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.

Welcome to A Living, Breathing Story!

Thanks for stopping by.

You know you have a life story. You’ve heard that many times. But what if there’s much more to it? What if, instead of having a story, you are a story—a Living, Breathing Story?

Stop and think about that for a minute. Even with little awareness of the process, over your lifetime you have woven together innumerable threads to create the Story that is the “I” you inhabit right now. Just as an author creates her characters’ reality with the words she commits to the page, you create your own experience of reality depending on how you think about it—and how you think you think about it. Furthermore, your thoughts constantly create reactions and responses within your body, including, of course, your brain and genetic code, causing changes to your physical being. In a very real sense, what you make of your Story makes you: Yes, you are an ever-changing, interactive, living, breathing Story.

It is this Story that creates your experience of reality—your personal account of who and what you believe yourself to be, which determines how you experience life. While it is based on the actual events and experiences of your life, your Story actually springs from the explanations you invent to describe them and their effects on you. “We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.” (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human)

You are a Living, Breathing Story because of the intimate, inseparable, instantaneous connections between your thoughts and your body’s reactions to those thoughts. This process is so innate and automatic that, most of the time, you don’t even realize it’s playing out in your never-ending stream of consciousness, every moment creating physical, emotional, and mental reactions within you. But as you discover more about your Story and how you create it, you can learn to use this ability on purpose and with awareness, becoming more empowered and adding more joy and ease to your life as a result.

I’ve come to this concept of “Living, Breathing Story” over several years, gradually learning and adding more information. It’s exciting for me to look at myself and the world through these new lenses. And I’m excited to share what I have learned with you.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

At the end of each blog post (or most of them, anyway), I’ll add a journaling exercise for you. Like this one.

One of my favorite quotations about how we create our own experience of reality comes from Antoine de St.-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince: “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” Things—material objects as well as personal or cultural concepts—have no meaning in themselves. We give them meaning based on our own Story, and these meanings further create our Story.

For instance, a wine glass is simply a vessel to hold a beverage. No big deal in and of itself. But I have the last two remaining wine glasses given to my mom and dad on their wedding day and which they used for decades’ worth of special occasions. When I bring them out on my special occasions, I feel deeply connected to my long-deceased father and my mom now in a nursing home hours away. These glasses are precious objects that hold much love and many memories for me. In this way, they help to create my experience of reality.

This same concept holds true for the way we think about ourselves too. When I was younger, I was shy and that meant I would never dream of speaking up in a crowd of people. Years later, I’ve grown comfortable speaking to groups of people, small or large. I’ve discovered I’m just enough of a ham to enjoy it! I changed my thoughts about myself and so changed my experience of reality.

For your journal: What about you? What is something that helped make you who you are today—or, in Story language, helped to create your Story? There are two ways you can do this.

  1. Choose one of your possessions that holds great meaning for you and connects you to someone, represents a special time in your life, or reminds you of a success or even a loss. Write for at least 15 minutes about its meaning for you and what your life would be like without that which it represents for you.
  1. Think of how you have changed your thoughts about yourself over the years, as I did with my shyness. What is your old Story and how did it morph or evolve into a new one? Write for at least 15 minutes on this shift in your perception of yourself.