A study of 460 study participants (aged 22-35) from the Human Connectome Project, reported in Nature Neuroscience found a single, stark difference in the way human brains were connected—based on an abundance of positivity or negativity in their lives.
In comparing fMRI brain scans to data collected on approximately 280 behavioral, demographic, and psychometric traits—such as the person's age, whether they have a history of drug use, their socioeconomic status and personality traits, and their performance on various intelligence tests—researchers found that positive traits and conditions vastly improved brain connectivity and functioning.
The functional brain scans (fMRIs) were conducted while the participants’ brains were in “resting state,” when the brain is not focused on a specific task but is either daydreaming or randomly assembling or dissembling thoughts. While it may appear the brain is not actively thinking while in resting state, it’s now known that the brain remains quite alert and prepared to spring into action, as required. Previous research on the resting-state has found there are areas of brain activity that fluctuate in tandem, which is suggestive of functional connections between correlated brain regions. These resting state connective patterns tend to be fairly consistent over time, and there’s some evidence they may be unusual in conditions like dementia and schizophrenia.
The researchers developed an average map of the brain’s resting state across 200 different brain regions, looked for patterns in connectivity, and then performed a canonical correlation analysis to correlate the findings with the behavioral, demographic, and psychometric data.
In analyzing the results, the scientists found that brain connectivity patterns could be aligned in a single axis, with one end associated with “positive traits” (such as higher education, stronger physical endurance, above-average performance on memory tests, verbal acuity, higher income levels) and the other associated with “negative traits” (such as poverty, lack of education, smoking, aggressive or anti-social behavior, a family history of alcoholism, poor sleep quality).
Not so surprisingly, they found that the participants on the “positive” side of the axis reflected stronger connectivity between brain networks associated with higher cognitive functions, including memory, language, introspection, and imagination. Because they also had stronger overall connections, their brains were able to communicate more efficiently than the brains of participants at the negative end of the axis. These are the makings of a brain functioning in a superior fashion.
The scientists don’t yet know if the weakened brain connections are the cause—or the effect—of negative social or personality traits (whether behaviors, such as using alcohol or drugs, diminished connections). They did find evidence that recent marijuana use (in the previous three weeks) decreased connectivity.
It means that the more you live the best life possible, in terms of fostering positive attitudes and positive personality traits, and continue bolstering brain capacity and regularly stimulating your brain in positive ways, the stronger your brain’s connectome—internal brain connections and communications—will likely become. You can light up your brain circuits on a daily basis!
Obviously, making choices in your life that tip your scale towards the positive axis, such as graduating from college, opting for ongoing education and exposure to new experiences, expanding your horizons in all positive aspects of your life, making more money (to afford a healthier lifestyle), taking excellent care of your physical and mental health, staying active and physically strong, eating a balanced, healthy diet, maintaining positive social connections, developing an optimistic outlook on life, and avoiding substances or activities that would damage your physical or mental health. We all also know what those activities involve, and that regular physical exercise (which increases blood flow to your brain) and meditating (one of the best activities you can do for overall brain connectivity and functioning) are essential, so let’s discuss a few specific activities you can add.
Obviously, anything that stimulates brain activity of a complex nature will boost connectivity, and everyone who wants exceptional cognitive skills, now and as they age, should be meditating on a regular basis (one of the best activities for overall connectivity and resting state improvement), and engaging in activities that force their brains to think, concentrate, organize, analyze, remember, contemplate, learn, imagine, and relax. The harder you require your brain to work, the greater connectivity you’ll develop. And whatever you do to boost positivity, do it full throttle, with a sunny outlook, dedication, and passion.
Susan Reynolds is the author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. She also coauthored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, and Train Your Brain to Get Rich.
 “A positive-negative mode of population covariation links brain connectivity, demographics and behavior”; Nature Neuroscience, September 28, 2015.
 Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (Voss et al., 2010).