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“You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” Although this sounds like a canned statement of encouragement (because it is), there is actually some truth to this greeting card sentiment. Maybe it should say something more like: “You can train your brain to do anything if your mind gives it the order.” Because that’s exactly what happens. Let me back up…
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Recently, I’ve been enamored with the current research that’s out there detailing brain neuroplasticity and how we can control it, so I called up my best friend Kara Zimmerman. Kara has her Masters in Neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University, in addition to her B.A. in Theatre and Dance from Muhlenberg College. Needless to say, she’s one smart, creative, utterly unstoppable chick. And it’s probably because she manhandles that brain of hers. During our conversation, three things struck me that I thought you should know. These three things transformed how I think about my brain, how to control it, and where true power lies.

 

1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is an absolute myth. The small things are actually what matter. Kara told me, “When it comes to neurobiology, that’s all you should be worried about. Fine details, small emotions, little experiences – those things become bigger in the long run.” 64860_694825641976_1473211441_nI get what the positive phrase is implying – it really means, gain some perspective. But Kara argues that true perspective is gained by paying attention to the small things we tend to deny or throw away. That unsettling interaction you had with your boss? The emotional turbulence when your spouse nags you about cleaning up? The stress you feel when you’re running late? All of those small instances build neural pathways and instigate a feedback loop that brings you to the same reaction again and again. There are emotions attached to these small moments, whether we acknowledge them or not, and those unnoticed emotions are sending out hormonal reinforcements causing our brain to choose the same old path simply because we’re not aware of it.

a-funny-kid-crying-santa-9Take, for instance, running late in the morning: you are moving quickly, your heart rate speeds up, you feel frenzied, you start to feel trapped, like your life is out of your control and completely defined by things out of your hands. Our mind might register all of that as: this is just my morning routine. If you ignore those emotions, or disregard them as something you are also not in control of, next time you are late for work, this feeling will most likely come up again because your brain is prepared for it. But should you pay a little more attention, should you place your mind on the fact that you are feeling stressed and trapped – you now have the ability to create an offshoot from this negative feedback loop. For example, next time you are late, instead of imagining the stressful train ride – you can choose to breathe deeply. You can choose to focus on one thing at a time. You can choose to smile. All of these things create brand new neural pathways in your brain so that you are able to handle being late much better next time. So sweating the small stuff is actually your ticket out of emotional redundancy.

IMG_05532. The brain craves novelty. So it’s great that we are capable of change, but it’s still so difficult to actually change a habit. There’s no way I can get my mind to go to a calm, relaxed state when I’m under a lot of stress, right? Not necessarily. According to Kara, and science, the brain craves novelty. The brain wants new experiences and it’s up to you to understand that and follow through. Kara says that we should be finding ways to reward those new experiences so that, “that small [positive] experience will start to build up and your brain will recognize that as an important neuron.” Continuing with our example of running late for work: we start to feel stressed, recognize the emotion, and begin a new action. We slow down our breathing, we smile, we make eye contact with others and we train our brain out of stress. The positive reward might be playing your favorite song on your iPod – some song that makes you feel happy, safe, most like you. Now we’ve created a novel feeling (calm during the morning rush) and rewarded that new neuron (playing our favorite music). Instead of digging into our old neural pathway, we have taken control of our brain and started to reimage it. After awhile, this will be our feedback loop instead: handling stress with acknowledgement, calm, and positive reward.


3. The brain will get rid of what it doesn’t need.
This utterly fantastic idea is called pruning. Kara says, “ [Pruning] happens naturally to neurons that haven’t been used in awhile. The brain gets rid of them. Overnight, neurons will cut back in areas that aren’t as important, synapses will be taken away, and things that were important from yesterday will be important again tomorrow.” Ultimately, you are in control of telling the brain what it needs and what it doesn’t. You categorize IMG_0423the negative feedback loops as important by using them again and again. Being easy to anger, stressing in uncomfortable situations, ignoring the small emotions are literally being reinforced every night as important. But if you actively work to change that feedback loop, the brain will prune what you don’t use anymore. So change is less about your feeling and more about what you order the brain to remove or retain. For an Italian girl with a temper, this is handy news. This means that if we practice our de-stressing techniques enough times, our brain will weed out negative feedback loops overnight. We go to sleep and reinforce the decisions we make during the day. So in this way, each day becomes brand new, stronger, and over time,  it looks more and more like what we choose (for better or worse).

My final thought from Kara’s brilliance has to do with this analogy she made, “The mind is to the brain how walking is to the legs. Legs don’t just move on their own, and the brain doesn’t just act on its own.”

Understanding how the brain works is instrumental in taking responsibility and ownership of your circumstances. Yes, there are many hindrances in life, many setbacks, roadblocks, failures, and criticisms. But ultimately, for me, it is a comfort to know that neurologically I can address these realities with my own imagination. That the reimaging I create in my brain will be the ultimate testimony of who I am. That I could rely on predispositions, old habits, or denying my feelings but this would be as much of a choice as creating a new, healthier reality. And that now, with a better understanding of how my brain functions, I can also choose to meet difficulties as opportunities to rewire my brain, challenges as chances to reinforce a positive feedback loop, and failures as moments to reward how I grow instead of how I fail.

All in all, the brain is a powerful tool. But what I’m most excited to know is that the mind is the one in control.

What is most surprising to you about the brain?

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