Over time, much as repeated negative experiences make the brain more sensitive to them, I believe that repeatedly savoring positive experiences can train your brain to internalize them increasingly rapidly – in effect, making your brain like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.
Basically, three things are simultaneously true:
The points you raise are right at the intersection of key questions in working with trauma: does revisiting the material reinforce it or release it? Check out my slides and talks about the ways to work with the mind.
Probably like many people, I had a sense as a young child that there was a lot of unnecessary unhappiness in my school, my family, and out in the world. But I didn’t know what to do about it. Then as I got older and learned about psychology, brain science, and contemplative wisdom, I became excited about the practical tools they offered for using the mind alone to change the brain for the better.
The brain is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through us to make us happy or sad, loving or hateful, effective or helpless – so if you can change your brain, you can change your life. I have personally gained from these methods (my wife of 30 years says I have become nicer – which could be the toughest test!), and have seen many others get many benefits as well.
My hyper succinct two-word answer is: “You bet!”
And to expand a bit: any kind of learning – including emotional, social, motivational, and character learning – must involve changes in the brain. This means that grit – resilience, determination, persistence, hardiness, courage – gets developed through changes in neural structure and function.
We develop more grit through having repeated experiences of determination, endurance, resolve, perseverance, and sheer survival that get woven into the fabric of the brain – and thus one’s life.
In practical terms, learning – brain change – is a two-stage process in which an activated experience must be installed through some kind of lasting change in neural structure or function. We become happier through having repeated experiences of happiness and related factors that get encoded – installed – into the brain.
Without installation, there is no learning, no change: in effect, the experience is wasted on the brain. This is the dirty little secret in most psychotherapy, human resources training, coaching, addiction recovery, and character education: most hard-won beneficial states of mind are momentarily positive but have no lasting value. That’s why many efforts to develop deep inner strengths in people are largely if not completely ineffective: they are indeed being fostered – but without deliberate mindful attention to sustaining them, feeling them in the body, and intentionally absorbing them into oneself, they just don’t get encoded much into the brain. The person may have a memory of a harrowing sailing trip or an intense week with Outward Bound, but is still basically just as vulnerable to stress, loss, or setbacks as ever because they didn’t “take in” those experiences.
Here is the key takeaway: it is commonplace to activate experiences of love, support, determination, endurance, and tenacity. What is rarer and more important is to bring skillful attention to installing these experiences in the brain so that they have enduring benefit for the person.
The good news is that this skillful attention can be readily developed, as we found in the research on my training in positive neuroplasticity, and as explored in Hardwiring Happiness. But we have to do the work 5, 10, 20 (usually enjoyable) seconds at a time. Then we know in our hearts that we have earned the results – which makes the strength that we develop even sweeter.
There is no specific number (5 or 10 or 20) – those are just shorthand references I use that seem to work for people. The key is a matter of degree: the longer, the more intense, and the more felt in the body an experience is the more it will be encoded in neural structure. This is a fundamental and widely known fact in the neuropsychology of learning (including emotional learning). It’s also known that negative experiences have an advantage: they get encoded more readily. So we are trying to do two things: steepen the learning curve from useful, beneficial experiences, and compensate for the negativity bias of the brain.
This question gets at the remarkable fact under our noses all day long: our ineffable thoughts and feelings are making concrete, physical, lasting changes in the structure and function of our brains. Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is learning, including the emotional, motivational, attitudinal and skills learning that is our focus in therapy. In other words, the making of memory – especially implicit memory, the storehouse of emotional residues of lived experience, knowing “how to,” expectations, assumptions, models of relationship, etc. distinct from explicit memory, the much smaller storehouse of specific recollections and knowing “about” – the gradual change of the structure and function of the brain.
In this context, any kind of mental change is evidence of neural change. Since neuroscience is a baby science, our current, noninvasive, imaging technologies have limited capacities to measure neural change in human beings – especially given how physically fine, fast, and complex these changes are. You could put five of the cell bodies of a typical neuron side by side in the width of just one of your hairs, and five thousand of the synapses, the connections, between neurons in the width of just one hair.
Nonetheless, even though the ethics of animal research trouble and even alarm many, including me, it is the case that more invasive research on animal learning – including emotional, motivational learning, that has some parallels to therapy – has established many fine-grained details of the ways in which experiences of stress, frustration, and trauma, as well as experiences of caring, success, and safety change the nervous system.
So we presume that neural change must be occurring if there is mental change. In this light, there are now many studies with human beings that show structural and functional changes after interventions such as training in mindfulness, compassion, body awareness, and psychotherapy. The cortex – the outer shell or “skin” of the brain – gets measurably thicker due to new synapses and greater infusion by capillaries for blood flow; key regions are more readily activated; there is also greater connectivity between regions, so they are more integrated and work better together; there are even changes in the expression of genes – tiny strips of atoms in the twisted up molecules of DNA in the nuclei of neurons.
