Taking in the Good: Neuroplasticity and Your Brain

Recently at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health I had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop presented by Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain. As many know, particularly those in the world of psychology, there is much documented evidence indicating that we can change our brains from a negative perspective to a more optimistic one by developing certain skills. Changing or reshaping the brain is known asneuroplasticity. The fact that we have the capacity to reshape our brains means we have the power within us to lead happier and more optimistic lives. This is indeed good news.

i-wonder-if-hes-appreciating-the-sunset-ebeltoftThe bad news is as Dr. Hanson pointed out is that, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result culminates in an increasing residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in our memory banks.”

Most of us expend a considerable amount of thought and energy focusing on the negative or potentially negative events in our lives. Focusing on the negative strengthens the part of the brain that  creates generalizations and we interpret old and new experiences in a negative light. According to Dr. Rick Hanson our brains have a “negativity bias.” This suggests that we continually scan the environment looking for the negative, which in turn shapes our minds, resulting in depressed and anxious moods, anger and overreactions.

But (we’re back to the good news) just as we have the capacity to strengthen our negative perspective on things, so too do we possess the ability to fortify the part of the brain that is responsible for positive thought. Even though most of us have internalized the negative bias, positive thoughts can also generalize in the brain. The neural circuitry of memory occupies the heart of the mechanism responsible for changing the brain. If we can learn how to generate and internalize positive experiences into the brain and the self, we can establish greater resilience, optimism, happiness, and better relationships.

Since our thoughts have the power to reshape our brains, it behooves us to learn the skills that are most likely to lead us to a positive perspective. When practiced regularly, certain exercises will help foster a change in brain circuitry and make us happier.

The more conscious we are about perceiving an event as being good or ‘good enough’ the more this perception will generalize to other parts of our brain. However, just having positive experiences is not enough, as these sentiments tend to pass fleetingly through the brain while negative experiences are more tenacious. We must actively work to integrate positive experiences into the brain, in order for the beneficial effects to endure. The question remains, “How do I do this?”

Dr. Hanson teaches a simple visualization exercise, which he refers to as “Taking in the Good.” Although there are many other strategies, I found his method for weaving positive emotions into the brain to be quite compelling. He suggests that this visualization process be practiced routinely, until the effects are noticed and so forth.

How to Take in the Good

The idea is to take in the good in a relaxed state and savor these experiences. The more this is practiced the more deeply ingrained the positive will become.

1.  Look for positive facts and traits about your self and your life. Broaden them to become positive experiences (i.e. a great conversation with a friend, a good night’s sleep, an unexpected compliment).

2.  Savor the positive experience or memory of the experience and sustain it for about 30 seconds. Allow yourself to feel it in your mind and body. Keep bringing your attention back to the experience when your mind wanders. Intensify the feeling and be with that for another 30 seconds. Practice several times in succession.

3.  As you feel this positive, truthful fact allow it to soak into the recesses of your mind and body. Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown that the longer something is held in conscious awareness, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory. The idea is to continue building a positive collection of experiences into the brain. This will cast an optimistic perspective on other experiences and will penetrate the unconscious mind.

Practice “Taking in the Good” and truly appreciating positive experiences and notice how you feel. This may be a bit challenging at first; it gets easier with practice. Remember this is about being kind to yourself and cultivating positive resources in your mind.

Please let me know if you have any questions about how to “Take in the Good.”  Your comments are welcomed.

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4 Responses to Taking in the Good: Neuroplasticity and Your Brain

  1. Randy, Two things. First I am sorry about your father, but glad that you nourished yourself in this way. Second, this post is so exciting to me. I just had a day where i noticed how much I create stress in my life, which creates negativity in my family. I am committing to this terrific and simple exercise you share. Thank you and Dr. Hanson!

  2. Randy, my condolences on the loss of your father. How wonderful that you were able to experience such a rejuvenating period to put life and joy back into perspective. I am very excited about the information contained in this post since over the past year I have had to focus on keeping my attitude more positive than negative after a series of very unexpected and devastating events. The simple exercises outlined in your post will propel me further along that path as I move through more adventures and some misadventures along the way. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Many times I practice the “yuck” moments over and over in my brain. This is a wonderful reminder that practicing the “yum” moments can be just as available to me and far more pleasurable.

    Thanks!

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