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Today on The Cycle: Deepak Chopra

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
superbrain resized
superbrain resized

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 AGEFOR THE BRAINWhat do we really know about the human brain? In the 1970sand 1980s, when the authors gained their training, the honestanswer was “very little.” There was a saying circulating back then:Studying the brain was like putting a stethoscope on the outside ofthe Astrodome to learn the rules of football.Your brain contains roughly 100 billion nerve cells forminganywhere from a trillion to perhaps even a quadrillion connectionscalled synapses. These connections are in a constant, dynamic stateof remodeling in response to the world around you. As a marvel ofnature, 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 onlyinterprets the world, it creates it. Everything you see, hear, touch,taste, and smell would have none of those qualities without thebrain. Whatever you experience today— your morning coffee, thelove you feel for your family, a brilliant idea at work— has been specifically customized solely for you.Immediately we confront a crucial issue. If your world is uniqueand customized for you and you alone, who is behind such remarkablecreativity, you or the brain itself? If the answer is you, then the door togreater creativity is fl ung open. If the answer is your brain, then theremay 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 havecontracted your awareness, even though you don’t see it happening.The facts of the case could easily tell both stories, of unlimitedpotential or physical limitation. Compared with the past, today scienceis amassing new facts with astonishing speed. We have entereda golden age of brain research. New breakthroughs emerge everymonth, but in the midst of such exciting advances, what about theindividual, 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 everydayreality. Another medical school saying from the past comesto mind: Each person typically uses only 10 percent of their brain.Speaking literally, that’s not true. In a healthy adult, the brain’s neuralnetworks operate at full capacity all the time. Even the mostsophisticated brain scans available would show no detectable differencebetween Shakespeare writing a soliloquy from Hamlet and anaspiring poet writing his fi rst sonnet. But the physical brain is notnearly the whole story.To create a golden age for your brain, you need to use the giftnature has given you in a new way. It’s not the number of neuronsor 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 intothe invisible fi restorm of electrical and chemical activity that is thebrain’s environment. You act as leader, inventor, teacher, and user ofyour brain, all at once.As leader, you hand out the day’s orders to your brain.As inventor, you create new pathways and connectionsinside your brain that didn’t exist yesterday.A GOLDEN AGE F O R THE B R AIN 5As teacher, you train your brain to learn new skills.As user, you are responsible for keeping your brain in goodworking order.In these four roles lies the whole difference between the everydaybrain— let’s dub it the baseline brain— and what we are callingsuper brain. The difference is immense. Even though you have notrelated to the brain by thinking What orders should I give today? orWhat new pathways do I want to create? that’s precisely what you aredoing. The customized world that you live in needs a creator. Thecreator isn’t your brain; it’s you.Super brain stands for a fully aware creator using the brain tomaximum advantage. Your brain is endlessly adaptable, and youcould 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 acomputer like “delete” or “scroll to end of page.” Those are mechanicalcommands built into a machine. Your orders are received by aliving organism that changes every time you send an instruction. Ifyou think I want the same bacon and eggs I had yesterday, your braindoesn’t change at all. If instead you think What will I eat for breakfasttoday? I want something new, suddenly you are tapping into a reservoirof creativity. Creativity is a living, breathing, ever new inspirationthat no computer can match. Why not take full advantage ofit? For the brain has the miraculous ability to give more, the moreyou ask of it.Let’s translate this idea into how you relate to your brain nowand how you could be relating. Look at the lists below. Which doyou identify with?BASELINE BRAINI don’t ask myself to behave very differently today than Idid 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 BRAINI 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 essentiallythe same organs when you die. Not the brain. It is capable of evolvingand improving throughout your lifetime. Invent new things forit to do, and you become the source of new skills. A striking theorygoes under the slogan “ten thousand hours,” the notion being thatyou can acquire any expert skill if you apply yourself for that lengthof time, even skills like painting and music that were once assignedonly to the talented. If you’ve ever seen Cirque du Soleil, you mighthave assumed that those astonishing acrobats came from circus familiesor foreign troupes. In fact, every act in Cirque du Soleil, withfew exceptions, is taught to ordinary people who come to a specialschool in Montreal. At one level, your life is a series of skills, beginningwith walking, talking, and reading. The mistake we make isto limit these skills. Yet the same sense of balance that allowed youto 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 7scrapers. You are asking very little of your brain when you stop askingit to perfect new skills every day.Which one do you identify with?BASELINE BRAINI can’t really say that I am growing as much as when I wasyounger.If I learn a new skill, I take it only so far.I am resistant to change and sometimes feel threatenedby it.I don’t reach beyond what I am already good at.I spend a good deal of time on passive things like watchingtelevision.SUPER BRAINI 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 instillingcuriosity. You are in the same position toward your brain, but withone big difference: you are both student and teacher. Instilling curiosityis your responsibility, and when it comes, you are also the onewho will feel inspired. No brain was ever inspired, but when you are,you trigger a cascade of reactions that light up the brain, while theincurious brain is basically asleep. (It may also be crumbling; there isevidence that we may prevent symptoms of senility and brain agingby remaining socially engaged and intellectually curious during ourentire lifetime.) Like a good teacher, you must monitor errors, encouragestrengths, notice when the pupil is ready for new challenges,and so on. Like a bright pupil, you must remain open to the thingsyou don’t know, being receptive rather than close- minded.Which one do you identify with?BASELINE BRAINI’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 attendpublic lectures.It’s been a while since I felt really inspired.SUPER BRAINI 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 televisionor 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 nutrientsare physical; today a fad for brain foods sends people runningfor certain vitamins and enzymes. But the proper nourishment forthe 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 newstudy has shown that routine daily stress shuts down the prefrontalcortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, correctingerrors, and assessing situations. That’s why people go crazyin traffi c snarls. It’s a routine stress, yet the rage, frustration, andhelplessness that some drivers feel indicates that the prefrontal cortexhas stopped overriding the primal impulses it is responsible forcontrolling. Time and again we fi nd ourselves coming back to thesame theme: Use your brain, don’t let your brain use you. Road rageis an example of your brain using you, but so are toxic memories, thewounds of old traumas, bad habits you can’t break, and most tragically,out- of- control addictions. This is a vastly important area to beaware of.Which one do you identify with?BASELINE BRAINI have felt out of control recently in at least onearea 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 BRAINI feel comfortably in control.I actively avoid stressful situations by walking awayand letting go.My mood is consistently good.Despite unexpected events, my life is headed inthe 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, personalsatisfaction, and new skills. Without realizing it, you are capableof making a quantum leap in how you use your brain. Our fi naldestination is the enlightened brain, which goes beyond the fourroles you play. It is a rare kind of relationship, in which you serve asthe observer, the silent witness to everything the brain does. Herelies transcendence. When you are able to be the silent witness, thebrain’s activity doesn’t enmesh you. Abiding in complete peace andsilent awareness, you fi nd the truth about the eternal questions concerningGod, the soul, and life after death. The reason we believethat this aspect of life is real is that when the mind wants to transcend,the brain is ready to follow.A New RelationshipWhen Albert Einstein died in 1955 at the age of seventy- six, therewas tremendous curiosity about the most famous brain of the twentiethcentury. Assuming that something physical must have createdsuch genius, an autopsy was performed on Einstein’s brain. Defyingexpectations that big thoughts required a big brain, Einstein’sbrain actually weighed 10 percent less than the average brain. Thatera was just on the verge of exploring genes, and advanced theoriesabout how new synaptic connections are formed lay decades in thefuture. Both represent dramatic advances in knowledge. You can’tsee genes at work, but you can observe neurons growing new axonsand dendrites, the threadlike extensions that allow one brain cell toconnect with another. It’s now known that the brain can form newaxons and dendrites up to the last years of life, which gives us tremendoushope for preventing senility, for example, and preservingour mental capacity indefi nitely. (So astounding is the brain’s abilityto make new connections that a fetus on the verge of being born isforming 250,000 new brain cells per minute, leading to millions ofnew synaptic connections per minute.)Yet in so saying, we are as naïve as newspaper reporters waitingeagerly to tell the world that Einstein possessed a freakish brain— westill emphasize the physical. Not enough weight is given to how aperson relates to the brain. We feel that without a new relationship,the brain cannot be asked to do new, unexpected things. Considerdiscouraged children in school. Such students existed in every class-A GOLDEN AGE F O R THE B R AIN 11room that all of us attended, usually sitting in the back row. Theirbehavior follows a sad pattern.First the child attempts to keep up with other children. Whenthese efforts fail, for whatever reason, discouragement sets in. Thechild stops trying as hard as the children who meet with successand encouragement. The next phase is acting out, making disruptivenoises or pranks to attract attention. Every child needs attention,even if it is negative. The disruptions can be aggressive, buteventually the child realizes that nothing good is happening. Actingout leads to disapproval and punishment. So he enters the fi nalphase, which is sullen silence. He makes no more effort to keep upin class. Other children mark him as slow or stupid, an outsider.School has turned into a stifl ing prison rather than an enrichingplace.