Hacking Happiness: Harnessing Neuroplasticity to Remap the Mind
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Before meditation clicked in my brain, I would marvel at practitioners and wonder what they were all smoking. They seemed so confidently onto something, as if life were an enchanted adventure guided by a heavenly chorus of butterflies. I wanted in.
“How on earth are y’all so positive all the damn time?”
Come closer and I’ll tell you a dirty secret:
I *hated* meditation for my first 15 years of yoga. Thought it was a waste of time and couldn’t fathom how anyone could enjoy it. Over and over I’d hear inspired, happy people claim meditation had changed their lives. Then I’d sit in half lotus, hands resting atop my knees, unsure whether I was doing it right and wondering how all those enlightened folk had gotten from A to B.
Turns out I hadn’t been doing it right, and it took a rabid case of crisis-level insomnia to force me to finally get serious about it. During spring of 2015 in Thailand, where I was living and working, I experienced three episodes of sleep paralysis over the course of a week.
Sleep paralysis is a terrifying phenomenon wherein the brain is awake, but the body can’t move. It’s often accompanied by hallucinations of demons pressing down on one’s chest or lingering around the room. The first time it happened, I was convinced someone had broken into my house to attack me. I opened my eyes to the sight and feeling of a shadowy figure holding me down. After a few moments of panic, the creature disappeared and I heard my front door clatter as if it had made a hasty exit.
I sat up, hyperventilating in the dark. For someone who didn’t believe in ghosts, my house appeared to be very haunted indeed. This phenomena continued to happen to me throughout the week, and my nerves were running ragged. I couldn’t sleep at night or stop thinking about the ordeal during the day. My Thai friends, spiritual as they were, insisted I seek the blessing of a monk at our local temple. My expat yogi friends, equally spiritual in nature, recommended burning sage to purify the energy of my house. Others would cock their heads and look upon me with pity.
Determined to get to the bottom of it, I threw caution to the wind and went full woo-woo. Sitting on a cushion in my living room surrounded by candles, crystals, and incense, I decided I would sit there until I’d somehow meditated the evil away. After an hour or two, that ah-ha moment meditators talk about finally hit me, and in a much more humbling way than I would’ve expected.
By creating the time and space to commit to observing my thought patterns, I realized I wasn’t just driving myself crazy in that moment, but that I’d ALWAYS driven myself crazy by latching onto the upsetting ideas that passed through my mind. Unpleasant feelings weren’t happening to me or caused by outside sources, as I’d previously thought. I’d been creating them through toxic, undisciplined, unproductive thought patterns.
One after another, objective realizations about my mind, ego, and the world around me continued to unfold, and my perspective permanently shifted. I felt clarity, and it was just as inspiring as the meditation tribe had claimed. I continued to practice every day for hours at a time, choosing to allow self-limiting thoughts, delusions, and pent-up trauma to pass through me. Finally, I felt like my mind was under my own control.
And, the demons were gone. I slept more soundly than a fat fuzzy koala.
To be clear, my house hadn’t been hijacked by any sort of voodoo. As I would learn, sleep paralysis is an exceedingly common phenomenon that’s been documented around the world throughout history. It can be caused by stress, sleep deprivation, and irregular sleep cycles. While talking to monks and burning sage are lovely things to do, they’re not likely to have a measurable effect on sleep disorders or the inner-workings of the brain. Regardless, I wanted an explanation for the switch meditation had flipped. In the months that followed, I tumbled down an endless Google rabbit hole to figure out what was happening to my mind. There was much to discover.
Meditation: More than Woo-woo
In recent years, neurologists have performed a number of studies on meditation by hooking up practitioners with different levels of experience to a slew of fancy machines. Here are a handful of their findings:
1. Meditation is associated with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, concentration, and regulating the amygdala, which produces emotions like fear.
2. Meditation appears to change the physical structure of the brain by creating increased thickness in cortical folds. In other words, it causes the brain to grow additional gray matter.
3. It also appears to increase “EEG coherence” in the brain, both during practice and after. What this means is that electrical waves in different parts of the brain begin operating on the same frequency, implying that they’re “talking to each other,” suggesting an increase in overall brain-function efficiency.
And last but not least,
4. Meditation induces neuroplasticity, a term referring to the brain’s ability to rewire itself and form new connections in response to our experiences.
These implications are highly encouraging for anyone looking to improve their own mental health or cognitive abilities. We now have measurable, scientific evidence showing that meditators actually alter the function and shape of their brains through their practice. By understanding how this process works, anyone with the self-discipline to learn can, in theory, reap these benefits.
How does neuroplasticity change our brains?
Our state of mind depends on activity that takes place between neurons, a type of brain cell stimulated by the thoughts, feelings, or sensations we experience. An oft-repeated phrase in neuroscience says that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” meaning that neurons activated simultaneously form bonds.
In other words, when we experience something over and over, the same network of neurons will light up each time. This helps us function more quickly and efficiently as we learn and practice new things. The first time you try snowboarding, you’re likely to crash repeatedly while getting the hang of it. Once those neural connections have solidified, however, you can fwoosh over that powder like a badass with significantly less mental effort.
