4 Fascinating Neurological Processes to Help Fulfill Dreams

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

It’s amazing to think that we all walk around with a brain, the control centre of our body; a soft, grey squidgy piece of matter protected by the cranial cavity inside our skull, possibly the most complex organism in the universe.

Cranium – Image by Gordon Johnson via Pixaby

The human brain contains one hundred billion neurons (nerve cells). Each neuron makes links with ten thousand other neurons to form an incredible three dimensional grid containing a thousand trillion connections – that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 (a quadrillion).

If you struggle to get your head round that number try visualising each connection in this grid as a disc that’s one millimetre thick.  According to molecular biologist Nessa Carey, if you were to stack up the quadrillion discs on top of each other they would reach the sun (which is ninety-three million miles from the earth) and back, three times over!

Those incredible, powerful connections are all happening inside our heads…

My last post about brain power focused on neuroplasticity, as neuro science is a subject that fascinates me, and lately I’ve been reading Neurowisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness and Success by Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning, PhD.

I’ve learnt some fascinating facts already, but it’s putting those findings and aha moments into practice that counts.

That is a consistent lifelong activity!

“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The authors wanted to define that ineffable quality that we all aspire to feel every day – happiness.

Measuring happiness…

According to data published by the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago University over nearly forty years (1972 – 2010) consisting of accumulated worldwide statistics – money predicts happiness.

Further research undertaken in 2012 by the Wharton School of Business took their findings even further, having found no evidence of a saturation point. In other words, the more income we make, the more happiness we will experience. But just as income appears to be the primary indicator of happiness, there are other important factors in the measurement of happiness.

But we have probably all read about miserable millionaires with dysfunctional lives in news stories and conversely know happy every day people who are content with their lot.

In 2015 the United Nations published the World Happiness Report, containing the six most powerful indicators for happiness, in descending order of importance. Interestingly, the report also found that those who make more money are happier, and those who are happier tend to live longer.

The World Happiness Report identified another major aspect of happiness: wellbeing. Wellbeing is defined as a life that is filled with enjoyment and feelings of safety, alongside the absence of anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

In a 2015 issue of the Lancet it was reported that an ongoing sense of wellbeing lowers your risk of physical and emotional disease, tripling your survival rate and extending your life.

The Six Qualities of Happiness

  1. Spending Power (economic capital)
  2. Friends, family and community support (social capital)
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make decisions
  5. Financial generosity to others
  6. Absence of corruption in business and government (don’t get me started on this last one!!)

Whilst we still have significant challenges in Western societies (including a shared global pandemic at the moment), they pale in comparison to those caught up in cruel dictatorships and war ravaged regions, with limited opportunities of improving these six fundamental factors for happiness. The severe lack of these factors in certain parts of the world is driving mass migration.

Then there are the profound impacts that climate change could have for our species in all those areas.

It comes as no surprise that money is in the number one spot.

“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The dark side of money

Money is neutral until it is used by a person. People used to bandy about the saying “money won’t make you happy” or as the bible warns: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money can be used for good, and just like another neutral object, a knife, it can be used to butter your toast or to harm another person.

Being obsessed with money is shown to increase greed, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, selfishness, risky behaviour and insensitivity towards others.

Research has shown that making money increases happiness, but using money wisely predicts long-term satisfaction.

Spending one’s hard-earned dosh on experiential purchases, such as holidays, cultural events, courses and lessons, hobbies and helping others, will make you happier than spending it purely on material objects.  That’s not to say those purchases won’t make you happy, but shared experiences with and for others can be more fulfilling.

“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”
~ Jonathan Swift

Researchers reviewed 259 studies comparing money and happiness, and a clear pattern was revealed: the more people focused purely on materialistic wealth, the more dissatisfied they felt with their lives.

It was even noted that if others perceive you as being overtly selfish and greedy they will want you to fail, and may even go so far as to try and sabotage your success.

When people feel they have been unfairly treated, especially where money is concerned, they may take steps to punish the greedy individual, even if it means there is a personal cost in doing so. This reaction is known as Altruistic Punishment.

As a population we can punish unethical, polluting, greedy and poisoning corporations by not buying their products, lobbying for changes in the law, in the same way we can avoid voting for dishonest, unintegrous politicians (unless sucked in by their shallow charisma and empty promises).

The crucible of a happy, healthy, successful life therefore is mastering the balance between inner and outer wealth, as well as integrating material, social and personal desires.

I hear you – this is easier said than done!

Our brains are programmed to seek outer wealth, including any object or activity we perceive to be valuable. Inner wealth is rooted in the brain’s desire to experience pleasure, whether through social interaction or the involvement in any experience that provides greater meaning, purpose, satisfaction and a lasting sense of wellbeing.

The philosophers of ancient Greece discovered that there are two types of happiness: Hedonic and Eudaimonic. Both are necessary to wellbeing, but the latter is more conducive to long-term sustainable happiness.

Triumph of Bacchus by Michaelina wautier c. 1650

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, an immediate fulfillment of a particular desire.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology had an erudite take on this form of happiness:

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth.  They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

On the other hand, the eudaimonic path cultivates enjoyment from daily activities:

“Without enjoyment, life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.” 

I feel the Baroque and contemporary paintings are brilliantly executed art depictions of Greek Mythology in relation to the subject matter. The link under Apollo and Dionysus highlights the artist’s concept.

Apollo and Dionysus by Leonid Ilyukhin

To better achieve these markers of happiness in our lives we need to master four neurological processes the authors cite as being the foundational pillars of inner and outer wealth – defined as the combination of money, happiness, success, and personal contentment.

The four pillars of wealth:

  1. Motivation
  2. Decision making
  3. Creativity
  4. Awareness

MOTIVATION

Desire – Curiosity – Pleasure

Motivation is the motive for action. A download of dopamine gives us the essential desire to seek out new goals and go about our business. Instinct and curiosity are the key elements of motivation.

Dopamine is a powerful neurochemical that stimulates pleasure and desire and is essential to mental health, the immune system and overall wellbeing. If the brain does not secrete enough dopamine the brain can become lethargic, and we can slip into depression, losing the drive to work towards meaningful rewards. This is a good reason to engage in new and interesting activities throughout your life.

Gut-Brain Axis

I’m not going to dwell on this as I will be writing future gut health posts, and I touched on the links between the bacteria living inside the gastrointestinal tract and mental health in a previous post. But suffice to say, if you want optimal brain function you need to look after your gut!

There are around 100 million neurons lining the gut, it has been termed the second brain. Various drug factories (aka trillions of bacteria) in your gut produce all kinds of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, GABA and oxytocin to name a few. Communication between the gut brain (Enteric Nervous System) and the head brain (Central Nervous System) happens instantaneously via the Vagus Nerve.

It is a two way street, but majority of messages travel from the gut to the brain. This is the source of food cravings – pathogenic bacteria yelling at the brain that they need more sugar!

If your gut is out of balance it’s likely your hormones could be too, and this will hamper these neurological processes.

The M-Drive

The motivation-reward circuit is located in the Nucleus Accumbens, in part of the most ancient area of the brain, the Limbic system, responsible for sensory and emotional processing and midbrain activity. The authors refer to this circuit as the M-Drive.

When something emotionally excites you or captures your imagination, your brain is deciding whether to move towards the object of desire or away from any perceived threats. This motivational drive is fundamental to the survival of humans and every organism.

As I explain when I do my music education talks, learning an instrument and listening to music stimulates dopamine release. It’s a random fact I know, but so does yawning!

“I can give you high blood pressure just on the phone by criticizing you. On the other hand, I can send a tweet to somebody in China and give them a dopamine hit.”
~ Deepak Chopra

There is a flip side though; your brain can release too much dopamine when it perceives a highly rewarding activity or object, which can cause potentially destructive addictions.

Too much pleasure may override the brain’s ability to make sensible and wise decisions, encouraging risky behaviour.  Roll call adrenaline junkies. Everyone is different, and we each become aware through our thoughts and behaviour of what floats our boat in terms of activating our motivation-reward circuits.

