“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu
Most people understand more about how their computer works than they do about their own mind. Although we do manage to “reboot” it every day whether through caffeine or your favorite method of waking up! Unfortunately we don’t come with a similar owner’s manual as the computer. (Although personally I find The Bible comes close, perhaps explaining its status as the all time best selling book.) Since any knowledge gained about the inner workings of one’s mind has only positive potential, we’ll look at a few valuable self-improvement techniques here.
Doctors and scientists have discovered “mirror neurons” in our brains which are critical for learning. A person who has some knowledge and skill of say piano playing for example, when intently watching someone else piano playing, will have the same neurons “fire” as if they were playing themselves! This means that similar chemicals and nerves are activated as if really doing the activity, thus improving the body’s ability to prepare and perform this same task. Interestingly the same mirror neurons are not activated in a person who does not have any skill in a particular area when witnessing it.
I discussed the value of mental rehearsal previously here http://www.beliefmagic.com/mental-rehearsal-a-shortcut-to-success Related studies led to the often heard, “The mind can’t distinguish between a real and imaginary experience”. As you can see there are three main skill learning methods: actual practice, mental practice and observation.
The more a skill is practiced, obviously, the easier it becomes. This is because less brain circuitry is used by, say an experienced musician, than by a beginner, as the body develops what’s known as muscle memory. Often this is the culmination of the four learning phases: unconscious incompetent (when a person doesn’t know they are bad!), conscious incompetent, conscious competence and finally unconscious competent, or the muscle memory phase.
In one of the most well-known studies on creative visualization in sports, Russian scientists compared four groups of Olympic athletes in terms of their training schedules:
- Group 1 = 100% physical training;
- Group 2 – 75% physical training with 25% mental training;
- Group 3 – 50% physical training with 50% mental training;
- Group 4 – 25% physical training with 75% mental training.
Group 4, with 75% of their time devoted to mental training, performed the best. The Soviets found that mental images can act as a prelude to muscular impulses. Reports from many athletes along with research findings, suggest imagery is an effective tool to enhance performance and psychological states such as confidence, which in itself has been show to improve performance.
Here are two related resources I have found valuable:
Thinking BIG, The Keys to Personal Power & Maximum Performance (Brian Tracy)http://www.beliefmagic.com/thinkingbig
The Strangest Secret ( Earl Nightingale) http://nightingale.directtrack.com/z/10762/CD1447/
Understanding how mental imagery affects various aspects of our lives, gives one the incentive to perform positive mental visualizations or spend time viewing others performing a desired skill, which are probably the next best things to actually doing it for oneself. The opposite of positive visualizations could be labeled F.E.A.R. or “False Evidence Appearing Real”.
A part of the brain known as the amygdala developed to alert the body to negative stimuli, very valuable to primitive man. It works in conjunction with the hormone cortisol which is released in stressful situations and makes the amygdala more sensitive. Chronic stress overrides the hippocampus, which normally keeps the amygdala in check and is involved with memory formation. What to do about this self perpetuating cycle?…
Research has shown that when you verbalize or label your feelings, you stimulate activity in the prefrontal cortex or very front of the brain, which lowers overreaction of the amygdala. This is what some call “supportive observer comments”.
For example you are nervous about giving a presentation at work, so instead of just saying “I’m so nervous”, a more helpful approach is to identify the feelings with a sense of detachment and then shift focus to the desired positive outcome. You might say (either silently or out loud if you are alone), “my mind is trying to increase my level of stress and nervousness but I know I will do great!” If you then do your best to act as if you are not nervous, you may notice the anxiety dissipating. “Acting as if” is a powerful tool which can even improve overall happiness, being a step beyond mental rehearsal.
Another technique is based on studies that seem to indicate many memories are actually recreated each time they are summoned, rather than stored in the brain. This indicates that memory is malleable, perhaps explaining why different witnesses to the same incident often have very different recollections of it, and those images within the same observer vary over time.
Understanding this can help to dampen painful memories by infusing just a little positive imagery and feelings with the negative each time you recollect them. The positive imagery can relate to something entirely different but just thinking of it at the same time, can help. When the memory is recalled the next time, it seems that a little of the added positive imagery is summoned also and over time, post traumatic stress can be lessened.
In summary, think about the power in combining some of these techniques! A stressful situation can be eased in real time through detachment, supportive observer comments and acting as if the situation was more pleasant. The remaining negative memory can be improved by blending positive memories with recollections of it.
In the case of a skilled performance, observation, creative visualization and mental rehearsal (along with actual practice of course) will increase muscle memory and lead to improved future performance. The key is to remember to use these techniques, which you will once you experience the great benefit they hold!
There are some practical techniques and useful knowledge passed on here. Your comments, questions, and/or experiences are welcomed and encouraged!