Sorry, I didn’t quite get around to it. Really? Again with the Procrastination?

Procrastination is simply the action of delaying or postponing something. The practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the “last minute” before a deadline. This actually becomes a rather serious matter for many people. There is this tendency to change the priority of a task, thereby making it less likely that you will get to it any time today. Procrastination in large part reflects our perennial struggle with self-control as well as our inability to accurately predict how we’ll feel tomorrow, or the next day. To me, procrastination is actually a form of dishonesty. First, you make a promise that you will get something done today for someone. Then, you put off starting any aspect of the project. You ultimately fail to deliver “the goods” when promised. Your dishonesty comes from giving someone your word only to  never get around to doing it.

This habit can become somewhat of a complex psychological behavior that effects everyone to some degree or another. Procrastinating has the potential to put you on the spot when the time comes that you were to have in your possession certain information or a special item. Perhaps there was a critical task you were meant to complete. Most people procrastinate, but some are so chronically affected by procrastination that it stops them fulfilling their potential and disrupts their actual work load. Procrastination not only affects a person’s work, but also commonly involves feelings such as guilt, inadequacy, self-disgust, stress and depression.

Procrastination. A similar experience to masturbation, it feels good while you’re doing it, but it sucks afterwards when you realize that you just screwed yourself. You are sitting there with nothing more than a wee willie of a problem. No story boards. No report. No photographs. No market studies. Just an idea that has no empirical evidence that it will work. Universally common to college students, procrastination is often addressed as a bad habit. Yet, in most cases, this isn’t a nuance, but a perpetual occurrence – no longer qualifying for the term “habit.”

Typically thought of as a behavioral trait, procrastination thrives on a cycle of blame shifting and avoidance. Falling victim to this “habit” myself, I embarked on a mission to seek out the causes of procrastination. Chronic procrastinators avoid revealing information about their abilities, prefer menial tasks, make poor time estimates, tend to focus on the past and do not act on their intentions. These characteristics have been related to low self-esteem, perfectionism, non-competitiveness, self-deception, self-control, self-confidence, depression and anxiety.

Behavioral procrastination is equated with self-handicap. Essentially, this self-handicap provides a means for further blame shifting, as could be seen in an example of a student doing poorly on an exam and using procrastination as an excuse. Studies on self-handicapping have shown that people use a wide variety of strategies in order to construct barriers for their success. The placing of these mental barriers is the work of the I-function manipulating the internal experience. Two studies conducted by Ferrari and Tice in a laboratory setting had participants (men and women) perform an identical task twice. In the first study, participants were notified that they would be evaluated on their performance of the task. Time was allotted for practice or engaging in fun activities. Results found that participants procrastinated for 60% of the time. The second study described the identical task as a fun game. Results of activity during the time allotted showed that procrastinators, in comparison with non-procrastinators, spent the same of amount of time on the practices. Thus, the results suggest that procrastination was a behavioral self-handicap only when the task was deemed evaluative. The pervasive tendency of the self-handicap creates a cycle of self-defeating behavior, which in turn send negative feedback to the I-function. Correspondingly, this self-inflicted degradation and shame is translated into health problems.

The second type of procrastination is decisional, e.i., postponing a decision when dealing with conflicts and choices. People with high decisional procrastination display tendencies of perfectionism in taking longer to make decisions. Thus, the study by Ferrari and Dovido hypothesized that people with higher decisional procrastination, in comparison with people lower in decisional procrastination, seek out more information about a chosen alternative before making a decision. This hypothesis underscores the fear of error and necessity for perfection in people with high decisional procrastination. In addition, varying levels of decisional procrastination correlates to fundamental differences decisive strategies.

