What would you do if you knew that you can change your brain, physically, without surgery or through electroconvulsive therapy? Would you want to change it? Would you want to change the way you think or behave, and become a more emotionally intelligent (EQ) person?
Well, the good news is that you can change the way your brain works. However, this will not be a walk in the park and you would need to do some significant ‘thinking and doing’ to make this happen.
And, as if this is not hard enough to do, you will – at the same time – have to face the challenges of today’s fast-paced world, which leave little time to do all this ‘thinking and doing’.
We live in the age of multitasking, quick fixes, instant gratification and instant answers. We hardly have time to think about the long-term impacts and consequences of this way of living. We do not make time to think things through or to use our wonderful brain to its fullest potential. Nancy Kline’s books, Time to Think (2011) and More Time to Think (2015) focus on the importance of making time and creating an environment for people to think through issues, problems and decisions. The less time we set aside to think, the more we will keep running in the hamster wheel of life, going round and round, stuck in the same way of doing things, when in fact there are smarter ways of living our lives.
But all is not doom and gloom. We can stop this rollercoaster ride by taking time to change our brain. So how do we do it? By investigating neuroplasticity, scientists study how the brain works and investigate ways in which we can physically change the brain’s structure. Until recently, we believed that the brain had a limited time for development. By early childhood our brains should be fully developed, and, once this period of development was done, the brain stopped changing and the development of new neurons occurred. In addition to this, authors like Kays, Hurley and Taber told us in 2012 that humans actually start losing their brain cells at a steady rate as we get older. These ideas were, however, abandoned, with the advent of new developments in neuroscience. In 2014, it was found by Fuchs and Flügge that the brain is in fact capable of changing and developing well into maturity. The way in which we can change our brains varies with various methods and techniques. The most common way is through reflection and purposefully changing the identified behaviour within us.
Since reflection is quite a daunting task for someone not familiar with the process, you may want to seek out a coach to assist you with this technique initially. Once you are comfortable with the process, you can continue on your own, having mastered the tools of the trade. The basic method is to identify the behaviour, think about the feelings associated with it, and do something productive and actionable with that feeling. If you continue with this process on a regular basis, you eventually develop the pathways of the brain and form new habits that will replace the old ones.
In 2005, Schwartz, Stapp and Beauregard explained how this practice, known as self-directed regulation of emotions, had to do with the activation of the prefrontal cortex within the brain. The prefrontal cortex is situated right in front of your brain and was only recently developed in evolutionary terms. This part of the brain is where you set goals, control impulses (important for EQ), solve problems, visualise, think creatively, and where your thoughts are generated, according to Rock (2009). The problem comes when this part of the brain is over-aroused as a result of stress, anxiety and worries we face in our everyday life). Apart from making you feel uncomfortable, these feelings are bad for your health. The cortisol and adrenaline in your blood become chronically high. You feel permanently threatened (to which your response is fight or flight) and develop a low threshold for such threats.
Apart from coaching as a technique to address behaviour, meditation or mindfulness practices have become popular for dealing with anxiety and stress. This has led to profound results in brain development. In 2009, experts in the field of NeuroLeadership, Ringleb and Rock, supported mindfulness as a technique people can use to become aware of feelings.
Briefly, in mindfulness practice the person notices every sight or sound, and tracks internal bodily sensations and ‘the voice within’. Ricard, Lutz and Davidson in 2014 suggested that people need to stay aware of any single perception or thought and strive to return to any detached focus each time their minds wandered off and thought of something else. With this technique you need to focus on your feelings and thoughts objectively. The more you become aware of your surroundings and normal daily irritants (such as an irritating colleague or inconsiderate driver), the feelings become less disruptive in your life and you will find a sense of psychological well-being.
The effect of mindfulness practice on the brain has been tested scientifically. Physically, the brain tissue grows in size with the prolonged practice of mindfulness, and the psychological changes that you undergo as a result of mindfulness practice are just as astounding. Those people who practise mindfulness regularly react faster to stimuli and are less prone to various forms of stress, say Ricard Lutz and Davidson. This is proof that it is possible for you to physically change your brain – with some amazing results.
So next time you catch yourself feeling stressed because you are juggling too many balls in the air, stop, breathe and get a coach to help you to change your brain.
Anzél Venter is a faculty member of USB-ED and is presently deputy director: Green Economy Programmes and Projects at the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism. Her fields of expertise include leadership development, EQ and coaching.