The Power of Mental 'Rehearsal'

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Choose your thoughts carefully, as they become more instinctive over time.

I have spent much of this summer thinking about how to use my time more efficiently and effectively. A big part of this effort has revolved around minimizing distractions, primarily time spent on social media, which I struggle to regulate. I did this by deactivating Facebook and Instagram for the entire month of August. (The challenge continues and I'll report more on that soon.)

In an effort to boost creativity, I have been trying to read more, be selective about social engagements, and create opportunities to think quietly, which is no easy task with little kids tearing around the house and making endless demands.

But there is another aspect to this challenge that I didn't consider until I read an article in Psych Central by Kellie Edwards. Titled "What Are You Rehearsing?", it raises the powerful point that the thoughts we rehearse in our brains become learned patterns. I interpret this as meaning that, even if I'm successfully reducing external distractions, it doesn't necessarily guarantee the desired outcome unless I am actively pursuing positive, educational, deep information at the same time.

Edwards cites neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who describes neuroplasticity as neutral – "junk in, junk out, good stuff in, good stuff out." She writes,

"Our brain evolved to protect us from the threat of extinction, so it [tends toward] focused, negative bias. Left to its own devices, you will most likely be unaware that you are 'rehearsing' whatever your attention rests on — problems and threats. Your mental activity is forming neural circuits that make it more likely you will return to that line of thought."

This is a "wolf in sheep's clothing" because these worrisome thoughts masquerade as something useful and productive, when in reality they're more like attention vampires. Most dangerously, they make worrying a habit, something we're rehearsing and getting good at, when there are so many other things on which we could (and should) be focusing our attention. Edwards recommends rehearsing helpful thoughts instead, "ones that build the foundations of well-being, happiness, focus and creative thought." She says,

"Athletes use this deliberate practice to rehearse the moves they want to improve. Musicians do this to master complicated works and almost any profession that has some kind of supervised apprenticeship does the same: choosing which moves to rehearse to develop better performance at that task. They learn from experts and they choose where they place their attention."

Many people dedicate entire lifetimes to refocusing their attention, streamlining their use of time, and controlling their mental impulses, so my mini summer experiment is a pathetically small drop in the bucket. But I have to start somewhere, and it's clear that the next logical stage in my experiment is to exert greater control over what gets contemplated during my newly established thinking times, not simply let my mind wander and fret about minute details.

So, as Edwards asks, what are you rehearsing?