Human nature is interesting: we receive both praise and blame for the same action. If an idea becomes popular, there's often a backlash. Last fall, Adam Grant wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times: "Can We End the Meditation Madness?" [It's an interesting read, even for this mindfulness teacher.] Grant notes the lack of rigorous studies on meditation, quoting Richie Davidson—a leading neuroscientist and meditation researcher.
Just recently, I watched an interview with Davidson, where he responded to the NYT article. His response: "Here's what I can say with total confidence: our brains are constantly being shaped—wittingly or unwittingly. Most of the time, our brains are being shaped unwittingly." There you have it: most of the time, our brains are being shaped unwittingly.
There's a sea of information in our culture. There's external cues: conversation, news, social media, magazines, entertainment, workplace activity, home environment, and the natural world. There's internal cues: physical sensations, emotions, ideas, judgments, opinions, and thoughts. We get to choose how this information impacts our minds.
I'll give two (extreme) examples of shaping our brains:
1. Get up; check Facebook; watch a few cat videos on YouTube; eat breakfast while reading the paper; say a cursory goodbye to family; drive to work while checking the phone at each red light; work all day, distracted by texts, FB updates, and thoughts of the past or future; get take-out on the way home; eat dinner, where the whole family is on devices; check email one more time; turn on the television and fall asleep on the couch.
2. Get up; meditate; eat breakfast in a non-rushed way, perhaps catching up with family members; drive to work in silence, no radio; work all day, motivated by the most important tasks; take a walk outside during the lunch hour, noticing sights and sounds; make a homemade, simple dinner; hug someone; while eating, share the ups and downs of the day; intentionally use social media; take another walk outside; choose an activity for the evening that fills instead of depletes; take quiet time before bed.
I'm not a neuroscientist, but the first scenario shapes the brain to be distracted, separated, and anxious. The second scenario shapes the brain to be aware, connected, and content. Most of us exist somewhere between these two examples. But it's helpful to ask: How am I shaping my brain in this moment? What seeds am I cultivating?
Our brains are plastic. We can allow them to be shaped unconsciously or consciously. If we identify our core values—that which matters most to us—we can use this to shape our brains. Perhaps not constantly, but regularly. And small changes can have a big impact.