How to Make Your Mind Happy; According to Neuroscience

How to Make Your Mind Happy; According to Neuroscience
First off, let's begin with the facts:

1. Mindfulness works.
2. Mindfulness and neuroscience are both actually on the same page.

But how to neuroscience and mindfulness line up? Why often do our brains get anxious, sad, or angry? The best way to of understanding why these emotions happen is by looking at the functionality of our brain.

Left vs. Right Brain

The right side of your brain sees things pretty concretely. But our left is always weaving tales to try and make sense of the information coming in.
We need Lefty to give meaning to life. He interprets your experiences. If Lefty sees real patterns that others don’t, people call you creative. But there’s also a problem…
Lefty often screws up.

Michael Gazzaniga, one of the top cognitive neuroscientists, did some brain studies in the 1970’s with Roger Sperry (who would later win the Nobel Prize.) Gazzaniga discovered what Lefty’s job is — and just how badLefty is at it sometimes.

Gazzaniga discovered that the left side of the brain created explanations and reasons to help make sense about what was going on. It acted as an interpreter to reality… Over the last 30 years, several studies have shown that the left side of the brain, even in normal people, excels at creating an explanation for what’s going on, even if it isn’t correct.

Lefty can be way off base sometimes. If he sees patterns where there aren’t any, you’re anxious, paranoid or schizophrenic. And if Lefty doesn’t see any patterns in life — no “meaning” — you’re clinically depressed.

The problem is you don’t even realize Lefty is there. You assume his voice in your head is you and that his stories are rock-solid reality. But when Lefty isn’t detecting useful patterns, making accurate sense of things and giving meaning to the world, he can be a monster.

When you pay too little attention to the right brain’s raw data (“She’s looking at her phone”) and give too much credence to Lefty’s misconstrued interpretations (“Clearly, we’re boring her”), you can end up angry, sad, frustrated or anxious.

So what can you do to not get angry, sad, anxious or otherwise upset? This is where mindfulness comes in…

From a neuroscience perspective, mindfulness is about staying focused on the concrete in life and not getting too wrapped up in Lefty’s interpretations, categories, stories — and occasional fictions. Lefty isn’t “you.” Like your liver or your spleen, he’s a part of you, doing his job… sometimes ineptly. But when you realize this and listen for his voice in your head, you can double-check his work.

Listen to your brain as you go about your day and check what you hear against the concrete facts you notice. This kind of check on how practical and realistic Lefty’s interpretations are is the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Getting rid of Lefty isn’t desirable or even possible. But since he can sometimes act like a child, you need to treat him like one. Lefty’s the kid. You must be the parent. Don’t immediately accept Lefty’s interpretations. Pause, and consider his opinion as if it was advice from a friend. Check it against the hard facts you can see. Is he jumping to conclusions again?

Sharon Salzberg, one of the leading experts on mindfulness and author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, said:

What we’re talking about with mindfulness is not in any way eradicating thoughts or annihilating them, but being able to have a little bit of space so we can make a clear decision: “Do I want to nurture this or do I want to let it go?”


So you’re not immediately accepting Lefty’s stories as truth. That’s good. But how do you help him be better at his job so he doesn’t overreact all the time?

Help Lefty Be A Better Storyteller

What do positive psychologists recommend when all of Lefty’s stories are depressing? Before you go to bed, write down three good things that happened that day. Make the positive more salient to Lefty and he can’t help but start to weave that into his tales about “how life is.” It's a simple way of rewiring your brain to appreciate all the things you should focus your attention on instead... rather than getting caught up in meaningless (and more often temporary) thought patterns that serve no good at all.


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