How I Am Wired is What my Brain Fires



During my last yoga class, my lovely instructor shared a theory with us:  Hebbian Theory.  The Hebbian theory basically states that “cells that fire together, wire together.”   You are probably asking yourself, “what does that mean?”  To me, “what I look for, expect, or anticipate, I see, receive, and endure.”

“The general idea is an old one, that any two cells or systems of cells that are repeatedly active at the same time will tend to become ‘associated’, so that activity in one facilitates activity in the other.”(Donald O. Hebb,  1949, p. 70)

“When one cell repeatedly assists in firing another, the axon of the first cell develops synaptic knobs (or enlarges them if they already exist) in contact with the soma of the second cell.” (Donald O. Hebb 1949, p. 63)

My interpretation is this:  If I constantly think negative thoughts,  expect the worse, and anticipate the bad, that is how my brain will assimilate, become wired to think, see, and do.  But the good news is that any one of us can change the way our brain operates.  We change how the neurons fire in our brain.  The effects of a contrary, negative mind is reversible. None of us are chained to it, unless we want to be.  We all can have a peaceful, positive mind.  It’s a choice we make each moment, each day.

“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.”  (Buddha)

Below is a wonderful excerpt from Buddha’s Brain: The New Neuroscience and the Path of Awakening Inquiring Mind, written by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Rick Mendius, M.D.

For example, psychology, neurology, and “contemplative neuroscience” have recently made discoveries about attention, cultivating positive emotions, and controlling craving that support the development of virtue, concentration, and wisdom. Further, the growing synergies between science and contemplative practice are a vital resource for a world poised on the edge of the sword, since the way it tips will depend a lot on whether enough people become more skillful at managing the reactive patterns of their minds – and thus, their brains.

Hebb's Rule

Mind Changes Brain . . . Which Changes Mind

Scientists have shown that your mind and brain routinely change each other.

Fleeting thoughts, feelings, etc. leave behind lasting marks on your brain – much like a spring shower leaves little tracks on a hillside – which form the tendencies and views that make us suffer, or lead us to happiness. This means that your experience really, really matters. Which is a profound and scientifically substantiated rationale for being kind to yourself and creating the causes of more wholesome experiences and fewer unwholesome ones. And as your brain changes over time, so does your mind.

For example:

• If the left side of your frontal lobes becomes increasingly active compared to the right side, you become more prone to positive emotions.

• If serotonin increases through medication or through supplementing the amino acid it’s built from, tryptophan, that can lift depression and free attention for psychological growth and spiritual practice.

• If the circuits of the soothing parasympathetic nervous system become more sensitized with practice, they help dampen stress reactions and support equanimity. In sum, with a little skillfulness, you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being – and everyone else you affect.

Imagine some of our earliest mammal ancestors, little rodent-like creatures scurrying about in the shadows of the last dinosaurs. The ones that became absorbed in the pleasant sensations of a good meal, warm rocks, and sweet-smelling flowers CRUNCH got eaten because they missed the sound of a slither nearby. The ones that lived to pass on their genes were nervous and jumpy, quick to notice potential threats and to remember painful experiences. That same circuitry is active in your brain today in the amygdala, hippocampus, and related structures. It’s hard-wired to scan for the bad, and when it inevitably finds negative things, they’re both stored immediately plus made available for rapid recall.

In contrast, positive experiences (short of million dollar moments) are usually registered through standard memory systems, and thus need to be held in conscious awareness 10 to 20 seconds for them to really sink in.

In sum, your brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones.

In the moment, this built-in bias puts a negative spin on the world and intensifies our stress and reactivity. Over time, these experiences build up in what’s called “implicit memory,” casting a glum shadow over mood and outlook, and darkening one’s interior landscape. Yes, these hard-wired inclinations have been evolutionarily successful, but Mother Nature cares about grandchildren, not about dukkha. In terms of Buddhist practice, the brain’s negativity bias feeds all the hindrances, and it saps motivation for right effort. It also undermines bhavana – the cultivation of wholesome qualities – by downplaying good lessons and experiences, by undermining their storage, and by making it harder to recollect positive states of mind so we can find our way back to them.

You can overcome this innate tilt toward the negative by deliberately enhancing the way your brain forms implicit memories:

Help positive events become positive experiences:

  • Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or when you succeed at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering – and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.
  • Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.
  • Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.
  • Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it’s sinking into your chest and back and brain stem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.

These steps usually take half a minute or less, and with practice, you’ll get even faster. Every day, there are many opportunities for noticing and absorbing good experiences. Any single instance won’t make a big difference, but as the days and weeks add up, the mounting pile of positive implicit memories will provide more resources for coping – and practice – and brighten your inner landscape.

Because “neurons that fire together, wire together,” momentary states become enduring traits. These traits then become the causes of more wholesome states, which nourish your traits further in a positive cycle.

Hebbian Theory Applied to Yoga

For those of you who incorporate a daily practice of meditation, prayer, consider this:

Western science is not necessary to fulfill the path of awakening, but becoming aware of the mechanics of the brain and mind can be most beneficial.  How?

Drs. Hanson and Mendius propose that knowing more about the brain and mind deepens the factors of enlightenment.  Scientific developments keep reconfirming the dharma. For example, researchers have found that the activities of “self” are scattered throughout the brain, constructed from multiple sub-systems, and activated by many prior causes: there is no coherent, stable, independent self looking out through your eyes; in a neurological sense, self is truly empty.

Second, neuropsychology can explain why traditional practices work, and help you emphasize their key elements. For instance, the rapture and joy that are traditional factors of meditative absorption, involve high levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Your brain also uses pulses of dopamine to open the neuronal gate that allows new material into the field of attention. But when you’re full of rapture and joy, any new surges of dopamine make little difference since their levels are already near their maximum. As a result, the gate of attention stays closed, and you remain focused on the breath (present). Happiness is truly skillful means!

Third, brain science can highlight which of the hundreds of traditional methods are likely to be most effective for individual needs. This helps intensify practice. Further, the great variety of brains and thus minds is a diversity issue itself, which underscores the value of the appropriate individualization of practice. For example, there is a wide range of temperaments, and for a person who’s naturally spirited, understanding and normalizing the hungry-for-stimulation systems in his or her brain can lead to emphasizing certain forms of meditation in the development of steadiness of mind (e.g., tracking the breath as a whole rather than at just one spot), and to feeling more self-accepting.

Fourth, the developing brain/mind map can suggest new and effective methods to build upon established practices.

Buddha taught that attaining Nibbana required a dedicated training of mind and heart – which means a transformation of brain and body. Even if the apple falls by grace, its ripening comes from water, sunlight, and fertile ground.

The intertwining of mind and brain, information and matter, means that we need psychology to understand the brain . . . and neurology to understand the mind. And both are illuminated by centuries of practical experience in the world’s contemplative traditions. The intersection and integration of these three – psychology, neurology, and contemplation – is the heartwood of personal well-being and spiritual growth for the benefit of all beings.

Drs. Hanson and Mendius’ article:

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