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  • SuePattonThoele

Retraining the Brain

While there is an abundance of research on the brain/mind system, my main source for the following information is from the workshop Awakening Your Brain: Tools for Meditative Depth, Peacefulness, Happiness, and Equanimity, led by Rick Hanson, PhD, and Rick Mendius, MD. Dr. Hanson is a psychologist and Dr. Mendius is a neurologist; as such, they are well equipped to provide information and insight on both the physical/medical and emotional/spiritual aspects of the brain and mind, which they see as one unified system.

Although the scope of The Mindful Woman does not permit a comprehensive exploration of Dr. Hanson and Dr. Mendius’s research, with their permission, I have highlighted a simplified version of two points which are especially relevant to our quest for mindfulness. I view the first as a ‘good news, bad news’ scenario.

The Brain/Mind Emphasizes Negative Experiences

The “bad” news is that Mother Nature has wired our brains to register negative, fearful, and unpleasant experiences more deeply and vividly than it does positive, neutral, or pleasant ones. Why? Because she wants grandchildren. Therefore, we—her children—are programmed to survive above all else. Since negative experiences are more central to the survival of the species, they generally eclipse positive experiences. As an example, Dr. Hanson says, “A single bad event with a dog is more memorable than a thousand good experiences. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive.”

So where is the “good” news in this discovery? For me, this research answers my questions about why it’s so easy to go into an emotional slump, be in a bad mood, obsess over slights, or descend into any number of other self-sabotaging behaviors and thought patterns. These patterns can seduce me away from my own happiness, peace of mind, and my ability to love openheartedly and experience life with joyous and grateful abandon. Knowing my brain is wired for survival helps me understand that God/Mother Nature is simply trying to protect me by creating its wiring that way.

And that leads to more good news. There is absolutely no reason to feel guilty or ashamed if we tilt in a downer direction now and then. As a psychotherapist, friend, and woman, it’s been my experience that most women have a tendency to default to an at-fault position. If something goes wrong or someone is unhappy—including ourselves— we have a tendency to think, “What did I do wrong?” Simply knowing of our brains’ propensity to accentuate the negative, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and gently let ourselves off the blame/shame hook.

The best news of all is that we can retrain our brains to better absorb and savor positive, ‘upper’ experiences, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.

Excerpted from The Mindful Woman by Sue Patton Thoele. Available on Mango and Amazon.


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