08/08/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Mental Health Notes: Stuart Smalley and Neuroplasticity

Stuart Smalley was a character on Saturday Night Live played by Al Franken, now a distinguished member of the Senate, then a distinguished comedian. In the '90s he was a regular on Saturday Night Live. Blonde and dimpled, somewhat effeminate, Stuart was an earnest simpleton, distinctly un-cool in his cardigan. He was "a member of several 12-step programs, not a licensed therapist." Actually, he was a mess.

One of his funnier bits was staring into a mirror and speaking aloud affirmations, to be repeated daily. "I am good enough, I am smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." There was also: "I am an attractive person, I deserve my share of happiness, I deserve good things."

The hilarious implication was of course how silly and self-indulgent it was to think flattering yourself in front of a mirror really meant anything.

But you know what? It turns out that Stuart Smalley was on to something.

What we now know about neural functioning indicates pretty strongly that what we think can and does change our brain. In the last 20 years there has been an explosion of new understanding in brain science. There is more sophisticated detail mapping of the brain and its functions, and very importantly, we have learned that the brain is malleable, not fixed as we once thought. This is why a meditation practice, learning a language, and taking up a musical instrument can demonstrably change brain structure, even quite late in life.

What changes the brain, and/or the mind, changes the body, the immune system, blood pressure, cardiac function, stroke recovery and so much more. Sophisticated methods of brain scanning have given us access to how all of this works.

The slogan is: What fires together, wires together. As neurons fire (which is what happens with thought) they connect to each other. The more they fire, the stronger the wire. If you practice weight lifting, or swimming, or piano, or French, you gain more facility, you get better and better -- the neural connections grow stronger and stronger. So if you think good thoughts, that might have an effect also, right?

I have just read the book Freedom From Pain: Discover Your Body's Power to Overcome Physical Pain by Peter Levine, Ph.D. and Maggie Phillips, Ph.D. This book is chock full of exercises and regular practices that can help people in acute or chronic pain manage their pain. Many of the exercises are based on Somatic Experiencing (SE), many on energy medicine. Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, is a body awareness approach to treating trauma. Pain is a form of trauma.

Pain management is a very challenging area of health care, with pain conditions nearly epidemic. Medication can be helpful but sometimes falls far short of bringing comfort and almost always has side effects that can be distressing. So practices that depend only on our ability to focus attention have enormous potential benefit. And no side effects.

I was somewhat amused to see that Stuart Smiley's methodology was one of the practices recommended by Levine and Phillips. Here is the scientific justification:

Neuroplasticity research has turned this theory (genetic determination) on its head and gives us an entirely new way to look at the impact of our thoughts and beliefs ... We know that thoughts literally change brain chemistry. Research indicates that the chemical composition of the body can change in relation to a specific thought within twenty seconds (Levine and Phillips, p. 112) ... Research indicates that the chemical composition of the body can change in relation to a specific thought within twenty seconds (p. 11).

Neuroscience has caught up to Saturday Night Live!

Try it. And if you need inspiration, consider where Stuart Smiley is today: The United States Senate.

See previous posts on SE:

For more by May Benatar, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.