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Lecture: Neuroplasticity and Positive Behavioral Change
Lake Shore Unitarian Society, Winnetka, Illinois
Sunday, Feb. 25, 2023
Dr. Robert F. Mullen is the director of ReChanneling Inc, a national organization dedicated to the research and development of programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional dysfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our aptitude for extraordinary living. His paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing neuroscience and psychology to capture the diversity of human thought and experience. A leading expert on social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities, Dr. Mullen is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity, enabled by the deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information (DRNI). A radical behaviorist and internationally published author, he facilitates workshops and seminars on emotional recovery and self–empowerment.
Space is limited
Italicized portions were omitted from the lecture due to time constraints.
I am a radical behaviorist. What does that mean? A radical behaviorist not only considers observable behaviors but also the diversity of human thought and experience. That calls for a collaboration of science, philosophy, and psychology. And philosophy, existentially defined, welcomes religious and spiritual insight.
The role of neuroplasticity in positive behavioral change. The definition of recovery is regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost. Self-empowerment is making a conscious decision to become stronger and more confident in controlling our lives. In neuroses such as anxiety, depression, and comorbidities, what has been stolen or lost is our emotional well-being and quality of life. In self-empowerment, it is the loss of self-esteem and motivation. So both recovery and self-empowerment deal with regaining what has been lost. And both are supported by neuroplasticity.
If there is an underlying theme in my work, it is that we are not defined by our insufficiencies, but by our character strengths, virtues, and attributes – and our achievements.
Plasticity is simply the quality of being easily shaped or molded. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s constant adaptation and restructuring to information.
Before 1960, researchers thought that neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, stopped after birth. Today, science recognizes that our neural network is dynamic and malleable – realigning its pathways and rebuilding its circuits in response to information.
What is information? Thought, experience, phenomena, sensation, sights, sounds, smells, tactile impressions – anything and everything that impacts our neural network. Our wonderful brain never stops learning and unlearning. Absent that, we would be incapable of replacing unhealthy behaviors with productive ones.
What is significant is our ability to dramatically accelerate and consolidate learning by compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry. Our neural network is structured around negative information. The primary objective in recovery and self-empowerment is replacing or overwhelming that negative information with positive neural input.
Human neuroplasticity comes in three forms. The two that concern us are active and proactive. Reactive neuroplasticity is our brain’s natural response to things over which we have limited to no control – stimuli we absorb but do not initiate or focus on. Our neural network automatically restructures itself to what happens around us.
Active neuroplasticity is cognitive pursuits like teaching, aerobics, journaling, and creating. We control this aspect of neuroplasticity because we consciously choose the activity. An important component of active neuroplasticity is ethical and compassionate social behavior. We’ll expand on that shortly.
The third form is proactive neuroplasticity – the deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information called DRNI. It is the most effective means of accelerating and consolidating learning and unlearning.
Both active and proactive neuroplasticity empower us to transform our thoughts and behaviors, creating healthy NEW mindsets, skills, and abilities. Through informed and deliberate engagement, we compel change rather than reacting to it.
What does all this mean? It confirms that our psychological health is self–determined. We control our emotional well–being. Now bad things happen, much of which we have limited to no control over. We are impacted by outside forces: life experiences, physical deterioration, hostilities, the quirks of nature. Psychological well–being means how we react to things is self–determined. How we respond to adversity as well as fortune and prosperity.
[Origins and Trajectory of Negativity]
So, where does all this negative information come from? Why are our neural networks so clogged with harmful, growth-impeding information?
It starts with our core beliefs. Core beliefs are the deeply held convictions that determine how we see ourselves in the world. We form them during childhood in response to information and experiences, and by accepting what we are told as true. Core beliefs can remain our belief system throughout life unless challenged.
Cumulative evidence that a toxic childhood is a primary causal factor in emotional instability or insecurity has been well established. During the development of our core beliefs, we are subject to a childhood disturbance – a broad and generic term for anything that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, or social development. Disturbances are ubiquitous – they happen to all of us. What differentiates us is how we react or respond to the disturbance – our susceptibility and vulnerability. Any number of things can precipitate childhood disturbance. Our parents are controlling or don’t provide emotional validation. Perhaps we are subject to sibling rivalry or a broken home. It is important to recognize, the disturbance may be real or imagined, intentional or accidental. I give the example of the toddler, whose parental quality time is interrupted by a phone call. That seemingly insignificant event can foster in the child a sense of abandonment, which can then generate feelings of unworthiness and insignificance. We are not accountable for childhood disturbance or subsequent behaviors. As we mature, we are responsible for moderating our destructive behaviors, but we are not accountable for their origins. It’s important to remain mindful of that.
[Negative Core Beliefs]
Feelings of detachment, neglect, exploitation are common consequences of childhood disturbance, and they generate negative core beliefs so rigid, we refuse to question them, and ignore evidence that contradicts them. This establishes what is called a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in our thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, questioning the accuracy of our perspectives and decisions. This is why we have such societal divisiveness. We don’t challenge our hard-core beliefs.
