Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Rick Hanson and this is part two of a conversation on self-directed brain change. Rick Hanson is the author of a new book called Hardwiring Happiness: The New Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. He’s a neuropsychologist, and has created with Sounds True several programs, including The Enlightened Brain: Mediations for Happiness, and a new program on self-directed brain change.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rick and I spoke about how we can move from what he calls a red, or reactive, brain state to a green, or calm, brain state. We also talked about the core needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection; and how moving from a red to a green brain state actually correlates to the progression of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. We also talked about how the sense of being an “I” or a separate self correlates or doesn’t correlate with a specific brain state. And, finally, we talked about Rick’s vision for how healthy brains can actually change the state of our world.
Here’s the second part of my conversation with Rick Hanson on self-directed brain change.
Rick, in your new book, Hardwiring Happiness, and also your new audio program with Sounds True on self-directed brain change, you talk about something that you call “green brains and red brains.” Can you tell me what you mean by this?
Rick Hanson: Sure, and I don’t mean it literally, obviously. By the way, my voice is very froggy because I’m working with a sore throat here, but with some lozenges, I’m actually doing fine.
What I mean by that is simply that as we evolved—as our ancestors evolved over time—in essence, they had to manage three needs: to avoid harms, to approach rewards, and attach to others. In other words, any living creature has three fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection. Obviously, the way that worms manage their need for connection is quite different from the ways that humans manage their need for connection. But, fundamentally, we have these core needs that are managed by these overarching systems that now, today, draw upon the entire brain. There’s no choice about whether we have brainstem, reptilian, sub-cortical mammalian, or cortical primate human levels in our brain. And there’s no choice about whether we can get around dealing with our needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection. What we do have some choice about is how we go about meeting those needs.
To simplify things a bit—but it’s still relatively accurate—the brain has essentially two different settings for meeting these needs. When we experience a basic sense of safety, satisfaction, and connection, the brain defaults to a kind of resting state—a sustainable, homeostatic equilibrium in which the body repairs and refuels itself and recovers from bursts of stress. In terms of these three broad systems—avoiding, approaching, and attaching—the mind is colored, in some general sense, with a feeling of peace, contentment, and love.
To simplify a lot of material, I’m using these over-arching terms—like peace, contentment, and love. That’s the good news. I call that—informally, because it’s easy to remember—the Green Zone. It’s interesting to appreciate the larger implications of the Green Zone, because it’s a state in which there’s little sense of deficit or disturbance. Therefore, there’s little actual basis for resisting or grasping or clinging—in other words, craving broadly defined. This is the neuropsychological operationalization, in a lot of ways, of the Third Noble Truth in Buddhism—the end of that craving, which leads to suffering and harm. It’s not enlightenment, but it’s a good foundation for practice and it’s a really good foundation for ordinary well-being, coping, and even healing. This is the good news.
As you well know, there are other ways to feel than centered in peace, contentment, and love. The brain has a second setting—it’s reactive mode. By the way, these terms “responsive” and “reactive” in this over-arching framework that I’m describing in terms of three core needs and three core motivational systems is a fairly widely used framework. I’m adapting it to my own purposes in some ways—but it’s not radical, basically, what I’m saying here.
We have this second setting in the brain. Its reactive mode, which is where we go when—and where animals go when they experience that one or more of their core needs is not being met. In other words, they don’t feel safe. They feel instead, fearful or angry or helpless. Or they don’t feel satisfied, but instead they feel disappointed, frustrated, or sad. They don’t feel connected, but instead feel hurt, inadequate, abandoned, or recently voted off the island.
At that point, when that happens, the brain fires up into its reactive mode of fight or flight or—depending on the conditions and the individual—freeze. In this state, bodily resources are burned, generally, faster than they can be replenished, bodily systems are banged hard and disturbed, and the mind, in general—long term projects, by the way, I should say—in the body [are] put on hold, like strengthening the immune system or digesting.
The mind is colored in, again, three broad umbrella terms, in terms of our needs for avoiding, approaching, and attaching—the mind is colored by fear, frustration, and heartache. This is a kind of neuropsychological operationalization of the Second Noble Truth in Buddhism—a state of craving, or resisting, grasping, and clinging—that’s founded in, or grounded in, the experience of deficit or disturbance.
So, that was a mouthful. What do you think?
TS: Well, I have a few questions for you. I think it might be helpful if you could give an overview of the Four Noble Truths and help me understand a little bit more how you’re making these correlations with the Second and Third Noble Truths.
RH: Sure. The Four Noble Truths can be understood in purely psychological terms. [Here’s] a quick summary. The Buddha, 2,500 years ago, pointed out the truth of suffering. There is suffering—in fact, quite a lot of suffering. He didn’t claim that there is only suffering, just that there’s a lot of suffering. That’s an umbrella term that ranges from very subtle forms of physical or emotional discomfort to extremes of physical or mental anguish. The truth is suffering.
