We were riding through downtown when my daughter, who was a wee one at the time, noticed a homeless person. She intuitively knew he was unhappy, and hungry. She turned to me, her big blue eyes tearing up, and said “Momma, can we buy him something to eat?” I get teary-eyed just thinking about that poignant moment. I drove to a restaurant, and ordered a hardy meal and a large iced tea to go. We retraced our tracks in hopes of finding the man. But it was to no avail. I think this was the first time my daughter became acutely aware that there was suffering in the world. As a human rights advocate, I can feel overwhelmed with sadness and frustration at times.
Being an advocate and staying abreast of the news can take a toll on me and my thought life, but especially my brain. I can’t just stick my head in the sand and say I’m only going to think happy thoughts, and block out anything negative. I can’t just be focused on my life and well-being. As a citizen of this planet, I have a social responsibility. Empathy and compassion are nurtured when we put ourselves in the shoes of other people. I do, however, think it’s important to be aware of our thoughts and create a balanced thought life. Thoughts create neural connections, and these neural connections can network, increasing gray matter volume in specific regions of the brain, depending on the thoughts.
“Neurons that wire together fire together.”
For example, when there is more neural activity in the left prefrontal cortex and left amygdala (positive emotions), a feeling of well-being is the result. If one is prone to worry and/or has repetitive negative thoughts, those thoughts can increase gray matter volume (and activity) in the right prefrontal cortex and right amygdala (negative emotions, fear). The right amygdala is valuable in that it allows us to be aware of potential dangers in our environment. However, sometimes real dangers don’t exist in our immediate environment, and the brain can’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s not real. It reacts to our senses and our thoughts, and with that can come a soup of neurochemicals and hormones, which in turn affects the body.
That’s when mind matters.
We have the ability to increase or decrease (synaptic pruning) gray matter volume and activity via self-directed neuroplasticity. Having this awareness is a powerful, empowering tool. I have a strategy: for every negative thought I have, I try to immediately counter it with at least two positive thoughts or actions. That can include visualization, listening to uplifting music, doing something special for myself or someone else. Saying “I love you.” Reminiscing on happy moments in the past, or looking at beautiful scenery or images. Reading inspirational quotes or being creative. I think of things I may tend to take for granted every day and feel gratitude. Focused attention is key for me; savoring positive thoughts and experiences.
From personal experience, I know self-directing neuroplasticity works. This journey is challenging, and I still have my moments of discouragement. But I’ve seen remarkable results.
“When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” ~ Carl Sagan