Mind whisperer: This might change the relationship you have with your brain

Your brain grew rapidly when you were a child; that’s nothing new. But did you know that your brain is still changing today? New studies in neuroplasticity have revealed that the brain continues to modify its structural connections throughout life.

Not only that but the experiences you encounter can alter the molecules that decide which of your genes get expressed—a process called epigenesis [1]. Depending on which genes are expressed, your brain’s structure will be altered, affecting personality, mental health, behavior and more. In short, your relationships and life experiences shape the way your brain gets structured.

Granny’s experiences affect your genes

But there’s something even more surprising: your grandma’s experiences leave a mark on your genes [2]. If your grandma was abused as a child, for example, these experiences can affect which genes get expressed in yourself, potentially releasing some rather unwanted personality traits like, say, anxiety or depression.

For decades, scientists argued about whether nurture or nature makes you who you are. It turns out, nature gives you your genetic makeup, but nurture—and even experiences your ancestors had before you were born—play a role in deciding which genes appear in the phenotype and ultimately become part of your character. Yesterday’s experiences are today’s personality. Grandma’s trauma is your triggered trait.

So, I have good news and bad news—which do you want first?

I’ll start with the bad (because that’s what depressed people do). The bad news is, you have less control over your character than we once thought. This may sound overly deterministic but it’s reality. Yes, you have the power and responsibility to change for the better. But, as Sam Harris puts it, “You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts [3].”

The good news is, you have less control over your character than we once thought—which means you’re not justified in being so hard on yourself. This is anything but trivial since we depressed people are adept at self-hatred. But there’s more good news. You are also not justified in being so hard on those around you. Not your partner. Not your children. Not your co-workers. No one. You can let go of your grudges. I know, easier said than done.

Understanding the brain is half the battle

“You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts.”

To understand all of this better, it’s helpful to know how your brain functions. The part of your brain that is “you, as a conscious agent”, as Sam mentions above, is the frontal cortex [4]. This part of your brain does the reasoning, judgment, inhibition of behavior, planning, and so on. It’s where the “self” that you think of as “you” comes together.

And then there’s the limbic region. This part of your brain does the feeling and reacting. It’s where your instinct toward self-preservation, protecting your family, remembering past threats, and seeking rewards happen, among other things. It’s the area that controls the body via hormones like norepinephrine or adrenaline. It’s also the area of the brain we share with lower animals. The most critical difference between the frontal cortex and the limbic region is that, while the former can be rewired and reprogrammed, the latter cannot. The limbic region is hardwired.

Taming your mind is like training a horse

It’s helpful to think of your limbic region as a horse and your frontal cortex as you, the rider of the horse [5]. The thoughts, impulses, and sensations in your body are like a wild animal’s natural instincts; they arise without your control. If you see a snake, your limbic region will try to compel you—by triggering hormones like norepinephrine (which results in emotions like fear)—to avoid the snake at all costs. But your frontal cortex will then have to decipher all of the incoming information. It may respond to the limbic region by saying, “Look, that is a garden snake which isn’t even poisonous. Plus, it’s tiny.” However, the limbic region, like an untamed horse, may choose to ignore that logic. Worse still, your frontal cortex can shut off completely in these situations as you get carried away by emotions and sensations.  

This is the basis for meditation. Without meditation, you are unable to decipher between the untamed horse and yourself, the rider. When the horse (your limbic region) reacts strongly to something, the rider (your frontal cortex) simply follows suit. But changing the relationship you have with your horse can change your horse’s nature. 

Be the horse whisperer

There are two main ways to tame a horse: natural or traditional [6]. Traditional training has often involved shaming or inflicting pain and fear—ever used those methods on yourself? Natural horsemanship, on the other hand, is about understanding your horse and building a partnership with her. Instead of forcing her to behave properly through shame and fear, you ask questions like, “Why does she behave this way?” As you dig deeper into this question, you discover that she has no control over her behavior. Our species has survived for millions of years thanks to the limbic region’s incessant warnings.

As you meditate, you become a skillful rider who observes the horse’s behavior to understand it. Instead of trying to stop the horse from having its own whims, you remain still and gentle as the whims inevitably come and go. You don’t get angry at the horse or try to beat it into submission. You don’t stiffen up and get tense. Rather, you acknowledge its desires and gently whisper it back on track.

This is exactly what you do when you’re meditating on the breath. Your limbic region spontaneously brings up a nasty sensation like anger and, instead of manifesting that anger in your behavior, you simply observe what it feels like as you bring your awareness back to the breath.

Change the structure of your brain. In as little as 8 weeks.

fMRI studies have shown that meditation shrinks the amygdala—the “fear center” or “fight or flight” region of the brain [7]. Not only that, but meditation also causes the frontal cortex to become thicker. So, meditation shrinks your fear-producer and strengthens your decision making, concentration, and awareness. Or, your horse becomes less unruly and unpredictable while you, the rider, become stronger and better at working in tandem with the horse. Even more impressive, you can change the structure of your brain in as little as eight weeks with just 10-15 minutes of meditation per day [8].

