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Pursue What Matters

Episode 177: Why You Need to Understand Neuroplasticity

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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Do you sometimes feel victimized by your thoughts? You know, those ugly thoughts that undermine you criticize you and judge you. Join me today as we talk about how to change your mind for good through neuroplasticity?

Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So if you’re like most of us, you have some pesky thoughts that drag you down. And maybe they’ve been around for quite a while. Well, I want to talk with you about the science of neuroplasticity. And before you hit the pause button, stay tuned. I promise. This is really interesting. And it’s very practical. And what you need to know about neuroplasticity, just as we get going, is that it is how we change our mind for good, right. So you might not care about neuroplasticity, but you probably do care about changing your mind and your life for good. And so this is why it’s so important to understand neuroplasticity because it has the power to shift your mind, your brain structure, your physiological functioning, and your life. It’s pretty remarkable. And in the last couple of decades, we have seen a lot of research explosion. To help us understand neuroplasticity, it’s been around for a while. But we have better imaging, right? We have PET scans, we have functional MRIs, where we can look at what’s happening functionally in the mind, in response to various stimuli. So that’s probably about as geeky as I’m gonna get. I am going to talk more about how neuroplasticity works. But my goal today is to really keep it very practical and useful for you.

Okay, so when we think about neuroplasticity, it is how we overcome negative thoughts and develop healthier thoughts and neural pathways. Now it has lots of functions. But those are the ones that we’re going to be focusing on today. And so a good definition of neuroplasticity, this comes to us from Rick Hansen, who’s a psychologist, he’s an author of many great books that I really like. And this comes from his book, neuro dharma. So his definition of neuroplasticity, the capacity of the nervous system to be changed by the information flowing through it. Okay, so one more time, neuroplasticity is the capacity of the nervous system to be changed by the information flowing through it.

If you think about the nervous system, right? Like it’s going throughout the body and the brain, we think about the the two branches of the nervous system. And so we will not get into all of that. But just keep in mind what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the nervous system. And so every week with a podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters. By strengthening your confidence to lead, I try to do that in one of three areas. So first, leading with clarity. And this is really about connecting you to purpose. Second, leading with curiosity. This is where we’re really focused on self awareness. And we’re focused on self care and ultimately self leadership. And then the third way is leading and building a community so that as you develop the skills, you can better support and lead others. And so today, primarily, we’re really focusing on leading with curiosity. So we are trying to help increase our self awareness, right, our self coping or self care skills, and our self leadership. So, you know, if we’re continually getting tripped up by negative thoughts, it will absolutely undermine our capacity to lead both at home and at work. So I hope that, you know, I hope you have buy in into the importance of curiosity, the importance of self awareness, and really, you know, like leading your life and taking responsibility for your emotions and your thoughts. Because the truth is, those have a big impact every day on your relationships and your work and your goals. And so, if you don’t have awareness of that, boy, you can, it can really lead to a lot of trouble. And especially, it can lead to, to unhappiness and poor well being and so, hopefully, you’ve got some buy in to the importance of leading with curiosity. So, let’s jump right in to, to this topic, why you need to understand neuroplasticity plasticity.

So I want to start by talking about the negativity bias Now maybe you’ve come across this Um, I have definitely mentioned it before on the podcast. And so the negativity bias is this recognition that as humans, we have a bias towards negative stimuli. Okay. And this is a survival mechanism. So this was something developed eons ago to help us survive in hostile environments. So one of the ways that I’ve talked about it is right, when you’re back on the savanna, it was very, very important for you to notice and attend to predators on the savanna. Right, it was much less necessary for your survival, to notice, you know, the prey animals or, you know, benign animals that had no desire to eat you, or kill you. And so that is really the negativity bias in action. And so one of the ways that I like to think about this, and hopefully it can be helpful for you is that the brain is like Velcro, for negative thoughts, and Teflon for positive thoughts. Okay, so Velcro, those negative thoughts are really sticky, and they stick right to the brain, the brain is really focused in on those and it will take up the brain’s attention. And conversely, the brain is like Teflon for positive thoughts.

