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New Clues on Rewiring Your Brain

Using external triggers to shift your mindset.

Our brains are highly flexible and can be reshaped despite years of hard wiring. This week two fascinating studies were released on how memories and perceptions are formed in the brain. In this post, I will give you some simple ways that you can apply these scientific findings to help break a cycle of hard-wired thinking and avoidance behavior.

In the first study, scientists in California honed in on specific neurons that act like "memory switches" that turn a recollection "on" or "off" and interweave past experiences with each new exposure to an environment. These "hybrid memories" create an ever-changing patina of perceptions linked to a specific place. In the second experiment, a research team in Germany reported that even the slightest outside stimuli—such as a sound or a smell—can trigger changes in the firing rate of neurons in a way that changes the flow of information between different parts of the brain and alters one's perceptions.

The neuroscience of perception

In a paper titled, "Generation of a Synthetic Memory" reported from the March 23, 2012 issue of the journal Science, Scripps Research Institute scientists were able to harness neurons in the brain of a mouse which allowed them to partially control the recall of a specific memory.

For the study's main experiment, the research team triggered the "on" switch in neurons as mice were learning about a new environment in Box A, which had distinct colors, smells, and textures. Next, the team placed the mice in a second distinct environment—Box B—after giving them the chemical that would turn on the neurons associated with the memory for Box A. The researchers found the mice behaved as if they were forming a hybrid memory that overlayered parts Box A with parts Box B. The chemical switch needed to be turned on while the mice were in Box B for them to demonstrate signs of recognition. Alone neither being in Box B nor the chemical switch was effective in producing memory recall.

"The question we're ultimately interested in is: How does the activity of the brain represent the world?" said Scripps Research neuroscientist Mark Mayford, who led the new study. "Understanding all this will help us understand what goes wrong in situations where you have inappropriate perceptions. It can also tell us where the brain changes with learning. We know from studies in both animals and humans that memories are not formed in isolation but are built up over years incorporating previously learned information. This study suggests that one way the brain performs this feat is to use the activity pattern of nerve cells from old memories and merge this with the activity produced during a new learning session."

You can take this knowledge of how the brain reacts to being in a situational environment and begin to create new "hybrid" memories between a safe place (Box A) and a fearful place (Box B). There is a tendency to avoid any space or situation that causes stress or anxiety. Unfortunately, if you continue to avoid a place that has negative associations the intensity of these emotions will be triggered by all the smells, colors, textures, and overall vibe of that environment. This is classic fear conditioning and negative reinforcement in action.

For many people, exercise or being in a gym environment is synonymous with being in "Box B" which is associated with fear and discomfort. In order to begin to change those disagreeable associations you need to force yourself back into the situation—but you need to do it in a way that gradually blends in new positive associations. Over time, as you interweave a new neuronal pattern into the existing fear-based platform that exists you will re-wire your mind to no longer associate "Box B" (the gym) with intense negativity.

In another Brain study, also released on March 23, 2012, scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, the Bernstein Center Göttingen, and the German Primate Center have shown that it is possible to change your perceptions of an optical illusion by changing the firing rate of information flowing between different brain areas. This reorganization can be triggered even by a slight stimulus, such as a scent or sound, at the right time. The scientists found that with certain external triggers, they could shift the perception of optical illusions in study participants.

"When viewing a picture, we are trained to recognize faces as quickly as possible—even if there aren't any," points out the Göttingen researcher Demian Battaglia. The way that the different regions of the brain are connected with each other plays a significant role in information processing. This processing can be changed instantaneously by assembling and disassembling nerve fibers joining distant brain circuits.

A well-known illustration is an optical illusion that flips between the perception of seeing an older or a younger woman. What do you see when you look at this image? When you feel the switch it is like having an "a-ha" moment. You can feel your brain switch gears completely. One tempo creates perception "A" of the younger woman, and another creates perception "B" of the older woman.

This experiment is very rudimentary—but illustrates that by changing the firing rate of different parts of your brain you can alter your perceptions. You have the power to reboot your explanatory style to see the glass as half-full or half-empty in your life, to be optimistic or pessimistic, confident or fearful...The feeling of "looking on the bright side" is just like a neurobiological switch that flips when you look at this optical illusion—and you have the power to flip your perspective using internal and external triggers.

Many areas of the brain display rhythmic nerve cell activity. "The interacting brain areas are like metronomes that tick at the same speed and in a distinct temporal pattern," says the physicist and principal investigator Demian Battaglia. The researchers were able to demonstrate that this temporal pattern determines the information flow. "If one of the metronomes is affected, e.g. through an external stimulus, then it changes beat, ticking in an altered temporal pattern compared to the others. The other areas adapt to this new situation through self-organization and start playing a different drum beat as well. It is therefore sufficient to impact one of the areas in the network to completely reorganize its functioning, as we have shown in our model," explains Battaglia.

The applied perturbation does not have to be particularly strong. "It is more important that the 'kick' occurs at exactly the right time of the rhythm," says Battaglia. As your mind flips from seeing one image to another your "explanatory style" is shifting also. This shift is very similar to the shift that occurs when you decided to see the glass as half-full or half-empty when framing any circumstance you are dealing with in your life.

Tips for applying this neuroscience to daily life

Knowing that an external trigger can reboot the firing pattern of your brain gives you a wide range of tools you can use to kick-start a new tempo and subsequent shift in attitude. From decades of competing in very intimidating and hostile conditions as an ultra-endurance athlete, I identified ways to create a feeling of safety when I was thrust into "Box B" situations that were often formidable. Below are some methods I have used to create a feeling of inner security that made it possible for me to step into terrifying environments (like swimming 2.4 miles in the breeding ground for Great White sharks in Ironman South Africa) with a sense of fearlessness. You can use the tools below to rewire your brain both at the neural level like the Scripps experiment showed and to reboot the temporal rhythm between brain regions to shift your perceptions like in the Göttingen study.

