What you focus on is what becomes becomes powerful. The message is real and comes fortified with some serious science. It’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The research around it has caught fire and the findings are powerful. The implications for all of us are profound.
At the heart of the research is the finding that experience changes the brain. Just think about that for a minute: You have incredible capacity to change your brain through your experiences. Up until the last decade or so, it was thought that the brain stayed fairly much the same and wasn’t open to influence or change. We now know that just isn’t true.
Each of us has a brain that is designed to be malleable and plastic and open to our influence. It is constantly shaping itself to be the best one it can be for us. Our experiences are the fuel for this shaping and everything we see, feel, experience, sense and do is slowly but surely changing the architecture of our brains, sending gentle instruction on how they can build to best support us.
How does it work?
Between the walls of our skulls, billions of neurons (brain cells) work together to shape us into the humans we are. Different neurons are responsible for different parts of our experience, whether it’s eating, feeling, sleeping, sensing threat, firing up, falling in love, spelling, laughing, remembering, learning, nurturing – you get the idea. Being human is complicated and our brain drives all of it – it’s no wonder we are still discovering its secrets.
Every time you have an experience, the relevant neurons switch on and start firing. As this happens, neural connections get stronger and new synapses start growing.
Even as you read this, sparks are flying in your head. About 100 billion neurons are waiting and ready to act, but not all of them will be recruited. The ones that are will depend on the experience you’re having. The neurons that are connected to your immediate experience – what you are feeling, thinking, seeing, sensing, doing, experiencing – will fire and new connections will start to form within minutes. The more connected the neurons, the stronger that area of the brain, the more responsive and effective it will be.
The neurons that aren’t as needed will eventually wither away. This withering away is normal and healthy and is one way the brain grows into its most efficient self. You can’t grow the edges of your head so your brain occupies some precious real estate. The space is reserved for the neurons that you need the most – the ones that will best support you given the life you’re living.
Every time we have an experience, the corresponding neurons are activated. Every time they are activated, they are elevated a little in the order of importance. Repeating or prolonging an experience will keep the connections between neurons strong and ensure that they stay. This is why, for example, we can recite the alphabet without thinking. It’s not because we were born baby geniuses with a cute alphabet jingle imprinted into our brains. It’s because throughout our childhood, we sing the alphabet song and have it sung to us so many times, that the relevant neurons are repeatedly activated enough to eventually form rock solid connections.
Experience doesn’t just effect change by creating new connections and strengthening existing ones. It also seems to reach into our genes (the tiny atoms in the DNA inside the nuclei of neurons) and change the way they function. A regular practice of mindfulness, for example, will increase the activity of genes that have the capacity to soothe a stress reaction in the heat of a moment, ultimately making you more able to deal with stress.
Everything you experience will alter the physical structure of your brain in some way. The things you do, the people you spend time with, every feeling, thought, and automatic experience will influence the wiring of your brain to make you who you are and to influence who you can become.
Brains can change. Let me tell you a true story …
A bunch of neuroscientists wanted to explore how brains can change. To do this, they called on London cab drivers and some serious brain imaging.
In order to become a London taxi driver, would-be cabbies have to pass ‘The Knowledge’. This is a test of memory and is one of the most difficult tests in the world to pass. It involves memorising at least 320 basic routes, 25,000 streets within those routes and about 20,000 landmarks and places of interest. It usually takes about 4 years of committed study and at the end of it, those who have done the work end up with what amounts to a roadmap of London imprinted onto their brains.
A series of brain scans conducted on a group of drivers after their training revealed that their brains had actually changed to support their learning. Prior to the learning, the part of their brains responsible for spatial memory (the posterior hippocampus) was much the same as everyone else’s. Fast forward to the end of training, and it was found to be significantly larger. The longer a cabbie had been in the job, the bigger that part of their brain. Learning and repeated experience had changed the brain according to the job it was needed for.
Why it’s SO important to be deliberate about who you’re with and what you do.
Experiences matter. They matter in the moment and in the way they can change the brain beyond the immediate moment.
Your brain will build and change whether you like it or not. It’s so important to build it in the direction you want it to build it. Think of it as a mark on a page. At first, the mark might be so faint as to not even be noticeable, but keep going over the mark, even with the slightest of pressure, and that mark will get more defined and more permanent. Your attention and focus will always be somewhere – maybe many places – which means there are wirings and firings happening all the time, strengthening what’s there or creating something new.
If you aren’t deliberate and conscious in shaping your brain, other people and experiences will do this for you. Experiences, situations and people – positive or negative – will leave lasting traces on your brain by way of strengthened neural pathways.
