Archive for Microfinance

We have moved

Hello dear readers: after a transition period, we have definitively moved to


Please visit us there if you want to keep reading our (close to) daily articles. Please update your feed, and any technorati/ stumbleupon/ del.ic.ious account you may have pointing at this old address. Our new location:

We won’t be posting more articles here.

We’ll see you there!
-Caroline & Alvaro

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2007 New Year Resolution: Carnival of Brain Fitness

Happy 2007 to everyone!

We have just formulated our New Year Resolution: make 2007 the year when Brain Fitness became a mainstream concept.

How do we start? well, let’s announce the launch of the Carnival of Brain Fitness (a Blog Carnival is basically the vehicle that blogs use to share posts around specific topics).

Goal: to facilitate a dialogue about this emerging field across multiple perspectives, from scientists and health professionals, to education and training ones, to basically everyone who has conducted an experiment on his on her brain and mind, and has news to report.

Context: The scientific foundations lie in neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, cognitive training and stress management. Medical and health applications range from stroke and TBI rehabilitation to ADD/ADHD and early Alzheimer’s to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and cognitive therapy. Educational and training applications go from helping kids improve reading abilities to helping manage stress and anxiety – including work with the “mental game” in sports and high-demand activities pr professions. Each of us may also have experiences to report, where we saw first hand, no matter our age, our innate ability to refine and transform ourselves (and our brains).

Mechanics: If you’d like to contribute,

Read the rest of this entry »

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Microfinance, and a very sharp brain

We would like to join other bloggers in congratulating Muhammad Yunus for having been awarded the Nobel Peace Price.

The genesis of microfinance, in Professor Yunus’ own words.

Not often can we find personified examples of what we write about. For 3 out of the last 4 entries in this blog, I can not think of a better example than Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank-that launched the field of microfinance.

The entries:

– The Learning Cycle, including Concrete Experience and Active Testing: in 1976, when he was a Professor of Economics, he gave a small loan to a number of villagers. He didn’t preach. He acted.

Reflection, that led him to an Aha! moment : “If you can make so many people so happy with such a small amount of money, why shouldn’t you do more of it”? (quoted in NY Times today). His direct experience, and this Reflection, gave him the motivation to try and literally change the way many poor people live worldwide. It led to the birth of microfinance.

The joy of giving: I am sure Muhammad Yunus, and thousands of people involved in his work, has been amply rewarded with free dopamine and oxytocin. To quote today’s Financial Times, “Without collateral, the system has to rely on trust and social interaction to secure repayments. It is these fundamental aspects of human nature that can help forward not only development, but also peace”.

Plus, given that he has announced he will donate the $1.4m prize money, we can predict an even higher dopamine and oxytocin release in his brain, certainly higher than in the brain of the writer of this surprising article.

Good news: there is a solid pipeline of future Muhammad Yunuses, optimist and pragmatic social entrepreneurs (“New Heroes”, according to PBS):
– A great book titled How To Change The World, that profiles the field and some of its most inspiring participants
– The pioneers in supporting social entrepreneurs worldwide: Ashoka: Innovators for the Public
– Another great foundation: The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship
– The Changemakers community
– And of course, Constant Learning at Grameen

Finally, a post on resiliency. Enjoy the weekend.

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Brain and Mind Fitness Programs: resiliency, on top of attention, memory…


6.30pm: I leave the office, downtown San Francisco, and take the train.

6.44pm: just before arriving in my station, I remember I have an appointment with my hairdresser, which means I have to walk in a different direction than usual.

6.48pm: I find myself walking towards my house, opposite direction from my hairdresser.

You may have had a similar experience. You walk towards where you parked your car. Except that the car is not there. Then you realize that, on that precise day, you couldn’t park your car in the usual place. And now you have to walk to a different corner of the parking lot. What corner?

Now you may feel disoriented, not only about where your car may be, but about why we are talking about this…

Well, this story is a good example of how our brains work. When we do anything a number of times, the relevant neuronal networks get more and more strongly connected. “Cells that fire together wire together“. We develop automatic habits, from which it is not easy to escape. We get used to just getting out of the metro station and walking home. We know where we always park our cars.

