The facts: Consciousness, our perception, beliefs, actions, emotions and feelings play an integral role in shaping our biology. In this article, a neuroscientist explains mindfulness actions that can change your brain.
Reflect on: With so much validity coming from the realm of mind/body science, why does mainstream medicine continue to focus primarily on chemical medication interventions?
The human brain is fascinating. It’s so complex that it’s hard to believe we will ever understand it. We still have yet to think in quantum terms about our biology, and just like physics, factoring consciousness into the equation is going to change everything. Right now, we are in the midst of a new scientific revolution, and that’s non-material science. It has huge implications for health, and science is now confirming just how strong the mind-body connection really is. It’s fascinating, to say the least.
Take neuroscience, for example. The brain has an incredible ability to change itself. We can change our brains by the emotions we feel, how we perceive our overall environment, and how we react to various situations that pop up in our everyday lives. By being aware of our feelings, our perception of the environment, our emotions and other non-physical factors, we can spark positive changes in the brain:
‘All of the work that my colleagues and I have been doing leads inevitably to this central conclusion. Well-being is fundamentally no different that learning to play the cello. If one practices the skills of well-being, one will get better at it…Based on our research, well-being has four constituents that have each received serious scientific attention. Each of these four is rooted in neural circuits, and each of these neural circuits exhibits plasticity – so we know that if we exercise these circuits, they will strengthen. Practicing these four skills can provide the substrate for enduring change, which can help to promote higher levels of well-being in our lives.’
The quote above comes from Richard J, Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds. His research has outlined the following 4 key principles to improve your well being.
Resilience is basically the ability to spring back up after a perceived downfall. How good is your ability to let go of something, mentally speaking, that no longer serves your best interests? How quickly can you bounce back from a disappointing event or circumstance?
‘Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity; some people recover slowly and other people recover more quickly. We know that individuals who show a more rapid recovery in certain key neural circuits have higher levels of well-being. They are protected in many ways from the adverse consequences of life’s slings and arrows.’
Resilient behaviour has the power to re-wire your brain so you’re not ‘hit so hard’ when life gets you down because you’re so used to getting back up. All it takes is practice, that’s why some of our darkest moments have the power to slingshot us forward, and this is why we can use our ‘negative’ or ‘bad’ experiences as lessons and stepping stones.
‘Recent research that we’ve conducted in our lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—very new work that’s not yet published—asked whether these specific brain circuits can be altered by regular practice in simple mindfulness meditation.’
‘The answer is yes—but you need several thousand hours of practice before you see real change. Unlike the other constituents of well-being, it takes a while to improve your resilience. It’s not something that is going to happen quickly—but this insight can still motivate and inspire us to keep meditating.’
With mindfulness studies, never has the power of positivity gained so much credibility. No doubt, having a positive outlook on any experience can be the key to experiencing joy. This could be described as our ability to focus on our positive experiences while learning from the negative ones, as well as the ability to see other human beings as grounded in basic innate goodness.
Davidson explains how individuals who suffer from depression show activation in the brain circuit that underlies outlook, but it doesn’t last long. To improve one’s outlook, studies have shown that practicing love, kindness, and compassion may alter this circuitry ‘quite quickly, after a very, very modest dose of practice.’
‘We published a study in 2013 where individuals who had never meditated before were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group received a secular form of compassion training and the other received cognitive reappraisal training, an emotion-regulation strategy that comes from cognitive therapy. We scanned people’s brains before and after two weeks of training, and we found that in the compassion group, brain circuits that are important for this positive outlook were strengthened. After just seven hours—30 minutes of practice a day for two weeks—we not only saw changes in the brain, but these changes also predicted kind and helpful behavior.’
This is interesting. How often do you look at the good? On a collective note, imagine how much the world would change if we focused on our similarities and the things that unite us, instead of what makes us different?
While we’re on the subject of emotional intelligence, it’s important to bring up research regarding the science of the heart conducted by the HeartMath Institute. They show what positive emotions can do to our biology, how they affect our electromagnetic field, and how this field interacts with us and those around us. They have also shown that the heart actually sends messages to the brain, and that positive emotions can have a great effect on how we feel.
How we feel and learning to regulate our emotions is showing huge correlations with human biology. You can read more about that here:
An interesting study out of Harvard found that most people are not really paying attention to what they’re doing 47 percent of the time. We’re not talking about ADHD here either. It was a study on happiness, and perhaps this goes to show just how much human beings are not stimulated by their environment. Attention issues are not usually the result of problems with the mind, but a lack of passion that results from not following the heart. This is our current human experience: we are forced from birth into doing and participating in things we may not want to participate in. Perhaps the lack of stimulation within the current human experience is the problem?
Generosity is a natural tendency for those who feel a connectedness with others. Cultivating generosity within us can have profound effects on our own well-being, as Davidson points out:
‘There are now a plethora of data showing that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being. These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way we respond to other positive incentives, such as winning a game or earning a prize.’
‘Human beings come into the world with innate, basic goodness. When we engage in practices that are designed to cultivate kindness and compassion, we’re not actually creating something de novo—we’re not actually creating something that didn’t already exist. What we’re doing is recognizing, strengthening, and nurturing a quality that was there from the outset.’
‘Our brains are constantly being shaped wittingly or unwittingly—most of the time unwittingly. Through the intentional shaping of our minds, we can shape our brains in ways that would enable these four fundamental constituents of well-being to be strengthened. In that way, we can take responsibility for our own minds.’
These discoveries could serve as the backbone of global change.
PRACTICING EMOTIONAL WELLBEING
Imagine if all humans on this planet practiced attaining this type of emotional well being. Currently, learning how to regulate our feelings is completely left out of school, where, all we learn to do is memorize facts while completely neglecting the growth of our emotional intelligence.
If everybody in the world just got closer to being their natural selves, all of the wrongdoing and suffering in the world would stop. The refusal of all human beings to participate in anything they innately know is “wrong” is what is needed for us to move forward as a collective.
According to sociologist Thomas Scheff, a big supporter of emotional education from the University of California, many Western societies simply view emotions as an indulgence or a distraction and less important than other things. And he’s right — we are often taught to bury our emotions so we can be more productive, and we are made to feel as though our emotions are not as relevant or important; they always seem to come secondary, if at all, especially within an educational setting. Scheff, among many others, believes that emotions provide valuable information, and yet we are taught not to listen to them. ‘Just as dangerous,’ Scheff said, ‘is the practice of hiding one emotion behind another.’ He has found that ‘men, in particular, tend to hide feelings of shame under anger, aggression and, far too often, violence.’
So follow your heart, treat others as you would want to be treated, and even consider some of the practices described here. In doing so, you will no doubt start experiencing more joy and happiness in your own life.
About the author:
Arjun Walia joined the Collective Evolution team in 2010 and posts regular articles in the field of Science & Technology.