Brain science 2 – being human

We notice bad news

Our human tendency is to notice negatives more acutely than positives; the brain is drawn to bad news. This helped cave men keep safe from predators. By contrast, positives, like eating sweet berries, are not so essential, so we are less likely to notice them.

This happens at the level of personal interaction too. We register fearful or angry faces more quickly than happy or neutral ones, as the amygdala lights up when there is possible danger.

As what we notice is what we notice more, it’s natural to store a big library of negatives and to keep reinforcing our fears. This can give us a background hum of anxiety or pessimism.

To make matters worse, we don’t just react to negative stimuli, we then respond to the reaction; the so-called ‘second darts’ that we throw at others or ourselves. For example, we trip on a shoe and bump into the chair, which hurts; we then get angry, blame someone else, or feel unloved because someone left the shoe there without considering how it might affect us. The first dart is real; the second is a story. If we trip again on another shoe, we know that our story is real.

This can even happen with positives. Someone complements our work; but we think they may be just saying it and not mean it, because the story we have stored is that we don’t really believe that our work is good enough – the compliment acts to reinforce this story!

What’s even worse, is that just thinking about a possible negative event can trigger all the same processes.

What is real?

Reality for us, is what our mind perceives it to be. What we experience as real is manufactured in our minds from surprisingly little real time data. For example, our focused visual field is a tiny cone of about 3 degrees wide; everything beyond that is made up from inexact visual information and a lot of memory. What we see ‘out there’, is actually mostly created ‘in here’. That capacity gives humans amazing creativity and imagination; it also means that a lot of what we take to be true is manufactured in our brain. We live in a simulation.

It’s also evident that we miss a lot. Because there are so many stimuli out there, we learn to notice only a small selection, and ignore the rest. See this youtube video.

In our mind, or simulator, we use memory clips to inform possible outcomes. These clips may be associated with limiting beliefs eg ‘of course it will fail, it always does’. As neural pathways strengthen, they build our patterns of behaviour, based on old experiences that may no longer be relevant.

We can, however, strengthen the positive responses of the simulator. For example, by actively being compassionate to self and others, we actually enlarge the part of the brain that also creates a habit of happiness.


How hormones control us

When things get stressful, the hypothalamus tells the pituitary gland to release stress hormones. Epinphrene increases the heart rate, neopinephrene shifts blood to your muscles, cortisol stimulates the amygdala and suppresses the hippocampus. Emotions intensify, and control by the pre-frontal cortex gets suppressed. We over-react, get violent, scream at people. Not so useful in the office!

These stress hormone patterns also deplete or suppress ‘good’ chemicals such as serotonin, which triggers good feelings.

There’s also a physical cost to this happening too often. This kind of chemical stimulation can cause gastro-intestinal and cardiovascular damage, reduces the immune system, and disturbs the endochrine system. We get ill and enter a downward spiral.

So what can we do about it?

Happily, we can create new patterns of behaviour, train our brains, and take the power out of the old patterns. Even old dogs can learn new tricks!

Living happily (which is good both for us and for other people) means working positively with three aspects of brain physiology:

  • The pre-frontal cortex – which allows us to make good decisions
  • The parasympathetic nervous system – which calms us
  • The limbic system – which controls emotions

Mindfulness is the tool we use to open up our experience in a less pre-selected manner, to literally see more, and to recognise the feelings in the body of all this brain chemical washing that is going on. We can then choose how to respond. It is an objective tool; it does not judge; and it takes the ‘me’ out of the equation or perception. In this way it mirrors the default, un-programmed, underlying nature of mind.

Mindfulness is the skill by which we pay attention to what’s going on around us and our reaction to it. Gaining wisdom is a process of gaining insights into how this happens; ie what has a positive or a negative effect.

Triggering the PNS

One of our allies in re-programming our mind-state is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS conserves energy, regulates and helps create a relaxed, stable feeling where we can think clearly. Happily, this is the normal resting state of the brain.

We can deliberately help the PNS to kick in. Here are several ways to do this:

  • Take some deep breaths, and actively make the out breath longer (also known as 7:11 breathing)
  • Smile (just a little smile will do) and touch the lips
  • Bring attention to the feelings in the body and the flow of the breath
  • Imagine being in nature somewhere peaceful
  • Spend more time noticing nice things (like birdsong, a comfy chair, the nuances of a good coffee)
  • Practice gratitude intentionally

With practice -and repeated practice is the key – our response habits start to change and the stress cycle gives way to the PNS baseline, more and more quickly.

With practice too, we can learn just to be with whatever arises, accepting and allowing the unfolding of the present. We can stay finely tuned to real time experience, with minimal negative reactivity.

Given that we need to learn new tricks, we need to know how to do that effectively. When we experience a pleasant experience, the first thing is to savour it. Don’t just gulp down that coffee, take the time to notice its diverse tastes and how different flavour components appear in succession. The longer something is deliberately held in awareness, the more those neural pathways build, and the dopamine release strengthens this. Also, after 10,000 hours of practice, you could get a job as a coffee taster!

Once again, just thinking about something has a real effect on the brain, like the basketball players who became as proficient at netting the ball by rehearsing it mentally, as did their colleagues who practiced for real.

Stored memories are inexact and in shorthand. Moreover, they get associated with emotional responses. The more you think negatively about something that’s happened, the stronger the emotional charge gets if that event re-appears. That’s why we need to learn to love our demons. They’re not really demons anyway, they are just misguided protectors, who need re-educating.

This approach needs to be pro-active. We need to deliberately cultivate positive experiences and associations, to re-balance our predisposition to see threats and danger.