Blog : Brain Science

The Pain of Gratitude

The Pain of Gratitude

There is something fundamentally challenging about gratitude that goes beyond remembering to practice it. If I truly admit how damn fortunate I am, I usually experience a myriad of feelings: pure love, then guilt, and then sheer terror.

Guilt and terror? That might surprise you. After all, we practice gratitude to help us become more positive and serene, and more appreciative of the good things in our lives. But sometimes, when I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the people, places and things in my life, I can become paralyzed by the thought of all of it just…vanishing. And that’s a terrifying thought indeed.

I don’t believe this stems from a fear of abandonment, or an attachment disorder issue. Rather, it comes from a deep understanding that everything is temporary. My four-year old daughter, jumping up and down naked on the bed, laughing with pure glee, will soon be a memory. My almost-seventeen-year-old cat, who likes to snuggle in the mornings, will also be gone. As will my partner someday.

So, the question becomes: how do I allow myself to fully open and experience the absolute love and gratitude that abounds in these moments, while also fully comprehending that it will never be the same again?

This is not a rhetorical, philosophical question. Really, how do we receive and embrace the good, when we know it can’t last?

I’m reminded of a Carl Jung quote regarding dichotomy (the division between two mutually exclusive or contradictory situations): “But there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites…”

When I practice tools that help me become more comfortable with dichotomy, I’m better able to sit with this tension without reacting. These reactions typically take the form of any number of distractions and unproductive behavior, including negativity.

While our brains are wired for negativity and, as I mentioned in a previous post, it kept our ancestors alive, we now know we can actually rewire our brains. Ironically, gratitude is one of the best ways to accomplish this. (See Rick Hanson’s work for more on the brain’s negativity bias).

However, if the experience of gratitude can be painful, then where does that leave us?

There are a few mind/brain hacks you can use to hold dichotomy or, as I call it, brain integration. To give an oversimplified description, our brains have two hemispheres, the left and the right, and they quite literally understand the world differently. The left hemisphere sees things in black and white, yes or no, one way or the other. But the right hemisphere allows for a multitude of shades and colors. It can tolerate the tension of division, and can begin to detect webs, or patterns, that are impossible to see when viewed only in a linear fashion (e.g., yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad, etc.).

So how do we facilitate the integration of these two parts of our brains? Well, we have to start by flexing the hemisphere that is most atrophied, which is – unsurprisingly – the right hemisphere. When we have an awareness that these right-brain experiences are 1. available, and 2. valuable, we can bring back the subtle, yet powerful, knowledge of the right hemisphere into our everyday experiences.

How do we begin to “listen” to the vast amount of information offered to us from the right-hemisphere?

First, we have to listen in a different way, as the messages we receive will “sound” different from what we’re used to. For instance, our bodies speak volumes and are directly connected to the right hemisphere. We can start to become aware of the ways our bodies “talk” to us. You might feel queasy when you’re about to give a presentation at work. Or you get goosebumps when watching a scary movie.

Our intuition is also talking to us all the time. Intuition has gotten a bad rap over the years, with many people feeling it’s “airy fairy” or “woo-woo”. However, our intuition is actually “the ability to understand something immediately”. It’s a sense of knowing. And it’s the way the right hemisphere works: by instantly taking in and comprehending the whole picture. Think about the feeling you get when you know someone is lying to you. You might not have proof, but you just know. Or when you get a really good “feeling” about an interview candidate. Eureka moments are possible in this state!

I’m not suggesting that analysis and mental dissection, which are classic left-hemisphere attributes, are not valuable. They absolutely are. However, we tend to get “stuck” in this way of knowing without allowing or acknowledging input from the right hemisphere. As a result, we miss out on the opportunity to understand the situation from a different perspective; one in which the whole (or gestalt) can be understood.

The right hemisphere doesn’t use everyday language (which is housed in the left hemisphere) to communicate. It usually “speaks” without words – you get a gut feeling, or an image or diagram pops into your head seemingly out of nowhere. So, we have to listen in different ways:

  • Making art

  • Creativity (crafting, cooking, gardening, etc.)

  • Spending time in nature

  • Stepping back to see the whole picture – what I call “zooming out”

  • Being embodied (practicing yoga, dancing, etc.)

  • Listening to music

These are just a few ways you can practice tuning into your brain’s right hemisphere.

