TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Why You Might Want to Pay Attention to Your Kid’s Nightmares

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Children who had nightmares at age 12 had about twice the odds of having psychotic experiences later on

Most kids have nightmares some of the time and mostly those dreams mean nothing, except that your kids had something different for dinner or watched a particularly vivid movie or they’re feeling anxious about something. But kids who have nightmares often are at increased risk for developing psychotic symptoms later in adolescence, suggests a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers from the U.K. wanted to look at the link between sleepwalking, nightmares and night terrors—when a person wakes up screaming but can’t remember why—in childhood and having psychotic experiences later in adolescence. “The term ‘psychotic’ obviously has connotations for people,” says study author Andrew Thompson, MD, associate clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of Warwick in Coventry. (And they’re not good ones.) But psychotic experiences can include more commonplace occurrences like a child hearing their name being called when it’s not, getting paranoid or thinking that people were trying to hurt them. Kids with symptoms like these don’t necessarily have (or develop) a mental illness or disorder, and many times those experiences means nothing, Thompson says. But symptoms like these, especially on the more severe end of the spectrum, may be forerunners of psychotic illness like schizophrenia.

The team analyzed data from a group of more than 4,000 children in the U.K. who were born around the same time, from birth until age 18. Using reports from children and their mothers on children’s sleepwalking, nightmares and night terrors, the researchers found that people who had nightmares and night terrors at age 12 had about twice the odds of reporting psychotic experiences at age 18. (They found no association with sleepwalking.)

It’s important to note that the risk of these psychotic symptoms is only about 5%, Thompson says, so a doubling of risk isn’t an alarming number. But the results could prove helpful for identifying risk factors for mental illnesses early. Sleep problems are one of the most common complaints among people with schizophrenia—but not nightmares specifically. “That’s maybe because we haven’t asked them,” Thompson says. These nightmares might be triggered by stress, anxiety or trauma, but they might also be a sign of future psychosis, the findings suggest. “We’d like to look into that and see whether these things are particularly important.”

In most cases, Thompson wants to be clear, nightmares are perfectly normal. “What we don’t want to do is frighten the whole world of parents with kids who have nightmares and think it’s a really bad sign, because that’s not the case,” Thompson explains. “It’s the people who have the persistent nightmares, the ones that affect their ability to go to school or concentrate at college. That’s the end of the spectrum that I think that, at the moment, doesn’t get very good treatment.”

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TIME Culture

How Rappers Are Destigmatizing Mental Illness

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Rap has taken major strides simply by talking about it

There’s a lyric in Eminem’s “Rock Bottom”, off The Slim Shady LP, that sticks out: “Live half a life and throw the rest away.” You can read it as a description of depression and its impact, how a crushing vortex of internal negativity can prevent someone from living their best life. Depression manifests in many different ways, including feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in normal activities, and even recurring suicidal thoughts. Though it often goes undiagnosed, it’s a mental health condition that plagues many, and it’s commonplace for depression to emerge as a major theme for musicians. One place it’s been creeping up more than usual is rap.

Rap has a complicated relationship with depression. For starters, it was born as an appendage of hip-hop and its young black men surging with machismo. Black masculinity has always been at odds with clinical depression, mostly because copping to it can be considered an admission of fragility. Emotional disorders carry a certain stigma that hangs over black communities like a fog, causing many to suffer in silence. This stigma has been covered by PBS, NPR, and Slate’s The Root, but lately it’s grown into more of a full-blown perception. One Yahoo Answers user posed the question “Can black people get depression?” a few years back. In an interview with U.S. News, author and therapist Terrie Williams, who herself has dealt with depression, addressed the stigma candidly: “Depression is a sign of weakness in the black community.”

On top of a sort of communal aversion to acknowledging depression, certain underlying conflicts challenge rappers specifically. Rap bravado doesn’t exactly lend itself to vulnerability or dejection; rappers are more often seen as fixtures of ruggedness or hedonism. To be an openly depressed rapper is to disassociate oneself with the image of an archetypical hip-hop star.

That isn’t to say that rap doesn’t allow its characters to be complex or that rappers have never expressed depression. But its primary ethos has always been pride, and as a result, rap hasn’t been subject to a deep psychological examination on a larger scale. A song like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts”, built around a concept heavily rooted in depression, grazes many of the symptoms, but Biggie writes from a position of perceived control, shutting himself off from any real internalized dialogue about why he’s feeling so empty. There’s no self-diagnosis or acknowledgment of the root illness itself.

Rap has struggled to communicate major depression, defined by the Mayo Clinic as causing a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest, through a personal lens. In 2015 alone, however, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Heems, and Future have already navigated that gap. Each has taken steps to personalize and verbalize his ongoing battles with depression.

On his debut solo album, Eat Pray Thug, Punjabi-Indian rapper Heems follows a similar cycle: a rough breakup leads to depression and prompts him to pursue drug use as an outlet. But unlike Future, he writes his lead-ins with far more cognizance: “I’ve been a mess since I met you/ I regret you/ You could say I love what’s regretful” and “Get low/ Now I’m f—ing sad again/ Bruh, need another drink or I be going mad again/ Mad about you when I’m on my Helen Hunt/ But I’m in the corner and I’m smoking on this blunt.” He’s direct about his lows and how they induce his intoxication. Both Heems and Future turn to drugs to avoid facing their depression head-on, but despite coping in similar ways, they acknowledge their problem through different channels. Future hides his concessions like Easter eggs for diligent listeners. Heems seems open but stays guarded.

Those methods explore facets of depression — Future dances around the fringes of woe and Heems engages on the surface — but rap can connect with the condition on an even more critical level. The more comprehensive appraisals of depression come from two MCs who have both a full understanding of their emotional whims and expert command of the English language. Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt possess the lyrical dexterity to transmit complex emotional responses into words. On top of that, they both use their recent music to communicate exactly how fame can play a role in pushing a person toward depression.

In an interview with MTV about his recent album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick said bluntly, “My release therapy is writing the music.” He was speaking specifically about “u”, a gut-wrenching, self-evaluative song that is brutally honest about his depression and its causes. He critiques himself like he’s someone else: “I know your secrets/ Mood swings is frequent/ I know depression is restin’ on your heart for two reasons.” He speaks directly from that vortex of internal negativity: “You the reason why Momma and them leavin’/ No, you ain’t s—, you say you love them, I know you don’t mean it/ I know you’re irresponsible, selfish, in denial, can’t help it/ Your trials and tribulations a burden, everyone felt it.” If depression could audibly manifest itself, this is what it would sound like: angry, wretched, poking and prodding, telling you you’re worthless in your own voice.

Then there’s Earl. If the title of his album I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside wasn’t a dead giveaway, Earl Sweatshirt’s prologue made it clear. On “Grief”, the album’s first single, he described his depression as “feeling like I’m stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop.” He thinks like a psychoanalyst, studying exactly why he does things. His pleas feel like cries for help: “Step into the shadows, we could talk addiction/ When it’s harmful where you going and the part of you that know it don’t give a f—.” He writes about depression like it’s something that swallows you up. Earl has a special way with words, and his perspective comes across like he’s permanently standing under a dark cloud. It’s even how he paints in the details. On “Off Top” he raps, “I’m only happy when there’s static in the air/ ‘Cause the fair weather fake to me.” He relays his inner battle in what feels like real time. Even if you can’t relate, you sympathize.

These are the voices that can help listeners — including, especially, listeners of color — connect with depression as a real, tangible thing that may affect them and their loved ones. In the last few months alone, rap has taken major strides toward helping to destigmatize depression, both within the genre and within the black community, simply by talking about it. By opening up about mental health and discussing it on a more personalized level, rappers can help breach the dialogue about depression in their own communities. Music is a powerful medium that can help people acknowledge realities they otherwise might not have. It’s not too late for rappers to help alter the perception of mental illness. As Earl puts it, “I just want my time and my mind intact/ When they’re both gone, you can’t buy ‘em back.”

This article originally appeared on Consequence of Sound.

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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 Mental Health/Psychology

Depression Can Double Risk for Stroke—Even When It’s Treated

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People with prolonged depression had 114% higher risk of stroke than those without symptoms

As if depression isn’t hard enough on the mind, the condition can also wreak havoc all over the body, increasing risk of health problems that at first don’t seem remotely connected to feeling low. Depressed people are at increased risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular death, and according to a new study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, they’re also at greatly increased risk for stroke. Adults over age 50 who report persistent symptoms of depression have double the risk for stroke, the study finds—and that increase lingers even after they report feeling better.

