One of the most exciting discoveries in the field of neuroscience is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change through the growth and reorganization of its basic building block, namely neural networks. In other words the brain is malleable.
Before the discovery of neuroplasticity, neuroscientists believed that the brain, once fully developed, was static. There was no way to change or further develop it. The brain was thought to have a fixed number of neurons that gradually decreased over the lifespan accompanied by cognitive decline. Now, we know this is inaccurate. There is potential for brain change and growth throughout life. This has important implications for our emotional, cognitive and physical well being.
How can I change my brain? Self-directed neuroplasticity
Findings from the field of experience-dependent neuroplasticity indicate that repeated and intense mental activity actually changes brain structure. With repetition of experiences, new neural networks are formed. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, “[T]he brain takes it shape from from what the minds rests upon.” In other words, what you pay attention to is the primary shaper of your brain. If your attention repeatedly rests upon negative experiences, you are more vulnerable to negative thinking patterns and emotions. Conversely, if you practice repeatedly bringing your attention to positive experiences, you are more predisposed to positive emotions, thoughts, and frames of mind. The implication is that each person has the power to change his or her brain for the better. By deliberately controlling and prolonging positive experiences, you can change the brain to be more positive.
In other words, rather than passively permit the brain to be influenced by encounters with the media, technology, stress, and worry, you can choose to harness the power of neuroplasticity and embark on a program to deliberately rewire your brain to become more positive, optimistic and resilient.
One potential hurdle to the development of a more positive brain is its inherent negativity bias. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, the brain is like Velcro for the negative. It is constantly scanning the environment for potential dangers, contributing to a sense of being ill at ease or anxiety. When something does go wrong, the brain focuses on it intensely almost to the exclusion of all else. From an evolutionary point of view, the negativity bias is adaptive. It is arguably better to be anxious and prepared than to overlook potential dangers to survival. This means the default setting of our brain is to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities, as well as underestimate our ability to cope with threats. These beliefs are bolstered by selectively attending what confirms them and overlooking what contradicts them.
The negativity bias also affects memory. Negative experiences are quickly sent to long-term store. By contrast, most positive experiences have little impact on memory systems of the brain unless they are intense or new.
We tend to overlook them. In order for a positive experience to be transferred from short-term to long term store in the brain, we must keep resting our attention on it. This means systematic and regular effort is required to install positive experiences in the brain. A a central weakness in most formal stress management programs is the omission of practices designed to instill the positive.
Overcoming Negativity Bias with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness
CBT is uniquely equipped to address the brain’s negativity bias. It was specifically developed to teach individuals how to recognize and change biases in their thinking. As thinking becomes less negatively entrenched over the course of CBT, the brain changes for the better.
Similarly, through mindfulness practice it is possible it cultivate a less anxious and negative brain. Training the attention to anchor in aspects of present experience decreases anxiety, which is future focused. Additionally, the nonjudgmental stance of mindfulness offsets entrenched negativity.
The combination of CBT and mindfulness is a powerful way to rewire the brain to be less negative and more positive.
Hanson, R. (2020). Neuro dharma. Harmony Books, New York.
Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness. Harmony Books, New York.
Hanson, R. (2011). Just one thing: Developing a Buddha brain one simple practice at a time. New Harbinger, New York.