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New Brain Science 2014

Quick Start Guide #2

by Ruth Buczynski, PhD

nicabm
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 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

New Brain Science 2014


Quick Start Guide
by Ruth Buczynski, PhD
with Rick Hanson, PhD

1. How the brain processes stress

Your
Action Plan

People often experience some amount of stress during the day.


And any amount of stress can leave us feeling overwhelmed and
drained. Here, Rick Hanson explains the dangers of high stress
levels and ways to train the brain to better handle stress.
Mother Nature has endowed us with another setting in the brain the Whoa
setting which is where we experience in our core that one or more of our
fundamental needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection is not met.
Then the brain fires up into its fight/flight stress response mode, or it goes into
an intense freeze mode the red zone.

In the red zone, which is not meant to be sustainable at all it is a brief burst
the body burns resources faster than it takes them in. Bodily systems are really
disturbed; there is a fundamental sense of deficit and disturbance, and longterm building projects like strengthening the immune system are put on hold.
In terms of avoiding, approaching, and attaching, the mind is colored with a
sense of fear, frustration, and heartache.
Red zone experiences are normal, but as Robert Sapolsky talks about in his
great book, Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers, most red-zone spikes of stress in
the wild end quickly one way or another.
Then the animals go back to long periods of green zone recovery refueling,
renewing, and repairing.
That becomes a problem with modern life. Most of us, at least, in the developed world, are happy, with some unfortunate exceptions. We are not spending our days running and screaming in terror from charging lions we dont
have severe spikes of red zone stress.
But on the other hand, we are exposed to mild to moderate chronic stress, with
very little time for recovery which is a complete violation of the evolutionary model. (pp. 67 in your transcript)

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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

2. Developing a positive mindset


Bad days and negative experiences are sometimes just a part of
life. But according to Rick Hanson, we dont have to let them ruin
our mood entirely. Here, he shares his two-step process for shifting your brains perspective from negative to positive.
The neural psychology of learning shows us that this is a two-stage process.
Quickly here, it moves from one, activation, to two, installation.
In other words, we need to have a positive, useful mental state typically an
experience of the inner strength itself or some factor of it.
If you want to develop mindfulness, you want to have more moments in which
you are mindful.
If you want to develop gratitude as an orientation to life in general, you have
more moments in which you are grateful.
So now we have that activated mental state, but we need to install it as a lasting neural state: activation and installation.

Once we have that neural trait growing inside us as an inner strength, it fosters
states of it, which then give us new opportunities to install it as a positive trait.
By the way, this process of going from state to trait to state to state, works
positively and negatively.
In other words, negative states rapidly become negative neural traits, which
then foster more negative mental states.
The brain is in fact biased toward that process of negative learning, and relatively poor at and weak at the process of positive learning even though positive states are the primary source of positive traits.
So that is what I have gotten very focused on, because most positive states are
just wasted on the brain.
They are momentarily pleasant, but if they dont transfer those short-term
memory buffers to long-term storage, there is no lasting value. (pp. 910 in
your transcript)

3. Having more positive experiences

According to Rick Hanson, the brain tends to remember more


negative moments than positive ones. But he says, we can
cultivate certain inner strengths to become better at installing
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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

positive experiences. Here he gives a four-step strategy for


getting the positive memories to sink into the brain.
I use the acronym HEAL.
This acronym covers the activation and installation process. Then, you can
use it for those specific inner strengths or qualities of mind and heart that you
want to cultivate in yourself or in other people because those are the strengths
that are really going to do the most good.
The H in HEAL stands for Have. You have the positive experience in the first
place either because you noticed one you are already having, or because you
actually create one.
Now, you have it going. It is activated. But if you dont install it, it is going to
be wasted on your brain.
Then you go to E, Enrich: you can enrich the experience. Borrowing or turning to the famous saying in neuroscience that Neurons that fire together wire
together you want to get a lot of neurons firing together so that they start
wiring together.

There are five well-known factors in the neuropsychology of learning that


promote installation that promote emotional psychological change as well as
other kinds of learning.
These are the five factors (and you can do one or more of them):

Duration the longer you stay with the experience, the more it will
sink in.
Intensity the more intensely you have the experience, maybe it is an
emotion, maybe it is a body state, maybe it is an inclination of commitment, maybe it is an insight into your own psychology but whatever it is, the more intense it is, the more there will be the formation of
neural structure.
Multimodality is the third factor. The more that you bring experiences
down into your body and have them be emotionally rich, maybe
even enact the experience, like sitting up a little straighter to support
an experience of determination or inner strength the more neural
structure they will build.
Novelty is the fourth factor the brain is a big novelty detector. A
lot of research shows that when we relate to things that are new, that
heightens learning.

