9 Clever Ways to Hack Your Brain Today


We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event hosted by Bryant Gumbel. The special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.

From relieving pain to winning games, these 11 tricks have got you covered.


The doctor’s office, the needle, the pain … nobody likes getting shots. We can’t do anything about the needle or the doctor, but there is a really easy way to reduce the pain: just cough. Scientists in Germany administered two rounds of shots to a group of 20 people. The first time, the test subjects just sat there. The second time, they were instructed to cough as they got the shot. Nineteen out of 20 test subjects reported feeling less pain during the second shot.


Wearing perfume or cologne makes you more attractive to the opposite sex—even when they can’t smell it. Researchers asked women to rate the attractiveness of men in photos and on video. The guys in one group had sprayed themselves with a super-manly scented deodorant, and the other guys were unscented. In still images, the results were as you might expect: those with more attractive features were rated as more attractive. But once the women saw the guys moving around on videotape, they consistently rated the men wearing body spray as hotter. What’s behind this? Attitude. The men who thought they smelled good behaved more confidently, which made them more attractive.


Our brains may be incredibly complex, but in many ways, we’re all just overgrown toddlers. When we see something we like, we want to touch it, but touching things just makes us want them more. Stores and salespeople know this; it’s why display models and test-drives exist. But the problem runs even deeper: once we’ve got something in our paws, we’re even willing to pay more for it. So if your wallet has seemed a little emptier these days, try practicing what we teach preschoolers: keep your hands to yourself.


Did you ever wonder why olde-tymey European pirates wore eye patches? It’s not just because they look cool (although they do). Sailors move between a ship’s decks many times a day. Each time they go below deck, their eyes have to adjust to the dark, and vice versa. This can take a while, and we all know pirates were on a tight schedule. Historians believe they made do with a brain hack that you can use today: keep one eye in the dark by covering it with an eye patch or your hand. By the time you move below deck (or into the dark bathroom at night), you’ll have one eye ready. 


Everybody gets angry, and once in a while, everybody snaps. But some people snap a lot more than others. Scientists say the difference between frequent exploders and everyone else isn’t that the exploders have more anger; it’s that they have less self-control. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Researchers found that simply by using their nondominant hands for mundane tasks (eating cereal, opening doors, etc.) for two weeks, their self-control improved. The theory is that self-control is like a muscle. It can be strong or weak, energized or tired. And just like a muscle, it can be strengthened. Each time a person has to deal with the aggravation of pouring a drink with the wrong hand, it strengthens their self-control. Like any exercise, the process can be painful at first, but over time, the work pays off. 


Whether it’s love or war (or sports, anyway), wearing red will increase your chances of victory. Both men and women are consistently rated as sexier when they’re wearing red. In close matches, athletes wearing red are far more likely to beat their opponents. The advantage is so marked that some researchers have suggested a ban on red uniforms, which may give one side an unfair advantage. The reason for these phenomena may be embarrassingly simple. In many primate species, certain relevant body parts flush red when an animal is ready to mate. In other species, redness is a sign of dominance or aggression. Humans are primates too, so it’s not too surprising the signals have translated. 


There are two surefire ways to deal with drowsiness or flagging energy. The first is coffee, and the second is a power nap. But what if you combined them? It sounds like a really bad idea, but if you do it right, it can put your afternoon sleepies to bed. The trick is to have a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage, then go straight to sleep for no more than 15 minutes. Scientists who tested the method say the one-two punch of caffeine and power nap completely eliminated test subjects’ sleepiness. Why? Well, caffeine takes a little while to start kicking in—about 15 minutes, in fact. You can squeeze in a little bit of shut-eye and wake up just in time to maximize your power-up. 


What’s the first thing you say when you stub your toe? If you’re like most people, it’s not something we can say here. From an early age, we’re taught that obscenities are inappropriate. But what if they serve a physiological purpose? Scientists instructed test subjects to plunge their hands into buckets of ice water. As the pain took hold, the participants were told to say one of two words: a neutral word, or the F-word. The results were pretty clear: “Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.” There’s a catch, though: it didn’t work for potty mouths. Swearing every day lessened the effect of swearing in a painful situation. The researchers concluded that like any other treatment for pain, cussing is most effective when used in moderation. 


