By Teresa Liccardi, M.D.
Here we are again at the beginning of another New Year. Once again I have set new goals for myself; simple ones like eating more fish and only having red meat once or twice a month, exercising vigorously 30 minutes a day and getting more sleep. But how to make them happen?
They take a change in my behavior. It takes strength for me to resist my impulsive behavior to eat the last slice of key lime pie in the refrigerator. It takes willpower to say I will walk those 3 miles in the morning even when it is 30 degrees. The list goes on and on, but the solution is always the same: willpower.
So then, what I really need to “gain” this New Year is willpower.
Well, developing willpower may not be as difficult any longer. I would like to explain what I have been learning about exercising our brains that leads to real growth and development of our brains … at all ages.
Our lives have become very impulsive-driven by constant stimuli that require immediate attention. Much of what we do is either set in reflexive behavioral patterns or is a knee-jerk reaction – text messages, driving a car, even conversations with loved ones. We choose what is right there; satisfying an immediate need for hunger, thirst, or comfort without really thinking of the long-term rightness of the choice. It just feels good now.
These patterns of behavior have a real organic concrete basis in our brain. Well, then you might say, “That’s it. I am destined to be impulsive because that is how my brain is formed. I will never succeed at my new goals. I can’t change Mother Nature.”
Yes, it may be true that we have developed our brains to be very reactive but did you know that we can change, grow and develop our brains to create actions that are more aware and self-regulating. This growth involves neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize and create new neural connections from experiences throughout life. I would like to describe some different areas of the brain that create the circuits of reactiveness and thoughtfulness in our brains.
Very simply, there are three main sections to our brains: the midbrain, limbic system and cortex. The midbrain (or brain stem), controls vital bodily functions including heart rate, respirations and blood pressure as well as filters what we pay attention to. The limbic system controls emotions, appetite, and thirst. Our flight-or-fight behaviors arise here. The cortex is involved in conscious awareness and decision-making. More specifically, the prefrontal cortex (the front of the brain), regulates emotions and the ability to think before acting, social awareness, and shifting attention, among some of its functions.
The prefrontal cortex is important in self-regulation and overriding instinctive or impulsive processes that our limbic system regulates. Development of the prefrontal cortex improves awareness of our own thoughts and emotions, conscious attention and ability for self-regulation … willpower.
How does one develop and improve these prefrontal cortical connections in the brain? Meditation – a means to developing neuroplasticity in specific regions of the brain.
More specifically, mindfulness-based meditation develops a nonjudgmental awareness, acceptance and attention to one’s emotions, sensations and thoughts in the present moment. It is being recognized as a successful intervention for anxiety, depression, substance abuse and many other areas of psychotherapy. It demonstrates improvement in even children’s abilities to focus, refocus attention and ignore distractions.
Mindfulness-based practices have demonstrated changes in the electrical patterns of the brain stimulating the cortex and prefrontal cortex. One study out of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles has demonstrated an increase in the volume of the brain in the prefrontal cortex in those practicing mindfulness-based meditation.
There are many available mindfulness-based programs. Practicing mindfulness as little as 10 to 15 minutes per day may be sufficient. It is as simple as quietly observing your breathing without distraction; putting yourself in the present moment of the action of breathing while being aware of your thoughts and emotions. Naturally, as with all exercises and muscle toning, mindfulness should be practiced daily to reap benefits that will go far beyond just developing willpower!
I do believe we have the dynamic virtue within ourselves to re-create, and develop our brains throughout our lives, and it may be as simple as taking a deep breath….my New Year’s resolution.
Happy New Year!
Dr. Teresa Liccardi, who is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology, maintains a clinic for hypertension and chronic kidney disease at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank.