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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.

Developing Willpower, by Jason Shen

Jason Shen has achieved tremendous success in athletics, technology entrepreneurship, writing, and living an outstanding life. To promote his recent GiveGetWin deal on The Science of Willpower, he sat down to tell us how he started learning about willpower, the state of what's known scientifically about how willpower and the brain work, and how you can start improving your life right away by implementing a tiny habit, thinking and systems, and using some powerful thinking tools. Enjoy:

Developing Willpower by Jason Shen, as told to Sebastian Marshall

Willpower has been an undercurrent in my entire life. In gymnastics, you have to use your willpower to overcome your fear of an activity and go for the skill you want, to get over the fear, to push yourself to finish your conditioning and strength training a part of you doesn't want to…

It didn't come automatically to me. When I was a student, I wasn't automatically self-disciplined. There were actions I knew were useful, like doing my homework in one session without getting distracted, or not throwing clothing on my apartment floor. But I wouldn't always do them, and I didn't know why.

I started to learn those answers during a student initiative course at Stanford called The Psychology of Personal Change. That's when I first started reading academic papers on the topic. In academia, willpower and self-discipline is often called "self-regulation," and in 2009 I started to get really serious about it from an academic perspective -- and saw gains from it in my personal life.

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