The Neuroscience of Change

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TS: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Kelly is a health psychologist and an award-winning lecturer at Stanford University. As a leading expert on the mind-body relationship, her work integrates psychology, neuroscience, and medicine with contemplativeness practices of mindfulness and compassion from Buddhism and yoga.

She’s the author of The Willpower Instinct and Yoga for Pain Relief. With Sounds True, Kelly has newly create a six-session audio learning program called The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation, where she weaves the newest findings of science with Eastern contemplative wisdom to give listeners a revolutionary process for personal transformation. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Kelly and I spoke about what is known as the “default setting” of the brain and how we can change this default setting.

We also spoke about how we have two minds living in one brain and the battle that can sometimes ensue between these two parts of our mind. We talked about what it might mean when we’re triggered emotionally or in a difficult panic situation to “search the urges” and tune deeper into ourselves at a physiological level.

We also talked about how self-criticism can actually hinder behavior change and how saying affirmations that you don’t believe can actually have a negative effect. Kelly also shared with us a practice for cultivating self-compassion when at first you can’t feel any self-compassion at all. Here’s my very intriguing and, I would say, cutting-edge conversation with Dr. Kelly McGonigal.


TS: Kelly, when it comes to the neuroscience of change, I know there’s a lot to say about the topic. But I want to start, just in case maybe our listeners only have ten minutes—I want to get right to it—which is of I have a bad habit, and I want to change it. How do I do it? What are the most important things you can tell me?

Kelly McGonigal: I think the absolute basis of any type of change is self-compassion. And that is not where most of us start. Most of us start from a place of feeling like there is something fundamentally wrong or broken with who we are, and we look for some sort of strength inside of ourselves to correct, or fix, or even punish that part of ourselves, and that almost always backfires.

The solution is actually to begin to find the part of ourselves that really wants the benefits of the change. It’s not identified with things like habits, or cravings, or even the stress that often drives us to our habits and to our cravings.

TS: Well, of course, beginning with self-compassion is not as easy as it sounds, but for the moment, let’s pretend that I can do that—that I can identify some bad habit that I have and that I’m able to be loving towards myself. What’s next?

KM: Awareness. Often I will have people who want to make a change commit to actually not making any change at all in the beginning to start to get very curious of the process of how the habit is happening in your life, beginning to understand what are the things that trigger it, beginning to understand maybe what the value of the habit is, what role it’s playing, or maybe what role it used to play and is it playing anymore.

And that’s a big part of self-compassion, actually, to have this attitude of curiosity to how things are already working because without that awareness, we can often start with strategies for change that actually aren’t addressing the root of the habit or will just lead us back to the kind of stress that makes it difficult to change.

TS: Now, in your class at Stanford, what did you find students were most interested in changing about themselves? What were the habits that they most wanted to change?

KM: This is a class called “The Science of Willpower,” and people come in, it’s actually pretty consistent from year to year. The number one is always health and weight loss, which is something that so many people are struggling with. But more recently, there have been a lot of people coming in who feel out of control in their relationship with some aspect of technology or culture.

And this sounds silly, but a number of people have been feeling addicted to reality TV. That’s been absolutely fascinating to me to think about addictions to something like that in our media, in our culture. And a lot of people feeling addicted to their devices—to their BlackBerries, and their cell phones, and their email, and feeling kind of out of control. And another thing that people are often very interested in changing is not so much these outer behaviors or these outer addictions, but feeling stuck in some kind of inner experience, like anxiety or depression.

TS: That’s helpful. And taking any one of these examples, whether it’s addiction to technology, or food, or just chronic anxiety, I know your area of specialization is understanding the neuroscience behind making these changes and what keeps us stuck. Can you shed some light here? I know there’s a lot to say, but what are the most important discoveries from neuroscience that will help us make changes?

KM: One of the most interesting ideas that’s been really helpful for me has been the idea that even though we have one brain, we actually have two minds. And that’s because of how the human brain evolved over time. We have all of these systems in our brains that are designed to have us make automatic choices based on instinct, survival instincts especially, as well as habit that we don’t have to use a lot of mental energy or resources to think about what we’re doing. And then a little bit later on in our history, we evolved this overlapping system that actually allows us to regulate and control all of those survival instincts, like stress or the desire to eat food when you see it or mate with any sexual opportunity that comes up.

And so we have all of these other systems of the brain that evolved to help us regulate those other impulses when they aren’t so helpful. And who we are in any given moment turns out to be a product of which of those brain systems are dominant. In some of the really interesting neuroscience studies, they put people in a brain scanner to see which systems are most activated.