Personal Relevance is the last factor Why does this matter to me?
Why is it salient for me?

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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

Those are the factors of Enriching. You can do one or more of them and build
up any one of them.
The third aspect, or step, of the HEAL process is A for Absorb. This is where
we prime memory systems we sensitize them to really turbo-charge the installation process, by intending and sensing that the experience is going into
us.
Maybe we visualize it sinking in, like water into a sponge. With children, we
will talk about putting a jewel in the treasure chest of the heart. This is just a
kind of giving ones self over to the experience letting it land inside. Those
are aspects of absorbing.
The last step in the process is L for Link, and it is the optional one. It holds
simultaneously in awareness some positive experience with some negative
material painful thoughts or feelings or memories that this positive material
is a natural antidote for.
Through holding it in the mind, since neurons that fire together wire together,
the positive material will gradually associate with the negative material, soothing, easing, and eventually even replacing it.

It probably all sounds a bit complicated, but it really boils down to four words:
have it enjoy it and especially enjoy because that is when the installation occurs. (pp. 1012 in your transcript)

4. Novelty and neuroplasticity


Many people rely on having a daily routine. But this might not
always be best for the brain. Rick Hanson explains why its important to focus on varying our experiences, and why it can be critical for neuroplasticity.
Novelty promotes neuroplasticity the capacity of the brain to be changed
by its experiences. And we have heightened learning for what is novel.
To bring it down to earth, if a person is having a fairly familiar positive experience like, Oh, that coffee tastes good, or they are touching someone they
care about maybe their intimate partner, or they are experiencing a little
gratitude, or maybe they are doing some meditative practice and it is getting
more peaceful it is easy to take those experiences for granted.

But if instead, we see them, as the poet put it, Through the eyes of a child; or
to use the Zen idea of beginners mind, then we bring that beginners mind to
what it feels like to relax while breathing or to feel grateful for the blessings in
our life.

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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

If we bring that beginners mind and therefore a sense of novelty and


freshness to the experience, it will build more neural structure. (p. 15 in your
transcript)

5. Letting go of the negative


Rick Hanson explains three practices for engaging the mind and
letting go of the negative.
Negative experiences obviously are an essential part of life I think of the
Buddhas Four Noble Truths, which are utterly psychological.
The first truth is, There is suffering. I use a framework that has helped me
tremendously, personally and professionally, to think about the three ways to
engage the mind. In effect, there are three ways to practice to engage the
mind.
The first way is to simply be with what is there, witness it, feel the feelings,
experience the experience, maybe investigate it, maybe feel down to where its
softer and younger; certainly try to hold it in a big space of spacious awareness.

We are not trying to change it directly. It might shift as a result of being witnessed rather than identified with, but we are not deliberately trying to change
it in the moment.
The second way to engage the mind is to deliberately try to release what
is negative in other words, try to help tension drain out of the body,
for example, or to argue against negative, foolish thoughts, or release
unwholesome desires like getting buzzed every night . . . That is the second
way to engage the mind.
The third way to engage the mind is to cultivate the positive to grow flowers, as it were.
If you think of the mind as a garden, we can witness it, pull weeds, or plant
flowers or, in six words, we can let be let go let in.
That gives us a natural framework, and an appropriate one, for how to deal
with negative experiences.
In the first place, we want to witness them we can just be with them.

We try to hold them in spacious awareness; maybe we try to bring other factors that help us feel our negative feelings, like self-compassion or mindfulness or a sense of inner allies with us.
At some point, it feels right like the Goldilocks point not too tall, not
too short, not too hot, not too cold the just right place when it feels like it
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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

is time to move on, I am not suppressing the emotion but it is time to help it
move on out of Dodge.
Then we move on to the releasing phase reducing the negative in various
ways draining tension out of the body, venting, turning it over to God, or
whatever it is we let it go as best we can.
In the third phase, when it feels right, we try to replace what we have released
with some positive alternative.
The cycle that I have gone through might take half a minute with some familiar negative material like maybe just a momentary irritation or something
that didnt go well, or maybe something from the past that is well understood
Oh that was my critical stepfather; thats my little inner critic yammering
away. I know what you sound like, dude Im not going to listen to you anymore.
From all that, we can move on fairly quickly.
On the other hand, sometimes it takes a year or more, like grief over a serious loss, to move out of the being with way of relating to the negative, to then
shifting into helping it release, and then eventually replacing it with something
positive. (pp. 1517 in your transcript)

