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Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha's Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom with Rick Mendius and Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA who received his doctorate from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA, he founded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, edits the Wise Brain Bulletin, and writes a blog for PsychologyToday.com as well as a weekly newsletter called Just One Thing; his articles have also appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Insight Journal, Inquiring Mind, and Buddhist Geeks on-line magazine. He teaches regularly at universities and meditation centers in Europe, Australia, and North America, and has audio programs with Sounds True. Rick began meditating in 1974 and has practiced in several traditions; he was a board member at Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years and is a graduate of its Community Dharma Leaders program. He leads a regular meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. Currently a Trustee of Saybrook University, he was also President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a non-profit agency. He and his wife have two adult children. www.RickHanson.net.

Are You on Your Own Side?
Are You Watering the Fruit Tree?
The Brain in a Bucket Use your mind to change your brain - and your life.
Do Positive Experiences "Stick to Your Ribs?"
The Evolution of Love How did we evolve the most loving brains?
5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair
How much change in the brain makes a difference?
How Did Humans Become Empathic? Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom
Taking In The Good Do Positive Experiences “Stick to Your Ribs?”
21 Ways To Turn Ill Will to Good Will Where There Is A Will There Is A Way
You Can Feel Safer Feeling safer is a tricky subject, with complications both personal & political.
What Can You Actually Affect?
The Wolf of Hate "In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate"

You Can Feel Safer Feeling safer is a tricky subject, with complications both personal & political.


Feeling safer is a tricky subject, with complications that can be both personal and political.

Yes, there are real threats out there, but evolution and other factors have left a lot of us walking around in a kind of paranoid trance. I've been there myself, and the results include feeling less peaceful and hopeful, and more worried and cranky, than is right.

So I hope you find this post helpful.

Is There Really a Tiger in Those Bushes?

Consider these two mistakes:

1. You think there's a tiger in the bushes, but actually there isn't one.

2. You think no tiger is in the bushes, but actually one is about to pounce.

Most of us make the first error much more often than the second one, because:

•Evolution has given us a paranoid brain. In order to survive and pass on genes, it's better to make the first mistake a hundred times rather than make the second mistake even once; the cost of the first mistake is fear for no reason, but the cost of the second mistake is death.

•Saturated with media, we get keyed up about murders, disasters, economic turmoil, horrible things happening to other people, etc. - even though our own local situation is usually much less dangerous.

•In ways that have been repeated throughout history, some political groups and even governments try to make the public more compliant by exaggerating the threat of apparent enemies.

•As a child, you were stuck with certain family members or peers, and had little power and limited coping abilities. Naturally, a person develops expectations and anxieties based on that history - even though today, you have much more freedom to find the people you want to be with, much more say over what happens to you, and many more ways to deal with tough situations.

Dealing with the Real Tigers

Certainly, it is extremely important to recognize the real tigers in your life.

They come in many shapes and sizes: perhaps an impending layoff at work, a cough that won't go away, a spouse who might yell at or even hit you, a crime-filled neighborhood, a teenager growing pot in the attic, a friend or co-worker who keeps letting you down, or the health risks of smoking cigarettes.

Try to notice any tendencies to overlook or minimize tigers, and do what you can about the ones that truly exist.

Seeing through the Paranoid Trance

Meanwhile, try to recognize the ways that you - like most people - routinely overestimate the threats coming at you while underestimating the resources inside you and around you.

In effect, most of us feel much less safe than is right.

The unfortunate results include: unpleasant feelings of apprehension, worry, and anxiety; a hunkering down and failure to reach as high and wide as one might; stress-related illnesses; less inclination to be patient or generous with others; and an increased tendency to be snappish or angry (the engine of most aggression is fear).

It's enormously costly to feel like it's always Threat Level Orange!

How to Feel Safer (As Safe As You Reasonably Can)

Some people get understandably nervous about feeling safer - since that's when you lower your guard, and things can really smack you. So be careful with the suggestions here, go at your own pace, and perhaps talk with a friend or counselor.

Further, there is no perfect safety in this life. Each one of us will face disease, old age, and death, as well as lesser but still painful experiences. And many of us - an "us" that includes every person in the world - must deal with unsafe conditions in the community, workplace, or home.

This said, consider in your heart of hearts whether you deserve to feel safer: whether you are more braced against life, more guarded, more cautious, more anxious, more frozen, more appeasing, more rigid, or more prickly than you rightfully ought to be.

If the answer is yes, here are some ways to help yourself feel gradually safer, so that your inner reality of calm and confidence matches the true reality of the people and settings around you.

First, take a quiet moment in a protected setting - perhaps while cozy in bed, in a church or temple, under a tree, or with a friend - to explore anxiety and safety. Notice if you feel more watchful, more nervous deep down than you truly need to be.

And then bring to mind the sense of being with someone who cares about you; recall a time you felt strong; recognize that you are in a protected setting; mentally list some of the resources inside and around you that you could draw on to deal with what life throws you; take a few breaths with l-o-n-g exhalations and relax. All the while, keep helping yourself feel more sheltered, more supported, more capable, and safer. And less vigilant, tense, or fearful.

Become more aware of what it's like to feel safer, and let those good feelings sink into you, so you can remember them in your body and find your way back to them in the future.

Second, in daily life, look for legitimate opportunities to feel safer. Use some of the methods just above - such as the sense of being with someone who loves you, or the recognition of your resources - to help yourself feel at least a little safer, and maybe a lot.

Then see what happens. And take it in, again and again, if in fact, as they usually do, things turn out alright!

And there is really no tiger in the bushes after all.

21 Ways To Turn Ill Will to Good Will Where There Is A Will There Is A Way


My recent posts have highlighted two very powerful, yet opposing forces in the human heart: in a traditional metaphor, we each have a wolf of love and a wolf of hate inside us, and it all depends on which one we feed every day.

