TIME Aging

Why Complex Jobs Protect Aging Brains Better

The more engaging your job, the sharper your thinking skills

Studies show that there are a lot of things you can do to preserve your intellect—stay social and interact with as many friends and family as you can, learn new things (especially languages), go to new places and stay physically active. If there’s any time left over, consider getting a more engaging career. There’s now evidence that what you do to make a living can also help to preserve your brain power.

Reporting in the journal Neurology, scientists at the University of Edinburgh found that the more complex a person’s job is, the more likely they are to score higher on memory tests and general cognitive skills when they reach age 70.

MORE: Cocoa May Help With Memory Loss, a New Study Finds

The team recruited about 1,000 69-year-olds who were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort, a database that included people born in the Scottish town in 1936. At age 11, the participants had taken IQ tests so the researchers could compare those scores to cognitive tests given to them at age 70.

In the study, researchers assessed their occupations by their complexity, based on how much interaction with people, data or things the job required. Complex “people” jobs, for example, include lawyer, social worker, surgeon or probation officer, compared to less socially complex jobs like factory worker, or painter. Complex “data” occupations include architect, graphic designer and musician, while less complex data jobs include construction worker, cafeteria worker or telephone operator. Finally, people working in more intricate ways with “things” would include machine workers and those who make instruments, while bank managers and surveyors might rank as having simpler interactions with things.

When the scientists compared occupations with cognitive tests at age 70, they found that people with more complex people and data jobs scored higher on memory, speed and general thinking skills than those with less involved jobs in these areas. People with more complex data-related jobs also scored much better on processing and speed skills.

MORE: 5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

But when the researchers factored in the effect of the participants’ IQ at age 11—in other words, their starting intellect—they found that the influence of the jobs remained, though it shrunk a bit. “People who have higher cognitive ability to begin with are those more likely to have more complex jobs,” says Alan Gow, assistant professor of psychology at University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University and one of the study’s co-authors. “Once we account for that, the association between more complex jobs and better cognitive outcomes is reduced, but there remains a small additional benefit for our cognitive abilities from being in more complex jobs.”

In fact, he says, the strongest predictor of cognitive abilities at age 70 is intellect earlier in life. So the IQ of the participants at age 11 accounted for about 50% of the variance in test scores when they reached 70. Jobs can add to that effect. The stronger the cognitive starting point, the more brain reserve people might have as the normal processes of aging start erode some nerve connections involved in higher order thinking. Having a complex job that requires constant activation of these neural networks, and formation of new connections, can also contribute to building this reserve capacity.

Gow admits, however, that the study did not take into account how long people stuck with the jobs, so there may yet be a stronger effect of occupation on later life intellect the longer people stay with a complex job. Given the results, he and his team are eagerly following the 70-year olds to see if occupation and other factors can influence their cognitive functions. Now, they’re studying brain images of the volunteers to find changes in volume in certain thinking areas of the brain, as well as connections in the nerve network that’s responsible for higher order skills like processing, memory and reasoning.

TIME psychology

3 Simple Things That Will Make You 10% Happier

meditation
Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Ever been really stressed? So stressed you nearly freak out?

This happened to Dan Harrisin front of 5 million people.

On June 7th, 2004, Dan was a news correspondent on ABC and he had a panic attack on air while reading the news:

He knew he had to do something. His career was in jeopardy.

By coincidence, he was soon assigned to cover stories about religion. This set Dan on a multi-year quest talking to people of faith — and total quacks.

But it ended up introducing him to something that helped him get his head straight and, as he likes to say, made him 10% happier.

What was it? Meditation.

Feeling skeptical yet? Thinking of hippies, beads and chanting? Actually, that’s how Dan felt too.

But it turns out his discovery wasn’t the least bit mystic — in fact it was quite scientific.

I gave Dan a call and we talked about meditation and the book he wrote about his journey: 10% Happier.

And here’s how the neuroscience behind a 2500 year old ritual can help all of us become 10% happier.

You Don’t Have To Be A Hippie And Live In A Yurt

Dan’s now the co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America.

What’s the first thing this Emmy-award winning journalist has to say about meditation? It has a huge PR problem.

Via 10% Happier:

Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose… There’s even science to back this up.

So what is science learning about meditation? A lot. Here’s Dan:

There are actually tons and tons of studies on meditation. But you can find one-off studies that show almost anything, right?

So what happened when the Journal of American Medicinerecently looked at more then 18,000 citations on the subject?

Meditation demonstrated clear results in helping people with anxiety, depression and pain.

Other studies are showing it can help with decision-making, compassion — and it might even reduce your cravings for chocolate.

And Dan’s not the only one who’s realized this:

  1. The SuperBowl winning Seattle Seahawks meditate.
  2. Google has someone in charge of teaching meditation.
  3. 12 minutes a day of meditation makes US Marines more resilient in war zones.

Looking at the research a while back, I said meditation is one of the ten things people should do every day to improve their lives.

(For more on the science of meditation, click here.)

I know some of you are saying, “Great. But what does it do, really?

