While it will be a long time before neuroscience theory catches up with effective practical psychological techniques, the following research supports the crucial concept that a healthy brain has balanced connections among all of its networks and balanced connections with other brains. In Aliveness language, this means that our healthiest life has a balance between relationships with ourselves, with others, and with our goals.
The techniques and framework of Aliveness lead to more balanced energetic flows, within our own brains, and with the brains of the people we interact with.
Relationships With Ourselves (our mind and body)
Mindfulness Meditation Mindfulness meditation improves attention control, self-awareness, and general observation skills. That's what we call a good relationship with your own mind. Article here.
Balanced Brain Connections: Intelligence The brain is a huge collection of billions of neurons, which are grouped into tiny circuits, bigger circuits, whole brain areas, networks, and lobes. It's all connected, and the amount of balance in that connection determines how intelligent we are. Want to be more connected? You have the power. Article here.
Feel Better First, Then Solve Your Problems Stress impairs high level brain networks, such as those for attention control, working memory, and visualizing and planning for the future. The best way to reduce stress is to figure out exactly where it's coming from and address it head on. BUT, we can't do this without hope and motivation. Before being able to reduce stress by solving the problems creating it, we need some Aliveness to give us the energy we need to regain control of our high level brain networks. Article here.
Feel Better First, Then Solve Your Problems (part 2) Our mood affects our ability to think. Verbal working memory is how we solve problems in our heads, by talking to ourselves in a productive way that searches for options that might help us. When we're in a negative mood, the brain activity of our verbal working memory is reduced. This means that when we're in a bad mood, we aren't as good at talking to ourselves, which makes us worse at solving problems. Again, this points to the need to shift our mood, find at least a moment Aliveness, before trying to solve problems in our lives. It's so simple, but it takes awareness and discipline to say, "I'm probably not in the best mental state to deal with this right now. Let me do something that will bring me Aliveness first." Article here.
Your Brain Is a Whole Country This study used a model of epidemic spreading to capture information flows within the brain. WHAT?! Yes, electrical activation in the brain spreads like a disease (or rumor or new slang word) through a population. Your brain is like a whole country, maybe like a whole world, within itself. Different brain areas have different roles, just like people in a country. Different parts spread information at different speeds, just like people, where the more social of us learn new slang words more quickly and spread them to more people. This all works together to create a single feeling of "me." But it's quite clear that what you think of as You is much, much more complex, and entire world trying to connect with and understand itself. It takes time, patience, and practice. Article here.
Feel Better First (part 3) When we're pursuing a goal, if we experience a challenge, our frontal brain areas that are active in planning and problem solving become more active. But, when the challenge gets too big, those areas get less active. After a certain point, the parts of our brain necessary for clear thinking basically shut down. After that, the more threatened we feel, the more they shut down. This again points to the necessity of changing our state from a threatened state to a less threatened state, so that the problem solving areas of the brain come back online. Otherwise, we're not playing with a full team in our brain. Article here.
Relationships With Other Humans
Interpersonal Touch Being touched by other people has extreme impacts on our emotions and motivations. Handshakes feel good, when they're balanced. Both people are putting energy into it, but no one is getting crushed. Hugs feel good, when they're balanced in a similar way. Touch affects us on multiple levels (physical and emotional), and it activates connections between multiple systems in the brain. A hug or even a good handshake can be an extremely enlivening experience. As a method for improving relationships, touch is the highest level. But, it must be done in a balanced way as mentioned before. Most people will shake your hand if you put it out there. Maybe not in our post COVID-19 world, but you don't have to shake hands with strangers. It can be fun to shake your roommate's hand, or your spouse's. We can also ask for hugs. Do not underestimate the enlivening effect of physical touch, especially a little bit when you're feeling low on life energy. Article here.
