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May 1, 2019

The Happy Brain

Reuel S. Amdur

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A quiet brain is a happy brain. That was the observation made by Guillaume Tremblay, a nurse practitioner at the Brockville campus of the Royal Ottawa Hospital. He was speaking at the Royal Ottawa Hospital in Ottawa on April 25.

When we ruminate, he explained, with the brain jumping from one thought to another, often in a more or less random fashion, the regions of the brain are part of a default mode network (DFN).   In this state, the brain is unfocused.  This state can contribute to creation of various undesirable conditions:  depression, anxiety, and various other mental disorders.

When   our brain is ruminating, we need to learn to slow it down.  An excess of unnecessary thinking is, according to Tremblay, “too much blah, blah, blah.”As opposed to DFN, the task positive network (TPN) is focused.  We need to cultivate the TPN.  Studies have shown that a reduction of DFN leads to greater happiness.  With depression, DFN is dominant over TPN.

How do we cultivate TPN?  One way is to engage in mental exercises.  Using meditation techniques for six to 12 minutes a day is one way.  We can concentrate on breathing.  We can co-ordinate breathing with walking.  You can also write down three to five things for which you are grateful.  Being in nature can produce a sense of awe and calmness.  In the same vein, some religious exercises can have the same effect.  The Hindu chant “om” is an ancient ritual that aids in clearing the brain.

In addition to efforts to clear the brain, we can also focus the brain.  That involves substituting “thinking through” for “thinking about.”

THINKING ABOUT                                   THINKING THROUGH

Worry-provoking                                        reflective

Mind wanders                                            concentrated

Problem-focused                                      solution-focused

Distracted                                                   relaxed

While we try to focus, either to empty the brain or to focus on something specific, the mind may wander.  Such slippage is bound to occur.  Simply try to bring it back on task.  The slippage should decrease with practice.

This focus on the TPN is not a cure-all for all mental health problems, but, said Tremblay, “It makes life more fun.”  He explained that the brain is like a muscle and needs to be exercised regularly.

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