How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Animated Introduction

We hear the mantra of “self-care” in ever-widening circles, a concept both derided and celebrated as a “millennial obsession,” with the acknowledgment—at least in this NPR think piece— that self-care was central to the philosophies of antiquity, from Aristotle to the Stoics.

In philosophy, self-care exists as a set of ethics. The reasons for this may often be couched in high-minded discussions of civics, sexual politics, and existential self-actualization. These days, doctors and researchers are making urgent appeals for our mental and physical health, and the science of stress is an unsurprisingly rich field of investigation at the moment.




It’s hard to overstate the negative effects of stress on the body over time. Increased stress hormones have been linked in study after study to overeating and obesity, lowered immune response, drug use and addiction, memory impairment, heart disease, and many other debilitating and life-threatening conditions. “The long-term activation of the stress-response system,” writes the Mayo Clinic, “and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones—can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” (The video below makes this harrowing point with some helpful, animated comic relief.)

When we experience chronic stress, it raises our blood pressure and affects our cardiovascular system, increasing the chances of heart attack or stroke. The even worse news—reports the TED-Ed video at the top of the post—is that chronic stress weakens our ability to make sound decisions about our well-being, by changing the size, structure, and function of our brain.

We’re familiar with the symptoms of chronic stress: “sleeping restlessly,” becoming “irritable or moody,” “forgetting little things,” and “feeling overwhelmed and isolated.” Continuous stress, from our work lives, home lives, social and political lives, can cause shrinking in parts of the brain responsible for memory, spatial recognition… and stress regulation.

Research shows that high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones can cause shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making. Stress can inhibit neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to adapt to new circumstances—and neurogenesis: the ability to produce new brain cells.

Conversely, stress increases the size of the amygdala, which activates fight-or-flight responses, which in turn increase the strain on our heart and blood vessels.

All of these effects can set the stage in later life for major depression, forms of cognitive decline and dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Most unsettlingly, as the video notes, these effects can be passed down to the next generation, furthering the cycle of chronic stress in our children and theirs. Persistent stress “filters down” to DNA, making it genetically inheritable.

Given the incredible amount of stress most people seem to be under, this science can seem like a diagnosis of doom. We all know that chronic stressors assail us all day long, without asking whether we want them in our lives or not. An increasing amount of our daily stress, I’d hypothesize, may indeed come from the growing realization of how little control we have over many stressful situations.

But the TED explainer ends with good news, and it’s been there all along—we can find it in the ancient Greeks, in Buddhist practices, and many other traditions, both active and contemplative. We can control our responses to stress, and thus reverse and modulate the effects of cortisol on our system. The best, proven, ways to do so are through exercise and meditation (and, I'd add, good nutrition).

These activities will not eradicate the conditions of inequality, injustice, or instability that stress us all out—a great many of us more than others. But practicing “self-care” inasmuch as we are able with stress-relieving disciplines and practices will better equip us to respond to the state of the world and the state of our lives by interrupting the biological mechanisms that, over time, make things much worse. Find some helpful resources below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Dr. Weil’s 60-Second Technique for Falling Asleep

Give Dr. Andrew Weil three minutes, and he can teach you a 60-second technique for falling asleep. Above, the alternative medicine guru walks you through the 4-7-8 breathing method. As he demonstrates, it "takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere." And once you master it, you can use the 4-7-8 breathing technique (explained and demonstrated in greater detail here ) to lower your anxiety levels (useful these days!), navigate tension-filled moments, and deal with food cravings.

Elsewhere, Weil has said, "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly." Hence why he created an audio recording, Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, which you can still purchase online.

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via The Ladders

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What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Wikimedia Commons Image by the U.S. Navy

The benefit, nay necessity, of physical exercise is undeniable. The medical community has identified sedentary lifestyles as an epidemic, sometimes called “sitting disease” (or as people like to say, “sitting is the new smoking”). Prolonged sitting has been established as a cause of all sorts of chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Combine this problem with the steady stream of processed foods in more and more diets and we have a full-blown public health crisis on our hands that requires some serious intervention on the part of doctors, dieticians, physical therapists, and scientists.

And as more and more researchers are finding out, a poor diet and lack of exercise can also have seriously harmful effects on the brain. Conversely, as a recent University of California study shows, exercise boosts brain function; it “enhances learning and memory, improves executive function” and “counteracts… mental decline.” To put the theory of enhanced learning to the test, researchers have conducted several experiments and found that physical activity can improve the ability to learn new things at nearly any age.

Studies have “found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure,” reports The New York Times, and kids who exercise before math and reading tests show consistently higher scores than their sedentary peers. Likewise, a study conducted with college students in Ireland found that participants performed significantly better on memory tests after 30 minutes of cycling. One likely explanation is that exercise increases the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor), a protein that promotes nerve health. And in a new paper published by researchers from Italy, China, and Thailand, we find that that exercise can specifically improve the ability to learn new languages.

