It is a myth that our emotions are beyond our control. Those who claim this are really saying, “I choose not to exercise control over my feelings.” Often this attitude is born of a sense that negative emotions are just part of who we are — that feeling persistently angry or sad is something that just comes through the hard knocks of life. But how sensible is it to continue harboring such ideas when they wreak havoc on our bodies and our energies? The path of personal wisdom is to harness the brain’s great powers of self-awareness — the watcher watching the watcher — to uncover the hidden patterns of mood and emotion that we bear within us and change the way we view the world. We have the power to change our set points, as it were. Have you ever wondered how some families living in poverty in the inner city or in a small village in the third World can live with so much joy? It’s because their set points are modest. They have each other, food to eat, a roof over their heads, and, often, their faith. That is all they need. What do you need to truly be happy and at peace with this life?
Let’s differentiate between emotion and mood. Our marvelous brains recognize emotions from the time we are born. Feelings become hardwired into our neural connections long before we can manage the complex dance of cognitive thought and language. Emotion is like weather; it is what we feel in the moment as we encounter the conditions and people in our lives. Mood is like climate; it lingers and engulfs us. Thus, we say, “He’s in a bad mood.” Moods are emotion made persistent and can go on for an hour, a day, or even develop into a life-long disposition. Sometimes, when a melancholy mood becomes dark and helpless and hopeless, and persists for a long time, it is called clinical depression.
Both emotion and mood create new pathways in the brain and release specific chemicals, from dopamine to epinephrine. But whereas emotions come and go, moods are a choice. Sometimes you cannot avoid situations that will bring forth anger, fear, irritation, or sadness. Life is filled with them and to avoid them is to avoid living. However, if you choose to have a positive view of the difficult things in life — if you possess strong self-esteem — those emotions do not affect you in the long run. You face them, deal with the situation that created them, and move on. However, moods do last and can shape your life in a healthful or dangerous way. If you hold on to insults, tragedies, or losses, or if you consider yourself responsible for them, you can breed dark, brooding, sullen moods that cause you nothing but misery. Friends stay away. Your health deteriorates. The world seems filled with no-good people and misfortune.
“Brain refreshing” is your defense against such negative moods. Using breathing, meditation, and self-awareness exercises, it helps you catch yourself in the process of harboring negative emotions and helps you clear them from your brain. In this way, neural pathways that fuel troubling emotions are never built. The mind remains open to beauty and joy and a positive outlook. Remember, a world view is a choice!
The Persistence of Memory
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Memory is a net; one finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook; but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking.” this captures some sense of the elusive, ethereal quality of memory, yet memory is an important aspect of our identity. This is why so many people fear old age. They fear that they will inevitably have short-term memory loss, be unable to recall what they had for breakfast, or forget who they met the day before. But as “brain education” system training shows, aging need not be that way.
First, understand that we know very little about the ways memory works. To be sure, we know the areas of the brain that are associated with short-term and long-term memory. There is also episodic memory (associated with past events), semantic memory (having to do with facts), spatial memory (allowing us to create a mental picture of what is around us), emotional memory (feelings and fears), and procedural memory (which helps us remember how to do something). The part of the brain known as the hippocampus and the various cortexes surrounding it are deeply involved in all types of memory, but many other areas of the brain work with memory as well. However, we really don’t know what a memory is. Some scientists have thought it was an electrical trace left by an event in a specific part of the brain. But subsequent research has shown this trace theory to be mistaken.
the one thing we know for certain about memory is that it is central to our identities, and that a rich, active memory can be one of the great blessings of age. Wisdom, a source of wonderful stories, the images of people and places — these are all benefits of a strong memory. Unfortunately, as with our emotional habits, the loss of memory with aging has been thought to be something humans could not control. It was considered the luck of the genetic draw if someone’s memory remained intact into advanced old age. But as we are discovering every day, we have greater control over our lives than once thought. Memory, like mood, is a conscious act, and Brain Refreshing will help you build and maintain a strong memory.
Negative thought patterns spring from memories of unhappy events that you have clung to in your mind. They exert influence on your brain, leading to unproductive habits of thinking, preconceptions, even biases, all of which all have negative effects on health. Brain refreshing helps you release the traumatic events of the past and clear your mind of burdensome memories. The result is deep emotional and spiritual healing — a renewal of your ability to look at life in a positive, healthful way. Gradually, you erase the negative neural pathways that were deeply dug into your brain like ruts in old roads. You create new highways to courage, inspiration, and serenity. This is very much a renaissance of the mind — a rebirth of the emotional freedom you experienced when you were a child.
If memories from the past do not haunt you, then perhaps the thought of losing your short term memory does. This is indeed a brain skill that declines with age. However, studies have shown that older people greatly overestimate their short-term memory loss. When you are twenty, misplacing your keys is absentmindedness; when you are 60, it is a “senior moment.” On top of that, memory degradation may be a cultural phenomenon, as young people are becoming less adept with their memory skills than the youth of previous generations, presumably because of the influence of information-storage technology.
Although brain refreshing is not specifically about improving memory skill, it can help with memory. It has been clearly documented that stress and negative emotions can get in the way of learning and memory. Stress literally shrinks the hypothalamus, the part of your brain in charge of memory. By freeing yourself from negative emotions and habits, you will be opening your brain to receive and store new information, like throwing away old files in a filing cabinet to make room for new.
Your Mellow Old Brain
You’ve probably heard that some people, like old wine, mellow with age. As it turns out, this is true of all of us because of the way our brains age. Researchers have discovered that older people generally have better emotional control and a more positive outlook on life. They theorize that the human brain is designed to shift from a more aggressive, competitive mode in youth to a more cooperative mode in later life. In the past, this may have been biologically advantageous as older people, no longer of reproductive age, shifted their attention to support of their kin, which indirectly assured survival of their genetic information.
Brain scans have revealed that older people simply process emotions differently, which may account for the improvement in emotional control. In the older people, more areas of the brain are shown to be active during the experience of emotions, especially in response to negative emotional stimuli. This finding suggests that life experience may provide additional brain connections to help neutralize negative emotions more quickly.
Overall, older people are healthier mentally than younger people. Incidence of neurosis decreases, and older people are less likely to report feelings of despair and worthlessness.
That being said, mental health is not automatic for older people. In fact, depression is common and the occurrence of suicide is more common among older people than it is among middle-aged people, especially among older men. Just because the older brain is better equipped to deal with negative emotion does not mean it is immune to emotional difficulty. After all, there are many aspects of aging that are difficult to handle, including death of friends, one’s own physical decline, and the sense of aimlessness that can accompany retirement. It is best to prepare yourself with a strategy for emotional well-being in order to make the most of your brain’s natural wisdom as you age.
This article is excerpted from Ilchi Lee and Jessie Jones’ book “In Full Bloom: A Brain Education Guide for Successful Aging.”
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