TIME psychology

What Are the Three Ways to Train Your Brain to Be Happy?

Happy brain
Derek Bacon—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

You can train your mind to be unhappy and you can train it to be happy.

Training your mind to look for errors and problems (as happens in careers like accounting and law) can lead you toward a pervasive pessimism that carries over into your personal life.

Via One Day University Presents: Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness (Harvard’s Most Popular Course):

I discovered the tax auditors who are the most successful sometimes are the ones that for eight to 14 hours a day were looking at tax forms, looking for mistakes and errors. This makes them very good at their job, but when they started leading their teams or they went home to their spouse at night, they would be seeing all the lists of mistakes and errors that were around them. Two of them told me they came home with a list of the errors and mistakes that their wife was making.

Why are lawyers 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to end up divorced?

Martin Seligman, psychology professor at UPenn and author of Authentic Happiness, explains they have trained their minds to seek out the bad in life because pessimists excel at law:

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

Is there a way to get your mind out of these negative loops? Yes.

Here’s how.

Three Blessings

You must teach your brain to seek out the good things in life. Research shows merely listing three things you are thankful for each day can make a big difference.

Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”). Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?”

This technique has been proven again and again and again. One of the reasons old people are happier is because they remember the good and forget the bad.

Social Comparison

People probably encourage you to not compare yourself to others. Research shows it’s not necessarily harmful — but only compare yourself to those worse off than you:

“Generally if people compare themselves to those who are worse off, they’re going to feel better,” continues Bauer, now a research associate at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and a clinical psychologist at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Associates of Toronto. “When they compare themselves to people who are better off, it can make them feel worse.”

Tell Yourself the Right Stories

When your vision of your life story is inadequate, depression can result. Psychotherapists actually help “rewrite” that story and this process is as, if not more, effective than medication.

Via The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems from an “incoherent story,” an “inadequate narrative account of oneself,” or “a life story gone awry.” Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. And it works.

“Retrospective judgment” means reevaluating events and putting a positive spin on them. Naturally happy people do it automatically, but it’s something you can teach yourself.

Via Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth:

Lyubomirsky showed that happy people naturally reinterpret events so that they preserve their self-esteem.

Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, has talked about how the process of “story-editing” can help us improve our lives:

we prompted students to reinterpret their academic problems from a belief that they couldn’t cut it in college to the view that they simply needed to learn the ropes. The students who got this prompt—compared to a control group that didn’t—got better grades the next year and were less likely to drop out.

And when it comes to the future, be optimistic. Optimism can make you happier.

So, to sum up:

Count your blessings

Only compare yourself to those worse off than you

Tell yourself a positive story about the challenges in your life

What else can make you happier? The things proven to help are here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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Related posts:

Can one word sum up everything you need to do to be happier?

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

Here are the things that are proven to make you happier

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Aging

How Moodiness and Jealousy May Lead to Alzheimer’s

Researchers say certain personality traits, like jealousy, worry, anxiety and anger, can double a woman’s chances of developing Alzheimer’s

We’re familiar with many of the brain-related factors that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease—letting thinking networks go inactive, putting off exercise and healthy eating, having few social connections, enduring head injuries and genetic factors. But what about personality? Can the way you look at the world affect your risk of developing the neurodegenerative disorder?

Dr. Ingmar Skoog, professor of psychiatry and director of the research center on health and aging at the University of Gothenburg believes the answer is yes. In a paper published in the journal Neurology, he and his colleagues show that women with certain personality characteristics in middle age were twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s nearly 40 years later.

MORE: New Research on Understanding Alzheimer’s

“Getting Alzheimer’s disease is some sort of sum of a lot of different damages to the brain, and different things happening to the brain,” he says. “[Personality] is one of them.”

Specifically, a suite of features linked to what mental health experts call neuroticism showed the strongest connection to Alzheimer’s. Skoog and his colleagues tapped into a database of health information involving 800 women who were 38 years to 54 years old in 1968, when they filled in personality questionnaires and agreed to come in periodically to evaluate their cognitive functions. The personality evaluation placed women on a spectrum of neuroticism and extraversion; those showing more neuroticism included women who reacted more emotionally to events and experiences, worried more, showed lower self esteem and were more likely to express jealousy, guilt and anger. Those who were more extroverted showed high levels of trust, gregariousness and fewer emotional peaks and valleys.

MORE: New Insight On Alzheimer’s: What Increases Your Risk

At each of the four follow ups over the next 38 years, the women reported their stress levels—and women with higher neuroticism scores consistently showed higher levels of stress than those with lower scores.

