Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

Wow…just realizing that the last I wrote was 29th May! I’m so bad at this…if I’m one of those bloggers making a living through their blog, I would have starved by now. It’s just that time really does fly. After 29th May, I had gone off on a hiking trip in Japan, then July came around and I was zombified trying to adjust to school starting again then there was National Day, Teachers’ Day, the national elections and here we are in the middle of September. If your time also has wings like mine, I’m thinking some of you must be reeling in shock that promos is merely 2 weeks away or that the JC2s will be graduating 3 weeks from now!

Which is why I guess books on boosting productivity are usually the best selling ones like Peter Bregman’s 18 minutes. One of the most common ways students try to make up for lost time is to multitask like crazy. One student once told me she listens to audio books on Geography while working on her Math equations. She figured that even if she finds it hard to do both, maybe there’s a passive osmosis effect happening and her brain will absorb the Geography stuff anyway. Maybe you don’t do something quite so insane but you find it quite common to be working on your assignments while listening to music, searching for cat videos on youtube, replying to whatsapp messages, eating Mcdonalds and shaking your leg all at the same time…or at least you think you are accomplishing them all at the same time.

In recent times, scientists have discovered that multitasking is a myth and that we humans aren’t as good at doing many things at one time as we think we are. When we think we are ‘multitasking’, we are in actual fact, switch tasking or background tasking. What this means is that when we are doing more than one thing at a time (say listening to lecture and checking instagram), our brain switches between these two tasks in a rapid fire way. Brain scientists have found that it is virtually impossible to be doing two things simultaneously with the exception of physical tasks that we find automatic (say walking and talking at the same time). The cost of constant switch tasking is that we end up spending more time on completing a task than if we were to focus on just one thing at a time. The quality of the work also suffers and we ultimately end up less productive than ever. Check out this video by Dave Crenshaw and do ‘The Myth of Multitasking Test’ to experience this for yourself!

Here’s me when I tried it out. The 2nd attempt looks like $%@ indeed. FullSizeRender

The science behind this is that similar tasks (like texting, doing assignments and listening to lectures) compete to use the same part of the brain and research shows that people can attend to only ONE cognitive task at a time. So the bottom line is this: if you want to boost your productivity, cut down on your multitasking. We might think we are saving time by multitasking, but in reality, brain science has shown that you are just wasting time and you are probably better off focusing on the task at hand singularly.

One student recently told me that she realized when she just buckles down and do her work without being distracted by her phone, youtube or music, she hammered out her math assignment real fast. Piece of cake. Something to think about. Here’s a clip from Ellen on multitasking to keep you entertained. Hopefully you won’t be watching this while doing your work. 🙂

So I’ve just almost concluded the resilience workshops with the JC2 classes (almost). And one of the things we talked about was how sleep was crucial as it comes to succeeding in school and that young people need about 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep which I wrote about in another post.

So after the workshop, some students came up to me and said they now understand sleep is important but often find it so hard to get to sleep. They find that they often toss and turn in bed and then when they look at the clock it’s like 4 freaking am with another 2 hours to go before they have to get ready for school. Some say they often wake up in the middle of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep. I asked them what they do when that happens, and most say they check their phones or reply whatsapp messages until they feel sleepy enough which usually does not occur soon enough and before they know it, it’s 4 freaking am. No wonder when I asked a group of students how they were doing yesterday, 4 out of 5 said they were dog tired, and the one that didn’t,  didn’t hear my question cos she was too sleepy.

Most students now know I like to sleep alot. And when I’m awake, I like to read about sleep biology, how sleep occurs, how to get more sleep, what’s the best temperature for sleep, strategies to fall asleep quickly etc etc and spend the latter half of the day looking forward to sleeping again. Suffice it to say that I’m obsessed over sleep. And one of the things that I realized only in the last few months or so, is the effect of blue light (i.e. the light from our laptops, ipads, iphones and other paler cousins of Apple) on our sleep.

You see, once upon a time, when we were cave people, we spent most of our evenings after the sun goes down in relative darkness. When our body senses that it’s dark (a complicated process that is somewhat explained in the video above), the pineal gland (a pea-sized gland in the brain) begins to secrete melatonin which is a hormone that makes us super sleepy and we go to sleep. When the sun comes up, the pineal gland stops producing melatonin and we are awake and alert from having slept pretty well. We don’t have to make this process happen. Our body’s clever circadian rhythm makes this process automatic. This explains why when we go to ulu places and there’s no TV or wifi of any sort, we start to feel dozy at like 7pm.

