How to get the best out of your mind?

So finally, you get down to ’meditate’. With closed eyes you are sitting and watching to all those ideas flipping around in your head. At least you try to watch them but here you go again … your mind just gets carried away. And there is this question again: what is the point of all this?? Will my confronting with all those weird happenings in my head get me any closer to a happier life? If only someone gave me tangible explanations.

If the situation sounds familiar to you, you might be interested in reading about Dr. Rick Hanson’s ideas and findings on what happens when we tune in to ourselves. Rick Hanson Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist and a New York Times best-selling author. I was fortunate to bump into a public presentation by him on how „you can change your mind, to change your brain, to change your mind for the better.” In other words, why it matters to pay attention to WHERE you usually place attention, and to what you DO with what you are attending to.

Fancy hardware

According to neuroscientists the fundamental purpose of the nervous system is to move information around. They look at the brain as a fancy hardware – probably the most complex physical object known to science. As it is well known, only a tiny fraction of the information moving around is available to us as conscious experience. The rest is hidden down deep in the underlying architecture of the nervous system. We know from research that if there is any kind of mental activity, there must be some kind of neuro activity attached to it as well.

„Neurons that fire together wire together”

Dr. Hanson has studied the effects of repeated patters of mental activity on the brain structure. He likes to refer to the Canadian neuroscientist Donald Hebb who has found that repeated actions of mental activities actually CHANGE neuro structures and functions. There is a whole lot of clinical evidence to that. In Hebb’s words: „neurons that fire together wire together”: if we stimulate the neuro circuits of good states such as happiness or calmness we can strengthen these qualities.  This is how passing mental states can become lasting neural traits.

The term neuro-plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change in response to our experiences

But meditation is not the only way to change the brain for the better. Other (positive) practices include expressing gratitude, engaging in relaxation, practicing loving-kindness or taking in positive experiences from everyday life. So even life itself presents countless opportunities.

At the same time, it’s important to know that the brain is very vulnerable to change for the worse. This is called the negativity bias.

The Negativity Bias

We have a brain that is biased. It is very prone to turning negative states such as anger, fear, suffering, envy, shame into lasting negative neuro states. Obviously, this has evolutionary purposes.

„It is very easy for the brain to over-learn from its negative experiences, and it tends to under-learn from its positive ones.”

Wholesome states of mind

Researchers have studied the brain of long-time meditators and compared them against those of non-meditators. Meditators had thicker cortex (bark) in these key regions of their brain:

  • INSULA. This part of the brain is much involved in interoception (that is tuning in to one’s self) and also in feeling empathy for others’ emotions. So if we regularly tune in to our body we not just become more self-aware over time, but also more emphatic for the emotion of others.
  • HIPPOCAMPUS. This is the part of the brain that is involved in putting things in context. The hippocampus also inhibits amygdala activation by calming it down. The AMYGDALA performs a primary role in memory processing, decision-making and emotional responses. It also tells the hypothalamus to quit calling for stress hormones.

So building up tissue in the hypothalamus is important because it helps us be more resilient.

„That are so much research now on the wholesome effect of meditation on the brain and the body in general and on resilience, that if a larger pharma company like Pfizer or Merck could pattern meditation we’d be seeing ads every night on TV.”

So when you exercise deliberate regulation of attention, for instance by willfully bringing attention back to your breathing (mindfulness of breathing), or by establishing an inner-watcher attitude, you actually build up tissues in key areas of your brain. By that you practice not just regulating attention but also regulating feelings, desires and emotions.

Repeated mental activities build up synaptic connections. It is kind of like building muscles by lifting relatively heavy weight day after day.

In stress

The repeated experiences of stress unfortunately release so much cortisol that it overstimulates neurons in the hippocampus gradually killing them. In extreme cases nearly a quarter of the neurons in the hypothalamus can be eliminated. So if you have a stressful life, one of the best things you can do to recover functioning, apart from doing physical exercise, is to engage in some kind of contemplative practice. This will support structure building.

Ways to engage the mind

According to Dr. Rick Hanson, the most fundamental way to engage the mind is by practicing mindfulness of the body, emotions and thoughts. That is observing, stepping back, witnessing, unpacking what is there, exploring and investigating sensations and experiences in our body and mind. Without trying to change anything directly. Very often this sheer unpacking, disidentification or observing causes changes  but the idea is NOT to intervene directly.

Getting engaged

Going one step further, how do we develop from these experiences inner strength such as resilience, patience, moral inclinations, patience, happiness, love, inner peace, factors of concentration?

When doing the observation, the focus should be on the processes. Explore and examine the process of suffering, for instance, or love and also their causes in the body and mind. Then, deliberately take activated positive mental states and install them as positive neuro states.

„The mind is like a garden, we can witness it, pull weeds or plant flowers there.”

Positive traits are built primarily from positive states and their enormous implications. Positive states are the absolute most fundamental building blocks of the inner strengths of various kinds that we care about and want to cultivate ourselves.

So how do you build them into your brain?

As Dr. Henson implies this is where the cycle of installation or activation comes in. If you have a positive state/experience, take that extra ten seconds or so to really help that positive experience sink into you. Dive into the sensations, tune in, weave those experiences into the fabric of your brain

„The more we get those neurons firing, the longer and more intensely they are firing, the more wiring we will get.

On mindful observation

When someone sits down to meditate for the first (couple of) time(s) it is quite normal to feel that it is easier said than done. It takes time to cultivate the capacity of being able to just BE WITH THE MIND. To detach from an experience, to stay centered in the place of observation, or witnessing the passing stream of consciousness. To acquire what psychology calls distress tolerance.

Also, as Dr. Rick highlights  ’the mind is a dangerous neighborhood – never go in there alone without inner allies’. If you have not cultivated inner allies to take with you, then opening to your experiences can sometimes be like opening a trap-door to hell.

Interested  in mindfulness in more detail?

Fruits of Now has an online course dedicated especially for beginners. It is called the Seeds of Now – Mindulness Course for Beginners. Check out and register today!

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.