Skoog believes that stress is the linchpin between the personality traits and Alzheimer’s dementia; previous studies have connected stress to dementia, and he says that the neuroticism characteristics are highly correlated to stress. “It seems like the personality factor makes people more easily stressed, and if people are more easily stressed, then they have an increased risk of dementia,” he says.

What’s more, when he controlled for the effect of stress, the association between neuroticism and Alzheimer’s disappeared, strengthening the idea that personality may lay a foundation for being more vulnerable to the effects of stress. Higher stress, particularly if it’s persistent as it is with certain personalities, can bathe the brain in hormones like cortisol. Those can damage blood vessels and cells in the brain that can then make Alzheimer’s more likely.

MORE: Scientists Are Getting Closer to a Blood Test for Alzheimer’s

The results hint that people can lower their risk of Alzheimer’s not just by keeping the brain active and improving social connections, as earlier work suggests, but by addressing stress-related personality factors as well. That, however, may require being aware of your later Alzheimer’s risk as early as during childhood, when personalities are forming. “Personality is something that occurs early in life, but you may be able to do something about it,” says Skoog. Especially when it comes to stress and how people respond to stress, interventions such as psychotherapy, for example, can help people to cope in healthier and less harmful ways.

He doesn’t believe that addressing stress and traits like jealousy and worry alone will protect a person from developing Alzheimer’s, but, he says, “it’s important to try to find as many factors as you can that contribute to common disorders. The more factors we can do something about, the more we can reduce risk quite substantially.”

TIME Developmental Disorders

How Brain Waves May Be the Clue to Diagnosing Autism

Unique EEG fingerprints reveal how autistic brains process sights and sounds

Diagnosing autism as early as possible, even before the first noticeable symptoms of social and developmental delays emerge, is becoming a critical strategy for reducing the condition’s most severe symptoms. Experts have long known that children with autism process sensory information – sights and sounds in particular – in different ways than unaffected children.

In a new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Sophie Molholm, from the departments of pediatric and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, proposes that those differences may lay the foundation for social and communication deficits in some children later on.

Molholm and her team took electroencephalogram (EEG) readings from more than 40 children aged six years to 17 years diagnosed with autism and compared their patterns to those of unaffected children of similar age and other characteristics. All children were given either a flash cue, a beep cue or a combination of both, and asked to press a button when these stimuli occurred. A cap with 70 sensors picked up the children’s brain responses every two milliseconds during these tasks, including those that recorded how the brain first processed the sensory information.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

The children with autism showed a distinctly different brain wave signature from those without the condition. Specifically, the signals in those with autism showed differences in the speed in which the sights or sounds were processed, and in how the sensory neurons recruited neighbors in more far-flung areas of the brain to register and make sense of the information. And the more abnormal this multi-processing was, the more severe the child’s autistic symptoms. “By developing this tool in the older cohort of children we can then figure out which ones are the most promising and then go test them in younger children,” says Molholm.

It’s also possible that because the children she studied were older, the differences in their EEG patterns were the result of autism, rather than a sign of changes that precede the disorder. But, she says, “If you ask me to make an educated guess, I would say these are part of autism, and they represent neuropathology related to having the disorder. It seems unlikely to me that you get autism and then develop atypical auditory processing.”

MORE: Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy In Babies

Molholm says the sample was too small to use the profile for diagnosing autism, but it could lead to such a test if the results are confirmed and repeated. To confirm the findings, scientists will have to intervene with behavioral strategies for helping the different regions of the brain work in a more coordinated way when confronted with visual and auditory cues. If that reduces autism symptoms, then EEG profiling could become one of a number of new ways that doctors can start identifying those at highest risk – however young — of developing autism.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Where Confidence Lives In the Brain

Confidence may be more than just a feeling

Confidence might be more than just an emotion. A new study published in the journal Neuron suggests that it may actually be a measurable brain activity.

Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) looked at rats, critters that exhibit confidence similarly to humans by their willingness to wait longer for a reward when they feel confident they made the right decision, they say. They were able to determine the part of the brain behind that confidence.

The researchers trained the rats to respond to two different odors that were associated with two different doors, and behind one of the doors was a reward. Then the researchers mixed the two odors, but made sure one scent was dominant. The goal was for the rat to choose the right door based on the dominant odor. They found that the rats exhibited confidence by their willingness to wait longer for the correct door to open. “Rats are willing to ‘gamble’ with their time. This is something that we can measure and create mathematical models to explain,” said study author Adam Kepecs of CSHL in a statement. “The time rats are willing to wait predicts the likelihood of correct decisions and provides an objective measure tracking the feeling of confidence.”