6. The importance of evolution for neuroplasticity


A lot has happened to the brain over the past 600 million years,
and it can be hard to keep track. But, according to Rick Hanson,
its important to understand how the brain has evolved. Here,
Kelly McGonigal elaborates on Ricks view, and discusses how
evolution can help us better understand brain change.
I think one of the most interesting and important things that Rick talked
about was how evolution operates on the brain that it doesnt basically take
an old brain and completely overhaul and give you a new and improved
brain, but that evolution is more like getting upgrades that will increase the
flexibility and diversity of human responses.
But, you know, evolution doesnt get rid of what he would refer to as the
lizard brain and the other aspects of the brain that seem more primitive.

And that is really important for people to understand that there is no way
to fundamentally remove some of the experiences we have that feel maybe
irrational or emotional things like stress or anxiety, things like social
conflict.

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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

These are things that are part of what it means to be human, and evolution has
given us also diversity and flexibility about which systems are dominant and
our choice of responses.
And that gives us a lot of, I think, common humanity and self-compassion.
And even to be able to recognize which system might be dominant what
mode you might be operating from, and to recognize that as a fundamental
human need, that evolution has maintained because it is important to our wellbeing.
And I think this just goes a long way in helping people not feel like there
is something fundamentally wrong with them because they have these
experiences that we sometimes devalue or are looking to escape or evolve
away from. (p. 25 in your transcript)

7. Balancing the brain for more happiness

Rick Hanson discussed the idea of rewiring your brain for


greater happiness. Specifically, he mentions the need to balance
between our recognizing and embracing mental states. Kelly
McGonigal shares why she believes his idea of balancing is so
important.
One of the things that Rick talked about that I think is incredibly insightful
and important is that when you are in a red-light state, it is often because a
need is unmet and something happened that triggered the felt sense of that
need being unmet whether a lack of safety or a lack of getting your basic
needs met for rewards or mastery or flow, or a sense of disconnection or social
conflict.
And he says that the antidote to that will be balancing the positive state with
embracing the unmet need. And then, look for strategies that allow you to
connect the essence of that need, even while you are experiencing pain around
the fact that it is unmet or that it has been triggered in you.
One of the examples that he gives is that if you are feeling lonely or
disconnected or rejected, that practicing loving has the same effect as the
experience of being loved, and that when you are experiencing that need being
unmet, you dont necessarily need to go out and find people to prove that they
love you, but to choose an attitude of love or be able to commit an act of love
will meet the need in the same way biologically and psychologically.

I think this is a true act of self-compassion he is talking about here how


when we are suffering from a sense of not having these basic needs met, it is
a tremendous act of courage as well as self-compassion to say, Im going to
honor this need rather than deny it or reject it or try to meet it in an unhealthy
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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

way, and Im going to actually really dive into what it would mean to meet
this need in a way that is possible in this moment, or see how its already
met. (p. 27 in your transcript)

8. Getting rid of fear


According to Rick Hanson, taking in the good is so helpful for
overcoming the brains negative bias. Here, Ron Siegel shares
his ideas on the importance of taking in the good, and gives
another way to go about changing perspective.
Rick has famously said that the mind is like Velcro for bad experiences and
Teflon for good ones the bad ones stick and the good ones slip away.
And this makes perfect sense, evolutionarily, because it would be a real
disaster for us in terms of passing on our DNA if we were to mistake a lion for
a beige rock but mistaking a beige rock for a lion we can do time and again
and still survive.

Simply noticing that this is the case is very, very helpful you know, that we
are all, like Mark Twain famously said near the end of his life when he said,
Im an old man now. Ive lived a long and difficult life filled with so many
misfortunes most of which never happened.
You know, when I read that, I thought, Oh, yes, well it sounds like hes been
living in my mind this is how it works.
So simply seeing this phenomena, simply seeing that the mind is going
to default to expecting the worst; the mind is going to default toward
remembering the bad things, the trauma, and tending to forget about the good
ones simply keeping this in mind I think is our greatest asset because then
we dont believe in the cognitions as much.
Then, when the fearful thought comes up that, Its going to be a disaster, or,
Once again Im going to be hurt and all of that, we can have another voice
that says, Oh, yes theres that old tape. Yes, there I am being Mark Twain
again; there I am playing out my evolutionary fate to avoid getting eaten by a
lion.

