Last Week’s Links

Writing Your Way to Happiness

Here’s a summary of scientific research suggesting that “the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”

Special Report: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story? The Magic of Narrative Medicine in the ED

The special report discusses how the use of storytelling in medicine, known as narrative medicine, helps physicians better serve patients.

The Year of Conquering Negative Thinking

Here’s a New Year’s challenge for the mind: Make this the year that you quiet all those negative thoughts swirling around your brain… . constant negativity can also get in the way of happiness, add to our stress and worry level and ultimately damage our health.

This article offers not only scientific research to back up its premise but practical steps you can take to deal effectively with your own negative thoughts.

3 Reasons You Don’t Need Experience to Write a Damn Good Story

The most common advice aspiring writers hear is “write what you know.” I’ve always been suspicious of this admonition, since I believe in the power of research. Here thriller writer Brad Taylor explains how to use research to write convincingly about topics you have no personal experience with.

Infant Brains Reveal How the Mind Gets Built

This article reports on recently published research into how the human brain develops, It’s a long but fascinating read.


© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

These are pieces from across the web that caught my eye this week.

How language is processed by your brain

An overview of how our brain processes language, with an emphasis on how learning a new language can help the brain grow.

Four Things To Do Outside The Office To Boost Your Creativity

Aimed at business professionals, this article explains why these four activities may boost creativity:

(1) taking a bath
(2) observing the details of the world around us
(3) working at a coffee shop (or in other surroundings with moderate background noise)
(4) walking

Syllabus: Using Poetry and Fiction to Encourage Experiments in Nonfiction

Writer Chelsea Hodson explains how books that blend or cross genre lines can help writers be more creative and experimental in their own writing. She discusses five books here.

The System I Used to Write 5 Books and Over 1,000 Blog Posts

journal_writingWell known writer Jeff Goins explains his three-step system for discovering ideas and developing them in writing:

(1) collect ideas
(2) write and save
(3) edit and publish

Experienced writers probably have their own ways of following these three steps, but Goins’s system may help beginning writers get a handle on the process.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

What I’ve Been Reading About Thinking & Knowing

Personality Can Change Over A Lifetime, And Usually For The Better

A good introduction to the concept of personality traits:

The world’s languages include many thousands of words for describing personality, but most of these can be organized in terms of the “Big Five” trait dimensions: extraversion (characterized by adjectives like outgoing, assertive and energetic vs. quiet and reserved); agreeableness (compassionate, respectful and trusting vs. uncaring and argumentative); conscientiousness (orderly, hard-working and responsible vs. disorganized and distractible); negative emotionality (prone to worry, sadness and mood swings vs. calm and emotionally resilient); and open-mindedness (intellectually curious, artistic and imaginative vs. disinterested in art, beauty and abstract ideas).

Christopher Soto, associate professor of psychology at Colby College and a member of the executive board of the Association for Research in Personality, reports on research suggesting that “personality traits are relatively stable over time, they can and often do gradually change across the life span. What’s more, those changes are usually for the better.”

Consciousness: The Mind Messing With the Mind

brain02If you’re ready for some heady reading, George Johnson looks at one of humankind’s age-old questions: How does the brain, a physical structure, give rise to consciousness, the sense of self that arises from our thoughts?

Monkeys know what they don’t know

Rhesus monkeys are aware of the limits of their knowledge, new research shows. According to scientists at Harvard and Yale, the monkeys realized when they didn’t know something and needed outside expertise.

An interesting look at metacognition, the ability to think about thinking.


Crowds aren’t as smart as we thought, since some people know more than others. A simple trick can find the ones you want.

George Musser writes, “In the 1990s, crowd wisdom became a pop-culture obsession, providing a rationale for wikis, crowdsourcing, prediction markets and popularity-based search algorithms.”

