Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Lawyer Well-being Newsletter: Helping Lawyers Improve Brain Health & Mental Strength

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Take a Breath to Induce Calm, Apr. 9, 2020

You can engage the rest-and-digest recovery system to help control the fight-or-flight stress response. Your tool is your breath. Slow managed breathing can reduce anxiety. Sit comfortably, feel the ground beneath your feet, and slowly inhale followed by a gradual exhale. You can count the beats, such as inhale for 4 beats, hold for 2 beats, and exhale for 4 beats.

Enhance your rest-and-digest healing capacity with a regular meditation practice. Meditation involves sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, noticing if your mind wanders to a thought, and gently nonjudgmentally returning your attention to your breathing.

Alicia Keys taught Stephen Colbert to meditate on his April 2, 2020 episode. She says that at the end of her meditation sessions, she asks the universe for what she needs, such as more strength, patience, sleep, or peace.

Meditation and mindfulness can be taught to our children during these unprecedented times to help reduce their fear and anxiety. A study that examined the impact of a mindfulness and meditation curriculum on 6th graders found that the students who received the training reported feeling less stress and fewer negative feelings such as anger or sadness. Brain scans of these kids also showed reduced right amygdala activation, which is where the stress response is initiated. According to researcher Clemens C.C. Bauer, the study indicates that “mindfulness training recalibrates the automatic and unconscious response to fear, which leads to a ubiquitous resilience to stress. It is easy to learn and can be practiced everywhere.”

Takeaway: Empower your rest-and-digest recovery system with self-care practices. Leverage online resources, including those suggested below, to explore the options and identify what works for you.

Bonus Resource: Watch Alicia Keys at the YouTube link below with her Stay Home adaptation of Flo Rida’s My House.


Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 967 (2019)

Alicia Keys Interview on The Late Show (where she teaches Stephen Colbert how to meditation), Apr. 2, 2020,

Eric W. Dolan, Neuroscience study indicates mindfulness training can recalibrate the brain’s response to fear in school kids, PsyPost, Mar. 28, 2020,

Zee Krstic, The 11 Best Meditation Apps to Help you Find Inner Peace, Good Housekeeping, Mar. 30, 2020,

Alicia Keys Puts an At-Home Spin on Flo Rida’s “My House”, The Late Show, Apr. 2, 2020,

Controlling Negativity During Stressful Times, Apr. 2, 2020

The nervous system has two parts: the fight-or-flight stress response and the rest-and-digest relaxation counterbalance which returns the brain and body to equilibrium. While the fight-or-flight system evolved to help us escape predators, the threats that activate the stress response in modern society are mostly psychological. A study of 2,000 participants in the UK, examining mental health the day before and the day after the national COVID-19 lockdown, found that the rates of anxiety (17%) and depression (16%) before the lockdown had increased to 35% reporting anxiety and 38% experiencing symptoms of depression the day after the social distancing mandate. In the days that followed the lockdown, the rates dropped to 20-24% with anxiety and 21-23% with depression. You can learn how to manage the psychological impact of the stress response.

Our brain’s stress response is largely automated, and its negativity bias leads us to imagine worst case scenarios and develop insecurities that can paralyze us. If you feel exhausted and ineffective, you might try four steps recommended by Dr. Shannon Irvine for taking control of that automated system:

  1. Identify Them: Acknowledge and name the thoughts you are having.
  2. Write Them Down: Pull the thoughts out of the subconscious by putting them on paper.
  3. Challenge Them: When we become aware of destructive thoughts, our brain naturally begins to refute them.
  4. Establish New Thoughts: Rewire your brain with an affirmation, that you remind yourself of daily, that reflects the truth. This process creates a new path of neurons that can disengage the automated negative thoughts initiated by the fight-or-flight stress response.

Takeaway: Challenge your automated negativity bias by rewiring your brain toward the truth. Taking a few minutes each day on this process can free up your brain to focus on your family and work.


Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791 (2013)

Initial Research Findings on COVID-19 and Mental Health in the UK, The University of Sheffield, Mar. 2020,

Briana Wiest, How to Rewire your Brain to Succeed During Uncertain Times, Forbes, Mar. 26, 2000,  

Tai Chi for Spring, Mar 26, 2020

None of us is having the spring we planned on. We are not going to Opening Day, watching our kids play soccer, taking vacations, hosting BBQs, preparing our kids for Prom and graduation, or getting together with friends and loved ones. We are conducting emergency planning, learning to work from home, and figuring out to stay close without being close. It is stressful.

What we could do while we are all stuck at home is learn something new. One suggestion is Tai Chi, a graceful low impact form of exercise that originated in China as a martial art. It is considered both meditation in motion and medication in motion. Research indicates Tai Chi can provide the following health benefits: better balance, improved flexibility, enhanced muscle strength, improved mood, and decreased stress, anxiety, and depression.

Veterans with PTSD symptoms reported that Tai Chi improved their concentration and helped them manage intrusive thoughts. The participants wanted to continue their training and would recommend Tai Chi to a friend. Tai Chi improved insomnia, fatigue, and depression in breast cancer survivors. And in a small study, 6 healthy adults were given 12 weeks of Tai Chi training and scientists used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure biochemical markers of brain health. Researchers found increased N-acetylaspartate, an indicator of brain cell health, suggesting that Tai Chi may promote neuroplasticity, stimulate the birth of new brain cells, and/or protect brain cells against aging.

Takeaway: Tai Chi can relieve stress and improve brain health. YouTube is a great source of free instruction.


This Gentle Form of Exercise can help Maintain Strength, Flexibility, and Balance, and could be the Perfect Activity for the Rest of your Life, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Aug. 20, 2019,

Tai Chi: A Gentle Way to Fight Stress, Mayo Clinic,

Tai Chi Helps Manage Intrusive Thoughts in Veterans with PTSD, Neuroscience News, Nov. 30, 2016,

Tai Chi Relieves Insomnia in Breast Cancer Survivors, Neuroscience News, May 10, 2017,

Marlynn Wei, Tai Chi May Improve Brain Health and Muscle Recovery, Psychology Today, Apr. 24, 2018,


The Neuroscience of Stress and Cognition, Mar 19, 2020


Chronically stressed brains cannot think as effectively as non-stressed brains.  Stress hormones damage or kill brain cells in the memory-processing hippocampus, while at the same time slowing the birth of new brain cells there.  The hippocampus is simply not as functional in times of chronic stress, making learning, memory formation, and recalling information very challenging.

While we deal with the health and economic challenges of the current environment, this version of The Lawyer Well-being Newsletter is much longer than normal and the recommendation is that you do what you can to minimize your stress and that of your loved ones, because long-term stress is very harmful to the brain and body.

Memory Formation

Semantic memory is the knowledge-base that education enhances, such as the acquisition of terminology, facts, and concepts. It is declarative memory because it requires conscious thought to be recalled, and it is stored in a neural network of brain cells that loops between the memory-processing hippocampus and the cerebral cortex.

The life cycle of declarative memory has four stages: encoding, storing, retrieving, and forgetting. Encoding begins when information in the form of memory traces enters the cerebral cortex via the senses, and travels to the hippocampus for processing. The hippocampus starts to encode the information for permanent storage along chains of firing neurons. The strongest information travels back to the cerebral cortex where it was first registered by the senses. During law school, “consolidation (enhanced by creating and studying law class outlines) makes temporarily stored fragile information (from reading and class lectures) more stable for later retrieval (on law school exams) by strengthening neural connections of the information circuit between the hippocampus and the cortex.”

Complete consolidation of a fragile memory to a stable memory takes from two to ten years. The memory retrieval process, used by law students during exams or lawyers recalling a statute number, relies on the same circuit of brain cells that is used for memory consolidation, demonstrating the need for a healthy hippocampus. When law students and lawyers work to develop expertise in a course or discipline, the brain is consolidating information for later retrieval.

The Stress Response

There are two kinds of stress: acute stress where the fight-or-flight system is initiated to martial resources to deal with a physical or psychological challenge; and chronic stress where long-lasting life challenges prolong fight-or-flight system activation. The fight-or-flight stress response evolved to help humans escape from predators, and the rest-and-digest system curbs the stress response, calming the body and brain.

