Browsing the archives for the neurology tag.
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Immediate Willpower?


I’ve often pictured a sudden mental transformation, fantasized that some particular idea would click into place and immediately, some behavior I’d been wanting to change for a long time would change without any further great effort required from me. Can willpower really work that way?

Generally speaking, the answer is no. Habits are ingrained over a long period of time: neural connections in our brains don’t change in large ways all of a sudden except in the case of brain damage. Habits reflect repeatedly strengthened neural connections–basically, we’ve done something over and over so much that it becomes hardly any effort to keep doing it.

There are exceptions, but they’re special cases. For instance, if I go to the doctor and find out that I will drop dead the next time I have a bite of ice cream (fortunately, not a very likely diagnosis), then I can pretty much guarantee you I will never have a bite of ice cream again. But these kinds of changes in behavior are fueled by drastic, unavoidable consequences based on clear-cut behaviors. Most goals don’t fit that description.

But even though we usually can’t experience immediate habit change, we can experience immediate behavior change. If we adopt tactics that help us be mindful of what we’re doing and that keep us in close touch with the consequences, we can see progress right away. While this isn’t the kind of dramatic change many of us would like, it does yield immediate benefits and lead to the end we have in mind, even as it gets easier and easier over time to repeat the good acts we’re learning.

Photo by Thomas Hawk


Mirror Neurons and Accomplishing by Watching

The human mind

Mirror neurons are a surprising, fairly recent neurological discovery: cells in the brain that fire both when an action is done and when we see someone else performing the action. In other words, part of what goes on in our brains when we throw a frisbee, for instance, also goes on when we see someone else throw a frisbee.

I’ve mentioned before how imagining doing a thing activates many of the same parts of a person’s brain as actually doing the thing, and that visualizing ourselves in an activity is a good way to move ourselves towards doing it. The existence of mirror neurons suggests that just seeing someone else do something can make us more disposed and able to do that thing ourselves.

If that’s true, then it would seem that one of the ways we can encourage ourselves to make progress on something we want to accomplish is to simply watch someone else doing it. If we want to exercise, presumably it may help to watch other people exercise. If we want to become good at approaching other people in social situations, there may be benefit in watching other people be outgoing.

There are other reasons in addition to mirror neurons that this kind of approach may be particularly useful. One is that watching someone do a thing increases the amount of attention we’re paying to that thing, and the more attention we pay to something, the more likely we are to do it. Another is that watching others do something helps prove that the thing can be done, as when we see a friend clean up an area quickly and efficiently that we might otherwise have guessed would be difficult and time-consuming to clean. Yet another reason to watch others do things we want to do is that we can learn practical information about the tasks involved. Talking with people who are losing weight, for instance, can provide helpful information about nutrition and available exercise options.

So if you’re having trouble getting together willpower for a particular goal, consider whether there might be a practical way for you to seek out and watch other people who are actually accomplishing that goal … then go find them and soak it in.

Photo by ljcybergal

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Seeking Regular Contributors for The Willpower Engine

About the site

Lately I’ve been thinking how much fun it would be to enrich this site with material from one or two like-minded people who have useful information to share. If you’re interested in expanding your audience and especially in connecting with people who share your passion for improving their lives and mental resources, or if you know someone like that, please get in touch through the contact form to the right or through e-mail.

I’m mainly interested in potential contributors who have a specific focus that has to do with willpower, motivation, self-organization, or related self-improvement. That focus could any of a number of things, such as fitness, organization, writing, happiness, communication, relationships, decluttering, family dynamics, psychology, neurology, and so on. I’d love to have someone who would do a regular feature interviewing people (regular people or high-profile people) on subjects related to willpower.

To be a good fit, a contributor should be writing based on good scientific research, established practice, personal experience, interviews, or some other solid source of information; philosophical reflections (other than from professional philosophers) or off-the-cuff opinion pieces aren’t a good fit for the site.

There’s no pay (sorry!), but you can console yourself that I don’t make a cent from this site either. At the moment The Willpower Engine gets more than 800 views a week, so I can promise that you’d get good exposure to a new audience. Cross-posting to The Willpower Engine and your own site is fine. Posting would need to be on a regular schedule, but it could be anything from every other week to twice a week, depending on your preferences. Your bio and other information (bibliography, Web site links, etc.) would be on a new Contributors page.

By the way, I’m also open to writing posts for other sites in a similar arrangement or as a guest.

Any takers? Any suggestions for people who might be interested? Or are there just subjects you would love to see covered regularly? Get in touch, or add a comment. Thanks for your help!

Photo by Pete Lambert

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Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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The Benefits of Feeling Bad

Handling negative emotions

The most anxious time of my life to date was soon after separating from my son’s mom. The marriage had turned out to be very much a mismatch, so I wasn’t unhappy that it was ending–but I was worried about my relationship with my then-2-year-old son. If I wasn’t able to work something out about custody arrangements with his mother or through a court, I might be relegated to the every-other-weekend schedule of parenting, and while that might be a good arrangement for many dads, I emphatically wanted to be more involved.

