“If the mind is like a garden, the 'soil' of your brain is just as fertile for weeds as flowers;
plant seeds of inner strength by repeatedly taking in the good. "
Rick Hansen, PhD
I recently bought my first digital camera. A very generous friend, who also happens to be a professional photographer, is giving me pointers about how to use it. I'm a typical iPhone point-and-click guy, so we started with the basics. Eventually, we moved beyond the automatic setting and experimented with changes in aperture and shutter speed. I love to learn, and this made me happy .... though most of my photos ended up in the trash bin. But digital photography = unlimited do-overs.
My friend is also coaching me about how to "see". In every frame there's a unique mix of lines, shapes, textures, colors, and cool stuff hiding in the background. The same scene could tell many stories. First big take away: change the focus, change the meaning.
Taking candids is fun but also frustrating. As soon as the elements of a good shot would come, they would go. Finally, a butterfly floated in and gave a big shout out to my wife Amy's horticultural skills. She settled on a glorious pot of flowers, rolled out her "proboscis" and siphoned out the nectar from a penta flower. I zoomed in so closely I could see that it was like a long straw she used to suck the flower dry. Second big take away: You can't stage a great candid photo; just pay attention and be patient.
Over-thinking. We humans keep busy brains. Our thoughts tweet and post to our inner newsfeeds about 70,000 times a day. Sometimes this is helpful; we can reflect on the past and learn from it or anticipate and plan for the future. But, as humans, we also have a built-in negativity bias and a little something called imagination. Our thoughts can easily become distorted and lead us to draw faulty conclusions. Anxiety, fear, guilt, rumination are by-products of spending too much time in our heads. That's how we miss the moment happening now, in real-time. Unlike digital photography, there are no do-overs for the missed moments.
Constant distraction. When researchers studied the adverse affects of multi-tasking and task-switching on the brain, here's what they found: when we force our brains to focus on more than one task at a time or quickly switch between different tasks, we effectively max out our "working memory." It makes us feel really busy and stressed, but we're not very productive. Possibly confused, definitely disconnected. The condition of "inattentive blindness" was also studied. It proved that people talking on their phones were technically looking at their surroundings, yet none of it was actually registering in their brains. They had no memory of the experience.
Here's the good news: Our brain is constantly being shaped and reshaped by our thoughts and experiences through the adaptive process called neuroplacticity. In other words, what wires together, fires together. Our brains are made for change. Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hansen claims, positive change happens when we intentionally make time for and allow our mind, body and senses to fully resonate with positive experiences. But, we've got to get the good stuff in us.
Hansen says, "On a day to day basis, most of us don’t stay with our positive experiences long enough for them to be encoded into our brain's neural wiring. We tend to skip over the positive in favor of anxiety-producing negative thoughts and emotions. Consequently, positive memories lack the neural firing power for synapse wiring to occur. One way to change that is to pay strong attention to the positive experiences. When they happen, savor them for at least 30 seconds. Note how they resonate in your body and through the senses. The more this is done, the more positive experiences are woven into the fabric of the brain."
Building an inner reservoir of peace for positive mental health can be as simple as changing your focus. Hanson describes it this way: “I think of attention as the combination of a spotlight and a vacuum cleaner. It illuminates what it rests upon, and then shuuup! It sucks it into our brain.” Whatever we think more about, we will think more about.
A mentally healthy practice we advocate is mindfulness, which is nothing more than shining a spotlight on the details of your present moment. By quieting the mind and body, you are better able to regulate your emotions, reduce reactivity, stress, and anxiety. This is healthy soil for the mind and body.
Hansen also says, “No matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are, positive experiences can be instrumental for changing our perspective. We must take the time to appreciate these moments of joy and increase their intensity and duration by lingering on them for longer, effectively “wiring” them into our brains."
Photography forces me to do this. I slow down my mind and body and focus my senses on what's happening right in front of me. Taking pictures of nature is especially inspiring because it has a rhythm, an authenticity, and an unpredictability that draws me in. It sets a more relaxed pace that I can dial into. Nature is also a metaphor for mentally healthy living. Nature doesn't multi-task, have buffer overflows, or worry about its past and future. It lives out its experience ... one moment at a time.
Try These Easy Practices to Take in the Moments:
- Instead of scrolling through emails first thing in the morning, try waking up with thoughts of peace, gratitude, empathy, and self-compassion. Don't judge your thoughts or feelings or make task lists just yet. Spend 3-5 minutes savoring, breathing, and recognizing the gift of this new day, whatever it brings. You can do this over a hot cup of coffee, praying, stretching, walking or just breathing. For easy guided meditations, check out my three favorite phone/tablet apps: calm.com, headspace.com, 10percenthappier.com.
- Go outside and engage your senses. What do you hear? When birds sing, our body instantly has a relaxation response. Breathe in the sweet clean air. What smells do you notice? Pay attention to the gifts nature offers. See the way a butterfly drinks from a flower; the intensity of colors in a fall leaf; or the morning sun that's rising past last night's moon.
- Take a 3-minute meditation break in your workday. I do this by closing my door, sitting up in a comfortable position, and letting my body relax into the rhythm of my breath as it goes in and out. Research on meditative breathing shows that by increasing the oxygenation of the blood, it improves cognition, and helps people better regulate their emotions. Read Dan Harris's ABC news blog, "3-Step Brain Hack for Happiness."
Our brain has a few quirks, but the good news is that has the capacity for change. In fact, it's wired for change. The more you can get your neurons firing by letting positive experiences soak into you, the more you’ll be rewiring your brain for peace, happiness, and good mental health.
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