“Thought changes structure … I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and trauma.” ~ Norman Doidge, psychiatrist, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself
Neuroplasticity: The Good and The Bad Side Of It
The human brain is remarkably flexible. You can shape it pretty much like a ball of Play-Doh, although with much more time and effort.
Within the last two decades, thanks to rapid development in the fields of neuroscience and brain imaging, we can now state with certainty that the human brain is capable of re-engineering – and that we are the engineers.
Neuroplasticity, an umbrella term describing the permanent change to the brain throughout a person’s life – is a wonderful thing in many ways.
Here are several reasons why neuroplasticity can offer remarkable possibilities:
– You can increase your intelligence (“I.Q.”)
– You can learn new, life-changing skills.
– You can recover from certain types of brain damage.
– You can become more emotionally intelligent.
– You can “unlearn” harmful behaviors, habits, and beliefs.
Speaking of the other side of the coin, however, humans can redesign their brain for the worse!
Fortunately, thanks to their ability to unlearn harmful behaviors, habits, and beliefs, humans can fix the process and achieve positive outcomes.
Your Beliefs Can Change Your Brain
Donald Hebb, an early pioneer of neuropsychology and neuroplasticity, famously stated:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Dr. Michael Merzenich, now recognized as perhaps the world’s most renowned neuroscientist, continued Hebb’s work. Merzenich proved the existence of a relationship between the human thoughts (“neurons that fire”) and structural changes in the brain (“wire together.”)
Among Dr. Merzenich’s many discoveries, the following may be the most important one:
“Your experiences, behaviors, thinking, habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to world are inseparable from how your brain wires itself.”
Our negative habits cause negative changes in our brain. Positive habits, on the other hand, change our brain for the better.
Neuroplasticity and Sickness
Take into consideration the following quote by Alex Korb, Ph.D., and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:
“In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision making and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of all those circuits. And once a pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.”
Neuroplasticity can be simultaneously the problem as well as the solution.
How Complaining Affects Brain Changes
In this section, we are going to get a bit more specific, explaining the effects of negative behaviors – specifically, complaining – and how these behaviors modify the brain’s structure.
We all know that one person in our lives who is constantly negative. The person who seems to be dissatisfied with everything or everyone.
Negative people are almost always complainers, with no exception. What’s even worse, complainers are not satisfied in keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves; instead, they seek out some unwilling shoulder to cry on and vent.
Unquestionably annoying to all of their close ones, these “Debbie Downers” are not to be judged and punished but understood.
You see, all people complain occasionally. In fact, scientists at Clemson University in South Carolina empirically showed that everyone complains occasionally. Some people just do it much more often than others do.
There are three types of complainers in general:
Attention-seeking Complainers: the very name says enough about this type of complainers. The members of this group are people who look for attention through complaining. They are always voicing how their life is much worse than everyone else’s. Ironically, (rational) people are able to ignore such a complainer completely rather than waste mental energy focusing on their negative behavior.
Chronic Complainers: These persons maintain a constant state of complaint. If they are not talking about their “dear me” attitude, you can rest assure they are thinking about it.
Psychologists name this compulsory behavior rumination, and define it as “repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.” Rumination is, unfortunately, directly linked to depression and anxiety.
Low-E.Q. Complainers: ‘E.Q.’ goes for emotional quotient, and members of this group have low levels of E.Q. What I.Q. is to intelligence quotient, E.Q. is to emotional intelligence, i.e. emotional understanding.
Low-E.Q. complainers don’t care at all about your thoughts, feelings, or perspective. To them, you are merely a sounding board. As such, they will dwell and vent every chance they get.
Is the human brain responsible for this?
The answer is (in most cases) “Yes.”
You see, most people with negative mood do not want to feel this way. Who on Earth would, right?
Negative behaviors like complaining, if allowed to reside within the brain regularly, may inevitably change your cognitive processes. Altered thoughts induce altered beliefs, which in turn result in a change in your behavior.
The human brain possesses a thing known as the negativity bias. In plain words, negativity bias is the brain’s tendency to pay more attention to negative circumstances than the positive ones.
Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of the book Buddha’s Brain, defines negativity bias commenting:
“Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intensive positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly.”
As the ancient Romans used to say: “Repetition is the mother of all learning.” When you repeatedly focus on the negative things in life by complaining, you are actually stimulating and re-stimulating the neurons responsible for the negativity bias.
Remember: you are only creating your negative behavior through continuous repetition.
Final Words and Conclusion
It is not possible to be “happy go lucky” all the time – and you need not even try. We should, however, take concrete measures to deal with our negative thoughts and emotions.
Research studies have repeatedly proven that mindfulness and meditation are probably the most powerful means of overcoming negativity.
The study of Barbara Fredrickson, positive psychology researcher, and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, showed that individuals who meditate daily have more positive emotions than those who don’t.
After a three-month experiment, Fredrickson and her team noted that “people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.”
After learning the basic steps in meditation, which involve focusing on your breath, devise a daily meditation schedule that is effective for you. Spending 15-20 minutes in meditation may just make a great impact on your life – and your brain too!