How can something as simple as a "thank you" change your brain? Well, it’s easy.
As humans, we have this amazing superpower called Neuroplasticity. It looks like a big scary word but it’s actually really simple.
Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to change, leaving behind the things it doesn’t need anymore and focusing on things that are more important. Think of it like having a closet that automatically cleans itself out. The things you don’t wear anymore just take up a bunch of space and don’t serve you anymore, so they’re automatically tossed out for you to make room for the current and even new things you wear more often.
Because we can’t actually see into our brains, this automatic “cleaning out” process happens all the time without us knowing.
Here's the best part:
We can take charge of the cleaning out and do it ourselves (or get some help) to make it go faster.
For example, showing gratitude can help with cleaning out symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Let's take a look at a study of 300 adults that were seeking counseling for anxiety and depression. Following the closet metaphor, let’s think of these adults as all having "cluttered mental closets" filled with a lot of things they don’t serve them anymore. All these things take up mental space and, many times, can be the cause for their anxiety and depression. Let’s also think of the counselor as the person coming to help clean.
These adults were split into three different groups.
Group 1: Got counseling and were asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks.
Group 2: Got counseling and were asked to write about their deep thoughts around a negative experience.
Group 3: Got counseling alone
Well, what happened?
The group that got counseling but also wrote a gratitude letter (Group 3) to someone else had significantly better mental than Group 2 and Group 3 as quickly as 4 weeks in. Saying thank you helped them clean out their closets the fastest.
You don’t have to share. Whilst I think it’s good to share our gratitude with others, only a small number of the adults in Group 3 actually shared their letters with others but they still got the benefits of feeling better regardless. Just thinking about cleaning your closet can make you feel better!
The changes got stronger over time, but they didn’t happen immediately. Group 3 felt the best but it took a little bit of time. There are more connections in the brain than there are stars in the universe. That’s a really big closet that will take some time to clean and organize. The best part is that it’s a positive snowball. Get in the hang of cleaning and you only get better and stronger with time.
Group 3 no longer focused on the negative emotions. The more you focus on gratitude and positive emotions, the less you focus on, and are controlled by, the negative ones. Looking at your new clean closet makes you slowly forget how bad it used to be and made you feel.
It actually changes your brain and it lasts. 3 months after the study was complete, a few of the adults had their brains scanned and they had changed compared to Group 1 and Group 2. Not only were they more grateful, they even paid attention to how they expressed their gratitude. Once you get in the habit of keeping your closet is clean, it’s harder to get it cluttered again.
- Your brain changes and more importantly you have the power to change it.
- One thank you every week has the power to change your brain. You don’t even have to send it, just think it!
About the Author
Yasir Hashim is the co-founder of Lumen. Our resident neuroscientist, he left medical school behind for the pursuit of "food-as-medicine". Sudanese by heritage, he hopes to return to the Middle East someday to bring these philosophies to a culture now permeated by fast food and poor diets.