Each of us has the power to bring meaning and purpose to our life by how we interpret the circumstances that confront us. The act of interpreting our experience in either positive or negative terms is called “framing.” The same set of circumstances that might be perceived by one person as depressing and discouraging set-backs (“the glass is half empty” mentality), might be perceived by another person as being challenging opportunities to grow through and overcome (“the glass is half full” mentality). In the former case, the person is framing their experience negatively; in the latter case the person is framing their experience positively. The difference between these two perspectives is not in the experiences themselves, but the narratives we tell ourselves about our experiences.
Although we’re supposed to be living in an age where men and women are equal, in practice no one really operates according to the principles of gender equality.
Before going any further, it may be helpful to define what I mean when I talk about men and women being “unequal.”
Having been involved in raising three teenagers, I have sometimes been approached by other parents for advice with their teens. Perhaps it is providential that this doesn’t happen very often! When people do seek my advice, although the various situations differ widely, the problems usually revolve around the same sorts of general issues and so I usually end up saying the same things again and again. For what it’s worth, I’m going to share below what I normally say. This advice is what I wish someone had shared with me before I ever had teenagers. With regard to the personal anecdotes I will share, some of the circumstantial details have been altered to preserve the anonymity of the subjects. But first a disclaimer is necessary for those who may happen to know me: I am still learning to apply these principles myself. It is one of the ironies of life that by the time we finally learn all the lessons we need to know about being good parents, our last child is already grown.
The Taylor Study Method has just posted an article I wrote on using gratitude to detox your brain. I pointed out that when you pay attention to negativity, you actually create toxins in your brain. This includes simply thinking negative thoughts. However, by cultivating an attitude of gratitude, you can starve all thinking that is negative, disordered or toxic. Just as fire can’t survive in an environment of water, so toxic thinking can’t survive in a neurological environment characterized by constant gratitude.
Most of the time we do grow more skilled at the things we practice, whether it’s learning to play the violin or speak French. But studies show that multitasking falls into the weird category of behaviors that go against this norm: the more you practice it the worse you become. In 2009, researchers at Stanford found that those who multitask frequently and believed that it boosted their performance were actually worse at multitasking than those who preferred not to multitask. This is sobering: if you multitask a lot and think you’re good at it, there is a statistical likelihood is that you are actually a very bad multitasker. The more you practice it, the worse you become.
This research seems counter-intuitive and weird. How could practicing an activity make a person worse at that activity? From a neurological perspective, however, this is not surprising. Study after study has found that in order for the higher functions of the brain to flourish the brain needs to be given frequent and regular spaces of silence, as well as spaces of deep undistracted attentiveness to a single activity. What both silence and attentiveness share in common is that they depend on the brain being able to weed out incoming stimuli. In other words, for the brain to work properly, it needs times when it is not multi-tasking. Times of quiet, as well as times of undistracted focused activity, act as incubation periods in which the brain consolidates what it has learned like a computer defragmenting to weed out the junk. Of course, undistracted focus is not possible in an environment of multitasking.
The following is an expert from my TSM article ‘Recovering Quiet in an Age of Noise‘.
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend is always tearing her down and continually telling her that she’s stupid, unable to cope, that nobody likes her and that she isn’t pretty enough. What would you say to your friend?
Obviously you would tell her she should break up with her negative boyfriend, or at least that she should stop paying attention to his continual criticisms.
Even though that is the advice you would give someone else, when it comes to ourselves we pay attention to an incessant negative monologue about ourselves that is just as bad. The monologue of negativity isn’t coming from another person but from our own brain. Instead of “breaking up” with our negative brain, we pay attention to it.
Here are some examples of how we can challenge negative self-talk:
- “Yes, this is a difficult challenge, but I have many resources for coping with this.”
- “Okay, things are going wrong in my life right now, but I still have a lot to be grateful for.”
- “I don’t know how this is going to turn out but I do know that whatever happens I will be stretched and have the opportunity to grow through this trial.”
- “I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure and achieve a lot more than I thought I’d be able to. I have a basis for confidence as these further challenges arise in my life.”
Notice that this type of positive self-talk is not blind optimism or escapism but based on realities that most of us can affirm about ourselves and our lives.
I’ve just published two articles at the Taylor Study Method on the power of positive breathing. Part 1 looks at how stress and anxiety are deeply rooted in primitive survival instincts. Although directed at psychology students preparing for their licensure exam, the techniques I’ve shared can be applied by anyone wanting to better manage stress or reduce anxiety. There’s nothing particularly complicated about these techniques, which basically involve mindful breathing. Part 2 explores the science of mindful breathing, including research showing that mindful meditative breathing can increase the size of the brain, improve social skills, make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus, in addition to increasing emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience. To read my articles, click on the links below:
The following is from Robert Roberts’ essay ‘The Blessings of Gratitude’ in the volume The Psychology of Gratitude:
“The constitutionally grateful person has a shield against such debilitating regrets because he or she is inclined to dwell on the favorable, rather than the regrettable. As noted earlier, as an emotion, gratitude is a perception of benefits and benevolence; a person with gratitude-readiness will tend to see what is good in situations and to notice less what is bad. The kind of unfortunate actions and events that make the constitutionally regretful person miserable may have occurred in the grateful one’s life as well, but the grateful person can move on from them, because his or her mind is tuned to happier things….
Grateful people tend to be satisfied with what they have and so are less susceptible to such emotions as disappointment, regret, and frustration. People who believe in God as He is conceived in Christianity have an even more powerful resource for transcending many of the circumstances that disappoint, frustrate, and anger most of us. In consequence, grateful people, whether religious or not, will be less prone to emotions such as anger, resentment, envy, and bitterness, that tend to undermine happy social relations. But the virtue of gratitude is not only a prophylactic against such corruption of relationships; it also contributes positively to friendship and civility, because it is both benevolent (wishing the benefactor well) and just (giving the benefactor his or her due, in a certain special way). The justice of gratitude can be plausible argued to be metaphysical–a kind of attunement to one’s basic human nature and the nature of the universe–because we are in fact dependent recipients of good things, both from some of our fellow human beings and from God. Such attunement is a realization of human nature and thus maturity, fulfillment, well-being.
We’ve probably all seen people who have an ability to learn information quickly, perhaps when studying for a test, but then they forget it afterwards, and then we know other people who are able to achieve content mastery. What’s the difference? The difference is that in order for content mastery to occur, let alone understanding and wisdom, the brain has to move beyond massed practice and even memorizing; rather, the brain needs to start schematizing. This is because schemas serve as hooks on which to fasten new information. Without our brain’s ability to create schemas, without a sense of the connectedness of things, everything we learn would be simply a random collection of disconnected facts and there would never be any true understanding.
Nicholas Carr puts it like this in his book The Shallows: “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.”“…brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or ‘schemas.’ By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richenss to our thinking. ‘Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,’ says Sweller. ‘We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.’”
Carr points out that although the mental skill of schema formation is needed today more than ever, it is in jeopardy from technologies that orient us towards a state of continuous partial attention. As concentrated attention spans and focus become replaced by broad attention ranges and multitasking, what is lost is the type of slow, methodical, systematic and linear cognition that favors the formation of schemas in the long-term memory. In order for the brain to build up schemas effectively, a person has to reflect deeply about her life and what she has learned, and this reflection needs to occur in a slow and undistracted manner. When this is not the case, or when we form schemas badly, then the brain easily falls prey to oversimplifications. We see this all the time in our public political discourse, where issues are deliberated upon in isolated compartments that are often dominated by ideology, resulting in gross oversimplifications.
Also, the brain has to be nimble and flexible enough to adjust our schemas in light of new information we receive through knowledge, experience and personal growth. Sometimes we learn or experience things that do not fit within our existing neurological schemas, and so the brain has to alter existing schemas or create new neuro pathways, a process known as accommodation. That’s where intellectual humility, mental flexibility and open-mindedness become really important. But when our thinking is dominated by impressions, by emotional reasoning or ideology, then we become closed-minded and stuck in schemas that can actually detach us from reality.
The solution is to constantly engage in deep intellectual reflection, to eschew what Socrates called “the unexamined life.” Deep intellectual reflection is to a healthy brain like water is to a healthy plant. People knew that since before Socrates, but now we have the brain science to go with it.
I’m the sort of person who gets big ideas and sets big goals. The only problem with big goals is that they’re incredibly hard to reach. Well, that’s not actually true. Big goals are hard to reach using conventional means.
The normal way of reaching big goals goes something like this. You get excited about a goal that you want to reach. It might be learning a foreign language, implementing a new exercise routine, breaking a bad habit, meditating every day, learning a new skill, whatever. In the excitement of the end-result, you promise to take regular big steps towards reaching the goal.
I know from experience. About five years ago I decided that I wanted to become fit and strong, so I started getting up at 5:00 AM to drive to a friend’s house to do weight-lifting. Of course, with a family and a job, I obviously couldn’t sustain that type of training. When the excitement died down, I realized that I just couldn’t do it. And of course I felt guilty.
When we still lived in England I once decided that I wanted to learn Latin. I got some textbooks and faithfully studied Latin for an hour a day…until I couldn’t keep it up anymore. Then I not only didn’t know Latin, but I was also a failure, having overestimated by ability to persevere.
There have been times when I decided that I was going to become a really good piano player and start practicing with the dedication I had when I was young. Somehow, despite my good intentions, life has a way of taking over and never allowing me to get momentum.
I could go on and on. We all could. I’ve come to realize that the problem is not in the goals we set, but in our method of reaching those goals. What if I told you that there was an unconventional method for reaching goals that is a hundred times more effective and much much easier?
The method I’m talking about is called the Kaisen Technique. The method basically says that the way to reach our goals is to make the steps towards those goals as small as possible. For example, if you want to learn a language, focus on learning just one word a day. If you want to start exercising, just walk in place for a minute in front of the television. If you want to start meditating every day, do it for just give minutes a day. If you are overwhelmed with the amount of dirty dishes in kitchen, just do it for five minutes.
The reason this works is because the human brain is in a state of constant tension between two impulses. On the one hand, our brain constantly longs for innovation, for the excitement of newness. This is why we promise ourselves big things and try to reach new goals. But we also have a part of the brain that longs for stability, for the security of the status quo. Scientists who have studied the human brain have discovered that when we commit to change something in our life, it is the impulse for newness and innovation that is operative. However, over the long term, all our best intentions are sabotaged by the part of our brain that longs to keep things normal and which fears change. All this occurs on a subconscious level that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the point: by introducing change through tiny steps, we can overcome our brain’s natural resistance to change. This is because small steps allow change to occur within a context that is not significantly threatening to the status quo, that feels safe. Then, after our brain has acclimatized to the change, we can increase the size of the steps.
I’ve been exploring the Kaisen technique in a series of articles for the Taylor Study Method. Below are the links to my first two posts about this. Although these posts have been focused on psychology students preparing for their licensure exams, the principles apply to anyone: