the SCIENCE

Seek Experiences That Positively Reshape Your Brain

New research looks at how experiences can positively shift our self-perception. 

By Daniel Goleman

I often hear people say, "I'm the kind of person who…" or, "I'm not a people person.” These seemingly off-the-cuff comments suggest they’re resigned to not changing their self-perception—regardless if it’s inaccurate or self-defeating. My longtime colleague, Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied neuroplasticity, the ability of the mind to change throughout life.

In his interview with Mirabai Bush for the Working with Mindfulness webinar series with More Than Sound, Dr. Davidson touches upon the possibilities of using our experiences to positively shift our self-perception—and retrain our brains. Here’s what he had to say.

“What we often refer to when we speak in that way are differences that we perceive in ourselves, in our emotional reactions, the way we respond to adversity, and the kinds of moods that we often inhabit. And these are differences that do exist among people. They are part of an umbrella that we call ‘emotional styles’. It's one of the things that gives life a lot of color.

Sometimes these variations can be uncomfortable. They can result in suffering. These are all variations we know to be associated with particular brain circuits. The idea of neuroplasticity is simply that the brain changes in response to experience. It changes in response to our actions. It changes in our response to our relationships. It changes in response to specific training. These activities will shape the brain, and we can take advantage of neuroplasticity and actually play a more intentional role in shaping our own brains in ways that may be health promoting, and ways that can cultivate well being.

It’s amazing how dynamic these changes can be. Recent research indicates that just two hours of engaging in a video game can actually structurally change your brain. That underscores how extraordinarily dynamic our brains are, constantly being shaped this way and that way. Most of the time we're not aware of how our brains are being shaped by the forces around us.

The most recent research indicates that many different mechanisms of neuroplasticity persist for the entire lifespan, and one of the most important mechanisms of plasticity is the growth of actual new brain cells. An average adult generates somewhere between five and ten thousand new cells every day. That happens throughout life, until our last day. Those cells play a very important role in plasticity.”

You can read the rest of Dr. Davidison’s conversation with Mirabai Bush in her new ebook collection Working with Mindfulness: Research and Practice of Mindful Techniques in Organizations.


This post was originally published on Daniel Goleman's LinkedIn blog.

To learn more about Richard Davidson's work and neuroplasticity, you might want to read "Rewiring Your Emotions," from the October 2013 Issue of Mindful magazine. Mind/Body columnist Sharon Begley writes about how mind training can help us chart new pathways and why we're not destined to respond the same way emotionally to the same old triggers.