The following is a cross post of Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist who conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger, February 2010) and can be reached through his website . His post, originally appearing on MentalHelp.net , and is reprinted here with permission of Dr. Goldstein.
Change Your Mind, Your Brain and Your Life!
Here’s a formula: Thoughts form actions, and actions form consequences. One of the consequences is the formation of neural connections in our brains which make it easier for neurons to fire in a particular direction the next time. If the mind automatically reacts to being complemented by shutting down, then that continues to strengthen those connections so that happens again and again the next time. Why is this and what can we do about it?
One of the ways we can understand this is with Donald Hebb’s quote, “neurons that fire together wire together.” However, it’s not as if we can do anything initially about those neurons that are firing because they happen so quickly. The judgment that the complement is dangerous or bad in some way doesn’t come up consciously; we just notice a sense of wanting to retreat from the situation. So now what?
Well, it’s important to understand that what we learn, practice and repeat becomes automatic after some time. That’s how we are who we are today. At some point we learned how to ride a bike, we practiced and repeated it and now we don’t have to think about it. In the same way we learned right and wrong, good and bad, and fair and unfair, we practiced it and repeated it and now it just comes up automatically. Sometimes these snap judgments are healthy and sometimes they are unhealthy.
There is a way to influence these snap judgments and one of the ways is through changing our minds and brains through intentional priming.
Priming means setting up the mind to be in a place to see things a particular way.
Mindfulness practices seem to correlate with the 9 functions of the middle prefrontal cortex of our brains.
Body regulation: Balance of the sympathetic (accelerator) and parasympathetic (brakes) branches of the autonomic nervous system.
Attuned communication: Enables us to tune into others’ states and link minds.
Emotional balance: Permits the lower limbic regions to become aroused enough so life has meaning, but not too aroused that we become flooded.
Response flexibility: The opposite of a “knee-jerk” reaction, this capacity enables us to pause before acting and inhibit impulses giving us enough time to reflect on our various options for response.
Empathy: Considering the mental perspective of another person.
Insight: Self-knowing awareness, the gateway to our autobiographical narratives and self-understanding.
Fear extinction: GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter) fibers project down to the amygdala and enable fearful responses to be calmed.
Intuition: Being aware of the input of our body, especially information from the neural networks surrounding intestines (a “gut feeling”) and our heart (“heartfelt feelings”) enables us to be open to the wisdom of our non-conceptual selves.
Morality. The capacity to think of the larger good, and to act on these pro-social ideas, even when alone, appears to depend on an intact middle prefrontal region.
So in practicing how to intentionally pay attention, without judgment, we activate the part of our brains that over time, with practice and repetition will allows to more automatically see a situation with greater balance, empathy, response flexibility, reliable intuition, and less fear, among other things.
So we can positively influence the thoughts that automatically happen which go on to change the actions and consequences toward a healthier life.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom we can all benefit from.