Neuroplasticity: Re-Wiring Our Brains
When neurons fire together, they wire together – mental activity actually creates new neural structures… What flows through your mind sculpts your brain. Thus, you can use your mind to change your brain for the better. – Rick Hanson, PhD
Some of us (myself included) have mental conditions like OCD and ADHD that affect the way we live and interact with the world. We’re not always built perfectly. But, thankfully, we’re also not helpless against the forces of our evolved biological programming.
The reason lies in the concept of neuroplasticity, the fact that our brains are constantly changing structure according to how they are used and what we pay attention to. We can shape our minds in any way we choose – this is an incredibly empowering fact. Since everything we do on a daily basis creates new synaptic connections, this makes us the artists of our brains’ physiology.
One of the keys to neuroplasticity is called myelination, another fancy term that simply means that wiring in the brain becomes stronger. Fatty sheaths (called myelin) are formed around the axons of our brain cells, by allowing impulses to move more quickly and efficiently between neurons. Thus our thoughts and behaviors are reinforced to save energy in the brain; they become part of our human “program.”
The key resides in choosing the right inputs for our minds and in training them. The most powerful tool we have for this is meditation, which I’ll expand upon in the next post. It also means that right habits – limiting our overexposure to useless stimuli and learning to form beneficial habits and cultivate attention are incredibly important.
Meditation has amazed neuroscientists with its ability to permanently alter the shape of our brains (such as with Matthieu Ricard, mentioned in this article). Experienced meditators show increased grey matter (neuronal cell bodies, important for processing power and linked to intelligence), increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus (key for learning and memory) and decreased cell volume in the amygdala (responsible for fear and anxiety). This shows that small changes in thought and mental patterns can contribute to significant changes in the brain.
Our very thoughts change the structure of our brains on a daily basis by reinforcing certain neural networks, an incredibly empowering fact! The old phrase “mind over matter” is literally true because your mind can create physiological changes in the brain, which in turn changes to alter your future perception of the world.
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Luders, Eileen, Nicolas Cherbuin, and Florian Kurth. "Forever Young (er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy." Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2015): 1551.
Hölzel, Britta K., et al. "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191.1 (2011): 36-43.