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Re-wiring Brains for Happiness

HappyFace-in-Brain

Brain training can turn unhappy minds into happy ones.

Neuroscience research demonstrates humans are hardwired to register and remember negative events more quickly and deeply than positive ones.

When thinking about your life, or simply the events of the past week, do you remember the happy or unhappy moments most vividly? Don’t be distressed if the bad experiences trump the good ones because everyone is hardwired to focus on the negative. It’s a phenomenon known as “negativity bias” and it serves a good purpose.

Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist whose latest book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence  describes the concept of neuroplasticity — specifically that the brain’s physical shape is changed under the influence of external events.  A happy brain is shaped differently than an unhappy one and through training exercises, an unhappy brain can be molded to look like a happy one.

Hanson explains that the human brain is hardwired to latch onto unhappy and upsetting events creating a population explosion of unhappily shaped brains. Contrary to popular belief, the brain isn’t an organ for objectively studying reality. Rather, the brain is a tool that evolved to anticipate and overcome dangers, protect us from pain, and solve problems. As a result, dangers, pains and problems are the events that capture the brain’s attention. The human nervous system, Hanson writes: “scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing – and unfair – residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory.”

Implicit vs Explicit Memory

Implicit memory is a powerful force in the human psyche. Psychologists make distinctions between two types of memory: implicit and explicit. Explicit memory empowers us to do things like remember the names of our friends or where we parked the car. On the other hand, implicit aka emotional memories are formed unconsciously. These memories originate in the reptilian brain structures and are viscerally rather than logically initiated. They account for one’s sense of self and color the inner atmosphere of the mind. Are we depressed or happy? These memories govern our sense of being as well as our deepest assumptions and expectations about the world.

The amygdala is the center of the reptilian brain and it acts as the switchboard in implicit memory assigning the feeling tone to stimuli and dictating a response. It’s neurologically primed to label experiences as frightening and threatening. Once the amygdala flags an episode as negative, it immediately stores the event and compares it to the record of old painful experiences. If a pattern match is found, a series of chemical reactions signals alarm. Negative occurrences are prioritized precisely and purposefully to protect us from harm. Consequently the bad things that happen are registered and responded to almost instantaneously whereas the happy events take five to 20 seconds just to begin to register.

Deliberately Re-wiring the Brain

Daily stress perceived by the brain as a literal battle for survival and the subsequent cascade of chemical reactions dictating persistent focus on negativity is suspected to undergird the depression epidemic. For most people, agitation, anger and fear are easier to access and sustain than peace, happiness, and fulfillment. Accordingly, leading a genuinely happy life doesn’t happen without deliberate effort, or in the vernacular of Hanson “re-training” the brain.

Deliberate effort is a function of the higher regions of the brain and researchers have shown that these areas are thicker in experienced meditation practitioners as compared to people with no meditation experience. Investigators reporting in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging wondered if the meditation experience was responsible for the thickening. To find out they placed a group of inexperienced meditation volunteers on an eight-week meditation program. Upon comparing brain scans taken before and after the intervention, the researchers reported that not only did the higher brain regions thicken, but also that the amygdala became less dense. According to the researchers, these findings open the door to novel ways to protect against stress-related disorders and depression.

Easier than Meditation!

Help us bring happiness to the world by supporting the Y55 Happiness Trainer project! We’ve programmed our Happiness Trainer to re-wire the brain for happiness using games and activities easily accessed from your cell phone. Imagine your own personal Happiness Trainer available 24×7 you can call on at the first sign of stress!  Please support our Indiegogo campaign!

photo credit: clotho98 via photopin cc

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1 Comment
  • Aya on September 8, 2013

    What a discovery! Unbelievable! Let’s make it real by practicing our brain every day to feel happy for ever:-)

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