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Making new “desire paths” in the brain

This is not [exactly] about sex. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read on for hints on how to find more happiness in your life.  

The mostly blue and white cover of the book, Hardwiring Happiness by Rick HansonMy latest library book is Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. The book’s copyright is from 2013; I’m not expecting to be blown away from any of the study results Hanson cites. I’m more interested in how he explains neuroplasticity to a layman reader. Simply, neuroplasticity is the term scientists use to describe the brain’s ability to adapt. In complex terms, neuroplasticity is the microscopic and systemic change that occurs in the brain’s structure in response to stimuli.

We just figured out a few decades ago that the brain changes over time, and not just “senioritis” changes we see in old age. Instead of being formed as we are children and staying static throughout our lives, the brain experiences damages and healing like all other organs. But just as a broken bone won’t heal well without medical intervention, damaged brains won’t heal well without help.

Brains, like people, prefer paths of least resistance. Little information wires consisting of neurons, axons, dendrites, and lots of other cool stuff carry messages all over your brain. Since animals are professional energy-conservationists, the brain looks for the quickest road that will get a message from Point A to Point B.

Ever been on a college campus? You’ll notice a trail or two etched through the quad’s greens. Usually these worn paths sidestep lawn corners or make a diagonal swath through a giant field. In civil engineering circles, these foot-made lanes are called “desire paths” or “desire lines.” Wikipedia cites other nicknames for the phenomena, including “bootleg trail” and “goat track.”

color photo of a footpath carved into a lawn from a sidewalk to the front of a brick building.

We’ve all helped make desire paths. Why would we walk a 90-degree angle when a 45-degree cut-through gets us there quicker? We wouldn’t, and neither do other animals. Brains like shortcuts.

Some of these brain shortcuts come out as biases, influencing belief and behavior. Biases are default decisions. When we experienced something in the past, we learned from it and our brains made its first shortcut associated with that situation. Depending on the frequency of similar situations and the severity of the experiences, the shortcut can quickly or slowly become a deep rut in the landscape of our brains. That’s how bias works.

Instant biases are formed by strong negative experiences. No repetition necessary. If our brain detects a life-threatening circumstance, it will decide for you. It will say:


This is why we tend to dwell on negative things instead of positive things. We can survive thousands of positive experiences but one negative experience can kill us. The brain is super-serious about survival. It will bombard you with reminders of what is negative. Unfortunately, it can’t tell the difference between stubbing your toe and falling off a building. It has a BAD/GOOD setting when it comes to building pathways. Bad experiences get priority. This is why biases are so easy to build and so hard to break down. This bias is called the negativity bias.

Here, Dr. Hanson explains the what negativity bias does to us and the general purpose of his book:

“Leveling the Playing Field.
The negativity bias doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. But if you’re happy, you’re happy in spite of it. It’s a bias, ready to spring into action depending on events. When you feel good, it waits in the background, looking for a reason to make you feel bad. When you [already] feel bad, it makes you feel worse.

This bias creates two kinds of problems. First, it increases the negative. It pulls your attention to what is or could be bad, makes you overreact to it, and stores the negative experience in implicit memory. It also creates vicious circles of negativity both inside your brain and with other people. In a variety of ways, this bias increases your stresses, worries, frustrations, irritations, hurts, sorrows, feelings of falling short, and conflicts with others.

Second, the negativity bias decreases the positive. It slides your attention past the good facts around you. It makes you under-react to the good facts you do notice. And it slips the good experiences you do have right through your brain, leaving little or no trace behind. This bias is a kind of bottleneck that makes it harder to get happiness in your brain.

In effect, the negativity bias is tilted toward immediate survival, but against quality of life, peaceful and fulfilling relationships, and lasting mental and physical health. This is the simple default of the Stone Age brain. If we don’t take charge of it, it will continue to take charge of us.

Tilting toward the positive simply levels the playing field. Taking in the good corrects for the two tendencies of the negativity bias: This practice decreases negative feelings, thoughts and actions while increasing positive ones.

And over time, taking in the good can help you experience that your core needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection are finally fully met. …” – Page 29-30, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Brains can forge different “desire paths” in their landscapes. Building new, positive paths can be a bit of an uphill battle, especially for those of us who have suffered brain traumas like concussions, abuse, or poverty. It can be done, though. Watch this 4.5 million-views talk by Daniel Amen about SPECT scanning and brain rehab for further thoughts on healing a bumpy brain. Dr. Amen also has 12 Prescriptions for Creating a Healthy Brain Life for you to try. 

