This month, we feature videos of a Greater Good presentation by Rick Hanson, the best-selling author and trailblazing psychologist. In this excerpt from his talk, Dr. Hanson explains how we can take advantage of the brain’s natural “plasticity”—it’s ability to change shape over time.
There’s this great line by Ani Tenzin Palmo, an English woman who spent 12 years in a cave in Tibet: “We do not know what a thought is, yet we’re thinking them all the time.”
It’s true. The amount of knowledge we have about the brain has doubled in the last 20 years. Yet there’s still a lot we don’t know.
In recent years, though, we have started to better understand the neural bases of states like happiness, gratitude, resilience, love, compassion, and so forth. And better understanding them means we can skillfully stimulate the neural substrates of those states—which, in turn, means we can strengthen them. Because as the famous saying by the Canadian scientist Donald Hebb goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Ultimately, what this can mean is that with proper practice, we can increasingly trick our neural machinery to cultivate positive states of mind.
But in order to understand how, you need to understand three important facts about the brain.
Fact one: As the brain changes, the mind changes, for better or worse.
For example, more activation in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with more positive emotions. So as there is greater activation in the left, front portion of your brain relative to the right, there is also greater well-being. That’s probably in large part because the left prefrontal cortex is a major part of the brain for controlling negative emotion. So if you put the breaks on the negative, you get more of the positive.
On the other hand, people who routinely experience chronic stress—particularly acute, even traumatic stress—release the hormone cortisol, which literally eats away, almost like an acid bath, at the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that’s very engaged in visual-spatial memory as well as memory for context and setting.
For example, adults who have had that history of stress and have lost up to 25 percent of the volume of this critically important part of the brain are less able to form new memories.
So we can see that as the brain changes, the mind changes. And that takes us to the second fact, which is where things really start getting interesting.
Fact two: As the mind changes, the brain changes.
These changes happen in temporary and in lasting ways. In terms of temporary changes, the flow of different neurochemicals in the brain will vary at different times. For instance, when people consciously practice gratitude, they are likely getting higher flows of reward-related neurotransmitters, like dopamine. Research suggests that when people practice gratitude, they experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, and that’s probably correlated with more of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Here’s another example of how changes in mental activity can produce changes in neural activity: When college students deeply in love are shown a picture of their sweetheart, their brains become more active in the caudate nucleus, a reward center of the brain. As the mind changes—that rush of love, that deep feeling of happiness and reward—correlates with activation of a particular part of the brain. When they stop looking at that picture of their sweetheart, the reward center goes back to sleep.
Now the mind also can change the brain in lasting ways. In other words, what flows through the mind sculpts the brain. I define the mind as the flow of immaterial information through the nervous system—all the signals being sent, most of which are happening forever outside of consciousness. As the mind flows through the brain, as neurons fire together in particularly patterned ways based on the information they are representing, those patterns of neural activity change neural structure.
So busy regions of the brain start stitching new connections with each other. Existing synapses—the connections between neurons that are very busy—get stronger, they get more sensitive, they start building out more receptors. New synapses form as well.
One of my favorite studies of this involved taxi cab drivers in London. To get a taxi license there, you’ve got to memorize the spaghetti-like streets of London. Well, at the end of the drivers’ training, the hippocampus of their brain—a part very involved in visual-spatial memory—is measurably thicker. In other words, neurons that fire together wire together, even to the point of being observably thicker.
This has also been found among meditators: People who maintain some kind of regular meditative practice actually have measurably thicker brains in certain key regions. One of those regions is the insula, which is involved in what’s called “interoception”—tuning into the state of your body, as well as your deep feelings. This should be no surprise: A lot of what they’re doing is practicing mindfulness of breathing, staying really present with what’s going on inside themselves; no wonder they’re using, and therefore building, the insula.
Another region is the frontal regions of the prefrontal cortex—areas involved in controlling attention. Again, this should be no surprise: They’re focusing their attention in their meditation, so they’re getting more control over it, and they’re strengthening its neural basis.
What’s more, research has also shown that it’s possible to slow the loss of our brain cells. Normally, we lose about 10,000 brain cells a day. That may sound horrible, but we were born with 1.1 trillion. We also have several thousand born each day, mainly in the hippocampus, in what’s called neurogenesis. So losing 10,000 a day isn’t that big a deal, but the net bottom line is that a typical 80 year old will have lost about 4 percent of his or her brain mass—it’s called “cortical thinning with aging.” It’s a normal process.
But in one study, researchers compared meditators and non-meditators. In the graph to the left, the meditators are the blue circles and the non-meditators are the red squares, comparing people of the same age. The non-meditators experienced normal cortical thinning in those two brain regions I mentioned above, along with a third, the somatosensory cortex.
However, the people who routinely meditated and “worked” their brain did not experience cortical thinning in those regions.
That has a big implication for an aging population: Use it or lose it, which applies to the brain as well as to other aspects of life.
That highlights an important point that I think is a major takeaway in this territory: Experience really matters. It doesn’t matter only in our moment-to-moment well-being—how it feels to be me—but it really matters in the lasting residues that it leaves behind, woven into our very being.
Which takes us to the third fact, which is the one with the most practical import.
Fact three: You can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.
This is known as “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity refers to the malleable nature of the brain, and it’s constant, ongoing. Self-directed neuroplasticity means doing it with clarity and skillfulness and intention.
The key to it is a controlled use of attention. Attention is like a spotlight, to be sure, shining on things within our awareness. But it’s also like vacuum cleaner, sucking whatever it rests upon into the brain, for better or worse.
For example, if we rest our attention routinely on what we resent or regret—our hassles, our lousy roommate, what Jean-Paul Sartre called “hell” (other people)—then we’re going to build out the neural substrates of those thoughts and feelings.
On the other hand, if we rest our attention on the things for which we’re grateful, the blessings in our life—the wholesome qualities in ourselves and the world around us; the things we get done, most of which are fairly small yet they’re accomplishments nonetheless—then we build up very different neural substrates.
I think that’s why, more than 100 years ago, before there were things like MRIs, William James. the father of psychology in America, said. “The education of attention would be an education par excellence.”
The problem, of course, is that most people don’t have very good control over their attention. Part of this is due to human nature, shaped by evolution: Our forbearers who just focused on the reflection of sunlight in the water—they got chomped by predators. But those who were constantly vigilant—they lived.
And today we are constantly bombarded with stimuli that the brain has not evolved to handle. So gaining more control over attention one way or another is really crucial, whether it’s through the practice of mindfulness, for instance, or through gratitude practices, where we count our blessings. Those are great ways to gain control over your attention because there you are, for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, coming back to focus on an object of awareness.
Taking in the good
This brings me to one of my favorite methods for deliberately using the mind to change the brain over time for the better: taking in the good.
Just having positive experiences is not enough to promote last well-being. If a person feels grateful for a few seconds, that’s nice. That’s better than feeling resentful or bitter for a few seconds. But in order to really suck that experience into the brain, we need to stay with those experiences for a longer duration of time—we need to take steps, consciously, to keep that spotlight of attention on the positive.
So, how do we actually do this? These are the three steps I recommend for taking in the good. I should note that I did not invent these steps. They are embedded in many good therapies and life practices. But I’ve tried to tease them apart and embed them in an evolutionary understanding of how the brain works.
1. Let a good fact become a good experience. Often we go through life and some good thing happens—a little thing, like we checked off an item on our To Do list, we survived another day at work, the flowers are blooming, and so forth. Hey, this is an opportunity to feel good. Don’t leave money lying on the table: Recognize that this is an opportunity to let yourself truly feel good.
2. Really savor this positive experience. Practice what any school teacher knows: If you want to help people learn something, make it as intense as possible—in this case, as felt in the body as possible—for as long as possible.
3. Finally, as you sink into this experience, sense your intent that this experience is sinking into you. Sometimes people do this through visualization, like by perceiving a golden light coming into themselves or a soothing balm inside themselves. You might imagine a jewel going into the treasure chest in your heart—or just know that this experience is sinking into you, becoming a resource you can take with you wherever you go.
thank you for the videos
Asala mp3 | 11:01 am, November 11, 2011 | Link
This is a very good article, good job. I have been studying the brain, meditation, and well being for quite some time and it is good to read a more science based approach towards those topics.