The Second Noble Truth is his view about the truth of the cause, or a primary cause, of this suffering. He describes that truth as one of craving, in a broad umbrella term—whose roots in the language of early Buddhism, interestingly, are in the word “thirst.” Craving is based on a deficit state, a disturbance state, a sense of lack, not-enough-ness, agitation. His argument is that a primary, if not the primary, source of suffering is craving in one form or another—again, ranging from subtle to intense.
That, then, takes him to the Third Noble Truth, which is the truth of the end of the cause of suffering, which is to say, the end of the craving which causes suffering. He says, essentially, that it is possible to eliminate craving to the point of no suffering at all.
Then, the Fourth Noble Truth is the path that both leads to that end of craving and the suffering and harm—as well as along the way embodies a gradual relaxing of resisting, grasping, and clinging and involves a growing happiness.
That’s a quick summary of the Four Noble Truths. What’s interesting to me is to take him seriously. In other words, to ask: we have had thousands of years of inquiry into the mental causes of suffering and happiness. What are the underlying neural, biological, hormonal, evolutionary causes of suffering and happiness? For example, what does it mean to actually, neuropsychologically, bodily, to crave in the Second Noble Truth? Alternately, what would have to happen in an animal such as us—you or I or anyone listening to this—what would have to happen inside us so that the causes as it were—the underlying causes—of craving could fall away?
It’s interesting to appreciate that through gradually internalizing positive experiences again and again and again and gradually taking it into yourself and feeling that your core needs are met, you build up the neural substrates, in effect of the Third Noble Truth. You’re increasingly grounded in a mind in which there is very little basis for that craving, which leads to suffering and harm.
TS: So to reflect this back for a moment to see if I’m following you here: Is what you’re saying that basically craving, the Second Noble Truth, what underlies our suffering, is like being in a red brain state—a reactive brain state—and that we can switch our brain states and end craving and move to the Third Noble Truth by moving to a green brain state? And you can help us learn how to do this. That’s the Fourth Noble Truth—that there’s a path to switching from red brain to green brain. Is that what you’re saying, Rick?
RH: That’s exactly right and I’m going to ask you to write all of my stuff for me from now on.
To be clear though, I’m not saying that we can just flip a switch from green to red as it were. Also, obviously, there are external conditions like poverty, injustice, or war that tend to trigger us or put pressure on us to drive this in one direction or another. But, from the standpoint of what can we do on the inside out in a world that tends to resist our efforts to improve it dramatically, what can we do from the inside out?
Yes, we can repeatedly internalize the self-sense of no deficit or disturbance—the felt sense of being sufficiently safe, satisfied, and connected. Since neurons that fire together wire together, etc. etc., this means that we can gradually help our brains learn to rest in the Green Zone. They’re still engaged with life. They’re still speaking truths of power, making love, making art, jumping up and down when their team wins in sports, or what have you, and still being determined, still dreaming big dreams, swinging for the fences, and so forth. But we can engage life and face hard things, face real challenges, deal with real difficulties while being fundamentally centered in this underlying sense of peace, contentment, and love.
I liken it to deepening the keel of a sailboat, through our own practices and taking in the good again and again, registering the self-sense of no basis for craving. Then, over time—like as with a sailboat that has a deepening keel in the water—as things happen to us, we don’t get knocked over. Or if we get knocked over, we can recover more quickly. When you know that about yourself, you become increasingly resilient. Your well-being becomes increasingly unconditional. You’ve internalized your sense of feeling loved and fulfilled and strong and safe inside. You’ve internalized it so that you don’t need external conditions to make you happy.
TS: I like this image of the deepening keel on a sailboat, because it helps answer this question, which is—it’s not like anybody could be in a green brain state—and I’m going to use this green-red language because it’s so easy and I like it—it’s not like someone could be in a green brain state all the time, 24 hours a day, could they?
RH: Well that’s a very interesting question, isn’t it? Again, what intrigues me a lot is to operationalize positive states of mind. In other words, there clearly are people in everyday life—as well as people who are quite famous—who never seem to lose their balance. They don’t suppress their feelings. You can see them ranging from relatives I have in North Dakota that have had to deal with a lot of difficulty all the way out or up, what have you, to the Dalai Lama or Archbishop Desmond Tutu. You can see these people are feeling their feelings, right? They’re affected by things, but they stay centered, right? I think it’s interesting to ask what is going on in their brain—particularly if someone has an interest in healing or the upper limits of human potential.
I think it’s very possible to spend most of your time in the Green Zone. To add a couple of nuances here: First, if you think of these three broad systems, they intertwine with each other, but they have a fair amount of independence—avoiding harm, approaching reward, and attaching to others—so that, in principle, one or two of these systems could be blinking green, as it were, or a steady green, while one of them is blinking red.
For example, imagine a situation in which a person feels fundamentally safe inside—safe and strong—and they’re OK in terms of their satisfaction needs. They have enough money, basically. It would be nice to have more, but there’s food in the fridge and all that. But, something has happened in a relationship recently, like someone said something that was hurtful. So, the avoiding and approaching systems are green, but the attaching system is blinking red.
