Apr 27, 2010


Life is full of risks. They can range from the remote, like getting struck by lightning, to the everyday, like getting into a fender-bender on your way to class. However, some individuals actively seek-out risky activities, and according to research, that kind of behavior is more commonplace in adolescents. In fact, the military will specifically target a younger crowd when looking for recruits, not just for their physical ability, but for their increased willingness to risk their lives in combat as well. So - why do we like to take more risks when we’re young?

Scientists believe a lot of it has to do with biology and psychology. When we’re teenagers, our brains are still developing, in particular the parts that govern risk assessment and emotion. And if examined under the light of our evolutionary past, it would make sense that greater risk-taking would accompany sexual maturity.

But instead of hunting with spears or interacting with potentially hostile neighbors, humans nowadays typically get their risky-fix from other activities, like partying hard, smoking, or driving aggressively, to name just a few.

However, a recent study that examined the brains of teenagers seems to contradict the widely-held belief that thrill-seeking youth have less developed brains than their less adventurous peers. In fact, the study revealed that adolescents who thrive on dangerous activities actually exhibit more “adult-like” frontal white matter. Whether this development comes from the dangerous activity or the dangerous activity comes the development is unclear.

In general, humans are consummate risk-takers. Thankfully, we no longer have to wrestle with saber-toothed tigers to get an adrenaline rush- modern society can provide plenty of outlets for some “calculated” risk-taking. The next time you feel like doing something crazy, try a roller coaster. Or, you could take your ride out for some fast laps at a local track day. Or maybe try your hand at climbing at a nearby rock gym. The point is- there’s an underlying reason for those crazy impulses. Put them to good use.

Apr 19, 2010

How We Handle Stress

Student life can be full of stressful situations. Social pressures, academic demands, bloated schedules- there really isn’t a shortage of sources for stress. But it’s how we handle these situations that can really affect how we live. We’ve already looked at the importance of relaxation, so this week we’ll take a closer look at the inner workings of the stressed out student.

When people face a challenge, they can react in a pattern known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is a hardwired biological process wherein the body basically prepares to either defend itself (“fight”) or run away (“flight”). The response includes rapid breathing and heart beat, dilation of the blood vessels, heightened reflexes, and just about everything else you would expect in preparation of a life-or-death situation. Unfortunately, the brain will trigger these types of reactions during everyday, physically non-threatening activities (like public speaking) - it treats talking in front of people and being eaten by a lion in the same fashion.

The fight-or-flight response is critical in certain situations (better reaction time in an auto accident) and annoying in others (sweating during a presentation). Some people actually find pleasure in seeking out very stressful situations. But when stress becomes ever-present (or, “chronic”), the body never has a chance to relax and will quickly deplete itself of vital resources by constantly triggering fight-or-flight.

While stress could stem from a variety of sources, the reaction is generally the same: first, the body produces adrenal hormones as the nervous system (heart rate, breathing, etc.) goes into overdrive. The body is put on full alert and every function works double-time. If the source of stress in not removed after this initial reaction, the body will start to lower adrenal output and try to adapt by utilizing the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates body function at rest. If the stress remains, the body will deplete itself of resources and eventually succumb to illness.

While individual personality can go a long way towards determining how you will react under stress, awareness of the stressors in your life and the way in which your body responds will help you become happier and healthier. Check out this post on a few ways to relax, and the next time you get stuck in traffic, remember- it’s not like you’re being eaten by a lion.

Apr 13, 2010

How to Wake Up When You Want To

Sometimes, dragging yourself out of bed in the morning can be the most difficult thing in the world. Frequently, the transition from sleep to waking is forcibly rendered by a loud buzzer and shot of caffeine as you rush out the door. If this sounds like you, don’t worry- here are a few ways you can rise earlier and make morning time more pleasant!

First, let’s investigate a few of the natural processes associated with sleep. As you may have learned, sleep is directed by two important biological rhythms- the ninety-minute cycle and circadian rhythms. These processes make up the ticking of our internal “clock” and affect things like body temperature, attention, memory, and brain wave activity. Basically, the body requires these rhythms to regulate health and cognitive function. Without proper cycling, several negative consequences may occur.

So, sleep is good. But if you’re the kind of person that wears out the “Snooze” button on their alarm clock, then you already knew that. The key is getting enough while maintaining a busy schedule.

Self-discipline is part of the equation. The next time you wake up to find your motivational side arguing with your sleepy side, start small. Wiggle your toes a little bit. Then flex your fingers. Stretch out and try to make your way from under the covers, one body part at a time. Don’t wait until the last moment possible- the time you literally must jump out of bed.

Light can be a great alternative to stimulants in the morning. Try cracking your blinds a bit before falling asleep so sunlight will accompany your alarm- the light will help you produce serotonin, which will give you a boost as you come out of the sleep cycle. Darkness, on the other hand, produces melatonin, which will put you (or keep you) asleep. If your bedroom doesn’t get a lot of light, or you need to wake up before sunrise, try a “sunrise” alarm clock, which is basically a bedside light that slowly gets brighter as the preset time approaches. While expensive, these gadgets will go a long way towards starting your day right.

One final tip- go to bed whenever you’re tired, but wake up at the same time every day. If you aren’t ready to sleep at a specific time in the evening, don’t try to force it. The next morning, however, push yourself to get up at your set time. If your body didn’t go through its rhythms, you’ll probably feel sluggish during the day, but that will put you to sleep earlier at night. The faster your body falls into a pattern, the better you’ll feel. While difficult at first, you eventually won’t even need to look at a clock- you’ll have your own ticking away inside you!

Apr 5, 2010

A Case for the Arts

Alongside widespread concerns over shrinking budgets, there seems to be a lot of focus on cutting down course offerings to only the absolute barebones “essentials”. Unfortunately, that means programs like music and painting are usually the first on the chopping block. That’s bad news for any student who looks forward to art as a brief respite from the regular scholarly rigor of tests and lectures. Obviously, art classes provide an essential opportunity to indulge in the creative over the analytical, and give many a much sought-after avenue for self-expression. But is there more value to art class than simple creativity? Could creating art actually make you smarter?

As scientists learn more and more about how the brain functions, certain aspects of human thought become a focus in an effort to explain and possibly boost mental performance. Aspects like intelligence and creativity are of particular interest and in the quest to unravel the secrets behind these dauntingly complex functions, a few interesting correlations have been discovered.

Music lessons, for example, can actually increase IQ. Other studies point to improvements in attention, memory, reading, and science and math.

These benefits stem from a variety of activities, such as acting, dance, singing, playing an instrument, and the visual arts.

We’ve already explored the benefits of music in a few different forms, including the so-called “Mozart Effect” and the practical benefits of musicianship. As modern science continues to uncover the many benefits of practicing the arts, students should think about taking up an elective that interests them. If your particular choice is not offered by your school, think about checking out an after-school alternative and talk to your school administration to see if you can get course credit. Finally, make it known that you value arts education and take action before these important courses fall to a limited budget.