Archives for Neuroscience
Most of us walk around in this world in a trance with the delusional belief that we are only autonomous beings that are completely acting with free will. However, many scientists agree that we are interdependent with our environments and our brains are constantly making snap judgments based on internal and external cues. You have recall this quote by Albert Einstein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” The notion of willpower, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or manning up fails to take the psychological and scientific realities into mind. Alcoholics Anonymous has it right, if you're addicted to substances you need to get them out of the house and begin to change your relationships. This was certainly my experience with my own struggle with substances years ago. Considering the impact of our environments on our ability to be happy and make the changes we want to make, can drastically facilitate more adherence to whatever habits you're trying to break or create. Years ago, UC Berkeley Researcher Marian Diamond conducted a study where she randomly put mice in a few different cages. One had toys and playmates, one had playmates and one had neither. After a few weeks, they found that the brains of the mice that had toys and playmates had thicker cerebral cortices than the other two. This part of the brain is associated with higher order functions like cognitive processing. In fact, the one without toys and playmates showed the thinnest layer. This is just to say that our environments not only impact our behavior, but also impact our brains (which impact our behavior).
So what's the secret sauce?
There has been a growing amount of evidence that mindfulness can help us kick our bad habits. In a recent study, 63 participants who were addicted to stimulants received behavioral treatment for 12 weeks. Four weeks into the program they were randomly assigned to either one group received mindfulness training targeted at cravings and urges or another that received health education. At the end of 12 weeks, researchers measured changes in participants use of stimulants and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Eighty seven percent of the participants who had major depression were not using stimulants at the end of the 12 weeks versus 67% of the health education group. One month later 100% of the depressed patients were off of stimulants compared to 50% in the health education group. How could this be? Change happens through experience and community support, not as much through cognitive education. Mindfulness helps slow us down and creates space from the cravings (desires) and urges (feelings) that can control our attention and decision making. The reality is the greatest "bad habit" we have is our thinking. The snap judgment of whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair all happens faster than the blink of an eye and then leads to the behavioral bad habit. Mindfulness trains awareness of this and over time the actual craving or urge becomes a "wake-up call" in the moment to choose a different response. A healthier response. After we practice and repeat noticing the urges and cravings that span from cutting people off while they're talking, to stress eating, to more intense and destructive addictive behaviors, our awareness starts to be more automatic. Our awareness of our choices also grows and so we actually expand our "cognitive flexibility" which is correlated with well-being. On top of that, when we feel better, we also tend to be more resilient and so the spiral goes up!
A Breaking Bad Habit Exercise - 5 Steps
I haven't met many people who say they wouldn't enjoy feeling more relaxed or even being able to relax-on-demand. The good news is that according to a study published in the journal Nature, learning how to get better at relaxing, not only feels good, but increases our brain's ability to remember new information (including strengths of mindfulness, compassion and joy). The researchers in this study recruited eight epileptic volunteers who were shown 100 photos and then 30 minutes later were shown 50 of the same and 50 different photos. They then had to tell the researcher which photos they had seen before and which they had not. While the participants were using their memory, the researchers used electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes to record electrical activity in the area of the brain where memories are formed. The findings showed that recognition was highest when participants were in a relaxed state (referencing "theta waves"). Okay, it's not necessarily news that we learn better when we're more relaxed, so why does this matter? It matters because at this point in time, we happen to live in a petri dish of overstimulation and fractured partial attention on a daily basis. The way we're living right now stresses out our nervous systems making it really difficult for any new learning (mental or behavioral) to really stick. Some people think mindfulness meditation is the answer - a tool that is meant to actively relax us. But no, it's meant to help us cultivate awareness so we can make wise choices, which may be to
Most people I've met, if not all, would try like to be happy. There are all kinds of books on happiness, courses on happiness, and documentaries on happiness. So why aren't we all just happier? If we're approaching happiness as some goal to achieve, we're almost always going to reinforce that something is wrong with us and fall short. If we see it as an unfolding process of learning, we will most likely be able to be more grateful for the good times and more graceful during the more difficult times. I can't reinforce enough the critical importance of seeing happiness practices as something to continue to play with and learn from, rather than using them to achieve some desired end state. You might be able to taste happiness if you see it as a performance, but only with a learning mindset will you find more mastery with it. Here are 5 Practices for Daily Happiness
Be PlayfulWe NEED playtime and we need it daily! One of the first scientists to embark in the field of neuroplasticity, Marion Diamond, showed how rats that have toys and playmates inevitably ran mazes more efficiently and also showed growth in an area of their brain (the cerebral cortex) involved with cognitive processing. Play enhances social bonds and social learning, key areas for generating happiness. How do we figure out what play means to us? This is going to mean different things to different people. What's playful to you, may not be playful to me. You may enjoy competitive sports, board games, or going out and doing something — anything. Making it prosocial with friends adds another level of engagement.
When people think of mindfulness, they often think that it means "being present," but everyone has a different idea of what you "should" be being present to. For example, I was at a friend's house the other day and some wonderful music was playing and I was "being present" to it. However, apparently he was talking to me and I wasn't paying attention to him. So he said, because he thinks of me as the mindfulness guy, "you're not being very present are you." The fact is, I was being present, just present to what I felt was most important in that moment, the music. As it turns out, certain music is being found to be good not only for our mental health, but also for our physical health. Take a moment to listen to this and see what you notice:
Most people I meet would like to be calmer and more focused on what matters in the moments of their lives. But the more stressed we are, the less open we are to creative ideas and the more prone we are to procrastination. Here is a 10-second practice that I challenge you to practice a few times a day and realize its power to help you focus on what matters moment-to-moment. Inevitably, as you practice and repeat this, you'll become more of a PRO at life.
The Be a PRO PracticeP - Pause - This is the initial step that helps break the auto-pilot stress cycle. R - Relax your body - When we're stressed, our muscles get tight which sends signals back to the brain to fight, flee or freeze, making thoughts more distracted and chaotic. Relaxing the body, does the opposite, it begins to open the mind again, making it easier to focus. O - Open to what matters in the moment - As the body is relaxed we have a greater chance to be more aware of creative ideas or simply the ability to focus on the task at hand.
Here are 10 really good places where practicing being a PRO at life can come in handy:
Did you know that compassion, the act of recognizing someone else's suffering with the inclination to want to support them, creates important activity shifts in the brain that are associated with resiliency and well-being? I recently attended a talk at a fundraiser where the presenter, Amy McLaren, had conveyed her story of going to Kenya with her husband and making a deal with a child there that if he shares his report card with them at the end of the month, they would pay for a month of his schooling. They didn't expect him to follow through, but after they returned back to Canada, a month later they received a letter with a picture of this boy holding up his report card. He followed through and so did they. Every month he would send his report card and every month they would pay for another month of school. Years later this boy is now in business school and has developed
For years now I’ve been studying about what helps create more resilience and happiness within us. I’ve looked to my own life, the life of my clients and students and toward the psychological and neuroscience research. What I’ve found is that within each and every one of us are a core set of natural anti-depressants that when we intentionally tap into shifts our brain activity in ways that can lend itself to an anti-depressant brain. One of the natural anti-depressants that I’ve come to find that helps break a bad mood and create positive neural activity is Play! In Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion I describe play as "a flexible state of mind in which you are presently engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying." Here’s a great video that shows adults playing and the results. Take a look and see what you notice.
Do you know the myths about mindfulness and what is true or false about this swelling revolution? Take a look at what I think are the top five myths about mindfulness. Note: There are plenty more, but I thought these top the charts. Myth #1: Mindfulness if for taking a time-out from life, quieting the mind and reducing stress. Truth: I think this is the #1 myth out there because it’s my experience that this is how people initially experience the practice. One of the greatest entry points to mindfulness in the West is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is a fantastic program with wonderful science behind it, but the name is just for marketing. The ultimate goal isn’t meant to be stress reduction. The goal of mindfulness and MBSR is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people and operate in the world with greater self-compassion and compassion. However, the initial practices can often give people sense of relief from a busy mind and can then be equated with a mental break. While there’s nothing wrong with using it this way, it also minimizes the power of mindfulness. The paradox here is when we’re able to do just be present to our minds, emotions and bodies, the stressful relationship tends to quiet down, but when we try and quiet the mind down, we often add fuel to the fire. Myth #2: You need to carve out plenty of time in a serene “mindful” space.
We all experience resistance everyday when we’re trying to do something that matters. Whether you want to sit and meditate, work on a new project, get out and exercise, whatever it is that is in the direction of growth, resistance comes alive. In my next book Uncovering Happiness (can’t wait to share it with you - January, 2015), I explore some of the neuroscience behind what keeps us stuck in a depressive loop and how to get unstuck and even find our natural anti-depressants and thrive. While resistance lies within a depressive spiral, you don’t have to have had experienced depression in the past to know resistance, it’s a universal daily experience for all of us. But the deeper question is, where does it reside in the brain and how do we overcome it? I don’t believe anyone has conducted and brain scan specifically on resistance, but one thing we do know is that the right side of the prefrontal region that lies behind your forehead lights up when we’re trying to avoid something. This same region also lights up with negative emotions. One thing we’re wanting to do is intentionally practice and repeat shifting the activity to the left prefrontal region that is more associated with approaching things in life and with resiliency. The fact is resistance is relentless, it’s a deeply ingrained wiring that we all have to move away from what the brain anticipates to be uncomfortable and stay with what’s comfortable. Not only is this hardwired into most of us, but we’ve practiced is so often that it’s strengthened the default. The brain has such a lock on us, that we're not even aware of it. This is why procrastination is so common. So what do we do about it?