You can predict a lot of the choices that people will make as well as the inner experiences that they’ll have, like stress, cravings, emotion, and even depression, just by looking at which of these systems are dominant. The great thing about the wisdom tradition, including practices of meditation and yoga, so they actually teach us how to become more aligned with that mind or that version of ourselves, where the areas of the brain that support conscious choice and awareness and also self-compassion are more activated.

TS: So just take me through it in a concrete way. Let’s say I’m working with a technology addiction, let’s just say.

KM: Yes.

TS: How would both of these minds relate to that differently?

KM: So the technology actually triggers two different of these kind of instinctive systems of the brain. One is the reward center, which is the part of the brain that evolved to make us want to chase out rewards, particularly food and sex.

But technology is really good at triggering this system of the brain. Maybe when you see your phone or you get a little buzz that you have a new text message or an email, something like that, you get a little burst of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in your brain. And the whole function of dopamine is to get your attention and to create a sense of desire to seek out something that the brain now thinks is going to make it happy.

Food does the same thing. A lot of the things that we get addicted to do the same thing to the brain. So we’ve got this one part of the instinctive system here that is triggered by technology. And at the same time, technology often triggers our stress center because we worry that maybe there’s information we need to know or something that we’re going to have to do. We sometimes have this relationship to technology where it’s like an unlimited task we can’t keep up with.

When you’ve got both of those things going on at the same time in your brain—the desire to seek a reward and also stress and urgency—that’s actually the perfect recipe for feeling out of control and feeling addicted. And when we want to change our relationship to technology, often the first thing to do is to bring a practice of mindfulness to those feelings we have towards our devices. It’s amazing to me how many people are in that kind of relationship to their technology. But it’s a little bit below conscious awareness. And when they start to attend to it, they start to realize that maybe these devices are not their best friends.

TS: OK. So in terms of changing this relationship with technology, just to go further with this one example, and then we’ll take a couple more—you know, I think I’m going to be the perfect candidate for all of these examples because I have so many bad habits, but certainly this is one of them, the technology habit—so I’m with you in terms of thinking there will be a reward with this text message, and I’m with you in terms of the stress, and I’m also with you that I’m going to be compassionate because clearly I have a lot in common with a lot of other people, and I’m not a terrible person because of this. And I’m going to be aware. I’m going to be aware of what’s going on inside me, all the feelings that I have when I get these messages, but how am I changing, Kelly? I haven’t made a change yet.

KM: You haven’t made a change yet in your behavior, but you have made a change. And that’s actually a really key point. When you bring mindfulness to a process, you’re changing it because mindfulness itself is changing which of these systems in the brain are activated, are dominant. And this is something else that you see in neuroscience more broadly, not just with addictions, but as soon as you pay attention to a process, you are changing it.

And I think that’s fantastic news because sometimes we feel like we have to change our behaviors first. And you actually are changing something pretty powerful when you start to pay attention to what’s happening in your own brain and in your own body. So that change can actually give us a little bit of space and a little bit of clarity to then start experimenting with our behavior. And I really encourage people to think about experimenting rather than setting up really rigid rules for themselves because most people will fail when they try to make a change.

You might say, “OK. I’m only going to check my email or my phone once an hour.” And that’s sort of a first guess. You said, “Maybe that would improve the quality of my life.” And you might discover it’s completely impossible, at least for now. And so the next step is setting up these little challenges for yourself where you’re going to see is it possible for me to make this small step, this change? And then to pay attention to what happens when you do. Does it improve the quality of your life? Is it a disaster if you go five hours without checking your email, or is it actually not the kind of disaster that the stress center of your brain wanted you to believe it would be?

TS: Now, you mentioned that I have two minds within this one brain. So this second mind of mine has more free choice. Can you explain how that comes to play here with the example we’re working with?

KM: Well, absolutely. So these systems of the brain are basically a bunch of related structures that help you pay attention to what’s happening inside of yourself. So there are important structures for self-awareness. But they also keep track of your goals, and they keep in mind particularly the longer term goals or the core values that you want to align your life with.

And again, there’s even a specific region in the front of the brain, just about behind your eyeballs, whose primary function is to remember what you want—and not the want of needing to check your email or needing to eat a cookie—but the big wants, the big values. And so when we’re shifting into this mind state, which is often best triggered by mindfulness, we’re also gaining access to our own values and deepest goals, which is very helpful.

And then the same set of structures near the front of the brain also help us control and plan our actions. So we’re linking up self-awareness, motivation, and then action. And that’s basically a recipe for being able to make a change.

