Between 1987 and 1991, scientists built a research facility called Biosphere 2 in Arizona. The primary aim was to study the elements of nature’s ecosystems in a closed and controlled environment to understand their dynamics and see if we could replicate our ecosystems in space.
The experiment yielded tremendous data, but one of the most interesting learnings was what happened to the trees. To the surprise of everyone, they grew much faster than in nature. However, they fell over before fully maturing. Upon further investigation, the researchers concluded that this phenomenon occurred because their root systems were much weaker than in nature. The reason for this…? The scientists did not account for the wind! It’s the repeated gentle push and pull of the wind that promotes a deeper, wider, and more grounded root system.
Trees (like our muscles) need resistance to grow strong and healthy. Most of us might better relate to this concept when considering athletes and sports. The harder you train the body, the stronger it gets (within limits). The more you practice a specific sport or discipline, the better and stronger you get at those specifically needed skills.
The difference between the Biosphere tree analogy and this sports analogy is that we understand that with sports, we can intentionally decide to do the hard or uncomfortable work. That work is a precursor to action and ultimately, achieving a desired outcome. The challenge is that our brains are hardwired to avoid any actual, perceived, or potential discomfort or pain. When we decide to act intentionally and put our bodies and minds into uncomfortable situations to achieve a goal, we usually call this ability, willpower.
Willpower is the mental skill to do, or not do, what is required to achieve a given goal. Whether it revolves around giving a presentation you don’t want to, learning new sales training concepts that seem difficult to implement, or dealing with a troublesome client, activating willpower is rooted in psychology and the other part in biology.
What if I told you that there are parts of our brain that are structured more like a muscle than a finite grouping of neurons? We see this during a human’s natural brain development starting in the womb, continuing after birth, and typically being completed by our late 20’s or early 30’s. Scientists have now discovered that neurogenesis (the process where the brain creates new brain cells) can also happen after the brain is fully matured. There are even parts of the brain that can build and/or rebuild damaged areas when properly activated. For example, studies around the hippocampus and its function with memory have shown the brain’s ability to grow that region and improve memory with the proper stimulation… even in the elderly.*
How does this apply to willpower?
Recently, researchers have discovered another region of the brain that has this ability to expand on its own called the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC). Located in the prefrontal context, this region contributes to willpower by providing the ability for the brain to do things that it doesn’t want to. Ultimately, it helps to override our instinctual impulses to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Researchers have observed, using functional MRIs, that the more an individual chooses to do something they don’t like or want to do, the more this region grows in size! The keywords here are “doing something you don’t want or like to do”.
If you love hitting the gym and working hard, this will not affect this region. If you enjoy the professional growth aspect of sales training, it won’t grow. It must be a mental struggle that you override and push through. However, if someone deeply fears water and decides to put their head beneath the surface inside a pool, or if you hate to get up early but set your alarm for 5 am to look through your sales training before a sales call, then this area of the brain will expand.
It’s important to note that, like a muscle, this region will grow when stimulated and will shrink when not. Researchers have noticed that this area is small in obese individuals and larger in healthy and active individuals.* There is a fascinating YouTube video where this is being discussed during an interview between David Goggins (a former US Navy Seal) and Dr. Andrew Hubberman (a neuroscientist)*
So, what’s the point? All this to say, if you desire to increase your willpower, you need to seek out and overcome the “winds” of life. By choosing to do things you don’t enjoy but you know will help you in the long term, you will build your “brain-roots” and they will help you achieve those goals of excellence you seek.
The Tenacious Brain – Cortex. 2020 Feb; 123: 12–29.
YouTube – How to build willpower – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84dYijIpWjQ
What is Neurogenesis – Kendra Cherry – Nov 1, 2023 – Verywell Mind