There's an exciting new field of scientific study. It's called contemplative neuroscience, or self-directed evolution. In a nutshell, it looks at how your thoughts affect the size and functioning of various brain structures. It's one more way science is proving that the thoughts you're choosing to think are causing permanent physical changes in your brain.

Specifically, contemplative neuroscience investigates how you contemplate life. What's your practice of pondering the magnificence of the universe? It includes asking yourself the questions: Why am I here? Where did I come from?

Brain scans show that those who've spent time contemplating the universe and their place in it have increased the size of two parts of their brain:

- the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions like planning and intention along with insight and intuition; and

- the insula (part of the cerebral cortex buried deep near the front of the brain), which controls empathy, compassion and body awareness. The insula also communicates with the amygdala in response to emotions, perceptions, self-awareness and interpersonal experience.

Anxious thoughts increase the size and firing of the amygdala, but have the opposite effect on the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. And as the amygdala grows, the automatic behaviors associated with the fight-flight response will become stronger.

Here's a more positive example of how your thoughts can affect a specific part of your brain in ways that help you. London's taxi drivers have to memorize a huge number of locations and the most direct routes between them before they can be licensed to drive the famous black cabs. Brain scans showed that the hippocampus (which governs spatial memory and navigation) is larger in these taxi drivers than in the general public.

When you increase the size of any part of your brain, it means that you're creating more neurons and increasing the number of connections between neurons. Fun fact: the axons and dendrites that connect the neurons in your brain could wrap around the Earth four times! And contrary to the prevailing medical view just two decades ago, your brain doesn't stop making new neurons until you die.

This is great news for you. Now you have more proof that you have the power to make yourself smarter in ways that will make your life better, by simply contemplating particular kinds of thoughts.

Negativity Makes You Stupid

Misery loves company. Typically, people who complain about how miserable they are usually aren't looking for an answer, they just want company. But they're probably not aware of the physical brain damage their whining causes to both themselves and you.

Recent studies have shown that passively listening to someone else complaining for 30 minutes actually damages neurons in your hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to memories and problem solving.

This means that simply listening to negativity can actually make you less intelligent.

You see, your hippocampus is responsible for sending new memories about your experiences to long-term storage, then retrieving them when needed. How does this play out in your everyday life?

When your hippocampus hiccups, you won't be able to remember where you left your keys or wallet. Or you'll see a familiar person, but can't put a name to the face. Or you won't recall important details about the past that would help you solve an issue you're facing today.

The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to negative emotional states because it has a high number of receptors for stress hormones like cortisol. Thus, it's more vulnerable to both short-term and long-term stress than most other brain areas.

Stress affects the hippocampus by reducing its firing, inhibiting the growth of new neurons, and the atrophying of existing neurons. Thankfully, most of these effects can be reversed when the stress is removed.

As I've written before about other patterns of thinking, your habit of complaining sets up a self-destructive cycle that feeds on itself. The more complaining, the more damage to your hippocampus, the less able you are to effectively problem-solve. Which feeds your frustration and stress, which begs you to complain more.

What can you do when others are complaining around you? You can't make your co-workers or your partner stop whining. But you can shift the conversation.

Invite the ones who are complaining to choose thoughts that can strengthen their hippocampus (and yours). Ask them: What can you do about the situation? What are your options here?

In every moment, you have the power to consciously choose where you focus your thoughts. Will you focus on problems, fears, doubts and lack? Or on appreciating what you've got, what's going well for you, and what you can do that will make your life better?

Both are always equally present. You get to choose which one you'll experience today.

Author's Bio: 

Judy Widener is a Certified Life Coach and author of Power For A Lifetime: Tools You Customize to Build Your Personal Power Every Day Of Your Life. You can sign up for Discovering Your Values, a 5-day e-course at no cost at http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com. Her passion is assisting her clients to discover what is most important to them, then to create more balance and satisfaction in their lives. She offers a comprehensive program that teaches clients simple ways to build their personal power and overcome obstacles to achieving their dreams. Judy has coached more than 600 people over the past 13 years. Her website is http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com.