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 brainsformed and millions of connections that are surplus. So the fi rstyears of life are spent winnowing out the unused connections andgrowing 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. Discouragementis holistic, encompassing brain, psyche, emotions, behavior,and opportunities later in life.For any brain to operate well, it needs stimulation. But clearlystimulation is secondary to how the child feels, which is mental andpsychological. A discouraged child relates to his brain differentlythan an encouraged child, and their brains must respond differently,too.Super brain rests on the credo of connecting the mind and brainin 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 betteror worse. We can summarize the relationship in ten principles.A SUPER BRAIN CREDOHOW THE M IND R EL AT ES TO T H E B R A I N1. 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 alwaysfavor 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, eventhough 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 mindand brain.9. Mind, not the brain, is the origin of consciousness.10. Only consciousness can understand consciousness. No mechanicalexplanation, working from facts about the brain, suffi ces.These are big ideas. We have a lot of explaining to do, but wewanted you to see the big ideas up front. If you lifted just two wordsfrom the fi rst sentence— feedback loops— you could mesmerize amedical school class for a year. The body is an immense feedbackloop made up of trillions of tiny loops. Every cell talks to every otherand listens to the answer it receives. That’s the simple essence offeedback, a term taken from electronics. The thermostat in your livingroom senses the temperature and turns the furnace on if theroom gets too cold. As the temperature rises, the thermostat takes inthat information and responds by turning the furnace off.The same back- and- forth operates through switches in the bodythat also regulate temperature. That’s nothing fascinating, so far.But when you think a thought, your brain sends information to theheart, and if the message is one of excitement, fear, sexual arousal,or many other states, it can make the heart beat faster. The brainwill send a countermessage telling the heart to slow down again,but if this feedback loop breaks down, the heart can keep racing likea car with no brakes. Patients who take steroids are replacing thenatural steroids made by the endocrine system. The longer you takeartifi cial steroids, the more the natural ones ebb, and as a result theadrenal glands shrink.The adrenals are responsible for sending the message that slowsdown a racing heart. So if a patient stops taking a steroid drug all atonce rather than tapering off, the body may be left with no brakes.The adrenal gland hasn’t had time to regrow. In that event, somebodycould sneak up behind you, yell “Boo!” and send your heartracing out of control. The result? A heart attack. With such possibilities,suddenly feedback loops start to become fascinating. Tomake them mesmerizing, there are extraordinary ways to use thebrain’s feedback. Any ordinary person hooked up to a biofeedbackmachine can quickly learn to control bodily mechanisms that usuallyrun on automatic. You can lower your blood pressure, for example,or change your heart rate. You can induce the alpha- wavestate associated with meditation and artistic creativity.Not that a biofeedback machine is necessary. Try the followingexercise: Look at the palm of your hand. Feel it as you look. Nowimagine that it is getting warmer. Keep looking and focus on it gettingwarmer; see the color becoming redder. If you maintain focuson this intention, your palm will in fact grow warm and red. TibetanBuddhist monks use this simple biofeedback loop (an advancedmeditation technique known as tumo) to warm their entire bodies.This technique is so effective that monks who use it can sit infreezing ice caves meditating overnight while wearing nothing morethan their thin silk saffron robes. Now the simple feedback loop hasbecome totally engrossing, because what we can induce merely byintending it may have no limit. The same Buddhist monks reachstates of compassion, for example, that depend on physical changesin the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Their brains didn’t do thison their own; they were following orders from the mind. Thus wecross a frontier. When a feedback loop is maintaining normal heartrhythm, the mechanism is involuntary— it is using you. But if youchange your heart rate intentionally (for example, by imagining acertain someone who excites you romantically), you are using it instead.Let’s take this concept to the place where life can be miserable orhappy. Consider stroke victims. Medical science has made huge advancesin patient survival after even massive strokes, some of whichcan be attributed to better medications and to the upsurge of traumaunits, since strokes are ideally dealt with as soon as possible. Quicktreatment is saving countless lives, compared to the past.But survival isn’t the same as recovery. No drugs show comparablesuccess in allowing victims to recover from paralysis, the mostcommon effect of a stroke. As with the discouraged children, withstroke patients everything seems to depend on feedback. In the pastthey mostly sat in a chair with medical attention, and their courseof least resistance was to use the side of the body that was unaffectedby their stroke. Now rehabilitation actively takes the courseof 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 cupor comb her hair.At fi rst these tasks are physically impossible. Even barely raisinga paralyzed hand causes