With the advent of artificial light, we can now continue to party and work late into the night (woohoo!) and although that has had its benefits on mankind, it has really thrown our circadian rhythm out of whack. What researchers have found is that when we continue fiddling with our phones, tablets or laptops late into the night, the short wave blue light emitted from these devices fool our body into believing that it’s still day time and keeps the pineal gland from releasing melatonin. Without melatonin, we don’t feel sleepy (which explains why some people continue to feel wired and hyped up late into the night) and as a result our sleep really suffers. When our sleep suffers, we can’t focus and stay alert in the day for school and exams (A level exams at 8am anyone?) when we’re supposed to and we can even end up with chronic health issues like diabetes, obesity and heart diseases as outlined in this Harvard health article when we’re chronically sleep deprived.

So what can you do if you want to improve the quality of your sleep? There are a few ways I can think of:-

1. Put away blue light emitting devices at least an hour before bed time. I’ve experimented with this on myself – stowed away the phone and ipad, switched off the TV, turned down the room lights at 9pm and started reading a book instead while waiting for my melatonin to kick in and make me sleepy enough by 10pm. Usually it doesn’t even take that long. I’m comatose by 9.30pm.


2. Install F.lux (completely free of charge) which is a software that tracks the timings when the sun rises and sets and adjusts the lighting of the laptop accordingly to cut out as much disturbing blue light as possible (see picture on left).

3. Avoid sleeping with the phone next to you so you don’t get disturbed when you get random messages in the night and the phone lights up the entire room. Set it to silent and stuff it in the darkest abyss of your bag. If your friend can’t wait for you to reply when you’re awake, then this friend probably has issues.

Hope this helps you to sleep like a baby and come to school with a razor sharp mind. Razor. sharp.

Alot of you by now will know that I’m a brain geek. I like to look at how different things (especially lack of sleep as my major obsession) affect the workings of our brain. So yesterday, I was listening to this fascinating podcast by the guy who created the website ‘your brain on porn‘ and how he approached the effects of porn not on a moral or religious perspective, but just purely on neurological science. He’s got a ted talk too which is supposedly very popular but I didn’t really like some of the things he said on the ted talk so I’m not posting it here. But you can click through to his website if you’re interested.

Then as I clicked through to related sites, I came across this very short, succinct yet insightful youtube video that explains the seeking nature of our brain and how we are susceptible to being compulsive clickers, clicking from one thing on the internet, to the next, to the next, forever being distracted by something and finding it very hard to focus on something for a longer period of time. Which really reminded me of a student I was talking to in the earlier part of the year. I remember she labelled herself as a compulsive procrastinator. She knows that A levels is coming and she has tons of stuff that she has to take note of, memorize and apply but she just keeps finding herself clicking from video to video on youtube. And if she successfully managed to steer away from youtube, she then finds herself clicking from one interesting article to the next on huffington, or checking twitter and facebook to see if there’s something interesting going on there and before she knows it it’s 1am and she remembered the school counsellor’s blog post that talked about importance of sleep, so she goes to sleep and then wake up feeling guilty and lousy cos she didn’t do any of the work she set out to do and the cycle continues.

Probably something alot of you may find familiar. Me too. I was so fascinated by this topic I clicked from article to article, and then found this youtube video and thought I should click through to their other videos and then found a video on violent behaviors of panda….okay just the last bit is completely made up.

So what do we do about this? According to this article on how the internet is a supernormal stimuli, awareness is a really good start. When we’re aware that our brain is a compulsive seeker of new information, we can pause and choose whether to cave in to the temptations or to regulate and over-ride them, especially if you have national exams on the line. And as it comes to building awareness, the .b mindfulness course I’m hoping to teach to more students at YJC in 2015 would probably help with that as well (fingers crossed).

Productivity is one of the words that start with P that I hear students talk ALOT about. The other is procrastination. Funny how they both start with P and are 5 syllables but take exact opposite meanings. Especially with exams and deadlines round every corner, the question as to how we can increase our productivity levels become all the more pertinent.

