Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How plastic is your brain? - What Neuroplasticity teaches us about our habits

All of the latest breakthroughs in Neurobiology are resulting in a revolutionary view of how the brain works.  Science has discovered that neurons that fire together strengthen their bond by increasing the number of synapses between them.  This encourages the stimulation of one with the other. 

In layman’s terms, this means that when we think of relationships between two things, or when we think about something while undertaking an activity, then these things become connected in our thoughts because they literally become hardwired together in our brains.  This explains the Pavlovian experiments that result in the salivating dog. 

What excites me most about this latest breakthrough is the implications regarding habits and mental world-view constructs- but more on that in a moment.

Have you ever seen the question posed in a seminar or forum, “How long does it take to change a habit?”  Whenever I see that question, I always know that there is a trick question being thrown out to the audience.  I have seen no conclusive scientific research to suggest one answer over another, yet people will vehemently adhere to what they have been told.  21 Days!  1 Month!  In an Instant of Decision!  Well sure.  To some degree, all of those answers are correct.  But was the question trying to figure out how long it takes to make a decision – because the most recent research suggest that we make decisions approximately 5 seconds prior to our recognition of the decision.  Or is the question trying to figure out how long it takes to replace or eliminate a habit?  Because that is a much more complicated issue, where the answer would depend on how long, how often and how intense the habit was.  It also depends on how proactive an individual is in changing the habit.

Neuroplasticity suggests that the longer we do a habit, and the more varied experiences that we have with the habit, the more deeply ingrained it will be in our brain.  The wider variety of activities in which we engaged in the habit, the more experiences the habit will be linked to (quantity).  The longer and more frequently a habit was carried out, the stronger the bond will be between the linked neurons (quality).  Here’s the important part:  We must counteract the habit we are trying to change with new programming equal in measure.  The longer and stronger a habit is, the more effort is needed to change the neurology of the brain regarding the habit.  In cases where hypnosis fails, it is typically due to a failure to address the quantity and quality of synaptic connections.  Hypnosis can however be effective at shifting belief paradigms that can result in eventual habit change.

There is another way to combat unwanted habits, and neuroplasticity holds the key. 

Habits and beliefs can literally be adopted into or eliminated from your consciousness through proper programming.  Through repetition, emotional anchoring, and increasing brain functioning we can decrease the synaptic connections (or desires) for unwanted habits, and increase the strength of synaptic connections for desired habits.  The same holds true for beliefs, and the process is the same.  We can witness the effects of daily visualizations. 

Let’s look at an example.  What would happen if we were to listen all day long to commands regarding our health habits?  Eventually, and usually quickly, we notice that our desires and thoughts about food, exercise and activity all begin to shift.  And shortly thereafter, without any cognitive effort, our actions begin to conform to those new desires and thoughts.  Each time a command is heard, it strengthens the synaptic connections that shape our actions and mental constructs.  It’s a pretty cool thing to witness, and even a cooler thing to have happen personally.  It is also the gift that our clients give back to us when they share their experiences.  So, if you have benefited from Mindful Measures, please tell us about your experience by commenting below.  And join us on Facebook and Youtube, where your experiences, comments, and discussions are also welcome.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

7 Magical Ingredients to Ensure You Keep Your New Year's Resolution

Picking a New Years Resolution is to the New Years Holidays, what decorating your Christmas Tree is to Christmas. At least it is to most people. It’s that activity, which we all must do out of some sort of cultural expectation. It gives us a common conversation piece to share with other people in our lives. It allows us to fill the intimate moments of a social holiday with idle, but anxiety relieving chatter. And like the Christmas tree, decorated according to each persons taste and lifestyle, our New Years Resolutions symbolically represent our deepest hopes and desires. And yet, like our trees, they are often discarded a week after the holiday. Sure, some of us may leave the tree or resolution hanging around a few months; afraid to officially discard it, for fear of the cold darkness that fills the void once the warmth of hope is abandoned. But for the most part, the value of the tree or resolution is the sense of happiness and hope that it provides leading up to the holiday. And yet our New Years Resolutions are genuinely accomplishments that we would truly like to have come to pass. So how can we make sure that we are able to not only keep our Resolutions around, but also make sure that we achieve them as well?

