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Making new “desire paths” in the brain

This is not [exactly] about sex. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read on for hints on how to find more happiness in your life.  

The mostly blue and white cover of the book, Hardwiring Happiness by Rick HansonMy latest library book is Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. The book’s copyright is from 2013; I’m not expecting to be blown away from any of the study results Hanson cites. I’m more interested in how he explains neuroplasticity to a layman reader. Simply, neuroplasticity is the term scientists use to describe the brain’s ability to adapt. In complex terms, neuroplasticity is the microscopic and systemic change that occurs in the brain’s structure in response to stimuli.

We just figured out a few decades ago that the brain changes over time, and not just “senioritis” changes we see in old age. Instead of being formed as we are children and staying static throughout our lives, the brain experiences damages and healing like all other organs. But just as a broken bone won’t heal well without medical intervention, damaged brains won’t heal well without help.

Brains, like people, prefer paths of least resistance. Little information wires consisting of neurons, axons, dendrites, and lots of other cool stuff carry messages all over your brain. Since animals are professional energy-conservationists, the brain looks for the quickest road that will get a message from Point A to Point B.

Ever been on a college campus? You’ll notice a trail or two etched through the quad’s greens. Usually these worn paths sidestep lawn corners or make a diagonal swath through a giant field. In civil engineering circles, these foot-made lanes are called “desire paths” or “desire lines.” Wikipedia cites other nicknames for the phenomena, including “bootleg trail” and “goat track.”

color photo of a footpath carved into a lawn from a sidewalk to the front of a brick building.

We’ve all helped make desire paths. Why would we walk a 90-degree angle when a 45-degree cut-through gets us there quicker? We wouldn’t, and neither do other animals. Brains like shortcuts.

Some of these brain shortcuts come out as biases, influencing belief and behavior. Biases are default decisions. When we experienced something in the past, we learned from it and our brains made its first shortcut associated with that situation. Depending on the frequency of similar situations and the severity of the experiences, the shortcut can quickly or slowly become a deep rut in the landscape of our brains. That’s how bias works.

Instant biases are formed by strong negative experiences. No repetition necessary. If our brain detects a life-threatening circumstance, it will decide for you. It will say:


DO NOT DO THIS. IT IS PAINFUL (or) YOU WILL DIE. AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS. OH, AND DON’T WORRY. I WILL CONSTANTLY REMIND YOU TO AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS.


This is why we tend to dwell on negative things instead of positive things. We can survive thousands of positive experiences but one negative experience can kill us. The brain is super-serious about survival. It will bombard you with reminders of what is negative. Unfortunately, it can’t tell the difference between stubbing your toe and falling off a building. It has a BAD/GOOD setting when it comes to building pathways. Bad experiences get priority. This is why biases are so easy to build and so hard to break down. This bias is called the negativity bias.

Here, Dr. Hanson explains the what negativity bias does to us and the general purpose of his book:

“Leveling the Playing Field.
The negativity bias doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. But if you’re happy, you’re happy in spite of it. It’s a bias, ready to spring into action depending on events. When you feel good, it waits in the background, looking for a reason to make you feel bad. When you [already] feel bad, it makes you feel worse.

This bias creates two kinds of problems. First, it increases the negative. It pulls your attention to what is or could be bad, makes you overreact to it, and stores the negative experience in implicit memory. It also creates vicious circles of negativity both inside your brain and with other people. In a variety of ways, this bias increases your stresses, worries, frustrations, irritations, hurts, sorrows, feelings of falling short, and conflicts with others.

Second, the negativity bias decreases the positive. It slides your attention past the good facts around you. It makes you under-react to the good facts you do notice. And it slips the good experiences you do have right through your brain, leaving little or no trace behind. This bias is a kind of bottleneck that makes it harder to get happiness in your brain.

In effect, the negativity bias is tilted toward immediate survival, but against quality of life, peaceful and fulfilling relationships, and lasting mental and physical health. This is the simple default of the Stone Age brain. If we don’t take charge of it, it will continue to take charge of us.

Tilting toward the positive simply levels the playing field. Taking in the good corrects for the two tendencies of the negativity bias: This practice decreases negative feelings, thoughts and actions while increasing positive ones.

And over time, taking in the good can help you experience that your core needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection are finally fully met. …” – Page 29-30, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Brains can forge different “desire paths” in their landscapes. Building new, positive paths can be a bit of an uphill battle, especially for those of us who have suffered brain traumas like concussions, abuse, or poverty. It can be done, though. Watch this 4.5 million-views talk by Daniel Amen about SPECT scanning and brain rehab for further thoughts on healing a bumpy brain. Dr. Amen also has 12 Prescriptions for Creating a Healthy Brain Life for you to try. 

I’ll let you know if I find any groundbreaking advice in this book. For now, know your obsessiveness, anxieties and invasive thoughts can be unraveled and de-powered, and a new way of living is possible. Look into Cognitive-Behavioral training if you’re interested in attacking your brain’s negativity bias now.

Stay healthy. 🙂

 

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Photo of a desire path in a lawn by user wetwebwork on Flickr

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