Positive Neuroplasticity: The Mindful Cultivation Of Resilient Well-Being (SLIDES)

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Positive Neuroplasticity: The Mindful Cultivation Of Resilient Well-Being

Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley

September 11, 2018 | Rick Hanson, Ph.D.


The Value of Inner Resources

To have lasting well-being in a changing world, we’ve got to be resilient.

To be resilient, we’ve got to have inner resources.


Shaping the Course of a Life





Location of Resources





Some Inner Resources

Patience, Determination, Grit
Emotional Intelligence
Character Virtues
Positive Emotions
Interpersonal Skills


Location of Resources





The harder a person’s life, the more challenges one has, the less the outer world is helping – the more important it is to develop inner resources.


Researchers have focused on identifying and using resources – such as workplace mindfulness – but what about developing them in the first place?


The majority of our inner resources are acquired, through emotional, somatic, social, and motivational learning – which is fundamentally hopeful.


Which means Changing the Brain for the Better


Self-Directed Neuroplasticity
An Overview of Current Research

Enormous research on people that (1) mental states and traits have neural correlates and (2) mental practices change states and traits

Enormous research on non-human animals that various stimuli (with related presumed mental states) change their brains

Much research on people that mental training changes their brains Some unintegrated research on deliberate mental factors that increase gains from therapy and psycho-social programs

Two studies on training the systematic use of such mental factors


Mental resources are acquired
in two stages:

Encoding → Consolidation

Activation → Installation

State → Trait



Key Mechanisms of Neuroplasticity

• (De)Sensitizing existing synapses
• Building new synapses between neurons
• Altered gene expression inside neurons
• Building and integrating new neurons
• Altered activity in a region
• Altered connectivity among regions
• Changes in neurochemical activity (e.g., dopamine)
• Changes in neurotrophic factors
• Modulation by stress hormones, cytokines
• Slow wave and REM sleep
• Information transfer from hippocampus to cortex


We become more compassionate by repeatedly installing experiences of compassion.

We become more grateful by repeatedly installing experiences of gratitude.

We become more mindful by repeatedly installing experiences of mindfulness.


BUT: Experiencing doesn’t equal learning. Activation without installation may be pleasant, but no trait resources are acquired.

What fraction of our beneficial mental states lead to lasting changes in neural structure or function?


People focus more on activation than on installation.

This reduces the gains from mindfulness programs, human resources training, coaching, psychotherapy, and self-help activities.


How can you steepen your growth curve?



Learning is the strength of strengths, since it’s the one we use to grow the rest of them.

Knowing how to learn the things that are important to you could be the greatest strength of all.


Velcro for Bad, Teflon for Good


The Negativity Bias

As the nervous system evolved, avoiding “sticks” was usually more consequential than getting “carrots.”

1. So we scan for bad news,
2. Over-focus on it,
3. Over-react to it,
4. Turn it quickly into (implicit) memory,
5. Sensitize the brain to the negative, and
6. Get into vicious cycles with others.


The Negativity Bias


Lasting Gains from Passing Experiences

How can we increase the conversion rate of beneficial states to beneficial traits?


HEAL: Turning States into Traits


1. Have a beneficial experience


2. Enrich the experience
3. Absorb the experience
4. Link positive and negative material (Optional)


Have a Beneficial Experience


Enrich It


Absorb It


Link Positive & Negative Material


Have It, Enjoy It


Let’s Try It

Relaxing as you exhale

Gratitude, gladness

Warm feelings for someone

For each of these:
Have the experience. Enrich it. Absorb it.


It’s Good to Take in the Good

Develops psychological resources:
• General – resilience, positive mood, feeling loved, etc.
• Specific – matched to challenges, wounds, deficits

Has built-in, implicit benefits:
• Training attention and executive functions
• Treating oneself kindly, that one matters

May sensitize the brain to the positive

Fuels positive cycles with others


Keep a green bough
in your heart,
and a singing bird
will come.
-Lao Tzu


Growing Key Resources

Resilience is required for challenges to our needs.

Understanding the need that is challenged helps us identify, grow, and use the specific mental resource(s) that are best matched to it.


What – if it were more present in the mind of a person – would really help?

How could a person have and install more experiences of these mental resources?


Meeting Our Three Fundamental Needs

  1. Safety
    (threat response)
  2. Satisfaction
    Approaching rewards
    (goal pursuit)
  3. Connection
    Attaching to others
    (social engagement)


The Evolving Brain


Matching Resources to Needs

Safety > Peace

See actual threats, See resources, Grit, Fortitude, Feel protected, Alright right now, Relaxation, Calm

Satisfaction > Contentment

Gladness, Feel successful, Healthy pleasures, Impulse control, Aspiration, Enthusiasm

Connection > Love

Empathy, Compassion, Kindness, Wide circle of “us”, Assertiveness, Self-worth, Confidence


Wider Implications

As we grow inner resources, we become more able to cope with stress, recover from trauma, and pursue our aims.

At the individual level, this is the foundation of resilient well-being.


At the level of groups and countries, people become less vulnerable to the classic manipulations of fear and anger, greed and possessiveness, and “us” against “them” conflicts.

Which has big implications for our world.


Think not lightly of good,
saying, “It will not come to me.”

Drop by drop is
the water pot filled.

Likewise, the wise one,
Gathering it little by little,
Fills oneself with good.

-Dhammapada 9.122


Supplemental Materials

Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.

Lazar, et al. 2005.
Neuroreport, 16, 1893-1897.


In the Garden of the Mind

1. Be with what is there
2. Decrease the negative
3. Increase the positive

Witness. Pull weeds. Plant flowers.
Let be. Let go. Let in.
Mindfulness is present in all three.

“Being with” is primary – but not enough.
We also need “wise effort.”


The Two Ways To Have a Beneficial Experience

  1. Notice one you are already having.
    • In the foreground of awareness
    • In the background
  2. Create One.


Two Aspects of Installation

Mindbig, rich, protected experience
Brainintensifying and maintaining neural activity

Mindintending and sensing that the experience is received into oneself, with related rewards
Brainpriming, sensitizing, and promoting more effective encoding and consolidation


Enriching an Experience

Duration – 5+ seconds; protecting it; keeping it going
Intensity – opening to it in the mind; helping it get big
Multimodality – engaging multiple aspects of experience, especially perception and emotion
Novelty – seeing what is fresh; “don’t know mind”
Salience – seeing why this is personally relevant


Absorbing an Experience

• Intend to receive the experience into yourself.

• Sense the experience sinking into you.
– Imagery – Water into a sponge; golden dust sifting down; a jewel into the treasure chest of the heart
– Sensation – Warm soothing balm
– Give over to it; let it change you.

• Be aware of ways the experience is rewarding.


Four Ways to Use HEAL with Others

• Doing it implicitly

• Teaching it and leaving it up to people

• Doing it explicitly with people

• Asking people to do it on their own


HEAL in Classes and Trainings

• Take a few minutes to explain it and teach it.

• In the flow, encourage Enriching and Absorbing, using natural language.

• Encourage people to use HEAL on their own.

• Do HEAL on regular occasions (e.g., at end of a therapy session, at end of mindfulness practice)


Suggested References

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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.

Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include NeurodharmaResilient, Hardwiring HappinessBuddha’s BrainJust One Thing, and Mother Nurture – with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free newsletters have 215,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He and his wife live in northern California and have two adult children. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.

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