The argument Ferrari and Dovido put forth associate decisional procrastination with caution and assurance of correctness, by collecting data, before making a decision. Clearly the implications of this form of procrastination differ from those of behavioral procrastination, characterized by distraction and avoidance. Decision-making or critical thinking, is an activity of the brain. Yet, it seems to me that people with high decisional procrastination take greater care in taking a step forward, thus the I-function would have to be considered in light of the fact that while a decision is being made, the thoroughness is connected to notions of concern, desire and fear; reflecting individual traits. If there is a problem with the prefrontal cortex, there is no filter mechanism at work. Underactivity of the prefrontal cortex is common with Attention Deficit Disorder. While this argument is compelling, it personally made me feel as though I experience underactivity of the prefrontal cortex all too frequently. The behavioral aspects of the frontal lobe are critical in functioning from day to day and it is the abundance of these characteristics that make it seem unlikely that they would all be working perfectly at any point in time. On a lighter note, the prefrontal cortex offers the procrastinator a scientifically legitimized excuse for procrastination.

To balance the negative connotation of procrastination, there is evidence in the decisional procrastination theory (overly cautious decision-making) that it may have positive long-term functions. In all fairness, the opposing view is that procrastination is essentially an obstacle to achievement in both the long-term and the present. The attitude one takes towards procrastination is connected to which argument is more convincing. I began my research to find out why my friends and I put off work until the last minute. In return I uncovered debates of psychological v. biological, underscored with mind v. brain. Procrastination is a strong act of agency supported by the I-function. The neuro-biological perspective of the prefrontal cortex stripped procrastination of any elements of agency. While eradicating procrastination will never occur on a universal level, we can hopefully removed the myth surrounding the ever-common act and in effect may even encourage an individual to start studying, compiling, ordering, calling, inviting, or otherwise planning earlier.

It’s tempting to think that definitions are only for beginners, too simple for serious consideration and your time here as an expert. I disagree. We need to think carefully about our definition and, most importantly, the assumptions in the definition.

Overcoming procrastination is often easier said than done, especially for those who procrastinate! Are you one of those people who always find some reason to wait until next week to start getting fit and healthy and begin that new healthy lifestyle you have been talking about?  Well, if you are, I suggest you stop talking, stop procrastinating, and start doing!  Those who keep putting healthy living off remind me of that old Saturday Night Live character named Rosanne Roseanna Danna, played to perfection by the late Gilda Radner.  Those of you familiar with Gilda will remember that “It’s Always Something” was the punch line for her Rosanne Roseanna Danna character, the embodiment of the necessity of overcoming procrastination.  I might add that it was also the title of Gilda’s autobiography!

With that said, I have some news for those of you who have been seeking means of overcoming procrastinating.  No matter what you do, who you are or how well you prepare, something will always come up to test your will, confront your motivation and challenge your commitment to healthy living.  This is not only the rhythm of life; it is also a reality of lifestyle change as well.  So why not make today THE DAY you start overcoming procrastination and living that healthy life because there will never be a time with no interruption.  As Gilda would say, “It’s always something!”

“Procrastination usually results in sorrowful regret. Today’s duties put off until tomorrow give us a double burden to bear; the best way is to do them in their proper time.” ~ Ida Scott Taylor

Does Our Brain Change or Adapt?

The human brain is composed of approximately 100 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth. Today, it is understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons. This is part of the amazing process called brain plasticity. What? Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity or cortical remapping, is a term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience.

Up until the 1960s, researchers believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed that the brain’s physical structure was permanent. Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information and create new memories. This is especially promising when it comes to traumatic brain injury, brain cancer, or other physiological problems.

There are four key facts about neuroplasticity. First, it can vary by age. While plasticity occurs throughout the lifetime, certain types of changes are more predominant during specific ages. Second, it involves a variety of processes. Plasticity is ongoing and involves brain cells other than neurons, including glial and vascular cells. A glial cell is a supportive cell in the central nervous system. Unlike neurons, glial cells do not conduct electrical impulses. The glial cells surround neurons and provide support for and insulation between them. Glial cells are the most abundant cell types in the central nervous system. Types of glial cells include oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, ependymal cells, Schwann cells, microglia, and satellite cells.

