Marsha Lucas, PhD, is a neuropsychologist based in Washington DC. She recently released Rewire Your Brain For Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness, a book that explores what neuroscience can teach us about creating and fostering healthy relationships.
Marsha’s book is charming and personal. She speaks with the reader, not to the reader. Along the way she outlines basic neuroanatomy, explains what prevents us from forming strong relationships and describes the benefits of meditation. Throughout the book Marsha reminds readers that mindfulness can change the brain in areas and ways that promote healthier relationships with yourself and others.
Learn more about the book and Marsha by reading our interview below!
Give us a little bit of your personal background. Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I’m a native of New York, where I lived until heading off to college. I’m the daughter of a clinical psychologist and a stay-at-home mom who later became a silversmith.
How did you fall into your current profession as a psychologist?
I’ve always been fascinated by the brain, what’s “us” and what it is that makes us who we are. My dad and I would have these sometimes pretty odd conversations, about things like the Purkinje phenomenon (when, at dusk, your eyes are shifting from mostly color perception to mostly light detection, reds and greens seem to “pop” and appear much more intense), or hypothesizing what the dog might be thinking while he sniffs, um — well, you get the idea.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I’d been so fortunate to have three important parts of my life converge – my passion for neuroscience, my love of doing psychotherapy, and the tremendous difference that mindfulness practice can make in well-being. Putting them together in everyday language — with some of humor and examples mixed in — made such a difference with my patients that eventually patients, colleagues, and friends were all encouraging me to write the book.
Take us through the writing process a little bit. What were the biggest challenges? What was your original idea and how did it change (if it did)?
The biggest challenge in writing the book wasn’t the writing of the book itself — that was a challenge, but it was exciting and enlivening. I learned that to get a non-fiction book published, you first write a proposal — a business plan and sales pitch, really, plus a couple of sample chapters. Business plans, sales pitches — not exactly the stuff that most psychologists are inclined to do, so it was a steep learning curve. I had one author joke with me, “If you want to create a more mindful life, don’t write a book about creating a more mindful life!”
Ok, now for the good stuff. Meditation is a common theme in the book. So, how can we use it to improve our relationships?
It seems a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? After all, most people don’t say, “I’m really so hungry for a relationships, or to improve the one I have – Hey, I know! I’ll go sign up to learn meditation!” But here’s the connection: Our brains are wired — or not — for healthy relationships very early in life, through our first experiences with those who cared for us. If, like so many people, your brain is not, you can improve that wiring through the simple practice of mindfulness. Research (from Harvard, UCLA, and so on) has shown that changes happen in the brain as a result of mindfulness practice, in areas and with pathways that support and promote better emotional resilience, healthier empathy, quicker recovery after an argument, and more. I talk about the changes in terms of seven “high-voltage” relationship benefits.
What can neuroscience teach about reducing and controlling stress?
Humans have this tremendous capacity for thinking, and thinking about thinking. It’s a good thing, but it also costs us. Robert Sapolsky wrote Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers — zebras have their stress and tension when they sense that there’s a lion about to try to make one of them her dinner, but when the threat is over, they go back to a non-stressed baseline and get back to munching the grass. We, on the other hand, dwell on what happened in the past, project into what might happen in the future — and using our busy minds, keep ourselves stressed beyond what serves our well-being. When we acquire the skill of greater regulation of our body’s response to stress or fear, as one example, we’re developing “better” neural pathways, and less stressed-out ways of living our lives.
Throughout the book you advise the reader to be more “mindful.” Tell us what you mean by this.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, probably the most influential person in popularizing mindfulness in the US, describes mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? You’re bringing your attention to something — often your breath — and of course, with our busy minds, your attention wanders off. You notice it, and gently, non-judgmentally bring it back to the original focus. It’s not about “stopping” your mind, but noticing what it’s up to, and gently bringing it back to the present moment.
My favorite part of the book is chapter 9. You describe your experiences with a woman named Justine who is having problems finding a good partner. What does Justine teach us?
It’s fascinating to me that so many people find Justine’s story so compelling. Justine was basically living her life in a way that was turning a blind eye, every minute of every day, to how she had fallen into a sort of “autopilot” — living her life pretty mindlessly so she could just keep on going. She was a power broker in Washington DC, very successful in her career doing things that were good for her clients but (as she readily admitted) not really the right or decent thing for the rest of us on the planet. She came in to see me because she was having some serious problems finding a “solid, decent guy.” Understandably, she was resistant to really taking a look at the life and the crummy relationships she’d created — but was ultimately able to develop the capacity to mindfully shift her perspective, her talents, and her life to something more meaningful, and with more integrity. Finding a more meaningful relationship, and a guy with integrity, flowed so amazingly from that.
For the big question. What does your book try to accomplish? Or, what would you like the reader to walk away with?
We spend much of our time on “autopilot”. It’s like a prison, really. The practice of mindfulness gives you the chance to change your brain, to create better neural pathways, allowing you to break out of autopilot — and to create more vibrant, juicy relationships.