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New Brain Science Quick Start Guide #2

with with Ruth Buczynski, PhD, Rick Hanson, PhD, Ron Siegel, PsyD, Joan Borysenko, PhD, Bill OHanlon, LMFT, and Marsha Lucas, PhD

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N a t i o n al I n s t i t u t e f o r the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine

New Brain Science Quick Start Guide - Hanson

The New Brain Science Quick Start Guide 2


with Ruth Buczynski, PhD, Rick Hanson, PhD, Ron Siegel, PsyD, Joan Borysenko, PhD, Bill OHanlon, LMFT, and Marsha Lucas, PhD 1. The ten-second threshold for lasting change
According to Rick Hanson, it takes at least ten seconds for an experience to translate into long-term memory. Here, he explains how to maximize your moments with clients.
... Positive experiences have what Id call plain, standard issue memory systems, which means that, unless its a million-dollar moment, that positive experience needs to be held in short-term memory buffers ten to twenty seconds in a row before it sifts down into long-term storage. This is a robust finding in research on cognitive memory. But from my own experience and observation, if you dont get past that roughly ten-second threshold, as a therapist, that experience is essentially wasted on the brain of your client. It might have been momentarily pleasant, and pleasant for you that theyre having it, but in terms of learning which means changing the brain, fundamentally and over time theres no encoding. Theres no conversion of that positive mental state to an underlying neural trait and that is what growth is all about. Just think about a time when you were trying to remember someones phone number before you could write it down and you were rehearsing it in your mind again and again. If someone interrupts you, maybe with a different number during the three to ten seconds that youre doing that pop! Its like a bubble that pops. Its gone you cant recall it. (p. 7)

Your Action Plan

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New Brain Science Quick Start Guide - Hanson

2. Three steps to notice, focus, and install the good


Good experiences are fleeting but a skilled practitioner can help clients make them last. Rick Hanson describes the three important steps that turn momentary experience into long-term change.
If people repeatedly (a half dozen times a day, thirty seconds at a time thats three minutes or so a day) notice a good experience that is already happening, or skillfully create a positive experience, then thats the doorway into building up a key resource inside. Under either condition, you start with a positive experience. That is step one. You have to light the fire. Once you get it going, step two is to add logs to the fire. Stay with the experience. Give it to yourself. Be with it. Let it last ten/twenty/thirty seconds in a row. Help the experience fill your body. Move out of the concept. Bring it down into your body, your emotions because that is mostly where were wounded. Help the experience become real for you. In the third step, like warming yourself by the fire, absorb this positive experience. Prime the memory systems; sensitize the memory system by intending and sensing that the positive experience is going into you. Those are the three basic steps of taking in the good. (p. 9-10)

3. How to motivate clients to change


Creating change is only possible if you can get clients motivated. Rick Hanson lists three simple ways to do this and gives a helpful clinical example.
There are three fundamental ways to engage the mind. First, just be with what is there. Feel the feelings, feel the experience, and hold it in mindful, open awareness we are just being with what is there. The second way to engage the mind is we release or reduce the negative. The third way is to build up the positive. In other words, if the mind were a garden, we observe it, or we pull weeds, or we plant flowers. So in that context, then, lets suppose I have a client and Im thinking of a man right now who has a long history of not feeling really wanted or liked by women, and this is particularly related to his neglectful mother when he was a boy kind of catastrophically neglectful, in his case.
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New Brain Science Quick Start Guide - Hanson

He and I have named explicitly (which is the key step), What is the key resource, the vitamin C that you, the client, really needs? If you have scurvy, you need vitamin C. Iron wont help you. If you have anemia, you need iron. Vitamin C wont help you. His issue is about feeling validated and that he matters to women. He and I know this, so we talk about, What are your opportunities at work over the course of the day? It doesnt need to be a perfect experience an important point here is that on a zero to ten intensity scale, most positive experiences are ones or twos, and sometimes theyre threes. Its really about any port in a storm. That is an opportunity for you, which, by the way, implicitly is one of the benefits of this approach because it encourages people to be resourceful. (p. 12)

4. How to escape the negativity bias


We know our brains prioritize negative experiences as a survival mechanism. But how are we supposed to help our clients avoid this? Ron Siegel has some pointers.
It begins with simply noticing the negativity bias. Simply noticing the minds propensity to hold on to negative experience and to anticipate negative experience in the future helps us not to take it so seriously it helps us to hold the negativity a little bit more lightly. But there are other ways we can do it, too. We can do it as Freud used to, which was to begin to look at it by saying, Where did you come to arrive at this negative belief? Some of it is the propensity of the mind to hold on to negativity, but some of it is, of course, the messages we received in childhood, the previous injuries and the like that we have had. But we can help people to see, Oh, I get it my negativity bias got crystallized in these experiences, and that can help to free people. We can also help people to see that they may be holding on to their negative conception because it is easier than dealing with uncertainty.

