We understand that negative thinking can sour your mood, depress you, and make you anti-social. But do you realize that continued negative thoughts actually change your brain? Just like exercise changes your muscles, use of the brain for negative thinking causes the brain to ramp up its capacity for such thinking; after all, that is apparently what it is needed for.
High mental activity — use of certain areas of the brain — developments the brain. Your body is designed to strengthen anything that is used actively, and that includes the brain — good thoughts have been shown to cause physical improvements there. In a Frontiers in Psychology research article from the University of California, significant slowing of age-related loss of grey matter (mean age in mid-fifties) in the brains of those engaging in meditation was observed over a control group. The meditation was a positive influence on the subjects’ actual brain construction. This result was verified in another study (with a younger age range), published in Oxford Academic, where the rate of change in gray matter for the control group was -4.7 ml/year compared with +1.8 ml/year in the meditator group — an actual increase in brain matter.
There are direct and indirect ways that your brain responds to your thinking. Here are some highlights:
Receptors and Duplication
All cells have many receptors on their surfaces, which are keyed to respond to a specific protein. When we have emotional reactions, certain peptides/proteins are released, which go through the body attaching to receptors which match. Then, when those cells divide, they tend to have an increased number of those receptors which have been heavily used, and less of those which have not been activated. Thus, when you are thinking certain thoughts that release specific peptides, you will get more sensitivity to such thoughts in the future. Your cells become more attuned to those protein releases.
Brain cells connect to others. As thoughts are produced, more connections are made. Thoughts are both produced and monitored: you create the thought, but your brain also “hears” the thought. Thus thoughts are reinforcing: the more you think a certain way, the more your thoughts feed back to your brain, and more connections are made to record those thoughts.
Your brain is part of your body. Generally, what is good for one is good for the other. If you are angry, your digestion is suppressed, leading to poorer nutrition for your brain. If you are happy, you promote a sense of well-being that tends to produce improved health.
Cells appear to change their genetics when they rearrange code segments of their genes. As they do so, in reaction to their environment, they act differently. These rearrangements occur when the current arrangement is not meeting the cells’ needs, prompting an attempt to adapt to their environment. If your mind is worried, your cells are under a state of stress as well, and they will attempt to rewire to better handle the stress. If your mind is happy and content, unnecessary adaptations tend to fade away as cells rewire for good, normal conditions.
In Alzheimer’s & Dementia, a study of people over 55 determined that frequent, ongoing negative thinking is linked both to cognitive decline and a build-up of damaging Alzheimer’s brain proteins. Occasional negative thoughts showed no impact, but repetitive negative thinking showed measurable negative results. Over a four year period those with the repetitive negative thinking patterns showed measurably poorer function as well as increased brain deposits.
Continued dwelling on negativity can actually lead to disease in the brain.
To increase positive thoughts in your brain, you have to expose your brain to more good thoughts. Your brain is listening to inputs from all sources — feelings that thoughts invoke may have as powerful an effect on the brain as feelings produced by external events. Words that you say yourself can have a similar impact to words spoken by someone else. The deepest impact is when you actually believe good things, not just recite them. How do you believe something?
One way to reprogram is gratitude. Simply focus on those good things that have happened to you. We easily forget all the ways that our lives have been blessed, all the joys we have experienced, and instead dwell on things that don’t go so well. You can always recall times when life didn’t seem fair, but if you try, you can also remember times when you were blessed. That’s gratitude — a recognition of the gifts and help you’ve been given along the way. “Count your blessings” — as you do, you will realize that you have had many, and by reviewing them, you recognize that your life has been better than you thought.
Another saying is “stop and smell the roses.” Take time to enjoy the moment. Sometimes we are rushing through life, and don’t realize what is around us. When there is good, take time to receive it.
Various forms of meditation teach you to redirect your focus. Just focusing on breathing kicks out other thoughts, because the mind can only really focus on one thing at a time. Meditation is all about retuning and focusing thought onto good and simple things, to push away the chaotic and negative thoughts that may normally occupy our minds.
Not dwelling on future problems is vital. While future planning is wise, dwelling on what could go wrong is harmful. If it does go wrong — and many times it will not — there is no value in amplifying it before it happens.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
As you think so you become. What are you thinking about today? The first step in keeping a healthy brain is using it, and using it for good, not for negative. If you want your brain to get diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s then all you have to do is keep thinking on negative and fearful thoughts from your past and projecting into your future. And if you want to protect your brain and even strengthen it, growing more neurons, then stay thankful to God, move always in love, and live fully in the moment. Tomorrow will have it share of challenges that you do not need to take on today. Yesterday is done, whether it was great or traumatic — the only power it has over you is by reliving the energy of it, and that is not healthy. Wise words say to forget what is behind and press on toward the goal of what you have been called to do. The best thing you can do for you brain is to use it to lift up one another and to not exercise it just on yourself. It is in giving that we receive.