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It’s the monkey’s fault

Joshua Lee (’24) discusses some strategies for self-control from Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. “…individuals can strengthen self-control, similar to how muscles become stronger through exercise.”

I often find myself procrastinating when confronted with a writing assignment. I find writing to be more convoluted than other subjects, such as mathematics. In mathematics, there is one—and only one—correct answer. The subjective nature of writing was causing me to set aside writing assignments until the very last minute. I was searching for remedies to procrastination when I stumbled upon the book The Willpower Instinct. This book has been of tremendous help to me, and with courses increasing workloads, I wanted to share some valuable insights from it.

Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Willpower Instinct, explains that two sections of the brain constantly clash: the monkey and the rational self. The monkey is the obstacle that prevents humans from becoming more fit, spending less, and losing weight; it is the part of the brain that prioritizes instant gratification. The monkey is the reason people binge-watch Netflix shows instead of doing math homework. In contrast, the rational self reflects a person’s true desires and goals. McGonigal asserts that the only way to restrain the monkey from controlling decisions is to strengthen self-control.  

To successfully practice delayed gratification (the act of resisting an immediate reward for a more valuable future reward), people must utilize self-control for the three powers listed below:

  1. The “I will” power: the ability to make decisions that improve quality of life;
  2. The “I won’t” power: the ability to prevent decisions that may hinder success or happiness;
  3. The “I want” power: the ability to make choices that align with long-term goals, not instant gratification.

It takes people immense willpower to consistently make decisions that bring them closer to fulfilling their long-term goals. Fortunately, individuals can strengthen self-control, similar to how muscles become stronger through exercise. Self-control is critical in living a successful and fulfilling life, so what are some strategies to improve it?

Meditation is an effective method for building self-control. With just 11 hours of meditation, the brain begins to increase neural connections between regions of the brain that are important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Most individuals avoid meditation because they claim it takes too much time, but five to ten minutes is more than enough to yield fruitful results. Referred to as the “miracle drug,” exercise is another way to train willpower. Not only does it increase gray matter (brain cells) and white matter (nerve fibers that enable communication within the brain), but it serves as a powerful antidepressant. The intensity of exercise can depend on the person. Not everyone is a marathon runner: walking five minutes is better than no exercise. Although strengthening willpower is essential to defeating the monkey, becoming acquainted with the monkey’s deceptive tactics is just as important.

Moral licensing is when the brain justifies a bad behavior by praising good behavior. For instance, a shopper who restrained themself from purchasing fancy clothes may go home and enjoy sweets, or a student who worked hard on a project at school may justify playing video games for the rest of the day. Another common trick the monkey uses to make people relapse back into addiction or break good habits is recognized as the What The Hell Effect. The effect occurs when a person indulges in harmful behavior. For example, if a person on a diet ate a slice of cake, they may feel ashamed that they ruined their diet. The emotions of guilt and shame cause the dieter to indulge in even more unhealthy foods in an attempt to make themselves feel better, resulting in a downward spiral back to their old self.

The information and strategies I shared in this blog post only scratch the surface of The Willpower Instinct, so if what you read here sounded intriguing, I highly recommend reading the entire book for yourself. 

How Powerful can our Clothing Choices be?

Elena Mychaliska (’23) discusses how design choices-from fashion to interior design-influence both our perceptions of others and how we feel. “…enclothed cognition …is the effects of clothing on cognitive processes. Studies show that our mood can be affected depending on what we wear.”

As the premier of the new season of The Crown nears, and Princess Diana’s iconic, and symbolic, style makes its way back into the media, I cannot help but find myself fascinated by the power of clothing. Whether it be her iconic black sheep sweater or the famous revenge dress, it was one of her most notable forms of communication with her audience: communicating happiness, sadness, and even rebellion. 

Princess Diana’s life can serve as a case study of the influential role clothing plays in how a person is perceived: used as a tool to communicate aspects of a person’s identity, their emotions, and their goals. This phenomenon, or better yet strategy, of careful fashion choices is so influential it has been used as a tactic by the most wealthy and powerful people in the world throughout history. Independent of Princess Diana, newly elected, far-right Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, has been seen consistently wearing Armani, since her swearing in. Georgio Armani’s position on dressing controversial politicians is that fashion “goes beyond politics”. As a classic, politically neutral, “made in Italy” brand, it is hard to criticize, making it the perfect choice for the controversial new Prime Minister. But the impact of our clothes does not stop there.

