What on earth is Neuroplasticity?

“Life is half delicious yogurt, half crap, and your job is to keep the plastic spoon in the yogurt.”

Scott Adams

 

Something I have come to realize through my own practice and reading on Mindfulness is that our brains are not fixed and unchanging. Society has taught us that by the time you get to be an adult your brain’s structure; even the way we think; is fixed and unchanging for all of our lives.

In fact, it is not the case at all.

Our brain; like the rest of our bodies; can be consciously changed by our actions. Think for a moment, have you taken up a new sport or hobby as an adult? All of us have done so at some point. Whether it is cycling, running, swimming, golf, tennis, etc. Or perhaps, a new interest, such as learning a new language; learning to cook exotic meals, etc. Or even, if we have stopped something. For instance, smoking, drinking or eating meat. Throughout all of our lives, we are constantly changing habits and our bodies adapt.

So do in fact do our brains. Even our identities are not fixed, they change over time. Falling in love. Having children. Changing jobs.Moving to a new city or country. Everything has an impact both on our bodies, as well as our brains. Our memories. Our perceptions of the world around us.

The term, for the ability to flex and change the structure of the brain, is called Neuroplasticity.

Neuroplastic change can occur at small scales, such as physical changes to individual neurons, or at whole-brain scales, such as remapping in response to an injury. Behaviour, environmental stimuli, thought, and emotions may also cause neuroplastic change, which has significant implications for healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage.

Scientific research has shown that the very structure of the brain can be changed in even a relatively short period of time.  

A number of studies have linked meditation practice to differences in density of the  gray matter that makes up certain parts of the brain. One of the most well-known studies to demonstrate this was led by Sara Lazar, from Harvard University, in 2000.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has led experiments, working with a number of Buddhist monks, including Matthieu Ricard, on effects of meditation on the brain. In fact, Matthieu has been called the Happiest Man alive. His results suggest that even short-term practice of meditation results in different levels of activity in brain regions associated with improvements such as: improved attention; reduced anxiety levels; a reduction in levels of depression; feeling less fearful; significant reductions in anger, and even the ability of the body to heal itself. Some of these results can be seen in as little as seven weeks.

I have always been fascinated at how the brain works, and what we, as humans, are capable of. I watched a great programme from the BBC, that I would recommend it to you. if you get a chance, check out:

The Brain with David Eagleman 

David explores how the brain conjures up the world we take for granted. This episode shows how the brain gives rise to thought, emotions, memories and personality. We Do not “see” the world around us, rather we reconstruct it moment by moment, based on our sensory perception, our brains ability to chunk together information, and even the ability to delete and distort reality.

 

I leave you with the following quote……. which made me laugh at the modern world we have.

“She got her looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.”

Groucho Marx

 

The four constituents of Well-Being you can change

 

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”  

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Achieving well-being has been the concern of philosophers since Aristotle, and is, in many respects the essence of human existence. In recent years, well-being  has come to the fore and there has been much research on the roots of well-being.

I have heard a number of talks on well-being and one of the most recent was as part of a talk given by His holiness the Dalai Lama. The host was Richard J. Davidson. He is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Founder and Chair of the Center for Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His is the chap that measured Matthieu Ricard’s brain and was able to prove that Mathieu is one of the happiest men in the world.

Anyway, Richard has identified four, scientifically and well-researched constituents of well-being. There maybe others but these have been well researched. There is the concept that we can take more responsibility to develop these constituents and thereby, further develop and improve our own levels of well-being. Since our brains are structured in a way that allows for neural plasticity, it means that we can develop skills and techniques to strengthen these constituents. The four constituents are:

 

  • The first is called Resilience. It is defined as “the rapidity that we recover from adversity” that defines resilience. The faster that you are able to recover from an adverse situation or event, the more resilient you are. Mindfulness meditation helps in this area as it helps to build resilience to adverse situations and helps you recover more quickly. The only downside is that it takes about 6,000 hours before the neural pathways in the brain change.

 

  • The second is called Positive Outlook. The idea is about seeing the positive in situations, in other people and in life’s events. The  supportive and forward looking. People with this element have lower levels of stress and may actually have better physical levels of non-stress in their lives. Loving Kindness and Compassionate mindfulness meditation are the key ways to do this. However, unlike resilience which takes time, using loving kindness meditation practices can rapidly change the neural pathways in the brain. How quickly? Only seven hours or about two weeks are sufficient to make the change.

 

  • The third is Attention or a Focused Mind. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. On average, about 47% of an adult’s time is spent with a wandering mind. The ability to bring your mind back into focus is critical. Being present with another person, intently listening. Learning to pay attention to the present moment and to accept what happened in the present moment is critical in this area. Being more contemplative helps in this area. When was the last time you too time out to just sit and be? Sunday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and it was warm outside. I just sat in the garden and appreciated the day.

