In August 2011, I was flying back to the U.S. on a British Airways flight out of Heathrow. I sleep poorly on planes, so I use trans-Atlantic flights to indulge myself in something I love – watching in-flight movies. I watched Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. The movie is based on the novel, The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn (Glynn, 2001). Although I usually dislike movies with violence (there was plenty in this movie) the premise intrigued me.
Cooper plays Eddie, a down-and-out writer, who just can’t pull his life together. He has writer’s block, he’s behind on his rent. He is unshaven and bedraggled. His life is a mess. A drug pusher gives him a new street drug called NZT. Within moments after taking the drug, Eddie’s brain turns on 100%! Suddenly, he can think his way through any problem! Whatever he sets his mind to, he accomplishes it! With NZT, he becomes an instant genius with such intense focus that he can master complex mathematical algorithms and languages in a matter of hours.
He becomes so adept at psychological maneuvers he can effortlessly hold others’ attention and get their cooperation and admiration. He can remember in detail anything he has ever learned or even casually observed. He develops an amazing knack for physics and calculating probabilities, as well as martial arts. The only problem is this: He can’t maintain his new-found abilities unless he gets a daily supply of NZT.
After a few months on NZT, Eddie becomes wealthy by consistently predicting the stock market. The remainder of the movie is about his attempts to maintain his supply of NZT, while evading and thwarting the bad guys who are trying to get at his source of NZT for their own purposes. Whoever controls NZT will inevitably rise to power and affluence.
What intrigued me about the movie was Eddie’s amazing transformation when his brain became 100% functional. His drive was indomitable, his perceptions were keen, his focus was beyond intense. He could accomplish whatever he set his mind to! He became organized, smart, effective, and successful.
Stop reading for a minute and imagine how awesome that would be – to have complete focus, complete commitment to any goal, and an indomitable will!
Are You Enslaved to a Habit or Addiction?
Unfortunately, most of us do not use our brains to full capacity. In fact, many people neglect their potential because they are enslaved to habits and addictions. They self-sabotage. They procrastinate. They pursue distractions instead of priorities.
In over twenty years of my coaching/counseling practice, I’ve noticed that the majority of my clients have one single characteristic in common: They have an outcome or a goal that they truly want and could reasonably accomplish, except that they cannot manage their thoughts – and therefore, their behaviors – in such a way as to accomplish it!
I’m continually amazed, astonished, and intrigued by this all-too-human phenomenon. How is it possible that so many people want to change a behavior, but find it impossible to do so? During a typical week in my practice, I might hear the following:
I want to lose weight, but I just can’t stop eating sugar.
I’ve got to stop smoking, but I just can’t handle the withdrawal and the cravings.
I’m always yelling at my teenagers. I can’t control my anger.
I worry all the time. I always think what could go wrong.
I can’t get around to doing homework. I play video games instead.
I can’t stop biting my nails.
I want to start that new project, but I just keep procrastinating.
I can’t stop going to online pornography web sites.
I try to stick with my budget, but I keep buying things I don’t need.
My clients are smart, responsible, capable people. There’s just one problem – in some area of life, they’ve lost control. They are beset by an unwanted behavior that they just can’t seem to extinguish. And that behavior might even harm their health, relationships, productivity, or financial stability. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar in your life.
You can reprogram your brain and your behavior, if you know how. The problem is that most people don’t know how.
You Can Improve Your Brain
Neuroscientists are learning that the mind can change the brain (Schwartz and Begley, 2003). By managing the mind (that means by controlling your thought patterns and making the right decisions), you can actually improve your brain function to increase motivation and persistence. You can train yourself to resist the urges of bad habits and direct your attention elsewhere. When you manage your mind effectively, you literally create new possibilities in your brain, your body, and your behavior.
“Wait!” you say, “How can I program the very thoughts that I think, when I must think in order to program? Isn’t that circular reasoning?” Some of the greatest minds of the last century have struggled with the question and arrived at an answer: It’s as though we have not a single brain, but multiple brains; different parts of the brain perform different functions (Dispenza, 2007).