Bringing this information into our daily lives does take a certain amount of trust. However, when we begin to consciously listen and make the effort to become familiar with what might at first feel very foreign, uncomfortable, and maybe even undefined or wishy-washy, and then implement this knowledge, more will follow.

The right brain can become a storehouse of valuable wisdom. And, it can be really fun (humor and wit are also right-brain attributes!). With a bit of practice, we can become more familiar and comfortable with the opaque and the dichotomous. And getting comfortable operating from this place can feel like coming home.

Ultimately, we’ll be able to more easily manage the sometimes terrifying feelings that can come up when practicing gratitude. And that’s something we can be truly thankful for.

 

Dayna-Wood-Blog-Post

Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT

Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed out professionals how to reignite their creativity and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science. Take the 7 Day Creative Brain Challenge to reclaim and recharge your creativity – in 10 minutes a day or less!

How Distracted Am I?

How Distracted Am I?

In modern Western society, we often find ourselves in a permanent state of unfulfilled desire. We are offered continuous distractions and stimulations that mimic reality, such as mass leisure, mass culture, and mass media.

Constant intrusions and interruptions – now the norm in our culture – drive up stress, deplete mental and emotional reserves and shrink our attention spans.

Instead of directing our energy towards personal growth and achieving complex goals, we instead focus on the activities above, which absorb mental energy without providing anything substantive in return. This behavior can leave you feeling even more depleted and disheartened.

Bottom-up attention, in which something or someone other than you dictates what you focus on, is part of our brain’s survival apparatus. It alerts us to potential danger in our surroundings; for example, when you hear a siren or a car backfire.

Bottom-up attention kept our ancestors alive. It instantly shifts our focus to a potential threat. This issue is when our attention is continuously hijacked by these types of alerts (such as the “ding” on your phone when you receive a message).

Can you relate to this? And are you wondering what the alternative could be?

“Top-down” attention is when you set the terms of engagement. In this scenario, you are in control of where you direct your attention, and you’re able to focus on a specific, chosen set of stimuli. This is also known as concentration!

The opposite of distraction is the ability to align your thoughts, intentions, and feelings towards the same goal. This produces an experience of harmony and flow. To do this, though, you must be able to concentrate and “order your consciousness”.

Each one of us has the power to decide whether mental order will come from the outside (bottom-up, with little control) or the inside (top-down, making conscious choices based on personal skill and knowledge).

A complex self is one that succeeds in the type of mental resilience that enables one to switch between bottom-up to top-down attention. This can be achieved with training.

We all have the ability, and in my opinion the responsibility, to create ourselves. We are a direct result of how we invest our mental energy. Understanding how to create ourselves is our most important skill!

That’s why it’s vital to ask yourself, How distracted am I?” With the ever-growing onslaught of disturbances, both digital and physical, it’s more important than ever to determine the answer to that question.

To assess your current level of distraction, download the infographic here!

 

*If you enjoyed this article, you might like our upcoming Imagination Retreat, where you’ll take a deep dive into your own creativity and imagination and enjoy just the right combination of activity, personal exploration, pampering, and beach time – all in an idyllic, naturally gorgeous oceanside setting.

 

Dayna-Wood-Blog-Post

Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT

Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed out professionals how to reignite their creativity and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science. Take the 7 Day Creative Brain Challenge to reclaim and recharge your creativity – in 10 minutes a day or less!

The Secret Revealed in 350 Words

The Secret Revealed in 350 Words

The REAL Secret Revealed

The Secret, a film and best-selling book by Rhonda Byrne, is based on the Law of Attraction. One of the major tenets of The Secret is that positive thinking can create life-changing results, including increased happiness, wealth and improved health.

Now, I’m all for changing our thinking. By becoming more mindful of our thoughts and how they influence our lives, we can transform them from unhelpful, repetitive stories that don’t serve us into empowering beliefs that help us live our best lives.

That said, in this article I want to focus on the The Law of Attention rather than the Law of Attraction. Attention is a hot topic in a number of disciplines, such as cognitive psychology and neuroscience. It has also been discussed by philosophers for eons.

A broad definition of attention is “the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information…while ignoring other perceivable information”. As humans, we have an impressive, but still discrete, amount of brain processing power. Attention is how we allocate those limited resources.

Let’s pause and take that in for a moment, because this concept is incredibly important.

What we focus our attention on determines how we come to see and understand the world. In other words, the power of our attention determines what will, or will not, appear in our consciousness. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all influenced by this!

Our lives depend on the direction and nature of our attention, because what we see and who we are is a direct result of what we focus on. We are truly partners in this co-creative process.

We have a responsibility – an extremely important one – to tend to the garden of our own minds. And, we have the ability to pull up the weeds and plant flowers in their place. This isn’t necessarily easy work; it takes awareness and consistency (two things that most of us are inclined to avoid!).

So my question for you is, “How will you choose to use your attention?” This question can open the door to making the desired changes in your life by changing your mind – one synapse at a time!

 

*If you enjoyed this article, you might like our upcoming Imagination Retreat, where you’ll take a deep dive into your own creativity and imagination and enjoy just the right combination of activity, personal exploration, pampering, and beach time – all in an idyllic, naturally gorgeous oceanside setting.

 

Dayna-Wood-Blog-Post

Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT

Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed out professionals how to reignite their creativity and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science. Take the 7 Day Creative Brain Challenge to reclaim and recharge your creativity – in 10 minutes a day or less!

Imagination: From the Inside Out

Imagination: From the Inside Out

Did you know that imagination is one of the most important attributes of the human brain?

Think about it. Without imagination, Steve Jobs wouldn’t have created the iPad. Picasso would never have created his dazzling works of art. Without imagination, we wouldn’t have anything that nature hasn’t already provided for us.

Wikipedia describes imagination – the faculty of imagining – as “the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses such as sight, hearing, or other senses.”  Simply put, imagination is part of what makes us human.

With our increased research into how the brain functions, we’re getting closer to understanding how imagination works.

So what’s going on in our brains when we are imagining?

The brain is divided into two hemispheres: left and right. Though the hemispheres work in concert to create a unified sense of self and personality, each hemisphere actually attends to the world differently, and therefore processes information in distinctive ways. This provides us with great advantages, including the ability to understand a situation from many different perspectives.

Imagination is based on the creative power of opposition, and is a result of the synthesis between the right and left hemispheres.

The right hemisphere can take in new information from our surroundings, and see the “whole picture”. The left hemisphere is the great “unpacker” of that information; it breaks information down, sorting, categorizing and analyzing.

However, there is a big catch: the information has to go from the right to the left, and then BACK to the right in order to synthesize.

Imagination, insight and creativity all require this integration of the left and right hemispheres.

Let’s break this down:

Brain integration follows a simple formula = R > L > R

Step 1: Right hemisphere (R): New information is attended to in the environment

Step 2: Left hemisphere (L): Analysis, or the “unpacking” of what was perceived by the right hemisphere

Step 3: Right hemisphere (R): Information is transferred back to the right hemisphere to be understood within the context of the whole

In modern society, we often get “stuck” in the left hemisphere and have difficulty finding ways to transfer information back to the right, thereby eliminating step 3. Sadly, that means that we miss out on significant benefits, including increased insight and imagination.

So, how do we “step back to the right” and get unstuck?

One simple place to start is to get into your body and into nature. The right hemisphere is directly linked to our bodies, and perceives and differentiates living things from mechanical things. Going for a walk outside, hiking in the woods, or simply sitting in the backyard listening to the birds sing can all help you get back “into your right mind”.

Today – maybe even right now! – take five minutes to notice your body (not just your head), and shift your attention to the sights and sounds of nature. Live in the city? No problem. Just looking at pictures of nature can make a difference. (Not sure about all this? See Rebecca Clay’s research.)

If you’d like to learn more ways to “step to the right” and discover all the benefits of making it a conscious part of your life, visit Imagination Retreats, where you’ll take a deep dive into your own creativity and imagination and enjoy just the right combination of activity, personal exploration, pampering, and beach time – all in an idyllic, naturally gorgeous oceanside setting.

 

Dayna-Wood-Blog-Post

Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT

Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed out professionals how to reignite their creativity and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science. Take the 7 Day Creative Brain Challenge to reclaim and recharge your creativity – in 10 minutes a day or less!

Why the Right-Brain Matters

Why the Right-Brain Matters

Through patient and animal studies, it has been discovered that the two hemispheres of the brain see and respond to the world in divergent manners.

