Today on The Cycle: Deepak Chopra

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Deepak Chopra joins The Cycle to discuss his new book Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-Being. Deepak, who has authored more than 65 books, co-author’s this one with Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. The book discusses how you can be happy for the holidays and beyond. The book goes as far into the mind-brain connection as possible and suggests a revolutionary new way for us all to relate to the brain.

With the holiday frenzy in full swing, Deepak offer three key pieces of advice: go with the flow, take time for daily reflection, and shift the conversation in your brain.

Be sure to tune in for the full conversation at 3:40 p.m. with Deepak and check out an excerpt from his book below:

A GOLDEN AGE

FOR THE BRAIN

What do we really know about the human brain? In the 1970s

and 1980s, when the authors gained their training, the honest

answer was “very little.” There was a saying circulating back then:

Studying the brain was like putting a stethoscope on the outside of

the Astrodome to learn the rules of football.

Your brain contains roughly 100 billion nerve cells forming

anywhere from a trillion to perhaps even a quadrillion connections

called synapses. These connections are in a constant, dynamic state

of remodeling in response to the world around you. As a marvel of

nature, this one is minuscule and yet stupendous.

Everyone stands in awe of the brain, which was once dubbed

“the three- pound universe.” And rightly so. Your brain not only

interprets the world, it creates it. Everything you see, hear, touch,

taste, and smell would have none of those qualities without the

brain. Whatever you experience today— your morning coffee, the

love you feel for your family, a brilliant idea at work— has been specifi

cally customized solely for you.

Immediately we confront a crucial issue. If your world is unique

and customized for you and you alone, who is behind such remarkable

creativity, you or the brain itself? If the answer is you, then the door to

greater creativity is fl ung open. If the answer is your brain, then there

may be drastic physical limitations on what you are able to achieve.

Maybe your genes are holding you back, or toxic memories, or low selfesteem.

Maybe you fall short because of limited expectations that have

contracted your awareness, even though you don’t see it happening.

The facts of the case could easily tell both stories, of unlimited

potential or physical limitation. Compared with the past, today science

is amassing new facts with astonishing speed. We have entered

a golden age of brain research. New breakthroughs emerge every

month, but in the midst of such exciting advances, what about the

individual, the person who depends upon the brain for everything?

Is this a golden age for your brain?

We detect an enormous gap between brilliant research and everyday

reality. Another medical school saying from the past comes

to mind: Each person typically uses only 10 percent of their brain.

Speaking literally, that’s not true. In a healthy adult, the brain’s neural

networks operate at full capacity all the time. Even the most

sophisticated brain scans available would show no detectable difference

between Shakespeare writing a soliloquy from Hamlet and an

aspiring poet writing his fi rst sonnet. But the physical brain is not

nearly the whole story.

To create a golden age for your brain, you need to use the gift

nature has given you in a new way. It’s not the number of neurons

or some magic inside your gray matter that makes life more vital,

inspiring, and successful. Genes play their part, but your genes,

like the rest of the brain, are also dynamic. Every day you step into

the invisible fi restorm of electrical and chemical activity that is the

brain’s environment. You act as leader, inventor, teacher, and user of

your brain, all at once.

As leader, you hand out the day’s orders to your brain.

As inventor, you create new pathways and connections

inside your brain that didn’t exist yesterday.

A GOLDEN AGE F O R THE B R AIN 5

As teacher, you train your brain to learn new skills.

As user, you are responsible for keeping your brain in good

working order.

In these four roles lies the whole difference between the everyday

brain— let’s dub it the baseline brain— and what we are calling

super brain. The difference is immense. Even though you have not

related to the brain by thinking What orders should I give today? or

What new pathways do I want to create? that’s precisely what you are

doing. The customized world that you live in needs a creator. The

creator isn’t your brain; it’s you.