Then, the question becomes: will the red contaminate the green or, in effect, will the green contaminate the red? I think that’s an important choice point for a lot of people—a tipping point. They can draw upon the parts of themselves that are doing fine to gradually soothe and stabilize and deal with that Red Zone issue and then move that system back to green. Or, alternately, if they haven’t repeatedly internalized a strong sense of needs met, they don’t have a very deep keel in the water, so that if one system starts going red, it tends to drag the other two down with it.
TS: This is very interesting to me that these three systems—one could be on red, two could be on green—that they’re independent of each other. That’s very interesting to me.
RH: I know, and it has an important implication. Just before I say that though, let me, if I could, be clear about two things. One, I’m not trying to improve the Four Noble Truths. I’m simply trying to engage them, in a sense, at an underlying neurobiological level to the extent that that’s useful—part one. And part two: you certainly know Buddhism quite well. If you think about the so-called Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion, and if you think about the ways in which they were originally conceived of as fires that drive suffering. You can map two out of three of those already to my little framework here, which is not my own. It’s widely used, actually, in terms of three drives or needs we have around safety, satisfaction, and connection. Greed refers to the satisfaction system—the approach and reward system. Hatred refers to the avoiding harm system, obviously, with delusion wrapped around it all.
Personally, I think that there are four poisons, not three. I think that the social system, the connection system, and our need to attach to others is so fundamental to us, both in terms of our joys and our sorrows—and there’s so much neural real estate allocated to relationship functions—that its meaningful to think about four poisons, not three. But, it is very interesting, isn’t it?
TS: What are you naming as the fourth poison?
RH: Heartache. That’s why I think that if you think of the antidote to the poison of hatred—or I deliberately choose the word “fear” in a more modern way, because “hatred” has a lot of connotations. The antidote to fear is peace. The antidote to frustration—or the Buddha used the word “greed” and I replaced it with “frustration,” because, again, that’s a more modern term. The antidote to frustration is contentment, and the antidote, obviously, to greed is contentment. And the antidote to heartache is love—feeling loved, and loving, all together.
TS: I’m curious, because of course the most important thing, I think, is when we find ourselves in a red brain state in any one of these parts of our lives, how do we take actions to change it? I’m curious, particularly in intimate relationships, because it does seem that that’s often where we have the quickest triggers moving into the red. Like, “I can’t believe you said that to me,” and within a quarter of a second, even without understanding exactly what the red brain is, I know that that’s what I am in that moment—I’m angry, I’m hysterical, I’m defended, I’m all of those things.
What have you learned from your work from neuroscience about what I can do when I’m triggered in relationships to change that part of the brain from red to green?
RH: It’s interesting how often the metaphors in language have a wisdom built into them like the phrase “seeing red” as an example of getting really angry with other people. There’s two parts here. The first part is the idea that these three systems have a relative amount of independence from each other has a key implication here, which is that what will serve a need, if you will—a need that’s driving us into the Red Zone in one system is going to be some kind of resource experience of some kind of, if you will, supply that’s also in that system. It means that if we have, for example, an issue—to use your example—let’s say, in a relationship. Someone has said something, I can’t believe that you said that. It’s really hurtful. Kaboom! I’m seeing red in terms of the attaching system.
Just think about it. If you helped yourself feel safe or relaxed, that wouldn’t really address your hurt feelings or sense of betrayal or abandonment. In other words, if you brought in a resource from the avoiding system to address an attaching system issue, it would not be very helpful. Similarly, if you’ve just been recently abandoned or betrayed by an intimate partner and a reward came in, in terms of the satisfactions system—let’s say your boss called you up and said, “Hey, you’re going to get a $1,000 bonus.” That would be nice. Or if you did gratitude practice, that would be nice. But it doesn’t address your need in the attaching system.
So, this idea of targeted antidote experiences—I call them, “What’s your Vitamin C?” In other words, if you have scurvy, you need Vitamin C. If you have anemia, you need iron. As someone whose primary wounds were in the attaching system, I needed—in effect, I had scurvy and I needed Vitamin C. But I tried to solve that problem by bringing in experiences in the avoiding system. I tried to feel strong, but that medicine didn’t take care of my need. It wasn’t the food my soul needed.
I tried to solve my sense of loneliness and abandonment in the attaching system by being successful and accomplishing things in terms of the approach and reward system. That was nice, but again, it didn’t address my need. It was only when I began to really internalize repeatedly feelings of being cared about in one way or another that I really started taking the medicine that I needed. I started taking my Vitamin C, as it were, for my own personal scurvy.
Concretely then, let’s say that you are or someone is in that situation. I think it’s really important to do what you can, obviously in the moment, to—you’re going to try to calm down a little bit and keep your wits about you and step back and try to understand the situation and so forth. But then, after that, there are a handful of high-impact resources you can turn to and then you see which one seems appropriate and helpful to you.
