Rick Hanson Part 2: Healthy minds and Buddha's brain

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JOHN PETROZZI:  Hi. Welcome to Living Is Easy. I’m John Petrozzi. Today, we’re continuing our second part of an interview which we started last week with Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., who’s written a great book called “Buddha’s Brain.” We’ve got him here on the line again.

Hi. Dr. Rick. How are you going?

RICK HANSON:  Excellent. I love being here.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Oh, fantastic. Thanks for making it back for today’s interview. We didn’t quite finish what we had to talk about last week, because it was such an information-packed interview. So let’s talk more about the book that you’ve written, “Buddha’s Brain.” It’s essentially a book about how we can change our mind and become more active in our own thoughts. Because essentially, if we become active in our thoughts, we can in fact change our actions, which is really the formation of our life, isn’t it?


JOHN PETROZZI:  So, tell us more about brain function and what the sciences are saying our thoughts and how we can change them.

RICK HANSON:  Right. Well, it was always known that if we learn something new, whether it’s learning to walk when we were a year old or two, or memorising the multiplication table, or learning a new language, or just remembering what we had for breakfast today. Any time we do that, it’s based on change in the brain. The problem was that nobody knew how that happened, until about the last 20 years when new information has been coming in from brain science that’s starting to paint a much clearer picture of how mental activity actually changes neural structure.

One of the major ways it does is through the famous saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, if the brain, which is basically a giant net, starts to associate one part with another part or one thought with another thought, or it starts paying attention to one thing in particular, as those neurons start firing together, they start wiring together just automatically deep down in the structure of the brain.

So the evidence is coming in increasingly that when people do some kind of positive mental activity, whether it’s a form of meditation or prayer, or everyday practices like paying attention to things that are positive and staying with it for 20-30 seconds, so it really kind of sinks in, sticks to their ribs, when people do those sorts of things, they can gradually change their own brain for the better over time.

They have to earn it. There’s no quick fix here. It’s old-fashioned. It’s like going to the gym; it’s really a lot like going to the gym. You know, if you lift five pounds once, okay, it will help a little bit, but if you lift 10 or 20 pounds many times a day, many days a week, etc., you’re going to really build new structure there. The same is true between the ears. What’s great is that we are now able to do this in an increasingly targeted way.

JOHN PETROZZI:  So speaking in terms of our thoughts, would an example be, if somebody had a fairly sort of rough childhood and they develop some coping strategies in their childhood that sort of protected them and preserved their brain and body. Let’s say they’re in an abusive family environment or whatever and they went through and developed some coping strategies, and they continue to use those coping strategies through their adult life and into their older age, would that statement that you make, in terms of the nerves the wire together, fire together, would it be just that when you’re coming into the same situation, your brain basically goes into survival mode when you meet somebody new or a different situation and you plant the same thoughts in your head, which take you back to the same outcome which would be, yes, you’re protected, but in actual fact, you totally missed out on a whole point of that exercise and the whole point of that interaction. Is that sort of what’s happening with the brain when it does fire off in those certain patterns? Are there certain patterns and things that we can actually change now?

RICK HANSON:  Yes to both of your questions. In other words, yes, learned habits in childhood are very deep and they are there to keep us alive. That’s what the brain does. It associates things that lead to carrots and it associates things that lead to avoiding sticks, although it’s much more focused on avoiding sticks, as we talked about in the previous interview.

So, on the one hand, those are learned patterns and we learned those for a reason. I’m a practicing therapist, as well as writer and teacher. So it’s interesting, I see a lot of people, and sometimes what they’ll say is, “You know, Doc, I’m really mad at myself. I still get upset about this stuff,” or they say, “You know, my friend saved me.” That was in your childhood; why don’t you get over it? The truth is we’re not designed to get over it. We’re designed to hold on to that learning tight, because they kept us alive when we were young, or emotionally alive, if you will.

So that’s the bad news, right? Those patterns are there. Yup, they’re definitely there. The good news, though, is that they can be changed. Obviously, we never forget what actually happened, but over time, the charge on what happened and the maladaptive or less-than-helpful coping strategies that we acquired in childhood can actually change. There’s an unbelievable amount of research about all this. Yes, you got to do the work, but if you do the work- and you know, with grace and grit, if you will, a person can gradually change over time.

For example, I’ll give you a couple of practical things, when we’re having feelings, label them. In other words, just quietly in the back of your mind, as you’re going through your day, you notice that you’re getting kind of rattled: Step 1 is notice it – I’m a little stressed or tensed or mad or anxious, or I feel sad or I feel down or I feel kind of banged on by life – notice it and then put a word or two at it, just kind of softly in the back of your head, like nervous, irritated, frustrated, wildly mad, whatever it happens to be.

