Category: Health

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.


Photo courtesy of Scouting NY

As I discussed in the last column in this series, Columbia’s heavy reliance on the lecture is a disservice to its students– the ‘learning’ happening in a traditional lecture isn’t translating to long-term memory. Evidence going back over a hundred years tells us that the typical memorize-and-regurgitate approach most students employ to get through a lecture course is an astonishingly bad way to learn – when tested six months after completing a typical lecture course, students have reliably forgotten ~95% of the information they learned.1

While completely replacing lectures with core-sized classes is the obvious suggestion, it’s likely too expensive to execute, even for a well-endowed school like Columbia. Instead, I’m going to focus on easy, relatively cheap, and scientifically effective ways to improve the lecture-based classroom by using what we know about how humans form memories.

While there are few different kinds of memory, the type most relevant to higher education is declarative memory – that which can be consciously accessed. This long-lasting memory we’re going after involves four steps: encoding new information, storage, retrieval, and forgetting. Over the next four columns, we’ll be exploring each of these areas in detail, starting with how we initially process new information.

The standard Columbia lecture requires you to pay attention to the lecturer speaking for 75 minutes straight, often followed by short break and yet another 75-minute information deluge if you, like me, have the misfortune of back-to-back lectures. Empirical research into attention span during lecture courses suggests that students pay attention for less and less time in ever-shortening cycles. The longer a lecture goes on, the less students pay attention, and the bigger each lapse in attention gets.2

Here’s a common story that plays out in lectures across Columbia. You walk into a lecture ready to learn, pay attention for fifteen minutes…and then spend a minute checking Facebook. You tune back in, maybe for only ten minutes this time, only to be distracted for a three-minute stretch by your group chat. By the end of the lecture, you’re only spending two or three out of every ten minutes actually listening, and the rest of it distracted and hoping the lecture ends.

The neurological reason for these lapses comes from the ‘top-down’ way your conscious brain focuses on a single thing for an extended period of time. Your prefrontal cortex, which is physically located on top of the rest of your brain tells the lower, more primitive parts of your brain to shut up and allow you to focus on a specific task. That’s what lets you listen to your professor while tuning out all irrelevant stimuli, like your phone buzzing in your pocket, your stomach rumbling, or that siren wailing past on Broadway.  

This kind of conscious selection is necessary to even hearing new information in the first place – if you’re not paying attention, you won’t be able to recall the information later. But forcing your brain to do this for an extended period of time comes at a steep neurological cost. Overuse of these suppression mechanisms leads to mental fatigue – effectively preventing your brain from focusing any more. Any further attempt to focus only makes it worse, and you’re prone to completely tuning out and giving up on paying attention at all.3 The 75-minute lecture is excellent at causing just this sort of dangerous mental fatigue,4 and far from being the best, it’s possibly one of the worst ways of introducing information.

Instead of using time in-class to relay new information, students would benefit most from having control of their initial information encoding. Students could choose the type of input they prefer, whether that be pre-recorded lectures, readings, compellingly explained visuals, interactive formats, or a combination different methods. Imagine if you could take a pause when your attention slips, going back over difficult concepts a few times, and skim quickly those you already understand. The idea of doing this sort of learning as ‘homework’ has a number of other benefits.

The idea of doing initial learning before class is called flipping the classroom, and it’s one of the most scientifically-supported ideas for improving lecture courses.5 To solve our lecture attention problem, the best idea may be to trust the intelligent and motivated Columbia students to learn at their own pace and think about the material first, before even walking into a classroom.

By flipping the classroom, we’ll be able to better pay attention to new information, and therefore be better prepared for the next stage of memory formation. Importantly, it frees up valuable in-class time to use more interactive teaching techniques, which is necessary if we want to improve the storage and recall phases of memory.  

Stay tuned for the next column, where we’ll talk about how to most effectively use time spent physically in the classroom to help Columbia students actually learn from their lecture classes.

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  1. Deslauriers, L. & Wieman, C. (2011). Learning and retention of quantum concepts with different teaching methods. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7.
  2.  Bunce, D., Flens, E., & Neiles, K. (2010). How Long Can Students Pay Attention in Class? A Study of Student Attention Decline Using Clickers. J. Chem. Educ., 87(12), 1438-1443.
  3. Ishii, A., Tanaka, M., & Watanabe, Y. (2014). Neural mechanisms of mental fatigue. Reviews In The Neurosciences, 0(0).
  4. Aron, A. (2007). The Neural Basis of Inhibition in Cognitive Control. The Neuroscientist, 13(3), 214-228.
  5. Roehl, A., Reddy, S., & Shannon, G. (2013). The Flipped Classroom: An Opportunity To Engage Millennial Students Through Active Learning Strategies. Journal Of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 44-49.


Having trouble getting out of bed? Often times, waking up feeling groggy and with a lack of energy is the result of the human body processing unbalanced amounts of unnatural substances.

Luckily, you can improve your sleep quality and overall health and appearance by following the simple tips below:

1. If you want carbs, pick “good” carbs, not “bad” carbs

“Good” carbs come from natural non-GMO foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, etc. that are loaded with vitamins and minerals in their natural and absorbable form.

For grains, try “good” carb grains like quinoa, and exotic wheat such as spelt and bulgur. Tubers such as potatoes and yams are also great “good” carbs. As for rice, make sure it’s wild. If not, then prepare it with other vegetables, seeds, nuts, or legumes that will decrease the percentage of empty “bad” carbs.

You are what you eat, so if you eat junk, you will feel like junk. Therefore, keep all processed foods overloaded with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and other synthetic sugars to a meager minimum.

Eating “good” carbs in high amounts on a regular basis will help the body repair the damages caused by years of “bad” carbs. Thus, you will wake-up feeling more refreshed and full of energy.

2. Decrease your dependence on stimulants

Whether it be coffee, alcohol, or drugs, stimulants can be addictive and habit-forming. Stimulants can negatively influence the brain by heightening emotions and also can influence the cognitive and memory centers of the brain so you lose control of your body.

Over time, this can impair your memory, as you start to lose brain cells. Therefore, if you stay up late and depend on stimulants to continue to perform any academic or social activity, this could affect your quality of sleep.

In order to decrease your dependence on stimulants, it is best to replace them with a natural alternative. For example, replace a cup of coffee with an energy-boosting combo of oranges and pomegranates. Replace alcohol with something like grape juice.

Drugs can be replaced with natural herbs called adaptogens (such as ginseng, rhodiola, etc.) that lower stress and anxiety, while also boosting the immune system. By lowering your dependence on stimulants and drugs, your body will be able to process fewer harmful chemicals, which will give you more energy to start your day.

If you combine these tips with a moderate amount of exercise and sunlight, then you will be able to wake up feeling more refreshed and full of energy.

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