Some of the areas you were focusing on reminded me a lot about the new aged teachings of “The Law of Attraction”. Basically where you put your focus and attention is what you are attracting into your life. These studies also focus a great deal on expressing gratitude for what you have been blessed with in your life. What I like about your article is how it relates these things to the brain and explains how the brain is being affected.
Cory Cook | 12:38 pm, November 16, 2011 | Link
something that isnt on here is the equal but opposite way of meditation threw outside t internal recorces such as psychedelic drugs such as LSD or Dissociative drugs such as Ketamine. I noticed a profouned difference in my life after I grew up and stopped using these tools simply for the reason of getting high and or f***** up. To get high and get f***** up is to loose ones self. I found that u can build a form of comfortably in these places and just like in the normal subjective reality, u can find your self all over again. These same regions of the brain are being activated. the regions for love, happiness and understanding. The brain is like a muscles. If u are to work out your body and use performance enhancers such as protein, creatine, niacin or what ever it is u take. u are supposed to cycle these things properly or your body wares down quicker and its not as good for u. the same is the way w/ these mind altering tools. I have been doing this for many years. A long time ago these practices were excepted and done in villages by native shamans. What do u think happened to those people? do u think they just went away? Ill tell u what. energy never leaves. it can not be truly created and it can not be truly destroyed. it can only change form. Well, were back… I my self have had tremendous experiences in feeling and witnessing large amounts of the neural happy juices being excreted in my brain cavity by doing such things as meditating while on and raising and contracting the material levels of awareness to the unfathomable size of the universe down to the small strings of reality that bind us together, where worm holes are found. I like closing my eyes and watching plants grow in full motion right before in minds eye and them putting them inside my chest and feel them grow of putting them towards another living things or action of will id like to see done, all from learning to be comfortable in the dissociative state the ketamine offers, w discipline and understanding. As we become more conscious we see that the war on drugs is really just a war on humanity. addiction isnt a crime, its a sickness like any hoarding or ocd disorder and needs to be handles in a surprisingly similar way. All Im saying is its time to start recognizing the shamanistic methods again, because some peoples attentions are to far distractable for things like meditation. sometimes u need to trip or go into a k hole and let the meditation come to u . . . <3
b-rice | 7:47 am, December 21, 2011 | Link
It would be nice to hear MR. Hanson talk on mirror neurons as well. Great post!
Happiness Quotes | 1:24 pm, January 5, 2012 | Link
The brain is quite amazing when you really think about it. How can it store so much information, memories, feelings, all those kinds of things. When you think about the way it works and how your whole body works and how it has evolved over time it’s unbelieveable really. It’s the same with animals. They have smaller brains obviously but they still evolve. They still have evolved over time to help them survive by ways of camouflage or mimicing predators. I think of it like the universe. When you really sit back and think about things there has to be a reason.
vibration plate | 11:37 am, January 15, 2012 | Link
I just watched the video of How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness. My 37 year old son was shot in the brain 16 years ago, so I read everything about the brain I come across.. He was shot in the top of his head as he was falling forward. (after being shot 3 times, 4 total) He was shot in the right side of the brain from the top. He cannot move his left hand and he has to wear a brace for his left foot to keep the toes up so he can walk without tripping. His personality is pretty amazing, his speech was not affected and his memory is good. He is always in good spirits even when I know he is having a hard time. ( stress ) He is a great son & never in 16 years has he complained about his disability. I know the human brain is changing and I see it in my 3 year old granddaughter.
Can my son change his brains neural structure to change his abilities for the better?
He is very happy to be alive I am sure, which could explain why he is always in a good mood & happy. Gratitude.
Gerry Collen | 10:52 pm, January 22, 2012 | Link
Very insightful article and video. Thanks for sharing this info~
Spirituality | 1:34 pm, March 26, 2012 | Link
while the brain/mind is changing what do you recommend to deal with the shadow self?
charles | 11:49 pm, January 22, 2013 | Link