Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Athena Staik, Ph.D. - The Neuroscience of Changing Toxic Thinking Patterns

Athena Staik, Ph.D. posted this cool - 2-part series on the neuroscience behind changing our dysfunctional thinking patterns - it's sort of CBT, but CBT can be a very good tool.


Your brain is wired to produce change, a constant in the brain, as it is in life.

Change involves learning, and all learning generates change in the brain. When you seek to replace a behavior, such as a toxic thinking pattern, your actions produce neurochemical and molecular changes in cells known as neurons.

As messengers, neurons communicate by transmitting electrical signals between them, and these signals are activated by the exchange of chemicals in the synapses.

Your brain and body is a sophisticated communication network. Your subconscious mind, the mind of your body, manages all of the systemic processes that you do not have to think about – as well as all of your personal requests, wants or commands – both conscious and subconscious.

This vast and complex network manages the flow of information that, quite literally, shapes your behaviors and in many ways your life. These electrical impulses, you may say, consist of molecules of emotion that are designed to “control” the overall direction of your life, arguably, to produce optimal outcomes in the highest interest of your health and wellbeing.

Who or what controls this flow of information is a fascinating question to explore, do you think? In this post and the next, we’ll explore a few possibilities … conscious and subconscious.

What sparks these electrical-chemical processes?

Here’s some “truth with a capital T”: Thoughts spark emotion-driven action.

Your thoughts create inner standards or rules that spark neurochemical dynamic processes, which selectively govern your choices and actions with precision.

It takes a thought to spark an emotion, or drive a decision to take an action or to take no action at all. And emotions give meaning to thoughts; they are the spark. In the words of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, are “a telltale sign of consciousness.”

Toxic thinking is self-perpetuating. It not only stimulates the body’s reward or learning centers with pseudo feel-good feelings, it also activates the body’s fear response, which further increases the likelihood that the defensive behaviors it triggers will be repeated.

Unless you set an intention to make conscious changes, more often, change that occurs at subconscious levels tends to be self-perpetuating.

In other words, if you do not have the life and relationships that you want, you likely do not have the thinking patterns you need to create the optimal emotional states, and thus actions, that would sustain your momentum in the overall direction of your aspirations.
Read the rest of Part One.


It’s quite amazing when you think of it. You and your body are wired to work together to spark neurochemical changes in your brain in the direction of your highest good and happiness. Certain learned neural patterns of thinking, however, interfere with these natural impulses.

Toxic thinking is a protective strategy that unnecessarily activates the body’s survival response. Though well-meaning, essentially, it’s an ineffective way of dealing with painful feelings, such as not feeling “good enough,” deserving enough” or “having enough” in relation to others, all of which are a natural part of dealing with life or relationship issues, and other stress situations.

Based on recent decades of neuroscience findings, it appears, to the extent you become a conscious participant in these processes, you can more effectively direct the changes and parts of you involved in change. In other words, your success in changing any interfering behavior or thought patterns depends on … conscious you.

As suggested in Part 1, your brain and body are a complex communication network, and what influences change is a flow of information from a combination of sources, both conscious and subconscious, hard- and soft-wired.
  • Information that is soft-wired has been learned, and thus can be unlearned or changed. Your thoughts and beliefs fall in this category; you have learned them, either consciously or subconsciously, from the time you were first exposed to language.
  • In contrast, information that is hard-wired consists of unalterable laws that govern the operation and life of your body, such as inborn drives to survive (physical and psychologicalself) and thrive (self in meaningful connection).
This means you can change your soft-wiring (thoughts, beliefs, etc), however, any change must necessarily occur within a framework of unchangeable laws that govern how your brain adapts to change and certain aspects of your nature as a human being.

Read the rest of Part Two.

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