On the one hand, as the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha's Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

So let’s get started!

How to prevent or transform ill will

1. Be mindful of the priming, the preconditions for ill will. Try to defuse them early: get rest, have a meal, get support, talk things out, distract yourself, etc.

2. Practice non-contention to undermine the heat that creates ill will. Don't argue unless you have to.

3. Inspect the underlying trigger, such as a sense of threat. Look at it realistically. Was something actually an "injury" to you? Be skeptical of your justifications.

4. Be careful about attributing intent to others. We are often just a bit player in their drama; they are not targeting us personally. Look for the good intentions beneath the action that made you feel mistreated. Look for the good in others.

5. Put what happened in perspective. The effects of most wrongs fade with time. They're also part of a larger whole, most of which is usually fine.

6. Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

7. Practice generosity. Much ill will comes when we feel taken from, or not given to, or on the receiving end of another person's bad moment. Instead, consider letting the person have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, etc. Let them have their bad moment. Make a gift of forbearance, patience, and no cause to fear you.

8. Investigate ill will. Take a day, a week, a month - and really examine the least bit of ill will during that time. See what causes it . . . and what its effects are.

9. Regard ill will as an affliction upon yourself. It hurts you more than anyone.

10. Settle into awareness, observing the ill will but not identified with it, watching it arise and disappear like any other experience.

11. Accept the wound. Experience the feelings of it. Do not presume that life is not supposed to be wounding. Accept the unpleasant fact that people will mistreat you.

12. Do not cling to what you want instead of what you've got.

13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way. Challenge the belief that things should work out, that the world is perfectible.

14. Relax the sense of self, that it was "I" or "me" who was affronted, wounded.

15. Do religious or philosophical practices that cultivate love and goodness.

16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with loving kindness. No matter what. Consider the saying: In this world, hate has never dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.

17. Cultivate positive emotion, like happiness, contentment, or peacefulness. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, buffer against the impact of stressful events, and foster supportive relationships -- which reduce ill will.

18. Communicate. Speak (skillfully) for yourself, regardless of what the outcome may be. If appropriate, name your experience to release it; feel it as you speak it.

Try to address the situation with openness and empathy for the other person. Then you'll be freer and calmer to be more skillful.

19. Have faith that they will pay their own price one day for what they've done, and you don't have to be the justice system.

20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson no matter how much you try. So why burden yourself with trying to teach them? Further, many people will never actually experience your ill will - such as politicians. So why carry it toward them?

21. Forgiveness. This doesn't mean changing your view that wrongs were done. But it does mean letting go of the emotional charge around feeling wronged. The greatest beneficiary of forgiveness is usually yourself.

How Did Humans Become Empathic? Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom


Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom. So empathy must have had some major survival benefits for it to have evolved. What might those benefits have been?

Empathy seems to have evolved in three major steps.

First, among vertebrates, birds and mammals developed ways of rearing their young, plus forms of pair bonding - sometimes for life. This is very different from the pattern among fish and reptile species, most of which make their way in life alone. Pair bonding and rearing of young organisms increased their survival and was consequently selected for, driving the development of new mental capacities.

As neuroscientists put it, the "computational requirements" of tuning into the signals of newborn little creatures, and of operating as a couple - a sparrow couple, a mountain lion couple, that is - helped drive the enlargement of the brain over millions of years. As we all know, when you are in a relationship with someone - and especially if you are raising a family together - there's a lot you have to take into account, negotiate, arrange, anticipate, etc. No wonder brains got bigger.

It may be a source of satisfaction to some that monogamous species typically have the largest brains in proportion to bodyweight!

Second, building on this initial jump in brain size, among primate species, the larger and more complex the social group, the bigger the brain. (And the key word here is social, since group size alone doesn't create a big brain; if it did, cattle would be geniuses.)

In other words, the "computational requirements" of dealing with lots of individuals - the alliances, the adversaries, all the politics! - in a baboon or ape band also pushed the evolution of the brain.

Third, living in small bands in harsh conditions in Africa, and breeding mainly within their own band, our hominid and early human ancestors were under intense evolutionary pressures to develop strong teamwork as a band while they competed fiercely - and often lethally - with other bands for scarce resources. Hominids starting making stone tools about 2.5 million years ago, and during the 100,000 generations since, the brain has tripled in size; much of that new neural volume is used for interpersonal capacities such as empathy, language, cooperative planning, altruism, parent-child attachment, social cognition, and the construction of the personal self in relationships.

In sum: More than learning how to use tools, more than being successful at violence, more than adapting to moving out of the forest into the grasslands of Africa, it was the complexities of relationships that drove human evolution!

Homo sapiens means clever ape. We are clever to be sure, but we are clever in order to relate. It would be perhaps more accurate to call our species Homo sociabilis, the sociable ape.

As Charles Darwin wrote: "All sentient beings developed through natural selection in such a way that pleasant sensations serve as their guide, and especially the pleasure derived from sociability and from loving our families."

Sociability, and the empathy at the heart of it, drove evolution - in a fundamental sense, it is empathy that has enabled this blog to be posted by me and read by you.

Empathy is in our bones. For example, infants will cry at the tape-recorded sound of other infants crying but not at a recording of their own cries. And speaking of crying, as adults, our tear glands will automatically start producing tears when we hear the crying of others, even if we have no sense of tearing up ourselves.

Perhaps an even better name for ourselves would be Homo empathicus.

The Wolf of Hate "In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate"


I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: "In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day."

This story always gives me a little shiver. It's both humbling and hopeful. First, the wolf of love is very popular, but who among us does not also harbor a wolf of hate? We can hear its snarling both far away in distant wars and close to home in our own anger and aggression, even toward people we love. Second, the story suggests that we each have the ability-grounded in daily actions-to encourage and strengthen empathy, compassion, and kindness while also restraining and reducing ill will, disdain, and aggression.

In my previous post, I explored some of the basis, in the brain, of romance and love. In this one, let's consider the dark side of bonding: how attachment to "us" both fuels and has been nurtured by fearful aggression toward "them." Acknowledging the reality of the wolf of hate, and understanding its origins, powers, and "food," are vital steps toward restraining that wolf, and thereby making our homes, workplaces, and world safer and more loving places to be. (For more on this subject, and how to nourish the wolf of love and tame the wolf of hate, see my book, Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, from which much of this post is adapted.)

The Evolution of Hate

Economic and cultural factors certainly play a role in human aggression, whether in thoughts, words, or deeds. Additionally, recent studies are shedding light on the effects of biological evolution, driven by the "reproductive advantages" of anger, prejudice, and violence.

For millions of years, our ancestors were exposed to starvation, predators, and disease. Making matters worse, climactic ups and downs brought scorching droughts and freezing ice ages, intensifying the competition for scarce resources. Altogether, these harsh conditions kept hominid and human population levels essentially flat despite potential growth rates of about 2 percent per year (Bowles 2006). (It's not common to cite references in blog posts, but this general subject is often so controversial, for obvious reasons, that I thought you might be interested in some of these studies.)

In those tough environments, it was reproductively advantageous for our ancestors to be cooperative within their own band but aggressive toward other bands (Choi and Bowles 2007). Cooperation and aggression evolved synergistically: bands with greater cooperation were more successful at aggression, and aggression between bands demanded cooperation within bands (Bowles 2009).

The result was ubiquitous and commonplace violence. For example, most modern hunter-gatherer bands-which offer strong indications of the social environments in which our ancestors evolved-have engaged in ongoing conflicts with other groups. While these skirmishes lacked the shock and awe of modern warfare, they were actually much more lethal: roughly one in eight hunter-gatherer males died from them, compared to the one in a hundred men who died from the wars of the twentieth century (Bowles 2006; Keeley 1997).

The Angry Brain

Much like cooperation and love draw on multiple neurological systems, so do aggression and hate:

• Much if not most aggression is a response to feeling threatened-which includes even subtle feelings of unease or anxiety. Because the amygdala - the alarm bell of the brain - is primed to register threats and is increasingly sensitized by what it "perceives," many people feel increasingly threatened over time. And thus increasingly aggressive.

• Once the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activate in consort with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA), if you're going to fight instead of flee, blood surges to your arm muscles for hitting, piloerection (goose bumps) makes your hair stand up to make you look more intimidating to a potential attacker or predator, and the hypothalamus can trigger rage reactions.

• Aggressiveness correlates with high testosterone-in both men and women-and low serotonin.

• Language systems in the left frontal and temporal lobes work with visual-spatial processing in the right hemisphere to categorize others as friends or foes, persons or nonentities who can be exploited, enslaved, raped, or murdered.

• "Hot" aggression-with lots of SNS/HPAA activation- often overwhelms prefrontal regulation of emotions. "Cold" aggression involves little SNS/HPAA activation and draws on sustained prefrontal activity; consider the proverb "revenge is a dish best served cold."

Locked and Loaded Today

Our brains still possess these capabilities and inclinations. They're at work in schoolyard cliques, office politics, and domestic violence. (Healthy competition, assertiveness, and fierce advocacy for people and causes you care about are very different from hostile aggression.)

On a larger scale, our aggressive tendencies fuel prejudice, oppression, ethnic cleansing, and war. Often these tendencies are manipulated, such as by the demonization of "them" in the classic justification for strong-father, authoritarian control. But those manipulations wouldn't be nearly so successful if it weren't for the legacy of between-group aggression in our evolutionary history.

What's Left Out

There's a Zen saying, Nothing left out. Nothing left out of your awareness, nothing left out of your practice, nothing left out of your heart. As the circle shrinks, the question naturally arises: What is left out? It could be people on the other side of the world with a different religion, or people next door whose politics you don't like. Or relatives who are difficult, or old friends who hurt you. It could be anyone you regard as less than you or as merely a means to your ends.

As soon as you place anyone outside of the circle of "us," the mind/brain automatically begins to devalue that person and justify poor treatment of him (Efferson, Lalive, and Feh 2008). This gets the wolf of hate up and moving, only a quick pounce away from active aggression. Pay attention to the number of times a day you categorize someone as "not like me," particularly in subtle ways: not my social background, not my style, and so on. It's startling how routine it is. See what happens to your mind when you consciously release this distinction and focus instead on what you have in common with that person, on what makes you both an "us."

Loving the Wolf of Hate

Ironically, one answer to "What's left out?" is the wolf of hate itself, which is often denied or minimized. For example, it makes me uncomfortable to admit how good it feels when the hero kills the bad guy in a movie. Like it or not, the wolf of hate is alive and well inside each one of us. It's easy to hear about a dreadful murder across the country or terrorism and torture across the world-or milder forms of everyday mistreatment of others close at hand- and shake your head, thinking, "What's wrong with them?" But them is actually us. We all have the same basic DNA. It is a kind of ignorance-which is the root of suffering-to deny the aggression in our genetic endowment. In fact, as we've seen, intense intergroup conflict aided the evolution of within-group altruism: the wolf of hate helped give birth to the wolf of love.

The wolf of hate is deeply embedded both in the human evolutionary past and in each person's brain today, ready to howl at any threat. Being realistic and honest about the wolf of hate-and its impersonal, evolutionary origins-brings self-compassion. Your own wolf of hate needs taming, sure, but it's not your fault that it lurks in the shadows of your mind, and it probably afflicts you more than anyone else. Additionally, acknowledging the wolf of hate prompts a very useful caution when you are in situations- arguing with a neighbor, disciplining a child, reacting to criticism at work-in which you feel mistreated and revved-up, and that wolf begins to stir.

