changing the brain for the better
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Imagine you are getting a new phone. Are you one of those people who keep all the original settings, or do you change the wallpaper, download your favourite apps, set the volume or vibration (or no sound – like me) - you just make it more suited to your needs to serve you better?
The brain also has default settings. In short, they can be summarized with the following statement: “Bad is stronger than good”. We have a natural disposition to notice and better remember anything difficult, threatening and warning. In the struggle to survive, our distant ancestors mainly learned from negative outcomes. Good situations were not so crucial to survival, so we have a natural tendency to notice them less often and remember them much less than difficult ones. We can use the metaphor of writing on sand (for good events) and carving in the rock (for difficult ones) – what stays longer? Rick Hanson, the author of “Hardwiring Happiness”, an American psychologist, proposes another metaphor: “The brain is like Teflon for the good (positive experiences) and like Velcro for the bad (negative ones).”
Learning from “bad” things worked quite well for our ancestors in the savannah. Thanks to this ability, we are where we are: safe and secure. But the pace of modern life and the amount of everyday information to be noticed and processed has increased enormously. With a tendency to perceive the threatening - our default settings doom many of us to live a life of constant threat, tension and anxiety.
Fortunately, neuroscience and knowledge of the brain’s neuroplasticity - an ability to remodel neural pathways throughout life, shows that each person has the power to change his or her brain for the better. Almost like choosing the apps on the phone…
All mental activity – sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, unconscious and conscious processes – is based on underlying neural activity. Much cognitive and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience – “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Mental states become neural traits, day by day your mind is building your brain. It is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
If you don’t make use of this power yourself, other forces will shape your brain for you – including pressures at work and home, technology and media, pushy people or the lingering effects of painful past experiences. You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.
As Rick Hanson says “the best way to compensate the negativity bias is to regularly take in the good”.
Behind this enigmatic statement, there is an essentially simple practice consisting of:
creating and perceiving positive emotions (finding time for good experiences);
nurturing, enriching them (doing it your way);
absorbing it (allowing sensing and intending the feeling of being on your side to sink in).
"Your experiences matter. Not just how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building process of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what's in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner - it highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain - for better or worse".
The key here is repetition and regularity - because that’s what changes the neural pathways. Making it a habit. Routinely giving yourself a basic sense of peace, contentment and ease.
My weekly yoga and sound meditation classes are an invitation to take a regular dip in establishing positive and pleasant changes. If you do not have time for group practice, 2-5-10 minutes a day/regularly in the comfort of your own home is an even better solution. Most positive experiences are relatively brief and mild. But taking in half a dozen of them a day, half a minute at a time, will add up to something big for you, it will help to activate a positive experience and install it in your brain.
Some positive emotions such as gratitude or kindness are already with us. We just need to give them the space to express and support them to expand. This has been part of my closing ritual at the end of every yoga class!
It is not as easy and swift as installing a new app on your phone, but it will reinforce accessible, simple and life-affirming changes.
This article was inspired by Rick Hanson's book: "Hardwiring Happiness . How to reshape your brain and your life". An easy read, and highly recommended.