We influence what we scan for, Part 2 [81]

By Dr. Keith Witt
April 11, 2013
Let’s all become more optimistic and grateful. Last week we talked about how brains both consciously and unconsciously accumulate habits by scanning constantly, choosing what to focus on, and creating stories and action impulses that reinforce themselves each time they appear. We can train ourselves to notice whether we’re being positive or negative. We can teach ourselves to scan for what we like, and then say something positive. We can learn to notice if we’re in a defensive state and then work to enter a more compassionate and wise state of healthy response to the present moment. We can cultivate gratitude and generosity of spirit. The more we practice such positive thoughts and actions, the more our brains incorporate them into our automatic scanning and reacting. This all takes time because habitual responses come largely from the right hemisphere of our brain, which deals with novelty, surprise, and quick (30 to 60 milliseconds) automatic reactions to events and people—and right hemispheres mostly learn more slowly than left hemispheres. Left hemispheres are slower to react (400 to 600 milliseconds) and contain thousands of routines to understand and direct us through life–like language, which is countless routines we’ve learned to apply to different situations. Left hemispheres can pause and plan–make conscious choices–on which routines we bring to bear. We learn left hemisphere new routines much more quickly than we learn right hemisphere new habits. To create a new habitual response (like being more optimistic and generous instead of pessimistic and stingy), we need to use our left brain’s ability to pick from different routines (potential responses) and keep consistently choosing well to get them encoded into our right brain as new habits. Couples who feel securely married often take each other for granted, and fail to notice or comment on positives. Even worse, couples can develop habits of using critical tones or complaints, and carrying around negative stories about their marriage. You never want your wife to say, “He’s just a negative, crabby guy,” or, “We’re mostly together for the children.” You never want your husband to say, “She criticizes me all the time,” or, “We stopped being in love years ago.” Don’t despair if you’ve developed such bad habits. You can teach your right brain to see and say positives. You can train your right brain to automatically generate grateful, appreciative observations and comments–just use your left brain’s repertoire of routines to notice the good and praise it. As my beloved Aunt Dorothy has always said, “Praise the good!” Here’s one method. Practice checking whether you are being optimistic or pessimistic, positive or negative, critical or complimentary with your partner, and keep adjusting to optimistic, positive, and complimentary. Two people consciously doing this over time develop beautiful habits of intimate, enjoyable engagement, and are much faster catching and correcting yucky thoughts and actions when they show up. If my nervous system identifies Becky as a threat, or her nervous system identifies me as a threat, that’s a big deal! The sooner either of us notices it, gets on it, and does what it takes to feel safe and loving again, the less damage is inflicted and the more growth is accomplished. We notice the threat and choose a non-defensive routine from our left hemisphere, which over-rides our right hemisphere defensive habit and contributes to a new, more loving and generous habit. Eventually we naturally–habitually–scan for what we like, appreciate, and admire, and then instinctively acknowledge, compliment, and praise with felt gratitude. Do this all the time, and we’re using our brain’s automatic scanning plus left and right hemisphere strengths as an integrated team to create more growth and love–maybe the coolest way to influence what we scan for.

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