I’ll let you know if I find any groundbreaking advice in this book. For now, know your obsessiveness, anxieties and invasive thoughts can be unraveled and de-powered, and a new way of living is possible. Look into Cognitive-Behavioral training if you’re interested in attacking your brain’s negativity bias now.

Stay healthy. 🙂



Photo of a desire path in a lawn by user wetwebwork on Flickr


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Roasting chestnuts on an open fire is a lot easier sung than done. Embers, hot ones and a lot of ’em, are required for chestnut roasting. There are a lot of other things to know, too, about actually doing something we hear about in song every year. 

2-inch chestnuts, scored with an "x" on their rounded shell surfaces

But, I did my research! I was prepared! The embers, though, weren’t. The chestnuts weren’t roasted well, if at all. The shells clung to the nuts like a first-day-of-preschool toddler deathgrips his mom. I did everything I was supposed to do. Sometimes there just isn’t enough fire. 

“Well. We tried it!” my daughter said. Yes. We tried it. We didn’t nail the landing. We barely even tasted a chestnut. Yet! There is another experience I can truthfully say I’ve done. 

I don’t usually get ideas for projects from song lyrics. At least, I don’t think I do. I’m not about to go find 8 maids a-milking and gift them to my true love. Human trafficking doesn’t make for a great Christmas gift. Some things are fun to try only because you hear them in a song. Some things shouldn’t be in songs.

If you ask the people around me if I’m “up for anything,” you’d get wildly different answers. My spouse would say I’m “not good” with change. My neighbors would say “I wouldn’t be surprised” if they’d heard I base-jumped off the highest building in Philadelphia. My kids might say I come up with “crazy schemes” like the time I invited a French exchange student to live with us for the summer, or said, “Yeah, we can get a dog.” Friends from all eras would each have one story about me that would demonstrate clearly their point, whether it be I’m a Wentz-dive-in-the-end-zone-head-first-er or a Rodgers-fall-back-into-the-pocket-and-wait-er.

It’s hard to predict which new things I’ll try and which new things I’ll try to avoid. My new thing over the past year is to study mindfulness and dedication. My official stance on mindfulness is that it’s crap and you need to be wary of the sources of the “mindfulness=more” message. Looketh thine eyes to Wall Street, whence cometh their fake Buddhist faith. Personally, though, I’ve been a big advocate for mindfulness my entire life. Dedication, “discipline”… those are foreign concepts for me. The One Thing book by Kellar told me to forget the discipline doctrine. We need be disciplined in only one area to succeed: Our One Thing. No need to live a monastic life. But dedication is all-encompassing. Dedication requires full attention and devotion. 

4-hours/day, 5 days/week is what I’m putting aside for fiction writing. If this move produces results, this is a commitment I’m hoping to honor for a mighty long time. It’s new. My old habits are throwing tantrums as I shake them up to make room for this new one. Sometimes the nursery school workers have to pry them from my body. But once I’m gone, they won’t miss me. And I can have some precious hours to myself to work toward a novel.



chestnuts on fire in a pan 0 comments

No, I don’t have a mentor

a picture of a cat laying behind and holding some electronic connectors

“Please don’t ask me to mentor you…”

Writing advice comes at you every which way from Sunday when you’re a writer. One juicy bit is “find a mentor.” I’ve been seeing this particular gem floating around “Lean-in” circles, too. Apparently we (women especially) are supposed to find older, wiser guides through this big, confusing world. 

Finding and keeping a mentor seems a wee bit … fantastical. As in, “keep dreaming.” How does that conversation go, exactly?

“Hi, Ursula K. Le Guin? I have a question. You don’t know me and I have yet to be published and I don’t live near you but I was wondering, can you be my mentor?”
… “What does that mean? Well, gosh, I actually don’t know. Spend hours and hours every month or so reading my shitty first drafts, then spend another night each week building up my confidence as a writer and, frankly, as a person, and, I don’t know, make your agent take me on and other writerly favors? How’s that sound?”
… “I can offer you free exposure on my blog. It will get your name out there.”
“Hi, Margaret Atwood? Yes, Ursula K. Le Guin told me to call you. I have a question…”


“Hi. Neil Gaiman?” Click. “Mr. Gaiman? Neil?? Are you still there?”

I can’t imagine asking someone to be my mentor because I don’t think I would want to be asked myself to be someone’s mentor, if I am ever fortunate enough to be in a position to be considered a leader in the writing industry. Here’s my main block: What’s in it for the mentor? In the writing world, writers write. They need time to do that. What money or recognition will come from mentoring a random writer who may or may not help sell your books? Writers teach classes if they want to mentor younger writers.

