What we think and feel, for better or worse, has a profound effect on our lives. Our thoughts and emotions have consequences so great that they literally create our realities in the real world.
Connecting the dots between the outer, physical world of matter and the inner, mental world of thought has always presented quite a challenge to scientists and philosophers. To many of us, the mind appears to have little or no measurable effects on the world of matter. Although we’d probably agree that the world of matter creates consequences affecting our minds, how can minds possibly produce any physical changes affecting our lives?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to take a closer look at how the brain works.
A newborn’s brain triples in size in the first year of life; after that, the rate of physical growth slows as we learn and pack more into our roughly 3.3-pound brains. What continues to develop, allowing this tremendous ability to process more and more information, is the networks of nerve cells called neurons communicating with one another.
Our brains are made up of some 100 billion neurons and each of them is connected to as many as 100,000 other neurons depending on where in the brain the nerve cell resides. For example, our neocortex – our thinking brain – has about 10,000 to 40,000 connections per neuron. Those connections are called synaptic connections.
All these billions of neurons and their trillions of connections form complex networks through which messages are conveyed at incredibly high speeds in the form of electrochemical signals. This is an ongoing process happening every day, every minute, every nanosecond of our lives.
As we learn new things and have new experiences in our lives, our neurons make new connections, exchanging electrochemical information with each other. Literally, everything we do, think, or feel – reading these words, opening a door, feeling anxious about Covid, smelling a rose, recalling a childhood memory, breathing, scratching an itch – is enabled by the signals sent between the billions of neural networks in our brains.
Neuroplasticity – The Changing Brain
Up to the 1970s, most scientists believed that the human brain is malleable and changing during childhood but then ‘hardens’ and becomes unchangeable sometime between puberty and early adulthood, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have.
However, the recent field of neuroscience offers an abundance of data to the contrary. In his book, You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, Dr. Joe Dispenza explains that throughout our lives, our brains are continuously changing and adapting and reorganizing themselves in response to external and internal prompts. This process – called Neuroplasticity – means our brains have the remarkable ability to constantly undergo physiological and structural changes – forming new connections between neurons and creating new networks in response to our experiences, actions, thoughts, and emotions.
For example, the longer mathematicians study math, the more neural branches sprout in the area of the brain used for math. And after years of performing in symphonies and orchestras, professional musicians expand the part of their brains associated with language and musical abilities.
Nobel Prize-winning physician Eric Kandel showed that when new memories are formed, the number of synaptic connections in the neurons can double in just one hour of repeated stimulation. In other words, if your house acted like your brain, it would notice which lights you were turning on, and every hour it would double the amount of electrical conduit going to that light circuit.
However, the same research tells us that if you don’t repeat, review, or think about what you’ve learned, the number of connections falls back to the original in a matter of only three weeks as certain connections that are not being used are trimmed to make room for new ones. Thus, if learning is making new synaptic connections, remembering is maintaining those connections.
A basic principle of neuroplasticity is, therefore, “use-it-or-lose-it”. Just like the muscles and nerves in our bodies, the brain needs regular exercise and stimulation to grow and stay in shape. Neural connections and networks grow and become stronger if they are used over and over again, or they weaken and even fade away in weeks if they are neglected.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research and professor emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco, puts it beautifully:
“Your brain – every brain – is a work in progress. It is ‘plastic.’ From the day we’re born to the day we die, it continuously revises and remodels, improving or slowly declining, as a function of how we use it.”Dr. Michael Merzenich
Two Sides of Neuroplasticity
It’s important to note that brain plasticity is a two-way street. You can change your brain for the better or worse through behaviors and even ways of thinking. Bad habits have neural maps that reinforce those bad habits. Negative plasticity, for example, causes changes in neural connections that can be harmful. Negative thoughts and constant worrying can promote changes in the brain that are associated with depression and anxiety.
Consider self-talk – the things we repeatedly say to ourselves, the way in which we say them, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our lives. Our brains are wired to amplify negative experiences and perceptions over positive ones, so if we continuously ruminate over our failures and what went wrong in the past, these negative thoughts and emotions become part of our internal dialogue.
