Mental Well-being

The Neuroscience of “Living Large and In Charge”: 7 Habits to Think About

Like the title of this article, the internet is in no short supply of overly simplistic, step-by-step self-help guides. Whether or not the induced nausea is all part of the cleansing process is still up for debate. What’s not in question though is that if advice is not evidence-based, its not really advice at all. This list of 7 habits for living life on your own terms is based on a synthesis of contemporary psychological and neuroscientific research.

Travel, for me, has always been as much about learning and challenging myself as it has been about the excitement of discovering new places. Closer to the neurotic spectrum than I’d like to admit, I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past 6 months contemplating things. Worrying in fact. What does the future hold for me? Will I find contentment and freedom in this world which often feels like a rat race? I say “rat race” but what I truly mean is the train. Since around the time I left high school, I’ve had a vision of life’s expectations and warped social ladder-climbing norms as a dark, foreboding train, tunnelling its way relentlessly into the future, never pausing for a moment’s respite.

How can we make sure we get off the train and live a fulfilled and meaningful life, one that is productive and pursued on our own terms?

Here I’ll explore 7 strategies, ranging from adopting an inquisitive mind set, to combatting rumination and the dopamine drain and several other things worth thinking about.

1. Find time to question and reflect.

In an interview with lifestyle magazine On Being, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer reminds us that “Most people are just not there, and they’re not there to know that they’re not there.”

What does Langer mean by “not there”? She means that we like being distracted from the subtleties of each passing moment and the effect these have on our underlying emotional state – if we’re even willing to go so far as to admit that we have one in the first place.

From childhood we’re persuaded to learn the rules and ways of the world. We’re discouraged from questioning, from imagining things differently and the biological instinct to fit into the social order compounds these pressures. This puts us in a box, a place where our emotional reactions are made to feel inappropriate and abnormal, something to be feared. Slowly, we learn to close the lid and turn away. But by doing this we become uncomfortable in our own skin and the line between what we need and what we’re expected to want becomes blurred.

Unsurprisingly, the practice of introspection has fallen our of favour. Ask someone to question their feelings and they might ridicule you for trying to psychoanalze them. But the reluctance to take a few moments out of each day, to slow down and reflect is not a symptom of psychological weakness, it is a clear sign of anxiety.

Introspection is not easy, it can bring on feelings of restlessness, like when you’ve run out of wine and the wifi is down. This state has been linked to activation of a deep brain structure called the amygdala – a little almond shaped nuclei which is tasked with monitoring unknown threat and it is part of the brain’s emotional system that makes you feel afraid. Because the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, the human brain has evolved to experience unknown fear as being especially averse. This means that pushing uncomfortable thoughts out of mind has the opposite effect. There is no escape. The only way to diffuse the tension of troubling thoughts is to face them head on.

We avoid introspection for other reasons too, not just to block out the pressures of the day. If you’re plagued by indecisiveness about what to do, when to do it or how, this muddle itself can produce overwhelming anxiety. The knee-jerk response will be to banish it from mind like a left swipe on Tinder.

BEGIN: Develop a practice of reflection slowly. Simply become aware of when your mind starts to want to run. When you’re ready, you can develop more structured ways to be mindful and reflective.

Good to note: There is a fine line between reflection and rumination. See item # 5.

The practice of introspection has fallen our of favour. Ask someone to question their feelings and they may might ridicule you for trying to psychoanalze them. But the reluctance to take a few moments out of each day, to slow down and reflect is not a symptom of psychological weakness, it is a clear sign of anxiety.

2. Clarify and List or List to Clarify

Individuals who frequently experience unexplained restlessness find it difficult to follow tasks through to completion. They tend to have a lot of unfinished business which can feel like walking, frazzled, through the streets half-dressed.

Often, the problem is a failure to recognize and conceptualise goals and challenges. Without being able to break-down large scale aspirations into smaller, attainable ones, the road ahead can be inconceivable.

But even the superhumans among us are bound by the finite limits of their working memory – a temporary storage platform in the brain that allows you to hold and juggle information in mind. The feeling of “mental muddle” might be a simple case of an over-taxed working memory, though as it happens, working memory starts to fail at the first signs of major stress. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle. What this all means is that you need to outsource. Create a pen and paper list to work through your thoughts off-line.

All those things you’ve been reflecting on, those should find their way onto your list. But, simply observing your thoughts is only half the job. You need to be clear about what it is you’re wanting from the near future and what’s holding you back.

