NEUROPLASTICITY AND JOY: LEARNING AT EVERY AGE WITH DR. STRAUSS
In my first instalment on neuroplasticity, I introduced us to what the concept means, and to what the challenges are holding us back from fully exploiting our brains’ neuroplastic potential. In the second instalment, I visited the catastrophic brain event called a stroke and showed how we can even overcome some if not all of its complications by using neuroplastic interventions.
Today, I would like to share with you a simple, yet powerful habit that is now proven to help our brains grow.
This is expressing gratitude on a daily basis.
The neuroscience we have today backs up that when we express gratitude, we effect neuroplastic brain changes. The first thing that happens as soon as we express gratitude is that there is a surge of dopamine in our brain stems. Dopamine is the most important chemical to produce joy. This means that as soon as we become grateful we experience joy. Think about how curious that is: that joy is created by the expression of the feeling we have, because we think of something in our life that is joyous. So, really we can say that joy makes joy as long as we think about joy! In addition, being grateful towards others also increases the same dopamine by increased activity in the social dopamine brain circuits, which in turn make further social interaction even more enjoyable. (Joy makes joy, again…)
Furthermore, expressing gratitude also boost the release of serotonin. This occurs because the attempt to find gratitude forces the brain to focus on finding the positive aspects of one’s life—which happens by increased brain activity in a serotonergic area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. Serotonin is anti-depressant, or in other words, another joy producing neurotransmitter.
And here is another amazing thing to be grateful about. Neuroscientists have discovered that even when we cannot find anything positive in our life to be grateful about, the very effort to find something, the very trying to be grateful is what makes these changes. If we want to have our biceps become bigger, most all of us know that we have to do more biceps curls. The more exercise we do, the more impressive guns we come to own. In very much the same way, attempting to be grateful is to the brain as is flexing your biceps against resistance is to the biceps brachii muscles. Every time that we try to be grateful, the neuron density in the ventromedial and the lateral prefrontal cortex areas become denser (or if we want to stay in the “brain-as-muscle” metaphor, larger). As these areas become more densely populated, it becomes easier to try to be grateful.
Lastly, social psychologists discovered that expressing gratitude to a partner creates a positive feedback loop in which the partner is more likely to reciprocate in being grateful for what the other party brings to the relationship. It also follows that grateful partners stick together much more easily and much longer than those who do not express their gratitude for the other.
Until next time then, I want you to do the following brain “curls”: 1) start a daily gratitude journal and record one (or two, or more) thing(s) to be grateful about in there, and 2) remember to be grateful to your partner or a loved one close to you and say that to them every day. Before you know it, your “gratitude guns” will be quite impressive and you will be able to do gratefulness almost without realizing it and almost without any effort.
About Dr. Pieter Strauss:
Dr. Strauss was born in South Africa, emigrating to Canada with his family in 1995. He has a private practice in the Fraser Valley and sees patients with mental health issues in his community. He was Head of the Psychiatry Department at a regional hospital with a staff of nine psychiatrists until last year when he decided to focus on his practice and his work at our hotel. Dr. Strauss has always been interested in long-term human relationships and envisioned enhancing relationships.