However, not every in a crowd has the same level of knowledge about a given subject. To find which of the individuals to rely on, Musser advocates applying metaknowledge, which he calls “a powerful bullshit detector”:

Metaknowledge means you are aware of what you know or don’t know, and of where your level of knowledge stands in relation to other people’s. That’s a useful measure of your value to the crowd, because knowledge and metaknowledge usually go together.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Articles That Caught My Eye Last Week

The Black Dog: 6 Books to Understand Depression

Jennie Yabroff acknowledges that “‘Depression’ remains a catch-all phrase to describe a variety of conditions ranging from the occasional bad day to paralyzing inertia”:

To truly understand the disease, and not just the treatment, you need to look to writers with sensitivity and compassion about the real nature of the self in despair, be they novelists or doctors, contemporary writers or playwrights dead for hundreds of years.

bell-jarShe recommends these books for help in understanding depression, a state commonly known as the black dog:

  • Ordinarily Well by Peter Kramer
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • Darkness Visible by William Styron
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
  • An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
These Instagrammers’ Bullet Journals are organizational masterpieces

The newest craze for keeping oneself organized is the Bullet Journal. Check out this article for examples of bullet journals as well as some links about how the system works.

Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

Despite our current dependence on keyboards, there are some definite cognitive benefits to learning cursive writing.

‘Pronoia’ and other emotions you never knew you had

Here’s an article about Tiffany Watt Smith, a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London:

[It’s] the subjective experience of emotions — that Smith explores in her charming new book, The Book of Human Emotions. It’s a roundup of 154 words from around the world that you could call an exploration of “emotional granularity,” as it provides language for some very specific emotions you likely never knew you had. “It’s a long-held idea that if you put a name to a feeling, it can help that feeling become less overwhelming,” she said. “All sorts of stuff that’s swirling around and feeling painful can start to feel a bit more manageable,” once you’ve pinned the feeling down and named it.

Doctors Say Your Word Choice Can Hugely Change Your Brain

Every word counts:

Be careful because the next word you say could determine how your day is, or the rest of your life might pan out. Doctors at Thomas Jefferson University explained that the choice of our words could actually have more impact on our lives than we actually think.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Recent Articles on Sleep, Memory, Learning, Brain Function, and Mind Wandering

Examining Sleep’s Roles in Memory and Learning

Go ahead and take that nap. New research suggests that sleep can improve both memory and creativity.

Getting smarter

Brain-training games won’t boost your IQ, but a host of strategies can improve your cognitive abilities one piece at a time

brain02Psychologist Jeffrey M. Zacks of Washington University in St. Louis looks at various popular methods advertised to improve cognitive functioning, including brain-training games, drugs, subliminal training programs, electrical stimulation

His conclusion: “Sadly, most of the rapid cognitive enhancers currently being peddled are not very effective.” However, he adds, there are a few approaches that can make us better at performing specific functions, such as remembering people’s names: “we can all think better in specific domains if we engage in focused practice, and be smarter, happier and healthier if we take care of ourselves.”

Jerome S. Bruner, Who Shaped Understanding of the Young Mind, Dies at 100

Jerome S. Bruner, whose theories about perception, child development and learning informed education policy for generations and helped launch the modern study of creative problem solving, known as the cognitive revolution, died on Sunday [June 5, 2016] at his home in Manhattan. He was 100.

In his later work, Bruner applied ideas about thinking, culture, and storytelling to understanding legal and cultural issues.

Why Do Our Minds Wander?

sometimes, even without going to sleep, we turn away from the world. We turn inward. We are contemplative or detached. We decouple ourselves from the environment and we are set free, as it were, to let our minds play themselves.

Philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, discusses the problems of studying when, why, and how our minds sometimes wander.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

I’m trying out something different this week. I have three blogs:

Because of these wide-ranging interests, I often end up with lots of open browser tabs containing quite a variety of materials.

Since sorting all these materials out for the individual blogs can be quite time-consuming, I’m going to try to streamline my blogging process by putting together a weekly list of all the interesting articles I come across and publishing the same post to all three of the blogs. Feel free to click on whichever links interest you and to ignore the rest.

Note: In compiling this initial list, I discovered that I’ve actually been holding many of these tabs open for two weeks. Therefore, this entry is longer than future ones will probably be.


Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life

While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on Ph.D.s [in their 60s], but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some … are headed for academic research or teaching positions.

This article caught my eye because I started working on a doctorate at age 57 and finally received my degree on my 63rd birthday. About 30 years earlier I had completed the course work but not the dissertation for a doctorate in English and American literature. My main motivation for returning to school was to fulfill a life-long dream of earning a Ph.D., but I also benefitted from being able to focus my studies on the particular area I was interested in (life stories).

You Can Go Home Again: The Transformative Joy Of Rereading

Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.

Juan Vidal explains why he rereads three books every year: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, and Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar.

Michael Kinsley’s ‘Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide’

Longevity breeds literature. As people (including writers) live longer thanks to medical advances, we can expect many more books contemplating the vicissitudes of aging, illness and dying. These topics, previously thought uncommercial, not to mention unsexy, have been eloquently explored recently by Diana Athill (“Somewhere Towards the End”), Roger Angell (“This Old Man”) and Christopher Hitchens (“Mortality”), among others. Now that the baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, “enter life’s last chapter,” Michael Kinsley writes, “there is going to be a tsunami of books about health issues by every boomer journalist who has any, which ultimately will be all of them.” Hoping to scoop the others, he has written “Old Age,” a short, witty “beginner’s guide,” with an appropriate blend of sincerity and opportunism.


Literature of the American South comprises more than just Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of William Faulkner. Here Emily Gatlin provides a class list of the full range of works that illustrate the Southern literary experience.

‘Literature about medicine may be all that can save us’

A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art

In telling the stories of illness, we need to tell the stories of the lives within which illness is embedded. Neither humanism nor medicine can explain much without the other, and so many people ricochet between two ways of describing their very being. This is in part because medicine has become so much harder to understand, with its designer molecules, bewildering toxins and digital cameras inserted into parts of ourselves we have never seen, nor wanted to see.

Telling the stories of illness has given rise to a movement known as “narrative medicine,” or, more broadly, “medical humanities.” We are seeing more and more memoirs by patients about their experiences of illness and by doctors about their attempts to understand their patients’ stories. Many of the books by physicians include their authors’ own experiences of being ill.

Books by physicians concerned about understanding patients’ stories of illness discussed here include the following:

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
What Doctors Feel by Danielle Ofri
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

The Best Music for Staying Productive at Work, Backed by Science

I always used to want complete quiet when reading or concentrating, but when I went back to school I discovered that certain types of music could help me focus. This article summarizes the research demonstrating how music can increase concentration and discusses which types of music work best for this purpose.

The best part of this article is the links to examples of music for focus in these categories: classical, electronic, video game soundtracks, ambient noise, and “everything else.”

Neuroscientists create ‘atlas’ showing how words are organised in the brain

Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.

Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.

Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement

After a career of working, scrimping and saving, many retirees are well prepared financially to stop earning a living. But how do you find meaning, identity and purpose in the remaining years of your life?


This excerpt from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik discusses the female detectives, real and literary, who preceded Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Psychology Round-Up

The Six Most Interesting Psychology Papers of 2015

See why Maria Konnikova chose these six papers to feature in The New Yorker:

(1) “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” from Science
(2) “What Works in Inpatient Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation?,” from Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
(3) “Best Friends and Better Coping: Facilitating Psychological Resilience Through Boys’ and Girls’ Closest Friendships,” from British Journal of Psychology
(4) “Nonpharmacological Treatments of Insomnia for Long-Term Painful Conditions,” from Sleep
(5) “A Mechanistic Link Between Olfaction and Autism Spectrum Disorder,” in Current Biology
(6) “Fibroblast Growth Factor 9 Is a Novel Modulator of Negative Affect,” from PNAS

Don’t let the titles scare you. Konnikova summarizes the importance of this research, which covers topics such as insomnia, traumatic brain injury, and depression.

Being happy won’t make you live longer, study finds

I’ve seen a lot of advice articles that maintain making yourself happy will help you live longer. But here’s a report on a new study that concludes ““happiness and related measures of well-being do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality.”

The brain’s miracle superpowers of self-improvement

Here’s a comprehensive look at the controversial concept of “neuroplasticity, which is what we call the brain’s ability to change itself in response to things that happen in our environment.”

Neuroplasticity has its evangelists, such as psychologist Ian Robertson:

neuroplasticity really is a remarkable thing. “What we do know is that almost everything we do, all our behaviour, thoughts and emotions, physically change our brains in a way that is underpinned by changes in brain chemistry or function,” says Robertson. “Neuroplasticity is a constant feature of the very essence of human behaviour.” This understanding of the brain’s power, he says, opens up new techniques for treating a potentially spectacular array of illnesses. “There’s virtually no disease or injury, I believe, where the potential doesn’t exist for very intelligent application of stimulation to the brain via behaviour, possibly combined with other stimulation.”

Yet other scientists warn that the results of neuroplasticity therapy may be less dramatic than they are often portrayed as:

It’s perhaps understandable why crazy levels of hope are raised when people read tales of apparently miraculous recovery from brain injury that feature people seeing again, hearing again, walking again and so on. These dramatic accounts can make it sound as if anything is possible. But what’s usually being described, in these instances, is a very specific form of neuroplasticity – functional reorganisation – which can happen only in certain circumstances. “The limits are partly architectural,” says Greg Downey. “Certain parts of the brain are better at doing certain kinds of thing, and part of that comes simply from where they are.”

Still, neuroplasticity has produced results in many areas for which there previously were only limited options. Read this article to learn how neuroplasticity works and what it can and cannot accomplish.

False Memories: How false memories are created and can affect our ability to recall events

Your memories of past events may not be as accurate as you think it is. This article discusses “how false memories are created, the impact of questioning, language and other factors on our recall and the real life consequences of false memories.”

Psychology Round-Up

Use Life Hacks to Minimize Bad Decisions

Financial planner Carl Richards discusses our cognitive biases:

A cognitive bias is a mistake we make because of a hole in our thinking. It’s a sort of mental blind spot; a lot of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it.

As an example of a cognitive bias, he uses his mother, who tends to forget things. One day she came to Richards’s house for a meal on her way home from buying groceries. She put her groceries in the refrigerator, then put her car keys into the refrigerator on the shelf next to her groceries. She explained that she couldn’t leave without her keys and having to get her keys from the refrigerator would remind her to take her groceries with her as well. She used a simple life hack to help overcome her cognitive bias of forgetfulness.

If we aren’t aware of our own cognitive biases, Richards suggests asking our spouse or partner: “Trust me — they know our biases.”

Once we’ve identified our cognitive biases, we can, like Richards’s mother, begin to take precautions to help us overcome those biases. That way we can avoid making the same mistake over and over again.

How different are your online and offline personalities?

“As the internet gained prominence in our lives, we gave up anonymity and also the desire to mask our real identity online,” writes Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. With ever larger portions of our time spent online, particularly in social networking, how much of our real self are we projecting online?

Before the internet, Chamorro-Premuzic writes, our identity, styles, and values were revealed mainly by our material possessions, “which psychologists described as our extended self.” However, today many of our valuable possessions have dematerialized into digital presentations such as communications, photos, videos, music, messages, and written words that are “largely invisible and immaterial until we choose to call them forth.”

Yet in psychological terms there is no difference between the meaning of these dematerialised digital artefacts and our physical possessions – they both help us express important aspects of our identity to others and these identity claims provide the core ingredients of our digital reputation. A great deal of scientific research has highlighted the portability of our analogue selves to the digital world. The common theme of these studies is that, although the internet may have provided an escapism from everyday life, it is mostly mimicking it.

Chamorro-Premuzic points out that research has revealed that, “although our digital identity may be fragmented, it seems clear that our various online personas are all digital breadcrumbs of the same persona; different symptoms of our same core self.” He concludes that developing algorithms for making sense of our online data might, in addition to producing targeted marketing tools, “also educate individuals about their own personality and perhaps even help them become smarter and happier consumers.”

Do you find this a comforting thought?

Male vs. female brain? Not a valid distinction, study says

How are men and women different? It’s an age-old question that modern science is still trying to answer. In this article Malcolm Ritter reports on recent research that suggests the brains of men and of women are not essentially different.

The research, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined MRI scans of more than 1,400 brains. Examinations focused on the anatomy of the brain rather than on how the brain works:

They scored variable traits like tissue thickness or volume in different parts of the brain. They focused on traits that showed the biggest sex differences, dividing the scores into a predominantly male zone, a predominantly female zone, and an intermediate range.

The result? “It was much more common for an individual to score in both the male and female zones than to show a lineup that indicated only one sex or the other.” In other words, human brains do not belong to one of two distinct categories, male or female.