In the second part of their experiment, the researchers looked at the part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which prior studies have suggested could play a role in confidence. When researchers shut off the neurons in the OFC, they discovered that the rats’ wait times were no longer a predictor of making the right choice, suggesting that their confidence had been impaired.

The human OFC is more sophisticated, but it plays the same role as it does in rats, researchers think. Understanding how confidence works in rodents can pave the way for better understanding for how humans develop confidence–and what’s behind our decisions.

TIME psychology

Brains Get a Performance Boost From Believing Effort Trumps Genetics

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PASIEKA—Brand X/Getty Images

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life.

It's all about your state of mind

How much of our intelligence is a genetic gift or the product of hard work is difficult, perhaps impossible, to know for sure. But for our brains to perform their best, new research suggests, it’s better to believe that effort trumps heredity.

Researchers publishing in the journal Biological Psychology wanted to know what happens in the brain when people receive the message that their performance is the result of native intelligence versus the fruits of hard work. Previous studies have found that the latter seems to prompt people to work even harder the next time, while the former has a dampening effect on performance. But it’s unclear what either message triggers in the brain to cause those outcomes.

This time around, two groups of study participants were outfitted with electroencephalogram (EEG) headgear and asked to read two different articles about intelligence. One article conveyed the message that intelligence is solidly genetic; the other that brilliance is born of a challenging environment with very little genetic influence.

The study participants were then told to complete a computer task while their brain activity was recorded.

The EEG results revealed that the group given the article supporting a genetic basis for intelligence showed the highest levels of attention paid to their responses on the task, indicating an especially high concern for performance. But members of this group didn’t recover well from errors, indicating that their elevated attention upfront didn’t translate into consistently applied attention when the going got rough.

In contrast, the group given the article arguing that genetics play a minor role in intelligence showed the highest levels of attention after each error, and their recovery from mistakes became increasingly more efficient as the task went on.

The researchers think that by coloring the participants’ mindsets about intelligence, they changed how their brains responded to challenges. Believing that intelligence is hardwired seemed to elevate a concern for performance, but did nothing to boost actual performance when the task became harder. Believing that intelligence is forged through difficulty, on the other hand, seemed to increase attention paid to mistakes, with the result of improving performance.

The takeaway: How we’re predisposed to think about problems changes the way our brains handle them. Beyond the abilities we’ve inherited, the most important factor in achievement may be believing that it’s within reach.

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life and the best-selling What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, which has been published in 10 languages. His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Forbes, Psychology Today, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, Esquire, Mental Floss and other publications.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Brain

Erasing Bad Memories May Soon Be Possible

Blank photo
Getty Images (1); Illustration by Mia Tramz for TIME

Using state of the art laser and gas techniques, scientists working with mice make stunning breakthroughs in turning bad memories into better ones

Memories are a complex combination of objective information—the color of a car, the size of a building—and less tangible emotional feelings, like fear, anxiety, joy, or satisfaction. But to scientists, memories are nothing more than a series of chemical and physical changes, the firing of a nerve here, which sends electrochemical impulses to another nerve there, which together encode everything that we associate with a memory.

But exactly what do those changes look like? And is it possible to override them? In a milestone paper published in the journal Nature, scientists may have provided some answers, explaining how emotional baggage gets attached to memories, and how that can be manipulated to quite literally turn bad memories good. In separate work appearing in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers say that a commonly used anesthetic gas, xenon, if administered at exactly the right moment, can also strip the painful and negative feelings associated with a traumatic memory, essentially neutralizing it.

The findings from both groups come from mouse studies, but the two teams are confident that the results will further efforts to understand and find new ways to treat depression and post traumatic stress disorder in people.

In the Nature study, Susumu Tonegawa and his team showed for the first time exactly where in the brain both positive and negative memories are created, and how these emotional layers can be switched around. They exploited a cutting-edge technique they developed called optogenetics to track an emotional memory as it’s made and also manipulated in the brains of mice. They studied both positive experiences—male mice were allowed to spend about an hour with female mice—and negative experiences—the mice were given mild foot shocks.

MORE: 5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

First, the researchers administered a protein, called channelrhodopsin, into mice nerve cells that were activated during and immediately after those experiences (the positive and the negative). The protein reacts to a specific blue wavelength of laser light—and the scientists discovered that when that light was administered to the the part of the mouse’s nerve cells that fired up after those good or bad experiences, the emotion associated with the memory was relived as though it were happening all over again, even absent the stimulus that created it in the first place.

