As a result of brain research in the last twenty years we know much more about how the mysterious process of growth and development works. Understanding that human’s have the “gift of neuroplasticity” is particularly useful to change agents whose job it is to facilitate change in others. Finally, we understand a whole variety of issues in the new light of brain functioning. How do our early experiences influence the present? Why do we dwell on the negative? Why can’t we easily stop our automatic reactions? And where did these reactions come from? Why does it take effort to learn new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving?
The answers to these puzzling questions and many more begin with the fact that the brain learns through what is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This means that the brain’s neural structure is formed by the experiences we have, specifically those that we sense, feel, think and do repeatedly. Thus, what you attend to shapes your brain. Though genetics (nature) plays a significant role in our development, experience (nurture) comprises two thirds of what defines us. Because humans have a whole variety of differing experiences starting prior to birth, Louis Cozolino in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships tells us that every brain is unique!
Our emotional and social dominance is found in the right hemisphere of the brain. Interestingly, Cozolino explains that our hemispheres have alternating growth spurts with the right brain’s starting first and lasting for the first 18 months of life. It is here that our patterns of attachment, our sense of safety and our capacity to regulate emotions are shaped into neural circuitry. The experience of our personal emotional self is primarily organized through these early somatic and emotional and physical sensations. Later, autobiographical memory will utilize this data, says Cozolino, “to construct stories of the self that will further shape our identities.”
Also interesting is the research that says the right brain is biased toward negative emotions. The right brain responds to negative emotional stimuli even before conscious awareness. This is why, explains Cozolino, that “unconscious emotional processing based on past experiences invisibly guides our moment-to moment thoughts, feeling, and behaviors.”
This is the research that underlies our understanding of the False Core Belief and Pattern and makes so clear how important it is to discover them so that they no longer “invisibly guide” our lives.
It is believed that the brain’s negativity bias evolved naturally because our ancestors needed to attune quickly and well to danger in order to survive. Over time our propensity to scan for danger, disappointment and interpersonal problems has become woven into our DNA. Rick Hanson in his book, Hardwiring Happiness says, “Even when you feel relaxed and happy and connected, your brain keeps scanning for potential dangers, disappointments, and interpersonal issues. Consequently, in the back of your mind, there’s usually a subtle but noticeable sense of unease, dissatisfaction, and separation to motivate this vigilance.”
Because it meant survival, our brains react more intensely to negative experiences. The classic fight/flight response begins with the amygdala sending alarm signals that cause stress hormones including adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to flood the body in order to deal with the problem. This creates a neural trace of the experience that is downloaded into the memory networks so you can remember to be afraid in the future. Because the hormones travel to the brain through the bloodstream, the amygdala is sensitized and responds even more quickly with more force in the future.
Meanwhile it takes some time for the cortisol to leave the body as you know from any negative experience you’ve had. And until it is flushed, it over stimulates and after a time kills the cells in the hippocampus. This results in a shrinking of the part of the brain that gives perspective on situations while calming the amygdala and directing the hypothalamus to stop the flow of the stress hormones. Negativity builds on negativity in a vicious cycle that also produces less capacity to manage it.
Hanson speaks particularly to what he calls the “special power of fear” as one important factor of the negativity bias. Our ancestors could either respond as if there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t or respond as if there was no tiger when there was. Since the cost of the first was to be anxious and the cost of the second was death, Hanson says, “we have evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.” When we’re afraid, according to Hanson, “we dream smaller dreams, speak less freely, cling tighter to us and feel more fear and anger towards them. Sadly, we have learned to, “overestimate threat and underestimate opportunities and resources.”
What a perfect description of living in the grip of the False Self. We have a finely tuned reactive operating system. However, we also have a responsive operating system and together they manage how we meet challenges and direct and organize most of our experiences and actions. Much of our ancestor’s time was spent in responsive mode punctuated with periods of reactivity. Sadly, our brains don’t know the difference between the threat of being eaten by a tiger and the threat of missing a deadline or dozens of other stressors in modern day life. For many of us, the reactive system rules the day.
The good news, however, is we now know we have that amazing “gift of neuroplasticity” and that is why we practice. We create experiences where we sense, feel, think and do new behaviors repeatedly, our neural structures change and early unconscious patterns are transformed.
An excellent practice comes from Rick Hanson who advocates focusing on positive experiences in order to reverse the brain’s negativity bias. In his book, Hanson outlines the following materials, laying out his case for the practice of Taking In The Good.
First, there are two kinds of learning/memory:
- Explicit memory is all your personal recollections from childhood on. It is included in what’s known as declarative knowledge. Kind of an encyclopedia of information like the shape of the Earth and your social security number. Interesting these tend to be positively biased the farther back you go.
- Implicit memory includes procedural knowledge: how to do things, assumptions, expectations, emotional residue of lived experience, models of relationships, values, inclinations and the whole inner atmosphere of your mind. It is a vast storehouse holding your inner strengths as well as your feelings of inadequacy, unfulfilled longings, defensiveness and old pain. This is the foundation of how you feel and function. Clearly, its content has more impact than your explicit memory.
Sadly, this memory is negatively biased. Difficult experiences are fast tracked into memory. Negative states become negative neural traits.
Even sadder is the fact that positive experience has little or no lasting effect on implicit memory systems because:
- We tend to look past good news because we are busy solving problems or scanning for something to worry about. We simply don’t attend to the good all around us.
- When we do attend to a good fact it doesn’t become a good experience because we shift quickly to the next thing . . . we brush aside a compliment, we don’t stop and really take in children laughing, the smell of the rose or the smile of a friend.
- And even when the positive experiences in life are noticed they generally don’t get converted into neural structures. Unless they are “million dollar moments,” positive experiences use standard issue memory systems in which new information must be held in short term buffers long enough for it to transfer to long-term storage. Long enough depends on the experience and the person but it is at least 10 seconds or more and the longer the better. In other words, you have to give a positive experience much more attention than you normally do in order for it to shape your brain.
In reality, positive experiences usually wash through our brains like water through a sieve while bad ones are caught in the sieve by the negatively biased implicit memory. Hanson says our brains are like “Teflon for positive and Velcro for negative.” We must take the time to install positive experiences or they are mostly lost. “We experience life from within a home that has taken hundreds of millions of years to build,” says Hanson, “and after all these years our brains are still tilted toward immediate survival and against quality of life, peaceful and fulfilling relationships and lasting mental/physical health.”