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Posted December 2012

What Neuroscience Tells Us About Changing Our Thoughts

Steve Mitten

One of the wonderful things coming out of the latest strides in neuroscience, is a better understanding of how memories, thoughts and feelings are made and modified.

This is really good news for anyone wanting to change how they think, feel or behave and experience greater success and happiness.

I suspect we all have certain thoughts that we either don't enjoy or that don't serve how we want to show up in our lives. Let me give you a practical example of one set of thoughts I have been working on.

For the past few years my wife and I have been devoting more time and attention caring for our aging parents. Between dementia, cancer and various accidents, there have been times where we get into a state of anxious preparedness, where we seem to be just waiting for the phone to ring with news of the next crisis.

The human mind hates uncertainty and when you don't know what will happen next, it is easy for the mind to dwell on the negative possibilities.
So how might a better understanding of neuroscience help us change this?

Well in my case, I have been giving attention to a bunch of anxious thoughts concerning the future of my Dad. My brain has responded by reinforcing a network of neurons around thoughts about Dad, that include many negative possible developments. The more I think these thoughts, the more negative possibilities I remember, the greater the mental attention and energy they command. The more attention a thought garners, the stronger the cluster of neurons become and the more prominent it becomes in my awareness. Anything that triggers one of these thoughts can quickly translate into many other negative/anxious thoughts and emotions. The emotions reinforce the thoughts and become a mood. And a mood can drag on long enough to affect your disposition and behaviour.

Now, we may not be able to control the initial or triggering threat thought. But we can definitely control how much attention we give it.

In my case, whenever I choose to take my attention off a negative thought and put it on another thought, say one of acceptance, ("God's will be done."), or gratitude ("I am so grateful for all the time we have had together.") or optimism ("The Universe will unfold as it should and it will all work out in the end.") I actually reinforce the new thought. The more attention I give the new positive thought, the stronger the association (neuro linkage) is.

The really interesting fact is that through the repetitive re-directing of my attention this new positive thought can become the most dominant thought associated with my Dad. The new thought literally becomes wired in place neurologically. It turns out the glue that sticks all thoughts together (neuro growth factor) is actually in short supply. So by repeatedly redirecting attention and belief to the new thought, the glue to reinforce the new positive thought actually comes from the brain disconnecting the old negative/anxious thoughts (neural connections).

The formula is quite simple and has actually been part of conventional wisdom for years. (I am pretty sure my grandmother had some sage advice on this topic decades ago.) You simply want to keep taking attention off the negative thought and keep putting it on the positive thought. Sometimes you will need to do this dozens of times before you can really begin to stick with the positive thought. And sometimes it may help to put your attention on your breath or your toes or some other bodily sensation, particularly when it is difficult for you to come up with a positive thought you resonate with.

Attention off the negative thought translates into better feelings, better moods, different behaviour and just generally being more present.

However, the deeper teaching comes in the awareness that all thoughts and emotions are in constant flux. When this transience is fully seen, one begins to be a little suspect of becoming overly invested in any particular mental state or set of life circumstance.

Happiness is discovered not to be something produced in those brief moments when everything is "perfect" and all agitation is momentarily absent. Rather it is recognized as being constantly present, an underlying attribute of our true nature. (i.e. - If I am not giving attention to any thought that things need to be different, if I am not buying into any stories of how things should be, if I am simply watching the predictable reactions, choices and judgments of the mind float by like clouds on a summer day, my mind remains quite spacious and quiet.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Mitten
All Rights Reserved

Steve Mitten CPCC, MCC, 2005 ICF President, in an award winning, internationally recognized Master Coach that works with leaders, entrepreneurs and independent professionals around the world. He is passionate about what accelerates the growth of human awareness, compassion and effectiveness, and helps his clients find their niche, be their best and thrive. Visit


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