The idea that we can shape our brain as adults is relatively new. Scientists had for years thought that our brains were like a precious vase of fine porcelain. Well-formed, prone to chipping if mishandled, but impossible to put back together. This misconception has been brushed away to reveal a plastic brain that offers us all more hope. This neuroplasticity has been described as our brain’s ability to alter its physical structure, to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons or prune old ones. It can also reassign tasks to its different parts if one part becomes compromised, a process called compensation. As a result, we can unwind our brain patterns and create a new weave that allows us to remember, feel, think, imagine and dream.
What this means for each of us is that thinking can be a form of medication: it can change our biology. For example if you worry excessively, you will activate certain brain pathways out of habit, strengthening that unhealthy braid of worry. Changing the way you think will untangle this habit. What is more you can use imagination to trick your brain. New brain-scanning wizardry has revealed that conscious perception activates the same brain areas as imagination. So imagination can be a powerful antidote to a harsh reality. You can even quash the long-term effects of painful memories by refurbishing the past which resides inside your brain.
Indeed you can use visualisation to train your brain to get happy. This is possible because your brain usually has trouble teasing apart recorded experience and internal fantasy. If you redraw in your mind serene landscapes with you sitting happy and content and spend time picturing those wonderful summer scenes long enough and hard enough, your brain will think those pictures really happened and will associate happiness with them. So there is no need for mind-altering drugs; you can pop a virtual happy pill by actively thinking productive, positive thoughts. This is not as simple as popping a blue pill though; it can be hard work. It requires focus, attention, dedication, action and persistence, but you can redraw the shape of your brain and your mind to experience and create greater happiness. And that’s a much healthier place to be.
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