By being purposeful about your experience, and the experiences you repeat or spend longer doing, you can have a direct influence over how your brain strengthens and grows and the pathways that are most likely to endure – but it does take a deliberate and conscious effort.
What you focus on will determine the parts of your brain that fire, wire and strengthen. Then, as those parts of the brain switch on and the neurons start firing, lasting connections will be made, strengthening memories and influencing what the brain will attend to in the future (positive or negative).
If you let your mind settle on self-criticism, self-loathing, pain, distress, stress, worry, fear, regret, guilt, these feelings and thoughts will shape your brain. You will be more vulnerable to worry, depression, anxiety, and be more likely to notice the negatives of a situation, frame things in a negative way, and be barrelled off track by what you could have or should have done.
On the other hand, if you focus on positive feelings and frame situations with a tilt towards the positive, eventually your brain will take on a shape that reflects this, hardwiring and strengthening connections around resilience, optimism, gratitude, positive emotion and self-esteem.
The power to change your brain. We all have it. Here’s how to use it.
We are wired to notice threat and bad feelings. This is completely normal and healthy and it’s what has kept us alive for thousands of years. We humans are brilliant when it comes to noticing the bad, analysing it, and hanging on to it until we learn something from it. It’s called the negativity bias and it’s powerful.
The problem is that while it is our very human way to notice the bad, it is also human to let the good slide right of us. It’s not unusual that in a day of good conversation, fabulous people and enriching experiences, your mind will stick with the one argument, the one bad phone call or the one jerk that crossed your path. Imagine if it could be the other way around, with the good sticking and the bad sliding away into the ‘doesn’t matter’ zone. Because we humans are powerful creatures, we can go one better than imagining it – we can do it, but it takes a hard and deliberate push, which is okay – because we all have that in us.
First, we have to switch on to the good and be deliberate in noticing positive experiences. This might be more difficult than it sounds, particularly if you have a brain that, like many beautifully human brains, is well-trained in noticing the bad.
When you have the good in your radar, let your mind settle on it for long enough to start the neurons firing in your brain. Don’t just notice it, feel it. Hold on to it for at least 20 seconds. After this time, the experience will be hardwiring into your brain, firing neurons and strengthening the connections that will ultimately shape your experience.
This will start to grow these parts of your brain and shape a brain that is able to notice the good, respond to the bad and move forward, rather than stay stuck.
If the positive experience isn’t ready and waiting in front of you, do what you can to create it. It doesn’t have to be monumental. Try calling on a memory, listening to a song, making a phone call, organising a catch-up, playing or doing something that makes you feel nurtured. When you do, make the feeling stay. It might want to fade away, but don’t let it, not straight away.
Like any habit, noticing the good takes time to become automatic. Notice how quickly you notice the bad and let go of the good. Be deliberate in balancing things up and gradually, this in itself will also change your brain.
Does this mean negative feelings are a no-go?
Negative feelings are never a no-go. Being deliberate in focusing on the positive doesn’t mean that we have to pretend the negative doesn’t exist. Negative feelings are important too and deserve to be there. They guide us to withdraw when we need space to heal, they alert us to problem people or situations and they act as a warning sign. Negative feelings should be honoured as much as positive ones but they will come with a cost if they are allowed to take over.
The neurons that fire together, will wire and cause lasting changes in the brain. Staying in bad feelings beyond their usefulness is will do damage. It’s like going over and over the mark that serves no useful purpose but to keep a wound open. Every time you go over it, you’re making it a little heavier, a little stronger, a little harder for you to exist without its influence.
It’s always okay to feel the bad, to sit with it and to explore the wisdom that it contains. The wisdom will always be in there somewhere. Certainly an avoidance of negative emotions will have its own costs.
To stop the negative running away and doing damage, actively work towards balance wherever you can. Take some time to focus on your resilience, your courage, your strength, your inner wisdom. If you are feeling lonely, take time to draw on memories or people who love and appreciate you. Whether it’s a ‘hey there’ text, an invitation, a photo, a memory. If you are feeling drained, take time to draw on experiences that nourish you.
When the experiences happen, let the feelings stay for long enough to let them do their important work. Notice the bad, feel it, let it bring you new wisdom, but don’t keep watching it in the rear view mirror when there are other things around you that can start to move you forward.
And finally …
By directing your focus and staying with your experience, you can change your brain and shape it towards a more positive, compassionate, resilient, kinder, happier, more empowered and contented way of being. You can turn positive experiences into positive brain changes, which will in turn change your day to day experience.
What you focus on is powerful. The brain will build around what it rests upon. Whether we view the world through a lens that is sad or happy, optimistic or hopeless, whether we are open to love or quick to close it down is all directed by our brain. What you pay attention to will shape your brain, which in turn will shape your experiences, your relationships, your life.
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