One is to bring up the sense of other people who care about you. It doesn’t replace the fact or alter the fact that this very important person, let’s say, has recently hurt you or even betrayed and abandoned you, but it will help you feel better if you bring to mind, for example, the sense of being with your dog or the sense that you have friends that you can talk with or they’re inside you in a way or people who’ve loved you over the years and you’ve taken into yourself. They’re now inside you, so your keel, as it were, in the water, at least in terms of the attaching system, is deeper, because you have a self-sense of being loved inside, ideally, that you can draw upon. Or, certainly today, reach out to people, to talk about the situation. So, to me, that ‘s one go-to—to either create here and now, or call up the felt sense of the experience of being cared about by others.
Second, I have found, remarkably—weirdly—that when I see the suffering in the other person who has hurt me and wounded me and mistreated me, it actually helps me feel better. It’s benevolent—it’s moral, let’s say—to see the suffering in the other person, but it’s also enlightened self interest, because somehow it helps us feel better to see the ways in which they’re hurting too. They’re weary. They’re stressed. It’s probably part of why they’ve been a jerk, let’s say.
It doesn’t let them off the moral hook. I don’t mean this to—or it doesn’t mean we’re walking on eggshells around them—but I just mean that somehow when we can see the being behind their eyes, we don’t feel so bad. We can even move into compassion for them amidst compassion for ourselves.
The last thing I’ll just say here is that I think another thing that really works for us in terms of being enormously social animals is, oddly enough, to be loving ourselves. It’s very curious that being loving is not depleting. People sometimes think that if there’s an emptiness inside, in which they haven’t received enough love, that the last thing in the world they want to do is to be loving, because somehow they think that will be depleting. But, actually, love is love, whether it’s flowing in or flowing out.
As we shift into finding someone to love—in other words, let’s say if Sue has really hurt me, abandoned me, and mistreated me, one way to help me feel better is for me to feel loving, in one form or another, toward Mary. Feeling loving toward that other person will somehow help me feel better about being let down by, in this example, Sue. Isn’t that amazing? It’s like a kind of alchemy that feeling loving can help soothe wounds around not being loved.
TS: Yes, I think people can probably find experiences like that in their life that confirm what you’re saying.
Now, Rick, you said that you weren’t trying to improve on the Four Noble Truths—I appreciate that—but, you’re just trying to add some neuroscientific . . .
RH: “Enrich” is a word I take refuge in.
TS: Very good. I’m curious, though—in your work with neuroscience, neuropsychology, if you’ve found any aspects of Buddhist teachings that you think, “Wow, these findings are actually showing me something different than what has been taught for 2,600 years in the dharma.
RH: So you’re saying—speaking of the Dalai Lama’s famous point of science: [if you] prove something that contradicts some aspect of Buddhist teaching, the Buddhist teaching will have to change. Are you asking about that?
TS: Yes. Have you discovered anything like that?
RH: Wow, that’s—well, the fact that I am quiet for once and my mind’s racing here just scanning so many things. First, when we say Buddhism, I think what I’d like to do is stick with those portions of Buddhism that are inside the natural frame—the naturalist frame as we’ve discussed. In other words, that don’t involve things like reincarnation or supernatural levels of reality and so forth that are really completely psychological. I think those are mostly found, I would say, in the early teachings of Buddhism [and] are mostly psychological, so I’m going to focus on that part.
In terms of those parts, I really can’t think of things that seem really wrong. I feel internally that I am quite prepared to. What happens more often for me, Tami, which is really interesting, is that I am a pretty deep student of Buddhism, especially the original roots of it—especially early Indian Buddhism, Theravadic Buddhism, or the Pali Canon. I continually or routinely will have an experience in which some subtle point in the dharma or in a commentary about it suddenly makes sense to me from a neuropsychological perspective.
For example, in the aggregates, as you may know—and this might be too much inside baseball for people, but whatever. The Five Aggregates are usually listed in this order: Form, which is both all of materiality and our bare apprehension of it. Second, the feeling tone of experience—sometimes called the hedonic tone in psychology—is pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Then comes perception, which is labeling or memory—what the thing is. The so-called volitional formations, which comprise all of our mental activities, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, and so forth. Then, consciousness or awareness.
I always wondered, why does feeling come first? Why does the feeling tone come before perception? But then I found out and realized that—in terms of the processing stream in the brain—generally it’s more important to jump first and ask questions later. In other words, the raw sense of something—a stimulus—either external or internal, as pleasant or unpleasant is something that the animal, including complex animals like us, has to react to immediately. The labeling of the stimulus—it’s alright if it comes in a second or two later.
In other words, a classic example is you’re walking down a path and there’s some kind of curvy shape you suddenly notice out of the corner of your eye and you jump back in alarm. Then, one to three to five seconds later, higher levels of perceptual processing come in and say, “Oh, that was a vine, not a snake.” But from a standpoint of survival, it makes sense to just register unpleasant, alarm and leap back before this labeling comes in. To me, that’s why I think in the sequence, or the conventional list, perception comes after the feeling tone.
What really interests me a lot—and is very neat, deep end of the pool kind of stuff—is the ways in which scans of the brain while people are engaged in different, seemingly self-referential activities, like recognizing a personal photograph amidst a group of people or declaring a moral choice or pulling up a personal memory or comparing themselves to others. You cannot find any place in the brain that is specialized for, “Me, myself, and I.” You can’t find self anywhere in the brain. It’s widely distributed, continually changing, and based on many parts.