In my travels, I’ve heard of mentoring programs like Pitch Wars. Some writers swear by it, but I’m just not ready to research something like that or spend precious writing time and energy on someone else’s opinion of my work. Unless you’re my agent (or beloved beta readers), I don’t want your feedback. 

Career mentoring is not that formally structured in the writing world. At least, it doesn’t seem so. Writing is a solitary sport and publishing is a cut-throat competition. (Sounds like a lovely use of my time, doesn’t it?) “Build a community of writers” is another bit of related advice. When something is a solitary occupation, building communities, finding support, getting a mentor is weird and difficult and awkward. Maybe *after* I’ve published my first novel, I’ll feel more a part of a group. I have writer friends now, and they are enough. Are we a “community?” No. We’re friends that do similar jobs. Are we all in a “writing group?” No. That’s another piece of writing advice I ignore. I know myself, and I know I’d spend way more time on other people’s writing than I would my own. A writing group isn’t a wise choice for me right now. 

Production is the proof. Write words, or do not write words. There is no try. I feel like a mentor, a writing group, et al, etc. all-the-other-advisories, would not help me get that word count up there. I’ll ask for advice when I need it, and it will be presented in questions that are short, sweet, and can be answered in one conversation. 

I sound like a rebellious lone wolf. Perhaps I am. I have no idea. I don’t have a mentor to tell me so. 🙂 


Photo by Angela N. on Flickr (click on photo for link)


BOOK REVIEW: The One Thing


The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

by Gary Kellar and Jay Papasan Hardcover, April 2013

I’m late to this game, but The One Thing (2013) is still a great, easy-to-read motivational book. But be warned: The One Thing isn’t for the typical New Year’s Eve Resolutioner. It recommends you find ONE THING you want to accomplish and concentrate on that. When the authors say concentrate, they mean *really* concentrate. Like, the 4 hours/day kind of concentration. 

I’m writing this review after trying this 4-hour thing for a few days. Taking it easy on myself, my requirement for the 4-hours was not only physically writing fiction. It was simply “butt-in-chair,” i.e., sitting at my desk, with my notebooks and other writing tools. I could write, I could outline, I could plot. Whatever. My goal was to sit for 4 hours each weekday and allow myself to be immersed in the story. I set a timer on my phone. I paused it for every break (which I kept short) and restarted it when I sat back down. 

Most of us have never focused on one thing for 4 hours every weekday. Unless your job requires intense concentration on a specific task, focusing on one thing day after day is a lifestyle choice very foreign to us. The One Thing tells us the road to greatness is focus.

My fiction writing used to occur in hour-long or maybe two-hour-long spurts. Being a parent and a freelance writer, I allowed many interruptions to derail my project. Sometimes days or even weeks would go by before I got back to it. This was acceptable, obviously, because I allowed it to continue. Sometimes I’d wonder if I’d ever have “enough time” to write fiction. 

Kellar and Papasan use various images and examples in the book to demonstrate the effects of the same focused effort applied day after day. It’s kind of a drop-in-the-bucket theory we’ve all heard before: slow and steady wins the race.

The One Thing proves to be quite essential not for its time-worn advice or even it’s radical-focus solution, but for its myth-busting sections. The authors go over 6 myths that derail the determined go-getter. They call them “The Six Lies Between You and Success.” Here they are:

  1. Everything Matters Equally
  2. Multitasking
  3. A Disciplined Life
  4. Willpower Is Always on Will-Call
  5. A Balanced Life
  6. Big is Bad

We can pretty much figure out how the authors will handle #1 and #2 simply by rereading the title of the book. And for the love of Pete, if you are still clinging to the idea that you can multitask and get either task done effectively, please go stick your head or your phone in the microwave. Or read some psych and fMRI research. 

What stopped me in my tracks was #3. ALL of the motivational crap out there talks about discipline. Some advice I’ve read everywhere else: Have the same exact sleep schedule every day. Follow a morning ritual. Have a bedtime ritual. Plan meals. Eat the same thing everyday. Wear the same type of outfit. Blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. 

Then I got to #3. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“There is a pervasive idea that the successful person is the ‘disciplined person’ who leads a ‘disciplined life.’
It’s a lie.
The truth is we don’t need any more discipline than we already have. We just need to direct and manage it a little better.”

