Happy New Year to you and yours! On this first day of 2009, we all look forward to great achievements this year.
Let’s think back to the first day of 2008. What were our resolutions? During the course of the year, how successful were we in keeping them? If not, why not? How much of it was due to circumstances beyond our control, and how much due to lack of effort on our part? How could we have done better in 2008? How can we do better in 2009? Time to unleash an age-old tool. When rightly used, habit is a powerful tool ….. simple to use – the key is to use it consistently over a period of time.
Before we go further, let’s tie this to health. Our resolutions could be something like losing excess weight or smoking cessation. Or, it could be controlling our anger. These resolutions are directly related to our health. In addition, when we succeed in keeping our resolutions, our nerves release endorphins and “beneficial” neurotransmitters. When we don’t keep our resolutions, we tend to beat ourselves up at some level, resulting in release of stress hormones like cortisol. This can result in increase of blood pressure, increase of blood sugar, and decreased immune response.
Every habit is regulated by neurochemical patterns. Let us consider the habit of anger. How is the habit formed? What do you do when you feel angry? Take an example. Your kid does something that angers you, like leaving the cap off the toothpaste. What do you do? Do you scream? Jam it back on, muttering under your breath? Realize your kid is still learning and shrug it off? Or anything better or worse or in between?
Let us suppose you screamed (no you didn’t, we are just saying so for the sake of this example). Why do you behave the way you do in this situation? One simple answer is that you are habituated to behaving in this way. Think of the sequence of events that your body’s nervous system goes through. You see the cap off the toothpaste, your optic center gets the information, and it communicates with other parts of your brain.
Let us consider the first time this happens. Where does this reaction come from? It could be from something you witnessed. For instance, perhaps you have seen someone else scream at an irritating circumstance, say an authority figure in your childhood, or your favorite actor in the movies. The reaction to this situation is already in your head. Even supposedly spontaneous actions are already in your head (As a Man Thinketh by James Allen, DeVorss & Company, Camarillo, CA).
During one of these episodes, what happens in your nervous system to cause this reaction? The optic center speaks to your “anger” center which tells you it is okay to get angry, and your vocal cords are given the signal to emit the sound called a “scream.” Now, you have established the sequence for release of certain neurotransmitters. You had the beginnings established in your thought itself, and the entire sequence had been established in your thought. All you needed was the stimulus, the irritating circumstance, and you responded with a scream.
This happens a second time. Now you have already established the path for the release of all the necessary neurotransmitters. You go ahead and use it. And it happens a third time, and a fourth …. and so on. You see how you establish habits?
Now, how do you break an undesirable habit? You stop using that established path, and create a new path of neurotransmitters. How long does it take? Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon from New York, published his book Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960 – it is still a top seller today. Beginning with studies on subjects who had plastic surgery, he showed that it took 21 days for his patients to have a new self-image after the results of the surgical procedure was evident to others. Further research showed that it took 21 days for new neural pathways to form and for the patients to see themselves as new.
What does this mean? If you want to get rid of a bad habit, give yourself a 21-day challenge. Said Mark Twain, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” Consider 21 days as 21 steps. Use will-power, change your environment, get rid of anything that would tempt you to indulge in your habit, trick yourself, announce your resolution to your family, friends or colleagues, make it a wager …. if you break your resolution, you pay someone a determined amount of money – use every arrow in your quiver to stack the odds in your favor. Make sure you succeed in avoiding the bad habit for 21 days.
21 days later, you may choose to go another 21 days, but don’t look at that possibility just yet. Take it 21 days at a time. Fool your brain into thinking, “It’s only 21 days – just 21 baby steps – you can handle it!” You can use the 21-day challenge to form a new desirable habit too. Same logic.
Speaking of forming new desirable neural pathways and obliterating undesirable ones, let’s do some possibility thinking. It’s been shown that the human brain has approximately 100 billion nerve cells. The total number of inter-connections these brain cells make with one another is a ginormous number. According to brain researcher Dr. Robert Ornstein of University of California, San Francisco, the number of possible inter-connections between nerve cells is more than the number of atoms in the universe. So, are we saying that there is no limit to forming good habits and getting rid of bad habits? That we can get better and better as individuals and as a society? Are we saying that the sky is the limit in maximizing one’s potential?
Let’s dig deeper into Dr. Ornstein’s research. Bilateral specialization of the brain is what he is best known for – the concept of the right brain and the left brain. The research he did with his colleague Dr. David Galin leads to an understanding of how the left brain is focused on logical, sequential tasks whereas the right brain is holistically, aesthetically driven. The left brain provides the facts or the “text” and the right brain reads the “context” in a situation (www.robertornstein.com). Their research also shows that during deep prayer or meditation, the electrical activity between the left and right brain becomes co-ordinated, making it easier to establish new neural pathways and thus, new habits.
I hope these ideas help you with keeping your New Year resolutions, and thus feeling good about yourself. I will be thinking good thoughts about you.
Until next week, my friend, please do take care of yourself and your health ……
Dr. Ajit Damodaran