Physician and neuroscientist, Kyra Bobinet, has written a wonderful book, Well Designed Life, that provides a roadmap for using design thinking to get the life you really want to live.
Kyra shaped her book around her 10 favorite brain science concepts, thus the subtitle: “10 lessons in brain science and design thinking for a mindful, healthy, and purposeful life.” She says she did this because she wanted her readers to
“…be able to use hard, cold science—not just whimsical theories or inspirational quips from some author—as the basis for becoming a better designer of your life and your behavior.”
I had a chance to chat with Kyra about her new book recently. Here is a video of our conversation:
The neuroscience of behavior
In the first chapter, Kyra describes two areas of the brain, the habenula and the intrinsic memory system, that keep track of what we do so we can win in the game of survival. The habenula keeps track of our failures so we can avoid repeating them in the future. And, the intrinsic memory system counts “patterns that we cannot consciously track.” She explains, by telling stories about people she has worked with, how each of these structures shapes what we do. For example, after embarking on a really strict diet to lose weight, something many of us say we are going to do this time of year, the intrinsic memory system is
“…tallying up all that deprivation you feel as you pass on the cupcakes at work, all your disappointment at having a glass of wine with your friends, and all the anger that you feel because you have to make all these sacrifices while everyone else is enjoying themselves.”
Sound familiar? It does to me. Eventually, you just can’t take it any longer and, boom, you start with just one little cupcake or a half glass of wine and then, as Kyra says,
“The rubber band has been stretched too far, and it snaps you right back into your old eating habits. Oh, crap!”
Instead of setting rigid goals and setting up win-lose situations for ourselves, Kyra suggests approaching the weight loss problem with design thinking. For example, consider rearranging the fridge so that healthy foods are stored in clear glass containers at eye level and the offending foods are stored in less visible spots. This makes it easier to eat the right thing and harder to eat the wrong thing.
Compassion, empathy and other neuroscience concepts
Kyra points out that good designers, such as those at the internationally known design company IDEO, start each design with empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. But effective design, she says, must also invoke compassion, a genuine desire to relieve suffering. It’s important to note that empathy and compassion reside in different areas of the brain and that compassion goes beyond empathy:
“Compassion summons deep sympathy plus the desire to alleviate suffering. In this state of mind, I want to care for myself. Compassion compels me to take action on my own behalf.”
Subsequent chapters in the book are devoted to explaining other important neuroscience concepts, including “fast brain-slow brain” self-image, motivation, and emotion impact our behavior and how you can harness them to get to a better place.
Motivation and emotion
The chapter on motivation and emotion starts by describing what happens to decision making when one of the neural structures involved in emotion, an area of the brain known as the amygdala, is damaged. Because the amygdala
“assigns emotions and meaning…[it] gives a lift to decision making by enabling us to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent…we use emotion to feel like we know what the right decision is.”
Emotion she explains, also juices up motivation. Motivation without emotion is likely to be only a good intention. The stronger the emotion associated with a planned action the more likely it will actually happen especially if combined with a stable motivation (such as the desire to survive, the need to stay safe, or maintain family and social connections). The weaker the emotion and more unstable the motivation, the more likely it is to end up as a failed “New Year’s Resolution” or an entry on a “to-do” list. As is the case with all of the chapters, the author provides an exercise to help you work on your own inventory of motivation-emotion hierarchies.
Designing for lasting change
One of my favorites chapters in the book is the one that describes the neurologic substrate for incorporating new behaviors:
“When a thought or behavior is repeated, it gets reinforced in the anatomy and chemistry of the Brain, giving it more potential to occur again in the future.”
Neurons in the brain form neural networks through repeated actions, like memorizing new words in a foreign language or the way I learned medicine (in the old days) by memorizing signs and symptoms of many different diseases. She points out that this process can occur at any age and that it is “an ever-changing, dynamic system…constantly rewiring itself.”
It is important to note that sustained behavior change requires this type of rewiring and that the process of rewiring takes time. Kyra divides the process into four phases:
- Week one: You try out the new behavior, say switching from breakfast pastries to a healthy diet whole grain cereal with fresh fruit. As you eat healthy each morning, you form a new, “loosely wired neural network in your brain.” But it will only build strength through repetition and sustained attention. Failure to do so means the budding neural network may shrivel and die.
- First three months: It can “take up to three months to establish…[a] full-sized neural network
- Up to one year: If we have nurtured the newly formed neural network with enough repetition and attention, it will start to get myelinated:
“Myelin is a substance that the brain adds to coat the neural networks that are used most often. It insulates the electric signal carried by these networks for they can move faster.”
To paraphrase Kyra, your brain is basically acknowledging that the cereal and fruit thing is here to stay. But, it is not yet a sure thing. This behavior has to compete for attention with many other behaviors in your life. If your attention turns to those behaviors instead of your newly myelinated breakfast behavior, the new behavior can start to falter. This is where design comes into play. If you design your life to give advantage to the new behavior, such as always stocking the fridge with delicious fresh fruit and keeping the whole grain cereal in the front of the pantry shelf, you can help the new behavior triumph over the old bad habit.
- “Rest of your life”: Kyra points out that even the best designed desired behaviors have an expiration date. They must be redesigned (iterated) in order to remain fresh and at the center of your attention. Because the competing myelinated neural network that supported our old behavior (such as eating sugary high-calorie pastries for breakfast) never die, but only weaken as our attention is focused on eating our healthy fruit and cereal, we are always in danger of relapse…and who amongst us hasn’t experienced that. So we must change up the desired behavior, make it fresh, and renew our attention to it.
So much more
I am only scratching the surface of all of the fascinating information packed into this delicious book. I highly recommend that you take the time to read it and savor its content. As Kyra says,
“..c’mon in! But only if you are ready to free yourself from your ‘stuff’…and live your purpose.”