I find it tremendously exciting that neuroscience is discovering ways in which we can all help ourselves to make highly significant, or even profound, positive changes to how we respond to our lives on an emotional level. One of the main reasons we can do this is that it is now known that through training our brains in certain ways we can ALTER IT ON A PHYSICAL LEVEL due to a property it has which neuroscientists have called NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this).
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BRAIN’S LEFT HEMISPHERE :
Neuroscientific research has revealed to us that the brain’s left hemisphere is associated with generating positive emotions whilst the right hemisphere is associated with generating negative emotions. Below, I list a sample of the evidence for this :
1) Individuals who suffer a stroke located in the left hemisphere become profoundly depressed whereas people who suffer a stroke located in their right hemisphere actually become less anxious and more easy-going
2) Brain imaging techniques reveal that negative feelings are accompanied by greater activation of the right hemisphere whereas positive feelings such as optimism are associated with more activation of the right hemisphere
3) Depressed people generalize their feelings of negativity onto all aspects of their lives ; it is the right hemisphere that is associated with such generalized thinking
THE NEED FOR US TO STIMULATE ACTIVITY IN OUR BRAIN’S LEFT HEMISPHERE IN ORDER TO CREATE POSITIVE MOODS :
It follows from the above that in order for us to elevate our mood we need to stimulate our left hemisphere much more. How do we do this?
To answer this question it is useful to refer to research conducted by the psychologist Kelly Lambert : she drew our attention to the fact that there is a network in the brain’s left hemisphere that connects movement, emotion and thinking, which means these three things affect each other. Because of these connections in the brain, it has been found that increasing physical activity has the knock on effects of lifting mood and creating more positive thinking. Lambert named this technique for treating depression ‘BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION.‘
Following on from this research, it has been emphasized that an especially effective way to benefit from the behavioural activation mechanism is, when we are depressed, TO ACT AS WE WOULD IF WE WERE IN A GOOD MOOD. This might involve, for example, undertaking an activity we used to enjoy such as a sport or hobby.
Also, whilst it might sound a little silly, it has also been found that even the physical act of smiling (even when we are depressed and don’t feel like smiling) helps to activate the left hemisphere due to the way in which our brains are wired up.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE FACT THAT THE LEFT HEMISPHERE CONTROLS LANGUAGE :
Because the left hemisphere controls language, the more we use language in relation to our condition, the more this hemisphere is activated. We therefore need to try to put our feelings into words when we are depressed (for example linguistically labelling our feelings rather than just passively experiencing them, or verbally interpreting and analysing our situation).
Also, writing a daily diary , including writing about feelings and emotions, is a good idea.
In my own case, my main motivation for creating this site was for the therapeutic effect of doing so.
NEUROPLASTICITY REVISITED :
Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, the more we activate our left hemisphere the more it undergoes beneficial physiological change increasing neural connections that lift our mood. Just as depression leads to vicious cycle affecting our mood, thoughts and behaviour, stimulating our left hemisphere leads to a virtuous, and, ultimately, self-perpetuating, positive cycle.
The beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others and the world in general, powerfully affect how we feel. Indeed, we have seen in previous articles published on this site how cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) takes advantage of this fact (click here to read one of my articles on CBT). Brain imaging techniques have shown that CBT has a direct effect upon the brain by activating the region known as the hippocampus (see picture below).
Learning positive thinking skills through therapies like CBT, when repeatedly practised. creates permanent, beneficial changes in the brain.
Neuroscience, Belief, The Placebo Effect and the Brain :
Just how powerful ‘mere’ beliefs can be is demonstrated very well by research that has been carried out on the placebo effect. One shocking finding is that about 80 -100% of the beneficial effect that people obtain by taking anti-depressants is due to the placebo effect (click here to read my article on this).
Believing we will get better, per se, then, makes it more likely that we will. Indeed, the power of belief/the placebo effect even makes it more likely that we will recover from physical illnesses (demonstrating again the powerful link between mind and body). Below, I provide statistics relating to the placebo effect upon physical illnesses (based on the findings of the psychological researcher Nieme, 2009) :
– CANCER – approximately 5% of tumours were reduced in size by the placebo effect
– IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME (IBS) – approximately 40 % improved as a result of the placebo effect
– DUODENAL ULCER – approximately 40% improved as a result of the placebo effect
WAYS OF TRAINING THE BRAIN IN ORDER TO BENEFICIALLY ‘REWIRE’ IT :
1) People who are depressed often see things in ‘black or white’, or, to put it another way, think in terms of extremes. Instead of this, it is very helpful to replace such a thinking style with one that sees things in less extreme ways (more in ‘shades of grey’ rather than ‘black or white’)
2) Depression causes extreme pessimism and those who are severely depressed tend to vastly over-estimate probabilities of catastrophic outcomes. It is helpful to cultivate more optimistic thinking ; for example, rather than dwelling on a negative change in life circumstances, seeing the new situation as a challenge and one which can open new doors and avenues of personal development
3) Another very useful skill is learning to see one’s situation in a more DETACHED manner, becoming, perhaps, like a kind of dispassionate observer of one’s own life – rather like watching a film ; distancing ourselves from events in this way can be very helpful.
4) It is also very helpful to EXTERNALIZE events more – this means not letting things lower one’s self-esteem when they go wrong, but rather to channel the energy that would have been wasted on castigating oneself into trying to constructively resolve the situation.
More information about overcoming negative thinking can be found by clicking here to read one of my previously published articles).
‘Brain cells that fire together, wire together’ :
The more we practise positive thinking, the more neural connections will be created to elevate our mood – likewise, the greater will be the rate at which neural connections that create low mood will wither away and die. This idea is summed up by the phrase, coined by neuroscientists, that ‘brain cells that fire together, wire together.’
Above eBooks now available on Amazon for immediate download. CLICK HERE for further details.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).