Actively using neuroplastic methods to develop inner strengths


Lifes challenges can become lasting burdens if we don’t have the psychological resources to meet them.  So how can we build up a psychological toolbox containing powerful inner strengths that are readily accessible when we need them?


Dr Rick Hanson, of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center US, and colleagues have developed new model of emotional and mental growth, which actively engages people’s experiences with neurologically informed methods that heighten the conversion of passing states of mind, such as resilience,  self-worth, and positive emotions, into lasting beneficial traits embedded in the brain.


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Hello and welcome to Research Pod! Thank you for listening and joining us today.


In this episode, we will be discussing the research of Dr Rick Hanson, clinical psychologist and Senior Fellow of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center in the US. Leading clinician in emotional intelligence, Hanson looks at the benefits of building a psychological toolbox: actively using neuroplastic methods to develop lasting inner strengths.


Life presents us with challenges and obstacles that can burden us if we don’t have the psychological resources to meet them. We all would like to increase inner strengths such as grit, gratitude, compassion, interpersonal skills, and self-worth. This would allow us to better cope with the various situations we face throughout life while experiencing more wellbeing along the way.


But the brain is inefficient at acquiring these psychological resources, limiting the benefits of both formal and informal efforts to develop them. So how can we build up a psychological toolbox containing powerful inner strengths that are readily accessible when we need them?


Research from Dr Rick Hanson, clinical psychologist and Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center in the US, focuses on how people can be active agents in the durable acquisition of psychological strengths. Much psychotherapy, coaching, human resources programmes, and mindfulness and compassion trainings operate in a kind of Growth 1.0 model in which people are treated, more or less, as passive vessels into which experiences and information are poured in the hopes that something will stick. For some it does – but many people report little or no lasting gains from these interventions. To address this issue, Hanson and his colleagues have developed a Growth 2.0 model. Here, people actively engage their experiences with neurologically informed methods that heighten the conversion of passing states of mind into lasting beneficial traits embedded in the brain, such as resilience, secure attachment, self-regulation, self-worth, and positive emotions.


Hanson developed a programme, the Taking in the Good Course, recently renamed to the Positive Neuroplasticity Training, that has already yielded promising results. This course integrates methods in Hanson’s HEAL framework for developing important psychological resources by enhancing neuroplastic transformation.


Lasting increases in any psychological resource, such as emotional intelligence, must involve a two-stage process in which an ‘activated’ experience is ‘installed’ in the brain. The second stage is crucial; experiencing alone does not produce learning. In the HEAL framework, the first stage is summarised as having a beneficial experience by either noticing one that is already occurring or deliberately creating it. For example, reminding oneself to be patient. The second stage involves enriching the experience in various ways – for example, extending its duration for a breath or longer – as well as absorbing it by increasing the sensitivity of the brain – like focusing on what is enjoyable or meaningful about the experience. The final linking step is optional, in which positive material is experienced alongside negative material to soothe and eventually replace it. The Enriching and Absorbing steps incorporate eight evidence-based methods that have been shown to heighten neuroplastic change, and the Linking step involves related methods that disrupt the reconsolidation of negative material in implicit memory.


In Hanson’s recent study, published in 2021, a trial with 46 people was undertaken to investigate the effectiveness of the techniques taught in the course. In six, three-hour classes over seven weeks, participants were trained in the methods in the HEAL framework, and then participants applied them to developing key inner strengths for better meeting our three fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection.


Even with a small sample in this exploratory study, the results were quite dramatic. Individuals reported noticeable improvements in inner strengths, such as self-compassion, positive mood, self-esteem, resilience, and general contentment with life, along with a reduction of anxiety and depressed mood.


What’s impressive about the results of this research is that these changes persisted for several months after the course, indicating that this strategy appears to be effective in fostering long-term improvements in psychological resources. Presumably, this is based in lasting alterations of neural structure or function. In addition to the development of specific psychological resources – including those that are well-matched to particular issues, such as increasing the sense of calm strength as an antidote to anxiety – the Positive Neuroplasticity Training may have other benefits as well. For example, implicitly training greater mindfulness and even perhaps sensitising the brain to beneficial experiences so that in the future it learns from them more quickly.


