Just as we can get better at playing tennis or cooking steak, we can get better at using our brains, re-training it so that we become happier, more resilient people, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., co-author (with Richard Mendius, M.D.) of the bestselling book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom.” Using principles at the intersection of psychology, neurology, and spirituality, he explains how neurons that fire together, wire together. In other words, negative thinking gradually gets woven into the fabric of your brain and becomes your default setting. Hanson spoke with Brain World magazine about how to change your mind to change your brain.
Brain World: Do we have control over our own happiness?
Rick Hanson: I would say yes, to a large extent. Life circumstances, of course, can affect your happiness. If people are biochemically disturbed or they’ve had some kind of injury to their brain, that’s also going to impair their ability to be happy. Within that context, then, what people do in terms of getting skillful with their own mind, and therefore their own brain, is a very powerful way to make their life better.
BW: What is an exercise one could do to quiet or refocus the mind?
RH: Just try to pay attention to 10 breaths in a row, and that’s it. You’ve succeeded right there. Or just walk slowly back and forth across your room and make each step coincide with one breath. That’s a powerful practice, with enough stimulation in it to keep your head in the game if you’re distractible.
BW: It seems relatively simple to do the exercises you mention in your books, but few people are really able to dedicate themselves to retraining their minds. Why?
RH: The kinds of things that will make a person better within weeks, certainly within months and years, are actually fairly minor in most cases, something on the order of 10 to 30 minutes a day of focused effort. Honestly, it’s still a puzzle to me why people don’t make more of an effort. People will make a major effort to figure out how to shave a little money off their taxes, but they won’t make that effort to make themselves happier or their relationships better. And that’s a pity, because the result is people feel more irritated, more stressed, sadder, more worried.
BW: Which leads me to my next question: Why do humans have a propensity for negativity?
RH: We’re capable of being both wonderfully happy and loving. We also have very strong inclinations for negativity and fearful aggression toward “them.” I say the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s a great way to create gene copies; that’s a lousy way to have a quality of life. Researchers have found that, on average, it takes about five positive interactions to make up for one negative one.
BW: And you can change your brain at any stage in life, if you’re 25 or 85?
RH: Totally. We started building neural structure by the last trimester of a pregnancy [as] a fetus, and we will continue building neural structure to our last breath and maybe even for a minute or two after. An older person has to some extent ingrained habits, [but] through targeted mental activity you can still sculpt neural structure.
BW: So, to break it down really simply, a contemplative’s brain actually looks different from a depressed person’s?
RH: People who meditate routinely — to use that as one way you can train your mind — have measurably thicker brain layers in two critical regions. One region handles the executive control of attention and executive control in general. The benefit of that is you’ve got more control over your attention and are less distractible, you don’t get so tired when you’re trying to read or pay attention in a meeting.
The second major area is in the insula [the insular cortex], which is very involved in self-awareness and especially for body sensations and gut feelings. But it’s also involved crucially in empathy. It means that as you tune more into your own body and feelings, you build out — literally you make it thicker — the part of the brain that accesses the feelings of other people.
BW: The topic of happiness seems very popular today. Have we always been seeking happiness, or has it become more essential now because we’re all so unhappy?
RH: Human beings have always wanted to be happy. On top of that, I think that in America there is a deep sense in many people that things have gotten off track. The idea of being able to control your brain and therefore really put yourself in the driver’s seat of your own life is very appealing at a time when so many people feel buffeted by all kinds of events.