The neurons in our brains are organized into about 150 different areas, each of which has a specific function. These areas interact within our brains and with our body and are affected by other areas in our brains and by parts of our bodies.
One of the most important parts of our brain is called the Hippocampus, which is in both sides of your brain just above where your ears are attached to your head. If you were to look at the brain from the outside, you would not be able to see your Hippocampus because it is covered by the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex, one of the four large areas on the surface of your brain. The Hippocampus in each half of your brain is about as big around and as long as your index finger, becoming more slender as it moves towards the back of your brain to attach to the Hippocampus on the other side of your brain.
The Hippocampus is the center of your autobiographical brain, how you see yourself and what you believe about yourself and your place in the world. The Hippocampus is a crucial brain area for the development of your sense of self. In the Hippocampus, information about the episodes of life is briefly stored before the information that is more important gets processed into memories. Early information is pushed out by later information and information that is less important vanishes after a few hours. Important information pushes out information that is less important, with less than 1% of the information that comes in each day being transformed into permanent memories.
In the Hippocampus of a happy and successful person, the information that gets processed into memories helps her develop belief in her courage to handle difficult situations, self-esteem by appreciating her successes, her character and responsible habits, her helpful personality and skills in cooperating with others, and an attitude of respect and grace for others. The happy and successful person has developed the ability to select which 1% of the information that comes in each day gets transformed into permanent memories, allowing her to write a thoughtful and intentional autobiography.
Whoa! She is able to select the 1% that comes in each day and write her own autobiography? How is that possible? Well, it is only possible if she has the attitude that she is going to be the manager of her life, if she refuses to “conform any longer to the patterns of this world…” so that she can be transformed by the renewing of her mind. She has to become as careful about what she puts into her Hippocampus as she is about what she puts into her body, which begins with being “healthfully selfish”, something I encourage all my clients to become.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a look at a very practical and useful exercise that you can do today to begin the renewal of your mind, the…
Happy Hippocampus Brain Exercise
We can take advantage of the temporary information processing of the Hippocampus by using the “Happy Hippocampus” brain exercise. Okay, I know that’s a real corny name for the exercise, but it’s very accurate and it’s easy to remember.
Recall that the Hippocampus is where information is processed before it is sent to other parts of the brain to become permanent memories. Most of the information processed in the Hippocampus does not become a permanent memory, simply because it is not that important. The information that is more important stays in the Hippocampus longer so that it can be distributed to other parts of the brain, where it develops into a picture of us, how we see ourselves.
Although the Hippocampus was our biographical brain as we were children, being written by parents and teachers, as we go through adolescence, we begin to write our own stories, and the Hippocampus becomes our autobiographical brain. What I mean by this is that we can decide a lot of what gets written in our autobiographical brain by deciding what gets put into our Hippocampus. Obviously, since we want to write the best autobiography we can, we are going to be careful about what we put into our Hippocampus. Along with this, we want to put good information into our Hippocampus in such a way that it has full effect, that it gets written with indelible ink.
I want you to start the Happy Hippocampus brain exercise by identifying what you want to develop in your autobiographical memory. For a simple example, let’s start by choosing to develop your courage, one of the behaviors that successful and happy persons consistently demonstrate and model for others.
What is courage? Courage is the ability to do something in spite of being afraid. To see ourselves as courageous is to see ourselves acting in spite of our fears. People are courageous when they act with integrity in spite of opposition. Courage is extremely important. CS Lewis writes, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” When each of us is tested and maintains our integrity, courage is involved.
One very interesting aspect of courage is that it reinforces itself, becoming self-fulfilling. When a person acts courageous in a situation and her courage is successful, the next time the situation arises, she is more likely to be courageous, and she will gradually see herself as a courageous person. If she sees herself as a courageous person, she will more often act with courage. This is a very important point. If we think of ourselves as more courageous, we tend to act in ways that are more courageous. If we act more courageous, we tend to think of ourselves as being more courageous.
Stop for a moment and consider this: As I think, so I become, and as I act, so I think. This means that how I think is at the root of how I act and how I act is at the root of how I think. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote, “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We are wired by God to act in ways that are consistent with how we think, and think in ways that are consistent with how we act. This is both wonderful and troubling because I can either think and act well or think and act horribly. What is most exciting about the close relation between how I think and how I act is that you and I have responsibility for both how we think and how we act.
Oops! “I thought that I am only responsible for my actions, not what I think. What I think is sometimes much worse than how I act.”
Unfortunately, although people looking at you from the outside can’t tell exactly what you’re thinking, your thinking does influence your behavior. Sometimes the influence is very subtle and sometimes the influence is very strong. The bottom line is that how each of us thinks influences how we act. Using our autobiographical brain to think healthy thoughts is absolutely crucial if we are to act in healthy ways. We can use the Happy Hippocampus Exercise to develop the autobiographical brain that we need to have a healthy life.
The Happy Hippocampus Exercise is deceptively simple and is much more influential than you will first appreciate. It works gradually to write an autobiography that conforms to how you want to be. It has these simple steps:
Every day for the next month, pick three episodes that demonstrate the behavior you want to develop, in this case ways in which you were more courageous today than you were yesterday. Use a note pad to help keep track of this during the day.
Write a few words on the note pad that will be episode cues, reminding you what you did to demonstrate the behavior you want to develop, in this case, courage.
As you get ready for bed each night, review the note pad to refresh your memory about the three episodes.
After you go to bed and just before you drop off to sleep, pray a gratitude prayer, thanking God for your family and your other blessings.
After your gratitude prayer, recall the episodes and allow them to be the last information that you process before you fall off to sleep. If you have to keep thinking through these episodes, that’s fine, just stick with it until you drop off to sleep.
If you awake during the night, use your episode cues again to help get you back to sleep. Recall these thoughts in place of any thoughts that awakened you, especially if they were troubling thoughts.
Several important things are accomplished by the Happy Hippocampus Exercise. Let’s review what is accomplished by using courage as our example, helping you to develop more courage as a personal resource.
Remember that earlier information in the Hippocampus gets pushed out by later information. Since the most recent information in your Hippocampus is the three examples of how you were more courageous during the day, this information will hang out in the Hippocampus longer.
The longer the information about you being more courageous sits in your Hippocampus, the more likely it will be to be distributed to other parts of your brain. This helps to make the information into memories. Memories are chunks of information that are resistant to loss and help to influence how you think about yourself. So, by giving your Hippocampus three thoughts about how you were courageous during the day, you are developing new memories that have to do with courage.
As the information about you being more courageous sits in your Hippocampus, it distracts your brain’s attention from how you didn’t act courageous during the day. This is an extremely important point. None of us is perfect and we all have some things each day that we do well and some things that we don’t do well. If you select episodes that describe your courage, another part of your brain can stay silent, the amygdala. This is important because the amygdala is responsible for processing information about threats and shortcomings to get you ready to defend yourself. If you go to bed and your last thought is about how you weren’t courageous, it will trigger your amygdala, causing your body to go on alert. Although you may still go to sleep because you’re exhausted, your sleep won’t be as restful.
When you wake up in the middle of the night worried about a problem, the discomfort you feel is your amygdala getting you ready to defend yourself. Unfortunately, the amygdala doesn’t fully appreciate that you need a good night sleep and that there is nothing to be done about that traffic ticket or unpaid bill until the next day. Fortunately, the neurochemicals that your amygdala has triggered only last for about 90 seconds. As long as you don’t keep thinking about what is worrying you, after 90 seconds, you will be ready to go back to sleep. So, as an alternative to thinking about your worries, use those 90 seconds to get up and go to the bathroom and go back to bed and choose to think about your three Happy Hippocampus episodes from the prior day. You might have to throw in another gratitude prayer, but this will definitely be more helpful in getting you back to sleep than lying in bed obsessing about that traffic ticket or unpaid bill and feeding your amygdala threatening thoughts. We’ll talk later about how to get along better with your amygdala.
Recent research has shown that the brain actually grows new neurons in two locations. Guess what? The Hippocampus is one of the areas! Right now, reading this blog and learning about the Hippocampus is actually causing stem cells in the Hippocampus to start growing new neurons. In about 3 weeks, the neurons that are being born right now will be fully mature and ready to go to work for you. So, if you stimulate new neurons and every night for 3 weeks keep working on courage, guess what happens? Right! Those new neurons are going to work to preserve your more-courageous self-image. We could call these your “courage neurons” because if you keep processing information about how each day you act more courageously, those neurons become part of your God-wired brain, with you as the co-author. Pretty neat!
The final and very important point I’d like to make is that you are not only thinking about being more courageous in the Happy Hippocampus Exercise; you are gradually changing your behavior. It’s probably going to be difficult to find three episodes from your day in which you were more courageous than the day before, at least at first. Without these episodes, the exercise won’t work. Don’t try and fool yourself by pretending to be more courageous. Being courageous takes practice and requires skill. You develop the skill to be courageous gradually, learning how to better handle people and situations that used to baffle you or intimidate you. You can’t just think it and do it. You actually need to take opportunities each day as they come along and practice being more courageous in ways that are likely to be successful, but feel risky. Research has shown that “fake it till you make it” is not only ineffective, but can also cause problems. We’ll talk about this more in another blog entry that is titled, “White Lies and the Devil”.
So, that’s the Happy Hippocampus Exercise. It requires that you be thoughtfully intentional, looking for opportunities each day to develop an aspect of yourself that you value. The opportunities have always been there, now that you are looking for them, they will become more obvious. Once you recognize an opportunity, you can choose to use it or not. There will be plenty of opportunities, so choose with thoughtful intentionality.