It’s helpful to know that the brain is plastic and can adapt to challenges. And when it comes to learning new things, we can build up mental resources through intentional effort. People can get better at realizing self-regulation, executive functions, a sense of perspective or meaning, positive emotions like gratitude, a sense of strength and the feeling of being cared about.
“Any kind of mental activity, including experiences, entails underlying neural activity,” said Rick Hanson, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, at a Learning & the Brain conference. He has developed practices to help people build up their mental capacity for happiness by creating patterns of neural activity that with time and repetition become neural pathways.
Hanson calls this process “self-directed neuroplasticity.” To grow inner strength, people have to turn experiences (short-term memories) into activated states that are installed traits (long-term and implicit memories). The idea is to turn fleeting moments of happiness into implicit knowledge of well-being and strength.
Helping children develop self-directed neuroplasticity could be extremely helpful for students with trouble sitting still or who have learning challenges, but it could also be explicitly tied to academic outcomes. Hanson’s strategies could help students develop motivation and a sense of themselves as active learners. It’s a way of helping students to see life as an opportunity and for noting the positive in themselves and others. And, at a fundamental level, it’s a way of taking the time to hardwire and register curricular learning.
This work is especially important because the brain has evolved to prioritize negative input over positive feedback — psychologists call it the negativity bias, and it’s strong. Simply put, in the Stone Age a human was likely to die from ignoring a negative input, but often got another chance at the positive ones. In today’s world, humans might experience moments of success or compassion or gratitude, but aren’t good at installing those experiences and making them traits. Meanwhile, all the negative, painful, harmful memories are quickly becoming part of the neural structure of our brains.
“We evolved a brain that routinely scans for bad news, both internally and externally,” Hanson said. “And when we find the bad news, we tend to focus down upon it.” That’s why when nine good things happened in the classroom and one bad thing, inevitably on her way home that teacher is thinking about the one bad thing.
“We overreact to unpleasant stimulus,” Hanson said. And, unfortunately, if a person is feeling stressed, anxious, irritated or wounded, he is more sensitive to the negative. “The stress systems activate and release cortisol,” he said. “It’s one of the major ways in which we become increasingly sensitized to the negative.”
Many educators have heard about cortisol — often in trainings about student trauma. It’s the hormone that floods the brain when a student is afraid or angry, firing up the amygdala and shrinking the hippocampus. That’s a problem because the hippocampus is what regulates the amygdala and inhibits cortisol production. These processes make the brain more susceptible to the next negative input.
“We’ve got a brain that’s like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good,” Hanson said. “Learning from good experiences through installation, registering them, allowing them to be present long enough to get encoded, is the primary way to grow resources in our mind.”
He has developed a technique he calls HEAL, an acronym for the four steps of the process: have a good experience, enrich it, absorb it, and (counterintuitively) link it to something slightly negative.
Either create a good experience or call one up from memory. This could be anything from a time when the body felt strong and capable to a positive memory of an interaction with a loved one. The important thing is to call up the experience, remember how it felt or imagine how it would feel again, and take time to let that experience in by holding it in the foreground of consciousness.
If an educator or therapist is helping a child to create a good experience, she could direct the child to look for good facts in his immediate situation, in current events, in the past, in the future, in his character, even in his imagination. Another way to create a good experience is to think about what it feels like to care about someone else.
Once the child has conjured that positive experience, he can enrich it by extending the time he thinks about that experience or by trying to think about that positive moment with all of his senses. He might think about how important that feeling is because it is rare or about how salient it is to his life. Thinking about duration, multimodality, salience and novelty helps increase the intensity of the feeling, which goes a long way to enrich it.
Absorbing the positive experience has a lot to do with imagining how that experience affects oneself. If a child is thinking about a moment when she felt very competent, she might linger on how it made her feel, letting the emotion sink into her body. She might let herself imagine how she’s going to continue creating that feeling for herself. Encourage her to think specifically about why she feels so good about the experience, what makes it different from other times. Absorbing the experience is about letting the good warm a person.
LINK POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE MATERIAL
The optional final step is to link that bolstered positive experience to a negative one, making sure to keep the positive experience in the foreground, so that the negative experience can be lessened over time. This step can be dangerous for students or people with low executive functioning or who are highly self-critical. If the person is likely to fall into a pattern of negative thinking, “I don’t deserve to feel good,” or has a hard time keeping the positive in the foreground, be careful with this step.
For example, if the positive experience is about a great meal, keep the images of warmth, comfort and delicious flavor in the foreground, with the dim recognition that eating too much could make one overweight in the background. Hanson said that holding the positive and negative in one’s consciousness at the same time helps the positive experience override the negative one.
“It’s natural to replace the negative with the positive,” Hanson said, but it can be challenging, especially for people who have experienced real trauma. The fourth step in HEAL may not be appropriate for people until they’ve done a lot of absorbing positive experiences first.
He also points out that the most traumatic experiences are stored in the least plastic areas of the brain. It takes a lot of positive experiences to reach those areas of the brain. “As the brain evolved, so did its capacity for safety, satisfaction and connection,” Hanson said. He advocates using those new capacities to overcome the negativity bias.
“As we repeatedly do this, we build up a trait that can help us meet challenges in life,” Hanson said. His psychology practice and research support the educational research showing that a key factor in student success is relationships with caring adults. He also points out that practicing HEAL is an effective way of increasing the benefits of mindfulness, which some schools are already integrating into school culture.