Neuroplasticity: The Power of the Mind
“THE BRAIN CAN CHANGE ITSELF. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature.” – The Brain That Changes Itself
Neuro is for “neuron,” the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable.” Our journey starts here… neuroplasticity.
The first discoveries of neuroplasticity came from studies of how changes in the messages the brain receives through the senses can alter its structure and function.
For decades, the dogma of neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have. The doctrine of the unchanging human brain has had profound ramifications. For one thing, it lowered expectations about the value of rehabilitation for adults who had suffered brain damage or or about the possibility of fixing the pathological wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases. And it implied that other brain-based fixities, such as the happiness set point that, according to a growing body of research, a person returns to after the deepest tragedy or the greatest joy, are nearly unalterable.
But research has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity”—t he ability to change its structure and function in response to experience and stimuli. These aren’t minor tweaks either, they can long lasting sustainable results. Even if one suffers a great trauma in their adult life, the brain has significant power to overcome and “re-wire” itself to improve “internal living conditions.”
In the TIMES article “The Brain: How the Brain Re-Wires Itself,” written in 2007, Sharon Begley states “When signals from the skin or muscles bombard the motor cortex or the somatosensory cortex (which processes touch), the brain expands the area that is wired to move, say, the fingers. In this sense, the very structure of our brain–the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between them, even their functions–reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken.”
Even more profound, the discovery showed that mental training had the power to change the physical structure of the brain. We seldom stop to realize that our world (our model of the world) is shaped by how our mind views reality. We experience reality within our minds, through sensory filters based on biology, cultural conditioning and personal interpretations that are based on experience and education.
Yoga and Mindfulness can play a significant role in the evolutionary process of neuroplasticity and re –wiring the brain. Neuroscience has proven to demonstrate that the neuroplasticity of the brain, and when there is sustained, focused attention …”mindfulness,” it can change the wiring of brain neurons.
If we look at the word itself …”Mindfulness” this means “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment;” which can be further broken down into four acting components; regulation of attention, body awareness, self-awareness and regulation of emotion. Previous research on mindfulness meditation has shown that it aids in lowering blood pressure improves immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, improves mental health and brain function and minimizes pain sensitivity.
While the human brain has apparently underestimated itself, neuroplasticity isn’t all good news; it renders our brains not only more resourceful but also more vulnerable to outside influence. It is by understanding both the positive and negative effects of plasticity that we can truly understand the extent of human possibilities. Change is constantly happening in our inner and outer worlds. Through the practice of yoga including the use of breath, movement, sound, and meditation we can influence the direction of these changes.
“We can learn that our thoughts can switch our genes on and off, altering our brain anatomy” – Norman Doidage
TIME Magazine: “The Brain: How The Brain Rewire’s Itself”
Book: “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidage, M.D