We know the first few years of a child’s life are a time of amazing brain growth. This, of course, is why many psychologists speak often on the importance of these so-called formative years. At birth, every neuron in the cerebral cortex has an estimated 2,500 synapses; by age of three, this number has grown to a whopping 15,000 synapses per neuron. Interestingly, the average adult has about half that number of synapses. Why? Because as we gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain is able to adapt to the changing environment. Synaptic pruning refers to the process by which extra neurons and synaptic connections are eliminated in order to increase the efficiency of neuronal transmissions. The entire process continues up until approximately ten years of age, by which time nearly fifty percent of the synapses present at two years of age have been eliminated. The point of this process is to improve the efficiency of the neurological system.

Neuroplasticity refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions – as well as to changes resulting from bodily injury. This discovery has lead to new approaches in physical and occupational therapy. Although it takes patience and time, it is possible through therapy, and through the use of  various cognitive challenges, to begin to rewire the brain. There is a claim that’s been around for decades which indicates we use only about ten percent of our brain. There is no scientific evidence that this is true. According to the believers of this myth, if we used more of our brain, then we could perform super memory feats and have other fantastic mental abilities – maybe we could even move objects with a single thought. Who knows what abilities there are hiding in the remaining ninety percent?

Certainly there are numerous pathways that serve similar functions. For example, there are several central pathways that are used for vision. This concept is called “redundancy” and is found throughout the nervous system. Multiple pathways for the same function may be a type of safety mechanism should one of the pathways fail. Still, functional brain imaging studies show that all parts of the brain function. Even during sleep, the brain is active. The brain is still being “used,” it is just in a different active state. It seems reasonable to suggest that if ninety percent of the brain was not used, then many neural pathways would degenerate. However, this does not seem to be the case. The popular notion that large parts of the brain remain unused, and could subsequently be “activated”, rests in popular folklore and not science. Though mysteries regarding brain function remain—e.g. memory, consciousness—the physiology of brain mapping suggests that all areas of the brain have a function. Frankly, we use one hundred percent of our brain.

If ninety percent of the brain is normally unused, then damage to these areas should not impair performance. Instead, there is almost no area of the brain that can be damaged without loss of abilities. Even slight damage to small areas of the brain can have profound effects. Brain scans have shown that no matter what one is doing, all brain areas are always active. Some areas are more active at any one time than others, but barring brain damage, there is no part of the brain that is absolutely not functioning. Technologies such as positron emission tomography (also known as PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allow the activity of the living brain to be monitored. They reveal that even during sleep, all parts of the brain show some level of activity. Only in the case of serious damage does a brain have “silent” areas.

The 2014 film Lucy, starring Morgan Friedman and Scarlet Johansson, depicts a character who gains increasingly godlike abilities once she surpasses ten percent – though the film suggests ten percent represents brain capacity at a particular time rather than permanent usage. The human brain is complex. Along with performing millions of mundane acts, it composes concertos, issues manifestos and comes up with elegant solutions to equations. It’s the wellspring of all human feelings, behaviors, experiences as well as the repository of memory and self-awareness. So it’s no surprise that the brain remains a mystery unto itself.

I believe the myth that we use only ten percent of our brain stems from people’s conceptions about their own brains. They see their own shortcomings as evidence of the existence of untapped gray matter. This is a false assumption. What is correct, however, is that at certain moments in anyone’s life, such as when we are simply at rest and thinking, we may be using only ten percent of our brains, but we are not limited to using only one-tenth of our brain. The brain has an extraordinary ability modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment. The large outer layer of the brain, known as the cortex, is especially able to make such modifications.

Brain plasticity underlies normal brain function such as our ability to learn and modify our behavior. It is strongest during childhood — explaining the fast learning abilities of kids — but remains a fundamental and significant lifelong property of the brain. Adult brain plasticity has been clearly implicated as a means for recovery from sensory-motor deprivation, peripheral injury, and brain injury. It has also been implicated in alleviating chronic pain and the development of the ability to use prosthetic devices such as robotic arms for paraplegics, or artificial hearing and seeing devices for the deaf and blind.

