Are you stressed out about the LSAT? Do you dread taking practice tests? Or how about scoring a practice test? Don’t kid yourself. Everyone suffers from some degree of test anxiety. It’s only natural, and having a healthy recognition of the gravity of the test can be a very helpful motivator. But let me talk to you for a moment about an LSAT prep superpower you probably don’t even know you have.
I discovered this superpower by listening to a TEDx Talk by Dr. Rick Hanson entitled Hardwiring Happiness. Dr. Hanson is a neuroscientist who focuses on issues relating to neuroplasticity. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not hawking a psuedo-science elixir for instant memory and all around smarter-ness. Instead, I want to stick to how we can use the practice of purposeful attention to change how we perceive events and feel about our circumstances.
Despite my disclaimer about pseudo-science, there is evidence that we have the ability to produce physical changes in our brains. The most popular example I could find – and the one used by Dr. Hanson as an example – was a study of London cab drivers. To become a “black cab” driver in London, you have to learn The Knowledge, which includes a set of 320 routes through London and many points of interest. Researchers found that the hippocampus of these cab drivers was observably thicker than the average hippocampus. Since the hippocampus is associated with memory, this study is taken as evidence of brain neuroplasticity.
Now, back to Dr. Hanson, who believes that we can use the concept of neuroplasticity to help us deal with stressful situations more effectively and to generally lead happier lives. The human brain today retains the structure of the human brain possessed by the earliest hunter-gatherers. When we experience stress, our body releases the hormone cortisol, which stimulates the amygdala. Dr. Hanson refers to the amygdala as the “alarm bell of the brain.”
As we continue to encounter stressful situations, we become more sensitive to stress. Apparently, the brain is “very good at learning from bad experiences, but bad at learning from good ones.” This is because there were life-or-death consequences associated with the ability of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to learn from bad experiences. They needed their brains to be like Velcro for the bad. The problem is that our brains also tend to be like Teflon for the good, as Dr. Hanson puts it.
Research has found that cortisol eats away at the hippocampus, so much so that in some people the loss is as great as 25 percent. This means that people exposed to chronic stress lose some ability to tap into their visual/spatial memory.
But here’s the good part – not only does the brain change, but you can change your brain. Just like chronic exposure to stress can eat away at your capabilities, chronic exposure to good experiences can give you greater resilience when faced with negative events, helping you to cope with stress and to avoid the damage it can cause.
Remember when I said that our brains are like Velcro for bad experiences and like Teflon for good experiences? We can change this property by being intentional about the way we fix our attention on good experiences. Instead of letting a good experience simply pass us by without consideration, we can stop and savor the experience.
Dr. Hanson believes that if we hold the positive experience fixed in our thoughts for 15 to 20 seconds, we can move our consciousness of that experience from our short term memory buffers to long term storage. Doing this forces neurons associated with pleasant experiences to fire more frequently. And, “as neurons fire together in particularly patterned ways, it changes the structure of the brain.” The neural pathways start creating new connections with each other, and they become stronger and more receptive. Little by little, we change our brains from Teflon to Velcro when it comes to positive emotions.
How can this help you with the LSAT? Think for a moment about how you feel when you start a practice test or begin a new Logic Game. When you turn the page in the Logical Reasoning section, do you experience a positive or a negative emotion? Perhaps you’ve never consciously considered how you feel while you’re taking the test. But I’m guessing that for most people, and possibly for you too, the feeling is not good.
Thoughts of doubt, inadequacy, shame, and pressure rage to the surface. Am I smart enough? Will I ever be a lawyer, or should I leave that dream behind? These are all thoughts that hound us as we take a test like the LSAT. Our very thoughts trigger anxiety and the release of cortisol into our brains. While some level of short-term stress can be extremely helpful, the feelings I’m talking about are those that you don’t control and can’t harness. These negative emotions decrease your performance on test day and distract you from the game or passage or stimulus in front of you at the moment.
I believe that you can change those feelings, and not simply cope with them or – even worse – succumb to them. You can train your brain to respond positively to the LSAT. Instead of focusing all of your energy on your failures while studying, start paying attention to your successes. Savor the feeling of success when you get a question right. Hold on to that satisfaction for fifteen or twenty seconds, and truly experience it. Do this every time you do drills or take practice tests. Not necessarily for every question you got right, but for at least some of them. Perhaps the more difficult ones. Even when you miss a question, give yourself some credit for the things you did right, even if you ultimately got the question wrong.
Over time, and little by little, this process will start to reprogram your brain for the better, creating neural pathways that improve the way you experience the test. You can replace your seemingly instantaneous and unconscious negative responses to the LSAT with positive ones.
This doesn’t mean that you ignore your problem areas or simply pass over the questions you got wrong. Just don’t get bogged down in them. Don’t view them as failures, but rather as opportunities to learn more about the test and to improve your next performance. Much of how we experience the events of our lives is a choice. For the LSAT, and all things, choose to be positive.
Image: “Brain” by dierk schaefer