By Ron Seacord
We humans are unique in that we have a brain that’s simultaneously thousands of years old and brand new at every moment. This creates interesting challenges and opportunities. For example, let’s look at how this works by taking two opposites, pain and pleasure. We will explore how we can use pain and pleasure to maximize the power of our brains to change and grow by training our brains to focus on the positive.
To change our brain we must train it, says Dr. David Linden, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist and expert on how the human brain has evolved over millennia. He is the author of the books The Compass of Pleasure and The Accidental Mind.
In his book, The Accidental Mind, he likens the evolutionary process to building a boat: “Say someone asked you to build a racing boat, but they gave you a wooden rowboat and said you could only add things to make it into a racing boat. That’s what brain evolution has been: You can subtly tweak what was there before and can’t change the basic plan.” The survival brain, for a variety of important reasons, can be related to the basic plan of the boat, the hull. Here is where it gets interesting, just like adding things to our boat, our brain has added layers of development throughout our evolution. However, we still have these older layers, they have not been replaced. This interaction between the older and newer brain regions is the reason we are these amazing, complex beings and hold the immense possibility to change.
Pain, pain, lower brain
Have you ever noticed how we react to criticism? It’s the thing we latch onto and remember and think about. In psychology, this tendency to overreact to perceived pain is referred to as “negativity bias,” but it has its root in the survival brain. There’s a good reason our earlier brains didn’t encode positive experiences as easily as negative ones – survival.
Positive things were all extras; they were icing on the survival cake. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it this way: “The brain is like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones.” Living with a potent survival brain can be a trick, especially when negative things today are more along the lines of a difficult work review and not about our actual physical survival. Wallowing in unpleasant thoughts is training our brains to continue with negative thoughts and react in disproportionate and unproductive ways.
So what can we do?
It’s a well-known line in the neuroscientific field that “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” If you want to start thinking more positively, you have start thinking more positively. What does that mean in real life?
It means paying attention. Noticing small things. Soaking it all in. Giving yourself a moment to focus on the positive and focus on what’s working. Savoring that last bite. Allowing yourself to experience pleasure in things that seem neutral or mundane on the surface. It means looking for and naming those things that can bring joy, contentment, confidence, and peace. Every time you do that, you’re re-wiring neurons. You’re training your brain to get a little more sticky when it comes to positive things. You’re making use of that giant, complex cortex that makes humans so unique in the animal kingdom.
And there’s (more) good news about pleasure.
The human brain’s prefrontal cortex is unique, not only in its ability to notice what’s pleasurable, but in its ability to actually find profound pleasure in things that are not evolutionarily advantageous. This might sound like a strange thing. But if you think about it, you can see that this is a huge distinction in the evolutionary process. Why? It is because we get to choose.
As Dr. Linden describes, “Both people and mice can feel pleasure from eating and making babies, which both need to survive and pass down their genes. Yet only a human can take pleasure in fasting or abstaining from sex, which has no evolutionary advantage. The miracle of human thinking is that our ancient pleasure circuitry can be activated by higher, more complicated parts of our brain. In a way, this is the basis of all human culture; that we can take pleasure from things that are utterly arbitrary is what enriches so much of our lives.”
When we focus on the positive we find real pleasure — measurable and witnessed in the function of our brains! All this is evidence that our brains are primed and ready for a whole new universe of function and experience. Suddenly being childlike; indulging in art, music, creativity, taking risks, goofy play and contemplation can become the very things that profoundly affect the quality of our lives, our communities, and the world around us. We are what we think we are.
We are not bound to the automatic chemical responses of our survival brains. We are not bound to simply react to the fear of what’s new or what we don’t yet understand. We get to initiate new neuronal connections and new neurochemical environments by what we decide will bring us happiness, pleasure, purpose, and contentment.
The simple fact that we get to choose what brings us joy is evidence that we are remarkable creatures, and that we are ready for incredible things. We’ve taken the leap to thrive and not just survive. It’s a kind of positive evolutionary feedback loop; our expanded prefrontal cortex allows us to focus on the positive, and our focus on the positive boosts the power of our brains. It allows us to build a better racing boat.
The Question is: What are you going to do with this new power? The choice is yours.