The study tested 40 college-age Chinese students who are learning English. One group remained sedentary, while another rode exercise bikes at a moderate pace both before and during study sessions. The students who biked performed better on 8 separate vocabulary tests and were better able to recognize correct English sentences. These results are similar to those of a recent German study which found that a group of young women riding exercise bikes, at slow and moderate paces, performed much better on vocabulary tests than another group who didn’t exercise.




Though The New York Times points to a different study with contrasting results, the evidence seems largely on the side of exercise-enhances-learning proponents. “In recent years,” the Times notes, “a wealth of studies in both animals and people have shown that we learn differently if we also exercise.” You’ll find many of those studies summarized at the BBC, The Guardian, and elsewhere, along with several possible explanations for the phenomenon. Psychologist Justin Rhodes notes that “aerobic exercise can actually reverse hippocampal shrinkage,” increasing gray matter in an area of the brain associated with memory and emotion. His contention is backed by recent research on mice and humans.

In any case, although it appears that more vigorous exercises like cycling and running create the most improvement, taking a brisk walk before a class or study session can also help with retention and alertness. Whatever kind of exercise one does, a simple “take-home message,” says one researcher, “may be that instruction should be flanked by physical activity. Sitting for hours and hours without moving is not the best way to learn.” Having trouble getting motivated to run or bike before you study for that math test or start a new language course? Take some advice from Harvard Medical School on how to start slowly, find something you like doing, and turn everyday activities into exercise.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

10 Longevity Tips from Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, Japan’s 105-Year-Old Longevity Expert

Photo by Karsten Thormaehlen, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Browning’s poem “Abt Vogler” imagines composer Georg Joseph Vogler as an old man reflecting on his diminishing powers and the likelihood that his life’s work would not survive in the public’s memory.

Let us overlook the fact that Vogler was 65 when he died, or that Browning, who lived to 77, was 52 when he composed the poem.

What’s most striking these days is its significance to longevity expert, physician, and chairman emeritus of St. Luke’s International University, Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, who passed away last month at the age of 105:

My father used to read it to me. It encourages us to make big art, not small scribbles. It says to try to draw a circle so huge that there is no way we can finish it while we are alive. All we see is an arch; the rest is beyond our vision but it is there in the distance.

Like many centenarians, Dr. Hinohara attributed his longevity to certain practices, backing it up with numerous books on the topic (including Living Long, Living Good).

He touched on some of these beliefs in a 2009 Japan Times interview with Judit Kawaguchi, from which the following pointers are drawn.

Ten Tips For a Healthy Old Age from Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara

Eat to Live Don’t Live to Eat

As far as Clint Eastwood, Sister Wendy Beckett and Fred Rogers are concerned, Dr. Hinohara was preaching to the choir. Your average Italian great grandmother would be appalled.

For breakfast I drink coffee, a glass of milk and some orange juice with a tablespoon of olive oil in it. Olive oil is great for the arteries and keeps my skin healthy. Lunch is milk and a few cookies, or nothing when I am too busy to eat. I never get hungry because I focus on my work. Dinner is veggies, a bit of fish and rice, and, twice a week, 100 grams of lean meat.

Keep on Truckin’…

Nor was Dr. Hinohara a sit-around-the-piazza-drinking-limoncello-with-his-cronies kind of guy. For him a vigorously plotted out calendar was synonymous with a vigorous old age:

Always plan ahead. My schedule book is already full … with lectures and my usual hospital work.

Mother Was Wrong...

...at least when it comes to bedtime and the importance of consuming three square meals a day. Disco naps and bottled water all around!

We all remember how as children, when we were having fun, we often forgot to eat or sleep. I believe that we can keep that attitude as adults, too. It’s best not to tire the body with too many rules such as lunchtime and bedtime.

To Hell with Obscurity!

You may not be able to pull in the same crowds as a man whose career spans founding a world class hospital in the rubble of post WWII Tokyo and treating the victims of the radical Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas subway attack, but you can still share your ideas with those younger than you. If nothing else, experience will be on your side:

 Share what you know. I give 150 lectures a year, some for 100 elementary-school children, others for 4,500 business people. I usually speak for 60 to 90 minutes, standing, to stay strong.

Don’t Slack on Everyday Physical Activity

Dr. Hinohara schlepped his own bags and turned his back on such modern conveniences as elevators and escalators:

I take two stairs at a time, to get my muscles moving.

Having Fun Is Better Than Tylenol (Or Bitching About It)

Rather than turning off young friends and relatives with a constant litany of physical complaints, Dr. Hinohara sought to emulate the child who forgets his toothache through the diversion of play. And yes, this was his medical opinion:

Hospitals must cater to the basic need of patients: We all want to have fun. At St. Luke’s we have music and animal therapies, and art classes.