Dancing Together This article has mind-blowing, yet intuitively obvious results. When we move to a rhythm with someone, we are more likely to be altruistic toward them later. One person held and bounced a baby to a musical beat. They were facing another person who was either bouncing in sync with the way the baby were being bounced. Then they later put the baby in a position of being able to help that same person pick something up that was "accidentally" dropped. The baby helped the person pick up the dropped object. When they repeated this with a person who was bouncing out of sync with the baby, the baby did not help the person pick up the object. They repeated this with 48 babies. The ones who were matched in their bounce by the researcher were significantly more likely to help the researcher pick up their dropped object. What is the point? WE ARE MADE OF RELATIONSHIPS. When people mirror us, we love them (maybe just a little bit). Of course, adults are more complicated. We can't just bob our heads with someone and become best friends. But our personalities are built on top of these basic tendencies. We're still those babies deep down. We still love people who mirror us, and we mirror people we love. Feeling connected to other people is the greatest possible human feeling. Period. It's also the most difficult to sustain because other people are way harder to control than anything else in the world. But the good news is, just a little bit of connection goes a long way. The real trick is to let yourself feel connected. It's easy to have a nice conversation with someone, or to exchange a smile or a hug. What's really hard is to let yourself relax into the feeling and go, "I'm safe, I'm connected. I love my life." Article here.
Relationships With Our Goals
Optimal Brain: Balanced Flow This one is heady and nuanced, so it needs a bit more room to describe. The brain needs balanced connections within its networks. A very big, special network called the Default Mode Network (DMN) is activated when we're resting but awake, like when our mind is wandering. We need this network to be working when we're not actively focusing on anything, but we need to switch to other networks quickly when we need to focus. The DMN functions optimally at a medium level of connection with itself, meaning the flows of electricity and chemicals within it need to be balanced. People with high stress have too high a level of connectivity within this network, which wears it out. Even though the network is more connected, it has lower activity when they're resting. Basically, they're not resting fully even when they're not doing anything else. I know the feeling. Do you?
People who are depressed have too low a level of DMN connectivity. Their DMN activity is fine, but they have a hard time switching from the resting DMN to a "focused attention" network. The DMN mirrors the depressive mood of not wanting to do anything but rest.
Optimal functioning of the DMN has a balanced flow, so it's fully active while we're resting, but it can "go to sleep" when we need to focus. This points us to the importance of balancing effort and rest in our goals. When our goals create stress, they mess with the rest of our brains, which then come back around and make it more difficult for us to work on those goals. Effort and rest. Effort and rest. Article here.
Brain training is not what you think In the last two decades, there have been hundreds of programs designed to increase cognitive abilities like problem solving, processing speed, and working memory, all of which fall under the category of something called "fluid intelligence." All of them work in improving specific skills, but none of them improve fluid intelligence. No video game will make you smarter, but you will get better at anything if you do it for long enough. However, there are some very simple techniques that can make you better at learning. This might come in handy when pursuing your life goals, since pretty much every big goal you can think of requires learning of some kind. You can't build a business without learning about your industry. You can't become a chef without learning recipes.
This article describes three super basic (but the most effective) strategies for improved memory, and here they are. The first is called "elaboration." It means that when you read something new, pause and ask yourself questions about it. Pause and visualize images of what you're reading about. Pause and try to think about connections between what you're learning and your life. Again, very basic, not sexy, not fun or necessarily easy, but powerful. The second method is "testing." Give yourself tests, as painful as it may be, and you will remember stuff more permanently. This one is interesting because we usually think of tests as measurements of our progress, as is the case in school. But this is backwards. Testing is not a good measurement of progress, but it is a good producer of progress. The only time testing is a good measurement of progress is when it's life itself that's testing you. Don't we all love that. The third learning technique is "spacing." This means taking breaks between learning or working sessions. In the Aliveness community we call this "balancing effort and rest."
The problem with all of these strategies is that the brain is intelligently lazy, meaning it wants us to put in the least effort possible to get through whatever challenge we're dealing with right now. That's the baseline. In order to choose to put in more effort, we have to have two things. First, we have to actually, truly, deeply care about what we're doing. There is no substitute for intrinsic motivation, not even money. Second, we have to have life energy, motivation, gratitude, clarity of mind, in order to say, "Hey, I'd like to actually remember this because I think it will come in handy later, even though I can't clearly see its value right now." Where does this extra energy come from? You got it. Aliveness.
And where does Aliveness come from? It comes from balancing effort and rest in our goals. It comes from balancing supporting and being supported in our relationships with others. It comes from exercising, eating well, and sleeping enough so that we're not distracted by physical and psychological discomfort all the time. The good news is that taking action on any of these things can give you a moment of Aliveness, and moments of Aliveness are what being alive is all about. Article here.