Experiencing paradigm-shifting shock when reading a motivational book is rare. I’ve read so many behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, and human studies books, I’m inured to their oft-similar messages. I’d believed their hype about self-control so strongly I’d internalized the message: if I am not wholly living a strictly disciplined life, I will achieve nothing. I accepted my lack of a published novel for many reasons, one of them being I don’t have a life conducive to living like a monk or an Olympic athlete. The authors tell us to ditch this restrictive idea. We don’t need a disciplined life, we just need enough discipline to get us through establishing a habit (about 66 days in their estimation).

I wish I could reproduce the whole chapter here. If this concept speaks to you, get the book. If you are disillusioned like I was, this chapter alone is worth the read. It’s available at libraries in ebook and hardcover forms. 

#4’s chapter on willpower is sadly a bit out-of-date. The concept that willpower is a limited resource has been debunked in various studies. This book is from 2013 and needs an update in this area. “Ego depletion” is not a set thing. 

The other chapters are definitely worth a look, though. There is a little trick on how to use the concept of “The One Thing” in everything you do. It’s a real insight into how very successful entrepreneurs think. 

I liked the book a lot, and if you’re after a certain type of success, like writing a novel, for example, I think you’ll find a few gems in The One Thing. I’m going to stick with the 4-hour/day (weekdays) of my One Thing.


Here’s a youtube video of some dude explaining some of the points in The One Thing book.
Why what they’ve been telling you about willpower isn’t exactly right, from the American Psychological Association (pdf).





Goad with Friends


Wanna change your life? It helps to have a group of nags.


I’ve done 2 things lately in the area of goal attainment. First is reading The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Kellar with Jay Papasan (aff. link, which are a joke btw). I’ll try to get a review of the book up in a few days. For now, know it is part typical-motivation-book, part myth-busting-genius. The second thing I did: I went to a party.

At the party, we had food and wine and plopped down with blankies and pillows to watch Shawshank Redemption. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’! Some of us did yarn art during, namely knitting and crocheting. I got gifted a pig (see photo). Afterwards we played a few party games. It was typical, fun stuff.

A partier crochets small animals and hands them out. I got one! We named her Butterscotch, and she is a Magical Comforting Pig.

During the movie, we all wrote one goal down. A book and a pencil went around the room and we all committed, in writing, to a goal. Some goals were health related, some career related. You get the idea.

A few days later, the Shawshank-goal-setting-party planning group on Facebook turned into an accountability group. Now the party’s hosts, fellow attendees and I are discussing motivation and goal-setting, and we’re stating publicly what we plan to do each week. One lady set up her Etsy shop like she said she would. Demonstrated success!

The group is in its beginning stages, but I have a feeling if I use it correctly, it can help me stay focused on my 1 thing (as per The One Thing book). A minor snag: *Actual* accountability is missing from the group. From what I’ve read about habits and such, the group should have a cash pot at a bank somewhere. After a certain amount is earned in the pot, the cash cache is donated… but get this – not to a group we are all aligned with. No. The money would go to a group that DISGUSTS us. Like Nazis. 

My yarn contraption for the Ravenclaw scarf I’m knitting. I brought it all with me to the Shawshank party.

That would be hard core. But man, I’d sure-as-hell rearrange my entire life to avoid paying even one dime to a hate organization. My 1 Thing? Writing, specifically: to submit at least one piece of writing a month (assumed is working on the novel as well). I’d stay up all night getting SOMETHING submitted SOMEWHERE on the last day of every month if that is what it would take to save my dimes and let’s face it, the world.

We’re not yet this vicious as to threaten people with such eternal damnation. But studies in the literature suggest this kind of extreme measure is just what some people need to break old or begin new habits. Hopefully the Shawshank partiers and I will achieve our goals without making a pact with such distasteful consequences. 

In the next several weeks, I’ll change my daily routines around fiction writing and blogging. I have paying freelance work, so that will always come first, but my goal is to spend 4 hours a day on my own creative work (advice from The One Thing book). 4 hours is a lot. I know. I’ll take the weekends off.

I want to see if I can be a powerhouse in writing production. I’ve been a powerhouse worker in other jobs. We’ll see if I can at least sit in my writing chair for 4 hours. Many writers say they can write fiction for 2 hours a day, tops. I want to go beyond that. I may be naive. Don’t know until you try, right?

Get a group together for your New Year’s Resolutions. If you really want to get a fire lit under their butts, have them toss money in a pot first. It can go toward a group dinner or Nazis or whatever else. You all have more of a chance of winning at this new-habit game if you do. As for me, if you see me blogging more often, then you know I’m at least part of the way there.