The researchers analyzed data from more than 16,000 middle-aged adults ages 50 and older. Every two years from 1998-2010, the people in the study were asked about their history of stroke, stroke risk factors and symptoms of depression.

People who reported high symptoms of depression—three or more symptoms from an eight-item depression scale—for four consecutive years had about 114% higher risk of stroke compared to those who did not have symptoms of depression at either interview.

It remains unclear exactly how prolonged depressive symptoms lead to an increased stroke risk, but the elevated risk appears to stick around for a long time, even after depression goes away. People whose depressive symptoms had subsided at the second interview still had a 66% higher risk of stroke than those without symptoms.

“We do not know if, had we been able to examine individuals who had been symptom free for a longer time, stroke risk would have declined more,” said study author Paola Gilsanz, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an email. “To assess that, we really need a larger study.”

Just as stroke risk was slow to subside, it was slow to take hold, too. People who had just begun developing depressive symptoms weren’t at higher stroke risk than those without symptoms. “We were surprised to see that changes in depressive symptoms seem to take more than two years to influence risk of stroke,” Gilsanz said.

It’s difficult to say from this study whether treatment has mitigating effects, since the authors didn’t specifically look at why people’s symptoms went away. But even though the data suggest that getting rid of symptoms of depression might not immediately erase the increased risk for stroke, they emphasize the importance of early treatment.

“If our findings are replicated, they suggest depressive symptoms merit prompt attention soon after they begin, before they have time to substantially impact stroke risk,” Gilsanz says. “We also recommend that people with depression also focus on keeping their overall stroke risk profile as healthy as possible, as we all should.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: Are My Devices Messing With My Brain?

You Asked: Are All My Devices Messing With My Brain?
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Yes—and you're probably suffering from phantom text syndrome, too.

First it was radio. Then it was television. Now doomsayers are offering scary predictions about the consequences of smartphones and all the other digital devices to which we’ve all grown so attached. So why should you pay any attention to the warnings this time?

Apart from portability, the big difference between something like a traditional TV and your tablet is the social component, says Dr. David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah. “Through Twitter or Facebook or email, someone in your social network is contacting you in some way all the time,” Strayer says.

“We’re inherently social organisms,” adds Dr. Paul Atchley, a cognitive psychologist at Kansas University. There’s almost nothing more compelling than social information, he says, which activates part of your brain’s reward system. Your noodle is also hardwired to respond to novel sights or sounds. (For most of human history, a sudden noise might have signaled the presence of a predator.) “So something like a buzz or beep or flashing light is tapping into that threat detection system,” he explains.

Combine that sudden beep with the implicit promise of new social info, and you have a near-perfect, un-ignorable stimulus that will pull your focus away from whatever task your brain is working on. And while you may think you can quickly check a text or email and pick up that task where you left off, you really can’t.

“Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost,” says Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”

While this isn’t a big deal if you’re doing something simple and rote—making an omelet, say, or folding clothes—it can be a very big deal if your brain is trying to sort out a complex problem, Miller says.

One recent study found it can take your brain 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email. And Miller’s own research shows you don’t get better at this sort of multitasking with practice. In fact, people who judged themselves to be expert digital multitaskers tended to be pretty bad at it, he says.

“You’re not able to think as deeply on something when you’re being distracted every few minutes,” Miller adds. “And thinking deeply is where real insights come from.”

There seems to be an easy solution to this: When you’re working on something complicated, switch off your phone or email.

That could work for some people. But there’s evidence that as your brain becomes accustomed to checking a device every few minutes, it will struggle to stay on task even at those times when it’s not interrupted by digital alerts. “There’s something called ‘phantom text syndrome,’ ” Atchley says. “You think you hear a text or alert, but there isn’t one.”

While phantom texts can afflict adults, Atchley says this phenomenon is pretty much universal among people under the age of 20—many of whom wouldn’t recognize a world that doesn’t include smartphones. Even if you don’t hear phantom alerts, you may still find yourself reflexively wanting to check your device every few minutes for updates, which disrupts your concentration regardless of whether you ignore that impulse.

Your ability to focus aside, a 2014 study appearing in the journal PLOS One found that people who spend a lot of time “media multitasking”—or juggling lots of different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli—tend to have less grey matter in a part of their brain involved with thought and emotion control. These same structural changes are associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders, says that study’s first author, Kepkee Loh, who conducted his research at University College London.

