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The Neuroscience Behind Habit Change

In her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend who exclaims when she sees a beautiful place, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!”

“It takes all my persuasive powers,” writes Gilbert, “to try to convince her that she is already here.”

This story is an illustration of the two networks in our brain that we use to process thoughts–the narrative network and the direct experience network.

The narrative network is the default network from which we operate. We use this circuitry when we think about the past or the future. It is automatically triggered whenever we are not task-focused. And it is also our social network, where we focus on stories about ourselves, others, and situations.

The brain hardwires everything that we repeatedly do–this is how habits are formed. So the stories we tell ourselves over and over become default paths, the circuitry the brain naturally activates.

On the other hand, the direct experience network enables us to experience the present moment via our senses. It observes both outer and inner signals, but doesn’t judge them as good or bad. For example, you may do a quick body scan to observe how you are feeling in the moment before approaching a difficult conversation. Though many of us spend most of our time in the narrative network, you can benefit from the direct experience network with intentional practice.

From an organizational perspective, these networks are active during virtually all the work we do. From managing difficult conversations to organizing a team, these two networks are always at play. We constantly balance processing our external environment with creating an internal narrative about our experience.

So how might we use these networks to facilitate greater awareness?

Research has found that people who regularly practiced noticing their default and direct experience paths, such as experienced meditators, have a stronger ability to choose which path they were on. Daniel Siegel, a leading researcher in this area, says, “The greater the ability one has to be mindful in the present moment, the more ability one has to regulate one’s emotions.” That is where Self-Management, one of the four domains of Emotional Intelligence, comes into play.

Researchers at Duke University found that more than 40% of our actions each day are based on habit rather than conscious thought. When considering how to create a new habit, such as providing more meaningful feedback to your team, the brain has to override its default wiring and create a new response to triggering situations.

One method to overcome this hardwiring is to build an if-then plan, where you can cue your mind to behave in a certain way in a specific situation. By developing “implementation intentions,” we create the opportunity to rewire our brains in potentially triggering situations.

For example, a manager might have a habit of focusing on what his team did wrong instead of what they did right. In this situation, he might say, “If I want to give feedback during our 1:1 conversation, then I will pause and first ask a question about their thinking.” By reframing the behavioral event with an if-then statement–and follow through on the “then” action enough times–you can support the growth of a new, better habit.

Practice is crucial to rewiring the brain. It turns out that writing down our intention to change a habit greatly increases our chances of following through. A 2002 study found that 91% of people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. By linking an if-then plan to an existing habit, one is able to embed the habit more deeply.

Consider the following steps to integrate a new intention to your daily practice:

  1. Identify an unproductive habit that you would like to change. What is one change that would make your life more fulfilling?
  2. Reflect on the impact of this habit on your life to date. How has this habit served you? How has this habit harmed you?
  3. Make a personal commitment to change this behavior. What are the risks of not changing the habit?
  4. Now that you have identified the habit, create your if-then action plan. What will you do the next time that you are triggered? What will this new habit feel like one month from now? Make sure to write down your responses.

Recommended Resources:

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What is Mindfulness?

by Ari Pliskin

With the growing popularity of mindfulness, it seems worthwhile to pause and ask this simple question. 

 

Art and Mindfulness at Kirby Museum
Admiring works of art may help develop mindfulness. Credit: kirbymuseum.org

“Mindfulness has reached such a level of hipness that it is now suggested as a cure for essentially every ailment. AnxiousBroke? Sneezing? Definitely try meditating. This vogue is in part due to the real benefits of mindfulness, a form of attention and awareness often (but not always) achieved through meditation or yoga. It’s a trend for a reason. But its increasing application to every situation under the sun has some people concerned.” The Mindfulness Backlash, the New York Times, June 30, 2014

References to Mindfulness in Books, 1930-2008

 

Roots and Meaning

Those who popularized the term mindfulness were influenced by Buddhist traditions. “Right mindfulness” translates from the Pāli words samma sati. This is not “right mindfulness” as opposed to “wrong mindfulness.” Think of “right” as complete, wholesome, thorough, or ideal.  

Samma sati (right mindfulness) is part of the Eightfold Path, which is the last of the Four Noble Truths foundational to Buddhism. According to the Four Noble Truths, we suffer because we personally identify with our experiences of craving and attachment, when they are really just universal struggles. We could let go of that identification–as well as the suffering that results from it–through the Eightfold Path, which involves cultivating wholesome intentions, actions, and mindfulness, among other virtues and the wisdom and compassion that arises through this cultivation. 

