Ever wonder why the world is in such turmoil, why there is hate in the world? Why people fear those who aren’t “like” themselves? Over the millenia, our brains developed a “negative bias” as a survival mechanism. In short, “negative biases” helped humans survive. Avoid being attacked by a predator? That was a threat for a long time; the brain developed tools to send us into fight or flight modes. See someone from a tribe that’s different than yours–and therefore a competitor for scarce resources? That’s a threat. So the brain developed a “mind-body” connection the need to develop the ability to either fight or flee from the potential threat. Just as with the predator, the brain shifts into “survival” mode, puts off “nice to have” needs, like food, for example, and floods the system with a variety of chemicals and hormones (adrenalin, cortisone) to prepare for physical action. This “survival” function of the brain remembered dangers longer, and grew accustomed to threats more readily. Positive experiences were less of a priority and, in fact, the brain remembers them less easily than it does the negative ones. (Remember the last time your boss told you that you did 9 things well, but one thing needed a lot of improvement? Guess what most people think about at night before they go to bed–that’s right, the one negative thing.) The survival mode approach worked pretty well thousands of years ago, but today? Not so much.
Today, the brain’s negative bias represents for the modern, civilized individual, mostly faulty, or outdated programming. We no longer need to use our fight or flight mechanism as our forebears did, but the ancient part of the brain doesn’t care about our modern needs. Stresses of everyday life, trauma as a young child or adult, a genetic proclivity toward depression or anxiety, too many inputs and not enough time to resolve them (the body actually gets rid of excess cortisol in the body through exercise, but we’re more sedentary than when we had to avoid becoming a critter’s lunch!) and so don’t get rid of it as readily. That’s the bad news. The good news? You can reprogram yourself by building inner resilience, internalizing positive experiences, and–this is the cool part–actually rewiring your brain at the genetic level. This is not a joke. According to Rick Hanson, our internal strengths (i.e., resilience to everyday or extreme stressors, anxiety, fears (real and imagined) vary, depending on the individual:
On average, about 1/3 of a person’s strengths are innate…genetically-based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other 2/3 are developed over time. This means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.
I couldn’t agree more. And at the core of these efforts is the ability to meditate, calm down the “inner animal,” and learn to experience and deeply internalize positive experiences, and that’s where the relatively new concept of neuroplasticity comes into play. Until
Neuroplasticity: Developing Good Mental Hygiene
With upwards of 100 billion neurons signalling each other in a network of about one-half quadrillion synaptic connections, the brain is without doubt the almost unfathomably complex. Early research into the brain concluded that new neurons were no longer developed after birth. We now know that the brain is continuously evolving throughout our lives, and is not only capable fo creating new neurons and synaptic connections, it does so constantly. Think of the brain as an agnostic, extremely complex recording device. So, if you’re surrounded by negative stimuli (stress, trauma, fear) or you generate these negative sensations, the brain actually perpetuates this by creating negative neural connections (this is, ultimately, what people also call, “habits,” but that’s for another post). As the popular neurologist geek phrase goes, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” But because the brain seems to hold negative experiences longer, and actually keeps positive experiences for less time, to make consistent, “rewired” changes to your brain, you need to subject it/yourself, to prolonged, positive stimuli. As Hanson notes in Hardwiring Happiness:
“Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbo-charged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your experience. Your attention is like a spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it highlights what it lands on and then it sucks it into your brain–for better or worse. If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety, and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt.
On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do and get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time, your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.”
The Taking in the Good: Rewiring your Brain
Mindfulness is a well-known, and proven approach to reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and elevating mood. Appreciation, acceptance, letting go of negativity, decreasing judgmental attitudes are all part and parcel of those who practice meditation and mindfulness. What Hanson is proposing is to “boost” the positive in this experience by internalizing the genuinely positive experiences that we find and cultivate–to make a “habit” out of doing this in our daily lives is the goal, which in turn rewires the brain for the better. The following are basic steps for doing this (note that these are slightly modified from Hanson’s model):
Step 1. Have a Positive Experience. This first step activates a positive mental state where you “notice a positive experience that’s already present in the foreground or background of your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone.” You can also create your own positive experience, and in fact, most of us do so every day–but we don’t really think too much about them. Feelings of connectedness, appreciation (life, nature, the sky, art, etc.), love (family, partner, pets, etc.)–all fall under the category of having a positive experience. But that’s not enough, because the brain tends to hold these feelings only temporarily. Unless you…
Step 2. Enrich the Experience. To truly internalize the positive experience, you need to “stay with it” for a longer period of time, 5, 10 seconds–longer if possible–to truly integrate it into your brain. This is where I would argue (and Hanson doesn’t mention, however), that mindfulness comes into play. Mindfulness enables you to “stop yourself” and view or experience something “in real time,” in depth. Developing the ability to “remain in the moment” is key to Hanson’s excellent second step of enriching the experience. Engage with the experience intentionally. Know that these moments are actually impacting you at the genetic level, that you have the power to actually convert these experiences into real changes in your head. This is the part that blows my mind, literally: each of us has the ability to determine our own brain’s wiring. And to do that, you have to be a partner in your brain’s programming by intentionally visualizing, considering, mulling over, and embracing the positive experience. Think about this moment, really appreciate it (for its beauty, for how it can help you or a loved one, for how it nourishes you). Personally, I love clouds, hawks, anything that lives in the lovely skies over Vermont, really. During the many walks that we take, I often stop to take in the clouds, the flora, the fauna, and appreciate the grand artwork that we get to experience every day. These kinds of simple moments are available and they need to be engaged in every day.
Step 3. Make it a Habit. This last one is mine, not Hanson’s. I think the most challenging thing for anyone trying to make real personal change is to stick to it. But i like to think of mindfulness and rewiring myself as mental hygiene. I wouldn’t go a day without brushing my teeth a couple of times–why on earth would I go through the day without working out my brain? As Hanson says, the “brain is a physical system that, like a muscle, gets stronger the more you exercise it.”
This last step can be tough, as anyone who has tried to change themselves in any fundamental way can attest. But like the person who discovers physical exercise after years of being a couch potato, the results are gained in aggregate over time, and not a button that you push for instant results. But like many things, habits become habit forming! (The brain will actually help you here–your brain’s neural network “builds habits” out of whatever it is that you do often, and expects/urges you to continue to do it…). One common mindfulness technique is the “raisin exercise“–something that can be done with any other food or experience. The trick is in the savoring, deeply, with appreciation and intention. Over time, it will become second nature…
Yours in Mental Hygiene,
The Ancient Brain Team