Linda R. Winter, JD, MA, LCPC
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Our Brain and Positive Affirmations
In the past, I had part of me that believed positive affirmations were simplistic and Polly Anna-ish. You know, "Life is a bowl of cherries," believe in something hard enough and it will magically appear, and all that. But as I have learned more about how our brains work, I have become less dismissive of positive affirmations. I now appreciate the power of the things we say to ourselves. I would like to share with you one example of what I’ve recently learned that has changed my perceptions.
Neural pathways develop as neurons learn to fire in a particular pattern. What we repeatedly and frequently say to ourselves or hear from others creates a pattern of neuron firing. What we repeatedly and frequently say to ourselves or hear from others develops into a neural pathway. Picture a path through a grassy field. The more foot traffic the path has, the more defined it becomes. As the neurons fire together in their pattern, they develop connections to each other. After a while, when a portion of the pattern is present, the connections with the previously fired neurons cause the entire pathway to fire. Thus, a part of the pattern is experienced as the full pattern. The brain has "filled in the blanks" and "connected the dots" in a kind of neural shorthand. The result is that when something said or experienced is even similar to prior statements or similar to the events that caused the prior statements, then the set way of responding is triggered.
Let's take an example. Let's say your mother always found ways to tell you that you were not pretty — your hair was wrong, your choice of clothing was wrong, your weight/figure were wrong. What self-statements might you have said to yourself? "I'm not pretty." "I’ll never get it right." "Everything about me is wrong." And, these self-statements rarely stop there.
When we hear these kinds of criticisms, we are sure they reflect defects about us deep down inside. Then your self-statements might become "I'm so flawed, I don't deserve to have friends." "Who could ever love me?" Any of this seem familiar? Now, fast forward a few years and your boyfriend in college says to you "Why don't you wear the other sweater tonight." And, you go right to "I'll never get it right. Who could ever love me?" The second statement by your boyfriend was only a little similar to what your mother used to say to you. But your neural pathway is set. Your brain has "filled in the blanks" and "connected the dots." You heard the statement and responded as if he had said the same things your mother used to say.
This ability of our brain to develop neural pathways and to use a "neural shorthand" can be used to our advantage. When we replace negative and critical self-statements with fact-based, balanced and helpful self-statements, we can develop positive and affirming brain patterns.