Friday, September 30, 2011

Tricking our Brain for Happiness?

I received an article from a friend by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson titled "How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness."  I initially discarded it thinking it was another feel-good article promoting positive affirmation as seen on so many TV talk shows.  But then I began to think about the nature of the Orthodox Way of Life and how it truly brings one happiness.  Not in the sense of everything being good in life, for after all, life eventually ends with death no matter what we do to avoid it. But in the sense that it brings us to a relationship with God with the knowledge that there is eternal life where the cares of this world no longer exist.  The hope of this truth is true happiness.  Once this truth becomes a reality for us then we will experience well-being no matter what circumstances we face.

The article points some important things about the brain, which is part of our physical makeup and will be destroyed when we die, and its relationship with our mind which is part of our soul which will live eternally.

He points our three facts about the brain
   1. As the brain changes, the mind changes, for better or worse.
   2. As the mind changes, the brain changes
   3. You can use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better.

Now in spiritual terms this means that we can use our soul guided by the Holy Spirit which connects us to God to change the brain.  We can modify it so that it is not focused only of the trials and tribulations of this world leading us to feelings of depression, anger and so forth, all which are indication of a soul separated from God.

Dr. Hanson says, that "when people consciously practice gratitude, they are likely getting higher flows of reward-related neurotransmitters, like dopamine.  Research suggests that when people practice gratitude, they experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind, and that is probably correlated with more of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine."  What this says is that our conscious efforts to put into practice God's commandments can have a positive effect on our our brain works in everyday life.  This is the basis of the ancient ascetic practices in Christianity.  We are taught to pray regularly, to fast, to participate in the sacraments, to read the Bible daily and so forth.  These are all ways which we can use the mind to change the brain.

One of the fundamental practices of Christian monks and lay people is the practice of the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner). It is important to always remember this is a prayer and not just a technique and is only used based on faith and love of God.  As one engages to recite this preyer over and over with attention, our brain is changed becoming more open to the work of the Holy Spirit and increases our capacity to actually live according to God's commandments.  As Dr. Hanson says, "What flows through the mind sculpts the brain... As the mind flows through the brain, as neurons fire together in particularly patterned ways based on the information they are representing, those patterns of neural activity change neural structure."

Dr. Hanson says the key to the mind changing the brain is the use of attention.  Our brain is constantly being bombarded with stimuli that is, in most cases, beyond what it is capable of processing, so it takes automatic shortcuts.  Therefore, to control it we need to focus its attention on what our mind and soul knows to be important.  Attention is the most important aspect of prayer outside of the faith that leads us to prayer.  When we recite the Jesus Prayer we must draw our attention to the words and let them sink deep into our hearts.  As we do this time after time the prayers become ingrained in our heart and programed in our brain so that each action we take becomes an act of prayer where we have an awareness of God.

The Church Fathers refer to both this idea of attention and also wakefulness.  In prayer we need to have the attention of the mind to focus the brain on the words, forcing it to be directed where we choose on the prayer and with an awareness of to whom we are saying these words.  Then, in our daily life we must have a brain which is programed to listen and obey the mind and is ever watchful for those automatic shortcuts that lead us to actions that we which we would not have made.  

Research has shown in several experiments that prayer does change the nature of the brain.  Scripture is very clear that our challenge is to allow the mind in the soul to control all aspects of the body which lives in the fear of death and direct our attention to what is beyond this life.  This is done through the mind controlling the brain.  As Dr. Hanson says, "You can intentionally change your brain to create lasting happiness and well-being."

References: Article by Dr. Hanson, More on the Jesus Prayer and Orthodox Way of LIfe

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