Blog UF Mind #5: Neuroplasticity

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

By Sabine Grunwald

neuroplasticity


I was just opening an email the other day which notified me in plain English “your research proposal has been rejected.” Not the first time this happens, and really as an academic I know that the success rate for many federally-funded programs is often between 5-15 percent; meaning that statistically in average one proposal out of 10 submitted ones are funded. My #mind was not letting go of the rejection. I really put major effort and lots of sweat into writing it and filled out the pile of forms to submit the proposal. From my perspective my research idea was brilliant and for certain transformative and ground-breaking. Why was My proposal rejected? Oh, dear. I was caught in a negative thinking loop. Anger, frustration, disappointment and sadness were laying a shadow over my sweet cup of vanilla chamomile tea that I usually enjoy. My meditation session suddenly did not seem as blissful and my friend did not smile at me anymore. My day was going literally sour and from then on downhill. Can you relate to this? I bet you can also name something that happened to you lately and your mind labelled it as negative so that you could not even recognize the one hundred other positive things going on the same day.


Have you ever wondered why we are drawn to the negative instead of seeing the positive in our lives? Scientists have found that this is very common. Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, provides some answers. It’s all about how our brain works that consists of three major brain portions: (1) The oldest reptilian brain made up of the brain stem and cerebellum which are responsible for survival instincts (e.g., fight, flight or freeze response in a threatening situation), (2) the mammalian brain / limbic system which are responsible for feelings and memory formation, and (3) the evolutionary youngest portion – the neocortex, our “thinking” brain which provides language, reasoning, logic and perspective taking capability (e.g., planning into the future). This whole human brain, about three pounds of tofu-like tissue contains 1.1 trillion cells including about 100 billion neurons. On average, each neuron receives about five thousand connections, called synapses, from other neurons. At its receiving synapses, a neuron gets signals (usually as a burst of neurotransmitters) from other neurons. And a typical neuron fires 5-50 times a second. In the time you read this sentence literally quadrillions of signals travel inside your brain (Hanson, 2009). These neuronal patterns are adapted as we grow older and in response to new experiences. This is what’s called #neuroplasticity, i.e., the changing of the structure, function and organization of neurons in your brain in response to new experiences. It works like this. First is an experience (e.g., I enjoy surfing  waves) that stimulates mental activity which can be a thought, feeling or action (e.g., I feel joy and elation while surfing). Second, a new neural structure is created because neurons that fire together, wire together. Third, if the experience is repeated (e.g., I go surfing every day) I strengthen the same neural connections because neurons that wire together make more lasting circuits. There is some caveat to it. Rick Hanson (2009, 2013), and many other neuroscientists, say that our brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls and reacts to unpleasant experiences. It’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Rick says that even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. So the flow of daily experiences gradually sculpts your brain and shapes your mind.


Amazing, isn’t it? So when I experience many research proposal rejections the neural pathways in my brain are trained that bring up negative emotions, such as feeling frustrated, disappointed, sad and  angry. At some point I may not even want to submit proposals anymore because I feel overwhelmed or helpless in light of previous experiences. And this response becomes my habitual pattern.


The good news is that if I understand how my brain works I may deliberately chose experiences that bring forth positive/pleasant feelings. Or I may bring #awareness to inquire about these negative patterns that once brought into #consciousness can be shifted. For example, I may use a #contemplative #meditation practice and sit with the feeling of rejection (e.g., a proposal, social rejection by a colleague, my boss or a friend) and non-judgmentally inquire into my body. I may find that really in the core of my being I am basically good and intrinsically O.K.  I may recognize that others feel rejected too and compassion and empathy may dwell up. The somatic relaxation will also allow me to let go of the story line that my thinking mind made up about being rejected.

We can deliberately change how we experience future events in our life and mindfulness plays a major role in it. Spending hours each day texting messages will wire those neural pathways in the brain attuned to brief communication in a virtual world, but will not help much writing a beautiful essay, critical discussion section in a science paper or increase intimacy in a partnership. Literally your choices determine who you will become by training your mind and neural pathways.

Rick Hanson (2013) suggests hardwiring our happiness which builds on creating positive neural pathways by consciously experiencing the positive, beauty and sacredness in our lives. For example, you may consciously take in when somebody is kind to you or you experience a joyful moment (e.g., the most wonderful sunset you have ever seen). Importantly, the more deeply we associate a strong positive feeling/emotion with an experience (e.g., by taking 10 seconds and deep breaths to notice the beauty in the sunset) the longer lasting the effects – literally, we strengthen those neural pathways. Shawn Achor (2010), who teaches the Happiness class at Harvard University, suggests embracing positive psychology and the neuroplasticity of our brains. He argues that happiness is the precursor to success. According to Shawn, happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement giving us the competitive edge which he calls “the Happiness Advantage.”  Waiting to be happy –  after we achieve a promotion, receive an acceptance letter, an A in an exam, getting a paper published – limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative and productive, which drives performance upward. This sounds wonderful exciting to me.

References:

Achor S. (2010). The happiness advantage: the seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. Crown Business Publ.


Hanson R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. New Harbinger Publ.


Hanson R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm and confidence. Harmony Publ.

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