(adapted from Kelly McGonigal’s book: The Willpower Instinct)
It took evolution millions of years to develop a prefrontal cortex that is capable of everything we humans need. So perhaps it’s a little greedy to ask this, but is it possible to make our brains even better at self-control, without having to hang around for another million years? If a basic human brain is pretty good at self-control, is there anything we can do right now to improve on the standard model?
Since the dawn of time, or at least since researchers started poking and prodding at the human brain, it was assumed that the brain was fixed in structure. Whatever brain power you had was a done deal, not a work in progress. The only change your brain was going to see was deterioration due to aging. But over the last decade, neuroscientists have discovered that, like an eager student, the brain is remarkably responsive to experience. Ask your brain to do math every day, and it gets better at math. Ask your brain to worry, and it gets better at worrying. Ask your brain to concentrate, and it gets better at concentrating.
Not only does your brain find these things easier, but it actually remodels itself based on what you ask it to do. Some parts of the brain grow denser, packing in more and more grey matter like a muscle bulking up from exercise. For example, adults who learn how to juggle develop more grey matter in regions of the brain that track moving objects. Areas of the brain can also grow more connected to each other, so they can share information more quickly. For example, adults who play memory games for twenty-five minutes a day develop greater connectivity between brain regions important for attention and memory.
But brain training isn’t just for juggling and remembering where you left your glasses – there is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control. What does willpower training for your brain look like? Well, you could challenge your ‘I won’t” power by planting temptation traps around your home – a chocolate bar in your sock drawer, a martini station by your exercise bike, the photo of your very married high school sweetheart taped to the fridge. Or you could build your own ‘I will” power obstacle course with stations that require you to drink wheat grass juice, do twenty jumping jacks, and file your taxes early.
Or you could do something a lot simpler and less painful: meditate. Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more grey matter in their prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness.
It doesn’t take a lifetime of meditation to change the brain. Some researchers have started to look for the smallest dose of meditation needed to see benefits (an approach my students deeply appreciate, since not many are going to head off to the Himalayas to sit in a cave for the next decade). These studies take people who have never meditated before – even folks who are skeptical of the whole thing – and teaches them a simple meditation technique like the one you’ll learn just ahead. One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control. After eleven hours, researchers could see those changes in the regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased grey matter in corresponding areas of the brain.
It may seem incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles. The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you asked of it. So if you’re ready to train your brain, the following meditation technique will get the blood rushing to your prefrontal cortex – the closest we can get to speeding up evolution, and making the most of our brains’ potential.
Willpower Experiment: A five-minute brain-training meditation
Breath focus is a simple but powerful meditation technique for training your brain and increasing willpower. It reduces stress and teaches the mind how to handle both inner distractions (cravings, worries, desires) and outer temptations (sounds, sights, and smells). New research shows that regular meditation practice helps people quit smoking, lose weight, kick a drug habit, and stay sober. Whatever your “I will” and “I won’t” challenges are, this five-minute meditation is a powerful brain-training exercise for boosting your willpower.
Here’s how to get started:
1. Sit still and stay put.
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, or sit cross-legged on a cushion. Sit up straight and rest your hands in your lap. It’s important not to fidget when you meditate – that’s the physical foundation of self-control. If you notice the instincts to scratch an itch, adjust your arms, or cross and uncross your legs, see if you can feel the urge but not follow it. This simple act of staying still is part of what makes meditation willpower training effective. You’re learning not to automatically follow every single impulse that your brain and body practice.
2. Turn your attention to the breath.
Close your eyes, or, if you are worried about falling asleep, focus your gaze at a single spot (like a blank wall, not the Home Shopping Network 🙂 ). Begin to notice your breathing. Silently say in your mind “inhale” as you breathe in and “exhale” as you breathe out. When you notice your mind wandering (and it will), just bring it back to the breath. This practice of coming back to the breath, again and again, kicks the prefrontal cortex into high gear and quiets the stress and craving centres of your brain.
3. Notice how it feels to breathe, and notice how the mind wanders.
After a few minutes, drop the labels “inhale/exhale”. Try focusing on just the feeling of breathing. You might notice the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of your nose and mouth. You might sense the belly or chest expanding as you breathe in, and deflating as you breathe out. Your mind might wander a bit more without the labeling. Just as before, when you notice yourself thinking about something else, bring your attention back to the breath. If you need help refocusing, bring yourself back to the breath by saying “inhale” and “exhale” for a few rounds. This part of the practice trains self-awareness along with self-control.
Start with five minutes a day. When this becomes a habit, try ten to fifteen minutes a day. If that starts to feel like a burden, bring it back down to five. A short practice that you do every day is better than a long practice you keep putting off to tomorrow. It may help you to pick a specific time that you will meditate every day, like right before your morning shower. If this is impossible, staying flexible will help you to fit it in when you can.
The key is to get started where it seems possible for you. Send me a note and let me know how it is going.