When you're watching the evening news-or even just listening to children bicker-it can sometimes seem like the wolf of hate dominates human existence. Much like spikes of SNS/HPAA arousal stand out against a backdrop of resting-state parasympathetic activation, dark clouds of aggression and conflict compel more attention than the much larger "sky" of connection and love through which they pass. But in fact, most interactions have a cooperative quality. Humans and other primate species routinely restrain the wolf of hate and repair its damage, returning to a baseline of reasonably positive relationships with each other (Sapolsky 2006). In most people most of the time, the wolf of love is bigger and stronger than the wolf of hate.

Love and hate: they live and tumble together in every heart, like wolf cubs tussling in a cave. There is no killing the wolf of hate; the aversion in such an attempt would actually create what you're trying to destroy. But you can watch that wolf carefully, keep it tethered, and limit its alarm, righteousness, grievances, resentments, contempt, and prejudice. Meanwhile, keep nourishing and encouraging the wolf of love.

References:

Bowles, S. 2006. Group competition, reproductive leveling, and the evolution of human altruism. Science 314:1569-1572.

Bowles, S. 2009. Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors? Science 324:1293- 1298.

Choi, J. and S. Bowles. 2007. The coevolution of parochial altruism and war. Science 318:636-640.

Efferson, C., R. Lalive, and E. Feh. 2008. The coevolution of cultural groups and ingroup favoritism. Science 321:1844-1849.

Keeley, L. H. 1997. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sapolsky, R. M. 2006. A natural history of peace. Foreign Affairs 85:104-121.

The Evolution of Love How did we evolve the most loving brains?


How did we evolve the most loving brain on the planet? Humans are the most sociable species on earth - for better and for worse.

On the one hand, we have the greatest capacities for empathy, communication, friendship, romance, complex social structures, and altruism. On the other, we have the greatest capacities for shaming, emotional cruelty, sadism, envy, jealousy, discrimination and other forms of dehumanization, and wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans.

In other words, to paraphrase a Native American teaching, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate live in the heart of every person.

Many factors shape each of these two wolves, including biological evolution, culture, economics, and personal history. Here, I'd like to comment on key elements of the neural substrate of bonding and love; in next week's blog, I'll write about the evolution of aggression and hate; then, in the next several posts, we'll explore the crucial skill of empathy, perhaps the premier way to feed the wolf of love.

These are complex subjects, so I hope you'll forgive some simplifications. Here we go.

Evolution

The growing length of childhood coevolved with the enlarging of the brain - which has tripled in size over the last 2.5 million years, since the time of the first tool-making hominids - and with the development of complex bonding, which includes friendship, romantic love, parent-child attachment, and loyalty to a group.

As the brain grew bigger, childhood needed to be longer since there was so much to learn. To keep a vulnerable child alive for many years, we evolved strong bonds between parents and children, between mates, within extended family groups, and within bands as a whole - all in order to sustain "the village it takes to raise a child." Bands with better teamwork outcompeted other bands for scarce resources; since breeding occurred primarily within bands, genes for bonding, cooperation, and altruism proliferated within the human genome.

Numerous physical, social, and psychological factors promote bonding. Let's focus on physical factors, and then drill down further to examine two chemicals inside your brain: dopamine and oxytocin. Both are neurotransmitters, and oxytocin also functions as a hormone when it acts outside the nervous system.

(By the way, dopamine and oxytocin, like many other biochemical factors, are present in other mammals, too, but as with most things human, their effects are much more nuanced and elaborated with us.)

Dopamine

It's an error to reduce love to chemicals, since so many other factors are at work in the brain and mind as well, so let's hold this material in perspective.

That said, it appears that when people are in love, among other neurological activities, two parts of their brain really get activated. They are called the caudate nucleus and the tegmentum. The caudate is a reward center of the brain, and the tegmentum is a region of the brain stem that sends dopamine to it; dopamine tracks how rewarding something is.

In effect, being in love rewards the pleasure centers in your brain, which then crave whatever it was that was so rewarding - in other words, your beloved. Those reward centers are the same ones that light up when people win the lottery. Or use cocaine.

And being rejected in love activates a part of the brain called the insula, which is the same region that lights up when we are in physical pain.

So we are doubly motivated to hold fast to the object of our love: feel the pleasure, and avoid the pain.

Interestingly, when people are in lust, rather than in love, different systems of the brain get activated, notably the hypothalamus and the amygdala.

The hypothalamus regulates drives like hunger and thirst. Interestingly, the word in the early records of the teachings of the Buddha that is translated in English as the "desire" or "attachment" or "clinging" that is the root of suffering has the fundamental meaning of "thirst," so it's pretty likely that the hypothalamus is involved in much of the clinging that leads to suffering.

The amygdala handles emotional reactivity, and both it and the hypothalamus are involved in arousal of the organism and readiness for action. (While these systems are centrally involved in fight-or-flight responses to stress, they also get engaged in energizing activities that feel emotionally positive like cheering on your favorite team - or fantasizing about your sweetheart.)

These neural components may shed some light on the subjective experience of being in love, which commonly feels softer, more "Aaaaahh, how sweet!" rather than the "Rawwrh, gotta have it!" intensity of lust.

That said, dopamine - increased in love - triggers testosterone production, which is a major factor in the sex drive of both men and women.

So, in short, we fall in love, and among other neural circuits and psychological complexities, the same reward chemicals involved in drug addiction lead us to crave our beloved and want sex with him or her. Sorry to be mechanistic here, but you get the idea.

The intended result, in the evolutionary playbook, is, of course, babies.