In other words, in the technical sense, it’s empty of any kind of absolute self-existence—the sense that there actually is an eye, gosh darn it, looking out through the eyes—the agent of action and the owner of experiences. Modern neuroscientific studies are really supporting and corroborating the Buddha’s argument 2,500 years ago that the apparent eye is actually a fictional character.
TS: Once again, I want to make sure that I’m understanding you here, because this is . . .
RH: [Laughs] You should tether me more.
TS: No, no, no! When swimming in the deep end, let those swim freely. But, I do want to make sure that I’m understanding you. You’re saying that when someone’s having a super-self-referential experience—I, me, mine, that’s a photo of me, etc.—there isn’t one section of the brain that’s lighting up, but there are several sections of the brain lighting up at the same time. Is that what you’re saying?
RH: Yes, and it’s worse than that. What I mean is—there’s a term: “localization of function.” What it means is that—like the amygdala—the alarm bell of the brain—is continually tracking the pleasantness or unpleasantness of experience and signaling to the rest of the brain whether something is really pleasant or unpleasant, and especially if it’s unpleasant. It performs a particular function. There are parts of the brain that get very involved in moving the muscles that control the little finger on your right hand, or there are parts of the brain that are specialized for comprehending language that are distinct from places that are responsible for producing language. There’s a lot of localization of function in the brain, although, of course, the whole thing works together.
With regard to something that seems so central to us, you could argue, even more central—you can lose language or you can go deaf, for example, or you can lose your little finger, or what have you, but you still feel like “I.” You still feel like, “I’m Rick.” You’re Tami. I am Rick. My precious. That’s such a strong and central aspect to us. And yet, actually, if you look at the brain, when people in different studies are doing different kinds of tasks that use different aspects or seem to call upon the sense of an “I,” there’s no particular part of the brain that does that.
Second, the parts of the brain that activate when people are doing these self-referential activities or activities that would seem to really draw upon a strong sense of I or me or mine. The parts of the brain that activate when there’s a strong sense of self also activate when people are doing things that have nothing to do with self whatsoever.
Famous literature reviews about the neuroscience of the apparent self have titles like, Is Self Special?, because they can’t find any place that’s special for self. Or they’ll have titles like, What is Self Specific?, and they can’t find anything. Isn’t that extraordinary?
TS: That is.
OK, I want to talk about something that I think is really part of our collective cultural dialogue right now, which is people talking about trauma and the traumatic experiences they’ve had, and potentially the sense that something has now triggered them in the present. It’s triggered something like “trauma brain.” “Oh, I’m in trauma brain right now, because X, Y, Z event just happened to me and it reminds me or is triggering something from early childhood.” Is there such a thing as “trauma brain?”
RH: I hear that question at two levels. Please make sure that I’m tracking it here. I think of a brain in the moment of trauma. We could call that “trauma brain.” You’re driving along and suddenly someone runs through a red light and smashes into your car and you’re bleeding and your child is screaming in the back seat. Hopefully, I’m not re-traumatizing somebody right now! Alternately, you can talk about a brain not in the acute moment of the trauma, but a brain that has been, let’s say, traumatized—or even repeatedly traumatized—and then is now in a non-traumatic situation, and yet we still have this trauma brain.
TS: Yes, I’m talking about both kinds, actually.
RH: Yes, that’s great. So, in itself, just to make a distinction—yes, there are fairly clear profiles about what it’s like to have a brain on trauma. Both acute trauma and, let’s say, a traumatized brain more generally.
Sidebar: It’s interesting that these profiles of the so-called trauma brain are a lot clearer than the profiles of the so-called self brain, or selfing brain, if you will—just to make that point in passing, interrelated to what we just talked about.
So, to go back, and if you’re asking me about what are some of the key aspects and what can people do . . .
TS: Yes, what they can do about it. That’s really where I’m going. Let’s say someone has had some kind of early childhood trauma that’s severe, and here they are as an adult and they get triggered in certain situations. How can they “rewire” their brain so that they’re more resilient and not so subject to being brought back into those traumatic experiences?
RH: This is a huge topic and I’ll try to be super succinct about it, because otherwise it would be hours. There are people, by the way, who are real specialists in this area and I’m not a specialist in this area. I’m a very interested observer though.
A couple of keys: One thing that happens typically to the traumatized brain is a decoupling or a breaking of the links between thinking and feeling. Literally, the integrated activity of regions in the prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, and more ancient, sometimes called limbic centers—or probably a more accurate technical term would be subcortical regions—like the amygdala, hippocampus, and basal ganglia—of coordination or communication between these different sectors, if you will—the reasoning, executive judgment centers and the cool reason, as it were, and hot passion. They break apart.
People can feel, on the one hand, numb, like they’re just in their head. They can think clearly, but they don’t feel like they have much access to their feelings or their heart—using that term metaphorically. Or, flipped the other way, the hot furnace, if you will, of the passions can erupt and there’s little capacity to think clearly when a person is sad, angry, scared, hurt, or upset. Or to bring a reason, logic, or planning to that passion. That’s one thing.
