Quote of the day: BRAIN

November 15, 2011


Q: What do you consider to be significant with regard to the latest discoveries about the brain?

For one, we know a lot more about what happens when people are upset – how we get emotionally hijacked by our upsets. A part of the brain called the amygdala developed as an alarm bell; it’s looking for negative information. That was very useful when we evolved – paying attention to avoid lethal threats – but we now know tht the amygdala tends to overreact.
When people are stressed, the hormone cortisol is released, which sensitizes the amygdala, and so it makes that alarm bell even louder. This undermines another part of the brain called the hippocampus, which both forms new memories and puts the brakes on the amygdala. So chronic stress has this really nasty one-two punch: one, it jacks up the alarm bell, and two, it weakens the brakes on the alarm.

Q: Okay, there’s  apart of my brain that’s biased toward negativity. So if I’m being paranoid for no reason, how can I work with my brain to shift toward a more balanced view?

I’ll mention two methods in summary. First, research has shown that when you put words to your feelins, when you just label them, that does two things. One, it stimulates activity in what’s called the prefrontal cortex – the very front part of your brain – and second, it lowers activity in the amygdala alarm circuit. The simple act of naming to yourself what you’re feeling as you’re feeling it helps to dampen this overreaction.
The other method is based on science’s new understanding of how memory is actually formed. The brain is so fast and it has so many neurons that it can afford to rebuild a memory from scratch each time it brings it up. We can use this knowledge in a very practical way. When something painful is in awareness, if you also bring to mind positive information – especially positive feelings that are really felt and intense – you gradually infuse that negative experience with positive associations when it goes back into storage. And so the next time it comes up, it’ll bring a little bit of that positive tinge with it. It won’t change overnight; you need to stick with it. But over time, you can gradually help yourself from the inside out to shift your interior landscape.

Q: What have we learned about the brains of those who meditate?

Well, the studies are in their infancy, but basically the more you meditate, the better the effect. One of the major findings is that meditation thickens gray matter. You want more gray matter because that means more connections between neurons – which increases your functionality and performance in that part of your brain. When you meditate you stimulate and therefore strengthen the part of your brain that deals with increasing positive emotions and regulating negative emotions. This illustrates the general point that by using your mind in a targeted way, you can build up the circuits that you want to build up, and you can control the circuits you want to control. Science is beginning to identify those targets; it’s not perfect yet, but already there’s a lot of promise here.

— Sounds True interview with Rick Hanson, author of The Enlightened Brain

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