The beginning of this 21st century witnessed a sea change in how neuroscientists understand our minds, bodies and brains. There is increasing evidence for “neuroplasticity”, i.e., changing the mind actually changes the brain. The previous decades were all about the opposite; “change your brain and it will change your mind”. For example, change your neurochemicals and your anxiety and depression will disappear. There’s a burgeoning awareness among scientists and lay people that it’s a 2 way street. Yes, your brain (and neurochemicals, etc.) affect how you feel and what you think, but also what you think and feel actually, physically, changes your brain as well!
Consider one of many studies in the last decade. Taxi-drivers in London, people who need to intimately know their way around very complicated city streets, have posterior hippocampi (a brain area associated with previously learned spatial information, e.g., mental maps) that are larger than other people. And the longer they’ve been on the job, the larger their hippocampi! Who knew! Well, actually neuroscientists have known this since 1999, but research since then has only amplified these kinds of findings.
Research shows that other types of practice and learning also physically change your brain. People have engaged in meditational practices for centuries and centuries because they found them either personally or spiritually beneficial. More and more research is focusing on how the brains of meditators have been altered, not just during meditation, but long term. There’s research that shows LONG TERM BRAIN WAVE changes in the brain. One study of Qigong meditators shows long term brain activity increases in areas of the brain related to calm awareness.
Buddhist meditation practitioners have higher than normal gamma wave activity (associated with focus, assimilating perceptions and memory) not just during meditation, but also before and after. And studies have shown STRUCTURAL brain changes in meditators. After just 8 weeks of meditating using “mindfulness meditation” in a stress reduction program 16 new meditators had gray matter density increases in brain areas associated with learning, memory processes, emotion regulation and compassion.And Buddhist monks in Tibet have been found to perform better on neuroscience tests of “perceptual rivalry” which are thought to be a measure of attentional control.
What’s it all mean? Well, one thing it means is you’re not completely at the mercy of FATE…. your genes, your biology, your environment. You have more ability to change your concentration, your sense of calm, where you place your attention and your compassion….than perhaps you thought you did. Repeated practice, repeated emotional associations (e.g., my boss and criticism/anxiety, driving and anger, pain and anxiety) creates “neural grooves” or “learned nerve pathways”. Creating and practicing new and different associations creates new nerve pathways. And consistently practicing meditation or something like it, may increase your general sense of well-being.
Always remember, “NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER…WIRE TOGETHER”!