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The Happiness Switch Inside Your Brain

By Janice Mawhinney/ Source: Toronto Star

Can you learn to be a happier person by repeatedly visualizing two tiny parts of your brain and imagining yourself tweaking them?

Colorado teacher and musician Neil Slade says you can.

Slade has developed brain exercises, described on NeilSlade.com aimed at lifting your spirits and calming your fears. The website has become something of an underground sensation, attracting an average of 750,000 hits a month through word of mouth alone.

Slade suggests visualizing part of the primitive brain called the amygdala, commonly described as the seat of emotional experience. The two amygdalae, each about the size and shape of an almond, are located on either side of the head, between the eye and ear, about an inch in. Studies have shown the amygdalae have a part to play in everything from memory storage to anxiety.

Slade recommends locating your amygdalae in your thoughts, and visualizing a switch on each one, with the click-back position turning on the fear feelings, and the click-forward position turning on feelings of pleasure. Picture yourself purposefully clicking the switch forward.

Another way to stimulate lighter and happier feelings is to visualize yourself tickling each amygdala with a feather.

When University of Toronto psychologist Adam Anderson heard about the exercises, he laughed. The assistant professor is also the Canada Research Chair in cognitive neuroscience, and his research focuses on what the amygdalae contribute to human emotion. Anderson believes they are one of the elements of our feelings, but human emotions result from a delicate balance of the functions of different brain parts.

"I'm not saying it can't work, but it's a really silly idea that you actually have to picture your amygdala," he says. "You could teach people to visualize their left elbows and it might be just as effective.

"It's a form of relaxation and, if it works, more power to the people who do it. But as a scientist, I see it as maybe a form of meditation or a distraction from what's bothering you."

Slade thinks there is more to it than that. He believes visualizing the amygdalae can create physiological changes in the brain.

"You can directly elevate your mood through behavioural change such as laughter or physical exercise, or you can elevate it through mental stimulation like these amygdala exercises."

Marie-Louise Oosthuysen de Guitierrez, a Mexico City teacher who is studying brain research in education, says Slade's exercises work for her. "Visualizing clicking forward stimulates the prefrontal cortex," she says. "It helps me to control intense emotions if I feel upset or angry. I immediately feel calmer."

Janice Dorn, a psychiatrist and brain anatomist who has studied the brain for 41 years, believes Slade's exercises stimulate the connections between the primitive, or limbic part of the brain and the more evolved prefrontal cortex in order to develop habits of happier thought and feeling.

Many people could learn to be happy by regularly repeating thought and visualization practices, Dorn says in a telephone interview from her office in Phoenix, Ariz.

It's a matter of reprogramming your brain to have a tendency towards happiness instead of emotional pain, and most people can learn to do it.

She says choosing happiness over emotional suffering requires first consciously rejecting negative thinking.

She recommends quieting the mind and putting a larger perspective or a positive spin on your circumstances, imagining this moment 10 years in the future. Ask yourself how you can learn something useful from the experience.

"Look for a way to turn any part of it into a positive experience: that's how the prefrontal cortex operates," Dorn says. "The amygdala is always talking to the prefrontal cortex. So tell it about joy instead of telling it that you are a frightened, unhappy person who deserves to suffer."

She suggests another exercise: Try to visualize your amygdalae lit up and shining beautifully. At that moment, take yourself to a time when you were as happy as you have ever been. Send the joy you feel to your prefrontal cortex so you can remember it.

"The more you practise these things, the more you can voluntarily increase the activity of the front cortical processing system. The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the better you feel."

Those with serious mental illness or addiction problems should seek professional help, she adds. Instinct and emotions were once thought to originate in the limbic part of the brain, the first part to develop in humans.

The prefrontal cortex, the more evolved part of the brain , was believed to control higher functions such as judgment and permanent memory.

But Anderson says no one knows for sure where feelings originate. Still, much like cognitive therapy, he believes people can use their thinking to change the way they feel and this is how Dorn's or Slade's suggestions could work.

"Studies show that thinking supported by the prefrontal cortex can increase or decrease limbic responses," Anderson observes. "You can reframe an event to make it look sunnier or feel better to you.

"There is new evidence from studies measuring brain activity that the prefrontal cortex can be called upon to turn up or down the activity in the ... limbic regions such as the amygdala and hypothalamus. That is, having thoughts about how to make yourself feel better or worse actually changes the responses in primitive neural circuits, resulting in a genuine change in how emotions are created."

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