Can You Learn to Manage Your Mind?

This is a recent article by a research hero of mine, Richie Davidson, one of the premier neuropsychology researchers in the world…

Originally Published on Big Questions Online (https://www.bigquestionsonline.com)

 


Can You Learn to Control Your Mind?

Richard Davidson February 19, 2013

Many people believe that it is not necessary to learn to control one’s own mind because they think they already have such control.  Others, based on casual introspection and analysis of forces constantly impinging upon our minds, believe that we will never have control of our own minds and that such control is simply an illusion, though it may well be an illusion with important adaptive consequences.  The view the question invites is somewhat more nuanced.  It asks whether we can learn to control our mind, and thus assumes that there is a gradient of control ranging from little to more, and that individuals may vary in where they fall along this continuum.  Further, it implies that control of one’s mind is a skill and as with other skills, it can be trained. 

When we refer to controlling our mind what do we typically mean?  If you are reading this essay, you can say to yourself that I can decide to stop reading this at any moment and get up and get a drink of water.  This is a form of controlling one’s mind.  Does the control of one’s mind require that we control our overt action, as in this example?  What about the control of attention, or the control of emotion?  To varying degrees, each one of you can decide to direct your attention to your right foot and to notice the sensations that are present in this body location.  You might notice tingling or pressure or warmth and you can isolate these sensations to your right foot, with varying degrees of success. 

Do we emerge at birth endowed with this ability?  Or does this ability develop over the course of maturation?  Is it associated with the development of specific circuits in the brain?  To what degree are individual differences in this ability present early in life and what environmental and genetic influences modulate this ability?  These are all important questions that bear on the larger issue of whether we can learn to control our mind.  To address these questions requires that we consult scientific findings in a diverse range of areas that indirectly bear on our central question. 

Insights from Developmental Considerations

Can newborns control their minds?  Most scholars considering this question would say no.  The requisite neural machinery has not yet matured for infants to exert voluntary control.  Their attention, for example, is captured rather than directed.  Their emotions are stimulus-driven and not voluntarily modulated.  It seems reasonable to assume that voluntary control of one’s mind requires that a requisite competence be available and that such competence maybe an innate potential of human beings in the same way that language is an innate potential, but it is not present at birth and requires the maturation of particular neural systems likely involving the prefrontal cortex. This brain region undergoes slow development and is not fully anatomically mature until the mid 20’s.  Insofar as the prefrontal cortex is critical to our capacity to control our mind, this fact suggests that there will be developmental changes in our capacity to control our mind that will not reach adult levels for quite some time, likely post-adolescence.

Default Mode of Brain Function, Mind Wandering and Voluntary Control

Neuroscientists noticed that when participants are given challenging cognitive tasks and activation patterns in response to the tasks were compared with a resting (uninstructed) control condition, not only are certain brain regions activated, but there were reliable de-activations in another set of brain regions.  In such brain imaging studies, a contrast between two conditions was performed to isolate brain activations specific to the task. These de-activations during the task indicate that those de-activated regions were more active during the resting period.  This provided the first clue that the brain “at rest” showed a lawful pattern of activations and this pattern has been referred to as the default mode.  The presence of such activity suggests that it is misleading to think that the brain is quiescent until a specific task activates it.  Indeed, even a mere casual introspection would suggest that there is a lot of endogenous mental activity occurring within the mind that seems to be there when we are not doing very much and pay attention to our interior dialogue.  Recent findings indicate that this “mental chatter” is associated with the default mode (Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, & Schooler, 2009 [1]) and that such mental chatter is often self-focused rumination about the past and the future.  A recent study using experience-sampling measures (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010 [2]) reported that the average American adult spends 47% of their waking life mind wandering, that is not attending to the task at hand.  Moreover, these periods of mind wandering were accompanied by reports of unhappiness.  Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude that “…a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”  Is this an obligatory state of affairs?  Can we learn to mind wander less and control our minds? Related Questions

These findings imply that we are not in control of our minds for a significant fraction of our waking lives since mind wandering is typically reported as a process that is involuntary.  Our minds wander.  We do not usually choose to engage in mind wandering. 

