by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
-Henry David Thoreau-
Last Spring I was delighted to watch two robins in my garden, a mother and father, who were busily planning and preparing for the birth of their offspring. They were building an elaborate nest in my garden shed in the back of one of my old cardboard storage boxes. I felt honoured that they chose my shed as their venue for starting a new family. Planning and preparing are actually two very important cognitive functions that make up a group of what we call executive functions (EF). These advanced mental tasks include strategising, organising, setting goals, and paying attention to the important details that will help us achieve those goals. This is what gets us down to business even when we’d rather just hang out and tweet in the garden or on-line for that matter. Mr and Mrs Robin were busy working at achieving their goal.
Executive functioning works in the Frontal Lobe, that large corrugated part of the brain, just behind the forehead that serves as our control centre. This highly developed part of the brain, which sets us apart from animals and birds, filters out interference and allows us to focus clearly on whatever task is at hand. Although Mr and Mrs Robin were planning and preparing, they don’t have this magnificent piece of anatomy that humans have. Their brains are largely ruled by instinct as they live on a survival mode. Their frontal lobes, like all creatures have never developed significantly through evolution.
The human six-layered neocortex, gives us the power to think, plan, speak, imagine and create our future. It is the area of the brain where self-awareness was born and is nurtured, which allows us to see and feel ourselves in relationship to the world around us. When this lobe is “on” we focus on all that has meaning for us, come up with new ideas, make plans, become more self-aware (the ability to observe ourselves objectively) and move forward in the world. Have you ever been so motivated and focused on an activity that you lost track of time and became completely immersed in whatever you were doing? Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (a researcher of Positive Psychology) proposed the concept of “flow” where emotions are spontaneous, joyful, and completely aligned with the successful task at hand.
Even when we think a new thought or learn new information, tiny brain cells and dendrites have made thousands of new connections between them. There’s nothing more exciting and inspirational than being struck with a new idea that inspires us to journey on a different path. We feel energized when this happens. Our new idea leads to other ideas, and we begin a process that unfolds like a bud expanding into an intricate pattern of flower petals. This is our frontal lobe at work, a very satisfying feeling.
But what do we do when those brilliant moments of inspiration don’t arrive like meteorites? Often we squander a great deal of time in a quagmire with no energy for direction or motivation. We spend most of our day unfocused and unconscious. In an article about the frontal lobe by Joe Dispenza, D. C., “The Throne of Our Divinity” (click title to read) he uses a metaphor about walking in the dark with a flashlight and shining the light as we go. Everything we shine the light on, we become aware of and this is what he calls our focused concentration. It’s an interesting idea because what if we just keep shining the light in the same spot? What if our awareness takes a long time to see what else is out there in the sea of darkness. What can we do to minimise the amount of time we spend in a lull?
The process of preparation then becomes self-evident. We can’t pass the test if we don’t study. We can’t eat the delicious meal if we don’t experiment with recipes and cooking. We can’t look stunning when we go to work unless we prepare the make-up, jewellery and get the laundry done the night before. Like Mr and Mrs Robin we can’t keep our nest in good condition for our children if we don’t tend to business. We can’t make sure our children will get to college or that we have a decent retirement if we don’t make some effort to save money to that end. We must prepare. We must keep the most evolved human organ, those frontal lobes focused, so we can get out of the darkness and let our light shine. We don’t have to anguish about the future… we have to prepare for it in the gracefulness of the present moment.
Luck is when opportunity meets preparation
Planning and preparation can come in many forms. It can be in the form of organising time so that you are better prepared when an opportunity comes along. Sometimes preparation comes in the form of exercise and a program of physical endurance. You are preparing your body as well as your mind to be open to the possibilities of the future. Preparation might be in the form of reading and learning new things to become skilled and even an expert in an area that you are passionate about. Preparation might mean to seek out people who are mentors. To quote Dispenza again, he says, “. . .whatever we focus on now becomes our future destiny, because we inevitably will make choices based on what we repetitively keep our awareness on. Remember, the frontal lobe is that part of the brain that decides on action and regulates behaviour because it is the chief executive of our intentions.”
It is often our attitude towards something that prevents us from moving forward. Perhaps the most important thing we must prepare is our own mind. This can be very difficult especially when we are feeling discouraged. We must find a way to develop a mindset that is greater than our disappointments and circumstances. Very little happens to us in the world on a daily basis if we do nothing to make it happen. As Dispenza says, ‘we are wired for interaction not just reaction’. With our highly developed cortex, we are able to respond thoughtfully, not react emotionally, to our disappointments and make a plan for our course of action.
Preparing takes patience. It is so important to take responsibility for what thoughts we are thinking and make them beneficial to us because we know that thoughts produce an associated feeling in our body. In other words, our thoughts create chemical peptides that are distributed around the body generating a feeling. A feeling is simply a chemical reaction. Dr Joe states that “Thoughts are the electrical impulses and the language of the brain. Feelings are the magnetic impulses and the language of the body”.
But strange that I was not told
That the brain can hold
In a tiny ivory cell
God’s heaven or hell.