Think Twice Before You Go Under the Knife

Not willing to put all your trust into music therapy working out for you? Consider your age and how a side dish of surgery or radiation might impact your all over enjoyment of life before agreeing to radical procedures. Especially if you are one of those aforementioned sit-around-the-piazza-drinking-limoncello-with-your-cronies type of guys.

When a doctor recommends you take a test or have some surgery, ask whether the doctor would suggest that his or her spouse or children go through such a procedure. Contrary to popular belief, doctors can’t cure everyone. So why cause unnecessary pain with surgery? 

Divest of Material Burdens

Best selling author and professional organizer, Marie Kondo, would approve of her countryman’s views on “stuff”:

Remember: You don’t know when your number is up, and you can’t take it with you to the next place.

Pick a Role Model You Can Be Worthy Of

It need not be someone famous. Dr. Hinohara revered his dad, who introduced him to his favorite poem and traveled halfway across the world to enroll at Duke University as a young man.

Later I found a few more life guides, and when I am stuck, I ask myself how they would deal with the problem.

Find a Poem That Speaks to You and Let It Guide You

The good doctor didn’t recommend this course of action in so many words, but you could do worse than to follow his example. Pick a long one. Reread it frequently. For added neurological oomph, memorize a few lines every day. Bedazzle people half your age with an off-book recitation at your next family gathering. (It’ll distract you from all that turkey and stuffing.)

“Abt Vogler"

Would that the structure brave, the manifold music I build,
Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to their work,
Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch, as when Solomon willed
Armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk,
Man, brute, reptile, fly,—alien of end and of aim,
Adverse, each from the other heaven-high, hell-deep removed,—
Should rush into sight at once as he named the ineffable Name,
And pile him a palace straight, to pleasure the princess he loved!
Would it might tarry like his, the beautiful building of mine,
This which my keys in a crowd pressed and importuned to raise!
Ah, one and all, how they helped, would dispart now and now combine,
Zealous to hasten the work, heighten their master his praise!
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to hell,
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things,
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace well,
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs.
And another would mount and march, like the excellent minion he was,
Ay, another and yet another, one crowd but with many a crest,
Raising my rampired walls of gold as transparent as glass,
Eager to do and die, yield each his place to the rest:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire,
When a great illumination surprises a festal night—
Outlining round and round Rome's dome from space to spire)
Up, the pinnacled glory reached, and the pride of my soul was in sight.
In sight? Not half! for it seemed, it was certain, to match man's birth,
Nature in turn conceived, obeying an impulse as I;
And the emulous heaven yearned down, made effort to reach the earth,
As the earth had done her best, in my passion, to scale the sky:
Novel splendours burst forth, grew familiar and dwelt with mine,
Not a point nor peak but found and fixed its wandering star;
Meteor-moons, balls of blaze: and they did not pale nor pine,
For earth had attained to heaven, there was no more near nor far.
Nay more; for there wanted not who walked in the glare and glow,
Presences plain in the place; or, fresh from the Protoplast,
Furnished for ages to come, when a kindlier wind should blow,
Lured now to begin and live, in a house to their liking at last;
Or else the wonderful Dead who have passed through the body and gone,
But were back once more to breathe in an old world worth their new:
What never had been, was now; what was, as it shall be anon;
And what is,—shall I say, matched both? for I was made perfect too.
All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—
But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,
Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is nought;
It is everywhere in the world—loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought:
And, there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!
Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared;
Gone! and the good tears start, the praises that come too slow;
For one is assured at first, one scarce can say that he feared,
That he even gave it a thought, the gone thing was to go.
Never to be again! But many more of the kind
As good, nay, better, perchance: is this your comfort to me?
To me, who must be saved because I cling with my mind
To the same, same self, same love, same God: ay, what was, shall be.
Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by.
And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonized?
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence?
Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear,
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason and welcome; 'tis we musicians know.
Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:
I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.
Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,
Sliding by semitones till I sink to the minor,—yes,
And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,
The C Major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.

- Robert Browning

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Graphic Shows the House Plants That Naturally Clean the Air in Your Home, According to a NASA Study

This is a quick public service announcement. If you believe in science and facts, read on.

Back in the 1980s, NASA published a research report called "Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement" that grappled with a particular problem: Many modern buildings (particularly office buildings) have become so well insulated and hermetically sealed that they allow for little "free air exchange." As a result, toxins build up in these buildings (for example, from the off gassing of furniture) and the inhabitants eventually pay a price.