Atchley says more research suggests lots of device use bombards your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in willpower and decision-making. “The prefrontal cortex prevents us from doing stupid things, whether it’s eating junk food or texting while driving,” he explains.

He says this part of the human brain isn’t “fully wired” until your early 20s—another issue that has him worried about how a lot of device use may be affecting children and adolescents.

So what’s the antidote? Spending time in nature may counteract the focus-draining effects of too much tech time, shows research Atchley and Strayer published in 2012. Meditation may also offer focus-strengthening benefits.

Strayer says putting your phone on silent and setting your email only to deliver new messages every 30 minutes are also ways to use your devices strategically and “not be a slave to them,” he adds.

Of course, there are plenty of benefits associated with the latest and greatest technologies. Ease and convenience of staying in touch with friends is a big one. But many open questions remain when it comes to the true cost of our digital distractions.

“Imagine Einstein trying to think about mathematics at a time when part of his brain was wondering what was going on with Twitter,” Atchley says. “People make incredible breakthroughs when they’re concentrating very hard on a specific task, and I wonder if our devices are taking away our ability to do that.”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

6 Foods That Can Make You Happier

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Daily consumption of dark chocolate, for one, can lower your stress level

I’m a happiness research junkie. I love reading about simple things we can do to elevate mood and boost contentment. Mindfulness meditation, adequate sleep, laughing, volunteering, and spending time with pets (as well as with happy people) all help. And believe it or not, science shows you can also eat your way happier!

If you’re in need of a little more glee, here are six research-backed “better mood foods” to build into your eating repertoire.

Probiotic-rich foods

In a recent Dutch study, 20 healthy volunteers received either a probiotic supplement or a placebo for four weeks. Those who received the real deal showed a significantly reduced reactivity to sad mood, which was largely due to a reduction in aggressive thoughts, and rumination (you know, when you over-think or obsess on the negative). The conclusion: the type and amount of bacteria in your digestive tract impacts your mood. Scientists even have a name for it: the gut-brain axis, or the communication highway between the GI tract and the brain.

In an animal study conducted at McMaster University in Ontario, gut bacteria from mice with different personalities were swapped. Fearless mice became timid after receiving gut bacteria from anxious counterparts, and the reverse was also true—fearful rodents became more expressive and less apprehensive. The researchers also found that aggressive mice became calm when scientists changed their gut microbes by making their diets more healthy. All of this means that, for all intents and purposes, your gut bacteria can literally be mind-altering. To reap the benefits, stock up on probiotic-rich fermented foods, including kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir, or consider popping a probiotic supplement.

Fruits and veggies

In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, nearly 300 young adults kept daily food journals for three consecutive weeks, in addition to completing psychological and mood-related ratings. Researchers found that a higher intake of produce resulted in more energy, calm, and a greater sense of happiness. They also noted that the effects were seen not only on the days more veggies and fruits were consumed, but also throughout the following day. Another study, published in the journal Social Indicators Research, which tracked 80,000 adults, found that consuming a higher amount of produce boosted mental well-being, with the magic number for happiness being seven daily servings. To use produce to elevate your mood, choose fruits and veggies first, and build each meal around them. For tips on how, check out my previous posts 5 Veggies That Make Perfect Pasta Alternatives and 5 Reasons to Eat More Fruit.

Coffee

Coffee drinkers can be thought of as curmudgeons, but research has actually linked regular java consumption to positivity. In one study, researchers found that coffee consumed in the morning was linked to energy, kindness, and pleasure. Coffee enjoyed socially was tied to affection, friendship, satisfaction, and good nature, and when sipped leisurely, cups of Joe induced calm, happiness, and tranquility. Another study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that women who drank two to three cups of coffee a day were 15% less likely to develop depression over a 10-year span, compared to those who consumed one cup or less each day. Now that doesn’t mean a pot a day is a recipe for bliss, but if you enjoy coffee there are other health benefits to making it a daily habit. Check out my previous posts 6 Reasons to Keep Loving Coffee and 5 Reasons to Drink Coffee Before a Workout.

Dark chocolate

Even thinking about dark chocolate brings a smile to my face, but research backs its happiness benefits. The antioxidants in dark chocolate can trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. That may be why one study found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate daily for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in people who rated themselves as highly stressed. Dark chocolate also contains magnesium, a mineral that has been shown to help alleviate PMS symptoms, including fatigue, depression, and irritability. Finally, dark chocolate’s unique natural substances trigger a sense of euphoria that’s similar in to the feeling of being in love! For more check out my 5 Healthy Ways to Eat More Chocolate.

