Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together

He’s Got Google’s Ear. Who gets to speak to an audience at Google? Well, this guy did. He’s Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist, who spoke on the Google campus a little over two years ago. He is one of the guys recruited by Chade Meng-Tan to speak to the search engine’s employees on the topic of mindfulness, and how it might be beneficial to them. He is also the author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

Three Goal-Directed Systems of the Brain. Hanson posits three goal-directed systems in the brain. The avoidance system (the example of sticks v. carrots), the approach system (which seeks opportunities, rewards, pleasures) and finally, the attachment system (which seeks social proximity, bonding, feelings of closeness). He goes on to map these systems and their associations with various parts of the brain and neurobiological processes — of the attachment system he notes it is part of our “mammalian heritage.” Bonding is a very important part of our survival.

The Negativity Bias of The Brain. Dr. Hanson makes a point regarding what he calls the negative bias of the brain. What does that mean? Well, in a nutshell, we’ve evolved to avoid danger. Think of it this way — which has a higher cost, a) not noticing the tiger in the bushes or b) thinking there is a tiger in the bushes, when there is none? Though being hypervigilant is annoying and in some sense a waste of time, the cost of not noticing the tiger in the bushes is so astronomically higher that we are naturally evolved to be on alert to risks and dangers. This is what Dr. Hanson calls the brain’s innate negativity. He says, “sticks are more salient than carrots” — meaning we are more geared to being alert for threats than seeking reward. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t strong drives for seeking reward — it’s just that removing threat is higher up on the hierarchy. Once we assess risks to be minimal, reward seeking comes to the fore. He adds, “the brain is like velcro for negative experiences, teflon for positive.”

Negativity Bias and Stress. But this tendency to weigh negative input more heavily can be problematic. We’re pretty much adapted to life 50,000 years ago, perhaps more so than as much as for life today. The avoidance system, perfectly tuned to avoiding threat from neighboring tribes and potential predators, can get overloaded by less dire stimulus such as a traffic jam or a bad report card or what have you. And that avoidance system activates the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-0r-flight system. Chronic arousal of this system (as occurs in anxiety and the  hypervigilance associated with trauma) is unhealthy. Chronic stress can lead to a cascade of health events — it weakens the immune system, inhibits the gastrointestinal system (which in turn reduces nutrient absorption), dysregulates hormones, causes cardiovascular vulnerabilities, and so on.

The Take Home Point. I advise watching the video, if you have the time, because it sketches out in more detail his ideas — but I would say the take home point, if there is one, is that it is possible to shape your brain away from what he calls its negative bias. In other words, focussing, through intention, on the approach and attachment parts of the system. How would that work? Well quite a lot of research seems to suggest, quite robustly, that parts of the brain (particularly the anterior cingulate) used in meditation are the same parts of the brain used to regulate emotion. And sketching the idea out crudely, that through attentive practice, we can essentially train our brain to cultivate positive sensations to calm down the fight-or-flight system. Over time, this can actually strengthen the system that regulates strong, primitive emotions. (Daniel Siegel, MD, has followed and participated in this research quite closely.) Check out the video. It’s worth a look.

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