TIME Exercise/Fitness

10 Ways to Gear Up for Weight Loss

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A study released last week made fewer headlines than I hoped it would. Conducted by University College London, it concluded that discrimination against overweight and obese people, or “fat shaming” as it’s often referred to, leads to weight gain, not weight loss. The lead researcher stated, and I agree, that there is no justification for discrimination against people because of their weight, which may include being treated disrespectfully, or being harassed.

Trouble is, many of my clients fat shame themselves, and talk to themselves silently in ways that they’re often too embarrassed to share with me out loud. If you find yourself doing this, I hope you can stop, because in my 15+ years of helping clients lose weight, I’ve seen this pattern only lead to discouragement, or depression, and abandonment of health and weight loss goals.

If you really want to motivate yourself to slim down and healthy up, especially in ways that will last, consider these five dos and don’ts.

Don’t: Beat Yourself Up

In my experience, one of the main triggers of throwing in the towel is negative self-talk. Coming down hard on yourself for small indiscretions, like sneaking an extra square of dark chocolate, or taking a bite off your partner’s plate, can have damaging consequences, including emotional eating, or engaging in risky purging behaviors (e.g. compensating by undereating, overexercising, taking laxatives or diet pills, vomiting…). One exercise I often carry out with my clients is to compare how they talk to themselves to what they would say to their best friend if he or she were in the same circumstances.

HEALTH.COM: 9 Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic

The comparisons are eye opening, and the objective is to consciously work on adopting the same kind of nurturing, caring, and encouraging dialogue you use with the people you respect and love with yourself. I’ve seen just this one change result in major shifts in motivation, as well as transitions from on again/off again yo-yoing to steady, sustainable strides. In other words, just committing to being nice to yourself has the power to transform your relationship with food, your body, and your health.

Do: Celebrate Every Success

Most of my clients want to reward themselves when they hit their weight goal, perhaps with new clothes, a trip, or a spa service. But I encourage them not to wait. When you’re working on changing your lifestyle, there are numerous victories along the way, and each one should be honored. One client recently told me that it dawned on her that she automatically reaches for water over diet soda, and no longer misses her former daily fix—that’s a huge win! Another shared that her kids are now asking for fruits and veggies. A third remarked that everyone’s been commenting on how radiant her skin looks.

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Even if you’re still pounds away from your weight goal, revel in these achievements, and commemorate them, even if just in small ways, like buying flowers for your office or home, doing a happy dance in your living room, or taking a silly selfie to share with a friend. Recognizing these moments will keep you going, and it’s important to recognize that they’re really the foundation of your long-term success.

Don’t: Focus Solely on Your Weight

One of the reasons the “do” above is so important is that it creates a shift in perspective. When I’ve worked with clients who remain laser focused on weight, they’re often willing to compromise health for the sake of weight loss. For example, I’ve had really smart clients tell me they took up smoking, fully knowing the risks, as a means of losing weight. As a health professional that makes me very sad, and it’s one of the reasons why I talk to clients about things like mood, sleep quality, energy, immunity, digestive health, strength, endurance, and help them monitor health indicators like blood pressure, cholesterol, and liver values. I generally find that over time, all of these factors that contribute to wellness, become much stronger motivators than weight or size, because they so strongly influence day to day quality of life. When this happens, you may even decide to banish the scale altogether, which is incredibly freeing, because you’ll have far better—and less fickle—ways of gauging your progress.

Do: Find Positive Support

I hate to say it, but most of my clients have at least one person in their lives who either consciously or unconsciously sabotages their healthy efforts. It may be a significant other who doesn’t want to lose his or her partner in crime, so in turn brings home a box of donuts or a piping hot pizza. Sometimes it’s a competitive co-worker who becomes critical, or a family member who says things like, “You don’t need to lose weight.” A lack of support, even from those you’re close to, is a common conundrum for most people who’ve adopted healthier habits.

