Saturday, June 07, 2008

Training the Mind Changes the Brain

An interesting post from Positive Psychology News Daily.
Training the Mind Changes the Brain

Kathryn Britton, MAPP, CPC, former software engineer, is a certified professional coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their lives. Visit Theano Coaching. She is writing about her experiences as a Positive Organization Advisor within a very large corporation. She recently started a blog, Reflections on Positive Psychology. Full bio.

Kathryn writes on the 7th of each month, and her past articles are here.

by Kathryn Britton

Whenever we talk about positive interventions, we are assuming that people are malleable. William James wrote about intentional activity to change habits in ways that make life better. That’s the premise of books like The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky: that research has shown that people can make lasting changes in their level of happiness, but it requires action, effort and persistence.

Richard DavidsonThat’s what psychologists have found. Neuroscientists are finding the same thing. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist who uses brain imaging to study behavior and emotion. (See his site for a more technically correct description of what he does.) He claims, “Social and emotional learning changes the brain,” and “We can change the brain by training the mind.” Social and emotional learning is a process by which people become better at understanding and managing emotions and learn how emotions impact the choices they make, the relationships they have, and their outlook in life.

Dr Davidson has a 16-minute lecture online that is available at the Edutopia site. Here are some of his primary points:

  • Behavioral interventions have biological impacts. They change the brain.
  • Behavioral interventions can cause more specific brain changes than psychotropic medications. They can affect very specific circuits, which is beyond our ability with drugs.
  • Prefrontal cortexThe prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in more than cognition. It is also very involved when we use positive emotion to guide decision-making. For example, when someone is getting motivated to pursue a goal, the PFC is involved.
  • The prefrontal cortex is also connected to the amygdala – the part of the brain that detects threats and generates negative emotions. Scientists can visualize the connections between a person’s PFC and amygdala. They have reasons to believe that stronger connections enable better self-regulation. These connections can be built with intentional activity.
  • Amygdala responses are important for avoiding threats, but not many of us are chased by tigers any more. The physical responses to negative emotion have been hijacked for situations that are much less threatening — e.g., attacks to our self-esteem. (This reminded me of Martin Seligman saying that we still have Pleistocene brains … )
  • Scientists have shown greater prefrontal cortex activity in the brains of people who recover more rapidly from negative events. Presumably the PFC is actively reappraising a negative stimulus and coming up with a more adaptive and positive response. People can learn to do this with practice.
  • This ability to regulate emotion is important not just to happiness but also to health. Adolescents with strong PFC activation in response to negative events tend to have lower levels of cortisol in the evenings. Higher cortisol takes a toll on many organs, including the brain.
  • Neuroscientists have shown that anxiety impairs working memory. Therefore the ability to calm oneself is an important skill for learning.

He concluded that qualities such as patience, calmness, cooperation, and kindness are skills that can be trained, not traits that are either inborn or set for life by early childhood experiences. He also commented that he has not seen a sharp decline in this sort of neural plasticity as people get older. Training the brain may get somewhat more difficult as people age, requiring somewhat greater effort. Unlike learning language, there is no window that closes at a certain age.

Social and emotional learning is strongly related to Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence and involves 5 competencies that proponents believe should be core parts of education:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Self motivation
  • Empathy
  • Peer relations

Cat seeing a lion in the mirrorThis summary does not include any specific interventions for increasing these competencies. But I believe that just knowing that the brain can be changed is a positive intervention all by itself. I’ve been trying it out. Whenever I start feeling negative emotions — anger, shame, fear — I think about having an opportunity to train my brain, and somehow that helps me moderate my response.

When just learning a new skill like giving speeches, it’s very helpful to act as if one is confident without waiting until one actually feels confident. We sometimes call that “Fake it ’till you make it.” Building strong PFC-Amygdala circuits is similar. Acting as if they are already there — by intentionally working on self-regulation — helps bring them into existence.


Davidson, R. (2008). The heart-brain connection: The neuroscience of social, emotional, and academic learning. Video retrieved June 5, 2008 from

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. (2004). The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success. In Columbia University, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What does the Research say? Chapter 1. See page 7 for a discussion of the SEL competencies.


Ron de Weijze said...

Make-believe imho is one of the worst ways to mess with nature we have let ourselves in with. It should be true understanding that reinforces us, not this or any fake scheme to ensure we get more directed our way than we deserve. Isn't natural feedback the best scheme mother nature has provided us to stay on track and not wander off into depersonalization or derealization?

Unknown said...

there is a really interesting conversation between Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson called 'Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Skills' which is available from

william harryman said...

Thanks for the comment Ron, but I am not sure what you are getting at. The article merely shows that we can change the brain at the physical level through meditative and other types of practice - all of which can make us less reactive, more compassionate, and better able to transcend the limits of ego.


william harryman said...

Thanks for the link Lewis, Goleman is very cool.


Ron de Weijze said...

Bill, if it is only meditation and tranquillity you are after, reading or interpreting feelings, than that is OK. I was just worried you would want to start a 'feed forward' loop with some values and a belief system that would then automatically confirm itself. Confirmation should be independent and this would be dependent.