Then what?!

Oxytocin

Oxytocin promotes bonding between mothers and children, and between mates, so they work together to keep those kids alive.

For example, in women, oxytocin triggers the let-down reflex in nursing, and is involved in that blissful, oceanic feeling of peace and comfort and love experienced by many women while breastfeeding.

It also seems to be part of the female response to stress (more than in men - since women have much more oxytocin than men do), in part by encouraging what Shelley Taylor at UCLA has termed "tend-and-befriend" behaviors in women when they are stressed.

(Of course, men, too, will often reach out to others and be friendly during tough times, whether it's crunch quarter at the office, or somewhere in a dusty war - another example of how there are many pathways in the brain to important functional results.)

The experiential qualities of oxytocin are pleasurable feelings of relaxation and rightness, so it is an internal reward for all bonding behaviors - not just with mates.

Oxytocin encourages sociability; for example, when oxytocin capabilities are knocked out in laboratory mice, their relationships with other mice are very disturbed.

And oxytocin dampens the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis - besides having functional benefits, this is another pathway for rewarding, and thus encouraging, bonding behaviors.

What triggers this warm and fuzzy and let's-get-together-now chemical?

Oxytocin is released in both women and men:

• When nipples are stimulated (such as through nursing)

• During orgasm, promoting the afterglow of warm affection (and a tendency, sometimes annoying in a partner, to fall asleep!)

• During extended, physical, especially "skin-to-skin" contact (e.g., cuddling children, long hugs with friends, teens forming packs on the couch, lovers caressing after sex)

• When moving together harmoniously, like dancing

• When there are warm feelings of rapport or love; a strong sense of compassion and kindness probably entails releases of oxytocin, though I haven't seen a study on that specific subject (a great Ph.D. dissertation for someone).

• Probably during devotional experiences, such as in prayer, or while with certain kinds of spiritual teachers

Probably, oxytocin can also be released just by imagining - the more vividly, the better - the activities just mentioned, particularly when combined with warm feelings.

* * *

Of course, dopamine and oxytocin are just two of the many factors at work in our relationships. For example, philosophical values or ideals of universal compassion, such as in the major religions of the world, can also influence a person's behavior greatly, with or without any measurable surges of dopamine or oxytocin.

Nonetheless, appreciating the biochemical factors at work on Valentine's Day, or at any time we experience bonding or love, can help a person not get quite so swept away by the ups and downs of relationships.

Are You Watering the Fruit Tree?


The Practice

Tend to the causes.

Why

Let's say you want to get apples from a tree of your own. So you go to a nursery and pick a good sapling, bring it home, and plant it carefully with lots of fertilizer in rich soil. Then you water it regularly, pick the bugs off, and prune it. If you keep tending to your tree, in a few years it will likely give you lots of delicious apples.

But can you make it produce apples? Nope, you can't. All you can do is tend to the causes - but you can't control the results. No one can. The most powerful person in the world can't make a tree hand over an apple!

Similarly, a teacher cannot make his students learn long division, a business owner can't make her employees invent great new products, and no one can make another person love him or her. All we can do is to nourish the causes that promote the results we want.

This truth has two implications, one that is tough-minded, and one that is peaceful:

  • You are responsible for the causes you can tend to. If you are not getting the results you want in your life, ask yourself: Am I truly doing everything I reasonably can to promote the causes of those results?
  • You can relax attachment to results. When you understand that much of what determines whether they happen or not is just out of your hands, you worry less about whether they'll happen, and you suffer less if they don't.

Paradoxically, focusing less on results and more on causes improves the odds of getting the results you want: you zero in on creating the factors (i.e., causes and conditions) that naturally lead to success, and you aren't worn down by stressing over the outcome.

How?

Do what you can to lift your well-being and overall functioning. This is a global factor that will turbocharge all the other causes you tend to.

So ask yourself: what makes the most difference here? It could be something that seems little; for me, one of the biggest factors is when I get to bed, since that sets up whether I can get up to meditate in the morning, which transforms my whole day. It could also mean dropping something negative that brings you way down, like needless arguments with other people.

Pick one thing that will really lift you, and focus on that this week.

  • Also consider a key area in your life where you are not getting the results you want. (Work? Love? Health? Fun? Spirituality?) In that area, identify one cause that has big effects.

For example, in a logjam, there's usually a "key log" that will free up the whole mess if you get it to move. Similarly, if you want to fill a bucket, put the biggest rock in first.

Making this real: if you want to lose weight, make sure you are exercising; if you want a mate, make sure you're meeting new, "qualified prospects"; if you want your kids to cooperate, make sure you've established parental authority; if you want a better job, make sure you're actively looking for one; if you want more peace of mind, make sure you're routinely relaxing and calming your body.

Get after that one cause this week, and stick with it.

  • Tell the truth to yourself about causes and results: Are you pursuing the right causes? For example, you may be pulling really hard on a rope (a cause) but it's just not attached to the load you're trying to move (the result you want).

Maybe you need to tend to other causes - perhaps ones at a deeper level, like your own well-being. Or maybe the result you want is out of your power, and you just have to accept that.

Let the results be what they are, learn from them, and then turn your attention back to causes. Don't get so caught up in your apples that you forget to water their tree!

Taking In The Good Do Positive Experiences “Stick to Your Ribs?”


Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in "negativity bias." In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That's because - in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived - if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick - a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species - WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money.
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones.

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn't get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades "implicit memory" - your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood - in an increasingly negative direction.

And that's just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or yourself (e.g., personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).

Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.

In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes - by any means necessary. She doesn't care if we happen to suffer along the way - from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger - or create suffering for others.

The result: a brain that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.

But you don't have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good - "good" in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others - you merely level the playing field.

You'll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you'll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.

