Neuroplasticity and How to Keep a New Year’s Resolution
I have written in the past about neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to restructure in response to new stimuli, experience, and even thoughts. Neuroplasticity in its most obvious form is easily seen in the brains of individuals with unusual physical abilities or apparent disabilities. For example, the area of the brain associated with the processing of fast visual stimuli is exceptionally well-developed in professional baseball players, who must track pitches at 90 miles an hour or more. The area of the brain associated with processing physical sensation through touch is much more developed in blind individuals, due to their reading of braille.
Neuroplasticity is especially interesting to me in the context of spiritual practice, particularly meditation. Research indicates that regular compassion meditation increases our brain’s ability and likelihood to respond compassionately to situations even when we are not meditating. Similar findings indicate the same is true for self-observation and mindfulness – that the more we engage in formal practices designed to practice these skills, the more our brain strengthens in the associated areas. (For more on this research, check out this article I recently wrote for BellaOnline, Does Buddhism Change Your Brain?)
I think neuroplasticity also has fascinating implications for parenting. To me, it means that triggering certain states and emotions in my children makes them more likely to shift into those states themselves on their own. For example, getting them to laugh regularly may help develop the areas of their brains associated with humor and laughter, making them more likely to be able to let go and laugh on their own when confronted with stress or difficulties in their future (scientists have linked a healthy sense of humor with succesful stress management for years.) Neuroplasticity also demonstrates something all us parents know in our hearts but sometimes forget – that example and experience teach much more effectively than words. Helping our children experience compassion is much more likely to develop a brain and psyche capable of kindness than constantly telling them to ‘be nice.’
For us adults, knowledge of neuroplasticity offers powerful information about how we can change – a topic especially relevant at this time of year when many of us make that annual referendum on personal change, our New Year’s Resolution list. Based on my reading of the current scientific knowledge of neuroplasticity, and on teachings about personal transformation from the spiritual traditions I have studied, here is my recommendations for making a New Year’s Resolution list you can actually stick with:
1) Prioritize and pick one (yes, one) thing about yourself or your life that you would really like to change. Make a commitment to focus exclusively on this resolution for 6-8 weeks. This is the amount of time research indicates it takes for most of us to develop a new habit. In other words, this is the amount of time required to begin to create changes in our brain – the kind of change that will enable permanent transformation. You can move on to other items on your list later in the year.
2) Now, think about what underlying mental or emotional patterns contribute to your current state related to this resolution. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, what emotional or mental triggers cause you to overeat or skip exercising? If you are trying to be less impatient with your children, contemplate what specific situations and factors cause you to lose it? The idea here is to pinpoint the existing thoughts (and by extension neural patterns) that currently reinforce the behavior you are trying to change.
3) Next, develop specific affirmations or practices that counteract these triggers, and make sure they are in positive, rather than negative, language. For example, if you realize that you tend to overeat whenever you feel criticized at work, focus on statements related to building your self-esteem, such as ‘I am competant and confidant in what I do.’ If you always lose your patience when your children create a mess, say ‘I am flexible and calm in the face of chaos.’ While this might seem extremely hokey, the insight of the latest neuroplasticity research is that we can create new neural patterns in our brains through the thoughts we think. So focus on creating and enforcing thoughts that support your resolution – over and over (it is all about practice.)
4) Next, focus on strategy and routine. Develop a very specific step-by-step plan for how you will accomplish or ‘practice’ your goal. If you want to lose weight, what diet are you planning to follow? What will your exact menu be for each of the six weeks? When, where, and with whom will you eat? When will you purchase the foods you need? If you are trying to develop your patience in the face of chaose, create test situations for yourself each day – for example, buy your kids a ton of art supplies and sit down with them to make an art project (guaranteed to create a mess), and practice (again that word) a different response.
5) Think in the long-term. Remember that you are trying to change your brain, and that takes time (at least 6 weeks.) You will undoubtedly fail along the way, as your existing thought patterns surface. No matter, just plug along with your plan on all fronts. Just like practicing batting in baseball (or any other kind of traditional practice) the number of times you fail is not that relevant, it is the number of times you succeed that begins to create new neural patterns. So focus on maximizing your successes, and don’t get caught up in counting your mistakes.
For more on neuroplasticity, check out Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. Or, for more posts along these lines, check out the spiritual practice section of the Meditation page.