Mushrooms

I adore mushrooms. In a previous post I wrote about five surprising benefits of this underrated superfood, and due to their unique nutrients, mood regulation may be a sixth. Shrooms are rich in selenium and research has linked a deficiency of this mineral (which doubles as an antioxidant) to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Mushrooms are also the only plant source of natural vitamin D, a key nutrient of us aren’t getting enough of. In a study of people with seasonal affective disorder, which affects 11 million Americans, scientists found that those who upped their vitamin D intake experienced an enhanced mood. To bolster your intake, incorporate mushrooms into omelets or quiche at breakfast, salads at lunch, and sauté, grill, or oven roast them at dinner.

Green tea

A Japanese study, conducted with more than 40,000 people, found that levels of psychological stress were 20% lower in people who drank five or more cups of green tea per day compared to those who drank less than one. The results held true even after other factors were accounted for, including age, sex, medical history, body mass index, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, and diet. Reach for green tea as a beverage, or incorporate loose tea leaves or brewed green tea into cooking. It’s fantastic in smoothies, marinades, soups, and sauces. For info about a currently trendy form of green tea, check out my previous post 7 Things You Should Know About Matcha.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Your Therapist Is Better at Handling Emotions Than You Are

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They're better able to control negative thoughts, finds a new study

Impressive findings from the other side of the therapy couch: your therapist is better at regulating her emotions than you are, according to a small new study in the journal Psychotherapy.

The authors wanted to see if psychotherapists are better at regulating emotion than the rest of us, so they tested experienced therapists as well as non-therapists by showing them pictures designed to elicit negative emotional reactions, ranging from slightly negative images like sad people to very intense images like corpses and people with severe injuries. After each image, they rated how negative the image made them feel.

Both groups reacted the same way to the negative images.

But differences emerged during the second part of the study, when people were shown the pictures again and told to use one of two techniques that regulates emotion: either positive reappraisal, in which you reinterpret emotional information in a positive light, or distraction—thinking about something unrelated and neutral in order to disengage from the negativity. Both have been shown to be effective against negative emotions.

Therapists, the researchers found, were better at calming their emotional response by using these emotion regulation strategies than the non-therapists, regardless of which technique they chose.

“It’s something they need for that job and something that makes them be effective in what they do,” says study author Jan Pletzer, a graduate student in business administration at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany and in social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Next, Pletzer hopes to find out whether therapists come into their profession equipped with these emotional skills, or whether they hone them on the job.

“I suspect maybe it’s a little bit of both,” says psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD, adjunct associate professor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, who was not involved in the study. But just because non-therapists have less training doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be less emotionally intelligent than the professionals sitting across from them.

We regulate our emotions through our thoughts, Alvord says—a key skill every good therapist learns how to do. “What lay people can do is really learn to catch your thoughts, be aware of your thoughts and recognize that those thoughts then lead to an emotional reaction and a physiological reaction,” she says. “Recognizing those connections is absolutely critical, and most people don’t. We think about emotions, but we don’t think about the thoughts and reframing and getting a different perspective.”

When we do, she says, the effects can be huge on both our mind and body. Reframe a speedbump into a positive, and “immediately you recognize that your body relaxes, your muscles aren’t as tense, you feel better and you have a better outlook for the rest of the day,” Alvord says. “It’s something that therapists learn, to catch themselves.”

TIME Web

The Best Websites to Help You Fall Asleep

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These mobile and desktop options will help create your perfect atmosphere for sleep

The science of sound can help you in many aspects of your life, from increasing concentration to creating the right atmosphere for a better night’s rest. The trick is to know which kind of sound will do the trick and the easiest way to access it. Fortunately, there are plenty of websites and apps that do just that.

Pink noise generators for better sleep

Do you notice that you sleep better when the rain falls steadily outside or the wind blows gently through the trees? That’s what researchers call pink noise, a combination of sounds that contain all of the frequencies that people can hear, with volume decreasing in high frequencies. This kind of pink noise “has significant effect on reducing brain wave complexity and inducing more stable sleep time to improve sleep quality of individuals,” according to the Journal of Theoretical Biology study. In comparison, white noise keeps the volume consistent across all frequencies and most people don’t find it as restful.