Why is it that an organ whose job it is to communicate divided?

The left hemisphere sees things narrowly and focused, while the right views the whole. This was advantageous to us as a species because it allowed us to break down tasks and learn complex sequences, while at the same time being aware of our surroundings.

Where you can begin to see hemispheric differences isn’t necessarily on an everyday level, where the brain works in concert for most functions, but over time in the dominant world view. It is akin to a large ship that shifts its course. Turning just a few degrees alters its direction dramatically over time.

You can mark throughout history which hemisphere took the lead (for instance, an expansion of the right brain’s way of being in the world during the Renaissance with a shifting towards the left during the Reformation and The Enlightenment).

There had, in the past, been a correcting force – like a pendulum that swings and arcs back in the other direction. However, something is amiss lately. There is no longer a system of negative feedback (the correcting mechanism that shifts the direction of the swinging pendulum).

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been swinging further and further to the left, and the further we swing to the left, the less likely are we to find an “escape route.” This is because our external world, which used to have the capacity to return us to the right, is becoming more and more dominated by what is essentially “left.”

We are now living in a world that is a mirror of a left-reared society and notions associated with anything other than what is “left” are seen as trite and not-to-be-trusted (dare I say “intuition” should be trusted!).

How do we begin to reset the balance?

We begin by practicing returning information to the right-hemisphere, where it can again be viewed within context and a whole. And, yes, this might initially seem strange, silly and weird. It will certainly feel different.

Can we begin to relax our yearning for certainty, even just a little, so that we can sit with the necessary tension of dichotomies? Can we begin to find moments of pause and stillness so that we may receive that which is unsought? Can we dare to be courageous enough to be seen as naïve so we can alter the direction of where we are headed?

Thanks to Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, for inspiring this article.

 

*If you enjoyed this article, you might like our upcoming Imagination Retreat, where you’ll take a deep dive into your own creativity and imagination and enjoy just the right combination of activity, personal exploration, pampering, and beach time – all in an idyllic, naturally gorgeous oceanside setting.

 

Dayna-Wood-Blog-Post

Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT

Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed out professionals how to reignite their creativity and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science. Take the 7 Day Creative Brain Challenge to reclaim and recharge your creativity – in 10 minutes a day or less!

Creativity & the Brain

Creativity & the Brain

Why and how does creativity affect the brain?

It feels different when we are in a “creative flow” and this is due to the structure of the brain. The brain is divided both vertically and horizontally. There are three distinct, but interconnected, hierarchies of the human brain that evolved overtime. They are

1) the brainstem (our “lizard brain”),

2) the limbic system (our “mammalian brain”) and

3) the neocortex (what makes us human).

The brainstem is like our autopilot. It controls the things we don’t have to “think” about such as balance and heart rate. The limbic system is the source of our emotions and instincts, and the neocortex is only in the brain of higher mammals. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), at the front of the neocortex, is responsible for cognition and reasoning.

Our brain is also organized horizontally and is divided into two hemispheres,

connected by the corpus callosum. The left hemisphere specializes in language, logic and facts. It is linear and conscious. The right hemisphere is the seat of emotion and is non-linear. It is beneath consciousness. One of the extraordinary aspects of creative expression is that it bypasses rational thought and logical assumptions.

Creative expression

targets the right hemisphere and limbic system of the brain, which are visual, sensory and emotional in nature. (The right prefrontal cortex is deeply connected to the limbic areas of the brain and is central to affect regulation.)This allows art and imagery to circumvent psychological resistance, which is typically analytic in nature. The Arts (in all their forms) also allow for the externalization of these very inner experiences and gives them shape and form outside the body and mind. Creativity gives expression to that which cannot, because of the structure of the brain, be spoken. This, in turn, provides opportunity to re-imagine concepts of self and identity. Scientists have also discovered that the very act of creating – integrating the brain both vertically and horizontally – reduces anxiety, depression and pain, decreases blood pressure, strengthens immune functioning and improves attention and concentration.

* If you liked this article, you might like our upcoming retreats.

Dayna-Wood-Blog-Post

Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT

Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed out professionals how to reignite their creativity and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science. Take the 7 Day Creative Brain Challenge to reclaim and recharge your creativity – in 10 minutes a day or less!