“Optogenetics for the first time allowed us to pin down the cells in the brain that literally carry the information for a specific memory,” says Tonegawa.

The real revelation came when the scientists tested how malleable the connection between the shock and the memory was. They allowed the shocked mice to spend time with females while their brains were hit with the blue light—which triggered their fear of the shock even though they didn’t get one. After 12 minutes of the laser exposure, the mice relaxed. But it wasn’t that they had replaced their fear with more pleasant feelings. Images of their brains showed that new circuits, presumably the ones associated with more positive feelings of being with females, had sprouted between the emotional regions of the brain and the memory center. Likewise, the mice that had had the pleasurable experience with their female counterparts were given the shock while exposed to the blue light, and now showed more fear and anxiety. The original emotional associations were not eliminated and replaced. Instead, says Tonegawa, the positive and negative circuits compete with each other, and whichever is dominant becomes the prevailing emotion linked to a memory.

MORE: This Is the Brain Circuit That Makes You Shy

That could explain how some psychotherapy currently works. To help depressed patients address their feelings, some therapists will revisit negative or emotionally painful experiences. Because memories are not recalled and returned in exactly the same way like a recording, any new information attached to that memory—such as more neutral or positive perspectives about the episode—can help to diffuse its negative impact. Tonegawa’s work in animals suggests that it’s possible to make that psychotherapy technique even more effective if therapists can help patients to focus on more positive feelings while reconsolidating painful memories.

That’s what another group, at McLean Hospital, is hoping to do with a much more simplistic strategy. Edward Meloni, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Marc Kaufman, director of the McLean Hospital Translational Imaging Laboratory, found that the gas xenon, which is used in anesthesia (primarily in Europe), can neutralize the fear associated with a traumatic memory. Exposing mice that had experienced foot shocks to the gas dramatically reduced their fear behaviors – such as freezing up and avoiding areas associated with the painful shock – for up to two weeks. That’s because xenon preferentially targets certain receptors, called NMDA, on brain nerves that are concentrated in learning and memory regions. So when a traumatic memory is activated, those neurons involved in recalling that memory are prime targets for xenon, which blocks the cells from making their usual connections to the emotional hub in the brain known as the amygdala. “My speculation is that xenon lessens the impact of the emotional component, the real emotional pain associated with a traumatic experience,” says Meloni.

MORE: Memories Can Now Be Created — And Erased — in a Lab

It’s not clear yet whether the gas will have similar effects on long-standing traumatic memories such as those involved in PTSD, but Kaufman and Meloni plan to set up a human trial as soon as possible. Ideally, says Meloni, if xenon proves to be effective and safe for reshaping memories, patients who experience debilitating nightmares would be able to give themselves a squirt of xenon just as they would use an asthma inhaler. Since the gas dissipates quickly, so far there doesn’t seem to be a reason to worry about other potentially harmful effects on the brain.

And what about situations that don’t quite reach the level of PTSD, but are traumatic nonetheless, such as the death of a loved one or a bad breakup? “In general I think those painful experiences are probably not going to be impacted by xenon because there really isn’t a specific memory that is reactivated, like a flashbulb moment of trauma,” he says. “It’s more a global heartbreak.”

Because xenon isn’t specific to blocking the negative connections to the brain’s emotional nexus, Kaufman says it’s possible the gas could also be helpful in reducing the highs and the reward sensation associated with addiction. More studies will need to show that xenon could play a role in those situations as well, but both he and Meloni are optimistic. “We’ve got a good start in animals, and as we work through the ladder in getting it to people, I’m hopeful,” says Meloni.

TIME Obesity

This Is What Weight Loss Does To Your Brain

Brain scan, MRI scan
Getty Images

New research shows weight loss surgery can reverse the negative effects body fat may have on the brain

Too much fat weighs down not just your body, but also your brain.

Obesity harms most organs in the body, and new research suggests the brain is no exception. What’s more, the researchers found that getting rid of excess fat actually improves brain function, reversing the ill effects of the extra weight. The new study, which focused on people who underwent bariatric surgery, found that the procedure had positive effects on the brain, but other research has shown that less invasive weight loss strategies, like exercise, can also reverse brain damage thought to be related to body fat.

Here’s why that matters: Obese men and women are estimated to be about 35% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared to people of a normal weight. Some research suggests that body fat ups the number of proteins in the brain that trigger a cascade of events that predispose someone to the disease, and other research in mice has suggested that fat cells release a substance called interleukin 1, which can cause severe inflammation and, in turn, gunk up the brain.