Hanson’s research is grounded in studies of neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to ‘rewire’ neural connections and their functions. This means that our brains can develop positively through deliberately internalizing beneficial experiences, suggesting that we actually have significant power over our psychological healing and growth. Breath by breath, synapse by synapse, we can influence who we are becoming as we grow more of the good inside ourselves.


Neuroplasticity theory is often summarised in a famous expression from the work of the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb in 1950: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. This refers to one major mechanism of neuroplasticity, in which neurons that are repeatedly stimulated at the same time will develop a stronger connection with each other. Other neuroplastic mechanisms include alterations in neurochemical activity, in gene expression, and in the coordination of various regions in the brain.


Hanson’s work on social-emotional learning takes advantage of the innate capacities already present in the brain. He has figured out methods of drawing on this natural technology and using it in skillful ways to create beneficial traits.


Psychological resources are necessary to help us deal with the difficulties presented to us throughout life. Examples of beneficial traits include resilience, self-compassion, gratitude, joy, contentment, love, pride, and satisfaction with life. For some people, the build-up of negative attitudes, thoughts, and emotions can lead to psychological distress and dysfunction. On the other hand, having beneficial traits leads to better coping mechanisms, especially if we can consistently call on them to handle particular situations.


Of course, the real challenge lies not in accessing our inner resources in the moment but growing them in the first place – based on lasting changes in the living brain. The fundamental question is what percentage of our enjoyable or useful experiences actually result in long-term beneficial changes in neuronal structure and function. Hanson’s research holds great promise in showing us practical ways, mainly in the flow of everyday life and taking just a handful of seconds at a time, to increase the conversion of these experiences into stable positive traits. The results include improved resilience, reduced stress, and greater happiness.


Many people seek specialist help to acquire psychological resources for dealing with the stresses and challenges of life. Unfortunately, much of what is experienced during treatment is short-lived, since clients or patients have rarely been taught how to actively engage those experiences in ways that foster lasting positive changes in their brains – this is the Growth 1.0 model. It is relatively easy to promote beneficial experiences; the challenge is to help people learn from them. A shift in therapeutic approaches is needed to recognise that people can be active agents in their own social–emotional learning, as in Growth 2.0. By employing evidence-based methods grounded in recent neuroscience, individuals can deliberately internalise beneficial thoughts, feelings, sensations, and intentions to improve the inner atmosphere of their own minds, as well as their functioning and effectiveness in the world.


This approach could improve the results of both formal interventions such as psychotherapy and informal efforts at ‘self-help’ and personal growth. Having greater personal success in treatment could increase commitment and cooperation with it, including in medical settings. Lately, the fields of mental health have had a growing appreciation for what could be called as ‘loving’, for example, compassion, and ‘knowing’, which could be mindfulness. Finally, it is now time to add the third leg of the stool: ‘growing’ – such as the deliberate and skilful internalisation of beneficial experiences.


Hanson’s research has found that people can learn to internalise experiences more effectively, which could boost treatment responses and the building of psychological tools. When beneficial mental states pass through the brain like water through a sieve, therapies and other interventions for self-development, mental health, and emotional wellbeing are much less effective. Many people could benefit from the promising methods developed by Hanson and colleagues to help them convert beneficial mental states into valuable stable traits.


Here’s the take-home message: we do indeed possess an internal power to influence who we are gradually becoming. No one can stop us from using this power. Yet no one but us can actually tap into it. The methods developed by Hanson demonstrate how we can effectively use the mind to change the brain to change our minds for the better. We can increase the internalisation of everyday experiences, presumably via robust modifications of neural structure and function. Ultimately, this contributes to the development of lasting inner strengths. These methods can be easily incorporated into existing therapies, trainings, classrooms, business, and healthcare settings, and personal-growth programmes. At a time when many people feel understandably buffeted by large-scale economic, political, cultural, and biological forces beyond their control, it is hopeful that we have real power inside our own minds to heal from the past and build strengths for the future.


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science. See you again soon.

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