How Many Associations Does It Take to Implant a Word?

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This is a post about revision: revising the words we link together in our brains.

A week ago, I decided — based on deep personal reflection — that I had a glitch in my system.

I saw part of this documentary called What the Bleep Do We Know? and learned how much our emotions really can overrun our whole body, producing chemicals in the hypothalamus of the brain that then attach to our cells and literally make every cell in our body crave certain emotions, from the indulgence of overeating to the drama of bad relationships. We hardwire our own brains, forming our habits based on the neural connections of the way we process our thoughts. The more you use a certain connection, the thicker the bandwidth becomes, so to speak, the faster the brain leaps to the habitual response, and the harder it is to unlearn it.

So when after watching the clip I suddenly recognized my own horrible thought process, I knew I had to work fast and hard to stop it.

The trouble? I’m stingy.

Who would have thought? Certainly not me! I’m an optimist, I guess, in that I had called it lots of nicer names like “frugal” and “efficient” and so on. But I woke up to the fact that it had gone too far because I realized that I constantly horde my time, my energy, my attention, etc, trying to grab ahold of as much of it as I can to keep for myself. Maybe it can be partially excused as a gut reaction to the overwhelming demand of three small children and wanting to preserve as much of my own life as possible. But anyhow, the point was that I didn’t want to be that way.

I didn’t want my automatic thought process to be self-pitying, begrudging my kids for taking up “my” time. Instead, I wanted to be generous — and plant the word “generosity” so firmly in my brain that it would create a detour from my stingy ways.

But how do you undo those high-speed bandwidths in your head? From what little brain science I’ve read, the best strategy is to form as many new connections as possible. The more threads you create between an existing idea and a new one in your brain, the more likely you are to remember the new idea.

Here’s a sampling of what I did.

First, I came up with a new “affirmation,” meaning a new truth to replace the old notions. It’s not enough to negate the old one; you have to move it out of the way with something better. So instead of allowing myself to think that giving away my time and energy, etc, meant less of it left for myself, I decided my affirmation would be “The more I give, the more there is to give.”

Rationally, that makes no sense, because in finite terms it’s just plain wrong. There are 24 hours in a day, and the more of those hours I give away, the fewer are left.

But, with a different set of associations, I convinced my brain that the new affirmation is true. For example, think of love. Love isn’t finite, and the more we love, the more our capacity to love expands and thus the more love we have to give. It’s also been true for me with breastfeeding my baby that the more I feed him, the more food there is. Expanding capacity.

Next, I listed all the ways that I wanted to be more generous and expand my capacity to give:

  • love/affection
  • time
  • energy
  • service/help
  • opportunities
  • friendships/relationships
  • attention/interest/listening
  • praise/validation
  • opinions
  • permission/approval
  • appreciation/gratitude
  • cheerfulness/smiles
  • friendliness/using people’s names
  • gifts
  • resources
  • prayers/thoughts/concerns
  • posture/oxygen

I went on to find dozens of quotes dealing with generosity, for example 2 Corinthians 9:6 from the Bible: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” Every new quote became another link in my brain solidifying the new connection.

The last idea on the list above — posture and oxygen — actually ended up being the biggest help. I am a horrible sloucher, mostly out of laziness, and I’d recently learned that better posture improves oxygen to the brain. So, as another connection, I told myself that throwing my shoulders back and inhaling deeply would be my way of being generous to myself. How has that helped? Well, over the past week every time a situation has come up where I would normally pull back and try to withhold my energy and attention, etc, my brain has gone through a series of alternate steps:

  1. I recognize the situation as a trigger and consciously decide against taking the habitual path.
  2. I throw my shoulders back and inhale, concentrating on feeling the oxygen going to my brain. It’s a stall tactic to give myself time to reroute my thinking, but oxygen is also an enormous help for open-mindedness.
  3. I focus on the person needing my generosity, whether it’s a child who needs to tell me a very long and irrelevant story or a baby who needs me to realize his diaper needs changing.

And every time it’s been rewarding. Have I still gotten as much done this week? Nope, not really. But slowly I feel like I’m expanding my capacity to give to my children and to others around me, and that will probably pay off better in the long run. Plus I like to think that the scripture verse from 2 Corinthians is true, along with the adage, “What goes around comes around.” Perhaps generosity will be the secret to getting done what I need to as well, once I’m better at it. And thanks to all the associations I generated, I feel like I have a good shot at improvement.

This whole story was my long-winded way of saying that in order to plant a word in your head, you need to give it as much to work with as you can.

A shorter way to prove the point would have been telling you my strategy for vocab acquisition when I was studying for the GRE seven years ago. I made it a point to find as many of the words as possible in a context that I knew, such as in the books I was reading at the time. (By the way, the Harry Potter series uses more GRE vocab words than you would think!) The result? Seven years later, the words I can still use and define from all that memorizing are the ones where I created dozens of extra associations via the context of a story.

Anyhow, what do you think? Ever tried to rewire your brain or ever needed to implant a particular word? What strategies have you used that work?

Leave a comment!

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13 responses »

  1. I have to often trick my brain into thinking the reverse so I’m more accurate on things. I think a lot of girls have to do this with self-esteem issues, because we just naturally think we’re not as good as other people. And we need to fix that by thinking we are actually okay with who we are. There are a lot of things like that.

    I’m not sure how long it takes for me to actually do something. At least 3… 🙂

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  2. I had a similar project to increase the amount of empathy I feel, though I wasn’t nearly as systematic as Nikki. Whenever I caught myself thinking less of someone, I took a deep breath and thought up plausible reasons why they might be acting poorly.

    This exercise worked for me. I am much more patient now and can easily make up life stories for strangers (and characters). This may have left me more gullible to credible sounding lies but fortunately I married a skeptic. 😛

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    • LOL, I know what you mean. I married a skeptic too. I guess it makes for a nice balance. I like that idea of inventing a story for people to help empathize more. Stories are so perfect for that! 😀

      I’m glad the deep breath worked for you too. There’s something about more oxygen to the brain that helps. 😉

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  3. This is a lesson best learned over and over. I have never been more busy, nor more happy. Funny enough the quote I chose for the year was: “I wish to be up and doing. I wish to face each day with resolution and purpose. I wish to use every waking hour to give encouragement, to bless those whose burdens are heavy, to build faith and strength of testimony.” Gordon B. Hinckley

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  4. “I am a child of God. I am worth loving. I am a good person. I am a good husband and father. I am a good son. I am smart, talented and funny…”

    That came from a letter I wrote myself in November 2007. Each of the “I am…” statements came with a paragraph at first, but the topic sentence of each was what made the mantra. Of all the therapies I tried, repeating this one out loud many times, and then in my head after it stuck, got me out of my depression. Its why I don’t need drugs today.

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