Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, May 27, 2010

This is My Brain on Procrastination

One of the books I am currently reading is The Stress Answer:  Train Your Brain to Conquer Depression and Anxiety in 45 Days, by Dr. Frank Lawlis.  This is relevant to my blog topic, because procrastination is depressing, and produces and reacts to states of anxiety.  It is also instructive because it deals with change, which I am attempting, in terms of brain plasticity.

The concept of brain plasticity--how its close friends refer to neuroplasticity--is finding its way into common parlance.  It even had its own PBS special.  Wikipedia tells us that

The brain consists of nerve cells (or "neurons") and glial cells which are interconnected, and learning may happen through change in the strength of the connections, by adding or removing connections, or by adding new cells. "Plasticity" relates to learning by adding or removing connections, or adding cells. During the 20th century, the consensus was that lower brain and neocortical areas were immutable in structure after childhood, meaning learning only happens by changing of connection strength, whereas areas related to memory formation, such as the hippocampus and dentate gyrus, where new neurons continue to be produced into adulthood, were highly plastic. This belief is being challenged by new findings, suggesting all areas of the brain are plastic even after childhood. . . .Decades of research have now shown that substantial changes occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas, and that these changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neuronal activation in response to experience. According to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain's physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom. 
This, of course, is great news for those of us old dogs who need to learn a few new tricks.  Like getting things done before they don't matter anymore.  

Dr. Lawlis's practical book applies what we are still learning about how the brain changes, and how we can promote and establish new neural connections to support the new behaviors we desire.  Since this blog is really all about behavioral change, I am keenly interested in what he has to say.

I figure my 45 day clock doesn't start until I finish reading the book.  But about halfway through, I have been particularly heartened by the framework for change that he presents, which consists of these 5 principles:
  • Principle I:  Neurons that learn together become attached.
  • Principle II:  Experience and need can change neurological bundles.
  • Principle III:  Suspension of thoughts or elimination of specific experience can allow neurological changes to happen immediately.
  • Principle IV:  Times of growth and change are opportunities for learning and relearning.
  • Principle V:  New pathways can be changed and improved.
In chapters on various manifestations of what Dr. Lawlis terms "stress storms," including anxiety patterns, attention deficit, obsessive-compulsive patterns, depression, and chronic worry (could I possibly exhibit all of these?), he employs these principles in outlining programs for change.  His programs are guided by research, his decades of psychotherapy practice, and his own experience, and are quite eclectic compilations which include, among others, use of music and rhythm exercises, breathing exercises, attention to nutrition and sleep, use of supplements, medication, psychotherapy, and use of a Bio-Acoustical Utilization Device (BAUD) and an emWave device.  While his gold standard would have us all submitting to costly brain scans of one type or another in order to confirm our problem patterns, he provides self-assessment scales which can serve as the "poor woman's" substitute.   

One of the most useful ideas I have picked up so far in the few days I have spent with this book is this, under the subheading "Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow:"
For real change with long-lasting success, the brain has to compile, rewire, and reshelve a plethora of new neural connections.  To achieve this, the process must be done consistently over time, and at an even, unhurried, deliberate pace.  
Heeding this admonition, I see that the change project in which I am engaged, with all its aspects, needs a bit more patience than I have been applying.  This recovering procrastinator is very grateful for my plastic (and ultimately biodegradable!) brain, which I intend to treat with a lot more gentleness and respect, given the miracles I am expecting of it.  And of me.  

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