This same magic can and often does work against us, however, when neural connections related to negative experiences become ingrained. For example, someone could jump on this post and comment, “You’re a crap writer!” If I took this idea to heart and repeated it often enough in my mind, my stress response would trigger every time I sat down to write, flooding my body with cortisol, the happiness-maiming hormone.
This is how long-term anxiety and depression form in response to unpleasant experiences. And as evolution would have it, we’re geared to focus on negativity in unequal shares.
It all comes down to our sneaky-ass negativity bias.
Back in the day when humans were one with the wilderness, our brains would hear a noise and either think, “Jesus Christ, what if that’s a lion?” or “Nah, that’s nothing. Let’s keep making cave paintings.” While the latter was more fun, the former was more efficient at helping us survive. Thus, our negativity bias was born and humans evolved into expert worriers capable of evaluating and responding to all perceptible threats.
These days most of us don’t live under threat of becoming lion nosh, but our brains didn’t get that memo, so our monkey minds continue to spin wildly out of control over inconsequential issues. “Oh god, I can’t believe I forgot the words during that Peter Pan performance back in 1992!”
We can make neuroplasticity our ally, however.
Because the brain is plastic rather than hardwired, we can rely on its changeability as we attempt to reprogram unhealthy thought patterns. Connections between neurons associated with negative experiences eventually weaken and disintegrate when they’re not used.
To accomplish this, all we have to do is stop thinking those unpleasant thoughts. Then we can replace them with more favorable ways of thinking to create new and healthy neural networks that fill our bodies with endorphins and renewed peace of mind.
“Easier said than done!” you may say, and you’re absolutely right. Interrupting and letting go of unproductive thought patterns is a massive challenge for meditators in the beginning. With regular practice and a knowledgeable guide, however, it becomes much easier with time.
This process is available to all of us, provided we’re willing to put in the effort to change how we think.
Other positive neuroplasticity triggers:
Meditation’s not the only strategy for kick-starting neuroplasticity for a more positive mind. Here are some additional ideas:
1. Cultivate a mighty attitude of gratitude.
Happy people, who tend toward optimistic and grateful ways of thinking, display more activity in the pre-frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens of the brain. By regularly engaging in a gratitude practice, you’ll strengthen neural connections in these areas. Shift your thoughts to what you have, rather than what you lack.
2. Go on a media diet.
Social media and 24-hour news sources both pinpoint the areas of the brain responsible for addiction in order to get us hooked. Compulsive behavior doesn’t lend itself to healthy states of mind. Don’t get locked in by allowing these things to control your perception or behavior.
3. Challenge your negative beliefs.
Sometimes we need to challenge our beliefs to realize they’re not true before we’re able to let them go. Reframe negative thoughts in a positive or more motivating light that won’t generate stress. Imagine, for example, receiving criticism about a presentation you made at work.
“My presentation was bad because I’m bad and I should feel bad.”
“This criticism will help me become an even more fabulous job ninja. Fwoosh!”
4. Be present.
The here and now is a peaceful place about 99% of the time for many of us. There’s no need to reinforce negative thought patterns by wallowing in painful memories or brooding over all possible threats that could come our way in the future. Unplug when you catch yourself doing this. Look around and be thankful. Life is good, no?
5. Do no harm.
Drama may be exciting for some, but it stays with us long after whatever event inspired it. Cutting beef from your life will rob your brain and ego of endless opportunities to wade in negativity. Act from a place of empathy when you can. Don’t accept harmful behavior from others, but don’t be the one to dish it out either.
6. Practice delaying gratification.
It turns out that impulse control is essential to long-term happiness and success. Train your brain not to indulge in things right when you want them. When we’re unable to resist our need for pleasure now now now, our willpower muscle goes flabby, enslaving us to external sources of distraction for contentment.
7. Be nice.
It feels great to help others. You don’t even have to “do” anything. Many times it’s enough just to listen when a friend’s having a hard time. Look for opportunities to impact others in a positive way and jump in where you can. This will increase the amount of warm fuzzies in your mind.
8. Take up a brain-enhancing hobby.
Studies have shown that activities like learning to play an instrument or speak a foreign language can strengthen memory, multitasking skills, and blood flow within the brain, in addition to other beneficial effects. Trying challenging new tasks will help you form new connections between neurons related to higher learning.
Seriously, get your boogie on. Dancing simultaneously activates the cerebellum, somatosensory cortex, and basal ganglia, triggering kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional responses. This complex cocktail of brain stimulation strengthens neural connections and has been shown to improve long-term memory skills.
Back to Peter Pan. Remember that scene when he teaches his friends how to fly? “Oh, you just think lovely, wonderful, happy thoughts. And up you go!” For most of us seeking peace of mind, it really can be that simple if we try.
About our Author
Peggy Holsclaw is a copywriter, blogger, web designer, ESL curriculum developer and caffeine devotee based in Osaka, Japan. You can find out more about her at her website, Copy Glitter. Come on over!