Positive Psychology and Your Brain

Aug 14, 2021

“The brain-matter is plastic,” said William James in his book The Principles of Psychology, published 1890. It was an incredible discovery. 

Science now shows us that the brain is moldable at any stage of life, not only when we are young but for as long as we live. Research in the area of neuroplasticity shows that changes in behavior can actually cause radical and lasting changes in the makeup of many different parts of your brain. 

This remarkable research shows not only that we can change but that by changing our behavior, we are actually putting into the process the creation of new neural pathways that radically alter our brains. 

Research conducted by Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali Trzesniewski and 

Carol Dweck of Stanford University shows that when students are taught neuroplasticity (how their brains will change as a result of their actions), they perform significantly better in their studies. So just knowing that our brain is plastic will help us produce better results in life. Why is this not common knowledge? 

Earlier, I mentioned a study conducted at Duke University which showed that 40% of what we do is determined by habits. Interestingly, research by University of California Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky shows that 40% of our happiness is subject to self-control and behavior (50% is genetic, and only 10% is based on life circumstances). 

These are average figures, and individual differences do, of course, play a part. However, the suggestion that behavior plays such a large role in the human experience gives us much to be positive about. We can change 40% or more of our lives just by changing our behavior. 

So how does neuroplasticity relate to habits? By changing our habits and behavior, we are, in effect, changing our neural makeup. Forming new habits allows new neural pathways to develop, altering the brain significantly. 

Neuroplasticity, although a complicated research area, is a fundamental concept that can be simply explained. The best explanation I have found was put forward by neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone, who says: “The brain is plastic, not elastic. An elastic band is stretched and always goes back to its original form. The plastic brain is altered by every encounter and every situation. It keeps changing.” 

A story may explain even more fully. When I was growing up in Sarajevo, there was a hilly street in my neighborhood that would be closed most of the winter to car traffic due to impossible driving conditions. All the kids from the neighborhood, including myself, would go there with sleds— many of them homemade—and climb as high as we possibly could and then sled down. 

Sledding from the top of the hill the first time, we would end up at the bottom in a certain place. The second time we went down, we would end up in a different place. The third time we went, we got to yet another place again. As we kept going all day, we would create many different tracks; at the end, we began to use certain tracks regularly with almost no effort required on our side. 

After sledding down the hill a number of times, we started using well-established paths without even trying. That’s exactly what the brain does for us, regardless of whether or not the habits we created are good or bad. The brain will follow the path we have already established. 

Now that we know how our brain can change itself, we can look at how we may be able to change our habits accordingly. 

 

TIME IN 

Think for a moment about the science of neuroplasticity and how your brain is constantly changing. Visualize your brain as a playdough that you can shape using your willpower. On which tracks are you riding your life? Do you need to introduce new tracks? Think about the new kinds of tracks that you may want to develop and some that you may want to change. 

Braco Pobric is an Internationally Recognized Positive Psychology Expert and Corporate Trainer. He is the bestselling author of Habits and Happiness: How to Become Happier and Improve Your Wellbeing by Changing Your Habits. Braco is a founding member and Chief Happiness Officer of the Life Success Academy Certified Positive Psychology Master Trainer and former globally Certified Trainer and Business Coach for Dale Carnegie Training. He trained over 60,000 Students in 172 countries. 

 

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