Not only do clothes heavily impact how others view and treat you, it also impacts how people themselves behave. In 2012, a study was conducted at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in which people were asked to perform tasks while wearing a white coat. Those that wore a white coat, believing it belonged to a doctor, had sharp increases in their ability to pay attention. Whereas, those that wore the white coat believing it belonged to a painter showed no improvement in their ability to pay attention. 

This phenomenon is called enclothed cognition, which is the effects of clothing on cognitive processes. Studies show that our mood can be affected depending on what we wear. Moreover, it has been observed that our emotion upon waking up can have an effect on what we choose to wear on that given day. Happy clothes, or clothes that evoke positive emotions, have a tendency to be flattering and made from bright, beautiful fabrics. Sad clothes, or clothes that evoke negative emotions, however, are just the opposite. Although, this is subjective. Generally, positive clothes are ones that the person feels the most comfortable in. When I think of school design, color palette and furniture selection play a significant role. There are many conscious choices regarding what evokes calming and productive feelings. Green, blue, and beige. Couches, lamps, and rugs. In thinking about how to encourage success in an academic setting, clothing could have a similar effect, following school design as being a new piece of the academic success puzzle, amongst a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast. Making this a conscious element of school preparedness and success could significantly improve how people feel when taking a math test or completing an English essay, or even socializing with their peers. So next time you go to bed, do yourself a favor and pick out your outfit for the next morning-it could help you on your next assignment!

The Cherry on Top

Nina Taleb-Bendiab (’23) reflects on how a pervasive attitude of perfectionism impacts student learning & writing. “It is not sustainable for our motives to solely be based on outcomes. We need to learn how to accept failures as opportunities and realize that perfection doesn’t automatically equate to extreme success.”

Most people know the saying “the cherry on top”. Which refers to that one detail or factor that makes something already good, better or maybe even perfect. While I do like a good cherry on my ice cream, the figurative meaning of this phrase is overrated. 

Now why would I think that? First off, the implication that one defining thing can make something perfect is unrealistic. Secondly, this phrase gives false notions that perfection exists. There are many misconceptions about perfectionism and not enough knowledge on why it can be harmful. The concept of always trying to improve isn’t a bad thing; but, the motive behind perfectionism is. Learning that improvement is only good for some sort of successful outcome is what creates this negative outlook. A lot of the time kids are exposed to this mindset from a young age. Especially with this generation, the pressure of getting a perfect SAT score, 5 on an AP exam, 4.0 gpa, etc. has become extremely harmful. Many think that pushing someone to always strive for a desired outcome is the path to success. In reality, it’s teaching people to always yearn for some intangible product and frequently leaving people with a feeling of dissatisfaction, even if so much effort has been put into their work.

I find that perfectionism is highly prevalent in high schoolers and more specifically when they are writing. I personally have struggled with it for a lot of my life. With college essays, AP classes and more advanced writing pieces there is this pressure looming over people making them extra critical and anxious about their work. After researching on the topic of perfectionism in writing I came across an article from the NIH which looked at the science behind a growth mindset. In a study. children were tested through a game where they were incentivized based on effort and persistence. Results indicated that the children ended up doing better at the game when they started at a low performance and worked their way up to mastery.

Most people have become familiarized with the term “growth mindset” and have noted it as a good thing. But going even deeper, studies have shown how important learning to strive for improvement instead of perfection is.

In today’s day and age we live in a world where everyone is always striving for perfection. It’s time we rid ourselves of that negative mindset and stop putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves. It is not sustainable for our motives to solely be based on outcomes. We need to learn how to accept failures as opportunities and realize that perfection doesn’t automatically equate to extreme success. To be successful it requires growth: personal, social, academic, etc.