TS: How do I strengthen that part of myself and that part of my brain that focuses on what I really, really want so that I can be inspired to make these kinds of changes?

KM: One of the practices that I teach is a meditation practice that comes from the yoga tradition in which you go into a state of mindfulness, and from that state of mindfulness and awareness, you ask yourself questions about what it is you really want. You begin to put that into language. And you begin to put that into sensory images, what it feels like in your body, both what the longing or the heartfelt desire feels like in your body, and actually make a vow to yourself that you would like to make choices in your life that are consistent with that heartfelt desire and with that core value. And of course, you can do this not in meditation.

But meditation seems to be a really powerful place to do it because it’s allowing you both greater insight into your motivations so that you’re less likely to be distracted by desires that actually create more suffering—and it also seems to be a good state of mind to really plant the seeds for future action.

TS: It seems, though, in any given moment, when I think of my mobile device, and it’s seductively beeping at me, or even looking at me longingly—I haven’t touched it for however many hours—I’m looking longingly at it—that even if I’ve really strengthened this part of me that knows that what I want is to be available for real connection for the people that I’m actually with in the moment, not checking my device, that I could lose this battle, that there’s like a battle between these two parts of me—this deeper wanting for peace and connection, and then this feeling I have of “Pick up the phone! I need to pick it up!” How do I work that battle out?

KM: You know, I think many people have that experience—a kind of a war of different parts of themselves. My first thought is that any experience to which you bring awareness is improved by that awareness. And that’s going to be true even for this inner battle, and it’s going to be true for the process of giving in. I’m actually a big fan of giving in just with a little bit more awareness than you had yesterday. I think it’s often a slow process of awareness, but if you’re strengthening your motivation and your commitment, it becomes very difficult, eventually, to continue to behave in really self-destructive behaviors.

And sometimes the habits that we set out to change actually are not as related to our happiness as we think they are. Sometimes it may be that it’s not a big problem that we’re checking our email. That may not actually be the source of suffering in our lives. And that’s another way that I like to think of this as being kind of an experimentation process, that we’re being scientists with ourselves, because I think when we’re really in touch with our values and our motivations, and we are practicing awareness, it becomes almost impossible not to change. But if the change matters.

TS: OK. Let’s take another example, and really help me understand the neuroscience, which I still think I feel a little shaky on, and in this case it would be related to something that I think so many people find a challenge, which is losing weight and relating to food in a healthy way.

KM: Yes. It’s basically the same problem as with technology. Almost all of the challenges we face where we feel out of control, it’s because the brain likes to team up these two states of desperately wanting happiness and stress and urgency and feeling unsafe or threatened. And it’s kind of crazy to think about this, but a lot of the foods that are marketed to us are specifically designed to put our brains in that state where they’re going to create a desire through some combination of smell, often a combination of salt and fat and sugar, that is going to make our brains go crazy with desire—not necessarily pleasure.

Because in the brain, wanting and liking are two very distinct experiences. And a lot of the foods that are marketed to us create the experience of wanting more than actual satisfaction and pleasure. So we’ve got these smells, we’ve got these tastes that are making us want—there’s a kind of promise—and at the same time, these same foods can trigger a stress response. And if we don’t give into the desire, the brain will actually amp up the stress response and release more stress hormones so that you are even more likely to want to seek out some kind of release, which we often will find in the same food that has triggered the whole process.

TS: I’m not following you exactly. Maybe if you could give me an example of a type of food and how the food would be creating a stress response. I’m not getting that exactly.

KM: Sure. So let’s take something like a typical fast-food meal that is high in fat, high in sugar, and high in salt. If you were to stare down whatever is your particular temptation of fast food, whether it’s donuts, or pizza, or French fries, the very—the smell, the molecules going in through the nose and then being registered by the brain—it triggers the promise of reward in the brain, the reward system that says, “You’re not happy yet, but if you do this you will be happy.”

And it triggers an entire cascade of events in the brain—chemical events in the brain—that are going to motivate you toward consumption. So you’ve got a desire, and then it’s pushing you towards consumption. And if you do not consume and continue consuming, the very presence of that food will also start to mount a stress response. It’s part of what the reward system does, this release of stress hormones, because it’s a survival mechanism.

If you were back in the wilderness, and you saw a berry on a tree, and it was really high, and you were going to have to climb that tree, if your desire were weak, you would not survive. You need to be motivated to take action. So that berry is going to make you want to eat it, but it’s also going to increase this sense of threat until you do eat it. So much of the food in our environment, particularly the high-fat, the high-sugar, and the high-salt foods, are absolutely locking into that survival mechanism.

