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Letter: On Neuroplasticity and Habits

I had a wonderful correspondance with the always-insightful Stefanie Zobus - she's graciously allowed me to share it with you. Here's Stefanie -

Most people don’t fix their problems, but some do. You are reading Hacker News a lot, so I bet you get to read a lot of people quitting bad jobs and starting start-ups. Some people change, but they have to want to change, and they have to find the right way. There’s something interesting I found about that in a book I’m reading right now – apparently the mind plays a huge, huge role.

The book is called “Train your mind, change your brain” by Sharon Begley. It’s about neuroplasticity (and Buddhism). It talks a lot about how, no matter how old the brain is, it can still create new brain cells, thus it’s still changeable. It may be harder, but it certainly is possible. Then, it talks about, for example, how behavior, experiences and even thoughts can change the brain’s structure – the physical structure – and how all that is connected to how people are, behave, feel.

There are some interesting things like in cases of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder) – the feeling that something’s wrong and all that is apparently caused by some part of the brain firing too much. So, those OCD people were taught “mindfulness”, something like meditation, concentration on what they feel from a somewhat distanced viewpoint in the sense of just perceiving, letting it flow, not judging. At the same time they were also taught to view the obsessive-compulsive element they felt simply as some neurons firing bad. The result? They stopped feeling as if they were being controlled by the disorder, made good progress and all. Then the scientists put them into the brain scanner – and lo behold, the hyperactive firing of the brain area causing the disorder was muted in comparison to before. Interesting, interesting. (The scientists who did the experiments were neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of California-Los Angeles and his college Lewis Baxter.)

So what I want to say with that is… things like OCD are serious business, and if people can change that, adults can change that, I think they can also change other behavior. It’s a lot about seeing things right, and I suppose most never get there. (With seeing I don’t just mean theoretically getting it – i suppose I mean something like your intek). They need to find the right method, the right way to go about it. Those OCD people had tried many therapies before – those didn’t help, there was no progress. But then.... then, they found it, and consequently there was change.

Seeing the Benefits Right Away

A key thing for motivation is finding a way to see benefits right away.

Now that we've got people volunteering on GiveGetWin, I've become super sensitive to it. Sometimes we all put in a bit of work to get a new provider/deal up, and it's really exciting -- but for whatever reason, launching it gets pushed back a while.

I see that that sets people's morale and happiness back quite a bit.

It's like, "oh, I did all that work, and nothing came of it" -- whereas that's not really the case, because usually the same work gets used a couple weeks later when we do get underway, but the mind doesn't work like that.

I wasn't sensitive enough to this before, even though it impacts me too. When I see benefits right away, I'm more likely to stay engaged and on-track. When they're very delayed, motivation tends to be lower. This, even if you're aware of the phenomenon and generally try to be far-sighted.

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