What do you think of The Power of Positive Thinking? There was a time that I considered “The power of positive thinking” to be something along the lines of New Age Philosophy or maybe a “name it and claim it” religious belief. It might be much more simple than that. IT may just be a shift in our thought process to help eliminate negative thoughts.
“Cogito, ergo sum”, or “I think, therefore I am” is a famous quote from philosopher Rene Decartes. On a philosophical level, he was saying that our thoughts prove our existence. When we think, it proves that we exist, even if our thoughts are doubting our existence (some deep thoughts there).. While he approached the idea as a way of proving our existence, I would like to focus on the “I think” part of his statement a little. Maybe even go as far as to say “I am what I think.”
While the Bible has a lot to say about our thoughts, I find it interesting that science supports what the Bible says. While I am not a doctor or a scientist, and there is much I don’t understand about the process, I have taken some time to read and study to see how science supports “the power of positive thinking” with what is called Neural Plasticity. This has helped me to deal with my own negative thought pattern.
For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.
What is Neural Plasticity?
“Neural Plasticity is the ability of our nervous system to change” (Sciencedirect.com) When we think, it causes neurons in our brain to fire. The more we think, the more our neurons fire. And when we think the same things over and over, the “neurons that fire together, wire together.” As they wire together, or connect, it is the brain’s way to make the thought process faster. Since it is something thought of a lot, those neurons join together to be a stronger, faster path for our thoughts.
Think of it this way. Suppose you are a hiker, and you are out in the woods. When you find a nice patch of woods, there may not be a path for you to walk on, so you make your own. You chop the hanging vines and weeds with your machete (well, at least I would because hiking with a machete sounds much more fun.). You step on other plants and bend trees out of your way. It may not look like a lot, but you are beginning to create a path. That initial path you are making is the brain’s equivalent to a thought.
Now imagine a few days later you go hiking again. As you swing your machete and step on plants, it is a little easier than the first time you were here, because of the work you put into forging the trail. This is similar to the brain wiring the neurons together to become more efficient with the thoughts.
Eventually you will come to a point in your hiking that you don’t even need to swing your machete (though I would always find something to swing a machete at.) Your path will become so well worn that it essentially takes no effort at all to walk the trail.
While wiring neurons together, your brain is making your thought process more efficient. Since it is a thought you think about a lot, it is easier for you to think it- it takes less effort.
That is a great concept— until we start talking about negative thoughts.
The more we think negative thoughts, the easier it becomes to think negative thoughts. That path is an easy one to walk, little to no effort is involved, and it may become your default trail to hike on since it doesn’t take the same effort it once did.
It is a dangerous path to take when negative thoughts become our default.
Our Thoughts on Autopilot
When learning to drive, it is important to keep your eyes on the road ahead of you, so you can see where you are going. It happens when walking and riding a bike as well. As long as you are focused on the direction you are heading, it is easy to maintain that direction. But when you lose your focus and begin to look in other directions, you will naturally start to turn in the direction you are looking.
It is the same with our thoughts. When we are thinking negative thoughts, we start to head down a negative path. Even if our thoughts are lies (which mine were) we start to believe them. Our brain is wired to make things easy and efficient for us. The more we think something, the more likely we are to experience what we are thinking. And since our brain is wiring neurons together, those thoughts are easier and easier to the point they happen naturally, and we don’t even have to try to think negatively. It just happens.
Before we moved to the house we live in now, I would take the expressway to work every day. Then on Sunday, I would take the same expressway part of the way, then change to a different expressway to head to church. More than once I almost missed my exit to head south because I was not focused on where I was going. I had driven that path so many times heading to work, that my brain wired the neurons together to help me drive to make it more efficient for me. Those times I nearly missed my exit, I was either talking to my family or thinking about something else. And I was driving fine, but I was not focused on my driving. My brain was helping me be efficient.
It’s the same with negative thoughts. There was a time when I thought the same negative thoughts over and over to the point I didn’t have to try to think about it anymore. It just came naturally, like driving.
What does the Bible say about our Thoughts?