One of the things people can do about it is to try to integrate thinking and feeling more and more so they can bring language to their emotions. Also, interestingly, one of the centers of thinking and feeling in the brain, the frontal or anterior cingulate cortex is also very involved in meditation, especially deliberate application of attention meditations before you go all the way down into absorption. At that point, this anterior frontal cingulate cortex tends to go more offline.
So, the bonus here is that if you routinely practice meditation—and hopefully that works for a person and they are not flooded by their past as sometimes can happen for people. But generally, if you routinely practice mindfulnesss meditation, you will build up neural structure in a key part of the brain—the anterior cingulate cortex—that is very involved in integrating thinking and feeling. That’s one point.
The second point that’s very practical in terms of what a person can do, is to face the fact that we have a brain—as part of the negativity bias—that is very vulnerable to becoming sensitized to the negative over time, so that it starts reacting more intensely to frightening, irritating, shaming, or saddening kinds of experiences, which then make it even more reactive down the road, in a vicious cycle. One of the aspects of that is that over time, the amygdala becomes actually sensitized so the alarm bell rings more readily and more loudly. Second, the stress hormone cortisol that is released in chronic stress—particularly traumatic stress—gradually over-stimulates and even kills neurons in the hippocampus, a different part of the brain that puts things in perspective and also calms down the amygdala.
From a practical standpoint here, a person can both start recovering function in a hippocampus by doing things that work it, like deliberately trying to put things in context. For example, by putting their history in context, finding meaning in it, or some sense of causality—not to let anyone off the hook necessarily, but to see it as a part of a larger picture. That kind of activity certainly engages the hippocampus. Another thing that helps recover hippocampal function is exercise, because it promotes the growth of new baby neurons there. Also, engaging complexity and stimulation, ranging from doing crossword puzzles or jigsaw puzzles, because the hippocampus is also involved in visual spatial activities.
If you do visual spatial activities like making art or walking in different parts of your neighborhood to engage visual spatial memory or playing games that involve things like mazes and whatnot, you can also strengthen the hippocampus. Also, you can keep these new baby neurons alive (that have been stimulated by exercise) by complexity—engaging things that work your mind.
So, you can improve your hippocampus. You can also strengthen the receptors in the amygdala that receive oxytocin and also receive pleasure molecules—the natural opioids, like the endorphins and so forth. This alarm bell is inhibited by oxytocin release, which is associated with the experiences of bonding, love, and feeling both loved and loving. Certainly, experiences of feeling loved or loving that are very concrete, sensual, and primal—like rubbing soft flannel on your cheek, petting your cat, or hugging a lover—just being really close.
You can also stimulate oxytocin through imagination, such as through doing loving kindness practices or compassion practices or bringing to mind someone you feel devotion for or others who love you. By doing that, you both bring oxytocin flows into the amygdala, which will tend to calm and soothe it. And that maps very closely to our own experience, doesn’t it? That when we feel loved and cared about, we don’t feel so stressed or reactive. Over time, those oxytocin stimulating practices will actually sensitize its receptors—oxytocin receptors in the amygdala.
In a positive way, you can gradually sensitize your amygdala to relational experiences and to rev up your—you can also do something quite similar in terms of pleasure experiences—pleasure broadly defined—certainly including chocolate chip cookies, but also just thinking of things that make you happy. That will tend to release those natural opioids. The amygdala has receptors for them too. As we take in the good again and again, both through relational experiences that are oxytocin related, as well as more general pleasure or happiness experiences that stimulate the opioids, we can gradually sensitize that alarm bell so it reacts more and more to pleasant, positive, experiences, and less and less to negative ones.
Then, if I can say one last thing really fast—buy yourself time. Because these subcortical systems—these ancient systems—the amygdala, the basal ganglia, and so forth—they have a kind of fast track that connects them to the big sensory processing switchboard in the brain, the thalamus. While the thalamus sends information to the subcortical regions really quickly—Alarm! Watch out!—it also sends signals to the prefrontal cortex behind the forehead, but those signals are a little slower.
Often what happens when people have a trauma brain—to use your term—they react extremely quickly to some internal thought or feeling or to an external stimulus, and that kind of hijacks them. People use language like, “a reptile brain hijack,” or “an amygdala hijack.” The trick is to buy your prefrontal cortex a few seconds. Buy it time. The amygdala has about a three second head start—maybe even less, actually. Unfortunately, that head start can then start to condition everything in this cascade of reactivity that shapes the way the prefrontal cortex—as it were, views things.
But if you just buy yourself some time—keep your mouth shut. I have rarely gotten in trouble by not saying something. You know what I mean? Once in a blue moon, but most of the times I got in trouble were based on saying something or taking some kind of action. But if I had just bought myself a little more time—five or ten seconds—to think more clearly about the situation and to put things in perspective and to realize that I was not in this moment in mortal danger, or someone I love is not in mortal danger, then I could have acted a lot better.
