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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 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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