A basic principle of neuroplasticity, also known as Hebbian theory, states, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” As your brain fires repeatedly in the same manner, you’re reproducing the same level of mind. According to neuroscience, the mind is the brain in action or at work. Thus, if your thoughts, choices, behaviors, experiences and emotional states remain the same for many years, you’re making your brain fire in the same patterns and you’ll activate the same neural networks for years on end. By the time you reach your mid-30s, your brain has organized itself into a very finite signature of automatic programs – and that fixed pattern is called your identity or personality.
Think of identity as a box inside your brain. You’re physically hardwired your brain into the same limited pattern. By reproducing the same level of mind over and over again, the most commonly fired, neurologically wired set of circuits has predetermined who you are as a result of your own volition. You’re, therefore, always thinking inside the box or some call it the fixed mindset.
So our goal, then, needs to be thinking outside the box to make the brain fire in new ways. To break free from the chains of hardwired programming and the conditioning that keeps you the same takes considerable effort. It also requires knowledge to make your brain works in new and different ways.
Fortunately, with effort, we can tap into our conscious mind and employ Self-directed neuroplasticity (SDN) processes to facilitate positive neuronal change.
SDN is the mind’s ability to change our brain structures and functions by intentionally redirecting our focus and what we pay attention to. In this way, it is possible to rewire our brains to get unstuck and overcome limiting beliefs, negative thinking patterns, disruptive emotions, and self-sabotaging behaviors.
Self-directed neuroplasticity has been identified as an effective treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), trauma, depression, and regulation of emotional response.
The essence of SDN is to use the power of focused attention to change the brain to work for us. In order to change our brain, we have to become conscious (being aware or paying attention to) of our unconscious, which is just a set of hardwired programs – thoughts, feelings, behaviors, experiences, and habits – from our past.
In other words, if you want your brain to become better in social situations, you’d consciously “force” yourself to become more comfortable in these situations by deliberately shifting your attention away from the fear and drama and focusing on the positive possibilities and your brain eventually adapt. Similarly, anytime you learn a new skill (e.g. how to piano), your brain functioning changes and adapts to whatever you put in front of it.
Mental Rehearsal – making changes by thought alone
Self-directed neuroplasticity has proven that we can change our brains – and therefore our behaviors, emotions, and experiences – just by thinking differently, or more precisely by shifting our attention, without changing our physical environment. This brings us to a technique called Mental rehearsal. This is a process of not just visualizing your future, but more of experiencing your future. It involves thinking about your future actions, mentally planning your choices, and repeatedly focusing your mind and attention on a new experience.
To understand more fully how mental rehearsal work, we have to look at a study at Harvard Medical School of Neurology, one group of research subjects who’d never before played the piano mentally practiced a simple, five-finger piano exercise for two hours a day for five days – and made the same brain changes as the control group who physically practiced the same activities at the same period, but without ever lifting a finger. The region of their brain’s motor cortex that controls the fingers movements increased dramatically, allowing their brains to look as though the experience they’d imagined had actually happened. They installed the neurological hardware (circuits) and software (programs), thereby creating new brain maps by thought alone.
In another study of 30 people over a 12-week period, some regularly exercised their little fingers, while others just imagined doing the same thing. While the group that actually did the physical exercises increased the strength of their little fingers by 53 percent, the group that only imagined doing the same thing also increased the strength of their little fingers by 35 percent. Their bodies had changed to look as if they were having the physical experience in external reality over and over again – but they only experienced it in their mind. Their minds changed their bodies.
These studies demonstrate two important points. Not only can we change our brains just by thinking differently, but when we are truly focused and single-minded, the brain does not know the difference between the internal world of the mind and what we experience in the external environment. Our thoughts can become our experiences.
In fact, neuroscientific studies have further shown that for the human brain, thinking about doing something and actually doing that same thing, is pretty much the same. Thinking and doing activate some of the same regions and neural networks in the brain.
Now, consider the larger implications of the finger-exercise experiments. If we apply the same process – mental rehearsal – to anything that we want to do, not only can we change our brains, but also change our lives ahead of any concrete experience.
Since “neurons that fire together wire together,” if we repeatedly mentally rehearse, reinforce, and reaffirm a better way to think, feel, act, or be in our future, we will install the neural hardware needed to physiologically prepare us for the new experience and new reality. Our brain, then, is no longer a record of the past, but has become a map to the future.