The stress response begins in the brain’s panic button, the amygdala, which signals the hypothalamus to release the stress hormones adrenalin (epinephrine) and glucocorticoids (the main glucocorticoid is cortisol). Stress hormones mobilize energy, and elevate heart rate and blood pressure to help law students deal with challenges, while at the same time suppressing digestion and immune response. Chronic stress, when the stress response is in overdrive, can cause psychological problems such as irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression; and physical effects including increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, chest pain, digestive problems, muscle tension, sweating, and chills. Long-term elevated levels of stress hormones have been associated with impaired immune response; increased appetite, food cravings, body fat, PMS and menopause symptoms; and decreased muscle mass and bone density.

Chronic stress triggers inflammation in the body and brain, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Inflammation in the brain can impair motivation and mental agility.   Elevated stress hormone levels disrupt sleep, and increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and burnout. Chronic stress can also impact serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is important to mood regulation, cognition, and well-being.

Stress and Cognition

One of the brain’s superpowers is its ability to grow new brain cells in the hippocampus in a process called neurogenesis. This process is suppressed during the stress response. The hippocampus is also extremely vulnerable to damage from stress hormones because it has extensive glucocorticoid receptors. Chronic high levels of glucocorticoids cause hippocampal neuron degeneration and death. The hippocampal brain cells that remain after damage from stress are not as effective, and the complexity of neural networks is degraded as the connections at the synapses are weakened or disconnected.

Research reveals that cognitive performance deteriorates during the stress response. The negative effects of stress on cognition include impaired concentration, memory, problem-solving capacity, and language and math processing. Motivation, creativity, and curiosity are inhibited as well. Jessica Minahan describes anxiety as a transient learning disability that interferes with a student’s working memory, learning, recall, and capacity to complete tasks.

Brain cells in the hippocampus, critical to memory processing and recall, can be weakened or killed by exposure to stress hormones creating significant implications for lawyers, law students, and legal educators. Brain scans indicate that the hippocampi (there is one in each brain hemisphere) shrink in people who experience stress, depression, and PTSD. Adults in midlife with increased levels of cortisol had reduced brain structure and cognitive capacity. Data from 2,018 Framingham Heart Study participants, of an average age of 48, showed that participants with an elevated cortisol level performed worse on memory and other cognitive tasks than participants with average cortisol levels. Higher cortisol was also associated with smaller brain volumes in those subjects.

Takeaway: Lawyers and law students should strive to manage their stress during challenging times. Exercise, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude are protective against stress.

Note: For a detailed explanation of stress and cognition, as well as the science behind the recommendations for managing stress, see Killing Them Softly below. For recommendations for enhancing mental strength, see Windmills of your Mind below.


Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791 (2013)

Muzaffer Kaser, Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian and Christelle Langley, How Chronic Stress Changes the Brain, and What you can do to Reverse the Damage, Neuroscience News, Mar. 14, 2020,

Katrina Schwartz, 20 Tips to Help Deescalate Interactions with Anxious or Defiant Students, Mind/Shift (April 21, 2016) available at

Debra S. Austin, Windmills of your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931 (2019),


Exercise & Appetite Control, Feb 13, 2020

It’s the day before Valentine’s Day, and candy is everywhere, nearly impossible to avoid for a sugar addict like me. A new study demonstrates that exercise can protect against overeating.

Researchers from the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) at Drexel University found exercise to be a protective factor in a study where 130 participants in a weight loss program followed a reduced-calorie diet and also engaged in exercise in their real-world environments. The study revealed that exercise helped participants refrain from overeating. When participants did not exercise, the risk of overeating was 12%. When participants did 60 minutes of exercise, the risk of overindulging was cut by more than half, to 5%. Every 10 minutes of additional exercise reduced the risk of overeating by 1% in the hours following the workout. Researchers think exercise helps regulate appetite and/or eating behavior.

Takeaway: Exercise may make it easier to refrain from overeating, so keeping that commitment to your workout routine can help you stay on track with healthy eating goals.


