how mental states become neural traits


Our quest for mindful awareness now takes us to this book. 

Dr Rick Hanson’s ‘Hardwiring Happiness’ explains the practical science behind how you can take control of reshaping your brain, a process is known as Experience Dependent Neuroplasticity.

Hanson writes

As you read this, in the five cups of tofu-like tissue inside your head, nested amid a trillion support cells, 80 to 100 billion neurons are signaling one another in a network with about half a quadrillion connections, called synapses. All this incredibly fast, complex, and dynamic neural activity is continually changing your brain. Active synapses become more sensitive, new synapses start growing within minutes, busy regions get more blood since they need more oxygen and glucose to do their work, and genes inside neurons turn on or off. Meanwhile, less active connections wither away in a process sometimes called neural Darwinism: the survival of the busiest.

All mental activity – sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes – is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint on neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together.

Mental states become neural traits.

Day after day your mind is building your brain.

This is what scientists call ‘experience dependent neuroplasticity’, which is a hot area of research these days. For example, London taxi drivers memorising the city’s spaghetti snarl of streets have thickened neural layers in their hippocampus, the region of the brain that helps make visual-spatial memories; as if they were building a muscle, these drivers worked a part of their brain and grew new tissue there.

Moving from the cab to the cushion, mindfulness meditators have increased gray matter – which means a thicker cortex – in three key regions; prefrontal areas behind the forehead that control attention; the insula, which we use for tuning into ourselves and others; and the hippocampus. Your experiences don’t just grow new synapses, remarkable as that is by itself, but also somehow reach down into your genes into little strips of atoms in the twisted molecules of DNA inside the nuclei of neurons – and change how they operate. For instance, if you routinely practice relaxation, this will increase the activity of genes that calm down stress reactions, making you more resilient. 1

This is science. It’s not mystical. It’s not religious. The take-home is, you can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind. For me, an attention workout helps. Meditation is that workout. It’s as simple as that. 

For Hanson, the phrase “you are what you eat” should be changed to: "you are what you pay attention to". Or, to be more exact, you are what you do with what you pay attention to. 2 This is because attention functions like a vacuum cleaner with a spotlight on it: it illuminates what it rests upon then sucks it into our brain, ensuring that our thoughts, impulses and actions take shape from what the mind repeatedly rests upon.

So the question is: what are you allowing your mind to repeatedly rest upon? And what do you find your mind resting upon when you are in challenging situations? 

Take your pick. For me it’s being a teacher, a parent, a partner. Each offers  plenty of opportunities to exercise the spotlight of attention the mind falls upon.

Hanson has this beautiful metaphor: the mind is like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good experiences. Our challenge –or, our opportunity – is to reverse the metaphor; to cultivate a mind that is like Velcro for good experiences and Teflon for the bad.

Hanson is my ‘go-to’ for a simple, straightforward and accessible understanding of neuroscience and its implications for well-being.

Check out his TED talk : Rick Hanson Ted Talk, Hardwiring Happiness

1 Hardwiring Happiness, page 10

2. Rick Hanson, The Science of Meditation Online course. Shambhala Mountain Online, 2016. https://online.shambhalamountain.org/

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Every month or so I'll send out ideas and resources - what I think might be of interest and use to you, such as links to books, articles, podcasts, quotes, stories, art, music, meditations - that I hope will help inspire you to cultivate your own mindful life.