Why do you appreciate your friends, relatives, or partner at some times and not at others? The obvious answer is that it depends upon their behavior. However, brain research suggests that it really depends upon which part of your brain is most active. Neuroscientists have found that when they stimulate certain areas of the brain with electrical impulses, they can get their subjects to learn more rapidly,solve problems that previously eluded them, and most recently, to be more appreciative of art.
While most of us do not have access to the transcranial direct-current stimulation equipment used by these researchers, we always have access to an extremely effective technology. Let me explain by way of an example.
I was talking to a man recently who had gotten into an argument with his wife. As he told me his story, he was slumped forward, and I could see the struggle on his face. So, we engaged in a practice to change the activity in his brain at that moment. I asked him to pay attention to his body and see where he felt the strongest sensations as he told me about the argument. He pointed to his chest and told me that it felt full and heavy. Next, I asked him what he would call this feeling. "Sadness." Finally, I asked him what story he associated with this feeling. "I am a bad husband."
The sensations, the names assigned to them, and the stories about it all, are not the truth of his circumstances, but rather just events that are created by activity in his nervous system. These internal events are created because stored patterns of associations in the brain are triggered by current information in his situation. The first step of working effectively with sensations and thoughts is seeing that they are just passing events -- like the wind blowing or cars driving by. It is an amazing ability of the human brain to create these thoughts and sensations, and it is equally incredible that we have the capacity to observe them. The ability to see thoughts and sensations as events that may or may not contain useful information is the foundation for the incredible human capacity to respond calmly, positively, and purposefully in any situation.
Once he could see the events occurring within him, I asked him sit up straight and take a gentle, deep breath, relaxing his belly on the in breath, and relaxing his shoulders on the out breath. As he was breathing gently, I encouraged him to allow the corners of his mouth to rise and to bring his attention to his chest with a sense of opening, gratitude, and compassion. This change in posture, breathing, and attention moves activity from the survival networks deep in the center of the brain to the growth and exploration networks toward the front of the brain. This latter area -- known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- is the same area that was electrically stimulated by researchers to create a greater appreciation of art.
Now I asked him what was most important to him. "Having a kind relationship with my wife." And what is the opportunity here? "I can tell her how much she means to me and listen to her concerns." It was wonderful to see how much his face had lightened.
There is nothing magical here. How you experience the world depends upon activity in your brain. Your survival brain will only tell you about problems, obstacles, and limitations. You have the ability to use your attention, your posture, and your breathing to shift activity into your growth brain. Then it is possible to see what is most important to you and how to use your situation as an opportunity to take positive action. With practice, you will be able to see, shift, and shape your experience quickly and consistently. When you practice in this way, every moment is an opportunity to grow.
Have a practice that works for you? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.
Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching people how to tap into their incredible capacity to respond calmly, positively, and purposefully in any situation. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices than can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit www.AppliedAttention.com
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