The What is Mindfulness? Podcast

To avoid advancing a particular partisan agenda and instead help you understand a few different perspectives on the meaning of mindfulness, More Than Sound has interviewed contemporary mindfulness instructors and scholars from a variety of traditions. You can listen to their descriptions of mindfulness for free as part of our What is Mindfulness? podcast project. We hope these leaders and their decades of experience help provide clarity and add to the conversation surrounding the subject, allowing you to formulate your own opinion about mindfulness.

Our contributors include:

Podcast contributor Mirabai Bush with famed spiritual figure and author of Be Here Now, Ram Dass.
Mirabai Bush with famed spiritual figure and author of Be Here Now, Ram Dass. Credit: ramdass.org

Present Moment Awareness

Most of the teachers in the podcasts first describe mindfulness as being aware of the present moment. Mindfulness in this regard is a type of awareness, attention, observation, or focus.

Different teachers highlight slightly distinct aspects of attention. While Joseph Goldstein emphasizes “bare attention,” Wendy Hasenkamp describes adding a “meta-awareness” of what you’re doing while you’re doing it, in addition to your regular everyday attention. Surya Das describes mindfulness as having an open, friendly, and incandescent quality to it.  From these teachings and others in the project, we can summarize some basic themes:

While Practicing Mindfulness, You…

ARE

ARE NOT

focused on emotions, sensations and thoughts in the present. ruminating about the past OR unproductively worrying about the future.
accepting of what is. fighting with your mind because it doesn’t conform to your idea of what you want it to be.
friendly to yourself and others. judging, blaming.
fluid. attached, getting stuck on solid, fixed ideas of reality.
aware of yourself as interdependent with other people and things. self-centered.
consciously proactive or responsive. reacting out of habit.

 

Bestselling author and psychologist Daniel Goleman on The Colbert Report. Credit: colbertreport.cc.com

Ethics & Wisdom

A characteristic of being mindful in the Buddhist tradition is remembering our ethics and wisdom. While Buddhist scripture does include the Buddha’s teachings about awareness and focus, it also includes more literal uses of sati. In the text Samyutta-nikaya, the Buddha says:

“And what, monks, is the faculty of sati [mindfulness]? Here, monks, the noble disciple has sati, he is endowed with perfect sati and intellect, he is one who remembers, who recollects what was done and said long before.”

Our podcast contributors also speak to mindfulness’s connection to memory and intellect.

Joseph Goldstein explains that mindfulness can be understood as remembering both what is wholesome (generosity, love, and wisdom) and unwholesome (greed, hatred, and delusion).

Juliet Adams asserts that mindfulness helps us choose the “wise response.”

Surya Das describes mindfulness having an intelligent, peacemaking quality, that includes insight into interdependence, impermanence, and the nature of causation.

What Mindfulness is Not

Those interviewed for the What is Mindfulness? podcasts also pointed out what is decidedly not mindfulness. Here are a few of their helpful observations:

Mindfulness is Not Passivity

It is worth noting that “accepting what is” and “avoiding judgement” should not be interpreted as tolerating hardships as they are, without expressing preferences or working to improve circumstances.  By contrast, in developing the ability to clearly observe situations and accept them as starting points, mindfulness can makes us more capable of effectively engaging in our relationships and working in ways that will have truly beneficial impacts.

Mindfulness is Not Mindlessness

The interviewees contrast mindfulness to a few other states in which you are likely to habitually find yourself. Mindfulness, they explain, is the opposite of mindlessness or inattention. Even though the black lab chasing its nose or the cat chasing a mouse might be very focused on the present moment, they do not have the heightened awareness that is a defining characteristic of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is Not Attachment

Mindful attention is free from our clinging attachments to desire and our powerful habits of aversion that are considered to be the central causes of suffering in the Buddhist tradition.

Mindfulness is Not Religion

And while this article highlights the Buddhist origins of the concept of mindfulness, it is also important to note that the psychological benefits of mindfulness practice are enjoyed by secular people as well as practitioners of other traditions.  You don’t need to be Buddhist to reap the benefits of mindfulness.  Furthermore, as Surya Das explains, there are parallel and compatible concepts in a variety of other traditions.

