining your personality.

Learn more about your personality in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Making stress your friend

Over the past ten years, Mindapples has delivered a LOT of workshops on how to deal with stress. In all those workshops, we’ve found one of the most important myths to debunk is the idea that a little bit of stress is good for you. Instead, we prefer the term “pressure”, to describe the effect of deadlines and challenges on getting us motivated and helping us focus, and we use “stress” in the medical and legal sense: the point where the pressure gets too much and harms your health and performance.

For a completely different perspective on stress, though, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s recent TED talk argues we need to change how we view stress.

Although stress is bad for our health in the long term, recent research seems to suggest that worrying about stress is even worse. If we can change our mindset about stress and see it as a natural part of life, we may find it easier to handle it, and even live longer.

Of course, no-one is arguing that stress is a positive thing, but mindset seems to matter. If you can’t avoid stress, then at the very least try not to get stressed about feeling stressed.

See what you think. Watch Kelly’s talk here.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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An introduction to mirror neurons

Empathy is a fundamentally human trait. We’re a highly social species, connecting and learning from one other by reading and copying facial expressions and movements.

Recent studies in neuroscience have shed further light on these interactions, revealing that when we watch someone doing something, cells in our brain fire in the same way as if we were doing it ourselves.  A set of brain cells found on either side of our head, known as mirror neurons, are fundamental to this process. We learn by looking and copying, which means when we see someone doing an action, we can learn how to do it too by imagining and sharing their experience.

Research also suggests that these neurons also enable us to mirror other people’s feelings and connect emotionally by sending messages to the emotional or limbic part of the brain, so it seems mirror neurons are key not only to how we learn, but also how we experience the world around us and build good relationships with others.

Want more? Here’s a great PBS video introduction to mirror neurons.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Why it’s OK to make mistakes

When you approach a new task are you focused on getting it right, or getting better?

Many of us approach new challenges with a fear of making mistakes. Rather than taking on a new task with confidence and energy we’re held back by our “be good” mindset and the need to prove how clever we are.

In fact studies show that when we feel we’re allowed to make mistakes we are actually significantly less likely to make them. This is where the “get better” mindset comes into its own. Focusing on learning and developing our skills and accepting that we may make mistakes along the way means we are more likely to stay motivated, even in the face of challenges and setbacks.

The “be good” mindset can be a source of frustration and anxiety – we worry about making mistakes because mistakes suggest we lack ability. This in turn undermines our performance by compromising our working memory and disrupting the cognitive processes we rely on for creative and analytical thinking. Focusing too much on doing things perfectly prevents us from engaging in the exploratory thinking and behaviour that create new knowledge and innovation.

If this sounds all too familiar, Dr Heidi Grant Halvorsan of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center suggests three steps to help change your mindset:

  1. Begin a new project by acknowledging what is difficult and unfamiliar, and accepting that you will need some time to really get a handle on it. You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.  That’s how ability works – it develops.
  2. Reach out to others when you run into trouble. Too often, we hide our mistakes, rather than sharing them with those who could give us guidance.  Mistakes don’t make you look foolish – but acting like you are a born expert on everything certainly will.
  3. Try not to compare your own performance to other people. Instead, compare your performance today to your performance last week, last month, or last year. You may make mistakes, you may not be perfect, but are you improving?

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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Productivity tips from the pros

If you’re struggling to get things done, there are lots of tips from psychology professionals to boost your productivity. Psychology Today collected some of the best a few years ago, and we’ve been trying them out at Mindapples and with our corporate clients.

Here are our favourites:

  1. Avoid multitasking. Block out time when you avoid all other tasks, and remember to put your phone and email away.
  2. Plan regular exercise breaks (even walking helps), to refresh your mind and boost your creativity.
  3. Rather than allocating a fixed amount of time to a task, break it down into doable chunks and then work until that chunk is done.
  4. Free up mental space by making a plan to deal with unresolved issues, to help you focus on the task at hand.
  5. Do things badly. Getting started is often the hardest part when it comes to tackling a task. Doing a first version without worrying about the quality gets the ball rolling and you can work on improving it later.
  6. Be realistic. We often overestimate how much we can get done. Identify one important task and make that your non-negotiable goal for the day.

Productivity is a subjective business though, about learning what helps you stay fresh, and which tasks you find easiest to do. The more you get to know your mind, the easier you’ll find it to work in a way that works for you.

Learn more about how to be productive in our latest book, The Mind Manual, and our award-winning guide to managing your mind at work, A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.

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How to be happy

Mindapples doesn’t write much about happiness (there are plenty of fine organisations around doing that); instead we focus on mental health, feeling at home in your head, and accepting whatever feelings you have.

Wanting to be happier is a perfectly good goal though, and most of the things positive psychologists and happiness campaigners advocate can be a part of a mentally healthy lifestyle. In our latest book, The Mind Manual, we even featured a whole chapter on ‘How to be happy’, reviewing the psychology of happiness and how to apply it to our lives.

One of the best resources we found was that the British Psychological Society has compiled a ‘guide to happiness’, filled with experimentally-validated tips for being happier. It’s always a little strange to read scientific guides to things that are as subjective and philosophically complex as ‘happiness’ – after all, the pursuit of happiness is more than simple biochemistry – but there are some interesting findings in the piece.

Please do read it for yourself if you have time, but here are a few of our favourites:

  • We’re happier when we’re busy. Although our natural inclination might be to chill out, finding things you love doing is a great recipe for a happy life.
  • Sharing good news helps. Be careful not to brag or make other people feel bad by comparison, but finding people to share your joys makes the joys sweeter.
  • Don’t imagine everyone else is happy. Looking around the world, and particularly the internet, it can feel like everyone else has it made – but in fact they probably feel just as up-and-down as you do.
  • Little and often is the best way. Small, frequent daily mood boosters – mindapples, if you like – help more than big life changes or audacious goals.
  • We’re resilient to happiness – but also unhappiness. The same things that make it hard to stay permanently cheerful also make it hard to stay permanently sad.

Happiness means different things to everyone though, so don’t aspire to feel “the right way”. Instead, notice the times when you feel good, think about what you’re doing in those times, and try to do a bit more of them. Happiness isn’t an end-state to be reached; it’s a habit to be practiced.

Learn more about how to be happy and healthy in our illustrated guides to the mind, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.