And as your mind changes your brain for the better, these changes in your brain feed back to change your mind for the better as well. As these positive structural and functional changes in the brain occur, people become more capable and happy. For instance, training in mindfulness increases activation in the left prefrontal cortex, which supports a more positive mood.
As to new cell growth, I assume this is a reference to neurogenesis, the birth of new baby neurons, primarily in the hippocampus. We can encourage the birth of these neurons through exercise, and encourage their survival and wiring into memory networks through engaging in complexity and stimulation.
Here’s the takeaway: we can be confident in our own lives, and in our work with clients, that our efforts are bearing fruit in actual, physical changes in the nervous system. And since motivation is one of the primary factors shaping outcome in psychotherapy – and in life as a whole – this is heartening, wonderful news.
The basic features of temperament or personality are not very plastic, and tend to endure over time. I’m still a fundamentally watchful, shy, introverted, inclined toward anxiety kind of guy – just like I was in high school.
But how we relate to our core personality can change dramatically over time. For example, shyness – social anxiety – may still arise, but alongside it we can cultivate self-confidence, an internal sense of allies, self-acceptance, distress tolerance, dis-identification from the shyness, and other resources so that how we feel and how we act in a socially challenging situation would be much better.
If I was going to take your challenge and design a program for a major psychological makeover, it would have these elements:
In the Foundations of Well-Being the Learning Pillar has several practices that cover the steps of HEAL. Here are the links of the audio for those:
Also, I have extended guided practices in the audio version of my book, Hardwiring Happiness, that you might like (chapter 10 is pretty much three chapters worth of guided practices).
The distinction between 1 and 2 blurs in practice. The main difference is that 2 is more deliberately and planfully sequential, and is a road map for therapists and also for people in general.
There is tremendous evidence in published studies on psychological practices or interventions of various kinds – including the kinds I mention, notably relaxation and positive emotion practices – that they do lead to significant improvements in mental health indicators of various kinds: improvements that do change lives for the better in meaningful ways.
As a personal detail, I worked for a year for a mathematician who did probabilistic risk analyses, and it was a fascinating consideration of levels of evidence for propositions about reality. As is increasingly noted in the scientific community, including the life sciences and social sciences, the dichotomous true/false distinction of “statistical significance/non-significance” is mathematically silly. The crux is how much uncertainty we have about propositions. Then the question becomes, to what extent do certain kinds of evidence reduce uncertainty. By the definition of information, relevant information of any kind reduces uncertainty.
Information comes from many sources, most of which are not randomized control group double-blind studies. For example, roughly half of the methods used routinely in medical settings do not have a study behind them, but they are within the standard of care because there are other kinds of evidence for their legitimate use.
I use the word “installation” – my own term, not in common use – as a general term for the process of turning passing experiences into lasting changes in the body, especially changes of neural structure or function. Terms that include installation implicitly (but have larger meanings that include the activation phase of learning) are “learning,” “growth,” “skills acquisition,” “healing,” “development,” and “memory making” (memory in the broadest sense, including implicit memory).
I call out “installation” to highlight its distinction from “activation” – the temporary mental/neural process that is the basis in the natural frame (distinct from whatever is transcendental) for the contents of the stream of consciousness. This distinction is typically blurred in the use of the terms “learning,” etc., which enables an overlooking of the fact that experiencing does not equal learning, and that most experiences lead to no learning, no lasting change.
Personally, I use “installation” because of its information processing, computer-ish, mechanistic, hardware-ish associations. I have found that those connotations are a plus for many people, but for some it sounds too techy, too mechanistic. Other terms could be used as long as we stay clear that there are two necessary and sufficient stages of learning – activation and installation, however we call them – and the first stage alone, experiencing, is necessary but not sufficient for learning.
We also need installation – which many methods do implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, engage but which the fields of psychotherapy, coaching, human resources training, and also mindfulness and compassion training have not focused on in any deliberate and comprehensive way. As a result of this omission, the gain from experiences is much less than it could be, and the learning/healing/growth curves of individuals are much flatter than they could be – which has lots of implications.
That whole process is very important, but my own work focuses on the third way to engage the mind: let in. This is the active cultivation and internalization of beneficial states of mind – in the context of the other two ways to engage it.
