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i’m rewiring my brain

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For much of life my mind has tilted toward darkness. Pharmaceutical cocktails, endless psychotherapy, and years of meditation practice have helped reset my mood thermometer. But the cliff’s edge is narrow and the tiniest moment of inattention can cause my mind to slide.

Drawing on research in social psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, Hanson and Mendius report that the brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information and that when an event is flagged as negative, the brain (in the hippocampus) makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. In short, the brain has a built-in negativity bias that primes us for avoidance.

It generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense; anxiety also makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness or contemplative practice, since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem. The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and exaggerates future obstacles (p.42).

Good to hear that being attracted to negativity and tending towards depression is “not my fault,” a view long held by my biased mind (and, I suspect, by people unfamiliar with depression). The remedy, put forward by meditation teachers and supported by findings in brain research, centers on–

  • not suppressing negative experiences but to
  • welcome them as part of being human and to
  • make an active effort to internalize positive experiences to heal negative ones.

I’ve recently begun an experiment on neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to learn and change itself. “Emotions have global effects since they organize the brain as a whole,” Hanson and Mendius claim. “Consequently, positive feelings have far-reaching benefits, including a stronger immune system … [and] a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress” (p. 75).

In this experiment I’m spending extra time with positive emotions. On Monday, for instance, after an hour’s workout, I sat a log in the sun, bathing in that marvellous sense of wellbeing brought on by endorphins, sinking my awareness deep inside my body, registering sensations of happiness, presence, and joy. The theory I’m testing is that positive experiences help reprogram the brain — not by wiping out negative memories, but by superimposing or counter-balancing them with positive ones.

source: Hanson, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger.


11 responses »

  1. Hi Peter,

    Rewriting brain has made me reflect upon the importance of attitude ,


  2. this is interesting p… some years ago i became interested in how we make meaning – create sense out of events in our lives, interpret words, actions etc… – and i found that so much of what we believe to be true is very filtered by perceptions, misunderstandings, assumptions, beliefs, cultural values etc, etc, etc. kind of the garbage in, garbage out idea. more recently, Jill Bolte Taylor writes about recovering from a massive stroke and explains some of what she chose to relearn (or not!). She allows her brain a certain amount of time each day to whine. Time up? its done! Byron Katie refers to the stories we make up for ourselves – which we then believe to be the truth – and suffer as a result.

    i agree with you and who you reference – we are in charge of our brains, we can influence the input, and perhaps, as one of my teachers points out to me, just noticing is a good start!

    • Sure, we make up stories — often in response or recollection to actual events. But what’s the antitode? How to either un-make memories or re-story our brain,. But how — short of a stroke?

      • Gary Mahler

        Hi Peter,

        I recently read that our difficult moments such as sorrow, disappointment, guilt, shame, regret, easily get wrapped into a tight wad of a ball, because they are so difficult to be with. This ball grows larger and heavier over time and we carry it with us.

        One way of unravelling this ball is to loosen each of these threads, examine them with mindfulness and weave them into a new tapestry.

        It might be the examining that allows us to touch these states and weave them into our lives, thus changing how we are with them.
        Maybe the weaving is a form of relating to them in a new way, including in this weave the beautiful sunny days, thus creating a newness in our selves?

      • its hard, no doubt about it. the antidote? i think that is what meditation and mindfulness is helping us to do… re-story our brain. i like what gary speaks of – the untangling of a tightly woven maze of memory and experience so it can be re-woven.

        • dear gary and nancy. after 30+ years of examining the “tightly woven maze” in therapy, self-examination, even an “autoethnographical” dissertation — I’ve come to the conclusion that such re-weaving is a myth. Like all myth it helps keep me/us from chucking it all in. The intial wiring (genetics, childhood, etc) is too well established. This realization (“whom am i kidding”) leads me to accept what is and take each day, each episode, as it comes. 🙂

  3. I like how Shantideva speaks of this in the Way of the Bodhisattva:
    “The cause of happiness is rare,
    And many are the seeds of suffering,
    But if I have no pain, I’ll never long for freedom;
    Therefore, O my mind, be steadfast”.

  4. This TED talk totally supports your theory:

  5. I like your experiment. Like any muscle the more any area is worked, or practiced if you will,I believe it is bound to become stronger and clearer. I know I have dwelt in dismal thoughts and found them to be just another round on the gerbil wheel of my flighty brain. I’d rather substitute “good” vibrations for the unfriendly ones I have programmed myself to cling to for most of my life. Hurray the smile.


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