You may also try an enlightening experiment on our habits.

Let me now make a brief detour. Over the last few weeks, I have had a number of conversations where the same concept has appeared: resiliency. Resiliency can be defined as “the ability to recover from a failure”. Resiliency is a critical Mental Muscle to train.

I  learned the word 6-7 years ago, at an Ashoka event in Buenos Aires, Argentina, organized by social entrepreneur Alberto Croce. Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP Foundation, used it last week when we were discussing several Brain Fitness priorities for teachers and students. My friends at the Institute of HeartMath proposed using “developing resiliency”, instead of “beating Stress”, when we were brainstorming options to partner with professional associations and bring proven anxiety reduction programs to educators and health care professionals. Mark Katz, when we met with a number of school superintendents, empathized how important for all students to develop the executive function of resiliency, and how that would help them overcome obstacles such as ADD? ADHD and other academic problems.

In the Neuroscience of Leadership post, we saw too that resiliency is a critical attitude, and skill. To not spend too much focus and mental energy on trying to double-guess hidden meanings, and the past. To focus, instead, on what we can do next. On what is on our scope of influence. On, as we discussed before, being positive .

Let’s summarize. First, we have seen that some behaviors become habits and thereby mindless habits. They become us. What we call our personalities. Then, we have seen how important resiliency is.

So, what prevents us all from developing the habit of resiliency and letting be part of our behavior, habits and personality?

Brain and Mind Fitness are important. We can improve memory, attention, stress management, decision-making…Now, in a holistic way, Brain and Mind Fitness includes the executive function, or habit, or attitude, of resiliency. If you know of Brain Fitness Programs that allow people to develop it, please let us know. We are working on that too.

Maybe a first step is to re-read the classic Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning.

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On being positive

One day after 9/11, I would like to depart a bit from the scientific focus of this blog, and add some personal reflections on the “mental muscles” of Being Positive and Appreciation, which is what we probably need to survive in times when we read of a new bombing every day, still 5 years after the terrorist attack.

I remember a few years ago when, over brunch, my good friend Rohit proposed that

Happiness = Reality – Expectations. (Play with it, and it grows. It is very powerful)

A few months later after this discovery, at a public concert, while some friends were having a lively debate on this equation, a nearby stranger proposed a nice refinement:

Happiness = (Appreciation, of what we have, and can do) x ( Reality – Expectations)

Which is nicely phrased in the sentence I have read in a number of places

We need Serenity to accept
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Mahatma Gandhi encouraged us to “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

The fact is that there is much good around us, and much more good of us can do. We don’t always see it this way, but it is a fact (if you doubt this, why don’t you do the Basketball experiment in a previous post). We probably would benefit from having easier access to a CNN of Positive News, of Kind Gestures, Unexpected Generosity, Magic Coincidences, Beautiful Growth.

Some constant sources of inspiration, encouragement, and Appreciation:

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, and their conviction that “Everyone is a changemaker”

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, that supports amazing and inspiring agents of change worldwide.

– Just read a review of sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s last book The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion, where he tries to bridge both worlds and focus them on common ground.

No matter our religion, or lack thereof, we can benefit from what the book Daniel Goleman’s Destructive Emotions: How Can We overcome Them proposes as “A Gym for Emotional Skills”. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio opened new ground in his seminal Descartes Error book on the role of emotions in our decision-making.

How can one train this muscle of Appreciation? well, no clinical studies here, but my wife and I like to do, less often that we should, an exercise proposed by Jeffrey Brantley in Five Good Minutes: 100 Morning Practices To Help You Stay Calm & Focused All Day Long:

First, travel back, in your mind’s eye, to a time when you felt a healthy exhaustion, and let you relive that moment as vividly as you can.

Then, remember, re-experience, a loving exchange that really touched you. Pause. See the moment. Smell it. Hear what happened around you.

Next, visualize the most caring gesture you have ever received, as full of details as possible. Who gave you that gift of caring. How you felt.

Now, travel to the most magnificent place you have seen. Enjoy the views. Pause. Listen. Smile. Appreciate.

Good night

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