So think about those Teflon pans, the nonstick pans, we can have lots of positive stimuli, and positive thoughts. And yet, they don’t stick to the brain, the brain is not attuned to them, they’re not focused, right, the brain will notice them. And it might be like a passing pleasant thought. But they don’t really get much traction. And so as humans, one of the things that we need to do, right, we need to be aware and respect the negativity bias, because it does survive. It does provide a survival mechanism. But we also want to find ways to overcome that negativity bias. Because right, the world we live in is much safer than it was when we were living on the savanna. And so right, most of our interactions are with peers, with colleagues with family members. And if we are looking at those relationships, and those individuals through the lens of are you a threat to me, then you can see how that absolutely skews our relationships. And it makes it kind of hard to have good trusting, secure attachment, good working relationships. And so, you know, in our relationships, generally speaking, we do want to overcome that negativity bias, we don’t want to get rid of it entirely, because it does serve a function. When you know, when people show you who they are, you want to believe that. And you know, not everyone has good intentions for you. But generally speaking, we want to get better at having those positive thoughts stick in the brain, and those negative thoughts fall away. So we kind of want to shift that. And so some of the research on this is pretty compelling, right? So if you have, if you receive 10 different stimuli experiences, right, nine of them being positive, and one being negative, your brain will really cling to that negative stimuli, and pass right over the positive stimuli, even though it’s a ratio of nine to one. And so I think that that shows us how clearly that negativity bias is happening. And so we need to be careful about that. And when it comes to changing your thoughts and your experience in life, the truth is, as humans, we have an uphill battle. And so we need to actively cultivate positive thoughts and positive experiences to help overcome our natural negativity bias. Okay, so that’s the first point is let’s understand that negativity bias. Because when you know the rules of the game you’re playing, it helps you to be better prepared. It also helps you to not be so hard on yourself, when you recognize it’s kind of hard. It’s kind of challenging to make some of these changes, but I don’t want you to lose hope because it’s totally possible. And there’s really good research to support that.

So now let’s move to our second point. So I want to say just a little bit about neural pathways, and I hope that you’ll stick with me on this. I’ve tried to make it really practical. So because of the negativity bias. So first of all neural pathways are really just the tracks of communication through our nervous system and specifically through our brain. Okay, so neural pathways, just think about those as roadways, paths, trails, of communication. And, and that that’s happening, right, like that’s happening throughout your brain all the time. And so because of the negativity bias, the truth is most of us have very strong neural pathways. As are networks, right, you can think about it that way. But we have very strong neural pathways for negative stimuli, right. And so think about those neural pathways, as just, you know, like they’re cruising along. So once a thought gets caught on one of those negative neural pathways, it’s off to the races. And it’s making all of these applications in your life, which may or may not be accurate. And so because of that negativity bias, we have a strong neural pathway for negative stimuli. And unfortunately, a very weak neural pathway for positive stimuli. So right we’ve got this is this is one of the ways the negativity bias shows up in our brains. And so I want you to imagine your favorite negative thoughts, right? You don’t like these thoughts, but but they’re comfortable, right? They might be some of your core beliefs, thoughts that maybe you’ve been cultivating and listening to, and responding to for decades, right? I’m not good enough. No one likes me. I’m a failure. I can’t be successful. Good things don’t happen to me, right? Like, pick, pick your poison, right? We all have our favorite negative thoughts that we that we marinate in. So what do you think these neural pathways look like in your brain?

