FLOURISH #2 - Optimize Beneficial Mental States

January 29, 2024 Michael C Patterson Season 3 Episode 3
FLOURISH #2 - Optimize Beneficial Mental States
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To increase our healthspan as we age  we need our brains to be as healthy as possible.  MINDRAMP has developed the Behavioral Roots of Brain Health to help identify risky behaviors that should be avoided and protective behaviors that should be adopted. 

To flourish, we need more than a healthy brain. We also need a nimble and well-trained mind that can adopt beneficial mindsets and inhibit mindsets that cause us to suffer. The FLOURISH AS YOU AGE series focuses on the mental management side of the equation.

So, how do we begin to identify beneficial mindsets? As I explain in this episode, the hemisphere hypothesis, as articulated by scholar Iain McGilchrist ,offers a very useful framework for differentiating between helpful and harmful states of mind.  

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Hi.  I’m Michael C. Patterson and you are listening to the FLOURISH AS YOU AGE podcasts in which I’M explore ideas about how I can flourish as I age. 

In this second episode in the series I want to build on the introductory episode and give you a bit more background about where I think this exploration is headed.  

For the past 15 years my colleague, Roger Anunsen and I, ran an educational company called MINDRAMP. The mission of MINDRAMP was to promote what we called “Qualongevity,” the ability to flourish throughout a long and healthy life.  We initially focused on the health of our brains and developed the Behavioral Roots of Brain Health. These are eight key areas that, if addressed in a combinatorial manner, go a long way towards preventing cognitive decline and maintaining mental fitness no matter our age. 

The Behavioral Roots of Brain Health are: Physical exercise, mental stimulation, social engagement, stress management, good diet and nutrition, good sleep habits, good medical care and an enriched environment.  

To stay as fit as possible as we age, we need to tend to each one of the behavioral roots of brain health. They all play a role in activating body/brain connections that, if working properly, make us more resistant to disease and better able to recover from illness and injury. So we live longer and in better health, which is great.  [I’ll review the Behavioral Roots of Brain Health in a bit more detail in an upcoming episode.]

My point for now is that having a healthy body and brain is only part of the equation.  I’ve heard people say, “Health is everything.” But it’s not. It’s possible to be perfectly healthy and perfectly miserable. Health certainly supports happiness but it doesn’t guarantee it. 

And then, what about people who struggle with their health. Are they barred from happiness. No, of course not. People with health problems or injuries can still lead productive and happy lives. So, brain health and mental sharpness are two different projects. Two sides of the same coin. In this series of podcasts I’m focusing on the mental management side of the coin.

Happiness, fulfillment, flourishing are states of mind. So the key to aging well is to figure out how to escape from mindsets that cause us pain and to cultivate mental states that bring us happiness, meaning and fulfillment and love. 

By the way, I’m using the words happiness and flourishing as a catch-all terms. They represent a wide range of affects and emotions that make us feel good rather than bad. 

I’ve been pondering  this question of how to flourish as we age for a number of years now.  I’ve been looking at ancient wisdom systems, like Buddhist psychology, shamanism and mysticism and also at modern approaches to managing our minds, including positive psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, artificial intelligence and even quantum physics.  

I’m beginning to see commonalities at the core of all these disparate systems and I’ll use these common threads as entry points for my explorations.  

One conceptual framework that has been hugely helpful for me is the hemisphere hypothesis proposed by British scholar Iain McGilchrist. I’ve always assumed of our mind works as a unified system, a single entity. But then its rather mystifying that our single mind could produce such disparate types of thoughts and behaviors. We are both devils and angels at the same time. How can this be. Well the simple explanation is that don’t have a single mind we have multiple minds, or at very least, two distinct minds. 

 McGilchrist’s hemisphere hypothesis states that the two hemispheres of our brain evolved to provide us with two very different perspective on life. These two perspectives, when they work together, are highly adaptive. The right hemisphere sees the world through direct sensory experience.  The left hemisphere creates concepts about life and lives within a virtual reality world of its own making. 

The trouble is that the virtual reality world of the left hemisphere has come to dominate our consciousness. We give more credence to our ideas about reality than to reality itself. We lose the ability to recognize what is real and what is illusory. One of the commonalities found in both historical and modern systems of mind management is that we need to adjust this imbalance. We quiet our thinking mind and reconnect with our sensory mind.  

Alan Watts summarizes the advice with the quip that “We need to lose our mind to gain our senses.” The advice to lose our mind makes a lot more sense if we understand it to mean quieting our conceptual mind (our LH) so that we can reconnect with and live life through our sensory mind (the RH). 

As another example, Buddhist teaching says that enlightenment involves realizing that our self is an illusion. Again, this makes a lot more sense if we understand that they are talking about our LH’s concept of a self, the ego. The stories that we tell about ourselves are the illusions. I am a success. I’m so stupid. I am a failure. I am shy. I am brave. These are just stories that turn the incredibly complex and variable process of being into a fixed unchanging, non-dynamic entity. These fixed concepts separate us from the flow of life.

So, in the next couple of episodes I’ll talk more about my understanding of the hemisphere hypothesis and how it has helped me to frame my thinking about what we need to do to manage our minds so that we can flourish as we age. 

Thanks for listening. I hope you will join me in this project of making the aging process a fulfilling and even enlightening process.  

Qualongevity - The Behavioral Roots of Brain Health
Mind Management
The Hemisphere Hypothesis - Iain McGilchrist
"We need to lose our mind to come back to our senses." Alan Watts