It is easier sometimes to think, Things are lousy. My life is hopeless. Nothing good is going to happen. Really knowing just how out of control life is just knowing how much we dont know about what the next moment can bring can make us even more frightened. (p. 24)
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New Brain Science Quick Start Guide - Hanson

5. How to hold the positive and negative simultaneously


One of Rick Hansons important steps to internalizing good experience involves holding both good and bad in awareness at the same time. This seems like a challenge, so heres a practical example of how to do this from Ron Siegel.
We have difficulty, in general, as human beings with ambivalence. We have difficulty with the fact that, toward people we know and love, we have positive and negative feelings simultaneously. We often want to simplify our life and simplify our understanding of things by saying, Well, this is bad or This is good and hold on to that. Mindfulness practice can be enormously helpful because one of the positive things that we can hold is that the present moment usually is fundamentally okay no matter what our thoughts might be. I have a particularly poignant moment that comes to mind. A friend of mine lost his son, a college-age student, not long ago. It was a very difficult situation where his son had leukemia. But we were walking along out in nature and he was able to alternate between the grief and the fear about his son as well as noticing the plants, noticing the flowers, and noticing the play of light on the water. You could really see this capacity to honor to go into and feel lifes poignant difficulty and yet at the same time notice that this happens against the context of the present moment still being basically safe, still here. (p. 26)

6. How to prepare clients to plant flowers


To prepare someone to make positive change, Joan Borysenko recommends a gratitude practice. Heres how she makes it work.
One of the best ways I know to plant flowers in a garden is a practice of gratitude. I learned this practice of gratitude from Brother David Steindl-Rast, who is a Cistercian monk and has been a Zen teacher for almost fifty years. Here is what he does to plant these flowers in your garden every night before going to bed. He says, Think of one thing that you have never thought about being grateful for before, and it has to be something that you noticed during the day. Then, he asks you to bring back all these feelings of gratitude at night.

This practice makes you mindful, because, Gosh, Im going to have to come up with something to be grateful for tonight as part of my practice.
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New Brain Science Quick Start Guide - Hanson

You start to look at things like, Oh, Im looking right now at the shadows of the trees on the snow outside my window. Or you look at the smile of a stranger or whatever it may be and all day long this becomes looking for the flowers of life looking for the flowers that you plant in your garden. (p. 26-27)

7. Helping clients improve their ability to notice


Youve seen one way to help clients break out of the negativity bias. But how can you help them maximize the benefit of experience when their brains arent focusing on the negative? Bill OHanlon talks about the value of noticing the moments between problems.
There is a bias of the brain towards noticing problems. That helps us survive, but it takes a little effort to jump the groove and notice what is between problems. So I am interested in those moments when you dont have pain, when you are not depressed. What can we learn from those moments when, as an individual, the pain and the depression and the anxiety havent got your attention When am I not depressed? When do I not feel pain? When do I not have a panic attack when I would have expected to? That is probably the simplest thing that comes out of what Rick says. You have got to force yourself to notice things like Sherlock Holmes that other people dont notice, because the problems and the negativity are calling your attention that is our evolutionary bias. (Next Week in Your Practice #2)

8. Looking out for amygdala hijacks


A powerful way to motivate patients is to explain how their brain is working. Keeping tabs on the amygdala is a simple and powerful example. Marsha Lucas explains how it works.
One of the favorite phrases of Dan Goleman was the idea of the amygdala hijack - the idea that when things seem to be going poorly, or when there is a threat, or when you are in pain, the amygdala just kind of takes over the plane and you are on your way to Cuba or wherever the plane was not supposed to go. Empowering patients to say, Yes, Im scared and I can also do these other things, helps them to pull on other parts of their thinking and their abilities. Sometimes that takes their knowing how to calm their nervous system down.

When you take just slightly slower, deeper breaths and you can guide your patient in doing this your heart rate starts to slow down. We also talk about how if you look at another person and make eye contact and you see the softness in
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New Brain Science Quick Start Guide - Hanson

their eyes, the acceptance in their eyes, if you have access to that Stephen Porges talks about the smart vagus that helps you regulate your nervous system. A hand on the heart and maybe also on the lower belly can stimulate a little bit of oxytocin production, which helps us feel safer. (Next Week in Your Practice #2)

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