From Brain-strain to Brain-gain through Positive Neuroplasticity

by Paul Bedson

Living Well Magazine Autumn 2015

In a busy world and with a busy mind, most of us zip through the day lurching from one experience to the next. Along the way, do you ever stop for 10 seconds to notice, to take in and absorb the positive moments that happen in even the busiest day?

There are always nourishing, heart-warming moments of beauty, humour, love, kindness and strength but if we don’t take those extra seconds to enjoy and stay with the experience, it passes through us like water through a sieve, momentarily pleasant but immediately forgotten, with no lasting value.

If we were to pause and savour these nourishing moments, the experience could be installed in our brain. Many such moments of “taking in the good” actually change the neural structures in the brain, thereby promoting the growth of inner strengths, virtues and attitudes. Decades of neuroscientific research indicate that our life experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organisation (physiology). Our brain has been shaped by our experience in the womb and in the world, and the shape of our brain can profoundly affect our pattern of neuronal activity in response to life experience.

This field of neuroscientific research is called neuroplasticity. Our life experience shapes our brain and the shape of our brain determines the way we experience and react to the world. Fortunately neuroplasticity also means that we can consciously change the neural structure and function of the brain to improve our experience of the world. For example, we can install new neural structures in the brain by consistently “taking in the good” i.e. by noticing and absorbing nourishing moments that appear in our day-to-day experience, even if these moments are very small or last for just a few seconds.

“Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little, fills oneself with good.” Dhammapada 9.122

As I am writing this article, I pause for a moment and look out the window – I see the greenery of the garden, the stillness of the blue sky – a moment of peace; a currawong swoops down to catch an insect in its beak – a moment of shared success; the currawong warbles – a moment of beauty. It takes only ten seconds but I savour the experience for a further ten seconds. It becomes installed into the brain (and my heart too, I’m sure!)

One of the most fundamental principles of how neuroplasticity functions is linked to the concept of synaptic pruning – the idea that individual connections within the brain are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent on how they are used. This concept is captured in the aphorism “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

By repeatedly using certain patterns of thinking and behaving, related neural pathways become like “super highways” for the neuronal traffic – they increase in thickness and connectivity i.e. they “wire together”. These “super highways” in the brain are the neural structures that recreate and hold onto habits of thought and behaviour. Some of these habits may be negative habits, which affect our health and wellbeing, and being plastic, they can be changed. As a survival mechanism, our brain has evolved with an inbuilt negativity-bias. Our prehistoric ancestors lived in a wild, unpredictable, frequently dangerous world. They had to be hypervigilant, alert and anticipate potential threats. They paid more attention to ‘sticks’ (threats) than ‘carrots’ (rewards) and they passed these genes onto us. While this negativity bias evolved in dangerous settings very different to ours, it continues to operate within us today and is the inbuilt mechanism that makes our brain over-react and be supersensitive even to small threats. Someone cuts in front of us in the traffic and we fume; our boss calls us to their office and we expect the worst; someone disappoints us and we sulk. Our brain has a hair-trigger readiness to make small moments of loss, disappointment and uncertainty into big threats. We might call this negativity bias awfulising or catastrophising. From this survival standpoint the glass is always half-empty (and possibly contaminated!) and if there are no threats appearing on the horizon, we imagine possible threats.

Conversely, when we are hypervigilant in looking for or anticipating potential threats, we overlook pleasurable and comforting experiences. Less adept at “taking in the good”, these pleasurable moments go unnoticed or flow through our attention like “water passing through a sieve”, with little impact on our brain. The attention to ‘sticks’ overpowers our ability to savour the ‘carrots’ that come our way. This is the brain we have inherited but it is plastic and it can be changed!

Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness who has researched how we can override the brain’s default negativity bias and use the plastic nature of the brain to hardwire happiness. Hanson calls this “Positive Neuroplasticity” (PN).

In January this year I attended six-day Positive Neuroplasticity Professional training in Sydney hosted by Openground. Rick Hanson is a gifted speaker, a skillful teacher and a delightful person who walks his talk. In this PN training Hanson lays out a simple method that uses the hidden potential in everyday experiences to build neural structures that attract happiness, love, confidence and peace. He uses the acronym ‘HEAL’ to describe this simple method:- see below I will give you an example of these four steps from my everyday experience this morning. Maia, my wife, had prepared a banana, cinnamon, chia seeds, vanilla powder and home-made almond milk smoothie as a surprise for me whilst I was doing a short meditation. As she handed it to me, she gave me a subtle, loving smile and left me to enjoy it.  Before savouring the smoothie,

I paused to savour the gesture –  I had the experience; paused to enrich it by feeling Maia’s love for me; I absorbed it by breathing it deeply into my heart and belly; and I linked it to that lonely place inside (the Inner Child) that sometimes feels unloved and unappreciated.  The whole experience only took about 20 seconds but felt like both a moment of sweetness and a mini-healing.

Pausing for a few seconds to take in the good each day turns facts into felt experiences which create neural structures in the brain.  These positive neural structures determine the world we attract and the way we react to that world.  This gradually heals the negativity bias and leaves us more open to feeling safe, capable and loved.  By appreciating the little things,  we grow big things!