 

 

To access these podcasts, scroll to the top of morethansound.net/mindfulness, and use the filter buttons. You can either “Search by Topic” or “Search by podcast guest.”

You can also listen to brief mindfulness practices at the right of the page. We will continue to publish more podcasts, blog posts, and audio practices as we expand this project. Thank you for your interest in mindfulness.

 

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It’s Time to Demystify Meditation

Meditation’s Unlikely Champion

Dan Harris, co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, had a panic attack on air several years ago. As he recounts in his latest NPR interview, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

“My heart started racing. My mind was racing. My palms were sweating. My mouth dried up. My lungs seized up. I just couldn’t breathe,” he remembered.

After the ordeal, Dan discussed ways to address his panic attacks and stress with friends and health providers. Meditation was frequently suggested. But Harris remained a skeptic. “That’s only for people who are into crystals and Cat Stevens, use the word namaste un-ironically, and live in a yurt.”

Meditation still has a “bad rap” as too weird or difficult. But fortunately that’s changing. What helped changed Dan’s mind was the growing neuroscience research on the real benefits of this ancient practice.

Talk About the Research

Mirabai Bush and Daniel Goleman spoke about their experience of introducing mindfulness techniques to secular audiences – including the US Army. Here’s an excerpt from their discussion in the new print edition of Working with Mindfulness: Research and Practice of Mindful Techniques in Organizations.

Mirabai Bush: For a long time there was a lot of resistance to introducing mindful techniques in some of the organizations I worked with. But as soon as people agree to try it, the benefits become very obvious. Participants become more calm, more clear. They begin to have better insight into what’s happening, and they begin to get along better with the people they’re working with. So once people agree to try it, there’s really no problem. But there is still resistance to trying it, although much less since the publication of the neuroscientific research on mindfulness. All the work that’s come from Richard Davidson and others has really helped people get past a certain level of resistance and skepticism.

Daniel Goleman: I can give you a little background on that change. You mentioned Davidson. He is now a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Richard and I were fellow graduate students at Harvard. He was the other one who was interested in meditation. He did his dissertation on attention and so on, and he has gone on to develop a field called Contemplative Neuroscience, which has upgraded the quality of the research on mindfulness and meditation.

Until Richard’s work, frankly, some was great, and some was terrible. Now this research is using fMRIs and state-of-the-art brain imaging. What it’s showing is what we knew intuitively when we were in India, which is that these practices can be quite transformative. And if you practice them a lot, it’s really transformative. If you practice a little, it’s still transformative.

What we found in the research on relaxation was that one of the byproducts of focusing your mind is that your body lets go and relaxes. And the reason it lets go is that one of the things that keeps us stressed is these tight loops of thoughts and ruminations — ”what’s on my mind, what’s upsetting me” — which are hard to let go. Meditation training, whether it’s mindfulness or any other kind of meditation, teaches you how to drop those upsetting thoughts. Our understanding is that it’s the letting go of those thoughts, putting your mind in a neutral or present place and keeping it there, that causes the body to be able to drop the tension, let go of the stress, and then get deeply relaxed.

10% Happier

Harris’ positive experience with meditation led him to write a book: 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found self-help That Actually Works – A True Story.  The somewhat tongue-in-cheek title says it all. The hard-nosed reporter is still grappling with his new “identity” as a meditator. But the benefits aren’t lost on him, and he wants to encourage others – especially the chronically stressed, highly driven professional like him – to think twice before scoffing at the idea of sitting still to notice your breath.

He talks more about the book’s mission in the interview. “I honestly believe meditation is the next big public health revolution. The big problem is that there’s this PR issue around meditation. People think it’s either too weird or too difficult. And so my goal is to dispel both myths and to say, A, if a skeptic like me is doing it, you can do it. And, B, if somebody with the attention span of a kitten, like me, is doing it, you can, too.”

Resources

Articles:

Meditation: Breathing New Life into an Ancient Practice

What Mindfulness Is – and Isn’t

What Makes a Good Mindfulness Coach?

Mindfulness at Work: An Interview with Mirabai Bush

Videos:

What is Meditation? It’s Not What You Think

Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream

Mindfulness at Google

Podcasts:

Guided Exercise: Sensory Focus

Focus and Leadership

Finding Time for Mindfulness

Books, Audio, Video:

Working with Mindfulness (CD and download)

Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence

Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth

Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress

 

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