Friday, February 25, 2011

Growing a New Mindset

I've been doing some reading lately on Cognitive Behavior Theory and how that interplays with new research being done through brain imaging.*  It's a little complicated for a lay person to untangle, but what it seems to come down to is this:  It's easier to change our behavior than to change our mind.  People, it appears, really do have a "mindset."  This mindset applies to almost every area of our lives.  We are probably all aware that we have a mindset about right and wrong, good and bad, but we also have a mindset about subtle things too, like which things are delicious and which colors are pretty.

Look at forgiveness, for example.  Do you remember when you were a child and a sibling or close friend hurt your feelings in some (to you) terrible way and your parents told you to forgive that person?  Can you remember how completely crazy and foreign that idea sounded?  To children, the "black and white" of "right and wrong" is as true and absolute as the notion that the sun will both rise and set each day.  It's only with age and experience that the black and white of right and wrong begins to gray and blur at the edges.  Forgiveness is a fascinating platform for investigating our mind-behavior interaction.

Also fascinating is how our cognition effects us when we want to change our behavior in some way.  For example, last year, I lost 45 pounds or so.  Then I plateaued for 10 months and am only now managing to lose again.  Research has repeatedly shown that most weight loss plateaus are caused by "lessened effort" as opposed to metabolic causes.  Therefore, I had to examine the root cause of my reduced efforts.  What I noticed was how easy it is for me to say, "I am too busy to . . ." or "Taking care of this (person or appointment) is more important than ( my food plan or my exercise)" or "Eating a special diet is too (blah, blah, blah). . ." and thus justify my choices. 

This was truly confounding to me.  I am a helpful person.  I'm generous with my time and talents.  I am quick to say "yes" when asked to aid another.  I'm industrious and hard working.  So why am I unwilling to aid myself? 

This is where cognitive behavior theory comes into play.  Ultimately, it is easier to think the way I've always thought than to change my mind.  Relapse is a huge issue for anyone trying to change their behavior.  That's because -- in theory -- it's easier to change your behavior than change your mind.  I've known people who stopped smoking for years, then relapsed in an evening at a bar and starting buying cigarettes again the next day.  Even with all we now know about smoking and our health, in the end, it's easy to justify. At some point, they made it okay for themselves and now "smoking is okay" is the default position.   It's our mindset.  This is why someone suffering from morbid obesity and diabetes can buy and eat that chocolate bar.  This is why the addict relapses.  Understanding the power of the mindset gives me a lot of empathy for people that I might be tempted to judge.

There is good news, however;  If we can change our behavior long enough, we can actually change our minds.  Recent research using brain imagery has documented these changes and it is good news, indeed.*  If you can successfully change your behavior long enough to form a new habit, your mind will start to accept the new norm.  You can actually change your mind and reset the position of that "switch."   The new mindset, however, is quite elastic;  for a long period of time it wants to re-form into the old mold, so vigilance and perseverance become important characteristics for success.

In my every day life it all boils down to this.  For years, I've subscribed to the notion that if I can repeat an action (or avoid repeating it) for 21 times, I can form a new habit.  It appears then, that by forming that new habit I truly can "act my way into right thinking."  The "but" is that it may take longer than I think it should and it may take some effort to keep the new way of thinking in the new shape.   I can live with that!

*Footnote: I don't have many references to share with you for either the brain imaging or the Cognitive Behavior Theory because I was not thinking about blogging as I was reading and absorbing it!  However, this is an ongoing topic of interest, so as I come across references for these things later on, I will come back and add in some links here.

1 comment:

Knights' Mama said...

Dreena, I really like and am intrigued by this post. I was recently talking with someone about our image of ourselves as athletic or non-athletic, and how sometimes those images can be set in childhood and then we carry them with us long past their accuracy (if they ever were accurate) and definitely longer than is helpful to us. Not sure if it fits or applies exactly with the theories you're writing about, but it came up for me in reading your post.

Thanks as always for sharing your insights!