What causes a conflagration of desire and pleasure that becomes overwhelming?

Infatuation and obsession are two powerful states that spring to mind.  But there are many others. The list of human foibles is rather a long one.

Image by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

We can get stuck in the dopamine loop before we even realise what has happened. I have experienced this on occasions, and eventually, through great effort, I’ve been able to shift myself away from a destructive cycle.

But it’s not easy, you have to have the will to do it once you become aware of what is happening in the M-Drive!

“Science has learned recently that contempt and indignation are addictive mental states. I mean physically and chemically addictive. Literally! People who are self-righteous a lot are apparently doping themselves rhythmically with auto-secreted surges of dopamine, endorphins and enkephalins. Didn’t you ever ask yourself why indignation feels so good?”
~ David Brin

Another perspective on the same subject from an advanced spiritual teacher:

“Everyone gets a secret pleasure from resentments, from being the martyr or the victim, and from feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, etc.[…]To undo the ego, one must be willing to abandon this payoff game, with its grandstanding of emotions and repetitive rehashing of data and stories to justify its positions.[…] When the ‘inner juice’ is abandoned, it is replaced by inner peace.”
~ Dr. David Hawkins, I: Reality and Subjectivity

This was also ancient knowledge:

“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
~ Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras)

Dopamine is potent, our job is to direct it into healthy pursuits – in other words being of service. Deeply held altruistic values and beliefs will stimulate more balanced desires.

According to Waldman and Manning whatever obstacles a person may be facing, the more optimistic they feel, the more motivated they will become. Apparently it is possible to sublimate our more pessimistic tendencies of cognitive awareness and literally build stronger neural circuits of optimism. Over 100 published studies exist showing that optimism is essential for physical and emotional health.

Even the anticipation of future rewards can stimulate dopamine, improve mood, motivation and decision-making. This is why pleasure/dream boards can keep our motivation going, which is the precursor for the next neurological process of decision-making.

DECISION-MAKING

Goals – Consciousness – Language

After being released from the Nucleus Accumbens dopamine travels to a newer part of the brain, the frontal lobe, giving us the ability to plan out strategies and activities to help us reach our goals. Here the brain helps us turn desire into action. This process may involve learning new skills, developing new habits, developing greater emotional intelligence, control and self-esteem.

Maybe this is why I find I’m more creative and productive immediately after a violin practise…

The frontal lobe helps us to consciously find ways to satiate the yearning and ambition ignited by desire. We begin to have ideas to solve problems or acquire something, and this helps us to make the decisions we need to act and work towards achieving our dreams.

This process involves habitual behaviour, the regulation of moods, and helps keep you focused on your desired outcome.

However, decision-making can be disrupted by stress, worry and doubt, so positive affirmations can help train our brain to stay focused, confident and optimistic, even when we experience setbacks.

The only time I delay making important decisions is when I’m upset, because I know that my executive function will be temporarily impaired by an emotional episode.  But in the longer term, not making a decision is a decision.

CREATIVITY

Imagination – Intuition – Daydreaming

I wrote a post a while back specifically about mind-wandering, a part of this crucial process on our journey to greater fulfilment. This unique state of consciousness, when the brain is in the default mode network helps to prevent mental exhaustion, by use of small scheduled time pockets to actively engage in daydreaming and the use of intuitive imagination to solve problems.

Imagination is so fundamental it led Einstein to declare that it was more important than intelligence!

“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journey through life, except in your mind.”
~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Day dreaming has traditionally been frowned upon, and teachers may berate young students for zoning out when they should be focused. But this is a natural process and a helpful one in the right amounts, one that is essential for learning new information and revitalising the brain.

Deliberate mind-wandering is recommended to alleviate stress or if struggling with a difficult problem or emotional issue.

