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An Excerpt from a

Transcript

Below you will find an excerpt of the transcript (including a full table of contents) from the course with Kelly McGonigal, PhD. Transcripts are a great way to review, take notes, and make the ideas from the sessions your own. Here's the sample:

The Neurobiology of Willpower (It's Not What You Expect)

with Kelly McGonigal, PhD
and Ruth Buczynski, PhD

Contents

How to Define What Happens in the Brain during Trauma . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

3

How Our System of Self-Control Has Evolved . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

6

Training for Willpower: The Role of Meditation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

8

The Pause and Plan Response . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

10

How Willpower Studies Are Conducted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

11

More Studies on Willpower . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

13

Sugar and Willpower . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

15

The Anticipation of Reward . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

18

Stress and the Brain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

21

Self-Compassion vs.Guilt and Shame . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

21

The Marshmallow Study . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

23

Willpower and Social Engagement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24

The 10 Minute Delay Rule . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

25

TalkBack Segment with Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD and Ron Siegel, PsyD . . . . . . . . .

28

The Biggest Takeaways . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

28

Willpower Training: Being Aware of Moment to Moment Experience . . . . . . . .

29

Prepping Patients to Consider What They Want . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

31

Helping People to Move Beyond Their Blocks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

32

How Social Connections Strengthen Willpower . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

33

About the Speakers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

36

How Willpower Studies Are Conducted

Dr. Buczynski: Tell us, how are these studies done? What do they have the subjects do?

Dr. McGonigal: One of the original studies that Suzanne did actually brought people into the laboratory for a taste test.

If you can imagine this, they’re told not to eat, they come into the laboratory and they’re alone in a room. They see this amazing spread of brownies and cookies and chocolate. They’re like, Yes, I’m ready for this!

There also happens to be a little tray of carrot sticks and celery sticks.

The researcher comes in and says, “Okay, the delicious stuff like the brownies and cookies – those are for the next participant. Your job is to taste test the vegetables – the carrot and celery sticks. You can eat as many of those as you want, but please don’t touch the desserts.”

“When people resist the temptation their heart rate slows down while their heart rate variability and their autonomic balance increases.”

Then, the researcher leaves the room and keeps track of whether they resist the temptation or not.

You can see that when people resist the temptation, eat what they really want to eat, their heart rate slows down while their heart rate variability and their autonomic balance increases.

Dr. Buczynski: Their balance increases. Does the variability increase?

Dr. McGonigal: The heart rate variability increases.

Dr. Buczynski: What do we mean by heart rate variability? There’s a wide range of people on the call, so let’s make sure everyone understands.

Dr. McGonigal: Sure. Heart rate variability is very different from heart rate which we’re more used to measuring.

If you were just to notice right now your own breath and notice when you breath in and when you breath out, if you’re autonomic nervous system is in a balanced state right now, your heart rate will increase when you breath in, and your heart rate will decrease when you breathe out.

“People who have higher baseline heart rate variability have more willpower and more resilience to stress.”

That’s an index of the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation…People who have higher baseline heart rate variability, first of all, have more willpower and more resilience to stress.

They also have better cardiovascular health and it’s actually a great predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular well-being.

Dr. Buczynski: The discrepancy is between their rates at breath in versus breath out.

Dr. McGonigal: It’s the synchronization between your heart rate and your breath. There’s nothing magical about that; it’s just a measure of the balance of your autonomic nervous system.

It means that you aren’t stuck in a stress state, which of course many people are. When we talk about high heart rate variability, what we’re really talking about is the state of the nervous system, but heart rate variability is the way that we measure it.

Dr. Buczynski: And heart rate variability is correlated…with willpower.

Dr. McGonigal: Yes it is. If you bring people into the laboratory and you measure their baseline heart rate variability, you can predict what they’ll do when you give them various willpower challenges.

