When my daughter began attending school, every time I dropped her off for the day, I would repeat a simple mantra to her: “Remember that thoughts become things. Keep them beautiful.” I still repeat this simple phrase to her, and to myself, every chance I get. Because of things like neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rewire itself, little thoughts like this, repeated over time, can have a profound effect on our beliefs.
Beliefs are powerful things. They shape everything from national policy to individual decision-making. But perhaps the most powerful belief is the belief that we have the ability to change things for the better. It is this belief that lets each of us develop to our fullest potential. But unfortunately, not everyone holds this belief. Early exposure to the concept of neuroplasticity could change that.
We already know that learning about the brain’s ability to expand its intelligence can help kids do better on tests and that reinforcing limiting thoughts makes them do poorly. What if I told you the same is true for emotional intelligence?
Because the world we live in often teaches us that we can’t overcome adversity, this fact could change everything about how young students develop, and for the better.
Neuroplasticity and the Ability to Change Thought Patterns
Neuroplasticity refers to the physiological changes that take place in the brain as we interact with the environment. A negative experience doesn’t just affect the way that we feel in the moment, but literally restructures the alignment of neurons in the brain. For this reason, having a healthy environment during childhood and even into early adulthood is extremely important—the brain is still developing during this time. Our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs about how the world works has a profound impact on each of our cognitive states. The belief that the world has no meaning often leads to a depressed or anxious mental state. Alternatively, seeing the physical world as a nurturing place can lead to a happy, well-adjusted mental state.
No one knows about neuroplasticity without being taught about it. And when we are taught about it, a door opens. This door represents a possibility for change, for improvement, for a way forward toward happiness. There are different ways to manipulate our thought patterns toward a more positive view. But learning about neuroplasticity offers young students a tangible way to see this possibility. If their brains can change, they can change.
Neuroplasticity and Emotional Intelligence
Without getting too technical, let’s take a peek at a few different parts of the brain associated with emotional intelligence—the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of things like complex thought, decision making, and moderating social interactions, is the most developed part of the brain. It acts like the pilot of an airplane. It makes contact with air traffic control, instructs the crew, and solves any technical problems that arise. The amygdala, like the prefrontal cortex, helps with decision making, but it also controls emotional reactions. It is also the primary structure that controls the fight or flight response. You can think of the amygdala as the anxious passenger aboard the airplane who is afraid of flying. If he feels turbulence (i.e. senses a threat), panic might ensue.
Emotional intelligence depends largely on being able to determine which part of the brain is making the decisions. Students who understand when their amygdala has taken over can reflect on themselves. This allows the prefrontal cortex to regain control. They can also sense in their peers when the amygdala is the one doing the talking. This ability can, in turn, lead to a deeper understanding of the feelings of others. When they understand the difference between decisions made by the pilot and the panicked passenger, they can practice building new neural connections through neuroplasticity.
When they understand where their thoughts are coming from and that they can change negative thought patterns, their thoughts will become and stay beautiful.
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