It may feel chicken-soupy to write down your fears, but making them explicit will enable you to judge them critically.

Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus of the Minimalists, point out wisely that when we really probe our fears, “the answers to these questions are almost always ridiculous: I’m afraid people won’t like me anymore. I’m afraid people won’t love me anymore. I’m afraid people won’t respect me anymore.”

BEGIN: Write your list, pin it to the fridge and mark off completed items.

Don’t let social media muddle your intentions. Steer clear of all messaging and email services for the first 90 minutes of your day. Research has shown that constant checking of Facebook is driven less by a healthy curiosity about our peers and more by a vague and shapeless fear of missing out.

3. Question Consumerism and Minimise your Life

“The things you own end up owning you” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

Minimalism is about being conscientious of how we consume “stuff”. It is about keeping in-check our need to acquire possessions and about being mindful about the distinction between what we want and what we need. Tyler was a true minimalist. He believed that “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

According to neuroscience, the brain processes possessions in much the same way that its processes the body. Its not a far stretch to imagine why a person might want to own a lot of stuff. It’s the simplest route to “growth”, to an inflated sense of self. But owned objects also recruit the brain’s defensive system and the sphere of vigilance must expand to accommodate the new appendages.

This means more worry. Instead of increased self-esteem, cluttered environments tax perceptual processing and have been found to impinge substantially on one’s basic sense of control.

For example, one experiment found that stressed participants who entered a cluttered kitchen ate more cookies on average than their partners who were put in a de-cluttered kitchen.

Though it is not inherently wrong to own material possessions, the issue lies in the unhealthy attachments we have to them. The certain reward that a purchase affords is a convenient way to plaster over a bad day, but like anything else that exploits the brain’s rewarding neurochemistry, if its too easy and too frequent, you’ll short the system. See item # 4.

My number one tactic for curbing a superfluous purchase is to remind myself of the very short longevity of the gratification. I love to buy new clothes, but I also know that after wearing them out a few times, they lose their magical powers. They become ordinary just like the other bygones in the wardrobe.

BEGIN: Take the 21-Day Journey into Minimalism by Joshua Fields and Ryan Nicodemus of the Minimalists.

4. Detox from stimulants to rejuvenate your brain’s natural dopamine supply

Know these guys? Coffee, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, processed carbohydrates, preservatives and plain old over-eating. Even television and the internet. Our diets and lifestyles sometimes feel to be structured around these stimulants. Their allure lies in their ability to potently rouse the brain’s central reward pathway, the mesolimbic dopamine system. Each and every one of them has received spotlight in studies of addiction.

Unlike natural pleasures in life which require a fair bit of effort to attain them – think of the post-jog satisfaction – stimulants activate our dopamine pathways artificially.

Not only does the brain quickly develop tolerance by decreasing the sensitivity and availability of dopamine receptors (receptors are like the keyholes for the brain’s chemical compounds), but after so many months, in fact years, of over-stimulation, the bar is set too high. Your threshold for reward is far out of reach for the simpler pleasures in life.

A stroll on the beach, a warm relaxing bath. Whole wheat bread. Unsatisfying, yes?

If you are accustomed to a life of over-stimulation at every turn, a moment of stillness will undoubtedly feel intolerable. This is part of the root cause of restlessness and much of why it can feel like a real challenge to foster a practice of quiet reflection. See item # 1.

It is not only your brain that needs a chance to revive itself, there is increasing evidence that your digestive system needs a break too.

Scientists believe that 24 hours of fasting per week prolongs longevity, boosts immune health and dramatically increases energy levels. The science behind this is two-fold. Firstly, digestion is a highly inflammatory process, involving, for example, bile acids and digestive enzymes. Rampant inflammation is regarded as a key contributor to many chronic illnesses, such as cancer and arthritis. Like the brain, your digestive system needs time to rest and the average 12 hour break between dinner and breakfast doesn’t make the cut.

Secondly, fasting acts like a mild alarm signal that triggers your brain’s seeking system, which is just another way of referring to the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. As you may now know, the seeking system’s job is to ensure that you feel motivated to engage enthusiastically with the world because if you didn’t, chances are you might not venture out very far. Thus, real hunger gets your dopamine going. It’s a short-term hack for getting your energy levels up but fasting also functions like a chimney sweep.

You can fast for less than 24 hours and still get the benefits. I happened upon intermittent fasting rather serendipitously, at the time when I decided to listen to my body instead of the old wives’ tale that skipping breakfast is unthinkable because it is “the most important meal of the day”. My first meal is a late lunch and my mornings are the most productive time of my day. I haven’t gained or lost weight, I just feel much better all round.

