Get Up And Get Out

When you exercise a release of endorphins occurs, and this is the “high” you feel after a good work out – a feeling of happiness and reward. This natural “high” has a positive effect on mental health and can reduce symptoms of depression and other mental health illnesses.

When exercising you also get an increase of something called neutrophils, white blood cells assisting the immune system, and monoamines, a neurotransmitter. These two are both linked to reducing symptoms of depression and mental health illnesses.

The World Health Organization estimates that, globally, 154 million people suffer from depression and mental health illnesses. A challenge in using exercise as a medicine for mental health, however, is that compliance is generally low. It’s though to motivate people to exercise when they suffer from symptoms of depression.

Good news is that a research has showed that just walking could significantly improve mental health. A study from the UK shows that the work-out does not necessarily need to be demanding. The researchers found that the duration of the activity was more important than the intensity.

So next time you are taking the bus or the car somewhere, why not do your body and brain a favour and take a walk instead?


Mind Your Mind

Having a physically strong body can be helpful when going through a tough day. But if your mind can’t handle all the challenges, a well-trained body won’t take you all the way. A solution is to take care of your mental health. Here we have listed some tips from The Canadian Mental Health Association, on how to keep your mental fitness in shape – making you more resistant to future stress and demands.

Daydream – Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a dream location. Breathe slowly and let the comforting environment wrap you in a sensation of peace and tranquility.

“Collect” positive emotional moments – Make it a point to recall times when you have experienced positive emotions.

Learn to cope with negative thoughts – Learn to interrupt them. Don’t try to block them (that never works), but don’t let them take over.

Do one thing at a time – For example, when you are out on a walk, turn off your cell phone and take in all the sight, smells and sounds you encounter.

Treat yourself well – Cook yourself a good meal and have a bubble bath. Make sure you have time for recreational hobbies.


Have It Your Way – why making decisions can be so hard

The other day I went to a bar in Stockholm, and when taking a look at the drink menu, I read names of beers I had never heard of before. It turned out that the bar had one of the world’s biggest beer assortments, with 1400 different brands (you can find the biggest one in Brussels with almost 2500 brands). In other words, the perfect place for those who enjoy a cold beer in their hand. However, when passing two men on my way to the restrooms, I heard one of them saying while looking at the menu, “It’s just too difficult to pick what beer I want”.

Situations where we have to make decisions are endless: what education to take, which telephone plan to choose, what retirement funds to invest in, or what beer to choose in a bar with 1400 brands. We are living in a Have It Your Way-society. But is there such thing as too much choice?

Imagine a normal visit to the supermarket. You are strolling down the juice-aisle where thereare over 15 different brands and flavors to choose from. You just have to pick the one you like. And if you decide to accompany your juice-purchase with a magazine you have at least 70 ones to choose from – magazines divided into categories ranging from home-styling, training and beauty to boats and computers.

According to Sheena Iyengar, a researcher at Columbia University doing research on choice and decision-making, people seem to think that more options lead to a better outcome. But is the human ability for handling choices infinite? Extensive choice seems appealing. But what do scientists have to say on the issue? I will give you an example showing that what we think is best for us may contradict with what actually makes us happy.

The More Options The Better Off We Are

A fascinating experiment, called ‘The Jam Experiment’, gives us some insight into the world of the human brain and how it makes decisions. The Jam Experiment took place in a grocery store in California where researchers placed out two tasting booths (not at the same time). The first one displayed an assortment of 6 flavors of jams. The second booth offered a more extensive assortment with 24 flavors. For the rest, the tasting booths were identical.

The researchers wanted to see whether the number of options available (number of jams) would affect people’s desire to stop and have a taste, and if the number of options would have an impact on their purchasing behavior. Intuitively, we would think that people prefer more options over few options – because a bigger assortment increases the chance of finding our favorite jam, which would naturally lead to more purchases.

