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  • Writer's pictureBianca Amoruso-Wennerby

Beyond the Negative: Activating Brain Plasticity for a More Positive Life!

The human mind is one of the most complex and fascinating areas we deal with every day. For years, scientists have studied the human brain, trying to understand how it works and why it behaves in a certain way.

As an expert in physical and mental health and loving science, I dedicate all my free time trying to understand how the body and mind work and how their connection functions. I am very attentive to my daily approach to life and events, and I often reflect on how we all react to what happens to us or around us, and above all, how we express our thoughts and which words we choose to express them.

I often notice, when talking with friends, family, or clients, that our brain has a strong aptitude to emphasize the negative aspects of life. Phrases like: "Today I am free from work, but with this cloudy weather... how boring!", or "I finally finished working, but now I have to clean the house", or "I am happy it is Friday but the weekend will pass too quickly", or "What a beautiful sunny day today, I guess it will be too hot to go out". Even more interesting are the responses we receive from those who listen to us, regarding events that required for us energy and had a rather high degree of difficulty to manage. Phrases like: "I imagine how hard it was for you" or "it's so sad, relationships are really difficult”.

Often, we find ourselves creating dramas in our mind, complicate situations that are actually simple and light.

The brain's tendency to emphasize negative events is known as "negativity bias" and has been documented in numerous studies. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Amsterdam showed that the human brain reacts more strongly to negative stimulations than to positive or neutral ones. Another study, published in the journal "Nature Neuroscience", found that the human brain shows more activity in brain areas associated with the perception of negative information.

The reason why the brain tends towards the negative and drama is still under discussion among experts, but there are some main theories. One theory suggests that "negativity bias" is a product of evolution. Our ancestors had to be particularly attentive to dangers (such as predators or diseases) to survive, so the brain developed a greater sensitivity to threats.

Another theory suggests that "negativity bias" is a result of learning. Negative experiences tend to have more severe consequences than positive ones, so the brain has developed a greater sensitivity to this information to help us avoid it in the future.

In any case, it is important to remember that "negativity bias" is just one aspect of our brain, and with practice and commitment, we can train our mind to see the world in a more balanced and positive way!

How do you train your mind? Can the brain be trained?

One of the most interesting and important discoveries for me in the field of neuroscience is the concept of "brain plasticity". This means that the brain is able to change and adapt in response to new experiences. Brain plasticity has been demonstrated in numerous scientific studies.

For example, a classic study conducted by researchers at the University of California found that London taxi drivers, who must memorize a large amount of geographic information, have a larger area of the hippocampus*** compared to individuals who do not have this type of need.

****(Position cells found in the hippocampus are responsible for spatial memory, i.e., the memory that allows us to remember the places we have already been and the information learned about them, and also allows orientation and the processing of spatial maps).

Another study, published in the journal "Nature", showed that the brain can change and adapt even in adulthood, contrary to the previous belief that the brain stopped changing after childhood. Personally, I strongly discourage anyone who says "at my age"...

Scientific studies show that the human brain, if trained and stimulated, maintains its "freshness". Obviously always with different intensities, but this does not depend only on age but also on the environment in which we live and the type of life we live. Memory is very susceptible to physical and mental fatigue.

Another aspect I want to focus on is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system due to negative thoughts. The study of our nervous system is very dear to me. If we knew more about it, we could manage ourselves and our life in a healthier and more careful way.

Why are we sometimes our own enemy?

Negative thoughts have the power to activate the sympathetic system of our brain, which is responsible for our "fight or flight" response to perceived threats. This system prepares us to react quickly in dangerous situations, increasing heart rate, breathing, and blood flow to the muscles. This system is best known for its role in responding to stressful situations.

If we allow negative thoughts to dominate our mind, we can unnecessarily activate the sympathetic system even in the absence of real dangers. Essentially, we are self-threatening, putting our body in a constant state of alert that can have negative effects on our long-term physical and mental health. It is important, therefore, to learn to manage negative thoughts so as not to unnecessarily activate our sympathetic system. Let's stop threatening ourselves! But how?

Let's try not to be slaves of our mind!!! We are the only masters of our thoughts.

Here are some suggestions on how to do it:

  • ***Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is the ability to be present and aware here and now, without being subject to external conditioning or being distracted. It is an act of pure presence of our mind. It can be translated as "full consciousness". Mindfulness helps us to accept our experiences without judgment. When we practice mindfulness, we can notice the negative thoughts that arise and let them go without clinging to them.

  • ***Cultivate gratitude: Making a list of things we are grateful for can help us focus on the positive aspects of our life and reduce our attention to negative thoughts. For example, when we want to express ourselves by saying: "finally I finished working, but now I have to clean the house", we could instead say: "finally I finished working! Now I am free to organize the rest of my day! I can clean the house today or maybe even tomorrow. Now I enjoy the sun and take a walk!”. "The sun is shining and is strong today". Its strong heat is not as noteworthy as the fact that it illuminates and brings joy. So maybe I can focus on that aspect instead! And if it is very hot and I can't stand it, I go take a bath or a shower so then I can enjoy the heat instead of perceiving it as a negative event! You can practice minimizing the negative, believe me; and life gains more color!

  • ***Strengthen positive thoughts: When we notice that our brain is going in a negative direction, we can actively try to change our perspective. For example, if we think "I can't do it", we can change this thought to "I will do my best". Or phrases like "I can't" or "I will never be able to do it because I am lazy" or "my body is not flexible and I can't do yoga". My yoga teacher, Ingrid, taught me that adding a simple adverb to some phrases, everything can become simpler. The adverb is "yet". "I can't do it yet" or "I haven't developed this skill yet". This assumes that you will be able to do it and that you are working towards it! Try introducing "yet" into your sentences and you will be able to have more confidence in yourself!

When we are on the other side, listening a negative experience or a feeling that can be interpreted as negative, let's try not to sink our interlocutor into an even darker tunnel. The phrase I mentioned above, "I imagine how hard it was for you", transfers negative energy and focuses on pain.

An alternative to the phrase "I imagine how hard it was for you" could be "I admire your courage in overcoming such a difficult challenge". This sentence acknowledges the difficulty that the other person faced, but focuses on their strength and resilience, rather than pain and suffering. Other examples could be:

  • "It must have been very challenging, but I am amazed by your strength and determination."

  • "I know it was not easy, but you managed to overcome a big obstacle."

  • "It is clear that you faced difficulties, but I am really impressed by your positivity."

These sentences show empathy for the other person, acknowledging their struggles, but at the same time highlight the positive side of the situation, showing appreciation for their strength and resilience. Let's practice changing perspectives!!!

  • ***Exercise regularly: Physical exercise releases endorphins, which are known as "happiness hormones". Regular exercise can help improve your mood and reduce stress and anxiety.

  • ***Limit exposure to negative media: Being constantly exposed to negative news can have a negative impact on our mood. Try to limit exposure to negative media and try to focus on positive news or activities that make you happy. When scrolling through Facebook posts reading negative phrases from people complaining like "the more you give to others, the more slaps you get" maybe you can ask yourself if you want to continue following that person. Perhaps it would be healthier FOR YOU not to follow them anymore so as not to be exposed to energies that you are not interested in absorbing. Instead, follow and talk to those who love life and who look at the positive side in all possible circumstances.

It is normal to have negative thoughts from time to time. Sometimes we even need to express them to receive compassion and to "vent". The goal is not to completely eliminate negative thoughts, but rather to balance our perspective so as not to be overwhelmed by the negative.

Remembering that our brain is plastic and can be trained, we can take control of our mental health and actively work to create a more positive and healthy view of life.

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