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Deeply Rooted in Mindfulness Practices for Optimal Brain Development

By: Cindy White, LCSW

Would you believe that learning to respond mindfully to ordinary, everyday positive experiences could significantly enhance the neural plasticity in your brain?  Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson has identified that dedicating just three minutes a day to one particular mindfulness practice helps to facilitate synaptic formation and pruning that is so essential to optimal brain function and to the development of greater physical, mental, and emotional resiliency*.

Our brains are hard-wired for survival and constantly alert to potentially threatening situations. As a result, we are much more attuned to the negative occurrences in life.  Our tendency is to ruminate on, expand, personalize, and somatically experience even the most seemingly benign negative incidences, such as being cut off in traffic or dealing with a dismissive sales clerk, which can in turn foster a mental model of scarcity, inadequacy, and defensiveness.

The mindfulness practice that Dr. Hanson suggests is to simply apply that same attentiveness to daily positive experiences. These moments don’t have to register as major life events—they can be as ordinary as observing a beautiful sunset, or playing with the family pet, or noticing the kindness of a stranger. These are the steps identified in the practice:

  1. Have a positive experience. Again, it doesn’t need to be earth shattering to be effective—just the normal, everyday stuff.
  2. Enrich the experience by doing the following:
    1. Increase the duration by maintaining the awareness for 10 to 20 seconds.
    2. Intensify it by being fully present.
    3. Notice it in multi-modalities, i.e., what images, thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, etc. accompany the experience?
    4. View it with novelty—notice new aspects of the experience you may not have been aware of before.
    5. Notice the positive self-thoughts that accompany the experience, i.e., “My life  is good,” “I am loveable,” I am kind,” etc.
    6.  Absorb the experience: breathe deeply, allow it to settle in.

These steps can occur simultaneously, and the entire process takes as little as 30 seconds. Dr. Hanson recommends doing this six times a day. By practicing conscious awareness of the natural benevolence of life, we can live from a sense of abundance, gratitude, and openness. Such a framework allows for healthy integration of brain, mind, and body and a greater overall sense of safety, belonging, and esteem.

*From Self-Directed Brain Change, Part 1, an interview with Dr. Rick Hanson by Tami Simon, available at Sounds True—Insights at the Edge podcasts, October 15, 2013.