Brains and Change

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Max Planck

Anger, hatred, and intolerance really are only stories we tell ourselves, as are compassion, love, and inclusion. With so much of the former flying around today, it pays to understand something about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of our brains to change over a lifetime. The more we do something, including having the same thoughts and performing the same actions, the more our brains physically conform to them, so that we keep thoughtlessly keep repeating them, regardless of whether they benefit us or harm us. Even more crucial, being exposed to the same things over and over does the same:

“…the external world comes to be represented within our brains and actually forms our physical brain’s synaptic (nerve) connections so that we have a model or mirror of the external world. As inside, so outside. As above, so below. This happens through our internalization of the stories that are being told around us.” (Lewis Mehl-Madrona, PhD, in Healing the Mind Through the Power of Stories.)

Thus, the more we hate and are exposed to hate, the more our brains lead us to hate. The more we love and are exposed to love, the more our brains lead us to love. All the vitriol we are now exposed to on a daily basis is changing us because of this process of internalization—but we can make it a positive change if we make a conscious effort to change our stories about what is happening in the world and within each one of us. Focus on love, compassion, and inclusion instead. Focus on what you love and would love to see happen instead of being overly and unendingly angry about what seems to be happening (righteous anger in the face of injustice is good and often necessary, but channel it into more positive emotions and actions instead). Work for positive change in ways that satisfy you and make you feel good, instead of hating and fighting against the people and policies you don’t like. You can tell which path you are on by the way your actions and thoughts make you feel inside.

One person at a time, we can restore ourselves and so create a better story for everyone. Yes, it’s hard but yes, we can.

In your journal:
Write about a positive change you would like to see in the world and how you might help it come about in positive, loving, compassionate ways. This does not have to be an earthshaking, grand, or grandiose thing. Remember that, often, the best thing we can do to promote positive change is to do the smaller things we can do within our own sphere of influence. What can you do in your own family and circle of acquaintances to make their world a better place?

What does having a body mean to you?

Sounds like a silly question, I know. But think about it. Your answer determines how you live in that body, which determines a great deal of how you experience reality.

Is your body simply the mechanism that carries your head around, or is it, as Mary Oliver wrote, a “soft animal…that loves what it loves”? Is it more of a prison or more of a sacred space? A done deal or an evolving answer? Merely a lump of conscious meat or something more mysterious, even miraculous? Separate from everything else or inextricably joined with the entire whole of creation?

I’ve been thinking about this question while working on a journaling program about how we embody our stories (our thoughts about our experiences). Because that is what we do: Through the vehicle of our body, we live out the thoughts that create our experience of reality. We cannot pull the mind and the body apart, like Legos; instead, they are one, a whole entity together. In a process so deeply complex we likely will never fully understand it, our bodymind uses thoughts and physiological responses to create our experience of reality.

Two examples of how we embody stories:

Say you read a post on Facebook. The words in themselves have no meaning except that which you assign to them—the story you make out of them. And these words anger the bejesus out of you! Immediately, thanks to those thoughts, your muscles tense, your stomach hurts, your blood pressure and pulse zoom skyward. Your body pours out cortisol and adrenaline, which cause damage when you produce too much over time. Anger also compromises neurons in the brain, which, again, is not healthy over time. You feel separate and divided from other people. If you respond in anger to the post, that only keeps your internal cycle going and likely escalates the situation—round and round you go! But not in a good way.

Now say you see another post. Only not only do you agree with this one, it makes you happy. Your internal story about this post is positive. Now your body feels lighter. Your blood pressure and pulse drop into or stay at healthy levels. Your brain produces dopamine, oxytocin, endorphin, serotonin, and other biochemicals that produce feelings of happiness and help you stay calmer and healthier. You feel more connected to others and, at the moment, see the world in a better light.

Either way, all of this happens because of your thoughts—which only have meaning because of the stories you create with them. Which thoughts would you rather have? Which effects would you rather have produced in your body?

(Now, this does not mean you can’t ever be angry or that you need to ignore or stuff your anger. Anger is a useful and necessary emotion, as are all emotions. Just be aware of what it can do to you, and learn how to manage it better.)

If you want to explore the stories you embody, here’s an exercise in contrast you can try, with your journal or without:

Recall a time you had an intense negative reaction to something you read or saw. Or, even better, wait until you experience such a reaction and have your journal handy. (Perhaps it is a political ad or post, which often elicit explosive reactions these days.) As best you can, write about the story you create about this thing: What are your thoughts about it? Why is your reaction so negative? And what reactions are happening in your body at this time? Pay close attention and write them down too.

Then, still sitting with your journal, simply change your thoughts. It likely will take a few minutes. Choose something that makes you feel happy, even joyous, or something that soothes you. It can be a memory or something you imagine, but let yourself feel it deeply. Or you can give yourself a hug—wrap your arms around yourself, or tenderly stroke your arm or your face. (This produces oxytocin and reduces cortisol. You can add slow, deep breathing to this. Once again, write about this experience with as much detail as you can.

As you do this exercise, don’t judge or criticize yourself for either position. This is simply meant to demonstrate how thoughts create our experience of reality. And how we change our Living, Breathing Story by changing our thoughts.