Camaraderie: Acknowledging that a certain space intimidates you is the first step to rallying the courage to put yourself back into that disagreeable environment so that you can begin to lay down a new blueprint of more positive associative memories. Having an ally or comrade to literally "hold your hand" as you re-enter the space is always helpful. For example, if you are intimidated about going back to the gym or working out in public, do it with a friend. The camaraderie will ease the re-entry into the scary place and the fun you have with your friend will create new neural connections that associate being at the gym and working out with happiness.

Clothing as a Uniform or Jewelry: Another tool that is in the locus of your control is to use clothing to create a protective barrier that literally and psychologically shields you from feeling vulnerable or insecure at the gym or while working out. Choose clothing that makes you feel comfortable in your own skin and not self-conscious. Wear a hat and bend the sides of the visor down to create a shield, if that makes you feel less insecure.

Begin to consider your workout clothing as a uniform that is directly linked to an alter-ego that is fearless and intrepid. For example, I will purposely wear an old beat-up gray hooded sweatshirt running sometimes if I feel like I need to channel my inner-Rocky Balboa. As I jog along, I can almost hear the Rocky soundtrack in the background. This simple beat-up old sweatshirt triggers powerful associations from the movie and makes me more confident to charge ahead. Use your imagination and be creative when attaching meaning and significance to an article of clothing you wear when working out.

A piece of jewelry or a simple rubber bracelet is another tool you can carry with you into a scary situation and use as a touchstone for strength inside that space. Yellow LiveStrong bracelets serve as a common reminder about being brave in the face of adversity for millions who have dealt with cancer. Any piece of jewelry ( a ring, necklace, or bracelet...) that reminds you of a loved one or specific character traits can be used as a "crutch" to give you the courage to step into an intimidating environment. With consistency, the negative associative memories will dissolve and be rewoven into a new neural tapestry based on positive associations.

Anthems and Playlists: Listening to music is one of the most effective ways to alter your mood and perceptions of a situation. You can create a personalized capsule or virtual reality with a mood directly linked to the music you choose.

Make a playlist of songs that reinforce character traits that are linked to being confident, upbeat, and optimistic. This will get regions of your brain firing in sync to make this mindset a reality. By listening to this music when you are in an environment that is associated with negativity your brain will begin to weave in more positive associations and become rewired. Yes, headphones are anti-social but they also create a protective bubble that insulates you from negative outside stimuli so you can do the work you need to do with integrating yourself back into a scary space to lay down new memories.

Most people like to listen to iPod music on shuffle mode or to Pandora radio because the randomness creates an unexpected quality that releases larger hits of dopamine when a song that you like comes on. In my opinion, the Göttingen findings also suggest why on certain days my favorite "power song" or "anthem" doesn't always hit the spot when I'm working out. The researchers found that you need to reboot the firing rate at just the right time to shift perceptions to a different drum beat...I think one reason I keep my finger on the "fast forward" shuffle button and scroll through songs until I find one that feels just right is linked to properly synchronizing the firing rates between brain regions to create a mindset that fits that time and place. This is just a hunch—but I have a feeling many people do this. If you tend to scroll through songs in a similar way please leave a comment or send me a note. I'd be curious to learn from your empirical experience.

Olfaction/Aromatherapy: Using essential oils, fragrances, incense, or any type of scent is a potent tool for shifting your perceptions of an environment and kick-starting a new firing pattern between your neurons. Aromatherapy works! Choose scents that evoke positive feelings (or any mood you want to create) and it will trigger that emotional response both at a psychological and physiological level.

At home, you can burn incense, use candles, or potpourri in a certain room to embed that space with an emotional association. You can also wear an essence or perfume and consciously encode that smell to be linked with a state of mind. For example, the smell of sunscreen always reminds me of clear blue skies, bright sunshine, and summer weather. Even on cold, gray winter days (when I dread running outside) I will put on some sunscreen to boost my spirits. The smell of sunscreen always triggers associations with being in a blissful place. When I am outside on dark, dreary days, all I have to do is lift my wrist, get a whiff of sunscreen, and instantly I can feel my brain reboot to a happier mindset. You can use any smell to "take you away" and overlay positive associations into an otherwise disagreeable environment. Olfactory conditioning is one of our strongest and most primal mechanisms, you can use it to both rewire your associations with a space and also to kick start a new neural firing pattern to create a different frame of mind.


The mission of The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss is to take neuroscientific research out of the science lab and find practical applications for daily life. The ultimate goal is to help people view physical activity as a joyful experience. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Once the exercise is associated with feeling good and making you happy, you will want to do it. For this reason, it is important that parents and educators keep the associations with physical activity playful and inclusive and avoid situations where exercise is viewed as a chore and not a source of joy.

One reason many people avoid the gym—and exercise in general—is due to the negative associations and conditioning that are embedded from a young age. All too often physical activity—especially when it's called "exercise"—connotes drudgery and is viewed as something to be avoided. If you begin associating eating well and moving more with being healthy and feeling great it becomes a labor of love and something that requires very little discipline or willpower.

A few minutes of movement most days of the week will make a huge difference. If you are not a very active person, remember to start slowly....but, start today. Nibble off what you can chew and gradually build up the amount of time you spend moving each day. Hopefully, using the advice in this entry will help you step out of your comfort zone and continuously reinforce physical activity as being something that makes you feel fantastic.

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