Individual Differences

The research mentioned above on mind wandering suggests that people differ in how much their minds wander.  The flip side of mind wandering is mental control and these findings indicate that some people have more control than others (Heatherton, 2011 [3]).  In studies of the default mode of brain function, scientists have discovered that people who report mind wandering have greater activation in sectors of the default mode that are particularly implicated in narrative self-relevant processes.  The fact of such individual differences raises the possibility that some of these variations among people might have arisen, at least in part, as a consequence of learning. 

Training the Mind Can Improve One’s Ability to Control the Mind

In his very famous chapter on attention in the Principles of Psychology, William James (1890) stated:

“And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

Educating attention is a core feature of controlling one’s mind.  If we can effectively control our attention, many other aspects of mental control will follow.  We can view the control of attention as a core foundation upon which other aspects of mental control are based, such as the control of emotions. 

What is the evidence that we can learn to control our attention?  Here the technologies provided by the meditative traditions which fundamentally concern the training of attention, are noteworthy.  Hard-nosed behavioral and neuroscientific research over the past 5 years has clearly established the possibility of training different aspects of attention through simple mindfulness meditation practices.  These practices generalize to standard tasks for assessing subcomponents of attention and they are associated with alterations in brain function.  One example from our own research concerns the learning of selective attention—the ability to focus on a chosen object and to ignore other distracting objects.  We (Lutz et al., 2009 [4]) tested participants before and after an intensive three-month retreat during which they practiced mindfulness meditation on a daily basis and compared them to a control group just learning these practices.  We found a significant improvement in the meditators ability to selectively attention to stimuli compared with the control group.  Moreover, these behavioral changes were predicted by specific changes in prefrontal brain function that was measured before and after the three-month retreat.

These findings suggest that we can indeed learn to control our attention and by extension, learn to control our mind.  Findings such as this lead us to the view that controlling the mind should best be regarded as a skill that can be enhanced through training.

Summary and Conclusions

The ability to control the mind differs across development and varies among individuals.  The developmental differences provide us with clues about the necessary neural machinery that is required to come “on-line” that is a prerequisite for controlling the mind.  Sectors of the prefrontal cortex appear critical to this process and are not fully mature until the mid 20’s.  Adult individuals also vary considerably in their ability to control the mind.  Such differences likely are due to a myriad of factors including genetic and experiential influences.  Mind wandering is the flip side of mind control and appears to occur involuntarily.  It is associated with the default mode of brain function and is frequently accompanied by reports of dysphoric affect, perhaps a consequence of not paying attention to the task at hand. 

This state of affairs, while typical of the average adult in our society, is not obligatory and this essay invites the view that we all can indeed learn to control our minds.  Humans are endowed with the capacity to learn to control their minds and such learning should be accompanied by a decrease in mind wandering and by corresponding changes in brain function in the default mode.  The ability to attend to the present moment in the absence of distraction appears to be intrinsically rewarding and people report increases in positive affect when this occurs.  Many humans seem to have a propensity to place themselves in difficult and/or dangerous situations in order to fully capture their attention, which effectively, though transiently, eliminates mind wandering.  Often referred to as “flow”, people report that such experiences are highly positive. 

An important implication of the perspective advanced in this essay is that we do not need to place ourselves in such difficult and dangerous situations to experience flow.  The quality of awareness characterized by being fully present in the moment is a skill that can be learned and does not require a specific context or challenge to be expressed.  In light of the known sensitive periods for neuroplasticity early in life, this perspective invites the suggestion of implementing training for mental control in the early years of life, as the prefrontal cortex is developing.  Such early training may take advantage of the increased neuroplasticity evident at this time and lead to more enduring changes in our ability to control our minds.  Research focused on this question is critically needed and if the outcome is as implied here, the findings would provide an important foundation for a call to include within the regular preschool and elementary school curriculum, methods to train the mind in such ways.  The modest investment in the mental capacity of our children will likely pay off in a multiplicative way later in life as a consequence of improved adult outcomes based upon this early life training.  The possibility of such an outcome demands that we marshal the resources to subject it to serious scientific test.

Questions for Discussion:

At what age can children start learning to control their minds?

