Why Aren’t We Perfect? Or Are We? –And the Science Behind It

You can take a class in college in abnormal psychology where you learn everything that is wrong with us. What about everything that is right with us? And by right, I mean reaching our full potential –being the best we can possibly be. Why don’t they teach classes about this in college? Maybe there isn’t enough known about these states, how to achieve them and most importantly, how to train them.

We certainly can think of extraordinary people –those that seem to sail through life, performing effortlessly and having a great time along the way. Michael Jordan is a great example -tongue hanging out of his mouth as he consistently dominated the professional basketball scene, finishing as one of the, if not, the greatest in the sport.

So how can we become the Michael Jordan’s of the world no matter what our sport or profession? Maybe we actually can do this –perhaps we can be great at whatever we do. And perhaps there are ways to train this as well.

It may start with learning to get out of our own way. We can all remember times (perhaps even from today) where we’ve tripped ourselves up, or otherwise gotten in our own way simply by, well getting in our own way. By this, I mean worrying about something we are about to do, regretting something we’ve done in the past, or even sitting there craving a piece of chocolate instead of engaging in a meeting with our boss (and then she asks what we think of her idea, and we stammer red faced trying to make something up to hide the fact that we’ve been daydreaming instead of listening to her).

My laboratory at Yale University School of Medicine has been studying ways to help people get out of their own way. Mindfulness training is one of these types of training –we can help people notice what its like to get in their own way and then step out. For example, we help smokers pay attention to their cravings, and instead of reactively smoke, just “be with” their cravings as they come and go. This may sound pretty wishy washy, but in a clinical trial that we performed, this training helped individuals quit smoking twice as much as the American Lung Association’s “gold standard” treatment. Not bad for getting out of your own way.

We’ve gone on to discover brain regions that are involved in this process –that get activated when you’re getting in your own way, and quiet down when you’re meditating2. And we are now developing methods to track this process, because if you can track it you can train it.

So, let’s flip this on its head and say that our somewhat normal way of being –getting in our own way, is abnormal. In contrast, our optimal psychology is one where we’re fully engaged in life –effortless, joyful, and as a result extremely productive. And as our neuroscience comes together that can map how this works, we can build tools to help all of us move into this optimal state more and more. In my TedX talk, I will talk about the personal aspect of getting in and out of our way, the science behind this process, and how particular parts of the brain can help illuminate our understanding of it, such that we can train to perform at our best. Perhaps as we start to gather all of this together, instead of focusing on abnormal psychology, colleges can start adding new courses on perfect psychology.

We are awesome. We just have to get out of our own way.

Dr. Brewer’s lab website

You can also find Dr. Brewer’s blog on the Huffington Post

  1. Brewer, J.A., S. Mallik, T.A. Babuscio, C. Nich, H.E. Johnson, C.M. Deleone, C.A. Minnix-Cotton, S.A. Byrne, H. Kober, A.J. Weinstein, K.M. Carroll, and B.J. Rounsaville, Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: Results from a randomized controlled trial. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 2011. 119(1-2): p. 72-80. PMCID: 3191261.
  2. Brewer, J.A., P.D. Worhunsky, J.R. Gray, Y.Y. Tang, J. Weber, and H. Kober, Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011. 108(50): p. 20254-9. PMCID: 3250176.

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