People have written ENTIRE BOOKS on this subject which is why the more I researched, the more I procrastinated writing about productivity because it’s not easy to condense it into one (or a few) straightforward and simple blog post. Guess all that reading hasn’t helped me become more productive seeing that the last post I wrote was way back in May! I think I have the over-thinking over-planning and under-executing disease.

Anyways! Back to my main point. I think there are about 4 or 5 possible ways in which we can all level up on our productivity and you may not like some of the things that I’m going to say but after scouring the literature on productivity, one thing that EVERYBODY talks about is the effect of sleep deprivation on productivity levels.

It’s one of those chicken and egg thing. You’re feeling you had an unproductive day so you sleep less to make up for it and then the sleep deprivation leads to you being even less productive the next day, so you sacrifice more sleep etc etc. I honestly feel bad telling students to sleep more. I do. I know you guys have so so much work to do, notes to revise, papers to go through that sleep can really be a premium that many students feel they can’t afford. But I also believe in science. And science is telling us that chronic sleep deprivation leads to deficits in short-term memory, ability to focus and be on task, processing speed etc and these are just the cognitive functions that suffer. There’s a whole bunch of other scary stuff that scientists talked about like how sleep deprivation gives you a 55% higher risk of obesity, screws with your metabolic system, increases your risk for diabetes and coronary heart diseases etc etc. But to me, it’s the cognitive deficits that I worry about because you guys need those cognitive functions to be tip top going into the exam hall. 

Some of you may be thinking, ‘but I feel great when I sleep less! it’s when I sleep more that I feel all tired and lousy’. I’m not sure I have a complete explanation for this. It could be the adrenaline or the increased levels of cortisol that is artificially propping you up when you sleep less, and then when you do allow yourself to sleep more your body literally crashes cos the exhaustion has really accumulated.

I won’t belabor the point and if you like you can look at some of the previous posts I’ve written on this subject here, here and here

One really concrete thing that you can do today though (if you’re feeling super motivated to do something about your sleep after reading this) is to reduce your exposure to artificial light before your bed time. Some people think ‘well I’ll read my ipad until I feel sleepy’. The problem though is that the blue light from our gadgets acts like caffeine on our nervous system and directly stimulates the cortex which keeps us artificially propped up and awake when we really ought to be feeling sleepy. It also interferes with the secretion of melatonin which as we all know is essential to the quality of our sleep. I experimented with this on myself the past couple of weeks (I don’t sell stuff I haven’t tried myself). So the last 2 weeks I started by putting all my gadgets away by 8.30pm and read a book instead. In the past I would only get sleepy around 10pm (I know…still very early by your standards). Now? I can barely make it past 9.15pm and my book isn’t that terribly boring either. I also slept deeper and had less vivid dreams and felt more rested the next day. 

Now that I have even more sleep, I’m feeling more productive so in the next couple of weeks I’m gonna try and put up a few more posts on other stuff that will help you to level up on your productivity. 

To nap or not to nap?

Posted: May 15, 2014 in neuroscience, sleep

Hi everyone! I apologize that I’ve been seriously behind on the blog writing business…actually seriously behind is an understatement given that my last proper entry was in March! Well given that the dot b programme and resilience workshops are more or less behind me I should have more time now to write about stuff that will hopefully be helpful for you!

After the resilience workshop that I had with the JC2s, a number of students came up to me afterwards and said that when they get home from school they are usually too tired to do anything so they take like a 2 hour nap before dinner and then obviously can’t sleep early enough at night before having to wake up for school and the cycle continues. So the question was whether napping is okay and if so, how long should they nap for? The quick answer to that is that napping is really awesome (I nap all the time) but anything more than 30 minutes and you may find that you wake up feeling more tired than before you napped. Students in Taiwan have a mandated 30 minute nap after their lunch break (how great is that!?) because scientific evidence shows that it actually improves alertness and focus in class.

As you know by now, my opinions are based on science so here’s a pretty cool scientific video explaining all of this.


I just finished reading this fascinating research article ‘To study or to sleep? The academic costs of extra studying at the expense of sleep’. I’ve written a couple of posts on how the lack of sleep makes us forget the stuff we studied and also about the concept of sleep debt. This article that I just read talks about how when students sacrifice sleep time to squeeze that extra few hours of studying in, they actually end up doing worse academically, NOT better, which is the opposite intent of most students I know.

