The latest neuroscientific studies show that we have the ability to change and grow our brain even as an adult! This has fascinating implications for our wellbeing and other areas of Positive Psychology.
When do you think your last brain cells were born? Before you were born? Or at the age of 6? You may be surprised to learn that even the activities you engaged in today alter your brain.
The Brain – A Rigid Machine?
For a long time it was believed that once our brain is fully developed during infancy, it is no longer able to change. This meant that as adults we are stuck not only with the talents we possess but also with a certain level of subjective well-being, the so-called happiness set point.
However, recent Neuroscientific research provides us with promising findings that prove the idea of limited brain development wrong.
Neuroplasticity – the brain is malleable
In an early experiment with rats, American neuroanatomist Dr. Marian Diamond found that an enriched environment (a cage with toys) produced anatomical changes in the rats’ cerebral cortex; their brains became heavier than the brains of those in a boring environment (Diamond, Krech, & Rosenzwei, August 1964).
Later studies confirmed the concept of Neuroplasticity, the ability of synapses, neurons and whole brain areas to change depending on the activities we perform (Doidge, 2007). As it turns out, the brain is not a rigid machine, but malleable as a lump of clay, and it can change even later in life.
In other words: what we focus on, grows, even in our brain! Here is a neat explanation on how neuroplasticity works, well worth the two minutes:
One woman that is living proof of our brain’s ability to rewire is Sheryl Schlitz. A course of antibiotics had destroyed her balance system, which meant she perpetually fell over. However, with the help of Paul Bach-y-Rita, she managed to train her brain to regain balance (Maclean’s, 2007). Here is how they did it:
Neuroscience and Positive Psychology
The concept of Neuroplasticity has a number of implications on positive psychology. Here are three ways in which we can use this knowledge to maximize happiness:
Change your happiness set point
A happiness set point is the point on a continuum of happiness with which we are born.
According to Barbara Fredrickson, the happiness set point is given at birth and accounts for about 40% of our happiness. Early findings showed that while positive events (such as winning the lottery) and negative events (such as an accident) change our happiness levels in the short run, we eventually return back to the baseline, our happiness set point (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).
The latest findings in Neuroplasticity, however, indicate that the happiness set point can be changed, based on what we focus on and the activities we perform.
So as we practice gratitude, optimism and self-compassion the neurons in our brain form more connections, and the area of the brain grows and becomes stronger. Over time, this alteration in our brain can change our set point of happiness (Greater Good Science Center, 2014).
Develop a growth-mindset
We can also use this knowledge to help create a growth-mindset. Since there is evidence that we can rewire our brain to learn anything we want, our only limit is the limit we set ourselves.
We are not stuck with the talents we possess. In fact, many successful people owe their success not to their genes but to hard work.
Did you know that Michael Jordan was cut from his High School Basketball Team? What set him apart was his will to succeed. He had a growth-mindset. So the more you train your brain to avoid limiting thoughts, the more you will look at challenges as the path to mastery rather than a risk of failure.
Grow the Mindfulness muscles in your brain
Positive and negative emotions look different in the brain. Research found that someone who experiences positive emotions, such as joy or gratitude has a much higher activity in the left prefrontal cortex, whereas negative emotions such as anxiety or stress are linked to activity in the right prefrontal cortex.
Not surprisingly, the positive effects of mindfulness are also reflected in the brain.
In a trial with 41 biotechnology employees, one group received Mindfulness training while the other didn’t. After a period of four months, the group who received the training showed a significant increase in left-right prefrontal cortex, the area that reflects positive emotions (Davidson et al., 2003 Jul-Aug). Hence, whenever you practice Mindfulness you are giving your brain a happiness training!
So what are you going to do today to strengthen those positive neuron connections in your brain?
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? . Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.
Davidson, R., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., . . . Sheridan, J. (2003 Jul-Aug). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med., 65(4), 564-570.
Diamond, M. C., Krech, D., & Rosenzwei, M. R. (August 1964). The Effects of an Enriched Environment on the Histology of the Rat Cerebral Cortex. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, Vol. 123 (No. 1).
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Penguin Books.
Greater Good Science Center (Producer). (2014, 03.09.2015). Shauna Shapiro: Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AqgMo1P05E
Maclean's. (2007). The woman who was always falling down. Vol. 120, no. 13 (Apr 9, 2007), 40-42.