HEALTH.COM: 11 People Who Could Wreck Your Diet

You may not be able to change this, but you can counterbalance it by finding positive support. Even if your cheerleader or confidant is online or long-distance, just having at least one person in your corner who really gets what you’re trying to do and is on the same page can help you stay on track. Spending a little time each day on social media can also help as long as it’s empowering, so find ways to connect that make you feel like you’re not in this alone.

Don’t: Set Unrealistic Expectations

One of the biggest pitfalls I see is setting unrealistic expectations, either results-wise (e.g. I’m going to lose 30 pounds in 30 days), or behavior wise, such as vowing to work out seven days a week, or cut out all carbs. On the flip side, the lasting transformations I see—that is, people who lose weight healthfully and keep it off for good—come from focusing on progress and consistency, not strictness or perfection. You know yourself better than anyone else. If you can’t realistically see yourself maintaining a goal you’ve set for yourself one, three, or six months from now, modify it. When I ask my clients about their weight history, most tell me they’ve lost and gained back the same 20 or so pounds over and over again. And what finally allows them to shed it for good is ditching any approach they know that can’t stick with!

HEALTH.COM: 11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

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.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Reason You Make Unhealthy Choices

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Self love isn’t just for hippies and millennials. If you’re trying to stick to a diet or scrape together the motivation to get to the gym, it might be for you, too.

So finds a new meta-analysis published in the journal Health Psychology. Self-compassion—accepting yourself without judgment when times get tough—is linked to better health behaviors.

People often think that they are motivated by self-criticism, but a burgeoning area of research suggests the opposite. Being kind to yourself, as opposed to tearing yourself down, leads to fewer bad feelings and, in turn, healthier actions. One study found that when people were assigned to practice self-compassion, they were able to curb their smoking habit faster. The reason self-compassion works, researchers think, might be its ability to improve self-regulation: the follow-through you need to stay loyal to healthy behaviors.

This analysis looked at 15 studies of more than 3,000 total people across the age spectrum and discovered a link between self-compassion and four key health-promoting behaviors: eating better, exercising more, getting more restful sleep, and stressing less. People who were more self-compassionate practiced these health habits more often.

“So much research right now is suggesting that not engaging in these behaviors can be the precursor to a variety of different life-threatening and chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, you name it,” says study author Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at Bishop’s University in Quebec. Developing self-compassion is a way to commit to the behaviors you already know you should do, she says.

In addition to just being nice to yourself, self-compassion requires you to embrace that you’re part of the human race that shares common miseries, and mindfully recognize negative feelings without getting enmeshed in them. If that sounds impossible, Sirois assures us it’s not.

“One of the reasons we were quite excited by the findings is that self-compassion is a quality that can be cultivated,” says Sirois. Writing a letter to yourself—as if you were your own friend—and opening it up in times of stress or failure is one way to start, she suggests. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in this field of research, offers guided self-compassion meditations and exercises on her site.

Find out where you currently fall on the scientific scale for self-love here.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

9 Natural Treatments You Didn’t Know Actually Work on Depression

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Here are some treatments for depression that are not antidepressants

Depression is a tricky disease to treat, in part because it manifests so differently in those it afflicts. But promising new research shows there may be options outside the pill bottle and off the couch at a therapist’s office. That’s not to say you should stop taking prescribed antidepressants or break up with your therapist, but if you’d like to consider alternative treatments, read on.

TMS
A recent study on a kind of therapy called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses magnetic pulses to alleviate depression, showed that after a year of treatment, 68% of adult patients had improved depression symptoms and 45% had complete remission. Currently, TMS is used among patients who do not respond well to antidepressants, but some experts think the therapy could one day be used as a first-line treatment. In TMS, a large magnet is placed on the left side of a patient’s head, and magnetic pulses stimulate the under-active areas of the patient’s brain that are involved in mood regulation. The patient is awake the entire time, and there are few reported side effects aside from headaches in some. Other research published in August showed TMS could also have positive benefits for memory.

