July 26, 2006
Using Your Brain for a Change
All of us scratch our heads with puzzlement over the fact that despite our best intentions, we don't seem to change many of the habits and attitudes that we may find problematic for ourselves and that others may consider problematic as well. We keep saying we mean to do it, but somehow it never gets done. What's going on here? Why are we so ineffectual when it comes to change?
The answer lies in your how your brain works, or to keep it more human sounding, the answer lies in knowing how you, the whole person actually work. So how do we work? The one word answer, or as close to a one word answer, that can be given is: Attention. Yes, attention is the core of what makes us tick. What we attend to we give life to, we support, we nurture, we ultimately become absorbed in and perhaps even run by what we give attention to.
The good news is that this hypothesis can be proven neurophysiologically. Attention actually changes brain states, brain structures and brain functioning. Among the many studies that illustrate this is the work by Jeffrey Schwartz, MD in his book The Mind and the Brain, where he details his work with persons with obsessive compulsive disorders. This is a syndrome where people feel locked into a series of behaviors that they feel compelled to repeat over and over again or face intense and ever growing anxiety. This could be hand washing, checking door locks or any number of different behaviors. This is a tough problem to overcome, but it perfectly well illustrates the relationship of the mind and the brain.
In such a person's brain there actually exists a neurological configuration that supports and mediates this type of behavior. The deadlocking aspect of this is that the more the behavior is repeated, the stronger the feeling of being compelled to repeat it. So it goes in endless repetition. What to do about it? Schwartz found that if he trained his patients to focus their attention away from the compulsive loop by using a technique called mindfulness, he could help them to develop an alternative brain structure that eventually gained enough momentum and power to supplant the obsessive configuration.
This is a daunting task and the person has to be very motivated to continually focus away from the compulsion and upon the new perspective. Those who follow through are cured. What does this show? It shows that the statement "attention equals emotional destiny" is true. On a physical level, attention directs your body/brain to feed what you attend to with glucose, insulin, blood and all the supporting nutrients to build neurological components. Here is a clear example of the mind affecting the body.
Okay the good news, then, is that you can change your attitudes and behaviors with enough focused alteration of your attention. How do you do this? I will speak more on this next time. Meanwhile, let me know what you think.
Frank Mosca Ph.D. is a licensed mental health counselor, life and marital coach with a practice in Hampton Bays and Garden City. Contact him about his workshops on putting minds in motion at firstname.lastname@example.org.