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The Law of Little Things

The brain is the organ that learns, continually changing its structure for better or worse—with a bias toward changing for the worse. By tilting toward the positive—by activating and installing positive experiences—we simply compensate for this bias and level the playing field. Powerful forces are trying to change our brains each day from the outside in: authority figures, economic pressures, “if it bleeds it leads” media, political groups, advertising, and so forth. In the face of these pressures, we can teach our clients ways to change their brains from the inside out.

Much of the news about neuroplasticity has been about dramatic cases of recovering from terrible damage to the brain, but these stories aren’t relevant to most people. Most neuroplasticity is slow and incremental. It’s usually lots of little things that change a person’s mind (and thus brain) for the worse, and it’s going to be lots of little things that change this mind and brain for the better. One thing I’ve learned from my immersion in neuroscience is the extraordinary capacity of the brain to change for the better. Any single moment of taking in the good won’t change someone’s life. But a handful of times each day, day after day, month after month, year after year, will gradually—bit by bit, synapse by synapse—make a big difference.

Deciding to reshape one’s brain by intentionally taking in the good, one thought or experience at a time, begins with a conscious, willed decision of the mind. Regardless of what’s discovered about the brain, each person still has to decide how to live his or her life. The brain has a tremendous range of capacities that can be used for good or ill, and it has inclinations in both directions. Therefore, the crux of human behavior and experience is less the nature of the brain than the values of the mind. True, to be viable for human beings, our values need to be guided by our biology; values such as justice make sense for social animals like us but not for lizards or sharks. But on the broad canvas given us by evolution, each person’s mind paints in his or her ethics and aspirations as an existentially creative act. Under the pressure of our culture’s craving for a quick fix, and for simple and concrete explanations for complex psychological conditions, it’s important to keep faith with the deep wisdom in our field, and within each one of us, about the mysteries and the possibilities of the mind, no matter what we learn about the brain.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, long before the invention of EEGs and MRIs, the Buddha offered a teaching suggesting that he, too, along with Proust, was a kind of neuroscientist, who understood both the power of little things and our profound human capacities to heal and to grow: “Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little, fills oneself with good.”

Rick Hanson, PhD, is a neuropsychologist and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and a member of the Advisory Board of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard. He’s taught in meditation centers worldwide. Contact:

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