Elke Geraerts is called the ‘smartest woman in The Netherlands.’ She works as a psychologist to help people suffering from trauma, burnout, and depression.
Imagine a day you felt very sad and try to bring that day back into the top of your mind, and try to grasp how you exactly felt that day. Why you felt sad? And for how long you felt sad? Did it last for hours? Or days? Or even weeks?
Every one of us here, without exception, has experienced such a day and likely many more saddening days like this. When we try to locate that sadness, we immediately reach to a heart, the organ that makes our blood flow through the body.
But when speaking about sadness, you would rather point to another organ: the brain. This is the place for our thoughts, our feelings, our goals in life. When we fall in love, we always think in terms of the heart.
But the love we cherish is in our brain. It’s much the same when after a major setback we’re feeling sad. It’s our brain that is feeling sad. Our intentions, our dreams, our motivations, us all being here together this afternoon, it’s all here, in the brain.
Sometimes we are limited by our brain. All of us, all our brains can become strained when we experience stress at work, or argue with our loved ones. Too often, people burn out, feel depressed, experience anxiety more and more people are becoming addicts.
As a scientist, I really like to create a bridge between science and people, and science and society, and I feel challenged to create new ways to solve these conditions.
The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020 depression will be the most common illness in the western world, even above heart failure.
WHAT IF YOU COULD IMPROVE YOUR BRAIN JUST AS YOU IMPROVE, AND TRAIN, AND EXERCISE YOUR MUSCLES?
From psychological research we know that you can: you can strengthen your brain through exercise, and improve your performance, and have much more awareness of life.
In Stockholm, scientists and a research group from professor Klingberg gave people some computer exercises to train their brain, the kind of exercises such as solving a sudoku, or a crossword puzzle but only slightly different; the kind of exercises to train what we call in psychology one’s “working memory”.
After one month of these exercises, these people were not only better at these exercises, they were also better able to reason and to understand problems, to solve problems.
When the researchers examined the brains of these people, they could see drastic changes in their brains, especially here, in the frontal lobe, where more connectivity was evident.
Recently, in our research lab at Erasmus University of Rotterdam, we examined whether such a working memory training may have an effect on someone’s mental state. We tested people with depression and anxiety, and for a month these people exercised their brains through a computer training, a kind of mental gymnastics. And here the results are very encouraging.
Another research group in the Netherlands showed that such a working memory training may be an effective strategy to reduce alcohol use and heavy drinkers.
So, brain training not only makes you smarter, it makes your brain better fit to cope with adversities in life. And that is not only important for people who suffer from mental illness. Because everyone here, without exception, experiences major setbacks in their lives.
And the people, the courageous people, the resilient people, who know how to handle misfortune have an advantage in life.
Resilience, apart from a high IQ and a strong emotional intelligence, is a quality that will make your life successful. Resilience is one’s stamina, one’s determination to cope with setbacks, one’s ability to stand up again after falling.
Resilience is an essential and common factor among successful people. You may be smart, you may be social with people, but a certain kind of determination and persistence is crucial on the road to success.
In-depth interviews with successful people make that very clear. All of them, at some point in their lives, succeeded through fighting back from exceptionally difficult personal and professional circumstances.
WHAT IF YOU COULD IMPROVE YOUR RESILIENCE?
The good news is that resilience is not just genetically determined. In fact, major events in our teens and twenties have a huge impact on our resilience. In-depth interviews show that the majority of the successful people have experienced a troubled childhood. Many came from broken homes or had to deal with childhood trauma, such as death or alcoholism of a parent.
And it’s important to realize that I’m not just talking soft psychology here. Resilience is a concept that has been studied in many natural sciences and technology, and it describes the way a system can cope with shocks.
Let’s take the example of ecosystems.
For decades we have been speaking about sustainability, about restoring equilibrium, about a conservation of species, but now we’re becoming aware that ecosystems are seldom in equilibrium, and are beating from one extreme to another by ever-changing circumstances.
There’s now a whole new branch of mathematics that shows which species are important for resilience.
Now, back to our own resilience. Anticipation is crucial for our resilience. Anticipation is the active ingredient that keeps us on track, and for anticipation you need initiative, initiative to anticipate and to be resilient, initiative to intervene when something has gone wrong, or something threatens to go wrong.
Without your own initiative, you will be engrossed by the issues of the day, the tasks of the week, the delusion of month, or the illusion of even years. Therefore, you need to be active and plan your way ahead, and take into the fact the consequences that your actions may have.
Often, you need to make your own choices, sometimes even bold choices, with your eyes wide open. That will contribute to real resilience.
Ladies and gentlemen, think back about the sad day you reminisced about at the beginning of my talk. Even on such a day, you can be the captain of your own life. As long as you anticipate and cherish your resilience, and take setbacks as a fact of life, they will strengthen you.
For sometimes in our lives, you need to dig in your heels and hold on when life gets hard. That is resilience and that may be your greatest success.
For Further Reading:
- How College Loans Exploit Students For Profit: Sajay Samuel (Transcript)
- How to Design for Dignity During Times of War: Slava Balbek (Transcript)
- The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready: Bill Gates (Transcript)
- Revealing The Lost Codex of Archimedes: William Noel (Transcript)
- The Power of Civil Momentum: Annamalai Kuppusamy (Transcript)