Crochiere, Rebecca J.,Kerrigan, Stephanie G.,Lampe, Elizabeth W.,Manasse, Stephanie M.,Crosby, Ross D.,Butryn, Meghan L.,Forman, Evan M., Is physical activity a risk or protective factor for subsequent dietary lapses among behavioral weight loss participants?, (2020)
Health Psychology,

Exercise Slows Brain Aging, Mar. 12, 2020

Everybody talks about wanting to change things and help and fix, but ultimately all you can do is fix yourself. And that’s a lot. Because if you can fix yourself, it has a ripple effect.
~ Rob Reiner

Exercise has been shown to protect against cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. A new study adds to that data by demonstrating that active older adults have bigger brains than inactive folks.

Researchers divided 1,557 multi-ethnic participants, with an average age of 75, into three groups. They collected information on leisure time physical activity and conducted MRI scans on the participants. When they compared the brain volume of the most active third to that of the least active third of participants, they found that the active group had larger brains, and that was equivalent to a reduction in between 3 and 4 years of aging. Activities reported by the participants included walking, gardening, swimming, and dancing.

Exercise is associated with larger brain volume in the elderly, which helps to explain how it defends against cognitive decline.

Takeaway: Exercise, anything that raises your heart rate, is probably the most important self-care activity you can commit to for enhanced brain health.



  1. Eric Garner, The Art of Leadership: 500 Quotes on How to Lead Others 6 (2012),,+but+ultimately+all+you+can+do+is+fix+yourself.+And+that’s+a+lot.+Because+if+you+can+fix+yourself,+it+has+a+ripple+effect.%E2%80%9D+%E2%80%95Rob+Reiner&source=bl&ots=YwZ16qOsaZ&sig=ACfU3U12vaO-BeQ5XUH5h4-dMk9gBlDEXQ&hl=en&ppis=_e&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwibyfuK243oAhXfAp0JHVotD_oQ6AEwDXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. Yian Gu, Jennifer Manly, Nicole Schupf, Richard Mayeux, Adam Brickman, Leisure Time Physical Activity and MRI-based Brain Measures in a Multi-ethnic Elderly Cohort, a preliminary study to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 72nd Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada, April 25 to May 1, 2020,

Nature Therapy, Mar 5, 2020

We turn the clocks ahead on Saturday night to begin Daylight Saving Time. Time-shifting can be a grind and it has been shown to impair our health. There is an upside, more time to spend in nature.

Metadata research synthesizing 143 studies of over 290 million people reveals that exposure to greenspace lowers the stress hormone cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure, as well as reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Participants lived in 20 countries, including the US, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, and Japan where forest bathing is popular. Greenspace includes both undeveloped land with natural vegetation and urban parks.

Forest bathing is a practice meant to reverse the effects of nature deficit disorder, for those of us who spend most of our time indoors. A slow and mindful walk through a forest, appreciating the experience with all your senses, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, while also improving sleep, the immune system, and cardiovascular health. The health benefits of the forest may come from the higher oxygen concentration and the presence of phytoncides, natural oils that defend plants from insects, bacteria, and fungi. Evergreens are the greatest generators of phytoncides.

In an effort to determine an effective dose of nature therapy, researchers reviewed 155 studies and included 14 studies in their analysis. Participants were age 15 to 30 from Japan, the US, and Sweden, and time spent in natural settings was compared to time spent in urban settings. The research revealed that 10-30 minutes of sitting or walking in nature decreased cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety, while improving mood and boosting the rest-and-digest recovery system (parasympathetic nervous system activity).

Takeaway: You may benefit from a nature therapy prescription, now that the days are lighter and longer.


  1. Anisha Kalidindi, Yes, Daylight Saving Time is Bad for your Health: Here’s the Science, Massive Science, Nov. 4, 2019,
  2. Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett and Andy Jones, The Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Greenspace Exposure and Health Outcomes, Environmental Research July 5, 2018,
  3. Karin Evans, Why Forest Bathing is Good for your Health, Mindful, Sept. 10, 2018,
  4. Genevive R. Meredith, Donald A. Rakow, Erin R.B. Eldermire, Ceclia G. Madsen, Steven P. Shelley, and Naomi A. Sachs, Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review, Frontiers in Psychology, Psychol., 14 January 2020,

Calm your Inner Critic, Feb 27, 2020

We all harbor an inner critic. Negative self-talk and self-criticism can impair our confidence and self-esteem. It can also lead to imposter syndrome, where we doubt our expertise or competence.