It’s super weird, but it works. Your thumb has its own heartbeat. When you’re anxious, stressed out, or hyped up, your heart rate will speed up, which makes you feel even more wired. Slowly blowing air over the pad of your thumb does two things. First, it helps cool your hot hands, which should encourage your heart to slow down. Second, it forces you to take slow, deep breaths, which tells your nervous system that the danger has passed.

Yoga and Meditation May Lead to an Inflated Ego

If you’ve been exasperated for years by that one self-righteous, yoga-obsessed friend, take note: Regular yoga practitioners experience inflated egos after a session of yoga or meditation, according to a forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers found that yoga and meditation both increase "self-enhancement," or the tendency for people to attach importance to their own actions. In the first phase of the two-part study, researchers in Germany and England measured self-enhancement by recruiting 93 yoga students and having them respond to questionnaires over the course of 15 weeks, Quartz reports. Each assessment was designed to measure three outcomes: superiority, communal narcissism, and self-esteem. In the second phase, the researchers asked 162 meditation students to answer the same questionnaires over four weeks.

Participants showed significantly higher self-enhancement in the hour just after their practices. After yoga or meditation, participants were more likely to say that statements like "I am the most helpful person I know" and "I have a very positive influence on others" describe them.

At its Hindu and Buddhist roots, yoga is focused on quieting the ego and conquering the self. The findings seem to support what some critics of Western-style yoga suspect—that the practice is no longer true to its South Asian heritage.

It might not be all bad, though. Self-enhancement tends to correlate with higher levels of subjective well-being, at least in the short term. People prone to self-enhancement report feeling happier than the average person. However, they’re also more likely to exhibit social behaviors (like bragging or condescending) that are detrimental in the long term.

So if you think your yoga-loving friends are a little holier than thou, you may be right. But it might be because their yoga class isn’t deflating their egos like yogis say it should.

[h/t Quartz]

How Much Smartphone Use Is Too Much?

Since the iPhone debuted in 2007, ushering in the age of the phone-as-computer, smartphone use has exploded worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 billion users last year. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and other recent stats have found that users are on their phones an average of more than five hours per day—almost double the rate in 2013. More people now use a mobile device to get online than they do a computer. This is especially true in regions where people may not be able to afford a personal computer but can buy a smartphone.

We love our smartphones perhaps a little too much, and the desire to unplug is growing among people who see 24/7 connectedness as damaging to their mental health. This week, Apple announced new iPhone features meant to curb our dependence on our devices, including a weekly "Report" app that shows your phone and app usage, as well as how many times you physically pick up your phone. (One small study by the consumer research firm Dscout found that we touch our phones more than 2600 times a day.) You can also set customized limits for overall phone usage with the "Screen Time" app.

Many of us feel anxiety at the very thought of being without their phone and the access it offers to the internet. Researchers have a term for it: nomophobia ("no mobile phone phobia"). So how much smartphone use is too much?

That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. "Smartphone addiction" isn't an official medical diagnosis. Even the experts haven't decided how much is too much—or even whether smartphone addiction is real.


To understand what's going on, we have to first step back and define what addiction is. It's different from habits, which are subconsciously performed routines, and dependence, when repeated use of something causes withdrawals when you stop. You can be dependent on something without it ruining your life. Addiction is a mental disorder characterized by compulsive consumption despite serious adverse consequences.

Yet, our understanding of behavioral addictions—especially ones that don't involve ingesting mind-altering chemicals—is still evolving. Actions that result in psychological rewards, such as a crushing a castle in Clash Royale or getting a new ping from Instagram, can turn compulsive as our brains rewire to seek that payoff (just like our smartphones, our brains use electricity to operate, and circuits of neurons can restructure to skew toward rewards). For a minority of people, it seems those compulsions can turn to addictions.

Psychologists have been treating internet addiction for almost as long as the internet has been around: Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist and program director at St. Bonaventure University, founded the Center for Internet Addiction back in 1995. By 2013, addictive behavior connected to personal technology was common enough that in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible for mental disorder diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association included "internet gaming disorder" as a condition "warranting further study." These days, thanks to an abundance of horror stories involving people who were glued to the internet until they died—and living gamers who are so engrossed in their games that they ignore paramedics removing dead gamers—internet rehabs are popping up all over the world.