In a recent study, a team of researchers looked at 17 obese women prior to bariatric surgery and found that their brains metabolized sugars faster than the brains of a control group of women at a normal weight. The women underwent cognitive function tests before their surgery as well as after. The results show that after surgery, the obese women showed improvement in the troubling brain activity seen prior to going under the knife, and they performed better on their cognitive function tests—especially in the area of executive function, which is used during planning and organization. The findings suggest that the fat loss reversing its bad effects on the brain.

It is possible that the long-term “cerebral metabolic activity”—meaning the way the brains of obese people process sugars—leads to structural damage that can hasten or contribute to cognitive decline, the authors write in their paper.

Researchers are still trying to understand the exact effects of body fat on the brain, but one theory is that it’s a chain-of-events-type of scenario. For instance, insulin resistance has become linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s because insulin resistance is associated with an increase in fatty acids, inflammation and oxidative stress. Insulin resistance is a metabolic disorder, that can be brought on by obesity. Other theories have to do with the effects of certain kinds of fat. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) points out that visceral fat, the most damaging type of body fat, ups a person’s likelihood of developing insulin resistance, and on top of that, belly fat can produce stress hormones that can also hinder cognition. Other research has shown that the stress hormones are tied to hunger signaling, and those disruptions can alter a person’s sense of hunger and fullness and can contribute to obesity.

“The more we understand about [body fat], the clearer it becomes that belly fat is its own disease-generating organism,” said Dr. Lenore Launer, chief of NIA’s Neuroepidemiology Section of the Laboratory of Epidemiology, Demography, and Biometry in an NIH statement.

Inflammation continues to be fingered as a culprit in the link between body fat and a variety of disorders, which include brain-related diseases, and even depression. Body fat, also referred to as adipose tissue, is thought to create substances that cause inflammation, and that could be at least one of the primary ways it irritates the brain.

The bottom line is that excess body fat has a laundry list of effects on the body, and none of them are good. But on the bright side, getting rid of that fat should reverse some of the blips body fat is leaving on the brain. Though not everyone needs to go under the knife.

TIME animal behavior

What Are Animals Thinking? (Hint: More Than You Suspect)

The mind of an animal is a far richer, more complex thing than most people know — as a new TIME book reveals

Let’s be honest, you’d probably rather die than wake up tomorrow morning and find out you’d turned into an animal. Dying, after all, is inevitable, and there’s even a certain dignity to it: Shakespeare did it, Einstein did it, Galileo and Washington and Twain all did it. And you, someone who was born a human and will live your life as a human, will end your life that way too.

But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.

Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.

But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.

But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.

A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.

Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.

(The Animal Mind is now available on newsstands.)

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Exercise Makes Kids’ Brains More Efficient

Brain
Science Photo Library/Corbis

For the first time, there’s evidence that being fit can improve the speed and connectivity of brain neurons in children

There’s plenty of evidence that suggests that children who are more physically active do better in school. But what’s contributing to the boost in brain power?

In a study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers led by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a research associate in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, report that children who are more fit have more white matter in their brains than those who aren’t as fit. The areas of the brain where more white matter was observed are important for attention and memory, and are critical for linking different parts of the brain together.

The study is the first to find a connection between exercise and white matter in children. Previous studies focused on specific structures of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, and how exercise affected their size and volume. In the current study, however, Chaddock-Heyman and her colleagues show that the improved fitness that comes with exercise may lead to other beneficial changes in the brain as well, such as improving the way signals are sent around the brain via the white matter.

But whether the bulkier white matter actually translates into higher IQ or better school grades isn’t clear yet. Chaddock-Heyman says the study did not track the students’ cognitive abilities, though previous, smaller studies have linked white matter to better math scores, for example. “It’s possible that white matter differences as a function of fitness are driving the cognitive differences we see in the brain,” she says. “But that that’s speculation at this point.”

What the results do show, however, is that physical activity may be an important part of keeping children’s brains active and open to learning. Physical education class and recess may be just as important to doing well in school as time spent in a classroom. “We are hoping our work encourages more support of physically active lifestyles,” says Chaddock-Heyman. She and her colleagues are continuing their work with a five year trial in which children are randomly assigned to an aerobic fitness program or not, so their white matter changes and their academic performance can be tracked.

“More schools are contributing to our more sedentary lifestyle by eliminating or reducing physical activity during the school day,” says Chaddock-Heyman, “and we know that aerobic fitness is related to the size of brain structures as well as their function.”

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