By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-authors of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony)
We've entered a golden age for brain research, but all these new findings haven't trickled down to the individual. Yet there are broad discoveries that make it possible to everyone to improve their brains. Let me state these succinctly:
• Your brain is constantly renewing itself.
• Your brain can heal its wounds form the past.
• Experience changes the bran every day.
• The input you give your brain causes it to form new neural pathways.
• The more positive the input, the better your brain will function.
In a new book, Super Brain, I and my co-author, Prof. Rudolf Tanzi of Harvard Medical School, expand upon the neuroscience behind these broad findings. The old view of the brain as fixed for life, constantly losing neurons and declining in function, has been all but abolished. The new brain is a process, not a thing, and the process heads in the direction you point it in. A Buddhist monk meditating on compassion develops the brain circuitry that brings compassion into reality. Depending on the input it receives, you can create a compassionate brain, an artistic brain, a wise brain, or any other kind.
However, as Prof. Tanzi and I see it, the agent that makes these possibilities become real is the mind. The brain doesn't create its own destiny. Genetics delivers the brain in a functioning state so that the nervous system can regulate itself and the whole body. It doesn't take your intervention to balance hormone levels, regulate heartbeat, or do a thousand other autonomic functions. But the newest part of the brain, the neocortex, is where the field of possibilities actually lies. Here is where decisions are made, where we discriminate, worship, assess, control, and evolve.
If you think of everyday experience as input for your brain, and your actions and thoughts as output, a feedback loop is formed. The old cliché about computer software -- garbage in, garbage out - applies to all feedback loops. Toxic experiences shape the brain quite differently from healthy ones. This seems like common sense, but neuroscience has joined forces with genetics to reveal that right down to the level of DNA, the feedback loop that embraces mind and body is profoundly changed by the input processed by the brain.
Our aim was to cut to the chase. If input is everything, then happiness and well-being are created by giving the brain positive input. Without realizing it, you are here to inspire your brain to be the best it can be. This is much more than positive thinking, which is often too superficial and masks underlying negativity. The input that inspires the brain includes a wide array of things. Everyone wants to experience positive feelings (love, hope, optimism, appreciation, approval) without knowing how to get them. For all the theories that proliferate about happiness, from the brain's perspective, the formula is to maximize the positive messages being received by the cortex and minimize the negative ones.
What this implies isn't a brave new world of thought control or pretending that life is rosy. Life will always present challenges, setbacks, and crises. The point is to create a matrix that will allow you to best adapt to both sides, the light and the dark, of experience. In our book, we were particularly focused on a setup that would take people into old age with a brain that remains dynamic and resilient.
Here is our recommendation, having considered the most up-to-date neuroscience.
Matrix for a Positive Lifestyle
• Have good friends.
• Don't isolate yourself.
• Sustain a lifelong companionship with a spouse or partner.
• Engage socially in worthwhile projects.
• Be close with people who have a good lifestyle - habits are contagious.
• Follow a purpose in life.
• Leave time for play and relaxation.
• Keep up satisfying sexual activity.
• Address issues around anger.
• Practice stress management.
• Deal with the reactive mind's harmful effects: When you have a negative reaction, stop, stand back, take a few deep breaths, and observe how you're feeling.
Your brain will thrive in such a matrix, even as life brings its ups and downs. But by the same token, the brain can't arrive at any of these things on its own. You are the leader of your brain. I'll expand on this theme in the next post, since the whole issue of feedback loops turns out to be vital for all kinds of brain functions, including memory and the prevention of feared disorders like Alzheimer's.
(To be continued)