Super brain stands for a fully aware creator using the brain to

maximum advantage. Your brain is endlessly adaptable, and you

could be performing your fourfold role— leader, inventor, teacher,

and user— with far more fulfi lling results than you now achieve.

Leader: The orders you give are not just command prompts on a

computer like “delete” or “scroll to end of page.” Those are mechanical

commands built into a machine. Your orders are received by a

living organism that changes every time you send an instruction. If

you think I want the same bacon and eggs I had yesterday, your brain

doesn’t change at all. If instead you think What will I eat for breakfast

today? I want something new, suddenly you are tapping into a reservoir

of creativity. Creativity is a living, breathing, ever new inspiration

that no computer can match. Why not take full advantage of

it? For the brain has the miraculous ability to give more, the more

you ask of it.

Let’s translate this idea into how you relate to your brain now

and how you could be relating. Look at the lists below. Which do

you identify with?

BASELINE BRAIN

I don’t ask myself to behave very differently today than I

did yesterday.

I am a creature of habit.

I don’t stimulate my mind with new things very often.

I like familiarity. It’s the most comfortable way to live.

If I’m being honest, there’s boring repetition at home, work,

and in my relationships.

SUPER BRAIN

I look upon every day as a new world.

I pay attention not to fall into bad habits, and if one sets in,

I can break it fairly easily.

I like to improvise.

I abhor boredom, which to me means repetition.

I gravitate to new things in many areas of my life.

Inventor: Your brain is constantly evolving. This happens individually,

which is unique to the brain (and one of its deepest mysteries).

The heart and liver that you were born with will be essentially

the same organs when you die. Not the brain. It is capable of evolving

and improving throughout your lifetime. Invent new things for

it to do, and you become the source of new skills. A striking theory

goes under the slogan “ten thousand hours,” the notion being that

you can acquire any expert skill if you apply yourself for that length

of time, even skills like painting and music that were once assigned

only to the talented. If you’ve ever seen Cirque du Soleil, you might

have assumed that those astonishing acrobats came from circus families

or foreign troupes. In fact, every act in Cirque du Soleil, with

few exceptions, is taught to ordinary people who come to a special

school in Montreal. At one level, your life is a series of skills, beginning

with walking, talking, and reading. The mistake we make is

to limit these skills. Yet the same sense of balance that allowed you

to toddle, walk, run, and ride a bicycle, given ten thousand hours

(or less), can allow you to cross a tightrope strung between two sky-

A GOLDEN AGE F O R THE B R AIN 7

scrapers. You are asking very little of your brain when you stop asking

it to perfect new skills every day.

Which one do you identify with?

BASELINE BRAIN

I can’t really say that I am growing as much as when I was

younger.

If I learn a new skill, I take it only so far.

I am resistant to change and sometimes feel threatened

by it.

I don’t reach beyond what I am already good at.

I spend a good deal of time on passive things like watching

television.

SUPER BRAIN

I will keep evolving my whole lifetime.

If I learn a new skill, I take it as far as I can.

I adapt quickly to change.

If I’m not good at something when I fi rst try it, that’s okay.

I like the challenge.

I thrive on activity, with only a modicum of down time.

Teacher: Knowledge is not rooted in facts; it is rooted in curiosity.

One inspired teacher can alter a student for life by instilling

curiosity. You are in the same position toward your brain, but with

one big difference: you are both student and teacher. Instilling curiosity

is your responsibility, and when it comes, you are also the one

who will feel inspired. No brain was ever inspired, but when you are,

you trigger a cascade of reactions that light up the brain, while the

incurious brain is basically asleep. (It may also be crumbling; there is

evidence that we may prevent symptoms of senility and brain aging

by remaining socially engaged and intellectually curious during our

entire lifetime.) Like a good teacher, you must monitor errors, encourage

strengths, notice when the pupil is ready for new challenges,

and so on. Like a bright pupil, you must remain open to the things

you don’t know, being receptive rather than close- minded.

Which one do you identify with?

