The Psychological Reality of Positive Thought and Complex Thought

A whole new school of psychiatry has grown up around the development of positive thinking. The key is intercepting negative thoughts. Surprisingly, no matter how positive we think we are, many of us have internal, mostly negative chatter that ties up thecerebral circuits all day long. Much of this chatter is actually pretty idiotic if you stop and listen to it. Most of the time we’re simply ripping ourselves apart. The more negative our mood, the more we’re apt to nag ourselves. The science of positive thought can be learned through certain therapies, of which cognitive therapy is one example.

Cognitive therapy teaches you to catch the negative thoughts in this gnawing pitter-patter and substitute much more reasonable,reassuring, and, most important, more accurate thoughts. During cognitive therapy, the therapist uses various techniques of talk therapy and behavioral prescriptions to help the patient alleviate and change his or her negative thought patterns and beliefs. For example, a salesman fails to get through to an account on a sales call and actually encounters a very rude rebuff from the secretary. His inner voice might say, “See, you’re no damned good, never were.” He’d do better to catch that negative thought, judge it, and turn it into a more accurate reply such as: “Gee it was early and the secretary must have had a bad night. Her boss probably had a bad night too and she was taking it out on me. I’m actually a pretty good salesperson; I’ll just try again at a better time of day.” This is cognitive therapy at work.

Let’s take a closer look at cognitive therapy as proof of the concept that positive thought does truly change the brain.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy is based on the theory that people’s emotions are controlled by their views and opinions of the world. Depression is the result when patients constantly emotional attack themselves, expect to fail, make incorrect assessments of what other persons think of them, feel hopeless, and have a very negative attitude toward day to day living, the world, and the future.

You may think that “talk” therapy is all nonsense, but consider this. Using the accredited standard PET scan, researchers noticed that patients who engaged in cognitive therapy had changes just as marked on the PET scan as patients taking Prozac. This shows that positive thinking on its own can change the way your brain functions, a true revolution in modern psychiatry. This “talk therapy” can be at least as good as drugs. Why? First, after repeated talk therapy, new and important connections are created between one set of neurons and another. That means that your brain is fundamentally, even if ever so slightly, changing. Second, even without drugs, cognitive therapy increases levels of neurotransmitters that battle depression and anxiety.

Cognitive therapy can change the brain circuitry, concludes Richard Davidson, Ph.D., after reviewing hard data. For example, it’s been shown that in obsessive-compulsive behavior, cognitive therapy can produce changes in circuitry – actual biological changes in the brain.

Susan C. Vaughan, M.D., convinced of the effectiveness of talk therapy, has written a book named after Freud’s phrase, The Talking Cure. “Talking changes the structure of the brain itself; the nerve cells end up with different connections so they grow differently and the new connections form new structures. It is through the change in connections that you learn and that’s how you store information; that’s how you make links between cells that weren’t connected before and there’s knowledge in that link,” Dr. Vaughan says. So talking makes new connections between brain cells; experience changes the shape of and connections between brain cells. The cerebral cortex and the association cortex (in the parietal lobes) are mainly implicated in “talk therapy”; those are the highest level of cortex – they put together the most information from that part of the brain. After several years of psychotherapy, the brain may look different; but because changes are occurring between neurons, at a very small cell-to-cell level, they’re hard to see. Still, these cerebral cortex changes are longer lasting than medications because you’re changing the structure of your brain, whereas medication is only changing brain chemistry. In treatment of depression, the best results are achieved with a combination of drugs and psychotherapy, because the two are synergistic.

The Argument for Complex Thought

A new publishing industry has grown up around the concept of dumbing down complex ideas. One sees that in many aspects of life in America, where nearly everything has to be nugget-sized and simple, from our basic foods to our music. The dumbing-down effect would have us watching Seinfeld reruns instead of plowing through important new technological information, philosophical argument, or historical texts that could improve our minds and further our career. Our approaches to diet and exercise are so timid that it’s a wonder we’re not all hopelessly overweight and out of shape. This great timidity in America is transforming us into a nation of Iemmings. There is a much broader world out there – not one that is more intimidating, just more rewarding, a world that challenges us to master greater complexity.

Simply put, the greatest joy in life can be undertaking and mastering complex activities such as learning a new language or listening to and understanding a symphony or studying the classics or mastering an unfamiliar historical period. In Part One of the book, we looked at all the comparatively simple ways of improving mood and brain energy. No one, however, wants to be the happy fool. In fact many believe that happiness is a non attainable condition … that we can never be free of yearnings and anxieties. But we can achieve great satisfaction by developing the positive thought that encourages us to tackle complex tasks and succeed. That hard work pays off quickly.

As we master complex thoughts and develop greater successes, work actually becomes far easier. Fran Shea says: “At the beginning of my career I spent a huge number of hours at work. I could spend up to fifteen hours a day working. But I was absolutely in love with my job. There was nothing about my job I didn’t like. I had way more ideas than I could fulfill. I was lucky. I was in a business that was booming. I was there at the right time.” Now she is president of E! Entertainment Networks and one of the top women in broadcasting. Dr. Richard J. Haier, of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California at Irvine, has used brain imaging to measure brain activity and metabolism. The student subjects in his laboratory were tested at the video game Tetris. These students were scanned during the first day of practice, when they showed great metabolic activity. They were scanned again after two months of practice. Although the subjects had increased their abilities sevenfold, the scans showed their metabolic activity to have lessened dramatically. So the study showed that the more gifted we become at something, the fewer circuits in the brain we use. In other words, we’re able to do the same activity with less effort. While Tetris is not a sophisticated or complex mental activity, the experiment does show that success in conquering mental complexities is a case of the brain working smarter, not harder.

In future articles I’ll look at specific steps to build a strong pattern of positive thought. Here’s a brief road map.

Step 1: Be an Optimist
Learn the heart of a positive mental attitude by transforming yourself into a tough-minded optimist. This is rigorous science, not pop psychology.

Step 2: Seize the Moment
Shed your anxieties and the distractions that pull you from success by learning the skills of accomplished actors and committing fully to the moment at hand.

Step 3: Play to Your Strengths
Take a unique test to determine the way your personality is wired. Then learn to use that knowledge to relate better to others. Learn how to chase success based on how your brain is wired.

Step 4: Learn Emotional Broadcasting
By learning emotional broadcasting, learn to convert those around you to allies who will give you the emotional support and team strength you need to succeed. “Emotional Broadcasting” is the “networking” of the twenty-first century, literally changing the emotions of those around you.

Step 5: Look to the Hereafter
Learn prayer to gain an even greater sense of optimism and positive thought. As with optimism, the new interest in spirituality is based on firm scientific studies.

Step 6: Create a Blueprint for Success
This final step will help you channel and focus all your mental energy and positive thought into creating and embodying your life’s story.

Stay tuned for more.
Dr Leo Kady

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