‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ is a book about the neuroplasticity of the brain, published in 2007, by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge. The findings reported in this book are based on his own and others’ scientific research on what happens to the brains of people who have been through a variety of traumas, from head injuries sustained through accidents, to psychological problems as a result of childhood abuse and neglect and related traumas.
The most startling revelation of this book, published now over ten years ago but still selling well worldwide, is that the brain is capable of changing itself, and in fact, it is doing just this constantly, throughout our lives. The old idea that we have a certain number of brain cells at birth, which then slowly die off as we age has been proven incorrect. Our stem cells, which are characterised by their capacity to generate into multiple cell types, are generated in our brain throughout our life.
The findings in ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ show that the brain is plastic, and the neural pathways do change according to how we think and which part of our brain we are using. The brain is actually amazingly plastic: one woman whose story is featured in the book was actually born without the left hemisphere in her brain, so she has difficulty with the physical functions on the right side of her body normally governed by that hemisphere. Surprisingly though, over the course of her life, her right hemisphere has learned (through specially designed exercises) to take over some of the functions of the left, and over time she slowly regains some movement and functionality in the right side of her body.
This is very interesting for any student of yoga, because it confirms the ancient teachings, developed thousands of years ago before any sophisticated research into brain functioning was possible, that repeated thought patterns create Samskaras – the yogic term for ‘tracks in the brain’ meaning that the more you think in a certain way, the more you train your mind to think in this way. And this is how you eventually create a belief about ‘how things are’.
When we worry – which means, when we are thinking negatively about the past or the future – we are literally creating neural pathways or Samskaras where those worry pathways (neural pathways created from the synapses that fire when we worry), live. And the more we think these thoughts, the deeper the thought train tracks are in our minds, and the more stressed or depressed we become.
But, happily, there is a way to change our own brain plasticity through training our thoughts away from negativity and towards equanimity and a positive outlook on life. The way we do this is through mindfulness. With mindfulness, we are able to clearly see our unhelpful thoughts and learn to retrain our mind to different ways of thinking. In this way we are also actually changing the physical structure or plasticity of our brains.
How to change our brains through mindfulness of thoughts
The next time you feel a negative thought coming into your mind stream, such as:
‘I am a failure’ or ‘I will never find a life partner because I am bad at relationships’, take note.
How does the thought make you feel?
You may immediately feel sad as that thought comes in. This means you have given validity to the thought. If you start crying, then you are having an emotional reaction to the thought, and that thought has progressed down into you physiology and created this reaction. The amazing thing is that this can happen in a microsecond. Within a microsecond of that thought entering your mind space, you have engaged with it, interpreted it, believed it and are now reacting to it.
How can we use mindfulness techniques to change this instant and unbeneficial chain reaction?
First immediately we notice the thought coming into our mind stream, we mentally note: ‘thinking, thinking’. (You are telling yourself ‘I am now experiencing a thought.’)
We can try a few different techniques after this.
1. Mindful Self-Talk
We ask ourselves if the thought is real and true – we recognise that it’s not, and we let it pass out of our mind stream.
Thought: I am a failure.
As yourself: Is this true?
Can you think of the many ways in which you are not a failure?
Yes, they are the following: I am a great friend. I a skilled at my job. I am a loving mother.
(list for yourself at least three things about you that show you that you are a successful and loving, kind person.)
2. Not now
Thought comes into your mind stream: ‘I am a failure.’
Mindfully say to yourself: Not now.
Effectively, you are choosing not to engage with the thought.
You may have to repeat this many times either under your breath or even out loud: Not now, not now, not now, not now…..NOT NOW!!
3. Practice a Mantra
The thought comes in: ‘I am a failure.’
In response, use the ancient yogic technique of mantra meditation. Choose a mantra. It can be as simple as repeating the names of a saint or a God or a spiritual teacher if that works for you. In India, people use Mala beads, and will chant ‘Ram’ on each bead.
‘Ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram, ram.’
Or you may want to create your own mantra such as: All is well.
‘All is well, all is well, all is well, all is well, all is well, all is well, All Is Well!’
4. Tell the thought to f-off
If the thought is very persistent, and none of the above techniques work, you may want to try telling the thought to f-off. Treat the thought like you would a school bully, and just tell it to get out of your mind space in no uncertain terms.
Thought comes in: ‘I am a failure’.
Mindfully tell that thought to ‘F-off!’
You may also have to repeat this a few times….
‘F-off, f-off, f-off, f-off, f-off, f-off, f-off, f-off…. F – OFF already!’
Those are some techniques for working with our mind so as to slowly undo the Samskaras created by negative thinking patterns.
What about building new and positive mental train tracks or Samskaras?
While a lot of our thoughts are unconscious, we can also think consciously. We can choose to create new Samskaras from new thoughts about ourselves.
Next time you are on the train, or driving, try creating some positive Samskaras.
I am am a helpful, loving, positive and successful person.
At first your negative mind might come in and doubt the truth of this statement.
‘Yeah, whatever, if you say so.’
But just continue.
I am a helpful, loving, positive and successful person.
Say that enough times so that you believe it, and you will be changing the plasticity of your brain. Keep doing this for the rest of your life and you might end up with a totally new brain by the time you are ninety! Amazing no? I think so. We can keep on growing and changing throughout our lives, and just because we get grey hair and wrinkles, doesn’t mean that on the inside we are not being rejuvenated and made new through new neural connections in our brain each and every day. And just in case you don’t believe that (maybe you have an old Samskara that needs dissolving!), just Google Tao Porchon-Lynch. She is a 100-year old yoga teacher and one of the most positive and radiant humans on the planet right now. I would say her neural plasticity would have to be off the charts! 🙂
Find out more about the book: The Brain that Changes Itself.
Like this post? Tried the techniques? Let us know via email what you think!
Michelle is a writer, musician, meditation and yoga teacher based in Melbourne. She teaches mindfulness courses and leads yoga retreats. She runs her own business called Inner Alchemy and is available as a coach and mentor.