How forgiveness rewires the brain

In a recent article on Brain Neuroplasticity I wrote about the Brain’s capacity to grow and renew itself – provided we keep on learning and provide it with new new and powerful experiences to process.

Today I want to talk about how letting go of useless regret and bitterness enables Bodymind to spring clean the brain and restore emotional wellness.

Some writers think that resentment about past misfortunes is an emotion. I disagree: it is a Headmind state which keeps on replaying tapes from the past in a futile attempt to make sense of some terrible event so that Headmind can control and prevent its re-occurence.

For example, I used to have repeat nightmares about the treatment I received from other children – and from my ‘teachers’ – as the lone deaf boy at the elite grammar school I attended. Those lasted until well into my twenties. And – each time I recalled the abuse I would be filled with bitterness and thoughts of revenge. Although the Headmind intention might have been to put me on guard against bullying in future, it merely made me paranoid.

I had to learn forgiveness but I was put off by the idea that this meant learning to love people I knew very little about. Later on I learnt that the word ‘forgiveness’ had an entirely different meaning – even for Christ. What it actually means is something like ‘set me free’. So, when Christ speaks – in Aramaic – of the forgiveness of sins, he means ‘free us from the faults of others.’

So that’s the most important clue we have: to ‘forgive’ really means to move on from upsetting memories and then focus on something better, more important, more rewarding, more empowering, in the present.

Now here’s what happens to you when you focus on resentment:

  • Your Conscious Mind calls up the movie
  • You relive the emotions associated with that story (e.g. anger, fear, disgust)
  • Because the movie belongs to the past, and the past is unchangeable, Headmind concludes that you are a victim of your emotions
  • The Pre-frontal cortex in the forebrain, which interprets information about what happens to you, sends a red-alert signal to the Amygdala, in the Limbic system
  • The Amygdala then triggers an alarm reaction in the sympathetic nervous system, the muscles, gut, skin and the immune system – which you experience as stress

What is worse, this stressful experience sensitizes the cells in the nervous system, the muscles, the gut and the immune system, which become more and more wired to prepare a response to trauma – to something that might have happened to you thirty years ago!

And here’s what happens when you forgive:

  • You stop watching old movies
  • You engage more in the present and keep busy on activities that bring you reward
  • Your Conscious Mind has less and less opportunity to replay the tape
  • Headmind starts to lose the thought that you are a victim of your past
  • As that happens the alarm circuit between the Pre-frontal cortex and the Amygdala grows weaker
  • New, empowering, experiences create new connections between the cells in your brain, nervous system, muscles, gut, and immune system
  • You become both happier and more resistant to disease

Image by littledan77

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