Rick Hanson [ Neurogenesis ] What I want to do here if I could is share with you a very simple yet powerful method grounded in neuroscience for turning passing experiences into lasting structure useful structure inside our brain in other words turning experiences into the happiness or the resilience or the other inner strikes that we really want inside ourselves I sort of stumbled on this method when I was in college but to explain the context I have to take you back a little before into my own up and down childhood so I grew up in a loving home of good parents intact family but I was very very young going through school. I have a late birthday and I skipped a grade and that, combined with my kind of shy and seriously dorky temperament and skinny glasses, picked last for baseball — the whole thing well.
What it led to wear lots of experiences of being left out or put down by the other kids in school.
Now what happened to me was very small compared to, unfortunately, what happens to many many other people. But we all have normal needs to feel cared for to feel cared about. We are the most profoundly social species on the planet.
As we evolved in the Serengeti, exile was a death sentence.
Causes have effects and if we don’t get the supplies that we need bit by bit it’s kind of like we’re living on a thin soup. You can survive, you can make it, but there is a hollowness and emptiness inside.
In my own case, hopefully this will work — yes, I ended up with lots of bad thoughts and feelings inside of me as a result.
Then I went off to college and I began to notice something really powerful and interesting. You know some small good thing would happen — you know, a girl with smiling in the elevator, some guy was throwing the football, in intramural football and say, “good catch Hanson!” and you know it was really good. Or guys would invite me to go out for pizza.
You know, basic stuff of everyday life, and then I would have an experience right – I would feel a little included, or a little wanted — a little appreciated, then the question is what would I do with that experience? If I dealt with it like I usually did — which was to kind of ignore it, let it pass along. I kept feeling lonely. Inadequate.
But I began to notice that if I did something different, if I stayed with it a dozen or so seconds in a row, it felt like something was gradually coming in to me that was actually good.
And I began feeling better and better and better and more confident.
Any single time I did this wasn’t a mind-blowing moment. I had a few of those, through other means, that the good things really did add up over time for me definitely and now years later many years later as a neuropsychologist I began to understand what I was actually doing.
It wasn’t just changing my mind. I was actually changing my brain.
That’s because it’s what neuroscientist say, neurons that fire together wire together.
Passing mental states become lasting neural traits.
I was actually weaving these resources into the fabric of my brain and therefore my life.
There are many examples of the ways in which mental activity can change brain structure. For example taxicab drivers in London. At the end of their training have a thicker brain in a key part called the hippocampus that does visual spatial memory.
In a different kind of example, I don’t know if anybody in here experiences stress? Right. Occasionally, if we have the experience of stress, that releases cortisol in the body, which goes up into the brain. Cortisol gradually stimulates the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, so it rings more loudly and more quickly and cortisol weekens — it actually kills neurons in the hippocampus which, besides doing visual spatial memory, calms down the amygdala and calms down stress all together.
So this mental experience of stress, especially if it’s chronic and moderate to severe, gradually changes the structure of the brain so we become progressively more sensitive to stress.
The mind can change the brain to change the mind. Knowing this is really valuable because the inner strength, to go back to the beginning of my story here, the inner strengths that we all want happiness — positive emotion, determination feeling love, confidence, the virtues, the executive functions — those are all built out of the brain the question is how to actually get them into the brain.
The interesting thing is that most of wholesome qualities, in the mind and heart, that help us cope with life — including coping with hard things — we have a lot inside ourselves to give to other people.
Most of those inner strength are built from positive experiences of those strengths.
If you want to feel more confident, for example, have more experiences of accomplishment or coping. If you want to have a more loving heart, practice more moments of compassion or kindness for others. The problem is that, to get these experiences into our brain, we have to overcome the brain’s hardwired negativity bias.
This negativity bias means that the brain is very good at learning from bad experiences and bad at learning from good ones.
In other words, good experiences kind of bounced off the brain unless we do a little thing, that I’m going to tell you about in a moment. Meanwhile, bad experiences sink right in.
The reason for the negativity bias is that our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention too bad news because, if they survived it, they had to remember it forever. Right? Once burned twice shy.
These days we have ordinary experiences of this. Think about a relationship you’re in with someone you live with or closely work with. Sleep with, whatever.
Let’s say 10 things happen in a day with that person. Five of them are positive or neutral, one is negative. Which is the one we tend to think about as we go to sleep at night?
That’s why a lot of studies show that a good long-term relationship typically needs at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.
