It’s true that practicing strengthens our habits. But, like “the Force” in the Star Wars saga, what we practice has both a light and a dark side.
A Healthy Mindset
As I drove my partner E. to her final Taiko (Japanese drumming) class of the eight-week session, a health insurance company advertisement on the back of a bus got us talking about the importance of a healthy mindset.
She said that she wasn’t going to worry about making mistakes when she played. I said that the best musicians in the world make mistakes every time they perform, but, because they take them in stride, we mere mortals seldom notice. She said she was going to focus on having fun instead: she enjoyed playing, she liked her fellow students, the organization was well-run, an asset to the community.
So, when it came time for the mini-performance for friends and family at the end of class, I got out my iPod Touch to record the effects of her new and improved mindset.
A Frustrating Performance
She asked how she had looked, and I had a hard time answering.
She knew she had screwed up her solo and clearly didn’t feel good about her performance. Others had as well. She asked about her form. I thought her form was fine. Nothing I could say would convince her that she or the group as a whole had played the piece well.
On the drive home, we rationalized what had gone wrong. Several of the students hadn’t learned the piece. Their errors affected E.’s concentration. A tenacious migraine earlier in the day took twice the usual dosage to knock out. The headaches drained her. Just before leaving for rehearsal, she learned that her aging father was in the hospital. The rehearsal had used up the little energy she had. The instructor threw in a new section for the students to learn and changed the individual solos from eight to sixteen bars at the last minute.
All the things we mentioned were true. But, they weren’t what messed up her solo.
The Importance of Practice
As I wrote in the post “Free Throws, Pizza, Neuroplasticity,” The fancy name for free throw practice or anything practice is neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. The muscular activity that propels the ball through the basket corresponds to an electrical pulse between specific neurons or nerve cells in the brain. Each time the muscular motion and neurological circuitry synch up with the intended result, a basket, the likelihood of that circuitry firing next time the shooter steps up to the line increases.
What I didn’t mention in that post, because it hadn’t occurred to me, is that neuroplasticity doesn’t just occur when we practice. It’s a non-stop process. It’s like “the Force” in the Star Wars saga.
The Force of Neuroplasticity
Richard Davidson, co-author with Daniel Goleman of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body illustrated the light and dark sides of neuroplasticity in this exchange with Sam Harris on the Waking Up podcast.
Davidson: Altered traits are enduring changes that are consequences of our practice that impact every aspect of our lives… It takes time to learn to play the violin. It takes time to learn to be a collegiate athlete. In the same way, practice is important here.
Harris: You can sort of flip it and acknowledge that at every moment in your life, you are practicing something. You’re using your attention in a certain way. And, for the most part, if you’re like most people, you’re using it in ways that lead to predictable sorts of dissatisfaction. You’re practicing a kind of meditation on all the things you want, all the things that make you anxious, and a perpetual distraction, for which a method like mindfulness is put forward as an antidote. But, as your mind is, your life becomes, so you’re ingraining various tendencies and habits, and neurophysiological states moment by moment, every moment of your life.
As I watched the video of E.’s Taiko solos, I noticed something hauntingly familiar. They didn’t synch up with the shime (the drum that keeps the beat). This mirrored how she played out-of-synch with her metronome, which kept the beat when she practiced at home.
When I’d mentioned to her in the past that she wasn’t playing in time, she said that she knew. She was focusing on her form. I said that form didn’t matter if you weren’t keeping time. She said that keeping time didn’t matter if you weren’t using good form.
It doesn’t matter whether I was right, she was right, or we were both half right. Her brain had only done in performance what she’d unintentionally trained it to do in her practice.
The difference between practicing depression and practicing well-being mostly comes down to how we train the brain to respond when feelings arise.
When we’re depressed, knowing that pleasant feelings are fleeting triggers anxiety. We resist unpleasant feelings, which trigger negative thoughts when we fail to push them away, which trigger more unpleasant feelings, which trigger more negative thoughts, which trigger…
When we’re in a state of well-being, we enjoy pleasant feelings while they last, and unpleasant feelings…still feel unpleasant. But we’re confident they’ll eventually fade.
The difference isn’t that people who aren’t depressed feel more pleasant feelings or fewer unpleasant ones. It’s that they don’t take them as personally. They don’t get anxious about the pleasant ones or fight the unpleasant ones.
Aligning Our Practice with Our Objectives
Our brain doesn’t take much interest in activities not directly related to keeping its body or the bodies of its offspring alive.
When it comes to Taiko solos, it responds to what we practice, not to what we preach (our mindset). If our objective is to play a solo with proper form that bears some correspondence to the underlying beat, it’s important to be aware of the beat while practicing. This may involve turning off the metronome when focusing on form, or slowing the metronome until we can play with form and rhythm.
When it comes to weakening depression and strengthening well-being, it’s important to be aware of our habitual responses to feelings.
This sounds simple, and it is, but it’s not easy. Most of us have been unintentionally training our brains to seek pleasant feelings and resist unpleasant ones for most of our lives. We’re often fighting our thoughts before we notice the feelings that feed them.
Ten Minute Motivation Exercise
The ideas in these three short videos helped me understand how practicing my counterproductive thought patterns helped me build my clinical depression habit.
1. The brain study that nudged me toward the “light side” of the Force demonstrated how focused memorization physically alters the brains of London Cab Drivers.
Watch the YouTube video “Your Job Reshapes Your Brain.” (2:25)
2. This cartoon about two wolves (like the light side and dark side of the Force) will help you digest the first video.
Watch the YouTube video “How Mindfulness Empowers Us” (2:21)
3. Take a deeper dive into what’s happening inside the brain with this science cartoon.
Watch the YouTube video “How to practice effectively…for just about anything.” (4:49)