A research study just came out in the Journal of Neuroscience where scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston used sea snail nerve cells to reverse memory loss. The scientists were able to help the cells compensate for memory loss by retraining them when the nerve cells were primed for optimal learning. Of course they’re hoping this has implications for working with Alzheimer’s, but the implications don’t stop there, it could also support a neuroscience for learning to trust ourselves in times of difficulty.
According to the New York Times, Helen Mayberg, a neuroscientist from Emory University called depression, “emotional pain without context.” In other words, here is this emotional pain and the brain can’t figure out where it’s coming from and so it feels lost, stuck and helpless. There is a strong lack of self-trust in these moments. The hippocampus is a part of our brain that is involved in memory, learning and also in giving us a sense of context. In other words, the hippocampus is part of what tells us it’s not appropriate to burst out in tears at work and yell at people at the top of our lungs (even if we feel like doing that). It also tells us that it may be more appropriate to let our guard down with someone who feels safe.
We know through past studies that there are various ways to create neural growth in the hippocampus. Creating an enriching environment has been connected with stronger neural growth in the hippocampus. We’ve seen growth through steady eight-week practice of mindfulness meditation, and one of the earliest studies showed this area of the brain larger in taxi drivers versus bus drivers because they had to constantly use memory to navigate versus just being on auto-pilot.
When it comes to trusting ourselves, we need to have retrievable memory of experiences where we were able to rely on ourselves to handle a difficult situation.
I have a theory that human brains (perhaps sea snail brains, too), are primed for learning in times when we are mindful or aware of what’s here. I think that we are primed even more intensely for learning when we’re mindful during an emotionally vulnerable moment.
We know that the emotional center of the brain is a primary decision maker for us throughout the moments of the day. Emotional experiences (especially difficult ones), influence our snap judgments that form our perceptions and actions.
Most of us see vulnerability as something to stay away from because there is the fear of getting hurt or rejected in it. But the truth is, we can’t learn to trust ourselves without being vulnerable. You need one to build the other.
If we can learn to intentionally pay attention to our moments of vulnerability, without judgment, and meet it with a curious and caring awareness, we can build that into our hippocampus, and make it readily retrievable when we need it most. We condition the natural ability to trust and rely on ourselves.
But like anything, it takes intention, attention and practice.
Just sitting with yourself for five, 10 or 15 minutes (or more) and paying attention to your breath or your body is, for many of us, an act of being vulnerable. The fact is, most of us are guarding against being alone all throughout the day by either staying busy in activity or staying busy in our mind.
In doing this you build trust that you can actually be with yourself with whatever is here. Through practice and repetition, the brain changes and a new thought emerges from the neural growth that “I can handle this, it’s going to be okay.”
The fact is we are active participants in our health and well-being, we all have a hand in learning how to shape our brains to trust ourselves.
It starts right now and whenever we all off the path, we can always begin again.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.