“To think is to practice brain chemistry.” - Deepak Chopra
Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, I’m no brain scientist…”? Quite recently I had lunch with a friend while he was on a break from work. When he ordered a beer I raised my eyebrows in mock astonishment. He replied “It’s not like I’m performing brain surgery later.”
But we are all brain scientists. Our thoughts really do affect our brain chemistry. And we can be like surgeons in our ability to carefully excise negative thoughts from our gray matter.
Our patterns of thought are simply habits, but they are grounded in rich neural circuitry. Like deer in the woods, our thoughts form paths that will most likely be retread unless we consciously set out to find a new way. The first step to that new way is to be aware that thoughts can either be unconscious or conscious.
Fortunately, the unconscious variety is actually very short-lived. You experience these when you have an emotional reaction to a trigger in your environment. For example: you’re walking on a road and come upon a rattling snake. When you see and hear the snake, a circuit in your brain trips to tell you the environment isn’t safe. For a short time hormones, or chemical messengers, flood your body and you are in “fight or flight” mode. You stifle a scream and run in the opposite direction.
Brain research has shown that the time from the trigger through the hormone’s release and complete dissolution in your bloodstream is only 90 seconds. If you are still anxious and uncomfortable after that brief period, it is because you are continuing to tell the story of the snake in your path—even though it is far away and not able to harm you.
When you continue to think of the snake you are “hooking” back into the fear-based circuitry, even though your environment is now safe. It is important to pay close attention to how much time we spend hooked into the circuitry of negative emotions. Getting caught up in these loops for long periods of time can cause us to get stuck in a groove like a warped 45, and they can lead to feelings of depression and powerlessness.
The challenge, then, is not to get hooked. The challenge is to choose to think other thoughts, thoughts that feel better, like, “I’m glad I was paying attention and avoided upsetting that snake.”
To take another example, let’s say I am thinking about my 4-year-old son, Finn. Thinking about him is a specific circuit in my brain. Each thought I think about him can either trigger me to feel very strong positive or negative emotions.
In my brain, thoughts of Finn and the emotional circuitry of joy are intimately linked. Usually, I smile just thinking of him. Right now as I’m writing this and thinking of him I’m reminded of a song he has been singing lately, the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.” But Finn sings it “Good Day, Some Time.” It cracks me up every time.
But there are also other occasions when I am likely to feel bad when I think of him. Just tonight we went into an office supply store so that I could buy a phone, and he picked up a big package of chalk and asked to buy it. I said no and reminded him that he already had a big bucket of chalk at home. He again asserted his desire for the chalk, and I again declined to buy it. He burst into tears and was inconsolable for a few minutes.
When I think of that exchange I feel bad. I wish he hadn’t wanted the chalk. I wish I had been able to negotiate his request better and been able to mitigate the tears. I wish I had been less tired after a day of caring for him and his needs. I know that I could have been more patient and handled the situation better and the fact that I didn’t is the source of negative emotion.
So now I have a choice: focus on his happy song or his frustrated tears. In the moment of thinking either thought, and tripping its underlying emotional and physiological circuitry, my mouth will either lift in a smile or purse in a frown. Those strong thoughts and feelings have the potential to jump instantly into my mind. But I always have the power to consciously choose which emotional and physiological loops I want to hook into.
Realizing that you can be aware of your neural circuitry and choose whether or not to engage it is a powerful tool. If you are triggered, learning to give yourself 90 seconds to breathe through the release and dissolution of the negative chemical messengers, and then learning to choose a different, better-feeling thought will help you go a long way on your path to happiness.
This week I'm rejoicing in my child's happy song.