I used to think that the whole “positive thinking” movement, and positive psychology, was a bit of hooey. Just think positive and you will create positive outcomes in your life. It all sounded good, but without understanding the science of neuroplasticity, it sounded a bit hokey and unrealistic. Since learning about neuroplasticity and really “getting” how profound this is, I have implemented it in my own life with incredible results and seen others do the same.
Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to adapt and change in response to its environment. It allows us to grow and change, create more positivity in our lives, and experience better health. One of the ways we can do that is by carefully choosing and creating our thoughts.
Consider this. A thought is really an electro-chemical reaction. It’s a series of nerve cells transmitting impulses, with neurotransmitters in the synapses helping the transmission of the nerve along to the next neuron. As stated by Wikipedia, thoughts are “the result or product of either spontaneous or willed acts of thinking”.
One thing we know about neurons is that repetition will strengthen the neural connections that support whatever thought or activity is being repeated. To cite a really simple example, if you try to learn the lyrics to a song, you probably won’t be able to remember them easily at first. Maybe you’ll go line-by-line, repeating them to yourself a few words at a time, until that line is locked in. Then you’ll go on to the next line, and start in trying to remember those. By the time you have remembered the lyrics to the entire song, you’ll have grown and strengthened the neural networks involved in that process. Next thing you know, you’ll be driving down the road, that song will come on the radio, and you’ll be singing along, consciously and then unconsciously remembering the words. Another example is learning to play a song on a musical instrument – it’s very conscious, very deliberate in the beginning, but once learned can become automatic.
An analogy I like to use is that of a small dirt track neuron, that can grow into a neuronal superhighway. When you first try to remember the line, that neural pathway is like a small dirt track. It might barely fit one person walking on it, there may be rocks in it making it hard to navigate. Not even a car can get down that dirt track. But as time goes on and you practice more and more, that dirt track widens. Now a car can drive down it. The rocks and bumps smooth out. More neurons are recruited to support the activity and process and neural connections are strengthening. Even further along the process and the dirt track gets paved. Now one car can drive along it comfortably. More time, practice and repetition occurs, and now it’s a two-lane road with traffic moving in two directions. Even further along, it continues to grow, and eventually it ends up a superhighway with eight lanes across and traffic speeding along unimpeded. The only difference between the little dirt track neural pathway and the superhighway neural pathway was choice, practice and repetition. It had to be deliberate – it was not going to happen on it’s own. The neuronal superhighway now looks like a vast number of neurons all working to support whatever activity was being practiced. Repetition made it stronger, until that process was ‘locked in’.
So it is with thought patterns. A positive thought might start out like that little dirt track. It might even be hard to create that dirt track – many of us have given a lot of attention to negative thoughts and have created some strong negative neuronal pathways in the process.
I would encourage you to just make a start. Choose a positive thought or idea, something hopeful about your health or your life. Repeat it, multiple times a day, preferably out loud. Realize that at first it’s going to be a little dirt track neuronal pathway, and that you have to choose to build it up into a proper paved road, then a two-lane highway, and finally a superhighway. Picture that road building and growing. Be deliberate about it. It won’t happen on its own by some automatic miracle, you need to work at it. It won’t be easy at first, but as the neuronal pathways are strengthened it will become easier, and finally it will be automatic. You have programed your neurological system to encompass that that thought, until that thought becomes truth for you.
What will happen in the process is that negative thoughts will not be getting any attention any more, and those neuronal pathways will shrink. They will lose their power and over time you will realize that they are not part of your thought patterns and habits any more. The brain, through the gift of neuroplasticity, has rewired itself. Its circuitry has actually changed – the positive thought pathways have become nice and healthy and strong, and the negative toxic pathways have dissolved. It’s like detox for the brain!
I love Dr. Caroline Leaf’s work on this subject, and I would highly recommend her book Switch On Your Brain: the Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking and Health, which will extrapolate on these ideas and give you real direction for change. She also wrote Who Switched Off My Brain, and Who Switched Off Your Brain: Solving the Mystery of He Said/ She Said, which focuses on the difference between the male and female brains (wait, there’s a difference?!). For those who see they need a bit of help in this area of detoxing negative thoughts, she also offers a program called The 21-day Brain Detox Package. She writes from a Christian perspective, but her work is deeply rooted in science, while being engaging and easy to read.
I find this whole body of work fascinating, and it can make a significant impact on your brain and your health. You have millions of neurons and you create neural pathways all the time, and you have over 30,000 thoughts per day. You might as well make them positive ones!!
Dr Caroline Leaf’s Books: