Posts Tagged ‘neuroplasticity’

Gratefully, Yours

Article contributed by Amy Sargent

For whom do you feel a deep sense of gratitude? Have you let them know?

It’s that time of year where we’re reminded to offer up thanks. And why not? Developing practices of gratitude is one of the simplest ways to improve life satisfaction. Research shows that expressing gratitude not only benefits the person receiving it, but also the giver, with positive effects sticking around for months.

Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons (University of CA) and Dr. Michael McCullough (University of Miami) conducted a study asking one group of participants to write about things they were thankful for during the week. A second group was to write about daily frustrations and a third group was asked to write about anything. After ten weeks of this, the researchers found that those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt more positive about their lives. Interestingly, they exercised more often and paid fewer visits to the doctor that the other groups! [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12585811/]

Another significant study on the benefits of gratitude was conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Penn State Positive Psychology Center. He assigned study participants to write a gratitude letter and deliver it to the recipient. The participants who did this displayed a drastic increase in their happiness scores, and these happiness benefits lasted up to six months after they letter was written and delivered. [https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16045394/]

Gratitude is not only connected to reducing depression and worry-related anxiety, but boosts an overall sense of wellbeing and relationship satisfaction. When gratitude is expressed, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with our ability to imagine our future, becomes activated, allowing us to ‘see’ more optimistic outcomes. Additionally, exercising gratitude increases activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain which controls functions such as sleep, eating, metabolism, and stress management.  Know of anyone who could use some improvement in those bodily functions?! [https://draxe.com/health/benefits-of-gratitude/   and https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201211/the-grateful-brain]

In an article in Psychology Today, author Amy Morin outlines these seven benefits of gratitude:

1. It opens doors to new relationships

2. It improves physical health

3. It improves psychological health

4. It enhances empathy

5. It helps with sleep

6. It increases self-esteem

7. It increases mental strength

[https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude]

Still not believing it? Give it a try! Keep a gratitude journal for the next ten weeks. Or, take a moment to write a gratitude letter to someone who’s had a positive impact on you, and deliver it. If you can’t deliver it in person, set up an online meeting and read it aloud to them.

Then let us know how you are feeling!

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Catalyzing Change and the Brain

Article contributed by guest author Sandra Marin

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Since the beginning of time, people have liked routine. We like the known. It makes us feel in control. Safe and comfortable. Boy does this ever resonant now during these Covid times. So, it is no surprise that many of us resist change. Even if we are not 100% satisfied with status quo, we will hold onto it. Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. But maybe not….

Our resistance to change is not because we are stubborn or want to be difficult (at least not you or me). It is a reflection of our brains. The brain loves to make sense of the world and helps us control our lives. This is an excellent thing. It keeps us safe.  And, like so many things, if overdone, can be harmful. The inability to change or grow can result in stagnation. No progress. Not good for an individual, a society or a country. 

February’s “coffee chat” topic, hosted by The Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence was Catalyzing Change. This is one of the 26 competencies that make up their social and emotional intelligence model. 

During our chat we talked about many things and what I want to focus on today is the benefit of becoming more of a change catalyzer and less of a change resistor. In particular focusing on one critical benefit that may not be the first one that comes to mind: the positive impact of change on brain health. Yup, change can help our brains remain agile throughout our lives. 

Neuroscience: 1 second intro

Our brains grow and change naturally. Often quite dramatically until around our mid to late 20’s. Historical thinking about the brain was that once we became adults our brains were “hard -wired” and stopped changing. The die was cast. Or so we thought. Recent neuroscience research shows that our brains are much more flexible than we first thought, hence the term neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the term that describes the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways and ignore or lose those that are no longer used. We can change our habits, biases and behaviours. Not easy, but possible.

The main benefit of becoming a change catalyzer is that change can help keep our brains agile throughout our life. We can lead richer, happier and healthier lives. In fact, according to neuroscientist and author David Eagleman the single most important thing we can do for our brains is to cognitively challenge them. And that means embracing change. 

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Embracing Change: So what can you do to become more of a change catalyzer and improve the health of your brain? Start small to build your comfort level with change.

For example:

  • Take different routes to and from frequent destinations.
  • Try new restaurants and new types of cuisine.
  • Switch hands for common tasks such as brushing your teeth.
  • Expand your horizons in general. This can be listening to music, reading books, watching movies from styles and genres that you normally wouldn’t.

Of course the small things are not enough. Move on to more challenging activities and behaviours. Such as:

  •  Learn a new language or instrument. 
  • Embrace mistakes. We learn through trial and error. Think less about failing and more about exposing yourself to new activities and experiences. 
  • Practice, and more practice. Simply doing something once is not enough to create a new pathway in the brain. Try, try, and try again. If not perfect, practice does make better. 
  • Be open to new ideas and practices.  Maybe you have heard someone (not you of course) say “ if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “ we’ve always done it this way.” Resist the urge to stop there.  Go further and ask “ so what if it did change?What then?” 
  • Focus. Be present. Breathe. Deeply. Forget multi-tasking. Our brains are not wired for that. In fact the more we take on, the more our bodies are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. Take up yoga, meditation or simply go for a walk in nature. 
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“All change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.” Robin Sharma

I hope I have whetted your appetite for more on neuroscience, change and emotional intelligence. Please feel free to share your comments, questions, tips.

Resources 

There are many excellent resources on neuroscience. Here are three that relate to this article. 

 “The Nun Study”. This study showed that multilingualism and linguistic ability may reduce the risk of developing dementia. Science Daily September 12, 2019 University of Waterloo.

 “The Four Underling Principles of Changing your Brain “Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author, Forbes March 27, 2018.

 “Livewired” by David Eagleman 2020