Updated: Jun 13, 2020
Did you know that positive thinking can literally change the brain and lead to huge improvements in our lives and the lives of those around us?
So how does it do this? What we think about is really important. It's not really the events in our lives themselves that affect us but rather our thought processes surrounding them. For example 2 people might experience exactly the same situation but each have an entirely different take on whether it was good or bad, enjoyable or boring, frightening or exhilarating etc. Basically, what we think is what we get.
To understand why this is we need to take a look at how the brain works. We all have an intellectual brain. This is the sensible, logical, conscious brain. Ideally we want to be operating from this part of the brain for most of the time. We also have a primitive brain, the original fear-driven part of the brain which includes the amygdala, otherwise known as the fight/flight/depression area. This part developed as a means of self protection. It is the part that kicks in with those fight or flight responses when it perceives some kind of threat - the pounding heart, sweating, fast breathing, churning stomach that we associate with high anxiety. Unfortunately the primitive brain sometimes gets things wrong and kicks in with these responses inappropriately, a false alarm as it were. This is where we can start to build up patterns of anxiety and stress and develop other associated unhelpful patterns of behaviour. When we are thinking about nice, positive things we are operating from the intellectual brain, more specifically the left pre-frontal cortex, and we feel good. When we focus on unpleasant, negative things we are largely operating from our right pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with negative emotions, and our primitive brain. This is negative, vigilant and obsessional by nature. Furthermore, it can't tell the difference between reality and imagination, it simply believes what we tell it. So if we think negative thoughts, tell ourselves that we are stupid, that everyone is out to get us, that everything is bound to turn out wrong etc. then that becomes our reality.
All this negativity and associated stress and anxiety accumulates and gets stored in our metaphorical stress bucket. Thankfully we have a way of emptying this bucket. At night, during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, our brains process the negative events of the day, converting them from emotional memories in the primitive brain to narrative memories in the intellectual brain where they are no longer associated with strong negative emotions. Unfortunately, if we have too much in our stress bucket or we are not getting enough quality sleep, we won't be able to empty our bucket fully every night and the stress will build up. It can manifest in all sorts of unwanted issues such as chronic anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, unhelpful patterns of behaviours, irrational fears etc. - all responses which are governed by that negative, primitive brain.
One of the ways we can reverse this trend is to concentrate on positive thinking. Modern neuroscience shows us that the brain continues to have the ability to develop new neural pathways throughout adult life. This concept is known as neuro-placisticity – the brain is more like playdoh than porcelain as it were. Brain scanning allows us to observe the area of the brain that is used when we are focusing on positive things and we can see new neural pathways forming, growing and strengthening the more we stimulate that area - we are literally changing the structure of the brain. Conversely, the areas that are responsible for negative thinking start to shrink with disuse.
There is a nice metaphor that illustrates this process. Imagine a snowy mountain. A particular thought process is represented by you skiing down the mountain – as you ski down your skis will leave tracks in the snow. The next time you ski down the mountain in the same spot, your skis are more like likely to find the groove already created and more or less follow that track, widening it and deepening it as you go. Every time you ski down, the track becomes more and more entrenched and it becomes harder to diverge from it. If you make an effort to change your way of thinking, you can start to make a new track. This takes a bit of effort and concentration at first, but if you persist, this new track will get deeper and easier to follow. The old track will get shallower as it is used less frequently and fresh snow falls to fill it, until one day you can't see it at all any more.
Brain scanning also show us that positive thinking promotes the flow of certain neourotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. These are our feel good factors. It is like a reward system. When we think, act and interact positively we have a nice steady flow of these substances. This helps us to be happy and healthy and more able to cope with life's challenges. But the effects are short-lived, so we have to continue with these positive, healthy behaviours for continued benefit.
If this idea is new to you, try it and see what happens. Make a regular effort to see the good in things, to feel grateful for what you have, to practise patience and tolerance, to avoid complaining, to stop judging and criticising others, to be kind to yourself. They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. After that you may find that the new track you have made in the snow is leading you to a happier and more fulfilled life...