One of the areas of psychology where I really geek out is neuropsychology. I had this superb professor for Brain Science when I was an undergrad in college, and he always had the COOLEST STORIES to go along with whatever aspect of the brain we were talking about, which made the class super interesting where it would otherwise have been just straight, boring, biology. Plus, we had a COLORING BOOK to learn brain structures. My amgydala was always purple.
I mean, when you get down to it, the capabilities of our brains are just flat amazing.
Anyway, in that light, over the weekend at the Daily Good, they had an article about how you can trick your brain for happiness. Color me delighted when they got into the actual science of self-directed neuroplasticity. Basically, this means that you can actively, willfully change the physical structure of your brain. How COOL is that?
In a nutshell, when you do or think something, connections are made between neurons in your brain. The more you do or think that thing (or something like it) the stronger that connection becomes. Think of it like mental weight lifting. So if you look at, say, a medical student, the areas of their brain responsible for human anatomy knowledge are going to be a lot thicker with those strengthened connections at the end of med school than they were at the start. Probably the same can be said for writers after years of learning and practicing our craft. The areas of the brain responsible for story and all its various and sundry components are stronger than in the average joe.
The point that the article was making was that you can work on strengthening those neural connections in the part of the brain responsible for positive emotion using a deliberate, focused attention. So all that cognitive-behavior therapy that deals with positive self talk and cognitive restructuring? If you do it right, it’s creating physical restructuring in the brain. So the more you focus your attention on the positive in your life (and deliberately neglect focus on the negative), the more prone you will be to strengthen those connections to NOTICE the positive and allow those connections on the negative to actually die off. Thus making for a happier you. For anybody who doesn’t feel in control of their emotions, I would think this would make for some potentially fabulous and self-empowering news.
Perhaps the bigger implication of this whole concept of self-directed neuroplasticity is the notion that if you don’t use your attention, you lose it. Which I’ve seen saying for years in conjunction with the rising over-diagnosis of ADHD and our widespread society of constant new stimuli and input. The ability to pay attention is not innate. It must be trained like any muscle, strengthened as such. Whether that’s the ability to focus on gratitude and the blessings in your life or the ability to sit down and immerse yourself in your WIP for the one hour of quiet you have a day–you have to train yourself.
So the next time you feel your attention wandering, challenge yourself to rein it in and focus–work on strengthening that attention muscle. And remember what what you choose to focus on is going to stick with you. Make sure your focus is a good one.
Have you done your brain lifting today?