Neuroplasticity – Nancy

Can you change your brain?  Recent research in the field of “neuroplasticity” suggests that the human brain continues to change and adapt throughout life.  Furthermore, there is  clear evidence that an individual can affect the changes to their own brain structure by how they pay attention to stimuli around them.

The implication of this research is that, for example, a person who regularly reminds herself to be grateful for the gifts of life will find that attitude becoming easier over time as her brain “learns” that her attention is constantly going there.  Another, who worries about threats in the immediate environment is training her brain to find threat, even when no threat is present.

Such anxious thoughts and “scanning” of the environment for threat or negative inputs is typical of people who have experienced trauma, or who suffer from depression or anxiety.  Therefore, especially for them, the research into neuroplasticity offers hope of proactive steps that can be taken to recover and move forward in life.

Our colleague Dr. Rick Hanson in his newsletter “Just One Thing” suggests that we may be able to affect the structure of our brains in positive ways by using meditation and controlled awareness training.

He proposes that when utilizing tools for mindfulness, we take time to turn our attention to the comforts, safety and other positive aspects of our situation as we begin to meditate.  That is, if anxiety is interfering with our ability to be mindful in the present moment, spending time acknowledging the safety and lack of threat in the room each time will help our brain overcome its previous tendency to constantly seek out threats.

Hanson suggests using this technique even at work or in other situations where it may be difficult to pay attention to what’s going on In the room – a boring meeting or lecture, for example.  He leads the reader through a series of steps:

  1. Tell yourself that now is a time when you will pay attention
  2. Use some simple breathing exercises to relax
  3. Remind yourself of people who care for you and things that “warm your heart”
  4. Remind yourself of things that make you feel safe, and the safety of the environment
  5. Focus on positive emotions and a sense of your body in the space

Hanson proposes that this simple routine can become a habit, and will gradually train the brain to function in this way even without conscious intention to do so.

Our brains are very powerful, and learning exercises that may structure our thinking in positive ways can only help us use our own brain power for recovery, resilience and strength.