Answering questions from a school in China

I was recently doing some talks and workshops in two schools in Shanghai. Very stimulating and interesting, and a hefty programme of sessions with a wide range of audiences, including parents and staff, Chinese and international. Students from the Soong Ching Ling School sent me some questions afterwards and I’m answering them below.

Thank you to the brilliant, hard-working librarian at Soong Ching Ling for organising everything so smoothly for the visit to this school and welcoming me so kindly. (The other school, Dulwich College Shanghai, had initiated the whole trip and most of my work during the week was there, where I also had a wonderful welcome and excellently-planned visit.)

“Does a fake smile make the special kind of chemical in your brain?”

Yes! The chemicals you’re referring to (which I mentioned in my talk) are neurotransmitters called endorphins. Smiling and laughing are one way to trigger these “happy chemicals” and fake smiling or making yourself laugh work just as well as when the smiling comes naturally.

Try it now. Make your facial muscles do a huge grin (a little smile doesn’t work – you need to activate the muscles round your cheeks and eyes) and notice how you actually do feel lighter and happier, instantly. But that feeling may not last. You need to keep it up for a little while – and try to do it quite often – before it will have a major effect. The more you do it, the greater the effect. So, keep smiling whenever you can, even if you don’t much feel like it.

“If you are angry, will it affect your mental or physical health?”

Feeling angry is a perfectly healthy response to something that undermines or upsets you, or something you think is really wrong in some way. But anger can become a problem when it goes on too long, happens too often or is triggered too easily. Then, instead of a legitimate response which allows you to stay strong and safe, it becomes something that starts to rule your life and can cause you problems, including to your mental health and wellbeing. For example, reacting angrily too often can damage your relationships and that in turn can lower your own self-worth and affect your mood. Mood and mental health affect each other. So, while we all have a range of appropriate moods, whether happiness, sadness, anger, anxiety or whatever, when the moods are very often positive we will tend to end up with more positive mental health and when the moods are often negative this can end up negatively affecting our mental health.

It’s all about balance and feeling some kind of control. So, anger is fine sometimes but if you feel it too often or have problems controlling it, it could be affecting your mental health. If you feel angry a lot and if quite small things make you angry, it’s worth talking to a caring adult about how you can feel more positive and approach life in a constructive way instead of what may be destructive.

“Why do I keep forgetting things? Is it because my IQ is low?”

It’s really really unlikely to be anything to do with your IQ. It’s much more likely to be because your brain is overloaded with information and you’re not having a chance to process it properly.

Remember I talked about the importance of breaks? Breaks give your brain a chance to process information well and move it into longer-term memory, leaving capacity in shorter-term memory for new information.

As well as your brain being overloaded with too much info, remember that when we are under stress or anxiety of any sort that’s when we make more mistakes, drop, lose and forget things. Anxiety occupies a lot of brain bandwidth, affecting the amount of bandwidth you have left for the tasks you’re trying to focus on.

“Can you judge someone’s IQ by their behavior?”

No, I don’t feel you can. I can’t think of any kind of “behaviour” that would reveal your intelligence.** But there is still disagreement as to what “IQ” is and whether it can be measured and, if it can be, how. Many people do well at school subjects (which often looks like IQ) but lack practical intelligence, common sense, wisdom, creativity or emotional intelligence. And all those things help humans be successful and should also be part of what we call IQ.

(**I’ve just thought of something! Asking questions can often be a sign of intelligence because it’s obviously a good way of learning more and because it cements one’s knowledge and opens one up to new ideas. But you might ask your questions by investigating via the written word rather than directly asking an expert; or you might ask the wrong questions or not listen to the answer, so the visible “behaviour” of asking questions is still not good evidence of IQ.

Don’t judge anyone’s IQ. You have no idea what their brains are capable of.

“When we are sleeping our brains are still working, so why does sleep let our brains relax? It doesn’t make sense. If it is still working, we should be even more tired?”

That’s a little bit like saying that our hearts should get tired because they keep beating while we’re asleep. The thing is that during sleep our “brain waves” are different from during wakefulness. (And different in each stage of sleep, too.) The brain waves of sleep bring various levels of rest, restoration and revival. We aren’t thinking when we’re asleep, and we’re not moving very much – in fact, in some stages of sleep our major muscles are paralysed. (Not lungs and heart etc!) Also during sleep, various hormones are released that allow growth, rest, repair etc. So, our brain keeps working but not in a way that is tiring.

“Is there any way to keep getting information but not get brain tired?”

All our conscious activity is necessarily tiring, because it uses energy. We can’t do anything without energy, just as a machine can’t work without a power source. So our brain is always going to become tired. We can help it not become tired only in these ways:

  • Eat enough and keep hydrated
  • Sleep enough
  • Have enough breaks, exercise and relaxation

“How can we make correct choices when we are tired?”

By recognising that we are tired and that tiredness can affect our decision-making; and then taking extra care to think through our decisions. Take extra time. And recharge energy as soon as possible, whether with food, sleep or a break, as appropriate.

“What percentage of our brain do we control?”

It’s not possible to answer that question meaningfully. In some ways, we don’t exactly “control our brain” at all – our brain is the machine that allows “us” to make a load of choices about what our body and thoughts will do. Some parts of our brain have functions such as controlling our heart beat or our body temperature or our appetite (and many other things) and all those things happen without our control or choice.

We use every part of our brain at various times – 100% of it, but not all at once. There’s no need or value in trying to use it all at once. Different activities use different brain areas.

“Why when I practice a lot at something I still can’t get good at it?”

There are several possible reasons. It could be that you are practising wrongly. It could be that you are too tired. Or you could be feeling negative and not believing in yourself, and this negativity can get in the way of learning. You might not be eating the right nutrients. You might not have had great teaching when you were first learning that particular activity, so your brain connections aren’t well enough formed yet. Different people find different skills easier or harder, mostly depending on how much good teaching and good practice they’ve already had, including as a young child. So, if you had a really good start at, for example, playing musical instruments, you’ll find it easier than someone who didn’t have that early good start.

So, practice always helps but it’s sometimes easier than others to see an effect.

Keep trying and ask for help from a teacher in case you’re not practising in the best way.


THANK YOU, students of Soong Ching Ling School!

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