And now, tilted toward absorbing the good, instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they'll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, "neurons that fire together, wire together." The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they'll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others. It is among the top five personal growth methods I know. In addition to being good for adults, it's great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.

Here's how to take in the good - in three simple steps.

1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences. Good facts include positive events - like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment - and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it.

Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It's private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don't deserve to, or that it's selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen.

Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable - but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.

It's like sitting down to a meal: don't just look at it-taste it!

2. Really enjoy the experience. Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that's fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row - instead of getting distracted by something else.

As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.

You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.

3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you. People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together

***

Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.

Are You Watering the Fruit Tree?


The Practice

Tend to the causes.

Why

Let's say you want to get apples from a tree of your own. So you go to a nursery and pick a good sapling, bring it home, and plant it carefully with lots of fertilizer in rich soil. Then you water it regularly, pick the bugs off, and prune it. If you keep tending to your tree, in a few years it will likely give you lots of delicious apples.

But can you make it produce apples? Nope, you can't. All you can do is tend to the causes - but you can't control the results. No one can. The most powerful person in the world can't make a tree hand over an apple!

Similarly, a teacher cannot make his students learn long division, a business owner can't make her employees invent great new products, and no one can make another person love him or her. All we can do is to nourish the causes that promote the results we want.

This truth has two implications, one that is tough-minded, and one that is peaceful:

  • You are responsible for the causes you can tend to. If you are not getting the results you want in your life, ask yourself: Am I truly doing everything I reasonably can to promote the causes of those results?
  • You can relax attachment to results. When you understand that much of what determines whether they happen or not is just out of your hands, you worry less about whether they'll happen, and you suffer less if they don't.

Paradoxically, focusing less on results and more on causes improves the odds of getting the results you want: you zero in on creating the factors (i.e., causes and conditions) that naturally lead to success, and you aren't worn down by stressing over the outcome.

How?

Do what you can to lift your well-being and overall functioning. This is a global factor that will turbocharge all the other causes you tend to.

So ask yourself: what makes the most difference here? It could be something that seems little; for me, one of the biggest factors is when I get to bed, since that sets up whether I can get up to meditate in the morning, which transforms my whole day. It could also mean dropping something negative that brings you way down, like needless arguments with other people.

Pick one thing that will really lift you, and focus on that this week.

  • Also consider a key area in your life where you are not getting the results you want. (Work? Love? Health? Fun? Spirituality?) In that area, identify one cause that has big effects.

For example, in a logjam, there's usually a "key log" that will free up the whole mess if you get it to move. Similarly, if you want to fill a bucket, put the biggest rock in first.

Making this real: if you want to lose weight, make sure you are exercising; if you want a mate, make sure you're meeting new, "qualified prospects"; if you want your kids to cooperate, make sure you've established parental authority; if you want a better job, make sure you're actively looking for one; if you want more peace of mind, make sure you're routinely relaxing and calming your body.

Get after that one cause this week, and stick with it.

  • Tell the truth to yourself about causes and results: Are you pursuing the right causes? For example, you may be pulling really hard on a rope (a cause) but it's just not attached to the load you're trying to move (the result you want).

Maybe you need to tend to other causes - perhaps ones at a deeper level, like your own well-being. Or maybe the result you want is out of your power, and you just have to accept that.

  • Let the results be what they are, learn from them, and then turn your attention back to causes. Don't get so caught up in your apples that you forget to water their tree!

What Can You Actually Affect? ______________________________________________________________

The Practice

Do what you can.

Why?

In a groundbreaking series of studies in the 1960's and 1970's, Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania showed that it was remarkably - and sadly - easy to produce "learned helplessness" in dogs, whose emotional circuitry in the brain is similar in many ways to our own.

Essentially, it took only a handful of "trials" - rounds of training - to make the dogs feel helpless and just whimper passively in painful situations they could easily escape. But then it would take many dozens, even hundreds, of trials to help them unlearn that approach to life. And the dogs with learned helplessness also seemed depressed (the dog version), with little interest in food, sex, or normal doggy liveliness.

People are just the same. We are also sadly vulnerable to developing learned helplessness, which is hard to undo. Think about all the times you've felt like a nail instead of a hammer. Each time was another little training in learned helplessness.

The consequences can be serious. In children and adults, learned helplessness fosters depression, anxiety, pessimism, low self-worth, and less effort toward goals. Not good.

So this part is really important: Researchers have also found that two key things can protect you against learned helplessness:

  • Your attitude about events - Try to see them as temporary rather than permanent, due to lots of causes and not your fault, and specific, localized problems rather than general, global issues.
  • Taking the actions that are available to you - There may be a lot you cannot influence in a situation, but there is always something you can do, even if it is only inside your own head. Consider this quotation from Viktor Frankl, who was in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember those who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances - to choose one's own way.

In life there are basically three areas where you can take action to make things better: out there in the world (including your relationships), inside your body, and inside your mind. To the extent you possibly can, "choose your own way" in each of these areas.

Then you'll feel better, make a better life for yourself, and have more to offer others.

 

How?

Start by sorting out your "circle of influence and circle of concern" - an idea from Stephen Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. As you can see in the figure just below, there are the things we have power over ("influence) as well as the things we value and care about ("concern").

Where those circles overlap is the sweet spot where we can actually make a difference in the things that matter to us (out there in the world, in the body, and in the mind).

(A quick but vital point which I'll say more about in the next Just One Thing: Sometimes there are things we care about but can't change personally, like children being mistreated or people going hungry. I'm not saying just ignore those things or be indifferent to them. Not at all. We could focus on what we can do, which includes bearing witness to the suffering of others, staying informed, letting them move our hearts, wishing them well, and looking for the opportunities that do come along to make a material difference, such as signing a petition or making a donation for a good cause.)