BASELINE BRAIN

I’m pretty settled in how I approach my life.

I am wedded to my beliefs and opinions.

I leave it to others to be the experts.

I rarely watch educational television or attend

public lectures.

It’s been a while since I felt really inspired.

SUPER BRAIN

I like reinventing myself.

I’ve recently changed a long- held belief or opinion.

There’s at least one thing I am an expert on.

I gravitate toward educational outlets on television

or in local colleges.

I’m inspired by my life on a day- to- day basis.

User: There’s no owner’s manual for the brain, but it needs nourishment,

repair, and proper management all the same. Certain nutrients

are physical; today a fad for brain foods sends people running

for certain vitamins and enzymes. But the proper nourishment for

the brain is mental as well as physical. Alcohol and tobacco are toxic,

and to expose your brain to them is to misuse it. Anger and fear,

stress and depression also are a kind of misuse. As we write, a new

study has shown that routine daily stress shuts down the prefrontal

cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, correcting

errors, and assessing situations. That’s why people go crazy

in traffi c snarls. It’s a routine stress, yet the rage, frustration, and

helplessness that some drivers feel indicates that the prefrontal cortex

has stopped overriding the primal impulses it is responsible for

controlling. Time and again we fi nd ourselves coming back to the

same theme: Use your brain, don’t let your brain use you. Road rage

is an example of your brain using you, but so are toxic memories, the

wounds of old traumas, bad habits you can’t break, and most tragically,

out- of- control addictions. This is a vastly important area to be

aware of.

Which one do you identify with?

BASELINE BRAIN

I have felt out of control recently in at least one

area of my life.

My stress level is too high, but I put up with it.

I worry about depression or am depressed.

My life can go in a direction I don’t want it to.

My thoughts can be obsessive, scary, or anxious.

SUPER BRAIN

I feel comfortably in control.

I actively avoid stressful situations by walking away

and letting go.

My mood is consistently good.

Despite unexpected events, my life is headed in

the direction I want it to go.

I like the way my mind thinks.

Even though your brain doesn’t come with an owner’s manual,

you can use it to follow a path of growth, achievement, personal

satisfaction, and new skills. Without realizing it, you are capable

of making a quantum leap in how you use your brain. Our fi nal

destination is the enlightened brain, which goes beyond the four

roles you play. It is a rare kind of relationship, in which you serve as

the observer, the silent witness to everything the brain does. Here

lies transcendence. When you are able to be the silent witness, the

brain’s activity doesn’t enmesh you. Abiding in complete peace and

silent awareness, you fi nd the truth about the eternal questions concerning

God, the soul, and life after death. The reason we believe

that this aspect of life is real is that when the mind wants to transcend,

the brain is ready to follow.

A New Relationship

When Albert Einstein died in 1955 at the age of seventy- six, there

was tremendous curiosity about the most famous brain of the twentieth

century. Assuming that something physical must have created

such genius, an autopsy was performed on Einstein’s brain. Defying

expectations that big thoughts required a big brain, Einstein’s

brain actually weighed 10 percent less than the average brain. That

era was just on the verge of exploring genes, and advanced theories

about how new synaptic connections are formed lay decades in the

future. Both represent dramatic advances in knowledge. You can’t

see genes at work, but you can observe neurons growing new axons

and dendrites, the threadlike extensions that allow one brain cell to

connect with another. It’s now known that the brain can form new

axons and dendrites up to the last years of life, which gives us tremendous

hope for preventing senility, for example, and preserving

our mental capacity indefi nitely. (So astounding is the brain’s ability

to make new connections that a fetus on the verge of being born is

forming 250,000 new brain cells per minute, leading to millions of

new synaptic connections per minute.)

