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acting as if

Acting for the Mind Improves the Body!

by Robert McEntee on April 2, 2013

“Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”                   Author Unknown

In my article I discussed valuable concepts such as “acting as if” and “supportive observer comments”.  Following I will summarize important studies by two researchers pertaining to these two techniques, in particular.

The first is by Dr. Amy Cuddy who cites evidence from her own research that our brain and body chemistry can be altered to help us become more assertive, confident, and passionate, simply through two minutes of standing in a more powerful position or stance! Dr. Cuddy overcame the debilitating neurological effects of a devastating auto accident by faking confidence until she actually became confident.  She transformed herself from an insecure, traumatized young woman, into an authentic, strong leader in her field.  It appears she is living proof that how we behave alters not only our feelings, but who we actually are.

I’ll post the link to her video below, however a key idea is that when we use closed or small body postures , we feel less significant than we do when employing large or open body positions.  This makes sense if you contrast a person who hangs their head in shame to one who raises their arms in the victory sign after, say, winning a race.

Although it may surprise you, this researcher’s findings are just part of a rapidly growing body of evidence, that in many areas, feeling often follows action.  We tend to assume it’s our genetic makeup and resulting personality that enables us to say be a public speaker who regularly addresses thousands, or on the other extreme, being a total recluse.  According to Dr. Cuddy’s work, and many other studies, is that more often, it’s the other way around: we act first; then we feel.  Earlier studies were centered more around feelings of love and attraction than general confidence, yet arrived at this same conclusion.

Modern research on love and attraction suggests that we’re not passive creatures, at the mercy of dwindling hormones or fading looks.  By acting as if we’re in love, and doing the things such a person does for their partner, we stir passion inside ourselves.  Similar to how assuming a “power pose” builds our confidence, intentionally engaging in loving, passionate behavior appears to spark romantic excitement.

For example, simply holding hands releases oxytocin, a hormone which increases relaxation and deepens feelings of trust, and that motivates further physical contact.  In short, we begin to crave our partners.  So the phrase “addicted to love” is perhaps not that far off! Studies done recently on couples who feel “very intensely in love” even after many years of marriage, mostly enjoy an active, exciting sex life which is self perpetuating due to the aforementioned brain chemistry.  Such successful relationships could be explained by their doing many of the things couples do while in courtship, while remaining in close physical and emotional contact. So love is more accurately described as a verb than a noun.

New or thrilling experiences, cause dopamine, a brain chemical associated with motivation, to flood the reward centers of our brain. And with each such exciting, rewarding experience, all that dopamine increases the desire for more.  This can explain why daredevils continually seek more thrilling conquests or why performers often refer to their shows as a drug.

Increasing evidence in recent years shows that the brain is much more malleable than previously thought. Experiences as well as thoughts affect its performance.

“Your brain…is constantly remodeling, reshaping itself,” says Rudolph Tanzi, PHD, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, coauthor with eastern philosopher, Deepak Chopra, of the book, Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being

Dr. Tanzi says that we can all improve through an inherent power to physically rewire our brains, which begins through self-awareness and apparently tricking the mind.

By detaching from emotions by repeatedly telling yourself, “I’m not sad right now, my brain is making me sad”, for example, “your brain will re-wire to make you a happier person, a healthier person,” Tanzi says.  However I would suggest changing the wording to “I am happy now” since focusing on a negative, brings that to our consciousness, making it harder to overcome.

Your brain is also preserved by maintaining curiosity as you age, learning the way a child does, by adding things like music & movement. You never forgot the alphabet song, right?

“When you attach passion and emotion to learning you remember everything. That’s why kids remember everything,” Tanzi says. “You get older, you get apathetic. Instead of ‘wow’ moments, you have ‘so-what’ moments, and that’s why you don’t learn as well.”

Even reading educational material such as this can stimulate the brain to make new connections. (By the way, if you find these articles useful, do let others know about this site!)

Tanzi says there is also research showing that exercise can actually prompt growth of new nerve cells in an area of the brain called the hippocampus responsible for short-term memory. Because this area is also where Alzheimer’s disease originates, Tanzi theorizes that many people can prevent Alzheimer’s through increased exercise.

According to Tarzi, our brains are improved by constantly balancing between gut feelings, emotions, and intellect.  The more you exercise, practice mindfulness techniques, and expose yourself to novel situations, the more readily your brain changes for the positive.

“You can use your mind to bring you the world you want to live in,” he says. The resulting benefits can far exceed the effort required!

If you’re not familiar with TED talks, they are 20 minutes of condensed wisdom by researchers and experts on an extremely wide variety of topics. Here is the talk by Dr. Cuddy referenced above.  Enjoy!


Mind Tricks for Enhanced Perspective & Performance!

by Robert McEntee on October 18, 2011

“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  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

The Strangest Secret ( Earl Nightingale)

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!