Think about those circles each day. Ask yourself from time to time: Where do I have influence? And where are things out of my hands?

Then consider this blunt question:

How could I pull my time, money, energy, attention, worry, etc. out of . . .

tunnels with no cheese
dogs that won't hunt
stones that will never give blood
houses built on sand
[choose your own metaphor] . . .

And instead, shift those resources to where they will actually make a difference?

Facing this blunt question head on has changed my life.

And, if you want go further with this, here are some practical steps you could take:

  • Take a mental inventory of all the resources, strengths, and opportunities you do have. (Maybe write down some of them, which will give this step more impact for you.) Most people have much more capacity to influence their life for the better than they recognize. Your circle of influence is probably a lot bigger than you think it is!
  • Identify your top five or ten values in life. Write them down any way you like, as a single word (e.g., health, family, spirit) or phrase or sentence (e.g., building a safety net for retirement). See if you can put them in priority order, with no ties allowed (!). If you could achieve only one of your values, which would it be? Take that one off the list and ask the question again about the values that remain, and repeat the process. Then step back and consider the ways you are - and are not - living true to that list and the priorities on it.
  • Consider how you could take action - toward your important values - in your world, body, and mind in ways you haven't ever done, or have never sustained. Challenge your assumptions, like: "Oh, I just couldn't do that." Are you sure? Bring to mind someone you know who is very self-confident, and then ask yourself: "If I was that confident, what are some of the new things I would do?"
  • In particular, think about actions you could take inside your own mind. Compared to trying to change the world or the body, the mind is where we have the greatest influence, and the results are usually most enduring and consequential. For example, how could you shift your perspective, or nudge your emotional reactions in a better direction over time, or develop stronger mental capacities such as focused attention, openness, and warmth? These are all within your reach.
* * *

Each day, look for the ways - mainly little ones, with some occasional bigees - you could take the actions you can toward your values, out there in the world, in your body, and in your mind. It may not be much on any single day, but over time it will add up to make a big difference for you and those around you.

When I don't know what to do about some difficulty, sometimes I think of a saying from a boy named Nkosi Johnson, from South Africa. Like many children there, Nkosi was born with HIV, and he died when he was 12. Before that happened, he became a nationally-known advocate for people with AIDS. His "mantra," as he called it, always touches my heart:

Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.

That's all anyone can ever do.

Do Positive Experiences "Stick to Your Ribs?" ______________________________________________________________

The Practice

Take in the good.

Why?

Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in "negativity bias." In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That's because - in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived - if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick - a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species - WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money.
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones.

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn't get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades "implicit memory" - your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood - in an increasingly negative direction.

And that's just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or yourself (e.g., personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).

Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.

In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes - by any means necessary. She doesn't care if we happen to suffer along the way - from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger - or create suffering for others.

The result: a brain that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.

But you don't have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good - "good" in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others - you merely level the playing field.

You'll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you'll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.

And now, tilted toward absorbing the good, instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they'll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, "neurons that fire together, wire together." The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they'll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others. It is among the top five personal growth methods I know. In addition to being good for adults, it's great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.

Here's how to take in the good - in three simple steps.

How?

1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences. Good facts include positive events - like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment - and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it.

Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It's private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don't deserve to, or that it's selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen.

Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable - but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.

It's like sitting down to a meal: don't just look at it-taste it!

2. Really enjoy the experience. Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that's fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row - instead of getting distracted by something else.

As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.

You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.

3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you. People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together.

Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.

5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair How much change in the brain makes a difference? ______________________________________________________________

How much change in the brain makes a difference in the mind?

That's the issue raised by a very interesting comment regarding my previous column "The Brain in a Bucket."

So I've taken the liberty of posting the comment here, and then responding. Here it is:

I was pondering your statement that long term meditators show a thickening in certain areas of the brain. As I understand it, the volume of the skull is fixed in adults. This would seem to require that if one part thickens, another part must be reduced. I am curious as to whether anyone has considered what the implications of a loss of volume in these other areas might be. I enjoyed your article, and look forward to more on the topic of neurology and meditation.

While the size of the skull is indeed fixed in adulthood, we can both lose gray matter volume due to the normal effects of aging and gain it through mental training of one kind or another. For instance, one study showed that the hippocampus (really hippocampi, since there is one on each side of the brain, but convention is usually to refer to neural regions in the singular), of London taxi drivers is thicker after their training, which makes sense since the hippocampus is deeply involved with spatial memory.

But the size of these changes in volume is very small, so they do not "bump up against" the skull. For example, the increased thickness in the brains of meditators - seen in one of the cooler studies in this field - amounted to about 1/200th of an inch. This may not seem like much but is a BIG change in the density of synaptic networks when you can fit about 5000 synapses in the width of a human hair.

The point is that small changes in daily activities - meditating instead of sleeping in, driving a cab instead of working in an office - can make changes in the brain that seem small but actually create big changes in the mind. And that fact opens the door to amazing opportunities.

The Brain in a Bucket Use your mind to change your brain - and your life. ______________________________________________________________

Have you ever seen a real brain?

I remember the first time I saw one, in a neuropsych class: the instructor put on rubber gloves to protect against the formaldehyde preservative, popped the lid off of a lab bucket, and then pulled out a brain.

It didn’t look like much, a nondescript waxy yellowish-white blob rather like a sculpted head of cauliflower. But the whole class went silent. We were looking at the real deal, ground zero for consciousness, headquarters for “me.” The person it came from – or, in a remarkable sense, the person who came from it – was of course dead. Would my brain, too, end up in a lab bucket? That thought gave me a creepy weird feeling completely unlike the feeling of having my heart or hand in a bucket some day – which gets right at the specialness of your brain.

