Is Changing Our Brain a Matter of Changing Our Mind?by Kinga Lewandowska
Change your mind, change your brain. The neuroplasticity of the most complex and complicated organ in our body enables short, medium, and long-term remodeling of our brains, and we can influence it. Whenever we think new thoughts, experience new situations, learn new skills, or memorize new information, our neural pathways reorganize and form new connections. Our brains have the miraculous capacity to adapt as needed, yet that also means they can be impacted negatively.
Up For the Challenge
There are forces within and outside of our control. While there’s not much we can do about the laws of nature or physics, we do have a say in, for example, who we choose as life partners. Willingly or unwillingly, our brains constantly change and adjust to new versions of our lives, forming neural connections in response to what we go through. That’s why various shades of negativity might rewire our brains in a way that will require years of professional help to undo.
In his Ted Talk, psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson gathered four common challenges that come with the highest risk of negatively affecting our brains. They are as follows:
- Distractibility – the abundance of modern possibilities is as wonderful as it is overwhelming. Research shows that 47% of the time an average American adult is not paying attention to what they’re doing and that it makes their minds unhappy. If our absenteeism resulted from daydreaming, there would be benefits to it. As it stands, it has a detrimental effect on our brains.
- Loneliness – not to be confused with intentional alone time. According to research, as much as 76% of middle-aged Americans report moderate to high levels of loneliness. Considering the deadly nature of this state (it increases the likelihood of death by 29%), it puts a very serious strain on our brains.
- Negative self-talk and depression – suicide rates are on the rise and depression shows no signs of slowing down either. In the US, every single day more than one teenager takes their life. The power of neuroplasticity can rewrite any destructive narrative that plays on repeat in our minds and pushes us over the edge.
- Loss of meaning and purpose – this is another predictor for early mortality. Research indicates that people in their 60s who experience low levels of purpose in life are two times more likely to die within 5 years than those with high levels.
It is not our intention to sound morbid. Yet, we need to acknowledge and underline that neglecting the above-mentioned challenges can have serious consequences. Each of them drags our minds and our brains further and further away from happiness and flourishing. But we could still turn it all around.
Pillars of a Healthy Mind
Dr. Davidson is optimistic. His framework for understanding a healthy mind comes to our rescue and provides four components of a plan to reverse the damage. We will notice tangible changes in our wellbeing if we invest our time and energy in cultivating the following pillars:
Within the meaning of self-awareness (knowledge of who we are and what we feel), but most importantly in this instance, meta-awareness (knowing what our minds are doing at any given time). The capacity to focus our attention and resist distraction can be successfully developed by reading books. Have you ever experienced scanning over a page and having no idea what you’ve just read? That’s a lapse in meta-awareness. The moment of realization, when you go back to re-read the text – that’s the essence of meta-awareness, and it’s crucial for progress to occur.
Humans are social creatures, and harmonious interpersonal relationships are absolutely vital to our good mental health. Forming new friendships, nourishing bonds with loved ones, and seeking guidance from those we look up to are not only beneficial but also necessary practices for us to thrive in our lives. Think kindness, compassion, and appreciation. These qualities require only a bit of goodness to get activated, yet they build meaningful human connections that might last a lifetime.
In other words, a deep dive into our emotions and the narrative we all have about ourselves. What fosters depression is low self-esteem and cultivating a distorted view of ourselves. A healthy mind does not necessarily tackle the narrative per se. Rather, it changes our relationship with it and our attitude towards it by helping us see the negative state for what it really is – a mere constellation of thoughts.
It’s all about the feeling that our life is going in a particular direction. What contributes to that sense is embracing as much of our reality as possible as part of our bigger meaning. The most menial tasks can still be related to our purpose, broadening and nurturing it. You want to be a writer? Journaling, investing in a typewriter or software, reading (a lot), eavesdropping on an interesting conversation to use it as dialogue in your novel, researching symbols for a story, or watching movies for inspiration – it’s all part of honing your craft and fortifying your purpose.
Working on all of the above one at a time or all together will gradually revive your mental stamina. Rewiring your brain takes time and patience but results will be worth every ounce of your dedication. It is in our hands, and ours only, to strengthen our minds and make them happier.
Train Your Mind
The neuroplasticity of our brains is supported by two fundamentally different kinds of learning:
- Declarative learning – acquiring theoretical knowledge about things, which is a great starting point, an introduction of sorts. Yet, while we can teach people definitions of kindness or honesty, those alone will not make them either kind or honest.
- Procedural learning – developing practical skills, actively engaging in whatever we want to study, learning in practice, in the thick of it all. We could never build a functioning car without literally getting our hands dirty.
Both of those types of learning operate through completely different brain circuits and we need both of them to trigger transformation. Dr. Davidson and his colleagues conducted research in which randomized groups of people received compassion training. The MRI results showed systematic differences in the participants’ brains before and after the two-week training with quantifiable differences observed after only 7 hours of practice.
These remarkably rapid effects are proof that we can train our brains to operate in accordance with our wishes. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep putting in effort as any changes that occur might not last forever. However, the more we practice, the longer the positive shifts will endure. The less we use our new-formed neural connections, the quicker they will deteriorate.
Power In the Neural Circuit
The wiring in our brains is not fixed, it’s adaptable. We can harness the power of neuroplasticity and take responsibility for your brains by transforming our minds. It is not easy but it’s worth it. Identify where your brain needs the most help. Is it finding purpose? Gaining insight or awareness? Building relationships?
Dr. Davidson advises devoting 3 minutes of intentional training a day to reversing the movement of our brain mechanisms. Brushing our teeth was not something humans did when we first developed. Like so many other beneficial practices, it is a learned behavior. We can train ourselves into better mental health, too. Wellbeing is a skill.