In recent years, brain plasticity has been implicated in the relief of various psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders both in humans and in animals. These disorders include obsession, depression, compulsion, psychosocial stress, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, recent research suggests that the pathology of some of these devastating disorders is associated with the loss of plasticity. Collectively, there is a growing recognition that brain plasticity plays a fundamental role in either the deterioration to, or the alleviation of, psychiatric and degenerative brain disorders.

Spare Change

I love this girl’s poems. They are so, I don’t know, genuine and profound. I commented to her recently that she writes likes I wish I could. Anyway, enjoy this piece. If you like what you read, check out her blog at http://memorphilia.

Memorphilia

What I wanted
Was to write
The lines
That would say
How I had changed
Since I walked
Out of the rain
Instead I threw
Three quarters
Into a callused palm
And continued on my way

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Moral Injury

My uncle served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He was boots on the ground in country, getting shot at and exposed to hellish conditions. He was exposed to the horrific compound Agent Orange, which ultimately led to non-cancerous masses on the back of his lungs, diabetes, and kidney failure. He was unable to recover. That, of course, was only the physical aspect of his injuries. Certainly, we are all familiar with psychological injuries. We’re particularly acquainted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What you might not be familiar with is the extent to which combat veterans are making the fatal decision to end their own lives.

6,500 former military personnel killed themselves in 2012. In 2013, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which showed that roughly 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, or one every 65 minutes. Some sources suggest that this rate may be under-counting suicides. A recent analysis found a suicide rate among veterans of about 30 per 100,000 population per year, compared with the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. However, the comparison was not adjusted for age and sex.

A study published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine found that combat veterans are not only more likely to have suicidal ideation, often associated with PTSD and depression, but they are more likely to act on a suicidal plan. Especially since veterans may be less likely to seek help from a mental health professional, non-mental-health physicians are in a key position to screen for PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation in these patients. The same study also found that in veterans with PTSD related to combat experience, combat-related guilt may be a significant predictor of suicidal ideation and attempts.

The statistics are grim, to say the least. Veterans commit one-fifth of all suicides in America today, at the rate of about 8,000 suicides per year. In 2012, the United States lost more active-duty soldiers to suicide than to combat in Afghanistan. It was the highest number in a year (349) since the Pentagon began tracking numbers in 2001.

Defined as an anxiety disorder, PTSD is believed to be driven by intense fear, helplessness, or horror, following a traumatic event, resulting in a variety of symptoms. Perhaps the toughest group to treat for PTSD are Vietnam vets. Many complained for decades of insomnia. Many also suffered from nightmares and hypervigilance, avoided crowds, and had marital difficulties. Psychiatrists learned to give a quick PTSD diagnosis to these vets and apply the usual formula for treatment. That is, prescribe medication to blunt the fear response, recommend social support, and refer the patient for talk therapy.

A psychiatrist by the name of Jonathan Shay, also a combat veteran, began treating Vietnam vets in the 1980s. Shay said “psychological and moral injury” sustained in combat destroys trust. He also said that when the capacity for social trust is destroyed, all possibility of a flourishing human life is lost. In Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, he said he was struck by one veteran’s description of himself as a “typical young American boy,” an eighteen-year-old virgin with “strong religious beliefs.” When he went to Vietnam, “I wasn’t prepared for it all.” He found that it was “all evil…I look back, I look back today, and I’m horrified at what I turned in to. What I was. What I did.”

Treatment personnel noted that they had been trained to focus on the soldier’s fear. But these veterans were not talking about fear. They were talking about right and wrong. For those with severe long-standing PTSD, the problem was often a combination of fear and guilt and shame. Those potent emotions came not only from what they had witnessed, but also from their own actions in the morally confusing situations of modern combat. Michael Yandell, a veteran, wrote for The Christian Century earlier this year. He said, “For me, moral injury describes my disillusionment, the erosion of my sense of place in the world. The spiritual and emotional foundations of the world disappeared and made it impossible to sleep the sleep of the just. Even though I was part of a war that was much bigger than me, I still feel personally responsible for its consequences. I have a feeling of intense betrayal, and the betrayer and the betrayed are the same person: my very self.”

