Your Brain is Plastic!

Did you know that your brain is plastic? Perhaps given how plastic is currently plaguing our planet it may be better to say ‘Your Brain is Plasticine’. However, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. 

So, what does this mean if you don’t like who you’ve become as a result of your experiences? You can’t go back and alter the past and you certainly can’t change the genes you’ve inherited. Nevertheless, although your early years have a significant impact on who you are, it doesn’t mean that you can’t change. 

Until quite recently, it was believed that who we are, whether genetic or environmentally influenced, became “hardwired” once we passed a certain age. However, scientists have now discovered that our brain is far more plastic than we previously believed, plastic meaning malleable. As eminent psychiatrist Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself, neuroplasticity challenges a host of long-held beliefs about how much we are able to change and adapt. For example, he explains that children who don’t do so well at school are not necessarily “stuck” with the mental abilities they are born with. He also outlines how someone can rewire their brain to overcome seemingly incurable obsessions and traumas, and that it’s even possible for a person in their 80s to sharpen their memory to function as they did when they were in their 50s. 

It’s still fundamentally true that you can’t change your core personality, but you can change the habits of a lifetime, alter your outlook, change your behaviour and attitudes, even, to an extent, modify your intellectual capability, because you can rewire your brain. Given the estimate that 33–65% of your personality is genetically determined, that leaves a lot open to influence by your environment, and consequently to the decisions you make about your development. 

This is particularly important to know if you’ve ever been told you’re “not good enough.” Being told you’re not clever or bad at something as a child will damage your self-esteem, and you will most likely carry it as an underlying belief for the rest of your life, influencing a range of behaviors. Yet as an adult it’s up to you whether you incorporate the less positive aspects of your past into your personal narrative. Your brain really is plastic. 

You Can Change the Course of Your Life 

A number of years ago I was asked to assess someone for a director role in a global company. The candidate, we’ll call her Ava, emailed before the session asking to talk over the phone. I’m open to people contacting me with questions, but it’s unusual when the profile understand why she didn’t want to do the tests. She had had a difficult and complicated upbringing, growing up with a single parent in an immigrant family, and attending a big state school. Because of dyslexia which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time, her teachers told her she was “stupid.” She left school and home at 16 and life went from bad to worse, but one thing she retained was her spirited determination. She took herself off to London, got a job in retail, and was quickly identified as having capability and promoted to manage a small team. From that point on her opportunities began to open up. She found a mentor who took the time to understand and guide her, enabling her to go from strength to strength, completing a college diploma and accomplishing a whole string of other significant achievements. I recommended her for the role and can happily report that she not only excelled in the job, but has continued to flourish, succeeding in her subsequent career. 

Although when I met Ava she still had the ghost of being told she was “stupid,” she had managed to overcome that as well as all of the other obstacles in her life. What she demonstrates is that you can change the course of your life, it is within your control, you just need to adopt the right attitude, find the right people and tools to support you, and work hard. It’s not easy and elements of those ghosts will probably always remain. But it’s also not impossible. 

This is a slightly adapted extract from my book ‘Defining You’ which is out in paperback on 19thof September in the UK and 24thSeptember in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 

Available on Amazon UK, USA and Australia at the links below:

http://bit.ly/DefiningYouPaperback

http://bit.ly/DefiningYouPaperbackUSA

http://bit.ly/DefiningYouAu

Screenshot 2019-09-08 09.04.42

Image: Pixabay 

I feel little, oh so little……

Sometimes I feel so tiny that I could disappear into a crack in the floor. It’s a funny feeling, but not in the ha-ha kind of way –  insecurity, anxiety, disquiet (a colleague once said that I had ‘an unquiet mind’) all muddled up together. A feeling that I’m not quite good enough and that things would be so much better if I could just hide where no one could see me and I could have no responsibilities.

I may be an extreme example, but I think we all feel like this sometimes. My version comes in part from being mixed up (as a psychologist I may know many of the answers but that doesn’t mean I can apply them to myself) and so from within. Other ‘from within’ factors include things like comparing ourself to others, the way we talk to ourself and even chemical imbalances in our brain. But when it comes from outside, when it’s someone else who is ‘making’ us feel bad, it can knock even the most self-assured of us. For example:

The dinner party guest who drops quotes from Descartes then gives a detailed breakdown of why Marxism is more relevant to politics today than ever before. Things you know nothing about.

The colleague who points out that you can’t spell, and your grammar is appalling.

The friend who always has a better story to tell when you have exciting news to share.

While there are definitely some people who are just inherently ‘self-aggrandizing’ – these comments are generally not made to hurt. In fact, they are more likely to come from an unconscious need to show off. Why? So that that person feels accepted and secure. This reflects the irony of human behaviour. In an attempt to try and be liked and accepted we make other people feel insecure. They then strive harder to be accepted themselves making it likely that they will unintentionally create the same bad feeling in someone else.

