Thanksgiving, Neuroplasticity, and Santosha

I have always been fascinated by neuroscience. As a teenager, my high school psychology professor recommended a newsletter called “neuroscience for kids” that explained neuroscience in a digestible manner. My hotmail address probably still receives those emails to this day.

Much is unknown about the brain yet our knowledge of it has also advanced greatly over the past decades. One of the most interesting aspects to me is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. This offers so much hope and promise!

If the brain is plastic, it means that the more we repeat something, the more we reinforce it. We create neural pathways. But we can also undo them or create new ones that serve us better. The brain can change in response to sensory experiences but we can also do this consciously (in fact, we can even change our personalities, particularly on the introversion – extroversion spectrum).

According to psychiatrist Besser Van der Kolk, “when a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting – the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”

This is what makes gratitude such a powerful tool. And why I love thanksgiving (if we take it as a gratitude celebration, won’t enter other debates today…). Some studies suggest that when we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions. Expressing gratitude induces positive emotions, as it brings about feelings of pleasure and contentment.

In other words, practicing gratitude can help neural pathways strengthen and “create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves.”

As humans, we have a negativity bias. Our brains are more likely to focus or retain negative occurrences or emotions. This can be unwired with gratitude as well.

The practice of gratitude is inherent to yoga (the actual yoga, not just the postural). The eight limbs of Patanjali underpin most of the yoga philosophy that we focus on today. Amongst the niyamas (codes of conduct) is santosha, which is usually translated as contentment. Gratitude is one aspect of contentment, one that I try to practice on the daily and even more outwardly on thanksgiving.

As a teenager I struggled with big family celebrations. A friend of mine and I became a bit like the Grinch. As an adult, as I’ve worked towards new neural pathways and deepened my yoga practice, I have changed dramatically to the extent that I now embrace celebrations from other countries as well. I celebrated my first proper thanksgiving in North Caroline many years ago (with the wonderful Logan family, hi!). I lived in the US for a while… and now, I will take as many opportunities to celebrate life as I can. Specially if they involve bringing loved ones together and vast amounts of food.

Before I go back to the kitchen to roast the turkey, bake a pumpkin pie, and all of the sides (mac&cheese included) for tonight’s dinner, I thought I’d make a quick list of the things I’m grateful for today:

  • My friends, my family, my grandmas, my partner
  • Health
  • My work environment
  • Yoga, particularly the Dharma and Rocket communities
  • All of the lessons that London has taught me
  • Food
  • Did I mention food?
  • The brain’s neuroplasticity and how much I’ve grown over the past few years
  • My upcoming trip to the US
  • The many homes that I experience: in particular cities and places, the home that I find in some of my friends – because being with them feels like being home – and in Gerard, and mostly, the fact that I have found home within

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