TS: So the stress that I’m feeling, for example, when I smell French fries is the stress that I might not get to eat the French fries? I’m very worried or concerned about it?

KM: Right! Even though when people actually pay attention to the experience of eating French fries, they often don’t even like them—but the brain has this persistent lie that it’s creating based on the activation of these brain systems that makes you continue to believe that you like French fries, and they will make you happy if only you can eat enough of them.

You know, one of my favorite studies actually looked at women who claimed to be chocoholics. You know, they said they were addicted to chocolate, they loved chocolate, it was fantastic. Put them into the study, monitored their heart rate, their blood pressure, monitored what was going on in their brain, even monitored what was happening with their eyeballs. And they found that when these women who professed to love chocolate were presented with chocolate, they actually had something that looked more like a physiological stress response.

They did a startle reflex with the eyes, like they were like, “Whoa” and really paying attention in the same way we do if we were to see a predator in the wild. And also their heart rate went up, and their blood pressure went up. And when the researchers asked them, “What are you feeling right now? Pay attention to exactly how you are feeling”—it was anxiety. It wasn’t happiness that they were going to get to eat chocolate. And so this is one of the ways that mindfulness can be really helpful when we’re dealing with food challenges because most of the time, we have no idea that the thing itself is creating the anxiety cycle. And we think we’re anxious because we haven’t made ourselves happy yet by consuming it.

TS: You know, it seems to me that sometimes when we’re talking about really subtle habits of being—you know, you mentioned anxiety as an internal state—that it’s almost like these reactions sneak up on us. I mean, you’re talking about the first step is to be compassionate, and second is to bring awareness, but sometimes it seems like the really difficult internal states that take us over, they almost—they hijack us. They happen so quickly.

KM: Yes! I think that is most people’s experience. Inner experiences are particularly interesting when we’re trying to come up with strategies for change. Because unlike behaviors, which are relatively straightforward to control—I know they’re not easy, but the brain knows how to do it. If you want to reach for a cookie or not, your brain knows what signals to send to your hand to do it, or reach for your credit card or not. The brain knows what to do to control your actions. But our brains did not seem to evolve a very clear strategy for controlling the content of our thoughts and our emotions, and what’s happening in our physical body—physical sensations like pain.

And so when you look at the neuroscience of trying to change things, like anxiety, or chronic pain, or depression, the more you try to go in and stop them, the more likely they are to increase in strength and severity. And they’re even more likely to hijack your attention and your actions. And so in many ways, the strategy is the same—except we never really get to the part of trying to control. It really is just the self-compassion and the awareness that become the strategies for changing inner experiences.

TS: I’m curious for you, in terms of applying what you’ve discovered from neuroscience, what have been the hardest habits for you to change, personally, if you don’t mind sharing with us and how it’s gone for you.

KM: For me, the biggest challenge has been anxiety, and specific fears, a couple of kind of sticky fears. And one, in particular, is flying, which sounds funny because I fly all the time now. But I guess I was always waiting for the fear to go away before I was willing to do it. And I was so afraid of the experience itself. The dread, the panic. I would do anything to structure my life so that I wouldn’t have to have that inner experience, which means basically not flying.

And I thought, “Well, I’ll just somehow fix this inner experience, and then I’ll be able to change my actions,” and it was actually through the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion, and one of my meditation teachers talking to me about how those inner experiences might never go away, that allowed me to start trying other techniques. One of the strategies that I use now for dealing with the fear that is still there, and the dread and all of that, is a technique that’s taught in addiction recovery programs, called “surfing the urge,” where you allow yourself to have this inner experience that you’re having—in addiction, it’s usually stress or cravings—and for me, it’s the type of inner fear that makes me want to not get on a plane or not live a life where I had the freedom to do that.

I surfed those inner experiences in the same way that a recovering addict needs to surf the urge to smoke or to drink. And the biggest lesson has been learning that those inner experiences are something that I can handle rather than something I need to get rid of so that I can change my actions. And that’s something that the science shows is true for every conceivable type of inner experience that people often think they need to fix before they’re able to take a positive step in their lives.

TS: So when you say “surfing the urge,” can you tell me exactly what are you doing to help you get on the plane?

KM: Well, by the time I’m actually in the airport, this is not an issue. Would you believe it—the panic starts when I’m at home thinking about booking a flight—which is one of the great things about change is eventually, the experience does transform itself when you develop a kind of trust in the whole process. So I’m no longer white knuckled in the airport, waiting to board the plane, trying to talk myself onto it, although that was a part of the process.