My insecurity really is my problem (i.e. it’s mainly from within), but sometimes it’s heightened by other people. Many years ago I told a colleague about one remark (it’s helpful working with psychologists) who said ‘It really says more about them than it does you’. While this may seem obvious it’s one of those points that it’s really useful to have up your ‘mental sleeve’ when the moment strikes.

Other little things you can do to help:

  1. Avoid people you feel insecure around and spend time with those who make you feel good. This may sound obvious – but that doesn’t mean we do it. We’re sometimes compelled to spend time with the people who make us feel bad about ourselves because we desperately want to change the way they see us. So we waste our time with them rather than spending time with people who make us feel good. It’s worth being more conscious of how people make you feel and making a concerted effort to move toward the good and away from the bad.
  2. Change your posture. As Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown through her research, holding yourself in a different way affects the chemicals released in your body and therefore impacts how you feel. Pull your shoulders back, chin up and (depending on where you are) take up more space by holding our your arms and legs. “When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.”
  3. Pay someone a compliment. The joy of making someone else feel good, will in turn make you feel better whatever is getting you down.
  4. Remember it’s invisible. Most people think I’m confident. No one knows (until now) that I often feel utterly crap about myself. The same is probably true for you and it’s worth remembering. It gives a layer of protection at the very least.

 

Todays’ world is bad enough at eroding self-esteem with an environment littered by unrealistic comparison points. Where we can we should be kind to ourselves and to those around us. That takes a determined effort: to be self-aware, to see what we’re feeling and not project it onto other people, and to see what others are making us feel and try to step away from it if it’s not helpful.

Ultimately we all want the same thing – to feel good – so even if you can’t feel good yourself, try and make the effort to make someone else’s day a bit better.

As the brilliant Maya Angelou said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

Links (more from Amy Cuddy):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protecting Our Daughters’ Happiness

Having two girls, today’s headline ‘UK Girls Are Becoming More Miserable’ grabbed my attention. It turns out that this ‘misery’ stems from issues with body image and poor self-esteem. The Children’s Society ‘Good Childhood Report’ gives evidence that girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance, and hearing parents talk about ‘dieting’ really doesn’t help.

I have a huge issue with my body image. Although I don’t disclose the true depth of my feelings I, like anyone will chat to friends about ‘feeling fat’ and ‘needing to go on a diet’. This is part of the social dance that we women play. But, understanding the complexity of body image (from personal and professional experience) I’m so careful to steer conversation away from even ‘light-hearted banter’ when little ears are listening.

While body image has been an issue for women across time, in our supposedly advanced and equal world these problems are exacerbated by one prevalent source – mass media.

Research carried out by Dr. Anne Becker, a Professor at Harvard Medical School, studied a population of young Fijian girls who had never been exposed to media. She compared their attitudes to body image before and after Western media was introduced. The results: the key factors associated with eating disorders increased significantly and the girls reported a much greater interest in losing weight and modeling themselves on celebrities. Broader research confirms that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to messages and images conveyed through media.

Mass media affects us all, but as adults we have the knowledge and experience to step back from information rather than let it saturate our thinking. Social media isn’t something we learnt to interact on as teenagers; it’s something we just ‘use’. For young people today it is part of their social infrastructure, it is intertwined with who they are and how they operate. They are in effect drowning in it.

MP Caroline Nokes, who fronts a campaign called ‘Be Real’ says young girls “can make decisions not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world.”

It’s a tall order protecting youngsters from the distorted world we live in. At only 9, I find that simply ‘watching what I say’ isn’t enough to protect my eldest. For example:

  1. People Compliment Her – why is this a problem? –I certainly don’t want people to stop telling her she’s beautiful (it makes me feel good too) but it worries me that outer beauty will become something she depends on. Looks are so fleeting and their judgement so subjective. It’s like watching my child balancing on a knife’s edge and I don’t want to see her fall.
  1. Peer Group Pressure – we’ve just been on holiday and she’s worrying that she hasn’t ‘got enough of a tan’. The girls at school will be sharing tan lines and comparing who got the most sun. I slather her in SPF50 but consequently have to reassure her that ‘getting a tan’ is dangerous for her skin, not something to be proud of. I fear this is just a slippery slope of judgments, evaluations and comparisons.

When these two ancient psychological drivers, looks and a need to belong, become entangled with social and mass media the results are toxic and potentially lethal.

What Can We Do?

Given the reality of our world, there are some pragmatic interventions (I ultimately believe a larger scale solution to this problem needs to be sought which I talk about in my book, but for now):

  • We can encourage schools to run media literacy programs – research shows that these enable youngsters to evaluate the content of programs and advertising more objectively rather than being drawn into it.
  • We can expose our youngsters to positive campaigns – such as ‘Be Real’ which aims to ‘change attitudes to body image and help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.’
  • We should urge schools to empower young girls – providing them with realistic role-models and helping them understand how to appreciate their individuality, their unique talents and their contribution to the world.
  • We need to watch what we say – ‘praising children for acts of kindness rather than for their looks’, not talking about our own body woes or commenting on the appearance of other people carelessly. This may sound too ‘nanny state’, but whilst we have mass media to contend with our comments carry more weight than they have in any other generation.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that while girls are more likely to be affected boys are also impacted, particularly given the increasing prevalence of mass media.

