Programming your brain

The human brain is wired to be adaptive. We humans are “the magic animal” because we can imagine things that don’t exist and create them, and see things not only as they are, but as they could be. Our limitations as individuals are often determined by our limited thinking. As a therapist I sometimes had the privilege of working with people whose goal in therapy was personal growth, and of seeing them grow. Two fundamental questions for such clients are, “How do you want to change?” and “What do you see as hindering you from making that change?” Insight may play a role in the process of choosing to change your behavior, but it often requires learning and practicing new skills. One of the psycho-educational groups I used to teach was “Skills for Growth.”

One apt metaphor for growth psychology is upgrading your mental programming. A good therapist can help people to identify outdated or defective programs in their operating system, and to upgrade them with new “software.” There’s growing evidence of the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is to say that behavioral changes can actually “re-wire” synaptic connections in the brain, making it easier to maintain the new behavior.

We all inherit beliefs from our social environments as we grow up, whether those beliefs shape our behavior in a functional or dysfunctional manner. Clusters of beliefs about this or that aspect of life are known as schemas, and they guide our behavior for better or worse. For instance, Fred grew up in a family where his father dominated his mother, sometimes yelling at her and slapping her around. His father taught him that the husband “wears the pants in the family” and that sometimes husbands have to hit their wives, to remind them who’s boss. This is Fred’s schema – mental model – for marriage until he falls in love with Susie, who believes (like her parents) that husbands and wives should be equal partners in marriage. So Fred goes to pre-marital counseling with Susie, at her insistence, and realizes that she’ll never be a submissive wife like his mother. He comes to realize that his  “marriage programming” is outdated and needs an upgrade, if he wants to marry Susie. So he listens and learns, upgrading his schema regarding marriage.

Similarly, Angela may decide that she needs to replace her stress relief schema and stop relying on alcohol and other drugs to chill out. And Paul may decide that he doesn’t like being programmed for dependency, and install new programming for increased autonomy and initiative-taking. Upgrading your programming doesn’t necessarily require the help of a therapist, if you’re a self-starter. Once you become aware that there are upgrades for obsolete or ineffective programs, you can re-program on your own. New possibilities become visible when we change our thinking and examine our attitudes.

We can use mnemonic devices – memory aids – to change bad habits, setting rules and keeping score to systematically reinforce desired behavior changes. As an example, I decided to establish a zero-tolerance policy regarding my occasional failure to turn off stove burners or the oven after cooking. I chose as my mnemonic device turning on the stove light whenever I’m cooking. Ideally, I don’t leave the kitchen to eat until I’ve turned off the light, and I don’t turn the light off until I’ve made sure that all the burners and the oven are turned off. This works most of the time. The consequence for leaving a burner or the oven on after I’ve finished cooking is that I record it on a calendar that hangs near the stove. I don’t like having to record failures, so in the language of behavior modification this is a mildly aversive consequence. But it’s enough to shape my behavior in the desired direction, and I have an accurate record of my rate of behavior change. It’s been over six months since my last transgression, and I intend to keep on with my protocol until I’ve “extinguished the target behavior” entirely, and go for a whole year without a slip. By then I will have created a new reflex behavior and, perhaps, a new synaptic connection in my brain.

Behavior modification is all about targeted and systematic behavior change, but you don’t have to be in therapy to use the principles to re-shape your behavior. You can set goals and create your own plan. Announcing your goal to friends and loved ones, and establishing meaningful consequences for not making measurable progress toward your goals, can help. Consequences can include positive reinforcers (rewards, tangible or intangible), negative reinforcers (withholding positive reinforcers), and/or aversive consequences, like marking your calendar every time you fail to achieve your target behavior, or having to admit to your friends that you didn’t meet your goal.

Mental rehearsal is part of programming ourselves – positively or negatively – for the achievement of goals. We rehearse for upcoming events in our minds, sometimes encountering anticipatory anxiety. Sometimes we reflexively rehearse for failure, ruminating about everything that could go wrong in our upcoming performance, whether on the stage, in the bedroom, or in the conference room. Sometimes we give up and stop trying because we convince ourselves that we can’t succeed. Rule number one in rehearsing for success is not to ruminate on failure scenarios, or to focus on your doubts and insecurities. Rule number two is to actively rehearse for success, behaviorally and attitudinally. If it’s a public performance of some kind, practice, practice, practice until you’ve got it down to a reflex. And then harness the power of your imagination to rehearse for success. If it’s a public speaking engagement you’re nervous about, perform it in front of a mirror repeatedly and imagine the enthusiastic applause you’ll get – or even a standing ovation!

