Is your needle stuck?


For those of us old enough to remember playing our favourite record over and over again until the track became a deep groove where the needle repeatedly stuck, the imagery is clear. It may be that like me there is a realisation that records have become cool again – as often happens, things from our youth recycle. Its a clear sign of growing up (i prefer that to growing older) that you remember the first time around.

That deep groove is a useful analogy for how the brain works. Our brain is an incredible piece of kit whose functionality is still one of the great frontiers of scientific exploration. Our memories are triggered through all of our senses, a smell, a photograph, a sensation… all are recored into the hippocampus, an area in the deeper brain. The hippocampus takes simultaneous memories from different sensory regions of the brain and connects them into a single “episode” of memory.

Memory works in different ways. If we remembered absolutely everything about everything (big question is how much of everything about everything do we remember? I am not a neuroscientist so for now will just wonder about this one). Short term memory function and long term serve different purposes. There is also our working memory. This is a great piece breaking the different areas down and how they all work: the film makes a key point being that retrieving the memory makes the neural paths stronger.

For a moment i will step out into the fields and look at the cows chewing grass. The word “ruminate” derives from the Latin for chewing cud – cows grind up, swallow, then regurgitate and rechew their feed. Similarly, human ruminators mull an issue at length. But while the approach might ease cows’ digestion, it doesn’t do the same for us.

But we really like that record, its a catchy tune that seems to hang around. Thoughts are like that – both positive and negative. We can get caught in a cycle of rumination, playing the thought over and over and over again. Who notices that they do that and what sort of memories come up? It is proven that negative will outweigh the positive.

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson ( refers to this as “the brain’s negativity bias.” The human nervous system, he writes “scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing – and unfair – residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory.”

Our primitive brain, see here: thinks this is a good idea. The term “reptilian” refers to our primitive, instinctive brain function that is shared by all reptiles and mammals, including humans. It is the most powerful and oldest of our coping brain functions since without it we would not be alive. It makes sure that we remember danger so we don’t do it again. Helpful when we were cavemen, not quite so helpful now that tigers are not lurking behind parked cars.

So returning to the record. We can replay a memory or a thought repeatedly until it becomes an indented groove in the neural pathways of our brain. Knowing this, it is logical that getting the needle out of the groove requires a physical action. Keep playing the record or stop playing the record? Change the groove.

The key is to notice when a familiar thought arises and to think about the following: Does it feel good? What is happening now? Does this thought actually matter? I am sure we all recognise this thoughts. They are often the ones that wake us up at 3am and feel huge in the darkness. It might be the thought that replays as you walk into a room full of strangers – most of us will experience a number of thoughts in that moment, are they good or bad? When you look back on a typical day, or when you survey your life, what experiences capture your attention – your successes and pleasant times, or the failures, hurts and disappointments?

Noticing that these thoughts are happening is so important. Think about it. If you think something is it real? (See the Matrix film series for what is real or not :-)) Weh you last had this thought or feeling did the ceiling cave in? When you had this though at 3am, how was the same thought at 8am? See if you are able to get perspective around what is happening and find ways to play a different record. A new tune is the perfect distraction, find a tune to oppose the thought – positive tunes work all-round. Do a little dance? An actual dance if you feel cool with that – on the tube I wish you luck but do a dance in your head, visualise a character doing a dance and make it your internal friendly dancer. (If you remember records you are likely to remember the dancing baby in Ally McBeal )

Overall have some compassion for yourself. Our thoughts come and go. Holding onto any of them good or bad are transient moments. Ruminating on them deepens their effect. In our house we have a before bed practice with our son called ‘three good things.’ (I didn’t invent it, read it and now use it) Together we find three good things to talk about from each of our days regardless of how bad we think our day has been. There will ALWAYS be something somewhere.

Finally, I know that negative rumination is a large part of depression. Ifyou are experiencing ongoing negative thoughts that you cannot seem to lift, if you can, seek support through friends, family – people you can trust when times become tough. Contact me for further advice on where to turn, it’s an individual thing.

For an experts approach I mentioned Rick Hanson. A favourite resource of information of mine, he has great TED talks, a great website and great books. He offers great advice on how we might hardwire happiness.


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