The Plastic Brain

By Shae Hadden | Bio


The other day a friend mentioned a term I’d never heard before: neuroplasticity.
So I looked it up on Wikipedia (yes, click on the link and you can go
there too) and was amazed to find out that scientists are now proving
that our thinking can actually change our brain anatomy.

Neuroplasticity
challenges the conventional wisdom that specific brain functions, such
as speech and vision, are located in a
specific cortex (or center). The traditional medical paradigm focused
on the lower brain and
neocortical areas as being unchanging after development, limiting
our capacity for language development among other things. But this
point of view didn’t explain
why some people could expand their learning capabilities and have one
area of the brain assume a specific function that ‘belonged’ to another
area (whether there was an injury or not).

Apparently, our brains are not
‘hard-wired’: we have the ability to form new nerve cells in the
hippocampus and olfactory bulb well into old age. Scientists and
pyschologists haven’t yet agreed as to the purpose of the hippocampus:
it is conjectured that it plays a vital role in long-term memory. But
what is most intriguing is that there’s now solid evidence that our synaptic networks can reorganize multiple, related structures in the brain depending on our experience. It
doesn’t matter whether our experience is ‘real’ or virtual: the
electrical impulses in the brain are identical. And since our
experience is as much an interpretation of what’s happening as it is a
biological event, consciously choosing what we focus our thinking on
has the power to influence not only our mood, but also our physical
anatomy and long-term wellbeing as well.

The Dalai Lama has been interested in neuroplasticity and how thinking can change the brain.
He was involved in a 2004 experiment to test this concept. Measurements
of gamma waves were taken for a group of Buddhist monks and a control
group of untrained volunteers while they meditated on compassion and
love, and then again after they stopped meditating. The monks, who had
spent more than 10,000 hours contemplating such thoughts in order to
become adepts, remained in the same meditative state (with elevated
gamma wave levels) after they stopped focusing on love and compassion.
They also established and created a larger ‘gamma wave field’ than the
control group. By consistently focusing on ‘positive’ thoughts, they
changed themselves and what was possible for their group.

Neuroplasticity
can be a boon or a curse. It all depends on how we choose to use this
new awareness of the malleability of our brains. We can keep ourselves
stuck in old thought patterns, or we can create new ‘electrical
habits’. We can focus on fear and hatred and create a larger field of
negativity that influences those around us. Or we can choose to think
about creating a world that works for everyone by focusing on peace,
love, sustainability, compassion.

Which way of thinking will serve us best?


NOTE: If you want to learn more about neuroplasticity, Canadian Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself is an excellent resource.

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