March 8, 2014

The Village of Your Brain: Preventing Ruminating Thoughts. ~ Dina Omar

colorful brain

Read Part One:  “Are You Self-Aware or Self-Absorbed?”

After reading my first article, you might now be asking yourself, “Okay, this is all fine and dandy, but how do I change myself from a self-ruminator to a self-reflector?

What exactly do I need to do?” Now that is an excellent question. And the answer can be found in a fun little story that takes place in:

The Village of Your Brain

Imagine your brain as a nice, little village, much like the ones we read about in children stories. And like every village, there are many people (brain parts) who live and interact together, although each of them has their own job (or function). Our story today is about one family in particular.

1) The Parents: Mr. and Mrs. Lateral Prefrontal Cortex. This is the rational, logical, organized part of the family. Their role is to keep things balanced and in-perspective. They regulate the emotional responses of the children, help them not to take things too personally, and try to step in when their automatic behaviors may cause them harm (like when the baby tries to plug her finger in the electricity socket).

2) The Teenage Twins: The Medial Prefrontal Cortex. Like all teenager, John and Mary are fairly self-involved. They’re only interested in their (your) perspective and experiences, or anything that’s about you in some way, such as your ambitions, your daydreams, your self-image, your social interactions, and the ways you perceive other people and their thoughts and emotions (empathy).

But like all siblings, especially brother and sister, each of them has a different personality. John (whose nickname is the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex) is rather self-obsessed. He’s only interested in himself and in people he views as similar to himself. No matter what goes around, he finds a way to make everything about him. He takes things personally all the time, which is why he’s prone to ruminating and making a big deal out of everything.

On the other hand, and like any teenage girl, Mary naturally pays attention to herself, but she’s also a “people’s person.” She’s much more capable of feeling compassion and empathy, even with people who are different from her, and she’s very good at making social connections. It’s such a shame that her friends in school call her the Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex; she’s always wanted to be called Mimi.

3) The Sensitive Baby: Insula. This is the part of your brain that watches for physical sensations and “gut feelings.” Sometimes, when she feels only mild anxiety or danger, she just squirms a bit and the rest of family just notices and gets back to their business. But when she gets really scared or overly excited, she screams her lungs out, forcing everybody to pay attention and react at the same level of intensity. She’s also much like her sister in her ability to feel empathy.

4) The Nervous Watchdog: Amygdala. This little puppy is the alarm system of the house. He’s all about instincts and first impressions, and he’s the reason we feel certain initial emotional responses and reactions. When he feels danger, he goes into the famous “fight or flight” mode, but being such a nervous puppy, he sometimes gets all worked up over nothing, and it’s up for the parents to calm him down when the danger is only in his imagination.

So there you have it, one big, happy family in your brain. But like most other families, they too have their problems. You see, under normal conditions, the parents are usually too preoccupied to pay proper attention to the rest of the family. Their relationship with their children is not so good (the lateral prefrontal cortex has a weak neural connection to the medial prefrontal cortex and to the insula).

So when the insula or the amygdala senses anxiety, fear, danger or any other physical sensation (such as pain, shivers, or even an itch), they go immediately to the twins. And since the twins (the medial prefrontal cortex) are pretty self-involved and not always very rational, they tend to assume that something is wrong with you. That’s why many people get stuck in a self-defeating loop, because their brain is focused completely on them, their mistakes, failures and worries.

So now we’re back to the million-dollar question: Is there a way to break this cycle and get things on a more useful and empowering track?

Why, of course there is! It’s time to call upon…

Meditation: The Super-Nanny of the Brain Family. There’s always been a lot of preaching about the benefits of meditation, and how it can promote personal well-being and a greater sense of inner peace and self-awareness. But until recently, it’s mostly been anecdotal, i.e. people talking about these benefits without hard, solid evidence. Today we find that “science” itself is telling us about how meditation helps its practitioners see the world with fresh I’s (eyes), unburdened by distorted self-beliefs, allowing the dissolution between “me vs. you” and “us vs. them.” This gives us a new sense of connectedness, which helps us feel that we are not alone in our thoughts and experiences.

Sounds like a big promise? Maybe so, but we now have empirical evidence (thanks to technologies like advanced brain scanning and imaging) that actually shows how meditation works on reshaping the brain. Research shows that people who regularly practice meditation show a pervasive reduction in the activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region of the brain, the part that constantly references back to “you” and which is associated with self-focused processing (the “me” centre).

It also shows an increase in other regions involved in understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings (empathy), as well as stronger neural connections between the lateral prefrontal cortex and the fear/sensation parts of the brain, which means we can process our life experiences in a much more rational and balanced way. When we experience something upsetting, we are able to look at it from a broader perspective, one that is less personal and more rational. In addition, studies and brain imaging show that it enhances attention, which might in turn increase the odds of our noticing other people, as opposed to being lost in our own thoughts.

So it promotes a more useful balance between internal and external phenomena, and discourages maladaptive emotional tendencies such as rumination and thought suppression. If you already know how to meditate, just take 10-15 minutes right now to go ahead and do it.

And if you don’t, stay tuned for our coming articles about meditation and how to transform it into a sustainable daily habit.

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Editorial Assistant: Dana Gornall/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo credit: Aliona Sorocov/Pixoto

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