But if I were still in that moment of panic, or if I were a recovering addict who’s wanting to take that next drink, the process of surfing the urge is tuning in your attention to what’s happening in your body. We tend to get lost in the story of it, so I might be imagining terrible scenarios or remembering air disasters, or I could get stuck in thoughts that are not going to be helpful.

And to tune the attention to what’s happening in the body, and to start to experience those emotions or those cravings as like waves in the body, waves of energy or waves of feelings, waves of sensations, and to get out of the habit of being stuck in the content of it, that self-talk, and to go right into sensation.

I’ve also used this technique, by the way, to deal with chronic pain. It’s the same technique that’s taught to help people deal with pain that you can’t fix by popping a pill or getting surgery. And when you tune your attention into the sensations, you bring in the added support of the breath. And the breath is this great miracle. It creates a kind of inner space, in which even these very difficult experiences, like, there’s room for them. And they become not quite so solid and suffocating. And that’s essentially the whole practice.

The practice usually ends when you feel like you’re in that mental place of awareness of what’s happening, there’s some connection to center and to the breath, remembering what your goals are and what your commitments are. You know, for me, it would be going through with getting on a plane. For an addict, it would be a commitment to not taking that drink. To the person who’s in chronic pain, it may be that I’m going to get on with my life even though the pain is still present, and I’m worried about what will happen if the pain will get worse.

TS: Now, you said something interesting, which is through the repetition of doing this practice, surfing the urge, that actually anxiety about flying doesn’t come up for you in the same way that it used to. So I’m curious—how many times do we need to repeat this practice before our habituated response starts to change?

KM: I think it’s really individual, and what creates the change is this developing sense of inner trust, and that can be either very rapidly acquired or very difficult to tap into. There have been studies that have been done using a wide range of addictions and psychological disorders where these types of strategies are radically transforming people’s lives in as little as eight weeks, which tends to be the usual length of studies that use these interventions.

So in as short as eight weeks, people are feeling more in control of their behavior. They are feeling less overwhelmed by their emotions, even if the thoughts and emotions are still present. So that gives me hope that actually this process of change—we’re not talking about eighty years. But at the same time, you know, any process of change is going to be kind of up and down. Even as we’re building these new habits and building a sense of self-trust that we can handle the difficult inner experiences, we’ll have other experiences in our lives that can re-trigger old habits and re-trigger the anxieties, and that’s something else that we need a lot of self-compassion around.

We can think we’ve kicked this habit or we are so over that old belief system or those old anxieties, and then something happens in our life, and it’s like the rug has been pulled out from under us, and we’re back where we thought we would never be again. And when that happens, it’s so important to go back to that foundation of self-compassion because otherwise, we can end up feeling now not just back to square one but also a sense of despair.

TS: Now, you mentioned that part of the key is developing inner trust. Can you explain what you mean by that—“inner trust”—how that’s part of this process?

KM: Most of the behaviors that we want to change—whether it’s eating, or addictions, or procrastination, or a lot of the emotions that we want to get rid of—it’s because we feel like we can’t handle the discomfort that we’re trying to fix with the behaviors or control by getting rid of emotions or constructing a life where we think we won’t end up feeling those emotions.

And the more that we believe that we can’t handle that discomfort—whether it’s a craving, or withdrawal, or stress, or anxiety, or loneliness, or hunger—the more we think we can’t handle that and we need to fix that discomfort immediately, the more stuck we get in chasing the release from it. And so, a lot of the times, the best strategy is to kind of hunker down with the discomfort and to get to know it. I use the word “befriend” a lot in my classes—the idea of befriending these uncomfortable experiences that we would otherwise construct our whole lives to avoid having.

TS: Now, it’s interesting, because the core of what you’re offering as a strategy for change that you’re saying neuroscience supports—I would summarize the key idea is compassion, self-compassion and awareness and even this being with, befriending, what’s actually happening in an embodied way, a physiological way.

But what about all of the approaches to change? I’m curious what you think neuroscience has to say about these approaches that take a radically different angle. Like, before I get on the plan, I’m going to say something like, “I love flying, I love flying, I love flying. I love being in the air.” I’m going to repeat this over and over again. Does that work?

KM: Boy, I don’t know if that would work for me. Here’s what I think. It’s never helpful to lie to yourself because the brain’s not going to buy that. But it may be true that you love the consequences of being willing to fly. Or maybe you don’t love broccoli, but you love the consequences of eating a healthier diet. And I actually think that is a better strategy when you’re trying to talk yourself into something or out of something because we don’t have to love every single moment of our lives.