 

  • The fourth is the most important. It is Generosity. This is the one that drives everything else. This is not just about money and giving to charity. It is more about altruistic generosity. Here are a few tips to help in this area as well.
  1. Get connected: Feeling connected to other people, even by just reading words like “community” and “relationship”, makes us more altruistic.
  2. Get personal: We’re more altruistic when we see people as individuals, not abstract statistics. So if you want to encourage aid to people in need, give their problem a human face.
  3. See yourself in others: In general, people are much more likely to help members of their own group. Finding a thread of similarity with someone else, even something as simple as liking the same sport or team, can motivate altruistic action toward that person.
  4. Give thanks: Grateful people are more generous, perhaps because they’re paying forward the gifts they appreciate receiving from others. Receiving gratitude can also encourage altruism.
  5. Lead by example: People who constantly display altruism encourage others to follow suit.
  6. Put people in a good mood: Happy people are more likely to be generous.
  7. Finally, fight inequality.

 

The conclusion is that Well-being is a skill that you, me, or anyone can learn and develop.

To watch a talk on the four elements of well-being, go to:

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/gg_live/mindfulness_well_being_at_work/speaker/richard_davidson/four_constituents_of_well-being/

To watch the talk given by His holiness the Dalai Lama, go to:

https://youtu.be/Hp5YpB0ohac?t=28m43s
I leave you with the following quote:

“There are many aspects to success; material wealth is only one component. …But success also includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind.”

Deepak Chopra

We can change our negative wiring!

 

Oddball: “Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves Moriarty? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?”

From the Film “Kelly’s Heros”

 

So what are we going to do about being hard wired with a negative bias? Accept it and just live with it? Or try to do something about it?  

Being surrounded by so much negativity and being hard wired towards it; it’s a wonder we are all not complete manic depressives. But somehow, most of us, seem to lead reasonably balanced lives. So it is not all doom and gloom. We instinctively try to balance both the negative and the positive.

One of the ways we strive to hold the positive is we surround ourselves with mementos of pleasant events. We may have photos of family members and loved ones in our houses. We listen to music which triggers memories of past discos and situations where we first heard the tune; a gig or a concert; or when the music was playing and we met a person we fell in love with. We may keep possessions from our past, from our family, that when we see them and touch them, trigger pleasant memories.

One of my mementos, is my grandmother’s watch. Why is it so special?

She was blind and almost deaf for most of her life. Was she down hearted? No, not at all. Most of the time, she was happy and chatty. One of her constants was the Royal National Institute of the Blind designed watch that she would wind and listen to the tick tock. It is like a old fashioned pocket watch, but the top case, when it is pushed up reveals a watch face with no glass. Instead, the dial hands are chunky and there are raised pips next to the numbers on the watch. She would run her fingers over the face of the watch and be able to tell the time. Even as I type this, the positive memories come flooding back. 

Another trick you can use is to record, remember and reflect on the positive experiences you have every day. Big or small it does not matter. As part of the MBSR – Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program; one of the activities you are asked to complete is to capture positive things and situations you are placed in every day. You write them down in a mini diary during the day. For instance: You say “good morning” to someone and they smile back at you; You hold the door open for someone and they say “thankyou”; You let someone in at a traffic queue and they flash their indicators. Anything and everything.

Then at the end of the day, read through the list and reflect on the day’s activities and how those positive moments made you feel.

There are some other tips you might like to try that are not related to Mindfulness or meditation in any way:

  • Be conscious of the viral effect of negative people and how they can “infect” positive people. If you can, choose not to be with them. You can not change them, but you can certainly avoid being with them if you can.
  • When positive events or interactions occur, savor the positive experience. Write it down. Record it. Photograph it. It is those positive moments that you want to remember.
  • Demonstrate and encourage others to be mindful of the “triggers” that can stimulate negativity. Reflect on whether the negative situation has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion, and how it can be changed or minimised.
  • Avoiding over-analyzing or ruminating on past negative events; rather focus on what can be done in the present in a positive manner. It is the rumination that build the negative memory sets.
  • When at work, focus on the small wins and progress on a daily basis, and take time to celebrate those, rather than waiting for the end of a project or an extended period of time before celebrating sucess.
  • Remember that it takes up to 10 positive experiences to counterbalance one negative experience. Perhaps you can see if you can record 10 positive experiences in a day. Big or small, I am sure it will be easy to capture them

 

Now you have reached the end of this article, why don’t you take a few moments to search out a treasured picture; a momento; a piece of music; or an object in your life. Look at it, hold it, listen to it and really feel it. Remember the memories it brings back. Positive ones. I hope, like my grandmothers watch and my memories of her.

Namaste.