Why do people mostly report unpleasant emotions when they are mind wandering?

Are some people better able to learn to control their minds than others?

What are the most effective strategies to teach people to learn to control their minds?

How is neuroplasticity related to the ability to control our mind?

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Source URL: https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/content/can-you-learn-control-your-mind

Links:
[1] http://www.pnas.org/content/106/21/8719.full
[2] http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6006/932.abstract
[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056504/
[4] http://www.jneurosci.org/content/29/42/13418
[5] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/mind
[6] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/meditation
[7] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/self-control
[8] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/habits
[9] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/tags/mindfulness-meditation
[10] https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/topics/behavior

Have a fantastic day,

John

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

GuideToSelf.comWeb site

WebAngerManagement.com – 10-week online anger management course

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com  Awarded #1 Blog in Positive Psychology by PostRank, Top 100 Blog by Daily Reviewer

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Positive Emotions Unlock Anger, Boost Innovation and Improve Physical Health

The evidence is mounting…

evidence that positive emotions exist for a reason…

evidence that evolution has selected positive emotions for specific reasons that help our species – reasons that help you in every area of your life.

Positive emotions include feelings such as awe, curiosity, gratitude, compassion, calm, love, joy, interest, passion and happiness.

Evidence is mounting to support the importance of cultivating positive emotions for success in a variety of areas in your life.

Creativity, Innovation via positive emotions

A comfy nesting bed with egg pillows

At the beginning of every session with a new client, I make a point of sharing a short, humorous video clip. One of my personal favorites is the popular Mother’s Day video by Barats and Bereta (www.BaratsAndBereta.com)…

The reason for sharing a humorous video with new clients is three-fold.

First, the funny video unlocks any negative emotions the client may be holding onto such as anger, irritability, anxiety or sadness (Fredrickson, The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, 2004, The Royal Society).

Second, those few, fleeting moments of laughter, mirth and smiling  reduce depressive symptoms and improve your well-being and  satisfaction with life (Sin & Lyubomirsky, Enhancing Well-Being and Alleviating Depressive Symptoms With Positive Psychology Interventions: Practice-Friendly Meta-Analysis, JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY: IN SESSION, 2009).

Positive psychology of innovation

Combination stairs and slide for young ones

Third, science has known for over a decade that chronic anger, anxiety and depression put you at an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease (Suls & Bunde, Anger, Anxiety, and Depression as Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease, Psychological Bulletin, 2005). Most people go through life with the sympathetic branch of the ANS stuck in the ‘on’ position. The sympathetic branch is similar to the gas pedal in a car. Negative emotions (along with stress, exhaustion, and lack of exercise) activate the sympathetic nervous system which leads to increased heart rate, pulse and higher levels of cortisol into the blood stream. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

On the flip side, positive emotions activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which acts like the brakes on a car.  The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge of calming the body, reducing heart rate and pulse, and bringing the body back to a resting state. The extent to which you can activate your PNS predicts your emotional and physical health. It is intimately related to how well you can self-regulate your own emotions.

Lower levels of PNS activity are related to higher levels of depression (Chambers and Allen, 2002), anxiety (Friedman and Thayer, 1993), aggression (Beauchaine and others, 2007), and hostility (Virtanen and others, 2003).

On the other side, higher levels of PNS activity are associated with better psychological flexibility, health and resiliency. Individuals with higher levels of PNS activity are related to more resiliency to stress (Britton and others, 2008) as well as greater mental health in children in the face of chronic conflict between parents at home.

Gum shoe - outside the box thinking

How do you come up with such an idea? Start with passion and curiosity

Importantly, the frequency with which you experience positive emotions is related to a more active PNS. Individuals who were shown humorous video clips demonstrated faster heart rate recover after experiencing intense negative emotions (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). In addition, simply asking people to think about a time when they felt grateful activated the PNS.

Other ways to ‘turn on’ the PNS include exercise, laughter, mindfulness, massage, yoga, walking your dog and taking fish oil.

Positive psychology John Schinnerer PhD

You’ve gotta’ be inspired to come up with a bedroom like this! 