When our thoughts and our feelings are aligned, we can either experience suffering or joy. It’s only when we get stuck in negative emotions that we become unhealthy. We must use our thoughts to uplift us. Our thoughts therefore must be more powerful. We have to keep our behaviours united with our intentions. We can ask ourselves the question: “Am I coming from fear or love – is my focus on the problem or the solution?’ We therefore must use thoughtful planning. Choose a meaningful book, move beyond being disheartened, and keep reading. Talk to someone, rise above being discouraged, and keep listening. Take little steps towards your important goal, make your determination greater then your worry, and celebrate your accomplishments.
Like robins making a nest or the squirrels storing the little acorns for their future, they don’t give up because of the elements or predators. They keep on preparing and planning. You can look at bumps in the road as just bumps, or succumb to view them as catastrophes. When you realise just how amazing the frontal lobe is, there is no limit to what you can shine your flashlight on. The sooner you make preparations for the new pathway, the more energised you will feel, the more positive you will become, and the quicker you will see a positive outcome (although it may just be a different one then you expected!).
When Robert Baden-Powel began the organization of the boy scouts, he established the motto for the scouts, Be Prepared.
“Be prepared for what?” someone once asked him.
“Why, for any old thing.” said Baden-Powell. “The training you receive in your troop will help you live up to the Scout motto. When someone has an accident, you are prepared because of your first aid instruction. Because of lifesaving practice, you might be able to save a non-swimmer who has fallen into deep water”.
But Baden-Powell wasn’t thinking only of being ready for emergencies. His idea was that all Scouts should prepare themselves to become productive citizens and to give happiness to other people. He wanted each Scout to be ready in mind and body for any struggles, and to meet with a strong heart and mind whatever challenges might lie ahead.
Be prepared for life – to live happily and without regret, knowing that you have done your best. That’s what the Scout motto means. (Excerpted from the Boy Scout Handbook #33105). When it gets right down to it, preparation is another form of work. We must work mentally, physically and emotionally most days of our lives with a positive outlook. The only difference in the work of preparation compared to work designed for a specific end is the unknown factor. Don’t let the unknown stop you; keep reading, keep thinking, keep fresh batteries ready for your flashlight, and keep yourself preparing for the life you imagine.
As parents and/or teachers we can best prepare our young people for the world by working to keep their sense of wonder alive. In a study done by Annie Bernier, Professor of Psychology at the University of Montreal, children whose mothers “answered their children’s requests for help quickly and accurately; talked about their children’s preferences, thoughts, and memories during play; and encouraged successful strategies to help solve difficult problems performed better at a year and a half and 2 years on tasks that call for executive skills than children of moms who didn’t use these techniques in interacting with their youngsters.”
Children with developmental disorders such as ADHD and ASD often have challenges with executive functioning skills, so it is even more important to help them keep their frontal lobe “on”.
Here are some simple tips:
- Be clear about your goals and help your child to have clear goals. Don’t deviate from the plans to reach those goals. Encourage your child to take little steps each day to make their dreams become a reality. Here is a great website for helping your child with goal setting: http://www.liftinternational.com/
- Help your child learn from his/her mistakes, not in a critical way, but in a compassionate way. Ask frontal lobe questions: “What could you do to avoid a mistake that might be like the one you have already made?
- Help your child to consider the pros and cons of their choices. After they have made a choice, ask “How do you feel about your decision? What would you do or not do differently next time?”
- Be proactive when there is a problem. Help your children to confront problems, not run away from them because of their rigid thinking, or fear of change or failure. See http://www.livesinthebalance.org/
- Encourage your child to prepare for the next day and the week ahead. Have a “preparation comes first policy” in your home to build strong habits. Preparation comes before tv, computer games, etc.
- Help your children manage time and activities. Be a good role model as a parent and use a planner. We have found that planners are most effective when they are in a small ring binder that can be carried with you at all times. It’s easy to open to the day week or month. Put the list of goals for the day and week at a glance. Show your children a yearly calendar that is clearly visible on the wall in your home that they can write on to prepare for future events that are important and socially meaningful.
- Instead of telling your child what the schedule for the upcoming weekend is, list some possible activities and have your child be in charge of making the plan.
It’s difficult to be “on” all the time. We certainly have times when we are overly emotional, unfocused because of fatigue and overwhelmed by our many responsibilities, unable to be the creative, goal-oriented individuals for which our frontal lobes are programmed. During these times we may need some quiet alone time to reflect. Mindful meditation is one way to surrender those uncomfortable feelings into the present moment. Then we can just notice that they are simply the language of the body that we don’t have to be a slave to. Our mind can be far greater then negative emotions. If we take the time to prepare our mind for the life which we imagine, we no doubt will become revitalised, inspired and motivated to begin to demonstrate it now. If we make a choice to use that amazing frontal lobe with our unique ability to be aware and choose what we want out of that darkness, our lives will be filled with meaning and beauty. Dr Joe always reminds us that we are work in progress on the canvas of life.
Copyright George Buchanan 2008
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