The phrase neurons that fire together, wire together is increasingly common among neuroscientists and psychologists to describe, essentially, one basic thing: the more of “something” that the brain experiences (it doesn’t care what–it’s just an agnostic recording device, for the most part–although it does “hold on” to negative thoughts, experiences, and memories more readily than it does positive ones), the more it reflects those experiences in newly “built” neural networks.
…our brain has about a hundred billion neurons in it. In principle, the number of possible states of the brain is the number of possible combinations of a hundred billion neurons either firing or not (“on or off”). That number is really big: ten to the millionth power, which is one followed by a million zeros. To put this in perspective, the number of particles in the known universe is about ten to the eightieth power—one followed by eighty zeros versus a million zeros. The brain— your brain, right now—is the most complex object known to science. It’s more complex than an exploding star, or climate change. ~ Dr. Rick Hanson
If you’re consistently negative in your outlook, the brain records that, and builds networks of neurons in response. The brain’s continuously changing nature is based on neural networks being structured in response to inputs that we provide it every day. This is a pretty amazing discovery, and represents an incredible opportunity for humans as a race to evolve. Unfortunately, it’s also become one of the most important “dangers” that modern humans face, as well: too many inputs, too many anxieties, fears, stresses, and the the brain takes it all in and builds synaptic connections to reflect this. These actually become “habits” (which are really just neural connections that the brain develops in response to a variety of stimuli and chemical interactions).
Positive thinking, yes, but more than that
Dr. Hanson and others have explained that it takes more than simply thinking positively–we must “dwell” in the positive experience for the brain to really internalize the experience and convert our positive experiences into ingrained, neural networks of happiness. That’s because–because it developed an innate tool to help ensure our ancestors’ survival–the brain has a natural “negative bias.” Remembering negative things helped avoid being eaten, beaten, or otherwise dying.
Positive experiences are not as readily ingrained in our brains, however. So when the next time you hug someone you love, scratch your pet and look them in the eyes, or just look at a beautiful sunset–stay in that moment for a while. Take some time to really soak it in and give time and mindful, focused thought to what’s happening. That’s when the magic really happens in the brain. That’s when the brain creates the biological connections that stay inside your mind and body. Ever watch a video that made you tingle all over with gratitude (like this one)? Stay with those moments and allow yourself to dwell in them.