That blobby organ – just three pounds of tofu-like tissue – is considered by scientists to be the most complex object currently known in the universe. It holds 100 billion neurons amidst another trillion support cells. A typical neuron makes about 5000 connections called synapses with other neurons, producing a neural network with 500 trillion nodes in it. At any moment, each node is active or not, creating a kind of 0 or 1 bit of information. Neurons commonly fire five to fifty times a second, so while you’ve been reading this paragraph, literally quadrillions of bits of information have circulated inside your head.

Your nervous system – with its control center in the brain – moves information around like your heart moves blood around. Broadly defined, all that information is the mind, most of which is forever unconscious. Apart from the influence of hypothetical transcendental factors – call them God, Spirit, the Ground, or by no name at all – the mind is what the nervous system does. So if you care at all about your mind – including your emotions, sense of self, pleasures and pains, memories, dreams, reflections – (and who doesn’t?) then it makes tons of sense to care about what’s going on inside your own brain.

Until very recently, the brain was like the weather: you could care about it all you wanted, but you couldn’t do a thing about it. But new brain imaging technologies like functional MRI’s have revolutionized neuropsychology much as the invention of the microscope transformed biology. According to Dr. Alan Lesher, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, our knowledge of the brain has doubled in the past twenty years.

These breakthroughs have informed – and been informed by – practical applications in psychotherapy. For example, trauma therapies have been improved by research on memory, while the results of interventions such as EMDR have suggested new lines of investigation. Like other therapists, I feel clearer about a client’s mind because more is known about his or her brain.

I’m also a meditator – started in 1974, at the tail end of college – so it’s been inspiring to see something similar happening with contemplative practice. Some of the most interesting studies of brain function have been done on long-term meditators, the Olympic athletes of mental training. For example, experienced meditators actually have thicker cortical layers in the brain regions responsible for self-awareness and the control of attention.

This illustrates a fundamental point with extraordinary potential: when your mind changes, your brain changes, both temporarily – with the momentary flicker of synaptic activity – and in lasting ways through formation of new neural structures. Therefore, you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being – and every other being whose life you touch.

The new neuroscience, combined with the insights of clinical psychology and contemplative practice, gives you an historically unprecedented opportunity to shift your brain – and thus your mind – toward greater happiness, love, and wisdom.

And that’s what this blog is about: skillful means – from the intersection of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice – for relieving distress and dysfunction, increasing well-being, and deepening mindfulness and inner peace.

We’ll focus on scientifically informed but eminently practical tools, skills, and perspectives – things you can use in the middle of daily life: on the job, in traffic, raising kids, when you’re nervous or mad, or working through a sticky conversation with your mom or your mate. For example, the next several entries in this blog will look at the power of gratitude to undo the threat reactivity of the brain, how to weave positive experiences into your brain and your self, and the three neural circuits of empathy.

And if you want to learn more, check out my free e-newsletter, Just One Thing, which suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

With just a little understanding of your own brain, you can reach down inside the enchanted loom of your very being and gradually weave greater strength, insight, confidence, contentment, and loving intimacy into the tapestry of your life. That’s the great opportunity here: your brain is not in a bucket, it’s alive and pulsing with possibility, waiting for the skillful touch of your mind to guide it in increasingly wonderful directions.

I hope you’ll join me on this incredible journey.

Are You on Your Own Side?
______________________________________________________________

The Practice: Be for yourself.

Why?

To tell others what you really need, or to take any steps toward your own well-being, you have got to be on your own side. Not against others, but for yourself.

For many people, that's harder than it sounds. Maybe you were raised to think you didn't matter as much as other people. Maybe when you've tried to stick up for yourself, you've been blocked or knocked down. Maybe deep down you feel you don't deserve to be happy.

Whatever the reason, many people are not strong advocates for themselves.

As a result, they are harshly self-critical, even mean toward themselves. Or indifferent to their own pain, lax about protecting themselves from mistreatment, or lazy about doing those things - both inside their head and outside, in the outer world - to make their life better.

So it's a good idea to make sure you are on your own side.

Then you can figure out whatever would be good to do. And now it will have real oomph behind it!

How?

Several times a day, ask yourself: Am I on my own side here? Am I looking out for my own best interests?

Good times to do this:

  • If you feel bad (like sad, hurt, worried, disappointed, mistreated, frustrated, stressed, irritated)
  • If someone is pushing you to do something
  • If you know you should do something for your own benefit but you're not doing it (like going to the gym, looking for a new job, or quitting smoking)

At these times, or in general:

  • Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone who loves you.
  • Recall what it feels like to be for someone. Perhaps a child, pet, or dear friend. Then see yourself as a young child - sweet, vulnerable, precious - and try to apply those same feelings of caring toward that young child. (You could get a picture of yourself as a young child and carry it in your wallet or purse, and look at it from time to time.)
  • Bring those same feelings of caring and support to yourself today.
  • Be mindful of what it feels like in your body to be on your own side. Strengthen that feeling as much as possible. Notice any resistance to it; try to let that resistance go; and strengthen the feeling of being for yourself even more.
  • Think: Being on my own side, what's the best thing to do here?
  • Then do it.

Remember:

  • Being for yourself simply means that you care about yourself. You wish to feel good instead of bad. You want people to treat you well instead of badly. You want to help your future self - who you will be next week, next year, next decade - have as good a life as possible.
  • Your experience matters, both for the moment to moment experience of living and for the lasting traces that your thoughts and feelings leave behind in the structure of your brain.
  • It is both moral and enlightened self-interest to be kind to people. Well, "people" includes you! You have as many rights, and your feelings and needs have as much standing, as those of anyone else in the world.
  • When you take care of your own needs and pursue your own dreams, then you have more to offer others, from the people close to you to the whole wide world.

©2010, Rick Hanson

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 There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.
- George Santayana



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