There are many apps that offer noise generation for better sleep, but be sure to only use the features that provide a steady, consistent sound, not intermittent noise.

Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug provides relaxing nature sounds that will help you sleep better at night. Make sure to enable plug-ins and download the free White Noise pack. In the pack, you can choose from white noise and pink noise. Bonus: it also comes with an alarm, snooze button and sleep timer.

Price: Free with premium plug-ins available at Google Play

Sleep Fan

Similar to falling rain, the noise of an electric fan also helps many get a better night’s sleep. This app, a favorite here at Techlicious, generates that exact sound for you. You can play a fan sound at low, medium or high speed and also set a time for how long you want the noise to play. It even plays as a background app, allowing your phone to go into sleep mode but still play fan sound through the night.

Price: $1.99 on iTunes

WhiteNoise

If you don’t like fan noises, try WhiteNoise. It has pink noise, brown noise (low frequency sound masking) and many more soothing sound. Plus, it gives you great flexibility for painting your own soundscape, mixing up to five sounds at once. Pay a little extra to get a recorder and generator to create your own sounds.

Price: $1.99 on iTunes and free on Google Play

Chroma Doze

This highly-rated, Android-only app generates white noise based an algorithm that you can control. Tweak the sound wave curve to get just the right kind of noise to help you sleep. The app is free, has no ads and will run in the background on your phone.

Price: Free on Google Play

Finally, if you are looking for an all-around effective noise generator, not just an app or sound file that mimics sounds, we highly recommend the Marpac DOHM-DS Natural White Noise Sound Machine ($47.95 on Amazon). It creates a soothing sound that helps block other sounds in your environment that may be distracting you.

Sound for better focus and concentration

No matter how many times experts remind us to turn off the distractions when we’re trying to get things done, most of us enjoy listening to music on the job. A little bit of whistle-while-you-work can boost flagging energy and bolster creativity — but too much of a good thing is a definite no-no.

What you need is the right noise for the job: ambient sound for creative focus, white noise for tight concentration or more relaxed soundscapes for calm efficiency or relaxation. If you’ve always suspected you do better and more rewarding work when you cart your laptop down to the local shop, research is on your side. When you’re trying to coax creativity out of hiding, moderate levels of ambient noise can provide just enough of a distraction to free the rest of your brain for broader thought.

A study in The Journal of Consumer Research shows that background noise as mundane as the hum of a coffee shop in full swing or the muffled chatter of a television in the other room can enhance performance. Apply that knowledge with discretion: Higher noise levels are too distracting, and tasks that require concentration and focus on detail are better performed in a quiet environment.

If your surroundings are already littered with distracting sounds and conversations, you might need white noise to mask the chaos. Be careful about playing these sounds too loudly, too close to you or for too long. A recent study shows that white noise used to keep babies drifting in a peaceful slumber could in fact damage their hearing.

Laptop, desktop and mobile browsers options

Ready to download some sound apps to help tune up your life? Not so fast. Our favorite sources for ambient sound, white noise, meditation gongs and calming music aren’t apps at all — they’re free websites you pull up right in your browser.

Coffitivity

Here’s the hottest spot to find that coffee shop ambience — what Coffitivity calls a “combination of calm and commotion” that inspires and supports creativity. Choose from several different vibes: “Morning Murmur” gives you the traditional hustle and bustle of the corner café; “Lunchtime Lounge” carries a little more energy; and “University Undertones” soothes you with the calmer sounds of a campus café.

Price: Free at coffitivity.com or for Mac desktop at iTunes; Coffivitity app free at Google Play and iTunes

Noisli

This ambient sound generator plays to maximum advantage on a second monitor because it includes a color generator that helps set the mood. Research also backs the role of color in influencing productivity. Using a blue desktop background, for example, can enhance creative performance, while red helps you attack and focus on nitty-gritty details. Noisli lets you toggle and layer as many sounds as you like to create your own tapestry of sound. Choose among coffee shop chatter, three types of white noise and nature sounds including rain, thunderstorms, waves, crackling fire and more. Still distracted? There’s also a text editor for distraction-free writing.

Price: Free at noisli.com or $1.99 on iTunes

myNoise.net

Here’s some serious noise. “Welcome to the convergence of serious audio engineering, creative sound design and the scientific understanding of human hearing,” reads myNoise’s introductory text. “The site you are about to enter is not just another of those soundscape websites but a serious tool oriented toward the needs of hearing professionals, sound therapists and people interested in noise machines in general.”

