Brain Researcher and Bestselling author of Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain’s Hidden Power
When aiming to transform outmoded behaviors that aren’t serving your current health and wellness goals, awareness is one of the “neuro-muscles” that is most critical to your success. To strengthen your neuromuscles, all you need to do is commit to repeatedly showing up and doing it. In this way, “Innercise” works just like exercise.
Within the context of Innercising, awareness refers to self-awareness — your ability to monitor your own mental, emotional, and physical state. Awareness is critical because it allows you to observe your habitual patterns and make changes. Think of the last time you said something you regretted. Perhaps you spoke in anger to a family member. Maybe you said something unkind to a friend. First, cut yourself some slack — at least a little. We’ve all done this. It’s a normal part of being human, and there’s a good chance that what you said slipped out before you could catch yourself. The reason behind your slip-up? Your subconscious brain was in charge. For example, you may have fallen back on an old habit of being sarcastic or negative when you feel jealous or judged.
Or perhaps you have tended to lash out verbally when stressed. Maybe you have felt the need to criticize others to cover your own lack of self-confidence. Regardless, as soon as you felt uncomfortable (i.e., jealous, angry, hurt, threatened), your subconscious brain reacted with an automatic program to help relieve the tension. Out of your mouth came something that served to briefly ease your discomfort — but that quick fix usually comes with long-term consequences later, as you begin to feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed. What if you could be more thoughtful in general—before you speak, before you react, before you become impulsive? For instance, what if you could catch yourself before you give in and eat that 600-calorie Danish cinnamon pastry that you swore off, or before you hit “Buy Now” on another Etsy trinket when you know you’ve got enough handcrafted accessories to fill a store? What if you could catch bad habits before they automatically run their course? It no longer has to be a question of “What if?” You can learn to become aware of the triggers that send you into your subconscious automatic reactions. You can also learn to become calm and respond consciously.
Awareness is the mental ability to observe your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without judgment. It allows us to catch our subconscious at work. That’s particularly important because we tend to only notice the results of our behaviors after the deed is done—cigarette butts in the ashtray, five more pounds showing on the bathroom scale, the credit card bill we can’t afford to pay. By observing ourselves in the moment, with practice, we can learn to interrupt negative or disempowering patterns, stop them in their tracks, and instead fast-track our conscious thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Your Brain on Awareness
We’ve learned a lot in recent years by studying people who invest a great deal of time practicing inner and outer awareness and, as a result, have well-developed self-observation skills. For example, consider the monks, nuns, yogis, Sufis, and other contemplative practitioners, including millions of everyday people around the world— perhaps even yourself—who enjoy the virtues of what is now popularly known as mindfulness. What researchers have learned from studying these individuals is that meditation, mindfulness, and selfreflection can dramatically change the brain, especially in the areas of the prefrontal cortex, the insula, and anterior cingulate. Importantly, these changes also occur in the parietal lobe—the part of your brain that gives you a sense of yourself and your relationship to others in the world.
The Magic of Awareness
Choice Awareness is perhaps the most important mental function that can change the brain. If a magic genie appeared and granted you only one wish for your brain fitness, go with increasing awareness. Why? Without awareness, you won’t even know if your brain is or isn’t working well. So, the moment you become aware of your thoughts, feelings, habits, and behaviors, you can assess them. Then, keep what works and change whatdoesn’t. You choose. When you observe yourself in the moment—when you see your mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns as they begin, you increase your ability to control negative conditioning and proclivities. You can choose good habits. You can choose to remain calm. You can choose to take constructive action. And every time you make these healthy choices, your neuroplasticity—and the possibility it brings—increases.
Please try this little demonstration now.
Place your hand on your forehead, as if you are wiping your brow. Your prefrontal cortex is right behind your forehead. It’s one of the newer areas of the brain in terms of evolution, and it’s where you plan, make decisions, and regulate your behavior. It’s the home of willpower, selfcontrol, and imagination, and it’s also one of the areas that is stimulated by flexing your awareness muscle. The insula and anterior cingulate are deeper structures found right behind your frontal lobes. They are part of your social brain and are more developed in primates, dolphins, whales, and humans than in any other species. These brain structures are essential for processing emotions like empathy, fairness, and self-love. Practicing self-awareness appears to be the most powerful and simplest way to strengthen this important part of your brain