Okay, so these are the strong neural pathways for negative stimuli. So I want you to imagine these neural pathways, like a superhighway through your brain, right? So there’s like five lanes of traffic, people are cruising, think about the freeway down in California, people are cruising, they’re going fast. They’re getting where they need to go. There’s lots of ways to get there. And so these are really strong neural pathways that are transporting these negative thoughts, to every experience you have to every sideways glance to every statement someone is making to you. And so if you have really, if you have a superhighway of negative of negativity in your brain, any experience you have, you will interpret negatively. So someone invites you to lunch and you’re reading between the lines, right? You’re you’re trying to say what’s their motive? It’s not because they like me, it’s not because they just want to go to lunch, there must be something else going on, or you interpret a sideways glance, negatively, rather than a hey, like we’re in this together, and we’re connecting. And so when we have the superhighway, right, that communication happens really quickly. And the brain is really adept at making at jumping to conclusions and making assumptions. And again, these are often not based in reality. And over time, these negative thoughts tend to create a self fulfilling prophecy in our lives because we act in response to the negative thoughts, right, not the reality before us. So we’re, we’re reacting to these really strong neural pathways of negativity. In our brain, we’re not really responding to the reality before us, which might be neutral, it might be benign, it could be positive could be negative. And so over time, we respond more negatively. And this can create a self fulfilling prophecy where we start to experience what we’re thinking, we start to experience what we dread or what we fear, like right that no one likes me, I can’t be successful, good things aren’t for me. And so we need to pay attention to those neural pathways. And so now I want you to think of a positive thought that you’re trying to cultivate.

So maybe you’re trying to have more gratitude, or you’re working on, you know, taking a little bit more of an optimistic view in your life. So if you haven’t focused a lot of energy on these positive, this, this positive stimuli, right, or these positive thoughts, chances are your neural pathways of gratitude, right, or optimism will probably look like a little cow trail, right? So think about a little cow trail, you could think about a hiking trail where you know, you can maybe see a trail, but it’s not well marked, it’s easy to lose the trail, because you haven’t over time cultivated much in the way of positive stimuli. Now, the negativity bias is one challenge with that, but also right, like, what are we paying attention to? And what are we intentionally focusing on? And that is the role of neuroplasticity. And so if you haven’t focused a lot of energy on these positive thoughts, right, you’re not going to be able to find your way. along this path of gratitude. Those thoughts of gratitude can easily get lost and fall by the wayside, or they can be taken up by that superhighway of negative thoughts that are screaming by right so maybe you have gratitude for someone and You know, that thought gets pulled onto that superhighway of like, they don’t really like you. They’re just being nice. And so even something that’s positive can be hijacked on that superhighway of negativity. And so that is the second point that I just want you to understand the neural pathways. And I want you to imagine these super highways and these cow trails. And obviously, what we want to do with neuroplasticity and changing our mind and changing our life, is we want to strengthen the neural pathways for positive stimuli, right? And making that less of a cow trail, and maybe we can make that into a superhighway. And then we want to, we want to turn away from that negativity superhighway. So that we can so that we can cultivate more good in our lives. And so this takes us to point three which is what is neuroplasticity and talking about the role of it. And so this is really where neuroplasticity comes in.

So I’m gonna go over that definition again, just for quick review from Rick Hansen. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the nervous system to be changed by the information flowing through it. Okay, so here with neuroplasticity, there’s some good news. And there’s some bad news. So the bad news first, the negativity bias, right. Most of us have the superhighways for negative stimuli, including negative thoughts, experiences and emotions. However, there is some good news in this. So it’s also neuroplasticity is the good news, our nervous system is flexible. And those neural pathways can shift with effort and attention. So effort, attention and consistency, I would say. And that’s the really good news because you can help yourself, but it requires curiosity. It requires awareness, it requires effort, attention and consistency. So this is based on the principle taught by psychologists Donald had, you have probably heard this term, I’ve certainly shared it before, neurons that fire together wire together. So neurons, right are what make up the neural network. So right, these are brain cells. And so when we have negative thoughts continually being paired to our experiences, right, those pair together over time creating a stronger neural network so that we see our experiences negatively. So if we’re always pairing negative thoughts or emotions, to challenging experiences, we are building that superhighway of negativity over time. Again, this can lead to that self fulfilling prophecy of negative experiences. Because we fail to see the good in our experiences, we lack gratitude, we only we see only the challenges and fail to learn any of the lessons. And this is the epitome of the fixed mindset.