The success I’ve experienced with clients in my private practice is directly related to how well I can make them laugh. With laughter comes opportunity…

opportunity to unlock stale old anger,

opportunity to teach critical new skills,

opportunity to think outside the box, and

opportunity to transform your life for the better.

How do you proceed from here?

Begin to become more aware of the percentage of time you spend in a positive emotional state as compared to a negative state. This simple realization, this basic level of awareness will begin to produce massive tectonic shifts in your life. And you will reap the benefits…on a number of levels…physical, relational, and emotional.

To life, love and laughter,

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Founder, Guide to Self, Inc.

Award-winning author of Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought (for a free PDF version, visit http://www.GuidetoSelf.com and enter your name and email address)

Award-winning author of The Shrunken Mind – the blog on positive psychology

Free online anger management classes which incorporate humor and positive psychology at WebAngerManagement.com

Want to Reduce Your Social Anxiety? Increase Your Salt Intake!

For those of you who have seen me speak, teach, or who know me personally, you are well aware that social anxiety is a genetic predisposition that I have learned to manage in my own life. I have learned and teach clients scientifically-proven tools to manage anger and anxiety, such as mindfulness, self-compassion, forgiveness, if-then thinking statements, and more.

Social anxiety is a topic that is very  near and dear to my heart because I have suffered the emotional distress that comes with it.

So I was quite excited to see this study which came out today that shows that higher levels of salt in the diet, while having other negative effects on the body, actually has a positive impact on those of us with social anxiety.

This study demonstrated that higher levels of sodium are associated with increased production of oxytocin (which leads to increased trust, rapport, caring, and connection) and decreased levels of pro-stress hormone angiotensin II. So higher levels of sodium actually decrease the painful feelings of social anxiety!

From an evolutionary perspective this makes tremendous sense. Imagine you are on the plains of Africa, millions of years ago, and you and your tribe are suffering from thirst and dehydration (and sodium levels are rising in the body). In this scenario, an increased level of cooperation and trust is necessary so that everyone in the tribe can get to water and share the water so everyone’s chances of survival increase.

Dying of thirst for connection

Dying of thirst for social connection? Must have oxytocin…

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Higher Levels of Sodium Reduce Your Response to Stress, Study Shows

ScienceDaily (Apr. 5, 2011) — All those salty snacks available at the local tavern might be doing more than increasing your thirst: They could also play a role in suppressing social anxiety.

New research from the University of Cincinnati (UC) shows that elevated levels of sodium blunt the body’s natural responses to stress by inhibiting stress hormones that would otherwise be activated in stressful situations. These hormones are located along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls reactions to stress.
The research is reported in the April 6, 2011, issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

“We’re calling this the Watering Hole Effect,” says Eric Krause, PhD, a research assistant professor in the basic science division of UC’s department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and first author of the study. “When you’re thirsty, you have to overcome some amount of fear and anxiety to approach a communal water source. And you want to facilitate those interactions — that way everyone can get to the water source.”

Krause and his team dehydrated laboratory rats by giving them sodium chloride, then exposed them to stress. Compared with a control group, the rats that received the sodium chloride secreted fewer stress hormones and also displayed a reduced cardiovascular response to stress.

“Their blood pressure and heart rate did not go up as much in response to stress as the control group’s, and they returned to resting levels more quickly,” says Krause.

“Also, in a social interaction paradigm with two rats interacting, we found them to be more interactive and less socially anxious.”

Further research, through examination of brain and blood samples from the rats, showed that the same hormones that act on kidneys to compensate for dehydration also act on the brain to regulate responsiveness to stressors and social anxiety.

The elevated sodium level, known as hypernatremia, limited stress responses by suppressing the release of the pro-stress hormone angiotensin II. Conversely, it increased the activity of oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone.

Further research, Krause says, will examine these hormones and neurocircuits to investigate their role in social anxiety disorders and autism, a neurological disorder whose characteristics include social impairment.

Oxytocin deficiency has been implicated in autism in previous studies,” says Krause. “We’d like to investigate the possibility that dysregulation in fluid balance during pregnancy could result in autistic disorders.”