Teaching psycho-educational groups, I used to cite a psychological experiment I’d heard about in which two groups of ten people with average basketball free throw skills were to have ten free throws for record, to see whether Team A or Team B would score more baskets. Team A got to have ten practice throws before throwing for record. Team B was told to relax and visualize ten perfect throws in front of a cheering crowd. Obviously, Team B scored higher. While the members of Team A sunk some baskets and missed others while practicing, the members of Team B had a mental set of 100% success. I can’t give you a reference to this particular experiment in motivational psychology, but I can tell you that visualization of optimal performance and success is an important element in sports psychology. Visualizing positive outcomes – rehearsing for success – can help anyone to perform at their best, if they’re well-prepared.

If we discover that one of our mental programs/schemas is obsolete and limits our potentials, we can upgrade to an improved program that allows for new possibilities. Our past is not our potential.

 

Improving your memory

I’m convinced that memory is something like a muscle – if you don’t use it, it shrinks. Over the years I’ve heard many people, in treatment and in my personal life, complain about their memory. Some folks make excuses in advance, don’t trust their memory, and consequently don’t rely on it. This can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. There are many factors- some biological – that affect memory. I’ve come to believe that one of these factors is a “reinforcement loop” involving (1) trusting your memory and (2) relying on its accuracy from experience and therefore exercising it more often. If you don’t have a biological or psychological impairment, you mostly remember the things you actively commit to short-term memory. This increases your trust in your memory and increases your reliance, which further increases your trust, etc. Part of having a good memory is cultivating good memory habits.

Another factor is mindfulness, as opposed to “being in your head,” lost in thought. I used the term “actively commit to memory” above. Actively committing something to memory is something like active listening: it requires mindfulness. Mindfulness is being present in the only time there is – this moment. I’ve admitted in a previous post to having obsessive-compulsive traits. There are times when I leave the house preoccupied with thoughts, and then worry because I can’t remember locking the door. But when I lock the door mindfully, it’s as if I have a video recording of the event in my head, and there’s no subsequent anxiety.

This is an example of committing something to short-term memory simply by paying attention, being mindful. But there are also memory aids known as mnemonic devices that can help you commit things to your short- or long-term memory. Acronyms can serve as mnemonic devices. Ever since I heard of Roy G. Biv ( a made-up name) I’ve been able to name the colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The first letter of each word in the following sentence is a mnemonic device for recalling the planets in the solar system, in order of their distance from the sun: “Molly very easily makes jam, sometimes using no pectin.” A sentence is often easier to memorize than a list of names, and this sentence is the key to remembering: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupitor, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. You can make up your own mnemonic sentences to memorize things. Rhymes can also be mnemonic devices, as with “Thirty days hath September/ April, June and November./ All the rest have thirty-one/ Except the second month alone./ To it we twenty-eight assign/ ‘Til leap year gives it twenty-nine.”

Another mnemonic device – an ancient technique now known as image mnemonics – involves visualizations that serve as “pegs” to hang list items on. I’ll share two variations on that technique that will allow you to reliably store a ten-item shopping list in your short-term memory. The first variation is to memorize ten places in or around your home, in a specific order, such as the order in which you’d encounter them when you come home. Number one might be your driveway, number two the walkway to your front porch, number three the front porch, number four the hall table just past the door, etc. Once you have the places memorized in order, have somebody name random grocery list items – slowly, as you indicate you’re ready. When each item is specified, imagine it -perhaps in some altered or exaggerated form – in the sequential locations. The weirder the image, the better. If the first item is bread, you might imagine a giant loaf blocking the driveway. If the second item is eggs, imagine a row of colored Easter eggs on the walkway. If the third item is chicken, imagine a live chicken clucking on the front porch. Once you have an image for each grocery item pegged on one of the memorized locations, all you have to do to recall the items is to mentally go to the ten locations in order and name what you put there.

The other variation is to memorize these ten words that rhyme with the numbers one through ten: bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, sticks, heaven, gate, line (as in clothesline) and pen (as in pigpen). As you’re given the ten items, match each one of them with one of your ten images, in order. You might end up with a whole, raw potato in a bun, a shoe filled with milk, a tree hung with toilet paper, a giant fish standing at the door, a beehive buzzing with flying shrimp, a fried egg on a pile of sticks, a turkey at the gates of heaven, a gate made of cheese, bagels hanging from a clothesline, and a pen filled with bacon.

This mnemonic device works by allowing you to create an association between random items you want to commit to your short-term memory, and a fixed sequence of mental pegs on which to temporarily hang the items. I’ll be writing more about memory in future posts, but in the meantime you can amaze your friends with your ability to memorize lists. Once you understand the principles, you can create your own mnemonic devices, and work at developing good memory habits.