Using neuroplasticity to change your brain
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
For those of us old enough to remember playing our favourite record over and over again until the track became a deep groove where the needle repeatedly stuck, the imagery is clear.
Returning to that record, it's a catchy tune that seems to hang around. Thoughts are like that - both positive and negative. We can get caught in a cycle of rumination, repeatedly playing the thought over and over and over again. Who notices that they do that and what sort of memories come up? It is proven that the negative will outweigh the positive.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson (www.rickhanson.net) refers to this as "the brain's negativity bias." The human nervous system, he writes, "scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one's world. The brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing – and unfair – the residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory."
Our primitive brain, see here: http://www.brainwaves.com/brain_basics.html, thinks this is a good idea. The term "reptilian" refers to our primitive, instinctive brain function shared by all reptiles and mammals, including humans. It is the most powerful and oldest of our coping brain functions since we would not be alive without it. It makes sure that we remember danger, so we don't do it again was helpful when we were pre-modern humans, not quite so beneficial now that tigers are not lurking behind parked cars.
So returning to the record. We can repeatedly replay a memory or a thought until it becomes an indented groove in our brain's neural pathways. Knowing this, it is logical that getting the needle out of the groove requires physical action. Keep playing the record, or stop playing the record? Change the groove.
This is where it gets exciting. We used to believe that the brain was a fixed entity but the discovery that active repetition changes the brain means that our thought patterns can and do change. Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity, or brain plasticity, is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganisation. These changes range from individual neuron pathways making new connections, to systematic adjustments like cortical remapping.
The key to overriding that negativity bias is to notice when a familiar thought arises and think about the following: Does it feel good? What is happening now? Does this thought matter? I am sure we all recognise these thoughts. They are often the ones that wake us up at 3 am and feel huge in the darkness. It might be the thought that replays as you walk into a room full of strangers – most of us will experience several thoughts at that moment; are they good or bad? When you look back on a typical day or survey your life, what experiences capture your attention – your successes and pleasant times, or the failures, hurts and disappointments?
Noticing that these thoughts are happening is so important. Think about it. If you think something is it real? (See the Matrix film series for what is real or not :-)) When you last had this thought or feeling, did the ceiling cave in? See if you can look at it differently. A new tune is a perfect distraction; find a tune to oppose the thought – upbeat songs work all-round. Do a little dance? An actual dance if you feel relaxed with that - on the tube, I wish you luck but do a dance in your head, visualise a character dancing and make it your internal friendly dancer. (If you remember records, you are likely to remember the dancing baby in Ally McBeal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx88NMh-YRs )
Overall have some compassion for yourself. Our thoughts come and go. Holding onto any of them, good or bad, are transient moments. Ruminating on them deepens their effect. When our son was little we had a before bed practice called 'three good things in our house.' Together we find three good things to talk about from each of our days regardless of how bad we think our day has been. There will ALWAYS be something somewhere.
Finally, rumination is a large part of depression. If you are experiencing ongoing negative thoughts that you cannot seem to shift, if you can, seek support through friends, family or a therapist when times become challenging.
For an experts approach, I mentioned Rick Hanson. A favourite resource of mine is excellent TED talks, a great website, and great books. He offers excellent advice on how we might hardwire happiness. http://www.rickhanson.net/hardwiring-happiness/faq/
Law, B., 2021. Probing the depression-rumination cycle. [online] https://www.apa.org. Available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle [Accessed 11 March 2021].