The confluence of childhood disturbance and negative core beliefs impacts our intermediate beliefs, the next phase of our psychological development. Intermediate beliefs establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Attitudes refer to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations or moral interpretations that influence our behaviors. Our assumptions are what we believe to be true or real. These intermediate beliefs, of course, are influenced by our social, cultural, and environmental experiences.
Let me emphasize, that none of this negative trajectory is extraordinary. It is a natural progression common to all of us. Our unique personalities and experiences determine our susceptibility to it and the severity of its impact.
This accumulation of negative core and intermediate self-beliefs impacts the development of our self-esteem. Self-esteem, loosely defined, is a complex interrelationship between how we think about ourselves, how we think others think about us, and how we process and present that information.
We are social beings, driven by a fundamental human need for intimacy and interpersonal exchange. Human interconnectedness is necessary for our mental and physical health. Low levels of self-esteem jeopardize our social competency and impact our motivation to recover and pursue certain goals and objectives, to self-empower.
We also have an inherent negative bias, similar to our cognitive bias, which compels us to focus more on negative experiences than positive ones. When we lie in bed reminiscing about experiences, it’s usually about bad ones. Add to our accumulation of negativity are the experiences of life – outside forces over which we have little to no control. Hostility, divisiveness, illness, social media. The long and short of it, our brains are structured around an overabundance of negative information. Proactive and active neuroplasticity counter that negativity with positive neural input. That is their role.
Let’s briefly talk about what goes on [in our brain] with active and proactive neuroplasticity. Neurons are the core components of our brain and central nervous system. They convey information through electrical impulses or energy. Whether that energy is positive or negative depends upon the integrity of our information. Our brain receives around two million bits of data per second but is capable of processing roughly 126 bits, so it is important to provide substantial and incorrupt information.
[Neural Trajectory of Information]
Information alerts or sparks a receptor neuron that algorithmically converts it into electrical impulse energy which forwards that energy to a sensory neuron that stimulates presynaptic or transmitter neurons that pass that energy to postsynaptic or receiving neurons that then forward that energy to millions of participating neurons, causing a cellular chain reaction in multiple interconnected areas of our brain. Confusing? Absolutely.
Here’s an easy way to visualize it.
Neurons don’t act by themselves but through circuits that strengthen or weaken their connections based on our information. Like muscles, the more repetitions, the more robust the energy of the information, and the stronger the circuits.
In addition to positively restructuring our neural network, proactive and active neuroplasticity trigger what is called long-term potentiation. Neurons repeatedly stimulate succeeding neurons sometimes for weeks on end. This strengthens the nerve impulses along the connecting pathways, generating more energy and more neural chain reactions.
They produce higher levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) – proteins associated with improved cognitive functioning, mental health, memory, and concentration.
The positive energy of our information is picked up by millions of neurons that amplify the impulse (or energy or activity) on a massive scale. Positive information in, positive energy reciprocated in abundance. Conversely, negative information in, negative energy reciprocated in abundance. Thus the significance of positive reinforcement.
When the activity of the connecting pathways is heightened, the natural neurotransmission of chemical hormones accelerates, releasing cognitive and physiological support. GABA for relaxation, dopamine for pleasure and motivation, endorphins to boost our self–esteem, and serotonin for a sense of well-being.
Acetylcholine supports neuroplasticity, glutamate enhances our memory, and noradrenaline improves concentration.
Those are the highlights. Scientists have identified over fifty chemical hormones in the human body. Every input or bit of information or data accelerates and consolidates the neurotransmission of these hormones.
Unfortunately, as physics would have it, we receive these same neural benefits whether our information is positive or negative. All information is rewarded by restructuring, long–term potentiation, BDNF, reciprocation, and supportive hormones. The same neural responses are activated. That’s one of the reasons breaking a habit, keeping to a resolution, or moderating our behaviors is challenging. Our brain acclimates to whatever we input and every time we repeat a destructive behavior or a bad habit, our neural circuits adapt and reward us. Thus the importance of the integrity of our information.
We are already physiologically adverse to change. Our bodies and brains are structured to attack anything that disrupts their equilibrium. A new diet or exercise regimen produces uncomfortable, physiological changes in our heart rate, metabolism, and respiration. Inertia senses and resists these changes, and our basal ganglia – the group of nuclei responsible for our emotional behaviors and habit formation – resist any modification in our patterns of behavior. Thus, habits like smoking, gambling, or gossiping are hard to break, and new undertakings like recovery, improvement, and self-empowerment, are challenging to maintain.
We inherently desire to be better persons and to contribute to others and society, but we are entrenched with negative self-beliefs. We have tried everything to overcome our condition and achieved less than desired results, which makes us feel incompetent and worthless, generating an overriding sense of futility.
We beat ourselves up daily for our perceptual inadequacies. Our inherent negative bias causes us to store information consistent with our negative beliefs and image. Psychology still focuses on what’s wrong with us. We consume ourselves with our problems instead of celebrating our achievements, and we constantly look for ways to justify or support our thoughts and behaviors. We blame ourselves for our defects as if they are the pervading forces of our true being, rather than celebrate our character strengths, virtues, attributes, and achievements.
