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More Surprises about the Mind

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Following on my last blog, here are more telling tidbits from the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind.

kid smelling flower

Courtesy of Dennis Wong via Flickr.

Smelling the past. I don’t give much thought to odors, unless I have to purge one from the kitchen or car. So I had never considered the possibility that my ability to smell affects how I think and what I remember. But it turns out that that scents have a strong connection with memories of our personal past. As a story in the March issue of Mind notes, a whiff of an odor brings the mind farther back in time than do other sensory cues. Odors also have a unique power to summon emotional memories. Problems sensing odors often accompany cognitive deficits, and in part because of such ties, researchers hypothesize that some kind of smell training could stave off cognitive decline (see “Smells Like Old Times,” by Maria Konnikova).

Woman looking excited while fiance looks on

Courtesy of mrsraggle via Flickr.

I feel your pain–or joy. One of my more embarrassing recurring experiences is realizing that I am still talking to someone who clearly is not listening or wants to be doing something else. The person doesn’t generally say she is bored with my banter or anxious to get on with her life, but I can tell she is. I have always assumed that I received this implicit signal from reading my companion’s expression. It turns out, though, that the face doesn’t always adequately convey such sentiments. When we read emotions in others—an ability critical for good social skills—we usually rely on multiple sensory cues, including tone of voice, body posture and even smell (see “I Know How You Feel,” by Janina Seubert and Christina Regenbogen). And there are special regions of the brain dedicated to combining these components to figure out what someone is feeling. (For a tour of those regions, watch our video “Social Cues in the Brain.”)

easy button

An easy button, sold by Staples. Courtesy of Civilian Scrabble via Flickr.

That was easy. We all target certain aspects of our lives for improvement. Maybe we want to keep a cleaner house, save more money, lose weight or be kinder to others. Whatever your ambitions, an article in this issue offers tips for achieving them (see “The Secrets of Self-Improvement,” by Marina Krakovsky). One of my favorites is: take baby steps. People get discouraged when something seems too hard, but will work or try harder when a job seems easier or can be made to seem that way. My son’s room is very often a bit messy. He doesn’t like the job of cleaning it up, so instead of saying, “clean your room,” which sounds daunting to him, I say “pick up 10 things.” And then periodically, I ask the 10-year-old, “have you done your 10 things?” That job seems doable to him, so he’ll do it. His room does not suddenly resemble a showroom, but it stays livable—without me having to clean it. Similarly, I’ve seen my daughter refuse to do a pretty basic homework assignment because she has arbitarily decided it is too hard. On the other hand, she’ll tackle something arguably complex right away if she considers it easy. One strategy to making a task or assignment seem simpler is to break it into parts and make finishing just one part, or maybe two, the goal.

Thinking “easy” really does have a lot of power, no matter how you accomplish that psychological feat. Last year my daughter scored four goals in a soccer game. I asked her how that happened. “Well, mommy, at first I was scared,” she explained, referring to the start of the game. “But then I realized, ‘this is easy!’ “ Staples may be accomplishing more than promoting its own slogan with those buttons it is selling.

flower cupcakes

Make flower cupcakes--the easy way. Courtesy of Wendy Piersall via Flickr.

Action plans. If you really want to change, you not only need a realistic doable (“easy”) goal, you also need a plan for how you are going to make it happen—what psychologists call an “implementation intention.” If you are going to save a certain amount of money each month, where will you cut back? Will you make your lunch every day instead of buying it? If so, what will you put in it and when will you purchase those items? The other day, a doctor gave me a multipart eye-care regimen. No one aspect of it was hard, but I still had to figure out how to work it into my busy life. So I asked him a lot of questions about logistics and timing. He seemed surprised and said, “Wow time is really important to you.” “Yes, it is,” I told him. “But I also know that without a plan, this isn’t going to happen.” Doctors might be able to improve compliance with treatment regimens if they discuss such details with patients—dull and picky as they seem—even when the patients don’t ask.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Valley234 1:19 am 03/2/2012

    This article was very helpful to me. I understood the baby steps concept before, but a person forgets to use it. I plan to improve my life using a baby step or two. My husband is in serious need of losing weight. If I present just one small change to him that he can do, I think he may go for it. One step leads to another.
    Thanks Ingrid!

    Link to this

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