And that realization often is what allows us to make difficult changes—that it’s OK if I have a dinner that I didn’t love as much as my brain thinks it would love the fast-food meal. What I really love is the feeling I have in my body when I’m healthier and what that allows me to do—in the same way that I don’t love being on a plane, but I love the life that I have because I’m willing to travel and how that allows me to connect with others and be of use and be of service.

TS: Right. So you’re talking about strengthening that part of the brain that you mentioned that’s that part that we really value the most. But what—I’m curious, though, just from what you know about the research, because you know there’s a lot of audio programs and seminars, et cetera, on changing your thoughts, positive thinking—that this is the way to make change in your life, and I’m curious if you think that works or when it might work or when it wouldn’t work.

KM: Yes. Well, there’s some research showing that affirmations can backfire if you don’t believe that they’re true. So saying something like, “I love myself; I’m wonderful,” for people who doubt that, it actually makes them feel worse, and it further lowers their self-esteem and self-confidence and depresses them. So, you know, that’s not where I would start. At the same time, in all of the wisdom traditions, you see a practice of turning your attention toward the opposite of destructive states of mind or destructive beliefs or emotions.

I think that rather than blindly choosing optimistic affirmations, it’s really about turning your attention to an opposite that’s already present. So with the example of fear, I don’t need to tell myself, “I love flying.” But I can turn my attention to the fact that I also have courage. Like, they’re both true at the same time. I can be afraid, and I can also have courage. And meditation practices and mental practices that allow us to affirm something that is true are going to be very helpful. That’s a little bit different—to say, “You know what? I have courage, and I have the capacity to do this scary thing.”

TS: But it sounds like the key thing you’re saying, which of course makes sense to me, you know, Miss Sounds True, is that you have to believe whatever it is you’re affirming. You have to really believe it.

KM: You do. And, I mean, you can practice your way into a more genuine sense of connection. There’s some benefit to the “fake it till you make it” kind of practice. I have had teachers who have encouraged me to use mantras in compassion practices. For example, where maybe you don’t feel undying gratitude toward this person as a benefactor, but just try out the phrase in your mind and see how it feels to, in your own mind, thank them for being a benefactor.

To me, what you’re strengthening is a willingness. And it doesn’t have to be exactly like an affirmation. Where you say, “You know what? I want to have the thought that, or I want to have the belief or emotion that—so I’m going to try it on now as a way of planting the seed.” And that’s a way that affirmations can work when what you feel like what you’re strengthening is your willingness to choose that state of mind.

TS: OK. In terms of behavior change, what do you think about the approach of simply saying, “I’m not going to do it. I’m going to make a vow. I’m going to swear up and down I’m not going to eat this food or I’m not going to pick up my mobile device for x—” … I mean, just pure, straight-ahead, “I’m not going to do it” behavior change.

KM: Well, if it’s not preceded with things like motivation and awareness, it usually doesn’t work. At least not in the long term. But that’s the great thing about making behavioral changes—is that you start with some of these mental practices and mindsets, and then you do have to commit to something. So I think that all of the strategies that ask you to make specific commitments are right on.

And, in fact, there is a little bit of neuroscience supporting practices of setting behavioral commitments. So if I want to improve my health, it’s going to be easier for my brain to remember my motivation if I’ve also said something like, “I vow to eat one vegetable at every meal” or “I’m going to exercise for ten minutes in the morning before I take my shower.” And making those behavioral commitments helps us remember our motivation and eventually become a habit.

You need to do both, but I think when you focus only on the behavior first, and you just try to control yourself like a joystick, I think people will run out of the energy to sustain that.

TS: So I want to talk more about the compassion part of this approach to transformation that you’re advocating because it’s where we began our conversation. And I actually think it’s one of the things that’s hardest for people to do. So what are your suggestions to someone who’s listening, let’s say, and they just—they have quite a large hurdle to feeling compassionate for themselves about whatever they think is a negative habit that they want to change?

KM: The practice that I love for cultivating self-compassion is actually to bring to mind all of the other people on the planet who are suffering from whatever it is that you’re dealing with now, whether it’s physical pain, or an addiction, or anxiety, or any challenge in your life, and to bring to mind all of those countless other people who know what it’s like to feel what you’re feeling, and who are feeling it right now along with you. And often when we do this, a kind of instinctive compassion wells up.

When we think about other people suffering in the way that we’re suffering, we can use that compassion as the basis for feeling compassion for ourselves. And in that moment, you can say something like “May we all be free from this” or “May my willingness to be with this, may that in some way provide strength and freedom from suffering for all of the other countless people who are suffering in the same way right now.”

