Sunday, November 30, 2008

Re-Train the Negative Brain

Re-Train the Negative Brain
By Dr. Randy Borum
Article first appears in Black Belt Magazine, January, 2008, pp. 48-50)

What generates the strongest feelings for you – the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat? According to brain scientists, the human brain is essentially “hard wired” to be negative. Numerous studies have shown that the electrical (neural) connections in your brain are stronger and faster when they are responding to something unpleasant than when responding to something neutral or pleasant.

Might this provide a scientific explanation for why “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop”? And why does the brain behave like that? And can we do anything about it? All very reasonable questions. Science provides some insights and possibilities.

Many scientists believe that this negativity bias comes from evolutionary adaptation. The idea is that a long time ago (roughly between twelve thousand and two million years ago) as the human species was beginning to emerge, the world was a tough and dangerous place with devastating weather events as big parts of the earth were frozen under glaciers interspersed with floods. Those humans who survived were the ones whose brains alerted and protected them from the hazards. Those would be our ancestors. That’s the theory anyway.

To be a bit more practical, the consequences of responding too slowly or insufficiently to danger are often more dramatic and hazardous than responding slowly to a neutral or positive stimulus. In a way, the negative brain is trying to protect us by prioritizing what it looks for, how it evaluates information, and how it urges us to act. It does this automatically, and often without our conscious awareness. When presented simultaneously with something negative, neutral and positive - the brain will naturally focus on the negative almost every time. This essentially means that worry is our brain’s default state and that negative emotions will “trump” the positive ones. Well, that explains a lot doesn’t it?

Now that you have read the bad news, perhaps no amount of good news will bring back your previously cheerful state…but I’ll try. One of the most remarkable features of the human brain is its ability to learn and adapt. You can take advantage of this knowledge to create what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “Learned Optimism” or the optimal state of experience that Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi simply calls “flow.”

We have the ability to change our own level of happiness – up or down - and to facilitate within ourselves a positive and perhaps optimal mental and emotional climate. Some scientists suggest that each of us has our own individual “set point” of happiness or positivity, and that maybe as much as half of that is genetically determined. But regardless of our natural tendencies and predispositions, nearly all psychology researchers would agree that we can change our “state” of positivity.

How do you do it? First, you need to recognize that optimism is a choice. You are going to have to take some responsibility for what you attend to, what you ruminate about and how you respond to it. It may not come naturally at first, but the more you do it, the more you will amplify those positive pathways in the brain and to mute the negative ones.

Positive psychology researchers often talk about three components of happiness. The first is to “get more pleasure out of life.” Find and appreciate what is positive and pleasurable as you go through life each day and savor it. If something delights your senses or makes you smile or laugh or feel interested – pause and pay attention to it while enjoying the pleasurable feelings that it brings. Feeling gratitude and being thankful can also foster positive feelings. The second component is to become more “engaged” in whatever you are doing. Too often when training or doing a kata, it is easy to mentally disengage and just go through the motions. Instead try to focus on and experience what you are doing without any other distraction. Don’t think too much or over-analyze, just experience what you are doing in the moment. The third component of happiness rests in finding ways to make your life feel more meaningful. Seligman suggests that you take inventory of your own strengths (such as courage, compassion, humor) and look for new ways to use them to achieve your goals or to help others.

Over the next week, consider trying (and writing down) these easy and practical steps to nudge your negative brain. Get a piece of paper for each day of the week. You don’t have to write a narrative just jot a quick note to yourself about the following five things:

• Write one blessing or thing in your life (or that happened that day) for which you are thankful.
• Write one thing you noticed during the day that brought you pleasure.
• Identify one person who you are grateful and happy to have in your life. Take a minute to think about why. Consider telling that person what you appreciate about him or her.
• Do something nice for someone, whether a friend or a stranger.
• Take one to two minutes to breathe deeply and allow all your muscles to relax. Focus only on your breathing.

You might find that being happy, positive or optimistic is hard least at first. But it is well worth the effort. Mute the negative and amplify the positive.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Learning to Switch Off Your Brain

Learning to Switch Off Your Brain

By Dr. Randy Borum
(Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, December, 2008)

Have you ever wished you could just switch off your brain? Most people, from time to time, struggle with negative thoughts or nagging self-doubts. It can be even worse when you’re under stress or pressure. It’s bad enough that these thoughts cause discomfort or anxiety, but they also hurt performance.

