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Embrace Change: How to Make New Actions Second Nature

Learn how to re-train your brain to achieve your healthiest you. From The Program by Dr. Kelly Traver and Betty Kelly Sargent

Your Selective Brain
Your brain pays attention to only a small portion of the information it’s receiving at any one time. It does this through the reticular activating system (RAS), a network of nerve cells that controls consciousness and selective attention to information. The RAS is inactive, for example, when a person is sleeping or under general anesthesia. The frontal cortex still activates in response to incoming information, but the brain neither processes the information nor remembers it. If the RAS is turned on, it will be conscious of the incoming information.

There is a very clever video that was created by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University several years ago that demonstrates selective attention. It is fun to watch, and I encourage you to take a look at it on the Internet at In fact, I encourage you to take a look at it now, before you read any further, if you really want a demonstration of what I’m about to describe.

This short video shows how one can fail to see something obvious if concentrating on something else. Technically, your brain does see everything, but it can fail to register all that it sees. In this video clip, the viewer is instructed to count the number of passes a group of adults make to one another with a basketball. There are two balls going at the same time. One point is scored every time a person passes the ball to another person wearing the same color shirt, black or white. More than 50 percent of people who view this video are so preoccupied with counting the passes that they fail to see a gorilla walk right into the center of the group and thump its chest. Now, I’ve told you the punch line to make my point about selective attention, so if you go online and view this video, you will almost certainly see the gorilla, but ask a colleague or friend to watch the clip. Make sure you emphasize that the point of the exercise is to see if he or she can focus well enough to come up with the accurate number of passes that occur in the video. You will be amazed at how many people miss the gorilla.

A selective brain is efficient. It saves energy. If your brain processed everything it saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt, it would quickly be overwhelmed with inconsequential information. Selective attention allows you to multitask, to lose yourself in thought without having to expend mental energy on the mundane tasks you do every day. How often have you taken a shower and brushed your teeth in the morning without really thinking about it? How often have you driven to work while lost in thought?

Making a major behavior change often requires that your brain pay attention to behaviors it has become used to ignoring. Change often starts by simply paying close attention to whatever it is you want to change. It may help you to write down what you eat every day, record how many cigarettes you smoke, or list the times you feel anxious. Simply having a heightened consciousness can be pivotal in making a change in your behavior. At first it can be frustrating because what you are doing differently is so new that you keep forgetting to do it. But with practice, as I’ve said, you will start to remember. Try to build a reminder into your daily routine. After a while, you will not need to make such a conscious effort; your actions will become second nature.

Conclusion: Creating an increased awareness about a particular behavior can make all the difference when it comes to changing that behavior.

Kelly Traver, M.D., author of The Program (Copyright © 2009 by Kelly Traver, M.D., and Elizabeth Kelly Sargent), has been practicing medicine for more than seventeen years. She recently served as medical director at Google and is currently on the board for the Institute for the Future. Dr. Traver is the founder of Healthiest You, a company that works with corporations, health care organizations, and the government to help individuals become more empowered and engaged in their health.

Betty Kelly Sargent is a writer and veteran book and magazine editor, as well as a certified life coach.




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