Acupuncture
Acupuncture is becoming an increasingly mainstream way in the U.S. to treat a wide variety of ailments from chronic pain to anxiety. The research to support its use for mental health disorders is still mounting in the West, but it’s thought that by inserting needles into parts of the body to manipulate energy can reduce tension. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) notes that it’s still unknown whether acupuncture’s effects as a therapy are placebo.

Interpersonal therapy
Interpersonal therapy focuses on patients’ relationships with other people and how an individual may be struggling with connections and communication. It’s commonly recommended for young people, and is typically viewed as a short-term depression treatment. It’s also thought to be helpful for when marriage problems arise. According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K., some research has suggested it could be as effective as antidepressants in certain cases, though more research is needed. Some studies show it can work as a first-line treatment, and it’s usually given in 12- to 16 one-hour weekly sessions.

Exercise
Scientists are increasingly showing that exercise improves mental health. For instance, Jasper Smits a psychologist with a clinic in Dallas has long recommended that therapists use exercise therapy for people who are not responding to other forms of treatments. In 2012, a clinical trial of heart failure patients found that regular exercise help alleviate depressive symptoms. It’s believed that exercise increases hormones like serotonin and dopamine in the brain, subsequently making people feel better.

Exposure therapy
For depression symptoms that may be related to other mental health issues like phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder, exposure therapy can help patients become more accustomed to and comfortable with things that used to bring them fear and anxiety. For example, if someone is afraid of flying, they my build up to taking an actual trip on a plane by starting with simply looking at images of airplanes. Johns Hopkins researchers report that it’s typically very successful if people can find the right therapist they can trust.

Mindfulness
Plenty of research supports meditation as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety. The mechanism is not entirely understood, but if a person can be acutely aware of what is happening in the present moment, the thought it is that they can relax and gain more focus. As TIME reported in January, many many cognitive therapists have started recommending it for patients as a way to deal with their anxiety and depression since it can mitigate stress.

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, “seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information… It helps a person see disturbing material in a less distressing way.” It’s still considered a fairly new type of therapy. As a patient goes through an unpleasant memory, they may watch moving lights, listen to tones and feel taps on their palm. It’s primarily used to treat PTSD, and still needs a lot more efficacy evidence. EMDR has had it’s share of controversy among researchers who question whether it really works.

Electric shock treatment
Also known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), shock treatment is fairly common treatment in which electric currents are passed through the brain and trigger seizures. It’s believed that the shocks interfere with brain chemistry that might be out of wack. ECT is considered much safer today than it was in the past–which too high doses were given resulting in negative side effects like memory loss and physical injury.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (including online and over the phone)
People are likely familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a talk therapy usually recommend for patients with moderate to severe depression. The idea behind cognitive behavioral therapy is to help patients understand the events or emotions behind their current status, and figure out ways to mitigate how they’re feeling day-to-day. Some recent research has suggested that cognitive therapy can work even if it’s not necessarily done face to face. In 2012, a study compared face-to-face therapy to therapy done over the phone and found that phone therapy was just as effective, and patients were more likely to stick with it. Some therapists will even do sessions via video chat, like Skype.

 

TIME Aging

You Asked: Do Brain Games Really Improve Memory?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Unhand the crossword: it's not your golden ticket to a lifetime of quick wit and perfect recall

Games sure seem like a good way to work your brain out, but don’t put your stock in Sudoku. “They target very specific cognitive abilities, but they don’t transfer to clarity of thinking, problem solving, planning—all the complex skills that really matter,” explains Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of Make Your Brain Smarter.

When it comes to keeping your brain real-world strong, research has shown–over and over again–two activities to be worth your time. The first is aerobic exercise, says Dr. Karen Li, head of Concordia University’s laboratory for adult development and cognitive aging.