That’s a cautionary tale right?
That’s the negativity bias. It creates a fundamental bottleneck in the brain that creates a weakness in both informal efforts and formal efforts to grow, to heal, to train ourselves in different ways.
Whether you’re a psychologist like me, or meditation teacher like me, or a corporate trainer, coach, parent — I’m also a parent with my wife — or you’re trying to help people in one way or another — we tend to be very good at activating positive mental states. We very good at helping people install them in the brain. I don’t think so.
There’s been this long-standing assumption that if we just get a good thing going somehow it will sink in.
what can we do, we can learn to take in the good, to pop open this bottle neck in the brain and gradually we’ve got experiences into the fabric of our brain in your life.
I thought we could actually do it here right now. Something experiential all right is marin county and either we could go for a red so just right now it’s a little weird with artificial why not all right just go for it so I’ll take you with it take you through this kind of informally then we’ll explain what we just did so if you could bring to mind someone that you know cares about you it could be a pet could be a group of people could be a person in your life in your past doesn’t really matter what you’re trying to do is have a good experience a simple good experience a feeling cared about you’re trying to help the idea of this person or the image or a memory become a feeling okay what’s right and then once you get it going you moving out of concept to experience stay with it it’s kind of a critical mass of time a threshold things have to last long enough in our experience to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage including emotional learning and meanwhile you could sense that this experience is going into you’re absorbing it it’s sinking into you feeling love as you think into it a simple moment 10 20 seconds usually won’t change your life but bit by bit he can really make an enormous difference i’d like to tell you the little steps of taking in the good they’re very simple I even have a clever acronym that you can use to remember them our daughter thought of the last word of the acronym very important so I want to give her credit so in the first step have a good experience we’ve got to activate it we’ve got to get it going right the brain is like an old-school cassette recorder it records the music by playing we have to have an experience in the second step and rich the experience helped install this activated mental state into your brain as a neural trade you know let it lasts help grow in your body help it become increasingly intense give yourself over to it and in the third step of taking in a good absorb it sense and intend that it’s sinking into you this will prime memory systems this will sensitize them so they’ll be more efficient and encoding the experience into neural structure and then if you want to the optional step is to link the positive experience with something negative you got to be a little careful about this because you don’t want to be hijacked by the negative but if you can stay strong with the positive it will gradually associate with the negative neurons that fire together wire together and it’ll go into the negative to sue that is it even gradually replacing and you can use this step of taking in a good where you’re linking positive and negative for yourselves or four children or for clients students or others you care about you can use this method to heal old pain word neglect weather in adulthood or childhood even reaching down into young parts of yourself to kind of someone up there we have four steps that become an acronym he’ll h et al it’s an easy way to remember it have it right enrich the experience to begin installing it in your brain once it’s activated in your mind absorb it and if you like Lincoln so it really becomes a part of you now this may seem a little complicated we all know how to take in the good we all know how to help some good life lesson laughed some good experience with other people we know how to let these things land in a nutshell this whole thing boils down to all my verbiage here two forwards have it and enjoy it right especially enjoy it so it becomes a part of you this is not about covering over negative truths right paradoxically the more we take in the good were more able to see the bad and do something about it you know in fact this is about taking control of the brain stone age bias right in the 21st century to excessively focus on the bad and over worry about any single time we do it isn’t going to change our life but the gradual accumulation both in the flow of our day and at special times if we want to like it meals or at night time before bed after meditating or a workout we can gradually build this up inside ourselves you know I think of it is the law of little things right it’s usually lots of little bad things that take us to a bad place and it’s lots of little good things that take us to a better one there’s that saying they have in Tibet I think about it often they say if you take care of the minutes the years will take care of themselves I find that so helpful isn’t it right what’s the most important man in your life it’s the next one all right can’t do anything about the past a few minutes into the future we start losing a lot of influence but the next minute is a phenomenal opportunity for us like me back in college or any one of us today or over the course of this evening what will we do with the most important minute in her life right well especially what will we do with the good that’s authentically available to us in it will be wasted or will we a few times a day or even more actually take it into ourselves for me there’s a Buddhist staying that really speaks to the heart of the opportunity in the most important minute of our life it goes like this do not think lightly of good saying you will not come to me drop by drop is the water pot filled likewise the wise one gathering it little by little Phil’s oneself with good so maybe you and I am all beings everywhere little by little fill ourselves with good.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Anssi Koskinen