A recent study revealed that practicing self-compassion decreases the stress response and lowers heart rate. Researchers divided 135 healthy University of Exeter students into 5 groups, each receiving a different 11-minute audio treatment. Researchers measured heart rate and sweat response, and they collected self-reported information about how likely participants were to be kind to themselves, how safe they felt, and how connected they felt to others.

The 2 groups who received self-compassion instructions experienced lower heart rates and sweat responses. They also reported feeling safe and relaxed, as well as more self-compassion and connection with others. Researchers stated that the findings demonstrated that practicing self-kindness downgrades the stress response and promotes regeneration and healing. The recordings for these groups were a compassionate body scan, where participants were instructed to notice body sensations with an attitude of interest and calmness, and a loving kindness exercise, where participants were guided to direct kindness to themselves and their loved ones.

The other treatment recordings induced a critical inner voice that led to increased heart rate and sweat response. Self-criticism has also been associated with anxiety and depression.

Takeaway: Self-compassion practices empower emotion regulation and dampen stress response, including reducing heart rate. To learn more about self-compassion practices, check out the resources below.


  1. Jack Kornfeld, A Meditation on Lovingkindness, (short article):
  2. Sharon Salzburg, Why Loving-kindness Takes Time, Jan. 19, 2018 (article plus 47 minute guided meditation):
  3. John Kabat-Zinn, This Lovingkindness Meditation is a Radical Act of Love, Nov. 8, 2018 (article plus 45 minute guided meditation):
  4. Mount Sinai Health System, Compassionate Body Scan (20 minutes):


  1. Inner Critic: GoodTherapy,
  2. Imposter Syndrome: Debra Austin, Windmills of your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest Law Review 931, 964-65 (2019) .
  3. The Study: Hans Kirschner, Willem Kuyken, Kim Wright, Henrietta Roberts, Claire Brejcha, and Anke Karl, Soothing Your Heart and Feeling Connected: A New Experimental Paradigm to Study the Benefits of Self-Compassion, Clinical Psychological Science Volume 7, Issue 3 545-565, May 1, 2019,

Your Brain on the Mediterranean Diet, 2-20-20

A new study has revealed that consumption of the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) promotes healthier aging by improving brain function and reducing frailty.

Aging results in inflammation and deterioration of body functions, which contribute to frailty. Researchers found that consuming the MedDiet for a year reduced frailty and improved cognitive function in 323 elderly participants (age 65-79) from the UK, France, Netherlands, Italy and Poland. The beneficial outcomes were correlated with improving the diversity in the gut microbiome ecosystem of the participants. A high adherence to the MedDiet resulted in enhanced global cognitive ability; improved immune function, blood pressure, and arterial stiffness; and reduced bone loss in individuals with osteoporosis.

The MedDiet includes lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, olive oil and fish; some eggs and dairy; and very little red meat, sugar and saturated fats. Some of the healthiest foods include broccoli, berries, almonds, walnuts, and salmon. A large variety of fruits and vegetables is recommended. The MedDiet can also reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. For the third year in a row, the MedDiet has been ranked first in the US News and World Report’s “best diet” rankings.

Takeaway: It is never too late to adjust your diet for improved health and cognitive function.


  1. Tarini Shankar Ghosh, Simone Rampelli, Ian B Jeffery, Aurelia Santoro, Marta Neto, Miriam Capri, Enrico Giampieri, Amy Jennings, Marco Candela, Silvia Turroni, Erwin G Zoetendal, Gerben D A Hermes, Caumon Elodie, Nathalie Meunier, Corinne Malpuech Brugere, Estelle Pujos-Guillot, Agnes M Berendsen, Lisette C P G M De Groot, Edith J M Feskins, Joanna Kaluza, Barbara Pietruszka, Marta Jeruszka Bielak, Blandine Comte, Monica Maijo-Ferre, Claudio Nicoletti, Willem M De Vos, Susan Fairweather-Tait, Aedin Cassidy, Patrizia Brigidi, Claudio Franceschi, and Paul W O’Toole, Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people reducing frailty and improving health status: the NU-AGE 1-year dietary intervention across five European countries, BMJ Journal Gut, Feb 17, 2020,
  2. Sandee LaMotte, Mediterranean Diet: How to Start (and Stay on) one of the World’s Healthiest Diets, CNN, Mar. 27, 2019,
  3. Sandee LaMotte, Best and Worst Diets for 2020, Ranked by Experts, with a Popular One Near Last, CNN, Jan. 2, 2020,
  4. US News & World Report, Best Diets Overall,

