Home » Blogs » Neuroscience and Relationships » Conscious Attention and Emotion – Sculpting Neural Changes in the Brain, Part 2

Conscious Attention and Emotion – Sculpting Neural Changes in the Brain, Part 2

Advances in neuroscience now enable researchers to ask more sophisticated questions about what optimizes our personal and relational health, happiness, well being – and life in general.

Thanks to advanced technological measurements, for example, instead of theoretical questions, we now can ask causal questions, such as what practices or lifestyle changes lower anxiety or depression, or heighten compassion or physical health today as compared to yesterday.

That’s exciting news.

One of those questions has to do with the effects of shifting the focus of our attention on the brain.

In Part 1, we discussed the significance of how the particular focus of our thoughts differentially affect the firing and wiring of neurons in the brain.

It is not thoughts in and of themselves, however, that fire and wire neurons in the brain.

What makes your thoughts so powerful is that they directly cause changes to your emotional states.

The cells in your body respond to your thoughts, in particular, interpretive thoughts, the kind that explain (to your body’s operating system, the subconscious mind) how you see the world in any given moment in time.

If you see a snake, for example, your body’s survival response is likely to get activated, right? Unless, of course, you are a snake handler. Why? As an expert snake handler, you’d likely have totally different beliefs about how to relate to a snake, ones that allow you to work with snakes without triggering your “fight or flee” survival response!

Interpretive thoughts are beliefs. They form critical perception filters that your subconscious mind, the part of the mind that runs all the systems of your body, uses to activate processes inside. Essentially, your perceptions are a vital pool of information that allows your subconscious mind to perform its twofold overarching tasks of:

  1. Ensuring your basic survival.
  2. Reminding you of the inborn higher purpose yearnings you have to thrive (arguably, these emotional drives to meaningfully connect to life around you are much more compelling than survival instincts).

Thus, what you believe to be true becomes true for your body because your subconscious cannot tell the difference between what is real and what you imagine. If you are a snake handler, your beliefs allow your body and mind to remain in its natural overall balanced, relaxed state known as the brain’s “learning mode.” If not, your brain would likely activate your body’s survival response, and go into a “protective mode,” perhaps even if you knew, without a doubt, that the snake before you is a harmless one.

Your brain is always primarily in one mode or the other, by the way. Your subconscious mind is continually eavesdropping on your inner self-talk 24/7. A master at multi-tasking, remarkably, your subconscious is designed to process millions of bits of information per second, in contrast to your conscious mind that only needs to process hundreds at any given time to do its job.

Your thoughts:

  • Form the perception filters that your subconscious mind depends on to interpret incoming data.
  • Produce images in your mind that activate emotions and associated felt physical sensations throughout the body.

Based on what emotions they activate, thoughts correspondingly release hormones into the bloodstream, which affect the chemical firing of neurons in your brain. In other words, your subconscious mind activates emotions and physiological sensations throughout your body according to your perceptions.

Thus, thoughts alone do not power the actual wiring and firing to effect actual structural changes.

What determines whether neurons fire or not, and how they fire, is – emotion!

According to Dr. Candace Pert, it is “molecules of emotion” that make possible all the chemical reactions necessary to run your body.

Your emotions:

  • Form essential “sensing molecules” (receptors) and “binding substances” (ligands) throughout the body.
  • Facilitate a complex communication network that allows all systems of the body to instantly and effectively connect and share vital information.
  • Are the basic units of information that all cells throughout your body use to “talk” with one another about what action to take or not take to best perform their function.
  • Add critical dimensions of meaning without which your capacity for logic, understanding and decision-making would not be possible or severely limited.

In short, emotions are the “words” every cell of your body listens to and uses to communicate – within a systemic network that requires a language, which is every bit as organized, methodical and richly nuanced with meaning as the verbal language you use to communicate with daily in your life.

Emotions are the chemical messengers that fire and wire the neurons of your brain (and body) according to … the interpretive thoughts you are thinking in a given moment or situation.

Logic doesn’t control behaviors. Emotions do.

Thoughts contain the emotional nuances of your experience of events. Emotion is what sculpts the synaptic connections of your brain, determining, for example, what action you take or whether or not you take any action at all.

Thoughts and emotions are designed to work together, however.

In cases where you experience problems, stuck places, addictive compulsions or emotional suffering in your life, such as depression or anxiety, etc., it is because your thinking patterns are preventing your conscious mind (logic) and subconscious mind (emotions, heart) from working together. This produces imbalance in your life, and the primary cause of this imbalance, in my experience, is the emotion of — fear.

The “well-meaning” protective blocks, walls, barriers that fear builds in the body and mind are what ultimately block you from stretching and growing out of “old” comfortable places that you must leave behind, much like a butterfly a cocoon, in order to realize the happiness and empowered life you want to live.

In reality, whatever “comfort” these stuck places offer is merely a false sense of security. In truth, at best, these “comfort” zones seriously impair your ability to realize the inborn yearning for happiness you are designed to fulfill.

You need a way of thinking that empowers optimal emotions at any given time, a way of “making sense” of your life experiences that consciously creates healthful conditions for your brain and body.

How can you apply this knowledge to optimize your life, and take full ownership of its direction?

More on this in the next post, Part 3.

For now, remember:

You have the power, within your choices, to direct the focus of your attention and experience, and make it a conscious process — in terms of what thoughts you think to produce optimal emotional states in any given situation.

Conscious Attention and Emotion – Sculpting Neural Changes in the Brain, Part 2

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Staik, A. (2012). Conscious Attention and Emotion – Sculpting Neural Changes in the Brain, Part 2. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Apr 2012
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.