How we can 'rewire' our brains to focus on the positives in our lives
Sometimes we can’t understand why we do the things we do. You might really want to fit into your old jeans, but just can’t stop eating chocolate. Or you might feel you totally deserve a promotion – but can’t seem to make the time to put in the extra work required. So why do we stand in our own way like this?
‘Your brain likes to be proven right,’ says neuroscientist and brain performance coach, Nicole Vignola (nicolesneuroscience.com). ‘So, if you keep telling yourself that you’re not ever going to be a size 10, or you’ll never get that promotion, you will approach those things with that mindset. We call this confirmation bias and it’s favouring information to support a belief.
‘The brain is also programmed to focus on the negatives. Neuroscience shows that negative stimuli elicit larger responses in the brain than positive ones. We also tend to pay more attention to bad things and overlook good things – probably down to evolution.
‘We call this negativity bias, and it explains why we tend to dwell more on negatives. For example, if you received three nice comments on your Instagram but one horrible one, you will most likely go to bed worrying about the negative comment.’
However, Nicole says it is possible to ‘rewire’ the brain and that by simply acknowledging this negativity bias, we’re already one step ahead. Next, all we need to do is hack our thought patterns to focus on the positives.
‘It is possible to manipulate the brain,’ she says. ‘Ruminating and dwelling on negatives will only strengthen the neural pathways for negative thinking and worrying. Instead, focus on the positives to shift your mindset and this will eventually lead to you being less affected by the negative events over time.’
Because our brain likes to go the easy route, it takes some serious mind power to shift to a positive. ‘When you’re carving out a new habit you are creating a new neural pathway. It has never been paved before and there’s no track to follow. At first, it might be uncomfortable and hard to navigate.
‘When you stand at a crossroads and have to choose between a new unpaved route and an old worn path, your brain will be more inclined to take the easy route. The less you travel on the new path, the more it starts to fade away. But if you keep at it, eventually it will become easier to follow that path.’
Meanwhile, a new study has found that fitness is another way to hack your brain. The ASICS Mind Games experiment showed that after four months of regular exercise, cognitive functioning, performance and wellbeing were all significantly boosted.
The study looked at people who played mind games such as chess, speed cubes and e-sports but did less than 30 minutes of physical exercise a week. Over 16 weeks, the participants followed a strength and cardio training programme to increase their exercise levels to 150 minutes a week. The results were measured by Doctor Brendon Stubbs, a renowned researcher in movement and the mind at King’s College London.
‘Our results show significant improvements to their cognitive functioning, including concentration levels and problem-solving abilities,’ he says. ‘Exercise stimulates cell growth in the brain and rapidly increases blood flow to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, mechanisms that enable us to better retain memories, process information and problem-solve quickly. Group confidence levels also increased by 44% and anxiety levels plummeted by 43%.
‘If exercise can significantly increase the mental performance of professional mind gamers, imagine what it could do for the rest of us. From increasing focus when revising for an exam or improving alertness before a work presentation, exercise truly can enhance brain power.’
Nicole says hacking and rewiring your subconscious needs lots of repetition and visualisation. ‘This fires up the new pathways and makes them stronger. Sleep is then essential in facilitating new neuroplasticity.’
But you cannot hack your brain when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. ‘You need to slow your heart rate down before you can shift your mindset. It’s impossible to talk yourself out of a negative situation when your adrenaline is high, as it’s like trying to be happy when you’re being chased by a lion. Instead, regulate your nervous system through breathwork.’
Keep your mind sharp with these brain-training apps
This learning platform can help you master a wide range of subjects. Whether it’s school educational topics or a personal interest, Quizlet flashcards are easy to take in and can be used on the go. There are also practice tests and games across topics including maths, science, language and arts and humanities.
Free, with in-app purchases. from Quizlet
Not only can you prepare for your next trip abroad, but learning a new language has been proven to aid cognitive ability. This app allows you to navigate real situations, hone pronunciation and build your conversation skills. You’ll also get grammar tips for reading, writing and listening.
From £5.99 per month (12 months) at Babbel
This interactive app has 50+ games that challenge memory, speed, logic, problem solving, maths and language. The 10-minute Fit Test sets your baseline and lets you see how you compare with other people your age, and you also get feedback on your results and your cognitive patterns.
Free, with in-app purchases, from Luminosity
Voted Apple’s App Of The Year when it launched in 2014, this offers brain training with reading, writing, maths, speaking and memory tests. Your personalised training plan will allow you to ensure the 40+ games are always challenging.
Free, with in-app purchases from Elevate
With one of the largest collections of brain boosters, this has a free website or a paid-for app. There are about 15,000 puzzles, games and brain teasers that include optical illusions, codes, trivia quizzes and riddles,
Get it for £1.79 from Braingle
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