So we we see challenges as negative and you know, a chance to fail, rather than as an opportunity to learn. But if we can pair you know, gratitude, optimism and openness to our challenging life experiences, right, we’re still going to have challenging experiences, our superhighway of negativity falls into disrepair over time, while at the same time we begin building a superhighway of presence and acceptance, and I promise you right through through effort through consistency, through attention, this can happen and over time, this leads to greater wellbeing and resilience.

Okay, so now, let’s get even more specific. With our fourth point we’re going to talk about how neuroplasticity works. So what what is the mechanism of neuroplasticity? And so I mentioned at the top of the podcast that neuroplasticity has been around for a while it’s been recognized for a long time, but what’s different is that there is now new research that shows the power of this neural remodeling. So it shows us just how powerful neuroplasticity can be. And what we know with this new research is that this neural remodeling, so this shifting of brain function and structure happens very rapidly. It is also very extensive. So it right like we’re shifting your entire superhighway network, okay. And it’s enduring. So as you make consistent efforts, these changes are enduring, right? So you don’t have to continually be working on this superhighway over time. As you build this superhighway of positivity. It it. It it results in lasting change. And so this is really great news because it means your efforts to shift your thoughts can happen quickly, thoroughly and can last over time. And right. They, it requires less effort over time for sure. So, you know, you may have states of happiness. So these are moments of happiness, a flow of optimism, kindness, gratitude, most of us do, right? So we think about these estates or experiences of happiness, flow, kindness, all of these good things that we want in our life. But over time, as you focus efforts to shift your approach to life, right to shift your thinking, to shift your attention on your thoughts and emotions, these brief states or experiences of happiness, actually can become a trait.

Okay, so we move from state to trait function. And when we think about trade, I want you to think about, it’s a new, it’s a new mode of operation. So it is how you approach life. And so what this means is, over time, we develop these wonderful traits as our default, right. And that’s one of the ways that this change can be enduring. And so instead of just having states of happiness, or you know, brief experiences with happiness, we actually have a trait of happiness, we have it’s, it’s a, it’s an approach to life, it is our our Mo our mode of operation. So that can include happiness, that can include a tendency towards flow experiences, creativity, right flow and creativity go together, we can develop a trait of optimism, of kindness, of gratitude, and of acceptance or non judgment. And I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty incredible. Because I hear a lot that people don’t change. And I just want to be really clear that that’s not true. People don’t change if they don’t have awareness, attention, and consistent effort. But it is so possible to change. And it’s possible to change your brain, it’s possible to change these core beliefs and feelings that you’ve maybe been carrying around for decades. So when we think about the mechanisms of neuroplasticity, or you know, kind of the the geeky components of how this works, I’m just going to share a few because I don’t want anyone snooze, snoozing. But it’s really fascinating. And if you aren’t intrigued by this, I would definitely refer you to Rick Hansen’s book, neuro Dharma because I think he gives a nice explanation of it, while still keeping it focused on practical application. So some of the mechanisms, this is definitely not all of them. But some of the mechanisms of neuroplasticity include sensitizing or desensitizing existing synaptic connections between neurons.

