Becoming a Genius at Living Life–and Healing
Learning to process stress and nurture joy requires focused repetition
Posted April 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Chronic pain evolves from repetition of unpleasant sensory input; your brain develops "expertise" at feeling pain.
- Living a good life requires a variety of specific skills that most of us are never taught.
- To have a good life, you must live a good life and also learn to efficiently deal with adversity.
The Talent Code1 is an educational and entertaining book illustrating how new information is assimilated by our brains. The author compiles knowledge from experts and explains how genius is formed—it is not exclusively an inherent trait. Although, the book's neuroscience is outdated, the concepts of how learning occurs are up to date. There are three parts to creating genius.
- Deep learning
- Master coaching
- Ignition (obsessive repetition)
Deep learning involves reprocessing new information in your mind in a retrievable way. It is critical to use in any advanced learning. For example, one of my medical school classmates would read through his pages of notes only once. But he would look at a page and not turn to the next until he could repeat it back to himself or write most of it down. He was number three in our class. Iin contrast, another college buddy of mine would read for hours and hours and not retain the material.
My medical school technique was to memorize for 20 minutes, lay down and nap for 10 minutes, and keep repeating the cycle over and over again. I would also “rearrange” the material on my own “internal mental grid” that I would construct as I gathered new information.
By using deep learning, you can increase your capacity to learn by 500 to 600%. That is not an exaggeration. Sometimes in medical school we would come home with 75 to 100 pages of notes to learn in a day. You cannot passively process this information and be successful at mastering it. Conversely, as the author points out, random repetition decreases your learning by 15 to 20%, wasting a lot of time.1
Master coaching is critical in that you want to practice specific tools and techniques in a precise manner. You have heard that “practice makes perfect”—but what if you are practicing the wrong techniques or practicing the right ones the wrong way? You’ll embed bad habits. Often, it takes an outside observer to pick up the small details and keep your repetitions in a narrow constructive range. It is perfect practice that makes perfect.
Pain and response to it can be conceptualized in terms of programmed circuits. The journey of healing from pain, mental or physical, is largely self-directed, but if you can engage a coach to keep you on track, it will hasten the process. It is difficult to see your own behaviors. Additionally, you must experience a huge shift in your thinking from “fixing” to “letting go and moving forward.” In other words, you are learning a new set of skills while using an old approach. Even when you think you "have it”, you may still unconsciously be trying to fix yourself.
Coaching is also helpful for support. It is common to become socially isolated, and human contact is healing.
Ignition refers to being excited enough about what you are doing that you begin to do endless repetitions. Again, it has to be in a narrow range, but the more the better. Consider something that you have become skilled at, whether it is your work, a hobby, music, art, or play. Nothing changed until you consistently practiced. What is commonly called “muscle memory” is really neurological memory from circuits etched into your brain.
As you become more engaged in and excited about your new life, you’ll instinctively increase your repetitions. However, early on, you just have to do it to get over the hump. When you are in pain, it is difficult to get excited about anything. The healing journey will not directly solve your pain. It is providing tools and approaches for you to learn and master in order to navigate your life more competently. At first you may have to “grind it out.” As you learn better life skills, you'll spend less time feeling stressed, your body's chemistry will be optimized, and you'll move away from your pain circuits.
You are already a “genius” at feeling pain
Unfortunately, the development of chronic mental and physical pain fits the criteria for creating genius. The impulses are “deep learning,” in that you predictably react to them, and as you try to cope with them, you are reinforcing them.
You don’t need a master coach; the impulses are already in a narrow range.
The ignition or obsessive repetition goes without saying, as pain signals are rapid and relentless—generating obsessive thought patterns that quickly become memorized. The current definition of chronic pain is "an embedded memory that becomes connected with more and more life experiences, and the memory can’t be erased.”2 You are not going to change the trajectory of this complex problem with simplistic random interventions. You must use the same programming principles to become a genius at feeling pleasure.
It is critical to conceptualize your pain and response to it in terms of programmed circuits. Using re-programming tools, you can create “detours” around them or shift onto circuits that do not include pain. It appears that you can reprogram around almost any pain in any part of your body regardless of the length of time it has been there. The brain’s capacity to adapt is remarkable.
It takes tens of thousands of swings for a major league baseball player to be able to hit a baseball coming at him at more than 90 mph. There is also a huge variation in speed and trajectory. I think it is one of the most incredible feats in the human experience. With chronic pain—mental or physical—you’ll receive a lifetime of “baseball swings” in a matter of weeks. The evidence indicates that chronic pain can be memorized in a matter of six to 12 months.3
Additionally, since pain circuits are linked to anxiety/anger ones, any situation that fires up your frustrations will fire up pain, and, of course, pain will fire up the anxiety/anger circuits. The good news is that all of this can calm down with the same set of approaches.
Become a genius at running your life and take back control.
1. Coyle, Dan. The Talent Code. Random House, New York, NY, 2009.
2. Mansour AR, et al. Chronic pain: The role of learning and brain plasticity. Restorative neurology and neuroscience (2014); 32:129-139. doi: 10.3233.RNN-139003
3. Hashmi JA, et al. Shape shifting pain: chronification of back pain shifts brain representation from nociceptive to emotional circuits. Brain (2013); 136: 2751–2768.