Have you ever set the same goal over and over again, but keep failing?
Don’t be too hard on yourself–your own brain may be sabotaging you!
In this post, you will learn some secret tricks to keep on track with your goals and to beat bad habits.
What We Want Most
My dad used to advise me to not trade what I want most for what I want right now. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his advice has a neurological basis and is important when it comes to our happiness and success in life.
In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford conducted a series of experiments testing the willpower of 4 year-old children. The children were sat down in front of a marshmallow and told they could eat it right now OR they could wait 15 minutes and they’d get 2 marshmallows. Only 30% were able to wait. The interesting part came years later: the 30% of children who were able to wait 15 minutes had more success later in life as adults. What of the other 70%? Could they learn to put off what they want in the moment for something better in the future?
Everyone has 2 brains. Okay, it’s really just 1 brain or in the case of some politicians, maybe none. We can split the brain into 2 logical parts. The first part is often referred to as the FEELING BRAIN. Shawn Achor, author of the Happiness Advantage refers to it as ‘the Jerk’. Dr. Daniel Amen describes it as a spoiled, demanding inner child that always wants what he or she wants, whenever he or she wants it.
It’s a primitive part of the brain (made up of the brain stem and limbic system) that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. The feeling brain wants the marshmallow RIGHT NOW. It doesn’t care about values, principles or goals. It just wants what it wants in the moment. It’s powerful drives and impulses are important for our survival and for our ability to bond with others. But often, it works contrary to what our goals and values are.
How many of us get nervous talking in front of people? Our primitive brain that would prep us to fight or flight when we’re up against a man-eating tiger sometimes kicks in when we have to stand in front of a bunch of people and speak. Our heart rate goes up and our brain gets foggy. In my work with youth, teaching self-mastery and addiction prevention, we talk about this part of the brain and how to manage it so that it works WITH you and not AGAINST you. This leads us to the part of our brain that WANTS to manage it and has the ability to do so.
The thinking brain, or prefrontal cortex, is the ‘younger brain’ and can be thought of as the executive or adult brain. This is where your values, goals and principles reside. Interestingly, in an MRI you can see the left side of the prefrontal cortex light up when someone is happy. This is the part of the brain that says, ‘Wait! Don’t eat the marshmallow yet! There’s something better if we wait.’ It can help ensure your feeling brain is acting in a way consistent with your goals and values.
There’s a seesaw effect between the brains, determining who’s in charge and making the decisions. This is, of course, is a simplification of something very complex. When the thinking brain has high activity, the feeling brain has less, and you tend to make more value and goal-based decisions. Like not eating the marshmallow now because you’ll get more later.
When there is higher activity in the feeling brain, there is less activity in the thinking brain. In this state, you’re no longer making thoughtful, value based decisions. We’ve all been in this state before. Have you ever done something you regretted and wondered, ‘What was I thinking?’ Or have you ever blown up at your kids or significant other and when the heated emotions subside, you felt remorse and shame for how you acted?
Whatever goals you’ve tried to meet over and over again or that you haven’t been able to make stick or any bad habit that you’ve tried to break, but it keeps coming back is likely because your feeling brain hijacked your thinking.
What if you could recognize when the seesaw was tipping?
This way, it would be easier to keep your goals and commitments! You could wait on eating the marshmallow and set up patterns for success in other areas of your life! Let’s talk about one approach to mastering that bothersome feeling brain of yours.
Recognizing the Shift
I remember as a kid getting to ride an elephant at the zoo. It was a little scary to sit up so high on such a powerful animal. But the elephant had a trained and intelligent person that had taught it how to safely carry us little kids. Elephants have so much power that can be very useful or very dangerous if not controlled. That’s much like our feeling brain, powerful for good or for bad. The trainer is like our thinking brain, leading and guiding the elephant. A good trainer will also be able to recognize subtle shifts in the demeanor and behavior of the elephant to prevent it from getting out of control.
We can train ourselves to recognize when our inner elephants are getting skittish and we’re losing control to our feeling brain. It can take a lot of practice and time to be in tune enough with our bodies to recognize when the shift is starting, but it will eventually become automatic.
Maurice Harker, director of Life Changing Services has developed a scale that can help us identify and recognize steps in this shift. In a simplified explanation, these are the steps you go through when you give into your feeling brain.
0 – At level 0, your thinking brain is in charge. You’re happy, productive and want to help others. If you’re not happy and productive, you’ve started to lose some control already.