It all came out well in the end: after a lot of work and discussion, we settled on a workable arrangement for custody, and I never did get bumped to “every other weekend” status. So all that anxiety and unhappiness while the situation was up in the air: what was the use of it? To put it another way, do negative emotions have any value, or are they always trouble?

My friend Oz Drummond pointed me to a recent New York Times Magazine article called “Depression’s Upside“, which examines some of the potentially positive effects of some kinds of depression. The particular advantage the article describes is a neurological process in which a painful event (like a divorce or death of a friend) causes the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) to create intense mental focus on a problem, offering an unusually powerful ability to examine and possibly learn from it. This doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case with all depression, and even when it is the case, the person isn’t necessarily better off going through the depression than not. But we can pull a useful lesson out of this research, which is that negative emotions can be extremely useful in focusing attention. Some examples:

Anger: Focuses attention on a potential threat so that we can act against it if we need to.
Fear: Keeps attention on a dangerous situation so that we won’t drop our guard.
Guilt and shame: Brings our attention to actions we regret, with the possible result that we will avoid those actions in future.

… and so on.

In other words, many negative emotions have the specific purpose of making us mindful of something. There are two useful things that come out of this realization: first, when a negative emotion occurs, there may be a lot to gain out of figuring out what it’s trying to tell us. Second, negative emotions can often be addressed simply by paying proper attention to what they’re trying to tell us.

In the Times Magazine article, University of Virginia psychiatrist Andy Thomson talks about this process:

“What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings–led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities.

Image by MissCartier

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On Clarkesworld: How Memory Works, Copying Brains, and More Science Fiction


My article “Future Brains: Neuroscience Fiction versus Neuroscience Fantasy” is just out from Clarkesworld magazine, online at The piece tackles science fiction subjects like mind control, mental telepathy, transferring consciousness, instant learning, and copying memories and tests them against what we now know about the human brain. What we find is that some of these feats really aren’t possible; some are a long way away; and a few are already happening.

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How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot


Ah, brains: so mysterious, complicated, and powerful, and yet so inclined to tell us to sit on the couch and eat doughnuts instead of doing the dishes or working out. What’s with these things, anyway?

There’s a group of neurons deep in the heart of the brain called the basal ganglia, and they’re involved in some important functions like movement and habit formation. How does the habit formation part work? Kind of a like a big, stupid, friendly guy, who’s only too willing to help but needs to be shown what to do over and over. And over. And over again. You get the idea.

So if I’m out here wanting to develop a habit of remembering someone’s name the first time it’s said by always repeating it and using a mnemonic, and if I try that once or twice, the basal ganglia–our big friend–are going to be staring at me dully, wondering exactly what I’m getting at. But if I stay aware with post-it notes or constant vigilance or a string tied around my finger, and if I keep at it, eventually he’ll get a glimmer of understanding in his eye (though it obviously the basal ganglia don’t really have eyes–that would be creepy) and try to follow along, hesitantly and with some confusion. And if I keep introducing myself to enough new people (perhaps volunteering at the membership table of a stamp collecting convention, if that’s what it takes), and remember to always say the name over silently and come up with a mnemonic, then he begins to get in the groove and really starts to learn to do what I’m doing.

But then let’s say I’m tired after the stamp collecting convention. I go to a diner for a nice tomato sandwich, and when the waitress introduces herself as Evangeline, I’m just too tired to memorize her name. Suddenly the big guy lurches to a stop. He thought I was doing the thing with the repeating and the mnemonics, and now I’m doing the thing with the tomato sandwich, which is a little too many for him. So he waits for a clue.

Then five minutes later someone comes up and says “Hey, you were at the stamp convention! Did you get a load of those Cinderellas? Man!” He introduces himself as Larry.

This is it. I’ve already blown it with Evangeline, and Larry here is my Waterloo: the only question is whether I’m the guy who won at Waterloo or the guy who lost (yeah, I know their names, but if we get bogged down in details this article is going to run 1,500 words before we’re done, and nobody wants that).

So maybe I look at Larry and silently repeat the name “Larry” to myself, then think, “You know, he’s the kind of guy who looks like he would have a lair.” (Lair-Larry: that’s my mnemonic. And don’t give me that–I never said it had to be a clever mnemonic.) In this case the big dumb guy (the basal ganglia, not Larry: Larry’s like, 5’6″, not to mention he got a 1710 on his SAT’s) smiles angelically and lumbers forward again. He understands: this is a habit he and I are trying to form, and the thing with what’s-her-name the waitress, Angelina or Emmaline or whatever, was just a glitch. As long as there are very, very few glitches and lots of Larry experiences, the basal ganglia guy will put more and more of his massive strength behind reinforcing my name-remembering habit. And if I keep that habit up every day or very nearly every day, in just 18-254 days, give or take, it should be completely locked in! Now was that so hard?

OK, it was hard–for maybe two or three months (68 days on average, according to one study). But for the rest of my life, or until I start getting old and confused and calling everyone “Josephine,” I’ll be a champion name-rememberer, and people will look at me with awe and say “Boy, I wish I could remember names like that. I guess some people can just naturally do it and some people can’t.”

And even while I’m smacking my forehead in dismay at such people, the big dumb guy is happily shoving their names into long-term memory for me, unconfused and at peace.

Photo by Olivander

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