I think the other thing that is very, very helpful that when we do find ourselves
involved in this kind of negativity, to think, What exactly is it that I am
fearing or trying to ward off here? Is it that I am desperately trying to preserve
my rank in the primate troop? Is it that I am desperately trying to make sure
that I dont experience some bodily discomfort? Is it that Im afraid of some
fantasy I have of what death is like? What is it that I am so afraid of here?

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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

And I think that often, if we do that with some care and some detail, we notice
that, you know, we are afraid of experiencing an unpleasant cognition, an
unpleasant affect, an unpleasant body sensation and that all of these things
that we fear are actually tolerable if we see them for what they are rather than
get caught up in their symbolic meanings and their narrative.
So I think that also helps us to not get so stuck in the negative. (pp. 2829 in
your transcript)

9. Recognizing a reactive brain


Rick Hanson compared the brains reactive and responsive
modes to a red and a green zone. Here, he explains why its so
important to keep the brain out of the red zone, and how we can
train the brain to stay in the green zone more often.

One of the most powerful things that I read in the research was that being
upset feels bad because it is bad for us; in other words, the red zone feels bad.
It feels bad to be angry, or anxious, or sad, or ashamed, or stressed in general.
So one thing we can do is recognize that that is a signal developed in us over
six hundred million years of evolution of the nervous system, that is Mother
Natures flashing red light: Danger, Will Robinson! Get out of the red zone as
fast as you can.
So that is one thing, to actually pay attention to the discomfort, the upset, the
unease in the red zone, and take it seriously, rather than doing what many of
us have done to kind of plod stoically through life, flogging that little, what
Mary Oliver calls Soft animal of the body, to keep it going, rather than really
listening to its signals.
You know, the distress and discomfort of the red zone is an inner signal
planted by Mother Nature to get out of this zone as fast as you can. Her plan is
for animals to spend a little bit of time in the red zone and get out of it quickly
so chronic stress is really bad for us.
The second thing I think is to really build up green-zone experiences. Because
if you gradually grow green zone experiences inside yourself and you really
help them sink in, you will be increasingly able to handle challenges without
going into the red zone. There is no end of challenges in this life, obviously,
including old age, disease, and death. It is how we meet those challenges that
really determines whether we experience stress and the related wear and tear
in the body or not.

So one of the wonderful things is to appreciate how repeatedly internalizing


everyday green zone experiences a moment of calm, a moment of pleasure,
a moment of ease, a moment of connection with your cat or your friend is
the best possible way, actually, to build up the neural substrates of the green
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New Brain Science 2014 Quick Start Guide - Hanson

zone so that you can deal with challenges, without going red with them.
(minutes 12:3614:42 in Your Plan for Next Week)

10. Applying the positive


Rick Hanson talked a lot about developing a positive mindset and
why it is so important to do that. Here, Bill OHanlon gives an easy
way to approach each day with more positivity.
I was talking about gratitude, and someone said, Im a psychology professional
and I have my students do an exercise I call Twenty-five gratitudes before
breakfast. And I said, I would never get to breakfast if you gave me twentyfive! He said, No theyre simple ones; you know: I get up. I switch on the
light and it comes on. And I get up and turn on a tap and water comes out. I
have a roof over my head. And I thought, Oh, I could do twenty-five of those.

The things we take for granted which is one of the things the brain does: once
it is there a lot, we get used to it; we dont notice the good, as Rick said. We are
not taking it in partly because we dont notice it. And it is those things: if you
just went through a hurricane or the lights are out and you dont have any heat,
you dont really appreciate that until it goes away.
But if you can deliberately orient yourself to what you have that you have taken
for granted, that is a really good thing that sometimes even kings and emperors
five hundred years ago didnt have. I have this amazing Skype thing that
were talking on, that I can talk to you in a different part of the country. Thats
incredible! Twenty-five gratitudes before breakfast and you can make it five,
you can make it three, you can make it ten or whatever you want you do need
to get up and have breakfast eventually! But I think that is a great habit to get
into, and it sets the tone for the day. As Rick said, you start to reorient your
neurology, your brain, your attention to the good rather than just the negative
and that gives you some resilience, even when the negative comes during the
day. (minutes 18:4220:13 in Your Plan for Next Week)

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