Neuroplasticity: Changing our Belief about Change
People don’t resist change. They resist being changed! –Peter Senge
Neuroplasticity: Changing our Belief about Change
–by Joanna Holsten, Original Story, Apr 23, 2012
Neuroplasticity is a fancy way of saying that our brains can change. We are not victims of our neurons or genes. We are empowered creators of our mental states. The erroneous belief that we are “set in stone” can stop people from trying to change and take away their responsibility. In the same way that germ theory altered the way we look at sanitation and hygiene, I think that spreading the knowledge about our brain’s ability to change can alter the way our culture approaches emotions, attitudes, and values.
Our brains can change.
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons. Neurons connect to one another, forming pathways that relay information. We learn things by forming neural connections in response to associations in our everyday experiences. In learning to drive a car, we experience the connection between red traffic lights and pressing the brake. We form a neural pathway for this association. Each time we brake at a red light, we reinforce and strengthen the neural pathway. As the saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more we practice something, the more we strengthen the pathway, and the easier the skill becomes. Our behavioral response can become almost automatic.
Similar to physical skills like driving, the brain also forms neural pathways in learning and practicing emotional skills. Your emotional responses to experiences in your world are the result of well-worn neural pathways that developed over your lifetime. While our genes influence our temperament, research has demonstrated that our environment and our own mind can physically alter our brains and thus our emotional responses. This means that emotions that we want more of in our life and our world, like happiness, patience, tolerance, compassion, and kindness, can be practiced and learned as skills. Other emotions, like anxiety, stress, fear, or anger, can be dampened.
Using neuroimaging, researchers have demonstrated significant success in reducing anxiety, depression, phobia, and stress with cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy. By learning different strategies to recognize negative thoughts and emotions and practice alternative responses over time, neural pathways in the brain are physically altered. Science has only recently recognized the value of investing in research on behaviors that promote well-being, including compassion and happiness. By comparing the brains of experts and novices in compassion meditation, neuroscientists illustrated changes in the brain region responsible for empathy during and after meditation. Researchers are just beginning to examine the effect of training novices in skills to increase compassion. While interventions have demonstrated positive impacts on emotional states and prosocial behaviors, we look to future studies to determine alterations in the structure and function of the brain in novices who undergo contemplative and emotional training.
Let’s learn and practice compassion, kindness, and happiness.
Knowing that our brains can change, we then ask, what do we want in our brains? And as a result, what do we want in our world? Most people of good will yearn for happiness, compassion, and love. Let’s start practicing.
In my experience, learning about the concept of neuroplasticity and finding the skills to change my emotional responses has immensely improved my life. Before grasping this, I thought my mind was a black box. I didn’t understand why I felt certain things beyond the immediate external circumstances. I had no idea how to change things. I scoffed at seeing a therapist because I couldn’t imagine what they would help me with. I had no idea what I would even say to a therapist. Luckily, the good ones can help you understand your mind and the process of change. You don’t even have to know where to start; the decision to change is enough. The practice of meditation gave me the set of skills to guide my own transformation. It has been the most life altering skill that I have gained. I shifted from thinking that my emotion and thoughts owned me to feeling like I could play a role in changing my state. This is challenging work and takes patient practice, but as I am experiencing the fruits of these skills, peaceful relationships, a joyful outlook on life, and a safe harbor within myself during difficult times, I am determined to work even harder.
Thank you to D. Scott Brown for reading several drafts.
This article is posted here with permission from the author. Joanna Holsten blogs at “Let’s Live Nice,”which documents her journey towards a more critically compassionate life, exploring ideas and actions for a world with less suffering and more happiness. Previous articles by Joanna on DailyGood: Stepping out of the Should Trap and Training the Mind to Find Happiness