Yet in so saying, we are as naïve as newspaper reporters waiting

eagerly to tell the world that Einstein possessed a freakish brain— we

still emphasize the physical. Not enough weight is given to how a

person relates to the brain. We feel that without a new relationship,

the brain cannot be asked to do new, unexpected things. Consider

discouraged children in school. Such students existed in every class-

A GOLDEN AGE F O R THE B R AIN 11

room that all of us attended, usually sitting in the back row. Their

behavior follows a sad pattern.

First the child attempts to keep up with other children. When

these efforts fail, for whatever reason, discouragement sets in. The

child stops trying as hard as the children who meet with success

and encouragement. The next phase is acting out, making disruptive

noises or pranks to attract attention. Every child needs attention,

even if it is negative. The disruptions can be aggressive, but

eventually the child realizes that nothing good is happening. Acting

out leads to disapproval and punishment. So he enters the fi nal

phase, which is sullen silence. He makes no more effort to keep up

in class. Other children mark him as slow or stupid, an outsider.

School has turned into a stifl ing prison rather than an enriching

place.

It’s not hard to see how this cycle of behavior affects the brain.

We now know that babies are born with 90 percent of their brains

formed and millions of connections that are surplus. So the fi rst

years of life are spent winnowing out the unused connections and

growing the ones that will lead to new skills. A discouraged child,

we can surmise, aborts this process. Useful skills are not developed,

and the parts of the brain that fall into disuse atrophy. Discouragement

is holistic, encompassing brain, psyche, emotions, behavior,

and opportunities later in life.

For any brain to operate well, it needs stimulation. But clearly

stimulation is secondary to how the child feels, which is mental and

psychological. A discouraged child relates to his brain differently

than an encouraged child, and their brains must respond differently,

too.

Super brain rests on the credo of connecting the mind and brain

in a new way. It’s not the physical side that makes the crucial difference.

It’s a person’s resolve, intention, patience, hope, and diligence.

These are all a matter of how the mind relates to the brain, for better

or worse. We can summarize the relationship in ten principles.

A SUPER BRAIN CREDO

HOW THE M IND R EL AT ES TO T H E B R A I N

1. The process always involves feedback loops.

2. These feedback loops are intelligent and adaptable.

3. The dynamics of the brain go in and out of balance but always

favor overall balance, known as homeostasis.

4. We use our brains to evolve and develop, guided by our intentions.

5. Self- refl ection pushes us forward into unknown territory.

6. Many diverse areas of the brain are coordinated simultaneously.

7. We have the capacity to monitor many levels of awareness, even

though our focus is generally confi ned to one level (i.e., waking,

sleeping, or dreaming).

8. All qualities of the known world, such as sight, sound, texture,

and taste, are created mysteriously by the interaction of mind

and brain.

9. Mind, not the brain, is the origin of consciousness.

10. Only consciousness can understand consciousness. No mechanical

explanation, working from facts about the brain, suffi ces.

These are big ideas. We have a lot of explaining to do, but we

wanted you to see the big ideas up front. If you lifted just two words

from the fi rst sentence— feedback loops— you could mesmerize a

medical school class for a year. The body is an immense feedback

loop made up of trillions of tiny loops. Every cell talks to every other

and listens to the answer it receives. That’s the simple essence of

feedback, a term taken from electronics. The thermostat in your living

room senses the temperature and turns the furnace on if the

room gets too cold. As the temperature rises, the thermostat takes in

that information and responds by turning the furnace off.

The same back- and- forth operates through switches in the body

that also regulate temperature. That’s nothing fascinating, so far.

But when you think a thought, your brain sends information to the

heart, and if the message is one of excitement, fear, sexual arousal,

or many other states, it can make the heart beat faster. The brain

will send a countermessage telling the heart to slow down again,

but if this feedback loop breaks down, the heart can keep racing like

a car with no brakes. Patients who take steroids are replacing the

natural steroids made by the endocrine system. The longer you take

artifi cial steroids, the more the natural ones ebb, and as a result the

adrenal glands shrink.

The adrenals are responsible for sending the message that slows

down a racing heart. So if a patient stops taking a steroid drug all at

once rather than tapering off, the body may be left with no brakes.

The adrenal gland hasn’t had time to regrow. In that event, somebody

could sneak up behind you, yell “Boo!” and send your heart

racing out of control. The result? A heart attack. With such possibilities,

suddenly feedback loops start to become fascinating. To

make them mesmerizing, there are extraordinary ways to use the

brain’s feedback. Any ordinary person hooked up to a biofeedback

machine can quickly learn to control bodily mechanisms that usually

run on automatic. You can lower your blood pressure, for example,

or change your heart rate. You can induce the alpha- wave

state associated with meditation and artistic creativity.

Not that a biofeedback machine is necessary. Try the following

exercise: Look at the palm of your hand. Feel it as you look. Now

imagine that it is getting warmer. Keep looking and focus on it getting

warmer; see the color becoming redder. If you maintain focus

on this intention, your palm will in fact grow warm and red. Tibetan

Buddhist monks use this simple biofeedback loop (an advanced

meditation technique known as tumo) to warm their entire bodies.

This technique is so effective that monks who use it can sit in

freezing ice caves meditating overnight while wearing nothing more

than their thin silk saffron robes. Now the simple feedback loop has

become totally engrossing, because what we can induce merely by

intending it may have no limit. The same Buddhist monks reach

states of compassion, for example, that depend on physical changes

in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Their brains didn’t do this

on their own; they were following orders from the mind. Thus we

cross a frontier. When a feedback loop is maintaining normal heart

rhythm, the mechanism is involuntary— it is using you. But if you

change your heart rate intentionally (for example, by imagining a

certain someone who excites you romantically), you are using it instead.

Let’s take this concept to the place where life can be miserable or

happy. Consider stroke victims. Medical science has made huge advances

in patient survival after even massive strokes, some of which

can be attributed to better medications and to the upsurge of trauma

units, since strokes are ideally dealt with as soon as possible. Quick

treatment is saving countless lives, compared to the past.

But survival isn’t the same as recovery. No drugs show comparable

success in allowing victims to recover from paralysis, the most

common effect of a stroke. As with the discouraged children, with

stroke patients everything seems to depend on feedback. In the past

they mostly sat in a chair with medical attention, and their course

of least resistance was to use the side of the body that was unaffected

by their stroke. Now rehabilitation actively takes the course

of most resistance. If a patient’s left hand is paralyzed, for example,

the therapist will have her use only that hand to pick up a coffee cup

or comb her hair.

At fi rst these tasks are physically impossible. Even barely raising

a paralyzed hand causes pain and frustration. But if the patient repeats

the intention to use the bad hand, over and over, new feedback

loops develop. The brain adapts, and slowly there is new function.

We now see remarkable recoveries in patients who walk, talk, and

use their limbs normally with intensive rehab. Even twenty years

ago these functions would have languished or shown only minor

improvements.

And all we have done so far is to explore the implications of two

words.

The super brain credo bridges two worlds, biology and experience.

Biology is great at explaining physical processes, but it is totally

inadequate at telling us about the meaning and purpose of our subjective

experience. What does it feel like to be a discouraged child or

a paralyzed stroke victim? The story begins with that question, and

biology follows second. We need both worlds to understand ourselves.

Otherwise, we fall into the biological fallacy, which holds

that humans are controlled by their brains. Leaving aside countless

arguments between various theories of mind and brain, the goal is

clear: We want to use our brains, not have them use us.

We’ll expand on these ten principles as the book unfolds. Major

breakthroughs in neuroscience are all pointing in the same direction.

The human brain can do far more than anyone ever thought.

Contrary to outworn beliefs, its limitations are imposed by us, not

by its physical shortcomings. For example, when we were getting

our medical and scientifi c training, the nature of memory was a

complete mystery. Another saying circulated back then: “We know

as much about memory as if the brain were fi lled with sawdust.”