What are your thoughts on this – I’d be really interested to hear?

 

Links and References: 

http://www.berealcampaign.co.uk 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37223063 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792687/

Becker AE, Burwell RA, Gilman SE, Herzog DB, Hamburg P. Eating behaviours and attitudes following exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002;180:509–14.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education Media Education (RE9911) Policy Statement. Pediatrics. 1999;104:341–3

Mindfulness – Mindful What?

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Mindfulness has become a ‘buzz word’ advocated by the likes of Davina McCall, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey, through to companies such as Google, eBay, Twitter and even The Bank of England. Whilst some argue that it’s a fad, it’s actually been around since the 1970’s and is based on Buddhist meditations practiced for 2550 years.

But What Is It?

Mindfulness is a practice of turning our attention away from our thoughts and the ‘chatter in our head’, toward sensations. Concentrating on what we can hear, smell, see, taste and feel in the present moment. This puts us in the ‘here and now’ rather than fretting over the past (e.g. why did I eat that) or worrying about the future (e.g. will I ever lose weight).

Our neo-cortex, which is the most advanced part of our brain, has given us incredible opportunities as a species e.g. the ability to speak, read, write, pass on knowledge, project into the future and have an awareness of ourselves. In the context of our modern world and coupled with the primitive survival driven parts of our brain, it can also cause us the odd problem.

Take for example, walking into a room full of people we don’t know. Our more primitive brain sees this as a threat (a throng of people we don’t know could kill us). It releases chemicals that put us on edge. Our more advanced brain responds with chatter such as:

“What’s wrong with me? Why am I so nervous, all I’m doing is walking into a room?”

“Maybe they won’t like me. What happens if no one talks to me? I’m going to look like a right idiot just standing there on my own.”

This is how many of us naturally respond, but in order to get the most out of our brain we need to be gentle with it not talk to ourselves like we’re idiots. Mindfulness helps us to treat our mind with care and teaches us to move our attention away from this unhelpful chatter. Consequently it’s incredibly helpful when it comes to our mental well-being and resilience to stress.

Is There Any Proof That It Actually Works?

Psychologists have been studying the impacts of mindfulness since the late 1970s with research showing the positive impacts on both physical and mental health.

When it comes to physical health studies have shown it’s positive effect on HIV pathogenesis, inflammatory disorders, drug abuse, chronic pain and immune system disorders.

And in terms of mental health, among other things it can reduce depression relapse, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, rumination and social anxiety. It also improves certain factors such as life satisfaction, conscientiousness, self-esteem, empathy, optimism, emotion regulation, attention and working memory.

More recently neuroscientific research has shown that individuals who are mindful are better able to regulate emotional responses ‘via prefrontal cortical inhibition of the amygdala’ or in other words through the advanced and rational brain managing impulses kicked out by the primitive brain.

But does it REALLY work?

I know from personal experience that it brings a greater sense of calm, reduces anxiety and stops a racing mind, and it’s not hard to see how it helps people to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses more effectively. But, it’s not a silver bullet. Why? Because:

  1. It takes a concerted effort: even with Headspace’s 10 minute a day approach it’s all too easy to deprioritize it in our daily to do list (I manage once a week if I’m lucky).
  1. It needs to be understood in the context of the brain. Knowledge of what’s normal and what’s not makes it immediately more impactful. This can’t be learnt from mindfulness alone.
  1. People need to know how to apply it to daily life experiences. Without this understanding, it will only counter stress during meditation.
  1. It’s been taken out of context. When practiced as spiritual meditation, mindfulness is put into the perspective of other life factors. For example showing compassion toward others, being a good member of a community, living an ethical life and searching for meaning. These are factors that produce a deeper level of satisfaction, playing to our advanced rather than primitive brain and are something that mindfulness in isolation lacks.

In spite of these potential limitations I still strongly advocate its use as a positive psychological tool. Mindfulness has taken something that was largely inaccessible to Western life and turned it into something that can be understood and applied by anyone. If nothing else it helps us to protect our brains from the fast-paced over stimulating modern world that we live in.

What about you – what are your thoughts on mindfulness? What have your experiences been? I’d love to hear.

 Links:

 https://www.headspace.com

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/15/mindfulness-study-meditation-7000-teenagers-impact

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201306/top-10-things-most-people-don-t-know-about-mindfulness

References:

Bishop, SR, Lau, M, Shapiro, SL, Carlson, L, Anderson, ND, Carmody, J, Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241

Creswell JD (2016) Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 68

Creswell JD, Lindsay EK. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23(6):401–7

Schonert-Reichl KA, Oberle E, Lawlor MS, Abbott D, Thomson K, et al. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology 51(1):52–66

Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, Clive J. Robins (2011) Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical Psychological Review August; 31(6): 1041–1056

Zenner C, Herrnleben-Kurz S, Walach H. 2013. Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 5:603–603