Home All Training the Mind Changes the Brain

Training the Mind Changes the Brain

written by Kathryn Britton 7 June 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits, and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Her Sit Write Share website has resources for writers. Kathryn's articles are here.

Whenever we talk about positive interventions, we are assuming that people are malleable. William James wrote about intentional activity to change habits in ways that make life better. That’s the premise of books like The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky: that research has shown that people can make lasting changes in their level of happiness, but it requires action, effort and persistence.

That’s what psychologists have found. Neuroscientists are finding the same thing. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist who uses brain imaging to study behavior and emotion. (See his site for a more technically correct description of what he does.) He claims, “Social and emotional learning changes the brain,” and “We can change the brain by training the mind.” Social and emotional learning is a process by which people become better at understanding and managing emotions and learn how emotions impact the choices they make, the relationships they have, and their outlook in life.

Dr Davidson has a 16-minute lecture online that is available at the Edutopia site. Here are some of his primary points:

  • Behavioral interventions have biological impacts. They change the brain.
  • Behavioral interventions can cause more specific brain changes than psychotropic medications. They can affect very specific circuits, which is beyond our ability with drugs.
  • The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in more than cognition. It is also very involved when we use positive emotion to guide decision-making. For example, when someone is getting motivated to pursue a goal, the PFC is involved.
  • The prefrontal cortex is also connected to the amygdala – the part of the brain that detects threats and generates negative emotions. Scientists can visualize the connections between a person’s PFC and amygdala. They have reasons to believe that stronger connections enable better self-regulation. These connections can be built with intentional activity.
  • Amygdala responses are important for avoiding threats, but not many of us are chased by tigers any more. The physical responses to negative emotion have been hijacked for situations that are much less threatening — e.g., attacks to our self-esteem. (This reminded me of Martin Seligman saying that we still have Pleistocene brains … )
  • Scientists have shown greater prefrontal cortex activity in the brains of people who recover more rapidly from negative events. Presumably the PFC is actively reappraising a negative stimulus and coming up with a more adaptive and positive response. People can learn to do this with practice.
  • This ability to regulate emotion is important not just to happiness but also to health. Adolescents with strong PFC activation in response to negative events tend to have lower levels of cortisol in the evenings. Higher cortisol takes a toll on many organs, including the brain.
  • Neuroscientists have shown that anxiety impairs working memory. Therefore the ability to calm oneself is an important skill for learning.

He concluded that qualities such as patience, calmness, cooperation, and kindness are skills that can be trained, not traits that are either inborn or set for life by early childhood experiences. He also commented that he has not seen a sharp decline in this sort of neural plasticity as people get older. Training the brain may get somewhat more difficult as people age, requiring somewhat greater effort. Unlike learning language, there is no window that closes at a certain age.

Social and emotional learning is strongly related to Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence and involves 5 competencies that proponents believe should be core parts of education:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Self motivation
  • Empathy
  • Peer relations

This summary does not include any specific interventions for increasing these competencies. But I believe that just knowing that the brain can be changed is a positive intervention all by itself. I’ve been trying it out. Whenever I start feeling negative emotions — anger, shame, fear — I think about having an opportunity to train my brain, and somehow that helps me moderate my response.

When just learning a new skill like giving speeches, it’s very helpful to act as if one is confident without waiting until one actually feels confident. We sometimes call that “Fake it ’till you make it.” Building strong PFC-Amygdala circuits is similar. Acting as if they are already there — by intentionally working on self-regulation — helps bring them into existence.


Davidson, R. (2008). The heart-brain connection: The neuroscience of social, emotional, and academic learning. Edutopia Video.

Davidson, R. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them. Plume. (Added later)

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. (2004). The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success. In Columbia University, Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What does the Research say? Chapter 1. See page 7 for a discussion of the SEL competencies.

Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.

Thank you, Amanda Horne, for your PPND article that led me to Richard Davidson’s video lecture.

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Senia Maymin 8 June 2008 - 12:21 am

Hi Kathryn,
Thank you! This is by far one of the coolest, most interesting concepts I have ever heard – the fact that everything I do actually physically shifts and changes my brain – wow. You are reinforcing everything I read last year in the book by Sharon Begley: Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. I know you’re away for a week, so when you return, I’d love to hear whether you’ve read that book and what you think of it.

wayne jencke 8 June 2008 - 4:29 am

Hi kathryn and senia

HRV training is I think one of the most exciting “brain training” techniques aound. Check out my blog for research on HRV http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?cat=18

Would you like to borrow a copy of my HRV software over your summer break?

Senia Maymin 9 June 2008 - 12:10 am

That’s very interesting.
So HRV correlates with emotional tone, as least in one of your posts? Very interesting. A colleague of mine is very interested in emotional regulation. I may suggest that he follow up with you.
Thank you,

wayne jencke 9 June 2008 - 1:47 am

HRV also predicts long term health outcomes in the whitehall study. Many researchers are speculating that HRV is the connection between mind and body. In our resilience workshops we have noticed that HRV decreases when thoughts have a negative emotional tone and increase when thoughts have a positive or neutral emotional tone. A neutral emotional tone is what mediation, flow and engagement are all about.

Are you sure that you don’t want to trail the software – I think physiological measures are the future of psychology as your body doesn’t lie

david 9 June 2008 - 11:23 am

hi, there’s a really interesting dialogue between Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman called ‘Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Skills’ where Davidson’s research is explored in light of Goleman’s concepts. It’s available at http://www.morethansound.net

Myra Jones 9 June 2008 - 1:19 pm

I am glad that psychology has emerged from the dark ages. This is a helpful article based on valid research.

Senia Maymin 9 June 2008 - 3:06 pm

Dear Myra and David,
Thank you for the comments. Myra, I agree with you. David, thanks for the additional link.
Senia (while Kathryn is away this week)

Marie-Josee Salvas 10 June 2008 - 9:07 am

Very interesting article, Kathryn! While I love to read about strengths and positive emotions, I see training the brain as what gives positive psychology its raison d’etre and what gives us practitioners purposefulness. It confirms that the efforts invested are really having lasting, tangible impact – it’s more than placebo!
Thank you for this meaningful contribution,

SteveM 9 October 2008 - 8:02 am

To All,

I should have realized that HRV has been discussed before here. Here is a link to an earlier, very good Kathryn B article:


It looks like the technology is constantly improving while getting cheaper all the time. (The ol’ “Cell Phone Effect”).

The price point of the home systems is low enough for me to suggest anyone that is interested give it a try.

SteveM 9 October 2008 - 8:03 am

Oops, above posted to the wrong but article…


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