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Think happy thoughts

April 23, 2009

I’ve referenced this book in an earlier blog, and it just kept getting more and more fascinating as I read through it so I felt compelled to share another passage from Train Your Mind Change Your Brain.  Neuroscientists have found through studies that with focused practice, we cannot only change the amount of “space” our brain dedicates to certain motor skills such as playing the piano, but also to the emotions that produce happiness and compassion:


“The power of neuroplasticity to transofrm the emotional brain opens up new worlds of possibility.  We are not stuck with the brain we were born with, but have the capacity to willfully direct which functions will flower and which will wither, which moral capacities emerge and which do not, which emotions flourish and which are stilled. […]  Connections among neurons can be physically modified through mental training just as biceps can be modified by physical training.  Much as sustained attention can turn up activity in regions of the motor cortex that control finger movements in the virtual piano players, so might it damp down activity in regions from which negaitve emotions emanate and at the same time dial up activity in regions devoted to positive emotions.”


The researchers found that Buddhist monks, who spend much of their time meditating, register a phenomenal amount of activity in the parts of the brain connected with feelings of compassion, and that this activity even connects to parts of the brain responsible for movement, suggesting that through focused mental training, these monks have not only increased their feelings of compassion but also their desire to act compassionately.


Imagine the implications of these findings.  If we devote more of our time to positive thoughts and feelings and limit the amount of time we allow ourselves to wallow in feelings of sorrow, pity, frustration, etc., we can rewire our brains such that it becomes more natural for us to react positively to life.  This gives some real value to the line from Peter Pan, “think happy thoughts.”  It also underscores the importance of helping others to tap into and enhance their positive emotions, which has profound implications for parents and teachers.


The fact that scientists are finally coming to this realization seems a little belated to me.  I even double-checked the publication date of the book, thinking it must have been published decades ago; but low and behold, these findings are actually recent.  It seems like a no-brainer to me (pun intended), however, that by focusing on thinking and acting positively, we can overcome, or at least overpower, negativity.


So if you’re feeling down, don’t indulge your sad feelings or you will literally allow those emotions to take over your brain.  Meditate, watch a sunsut, put on some happy music or your dancing shoes – whatever it takes to lift your spirits – and make your happy cortex grow!

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