There is a lot about yourself that you are powerless to control. After all, you didn’t choose your genetic makeup or the experiences your ancestors encountered during their lives. You didn’t choose the horse you’re riding. But that’s what mindfulness meditation (thinking less) is about. Why waste your time wishing you had a different horse when you could spend it training the one you have?

References

[1]
XanEdu. (2018). COUN5275 – Utilizing Systemic Approaches: Infancy Through Adolescence, 1st Edition. [Capella]. Retrieved from https://capella.vitalsource.com/#/books/756509/

[2]
Hurley, D. (2015, June 25). Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark On Your Genes. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes

[3]
Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.

[4]
Hall, B. (2017, May 16). Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYaV1ptlVHM&t=4518s

[5]
Halliwell, E. (2018, June 08). How Taming the Mind is Like Riding a Horse. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.mindful.org/how-taming-the-mind-is-like-riding-a-horse/

[6]
Jones, V. (2015, August 14). Natural Horsemanship versus Traditional Horse Training. Retrieved from https://www.naylors.com/blog/natural-horsemanship-versus-traditional-horse-training/

[7]
Ireland, T. (2014, June 12). What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain? Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/

[8]
Lazar, S., Ph.D. (n.d.). Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation. Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/our-research

Why you might never be satisfied—unless you train your mind to do this

If you were terminally ill, would you want to bring a child into the world?

Paul Kalanithi, a hard-working neurosurgeon with mere months to live, did just that. Here’s a conversation he had with his wife, Lucy, following his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer in 2013:

Lucy: “Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together? Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

Paul: “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”

Two years later, just shy of his baby daughter’s first birthday, Paul said goodbye forever. He was 37. While writing his memoir When Breath Becomes Air, Paul said he felt that “life wasn’t about avoiding suffering [1].” Leaning into life’s challenges in the face of death is what made his life worth living—and lean he did.

But if life isn’t about avoiding suffering, what is it?

Some say life is suffering. That’s what the Buddha taught. But his teaching has been lost in translation. In Western society, we’ve made life about suffering to “get ahead”. When the Buddha taught that life is suffering, he used the Pali (Sanskrit) word dukkha. Rather than enduring physical and emotional pain, dukkha means impermanence; that life is transient, inconstant, fleeting.

The moment we’re born, the dying process begins. Our bodies atrophy. Our minds decay. The minds and bodies of those who we love follow the same process. Everything we touch slips away as we tighten our grip as if we’re trying to grab drops of water. And yet, we continue grasping. Nearly every thought is absorbed by what we could grab next. If only we could get that better job with that bigger salary. But does grasping at bigger drops of water make water any less impossible to hold on to?

Should we just stop reaching? The problem isn’t in trying to achieve something, but in assuming that, until we do, we’re somehow incomplete. We suffer because our minds leap ahead of our current circumstances.

But we also exist precisely because our minds leap ahead of our current circumstances. Evolution has favored this trait and our ancestors wouldn’t have survived without it. Unfortunately, our progeny won’t survive long with it. Constantly leaping ahead is one of the reasons for our rising inequality, worsening mental health, and increasingly destructive nuclear arsenal—we call it the arms race for a reason.

Leaving the global consequences aside, there’s an arms race happening within the confines of each of our individual minds. We suffer simply because we can’t seem to lay down our arms. It’s true that life isn’t about avoiding suffering, because suffering isn’t avoidable. Impermanence is the nature of all things. That’s why the current moment is all that truly exists.

That said, having a desire for something to happen in the future isn’t where we run into trouble; wishing for the present moment to be in some way different is. You can aspire to become a successful novelist but if you write each page with the wish that you already were, you’ll miss the story.

Worse still, your suffering is not a localized problem. It spreads like a disease to everyone around you, beginning with those you love most. But diseases can be isolated, understood, and sometimes even cured.

Studies are now showing that meditation makes us more willing to take action to relieve suffering. It does so by decreasing activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for emotional experience—in moments when we’re experiencing suffering. At the same time, the brain circuits responsible for producing feelings of love and compassion are activated [2]. Reducing suffering and deepening our relationships with others is primarily a matter of training the mind.

You can strive to live a meaningful life, achieving great things along the way, without being unhappy in your current circumstances. You can recognize, moment to moment, that there’s nothing missing. You can think less and live more. You don’t have to wait to be wealthy; being wealthy is realizing you have enough. In all walks of life, if you “realize there’s nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you [3].” Ironically, when you accept the impermanence of life, time stretches infinitely in the present moment.

What if Paul Kalanithi would’ve spent his last months on earth thinking about when he might be taken from it? Would he have truly experienced what it’s like to become a father? Would he have appreciated his unique ability to save the human life currently on his operating table? And, would living or dying have been more painful?

Before his breath became air, Paul left his daughter this letter:

“When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied… We are never so wise as when we live in the moment.”

Sources

[1] Kalanithi, P., & Verghese, A. (2016). When breath becomes air. New York: Random House.

