10 things you need to know about the mind

Psychologist Emily Toner takes us inside this mysterious mass of nerves and fibres in our heads.

The mind is complex. There’s a lot we don’t know about why we think and feel the way we do. But the things we do know can help us bring more happiness, peacefulness and fulfillment into our daily lives.

As part of the Medibank School of Better – a free online learning space designed to give you the knowledge and skills to live better each day – clinical psychologist Emily Toner leads a short, practical course on the inner workings of the mind.

Here, she shares some essential things we should know about our brains.

1. Your brain is full of complex connections. Your brain consists of billions of special cells called neurons that talk to each other via connections known as neural pathways.

2. Your brain can change. The neural pathways in your brain keep changing and growing your whole life depending on your environment and how you use your brain. This is known as neuroplasticity.

3. Thinking patterns matter. If you spend your time worrying, the ‘worry’ pathways of your brain get stronger and stronger and easier to trigger. Alternatively, the more you focus on the present, the stronger these pathways become and the easier it becomes to remain present.

4. Stress can lead to more stress. The amygdala is the ‘fear centre’ of your brain. When you experience long periods of stress this area gets bigger, while other areas such as the frontal lobe – involved in attention, memory and planning – get smaller.

“The neural pathways in your brain keep changing and growing your whole life. This is known as neuroplasticity.”

5. We’re built to anticipate danger. Our brains have an inbuilt ‘negativity bias’ to help us avoid danger. This means that we are more likely to remember and to anticipate negative events occurring than positive ones.

6. Science makes us hard on ourselves. The negativity bias can also impact our thoughts about ourselves. This means that we are more likely to criticise than encourage ourselves when things go wrong.

7. Smile and your brain smiles with you. Our bodies are pretty clever and can influence our brain and the way we feel. For example, when you intentionally smile your body sends signals to the brain telling it that you’re happy.

“Our brain treats social pain, like feeling rejected, exactly the same way it treats physical pain.”

8. Our visual focus changes with mood. When we are sad, we have a narrow focus. When we are happy, we see more of our visual field and are more likely to see the big picture over the detail. So the experience of positive emotion literally opens our mind!

9. We get used to happiness quickly. Unfortunately, positive emotions don’t always last. Shortly after a positive event happens – like buying a car or going on holiday – your brain tends to quickly return to its baseline level of happiness. This is known as hedonic adaption.

10. Love hurts – literally. Our brain treats social pain, like feeling rejected, exactly the same way it treats physical pain, such as having a broken leg. This means that social connection is just as important to our brain as physical survival.

Want to learn more about how the mind works? Check out the Medibank School of Better, where Emily Toner takes you through some short, practical lessons on the psychology of mindfulness.  

Recommended reading - Issue Twelve Winter 2015

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