And in my teaching, this is a practice that has been similarly profound for people dealing with many different types of challenges. It’s often easier to feel compassion for others than it is to feel compassion for ourselves. And we don’t actually need to separate the two. It’s often by remembering our common humanity with others and the fact that our own challenges and suffering don’t isolate us from others. They actually connect us to others. That can be the way into finding compassion.

TS: And what do we know from neuroscience about compassion, whether it’s self-compassion or compassion for others?

KM: There haven’t been a lot of studies, but there have been a couple. Self-compassion is an interesting example because it’s been contrasted with self-criticism in the brain. When we’re being very self-critical of ourselves, it activates areas of the brain that are associated with punishment, threat, and inhibition, as if you’re trying to prevent yourself from making another mistake. And so literally, the brain starts to shut you down.

Self-compassion looks very different. It activates the areas of the brain that are associated with connection with others, the same area that you would see activated when a mother is with her child or when you’re with friends and family that you care about.

And when you feel connected and safe, self-compassion activates that system of the brain. It also activates portions of the brain that are important for self-awareness. And that is so helpful. It’s one of the reasons why self-compassion makes it easier to make a change. Because when you’re feeling safe with yourself, it is easier to see what is actually happening in the moment, including what you are thinking and feeling and doing.

TS: In my own experience, it seems that there are sometimes the deep holes of—you could say—shame or self-loathing, really sort of just deep drop-offs, and that it’s almost such a habituated pattern, it feels like in the brain, in my mind, that I could just sort of go down the drain like that.

I’m wondering from the research that you’ve seen, are there things like that? Almost like there’s a rut in the brain that can sometimes—you know, it has to be the right trigger—but for the right person, and the right moment, the right trigger, before you know it, they’re just down the drain like it’s a groove in the brain that’s been well-worn.

KM: Yes. I had a meditation teacher who used to say, “No matter where you start, when you let your mind wander, it’s a fast track to hell. You’ll always end up in the in same place.” And it turns out, that’s actually not too far from the truth when you look at the neuroscience. For a long time, neuroscientists thought that when you weren’t focused on something, your brain was resting. It was just quiet.

But what neuroscientists have found now is that when you are not focused on the present moment, the mind defaults to certain activities and a whole network of structures in your brain that are specialized in finding fault with yourself, finding fault with others, imagining better alternative realities, thinking about the past, all the stuff that we think of as really creating a lot of the suffering of the mind—that turns out to be the default state of the brain when you are not focused on a specific action or any other aspect of the present moment. Neuroscientists aren’t entirely sure why this is the default state of the brain, but it’s the same for almost everyone.

And one of the best neuro-signatures of depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and other anxiety disorders, is the degree to which people are easily seduced into this brain state and find it harder to come out of it—that even when they try to attend to the present moment, the brain keeps sliding back into this default state of finding something wrong with yourself or with life as it is.

TS: Well then, of course my goal—or the goal—is to create a new default state. Is that possible?

KM: Yes. It is possible. And this is again really exciting emerging science, and it probably won’t surprise you that mindfulness training is the way to do it. Scientists are starting to find out that people who have even a little bit of mindfulness training—that there can be this other default state that is less about evaluation, and of course, the brain has a bias to usually evaluate negatively, so it’s less about evaluation than it is about direct experience.

People who go through mindfulness training—you can actually see a shift in the brain from this fault-finding and evaluating state into a direct experience, particularly a direct experience of the physical aspects of the present moment. The brain pays more attention to sensations and less to the stories. And that change to a default state that is based on sensory awareness rather than stories—one study actually predicted reduction in depression among people who were clinically depressed at the beginning of the eight-week mindfulness training.

TS: So when you say it may not take that much mindfulness training, are you thinking eight weeks is kind of the amount that you need to put in to really be able to make a shift?

KM: Well, I think that it’s an adequate dose for making some really important changes. And I say that based on the science and the fact that a lot of the courses I teach are eight weeks long, so I’ve seen it in practice. But also, if you look at the science, where you just spend time with people who are very long-term practitioners, it’s obvious that over time, we can strengthen these things much more. And so it’s nice to have the optimism to know that you can receive benefits very early on in practice but also to know that the practice continues to unfold.

TS: In our discussion, you’ve underscored that neuroscience confirms things that the wisdom traditions have always offered as their greatest tools—compassion and awareness. But I’m curious—has neuroscience shown us anything that the great traditions didn’t know from internal observation?

