Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Your Thoughts Can Literally Change Your Brain

Our brains are consistently changing throughout our lives. Making new connections between nerve cells here, disconnecting certain nerve cells there. Our environment, including our relationships with others, games we play (crossword puzzles, Suduko, poker), TV shows, movies, video games, books we read, exercises we perform, treatments we receive (chiropractic/massage) and the thoughts that bubble up inside our heads throughout the day actually physically change the structure of our brains by rewiring connections between nerve cells. The term coined to describe this change our brain undergoes as a result of our world experiences is called plasticity.

One analogy that’s often used to visualize brain plasticity is a footpath in the grass. If you started walking on the grass through your yard in the same path every day for a year, you would eventually wear out a pathway that would be there for a long time. The key is that the pathway is used consistently. In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge describes how the brain can be rewired and strengthened much like a muscle.

This is what our brains do, even with the thoughts we think: it creates new pathways. It used to be a common notion that our thought life is as a result of our brains, but scientific evidence has shown otherwise. The advents of functional MRI and PET scans that can record areas of the brain that light up demonstrate that our thoughts can send blood and activity to certain areas of the brain.

So how does one change a thought? It’s very simple. Just by being aware of your thoughts, or practicing mindfulness, you’re altering how the brain functions. If you’re having fear thoughts, stopping and saying to yourself “why am I having these thoughts?” is using a different part of the brain. In the book The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz, the author describes how people suffering with debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can change the pathways in their brains that activate the disorder by being aware of their thinking and learning how to redirect their thinking to something besides the obsession that has a hold of them. MRI and other brain scans showed that the pathways were altered, that the brain rewired. In most of the cases, just being aware of the brain going on a loop (experienced with massive anxiety) that tells them that they should wash their hands, count tiles, check all the locks in the house, etc. was altered because a different part of the brain was used to contemplate contemplation. Sounds weird, but it works if it’s performed consistently.

If you started today and monitored your thoughts everyday for a year, you would profoundly change your brain. The first thing to do is to be aware of your thoughts. Sort of like thinking of your thoughts in the third person, much like many celebrities and professional athletes describe themselves in the press. “John is thinking negatively about Sue.” If your thoughts are predominately negative, hateful, or fearful/worried, you reinforce the pathways in your brain that maintain these thoughts. We all know by now the deleterious effects of these thoughts. They’re often described as stress. If you think pleasant, loving, positive thoughts, those pathways become more efficient.

Another strategy is to be present. Presence means to be focused on whatever you’re doing in the moment and not think about the past or the future. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is a great book on how to do this. Not to say that you never make plans, but try not to worry about those plans and how it’s going to work out. For example: “Joan is worrying about the upcoming conference.” Just focus on what’s in front of you. This strategy uses the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe has powerful inhibitory effects on our fear centers of our brains. Research has shown that a positive attitude can improve our overall health.

Another very powerful frontal lobe thought activity is compassion. Compassion and understanding lights up our frontal lobes very powerfully and is good for our communities. Imagine the world if there was even just a little more compassion. If the brain controls every function in the body then the entire body can benefit. What kind of brain do you want? You can start a new footpath right now. “______ is starting a new thought process right now.”

~ Dr. W. Brent Reynolds

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to leave a comment.