February 5: Big Thinking for the Brain

Recently I spent a couple of days in San Francisco, where the architecture inspires me. While sketching the tip of the iconic Transamerica Pyramid, for which artistic license pressed me to use pink that day, I wondered about the source of inspiration for the design and what it must have taken to execute the initial idea. Creating a building like certainly that takes big thinking.

On the way home from the trip I was spurred into thinking about the architecture of the brain because of a new book I bought at the airport: The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by neuroscientist Richard Davidson along with writer Sharon Begley.

Davidson offers six dimensions of Emotional Style that have arisen from his and others’ studies of neural bases of emotion. They are:
·         Resilience style: how we recover from adversity
·         Outlook style: whether we tend toward optimism or pessimism
·         Social Intuition style: how we read people’s body language
·         Self-Awareness style: how aware we are of our own thoughts and feelings and body signals
·         Sensitivity to Context style: how we pick up on the conventional rules of social interaction
·         Attention Style: how we screen out emotional or other distractions
Not all people want or need to change their emotional styles, says Davidson, but when our styles cause us discomfort – or we notice that we’re causing discomfort for others – we can use our thoughts to create new structures in our brains.

The brain was once thought to be rather fixed in form and function by adulthood, except for being able to learn new facts and skills. However, it is now well-known that the brain is capable of neuroplasticity – the “the ability to change its structure and patterns of activity in significant ways…throughout life” (p. 160). Davidson asserts that “[C]hange can come about as a result of experiences we have as well as of purely internal mental activity – our thoughts” (p. 160). In other words, to a great extent, we can use our thoughts strategically to be co-architects of our own brains.

If we tend to have a negative outlook and want to be more positive, Davidson suggests that “well-being therapy” can strengthen areas of the brain and improve our outlook. Exercises he offers include regularly writing down positive characteristics of ourselves and others we interact with, expressing gratitude, and complimenting others regularly.

It turns out that a daily mindfulness meditation practice can be crucial to developing increased self-awareness – but also to turning down the volume of self-awareness for those who are too aware of internal sensations. Davidson also recommends mindfulness meditation for increased focus and attention and for greater resilience.

I’m not surprised that meditation is so often recommended by Davidson as a way to build stronger connections for emotional well-being. In my mindfulness workshops I frequently see improvement and relief in the faces and stories of participants even after just two or three weeks of a mindfulness meditation practice.

Davidson admits that our brain circuitry is laid down in our early years by the genes we’ve inherited and the early experiences we’ve had. But even in our adulthood, there is much we can do to increase our sense of internal well-being and our interpersonal effectiveness. We might not ever create iconic buildings like the Transamerica Pyramid, but with some big thinking of our own, we can be the architects of positive changes to the structures of our own brains.

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