1 – At level 1, there are chemical shifts in the body starting from some stimulus. It could be a thought, a smell, a sight or a sound. Our brains receive this stimulus, try to associate it with past experiences and a chemical response results. For example, what happens when you’re driving down the road, and you see police lights in your rear view mirror? The flash of seeing the lights and associating it with past experiences starts a chain reaction that includes a rush of adrenaline. That’s what’s happening at level 1. But the catch is, it’s often not that obvious. We have to pay close attention to the signs in our body to recognize when there has been a change.
2 – At level 2, the chemicals start to build up feelings, usually negative ones. Negative emotions are building and leaving you in a state susceptible to ‘giving in.’ Dr. Daniel Amen says anytime you feel sad, mad, nervous or out of control, then your feeling brain is acting up.
3 – Level 3 is the first cognizant thought to do something contrary to your goals and values to soothe the emotional pain from level 2. I saw the picture below the other day driving home. “Because you’ve had a bad day, you should have a donut and it will make it all better.” I’m not ripping on donuts. I love them! But if you had a goal to eat less sugar, these kinds of thoughts and suggestions are more hurtful than helpful. A donut won’t fix your emotional problems! Unless it’s a bacon maple donut, of course. Those are freakin’ awesome.
4 – Level 4 is where most of us spend our time when trying to resist a temptation. This is the struggle within yourself to fight temptation or to give in. We only have a finite amount of willpower and at level 4, you’ll be burning through your reserves faster than ever. You’re quickly slipping down the slope.
5 – This is the ‘Forget it!’ moment, when you decide to give in and eat the donut or whatever it is you’re resisting. You’ve slipped over the edge and are now living la vida limbic.
Past Level 5, the seesaw of power has shifted so much that it’s VERY difficult to stop. The part of your brain that values stopping is no longer engaged. Because it’s so ineffective to fight it past this point, I won’t cover levels 6-10.
The key to beating this shift is to recognize it EARLY. Most of us are aware when we’re at levels 3 or 4. But by then, it’s already VERY difficult to resist. If you can catch the tipping point at 2 (when you notice the feelings are starting to build) or even better at 1 (when there’s the initial flash and chemical shifts), then it’s much easier to resist. This, of course, takes practice!
One method to help build the ability to discern neurological power struggles is called a ‘lost battle analysis.’ You do this after you have failed to live up to your goal. You or someone helping you can walk you through when you failed to live up to your goal, by going through each of the levels listed above, making note of what was going on in your mind and body. Then the next time your pesky feeling brain tries to take over, you’re more in tune and can catch it. Usually walking through the event backwards works best. Let’s practice one together!
When you have a failure and you give into your impulses, rather than beat yourself up, take some time to THINK about what led to giving into the temptation. Let’s say I have a goal of breaking up with soda. My thinking brain recognizes I’d be healthier if I didn’t drink it, so I set a goal of no soda. A couple days go by, and then I slip up and drink one. Hang on, let me savor this moment for a little bit….. Okay, now that I’m back in thinking mode, let’s analyze what led up to this.
5 – When was my Level 5 moment, where I threw up my hands and gave in? This part is pretty easy. I remember I was at work. At about 2pm, I was really tired and didn’t care anymore. I told myself, “I’m just going to get one”. Pop and a fizz…ahhhhhhh.
4 – My Level 4 was between lunch at noon and 2pm. I had a bad case of the afternoon sleepies and was having a hard time focusing on what I was doing. I argued with myself a little, and started to justify my want: “I NEED some caffeine to get my work done. I can always start my goal over tomorrow”. Sound familiar?
3 – The first thought to have a drink was actually before lunch. I remember having the thought to drink one, but by then I didn’t have the justification built up yet.
2 – Here’s where it gets more difficult, but more important. What feelings were building that led to that thought to have a drink? Aha! All morning, I was feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. I had a lot on my plate and wasn’t sure if I could get everything done. I was angry at some fellow coworkers. Little did I know, I was being set up by my feeling brain!
1 – Even more difficult to recognize than the feelings, is the initial chemical shift from a flash. Thinking hard, I can remember a few emails from customers and coworkers complaining when I first came in to work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my heart rate started to increase a bit. I was getting a little warmer in my head, torso and hands. This was what started my spiral down to chugging that sugary, tasty soda!
The emails made me angry and made me feel like I wasn’t good enough –> Those feelings intensified throughout the day –> I had the thought to go back to my bad habit to make me feel better.
Having gone through this exercise (one I’ll likely have to repeat over and over to get good at it), I will be able to recognize the seesaw effect the next time it comes up. If I see a nasty email from a coworker, I’ll notice the changes in my body and can take action!