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If you would like a FREE PDF copy of John’s award-winning book on managing anxiety and creating more positive emotions in your life, simply visit www.GuideToSelf.com, click on the yellow book icon in the top left corner of the page, then enter your name and email address on the following page. You will be immediately sent an email and given instant access to your copy of Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought.  This award-winning self-help book is filled with the latest in scientifically proven tools and tips to help you manage anxiety, depression and anger. It also is loaded with tips and techniques to teach you cutting-edge ways to insert more positive emotions and thoughts in your life.

To life, love and laughter!

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Award-winning author and blogger

Founder Guide to Self, Inc.

Anger Management Coach

San Francisco Bay Area

Danville, CA

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, via ScienceDaily and EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
________________________________________
Journal Reference:
1. E. G. Krause, A. D. de Kloet, J. N. Flak, M. D. Smeltzer, M. B. Solomon, N. K. Evanson, S. C. Woods, R. R. Sakai, J. P. Herman. Hydration State Controls Stress Responsiveness and Social Behavior. Journal of Neuroscience, 2011; 31 (14): 5470 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6078-10.2011

Does social anxiety disorder respond to therapy? New study says yes

February 14, 2011

When psychotherapy is helping someone get better, what does that change look like in the brain? This was the question a team of Canadian psychological scientists set out to investigate in patients suffering from social anxiety disorder. Their findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science.

social anxiety disorder tools

 

Social anxiety is a common disorder, marked by overwhelming fears of interacting with others and expectations of being harshly judged. Medication and psychotherapy both help people with the disorder. But research on the neurological effects of psychotherapy has lagged far behind that on medication-induced changes in the brain.

“We wanted to track the brain changes while people were going through psychotherapy,” says McMaster University Ph.D. candidate Vladimir Miskovic, the study’s lead author.

To do so, the team—led by David Moscovitch of the University of Waterloo, collaborating with McMaster’s Louis Schmidt, Diane Santesso, and Randi McCabe; and Martin Antony of Ryerson University—used electroencephalograms, or EEGs, which measure brain electrical interactions in real time. They focused on the amount of “delta-beta coupling,” which elevates with rising anxiety.

The study recruited 25 adults with from a Hamilton, Ontario clinic. The patients participated in 12 weekly sessions of group cognitive behavior therapy, a structured method that helps people identify—and challenge—the thinking patterns that perpetuate their painful and self-destructive behaviors.

Two control groups—students who tested extremely high or low for symptoms of social anxiety—underwent no psychotherapy.

The patients were given four EEGs—two before treatment, one halfway through, and one two weeks after the final session. The researchers collected EEG measures of the participants at rest, and then during a stressful exercise: a short preparation for an impromptu speech on a hot topic, such as capital punishment or same-sex marriage; participants were told the speech would be presented before two people and videotaped. In addition, comprehensive assessments were made of patients’ fear and anxiety.

When the patients’ pre- and post-therapy EEGs were compared with the control groups’, the results were revealing: Before therapy, the clinical group’s delta-beta correlations were similar to those of the high-anxiety control group and far higher than the low-anxiety group’s. Midway through, improvements in the patients’ brains paralleled clinicians’ and patients’ own reports of easing symptoms. And at the end, the patients’ tests resembled those of the low-anxiety control group.

“We can’t quite claim that psychotherapy is changing the brain,” cautions Miskovic. For one thing, some of the patients were taking medication, and that could confound the results. But the study, funded by the Ontario Mental Health Foundation, is “an important first step” in that direction—and toward understanding the biology of anxiety and developing better treatments.

The work might also alter perceptions of therapy. “Laypeople tend to think that talk therapy is not ‘real,’ while they associate medications with hard science, and physiologic change,” says Miskovic. “But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of any program must be mediated by the brain and the nervous system. If the brain does not change, there won’t be a change in behavior or emotion.”

Provided by Association for Psychological Science

From www.PhysOrg.com

Have a fantastic Valentine’s Day!

Cheers,
John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Founder Guide to Self, Inc.

Positive psychology of anger management

Turning down the  volume on anger

For your complimentary copy of John’s award-winning self-help book, Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought, visit www.GuideToSelf.com and enter your name and email address for instant access to a PDF version! It’s 216 pages of life-altering tools to make the most of your mind.