pain and frustration. But if the patient repeatsthe intention to use the bad hand, over and over, new feedbackloops develop. The brain adapts, and slowly there is new function.We now see remarkable recoveries in patients who walk, talk, anduse their limbs normally with intensive rehab. Even twenty yearsago these functions would have languished or shown only minorimprovements.And all we have done so far is to explore the implications of twowords.The super brain credo bridges two worlds, biology and experience.Biology is great at explaining physical processes, but it is totallyinadequate at telling us about the meaning and purpose of our subjectiveexperience. What does it feel like to be a discouraged child ora paralyzed stroke victim? The story begins with that question, andbiology follows second. We need both worlds to understand ourselves.Otherwise, we fall into the biological fallacy, which holdsthat humans are controlled by their brains. Leaving aside countlessarguments between various theories of mind and brain, the goal isclear: We want to use our brains, not have them use us.We’ll expand on these ten principles as the book unfolds. Majorbreakthroughs 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, notby its physical shortcomings. For example, when we were gettingour medical and scientifi c training, the nature of memory was acomplete mystery. Another saying circulated back then: “We knowas much about memory as if the brain were fi lled with sawdust.”Fortunately, brain scans were on the horizon, and today researcherscan watch in real time as areas of the brain “light up,” to display thefi ring of neurons, as subjects remember certain things. The Astrodome’sroof is now made of glass, you could say.But memory remains elusive. It leaves no physical traces in braincells, and no one really knows how our memories are stored. Butthat’s no reason to place any limitations on what our brains can remember.A young Indian math prodigy gave a demonstration inwhich she was asked to multiply two numbers, each thirty- two digitslong, in her head. She produced the answer, which was sixty- fouror - fi ve digits long, within seconds of her hearing the two numbers.On average, most people can remember only six or seven digits at aglance. So what should be our norm for memory, the average personor the exceptional one? Instead of saying that the math prodigy hasbetter genes or a special gift, ask another question: Did you trainyour brain to have a super memory? There are training courses forthat skill, and average people who take them can perform feats likereciting the King James Bible from memory, using no more thanthe genes and gifts they were born with. Everything hinges on howyou relate to your brain. By setting higher expectations, you enter aphase of higher functioning.One of the unique things about the human brain is that it cando only what it thinks it can do. The minute you say, “My memoryisn’t what it used to be” or “I can’t remember a thing today,” you areactually training your brain to live up to your diminished expectations.Low expectations mean low results. The fi rst rule of superbrain is that your brain is always eavesdropping on your thoughts.As it listens, it learns. If you teach it about limitation, your brain willbecome limited. But what if you do the opposite? What if you teachyour brain to be unlimited?Think of your brain as being like a Steinway grand piano. Allthe keys are in place, ready to work at the touch of a fi nger. Whethera beginner sits down at the keyboard or a world- renowned virtuosolike Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein, the instrument isphysically 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 guessat the amazing things a Steinway grand can do. Fortunately, researchon brain performance is providing us with stunning examplesof untapped potential brilliantly coming to life. Only now arethese amazing individuals being studied with brain scans, whichmakes their abilities more astonishing and at the same time moremysterious.Let’s consider Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian chess prodigy.He earned the highest ranking in chess, grand master, at the age ofthirteen, the third youngest in history. Around that time, in a speedgame, he forced Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion,to a draw. “I was nervous and intimidated,” Carlsen recalls, “or Iwould have beat him.” To play chess at this level, a grand mastermust be able to refer, instantly and automatically, to thousands ofgames stored in his memory. We know the brain is not fi lled withsawdust, but how a person is able to recall such a vast storehouse ofindividual moves— amounting to many million possibilities— is totallymysterious. In a televised demonstration of his abilities, youngCarlsen, who is now twenty- one, played ten opponents simultaneouslyin 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 secondsfor 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 imaginehaving such a memory, the fact is that Carlsen isn’t straining hisbrain. What he does, he says, feels completely natural.We believe that every remarkable mental feat is a signpost showingthe way. You won’t know what your brain can do until you testits limits and push beyond them. No matter how ineffi ciently youare using your brain, one thing is certain: it is the gateway to yourfuture. Your success in life depends on your brain, for the simplereason that all experience comes to us through our brains.We want Super Brain to be as practical as possible, because it cansolve problems that are far more diffi cult, or even impossible, for thebaseline brain. Each chapter will end with its own Super Brain Solutionssection, with a host of innovative suggestions for overcomingmany of life’s most common challenges.