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Daniel Goleman: Yes, You Can Build Willpower (meditate on neuroplasticity!)

(Editor’s note: Daniel Gole­man is now con­duct­ing a series of audio inter­views includ­ing a great one with Richard David­son on Train­ing the Brain. We are hon­ored to bring you this guest post by Daniel Gole­man, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

Yes, You Can:

New research sug­gests we can build our willpower

– By Daniel Goleman

Those of us who strug­gle to resist junk foods or oth­er­wise suf­fer a lack of willpower will be heart­ened by some good news from neu­ro­science. But there’s some bad news, too.

First, the bad news. A slew of stud­ies sug­gest that we each have a fixed neural reser­voir of willpower, and that if we use it on one thing, we have less for oth­ers. Tasks that demand some self-control make it harder for us to do the next thing that takes willpower.

In a typ­i­cal exper­i­ment on this effect, one group of peo­ple was made to watch a video of a bor­ing scene; another was not. Then both groups had to cir­cle every “e” in a long pas­sage of writ­ing. The result? The peo­ple who had to first sit through the bor­ing video gave up faster. The same loss of per­sis­tence has been found when peo­ple try to resist tempt­ing foods, sup­press emo­tional reac­tions, or even make the effort to try to impress someone.

This all sug­gests we have a fixed willpower bud­get, one we should be care­ful in spend­ing. Some neu­ro­sci­en­tists sus­pect that self-control con­sumes blood sugar, which takes a while to build up again; thus, the deple­tion effect.

But the good news is that we can grow our willpower; like a mus­cle, the more we use it, the more it grad­u­ally increases over time. But doing this takes, of all things, willpower.

As the mus­cle of will grows, the larger our reser­voir of self-discipline becomes. So peo­ple who are able to stick to a diet or an exer­cise pro­gram for a few months, or who com­plete money-management classes, also reduce their impulse-buying, junk food con­sump­tion, and alco­hol intake. They watch less TV and do more house­work. And this abil­ity to delay grasp­ing at grat­i­fi­ca­tion, much data shows, pre­dicts greater career success.

This round-up of think­ing on willpower comes cour­tesy of San­dra Aamodt and Sam Wang, whose recent book, Wel­come to Your Brain, details the evi­dence about willpower. But, writ­ing in The New York Times, the duo poses a puz­zle: While it’s clear that willpower has lim­its, what brain mech­a­nisms let us build it up?

That ques­tion brought to mind a recent con­ver­sa­tion I had with Richard David­son, the direc­tor of the Lab­o­ra­tory for Affec­tive Neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin. Davidson’s research these days focuses on neuroplasticity—how our expe­ri­ence shapes the brain through­out life. One sur­prise: though most of us learned that we have a fixed num­ber of brain cells when we are born, and that we lose them steadily until we die, brain sci­ence now tells us the brain makes about 10,000 new cells every day, and that they migrate to where they are needed. Once there, each cell makes around 10,000 con­nec­tions to other brain cells over the suc­ces­sive four months.

Davidson’s research finds that the left pre­frontal cortex—the brain’s exec­u­tive cen­ter located just behind the forehead—is a key site for help­ing us build willpower. Our plans and goals hatch here, and impulses are exe­cuted via this zone. There is a neural cir­cuit in the pre­frontal cor­tex that inhibits emo­tional impulse, and can be strength­ened by a range of methods.

One of these meth­ods, David­son explained to me, is mind­ful­ness train­ing, a sec­u­lar form of med­i­ta­tion widely used in set­tings from busi­nesses to out­pa­tient clin­ics. This is con­firmed by a great deal of research. My own doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion found (as have many oth­ers since) that the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion seems to speed the rate of phys­i­o­log­i­cal recov­ery from a stress­ful event. A string of stud­ies have now estab­lished that more expe­ri­enced med­i­ta­tors recover more quickly from stress-induced phys­i­o­log­i­cal arousal than do novices.

Research shows that other kinds of train­ing can have sim­i­lar effects, and the more time we devote to any of these train­ings, the greater the result in the tar­geted areas of the brain. Brain imag­ing stud­ies show that the spa­tial areas of Lon­don taxi dri­vers’ brains become enhanced dur­ing the first six months they spend dri­ving around that city’s wind­ing streets; like­wise, the area for thumb move­ment in the motor cor­tex becomes more robust in vio­lin­ists as they con­tinue to prac­tice over many months. A sem­i­nal 2004 arti­cle in the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ence found that, com­pared to novices, highly adept med­i­ta­tors gen­er­ated far more high-amplitude gamma wave activity—which reflects finely focused attention—in areas of the pre­frontal cor­tex while meditating.

And so it makes per­fect sense that we can build our willpower over time if we are com­mit­ted to doing so, a process that changes our brains right down to the cel­lu­lar level. Sim­ply being con­sis­tently self-disciplined seems to help—going to the gym every day for months, or com­plet­ing projects you begin—and so does mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. There are ways, it seems, to make it eas­ier to “just say no” when we need to.

– Daniel Gole­man, Ph.D., is the author of the best­sellers Emo­tional Intel­li­gence and Social Intel­li­gence. His web­site is www.danielgoleman.info. Goleman’s full con­ver­sa­tion with Richard David­son can be heard as part of the audio series Wired to Con­nect: Dia­logues on Social Intel­li­gence, avail­able through More than Sound Pro­duc­tions.

We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berkeley-based quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

Pre­vi­ous columns by Daniel Goleman:

- Should Social-Emotional Learn­ing Be Part of Aca­d­e­mic Curriculum?

- When Empa­thy moves us to Action-By Daniel Goleman

- The Power of Mindsight-by Daniel Goleman

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