So the synapse is where it those are at the end of the neuron, where the neurons connect to one another, right? So these are the links in the superhighway, right? So think about these as links in that road. And so we can sensitize or desensitize these synaptic connections based on our attention, and focus. And so an example of this is, you know, this is how we become sensitized to stress, right? So if we panic, every time we experience a challenge, those synapses become so sensitized. So we develop a hair trigger for stress, and we as a result, we cope less effectively. But what’s also true is that we can desensitize these synaptic connections, leading to stress tolerance. So in a very real way, we get better at stress, and we become more resilient over time. This is also an example right? There’s lots that goes into this, but this is one of the mechanisms that how addictive pathways get established, right? Because we’re, we’re kind of constantly flooding the synapses and it you know, sensitizes or desensitizes this the synapses and so, we we look for more right. So, then we get kind of a craving, we get the compulsive component and then we also like we need more of it in order to get the same result and so, you know, just just keeping in mind that addictive pathways are you know, right like this is happening all the time with us right. So mechanisms and neuroplasticity, move both ways, right, it can move towards growth and it can move towards towards disability it can it can move towards mental illness. So, we also another mechanism is increasing or decreasing the excitability of individual neurons. So, how reactive they are to stimuli. Another mechanism is altering the expression of genes and then nuclei of neurons. So I think that’s interesting, right? We might have the same genes, but some, the expression of genes are altered based on what we’re paying attention to. Another mechanism is making new connections between neurons. So maybe pathways, roadways that didn’t connect before. Now they start to connect, okay. Another mechanism is burning new neurons and weaving them into existing networks. So you can have more brain cells, right? You can, when we see people who meditate or have very good executive functioning, their networks are really sick and dense, because they’ve birthed a lot of new neurons, right? Like, basically, what we’re thinking about, you know, is that the brain has grown more neurons to meet life’s challenges, which I think is so remarkable. And so there’s a lot of brain activity, those are dense neural networks. Another mechanism is increasing or decreasing activity in specific regions. And just think about this, right? If there’s a corner of your brain, that corner, a function that you that you neglect, right, it’s an empty room, or it’s a road that no one ever uses, that pretty soon, the lights are off, you know, there aren’t any lights on that roadway. There’s just not much activity, and it goes into disrepair. And so by focusing attention, right, we can get those regions to light up again, and we can increase activity.

But again, it takes some focused attention. And then some other mechanisms include reshaping particular networks, changing the flows of neuro chemicals, like serotonin, like dopamine, transferring information to long term storage. So let’s say perhaps you have a really cool experience, right? So you have this this happiness state, this happiness experience, and you’re like, This is good, right? Like, you’re aware enough to say, This is good, I want more of this. And so what does that do? It helps your brain to transfer that information to long term storage, because like, I want more of this, I want more of this in my life. And so you start looking for more of these happy connections. And in that way, right? We have neuroplasticity, happening. A couple other mechanisms, consolidation of learning in the cortex. So the cortex is that higher order function is at the top of the brain. And also consolidation during slow wave, or REM sleep, right? That is, sleep is so important for so many purposes. And a very big one is consolidation of memory, consolidation of learning, right? So often it’s in sleep, that these neural, these neural pathways are being strengthened, right, it’s during sleep that we’re building new roadway. Okay, so that’s the fourth point, right is looking at how neuroplasticity works and like the mechanism of that in your brain. And so now let’s head to the last point, which is, we want to help you change your mind and your life for good through neuroplasticity, right? So this is why I think it’s so important to understand neuroplasticity. So by changing the focus of your mind, you can change your neural networks, right, you can change your physiological responses, you can change your entire life for good. All through neuroplasticity, right? Because the nervous system communicates very quickly throughout the body. And so we certainly see a shift in physiological responses, right. So instead of having an outsize stress response, you can respond with calm, right, you don’t see everything in your life as a threat. And this shifts your life for good, it strengthens your relationships. So some of the best ways to create this change include the following. So at the very top of the list, are meditation and mindfulness practices, these have been very well researched. And that, you know, it’s very, very well documented. That meditation or mindfulness practice is really helpful. So I’ll talk about examples of that in a few minutes. But what happens is there’s a gradual shift from that deliberate self regulation toward an increasingly natural sense of presence and ease during both meditation and daily life. So that comes to us from Rick Hansen. And so what I have said before and what I’ve noticed in my own life with meditation, so I have been meditating, probably, maybe 10 years, maybe seven years, somewhere around there, but what I have noticed is kind of a sea change in my approach to life, so I am naturally not very calm, I tend towards the anxiety and compulsivity. But what I’ve noticed with meditation is I just have more calm, more presence of mind, I’m less reactive to life’s challenges. And so for sure, that’s taken some deliberate focus on self regulation.