By bolstering your cardiovascular fitness and blood circulation, exercise nourishes your brain with the nutrients and oxygen it needs to perform optimally, Li says. But physical activity offers more than just brain fuel. “Some brain regions and functions seem to benefit more than others,” she explains–specifically the frontal lobe, responsible for high-level skills related to complex processes like multitasking. “That tells us aerobic exercise helps the brain work more efficiently.”

Whether you enjoy running, speed walking, gardening or hiking, “as long as you sweat a bit and your heart rate goes up, that’s what your brain needs,” Li adds. Chapman agrees. “Skip the Sudoku and get out and exercise,” she says. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week.)

Along with physical activity, your brain needs mental stimulation to stay hale and fit. And when it comes to mental stimulation, novelty is important, Li explains. Here’s why: The more you use your mind to perform a task—whether it’s cooking your favorite dish or driving to the supermarket—the less effort your brain requires to complete that task. “If you feel like your brain’s on autopilot most or all of the time, that’s an indication that you need to increase the challenge a little bit,” she says.

One of the best ways to do that is to stay socially active, Li says. “Following and contributing to a conversation requires a lot of mental prowess.” Visiting intellectually invigorating places, like museums or cultural centers, and learning new skills are also great ways to keep your brain in shape. Even mixing in some variety when it comes to your favorite activities—like trying out a new recipe or cooking technique—will keep your mind off autopilot.

But there’s a catch. “It’s important that you feel genuine interest in these activities,” Li says. Practicing a foreign language for 30 minutes a day is a good way to challenge your brain, but if you feel meh about one day speaking fluent French, your mind won’t benefit as much as it would from something that truly excites or interests you.

If museum visits or learning new languages doesn’t float your boat, Chapman offers an alternate way to fire up your idling brain. “Challenge yourself to think in top-down, complex ways as you go about your day,” she recommends. When you watch a television show or read an article (like this one), pause once you’ve finished to really dissect the information you’ve just encountered. “Zoom out, then zoom in,” Chapman says. Start as broadly as you can (this is a health article) and work your way down (about the brain) until you’ve gotten to the nitty gritty—things like themes or lessons you could take away from what you’ve just seen or read (surely, too numerous to list).

“People take in a lot of information—probably more than we ever have before—but it’s not making us smarter because we’re not spending much time making sense of it,” Chapman says. “Try to push yourself out of your mental comfort zone by asking what about the information matters.”

This is especially important for older retired adults who aren’t faced with the everyday intellectual challenges presented by work or school. “We’re all going to be living longer,” Chapman says. “Along with aerobic exercise, engaging your brain in complex ways is absolutely necessary to keep your mind sharp in the second half of life.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

70% of People Suffer After Violent Crime, But Few Get Help

Victims who knew the perpetrator were more likely to report it

Nearly 70% of people endure severe social or emotional problems after being the victim of a violent crime, but only about 12% of those who had problems received help from victim services, according to a new report from the Department of Justice. Just over half of victims who suffered from socio-emotional problems reported the crime to the police.

“A victim with socio-emotional problems may experience a range of emotional and physical symptoms,” the report reads, citing anxiety, trouble sleeping and depression.

Trends varied across demographic groups, particularly gender. Women were much more likely than men to experience socio-emotional problems. Nearly 80% of women who suffered from a serious violent crime said they had such problems, while only 58% percent of their male counterparts said the same.

Whether the victim knew the crime’s perpetrator also affected whether they experienced social or emotional problems. Victims harmed in acts of intimate partner violence were more likely to experience issues, regardless of the type of crime. Nearly three in four victims of intimate partner violence suffered from physical problems, with 61 percent saying they had trouble sleeping.

The report, which looked at data from more than 160,000 people across the U.S., also found low rates of reporting violent crime. Only about a third of victims who experienced severe distress reported the crime to the police. About half of victims who knew the perpetrator reported the crime, while 41% of those who didn’t know the offender did so.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

4 Things People Don’t Tell You About Major Weight Loss

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Losing weight and getting healthier should be a good thing…right? Well, as Rosie O’Donnell told ABC News, shedding a lot of pounds may not instantly change your life for the better.