At myNoise, choose from sounds designed specifically for noise blocking, healthcare, sound therapy, meditation and tonal sound. The site allows you to calibrate much of the sounds to your own computer and hearing. Because the website is so robust, playing the noise generators from Mobile Safari (iOS) requires the larger RAM sizes of the newer iPads and iPhones; on Android tablets, Firefox 22 has been confirmed to play well.

Price: Free at myNoise.net and free with $0.99 for upgrade sounds on iTunes

App options for mobile productivity

If you’d prefer an app for your mobile device, you have plenty to choose from. Just remember to use earbuds or headphones if you’re going to use an ambient sound or white noise app on a mobile device; you’re seeking immersion in sound that surrounds you, after all.

Ambiance

For your iPhone or iPad, we like the capacious sound library of Ambiance. With this polished app, you get more than 2,500 free sounds, from ambient and urban environment (the traditional coffee shop mix plus many alternatives), binaural beats and more. You can mix multiple sounds to blend just the right custom sound.

Price: $2.99 plus $0.99 for premium sounds on iTunes

Naturespace

While the whole idea of these apps and tools is immersion, if you’re really committed to going deep, go Naturespace. Naturespace attempts to reproduce soundscapes in a 3-D environment; you hear the birds in the trees above you as well as what’s before and behind you. This is some of the best sound quality out there.

Price: Free with limited previews or purchases from $0.99 and up on iTunes and Google Play

White Noise Box

Looking for something free? White Noise Box is the ticket. You get all the basic sounds and features you need and expect.

Price: Free or $0.99 for premium (removes ads and pointer to the store) on iTunes and Google Play

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TIME Careers & Workplace

8 Life-Changing Lessons on How to Be Happy

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Start by smiling

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What makes us happy? Thirteen happiness experts, including psychologists, researchers, monks, and the inimitable Malcolm Gladwell, try to shed light on this surprisingly difficult question in a series of TED Talks about happiness.

Over and over, the same two themes emerge. First, we’re usually wrong about what will make us happy—or unhappy, for that matter. For example, research has demonstrated that people who win the lottery are no happier about that event one year later than if they’d lost the use of their legs instead. And second, happiness is largely a matter of choice. Which is good news, because it means we can pretty much all be happier if we want to be.

How can we make this happen? Here’s some of what the TED speakers advise:

1. Don’t expect happiness to be one-size-fits-all.

In a fascinating bit of product history, Gladwell recounts how the food industry discovered to its astonishment that some people like chunky tomato sauce. And what that discovery means in a broader context–that what makes me happy won’t necessarily do it for you, and vice versa.

2. Stop chasing things like success, fame, and money.

Or at least, keep chasing them but don’t expect them to make you substantially happier than you are right now. As psychologist Dan Gilbert explains, our brains have a defense mechanism that’s hard-wired to make us happy with the lives we have, whatever those may be. Even Pete Best, a drummer best known for getting fired by the Beatles just before they hit it big, now says he wouldn’t want it any other way.

3. Keep challenging yourself.

If you love your work, you’re good at it, and you’ve been doing it for a while, you probably have experienced “flow,” that state where you get so lost in what you’re doing that you forget yourself and everything else. That state of flow is where true happiness lies, says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and we can also find it when doing something creative, or even something recreational. But only so long as we keep challenging ourselves. Boredom is the opposite of flow.

4. Be generous.

Connecting with other people and feeling part of something larger than ourselves takes us a long way toward happiness. Social scientist Michael Norton recounts a fascinating experiment that proves–contrary to popular belief–that money can buy happiness, so long as you spend it on someone other than yourself. Not only will you have made someone else happy, you’ll have made yourself happy too, a happiness buy-one-get-one-free special.

5. Be grateful.

We tend to expect that being happy will make us feel grateful, but actually it’s the other way around, explains Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast–being grateful is what will make us feel happy. And gratitude is a choice, he says. How can we remember to be grateful? By reminding ourselves of all the gifts in our lives. Even something so simple as a water faucet was a true occasion for gratitude for Steindl-Rast after a stint in Africa where drinking water was scarce. When in time it started to seem ordinary again, he put a sticker on the faucet to remind himself what a wonderful thing it was.