Here are 7 Magical Qualities to imbue your New Years Resolutions and Annual Goals with to ensure that you are successful:

  1. Clearly defined – Whenever we want to accomplish a task, it is important that the desired result be clearly defined.  You should be able to see, feel, and hear what it will be like to achieve your New Years Resolution or annual goal.  In fact, daily meditation on what successfully accomplishing your goal will be like is a great way to stay focused and inspired.  You should also be clear on the time required to accomplish your goal.  Your resolutions and goals needn’t be finished by year’s-end, but you need to be clear on when it will be considered completed, and how close can we get during this year.
  2. Actionable – Your New Years Resolutions and annual goals should require you to take action in order to succeed.  You must own the process and responsibility.  You certainly have a stake in the desired result, so put your mind, heart and hands to work to make it happen.  Often times, our goals or resolutions require us to break it down into smaller tasks that can be achieved on a closer timescale.  This helps us evaluate if we are on track, as well as if there are any alterations to the execution of our plan necessary.
  3. Emotional need filled – This is perhaps the most critical aspect of successfully achieving any goal or New Years Resolution.  Any noble goal is going to require a lot of sacrifice and work.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to make it a New Years Resolution.  We could have simply changed in an instant.  Amazingly enough, we can change at any instant; however we seem to have some emotional need to connect our biggest, most pressing dreams with a monumental events such as a New Year, Birthday, or other fabricated novelty.  Either way, our Resolutions are big because they address some fierce emotional need within ourselves.  They usually boil down to acceptance (ie: lose weight or joining a gym is usually centered around appealing more to others, although it is sometimes genuinely centered on prolonging our life so that we may continue to connect more deeply with our loved ones).  So when we meditate or visualize the accomplishment of our goals, we should imbue the projection with all of the emotional gratification that will go alongside the success.  Again this will help to focus and inspire us towards the desired result.  This is particularly effective if the meditation occurs either first thing in the morning or the last thing in the evening.  It is truly amazing how your mind will begin to explore opportunities and tools to help you achieve your desired result.
  4. Accountability – Tell someone about it!  Find someone whom you trust and you know will support you to achieve your New Years Resolution.  Be leery of using someone as your accountability partner who is struggling with the task.  You may encounter enough of your own discouragement along the path of success; you don’t need to take on theirs as well.  If you can find someone who has successfully tackled the challenge of your resolutions, confide in them.
  5. Seek help when needed – Often times, with our big goals or resolutions, the task can become very daunting because of the resources required - be they knowledge, time, money or tools.  Resourcefulness is often required to pull together the means to accomplish our goals.  Don’t discount how much power lies within asking your social and professional network for insights.  Often times, they are great sources of information and tools required to succeed.  Once you have found an accomplished advisor, evaluate any advice or tools that they offer and apply it in an appropriate manner.
  6. Structural Congruency – It is important that our New Years Resolutions and annual goals be congruent with our mid-range and long-term goals.  If they are not, then we can be lead away from accomplishing larger, more epic achievements.  In the least, we may lose productive years, or we may even cause permanent damage to our ability to achieve our long-term goals.  When we align our New Years Resolution and annual goals with our longer term goals, then we ensure that we head towards our grander purpose.
  7. Ethical Congruency - Make sure that your New Years Resolutions and annual goals are congruent with your ideals and morals.  Too often, we see people make goals that are inconsistent with their larger moral code.  This dissonance can lead to a myriad of self-destructive behavior.  In the least, one may find themselves sabotaging their efforts to achieve a goal.  But we also see a lot of destructive avoidance habits develop as well.  Ironically, these destructive habits often find themselves as future New Years Resolutions.  Evaluate your goals and resolutions according to your moral code to create harmony in your life.

Now that you have made your New Years Resolution, and you are committed to taking on the coming year with a new determination, follow this guideline to make sure that your resolutions are kept.  If your goals are unable to meet each of the criteria mentioned above, then alter them.  It is never too late or early to make alterations to our plans.  Remember, our New Years Resolutions are not written in stone.  Surely they can be amended or adapted as our needs or knowledge change

From Mindful Measures, we wish much happiness and success for the New Year!

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