THE REASON WHY PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
a.k.a Brain Hacking 101
HOW YOUR BRAIN WORKS - A PRIMER
Have you ever wondered how our brain works?
We speak with such certainty about the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious minds, but truth is we know very little about it. We feel we have an intuitive knowledge of how it all works, but when we get down to it we know very little.
Here is a primer of the parts of the brain involved in processing any external event and in storing new information. Think of it as a sketch of the main characters of our little story.
1. First off we have the prefrontal cortex, more readily identifiable with our CONSCIOUS MIND. This is the part of the brain that is involved in thinking, planning, and decision making. He thinks he’s in the driver’s seat, but really he’s driving a very crowded car.
2. Then we have the hippocampus, a little tiny thing (we have two of those, in fact). This is part of the limbic system which in turn is closely identified with the SUBCONSCIOUS MIND. This part of the brain is key to the formation of new memories, to recording details and to spatial navigation. This is definitely the all knowing wife, sitting in the passenger seat in the aforementioned car.
3. The amygdala refers to two little gland looking things, even smaller than the hippocampus, and like the hippocampus they are also part of the limbic system (read: SUBCONSCIOUS MIND). Their main function is to process the emotional weight of an event by accessing emotional learning and conditioning already present in our memory banks. The amygdala is like the eldest child wise beyond her years that sees things even her parents can’t readily see.
4. And, finally we have the hypothalamus; it is not part of the limbic system but it interacts closely with it. When processing an event or stimulus, the hypothalamus will release the appropriate chemical matching the emotional response selected by the amygdala. The hypothalamus is like the stoner cousin who has been dragged along for the ride.
HOW YOUR BRAIN REACTS TO STIMULI
So, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system go on a joyride with the hypothalamus. Suddenly, a deer comes out of the shrubs and attempts to cut the car off.
Dad (the prefrontal cortex) is too busy updating his twitter feed to notice what is about to happen (no wonder, dad is always the last to know).
Mom (the hippocampus) sees the deer (oh, dear!) and records all details of the event: the colour of the deer, the defiant look as it challenges the car’s right of way, the weather conditions. She knows that if they live to tell the tale, she’ll need those details as ammunition.
Amygdala, the daughter, understanding the severity of their predicament turns to her cousin hypothalamus who quickly injects dad with a shot of adrenaline.
Awaken from his technology induced stupor dad veers just in time to avoid collision, while the deer looks smugly at the car and its discombobulated passengers.
Just a day in the life of a brain!
WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?
I hope you found my joyride story entertaining. The intent was to show you that between any given event or stimulus and your conscious mind taking action there is a lag time, aneural delay which accounts for subconscious processing. We’re talking about a millisecond, or a microsecond, a blink on an eye that can make a huge difference between adverting danger and colliding with it.
So here’s a recap, in case you weren’t paying attention:
1. Something happens (the event or stimulus; in the case of our story, the deer)
2. The hippocampus records the details of the event
3. The amygdala seeks out the emotion to be associated to this event
4. The hypothalamus releases the chemical associated to that emotion
5. AND THEN, the prefrontal cortex aka your conscious mind decides on the best action to take
The ability to bypass this lag-time, is the reason why what we do well, we do without thinking much about it sidestepping actual conscious thought. If you really know a language you don’t continually translate words in your head, you just use them as the context requires. If you’re a great tennis player, you don’t waste time thinking of your next move, you just respond to your environment.
As we learn new stuff we create more neuropathways. This means that information can pass more quickly from neuron to neuron making the new action learned simply an automatic response to a specific context.
The concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to learn new behavior is key to taking charge of our conditioned responses and making more resourceful associations to specific events. This incidentally is reflected in current scientific knowledge as well as our popular culture.
Alzheimer research has shown that exercising your brain very well be a preventive measure to guarding against the disease, and websites like lumosity.com purport that their online games may in fact expand our mental capacity.
But what if you could train your minds to respond differently to a specific stimulus? What if you were able to rewire the brain to do what you want it to do?
HOW TO INITIATE CHANGE
In order to bring change to your life, you need to apply the following steps:
1. RECOGNIZE events, patterns, habits, beliefs or thoughts that are holding you back
2. REALIZE what meaning & what effects they have on your life
3. REPLACE them with new ones that are more congruent with the life you want to lead
4. REPEAT these new patterns until they become an automatic response to specific stimuli
A FEW WORDS ABOUT VISUALIZATION
There are two key principles in the practice of guided visualization that can be useful tools on your way to rewiring your brain.
The first is MODELLING, the idea that you can model skills and behaviour of successful people, fake it, until you become it.
The second principle is REFRAMING, the idea that by guided visualization you can change the meaning of certain experiences in your life and turn them from something that holds you back, to a resource for radical change.
REWIRING YOUR BRAIN?
So, can we rewire our brains?
Can we replace fear and worry with confidence?
Can we get over phobias like stage fright, or fear of heights?
We can all do this and more by taking advantage of the brain neuroplasticity. You can do this by facing your fear head-on and through sustained guided visualization. Indeed, you can retrain the brain to react differently to a same stimulus.
In the end the choice is yours: you can either bite the bulled and do something you fear, or be stuck in a rut indefinitely.
Visualization, is based on the idea that the subconscious does not have the ability to recognize what is real and what is imagined. Visualizing yourself confronting your fear and successfully completing a task introduces new positive association, that can be accessed at the appropriate moment in place of that paralyzing fear.
First of all, it is essential to reach a level of mindfulness or focused awareness that allows you to view your emotional responses objectively. Mindfulness is a term commonly used by the buddhist tradition in order to describe the ability to direct our minds to the present and dismiss all other thoughts as white noise.
There are many ways to achieve it: yoga, meditation, repeated manual actions, but what is essential to rewiring your brain is the sustained application of mental discipline to your everyday life, and specifically to the task that seems problematic at the moment.
Mindfulness can very well become your first step on your way to stop reacting and become responsive to your environment. Mindfulness strengthens your ability to exercise consistent focus on any task long enough to become an automatic response.
Anybody that has ever learned a language knows the educational power of drills, and if you’ve ever taken piano lessons you also know the merits of doing scales. This is no different. As with everything else in life, practice makes perfect!
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