BEGIN: If you want to read up on the science behind the benefits of intermittent fasting, take a look at these Pubmed articles: 1, 2, 3, 4.

5. Stop Ruminating, “Flag and Defer”

Because we cannot know for sure what the future will bring, one of the chief strategies that anxious thinkers adopt to try and restore a sense of control after something upsetting has occurred, is rumination. To ruminate is to obsess about a bad event, to play and replay it over and over in your head without taking any real action.

While the experience of worry makes you feel like you are a responsible, even moral human being, rumination is only ever counter productive, making it one of the more masochistic predispositions of an evolved mind.

Brain imaging studies undertaken by Standford University show that a group of structures running down the centre of the brain, referred to as the “cortical midline structures” are associated with ruminating thoughts. These regions come to life when you’re temporally distracted from a focussed task and your mind begins to wander. Their activity correlates with self-referential thinking – thinking about yourself. Or more specifically, as Darwin puts it, ‘‘the thinking about others thinking of us…”

Psychological investigations have found that one of the most potent drivers of rumination is the feeling of shame.

Children who display a lot of shame tend to come from families with authoritarian parenting styles. What this tells us is that rumination is chiefly a strategy to try and deal with shameful feelings. By examining a situation from every possible angle, scrutinizing whether our actions were taken to be offensive or not, rumination provides access to the crime scene footage and we search for clues for redemption.

The power of rumination is that it gives you the illusion of working on a problem.

But rumination tends to make you feel worse. It switches your brain over into “threat mode”, and to prepare you for the impending doom, negative memories become activated and you lose control of your cognition, trapped by envisioning yourself from the second-person perspective. Rumination is one of the hallmarks of depression and anxiety…

Being so fundamental to mental health, psychologists have found a number of ways to help combat rumination.

Studies have shown the powerful therapeutic effects of acceptance – accepting that life will always leave you in tight spots, that negative consequences are unavoidable and that failure is all part of the gig.

BEGIN: Adopt the “flag and defer” method. When a ruminating thought makes its first appearance, acknowledge it and hold off on the scrutiny until a designated hour later in the day.

Worries have a way of diminishing when they have been de-mystified. Simply acknowledging the root cause of rumination can go a long way toward halting the cycle. Ask yourself, is the shame necessary?

Often, what you can do, if nothing else, is shift your perspective.

Studies have shown the powerful therapeutic effects of acceptance – accepting that life will always leave you in tight spots, that negative consequences are unavoidable and that failure is all part of the gig.

Sometimes “losing big” is what you really need to realign and find a more efficient strategy. Wired Magazine has an interesting read on this issue in their article “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.

One of the more effective strategies that I have adopted for dealing with failure and disappointment is to focus on what I’ve learned from the experience. If I can notice something meaningful, the feeling of regret tends to dissipate. It starts to feel manageable, worth it, even. This strategy is referred to as “positive reframing”.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that the electrical activity of the brain associated with emotional arousal decreases when a failure is reframed in more acceptable ways. By entertaining a positive spin-off, scientists have found that the body responds in ways that are more closely associated with “challenge” and not “threat” – shortened cardiac inter-beat intervals and reduced blood pressure.

Some more in-depth advice on rumination to be found here.

Because we cannot know for sure what the future will bring, one of the chief strategies that anxious thinkers adopt to try and restore a sense of control after something upsetting has occurred, is rumination. To ruminate is to obsess about a bad event, to play and replay it over and over in your head without taking any real action.

6. Boundaries: When to Say “No” and When to Pursue Opportunity.

One of the things I study as a neuropsychologist is how the brain represents the boundary of space immediately around us. This special region is referred to as “peripersonal space”. Peripersonal space not only represents a “projection” of the possible actions our bodies can make into the space around us, but recent discoveries have also shown that our social relationships influence how this region of space is represented.

The field is still in its infancy (though that’s part of the excitement) so we can’t say for certain how our personal spatial boundaries react to other people’s verbal requests and demands, but I am quite certain that in a few short years we’ll be able to report some data.

For the time being, what science can tell us is that obligation arouses a brain region called the posterior cingulate gyrus, which has been linked to a signal for initiating a change in behavioral strategy. Sound like its helping to usher you in the right direction? Not so. Abnormal activation of the posterior cingulate gyrus is seen in major depressive disorder and rumination. See item 5. Deactivation has been studied in meditators and is associated with effortlessness and contentment.

