Monday, November 9, 2009

Your Attitude Builds Your Child’s Brain

Children model everything, especially a parent’s attitude, and attitude is extremely neuroplastic. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to shape brain structure and set brain chemistry. A positive or negative attitude literally wires the brain for success or failure, health or disease, confidence or insecurity, happiness or anxiety. When it comes to the brain -- as with most things in life -- attitude is everything.

First the bad news: If a parent's attitude is chronically stressed and anxious, as it is with four in ten Americans, it is likely the child’s attitude will be as well. Their little brains will be dominated by the amygdala, the fear center located deep in the primitive brain, and unhealthy amounts of stress hormones will enter their bloodstream.  This can cause higher brain networks to shrink and more primitive networks to expand. Cognitive functions will dampen and the emotional set point will default to negative. As a result, their performance in school is likely to suffer.  Additionally,  they are more likely to get sick and for colds and flu to hit them harder. That’s because stress reactions dampen the immune system. Stress also inhibits the production of growth hormones.  This is a picture we can change.

Now to the good news: The profoundly happy news about neuroplasticity is that, if our brain is wired for stress, we can rewire it at any point along our life span. The algorithm for rewiring, simply put, is this:  A change of attitude that changes your experience changes your brain. It’s a change that can change your life. Here is what science has discovered:  A dynamically peaceful attitude builds a great brain, not just for your child but for you too.  It stops the flow of stress hormones and shifts control from the primitive brain to the prefrontal cortex. The brain lights up with creative problem solving and the emotional meter resets to positive. The absence of stress hormones allow the immune and growth systems to function at optimum. In short, your shift in attitude grows and strengthens neural networks that can make both you and your child healthier, happier and smarter, all through a little inner work on your part.

Stress-Free Is What Kids Want Most
Children seem to understand the importance of a stress free attitude better than parents. It is what they want most for their parents, according to a national study of over a thousand children. In the study, interviewers gave children one wish to make for a change in their parents. Their parents were then asked to guess what their child wished for. More than half of parents guessed it was for more quality time together. It was the wrong answer. Most of the children wished for their parents to be free of stress. The research found that kids are very good at reading signs of stress. They are good at detecting subtle cues about a parent’s mood, such as their down-turned expression or heavy footsteps.

If our parents were less tired and stressed, said one of the children interviewed, I think that the kids would be less tired and stressed.

I know when my mom has a bad day because when she picks me up from after school she doesn’t smile, one young girl told interviewers. She has a really frustrated look on her face.

Every good parent wants their children to be happy. Every good parent also wants to empower their child to excel. The most effective thing a parent can do in achieving both is to teach kids to transcend stress by making the shift themselves.

It’s Simpler Than You Might Think. Here’s How You Do It
There are four things parents can do right now to shift their attitude in ways that, neurologically, can wire their child’s brain for success. All four are so simple you might think they could not possibly produce a dramatic shift in your attitude, let alone your child’s brain function. They can and results are profound, accruing rapidly. Put it to the test for two weeks and see what changes in you and your child.

Here is all you have to practice:

1. Make Time For A Little Physical Activity. You don’t have to go to the gym and spend an hour on the tread mill and another hour pumping iron to change brain chemistry. A mellow thirty-minute walk around the neighborhood, five days a week, goes a long way toward flushing stress hormones from your system. These hormones build up to put the emotional brain in charge of your experience, making you chronically anxious and reactive. Your children will model your behavior. A walking routine helps mitigate the problem. After a particularly stressful event, it also helps to take a walk around the block to de-stress. As you walk, quiet your thoughts.

2. Bust Negative, Stressful Thinking: The mind makes up emergencies that the brain believes are real. The vast majority of these are false alarms, but the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, can’t tell the difference between a real and imagined threat. We can’t always stop ourselves from thinking this way. But we can stop ourselves from believing these thoughts. You can have ten thousand stressful thoughts a minute and if you don’t believe them, your heart remains at peace.

Let your negative thinking come into awareness and each time tell yourself, this thought is in me, not in reality. Then follow three breaths, and in the space that opens, choose to be at peace.

3. Inspire Yourself Regularly: This too does not require a major effort. Starting each day in quiet, affirming the power and beauty of a peaceful attitude can set a positive day in motion. During the day, every couple of hours, take a spiritual break. Look out the window for a minute and let your mind go completely. Watch the wind blow, the sun shine, or the rain fall. End the day in gratitude, counting your blessings.

4. Master The Small Stuff: You don’t have to be Gandhi to find peace. Peace is in the small stuff. A brain under stress wants to elbow its way to the head of every line or pass the car in front. It always feels late, pressured and victimized. You can actually rewire those brain reactions away. How? Assert peace. Choose the longest line at a store and stand in it. Use the time to slow your motor and quiet your mind until you are at peace. In a traffic jam, listen to soft music or an interesting interview. Tell yourself, my peace does not depend on my car moving faster.

Do these every day and your children will begin to model your new attitude. As they do, their prefrontal cortex will light up with intelligence, and so will yours.

Use Peace To Facilitate Brain Power During Homework. Given the mountain of research that has established the role of a peaceful attitude in building a powerful brain, it makes sense to build peace into homework time. Make a ritual that commences homework time by evoking a peaceful feeling in your child. An easy way to do this is to gather together and use a bell, gong or Tibetan singing bowl to chime in homework time. Sit quietly for one minute. If the kids giggle, let them, and then motion them back to being peaceful. You can signal this by simply putting your hands together, prayer fashion. Do it with a smile, not disapproval. At the end of the minute remind the children that there is nothing the brain cannot do when it's peaceful. Tell them if they become agitated by an assignment during homework time to come and talk to you.

Keep practicing and never give up on peace. Peace is our most powerful human asset. "No matter what is going on, never give up," counsels His Holiness the Dalai Lama. "Work for peace, in your heart and in the world. And I say again, never give up.”

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Magnificent Ascent Of Which You Are A Part

I once spent a glorious week in the Dordogne Valley in France, a place of pastoral splendor that is also one of the archaeological wonders of the world. As I drove into town, I passed a team of paleontologists digging in the ground, searching for the remains of our ancestors’ miraculous rise from near extinction to preeminence. Incredibly, 60,000 years ago, the total number of human beings on the planet had shrunk to less than 2,000. Half of that number traveled north across arid African savannahs and deserts into the bitter cold landscape of Europe. A small splinter group settled in the Dordogne and made one of the last stands for the human race. Against all odds, these people flourished.

Their descendant went on to create the first art we know, painting bison and deer on cave walls. They discovered the principles of farming, learned to forge steel, chisel rock, and generations later erected castles on hillsides along the river. Today, the quaint little village where I dined on wonderful French cuisine is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of farms. Adjacent to the town square is a museum of Impressionist art and a Romanesque church. The building of the villages are all made of stones, expertly fitted together, merging practicality with elegance. There is also a garden hotel, where the affluent spend their holiday, arriving in beautiful hi-tech, luxury automobiles.

Everything in Dordogne proclaims the will, love and ingenuity of our species. One cannot be in the embrace of its aura without feeling the magnificence of human spirit. The Dordogne is a monument of the climb we have made, through trial and error, as we developed the genius that would eventually decode genetics, split the atom, map the brain, and take us to the moon and back.

Our brain’s capacity to generate genius is personified throughout history, from Mozart to Beethoven, Copernicus to Einstein, Shakespeare to Picasso, Lincoln to Mandela. Their feats were not entirely or even largely individual. Their achievements are a synthesis of the contributions of other people, most of whom live ordinary lives. The story of human history is like a cathedral built stone by stone, carried and set in place by far too many hands for history to record. Instead, history represents each stone with the name of someone who stood above the crowd. In a very real sense, however, these feats belong to the whole of humanity. They belong to you and me as much as to Einstein and Shakespeare. Each of our lives carries a stone right now, representing our small contribution to the wing our generation has added to humanity’s cathedral. This spirit of legacy is captured in the lyrics of Gene Scheer: “Each generation from the plains to distant shores, with the gifts that they were given were determined to leave more.”

In these precarious times, we should honor our ancestors by focusing on the magnificence of what we are, the miracles we have achieved, and what we are capable of becoming.