A: Hey guys. Welcome back to the podcast. I'm Amanda.
L: I'm Laura.
K: And I'm Kendra.
A: And today we are gonna talk about one of Laura's favorite books, a book by Dr. Rick Hanson. Laura, take it away.
L: So I don't always know who the latest pop stars are or people like that, but I do have people I fangirl over. And this is one. It’s Dr. Rick Hanson. He is a neuropsychologist at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. I first learned about him on- I heard him on one of Katrina Ubell's podcasts. And the things he was talking about just kind of blew my mind. And they really have changed my life for the better. And so I'm so excited to share him with those of you who aren't familiar with his work.
So his focus is positive neuroplasticity. And neuroplasticity refers to the fact that our brains change. Our brains are changing constantly, and we can make changes that we want to make in our brains. We can change them in a positive way by the way that we use our minds. So that's the basic principle of this little book [Just One Thing]. He has a larger book as well. This one, if you are time crunched, this is a really great little reader. It's- basically it's 52 different practices that we can use to help our brains change. So using our minds, which- we are not our brains. We are observers of what's happening inside our brains. And we can use our ability to observe the thoughts we have, the things that we do, to make change and analyze whether what we're thinking, what we're doing, is actually serving us and helping us, and helping us to be where we want to be in our lives, be the kind of person that we wanna be or not. And if they are not, we can make change.
So Dr. Hanson says that our brains change as our minds change, and as our minds change, our brains change. This means that what we pay attention to- and we intentionally work with how we react to things, what we want and feel. All these things change the actual landscape of our brains, kind of sculpting it in a way. So it's pretty exciting. So we're gonna share some of these concepts from his book: Just One Thing.
K: So some of what we have talked about before in the realm of kind of the neuroplasticity and using some brain building to either unlearn some things and rebuild them, or just completely develop a new neural pathway. Some of the research shows that these areas that are the most busy or the ones that are getting watered, like Laura said, are actually showing up to get some more blood flow. And so the activity in those areas increase and therefore, like by default, the more natural pathway that your brain's gonna take. So when we think about unlearning or breaking down some of the thoughts that aren't working for us and rebuilding them, we have to think. We have to give that area of our brain a lot of effort, time, and bring a lot of activity to that area to enhance the blood flow and therefore make it more of the natural default. And we've talked about this before, kind of like planting that seed, watering it, seeing it grow into a small tree, then a big tree fully developed.
He references a study from 2008 that showed that people who routinely relax have more expression of genes used to calm down stress reactions, and basically encouraging more resiliency. So if you're just one of those people that have a more kind of relaxed personality, you'll express more of the genes that are used to actually calm you down in a stress situation. This is secondary to the genes inside neurons becoming more or less active in response to the intentional relaxation that people do. He often references the sayings from a psychologist, Donald Hebb, PhD. Some of you might have heard this before. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” meaning that the connections between the neurons increase in sensitivity and they grow new synapses and develop thicker neural layers. So there's actually some physiology behind this neuroplasticity. It's not just a thought or a theory.
He gives the example of cab drivers in London. They had to memorize how to get around. And when they studied their brains, they actually had a thicker hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that makes the visual spatial memories. So the more training they got as cabbies, or the longer they were a cabbie, the thicker the hippocampus.
People who practice mindful meditation, they developed thicker layers of neurons in the insula (which is activated when you're able to tune into your body and the feelings you're feeling) and in the parts of the prefrontal cortex that actually control attention, memory making and the experience- like what you think or feel from a certain experience. And what you think or feel from a certain experience actually develops that over time. What we talked about in the previous podcast, those are what form memories. So the thoughts you have during experience, gives you a feeling that, over time, created a collection of thoughts into that and makes a memory. And then therefore, we talked about triggers. So later in life, sometimes it brings back that area, brings your attention back to that area, and you have those same thoughts and feelings.
He says, how we use our minds, changes our brains for better or for worse.