Its not always possible to decline an invitation or request, but if you know its in your best interest, its doubly so to say “no”.

If an obligation is in fact not an obligation, but something you actually desire, brain areas associated with reward, intuition and implicit learning fire up. The feeling of “ought to” is therefore destructive, while real investment can foster psychological resilience.

If your colleagues or friends react with anger when you decline their request, chances are you’ve been neglecting them. If not, the burden to understand your predicament and the value of your time falls to them.

Often though, we say “yes” indiscriminately because we’re not clear about what we want. The requestor in question remains blissfully ignorant of our dilemma. See item # 2.

 There are times in life when an opportunity to extend our boundaries – our sphere of influence or prospect – presents itself.

 In such cases, we must learn to feel ok with asking. Often the biggest impediment to asking is an underlying lack of self-worth or feelings of subordination. And while the pursuit of power is universally prized and intensely alluring – more potent than cocaine in fact – Benjamin Hardy of Thrive Journal reminds us that:

We must define success, wealth, and happiness in our own terms because if we don’t, society will for us — and we will always fall short.”

Although respect and admiration are major contributors to subjective well-being, Adam Galinsky, a renowned expert in power relations, argues that most people tend to be unaware of how their own power fundamentally modifies their basic psychological and behavioral inclinations.

Power makes individuals more focused on their own goals and personal feelings. This can be very useful when it comes to creating a legacy, but power can also lead people to behave in selfish, sometimes careless ways. And importantly, “careless” does not always involve other people. Power can be intoxicating to the extent that it overshadows other aspects of one’s mental well-being – physical health included.

I’ve been studying the biochemical foundations of social power for some time now, so if you’re interested in reading some of my published work on testosterone and social dominance, read here and here.

BEGIN: Push your physical boundaries to explore your psychological thresholds. New theories about the brain and the mind support a close link between bodily experience and mental experience. For instance, there is a great deal of overlap between the brain’s physical pain networks and mental pain networks. This means that building tolerance in the physical domain can help you push your boundaries in the psychological.

For example, I find that the physical anguish of practicing Bikram yoga, a style performed in a heated room, is a good way to learn how to withstand psychological feelings of panic that occur in different settings. There are many parallels between the process of trying to calm oneself down and push through the suffocating heat of the room and dealing with overwhelming mental discomfort.

7. Find Things in your Life for which to be Grateful.

Whether or not you think it sounds trite or soppy, experimental and neural imaging studies show that being grateful activates areas and chemistries of the brain that make us feel better.

Gratitude, in essence, is the acknowledgment of merit or gain that has in part materialized because of someone or something else – like receiving a gift. Its different to pride but in similar ways has been described as “intrinsically self-esteeming”. Feelings of gratitude tend to come to mind more effortlessly when our brains have high levels of the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin has also been linked to the feeling of love, giving us an idea of what us humans are most grateful for.

During a study in which subjects were prompted to think of things for which they were grateful, an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex lit up. This structure forms part of the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine system – the highway of neurochemical reward.

Being grateful is therefore one way to naturally bump up your dopamine levels.

In the same study, a second structure called the anterior cingulate cortex (different to the posterior cingulate described above) also fired up in response to gratitude. This brain region has been linked to the anticipation of a reward and to the ability to cope with negative emotional feelings. When it’s active, it tones down activity in the amygdala – the brain’s primary fear center. This is called “top down” regulation of your emotions.

For us humans, with hard-wired networks in our brains that foster the need to be connected meaningfully to others, one of our biggest fears is the thought of being unappreciated and disrespected. This is one of the chief ways in which we experience mental pain and suffering. And its why power, as discussed above, can be so satisfying.

But in today’s hierarchical society, more often than not we’re in the back seat and if you’re feeling taken for granted or unfairly treated, adopting a perspective of gratitude about other aspects of your life can go a long way toward mitigating the psychological fallout. Because, what gratitude does is boost your self-esteem in a round about kind of manner. And your mind needs exactly that, a little bit of trickery, if you’ve convinced yourself that external validation means more than your own.

BEGIN: Just give it a bash, even if you’re sceptical. And if you’re still reluctant, as I often find myself to be, perhaps its worth thinking about where the reluctance comes from?

What does neuroscience have to say about the positive effects of gratitude?

If you would like some references for further reading, or if you have any questions or comments, please leave a message below.