Four Pillars of a Healthy Mind

In 1992, neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson met the Dalai Lama for the first time. Like many neuroscientists and psychologists, he had been studying what was wrong with human brains: anxiety, fear, depression, and stress. But his Holiness asked why he wasn’t using neuroscientific tools to study kindness and compassion.  At first, the question startled him, but it then led to nearly two decades of collaboration between them and the establishing the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

In his 2019 TED Talk, Davidson challenged us to take more responsibility for transforming our brains. He said, “Our brains are constantly changing, constantly being changed by forces around us. But we have, typically, very little awareness of what those forces are. Our brains are changing, wittingly or unwittingly. Most of the time it’s unwittingly.” Inspired by the Dalai Lama’s question, Davidson began to research how we might go about changing brains wittingly and for good.

We now know that, in addition to social environments affecting the brain, the environment inside us is also shaping the human brain. Years of research led Davidson to identify what he calls the four pillars of a healthy mind: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. The research also led him to believe that we can consciously build these pillars by training our minds to harness the power of neuroplasticity: the ability of the human brain to change itself.

The first pillar of a healthy mind is awareness. This includes the capacity to focus and move our attention volitionally and to resist distraction. Awareness also includes what some call meta-awareness or the ability to know what our mind is doing moment to moment and to make conscious choices about what our mind is doing. It is like focusing or expanding the beam of a flashlight. When interacting with others, we can narrow the focus and pay attention primarily to a distraction, like someone interrupting us, and our frustration with the interruption. Or we can expand our focus to also include how we want to respond. If we are able to expand our awareness and pay attention to all three, we increase the likelihood that we will respond and not just react.

To understand the impact of distractions on how our brains are being shaped unwittingly, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert looked at the emotional consequences of the brain’s default mode of operating or “mind wandering.” To take a broad peek into what was going on “under the hood” they developed an application for Apple’s iPhone that allowed them to create a database of 5000 people with a broad range of ages and occupations in 83 countries.

At random points during participants’ waking hours, the application on their phones presented them with questions and recorded their answers to a database. The three questions were: (1) “How are you feeling right now,” on a scale from very bad (0) to very good (100)?”; (2) “What are you doing right now,” checking off from a list of activities; and (3) “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”

Here’s what they found. 47% of us don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and we’re significantly less happy when we are not paying attention. In other words, our minds are wandering. When we are musing about other things, the mind is neither healthy nor happy. As Davidson quipped, “Folks, we could do better!”

The second pillar of a healthy mind is caring connection—maintaining interpersonal relationships characterized by appreciation, kindness and compassion. Our sense of safety—both physical and psychological—is inexorably connected with our sense of relatedness with others. Think about what it feels like when you’re included, heard, and valued by your friends and colleagues.

Now, think about the opposite—what it feels like when you’re ignored, unheard, and not cared about. Ouch. Banishment or solitary confinement is one of the harshest forms of punishment any society uses for discipline. This is an Olympic-sized ouch. Our sense of connection to others is as important to our survival and wellbeing as food and water. So, what does it mean when 61% of Americans report they are lonely? This feeling affects our physical health too. Loneliness is two times more predictive of an early death than obesity.

Understanding of self or insight into ourselves is the third pillar. What stories do you tell yourself about yourself, often unconsciously? For instance, my father’s favorite story was about being a “self-made man.” He told tales from his childhood of delivering newspapers in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and lighting fires on cold Sabbath mornings for Jewish families in his neighborhood. He was the only person in his family to go to college.

We get in trouble when we over identify with our stories about who we think we are. Narratives are just a constellation of thoughts. Replaying and ruminating on them can create a sense of an immutable or static self. Such narratives can be comforting, but they can also imprison us in a fixed, un-regenerating state of being.

Awareness is one doorway to noticing and investigating the stories we tell ourselves and whether they are helpful or not to a healthy mind. Stories—especially negative ones—can hijack a lot of resources in the brain. Becoming aware of the stories helps us see them for what they are—just stories. In this way, we can change our relationship to them and open space for a more expansive sense of self and wellbeing.

The final pillar of a healthy mind is a sense of meaning and purpose. Having a strong sense of these makes us more resilient, meaning we can recover from adversity more quickly. We can put whatever difficulty we are facing into a larger context or purpose. We can, as a song from the Civil Rights
Movement enjoined us, “Keep (y)our eyes on the prize.”

The broader and deeper the sense of meaning and purpose, the more possible it is to relate everyday activities to it, like washing dishes or doing the laundry. My sense of meaning and purpose lies in helping people bring the best of their mind, body, heart and spirit to any and all conversations so that together they can solve tough issues and create a desired future in which everyone belongs. What does this have to with dishes and laundry? They are opportunities to practice awareness and a sense of connection to those for whom I am doing these things. I also get to watch stories about myself arise when I stop paying attention to what I am doing.

It is possible to tap the adaptable neuronal pathways in the brain to develop these pillars. By meditating we can strengthen brain circuitry that engenders a healthy mind while weakening the neuronal architecture that undermines it. Most meditation practices involve training attention. There is growing evidence that at least one form of attention training—mindfulness meditation—affects brain circuitry that is crucial to a healthy mind. John Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in an open, accepting, non-judgmental way to whatever experience you are having in this moment.” For example, paying attention to what your mind is doing, engendering kindness and compassion for yourself and others, noticing and not getting lost in personal stories, and reconnecting with purpose.

May we all help one another develop healthy minds.

Thanks for reading,

Mary

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