Meditation and mindfulness are two things we hear about constantly but few of us can really define what they are and what they do. That’s about to change.

No Robes And Chanting Necessary

We all have that voice in our head. Our internal narrator. And he’s usually a jerk.

A nonstop running commentary of wants and needs, second-guessing, regretting the past and worrying about the future.

Dan explains:

The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings.

Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert, has shown that this sort of mind-wandering makes us miserable.

In fact, a recent study showed men would rather get electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts. Yeah, really.

This is where meditation comes in.

It’s not some magic incantation; it’s a bicep curl for your brain that can tame the thoughts in your head.

By teaching your brain to focus it can allow you to not get yanked around by your emotions, to be able to respond rather than react.

And the results are real:

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A 2012 Harvard study showed:

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.

And after 8 weeks of regular meditation these changes were visible even when the subjects weren’t meditating.

A 2011 Yale study showed:

Experienced meditators seem to switch off areas of the brain associated with wandering thoughts, anxiety and some psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.Researchers used fMRI scans to determine how meditators’ brains differed from subjects who were not meditating. The areas shaded in blue highlight areas of decreased activity in the brains of meditators.

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(For more things scientifically proven to make you happier, click here.)

Some people don’t like my fancy brain pictures. They’re still saying, “That wouldn’t work for me.” You’re wrong. Here’s why.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

People give tons of excuses why they can’t meditate. Dan has heard them all by now and most don’t hold water.

1) “I’m too busy to meditate.”

You can see results in 5 minutes a day. You don’t have five minutes? And how long have you been reading this post for, Mr. Busy?

2) “It won’t work for me. My mind is too crazy.”

Ah, “the fallacy of uniqueness.” Dan says he had the attention span of a 6 month old Golden Labrador. It’s worked for him and many many others.

3) “I’m not a Buddhist.”

I asked Dan about this when we chatted. Mindfulness meditation is secular:

The form of mindfulness meditation that has been studied in labs is completely secular. It’s called mindfulness-based stress reduction and you don’t have to join anything, you don’t have to wear any special outfits or believe in anything. It’s secular and scientifically validated.

4) “I need my anxiety. It drives me crazy but it’s the reason I get things done.”

I was curious about this one, too (you think someone who writes blog posts like this doesn’t have a voice in his head? C’mon.)

Dan always lived by the motto, “The price of security is insecurity.”Worrying kept him on his game. But it also made him miserable.

But then Dan asked his meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein, what he thought of worrying.

Here’s Dan:

He said “Yes, you have to worry because that makes sense in order to function effectively. However, on the 17th time when you’re worrying about that same thing, maybe ask yourself one simple question: ‘Is it useful?’”

At some point, you have thought it through sufficiently and it’s time to move on. What I have learned how to do as a result of meditation is to draw the line between what I call “constructive anguish” and “unconstructive rumination” and that’s made me a lot happier.

You won’t lose your edge. You can still worry a bit. But when it gets out of hand ask yourself, “Is this useful?”

(For more lifehacks from ancient times that will make you happier, click here.)

At this point many of you are saying, “Okay, okay, meditation is good. But how do I actually do it?

That’s up next. And it’s crazy simple — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

How To Meditate

Dan taught Stephen Colbert to meditate:

And here’s how he explained it to me:

It really involves three extremely simple steps.

One: Sit with your eyes closed and your back straight.

Two: Notice what it feels like when your breath comes in and when your breath goes out, try to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.

Third step is the biggie. Every time you try to do this, your mind is going to go crazy. You are going to start thinking about all sorts of stupid things like if you need a haircut, why you said that dumb thing to your boss, what’s for lunch, etc. Every time you notice that your mind is wandering, bring your attention back to your breath and begin again. This is going to happen over and over and over again and that is meditation.

Personally, I like to think of it as the toughest and most maddening video game in the world. Dan agrees:

It’s not easy. You will “fail” a million times but the “failing” and starting over is succeeding. So this isn’t like most things in your life where, like if you can’t get up on water skis, you can’t do it. Here the trying and starting again, trying and starting again, that’s the whole game.

It works. And meditation doesn’t cost anything. All you need to do is be breathing, and breathing is something that’s always with you and never stops.

And if it ever does stop, well, you may have more urgent problems to deal with.

(For more on what the happiest people do every day, click here.)

So how do we tie all this together?

Sum Up

You can still see Dan on Nightline and Good Morning America but luckily he’s not having any more panic attacks.

Is meditation going to give you magic powers? No. Even the Dalai Lama loses his temper.

Seriously — Dan asked him during an interview.

Via 10% Happier:

“Is your mind always calm?” I asked.

“No, no, no. Occasionally lose my temper.”

“You do?”

“Oh yes. If someone is never lose temper then perhaps they may come from another space,” he said, pointing toward the sky and laughing from the belly, his eyes twinkling beneath his thick glasses.