So in this particular book, he delineates 52 simple practices to create what he calls a buddha brain. That's a lowercase B buddha, meaning just basically an awakened one. A lot of people don't realize this, but Buddhism isn't actually a religion, it's a set of guidelines, and the OG Buddha Capital B Buddha actually had no intention of anyone worshiping. It's actually not a religion, so it's for anyone who really just wants more peace in their lives.
The first practice he discusses is Be For Yourself, or in other words, be on your own side. And that means notice the thoughts that you're having and paying attention to what you're doing. What are your responses to other people and the reactions to situations? And ask yourself, are you acting in your own interest? Are you being on your own side? Are you thinking the kind of encouraging thoughts about yourself and taking the actions that benefit your present and your future selves? In the moment that you catch yourself eating a whole can of Pringles, does this really benefit you in the long end? You know, in the, for the long game. When I'm veering over to Taco Bell, is that really in my best interest or am I just, like, wanting a quick little dopamine hit that feels good in the moment? There's lots of stuff, not just food. When you're binging an entire season of Netflix, maybe that is, maybe that is helping you recharge, but maybe you're just wasting time because something else is harder to get going.
So the first thing, Be For Yourself. Are you for yourself? Think about what it feels like to be for someone, maybe a child, friend, or pet. And notice the different aspects of that experience when, like, you are really loving on someone to your full capacity. Does that feel warm? Do you feel empathy? Is there concern, loyalty, advocacy? How do you feel when you think about how someone treats your child, you know? So he invites us to be mindful of what it feels like in our own body to be on our own side. And so many of us put ourselves last that this is a really important exercise to start doing. He invites us to be mindful of what it feels like to be your own advocate.
Ask yourself, being on my own side, what is the best thing to do here? And Laura and I went to a coaching conference, and there was a lady who has a picture of herself in like second grade, third grade. And when she starts, you know, not owning up to her accomplishments… You know, somebody the other day was like, “you're really smart.” You know, like something I had said in coaching, and my very first instinct was like, “oh, no, no, no. It was all you.” You know, all that sort of stuff. But I stopped myself because the client I'm coaching has the same tendency. I was like, “thank you. I get to shine. And so do you.” So this lady at the conference has a picture of herself in second or third grade, 10, 11, whatever it, whatever it was. And when she starts to downplay the things, would you be okay doing that to a 10 year old? And if the answer is no- like, don't you want her to feel proud of herself? Don't you want her to be like, “yeah, I did a really good job.” That's not a bad thing.
And so let's start owning our accomplishments, accepting our greatness. We all get to shine in our own different way. So that's kind of how I think of Be For Yourself. I don't know if he brought up, if that brought up any other things, Laura, that he, that we should be thinking about with Be For Yourself.
L: Well, basically it is just paying attention to the relationship that we have with ourselves. And I think, at least for me, and I think this is true for a lot of people, it's not a relationship that we really have considered a whole lot. We have been trained as physicians to put our needs last, throughout our training. And I mean, especially we're working in the emergency department, we like, we pretend we don't have to pee or eat or cry or, or feel. When we are experiencing so much, so much that's really difficult in the human experience in such a concentrated period of time. I mean, if you would think about how much we experience there, and we don't, you know, we just ignore our needs. And then we, when we do have a relationship with ourselves, oftentimes it's to, to shame ourselves or to tell ourselves not nice things about ourselves. Or ask ourselves why we can’t get our act together on X, Y, Z? Or, whether it's why can't I have a normal relationship with this person? Or why can't I stop binging Netflix? Or why, why, why can't I?
Anyway, we don't, we just don't have that kind of relationship with ourselves where we look at ourselves with compassion and with our own best interests and almost like we are a child. I find this very useful to look at my own self as a child and help my clients see themselves as a child. So that we can not only talk to ourselves kindly, not only give ourselves helpful, useful goals, not only to love on ourselves, but like you said, to accept the accomplishments, accept the good that we've done in our lives already.
And, and, and honestly, it doesn't mean that we don't recognize where we have areas for growth. That's not what it means at all. It just means that we look at ourselves in a way that we can be objective about those and compassionate and say, of course you're still going to Taco Bell after your shifts. We still haven't figured out how to process our emotions. It's okay. We'll get there.
A: Yeah. Yeah. So I like, when you're saying have compassion for yourself. You know, people will be like, I can't believe I snapped at so and so. Well, let's look at it. You haven't been sleeping. You've had to take a bunch of extra shifts. No. Can we have, can we have compassion for that person? That's kind of the idea that I think about with this is that, of course, that's completely reasonable, and we can change it in the future if you want to. But you don't have to hate on that person that maybe lost it in the moment.
L: Right. Yeah. So, the second practice he talks about in this book is Taking in the Good. And this is kind of the thing that really drew me to Dr. Hanson was this concept of experiencing good in the same way that, in the same level of intensity that we experience bad. So if you think about when bad things happen to us, it may be a minor thing, like someone is rude to us. It may be something major, like we experience a major trauma. But we really take those things in. We ruminate on them. We think about them a lot. And they become like these deeply embedded neural pathways for us.
This is not what we do with good things. When something fantastic happens, it's like we've talked about with the arrival fallacy. Something amazing happens. We're like, okay, what's next? Like 30 minutes later.
So what he is offering is that we can change our brains so that we have less of what that negativity bias is- that psychologists talk about- and more of a positivity bias. So the negativity bias, it's presumed that this helped our ancestors not die because they were looking for things that were trying to kill them, and they really had to remember those things. Those things had to become very salient for them, and so that's kind of how we still live. Although we are, most of us, are not living in a place where we have to worry about things coming to kill us. Or, you know, that we're not gonna have enough food. Or that we're not gonna have enough of anything that we need.
We have our needs met. So really, that negativity bias is not, it's not serving us anymore. And we don't need to experience life in that way anymore. We can intentionally take in the good or the things that are going right. And if we do that, we can change our brains such that they're more naturally are able to see what's going right.
And the way we do this is by intentionally noticing how most things really are going right for us at any given time. And when we have an especially positive experience to really take a moment to soak that in. And what that means is to pay attention to the feeling, the emotion that comes with it. So if somebody tells you, “Hey, you did a really great job taking care of my mother in the emergency department the other day. It really helped us so much that you were there and you were the one who helped us figure out what was going on with her.” We might say, “oh yeah, no problem, whatever,” and then just move on. But pay attention to how that feels. When you finally have someone who's saying thank you to this intense work that you're doing. You have someone say thank you to you, it feels good. Like when I'm thinking about it right now, I actually do feel a warmth in my chest and it's a peaceful warmth. That's not the warmth that I get when I feel shame. Like shame's higher up, but this warmth is like in the middle of my chest, and I feel it across my arms. And I even get a little tingly feeling. So I love that feeling. I wanna hold onto that feeling. And hold it for like five to 10 seconds, and really just notice how that feels.
And as we hold that feeling, it helps create the neuroplastic change that we're looking for. And the more that we practice doing that, when things are going well, when things are going right. Or even if we notice a thought that we're having that serves us and we say,” Hey, that thought is, that's a thought I wanna think more,” pay attention to the feeling that comes with it. Because we can create new neural pathways that will help us re-experience things that are positive and remember those thoughts that actually serve us.
And again, he references that garden. I love that analogy of the mind being a garden, where the thoughts that don't serve us are ones we want to weed out. And the thoughts that do serve us are ones we, we can plant in there. We can find believable thoughts, and this is something that we do with our clients often. Sometimes it's hard to identify the thoughts that we're having or the limiting beliefs that we might have that, that aren't serving us. And once we identify them and can decide, we want to pull them out and replace them with a different, a believable thought. A thought that we can believe that is more in keeping with where we wanna go in life. A thought that serves us. We can plant those in our little mind garden and grow them, and they can multiply.
Over time, you know, those weeds do pop up as in any garden, but we can stay on top of them and just pull them out. And recognize them for what they are. Then our brains will be better off. He talks about if we're using these techniques with children, he uses the image of a treasure chest, oftentimes. Where the child has a treasure chest in their heart, and when something good happens, they pretend it's a gem. And they hold the gem, and they feel what it feels like to have that wonderful experience. Maybe they're reading a book with their parent, or, you know, something good happened at school. They're holding that gem, and then they're putting it in their treasure chest. And we can use that too. I love, I love that analogy. Just to store up the things that are good rather than always storing up the things that produce a more negative result in our lives.