O’Donnell recently returned to hosting The View after leaving the talk show in 2007. She suffered a heart attack in 2012 and since then, she had a procedure known as a vertical gastric sleeve and dropped 50 pounds. Unlike a gastric bypass, which re-routes how your stomach processes food, a vertical sleeve gastrectomy removes a large portion of the stomach, leaving it about the size of a banana, according to the National Institutes of Health.

It’s hard to imagine seeing any downsides to slimming down, especially since people who are overweight are more prone to serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Still, O’Donnell says it took some adjusting to get used to her new body.

“Everyone assumes that obese people would just be jumping for joy that they were healthier and thinner,” O’Donnell told ABC News. “But it’s also filled with a lot of emotional turbulence you wouldn’t expect.”

In fact, a UK study published in the journal PLOS One found that losing weight may not alter your mood the way you might expect. Of the 1,979 overweight and obese participants, 14% lost at least 5% of their initial body weight. After controlling for factors like serious health issues and major life events, researchers found more than half of the people who lost weight were more likely to report being depressed.

That may be because weight loss doesn’t address any underlying problems you may have. “Sometimes other things are making you unhappy, and the expectation that weight loss will fix it doesn’t pan out, which makes you even more unhappy,” says Gail Saltz, MD, Health‘s contributing psychology editor.

Here are some surprising things people might not think about when it comes to losing weight:

You may not be prepared for increased attention

Not many people may have gone out of their way to talk to you when you were overweight, and the attention that may come with your new look could be shocking at first. “Some people keep weight on unconsciously to protect themselves from intimacy with others,” Dr. Saltz says. This is especially true in settings of sexual intimacy. The fear of being hit on or being sexual with others may terrify some so much it causes them to regain the weight, Dr. Saltz says.

Your partner may not be supportive

O’Donnell says her partner encouraged her to be healthy, but that may not be the case for everyone. “A lot of marriages break up once one person gets healthy,” she told ABC News. Your partner might feel threatened by your weight loss for a number of reasons. A big one is they’ll fear others will want you or you’ll look better than them, Dr. Saltz says. Your shaping up forces your significant other to think about their own health choices, which they may not be prepared to handle. Another problem: Your partner may worry about how your personality might change. “You feeling great, sexy, or confident could shift the balance of the relationship,” Dr. Saltz says. “They fear losing the identity of the more confident one or losing the upper hand.” Many of these challenges could apply to friendships, too.

Your clothing options may feel scary

It’s not uncommon to feel unsure about shopping outside of plus size stores or sections. “It may be unexpected to feel nervous and conflicted about styles you might not have worn before because they are body revealing,” Dr. Saltz says. After losing weight, you may not know how to react to clothes that fit your body in new ways—not to mention the hefty price tag that comes along with buying a new wardrobe.

Your body might not match your expectations

Being thinner doesn’t mean your body will look “perfect” to you now. Loose skin, a flat behind, and sagging breasts are all changes that might accompany weight-loss procedures or lifestyle changes that help you shed a lot of pounds. Those changes won’t go away overnight either. And when your reflection doesn’t match what you imagined, you may feel more disappointed that there’s no healthy lifestyle change to fix the problem right away, Dr. Saltz says.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

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12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

How to Do the Perfect Squat

19 Medical Tests All Adults Need

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

3 Surprising Reasons You’re Burned Out at Work

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You’re so over your job: the endless stream of emails, catty coworkers, unpaid overtime—the reasons go on and on. But a new study published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology found it’s not only office problems that wear you down (though on-the-job factors can definitely affect you, too). Here, three other things that may be causing your work burnout:

You’re not getting enough support at home

Feel like you can’t vent to your partner about your day? Turns out having an understanding significant other is just as important as having a supportive boss in preventing work burnout, the Canadian researchers found. If you feel like your partner doesn’t get where you’re coming from, be it at work or at home, have a sit-down with them and talk about how a little listening can go a long way.

