By Michael C. Patterson
There is a story I have heard from several sources about a Native American elder who was known for her wisdom, happiness and peace of mind.[i] A younger member of the tribe asked her, “How have you come to be so happy, wise and respected by all in our tribe?” The wise woman answered that there are two packs of wolves that fight for dominance within in her heart and mind, the wolves of love and wisdom and the wolves of hatred, greed and delusion.
“The wolves that dominate,” she explained, “are the ones that get fed. I make certain to feed the wolves of love, compassion, and wisdom.”
Feed the positive wolves and they grow stronger. Starve the negative wolves and they weaken.
This story is a lovely way to dramatize how we harness the power of neuroplasticity to promote health and positivity. The neural structures and systems that support growth and resilience of our brains need to be fed and nurtured. The same is true for the circuitry that supports positive emotions. If we feed and nurture the mechanisms that support health and positivity, they will become stronger and better able to counter the forces of disease and negativity.
There is evidence that the neural circuitry for positivity is different than the circuitry for negativity. So, while we are feeding the positives, we also need to shut down or starve the neural networks that support negativity and stress. In both cases, we access the circuitry through behavior and thinking. Because behavior and biology are linked in a two-way feedback loop, changes in how we behave can change the biology of the brain circuits and the hormonal systems that regulate our emotions.
We can design better brains for ourselves by leveraging neuroplastic change in ways that feed the positive wolves and starve the destructive ones. We identify risk factors that cause us to struggle and minimize their impact. At the same time, we identify and nurture the protective factors that promote repair and resilience; we feed to conditions that promote growth and development. We starve negatives and feed positives.
[i]Hanson, Rick. (2009) Buddha’s Mind: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.