Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.
Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.
Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel predicts interdisciplinary research in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy will lead to a new “science of mind” in this century, finally illuminating an integrated, biological understanding of the embodied mind. Kandel outlines five principles for this new science of mind:
1) mind and brain are inseparable;
2) all mental functions of the brain are carried out by specialized neural circuits;
3) each of these circuits are made up of nerve cells;
4) specific molecules generate signals within and between nerve cells; and
5) these signaling molecules have been conserved through millions of years of evolution.
What Gives Shape to Brain Maps and Is Created by Brain Maps?
These neural networks and firing patterns are commonly called brain maps. Brain maps correspond to everything in experience, from wiggling your toes to complex patterns of mental and emotional growth as well as illness. Brain maps are both shaped by and creators of habit, and can be radically transformed by a range of conditions including love and trauma. From this perspective, positive psychology exercises work when they alter the brain’s structure and functioningBehavior, actions, memory, and even abstract concepts correlate with brain maps. Those networks that are used again and become dominant, enhancing or inhibiting positive change and growth. Wilder Penfield pioneered brain mapping and discovered maps corresponding to every part of the body, as well as networks containing vivid, long-lost childhood memories and sensory impressions. Though different areas of the brain are highly specialized, the form and function of its networks are dynamic.
Researchers have found that the brain responds “plastically” to change by constantly reorganizing these brain maps. Learning new skills means creating new networks, usually by engaging and adapting existing networks and sometimes by creating new neurons. As such, the human brain is always able to change, but this plasticity is competitive; strongly reinforced maps take up space with larger neurons in faster connective networks. That is why practice makes perfect and a bad habit is hard to break.
Norman Doidge proposes that brain reorganizes itself in three basic ways, related to how one perceives the world, acts in the world, and thinking about or imagines the world. He has also described how positive emotions and experiences play an important role in neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. There is clearly great potential for interdisciplinary research in neuroscience and positive psychology, and for integrated models of positive intervention.
For He’s a Jolly Good . . . Habit
For instance, I like to think of character strengths as old good habits–correlating to strong neural networks that can be engaged for new learning and reinforced with practice. Christopher Peterson defines character strengths as the psychological ingredients, processes, or mechanisms that define human virtues. Those might just correlate with well-traveled maps in the virtuous mind. Research has shown that using your signature strengths in new ways can be one of the most effective positive psychology exercises, increasing happiness and decreasing depressive symptoms for six months following just one week of practice. Future research may show that strengths-based approaches to perceiving the world, acting in the world, and thinking in the world can “positively” change the structure of your brain.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
Kandel, E. R. (2007). The new science of mind. In F. Bloom (Ed.), Best of the brain Scientific American (pp. 68-75). Dana Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T., Park, N. & Peterson. C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410 – 421.