Newsletter – Conditions that Accelerate Brain change

Newsletter – Conditions that Accelerate Brain change

In recent 2018 posts, I’ve been exploring how the brain learns anything, ever.  How the repetition of experiences, chosen or unchosen, creates new neural circuitry, creating new habits of perception and response to life events, helpful or unhelpful. I’ve also written a bit about the brain’s innate neuroplasticity that makes any of this learning, and any un-learning, possible.

This newsletter explores five conditions that accelerate process of brain change and learning that we can choose to cultivate when we want to cultivate new habits of perception and response that lead to resilience – safety, resonant relationships, positive emotions, conscious reflection, and “little and often.”

Some of these conditions may already be very familiar to you. I hope to give you permission to cultivate them more regularly, knowing you are strengthening your capacities for resilience as you do so.

1.  Safety Primes Neuroplasticity

Of course, the need for resilience arises in the first place because we are facing something new or unknown, some difficulty or danger, some challenge or crisis.  We develop our capacities for resilience each time we successfully meet those unknowns, resolve the difficulties, skillfully come out the other side of a crisis or trauma. 

But the brain also needs the openness and receptivity to experiences that come from its own perception (neuroception) of safety within itself to prime the neuroplasticity which does all of this learning and rewiring to be resilient. A relaxed brain is better able to perceive and integrate what it learns from any experience than is a brain that is tense, contracted, survival oriented, narrowly focused.

The brain has its own natural baseline physiological equilibrium or safety zone known in psychotherapy as “the range of resilience,” in trauma therapy as “the window of tolerance.” There’s a similar concept in the Buddhist wisdom tradition known as equanimity – witnessing the tumult of life with calm eyes. 

Anchoring in this safety zone, and being able to remain in that safety zone, allows you to meet any upset, any distress, any potential disaster or life threat full on without going into your automatic survival responses of fight-flight-freeze or collapse. You stay centered in that equilibrium, consciously present for the experience, and you “keep calm and carry on,”.

2.  Resonant Relationships Create Safety

Barbara Fredrickson, pioneering researcher in positive psychology, found that when two people are in physical proximity, making eye contact, sharing positive emotions, (kindness, enthusiasm, joy) and a sense of mutual care and concern, the neurochemistry of the two people’s brain’s begin to sync up, creating a sense of resonance between the two brains that I would call safety and trust and which she calls love in her book Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection

This neural synchrony is probably fueled by the release of oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust, bonding and belonging, calm and connect.  Oxytocin brings you into that safety zone that primes the brain’s neuroplasticity for learning and growth.

3.  Positive Emotions Shift Brain Functioning

Deliberately cultivating practices of kindness, gratitude, compassion, awe, delight, serenity can “undo” the constricting effects that negative emotions like envy, resentment, regret and hostility have on your nervous system and your behaviors.

These practices re-focus your attention away from stress and worry.  They can reverse the impact of anxiety, depression, learned helplessness and loneliness and help you feel more enthused, energetic, and alive.  Experiencing more positive emotions increases your curiosity and engagement with circumstances and supports more optimistic creative coping.  They strengthen the capacity to approach rather than avoid the challenges and catastrophes you and others face. They can even help resolve traumatic memories. 

Researchers have found that any positive pro-social emotional experience shifts the functioning of your brain out of the contraction and reactivity of your brain’s negativity bias into more openness, receptivity to learning, shifting into new perspectives, a larger perspective, shifting the response of your brain to more optimism.  A direct, measurable outcome of practicing any positive pro-social emotion is resilience.  Not just a correlation, direct cause and effect outcome.

So we learn cultivate positive emotions not just to feel better but to do better.

4. Conscious Reflection – Seeing Clearly, Choosing Wisely

The brain can process experiences without going through conscious awareness.  The brain does that all the time. You can drive to work on automatic pilot, only “waking up” when you turn down the wrong street and suddenly everything looks different. The brain can register a vibe from someone at a party before consciously remembering where you met them before.

When you want to create and install new patterns of perceiving and behaving in your brain, you need to engage conscious reflection so that the resources of resilience you are creating are retrievable and usable. A process of conscious reflection is not exactly the same as “thinking.” It has more to do with knowing what you’re experiencing while you’re experiencing it.  You’re making visible or conscious your perceptions of experience and your responses to experience (as well as the “firing” going on in your neural circuitry) so that you can rewire any patterns of beliefs, attitudes, identities, or behaviors that are blocking your resilience.

5. “Little and Often” is Best

The brain is always learning from experience, any experience, positive or negative.  That’s our neurobiology. Neuroscientists have also discovered that the brain learns best “little and often.”  Small experiences, repeated many times. There’s no magic number of times any individual person would need to repeat a specific practice for it to stick, but the brain does learn best from experiences it can readily integrate—small changes repeated over and over.

In other words, you might be better off meditating 10 minutes a day, every day, than meditating for an hour only once a week.  It may be more conducive to your brain’s learning to shift perspectives if you notice and write down 3-5 things you are grateful for every evening rather than making a list of 20 things all at once on the weekend.

When we are trying to undo the effects of negative, harmful, traumatic experiences, “little and often” is the way to go. Working with one small part of the memory at a time. Little itty-bitty baby steps so the brain – and we – don’t get re-triggered, overwhelmed, re-traumatized. This emphasis on “little and often” not only allows us to learn and install that new learning most effectively; it allows us to unlearn and re-learn old learning most effectively as well.

In the coming months I will be posting resources to cultivate all of these five conditions so that you can, with practice over time, powerfully strengthen your resilience – bringing more response flexibility to cope with any adversity.