To apply mental rehearsal based on the principles of self-directed neuroplasticity, a good starting point would be to become very selective in what and who you continuously expose yourself to, what you focus on and what you repeat. To affect lasting change in brain networks and functions, the following six techniques and practices can help you harness the power of self-direct brain change:
Mental rehearsal requires paying attention to one’s thoughts or inner dialogue. With each thought, you think, as you direct your attention, you’re signaling your brain to create new neural connections. Use this power deliberately, rather than allowing random thoughts to flow through your mind, and you start to consciously direct the formation of neural tissue.
After a few weeks, your brain changes substantially. Keep it up for years, and you can build a brain that’s habituated to process the signals of love, peace, and happiness because when you focus your attention on healthy and positive thoughts long enough to strengthen the associated neural pathways, it also prunes away the pathways associated with the unhelpful and negative thoughts.
Knowing where you place your attention is where you place your energy. If your energy is equal to everything in your past and external reality – and you are re-creating the past. Your past experiences and external environment are controlling your thoughts and feelings, which in turn control where you place your attention and energy.
If you place all your attention and energy on the outer world, and past experiences and you keep reacting to the same conditions, in the same way, you become a victim of your life instead of the creator of your life.
The act of meditating helps regain control of your attention. Without controlling your attention, mental rehearsal is useless. The greater the degree to which you develop your attention, the less you are an automaton or at the mercy of your preexisting neural patterns.
Meditation allows you to change your brains, bodies, and state of being without having to take any physical action or have any interaction with the external environment. Through meditation, you can instill the necessary neurological hardware, just as those piano players and finger exercisers made changes through mental rehearsal.
One of the main purposes of meditation is to go beyond the conscious mind, which primarily operates using logic and reasoning, and enter the subconscious mind, in order to change self-destructive habits, behaviors, beliefs, emotional reactions, attitudes, and unconscious state of being, so that you no longer allow any thought, action, or emotion you don’t want to experience to pass by your awareness.
It is the process of continuously bringing your attention back to the present moment every time you become aware that you’ve lost it during mediation that begins to break the energetic bonds with your past – you break the bonds you have with everything, every person, every place, and every time that’s keeping you connected to your past-external reality.
3. Elevated Emotions
The emotional component is key in mental rehearsal. If you have a heightened emotional response to the new thoughts you’re concentrating on in mental rehearsal, it’s like turbocharging your efforts. You don’t need the emotional component; after all, the subjects who strengthened their muscles by imagining they were lifting weights didn’t need to get blissed out to change their genes. However, they inspired themselves by using their imaginations with each mental lift, saying, “Harder! Harder! Harder!” The consistent emotion was the energetic catalyst that truly enhanced the process.
When we consciously marry our thoughts with a heightened state of elevated emotion, such as joy or gratitude. Once we can embrace that new emotion and we get more excited, we’re bathing our body in the neurochemistry that would be present if that future event were actually happening. We’re giving our bodies a taste of the future experience. So our brain and body begin to believe they’re actually living in a new experience in the present moment.
So it makes sense that we should concentrate not merely on avoiding negative emotions, like fear and anger, but also on consciously cultivating heartfelt, positive emotions, such as gratitude, joy, excitement, inspiration, trust, appreciation, kindness, compassion and empowerment, to give us every advantage in maximizing our results.
Gratitude is one of the most powerful emotions. It teaches our body emotionally that the event we’re grateful for has already happened because we usually give thanks after a desirable event has occurred. Gratitude, therefore, is the ultimate state of receivership.
Volition, or free will, is the human capacity to decide how to act based on internal judgments, rather than an automatic response to an external stimulus or event, such as a reflexive response.
Realize that at the beginning of attempting to change your brain, it’s going to be uncomfortable, you’ll certainly face some degree of resistance from your brain and body. Think of it like throwing yourself into the water without knowing how to swim – your brain either adapts and figures something out or you drown.
However, that feeling that discomfort is actually the biological, neurological, chemical, and even genetic death of the old self. Some people call this experience the dark night of the soul. It’s the phoenix igniting itself and burning to ashes. The old self has to die for a new one to be reborn. Of course, that feels uncomfortable, sometimes even painful.
After all, to change requires us to be greater than the body and all its emotional memories, addictions, and unconscious habituations – that is, to no longer be defined by our body and our past. With willpower and keeping our focus on gratitude instead of depression (for example), our brains will adapt.
Remember when you make a decision to change a belief or perception about yourself or your life, you have to do it with a level of energy or intensity that creates an inner experience that’s greater than the past experience. The moment this new experience becomes greater than the old one is the moment the past biologically no longer exists.
How we assign meaning to what we do or what happens to us matters. If we assign meaning or conscious intention to action, the result is amplified.
What we’re telling ourselves on a daily basis is what has meaning to us. And if our present knowledge is based on our own conclusions from past experiences, then without any new knowledge, we’ll always keep creating the outcome that’s equal to our past. But when we change our meaning and change our intention we change the results.
We may not be able to control all the elements in our outer world, but how we assign meaning to those experiences includes a barrage of physical, mental, emotional, and chemical responses also affect many aspects of our inner world. Our beliefs, and our perceptions of how we interact with our external environment have an influence on our internal environment. We could say that meaning is continually affecting the neural structures that influence who we are on the microscopic level, which then influences who we are on the macroscopic level.
In short, the more we learn about the “what” and the “why’, the easier and more effective the “how” becomes.
As stated earlier, Hebbian theory dictates that neurons that fire together wire together, and the more frequently these neurons fire together, the stronger the neural pathways become.
Whenever you think a new thought, you become changed – neurologically, chemically, and genetically. However, unless the original learning experience is repeated over and over again, the number of new connections falls back to the original in a matter of only three weeks.
This is why it’s important for us to continually update, review, and remember, reaffirm our new thoughts, choices, behaviors, habits, beliefs, knowledge, and experiences if we want them to solidify in our brains. With consistent focused effort, our brains will be forced to adapt to the new neural patterns that we present.
This is why monks who practice mindfulness or forms of meditation involving compassion tend to rarely experience depression – their brains become so “wired” to feel positive emotions after many years of practice. Similarly, someone who constantly thinks depressive thoughts is further enhancing the neural pathways for depression. Consistency is key to making long-lasting changes.
Create a new mind, Create a new future
Past doesn’t define you.
Present doesn’t bother you.
Future doesn’t limit you.Anonymous
Your old personality or identity, based on your belief and perception as well as how you thought, felt, and acted, has created the reality that you presently are experiencing. In short, how you are as a personality is how you are as your personal reality. Remember that your personal reality is made up of how you think, feel, and act. By doing each of those in a new way, you are creating both a new self and a new reality.
When you decide to change your personality, you have to start by first accepting that it’s possible, then change your level of energy or intensity by increasing your level of focused intention along with heightened emotion, and do it repeatedly, finally allow your biology to reorganize itself. And once that amplitude or energy of that decision becomes greater than the hardwired programs in your brain and the emotional condition in your body – you have to create a new internal experience in your mind and body that’s greater than the past external experiences – then you’re greater than your past and external world, your body will respond to a new mind, and you can affect real change.
The key for you to focus on is frequency, intensity, and duration. That is, the more you do it, the easier it gets. The better your focus and concentration are, the easier it is for you to tap into that particular thought and emotions the next time. The longer you can linger in those thoughts and emotions of your new ideal, without letting your mind wander to extraneous stimuli, the more you will memorize this new state of being. This step is all about getting into becoming your new ideal in your waking days.
I love how researcher and author Dawson Church describes an insightful thought experiment about challenging one’s own limiting belief in his book – Mind to Matter: The Astonishing Science of How Your Brain Creates Material Reality.
“As a thought experiment, imagine that you continue, for the rest your life, to hold the beliefs about yourself that you hold today. That’s one option at the fork in the road ahead. If you take the other direction at the fork, you challenge every limiting belief in your head and reach out far ahead for your potential. You succeed sometimes, you fail at other times, but either way you grow. You start to discover the boundaries of who you really are instead of the boundaries your old self and others held about you. Your new mind becomes your new [reality].”
We truly are at the crossroads at this every minute. Which direction will you choose? Will you choose to be a new magnificence self, or will you continue to live in the box of your old limited self?