TS: Very helpful, thank you. It might be to say in a state like that, “I might just need some time before I respond,” or something like that—to actually make a statement like that.
RH: Yes, buy yourself some time. Tara Brach has a phrase, as you know, I think, “the sacred pause.”
TS: Yes. So, Rick, we started our two-part conversation way back when, talking about positive neuroplasticity. I’m wondering if you’ve found that there’s any type of wiring or structure in the brain that just won’t change. It’s not going to get rewired. It’s not going to change. All of this talk about changing our brain—self-directed brain change—is great, but these things aren’t going to change, so let’s just put that out on the table.
RH: Right, right. Well, first, when anyone is engaged now with this territory of so-called experience-dependent neuroplasticity—how the brain changes based on experiences—anyone who’s engaged with that—myself included—knows that these changes we’re talking about are relatively small and subtle in terms of the larger structures of the brain. That said, as anyone who has learned to become less anxious, say, or more determined, or more loving, knows, you can feel really different inside based on some fairly subtle and small changes in your brain.
I want to put this in context here. Most of the brain is not going to be changed, even in the brains of people who—let’s say, some of these Tibetan monks whose brains have now been studied quite carefully. People who have done 30–50,000 hours—a lifetime—of meditation and who psychologically seem like tremendously remarkable people through thick and thin. No matter how tough it is, they never get knocked over. They’re always in their responsive mode, basically. They’re locked on green, even as they engage very hard things in life.
Clearly, their minds have changed dramatically. But if you examine their brains, their brains don’t look very different from that of a brain of, let’s say, someone who’s got a trauma brain. [That’s] part one. I think it’s important to put it in perspective.
Second, our core personalities don’t change—our core temperaments. Also, you can’t change our fundamental drives. Those are not going to change. More generally, I think that it’s possible that people who have had devastating trauma—particularly at a time when they were extremely vulnerable—like in the first three years of life. Particularly if they were incredibly vulnerable as individuals themselves, maybe they had a health problem or premature birth, what have you. I think it’s arguable that there are certain kinds of injuries that we can never fully recover from. We can rehabilitate them, we can heal tremendously around them, but there will always remain—I think of it as a kind of psychological trick knee that the person will have to be careful about.
Using the metaphor of the trick knee: they can still, after they do really, really intensive rehab on their knee, they can still go skiing and maybe even go down a black diamond slope, but they need to wear a brace. Ice [the] knee afterward and avoid moguls, let’s say. But they can still enjoy their life fully. Nonetheless, that knee was terribly broken. I think that’s true. I think it’s possible that there can be certain kinds of devastating injuries that we just never fully recover from. But we can still have a tremendous recovery—and I think there’s tons of evidence that supports that—if we do the work.
And the last point on that is a broad finding on neuroscience that has huge implications. It’s this: as you go down what’s called the neural access—and people listening can literally do this right now. If you place your finger on the top of your head and then bring your finger down, or just imagine it moving down through the cortex and then roughly around the area, more or less, of your ear through the subcortex, and then lower down into the brainstem. As you go down what’s called the neural access, you also go back in time. You move back in time from the human to the primate to the mammalian to the reptilian—all the way back to the jellyfish stage of neural evolution 600 million years ago.
As you go back down in time and as you go down the neural access, neuroplasticity decreases. In other words, the capacity of the cortex to be shaped by experience is great. You could argue that our needs related to attaching to others, which are primarily managed in the cortex—which has tripled in volume over the last several million years as our human and hominid ancestors became incredibly social. We could learn a lot, and quickly, related to our relationships, in principle. We have the neural capability of that. There’s tremendous neuroplasticity there.
If you go down into the subcortex—basal ganglia, amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, and so forth—there is some neuroplasticity down there. I talked about neuroplasticity. For example, repeatedly taking in—letting it sink in, feeling loved or feeling happy in one way or another—can produce neuroplastic changes, let’s say, in terms of oxytocin receptors or endorphin receptors in the amygdala. There’s some change there, but it’s slower, which suggests that our issues related to approaching rewards, including chasing addictions of one kind or another, or being driven and driven and driven—greed, if you will. That’s slower to change and needs more effort to change.
Then, if you go all the way down into the brain stem that manages or is the origin, really—or the root—of the most primal motivational system of all—the avoiding harm system—because rule one of the wild is: Eat lunch today. Don’t be lunch today.
If you have issues related to fear or trauma—because trauma gets down to the avoiding harm system, obviously, because you are unable to avoid that harm and you are now afraid of being harmed again in that way, etc.—well, there is some neuroplasticity down in the brainstem, but it’s really quite small compared to the neuroplasticity in the subcortical regions, let alone the neuroplasticity in the cortex.
That means to me—from a practical standpoint—that if you have issues in the approach and reward system—like addictive issues—you need a lot of learning experiences that will take you in a different direction. Then, even more primally, if a person has issues in the avoiding harm system—issues of anxiety disorders, traumatization, just real intense movement to anger—for example, rage reactions—those issues need a lot of care. A lot of rehabbing.
