Train Your Brain For Change

Jan 2, 2017

Credit Hana Kučová /

As the new year begins, you may be planning to make some changes. And, as a nation, we seem to be in a state of flux – socially and politically. Following through on resolutions and staying sane in a rapidly changing world takes more than will-power and positive thinking.

Here are three tips based on the latest science of psychology and neurobiology:

  1. Tell yourself the right stories. Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly interpreting what’s going on around us and telling ourselves stories that explain it. Sometimes, those stories can be self-defeating: “Another bad test score. I’m just not good at math.” “I’m supposed to be on a diet, but I ate the cake, anyway. I’ll never lose the weight.” Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at University of Virginia, says studies show editing those stories can make us more successful. Try asking yourself “is there any other explanation?” Opting for a more positive spin, and retelling stories of even small successes, can become self-fulfilling prophesies.
  2. Set “want to” goals, not “have to” goals. Going on a diet because your doctor said to is different than going on a diet because it is part of a deeply desired change in your life. Your brain knows the difference, and can sabotage you. Research has shown that externally imposed goals actually ramp up temptation circuitry in the brain, making it harder to resist. In contrast, Harvard psychologist Susan David says self-driven goals based on personal values dampen temptation and actually make choices that fit with your goals seem more appealing than others; it can even make an apple seem yummier than chocolate cake.  
  3. Be here, now. And breathe. Whether you’re making resolutions, or just trying to weather what’s going on around you with grace, four decades of research have shown that mindfulness meditation can help. Just like exercise builds muscles, regular meditation practice can shrink threat-reaction centers in the brain, while enlarging portions responsible for memory, perspective-taking, emotional regulation, and decision-making. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction, the goal isn’t to eliminate stress; that’s impossible. Rather, mindfulness makes it possible to recognize when you’re feeling stressed, and be okay with that.

For more:

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy Wilson

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn