WHY ANGER BREEDS ANGER
What was wrong with the exercise? First of all, some partners on the receiving end of the anger still felt threatened by the outburst, no matter how much they tried to deflect the torrent. Their old brains didn’t know that the partner’s anger was part of a clinical exercise. When the receiving partners felt threatened, they had a hard time feeling empathic. They might mirror their partner’s experience and mouth the right words—“I’m sorry you’re in so much pain.” But their primal instinct was to batten down the hatches or abandon ship.
There was another, more puzzling problem with the exercise. After the exercise, the partner who had vented the anger could feel angrier than usual in coming days. The exercise that had been designed to release stored up anger could generate it as well.
I began to understand why when Helen began reading books about neuroscience. She was fascinated by the information, partly because it shed new light on relationship dynamics. She learned that the adult brain is far more adaptable than first thought. I was intrigued and began reading the literature myself.
Scientists have known for decades that a young person’s brain is greatly influenced by experience. If nerve connections are not stimulated, they are “pruned” away. When a child has new experiences, however, new pathways are formed. This plasticity gives the child a highly efficient, adaptable brain, ready for all that life has to offer.
Scientists believed that the adult brain was hardwired, thus immune to experience. The only way the brain changed, according to early thinking, was to lose neurons with advancing age. This bleak view of the adult brain has now been revised, thanks to sophisticated imaging devices that can show physical changes in brain activity. These images have made it very clear that what adults do, think, and even feel alters the physical structure of their brains. Although the adult brain is not as adaptable as a child’s brain, it remains a highly responsive organ.
Here are a few examples. A number of studies have shown that the more time adults engage in a particular activity, the more nerve cells are marshaled to the task. The brain acts like a military commander summoning new troops as they are needed.
In one study, Harvard medical researchers instructed a group of volunteers to practice a simple piano exercise for two hours a day for a week. After each practice session, the neuroscientists took images of the volunteers’ brains so they could measure the size of the area devoted to finger activity. By the fifth day, they observed a significant increase in the size and activity of that area. Apparently, one of the reasons that “practice makes perfect” is that repeating an activity commandeers more neurons to the job.
Remarkably, researchers discovered that the same brain expansion takes place when people merely imagine doing a specific activity. As an extension of the piano experiment, the Harvard team asked another group of volunteers to imagine they were playing a simple piece of music. They had no pianos in front of them. In fact, they were asked to keep their hands and fingers perfectly still. When the volunteers were scanned at the end of a week, the scientists were amazed to see that the virtual piano players had the same expanded neural pathways as the people who actually played the piano. They had discovered that mental training and imagery can literally rewire the brain.
For the purposes of my work with couples, I was keenly interested in the fact that changing your thoughts can change your brain. In a type of therapy called Behavior Change Therapy or BCT, people are trained how to use their rational minds to challenge thoughts and beliefs that can trigger depression.
As an example, a person might generate this irrational train of thought: “I’ve made a number of calls to family and friends, and only one person has called back. Nobody loves me anymore.” Taken to its illogical extreme, it becomes “Because no one loves me, I’m going to be abandoned and die.” The emotional part of the brain reacts to this depressing thought as though it were real, and the person feels rejected, lonely, and scared.
When people see the absurdity of this type of catastrophic thinking, they can begin to think more rationally. “So, people are not returning my calls. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love me. They may be busy or out of town.” Removing the doomsday thinking can prevent the depressive feelings.
Research now shows that CBT can relieve depression just as well as antidepressant medications. Brain scans help explain why. When people use their rational minds to defeat depression, the part of the brain that is linked with rumination and obsessive thinking calms down. On a computerized image, that area appears darker, indicating that less oxygen is being consumed. This calm state extends beyond the mental exercise. People trained in CBT can go through life with a less reactive brain, no longer triggering depressive or anxious thoughts. Once again, thinking alone has been shown to alter the physiology of the brain. Mind over gray matter.