My view is that there has been a lot of development in both clinical psychology and the spiritual traditions of the first two ways to engage the mind, but not as much development of how to do cultivation skillfully. In particular, we have not really taken into account the implications of the fact that the brain changes – learns – in two stages (from short-term buffers to long-term storage, from state to trait, from activation to installation), and without really doing the second stage (installation), there is little or no learning, little or no lasting value.
So here is where there is good opportunity: developing ways to more skillfully “install” everyday experiences in the brain as lasting inner resources, such as resilience, kindness, happiness, and wisdom.
In studies, there are six well-established factors that increase learning, including for developing greater resilience, gratitude, compassion, and other inner strengths: duration (stay with it), intensity (let the experience become more powerful for you), multimodality (feel the experience in your body), novelty (look for fresh, new qualities in familiar experiences), personal relevance (see how taking in this experience could matter to you), and priming (consciously intend that the experience is really registered by you).
From what you say, it sounds like your daughter may have “dyslexia,” or perhaps a simpler problem with “visual processing.” Reading problems are very common, both among children and adults. If you think about it, reading is a very unnatural thing to do. In fact, no one read until about 5000 years ago when written language began to develop! So it is normal to have difficulty with it.
There are many approaches for addressing issues with reading, depending on the underlying causes. Sometimes a child simply needs glasses. Other times the issue is with “visual discrimination,” with rapidly discerning the small differences between little squiggles such as “p” and “g,” “d” and “b,” or “x” and “+”. Often there is an issue with “auditory discrimination,” with tracking the rapid changes in speech sounds. The first step is relating those phonemic units to letters and syllables in words. Commonly, the deep source of reading problems is a difficulty in relating visual processing to auditory processing, to rapidly associating the shapes of squiggles on a page (e.g., letters, syllables, words) to the sounds that are the basis of the oral language one learned as a young child before later learning to read (visual language).
This probably seems very complicated, and perhaps overwhelming. But really, most reading issues work out over time. What is important is to understand it is not the child’s fault, and that reading and related school activities can feel embarrassing and stressful for a child – so she needs extra understanding and nurturing, extra compassion and kindness.
I suggest you speak to the people at your daughter’s school and see what resources they can offer. By law, even if a child is going to an independent (private) school, she has access to the services of a public school if she has a significant learning issue. Informally, her classroom teacher might make some adjustments. More formally, the school could form a “student study team” to coordinate their efforts for her. Most formally, your school district could develop an Individual Educational Plan” (IEP).
Additionally, it is often very useful to work with people privately, outside of the school system – people who work for you and who are accountable to you – such as a psychologist, who can administer tests to assess what is actually happening and what the causes are, or a learning specialist, who can work with the child individually. There are helpful literacy programs, such as Slingerland or Lindamood-Bell.
As you take these actions, step back every few months and try to evaluate whether they are helping. In a hypothetical example, if your daughter has a general intelligence in the top fifth of children her age but her scores on reading tests are usually in the bottom fifth (and this doesn’t improve over time, even if her reading ability improves), the large gap between her ability (general intelligence) and performance (reading skills) is not getting any narrower. When there is a lack of improvement over several years, everyone involved needs to pause and figure out what to do differently, and not just keep doing the same old things.
At home, it usually backfires to put pressure on a child related to reading. Be sure to make reading fun rather than a scary and stressful chore. When reading with her, you could gently encourage her to try to sound out some of the words, almost as a kind of game, but if she can’t quickly figure out a word, just tell her what it is so she can get a sense of the sentence as a whole, the paragraph as a whole, and the story as a whole. Reading should be rewarding – otherwise she will not be motivated to make the effort to get better at it.
Most of all, stay focused on big goals such as a love of learning, feeling good about herself, developing abilities that are not related to school (e.g., understanding others, music), and a comfortable low-stress relationship with her parents. These are more important than being a good speller or a fast reader. Sometimes people chase improvements on test scores that come with great costs to overall well-being and relationships. There are many successful, intelligent, and happy adults who function very well in the world, and who also continue to find that reading large amounts of text is slow and effortful, and who find other ways to get their information. Keep reading in perspective and take the long view, rather than getting trapped in fixating on short-term goals, such as this week’s spelling test.
There are numerous ways to be happy in life, and the best and most effective ones will depend on the particular person and their situation. This is an important point, about individual differences.
It’s also important to improve the world around us. For example, about a billion people worldwide go to be bed hungry each night. Poverty and injustice make many people, including children, feel bad.
All this said, the key point for me has been the realization that I could also heal and grow and learn a little every day. No matter how bad that past has been or how bad the present moment is, we can always develop ourselves from there each day. This is tremendously hopeful. Learning is the superpower of superpowers, the one we use to develop the rest of them.
Keep on learning every day!
Resilient by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Just One Thing by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Just One Minute online program
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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