When we imagine a scenario, putting ourselves into another time, place or situation, we can use the subtle senses as part of this envisioning process. Unlike the physical senses, when the subtle senses are engaged in multi-directional thinking there are no limits. We can recall the sound of someone’s voice, the smell of roses, the taste of strawberries, the sound of the sea rolling rhythmically onto the beach, rain falling gently onto the window pane, a certain physical sensation; we can create an entire experience that hasn’t happened yet in intricate detail in our mind’s eye.

Creativity is the journey from the formless to phenomena to form. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s foremost researchers on creativity and optimal performance, found that creative people tend not to lose their sense of awe and wonder in the world, and are less likely to be trapped by repetitive daily routines. They maintain a childlike curiosity about everything, exploring various different avenues of interest not necessarily related to their core work.

His research suggests looking for things that are unusual or different, or seeing familiar things with a fresh perspective – in other words aim to be unquenchably curious and surprise yourself and others every day.

Divergent and convergent thinking

Csikszentmihalyi also recommends practising both divergent and convergent thinking. You may recognise divergent thinking from the term ‘thinking outside the box’.  This kind of thinking is considered open-ended, non-linear and irrational when seeking solutions to problems.

I imagine some people thought Wilbur and Orville Wright were off their trolleys in attempting to fly in a powered machine at the start of the 20th century, but now, a mere 117 years later we can fly around the world, exceed the speed of sound and travel into space!

We also need to become adept in convergent thinking, dealing with the minutiae of daily details and decisions, selecting one of just a few options or ideas.

I also explored the source of creativity in a previous post.

AWARENESS

Fairness – Empathy – Self-knowledge

The newest part of the brain, evolutionary speaking, is where awareness occurs. When we participate in self-reflection it stimulates circuits of empathy, compassion and self-love. This process helps us to develop more self-awareness, become more socially aware and more spiritually aware of our values, better equipping us to meet the needs of others as well as our own.

Image by Levi XU on Unsplash

In this way mutual trust and cooperation expand, work becomes more meaningful, purposeful and satisfying.

Awareness grows as we age, for the neural circuits involved in self and social awareness (the insula and anterior cingulate), don’t become fully functional until a person is well into their thirties.

This is why I try to have patience with my children, because they have less understanding of how their actions affect and influence others. Selfishness is the default position of a young person’s brain.

From childhood into early adulthood an individual has not yet developed the neurological capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, and are prone to taking greater risks and making mistakes. We all make mistakes, but with age and wisdom they will likely decrease. Mistakes are an essential feedback tool and not proof of failure.

One of the best ways I have found to enhance the conscious knowledge of my character, personality and everything else about me, as well as how my actions might influence others, is through meditation and honesty.

When we fully own the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing holds any power over us. We already know the worst, experiencing both the shadow and the light.

I have learnt to accept myself, flaws and all, with compassion. Patience isn’t a natural strength of mine, so I need to focus on practising it daily, with myself and my family!

Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation strengthens the areas of the brain concerned with confidence, optimism, emotional regulation, happiness, self-love and compassion for others.

There are varying levels of awareness: encompassing bodily sensations, positive and negative thoughts and feelings, awareness of old and new habits and behaviours, self-image and self-esteem, belief systems, purpose and values, awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, the social consequences of actions and awareness of awareness itself.

Heightened states of awareness facilitate ‘aha moments’, those sudden insights and ideas that can be applied into different aspects of your life.

The four pillars are interconnected, as when mindfulness/meditation increases awareness, so does motivation, hence you will make better decisions and your creativity will be unleashed. As the connectivity between the four pillars is strengthened a person will begin to take a greater interest in the welfare of others.

In NeuroWisdom they list the 23 traits of moral character (something we should look more closely for in politicians, business leaders, and across the social stratum).

Contemporary research in Positive Psychology identifies the following character traits as associated with happiness, wellbeing and success: compassion, kindness, fairness, open-mindedness, forgiveness, appreciation, gratitude, leadership, social sensitivity, social responsibility, bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, creativity, curiosity, love of learning, wisdom, hope humour, humility, prudence and spirituality.

Not a bad list to aspire to…

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations; your conscious expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great, new and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
~ Patanjali

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