If you’ve been following recent developments in the field of psychology or neuroscience or if you’ve been following my postings, you’ve heard the term neuroplasticity before. This term refers to the discovery in recent years that the brain is actually malleable throughout the lifespan and we have the ability to grow new neural connections. This has tremendous implications for our mental health and anything that has to do with human training, both hopeful and detrimental.
Now, this isn’t the first time this idea has come up. In the late 1800s, Freud hypothesized about this calling it the law of association by spontaneity, and in recent years neuroscientists have come up with the catchy saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
In other words, how and what we pay attention to has tremendous implications for how our brains grow.
I was just at a UCLA psychotherapy conference with psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, and he made it very clear that the advent of neuroplasticity isn’t all good news. He has the analogy of a mountain with fresh powder being the brain. The more often we ski down the mountain, the more snow packs on certain trails. As we continue to ride over those trails over and over again, the faster we begin to go down those trails.
In other words, the more we practice reactivity to our fears (e.g. from small fears to PTSD), the stronger the neural connections in our brains become that make us more likely to be automatically reactive to our fears. Or, the more often we practice automatic negative thinking, the stronger the neural connections become that lead to more automatic reactivity toward automatic negative thinking.
The other part of this news is that our brains are wired to look for danger and pay more attention to the unpleasant than the pleasant. If I were to pay you 10 compliments and then say something judgmental or critical, you are more likely to remember and ruminate about the judgment than the compliments. As you practice this, your reinforce the neural connections that reinforce the auto-pilot reaction.
So, this is where mindfulness comes in: the practice of nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment. We can have an understanding of how our brains operate and see the automatic reactivity for what it is. When we do this, we are present and can make a choice to pay attention differently and rewire our brains.
We can begin to notice pleasant events too, and in order to balance the brain’s tendency to focus on the negative more often, we can bring mindfulness to the pleasant event. What does this mean? This means really tasting in the moment how the body feels, what emotions are present, and what thoughts are here. Maybe there’s a sound and beginning to close the eyes and listen. Beginning to rest in the moment or linger for a bit longer, soaking it in. That’s all, it’s a practice.
If at the end of the day you automatically remember more unpleasant than pleasant, take another look and ask yourself, where were the pleasant moments today? This is not to discount the unpleasant, but more to bring about some balance as it is the brains tendency to give more weight to the unpleasant for evolutionary and adaptive reasons.
So, be aware that our brains are constantly being shaped and when we are present, we have more choice as to how and what we’d like to pay attention to for a healthier brain, which in turn will create a healthier mind. This has implications for how we react to stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, parenting, and certainly in our relationships.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction below creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.