Positive Neuroplasticity

A Short Lesson on Neuroplasticity:

Every time you have a thought, your brain changes.

How is this possible?
Neurons that fire together wire together.”

With each thought, a synaptic connection is formed or strengthened.

Our brain cells, called “neurons,” communicate with one another via synaptic transmission.  Neurons have microscopic space between them, called a “synapse.”  One neuron releases a chemical (neurotransmitter) into the synapse and the next neuron absorbs the neurotransmitter–this is how they talk to each other.  This process, known as “neuronal firing,” creates a “synaptic connection” between those two neurons.  When neurons communicate frequently, the synaptic connection between them strengthens, which allows communication between those neurons to become more efficient.  As a result, messages traveling the same pathway in the brain over & over become faster and more efficient.

With enough repetition, messages become automatic.

That’s why we practice things like hitting a golf ball–-with enough repetition, the brain goes on automatic pilot.  Psychologists have long known that negative thoughts follow this pattern–-the more we think about, or “ruminate,” on a negative thought, the more entrenched the negative thought becomes. Fortunately, the opposite is also true–focusing on positive thoughts and experiences strengthens the brain’s tendency to fire up the neuronal circuitry involved in happiness and well being.

So, you can shape your neuronal architecture by choosing what you focus on–this is known as “self-directed neuroplasticity.”

Research in the field of positive psychology finds that, unfortunately, human beings are hardwired to focus on the negative–to ensure survival, ward off disaster, etc. Even in less stressful times, our minds tend to focus on problems to solve, things that need to be done, or mistakes we’ve made rather than the positive moments that occur throughout the day. To some extent, this focus can help us improve and stay on top of things.  But, an unbalanced focus on problems contributes to negative emotions, and crowds out the positive experiences of the day. Changing this takes conscious effort–this is where a daily “Positivity Focus” comes into play.

Develop Positive Neuroplasticity with a Daily “Positivity Focus”:

At the end of each day, reflect back on at least one positive moment and write it down.

Click here to download a pdf with an easy format for recording your daily Positivity Focus (I also included the Daily Accounting exercise), or simply write it on a calendar or journal.  Your positive moment can be significant or something as small as hearing a favorite song. The point is to train your brain to notice, appreciate, and spend a little more time with positive things you experience throughout your day, even if they are just small things.  With dedicated practice, here’s what you will find–recollecting positive moments will become easier as time goes on (it can be surprisingly difficult when you first start out–our brains are not wired to focus on the positive!).  Then, you will begin to consciously notice positive moments during your day–almost in an “Oh, I can write this in my Positivity Focus!” kind of way.

Noticing your positive moments as they occur is when the real change begins.

As you notice a positive moment, take 30 seconds to let it soak in. Articulate the moment in your mind, take in the visual, and form a mental snapshot. Also, notice any sounds, smells, or physiological reactions you have–smiling, relaxation of tensed muscles, and so forth. What you want to do is imprint this experience in your mind, using as many sensory modalities as possible, thereby strengthening positive neural pathways in your brain. 30 seconds may not sound like a long time, but try it–you will probably be surprised at how long that feels compared to how quickly you usually move on to the next thing.

Positive neuroplasticity helps prune the connections in your brain to weed out unnecessary attention to the negative and strengthen your focus on the positive.

A brain that imprints positive emotions becomes more resilient–you bounce back quicker from negative experiences and disappointments. And, a focus on positive emotions dials down the release of stress hormones, which lessens the negative physiological effects of stress.

Note: What the Positivity Focus is Not:

* Not a positive affirmation, i.e., “I’m a good person.” There’s nothing wrong with positive affirmations, so say them if you like, but the Positivity Focus exercise focuses on something that happened to you that day.
* Not a gratitude focus–gratitude is good, but different from your Positivity Focus. You are not thinking of what you are thankful for as much as you’re recollecting a positive experience. Example–gratitude is “I’m thankful for the nutritious food I had for breakfast.” A Positivity Focus is “It was so nice to have a leisurely breakfast this morning. I loved smelling the freshly brewed coffee, hearing the birds sing, and how the early morning sunlight dappled through the trees.” Note–you probably won’t write out the complete experience in your Planner, simply for time’s sake, which is fine.  But, be sure to recollect the experience in your mind as vividly as possible.  Then you might simply write–“Leisurely breakfast–coffee, birds, sunlight.”
* Not mindfulness–this one is complicated, because creating a Positivity Focus begets mindfulness. However, for the purpose of the Positivity Focus exercise, the point is not (just) mindfulness. The Positivity Focus exercise begins with simply recollecting a positive experience and recording it.  This will likely develop mindfulness of daily positive experiences, which further contributes to positive neuroplasticity.

If you want to read further about positive neuroplasticity, I recommend Rick Hanson’s book, “Hardwiring Happiness.”

I hope you’ll give the daily Positivity Focus a try!

You don’t have to write out a long description in your Positivity Focus log.

If you like to journal, you may enjoy writing about the moment; if not, feel free to be brief.  The most important component of this exercise is to cue up the neural pathways associated with the positive experience.  Recall and re-experience that moment as vividly as possible, then you can shorthand your description when you write it down.