Fortunately, brain scans were on the horizon, and today researchers

can watch in real time as areas of the brain “light up,” to display the

fi ring of neurons, as subjects remember certain things. The Astrodome’s

roof is now made of glass, you could say.

But memory remains elusive. It leaves no physical traces in brain

cells, and no one really knows how our memories are stored. But

that’s no reason to place any limitations on what our brains can remember.

A young Indian math prodigy gave a demonstration in

which she was asked to multiply two numbers, each thirty- two digits

long, in her head. She produced the answer, which was sixty- four

or - fi ve digits long, within seconds of her hearing the two numbers.

On average, most people can remember only six or seven digits at a

glance. So what should be our norm for memory, the average person

or the exceptional one? Instead of saying that the math prodigy has

better genes or a special gift, ask another question: Did you train

your brain to have a super memory? There are training courses for

that skill, and average people who take them can perform feats like

reciting the King James Bible from memory, using no more than

the genes and gifts they were born with. Everything hinges on how

you relate to your brain. By setting higher expectations, you enter a

phase of higher functioning.

One of the unique things about the human brain is that it can

do only what it thinks it can do. The minute you say, “My memory

isn’t what it used to be” or “I can’t remember a thing today,” you are

actually training your brain to live up to your diminished expectations.

Low expectations mean low results. The fi rst rule of super

brain is that your brain is always eavesdropping on your thoughts.

As it listens, it learns. If you teach it about limitation, your brain will

become limited. But what if you do the opposite? What if you teach

your brain to be unlimited?

Think of your brain as being like a Steinway grand piano. All

the keys are in place, ready to work at the touch of a fi nger. Whether

a beginner sits down at the keyboard or a world- renowned virtuoso

like Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein, the instrument is

physically the same. But the music that comes out will be vastly different.

The beginner uses less than 1 percent of the piano’s potential;

the virtuoso is pushing the limits of the instrument.

If the music world had no virtuosos, no one would ever guess

at the amazing things a Steinway grand can do. Fortunately, research

on brain performance is providing us with stunning examples

of untapped potential brilliantly coming to life. Only now are

these amazing individuals being studied with brain scans, which

makes their abilities more astonishing and at the same time more

mysterious.

Let’s consider Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian chess prodigy.

He earned the highest ranking in chess, grand master, at the age of

thirteen, the third youngest in history. Around that time, in a speed

game, he forced Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion,

to a draw. “I was nervous and intimidated,” Carlsen recalls, “or I

would have beat him.” To play chess at this level, a grand master

must be able to refer, instantly and automatically, to thousands of

games stored in his memory. We know the brain is not fi lled with

sawdust, but how a person is able to recall such a vast storehouse of

individual moves— amounting to many million possibilities— is totally

mysterious. In a televised demonstration of his abilities, young

Carlsen, who is now twenty- one, played ten opponents simultaneously

in speed chess— with his back turned to the boards.

In other words, he had to keep in mind ten separate chess boards,

with their thirty- two pieces, while the clock permitted only seconds

for each move. Carlsen’s performance defi nes the limit of memory,

or a small slice of it. If it is diffi cult for a normal person to imagine

having such a memory, the fact is that Carlsen isn’t straining his

brain. What he does, he says, feels completely natural.

We believe that every remarkable mental feat is a signpost showing

the way. You won’t know what your brain can do until you test

its limits and push beyond them. No matter how ineffi ciently you

are using your brain, one thing is certain: it is the gateway to your

future. Your success in life depends on your brain, for the simple

reason that all experience comes to us through our brains.

We want Super Brain to be as practical as possible, because it can

solve problems that are far more diffi cult, or even impossible, for the

baseline brain. Each chapter will end with its own Super Brain Solutions

section, with a host of innovative suggestions for overcoming

many of life’s most common challenges.

Explore:

Today on The Cycle: Deepak Chopra

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