Catching your feeling brain trying to take over is the first step. Then, you need a plan of action that will help restore power and activity to your thinking brain. With recent discoveries in neuroscience, we have learned that you’re not stuck with the brain you have. Neuroplasticity is the growth of new neurons and neural pathways. The more you exercise your thinking brain, the stronger it will get. Do things that make you happy, and you’ll be spending more of your time in your prefrontal cortex and making that part of the brain stronger.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to restore the balance of power in your brain and to be happy. Here are just a handful to get us started:
Know Your Happy Chemicals
Understanding the chemicals that make us feel happy helps us leverage them. Our own Science of People has a great article on getting out of a funk. Guess what a funk is? A feeling brain hostile takeover. A word of caution though: Dopamine is the primary pleasure neurotransmitter associated with a lot of the habits we’re trying to break (sugar, video games, porn etc). Leverage it wisely and in a way consistent with your goals.
Interaction and touch produces oxytocin, which makes you feel better and connected to others. You could always do what Vanessa Van Edwards did and hire a professional cuddler.
Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist studying oxytocin, recommends 8 hugs a day for good emotional health:
Talk It Out
Negative & irrational thoughts in your head will sound more reasonable and believable. Get them out of your head and get some perspective by talking it out with someone you trust. Don’t simply choose someone who will enable you in your negative thoughts. That may feel good short-term to be validated, but it won’t help long term.
There are TONS of benefits to service. Get outside of yourself and think of others. This produces a cocktail of good chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, etc), and helps lift others.
This produces endorphins and is healthy for your body.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that when athletes win a race, the more expansive their body language and when athletes lose a race, the more defeated their body language. Want to look like a winner? Roll your shoulders back, firmly plant your feet, open your chest and keep your head up. The more confident your body looks, the more confident you will be perceived as. This is called high body power—taking up space with your body.
Similar to power posing, forcing a smile can actually make you feel a little better. Going through the motions can help create the emotions.
Yoga is relaxing and has been shown to increase production of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that tempers the nasty feelings from your limbic system and brain stem.
Mediation fires up the left prefrontal region of your brain and produces dopamine.
Negative Thoughts: Get the negative and irrational thoughts out of your head and out of the shadows. Writing the specific thoughts down helps to do this. Recognize and challenge the thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Dr. Daniel Amen does this before speaking in public to challenge the unhelpful thoughts that make him nervous.
Positive Thoughts: As you regularly write positive experiences, you’ll fire neurons in your brain associated with gratitude. Literally, you’re rewiring the brain to scan for the positive instead of the negative.
Challenge the negative, destructive thoughts in your head. It’s even been found that if you name the feelings you’re having, it lessens the limbic response. In the words of Dan Siebel: “Name it to tame it.” Dr. Daniel Amen also suggests talking back like you used to do as a teenager to your parents.
Laughing gives us a bunch of good chemicals as well. Find something to laugh about. Need help finding something? Try the Skype Laughter Chain:
We’ve seen the effects of low sunlight in cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If possible, get outside and get some sun. This will boost your B6 and B12, helping your mood.
Get to Work
Doing something that requires work, concentration and productivity will give you a sense of accomplishment (along with healthy dopamine) and boost your confidence. This forces prefrontal cortex activity. Don’t sit around feeling bad. Get up and do something productive.
Be Around Happy People
Emotions are contagious. being around someone cheerful can help bring you up. A special kind of neuron in the brain called a mirror neuron fires when we see someone doing something, as if we were doing it ourselves. Watching a smile will give us a hint of the feeling too. Even looking at a picture (like the one below) can boost your mood a bit.
We all have dreams and goals we want to achieve. Make sure you’re keeping your thinking brain in charge, so you can keep on track with those goals. Don’t let that feeling brain of yours tell you what to do! And don’t get discouraged by setbacks. Hint: if you’re feeling discouraged, you’re probably already at Level 2. So go do something to get it back to 0! Hint #2: do it now. Procrastination is also from your feeling brain. The more we practice, the better we’ll get at it.
I guess my dad was right–teaching me to focus on what I want most, not what my feeling brain would tell me I need in the moment. The next time my boss offers me a marshmallow, I’ll pause to think if there’s something better to wait for. Maybe a bacon maple donut.
This article is written by Jeff Baird, a Certified Body Language Trainer through the Science of People and founder of Arise from the Dust, a mentoring service to help people overcome obstacles and conquer their goals. You can follow Jeff on Facebook here and Twitter here.
1 reply on “The War Inside Our Brains”
This is the most coherent, logical and helpful piece I have read in such matters on the internet. Having fought depression and it’s allies most of my life it shows you should always keep looking. In those immortal words of W.C..’Never, never, never give up’ or ‘If you’re walking through hell, keep walking’!
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