Inspiring Reminders to Think, Live and Love Well

Inspiring Reminders to Think and Live Well

Monday, February 4, 2013

Brain Wars

Mmmm, I really want to eat those chocolate chips!  No, have a handful of almonds, they're way better for you!  Oh, just a bit of chocolate, it's so yummy!  No, don't, you'll feel so much better if you eat the nuts! And, you really want to feel fit and strong, right? Witness the current willpower battle taking place in my head. So, what's really going on up there?  Here's the neuroscience: My midbrain is craving the dopamine rush that chocolate promises RIGHT NOW, while my prefrontal cortex is trying to ensure that I look better in my bikini on a future vacation.  The midbrain is the primitive brain that kept humans alive when we were cavemen.  It directs us to satisfy our impulses, to do what feels pleasurable and instantly gratifying.  As we evolved, our brains modernized too, with the addition of the prefrontal cortex.  It specializes in self-control, and is designed to help us do the harder thing.  "I will" power is controlled by the upper left side of the prefrontal cortex.  It is what will help me push through and do an extra set of squats at the gymn, when my midbrain is suggesting how lovely a hot shower would be.  "I won't" power resides on the right side of the prefrontal cortex.  I'll have to thank it for saying no to the impulse to leave and get a latte instead of finishing my workout.  These two areas control what we do.  Lower, and towards the middle of the prefrontal cortex is the region that remembers what our goals and desires are, the "I want" of willpower.  It tells me that I really want to feel energetic, protect my bones, and live a longer and healthier life. 

So, I'm delighted to say, this time, I'm eating almonds, not the chocolate chips.  Score one for my prefrontal cortex, and pat myself on the back!  Now, I can assure you that my prefrontal cortex often gets defeated by my conniving midbrain, and the chocolate chips reign victorious.  So, if I want to do the harder thing just a little more often, here's what I've learned so far:

1.  Congratulations, praise, positive feedback and celebrating success brings on more successes.  Ya, I know it's not Nobel prize-worthy to make a healthy snacking choice, but our brains are hungry for positive reinforcement and will repeat patterns to get the next fix of feel good.  So, how we talk to ourselves  after making a good choice is key: "Way to go, great job, I'm really happy with how hard I tried, I'm amazing!"   We also know that repeating the positive self-talk powers it up even more.  So, it's perfectly acceptable to go brag about your willpower success to anyone who will listen.  Write it down in a journal.  Remember the good choices you made last week, and let the positive emotions flow again.  Every repetition of the behavior, and even just thoughts and memories associated with the behavior, strengthen the neural pathways in the brain.  Bottom line, it gets easier to do the harder thing. 

2.  Brain training 101:  Practice Meditation.  There's a whole truckload of good reasons to meditate, but today's reason is simply that it will strengthen your willpower.  Studies show that after only three hours of meditation practice (no, not all at once!), subjects improved their self-control.  Eleven hours led to actual changes visible on brain scans, showing more neural connections in the brain areas responsible for staying focused, ignoring distractions and controlling impulses .The latest research points to regular meditation as an excellent tool to help people quit smoking, lose weight, and stay clean and sober.  Best part of this good news:  five minutes a day will do it, and being a bad meditator is actually what makes the practice effective. 

Here's how:
a.  Sit still, cross-legged or on a chair.  Try not to fidget or move.  Remember, you're learning to NOT follow every impulse your brain and body throw at you.  So, no scratching your nose. 
b.  Close your eyes and notice your breathing.  Say to yourself, "inhale", then "exhale" as you follow your breath.  When you notice your mind wandering, just gently guide it back to focus on your breath.  It will be hard.  Most people find that when they begin meditation, their minds speed up and become busier than ever.  The goal isn't to empty your mind, but to notice when it wanders, and bring it back to your breath.  It is the practice of coming back to the breath over and over again which builds your prefrontal cortex willpower muscle. 

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