Among the questions most frequently posed to me as a psychologist is “What can I do to improve…” followed by “…my experience in my relationship,” “…my confidence,” “…my sense of security,” or whatever the desired area of internal enhancement is. It’s important to discover what’s been getting in the way of progress in any of these areas, but even without this knowledge an awareness of neuroplasticity can gradually help us experience more of what we want in the future (in effect, using feeling good to feel better). In his book entitled “Hardwiring Happiness,” Dr. Rick Hanson describes the science behind our brain’s evolutionary holdover of a “negativity bias” and explains how we can actually work with our brain to become more inclined towards a more balanced default state.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the concept that the human brain actually changes in response to experience. While it was once thought that the brain was a static, fixed structure that determines our exact level of intelligence, happiness and capacity, we now know that it is actually an ever-changing constellation of neural circuitry that we constantly and directly impact, both in functioning and ultimately form. An expression frequently used in neuroscience is that “neurons that fire together wire together.” What this means is that whenever we engage our attention in an event of any sort, the occurrence is mapped by a corresponding pattern of neurochemical activity from one neuron to the next, creating what is referred to as a neural pathway. Each time that a particular neural pathway is traced, it becomes further grooved into being and easily accessible for future ignition.
How does neuroplasticity work?
Remember back to how pleasurable it felt to notice a sense of belonging with a group of friends, or a moment when you felt particularly connected to and engaged with a loved one. Either instance constitutes a firing pattern in time, but with repeated neural sequencing that pattern can become a more durable quality or characteristic of a person’s disposition and/or capability, enabling them to feel better. This directly reflects another phrase often referenced in neuroscience: “state becomes trait.” This means that when repeated, what at one point was a momentary state of mind reflected in the brain can become an actual trait or characteristic of the brain. This concept provides the basis for Dr. Gabor Maté’s argument that attention deficit disorder can be viewed as potentially having its origins in childhood trauma. The child repeatedly dissociates or psychologically checks out to get through difficult experiences. Each time the child does this in reaction to uncomfortable stimuli, it activates a mental state of being. After this is repeated over a duration of time it eventually becomes a trait or quality of the brain, leading to the diagnostic criteria for attention deficit disorder being met later in life.
Why is noticing and staying with what feels good so important?
This means that our mental muscle of attention is incredibly important. It’s not enough to simply have pleasant occurrences. In fact, without noticing and really marking the pleasurable experiences with corresponding neural activity, they make little difference to our overall neural makeup. As far as our brains are concerned, if we are not mentally engaged with the experience it is as though it hasn’t even occurred. Contrastingly, when we are consciously interacting with what is happening for us and the various aspects of the experience, in essence we are equipping ourselves to create more of it for future access. Dr. Hanson describes this practice as “taking in the good.” He points to common, ordinary occurrences as enabling this quality of the brain to work in our favor. He has developed a process for harnessing more of what we would like to have access to.
Let me give you an example: As I sit here writing, my small, fluffy dog lies in my lap. If I take a moment to notice and really feel the sensation of his body curled in the crook of my leg, and the grounding and soothing quality of it, I am offered the opportunity to light up the neural pathways associated with connection and calming. Should I seek greater access to an internal state of safety and security, or to feel more connected to my lived experience, this simple moment offers me elements of both. Another opportunity to activate similar neural pathways of comfort and calm can come when taking a shower at the end of the day and noticing (pausing for 20 seconds or more and really absorbing) the soothing warmth of the water and the soft sound of it passing by my ears. The more times I do this the more frequently the corresponding neural firing is occurring and the more deeply grooved and easily triggered it becomes.
When core beliefs get in the way
Understanding neuroplasticity and the brain’s capacity to build more of what we want helps to explain what is happening when gratitude practices extend our positive mood states. However, for some, core beliefs about the self can keep us from finding utility in noticing the things in our life that we appreciate. For example, if I have a core belief that I am not good enough or not fundamentally capable, an attempt to notice what I’m thankful for could actually backfire and lead me to feel guilty.
This could stem from my misperception that I should be grateful for everything in my life and that I haven’t been reinforcing my idea that I’m not good enough. For someone in this kind of internal predicament an understanding of neuroplasticity offers a way to connect to even the smallest bits of goodness in their experience. Instead of thinking “I should appreciate this,” the person would be best served by focusing attention on what actually lights them up internally (e.g. the sense of relief at getting on the bus in time; the feeling of accomplishment from handing in an assignment at work, or from completing each necessary step leading up to handing in that piece of work).
A core belief would also get in the way of someone who fears that connecting with what they are grateful for would call to the fates of the universe to take those things away, leading to a fear of loss. To the contrary, for someone in this situation, paying attention to enjoyment and goodness in their experience would actually enable them to access it more easily, as new neural networks would be created to map their felt sense of the experience.
Even if we don’t like everything that we are experiencing, in almost every circumstance there’s an opportunity to notice something really simple and basic that we do….the support of the chair beneath us, the crispness of sounds around us. Allow your attention to gravitate to the simplest areas of satisfaction and know that in doing so you are allowing them to become more prominent in your experience and in your brain
– Written by Dr. Catherine Hurly