Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dr. Rick Hanson - Can You Change Your Brain for the Better?

The obvious answer for anyone who has been paying attention the last 10 years or so is YES. However, this is still an article worth reading, even if it feels like old hat. Many of us know that the brain can change, but we often live as though we are forever doomed to our current set of dysfunctions. But be of good cheer - we can acquire new dysfunctions, but more importantly we can heal the ones we have, within reason.

This article from Hanson is in response to Dr. Jill Bolt Taylor's TED Talk on her "stroke of insight." You can watch the video and read the transcript at her post, Does Our Planet Need a Stroke of Insight? There are several other articles in response, as well.

Can You Change Your Brain for the Better?

Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Posted: 01/05/2013

I was enthralled by Dr. Taylor's talk when I first saw it, and have thought about it many times since. From the vantage point today of several more years of dramatic growth in neuroscientific knowledge, I'd like to offer three reflections.

Your brain is a precious gift

When Dr. Taylor's brain changed radically that morning, so did her mind.

Your brain is the result of 600 million years of evolution in the nervous system, containing about 100 billion neurons linked together in a network with several hundred trillion nodes. The tofu-like tissue between your ears is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through you to make this moment of experience. Other than possible transcendental influences (which I personally think are real, but will bow to and then set aside here), your brain is the source of your thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows.

Your brain is the most complex object known to science. No one could possibly learn the instructions for building it that are provided at the moment of conception. The brain is an extraordinary gift -- and with gratitude comes a sense of responsibility: What shall I do with it?

Your brain is lying to you

Dr. Taylor's stroke knocked out the neural substrates of inner language and step-by-step processing, the division between self and world, and the left hemisphere's inhibition of right hemisphere holistic processing (while preserving left prefrontal cortex support for positive emotions). Suddenly she was one with everything, experiencing all as a whole, abiding in an eternal now, freed from the sequentiality of time.

Brain damage is often deluding. But Dr. Taylor's stroke showed what had always been true: everything is transient and interconnected, and if we live in harmony with this there is contentment instead of suffering, and benefit instead of harm.

Poignantly, the brain hides these facts from us to help us survive and pass on our genes. It continually tries to freeze fluid mental activity into static entities that can be grasped or resisted, to break up the unity of the one universe into little parts that can be understood and controlled, and to presume a central "I" in charge of it all who can actually never be found as a whole in either your experience or your brain.

Moment by moment, the brain constructs a virtual world. We live in a simulator, as if the brain were a cell with one dirty window through which we strain to imagine reality. Dr. Taylor's window blew open to reveal both Mother Nature's well-intended lies and the beautiful, wonderful truth.

You can change your brain for the better

And happily, you don't need massive brain damage to find this truth for yourself. Throughout history and in the present day, many people have come to stably experience the fact of oneness -- the fruit of well-developed kindness, virtue, concentrated attention, and wisdom.

On the path to that irrevocable transformation, there is a cycle of what is called "gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation ..." It's not enough to watch a video and know conceptually that this transformation is possible, or that it would be good to live in a more right hemisphere way. Like a telescope, Dr. Taylor's experience shows us what's possible, but then we have to walk there on our own. We need to change the brain from the inside out to feel the results, to have them in the body.

Mental activity can change neural structure, since "neurons that fire together, wire together." But because of the brain's well-known negativity bias -- like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good -- this cultivation needs to be skillful and sustained.

Otherwise positive experiences wash through the brain like water through a sieve while negative ones are caught every time. To turn positive mental states into positive neural traits, "take in the good" by (1) having a good experience in the first place, (2) helping it last 10 or more seconds while feeling it in your body, and (3) sensing that it's sinking into you.

You're not denying the bad, but simply using the good. Even a hard life is like a path strewn with little jewels, genuine opportunities for a positive experience, such as the ease in a single breath, the pleasure of chocolate, the warmth in a stranger's smile, the beauty of trees, or the knowing of ways that you are a truly good person. By taking in the good you can weave some of these gems into the fabric of your brain and your life.

As you build up inner strength and fulfillment through this gradual cultivation, there is less need for the ancient survival strategies of craving and suffering. Your happiness and effectiveness are increasingly unconditional, less based on external conditions. You don't have to freeze the stream of consciousness, separate yourself from the world, or cling to fleeting experiences in a doomed attempt at lasting happiness.

Established in your insight, you can live freely, and at peace.

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