The brain learns from what it attends to
Have you ever thought about how what you pay attention to affects your life? Right now is an exciting time to be on this earth as we are constantly learning more about the relationship between our minds and our brains. Here are a few things that are really worth knowing, as this information gives us reason to be more mindful around what we think and how much we think about certain things!
- What flows through your mind sculpts your brain.
- If the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be the cure.
You become what you think! -Be aware of your thoughts, For they become words -Be aware of you words, For they become attitudes -Be aware of your attitudes, For they become actions -Be aware of your action, For they become habits -Be aware of your habits, For they become your character -Be aware of your character, For that becomes your fate Never has this seemed truer. Science is telling us that: “Experience changes the structure of the brain” (Dan Siegel). The more our focus is on problems and challenges or the negative things in life, the more likely it is that our tomorrow will have the same focus, and of course vice versa. If we cultivate seeing and experiencing the good in life then that is also more likely to be our experience tomorrow.
Forgive me if I have used this story before but it seems to illustrate the point:
A monk was tending to his fields when a traveller passes by and asks him about the villagers down in the valley. The monk asks: “What were they like where you came from?” The traveler answers: “They were awful, greedy, self centered and nasty.” “Well so they are down in the valley here”, the monk replied. Soon after another traveller came by, he also asked about the villagers below. Again the monk asked him about the villagers where he came from. This time the traveller said: “Oh they were lovely people, generous, kind and joyful.” “And so they are in this valley”, replied the monk.
Cultivating mindfulness or awareness, by opening up to our own experience and seeing what is, results in the development of more of an observing ego function. This is done by thickening the insula in the brain. What we focus on, or place our attention on, is strengthened in the brain through increased blood flow, more capillaries bringing more glucose and oxygen, and more supplies to the busy stimulated area. Another mechanism of how experience shapes the brain is epigenetics. Rick Hanson says, “People who routinely practice relaxation will have improved expression of genes that down-regulate, inhibit or put on the brakes or control the stress response”. In other words, through a genetic and epigenetic mechanism, people who routinely relax become more resilient in the face of stress. The genes themselves don’t change, but the expression of the genes change. It is becoming clearer and clearer that there are ways that parents can pass on to their children, changes in the gene expression that are based on experience. This is big stuff! Not only does what we choose to think about have an enormous affect on our own life experience and quality but it also affects our children and grandchildren. And it is self propelling, as there is this dual relationship between the brain and the mind; mutually strengthening.
There is more good mindfulness news!
By practicing mindfulness we access a double bonus, in that the more self aware we become the more able we become to tuning into the emotions of others. These are not mirror neurons per se, which track actions; these neurons track emotions. In other words, as we become increasingly attuned to our own inner sensations the more we become aware of other people’s internal emotional states. Studies at UCLA and at Harvard support this. So the more self aware we become the more likely it is that our relationships will be more fulfilling. So what were you thinking? Are you aware of what you are thinking? Are you aware of the background ruminations filled with concern for self such as; “if only”, comparing, competing, self deprecating, “why me”, etc. We will never catch every thought. It is more a question of celebrating when we do catch one. Start by noticing:
- Who is there? Whose voice is it?
- What is the theme?
- What is the feeling tone of the story?
- What is the voice of the story? Is it harsh, kind, gentle, judgmental or ….? Does it belong to someone you know? Is it critical?
- Who is the audience for the story? Who are you telling it to?
- Is it about justifying or defending yourself?
- Is it trying to convince someone of something?
- Is it rehearsing something?
Hold all your observations with kindness for self, without judgment, just noticing with curiosity and openness.
Listen to your thoughts like you listen to the radio. Bla, Bla, Bla (but with kindness).