Anxiety & Social Support Feb 6, 2020

Four of the six primary human emotions initiate the fight-or-flight stress response: fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Anxiety involves fear of anticipated negative circumstances. Many current treatments for anxiety are ineffective or result in negative side effects. Anxiety triggers the stress response, which impairs our brain, as well as our cardiovascular and immune systems.

Animal studies have revealed that the presence of an animal of the same species will reduce the behavioral and physiological responses to negative events. Most studies show that people dealing with undesirable life events who have social support from a friend or loved one have reduced stress, anxiety, and pain.

A recent study demonstrated that anxiety can be reduced in humans when in the presence of other people, even when they are not providing direct support. The study subjected human participants to unpleasant sounds, while alone or in the presence of a stranger who did not provide any support other than being in the room. The researchers also tested the difference between when the person was a member of the participant’s ethic group or not. The mere presence of another person reduced the stress responses to the negative sounds, particularly in participants with high situational anxiety. The anxiety reduction was even stronger if the participant perceived the person in the room to be of a dissimilar ethic group. “There is evidence that perceived dissimilarity can buffer anxiety, because anxious individuals perceive dissimilar others as confident, while similar others are perceived as anxious.” The participants and additional individuals in this study all identified as women, so there is no information about whether the results would differ if the participants identified as men.

Pets and therapy dogs can also reduce the fight-or-flight stress response. Interacting with therapy dogs reduces stress hormones and improves heart rate and blood pressure. A large study of the most common type of campus therapy dog program, where dogs interacted with 246 students during exam time, demonstrated that 20-30 minutes of contact resulted in immediate stress reduction, as well as improvement in student happiness and energy levels. And these impacts lasted for 10 hours after contact with the therapy dogs. The company of a pet reduced the stress response during mental math testing more effectively than the presence of a spouse or friend.

Takeaway: When you are experiencing stress or anxiety, seeking support from a pet, friend, or loved one can help reduce your stress response and anxiety levels.


  1. Debra S Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 945 (2019),
  2. Yanyan Qu, Martin J. Herrmann, Luisa Bell, Anna Fackler, Shihui Han, Jurgen Deckert, and Grit Hein, The Mere Physical Presence of Another Person Reduces Human Autonomic Responses to Aversive Sounds, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, Jan. 22, 2020,
  3. Stanley Corin, Petting Away Pre-Exam Stress: Therapy Dogs on Campus, Psychology Today, Mar. 20, 2018, online at
  4. Nancy R. Gee, Aubrey H. Fine, and Peggy McCardle, How Animals Help Students Learn: Research and Practice for Educators and Mental-Health Professionals 102 (2017).


Fasting, Jan 30, 2020

If you participated in Dry January, you were alcohol fasting. That may have reset your dopamine system.

The dopamine system was meant to drive eating and procreation to ensure survival. When we overindulge in alcohol, comfort food, technology, or other substances or activities of abuse, our brains experience large doses of dopamine. These dopamine levels are much higher than our ancestors processed due to our capacity to concentrate substances or create intense experiences. Dopamine, once believed to be the neurotransmitter of pleasure, is more accurately in charge of inspiring us to obtain the substances or adventures we crave. It is the transmitter of repeat behavior. When we eat too many sweets or spend too much time on social media or gambling, we train our brain to expect these larger hits of dopamine. That is one reason bad habits are so hard to break.

Fasting is a part of many religious traditions, and is currently fashionable in some communities. Research indicates that fasting can improve physical and psychological well-being. Temporarily abstaining from something may make it more pleasurable after a fast. While scientists disagree about the brain benefits of fasting, some think it can inhibit addictive behaviors.

Takeaway: If you are struggling to change a habit, consider fasting and you may reset your dopamine system.


