Everything is of the Nature to Change. Even Us.
When I started my career as a psychotherapist (more than 35-years ago now… yikes!), a predominant theory was that each of us has a “happiness set point” determined in childhood. This psychological set point acted as a ceiling on joy, determining how much optimism or satisfaction one could expect in life. Basically, you got what you got.
Today, modern advances in neuroscience have blown the happiness set point theory to smithereens. It’s true that we acquire our emotional habits—and the thoughts and actions that go with them—early in childhood. But it’s also true that we’re not “stuck” with those patterns, because the adult brain is far more elastic than previously thought.
Recent research indicates that even as adults, our emotional and mental patterns etch new neural pathways in the brain. As American neurobiologist Carla Shatz said, “When neurons fire together, they wire together.” New mental activities literally create new neural structures. Just because our patterns have become “wired in” at childhood doesn’t mean they are forever fixed. This is one of the many ways that the wisdom of the East has been confirmed by science in the West.
And that’s been great news for people like me. You, too, perhaps? My upbringing was a mixed bag: many happy times, but many experiences of harsh Irish belittling and shaming, engendering deep feelings of “not being good enough.”
Those kinds of experiences breed an internal, critical narrative—I’m not good enough, skinny enough, or smart enough—and with each such thought, we trace a virtual thought highway in our brain. These highways sometimes seem so strong that we may feel like they etched into our very bones; the truth about who we are.
But our thoughts don’t define who we are. Thank goodness! In fact, our very cellular structure is in constant motion. New research suggests that our brain is updating five to eight times a second. As my granddaughter says, “Whoa!” The implication, of course, is that we can change our mental and emotional habits. We can rewire our brains for greater happiness and expand our capacity for peace.
Gautama Buddha was on to this reality, without the benefit of PET scans or modern science, when he preached about impermanence some 2500 years ago. “Everything is of the nature to change…” even our brain…even our thought patterns.
The Buddha suggested that our patterns and reactions can change through the practice of mindfulness meditation—a non-judgmental focus on the present moment. Here again, modern research is confirming the truth of that teaching.
These findings and these teachings offer us hope. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has done extensive research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain. He took images of people’s brains before and after mindfulness training, as well as measuring the neural activity in the brains of long-term meditators and Buddhist monks.
His conclusion? “Meditation can change the brain and forever alter our sense of well-being.”
Even a harsh inner critic can be transformed to a kinder voice.
What do you think?