KM: Hmmm… That’s a really good question. I’m trying to think if there is. I feel like the research on the default state has been helpful, not that it’s contradicting the wisdom traditions, but, for example, there’s research showing the default state in chimpanzees. All right. So not just humans, but actually that other animals and other species have a tendency to fall into this mind state.

And I feel like since I’m seeing that research, it can give us such a sense of relief about the fact that this is a difficult thing to change. And while the science and the wisdom traditions give us some hope, I feel like sometimes what the science is doing is not so much telling us something we didn’t know but is providing that self-compassion that can be hard to find.

Particularly in the community where I teach, where there are a lot of people who are swayed by evidence, sometimes just showing a picture of the brain—say, “This is what it looks like when you’re being self-critical and why it’s not helpful”—it’s not like we didn’t know it wasn’t helpful, but just to see it somehow can help us recognize that there isn’t something fundamentally broken with us, that all human beings have these experiences. I feel like that’s what the science adds for most people.

TS: Just a couple more questions, but it seems like a lot of people actually have this misunderstanding that their self-criticism will help them change. That they’re, you know, holding the high bar for themselves or something like that, and what you’re saying is that the science tells us this isn’t true.

KM: Well, yes. The science says this is definitely not true. In fact, there was a recent set of studies that tracked people over time who had set specific goals. Some were trying to lose weight, some were trying to become better musicians, some were trying to finish an academic degree. So they followed these people over time, and they also tracked how self-critical they were. And there was a direct relationship between self-criticism and success over time. The people who were harder on themselves succeeded less—and not just by self-report. It’s not like they were saying, “Oh, I’m so hard on myself. I don’t feel like I did a good job.” It was objective outcomes, like pounds lost. And that was just one set of really interesting studies.

But there is abundant evidence from every type of challenge you can think about in the addiction literature with dealing with anxiety and depression that the harder you are on yourself for having the problem in the first place and for being unable to fix it immediately, the more likely you are to spiral back deeper into the problem. To turn back to a drink to kind of soothe your feelings for how guilty and ashamed you are about having to drink or to food when you’re feeling ashamed about overeating or being overweight. Self-compassion does exactly the opposite, sends us right in the right direction.

TS: And just a final question, Kelly, which is: here you are, you’re at Stanford right in the midst of all of this exciting neuroscience research, what—I’m going to start this question again. And just a final question. Here you are, right in the midst of what we could say is an exciting time in the field of neuroscience combined with the discoveries of wisdom traditions, intersection. What are the questions that you’re asking that research is being done right now to uncover?

KM: One of the things that we’re looking at—so we’re doing studies looking at teaching compassion and self-compassion practices to the general public. And one of the things that I’ve experienced in more contemplative environments is that these practices can be very difficult for people in the beginning before they become transformative. And we kind of open ourselves up before we can find freedom from whatever the seeds of suffering are. And that’s something that we haven’t seen in the scientific literature—much discussion about the fact that some of these meditation practices, they don’t always make you happy immediately.

And that sometimes if you look at previous research, there’s a lot of selling that’s going on—that these practices will make everyone happy and everyone healthy. And so we’re starting to look at who does this help, and when, and what’s the trajectory? And are there difficult experiences that people go through when they begin a meditation practice? And is that an important part of the process? Or is there something that we can actually do to minimize that? I’m looking forward to finding out.

TS: Yes, that’s wonderful. That’s very helpful. I also want to hear what those studies tell us. I think that one of the things that confirms people’s self-judgment is that they don’t think that their meditation practice should be uncovering such difficult material. They think there must be something wrong with them. You know, meditation is supposed to make me peaceful, and I feel worse temporarily.

KM: That is a big part of the studies that we’re conducting—is helping people understand that meditation is not some escape and that often you’ll see things, and the more that we cultivate these qualities of mindfulness and self-compassion, the more room there is for stuff to show up. [Laughs] That seems to be a kind of law of nature—that when we get more spacious, more things show up, and then we develop the strength to be with the stuff that shows up. So you’re exactly right. And that’s something we talk about every single week in the program that we’re studying to help people understand that you don’t have to be good at meditating, and meditation also isn’t going to be some kind of blissful escape from the reality of life.

TS: Wonderful. I’ve been speaking with Kelly McGonigal. She is the creator of a new audio learning series with Sounds True, The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation.

Kelly, thank you so much for being with us at Insights at the Edge.

KM: Thank you!

TS: Quite a pleasure. I’m glad to know that you’re doing the work that you’re doing.

KM: And I have to say, it’s so exciting to hear your voice on my phone because I’ve been listening to you on Sounds True programs for so long. I’m just really grateful that you and others at Sounds True brought me on.

TS: Wonderful. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.

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