Interestingly, what that does, as science or studies have shown, it lights up the right-hand side of the prefrontal cortex right behind the forehead, which helps control negative emotions, as well as the left side of the prefrontal cortex, too. And then, it lowers the activity in the amygdale, which is kind of like the alarm bell of the brain’s emotion circuits. So it kind of quiets that alarm bell just by labeling what we’re feeling, not changing it, but just labeling it. That’s a practical way to do that.

A second practical thing for a person to do is bring to mind the felt sense of being with someone that they know cares about them, and to call up the felt sense of being cared about. Again, it doesn’t have to be a million-dollar moment, just the basic sense of being with a friend who likes you, or being with a family member who loves you, or even a person who’s no longer alive, like hanging out with your grandmother when she was making you cookies or something. Those experiences of feeling cared about activate the affiliation system in the brain, which is designed by evolution to soothe being upset, to soothe stress responses, for example.

So those are two ways a person can gradually over time change those childhood tracks and literally change their brain, as a result.

JOHN PETROZZI:  It’s so interesting. It’s so much like you develop a new relationship with the brain.

RICK HANSON:  Exactly. It’s kind of like the default situation is that the brain is in charge of you, right? That’s how, honestly, I think most of us go through our days that weird things happen, people talk to us in a certain way, or we read something in the news, it pounds on the brain, and the brain just reacts willy-nilly. I’m a guy who doesn’t like being controlled by things, you know what I mean? Let alone, the three pounds of tofu, as I said, between the ears.

So the opportunity is for people to increasingly grab the steering wheel, and instead of being dragged willy-nilly by these reactive patterns, both acquired in a person’s life and also innate or born with through evolution, the inner lizard, the inner crocodile, or the inner monkey inside our own head. Instead of being controlled by the inner zoo, we start over time grabbing the wheel and sending our own brain in a much more positive direction. And that’s the opportunity here.

JOHN PETROZZI:  I like it. Rick, let’s go to a break, and when we come back, we’ll speak more about how we can change and improve the health of our brain. Just stay with us.


JOHN PETROZZI:  Hi. Welcome back to Living Is Easy. Today, we’re talking to Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., who’s a writer and author of “Buddha’s Brain.”

Rick, just before the break, we were talking about we can look after our brains a lot more and help them to look after us. I’m sort of getting the picture that our brain is a whole electrical circuit, and we can kind of be in the driver seat in our own brain, kind of like an electrician looking after the circuits of a building. So what are some things we can start to do to change or actually be the electrician of our brain when it comes to emotions and thoughts, and how do we become healthier because of it?

RICK HANSON:  Right. Well, just a quick recap. I mean, I’ve talked about relaxing the body when a person’s under stress. I talked about labeling negative emotions, if you will, and also, definitely, focused on taking in positive experiences to build up inner resources. And actually one more, of course, is by paying more and more attention to the internal sensations of our body, just kind of tuning in to the body repeatedly over the course of the day. We improve the capacity to read other people and to actually empathise with what’s truly going on over there, rather than living in what I call “paranoid trance.” It’s sort of the default thing that we do.

I think in addition to those, as I reflect on this, one thing I think that happens a lot in relationships is we tend to create this dichotomy between us and them. In evolution, as we evolved, particularly in our primate bands and then early humans, just to put it in perspective, the first stone-tool users were lived about two and a half million years ago; that’s about a hundred thousand generations ago. A generation is an opportunity for biological or genetic reset, in terms of evolution or biological evolution.

Anyway, those folks had brain the third our size, but they could make stone tools. Their brain is tripled in size over the last three million years or so. And as it had done that—so many of those capacities have had to do with relationships—we evolved in bands that mainly bred within themselves and competed with other bands. So the bands that had the best teamwork, the bands that had the most social skills, if you will, the bands that were the most internally loving, in some broad senses, did better against other bands, and so, we’ve inherited their genes today.

But also, alas, bands that were more successful at aggressively dominating other bands also passed on their genes, so we have within us, you know, in a native American saying, “Two wolves in the heart: a wolf of love but also a wolf of hate,” and everything depends on which one we feed each day. Studies have shown that as soon as people make distinctions, even very silly arbitrary distinctions, like in scientific studies where you’ve got the purple team and the green team, or something like that, people suddenly declaring that purple is better than green. The next thing you know, they’re justifying in their mind why it’s okay to take resources from the green team, “because well, they’re green, you know. Duh, obviously.”