Soldiers face impossible moral situations in combat, of “the real stakes for people having to make these decisions.” Interestingly, a group of psychiatrists at Duke University coined the term “post-Vietnam syndrome” in 1972. The syndrome was marked by alienation, rage, feelings of betrayal by military leadership and the country itself, and an inability to give and accept love. These are all “deeply moral categories.” But their moral resonance had been lost in the systemization of PTSD and the nearly thirty years of research that followed.

Eventually, moral injury became another way of understanding combat trauma. Moral injury occurs when a soldier is exposed to or partakes in acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. While traumatic events and atrocities can cause moral injury, so too can more subtle acts that transgress a moral code.

Here’s the exciting part. At the heart of the Gospel is a narrative of creation, brokenness, redemption and reconciliation, a “new creation.” In Jesus Christ, we have a paradigm of mental health and flourishing. After all, Jesus was once rumored to suffer from mental illness. Mark 3:21 says, “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” Christ certainly endured physical and mental anguish. The Church has language and practices to foster healing for veterans, such as lament, confession, and reconciliation. All of these allow us to “listen, reflect, bear, and grieve” with our veterans.

War, even when justified, is always a tragic manifestation of human brokenness. Churches and faith-related organizations have launched programs in recent years to better care for veterans’ mental and spiritual health. It is an important finding that our veterans are suffering from moral injury. Just on its face, it seems such an injury cannot solely be treated with medication and talk therapy. One thing though: moral injury is really a rediscovery of an older set of truths. The Church has a long history of ministry to and by veterans. Now the Church needs to find “creative and faithful ways” to walk with people suffering from a range of mental health issues.

So, in the meantime, what can we do when we encounter a veteran who has returned from combat and is struggling? If there’s one thing combat veterans hate, it’s the question, “Did you kill anyone?” It’s best simply to ask a veteran what their deployments were like, keeping in mind that people feel differently about their time in the service. The most effective approach is to be human and work on friendship. The Church has the opportunity to dress the wounds of each war-torn soul among us. Good mental healthcare is a necessary and valuable part of that work. But if we seek the full flourishing of those who have been impacted by war, the Church has an irreplaceable role to play. It is time to realize that combat veterans suffer not only on an emotional and physical level, but also on a spiritual and moral level. It would seem to me that this is the piece that has been missing from our therapeutic work with soldiers suffering from PTSD.

May God bless the men and women of our armed forces.

Of Men (A Poem)

Of men, I know little,
Feeling less than one myself;
Struggling, stumbling, looking
For courage to do what I must;

Seeking validation, yet wishing
I didn’t need it to define me;
How much easier it would be
If only I could accept myself
And ignore the elucidation of others;

But here I am, subordinate,
Deficient if only in my mind;
Now if you ask me what I know
Of mice, that I can tell you;
Small, inconsequential, puny
And teensy, chased and trapped
Of men.

Sonnet To America

I recently did a Google search for poems about patriotism. It seemed the thing to do given our country’s current situation, and in light of the upcoming presidential election. Me, I have always been proud to be an American. Not once have I wished I lived elsewhere. This I claim in spite of all that’s been wrong in our past, and despite the many problems and challenges we face today.

Here is a poem by Sir Edwin Arnold. Arnold was born at Gravesend, Kent, the second son of a Sussex magistrate, Robert Coles Arnold. One of his six children was the novelist Edwin Lester Arnold. He was educated at King’s School, Rochester; King’s College, London; and University College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1852.

AMERICA! At this thy Golden Gate,
New traveled from those portals of the West,
Parting — I make my reverence! It were best
With backward looks to quit a Queen in state!

Land of all lands most fair, and free, and great,
Of countless kindred lips, wherefrom I heard
Sweet speech of Shakespeare — keep it consecrate
For noble uses! Land of Freedom’s Bird,
Fearless and proud! So let him soar that, stirred

With generous joy, all lands may learn from thee
A larger life, and Europe, undeterred
By ancient dreads, dare also to be free
Body and Soul, seeing thine eagle gaze
Undazzled, upon Freedom’s sun full-blaze.