We Actually Have Three Brains
We have the innermost brain; the cerebellum, the so-called “reptilian brain.” It supports major life functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and sleep. The cerebellum is responsible for body movement, coordination, spatial orientation, and muscle memory.
We also have the midbrain, home to the autonomic nervous system and the limbic system; the seat of emotions, drives, memory, and impulses. Habits, addictions, and compulsions originate the midbrain through interactions in the “reward circuit.” Read about this in my previous blog on Habits, Addictions, Compulsions, and Dopamine.
The outermost brain is the amazing neocortex. It is the seat of awareness, reasoning, talents, and creativity. It performs the higher level intellectual functions of analyzing, learning, and language. It is the source of human invention and ingenuity. It processes and interprets sensory-based perceptions and supports spatial orientation, reading, mathematical computations, and facial recognition.
The Prefrontal Lobe is the Basis of Self-control
The frontal and prefrontal lobes of the neocortex are particularly significant in behavioral change because they give us the ability to evaluate, plan, consider options, make decisions, solve problems, delay gratification, implement action, mentally rehearse new responses, concentrate, and imagine. The prefrontal lobes hold the brain’s “executive function;” promoting self-determination, identity, and adaptability. The prefrontal lobes help us to override urges, cravings, and impulses from the other two brains.
Because of our prefrontal lobes, we humans are endowed with something called “willpower” – a force that allows the brain to act on itself. Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (2012) explored that force in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
The prefrontal lobe is so essential to self-control that damage to it severely alters personality. Social skills are destroyed. People with injured prefrontal lobes can’t carry out long-term plans. They become impulsive, lethargic, and obsessive. They have difficulty concentrating, are prone to emotional outbursts, and do not benefit from feedback.
The prefrontal lobe isn’t fully developed until the third decade of life, which explains, in part, why young children and teenagers often act impulsively, are prone to poor judgment, and are less forward-thinking than adults. Intense emotions, fatigue, stress, and trauma can often disengage the prefrontal lobe, temporarily reducing its executive capabilities. Habits, addictions, and compulsions often bypass the prefrontal lobe to the extent that they seem driven by mysterious inner forces. That’s why people often seem perplexed by their own habits.
Exercise Your Brain’s Executive Function
If you struggle with a habit, it means you aren’t exercising the authority of your executive function over that particular behavior. One reason why coaching and therapy help people eliminate unwanted habits and addictions is that a coach or therapist often acts as a “stand-in” for the client’s prefrontal lobe! A good therapist or coach encourages rational problem-solving and decision-making, thereby supporting the functions of the prefrontal lobe (Badenoch, 2008).
When your prefrontal lobes are in good working order, you can stop behaviors you dislike and exercise self-discipline. You can even endure anxiety and discomfort in the service of a worthwhile goal, if you know how to make up your mind to do so. Exercising force of will is like exercising a muscle. It gets stronger with use. In this way, you train your brain to attend to some things and to ignore other things.
The movie, Limitless, is a fiction. The drug NZT doesn’t exist. No drug can ramp up the brain to genius capacity. Nevertheless, it is true that some people apply tremendous persistence to overcome hardship, accomplish difficult goals, recover from debilitating injuries, and surmount deeply entrenched habits, addictions, and compulsions. They have figured out how to manage their minds effectively. They have discovered how to engage the power of their executive function. It isn’t easy to do, but once you start, you will definitely recognize the improved quality of your thinking.
In my next blog, I’ll explain more about how putting your executive function in charge of your behavior is the basis of personal mastery and accomplishment.
The blog postings on this web site are intended for educational purposes only and are not to be construed as any form of treatment or advice/recommendations that would replace proper medical and/or mental health care.
Any references to clients, past or present are to be regarded as examples that do not identify any specific person. The details of such examples have been altered in such as way as to protect privacy. Some cases are based on a composite, rather than the experiences of any one individual.
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