  1. Debra S. Austin, Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and its Impact on Cognitive Wellness, 15 NEV. L.J. 826, 833-839 (2015).
  2. Neuroscience News, Silicone Valley’s Latest Fad is Dopamine Fasting – and That may not be as Crazy as it Sounds, Jan. 25, 2020, online at




Exercise & Working Memory Jan 23, 2020

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
~ Martin Luther King Jr.

A recent study demonstrated that a single session of moderate exercise, such as a brisk 20-minute walk, can improve working memory as much as the caffeine in your morning cup of coffee. Working memory is the ability to store and manipulate information, such as following directions to a store, remembering items on a grocery list you accidentally left at home, or making a purchasing decision between two items.

Takeaway: Exercise and caffeine enhance cognitive capacity. Those folks who are unable to consume caffeine can enjoy the same cognitive boost from 20 minutes of moderate exercise.



  1. Quote: Literary Devices, online at
  2. Anisa Morava, Matthew James Fagan & Harry Prapavessis , Effects of Caffeine and Acute Aerobic Exercise on Working Memory and Caffeine Withdrawal, Scientific Reports, Sci Rep 9, 19644 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-56251-y, online at
  3. How Working Memory gets you Through the Day, Neuroscience News, Oct. 24, 2018, online at

Exercise & State of Mind, Jan 16, 2020

Exercise improves brain health in three important ways, it:

  1. increases blood flow (which improves the distribution of nutrients and the elimination of waste);
  2. raises important neurotransmitter levels (serotonin influences mood; norepinephrine impacts motivation; and dopamine improves satisfaction); and
  3. produces the brain cell building block Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF, which protects existing brain cells, helps the birth of new brain cells in the memory-processing hippocampus, and encourages brain cell connections, important for learning and thinking).

Moderately challenging exercise also enhances state of mind. Endocannabinoids, the neurotransmitters that are mimicked by the THC in marijuana, improve mood and diminish pain. The amygdala (the brain’s panic button) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for reasoning and planning) have extensive endocannabinoid receptors. When endocannabinoids dock in these receptors, anxiety is calmed and feelings of contentment surge. Jogging, cycling, walking on an inclined treadmill, and hiking cause an increase in endocannabinoids. Participating in a physical activity that is moderately difficult for you for at least 20 minutes will increase endocannabinoids in your brain.

Exercise can make it easier to cope with stressful experiences. Researchers called over 2,000 participants, ages 33 to 84, every night for eight days. On days when participants were active, stressful work and personal events were less taxing.

Busy lawyers should not miss workouts. Research requiring active adults to reduce their physical activity resulted in impaired mental well-being. Participants experiencing forced periods of inactivity reported increased fatigue, anxiety, hostility, and depression, as well as a decline in life satisfaction.

Takeaway: A commitment to regular exercise is an investment in enhanced brain health and state of mind.


  1. Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 828-834 (2013), online at
  2. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement 13, 16-17, 23 (2019); Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 802, 815-16 (2013), online at
  3. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement 24 (2019).
  4. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement 13 (2019).

Adequate Sleep is Critical to Brain Health & Cognitive Function, Jan 9, 2020

Sleep deprivation causes cognitive decline including impaired attention, working memory, executive function, and logical reasoning ability. Getting inadequate sleep also accelerates the aging process.

A study on the sleep quality and brain atrophy of 147 middle-aged adults found that poor sleep quality was correlated with reduced brain volume in the frontal, temporal, and parietal regions of the brain. The study did not reveal whether poor sleep quality was a cause or a consequence of reduced brain volume. Difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep have been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The areas of the brain that shrank are responsible for reasoning, planning, and language processing (frontal); hearing and memory (temporal); and movement, taste, and touch (parietal). These areas of the thinking brain process information and conduct higher-order reasoning.

Takeaway: If you sleep poorly, your brain shrinks. Strive for the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep to maintain your brain health.


  1. Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 834-837 (2013), online at
  2. Claire E. Sexton, DPhil, Andreas B. Storsve, MSc, Kristine B. Walhovd, PhD, Heidi Johansen-Berg, DPhil, and Anders M. Fjell, PhD, Neurology. 2014 Sep 9; 83(11): 967–973, online at!po=2.08333.
  3. Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 801-802 (2013), online at

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