The Neuroplastic Fantastic

The Power Of The Mind To Change The Brain

Back in the 1980’s the Dalai Lama asked a group of world class neuroscientists if the mind could change the brain. It is a critical question. Does the brain direct us, or do we direct the brain? Are we genuinely free? Or are we stuck with the way genetics and early childhood wired our brains, with no real potential in our make-up for personal growth and spiritual transformation. The latter is the answer the scientists gave the Dalai Lama. They said, the mind cannot change the brain. Nothing can.

Science Was Wrong
Happily, the scientists were wrong. Breakthroughs in research have now proved that the brain responds to the mind. Mental practice can take a small village of high level neurons and build it into a humming metropolis, providing you with the brain power to produce optimal results in whatever you pursue. The term given to this wonderful neurological property is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity just might be a human being’s most powerful asset. It’s analogous to the mustard seed Jesus spoke of, “the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter.” Neuroplasticity is the mechanism that builds the brain structure for something as simple as the dexterity for a monkey to retrieve food from a tight spot to something as advanced as our capacity to master an art form.

It Even Works Through Imagination
Neuroplasticity even works through imagination to learn, build, and strengthen difficult skill-sets, such as playing the piano. In 1995, a neuroscientist at Harvard instructed subjects to play a five-finger piano exercise two hours every day for five days. At the end of each practice session, he measured the motor cortex of the brain that controls precise finger movement. Within five days, the amount of motor cortex devoted to the finger movements had spread, taking over surrounding areas of the brain. At the same time, the researcher had another group simply think about practicing the five-finger piano exercise. They played the simple piece over and over in their minds, keeping their fingers still and simply imagining how their fingers would move if actually playing the piano. The results were astonishing. The area of motor cortex had expanded in the imaginary players in the same way it had in subjects who had actually played the piano. The finding: the mind can change the brain.

You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks
The adage that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks does not apply to the brain. The brain is quick to organize around changes we want to effect, when we practice consistently. When we do, neuroplasticity makes changes quickly. As just discussed, it takes less than one week of mentally practicing a five-finger piano exercise for the motor cortex to expand in support of the new skill. It takes:

    • Ten days of constraint induced therapy to rebuild the motor cortex in stroke victims and restore significant use of an arm that physicians once thought was irrevocably damaged. (Pidikiti, Taub, and Uswatte, 1999)

 

  • Ten weeks for mindfulness therapy to change the brain in obsessive compulsive disorder (Schwartz, 1995)

 

 

  • Eight weeks of cognitive therapy to change the brain in depression (Segal, Mayberg, 2002)

 

 

  • Eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction to shift the prefrontal corical activity from right to left (shifting the dominant attitude from negative to positive) in highly stressed workers in a biotech firm (Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, 2003)

 

Some of these problems, such as stroke damage and obsessive-compulsive disorder, were once considered incurable. Yet the power of neuroplasticity generated significant change in these cases and in a relatively short period of time. If neuroplasticity is this effective in extreme situations, how much more can it do to transform a brain wired for stress? It all comes back to practice. Through practice, we can construct a new autopilot that is wired for a calmer, clearer, more fiercely alive intelligence that can do anything we set our mind to.