We are consumed and conditioned by negative words. By the age of sixteen, we have heard the word no from our parents, roughly, 135,000 times. That’s a statistic and we take statistics with a large grain of salt but, you get the drift. Some of us use the same unfortunate words over and over again. The more we hear, read, or speak a word or phrase, the more power it has over us. Our brain learns through repetition.
It is not just the words we say aloud in criticism and conversations. The self-annihilating words we silently call ourselves convince us we are helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless – the four horsemen of emotional dysfunction. They cause our neural network to transmit chemical hormones that impair our logic, reasoning, and communication, impacting the parts of our brain that regulate our memory, concentration, and emotions.
Our neural network is replete with toxic information.
Proactive neuroplasticity is initiated by DRNI – the deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information. What is this information? It is self-motivating and empowering statements that help us focus on our goals, challenge negative, self-defeating beliefs, and reprogram our subconscious minds. Individually focused statements that we repeat to ourselves to describe what and who we want to be. Think of them as aspirations or self-fulfilling prophecies. We incorporate them into positive personal affirmations and rational responses to our negative self-beliefs.
- I belong here.
- I am valuable and significant.
- I am confident and self–assured.
- I am strong and resilient.
- I am worthy of success and abundance.
We drastically underestimate the significance and effectiveness of these self-affirming statements when we do not understand the science behind them. Practicing positive personal affirmations and rational responses dramatically accelerate and consolidate the positive restructuring of our neural network and we experience a perceptible change in our thoughts, behaviors, and outlook on life.
It is the integrity of the information that compels the algorithmic conversion into positive electrical impulse or energy. Information of integrity is honest, unconditional, sound, and of strong moral principles. We have established certain criteria so that our neural network will recognize the integrity of our information and restructure accordingly. Our information is rational, reasonable, possible, positive, goal–focused, unconditional, and first–person present or future time. Again, we recognize that actual wording is not as important as its integrity, but it is better emotionally if we are secure in our intent.
- Rational. The only logical recourse to irrational thought.
- Reasonable. Unreasonable aspirations get us nowhere. It’s unreasonable to expect a grammy for song of the year if we’re tone-deaf.
- Possible. If we are incapable of achieving our goal, it is ridiculous to pursue it.
- Positive. Negative information is counterproductive to positive neural restructuring.
- Goal-focused. If we do not know our destination, we will not recognize it when we arrive.
- Unconditional. Our commitment must be certain. The affirmation, I will give up drinking – when my wife is in the room, defeats the purpose.
- First-person present or future. The past is irrevocable so let’s concentrate on what we have control over.
- Brief. Succinct and easily memorized. Our personal affirmations are mantras; they evolve. We change them according to need and circumstance.
Let’s talk about how proactive and active neuroplasticity support each other and how their collaboration advances our goal. While proactive neuroplasticity accelerates neural restructuring because of our deliberate, repetitive, neural input, incorporating both active and proactive neuroplasticity consolidates the process. It reinforces and strengthens our efforts. DRNI is a mental process designed to initiate the rapid, concentrated, neurological stimulation that transmits the electrical energy. It is proactive because we construct the information prior to utilizing it.
However, we are more than mere mental organisms. We are also emotional, social, and spiritual beings. Neglecting these human components is limiting and irrational. Mind, body, spirit, social, and emotions are the gestalt of our humanness. Proactive neuroplasticity is a mental exercise.
Active neuroplasticity taps into the emotional, the social, and the spiritual. Beyond healthy activities like yoga, journaling, creating, and listening to music, is our ethical and compassionate social behavior. Altruistic contributions to society are extraordinary assets to neural restructuring. The value of volunteering – providing support, empathy, and concern for those in need, random acts of kindness – is extraordinary, not only in promoting positive behavioral change but in enhancing the integrity of our information. The social interconnectedness established by caring and compassion supports the regeneration of our self-esteem and self-appreciation.
One more rather mundane reason we turn to active neuroplasticity. DRNI requires a calculated regimen of deliberate, repetitive, neural information that is not only tedious but also fails to deliver immediate tangible results, causing us to readily concede defeat and abandon hope in this era of instant gratification. I can tell you from experience, it is challenging to maintain the rigorous process demanded of DRNI – the tedious repetition. Tedium generates avoidance, and we know how difficult it is to establish and maintain new habits. Active neuroplasticity fills any gaps and brings our entire being into play.
In closing. Proactive and active neuroplasticity are formidable tools in neural restructuring and the corresponding positive transformation of our thoughts, behaviors, and perspectives. Recovery and self-empowerment are achieved through a collaboration of targeted approaches that compel the rediscovery and self-appreciation of our character strengths, virtues, and attributes. While the realignment of our neural network is the framework for recovery and self–empowerment, a coalescence of science and east-west psychologies is essential to capture the diversity of human thought and experience.
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Space is Limited