So as soon as we make that distinction between us and them, yellow flag alert, be careful. In other words, if you find yourself in your mind kind of looking down on another person or dehumanising them or devaluing them in some way or kind of closing up away from them, be very careful about that. Because the truth is, particularly in the world today, which is for me a larger theme, we’ve got cavemen-cavewomen brains armed with nuclear weapons, and if we don’t get better at seeing past this artificial distinctions between us and them, we’re going to be “at war” with them for the rest of our days.

We’ve got to come to see that the world is essentially one large us. Yes, there’s obviously distinctions inside the world that are meaningful—male/female, Australian/American, what have you—but we got to be able to look past those fairly superficial distinctions that established “them” to see the larger similarities, the larger commonalities, the larger common ground that establishes the total “us” of every human being on this planet.

JOHN PETROZZI:  That’s so interesting. Rick, in terms of being mindful, you mentioned before being mindful of our bodies. What actually happens neurologically in our brain when we start to take time out during the day, you know, to sit down at the desk or turn the computer off and just sort of concentrate on nothing or concentrate on your breath. What actually happens to our brain, and how does that in fact benefit us?

RICK HANSON:  Yeah. Well, let’s take meditative practice. I tell people, “If you can, make a vow that you’ll meditate one minute a day, or more. Never go to bed without having consciously just slow down and just stay present with yourself.” Meditation is actually really simple, although it’s not that easy. For example, it’s just fundamentally about sustaining a sense of presence with oneself. It’s easy to stay present with oneself for two to three seconds in a row; the trick is to do it two to three minutes or 20-30 in a row. That’s the trick.

One thing that helps to do that is to pick something simple like the sensations of breathing that form the kind of anchor. It’s endlessly changing, so it’s easy to pay attention to, relatively speaking, but it’s also pretty neutral and simple. So you use that as the anchor, and with that as your anchor, like a buoy, I imagine myself bobbing up and down in the ocean of all the thoughts and waves that move through the mind. Then look out at the inner world and see just kind of what’s going on through your head.

Well, if a person does that on a regular basis, as we talked about before, they’re paying attention to the internal sensations of their body, the part of the brain called the “insula” inside the middle of the head tracks and forms a map of the internal sensations of the body, which is, of course, a very important thing to pay attention to, if you’re trying to survive in the wild over the course of evolution.

Anyway, the part of the brain (insula) that does that actually gets thicker as you do that. Another part of the brain gets thicker, as we said earlier, I think at the first interview, called the anterior cingulated cortex, the frontal cingulated cortex, which is involved in deliberately paying attention. And as we use both of those parts of the brain, the circuitry in them truly becomes measurably thicker, because synapses, nerve cells are starting to form more and more connections with each other.

Another thing that can happen when you’re paying attention to yourself in this calming and peaceful way, studies have shown us that you light up the left prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that’s kind of right behind the forehead on the left-hand side of your skull. That’s the part of the brain that puts the brakes on negative emotions, so people who light up those circuits, relatively speaking, in other words, compared to the other activation of the brain, correlate with greater happiness, and over time, as a resting state, more kind of natural activity in the left prefrontal cortex, over time, which again is, as I said, correlated with well-being and caring and compassion for others.

So those are good things for a person to do. It’s great to know that as you do these, you’re not just feeling good at the moment, which is worth doing in its own way, but you’re actually putting savings in the bank, in a sense, in the brain bank. You’re making a deposit in the brain bank and helping your own brain from the inside out change in good ways over time.

JOHN PETROZZI:  And Rick, when we’re doing the sort of breathing and thickening those better parts of our brain that can help us, is there also a thinning out of those parts of the brain that are continually working?

RICK HANSON:  What do you- thinning out the parts of the brain-?

JOHN PETROZZI:  That are continually working for negative.

RICK HANSON:  Oh, okay. I got it. Great question. There’s a phrase called “neural Darwinism,” in other words, “Use it or lose it.” It’s basically as you increase activity in one area, over time, neural circuits that are involved in something different tend to sort of wither away or get taken over for other purposes. So it’s actually a kind of double-benefit, in other words, as you pay attention increasingly to the positive, you know, not missing what’s genuinely negative, but on the other hand, not walking around in a paranoid trance, you know, it’s a “caveman trance,” if you will.

Anyway, as you do that, you both strengthen the circuits that are involved in positive activity, and over time, the circuits that are kind of engaged negatively lose function. That’s genuinely true. The other thing that happens is that as a person increasingly rests in a positive emotional state in your body, that lowers the stress reactive machinery of the brain, which is this ancient machinery that enables us to survive. It’s triggered by the alarm bell, the amygdala in the brain, which releases all kinds of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin and so forth. They’re necessary in a crisis, but long term, chronic release of them is really toxic to the brain.

