October 15, 2013

How New-Agey, Trite Affirmations Can Lead Us to Happiness.

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” ~ Buddha

So you think affirmations are new-agey and trite? I mean really, as if ‘I am the very source of abundance and love itself’ taped on your mirror is going to pay that credit card bill?

Well, I’m going to suggest that you have a rethink and try on the possibility that affirmations may be at the cutting-edge of neuroscience and its sexy sister PNI (psychoneuroimmunology). And while an affirmation in itself may not be enough to help you pay your bills, it can reshape your brain and thus cause you to effect behavioral changes which will help you manage your finances.

Plasticity is the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself, to establish and dissolve connections between its different parts. No doubt you’ve heard the phrase ‘neurons that wire together fire together,’ but what exactly does it mean? When one neuron (nerve cell) wants to ‘talk’ to another, it communicates by way of an electrochemical signal. An electrical signal is released from the soma (cell body) and travels down the axon (a threadlike protrusion of varying length that carries nerve signals ) until it can go no further because it’s reached the synaptic cleft (the space between two neurons). 

Since an electrical signal can’t cross the gap, the charge is converted into a chemical packet (a neurotransmitter), which diffuses across the synapse, where it latches on to a receptor cell on the other side. When the molecule binds to the receptor, an electrical charge is released which travels up the dendrite (similar to an axon, but receives nerve signals) to the second nerve cell.

So the link between cells is an electrochemical pathway. Many of the chemicals have specific emotional signatures; for example, oxytocin, which creates feelings of trust and attachment; or ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which signals the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol, and creates feelings of arousal; serotonin, the happy chemical.

To quote neuroscientist Candace Pert, neurotransmitters are “molecules of emotion.”

These chemicals are essentially drugs which affect how we feel because of how they interact with the limbic system (emotional brain), as well as the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight and rest and restore) and digestive, immune and respiratory systems. To somewhat over-simplify, this means that when you think a certain thought, recall something, repeat something mentally, you affect a neuro-chemical reaction and an associated feeling that ripples through different parts of your body. For example, when you feel stressed out in response to particular thoughts it is (at least partly) because your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you feel aroused. Depending on how stressed-out you feel, your mouth may become dry, your palms clammy, your stomach feeling as though it’s doing double flips.

Each of us has habitual thought patterns that we know are not good for us because of how they make us feel and the impact they have on our actions and our ability to pursue our goals and interests and to feel happy and actualized. Researchers in the area of PNI (psychoneuroimmunology) are now reporting that negative, stress-inducing thoughts affect our immunity and raise our white T cell count.

But just as negative thought patterns have adverse effects, positive thoughts create positive effects leading to increased feelings of happiness, wellbeing and confidence. And, it turns out that happier people enjoy better health and deal with stress better.

As anyone whose ever sat an exam knows, your state of mind is not just important, but determinative of exam success. If you go into an exam feeling confident and upbeat, you are much more likely to perform well. By a similar token, when I was writing my application letter to get into a Ph.D program in philosophy in Chicago, my academic advisor cautioned me to write the letter when I was feeling good about myself, otherwise the letter would not convey an attitude of confidence.

Specific thoughts elicit related feelings, which in turn influence our overall disposition and our propensity towards behaviors. So our thoughts create our stance within and towards our world and consequently our experience of the world—change your thoughts and you change your world. Now this doesn’t seem so new-agey… I take it that we all want more happiness, satisfaction and abundance in our lives, and if changing the way we think helps to bring that about, that’s something attainable over time.

We all have the experience of getting stuck in habitual ways of thinking and acting. Frequently we would like to change such patterns, but find that we are stuck in the same old groove, even (particularly) when it doesn’t feel good. Since neurons that wire together fire together, and every time said neurons wire the connections between those parts of the brain (which may have different functions, for example, vision, language) strengthen, it shouldn’t surprise us that certain behavioral patterns become ingrained. Add in the fact that we can become addicted to the chemicals released by neurons firing (think about gamblers and the dopamine response, or chronic self-mutilators), and we have a tricky situation.

Every time we react habitually to a given stimulus, neural pathways are activated, as well as the brain-parts housing those neurons. As the same regions are activated over time, they become thicker and denser—possibly because the neurons in that area branch out to make connections to other neurons—or increase the number of cells in those areas, or the blood flow into them. The more these areas are activated in our day-to-day experience, the more we react in habitual ways. This is akin to the yogic theory of samskaras (latent mental impressions) and vasanas the behavioral patterns arising from their activation.

Dopamine release consolidates neuronal connections responsible for the behaviors that lead us to accomplish our goal—we get a hit of feeling good from dopamine, the reward chemical. This is obviously helpful when we are trying to replace negative mental tapes with positive ones.

For example, if I catch myself making a negative judgment about someone I feel has wronged me, I can replace that thought with a positive statement. Every time I manage to do this I get a shot of dopamine; I have made-good on my decision to stop allowing this belief about how that person treated me to have a negative impact by making me feel bad about myself. In this case, the reward comes as a result of my following through on my meta-intention about ending my mental tapes. And, it is this ability to form meta-inentions, or big-picture decisions that impact our behavior, that is distinctive about human psychology and rationality. Such executive mental functions take place in the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for long-term planning and goal setting.

Neurons fire in response to particular experiences (thoughts, stimuli etc) and the neuronal connections between neurons in different parts of the brain get stronger and thicker each time the neural pathway is activated.Long-term potentiation’ (LTP) is the term given to the strengthening of connections between neurons. The stronger the connection between neurons, the more difficult it becomes to break thought (and hence behavioral) patterns. Unsurprisingly, our behavioral propensities contribute to our experience of the world, but also our experience and conception of ourselves; we become identified with ways of thinking and behaving and mistakenly think that this is who we are.

The good news is that we can shortcut neuronal connections and thus rewire our brain (and thereby our self-conception). By changing our mental tapes and choosing new thoughts and beliefs, we can use the brain’s inherent architecture and formal capacities to recreate ourselves.

Long-term depression (LDP) is the process wherein the brain unlearns associations and disconnects neurons. Given this, using affirmations to create positive feelings in the body-mind continuum doesn’t seem vacuous. To the contrary it seems smart, self-interested and forward-thinking.

Just like asana, or meditation, using affirmations is a practice. We must keep doing it in a sustained manner in order to see positive effects manifest in our lives over time. Since it involves rewiring the brain and the mental tapes running in the brain, an affirmation isn’t a quick fix, rather it’s a tool to help you become more empowered, better able to attain your goals and ultimately a happier, more fulfilled person. Who can argue with that?


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Ed: Sara Crolick


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