But even just a 10 minute a day meditation practice has helped to, to create this shift, so that I don’t have to actively focus on being call and present. Right, it’s, it’s become more of a trait than just a State experience. Okay, some of the other ways to do this include mental training, such as for sports, right? We think about cognitive behavioral therapy, very, very helpful for retraining our brain therapy is super helpful resilience programs that help you to make sense of your experience. In formal practices, such as gratitude, there’s so much evidence supporting the value of gratitude. Relaxation also helps, right because it helps us to communicate both our body to our brain and our brain to our body. So top down, bottom up communication, that we can be calm and relaxed, we don’t have to be reacted. And this allows new neural networks to be established, and inform a practice of kindness, of positive emotion. And so what we learned from Rick Hanson is that and this is a common term that your mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. And so what he says to extend that is that your brain takes it shape from what you rest your attention on. And so if your, if your focus is, is always attending to negativity, your brain will take the shape of negativity, right in the form of very strong neural superhighways of negativity. And so instead, we want to focus on steadiness, we want to focus on gratitude, we want to focus on kindness, and openness, acceptance. And so that is what I wanted to share with you today. Right, I wanted to make the case for why you need to understand neuroplasticity, and I hope it’s a practical application for you. So as a quick review, we talked first about the negativity bias, and why it’s important to understand that and to be intentional about changing your brain.

We second talked about neural pathways, we talked about the super highways, and how you can shift those super highways in your brain. Then we talked about neuroplasticity, we talked specifically about how it works and the mechanisms of moving from state to trade, we talked about what’s happening actually in the brain, to to affect this change. And then we talked about how you can change your mind and your life for good. And we talked about some best practices. And so my challenge to you is to choose just one thing from the list that I’ve shared to practice, right. So don’t try and do it all. But let’s just focus our attention consistently on one thing, so maybe you walk without distractions. Maybe you sit in nature and connect to your five senses. One of the things I’ve been doing sounds very strange, but I love it. When I sit on the back porch, I really pay attention to the tree. Right. So I have beautiful trees in my backyard. And they’re they’re nice and large. And of course in full bloom right now. And I just watched those trees, and I had to tell you, like I kind of get lost in them. But I start to I start to my worries, start to fall away. And I gain a little more perspective. And even if not perspective appreciation for life for the beauty of the trees in my backyard that maybe I spent years not paying attention to. So you can express gratitude both in your heart and to others, you can be kinder than is necessary. Right? I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that everyone’s fighting a battle. And many of these battles are unknown to us. But if we can be kinder than is necessary. Wow, what a difference we can make in other people’s lives. And we might not know that difference, but that’s okay. Be kinder than is necessary. You can take some time and look on the bright side.

So you still might be upset about a situation. But can you bring in just a little bit of perspective, right? There’s usually a silver lining, there’s usually a bright side, there’s usually something to learn. And then can you meditate for 10 days, 1010 days 10 days would be good, but 10 minutes a day consistently so you could miss a day here or there. But 10 minutes a day, most days could be really helpful. And then relaxation. So what do you do to relax is it a massage is It’s stretching is it paced breathing, taking a break from your desk in the middle of the day maybe to do some stretches or to take a walk with a friend or to go eat lunch, right? That would be really good. And so my call to action is just choose one thing from the list to practice. So to focus your attention on consistently, you got to make some effort, right? So it’s not going to come easily, but some effort, some attention and some consistency can make all the difference. So head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode www.drmelissasmith.com/177-neuroplasticity. So one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/177-neuroplasticity. Okay, so I will link to Dr. Hansen’s book, neuro Dharma there is a great resource. And also please consider joining me on Instagram @dr.melissasmith. I’ve got lots of resources for every podcast there. And I try to expand the conversation there. I’d love to hear what you think of the podcast. I’d love to hear your questions and your suggestions. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai