With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 witnessed a global economic crash and unprecedented levels of unemployment, reminiscent of the Great Depression in 1929. At some point during that year, over 30% of individuals worldwide found themselves without jobs. In the face of such economic catastrophe, one might wonder about the practical value of a “new thought.”
During the early days of the pandemic, as I strolled through the nearly deserted streets of my Northern California town, I passed by Murphy’s Pub, a beloved local hangout. A handwritten cardboard sign caught my attention: “Closed Permanently. We don’t see light at the end of this tunnel. Thanks for a great 31 years.”
Behind the closed doors lay a dark and empty dining room, evoking a sense of melancholy as I continued down the block, passing numerous other shuttered shops. However, that same week, tired of our own cooking after weeks of “sheltering in place,” my wife Christine and I decided to order takeout from Betty’s BBQ.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived to pick up our order, finding it neatly packaged in a bag on a table placed in front of the closed dining room doors. Betty herself stood behind the table, and I couldn’t resist asking, “How’s your place doing?”
“Great!” she replied enthusiastically. “I’ve contemplated starting a take-out business for years, and social distancing finally gave me the push I needed.”
Curiosity piqued, I inquired about the fate of her dining room staff. With a smile, Betty explained, “We’re so busy I’ve actually relocated them to the kitchen, so they’re busy focusing on food preparation now.”
As I drove away with our BBQ order, I marveled at the divergent paths taken by the two restaurant owners when faced with the identical predicament—the previously unforeseen (and wholly unimagined) new regulations that forced the closure of their dining rooms, and the loss of their primary source of income. While one chose to shut down, the other embraced innovation and forged ahead, embracing an expansion model for their business.
It was a striking illustration of how different mindsets can yield dramatically different outcomes. A new thought had sparked a revolution in Betty’s circumstances, propelling her successfully forward amidst adversity.
Deep within our brain lies a slender neural pathway that connects the prefrontal cortex, responsible for cognitive decision-making, to the midbrain, where emotions and learning take place. Known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), it plays a pivotal role in regulating fear—a crucial factor in our overall happiness.
Brain regions include those involved with attention (insula and anterior cingulate cortex), regulating stress and the Default Mode Network (ventromedial prefrontal cortex and limbic system), empathy (temporoparietal junction, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula), and regulating self-awareness (precuneus and medial prefrontal cortex).
In an MRI study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, the brain’s response to a fear-inducing stimulus was examined (Reddan et al., 2018). After conditioning the participants to experience fear, half of them received a soothing countermeasure, while the other half simply imagined one. Astonishingly, the fear-regulating VMPFC lit up in both groups. This suggests that a new thought, even in the form of an imagined soothing stimulus, can be as effective as a tangible one.
As the lockdown measures lifted, I later found myself walking down the same street, illuminated anew by the revived dining rooms—except for Murphy’s. Meanwhile, Betty is flourishing with two thriving businesses now: her traditional in-person dining room as well as the newly established take-out bonanza.
When confronted with challenges akin to those faced by these two restaurants, in order to thrive it’s essential to embrace the power of a new thought.
Reddan, M. C., Wager, T. D., & Schiller, D. (2018). Attenuating neural threat expression with imagination. Neuron, 100(4), 994-1005.