The mind is everything. What you think, you become’. This quote comes from the Buddha and it’s one of my favourites.
And now this ancient wisdom passed down across the centuries has been scientifically proven to be true. We have the power to re-wire our own brains. Now, call me a geek, but I find this beyond exciting!
Dr. Rick Hanson is a neuroscientist who has managed to explain the highly complex neural processes of our brain in simple terms. Now, I like things super simple so I’m going to paraphrase…
Our brains have been hard wired over the course of 600 million years of evolution to have a negativity bias. The brain is like a sponge for negative stuff and is designed to do several things:
1. Look for bad news
2. Over focus on it
3. Over react to it
4. Burn it into your memory
It’s like getting 100 reviews and obsessing over that 1 negative review instead of all the other 99 great things people wrote.
“But why does this happen?” I hear you say!
Well, there was a time when a negative thing might have killed you (e.g. a sabre toothed tiger or an axe wielding viking), so it was important for your brain to really focus on that negative thing. This negative hard wiring hasn’t really gone away so, while we’re good at having positive emotions, connections and experiences, Dr. Hanson explains that “most of them wash away like water through a sieve while the negative ones get caught”.
This negative hard wiring can become problematic in the 21st century. Particularly with the kind of things we have to contend with these days like social media, hyped up news and bonkers politics.
But hang on a minute, how are we supposed to contend with 600 million years of evolution? Well the coolest thing is that it is possible! If we use our mind to consciously think about where we put our attention and find ways to make our positive experience deeper, we can enlist underlying neural processes to actually change our brain.
So how exactly do we do this?
Dr. Hanson suggests that when we have a positive experience that feels useful and authentic to us, we should take a breath or two to really feel it in our body, stay with it and focus on what’s rewarding, meaningful or enjoyable about it. That will drive the neural processes of installation. He says “this is because repeated patterns of neural activity leave lasting traces behind like water running down a hill side. If you want to grow the good inside yourself you have to experience it and when you are experiencing it you have to internalise it”.
In his book ‘Hardwiring Happiness’ he continues “By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience—even the comfort in a single breath—you’ll help turn a passing mental state into lasting neural structure.”
When it comes to the negative stuff, it’s critical to say that we shouldn’t just ignore or suppress negative things, but rather recognise the feeling in a space of awareness without allowing ourselves to marinade too long in it. This develops resilience so we can cope better when times get difficult.
Dr. Hanson says “staying with a negative experience past the point that’s useful is like running laps in Hell: You dig the track a little deeper in your brain each time you go around it.”
So, here’s my big take-out from all of this. Let’s look out for those moments when we are experiencing something good for ourselves. It could be dancing to your favourite song, achieving a goal, jumping in puddles with your child, winning the match, drinking coffee at a favourite café, feeling the warm sunshine on your face, the smile from a stranger when you pay them a compliment, a hearty laugh with a friend or a cuddle with a loved one. Whatever, feels good to you. Really revel in the moment, drink it in, feel it in your body. If we can take a breath to do this, we’ll be setting ourselves on the right path to re-wiring our brain for greater positivity. That’s my kind of mindfulness right there.
And before you start feeling this could be a little self-indulgent. Please take a moment to ponder the wide-reaching consequences of this quote from the 13th century poet, Rumi:
“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself”