the-upward-spiralThe Upward Spiral

by Alex Korb

Review Part II

To read Part I, click here



Our daily practices and habits have a profound impact on our happiness, health and success. In The Upward Spiral, neuroscientist Alex Korb offers an incredibly accessible and practical insight into recent neuroscientific research. He suggests simple choices that we can make every day to rewire our brains, to initiate an upward spiral in the direction of health, happiness and success – instead of a downward spiral in the direction of depression, anxiety and confusion. We need only make small changes to greatly increase momentum in an upward direction.

Along with many other topics, he touches on the neuroscience of habit formation. Korb explains that the reasoning part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is where we make decisions based on our values and goals. This cortex has limited resources, and once they are depleted or stressed, the more impulsive and habitual parts of the brain will take over. However, once we have developed good habits and find ourselves depleted, stressed and becoming impulsive, we fall back on these newly formed positive habits to make choices that send us spiraling upward, rather than down.


When we repeat any action, thought sequence or behavior, it creates a neural pathway in the brain. Every time it is repeated it becomes stronger, taking less deliberate energy to repeat next time (rather than more energy and focus to create change). The best way to break unhealthy habits (or neural pathways) is by deliberately repeating the habit that we want to replace them with. While it will take considerable effort to begin with, the habit will become easier to continue as the pathway becomes stronger.
In times where you are calm and energised, do the work of developing better habits through repetition, so that when you are stressed you will instinctively do the things that spiral you up, not down.

Be Kind to Yourself

When trying to create a new habit (or break an old one), research has proven that when you feel good about yourself, you make better choices, more easily. This is partly because it enhances serotonin activity, which the pre-frontal cortex relies on to be able to overpower the habitual parts of the brain.

Find ways to boost your sense of achievement when you repeat a new habit, perhaps by keeping a checklist of habits you want to repeat and ticking them off to mark your success.
If you find yourself stumbling in creating or breaking a habit, don’t berate yourself. Take steps to increase the serotonin and other chemicals needed to re-energise the pre-frontal cortex by focusing on what you want to achieve (rather than what you have failed to do) and celebrate that you are making a change. This is not just positive thinking; it is creating a mental environment where change becomes more possible. Serotonin activity can also be enhanced by getting more quality sleep, exposure to sunlight, regular massage, aerobic exercise (especially if it is fun), and thinking in detail about happy memories.

Changes help make changes

Once we have a habit wired in, it is often activated by specific triggers in our environment. When trying to create significant changes in habit, it can be useful to identify these triggers and try to eliminate these for a while. This is why it can be much easier to establish new behaviours on a retreat or on holiday…by taking a little break you can make a big change.

Reviewed by Charmaine Childs