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there

Rory Brater (’23) advocates for teachers and administrators to have greater understanding for students impacted by concussion. “…concussions can be just as serious as a broken ankle or torn ACL. Just because you can’t physically see an injury, doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

According to the CDC, one in five high school athletes will experience a concussion every season. A major issue is that concussions can be injuries that people don’t know they have. This is because they’re hard to diagnose and doctors still aren’t sure exactly what they are. A concussion is different from say an ankle injury, in that there’s often no physical change in appearance, like swelling. The Mayo Clinic  refers to a concussion as a traumatic brain injury(TBI) that affects your brain function. This injury can cause countless symptoms such as: headaches, pressure in the head, nausea, balance problems, dizziness, sensitivity to light and noise, confusion, and a feeling of “being down.” These are just a few of the many symptoms that a person can experience if they have a concussion. Frequently, victims of concussions may relate their symptoms to dehydration, not eating enough, not sleeping enough or in some cases, depression. 

In a volunteer survey that I created, I found that 92% of respondents were unsure about what a concussion was before they had one. Through this same survey, I also found that 89% of the respondents saw dropping grades. One person said that their grades took such “a drastic fall” that by “the end of the trimester and [they were] healthy, there was not enough time to improve [their] grades that [they] had to take a pass/fail.” The issue here is that there is not enough information about concussions for students, parents, teachers and even administration.

I was one of these students whose grades dropped while having a concussion. As I was playing varsity soccer for Skyline last spring, I endured three concussions within 4 months. When I got my first concussion, I was confused as to why my head was pounding so hard and why I couldn’t open my eyes without excruciating pain in my head. I went to Neurosport at the University of Michigan to receive treatment and therapy for my brain; this consisted of vestibular therapy(for my eyes) and neck therapy, because of the incredible strain on my neck that had been caused by less strength in my head. 

I tell my story, not for pity, but to educate others. To show others that concussions can be just as serious as a broken ankle or torn ACL. Just because you can’t physically see an injury, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Beyond this, my experiences with concussions have taught me that you can’t see everything about a person on the surface; you never know what one is going through or the pain they feel past the smile they put on their face. Something important to keep in mind is that kindness and understanding should always be at the forefront of your actions. Without these two things, accommodating others’ situations is not possible and neither is creating a “safe” space. 

All I truly want to say is this: Always be understanding because you never know what’s happening beneath the surface.

Music: The Perfect Study Tool 

Vera Naines (’25) explores how music impacts our focus and study habits. “The human brain, in some sense, is an enigma. There are tons of ins and outs to enhance its performance, and music is one of them.”

Recently, I’ve been doing a fair amount of studying due to the quickly approaching finals. I go downtown, make my way to a campus study spot, put headphones on, and get to work. I look up to view the people around me and notice something we all have in common: we’re listening to music. This made me wonder… is there a deeper reason why so many students listen to music while working? Turns out there is, and it has all to do with our brains and how they function. 

As you might know, sound travels as soundwaves. When these hit our eardrums, the vibrations are turned into electrical signals by the tens of thousands of nerve endings in our ears. These signals then travel to the brain which has to do a lot of work to interpret them. This is where the magic happens. Music is great for studying because it turns on parts of the brain that might have been dormant. It also has different effects in each part of the brain. For example, when you listen to music, the nucleus accumbens releases dopamine. Nucleus accumbensis the part of your brain responsible for turning motivation into action. In fact, music is a form of treatment for ADHD, which is partly characterized by lack of dopamine, because of its ability to release it.  Dopamine is so important because it makes you happy. This improves creativity by broadening your mindset and increasing the desire to explore. Music also stimulates the secretion of adrenaline, serotonin, and other hormones responsible for upping levels of energy and mental focus. Plants have even been shown to have better growth when exposed to classical music!

Music can and should be used to help your brain promote and sustain productivity. The only question is what type of music to listen to. Different types of music do different things, so you can pick and choose the genre for what you want it to do. Listening to music you might have listened to long ago can help bring back memories. Listening to happy music increases divergent thinking. In terms of studying, though, there are some types that rise above the rest. Anything with no lyrics works best as to not distract you with meanings. Slow blues and jazz are great for this reason, and because they enhance alertness and creativity as the tune changes unexpectedly. However, classical music is, in my opinion, the best. It has all of the positive effects previously mentioned, plus a decrease in stress due to the calming effect of it. Generally, no matter what music, it is important to keep the volume at the right level so it doesn’t drown your thoughts, but it still blocks background noise. 

The human brain, in some sense, is an enigma. There are tons of ins and outs to enhance its performance, and music is one of them. So next time you find yourself studying, try it out. Put on some tunes, and feel the power for yourself.