For example, chronic stress releases cortisol that will actually literally kill neurons inside the hippocampus, which is involved in making your memories. So it’s not good to make your hippocampus smaller. Actually, people who are chronically unhappy or have had serious trauma can have their hippocampus shrink by 6-25%.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Whoa! That’s not good.

RICK HANSON:  It’s a pretty big deal.

So the larger point is that if you are practicing these mindfulness practices, boy, so many studies have shown, including about a wonderful method called “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” which is now being used in hospitals and corporations, really, around the world, anyway, and in everyday lives.

As you do those practices, increasingly you kind of put the brakes on the alarm system of the brain and you calm it down. You gradually soothe it over time, so it becomes, in a positive cycle, less reactive to small stressors or small things that don’t go that well. So as a result of getting less reactive to them, it doesn’t hype you up over time, and therefore, the result of that is you become less reactive to minor things in the future in a positive cycle.

JOHN PETROZZI:  This is great. Rick, let’s just go to one final break before we have to end the interview. When we come back, I’d like to talk a little bit about “Setting an Intention,” because it’s an interesting chapter in your book, where you talk about setting an intention for the day, and it would be a positive way to end our interview.

So stay with us. We’ll be back after the break.


JOHN PETROZZI:  Hi. Welcome back to Living Is Easy. We’re speaking to Dr. Rick Hanson.

So, Rick, just before we wrap up the interview and show today, I just want to talk about one of the chapters you’ve written in the book, in regards to “setting an intention” for the day. What is an intention? How do we set an intention? How does it change our brain? And what’s in it for me?

RICK HANSON:  Yeah. Speaking personally here, one of the most powerful things I’ve stumbled across for myself is that every day, I feel into and reestablish my most fundamental purposes in life, which for me is to help release suffering in the world, you know, my own and that of others. So that’s my most fundamental intention.

But people have different intentions or kind of overarching purposes for the day. It’s actually made an amazing difference, and to talk through some of the ways that happens in the brain, we set intentions, both top-down and bottom-up. In other words, we can set an intention by using language, which is in the left side of the brain for most people, in terms of where its neural circuits or substrates are located. Also, we can just kind of decide, you know, where the sense of determination and will, which engages the executive systems, as they’re called, in the prefrontal cortex right behind our forehead. That’s really important; that’s top-down.

Historically, that was pretty much the only way people thought about intention, but as science is beginning to understand how the brain works better, it’s becoming increasingly clear that intentions are also set from the bottom up. For example, the brain stem, which is engaged with arousal, can help us have a sense of energy for our intentions, and the limbic systems or the subcortical circuits just kind of really in the middle of the brain; they’re sort of underneath the cortex, which is like a bark, which is the actual Latin derivative of the word cortex, which is bark in the brain or the outer surface of the brain.

Anyway, those limbic system circuits also set intentions in terms of motivation and positive emotion associated with the direction in which we want to go. So for example, if a person wanted to, let’s say, feel strong over the course of the day, rather than sort of beleaguered or pushed around by life, they would maybe set the intention top-down by saying, “You know, I’m feeling strong for myself and others today,” let’s say. That’s good.

But also, maybe get a felt sense from the bottom up of what it feels like to feel strong and actually use an early research called “embodied cognition,” by moving your own body a little bit into the posture of feeling strong, like lifting the chest, straightening up a little bit, lifting the head up, or remembering a time when he actually felt strong, like in the gym lifting a weight or out there for a swim or doing some rock climbing or protecting their kids from some weird situation, maybe when the child was in school – whatever it is that helps him feel strong.

What they’re doing is from the bottom up, from the inside out, activating their own intention, that activates those neural circuits that are involved, both top-down and bottom-up, and willy-nilly, automatically, if you stimulate the neural circuit, you strengthen it over time.

JOHN PETROZZI:  Interesting, isn’t it?


JOHN PETROZZI:  Really interesting. That’s all we have time for, Dr. Hanson.

RICK HANSON:  Thank you.

JOHN PETROZZI:  I really appreciate your time. it was really nice to talk to you about your book, “Buddha’s Brain.” There’s lots of science in there, but there’s lots of practical exercises and advice for us all to read and take home and actually use in our lives to make us happier and healthier people.


JOHN PETROZZI:  So thanks very much for your time. Thank you.

That was Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph. D., who’s written a book called “Buddha’s Brain.” And if you want to listen to this, which is the second part of the interview, or our previous interview which we played last week, just go to our website, which is livingiseasy.com.au. Have a peek through and have a listen.

This is Living Is Easy. I’m John Petrozzi. Thanks for joining us today. Until next time, stay well and stay happy.

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