Here is the full transcript of Neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson’s TEDx Talk: Hardwiring happiness at TEDxMarin 2013 conference
Dr. Rick Hanson – Neuropsychologist
Wow! So what I want to do here, if I could, is share with you a very simple, yet powerful method, grounded in neuroscience, for turning passing experiences into lasting structure, useful structure, inside our brain.
In other words, turning experiences into the happiness, or the resilience, or the other inner strengths that we really want inside ourselves. I sort of stumbled on this method when I was in college, but to explain the context, I have to take you back a little before, into my own up-and-down childhood.
So, I grew up in a loving home – good parents, intact family – but I was very, very young going through school – I have a late birthday and I skipped a grade. And that combined with my kind of shy and seriously dorky temperament – you know, skinny, glasses, picked last for baseball, the whole thing. Well, what it led to were lots of experiences of being left out or put down by the other kids in school.
Now, what happened to me was very small compared to, unfortunately, what happens to many, many other people, but we all have normal needs to feel cared for, to feel cared about. We’re the most profoundly social species on the planet. You know, as we evolved in the Serengeti, exile was a death sentence. Causes have effects. And if we don’t get the supplies that we need, bit by bit, it’s kind of like we’re living on a thin soup.
You can survive, you can make it, but there’s a hollowness, an emptiness inside. In my own case – hopefully this will work; yes – I ended up with lots of bad thoughts and feelings inside of me as a result. Then I went off to college, and I began to notice something really powerful and interesting. You know, some small, good thing would happen. You know, a girl would smile at me in the elevator, some guy would throw me the football at intramural football and say, “Good catch, Hanson,” that was really good.
Or guys would invite me to go out for pizza – you know, basic stuff of everyday life. And then I would have an experience, right? I would feel a little included, or a little wanted, a little appreciated. Then the question is, what would I do with that experience? If I dealt with it like I usually did, which was to kind of ignore it, you know, let it pass along, I kept feeling lonely and inadequate. But I began to notice that if I did something different, if I stayed with it a dozen or so seconds in a row, it felt like something was gradually coming into me that was actually good.
And I began feeling better and better and better, and more confident. Any single time I did this wasn’t a mind-blowing moment – I had a few of those through other means – but the good things really did add up over time for me, definitely.
And now, years later, many years later, as a neuropsychologist, I began to understand what I was actually doing. I wasn’t just changing my mind, I was actually changing my brain. That’s because, as the neuroscientists say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Passing mental states become lasting neural traits. Bit by bit, I was actually weaving these resources into the fabric of my brain and therefore my life.
There are many examples of the ways in which mental activity can change brain structure. For example, taxicab drivers in London at the end of their training have a thicker brain in a key part called the hippocampus that does visual-spatial memory.
In a different kind of example, I don’t know if anybody in here experiences stress, right? Occasionally. Well, if we have the experience of stress, that releases cortisol in the body, it goes up into the brain. Cortisol gradually stimulates the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, so it rings more loudly and more quickly, and cortisol weakens, it actually kills neurons in the hippocampus, which besides doing visual-spatial memory, calms down the amygdala and calms down stress altogether.
So this mental experience of stress, especially if it’s chronic and moderate to severe, gradually changes the structure of the brain, so we become progressively more sensitive to stress. The mind can change the brain to change the mind. Knowing this is really valuable because the inner strengths – to go back to the beginning of my story here – the inner strengths that we all want: happiness, positive emotion, determination, feeling love, confidence, the virtues, the executive functions, those are all built out of the brain.
The question is how to actually get them into the brain. The interesting thing is that most of the wholesome qualities of mind and heart that help us cope with life, including coping with hard things, and have a lot inside ourselves to give to other people, most of those inner strengths are built from positive experiences of those strengths.
If you want to feel more confident, for example, have more experiences of accomplishment or coping. If you want to have a more loving heart, practice more moments of compassion or kindness for others. The problem is that to get these experiences into our brain, we have to overcome the brain’s hard-wired negativity bias. This negativity bias means that the brain is very good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good ones. In other words, good experiences kind of bounce off the brain unless we do a little thing that I’m going to tell you about in a moment; meanwhile, bad experiences sink right in.
The reason for the negativity bias is that our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention to bad news. Because if they survived it, they had to remember it forever, right? Once burned, twice shy. These days we have ordinary experiences of this – think about a relationship you’re in with someone you live with, work with, sleep with, whatever. You know, let’s say ten things happen in a day with that person. Five of them are positive, four are neutral, one is negative. Which is the one we tend to think about as we go to sleep?
That’s why a lot of studies show that a good long-term relationship typically needs at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions. That’s a cautionary tale, right? All right, so that’s the negativity bias. It creates a fundamental bottleneck in the brain that creates a weakness in both informal efforts and formal efforts to grow, to heal, to train ourselves in different ways.
Whether you’re a psychologist like me or a meditation teacher like me, or a corporate trainer, or a coach, a parent – I’m also a parent, with my wife – or you’re trying to help people in one way or another, we tend to be very good at “activating” positive mental states, but are we very good at helping people install them in the brain? I don’t think so. There’s been this longstanding assumption that if we just get a good thing going, somehow it will sink in.
What can we do? We can learn to take in the good, to pop open this bottleneck in the brain, and gradually weave good experiences into the fabric of our brain and our life. So I thought we could actually do it here right now – something experiential. It is Marin county, we could go for it. We’ll just try it right now. It’s a little weird, a little artificial – why not? Just go for it.
So I’ll take you through this kind of informally, then I’ll explain what we just did. So if you could, bring to mind someone that you know cares about you. It could be a pet, it could be a group of people, it could be a person in your life, in your past, doesn’t really matter. What you’re trying to do is have a good experience, a simple good experience of feeling cared about. You’re trying to help the idea of this person, or the image, or a memory become a feeling.