By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP & Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School Director, Genetics and Aging at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
If you are reading this, you possess the most sophisticated and complex organ known in the universe: your brain. Your brain is the miraculous product of hundreds of millions of year of honing and fine-tuning by evolution. It not only interprets the world around you, it actually delivers your world to you. Your brain has also evolved to endow you with three incredible gifts: self-awareness, choice, and freewill. There is actually a volitional center in your brain, which serves the exact purpose of freewill. Before you carry out a voluntary action like starting your car, the volitional center must fire in order to act on the choice to start the car. These three gifts also allow you to be in control of making the reality that best serves the happiness of you and those around you on a daily basis. All you have to do is mentally choose to do so in your mind, and your brain will take care of the rest.
First, we need to review some background on the brain. It is the elegant and sophisticated web of communication among various brain areas that allows us to be self-aware. We can feel happy while being aware of the fact that we feel happy. While experiencing the feeling of anger, we can step back and be aware of the fact that we feel angry. What does this mean? It means you are not simply the sum of the feelings and thoughts being generated in your brain. In Super Brain, we propose that the “real you” is the self-aware “you” observing those thoughts and feelings. Further, we propose that by mastering how to deal with your thoughts and feelings, you can learn to optimally use your brain. You can create the optimal world that you wish to live in. And, you can consciously choose how to live in it. The first giant step forward is to realize that you are not your simply the activity of your brain; you are your brain’s user, inventor, leader, and master. The trick is to be the constant observer of the thoughts and feelings being generated by your brain in response to the world around you. This is a form of mindfulness that emphasizes your incredible gift of self-awareness, choice, and freewill.
Based on the famous “triune brain” model, you can think of your brain as three main parts: the reptilian brain, the emotional brain, and intellectual brain. Your 400-million year-old reptilian brain (in the hind regions) causes you to act on instinct. This brain region evolved first to ensure your survival. It’s concerned with fight-or-flight reactions, feeding, and reproduction – every thing a lizard needs to make it through another day and propagate its species. When you passively react to events taking place in the world around you in a mindless manner, you are mostly using your venerable reptilian brain, mentally operating at the level of a gekko. But, you are not taking full advantage of the full power of your brain! The second part, the emotional brain, evolved about 300 million years ago and generates feelings that in many ways serve the instinctive drives and demands of the reptilian brain. And, finally, the intellectual brain is the newbie on the block at only 4 million years old. It allows you to deal with your emotions in a rational manner; it endows you with reason, judgment, and planning. Together with your emotional brain, it also allows you to apply meaning to your life and relate to society with feelings of empathy and understanding.
Most emotions are based on either “fear” or “desire”. We can think of “fear” as the feeling of dread driven by the memory of pain. Conversely, we can think of “desire” as the feeling of craving engendered by the memory of pleasure. So, emotions require memory. Conveniently enough, the emotional (or limbic) brain is also involved with short-term memory, which is connected to long-term memories stored in the intellectual brain region of the neocortex. Many of us spend our lives mired in our fears and desires, simply reacting to the world. We tend to identify with the emotional activity of our brains. For some, that’s how they feel most “alive”! Others, like many of my academic colleagues, have learned how to largely put aside the emotional tugs of the brain and live in an intellectual world, seeking solace in that relatively safe and stable shelter of reason and logic.
In Superbrain, we argue that the real you is the “observer” or “witness” of your brain’s activities. Your brain brings you emotional feelings and intellectual thoughts, which most often present themselves in the incessant internal dialogue and monologue of the mind. We argue that the true “you” is the self-aware “you” that is astutely cognizant of the feelings and thoughts being evoked in the brain, but then uses them to enhance your awareness and elevate your state of consciousness, promoting a more enlightened lifestyle. All you have to do is consciously choose to be the observer of the feelings and thoughts evoked in your brain in response to the world around you, and then judiciously and proactively decide how to detach and utilize those thoughts and feelings to best enrich your life and raise your level of awareness.
As an example, your brain may deliver feelings of unhappiness evoked by the reaction to some unfortunate set of events in the world around you, like missing a flight due to being held up in heavy traffic on the way to the airport. As a result, you may say, “I’m angry”. Here, you would be identifying with the negative feelings of unhappiness. We would argue that the healthier alternative is to be mindfully aware that in reaction to your missed flight, your brain has evoked and brought you the feelings of anger to prod you into an immediate and reactive back-up plan of action. The problem is reaction to the state of anger may be useful for escaping a tiger set on you as his next meal, but will not necessarily serve you well in getting you an alternative flight to Cleveland. In this case, your other brain regions will also be needed.
In Superbrain, we suggest that instead of saying “I am angry”, as dictated by the reptilian and emotional brain, take advantage of the communication between these two older brain regions with your intellectual brain. Then, you can take advantage of the exquisite gifts of self-awareness, freewill, and choice to be mindful and say, “my brain is bringing me feelings of anger right now”. By reminding yourself to be mindful, you will realize that “you are not angry”. Instead, your brain is producing feelings of unhappiness, frustration and anger at missing the flight. Now, you can learn from those feelings, detach from the anger, and move on in a proactive manner. As you increasingly choose to observe and be mindful of your thoughts and feelings, you can then learn from them, detach from them without dwelling on the past, and be better prepared for the future.
