Do you want to be happier, more connected to others and a better problem-solver? Karen Salmansohn says we all once were Zen masters when it came to interacting with the world around us, but our brains change as we age—becoming more focused and inhibited—and now you may need to retrain your brain to expand your consciousness. Take her advice and tap into the little buddha inside of you!
I’ve recently discovered how babies are little Zen masters. They’re highly conscious beings, able to use their brains to learn about life at supersonic speed—noticing the quirkiest of details—seeing delicious slices of reality that we adults often miss. And I’m not just saying all this pro-baby stuff because I’m eight months pregnant and about to become the proud mommy to my own baby Zen master. I’m saying this because I’ve been reading up on the fascinating neuroscience behind how a baby thinks. And I’m here to tell you, we adults can learn a lot from babies.
Here’s the neuroscientific scoop: Babies have more brain cells and fewer inhibitory neurotransmitters than us grown-ups. As a result, babies have a greater expanded consciousness than us grown-ups! Says who? Alison Gopnik, a University of California at Berkeley psychologist and the author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.
According to Gopnik, a pruning process is found in our adult brain that allows for only a limited view of life. As a result, we might find ourselves instinctively choosing to focus strongly on the wrong bits of information. Or we might find ourselves neglecting important possibilities and helpful perceptions that could empower us to live more lovingly, successfully and happily.
A baby’s brain has many advantages compared to an adult’s brain. The “narrow consciousness” of our adult brains makes us a bit lacking when it comes to creativity and problem-solving. Plus, our limited consciousness also makes us less open to adjusting to the new and less able to be in the now.
In contrast, a baby’s brain is like a lantern—spreading the light of awareness—that can sort through lots of seemingly irrelevant information and be more receptive to discovering highly rewarding solutions or intriguing, innovative concepts. A baby’s brain is also better able to notice beauty and experience delight wherever it wanders—being fully appreciative of the new, and present in the now. You’ve heard of the Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind?” Well, a baby is blessed with the ultimate beginner’s mind!
On an interesting side note, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians, known for being adept at musical improvisation, showed “dramatically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex” when they were in the midst of improvising—the same description of the prefrontal cortex area found in a baby. And these researchers also found that the more these jazz musicians were able to deactivate this prefrontal cortex—and think like a baby—the more they were able to spontaneously invent new, exciting melodies!
According to Gopnik, this reduced activity in a baby’s prefrontal cortex is also what blesses infants with the ability to stay open to improvising new and unusual responses to situations—often to their parents’ delight. In contrast, adults have busily scheduled prefrontal cortexes that often react to situations with learned knee-jerk responses, which can sometimes be the equivalent of be-a-jerk responses…and anything but delight! And our adult prefrontal cortexes can also keep us shut down to learning new ideas or seeing new patterns. Hence, when challenges strike, it’s to an adult’s benefit to think like a baby and stay open to improvising in new ways, to thinking outside of the box.
So how can you tap into some of this terrific expanded consciousness and think like a baby? The answer: Start meditating!
Both Gopnik and those Johns Hopkins University researchers compared the unwound state of mind found in babies and jazz musicians to the same open mindset found in those doing meditation. Indeed, Gopnik very much believes a baby’s consciousness is similar to the consciousness adults reach in a meditational state. A state where we find ourselves, as Gopnik describes, “dissolving attentional focus and becoming aware of everything at once.”
For many reasons, I found comparing a baby’s consciousness to the consciousness reached in meditation particularly fascinating. I’m a huge fan of meditation. I know lots of people assume meditation to be some Buddhist mumbo-jumbo, but it’s been scientifically documented to create therapeutic changes in the brain. In particular, Dr. Brick Johnstone, professor and chair of the Department of Health Psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia School of Health Professions, has performed many studies on how meditation affects the brain. He’s even pinpointed a specific change in the right parietal lobe, the brain region Johnstone describes as a human’s “self-awareness spot.” Meditating lessens the self-awareness spot and allows you to experience that I am at one with everything feeling.
Johnstone has also noticed a quieting of this self-awareness spot during appreciation of art, nature and music—which may explain why people often say they lose themselves in a beautiful painting or scenery. He also noticed that a similar affect occurs during our experiences of romance and charity—the reason we feel selflessness when we’re sharin’ the lovin’.
With all this in mind, it makes sense that a baby’s expanded consciousness is very similar to a meditating adult’s expanded consciousness. After all, a baby is a being who is highly open and in the now, aware of all kinds of surrounding detail and fully receptive to seeing the beauty everywhere and connecting with everyone! Just like someone who meditates.
People who are in bad moods—anxious, angry, depressed—have MRI images that show the circuitry converging on the right prefrontal cortex. People who are happy—feeling calm, enthusiastic, positive, loved—develop extra activity in their left prefrontal cortex. A quick way to sense a person’s general mood range is to check out his/her baseline levels in these right and left prefrontal areas. The more the ratio tilts to the left, the more happy, calm and positive a person is.
When Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s foremost brain scientists, tested the brain of a senior Tibetan lama who was known for meditating many hours daily, he discovered this lama had an extreme left-to-right ratio in his prefrontal cortex—the MRI sign of a happy, relaxed mind.
Repeated research studies have shown how folks who meditate regularly have an extreme “left-to-right ratio” in their prefrontal cortex—and are happier! It makes sense that a baby’s expanded consciousness is very similar to a meditating adult’s expanded consciousness. After all, a baby is known for smiling and laughing far more than the average adult. Studies show that a baby smiles 400 times a day. And children up to preschool age laugh about 300 times a day. As adults, we laugh just an average of 15 times a day, if it’s an especially good day. (I’m guessing less so on Mondays!)
With a practice of meditation, you can be happier, more connected and better able to solve problems—you can start thinking like a baby! Maybe Baudelaire had it right—”Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”
Karen Salmansohn is a best-selling author known for creating self-help for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading self-help. Get more information on finding a loving, happier-ever-after relationship in her book Prince Harming Syndrome.