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mirror neurons

Winning With Willpower!

by Robert McEntee on August 21, 2012

“Every man is his own ancestor, and every man is his own heir. He devises his own future and he inherits his own past.”  Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890) Clergyman and educator

The biggest predictor of one’s success is the extent to which the person makes himself do things that he doesn’t really want to do, and conversely, prevents himself from doing certain things that he craves.  Successful people do the most important thing when it needs to be done, whether they want to or not. 

Willpower is like a muscle and is strengthened over time by regular workouts.  Many scientists view willpower as a finite resource which can be depleted, similar to physical muscles becoming exhausted.  The good news is, willpower depletion is only temporary; it bounces back in due time.

When rest isn’t feasible, recent research shows that you can actually reignite your self-control, simply by thinking about people you know who have lot of self-control.  This is do to the action of “mirror neurons” discussed previously.  This is similar to the way your own life may not seem so busy when comparing to someone who really gets a lot done!

Another option is to give yourself a pick-me-up.  Not an artificial stimulant like a drink, which typically depletes rather than improves willpower, but a natural mood lifter like exercising.  Anything that naturally lifts your spirits should also help restore your self-control strength when it needs a boost.

Recent studies show that daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or diet, or even just remembering to sit or stand up straight as often as possible, can strengthen your capacity for self-control.  According to Dr. Sam Wang, Professor of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks, can lead to a measurable increase in your willpower capacity.  People who do such small willpower exercises often find that they have the capacity to tackle larger issues.

How To Set And Achieve A Goal (Arina Nikitina)

Action! Nothing Happens Until Something Moves (Robert Ringer)

In another study, people who were given free gym memberships and stuck to a daily exercise program for two months, enhanced their strength and overall health.  The regiment seemed to enable them to smoke fewer cigarettes, drink less alcohol, and eat less junk food. They were better able to control their tempers, and less likely to foolishly spend money.  It was also reported that they were less likely to procrastinate and they were more punctual.  In other words, they were just generally more disciplined in every aspect of their lives that required the use of willpower.  Of course this “snowball effect” can just as easily work in the negative direction.

If you want to build more willpower, start by picking an activity (or avoiding one) that fits with your life and your goals, anything that requires you to override an impulse or repetitive desire, and do it daily.  It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier over time if you persist, because you are increasing your capacity for self-control.  Friends will notice your self improvement, and perhaps trust you more, which can lead to other benefits as well.

I once heard a speaker whom I never would have guessed needed to go through AA and similar counseling, to achieve victory over severe alcohol and drug addiction.  He said the best advice he received was to imagine a room with a wall titled “Sober Person” in front of him and another wall titled “Reformed Alcoholic” behind him.  He was told that he always needed to face the “Sober Person” wall.

A simple paradigm switch can increase your goal achievement and control of bad habits as well, by keeping your mind on what you do rather than don’t, want.  This may explain why people who attempt to quit smoking a little at a time or perhaps through the now popular electronic cigarettes, have such a tough time of it.  Their internal dialogue and self image isn’t clear whether they are a smoker or not.  Once they have accepted that they are a smoke free person, it becomes easier.

The impact of self image became very apparent to famed plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz. In his classic bestseller, Psycho Cybernetics (, he details how often times cosmetic surgery didn’t change attitudes or perceived results, even though the person appeared outwardly beautiful.  It wasn’t until the person’s self image matched the physical result, that the individual experienced real change.

Today we have computers etc to save our written thoughts, but in “the early days” there are many stories of authors who lost their manuscripts representing significant portions of their lives, and had to summon the will-power to start again.  Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the famous author of ‘The History of French Revolution’,  gave his finally completed manuscript to a friend for review.  That night an open window let wind scatter the papers about the room.  When the maid saw it in the morning,  she thought it was trash and used it for kindling in the fireplace! Fortunately Carlyle’s wife helped him to recover from the great loss and start again from scratch, or what was considered a literary masterpiece would not have been published.

Hopefully you won’t have to bounce back from a loss like that, but it is helpful to think of even small areas in which you need to increase your will power and decide now what specific actions you will take. As always I welcome your comments, questions, or stories related to any of the above.

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play


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!