However, Larry Cahill, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, who didn’t participate in the new study, points out that this research doesn’t rule out differences in how the brains of the two sexes work. There’s “a mountain of evidence proving the importance of sex influences at all levels of mammalian brain function,” he said.

On Writing

Soundfuel: Music You Can’t Write Without

Do you listen to music while you write? I don’t listen to what most people would think of as music, but I do use some tracks created to aid focus and concentration.

But if you’re looking for inspirational playlists to hook up with while working, Leah Kathryn probably has you covered. She’s a classical pianist and composer who writes historical fiction and fantasy. She’s created playlists specifically for writing horror, science fiction, westerns, steampunk, even Southern gothic.

Pump Down the Volume: On Writing With Background Music

On The Millions, Jacob Lambert admits that he listens to music while writing:

I’m listening to it because I’m writing — an activity that for me, in recent years, has demanded musical accompaniment. Far from being a background diversion — something to make kitchen chores a little less soul-killing — I’ve come to believe that the music I listen to while writing bears a definite, if ineffable, relationship to the words that wind up on the screen.

Lambert says that he used to write in silence but tried adding music after he read that Chuck Palahniuk had listened to Nine Inch Nails as he wrote Fight Club.

But when Lambert looked at research into the question of whether listening to music improves writing, he discovered that the consensus is that it does not. Most researchers think that music detracts from writing by increasing the brain’s cognitive load: part of your brain power that could be focusing on your writing is instead paying attention to the music.

This is precisely why I don’t listen to ordinary music while writing. I have tried it. But I found that if I listened to music that I know and love, my brain was always waiting for the best parts, paying more attention to the next movement (my music is classical) than to the next sentence or even the next word. When I tried listening to music I didn’t know, I simply listened to the music and did almost no writing. I like music, and it’s hard for me to turn it into mere background noise. This is why I stick to the brain wave stuff, which doesn’t engage my brain in the same way real music does.

But hey, that doesn’t mean that listening to music won’t work for you. Lambert’s solution was to turn the volume down low.


Here are some tips from The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (Cambridge University Press, 2015) by Yellowlees Douglas, associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida. Douglas teaches in the schools of business and medicine, whose students typically expect to analyze data and draw conclusions. They found other textbooks on writing frustrating and inadequate.

Douglas based her book on data from eye-tracking, EEG brain scans, and fMRI neuroimaging. The result is a text that tells students how to communicate information that they want readers to remember or to forget. Read the article to see why Douglas’s book offers these six tips for effective writing:

(1) Prime your readers.
(2) Use “recency” to your advantage.
(3) Disappoint without destroying good will.
(4) Bury bad news.
(5) Harness cause and effect.
(6) Don’t let passive voice drag you down.

The One Question Every Writer Has To Answer

The Write Practice focuses on the writing of fiction, but this tip calls itself important for all writers: “It doesn’t matter if you are writing memoir, fiction, non-fiction, or a screenplay, you have to answer this question.”

journal_writingThat question is “What is your writing about?” or, stated another way, “What are you trying to say?” But the real point here is that your answer must be one sentence, just one.

Pamela Hodges, the author of this piece, takes this idea from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. This book focuses on screenwriting, where the one-sentence summary is called a logline. In order to apply the same concept to all other types of writing as well, Hodges refers to the summary as a whatline.

Writing this whatline about your project has three advantages:

(1) Writing a one sentence summary of your writing piece will help you figure out what your story is about.
(2) If you know what your story is about before you start writing it, you hopefully won’t get lost in the telling of the story.
(3) Your reader will appreciate the focused intent of your writing.

Give this method a try on your next writing project. I’ve adopted it for myself. Yes, it’s a hard task, but once you’ve done it and figured out exactly what you’re writing about, you’ve made the rest of the work a lot easier. I liken this process to the writing of a research proposal for a doctoral dissertation: If you do most of the heavy work in the proposal, you’re about 2/3 of the way through the project. Once you’ve figured out what to do and how to do it, which you do in the proposal, carrying out the research and writing up the results, which you do in the dissertation, is relatively easy.

So take the time to write your one-sentence summary. You’ll be glad you did.