In July I went to spend a week in Kauai, Hawaii with my son Nathan and his family. One afternoon I was sitting on the couch talking with three grandkids while we waited to leave for the beach where they were going to compete in a lifeguard contest. One of the kids asked me what neuroplasticity meant and what my new book was all about. This is what I told them.
Well, I could tell you about the brain-gut connection because a person can’t have an emotionally and mentally stable brain without a well-functioning gut. The gut is the only other part of the body that has the same type of cells as the brain. Some scientists even suggest that the gut might be capable of thought like the brain! And the microbes are really interesting. They are like our own garden of worms. If we mistreat them through too much stress, we are doomed. I loved researching for this chapter, and I know you would love to hear about your worms, but I think I will tell you how to have good executive function, because today at the beach you can exercise what I am going to teach you and grow yourself a better brain. Executive function is the scientists’ term that refers to being in control of your body and mind. You have heard people talking about having a high IQ; well, having good executive function means you will have high emotional intelligence (EQ). Scientists now agree that EQ is more important to success and happiness than is IQ.
Think about it like this: You know how your daddy never has to struggle with what not to eat or how much to eat? You know how he always does what he says he will do? You know that he would never take drugs or become an alcoholic? None of these things are even a temptation to him. He is totally disinterested. That’s executive function, and neuroplasticity explains why it is important. By means of brain scans—real-time pictures—scientists can see how the brain is functioning, so it is now possible to see the brain develop executive skills. Chapter 7 is written to teach people what science has learned about how a person can develop new brain patterns that will aid them all their lives. I want all my grands to have the opportunity to have good executive functions.
The marshmallow story is the most famous research on this subject. A teacher walked into a room where fifty 5-year-olds sat. She was holding a large tray of marshmallows that she was obviously about to distribute to the children, but before she could pass them out she pretended she had a call and had to leave the room for 15 minutes. She told the children that if they couldn’t wait she would give them a marshmallow now or her helper would give them a marshmallow anytime while she was gone; but if they waited just 15 minutes, when she returned she would give two marshmallows to those who waited. A few of the children had already fixed their minds on getting a marshmallow and were ready to cry if they couldn’t have one immediately. As they sat licking and chewing on their marshmallow, some of the other children who sat watching and longing decided they could not wait either, so they raised their hands for the helper to bring them a marshmallow. But most of the children sat and waited until the teacher returned.
This study on delayed gratification was first done about 50 years ago. The researcher followed these kids as they grew up and noted that the children who waited fared better in life in happiness and success. This test has been done many times. This year when they did the same test, most of the children demanded a marshmallow immediately. Only a few lone children sat patiently waiting.
Why were the results so different this year compared to 50 years ago, and what makes one child frantic to get the marshmallow immediately while another child can sit and watch others eat and not be moved? Neuroplasticity not only teaches us why, it also teaches us how we can all become self-disciplined to the point that it is not even a struggle or a sacrifice to wait our turn. Our brains actually wire to “feel” differently about things. In neuroplasticity it is said that “things that fire together wire together.” This means the more you respond a certain way (fire), the more your brain is wired to stay that way until you naturally respond to certain things the same way each time. Obviously, in previous years parents instilled these qualities into their children more than they do in today’s world.
In my book I share what researchers have learned about how to groom focus, self-control, self-restraint, memory through storytelling, resourcefulness and courage, confidence, love and charity, leadership, as well as other facets of emotional intelligence. You will have to read my book to learn more, and what is really great is that once you develop these skills they will last your whole life.
Now, how about you? Could you resist the marshmallow? You can test yourself today while we are out on the beach doing the lifeguard training. You know the leaders will provide all the snacks free of charge. A child whose brain is grooved in executive function will have access to the same unlimited amount of snacks as the child who is lacking executive skills. When you go through the line, will you pile as much as possible on your tray or will you make a decision to get only what you think your body needs to function at its best? Keep in mind every time you make a decision to do the more self-controlled thing, you are building a better brain that will cause you to naturally continue to do the right thing. It is far better than winning a contest.