The results were striking. People prefer more options over few options: significantly more people stopped at the extensive tasting booth than the more limited tasting booth. However, only 3% of those who stopped at the table with 24 flavors decided to buy jam. And 30% of those who did stop at the table with 6 flavors decided to buy jam. How come more options scared people off from purchasing.

The answer lies in something that’s called Choice-overload. Having many options to Thomas Schmallchoose from is time-consuming and overwhelming, which makes us more likely to postpone our decisions. In other words, we suffer from choice-overload. This is why it was easier for people to make a decision of which jam to buy when having only 6 options to choose from. For those who had 24 options, it became overwhelming and instead of making a decision, it was easier to not make a decision at all.

We always want to make the most optimal decision, but are not always able to evaluate what is the most optimal when facing too many options. What if another choice would have been better? We tend to continuously ask ourselves: would I be slightly happier with another job, house or partner? How do I know? How do I choose? The luxury of living in a have-it-exactly-your-way society also has a downside. An unlimited number of options  (e.g 2500 brands of beer) do not make our cognitive resources unlimited. When we have many options, the differences between them tend to get smaller, and it becomes even more difficult to compare them to each other: orange juice, or grape juice, or maybe orange-grape juice?

Sheena Iyengar says, “Choice is the only tool we have that enable us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow”. Our life is a construct of the continuous decisions we make. But maybe freedom is to be found in less, rather than more alternatives – as science here demonstrates: Less is more.

Illustration: Thomas Schmall


Interested in learning more about this topic?

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995–1006.

The Brain Behind the Hollywood Smile

Take a random picture of a group of people, like a family picture on Christmas-eve. Is everyone smiling? Apart maybe from a grumpy granny and newborn nephew, the answer is probably yes. But are they really smiling, or are the corners of their mouths pointing upwards? Now cover the mouths of those in the photo and ask yourself again who is smiling. In fact, were you smiling on that picture?

Faking a smile is notoriously difficult. Models, actors and politicians, who smile for a living, know that curling up the corners of their mouth is not enough for a convincing transfer of emotion. But why? The answer can be found in the way our brain is wired. The brain areas controlling the voluntary movements of your face (used for fake smile(s)) are different from those generating facial expressions resulting from emotions. Real and fake smiles respectively activate different parts of the motor cortex (part of the outer layer of the brain, controlling our muscles). Christian Keysers, neuroscientist at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, defines the two distinct systems as the ‘cold’ and the ‘hot’ facial expression system.

In this distinction, the ‘hot’ motor system is the part of your brain that transforms the ‘heat’ of true emotions into observable facial expressions and body language. The cold motor system, on the other hand, is active in voluntary movements of the face, including chewing, arguably attractive duck-faces and forced smiles on never-flattering group-photos.

When faking a smile, we activate our cold motor system in order to deliberately mimic the sequence of facial muscles used when smiling. However, this only leads to a poor imitation of a real smile: it will never capture the countless subtle movements of the entire face form an expression of true joy.

The difference between the hot and the cold motor system used for facial expressions becomes even more evident when one of the two is damaged after a brain lesion. Patients with a defective ‘hot’ system are only able to deliberately produce facial expressions; their faces will not move when they experience emotions. Conversely, people with a defective ‘cold’ system are unable to deliberately move their facial muscles, meaning they cannot produce fake-smiles (maybe this would be a suitable lesion for all fake-smiling politicians).

According to neuroscience, the solution for a convincing smile during your next job-interview or Christmas-eve family reunion is simple. Remember the last time you laughed until you had tears of joy in your eyes. Forget about the Hollywood-smile. A beautiful smile is not in your whitening toothpaste, it’s in your head!

For further reading:

C. Keysers, The empathic brain . How the discovery of mirror neurons changes our understanding of human nature (2011). Smashwords Edition

Morecraft, R.J., Stilwell-Morecraft, K.S., and Rossing, W.R. (2004). The motor cortex and facial expression: new insights from neuroscience. Neurologist 10, 235-249.