Scientists now know that the brain is not hardwired as once believed; it is a dynamic organ that grows and shrinks in accordance with the information it receives. Brain plasticity is a term that refers to the ability of the brain to wire itself according to incoming information. To be more precise, it wires itself in accordance with how we interpret experience.
When we dwell on a thought, we energize it, and our brain connects various neurons (brain cells) together to form a network that supports our mode of thinking. Such networks are called neural networks.
A Neural Network represents a build-up of ideas that are repeatedly impressed upon our brain. Before we continue, let’s make an important distinction between our mind and our brain. The mind is a formless domain in which thoughts arise, while the brain is a physical organ that supports the way in which the mind thinks. Another way of stating this is as follows: a thought, the word, undergoes a sequence of unfolding to become a physical network, the flesh – as stated in the bible. What we are talking about here is literally mind over matter.
When the formless impulses of energy and information arising in our mind (thoughts), start to take on physical attributes in the brain, our thinking becomes ingrained and rigid: this is the basis of habituation. If we continuously impress negative ideas on our brain, it will respond by creating neural networks to support them. Every time we perform an action that reinforces the negative idea, the neural network will become more pronounced. As a consequence, we habituate negative action (form a bad habit).
Once we interrupt our negative thinking patterns, however, the supporting neural networks weaken and disband. Connections between neurons break and make way for new life-enhancing networks. So next time you make statements such as ‘that’s just the way I am’ and ‘I’m useless at this or that’ or ‘I can’t stop drinking,’ be aware that you are reinforcing the negative habit-forming neural networks that thwart your growth.
Neural networks are in constant communication with the hypothalamus – the chemical producing centre of the brain. The hypothalamus produces chemical messengers called neuropeptides. Neuropeptides are created in accordance with information derived from the neural networks and therefore correspond directly to the way we think. Once manufactured, the chemical messengers are dispersed through the bloodstream to various parts of our body. The word emotion can be defined as energy in motion and used to describe that process whereby chemical messengers are dispersed throughout our body to give rise to the way we feel.
Each cell of our body contains receptors that house the incoming neuropeptides. When neuropeptides dock onto a cell, they change the chemical balance of that cell. The messages they carry correspond to our mode of thinking and inform the cell (which is a self-contained unit of intelligence) to change its structure. Changes in our cellular structure translate to changes in the way we feel.
If we constantly flood our body with chemicals that give rise to – let’s say, worry – the cells of our body will generate more receptors to house the worry producing messenger. In effect, we will become more prone to worry. If we fixate our awareness on thoughts of fear, the hypothalamus will create the corresponding neuropeptides; in turn, these neuropeptides will inform our cells to evolve more receptor sites to house the fear invoking messenger, rendering us prone to fear – and so on.
When we change the focus of our thoughts, however, and concentrate on – let’s say, thoughts of happiness – the cells will reduce their number of fear or worry receptor sites and develop more ‘happy’ receptors in order to accommodate the new influx of positive messengers.
When we dwell on negative thoughts,
we produce chemicals in our body that
give rise to negative feelings
There is a continuous dialogue going on between our mind and our brains. Our thoughts tell our brains to produce life-affirming or life-denying chemistry in our bodies. When we think positive thoughts, we produce life-affirming chemistry in our bodies.
Studies have shown that when we evoke feelings of gratitude, for instance, the chemicals in our brain that produce dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) – a steroid hormone made by the adrenal glands that acts on the body much like testosterone – actually increases in excess of one hundred percent over a very short period of time. The same studies have shown that when we hold feelings of anger, rage, frustration, and jealousy we send signals to our brain that cause it to produce life denying chemistry such as cortisol adrenaline – the stress hormone.
In summary, our thoughts give rise to feelings which drive our actions. All actions have consequences. The culmination of the consequences of our actions determine our quality of life. Therefore, enhancing our quality of life starts with changing our thought process.