Thinking and Your Brain: The Neuroscience Inside
The word real estate is often associated with homes, buildings, or parcels of land. Consider, for a moment, the notion of a much smaller form of real estate, mental real estate, the physical structure of the brain. Modern neuroscience reveals that when a person thinks, the actual structure or real estate of the brain is changed. The activity of thinking can be viewed on several types of brain imaging instruments. In addition to thinking, speaking and reading ignites neurological chemical effects, which also impact both body and brain. Science affirms that the human brain exhibits neuroplasticy, which is the ability to adapt and change over time. This article will explore how the brain’s neuroplasticity is specifically evidenced in response to thinking.
Humans have the unique ability of choice when it comes to focus of attention and thinking. Thoughts that are dwelt upon are instructed by the individual engaged in thinking. Research indicates that the way a person chooses to think, either positively or negatively, affects the structure of his brain in exponentially different ways. Therefore, thoughts have a documentable physical/structural impact on the brain! This means the chemicals, proteins, and neuronal wiring of the brain are directed by thoughts, which can be intentionally driven.
Nobel-Prize winner and neuropsychiatrist, Eric R. Kandel, purports through his research that not only thoughts, but also imaginations, submerge into DNA and change the neurons in the brain by turning certain genes on and certain genes off (Leaf, 2013). It is astounding to consider that thoughts have the power to direct genetic expression. In essence, genetic predisposition does not mandate DNA expression, in all cases.
Negative thinking is toxic and creates stress in the mind and body. Too much stress has long-reaching consequences as it creates emotional impairment and weakens the body’s natural healing process. This is evidenced by DNA actually changing shape. When someone is experiencing stress, the negative emotions of fear, anger, and frustration may be felt. As a result, DNA responds by “tightening up and becoming shorter, switching off many DNA codes, which [reduce] quality expression” (Leaf, 2013, p. 35). This is outwardly evidenced by emotionally shutting down.
Conversely, feelings of love, joy, gratitude, and appreciation have been found to reverse poor quality DNA codes. Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath found that HIV patients in their study had “300,000 times more resistance to the disease than those without positive feelings” (Leaf, 2013, p. 35). The participants were able to shape their DNA positively. These patients renewed the structure of their minds by thinking hopeful, helpful, and ultimately positive thoughts. When compared to the other study participants who did not experience positive thoughts and feelings of love, joy, gratitude and appreciation, this group fared well. Healthy thoughts can bring positive feelings which elicit a like response from DNA.
To operate optimally, the body (including the brain!) needs balance in thoughts and function. Adequate sleep is also necessary. One way the brain experiences neural regeneration is when the body is asleep. This is called neurogenesis. New neuronal cells develop and are ready for shaping.
The mind controls the brain, which in turn, directs the body. Of course, situations and circumstances are often out of direct control, but it is important to remember that intentional thoughts and reactions may be chosen at any time. Yes, it is possible that the brain can be positively physically restructured by carefully selecting and dwelling on thoughts which aid in creating new healthy neuronal patterns. Knowing that the brain exhibits plasticity and is able to change is motivational and brings hope to many therapists working with clients who desire change.
Keep thinking positively! 🙂
Rebecca Trouse, MA, LLPC, NCC
Reference: Leaf, C. (2013). Switch on your brain. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Adapted from article originally published in Chi Sigma Iota, Theta Chapter, The Encounter, 2015 Fall, Volume 31, issue 2.