But research says meditation can make you less stressed and more happy. Here’s what Dan told me:

The bad things in my life are still bad but I am not making them worse than they need to be by adding on a bunch of useless rumination. We assume that our happiness is derived from external circumstances, like how much money we’re making, if we had a happy childhood, if we married well, whatever. The radical proposition of meditation is that happiness is self-generated. You can develop your happiness muscle the way you develop your biceps in the gym. That is hugely, hugely empowering and a comforting notion.

5 minutes a day. That’s all it takes to give your happiness muscle a workout.

What are you waiting for?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 100,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

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

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will 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 Brain

New Hope for Replacing Nerves Damaged by Parkinson’s Disease

Stem cells may provide a new way of regrowing the motor neurons affected by the movement disorder

Reporting in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists say that stem cells turned into motor nerves function nearly identically to fetal motor nerves: the kind now used to treat some patients with Parkinson’s disease. That could mean that the stem cells may become an important source of new nerves to replace the ones damaged in diseases like Parkinson’s.

In Parkinson’s, motor nerves that normally produce dopamine, which is critical for regulating muscle movements and controlling dexterity, are damaged, and dopamine levels drop dramatically. The researchers, led by Malin Parmar, an associate professor of regenerative neurobiology at Lund University, took human embryonic stem cells extracted from excess IVF embryos and treated them to develop into motor neurons. They transplanted these neurons into the brains of rats bred to develop Parkinson’s and found that the lab-made cells brought dopamine levels in these animals back to normal levels in five months. The nerves sent out long extensions to connect with other nerve cells in the brain—such networks are important to ensuring coordinated and regulated muscle movements, and without them, patients experience uncontrollable tremors. The effects were similar to those seen when fetal nerves are transplanted into Parkinson’s patients, a treatment currently used to help alleviate symptoms in some patients.

While the results are exciting, it’s just the first step in bringing stem cell-based treatments to human patients. The study did not delve into how well the new neurons functioned and whether they could reverse symptoms of Parkinson’s in the animals. And even if they do improve those symptoms, scientists still have to show that humans could get the same effects. In an editorial accompany the article, Roger Barker of Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge warned that the exciting possibilities of stem-cell based therapies shouldn’t push scientists—or patients—to expect too much too soon. Before the cells can be tested in people, he writes, it’s necessary to have “a knowledge of what the final product should look like and the need to get there in a collaborative way without being tempted to take shortcuts, because a premature clinical trial could impact negatively on the whole field of regenerative medicine.”

TIME neuroscience

Why We’re Falling Behind On Brain Innovation

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PASIEKA—Getty Images/Brand X

A series of reports explains the decline

Brain science is taking a hit, according to a recent series of papers published in a special issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.

“While the disease burden and economic impacts are on the rise, progress in the development of new therapeutics and treatment approaches has appeared to have stalled,” reads an editorial introducing the issue. “Approval for new therapeutics (whether drugs, devices, or other treatment approaches) for nervous system disorders have been declining and most of the treatments we currently have are not disease modifying.”

Large pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis have closed or downsized their brain research divisions, according to one paper, a move the study authors believe reflects a growing view that developing drugs for the brain is too difficult and time-consuming. In another report, researchers argue that there are not enough opportunities for various stakeholders to meet and collaborate on the latest research.

Still, researchers of a third paper focusing on Alzheimer’s disease argue that even though stopping neurodegeneration progression “seems daunting at the moment,” the brain and Alzheimer’s community should be encouraged by other fields that have successfully stopped disease onset with prevention efforts—like lowering cholesterol for cardiovascular disease.

The prognosis isn’t entirely dire, because the same researchers also offer their own solutions. To re-gain Big Pharma’s interest, perhaps the incentive model for brain research should change. “One way to do this that would not require upfront funding is to change the policies that regulate market returns for the most-needed breakthrough drugs,” the authors write. “The broader neuroscience community including clinicians and patients should convene to develop and advocate for such policy changes.” Others say they’ve had success in forming their own meetings of minds by pulling a variety of experts together.

There’s also the U.S. government’s BRAIN Initiative, a massive research project to map out the brain and gain a better understanding of disorders that can plague it. It’s unclear what the ambitious project, which is a little more than a year old, will end up contributing to the field. Some researchers have argued it might allocate funding away from labs not involved in the project.

Reisa Sperling, a Harvard neurologist and the lead study author of the new Alzheimer paper, tells TIME the project is a good thing for the disease, but with some caveats. “It is important to note that the BRAIN Initiative is really focused on studying basic mechanisms of how the brain works, rather than identifying disease-specific alterations that are more directly translatable into [Alzheimer’s disease] clinical research,” she says. “So I hope that there will be additional investment that will help us translate mechanistic research on normal brain function into understanding what goes wrong in the brain in early Alzheimer’s disease…to help us find an effective treatment more more quickly.”

The bottom line is that despite lack of funding for the field, the are still reasons to be optimistic. “The pace of research progress in neuroscience over recent years has been nothing short of amazing,” the journal authors write. As long as drug companies can be attracted again to the brain, the vast time spent on trying to unlock it will be well worth it.

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.

Join 25K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

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.

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