6. Train your mind.

The way to do this is by meditating on compassion, says Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. It takes time, he says, but it’s worth doing. Brain scans show that monks who are practiced at such meditation show happiness activity in their brains that is “off the charts” compared with everyone else.

Though he doesn’t mention it, Ricard himself is the poster child for this approach. According to Google’s happiness guru Chade-Meng Tan, Ricard’s own brain scans show him to be the happiest person on the planet.

7. Smile!

It sounds too simple to be true, but research actually shows that if you smile, you’ll have better health, a better marriage and other relationships, and increased life expectancy, says HealthTap founder Ron Gutman. So if you haven’t smiled yet today, what are you waiting for?

8. Tell the truth.

In a highly personal talk, The Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler recounts the epidemic of worldwide violence against women she learned about as a result of her hit show. For a while, these stories threatened to overwhelm her. But then she found herself at the head of a movement to end that violence and give young girls in Africa a refuge from violence she herself had lacked as a child.

And then she says, she learned, “this really simple thing, which is that happiness exists in action; it exists in telling the truth…and giving away what you want the most.” That’s the kind of happiness all of us can reach for.

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article above was originally published at Inc.com.

TIME intelligence

Report Claims American Psychological Association Secretly Supported Torture Policy

An Iraqi security officer patrols the grounds at the newly opened Baghdad Central Prison in Abu Ghraib on February 21, 2009 in Baghdad.
Wathiq Khuzaie—Getty Images An Iraqi security officer patrols the grounds at the newly opened Baghdad Central Prison in Abu Ghraib on February 21, 2009 in Baghdad.

This is the first time the A.P.A. has been investigated on the interrogation program

The American Psychological Association secretly worked with the George W. Bush administration to justify a post-9/11 torture policy, says a new report released Thursday.

The report, written by six health professionals and human rights activists, analyzed over 600 e-mails that they claim show how the group assisted in morally and ethically justifying the Bush-era interrogation program after graphic photos surfaced in 2004 showing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq tortured by U.S. Army personnel.

“The A.P.A. secretly coordinated with officials from the C.I.A., White House and the Department of Defense to create an A.P.A. ethics policy on national security interrogations which comported with then-classified legal guidance authorizing the C.I.A. torture program,” the report concludes.

A spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association denied the accusations in the report, stating that there “has never been any coordination between A.P.A. and the Bush administration on how A.P.A. responded to the controversies about the role of psychologists in the interrogations program.”

The interrogation program has since been discontinued and was criticized by the extensive Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture last year.

[NYT]

TIME Addiction

Habitual Gamblers See Patterns Where There Are None, Study Says

Las Vegas Sands deceived a Nevada court in an attempt to stall a lawsuit by the former head of its Macau operations, a state judge ruled on Friday, fining the casino operator and abridging its right to object in a fight over key evidence. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS CRIME LAW SOCIETY) - RTR386IJ
Siu Chiu—Reuters A croupier sits in front of a gaming table inside a casino on the opening day of Sheraton Macao hotel at Sands Cotai Central in Macau September 20, 2012

"Gamblers are more willing to bet impulsively on perceived illusory patterns," researcher says

Researchers have found gamblers are more prone to find non-existent patterns in completely random sequences — and are more likely to bet on those erroneous perceptions — adding to a large amount of research that suggests pathological gambling is the result of cognitive distortions.

The study, published Wednesday in Springer’s Journal of Gambling Studies, says that all humans fall victim to illusory patterns — if a roulette ball lands on black five turns in a row, for example, it is normal to think that it must surely land on red next. But compulsive gamblers see more such imaginary patterns and are different to recreational gamblers by their increased likelihood to bet on the false trends.

“Our results suggest that gamblers are more willing to bet impulsively on perceived illusory patterns,” stated co-lead author Wolgang Gaissmaier in a press release.

In a laboratory, the team compared the betting habits of 91 habitual gamblers versus 70 people who were not. Participants were shown pictures of two slot machines and had to predict the winner, but the catch was one had a 67% chance of producing a win while the other machine produced a win only 33% of the time. Participants were not explicitly told of the probability difference but the study said it “could be learned from experience via feedback.”

The results showed that gamblers were more likely than non-gamblers to use ‘probability matching’ — or making predictions based on past results.

“They are overly prone to accept random series of events as, in fact, non-random — and non-random enough to be worth betting on,” said Gaissmaier.

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