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Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”

William James, American psychologist

William James was one of the first psychologists to address the notion of neuroplasticity back in his late 19th century text, “The Principles of Psychology.” The central idea behind neuroplasticity is that our brain can restructure itself based on our experience.

One great example of neuroplasticity is sensory substitution. For instance, if a person is born blind, often the visual parts of the brain will be taken over by another sense, such as hearing or touch. This is the brain’s way of re-allocating unused processing power only to what we are actually experiencing. It would be wasteful to leave potential neural networks dormant simply because we aren’t getting any input from that sense. Thus, brains have evolved over time to become more adaptive to these changes in our biology.

Neuroplasticity occurs inside us everyday as we encounter new experiences. Below you’ll see several photographs of neural circuity in the brain. From the left the pictures show us the neural circuity of a newborn, then a 3 month old, 15 month old, and 2 year old. As the child ages, their brain’s wiring becomes increasingly more complex and interconnected. Neuroplasticity is what allows us to take our experiences, then learn from them and form new memories. Huge changes are occurring in the brain during these early stages of cognitive development, but the truth is that our neural networks continue to build on each other until the day we die.

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How You Speak Is Just As Important As What You Say


So much about our relationships is dependent on communication. And more and more research is showing that how we say something can be just as important as what we say. Two people can recite the same set of words, but their volume, tone, pitch, and pace of speaking can completely alter the message that is being conveyed.

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How to Learn From Guilt and Improve Your Relationships


Guilt is an emotion that can play a large role in many relationships. Often it arises when we behave in a way that violates the expectations of others.

After we realize that we may have disappointed someone or hurt them, we regret our actions and seek to repair the damage. While this emotion can often be uncomfortable, a recent study argues that guilt is an evolutionary adaptation designed to improve our relationships.

Guilt is often what drives us to apologize after we have done something wrong. It also drives us to be more cooperative, rather than confrontational, because as social beings we often aim to please others.

When we fail to do this, it leads to emotional repercussions like guilt; which then motivates us to make future changes in our personal behavior so that we don’t make the same mistakes and experience guilt again.

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Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being

Martin Seligman is widely considered the father of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of character strengths and virtues, and what goes into living a rich and fulfilling life.

According to Seligman’s new book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being a fulfilling life involves much more than just experiencing positive emotions. He abbreviates his new theory on well-being as “PERMA.” Each letter stands for:

    P – Positive Emotions – experiencing joy and pleasure.

    E – Engagement (or flow) – being consciously involved in our activities.

    R – Relationships – having enjoyable and supportive interactions with others.

    M – Meaning – creating a purposeful narrative about our lives.

    A – Accomplishments – completing our goals and following our core values.

Happiness: More than just positive feelings

All aspects of “PERMA” represent certain components of happiness, but according to Seligman not every one is necessary to live a flourishing life. In a recent interview with TIME, Seligman was quoted as saying:

    “One of the things psychologists used to say was that if you are depressed, anxious or angry, you couldn’t be happy. Those were at opposite ends of a continuum. I believe that you can be suffering or have a mental illness and be happy — just not in the same moment that you’re sad.

    What convinced me, actually, when I first went into the positive psychology field about 15 years ago, was this: I thought that the correlation between being depressed and happy would be -1.0. [In lay terms, that means they’re opposite; you can’t be both.]

    There are about 20 studies and the correlation is only -0.2. There’s plenty of room to both be depressed and have high positive emotion — and not be bipolar.

    We’re trying to do something liberating by saying even if you [are depressed], you don’t get consigned to the hell of unhappiness. You can have meaning, accomplishment, engagement and good relationships, even if you are dull on the positive affect side.”

These ideas resonate very deeply with a lot of the content I write here at The Emotion Machine.

For example, just a couple days ago I wrote an article “Depression: The Yin of Happiness,” which tries to point out that certain bouts of depression can even be beneficial toward long-term happiness. Depression can drive us to discover a deeper understanding of ourselves; and while positive affect may be temporarily diminished, there are still opportunities to extract meaning and strengthen the story of our lives.

Take Viktor Frankl for example, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor who suffered tremendously harsh conditions while in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Frankl concluded through his experiences that even under the most wretched circumstances, an individual can still find fulfillment in life by creating meaning in their lives. Even suffering can be meaningful, and being able to persist through suffering is in-itself a kind of triumph.

Similarly, Seligman is now spending a lot of his time applying PERMA theory to the U.S. military in order to reduce rates of PTSD. He is teaching soldiers how to become more resilient and optimistic, and in many cases individuals experience tremendous growth from their painful experiences (there is now an emerging term for this psychological phenomenon: post-traumatic growth). Apparently, the existentialist philosopher Nietszche may have been right when he said, “That which does not kill us often makes us stronger.”

The main point here is that one does not need to always be experiencing great pleasure or joy to necessarily find fulfillment or improve the state of their lives. Happiness may be just as much dependent on our subjective view of circumstances as the circumstances themselves. Seligman’s PERMA theory is well-informed of this truth.


Planning on the future, not dwelling on the past.

One key component in Seligman’s latest research is the idea of prospection, the act of looking forward into the future, rather than just focusing on aspects of our past.

According to Seligman:

    “The basic rock bottom premise of psychology for the last 150 years is that we’re driven by our past. Positive psychology has come to convince me that we’re drawn into the future.

    I’m very interested in what is called “prospection.” As we’re talking now, what you’re doing is thinking about how you can write this up, whether to use or reject what I’m saying now. Lots of human activity is making mental simulations about the future, [or prospection]. I’ve been writing something on the ubiquity of prospection and arguing that the basic premise that humans are driven by past is wrong.

    I’m all for past influences, the question is whether they are deterministic. Freud and the behaviorists argue that what we are at any given moment is billiard balls whose past determines our future course. That doesn’t take into account that we are forever generating internal representations of positive futures and choosing among them.”

The big lesson here? The past is in the past, and you have a choice right here and right now to envision a better future and begin to take small steps to accomplish that future. This act of positively and constructively looking forward may be one of the most important tools we have to achieving a flourishing life.

Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement

The Science of Self Improvement

Creativity Is Like A Kaleidoscope

For more quotes on creativity go here.

Photo adaptation of this.