Remember those motivational posters at the gym or office that assert attitude is everything. Well, it actually tests out. Science has found that attitude literally generates the brain structure that wires us for success or failure. Attitude is highly neuroplastic, meaning a shift in attitude changes our brain. It boils down to positive vs. negative emotions operating as forces that either expands higher brain function to elevate innate talent to greatness or reduces brain performance to not much more than mediocre. Attitude fortifies networks that generate self-confidence and happiness or plague us with self-doubt and anxiety. It immunizes us from stress or causes it. It secures the mind–body connection for optimal health or for disease. In short, quality of attitude determines the quality of brain function that leads to the quality of life we ultimately experience. Attitude not only shapes our reality; it is our reality.
This is what Karl Menninger meant when he said “attitude is more important than facts.” It is more important than genetics, past traumas, our level of education, our social standing, and even IQ. A dynamic shift in attitude can rewire a brain and change everything, even when our so-called “background” appears to be lacking. Attitude is the only thing in life we completely control and, happily, it turns out that it is all we need. It can change the very structure and chemistry of our brain — at any point along the life span – in ways that light us up with the creative and emotional intelligence to overcome whatever blocks our success, well-being and happiness.
In 2000, neuroscience discovered the part of our brain that generates attitude. Our attitude emerges from within the prefrontal cortex, formed through a mix of negative and positive emotion. Negative emotional states are indicated by activity on the right side of the prefrontal cortex; positive emotional states are indicated by activity on the left side. It works like this:
- If readings on the right side of the prefrontal cortex indicate an extreme level of activity, meaning a lot of negative and dark emotions, then that person is likely to be hospitalized for severe clinical depression or in jail for a violent crime.
- If readings on the left side of the prefrontal cortex indicate an extreme level of activity, meaning a lot of positive emotion, then that person’s life will work at every level that matters. They are likely to be happily married, a good and involved parent, and successful in their careers. They will have realized much of their innate potential. Emotionally they will be dynamically peaceful, enabling them to be positive, clear-minded and resilient.
Most human beings are neither extreme. Our attitude is built from a synthesis of negative and positive emotion (right and left prefrontal activity). It is a matter of which way our emotions are leaning. The more our attitude leans to the right, the harder our lives will be. The more our attitude leans to the left, the better our lives work. About 40% of Americans are leaning hard to the right. They are extremely stressed. Another 40% of Americans are borderline. Increase the pressure and they begin to tilt to the right. Only 20% are leaning strong to the left. Science wanted to know if we can coax the brain to move our attitude to the left.
Researchers were interested in studying people who theoretically would produced a high degree of left prefrontal activity – people whose profession involved mastering the art of being at peace. They studied monks and contemplatives to see if their spiritual practice changed their brains.
What they found astounded science. The monk’s spiritual practice had generated the most extreme value in left prefrontal cortex activity of anyone previously tested. Positive emotion swamped negative emotions, something never before seen from purely mental activity. In lay terms, this meant emotional negativity or chronic stress did not stand a chance in the monks’ brains.
Researchers also found that the usual networks that generate higher order brain function were expanded, more integrated and receiving greater blood flow. The monk had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. This is a really loving, understanding brain. It’s the brain you want for a parent, a lover, a boss and a best friend. The readings on Gamma Wave activity was also elevated, signaling higher mental acuity for problem solving, decision-making, creativity and error detection. This is the brain of a peak performer.
The highly developed neural circuitry generated a flow of intelligence that was emotionally peaceful and positive, producing a fearlessly self-confident attitude, all of which made the monk immune to stress.
What did the monks do during the study to produce such great brain function? The qualities the monks practiced boil down to four essential ways of being. As you will see, these are qualities could not be simpler. I call these four qualities, Mystic Cool. They represent a way of being that we are all capable of strengthening.
The first quality the monks mastered is engaging life with a quiet mind that is fully present. We drop the incessant thinking that produces a pointless preoccupation with the past or endless worries about the future. We practice being present, right here, right now, engaging whatever is before us with an open, alert mind. Consider this: you cannot
be stressed if you are fully present.
This first quality is the cure for the attention deficit stress causes. As we practice this quality, we flex a brain muscle that strengthens our ability to focus.
The second quality the monks mastered is remaining calm inside, regardless of what is happening on the outside. We are not afraid or threatened by the outside. Thus, we can face a challenge confidently and feel our way to the best possible response to the situation. As we practice this quality the brain builds the GABA fibers that extinguish fear. Extinguish fear and you eliminate stress.
The next time you are in a traffic jam that threatens to make you late for a meeting, tell yourself, “My peace does not depend on this car going faster.“ You’ll arrive at the meeting with greater brain power and resilience.
The third quality deepens our sense of connection. Our hearts are open and empathic, with the intention of creating an atmosphere of interpersonal resonance. We consciously connect with our own internal center, with the people we happen to be with, and to that which we conceive of as greater than ourselves. We practice listening better, judging less, and forgiving more.
People who have strong social networks outlive those who do not. They also develop fewer life threatening diseases. New research also suggests that a strong social network coupled with a peaceful attitude provides immunity to dementia as we grow older.
The fourth quality the monks mastered keeps us in touch with the big picture instead of getting trapped in the narrow perspective stress engenders. It is as simple as taking a short break every 90-minutes or so, vacating work for a few moments to simply look out the window to watch the sun shine, the rain fall or the wind blow. Relax into the scene outside and, for just a moment, let go of work completely. Let the natural world touch you.
When you return to your desk, before re-engaging, look at your work and recall the big picture toward which this current effort is building.
When evoked consistently, through a simple practice, these qualities shift control of the brain from the deep neural circuits of fear that flood the brain with stress hormones and trigger fight or flight to the higher brain, where positive emotion and intelligence can flow. Who does not want that?
Here is a tool that you can start using right away to generate the first quality of Mystic Cool. It is called the clear button. It inhibits the incessant, fearful thinking that provokes right side prefrontal cortex activity (negative emotion). Interrupt fearful thinking before it turns into a stress reaction, and you avoid flooding the higher brain with toxic stress hormones.
Imagine there is a button at the center of your palm that functions as a biofeedback mechanism. When pushed, it sends a signal to the brain to stop negative, fearful or pessimistic thinking.
Now imagine you are becoming stressed about something that’s been bothering you. Perhaps it’s has to do with your health or a money problem or a conflict in an important relationship. You start thinking a lot of fearful, worried, edgy thoughts about this issue and this thinking is beginning to escalate into a stress reaction.
Instead of allowing things to escalate further, you remember your clear button. You press it, holding your button down and stop thinking. Next you practice what your grandmother told you to do whenever you are getting “worked-up.”. You count to three, and to further distract negative thinking, you see each number as a color, like so:
- Take a breath and count “1,” seeing it as red.
- Take a second breath and count “2,” seeing it as blue.
- Take a third breath and count “3,” seeing it as green.
- On the exhale, come into the present moment, right here, right now, and relax, letting fear go completely.
Most of us won’t be able to remember all the stressful thoughts we were thinking that were about to catapult us into a stress reaction. As our brain switches on higher neural networks, it defaults to creative problem solving. We begin seeing solutions instead of the problems that a anxious, stressed brain multiplies.