To put it metaphorically, to sum up here—it’s corny, but it works for me to think of it this way—if you think of the three stages of neural evolution—reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human—it’s if inside each one of us—certainly inside me—is a little lizard, a little mouse, and a little monkey. To make my point concretely, related to the fairly minimal amount of neuroplasticity in the brain stem, our inner lizard needs a lot of petting. When I realized this about minimal neuroplasticity in the brain stem, it helped me understand in a whole new way the amount of effort that’s necessary to work with issues of anxiety and to heal from trauma.
TS: That’s very helpful. One final question for you, Rick. I know that you have a social vision for your work—a vision of how the world could actually—we could say—become more filled with green brains. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about this social vision that you’re carrying in your heart.
RH: Oh, thank you. I’m quite touched that you’re bringing that up here. There are obviously many causes of the difficulties in the world, and this is a subject of some debate. But, generally speaking, there have been improvements in conditions in the world in many kinds of ways over the last hundred years—certainly in the last 1,000 or 10,000 years—but still, the world is pretty messed up in ways large and small.
So, the question then becomes: What is the brain’s contribution to the problems of the world? If you think about brains in the Red Zone—brains locked onto fear, frustration, and heartache. The reactive mode of the brain is the primary source of the brain’s contributions to poverty, injustice, aggression, greed—broadly defined, growing wealth and equality in the United States and in other parts of the developed world. For example, the ways in which wealthy countries exploit not-so-wealthy countries that are not so powerful, etc., etc,. etc.
If you think of it, that’s the brain on red. That’s the reactive mode of the brain in terms of its needs to avoid harm, approach rewards, and attach to others. It’s going about meeting those needs in ways that maybe are filling up the bank account or building up the armies of one country or social group or another, but are really creating a tremendous amount of suffering and harm worldwide.
To operationalize a realistic vision of a world that could have a soft landing, I imagine for myself: what would be a tipping point? How many brains would it take to spend most minutes of most days in a Green Zone—in the responsive mode of the brain? How many brains would it actually take, worldwide? My personal number, realistically—having looked at a lot of history—is probably around a billion.
I think if we can get around a billion brains resting in green most of the time . . .
TS: Where do you think we are now on our way to that billion?
TS: No, I’m serious, Rick. Where are we?
RH: Ten million. A hundred million. I’m talking about most minutes, like 98 percent of the minutes in 98 percent of the days. Let’s just think about that.
Maybe a hundred million? I think we’re edging in that direction. But, I think, obviously, we need to tip more. It’s not a guarantee. People—there are sadly many examples of people who clearly are—they don’t feel scared. They feel safe, they feel satisfied, and they feel connected. And they’re still serious jerks, or tyrants, or megalomaniacs, or greed hogs.
Generally speaking, I think more and more, as people feel peaceful inside in terms of the avoiding system—they go green in regard to the avoiding system—they’re going to be less aggressive and warlike toward others. Also, as people feel more contented in terms of the approaching system, they are going to be less greedy. They’re going to be more willing to share. They are not going to be so motivated around wealth and equality. Getting mine, right?
And, as people feel more loved and connected in terms of the attaching to others system, they’re going to be more generous toward other people, more capable of being cooperative toward them. You can see a lot of the difficulty in American politics now in this classic, ancient story, in which there’s a very powerful minority of the population that feels very much like an “us” and all others are these alien contaminators who are robbing the “true Americans”—if you will—of their birthright and are invasive and exploitive. When you feel rested in that kind of reactive view—in terms of the attaching system, for example—it takes things to a very bad place.
That’s why, just to sum up, I do think as a practice—starting ideally in childhood and then in everyday life—to really internalize again and again and again, a felt sense of basic safety. The war is over. I’m not actually being threatened in this moment. It’s not Threat Level Orange. It’s actually, in this moment, Threat Level Green. If people would repeatedly let it sink in, there’s plenty already in this moment. There’s enough right now. I already have enough. I can be contented, in terms of the approaching system.
If people would just let it sink in. I’m liked enough already. I’m loved enough already. I’ve been loved enough. If that’s authentically true—and I think for many people, it actually is true—and I can expand the circle of “us” to include those various “Thems” out there—while still taking care of my own needs and that of my own groups and so forth. If I can do that, in terms of the attaching system, and do those practices everyday—which I do. I do practices of the felt sense of peace, contentment, and love every day. It’s hard to imagine that that could hurt and I think it could really, really help.
TS: On our way to a billion and more.
RH: That’s right!
TS: Hey, Rick, it’s been great to talk to you. I learn so much every time I talk with you. Thank you so much.
RH: Oh, it’s mutual, Tami. It’s a great pleasure. And may this conversation be a benefit to many, many beings.
TS: Rick Hanson is the author of a new book, Hardwiring Happiness. With Sounds True, he’s created a new program called Self-Directed Brain Change: Rewire Your Neural Pathways for Happiness and Resilience. He’s also created an audio program called Meditations for Happiness and a six-session audio course on The Enlightened Brain: The Neuroscience of Awakening. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thank you for listening.