The good news is that while our brain is wired to help make things easier for us, we can also change the neural paths to create new patterns and habits. I have a feeling this may be what Paul is referring to when addressing the Phillipians.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. Phil 4:8
If I am what I think, I sure would rather think good things about myself, and others, and my situation rather than bad things. Wouldn’t it be better to set yourself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy of good things rather than bad?
When Paul writes to the Corinthians he tells them:
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5)
My negative thoughts were largely about myself. And they were not true, they were not biblical. It’s almost like Paul tells us to take those negative, false thoughts captive, and replace them with Godly thoughts.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
When I read about renewing our mind, to me it sounds very similar to changing our thought pattern.
How can I change a Negative Thought Pattern?
Now I am not talking about never having negative thoughts. Bad things happen, we all have bad days and experience negative emotions. What I am talking about is thinking them over and over — being in the habit of negative thoughts.
Remember those paths in the woods? It started out rough, but got to the point you had smooth trails to walk. Well, what would happen if you took your machete and decided to blaze a new trail? It may be tough at first, but if you make it a habit to chop and stomp weeds and push back vines and branches, eventually you would have a new path. And the more you use the new path, guess what? That means less time you have to spend on the old path. What do you think would happen to your old path? Yep, the weeds would start to grow up, the vines and branches would begin to come back, and eventually your trail would disappear. Essentially you are trading one trail for another.
Our brain operates in a similar fashion. “Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die. Because we gain new experiences, some connections are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning.” (www.verywellmind.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-2794886)
The more you think the same thoughts, the stronger the pathways are, but the reverse is also true: the less you think a thought, the weaker those pathways become.
That makes sense if our brain is trying to make our thoughts more efficient. If we quit thinking a certain way, those strong neural pathways that once existed fade away to make room for the new pathways you are creating.
The way I am discussing thoughts, our thoughts have become habits.
“Habits play an important role in our health,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors.”
Habits can arise through repetition. They are a normal part of life, and are often helpful. “We wake up every morning, shower, comb our hair or brush our teeth without being aware of it,” Volkow says. We can drive along familiar routes on mental auto-pilot without really thinking about the directions. “When behaviors become automatic, it gives us an advantage, because the brain does not have to use conscious thought to perform the activity,” Volkow says. This frees up our brains to focus on different things.
How can I stop thinking negative thoughts?
So if our thoughts are like habits, and our thought paths and habits can be changed out for better thoughts and habits, you might be wondering how to do that?
For habits, it is sometimes a matter of stopping the behavior, and usually replacing it with a different behavior. For our thoughts it is not so cut and dry.
In order to help your brain increase it’s plasticity, many experts say things like learning a new language, travel (changing environments), art, music, and exercise will help. They are all good ways to help your brain switch gears and help you to process thoughts differently.
It was not an easy task for me to rewire my brain. My negative thoughts, or Soundtracks as Jon Acuff would call them in his new book, were so strong it was hard to think or believe anything different.
There were a few things that greatly helped me change my thought pattern.
- Devotional: I found a good devotional full of positive thoughts and verses. The verses were focused on God’s Truth. Reading through those on a daily basis eventually started to help.
- Affirmations: Since my negative thoughts led to a very low self esteem I made a list of affirmations. My list included names and phrases that described who I am through Jesus, not who I am based on what I have done or what has happened to me. I wrote down the list along with verses to support the way God sees me.
Not only did I write them down, but I read over them. A lot.
- Other People
I did not take this journey alone. I don’t think I could have. There are a few close friends that know my story and have helped me walk through. You don’t have to do it alone, find someone you trust to help you.
It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly my old neural pathways began to fade away and were replaced with more positive thoughts.
If you find yourself in a position where your first thought is negative, or you have a negative outlook, or a low self esteem because of the things you repeat to yourself, you aren’t alone. Speaking from experience it is something you can work through, but it isn’t easy. Your brain is trying to make things easy for you, but actually it is making it harder for you. Change takes work, but in the end it is worth it. You are worth it.
Leave a comment below and let me know what you think— or where you are on your journey. Or send me a message. I’d love to hear your story, or to help in any way I can.