This research study by UCLA (University of California, LA) followed a group of 535 senior high students (kind of like our equivalent of upper secondary and JC) over a period of 4 years and asked the students to record daily the number of hours they sleep, the number of hours they studied and also whether they faced the following two academic problems:- (1) Having trouble understanding the material being taught in class and (2) doing poorly on tests, quizzes or homework assignment. The researchers found out that regardless of the total number of hours that a student studied, those who sacrificed sleep in order to put in extra nights of studying had poorer performance in tests and other assignments and also had more trouble understanding what was being taught in class the next day.

The research doesn’t state that therefore you should spend less hours studying. It still holds true that students who put in more hours studying get better grades (all things being equal). What this does suggest is that if you find that you need to put in more hours studying what with the exams and all, then rather than sacrificing sleep, it will be far better for you to sacrifice some other stuff (like reading tweets or watching youtube videos – just my thoughts).

With 31 days to A’levels and promos being this week, many of you might be planning to pull all-nighters or sleep less to get more content and practice in. In fact, many of you may already be doing so! But with all these research, I’ve come to realize that if there was one thing I did right as a student, it was the fact that I never ever sacrificed my beauty (and brainy) sleep. And I hope you won’t either.

Here’s a briefer article describing the research if you prefer not to go into the lengthy article.

sleeping studentDid I already say that I sleep alot? I think I did. Last night I went to bed at 9.30 and got up this morning at 6.30am. My friends say I sleep like I’m still a teenager. Opinions differ on how much sleep you need. Thomas Edison supposedly only slept 3-4 hours a day and said sleep is a waste of time. Albert Einstein needed 10 hours of sleep to function well. Most researchers will agree though that at age 17 and 18 you would need about 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep a day. Yup, it’s that specific.

I think at least 90% of JC students sleep much much less than that. I’ve heard of students who go to bed at 8pm, set the alarm clock for 1am and get up to study then come to school! Research says that if you sleep less than what you’re supposed to (8.5 to 9.25 for you guys) then you incur a sleep debt. The calculation of the debt is simple math really. Say you need 8.5 a day, you only sleep 5 so you have a sleep debt of 3.5 hours. And this debt is cumulative so if you incur a debt of 3.5 hours on every school day by the end of the week you’ve incurred a debt of 17.5 hours. Most people then try to sleep it off on weekends but there’s no way you can literally sleep 8.5 + (17.5/2) = 17.25 hours! My math rocks! No doubt because I’m getting enough sleep. Even if you do manage to comatose yourself from 12am to 5.15pm on weekends it’s still not going to cut it because you’ve accumulated this debt for so many years.

Researchers say constant sleep deprivation and accumulation of sleep debt leads to trouble remembering. I think I talked about this in the last post…the ability to remember stuff being especially important for students. No point mugging and mugging only to forget everything right when you needed it right? In fact, when scientists intentionally deprived rats of sleep on a continuous basis, the rats died.  Due to obvious ethical reason, they can’t test this on human beings but the extrapolation is there.

Then there are the students who tell me that they can’t go to sleep even when they are tired. They just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling for hours on end when they could have spent that time sleeping and paying off that debt. I think one of the reasons why I very seldom have that issue is that I’m a creature of habit. I sleep at almost the same time everyday (give or take 15 minutes) and wake up at the same time even on weekends. Scientists say our bodies are creatures of habit. It produces melatonin (a hormone that tells our body it’s time to get sleepy) at almost the same time everyday based on our circadian rhythm. This melatonin production is disrupted when your sleep pattern is irregular e.g. sleep at 8pm one day and 1am the next which then leads to the problem of not being able to sleep when you’re tired. Other things that disrupts melatonin includes the exposure to the blue light from our gadgets like our phone, stimulants like caffeine and physical exercise (so no push ups before bed plzz).

So what’s the conclusion? #1 regulating your sleep pattern seems to help. Exams happen at 8am whether we like it or not. So try to go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday keeping in mind the minimum hours needed. In this way, your body gets sleepy when it needs to and is awake for the 8am exam paper. #2 keep away gadgets and other stimulants at night at least an hour before you want to hit the sack so it doesn’t disrupt your melatonin production. Go the old fashion way. Read a book or count stars…then maybe you won’t need to hit the snooze button ever. 🙂

Image courtesy of FrameAngel/