Your Thoughts Reshape Your Brain

Really. They do.

The traditional belief was that our brains continued developing until a certain age—hitting the high point somewhere in our 30s—but from then on, the possibility for change ended, leaving us sliding slowly downhill into neural oblivion.

Fortunately, new research has shown that our brains are capable of changing for our entire lives. This capacity, called neuroplasticity, means that even while our brains do slow down with age, they are capable of being shaped and reshaped for our entire lives. (In the case of brain injury, it is often possible for new areas of the brain to take over for the injured portions. See The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Normal Doidge.)

When we learn something new, the old neural pathways are overlaid with new ones (that’s the physical change in the brain), creating new patterns of thought and behavior. While we typically do this unconsciously, the cool thing is that we can do it on purpose for our benefit!

As Dr. Rick Hanson says, “There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape—will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest  your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.” (Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time)

Your thoughts create physical changes not only in your brain but in your entire body, including your gene expression. In a very simplified explanation: When you focus on stressful thoughts, your body produces stress hormones, like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, that stress your body and your brain. If you stay stressed over time, this causes illness. When you focus on peaceful thoughts, your body produces soothing chemicals, like serotonin, that alleviate stress and can help you and your brain stay healthier. (More on this in the next post.)

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Three parts to this one. It will take a little while but I think it will be worth it.

  1. What is a negative (but not traumatic) thought you frequently tell yourself? Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write in more detail about it for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  2. Give yourself a few minutes to release the previous exercise. If you like, give yourself a hug, stand up and walk around. Let your attention to it flow away. Now recall a positive thought you frequently tell yourself. Write it down in a sentence or two, and then write about it in more detail for 3 minutes. Pay close attention to how you feel in your body and where you feel it. What does this reveal to you?
  3. Write for at least 15 minutes about what you learned about how thoughts create reactions in your body. If you can become familiar with the feelings associated with certain thoughts, you can learn to stop or release the thoughts that cause you stress and keep going with the ones that leave you feeling calm and peaceful.

Everything is Story

After my husband’s brain injury, I became fascinated with the workings of the brain and the mind (not the same thing, remember) and read a great deal about them. When I went to Seattle some years later to speak at the Washington State Traumatic Brain Injury Conference, I took along a book with a most intriguing title: Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry by Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD. As I sat reading it over dinner in the hotel restaurant, one sentence instantly struck me with almost physical force: “Everything is story, including our identities, our selves, our meanings and purposes, our theories about the world.”

Everything is story. Wow. Yes. I knew that to be true, all the way down to my bones. In that instant, my life changed. This was the beginning of my path to seeing the world in a new way.

As Dr. Mehl-Madrona explains in detail, our brains are “organs of story, changing to match the needs of their environment, and specialized to understand story, store story, recall story, and tell story.” In fact, our brains’ story-making abilities are what make us human. We can’t help but use story to create our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world—our thoughts, in other words—create our experience of reality. In a larger way, our individual stories blend together to create cultural and social stories, like economics, religion, gender concepts, politics, and much more.

One simple example: Say you attempt something that means a great deal to you, like starting a new business or learning French cooking. However, you cannot make that dream come true. Your business fails or your Duck à l’Orange ends up tasting like road kill. At which time you could tell yourself, “I’m such a loser. Nothing ever works out for me. I quit!” and give up. Or you could take another direction: “Well, that didn’t work too well. But I bet there are other ways to reach my goal, and I’m going to find the way that does work.” And then you start again.

Same circumstance, different story—different experience of reality. We all do this all the time. It’s natural and automatic for our brains to create these stories, using our past experiences to cook up stories about new ones. The events of our lives are real, yes, but the stories we invent about them create our experience of reality, including our physical and emotional state. It is this ongoing, constant, mostly unconscious process that makes each one of us a Living, Breathing Story.

What’s exciting to me about “everything is story” as it applies to each one of us is that when we give ourselves permission to honestly explore our personal Story, we can discover ways to change it in positive, life-enhancing directions. We are always capable of positive change.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

What is a story you tell yourself about you—one so ingrained that you believe it to be true? Whatever you choose, do not criticize or judge yourself for believing it. Simply write for at least 15-20 minutes, describing the story and how it makes you feel to believe it. If you know how it got started, write about that too.