But in virtually all of the medical literature published so far about internet addiction—including the WHO's forthcoming 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), whose "excessive use of the internet" is built around how much gaming interferes with daily life—there's no mention of smartphones.

According to Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, there's a reason for these omissions: Despite the official definitions included in the DSM-V and ICD-11, "there's debate regarding the use of those terms [internet addiction]. Both the ICD-11 group and the DSM-V group chose to focus on the behavior rather than the delivery device."

So while you may feel nomophobia when you can't find your internet "delivery device," the global psychiatric community thinks it's the internet itself that's the problem—not the phone in your hand.


We are getting something from our phones, though, and it's not just access to the internet. Receiving a notification gives us a small dopamine burst, and we learn to associate that dose of pleasure with the smartphone. You may pull your phone from your pocket a dozen times an hour to check for notifications—even if you know they're not there because your phone would have, well, notified you.

It's not unusual for people to become attached to an action (checking the phone) rather than its reward (getting a notification). Sometimes smokers trying to quit feel the urge to chew or bite and need to replace cigarettes with gum or sunflower seeds. According to Stephanie Borgland, a neuroscientist and associate professor at University of Calgary, this is called a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer—a reference to Ivan Pavlov's experiments, in which he reinforced behavior in dogs through signals and rewards. Borgland tells Mental Floss that we can become compulsively attached to the cues of phone use. We cling to the physical stimuli our brains have linked to the reward.

There may be an evolutionary basis to this behavior. Like other primates, humans are social mammals, but we have dramatically higher levels of dopamine than our cousins. This neurotransmitter is associated with reward-motivated behavior. So when we get a notification on an app that tells us someone has engaged us in social interaction—which we naturally crave—it triggers our natural inclinations.


The global psychiatric community may not be convinced our smartphones are a problem, and no one has died from checking Snapchat too often—or at least it hasn't been reported. But most of us would say that spending five hours a day on our smartphones is too much. So are there any guidelines?

At this stage of research into smartphone use, there are no specific time-limit recommendations, though some researchers are working on a smartphone addiction scale; one was proposed in a 2013 study in the journal PLOS One. Based on what's said to be coming out in the ICD-11, here's one simple guideline: Problematic smartphone use negatively interferes with your life. Some research suggests Facebook, Instagram, and even online gaming make us feel more isolated and less connected. The more we try to fill that hole by tapping away at our phones, the more we crave social interaction. "There are a number of factors that have been associated with these behaviors or conditions," says Potenza, who is developing tools to screen for and assess problematic internet use and has consulted with the WHO on these issues. "And arguably one of the most consistent ones is depression."

One way to assess whether your smartphone is a problem is noting how you react when you're cut off from it, according to the PLOS One study. The study proposed a "smartphone addiction scale" based on negative responses to being without a smartphone, among other criteria. What happens on a day when you accidentally leave it at home? Are you irritable or anxious? Do you feel isolated from friends or unsafe? Do you have trouble concentrating on work, school, or other important responsibilities, whether or not you have your phone?

While smartphones may not be truly addictive in a medical sense, learning how to use them in a more mindful, healthy manner couldn't hurt. Test yourself for nomophobia [PDF]—knowing how much time you spend online is the first step to identifying how that can be problematic. Block distracting sites or track usage via a timer or an app (beware third-party apps' privacy settings, however). Delete the apps that keep the phone in your hand even when you're not online, like games. If you're still struggling, you could ditch smartphones altogether and downgrade to a "dumb" phone or get a Light Phone, a cellular device "designed to be used as little as possible."

A recent WIRED feature argued that using the internet five hours per day isn't a personal failing so much as a reflection of the way many apps are purposely designed to keep you salivating for more. So perhaps the best measure is to leave your phone behind once in a while. Schedule a screen-free Sunday. Go for a walk in the woods. Meditate. Socialize instead of binging The Office again. Don’t worry—you’ll be fine.


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