If you liked the quote at the start, here is a collection from the film “Kelly’s Heros” where odd bal talks to Moriarty about “those negative waves”. Made me smile:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuStsFW4EmQ

 

I leave you with the following quote:

 

“Try giving up all the thoughts that make you feel bad, or even just some of them, and see how doing that changes your life. You don’t need negative thoughts. All they have ever given you was a false self that suffers. They are all lies.”

Gina Lake, What about Now?: Reminders for Being in the Moment

Are we hard-wired to be negative?

 

“From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life.”

Anaïs Nin

Are we hard-wired to be negative? It was a topic that came up in conversation the other day. We were talking about someone who seemed to always look at the negative side of life. Was always seeing the negative. The hopeless. The impossible. In whatever task, activity or situation, it seemed like it was always a “glass half empty”. In fact, these feelings were sometimes reflected in others.

It would appear that we are hardwired to have a higher negativity bias than a positive one. Why? The answer it would appear is to keep us safe. Why on earth is being more negative about something going to keep us safe?

Imagine we are back in the distant past. Scratching a living on the savanna. Looking for things to eat, looking after our family and trying to avoid getting attacked and possibly eaten by something, like a lion or a leopard.

You see something in the distance. Is it something to eat? Or something to run away from? It looks like a dead animal. Some people would go an investigate. Some will wait. And some will remember that that inviting dead animal by the tree had a leopard sitting next to it, gently munching on it and ready to munch on you. It would appear that those people that were more cautious; in effect more negative about a situation; survived.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. Generally, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for, visual-spatial processing, so it’s advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment). You see a leopard and remember the leopard and what it can do.

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain — the Amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) uses approximately two-thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences, and once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly. This is so it can be remembered and recalled. The next time you see that dead animal by the tree, your memories will come flooding back of poor Jimmy that went off to see and got eaten by the leopard.

Positive experiences have to be held in our awareness for more than 12 seconds in order for the transfer from short-term to long-term memory.  Rick Hanson describes it in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

Further, since we are disposed to think and remember more clearly the negative, we carry that forward in our everyday lives. Yes. As we grow up and become adults, be remember more clearly the negative stimuli and their effect.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones
  • Other researchers analyzed language to study negativity bias. For example, there are more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent) in the English dictionary.
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing £100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money
  • Remember that it takes up to 10 positive experiences to counterbalance one negative experience. this is certainly true of Customer Service.

 

So what are we going to do about being hard wired with a negative bias?

Accept it and just live with it? Or try to do something about it?  In the next article, I will share how you can change.

I leave you with the following quote:

“You just can’t live that negative way.

You know what I mean. Make way for the positive day. Cause it’s a new day…”

Bob Marley

Reflective Sunday

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Søren Kierkegaard
Is Sunday still special for you? Is it still different to the other days of the week? To us in the west, it is the day of rest; reflection; religion and recharge. In some Muslim countries and Israel, Sunday is the first work day of the week, which I find a strange concept. a wonderful article made me reflect on today.

For me, growing up, Sunday was a special day of the week. When I was little; it was the day when I went – with my younger brother – to Sunday school. Dressed up in our finest, we would be taken to the small school behind the church and there, be given biscuits and squash. [I don’t know why that is the first memory I have of the place. Perhaps it the fact we so rarely had biscuits at home]. We were allowed to play and draw and listen to stories. Stories from the bible. That’s what I remember. At some point, and I do not know why, we stopped going  to Sunday school.

Instead, it became more of a family day. Dad would take me and bro out and we would go visit our grandparents in the morning. Return home in time for a sunday roast and perhaps a walk in the afternoon. The evening was always cut short, as it was school the following morning. My brother and I were shooed off to bed earlier than normal, somewhere around seven o’clock.

As we got older, the walking and trips out become more frequent and we would take packed lunches or a primus stove to heat up beans and tea. Progressing into the late teens and it was more a case of lazing in bed after a late night out on the Saturday. With the inevitable shout up the stairs to “..get out of bed as lunch was on the table!”

Into adulthood and our own children, Sunday has always been a day where we did something as a family together. A walk. A trip to the seaside. A walk along the River Thames. Always something special. Never a work day. A day of reconnection.

Now as the children have grown up and spend their time with their horse at the horse yard, Sunday has become the one day of the week where I can be in a reflective space. Quiet. Thoughtful. I think of the week that has occurred and the week to come. I do not worry about either. It is yet being present and accepting what has happened and what will be.

All too quickly will the day be over and the work week commence. However, till then, I wish you all a reflective Sunday. Oh and for Mum’s everywhere, Happy Mothering Sunday. 

By the way, this is my 100th article. Hope you enjoyed it. Would love to hear your memories of a Sunday; what you did growing up; and what you do now.

I leave you with the following quote which really touched me:

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Confucius