So, we can change our brains and make them a more positive place for us.
K: I love that, Laura, when you were talking about how to use it with children. I think about how better to, like, raise our children or mentor our children in this. Than to be like examples or stewards. Like I think about my- both my kids just brought home certificates. My daughter was. like, on the board of directors honor roll, and my son was made, like the principals or president's honor roll. So like very great achievements. They weren't even really going to give me the certificate. They, like, stuffed it in their bag, and they were just like, whatever. Right? And I thought back to that because… Did I come home and tell them that I was Physician of the Year? I, I don't think I did. And I'm not trying to toot my horn here, but, like, I think back, and I'm like, that is why they did that.
Because I never came home and said, look at this award I just got! I was just voted president. I mean, president. Physician of the Year. And look, I got this, and like, this is what this means. And let's be grateful together, celebrate together. And then I just like, as you were saying that, I'm thinking to myself, my kids weren't even gonna bring out that certificate. And now I told them, not only do I want that certificate, but I have two 8x11 frames that they are going in. And I am putting them up, and we are going to celebrate this. So I just thought about. It almost, like it brings a little bit of warmth in my heart to say, okay, I recognize that because sometimes we don't even celebrate our own accomplishments. It would actually be okay to do that in front of our kids because how much more proud am I as a parent because they gave their best all semester, and they got on the honor roll. And I think it's a huge deal. And so now maybe next semester they'll come running with at home. I don't know.
But you know what I'm saying, like it means something to also be, not only have our own backs and be the best for ourself. But what a good example of teaching our children that we gotta celebrate. This is major, this is huge. You know, make it something that in their brains now starts building that pathway in their brain. It's like, oh yeah, I'm did work hard for this. Like a 4.0 GPA is a good thing. I dunno like, hello. But it's just because probably I never modeled that, or probably, you know, they just have not seen that.
And so, I love the way that we can become aware of our own thoughts, but then also, in the growth period that we have as ourselves, our children can watch that. And that's okay because they can see that growth in ourselves and be like, oh yeah, hey, like, that was pretty cool that I actually did that. Because then my daughter follows that up with, yeah, I think only like, I think it was like one of 10 to get this certificate. One of 10 in her whole class got that certificate. Like, what? Let's do this! Party time! Let's celebrate. You know, something like that.
So the way that we use our brain changes them. I mean, big picture here. We use some, you know, to self-select negative stuff. It's gonna change them and give us that negativity bias. If we use our brain to really relish in the positive, see our accomplishments, weed out that garden, have those beautiful accomplishment, flowers growing. The way that we really spend a lot of time in is the way that that blood flow is getting to that area of the brain. And that thought is going to take up real estate.
So big picture is we can change them for the better. We can self-select more for the positivity bias and then that negativity bias will kind of decrease and go away.
And like we said, we need to be on our own side. We do need to say or relish in, just like you said, Laura, the fact that that patient said, thank you for being here today. I think sometimes our brains don't hear that enough. So when we do hear, we don't even know what to do with it. Not to mention like name a feeling that we might be feeling with that.
And then we need to practice taking in the good. So just like I made a huge deal about the honor roll for both my kids and putting it in our frame. It's going up. We're gonna just, like, do all that thing and celebrate that. We have to practice and be intentional. That's very easily could have gotten overlooked or never could have came out the backpack if I hadn't said anything.
So I think definitely- just even listening myself to this podcast. A lot of take home points really kind of created awareness. And we hope it did for you too. And so, we'd love for you to continue to follow us. If you want, come, head over to our website. It's www.thewholephysician.com, and sign up for our Weekly Well Check. We send you awesome nuggets just like this delivered right to your inbox weekly.
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And until next time, you are whole. You are a gift to medicine, and the work you do matters.