In response, NASA looked for natural ways to clean up these sealed spaces (like the International Space Station), particularly by availing themselves of the natural air filtering properties of everyday house plants:

In this study the leaves, roots, soil, and associated microorganisms of plants have been evaluated as a possible means of reducing indoor air pollutants. Additionally, a novel approach of using plant systems for removing high concentrations of indoor air pollutants such as cigarette smoke, organic solvents, and possibly radon has been designed from this work. This air filter design combines plants with an activated carbon filter as shown in Figure 1. The rationale for this design, which evolved from wastewater treatment studies, is based on moving large volumes of contaminated air through an activated carbon bed where smoke, organic chemicals, pathogenic microorganisms (if present), and possibly radon are absorbed by the carbon filter. Plant roots and their associated microorganisms then destroy the pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and the organic chemicals, eventually converting all of these air pollutants into new plant tissue.(31"37) It is believed that the decayed radon products would be taken up by the plant roots and retained in the plant tissue.

You can read the rest of the study here. And, above, find a graphic (created by LovetheGarden) that visualizes the results of the NASA study, showing which particular plants will reduce air pollution in your office and home.

For good measure, we've also added below a short video where researcher Kamal Meattle "shows how an arrangement of three common houseplants, used in specific spots in a home or office building, can result in measurably cleaner indoor air."

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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240 Hours of Relaxing, Sleep-Inducing Sounds from Sci-Fi Video Games: From Blade Runner to Star Wars

Need to put a little geek in your sleep? We've got just what you need...

Back in 2009, the musician dubbed Cheesy Nirvosa" began experimenting with ambient music, before launching a YouTube channel where he "composes longform space and scifi ambience," much of it designed to help you relax, or ideally fall asleep. He calls the videos "ambient geek sleep aids."

You can sample his work with the playlist above. Called "Video Game Relaxation Sounds," the playlist features "long relaxing soundscapes from video games." Sci-fi video games, to be precise. The playlist gives you access to 21 soundscapes, running more than 240 hours in total. Lull yourself to sleep, for example, with ambient sounds from the 1997 Blade Runner video game, a "sidequel" to the Ridley Scott film. Or de-stress with this ambient noise produced by the A/SF-01 B-Wing Starfighter. It's taken from this 2001 Star Wars game created by LucasArts.

Stream the playlist above. And hope you enjoy dreaming of electric sheep.

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I’m Just a Pill: A Schoolhouse Rock Classic Gets Reimagined to Defend Reproductive Rights in 2017

Like many American children of the 70s and 80s, my understanding of how our government is supposed to function was shaped by Schoolhouse Rock.

Immigration, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers and of course, the promise of the Constitution (“a list of principles for keepin’ people free”) were just a few of the topics the animated musical series covered with clarity and wit.

The new world order in which we’ve recently found ourselves suggests that 2017 would be a grand year to start rolling out more such videos.

The Lady Parts Justice League, a self-declared “cabal of comics and writers exposing creeps hellbent on destroying access to birth control and abortion” leads the charge with the above homage to Schoolhouse Rock's 1976 hit, “I’m Just a Bill,” recasting the original’s glum aspirant law as a feisty Plan B contraceptive pill. The red haired boy who kept the bill company on the steps of the Capital is now a teenage girl, confused as to how any legal, over-the-counter method for reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy could have so many enemies.

As with the original series, the prime objective is to educate, and comic Lea DeLaria’s Pill happily obliges, explaining that while people may disagree as to when “life” begins, it’s a scientific fact that pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg lodges itself in the uterus. (DeLaria plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, by the way.) That process takes a while---72 hours to be exact. Plenty of time for the participants to scuttle off to the drugstore for emergency contraception, aka Plan B, the so called "morning-after" pill.

As per the drug’s website, if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, Plan B  can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 89%. Taken within 24 hours, it is about 95% effective.

And yes, teenagers can legally purchase it, though Teen Vogue has reported on numerous stores who’ve made it difficult, if not impossible, for shoppers to gain access to the pill.

(The Reproductive Justice Project encourages consumers to help them collect data on whether Plan B is correctly displayed on the shelves as available for sale to any woman of childbearing age.)

There’s a helpful football analogy for those who may be a bit slow in understanding that Plan B is indeed a bonafide contraceptive, and not the abortifacient some mistakenly make it out to be. It’s NSFW, but only just, as a team of cartoon penis-outlines push down the field toward the uterine wall in the end zone.

The other bills who once stood in line awaiting the president’s signature have been reimagined as sperm, while songwriter Holly Miranda pays tribute to Dave Frishberg’s lyrics with a pizzazz worthy of the original:

I’m just a pill

A helpful birth control pill

No matter what they say on Capital Hill

So now you know my truth

I’m all about prevention

If your condom breaks

I’m here for intervention

Join me take a stand today

I really hope and pray that you will

Drop some facts

Tell the world

I’m a pill.

Let's hope the resistance yields more catchy, educational animations!

And here, for comparison's sake, is the magnificent original:

Via BUST Magazine

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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