Our first response is often to resist the thoughts and try to force them to stop. Paradoxically, that sometimes makes them worse. This ironic mental process has been the focus of Harvard Professor, Daniel Wegner’s research for more than two decades. Wegner often describes this as the “White Bear” problem. In the book “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky made the following observation: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear (white bear), and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Wegner and his fellow researchers decided to put that to the test. They asked people to think aloud for five minutes, but specifically to avoid thinking of white bears. Guess what? People would mention white bears about once every minute. So trying not to think about something doesn’t necessarily make the thought go away.

But here’s the real kicker: there was a rebound effect. After five-minutes of thinking aloud while trying to suppress the white bear, the researchers then gave participants permission to think about the white bears during the next five minutes of talking. The participants mentioned white bears more frequently than they did the first time. In fact, they even mentioned them more frequently than another group given the same permission, but who didn’t first have to suppress them.

Not only might our attempts to stuff down negative thoughts be ineffective, they might make matters worse. Some psychology researchers seem to think that this suppression-rebound process might explain how clinical obsessions get started.

So, if we’re bothered by negative thoughts, and trying not to think about them won’t work, then what should we do? There may be an answer in a technique or practice called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness blends principles of Eastern philosophy with Western psychology, but is different from Transcendental Mediation. It is not a religious practice and does not require any particular brand of spirituality or faith, but it allows you to deal with your thoughts without fighting them. Like the gentle martial arts, it allows you defend against a (mental) attack by flow, rather than by force.

The essence of mindfulness is very simple. It is about being quietly focused in the present moment- the “here and now” - while non-judgmentally observing your thoughts. The description may seem a little new-agey at first, but it is founded on a couple of very practical assumptions. First, by staying in the present you avoid the cause of most nagging thoughts and distractions. When negative content creeps in, it’s usually about something that has happened in the past or about something that might happen in the future. Being mindful is being fully in the present. Second, by learning to observe your thoughts without reacting or getting caught up in them, you take away their power to control you. Thoughts are just mental events. They are not necessarily true. They do not necessarily reflect reality. And they need not define who you are.

Research shows that mindfulness interventions are effective for managing stress and even for controlling pain and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are currently being taught in hundreds of hospitals throughout the United States. But you can get started on your own. Here’s a quick-start guide, but keep in mind – it takes practice. Learning not to get frustrated is part of the journey.

Start by finding a quiet place and time where you can sit comfortably you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes. Don’t worry about your thoughts at this stage, just focus on your breath and body. Begin to breathe deeply from your belly/diaphragm (your stomach should extend before your upper chest does). Most of us tend to breathe from our upper chest, so focus on pulling your breath from deeper in your abdomen. Inhale through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Breathing in for about a count of four and out for a count of about eight. Start with three of these deep breaths. Then resume breathing regularly at a relaxing, steady pace

To keep your mind fully in the “in the moment”, focus only on each breath. As thoughts or worries enter your mind, you simply acknowledge them, without evaluating or labeling them and return your focus to your breath and to the present. Thoughts are not good or bad. Remember they are just mental events that you are observing. For example, if you find yourself thinking “This is silly” – you would say to your self in your head “I just had a thought that this is silly…back to my breath…..”

After you have spent a few minutes just listening internally and focusing on your breath, allow yourself to begin listening to the sounds around you – even the sound of quiet – give yourself permission not to evaluate, label, criticize or comment on them. Just listen, without judging. Next, when you are ready, you can slowly open your eyes and observe the room as if you are seeing it for the very first time. Allow you eyes to rest on some spot or object in the room and remain there for about 30 seconds or so. Observe and examine it without thinking about or evaluating it. Then move on to another object with the same pattern and for about the same amount of time…then to another….all the while allowing yourself to be aware of your breath and of your body. When you are sensing (but not analyzing) – simultaneously - your environment, you body and your breath, then you are fully in the present or “in the moment.”

The steps are simple, but staying on the moment takes practice. Try setting aside a time twice a day for the next week or so to exercise mindfulness. See if it can help you win against negative thoughts without fighting them.