[2] Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z., Olson, M. C., . . . Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science,24(7), 1171–1180. doi:10.1177/0956797612469537

[3] Tzu, L., & Mitchell, S. (2015). Tao te ching. London: Frances Lincoln.

More or less thinking: A more-or-less simple model for living more and suffering less

You can reduce the suffering in your world by doing two things:
(1) thinking more
(2) thinking less

On the surface, that looks like a contradiction; it’s actually a paradox. Try an experiment: for the next 10 seconds, try to not think a single thought.  

How’d that go? It probably felt like you had no control over the thoughts that appeared. That’s because we humans can’t go more than a few seconds without losing concentration. Actually, our thoughts think themselves.

Sure, you can deliberately make yourself focus on a topic, but in the next instant, your mind will wander through a series of random thoughts you didn’t intend. This seems to be the reality of consciousness. Some even take this reality to mean that free will is an illusion [1].

As much as you can control some of your thoughts, the vast majority seem to appear out of nowhere like that crazy distant relative who’s always popping in unannounced. Just when you think you’ve banished him by locking the front door, he comes in through your bedroom window. Unfortunately, you live in a house with an infinite number of doors and windows. Good luck.

On second thought, maybe trying to lock thoughts out of your mind is the wrong approach. After all, random thoughts are inevitable. It’s kind of like sitting near a highway and watching traffic pass. Imagine running out onto the highway in an attempt at stopping traffic. This human version of the game Frogger probably won’t end well for you. Instead, you can sit and watch the traffic come and go without trying to stop it or hitch a ride. It’s not about turning your thoughts and feelings off but observing them without judgment.

Now, try a different exercise. Think about September 11, 2001. If you were to add up the accumulative suffering caused by the events of that day, assuming there was a way to quantify it, how much would there be? Now think about the root cause of that suffering. The obvious one is terrorism. But what spawned those acts of terrorism? Ignorance and dogma; Ignorance that led to hatred and hatred that led to suffering.

The 9/11 example is admittedly drastic, but this pattern of ignorance causing suffering arises in our everyday human existence, albeit at smaller scales. You hastily rebuke your doctor for being late to your sick kid’s appointment, blind to the fact that he just came from caring for his own terminally-ill child at home. 

Psychologists have run decades of studies which show that your brain has two ways of thinking, often referred to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, emotional, stereotypical and unconscious. System 2 is slow, effortful, logical, calculating and conscious. Daniel Kahneman demonstrates in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow that, more often than not, we rely on System 1 to approach problems and stray from rationality, reality and sound judgment [2].

Suffering arises when you don’t see the world clearly. One of the remedies to this is developing critical thinking skills—thinking more. Critical thinking is a deliberate and systematic way to process information which leads to greater understanding and better outcomes. It means asking questions, questioning assumptions, being aware of your biases, evaluating existing evidence and, of course, thinking for yourself. This is the only way we can recognize our “paradigms of the past for the intellectual straitjackets they were [3].”

When you’re not actively engaged in analyzing information and evaluating evidence—that is, thinking more—try observing thoughts and feelings without judging or attaching to them—that is, thinking less. The danger lies in sliding into the middle ground where your default state of mind leads you to more or less thinking.

Although contemplatives have been teaching mindfulness for more than 2,500 years, modern science is only beginning to substantiate their claims. It turns out mindfulness meditation leads to real physical changes in your brain’s structure—improving concentration, reducing anxiety and depression, helping overcome addiction, preserving the brain, and reducing “me” thinking [4]. The science is still young but promising.

When you’re engaged in more or less thinking, on the other hand, your mind relies on concepts and runs wild with false narratives. With time, letting your brain entertain these misunderstandings makes it increasingly difficult to sort out reality and see the world as it is. Ideas get “under your skin, simply by sticking around long enough. Once an idea is hardwired, you might not be in a position to easily reject it [5].”

More or less thinking is like a mental model for understanding why we suffer unnecessarily. This blog is my personal attempt at using the more or less thinking model to gain a better understanding of why we suffer and how we can improve our mental health and our relationships. If nothing else, I hope you find some more-or-less decent ideas while you’re here. 


Sources

[1]  
Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Pr.

[2]
Kahneman, D. (2015). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[3]
Givens, T., & Givens, F. (2014). The crucible of doubt: Reflections on the quest for faith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.

[4]
Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): Potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology,5, 15-51. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551

Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science,24(5), 776-781. doi:10.1177/0956797612459659

Blanck, P., Perleth, S., Heidenreich, T., Kröger, P., Ditzen, B., Bents, H., & Mander, J. (2018). Effects of mindfulness exercises as stand-alone intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy,102, 25-35. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.12.002

Tang, Y., Tang, R., & Posner, M. I. (2013). Brief meditation training induces smoking reduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,110(34), 13971-13975. doi:10.1073/pnas.1311887110

Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,108(50), 20254-20259. doi:10.1073/pnas.1112029108

[5]  
Barrett, L. F. (2018). How Emotions Are Made. Pan Books.