Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Rewiring Yourself and Others

Self-improvement is fun if you decide to see it that way.

A reader wrote to me about her prison course on conflict resolution, and I invited her to write a guest blog about it. I was pleased when it came with a post from her own blog about New Year's resolutions. These seemingly different topics are two approaches to the same challenge: rewiring your brain to trigger happy chemicals instead of unhappy chemicals. Chris calls herself a "resolutionist" because she sees New Years resolutions as a fun way to rewire yourself. Her course on conflict-resolution is another re-wiring strategy. I like her focus on skill-building because a skill is just a well-developed neural circuit. Everyone can develop a new circuit by commiting to repetition and carefully structuring their incentives. Chris sees self-improvement as a joy rather than a burden.

Christina Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in conflict analysis and resolution who specializes in emotional intelligence and responses to conflict.

I teach inmates social skills to help them with conflict resolution. I call the ten-week program “ROPES Academy.” ROPES stands for Reaching Out with Purposeful Engagement Skills. My hope is that the inmates will learn “reaching out” skills they can use when faced with conflict. The course incorporates skills such as active listening, emotional intelligence, and positive self-talk. We also talk about appreciation, thought patterns, and restorative justice principles.

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As I prepare for an upcoming class on thoughts, I begin to ponder the difference between endorphins and dopamine. Unsure of how these chemicals work and needing to get my curriculum ready, I Google “endorphins.” This is how I discovered Dr. Loretta Breuning’s book Meet Your Happy Chemicals . I took to this work immediately. One of the things I love about Meet Your Happy Chemicals is that the technical information is translated for you.

The first time I introduced the subject of happy chemicals to the inmates, I could see them begin to understand their drives and impulses and realize there is a physiological reason for their actions. This information doesn’t create excuses for what they’ve done. If anything, it allows them to know they have choices in the future. After introducing happy chemicals in one class, a participant responded by saying “So that’s it, this is the way our body and brain work. There’s nothing we can do about it!” I continued to relate how ANYONE can change neural pathways in 45 days if they are willing to be consistent, be patient and be aware it won’t always feel good.

They say “knowledge is power.” If this is true, the information inmates gain through learning about themselves, their impulses, and their drives can be priceless. Once they understand themselves they can begin to understand some of their emotional responses and behaviors.

Some people contend that inmates need only basic information such as technical skills. Many believe they are incapable of grasping much more than that. I disagree. I believe there is a array of untapped potential within prison walls. I don’t know if ROPES participants will desist upon release. I’m not sure they will be successful the first time they try building a new neural pathway. What I do know is that they are receiving information most of them haven’t had access to in the past. This information is a seed that, if nurtured, will contribute toward different behavior. My hope is that they will use the information and eventually become healthier citizens and dependable neighbors in our communities.

 A New Case for New Year’s Resolutions

Some people don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions. I’m not one of them. Every year I make a New Year’s resolution. Some years I’m better at keeping them than others. Two years ago I resolved to be thankful for one thing every day and to express my appreciation. I’m still doing it. Last year I resolved to clean and unclutter as in “2013 the year to clean.” That could have gone better but I’ve come to realize that making a resolution isn’t about how rigorously I keep it, it’s about taking the risk to make it… and the possibility of failing. I’m already a resolutionist but here are three good reasons for you to consider becoming one.

The first reason points to self-actualization as an on-going pursuit. This concept, put forth by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that once all other human needs are met, people could work toward becoming happy, healthy, fulfilled human beings. Maslow believed not living up to one’s full potential results in dissatisfaction. Making resolutions puts us on a path toward self-actualization by taking a step in this life-long process, what we commonly refer to as “a journey—not a destination.”

The second reason looks at self-actualization as a recognized emotional intelligence (EI) skill developed after more basic EI skills, such as self-awareness, are realized. Self-actualization as seen through an EI lens and described by Reuven Bar-on is “the process of striving to actualize one’s potential capacity, abilities, and talents. It requires the ability to drive and to set and achieve goals” (Hughes & Bradford Terrell, 2012, p. 41). Self-actualization as an EI skill indicates that creating goals brings us closer to reaching our potential capacity.

The third reason to make a resolution has to do with the way we feel when we make goals, when we reach our goals, and when we reward ourselves. According to Dr. Loretta Breuning in her book Meet Your Happy Chemicals, setting goals releases our natural, feel-good chemical of dopamine. Dopamine motivates us to move toward goals and the anticipation of a reward. You may argue, “But is it worth a year of _____?” Dr. Breuning explains “People invest years of effort trying to be a heart surgeon or a rock star because each step along the way triggers dopamine” (p. 26). Viewed in this light our year-long resolution no longer seem insurmountable. Furthermore, think of possible side effects of your resolution—a clean house, weight loss, better interpersonal relationships, and/or enhanced wellbeing.

I’m making a resolution this year. I’m giving up deserts and candy. I’ve built in a stipulation to have one treat per month. I may be successful. I may not. Regardless, I’ll be sure to celebrate small successes as this also releases dopamine. In addition, being satisfied and proud of accomplishments, such as a successful day, releases serotonin—another natural, feel-good chemical.

Is there something you want to change in order to move closer to being your best? Daring to make a resolution will move you toward your full capacity and it physically feels good. Give it some thought. Even if we’re unable to keep our resolutions completely, we’ve moved closer to our full potential. Abraham Maslow believes in you and so do I. Happy 2014!

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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