The Self-Transforming Brain

self-transforming-brainMost of us may have heard the old saying happiness is a state of mind.

However, after coming across a 2009 talk by neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience & Contemplative Wisdom, Rick Hanson, Ph.D., we think it’s more a case that happiness is a state of mindfulness.

Although there is much we still don’t know about the brain and how it works, in recent years science has made large strides in understanding its complexities.

For example, scientists have discovered that the way we think can literally create new neural pathways in our brains. As the mind changes, the brain changes. As the brain changes, the mind changes.

As Rick Hanson explains, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together‘ . He adds that ‘fleeting mental activity leaves behind lasting physical structure‘. Just like raindrops can start to make tiny furrows in a hillside that, over time, are carved deeper by further rain, so mental activity creates lasting pathways in the brain.

Any individual rain drop doesn’t matter much. But if you have enough rain drops and enough time you can make a Grand Canyon. So you can build structure in the brain over time in that way.

In the brain, existing synapses can strengthen or new synapses can grow. And it can take as little as ten minutes for a new synapse to grow!

Because this is such a powerful and continuing process, Rick talks about the important theme of ‘cherishing’:

Our experience really matters. It matters both subjectively and momentarily, but it also matters in lasting, lasting ways. What we hold in our mind and our heart, whether it’s helpful and beneficial and pleasant and positive or if it’s harmful, painful and full of suffering – that carves neural structure. And also the impact we have on other people – the experiences we engender in other people as well leave behind lasting, lingering residues. So for me this is a way to really appreciate for a scientific and physical reason how important it is to treat ourselves with kindness as well as other people.

He also talks about the way in which we can re-engage with our personal power to direct our lives:

If we can become skillful with that organ [the brain], if we can use our mind to gradually shape it in increasingly beneficial ways, we have the keys to the kingdom in a certain fundamental sense. That gives people a tremendous sense of power and efficacy, especially in a time and in a world where it feels like there’s so much that’s out of control, where there’s so much it’s beyond our ability to do anything about. If there’s nothing else we can do, we can do something about our mind in this moment and the next moment and the fundamental root of our mind inside our own brain.

Below we share extracts from Rick Hanson’s talk (in three parts) that were recorded live at the Awakening to Mindfulness conference in San Diego in 2009.

You’ll find there is much more included than the points we’ve covered above. You’ll also hear some wonderfully practical tips for how you can ‘you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your mind‘.


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