Dr. Buczynski: If you send them into the room and say “Don’t eat anything but the carrots, you can predict…”

Dr. McGonigal: You can predict both from their baseline and also whether they have an increase in heart rate variability when they’re given the willpower challenge.

There are two ways to think about this. Some of us are walking around in the world in a state that is ready for willpower challenges, and that tends to be a state that is based on being well rested – not being sleep deprived and not being in a state of a real stress.

“Some of us are walking around in the world in a state that is ready for willpower challenges, and that tends to be a state that is based on being well rested.”

Now that’s not everyone. You could be walking around in a state of total stress and sleep deprivation, but you can also choose to shift into this state of balance when you’re tempted or distracted or threatened. You can also predict people’s responses by whether they’re able to get into this state even if they weren’t in it originally.

“You can increase your heart rate variability by choosing to focus on your breath and slowing down the breath.”

The best way to do that is the same breathing technique we’ve already talked about – you can increase your heart rate variability by choosing to focus on your breath and slowing down the breath just a little bit, not in any really controlled, difficult struggle kind of way, but just slowing down the breath a little bit.

You want to slow your breath down to about six breaths a minute, which would be like seven, eight second inhales and seven, eight second exhales. It’s actually not that hard.

When I have people try it out, most people are able to do it the very first time just by thinking about the breath.

More Studies on Willpower

“These studies take willpower out of the moral domain and into a scientific domain.”

Dr. Buczynski: You have so many fascinating studies that you share in the book, and I think they’re really interesting. These are studies that some of our people can talk to their patients about.

This takes willpower out of the moral domain and into a scientific domain, and that, perhaps, is what can motivate people. So I want to just go into a few more.

You have the Willpower Miracle, which is a new treatment for enhancing self-control with Megan Oaten (Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia). Can you tell us about that?

Dr. McGonigal: This was a great study. I’m kind of joking when I call it the Miracle Willpower Cure.

This was a study that took people who do not exercise at all and gave them free gym memberships, asked them to use the memberships, and had them keep track of other aspects of willpower: what they were eating, how much they were procrastinating, how much they were spending – whether or not they were doing impulse purchases, how much they smoked, how much caffeine they consumed…any of these kinds of basic willpower challenges. They were even asked how well they were able to control their temper.

The research found that in the beginning, of course, it took awhile to get them to use their gym membership. They were exercising once a week at first and then building up to a couple of times a week.

“By the end of the study, people who were able to exercise a little bit more were also making these amazing changes in every other willpower domain.”

By the end of the study, a couple of months in, people who were able to exercise a little bit more were also making these amazing changes in every other willpower domain, even though the researchers had not asked them to.

They were eating less junk food; they were smoking less and using less caffeine; they were reporting that they procrastinated less and were better able to control their tempers and…everything you can imagine.

So, I called this a Miracle Willpower Cure because they changed one thing and it had this kind of overall effect on making good choices that were consistent with their well-being and consistent with their goals.

This is just one study that demonstrates how helpful physical exercise is for willpower.

“This is just one study that demonstrates how helpful physical exercise is for willpower.”

That’s kind of funny because a lot of people will tell me that it takes willpower to exercise. That’s what they want the willpower for: to exercise,

Of anything that you could do to change your brain – to train your brain and to reduce stress – and be better able to have willpower – exercise is the activity.

“Exercise is definitely it for those two reasons: it specifically changes the brain.”

Exercise is definitely it for those two reasons: it specifically changes the brain. We’re not entirely sure why, but there’s something about the metabolic demands: particular cardiovascular exercise seems to improve the cardiovascular health of the brain and increase the brain health of the prefrontal cortex specifically.

You can even see it as a training effect. You can take people who are sedentary, have them exercise with moderate cardiovascular exercise, and you can see them improve in neuropsychological tests of executive function and prefrontal cortex function. Then you make them stop exercising, and they deteriorate again.

It’s something that happens in a very fast training response. It doesn’t take years of training to exercise. That’s our Willpower Miracle.


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