You’re not social enough

And we’re not talking about Facebook. People who had the support of a social network outside the office hadfewer mental health issues associated with job burnout, the study also found. So take the time to meet with your friends for coffee or a drink after work, even if you’re not in the mood after long day. And if most of your friends are your officemates, consider joining a social group that syncs with a hobby or pastime (think hiking or reading) that’s well-removed from your work social circle.

You’re not taking a lunch break

Well, at least not away from your desk. A separate study from the University of Toronto found that skipping your lunch break can make you less motivated and less productive. Researchers say this habit can drain your psychological energy by lunchtime and doesn’t give you time to recharge. So while you may think you’re being an office star by eating your salad at your desk, you may actually feel more sluggish and get less done (potentially leading to later nights on the job). A survey by tech company the Draugiem Group takes it one step further: They found the most productive people got up once every 52 minutes (for 17-minute breaks, but that seems like a bit much). Try starting with an actual lunch break, and go from there.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

More from Health.com:

12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

14 Foods That Make You Look Older

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

One Dose of Antidepressant Changes the Brain, Study Finds

One dose of antidepressant is all it takes to change the brain, finds a small new study published in the journal Current Biology.

The study authors took brain scans of 22 healthy people who weren’t depressed and who had never before taken antidepressants. Some were randomized to take a dose of the most common kind of antidepressant, an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

After another brain scan three hours later, researchers saw a dramatic change: a widespread drop in connectivity throughout the brain, except where it was enhanced in two brain regions, the cerebellum and thalamus.

The results suggest that antidepressants may alter brain connections much faster than previously thought. “We were surprised,” says study author Julia Sacher, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in an email to TIME. “We were not expecting the SSRI to have such a prominent effect on such a short time-scale and the resulting signal to encompass the entire brain.”

Antidepressants are generally thought to take several weeks to kick in. “It is possible that these connectivity changes are the first step in remodeling the brain, as there is evidence from other experiments that such functional connectivity changes can reflect neuroplastic change,” Sacher says.

“However, much work remains before we understand how different antidepressants affect the brains of people with and without depression, not only after the first dose, but also over the longer term. The hope that we have for future studies is to uncover distinct differences in brain connectivity between depression patients who ultimately respond to an antidepressant and those who do not.”

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 Mental Health/Psychology

Your Dreams Get More Bizarre as the Night Goes On

As the night wears on, your dreams escalate in weirdness, finds a small new study published in the journal Dreaming.

For two nights, the researchers outfitted 16 people with a sleep-monitoring eyelid sensor and head sensor, then proceeded to wake each person up at four different times in the night. Sleepers were asked to say what they’d been dreaming, and in the morning, they listened to their dreams and answered questions about them, like how related the dreams were to their waking life.

“We found that dreams were increasing in bizarreness from the early to late night,” says study author Dr. Josie Malinowski, a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in the U.K. The later dreams were more fantastical, impossible, and completely unlikely to ever happen in real life, “like a wild animal tearing up your back garden,” she says. Dreams also tend to become more emotional—in equal ways positive and negative—as the night progresses.

In the early stages of sleep, people dream more about media they’d consumed during the day, like a movie they’d watched or book they’d read. Dreams about events that happened during waking life, however, were more robust later in the night.

Some dream researchers, including Dr. Malinowski, believe you can prime the brain to dream about a particular topic through “dream incubation,” and that dreams might be able to help us problem-solve. Exploring these dreams can help people understand their own behavior, thoughts and feelings, Dr. Malinowski says.

And through her research, she’s trying to get people to take dream therapy more seriously. “People really enjoy it,” she told TIME. “Dreams are like a safe space. People feel like they haven’t generated them because they’re often so bizarre. [But] they’re a safe way to explore the self.”

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