As you practice the above type of exercise, you are effectively using your mind to reshape your reality. We call this “reality-making” and it actually involves physically remodeling the neural network of your brain – it’s neural wiring, chemistry, and even patterns of gene activity. The most important principle in reality-making is to remember that you are not simply the sum of feelings and thoughts being delivered by your brain. This is crucial for people suffering from depression, although any other mood disorder like anxiety, which is just as epidemic as depression, should be included. When you come down with a bad cold, no matter how much you are suffering, you don’t say, “I am a cold.” You say, “I have a cold”. Yet linguistics is such that you don’t say, “I have depression”. You say, “I am depressed,” which means you identify with that condition. For countless people who are depressed and anxious, “I am” becomes extremely powerful. Mood colors the world. When you identify with being depressed, the world reflects how you feel. When you see a lemon on the table or in your mind’s eye, you don’t think you are a lemon. You say, “I see a lemon.” The same should hold true with depression. If the brain were the one in charge of your identity, it would make just as much sense to say, “I am a yellow lemon” as it is to say, “I am depressed.”
How, then, do we know the difference? How is it that you know that you are not a yellow lemon, while a depressed person may identify with his disorder so acutely that he commits suicide? Partly the difference is emotional. Biology comes into play here. The hippocampus is intimately wired to the amygdala, which regulates emotional memories and the fear response. In imaging studies when human subjects were shown a scary face while undergoing an fMRI (the best scan for showing brain activity in real time), the amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree. The fear response pours into the higher brain, which takes awhile to realize that scary pictures are no reason to be afraid. Uncontrolled fears, even when there is no realistic cause for them, can lead to chronic anxiety and depression. There are biological counters in place to help offset this. Recent studies suggest that new nerve cells in the hippocampus are able to inhibit the negative emotions evoked in the amygdala. Stress-alleviating activities such as physical exercise and learning new things promote the birth of new nerve cells, which, as we’ve already discussed, promote neuroplasticity – new synapses and neural circuits. Neuroplasticity can directly regulate mood and prevent depression. Thus, the birth of new nerve cells in the adult hippocampus helps overcome neurochemical imbalances that lead to mood disorders like depression.
This is a novel idea in neuroscience, but in real life many people have discovered that going for a jog can lift them out of a blue mood. Because a yellow lemon doesn’t trigger emotional responses while depression does, we’ve found an important difference at the level of the brain. As the brain shifts, reality follows. Depressed people live in a sad world, not just in a sad mood. Sunshine is tinged with gray; colors lose their luminosity. If you have no mood disorder, you imbue the world with other qualities. A stoplight is red because your brain makes it red; this becomes obvious because there are red-green color-blind people for whom the same stoplight is gray. Sugar is sweet because your brain makes it sweet, obvious again when someone has lost their taste buds through injury or disease. Sugar has no sweetness for them. Subtler qualities are at work, too. You add emotion to sugar’s taste if it reminds you that you may be pre-diabetic or if the stoplight evokes bad memories of a car accident in your past. The personal cannot be separated from the “facts” of daily life. Facts are personal, in fact. The radical part is that there is nothing that escapes the process of reality-making.
Every quality in the outside world exists because you create the quality. Your brain is not the creator – it’s the interpreter and deliverer. The real creator is mind. It will likely take more to convince you that you are creating all of reality. We understand. Doubt arises from a widespread lack of knowledge about how the mind interacts with the world “out there.” Everything depends on the nervous system that is having the experience. Since humans don’t have wings, we have no idea of what it means to have a hummingbird’s experience. Looking out of an airplane window isn’t the same thing. A bird swoops and dives, balances in mid air, and keeps an eye out in all directions, simultaneously. A hummingbird’s brain coordinates a wing speed of up to 80 beats per second and a heart rate of over a thousand beats per minute. Humans cannot penetrate such an experience – in essence, a hummingbird is a vibrating gyroscope balanced in the middle of a whirling tornado of wings.
Humans can only perceive a world within the limits of their own nervous system. But, our nervous system as imbued as with a wonderful gift, called “self-awareness”, which gives us choice and freewill. As you choose to celebrate self-awareness, you will increasingly become the observer of your thoughts and feelings, learn from them, detach and move on. In doing so, you will be engaging in a positive process of “reality-making” that best suits you to optimize your happiness and the happiness of those around you. You will also be physically reshaping your brain at the level of neural connections, neurochemistry, and even gene activities! The relatively recently discovered “neuroplasticity” function of your brain guarantees it! As your brain remodels itself to adapt to the reality “you” are choosing, you will find that achieving that reality in your everyday world will become easier and easier. And, the most amazing thing? All of this is achieved by your mind, and simply because you have been endowed with the divine gifts of self-awareness, choice and freewill. Use them wisely to make your “reality” today!
Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi are co-authors of their forthcoming book Superbrain: New Breakthroughs for Maximizing Health, Happiness and Spiritual Well-Being by Harmony Books.