In my late thirties, I took a course in something called The Unlimit Your Life Seminars from Jim Fadiman. Essentially, I learned a series of daily affirmations based loosely upon The Power of Positive Thinking, with a number of spiritual and altruistic elements added in. After working with the Seminar principles for a couple of years, almost everything on the list of things I wanted to accomplish or create came to pass.

Pretty significant things, too. For example, I had dreamed of hand-building my own house for more than 20 years, and through a series of seemingly miraculous events (including being given a half million dollar building lot for free!), I ended up building a 4000 square foot home in one of the most affluent areas of the country. By building and selling houses on spec, our family ended up with a net worth of several million dollars (This was obviously before the current downturn; and the work was inspired by a spiritual teacher issuing me the directive, “Provide shelter for people” during a vulnerable, teachable moment). In my “spare time,” I not only managed to write several award-winning books, but also completed the requirements for two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology. This isn’t meant to be me singing great praises of myself, but rather to illustrate the power of an organized, integrated brain learning to work in concert with people with similarly well-organized brains (Several years later, “transition stress” caused me to hunker down and stop doing all these disciplined practices that clearly worked. I stopped building, stopped playing, stopped listening to music, stopped affirming, lost the house, lost my marriage and filed for bankruptcy, as my brain unfortunately reverted to its relatively disorganized baseline mean).

A Tale of Two Neurons

Last week I gave a talk entitled “A Tale of Two Neurons” to the dedicated folks serving families at the Navy base here on Whidbey Island. As part of that talk I invited one half of the group to role-play impoverished neurons – the kind that needs and can benefit from disciplined trainings like Jim’s. The other half got to role-play enriched neurons. I had each group describe the events and circumstances that made  them that way. The enriched group came up with things like loving parents, secure attachment, safe early environments, good friends and lots of novel stimuli. The impoverished group came up with many of the opposites of those factors; but what was most interesting is that impoverished list was significantly longer than the enriched group’s. Why? Because the brain has a built-in negative bias. Its primary job is to keep us safe and alive. Consequently, it needs to observe, record and preserve the memories of any experiences that might prove threatening to our survival. Thus the need and the importance of things like the Unlimit Your Life Seminars, positive teachers and positive thinking – to help us overcome the brain’s built-in “negative” bias.

Once Again With Feeling

What most powerfully drives affirmation and positive thinking though, is not simply the repetition of positive phrases, but rather – authentic emotion. In order for such words and sentences to work optimally, we must bring great feeling to them. This is one reason why Affective Body Therapies (ABTs) and programs like City at Peace work faster and are often more effective than cognitive therapies alone. Neuroscience research has produced any number of studies that confirm emotion is one powerful key to learning, neural growth and integration. Some well-regarded work by Antoine Bechara at the University of Iowa, for example, goes a long way towards explaining why teenagers frequently make such poor decisions – they possess great feeling, but lack sufficient regulatory cortical connections to readily control and constructively channel their emotions. (Which is why the brains working at the developmental level of teenagers at places like Enron and in Wall Street investment banks need outside regulation imposed by hopefully less cluelessly disorganized brains!).

Feeling the Love

Psychologist Rick Hanson of the Greater Good Foundation in Berkeley, and the co-author of Buddha’s Brain, offers three suggestions for using emotion to bring balance to our brain’s inborn threat-monitoring bias. First, practice turning the positive facts that permeate our lives every day into positive experiences by deliberately paying greater attention to them. Second, savor such experiences. Rick quotes Marc Lewis at the University of Toronto who claims that the longer something is held in awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it becomes. In the process it enlists more brain neurons into firing and wiring together, thus becoming a much stronger memory. Third and finally, deliberately provide time to let such experiences sink in through prayer, meditation or contemplation.

These are wonderful principles to both teach and model for our children. As a result, hopefully they won’t have to work as hard as so many of us have had to in order  to regularly accentuate the positives in our lives.