You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know that it’s important to exercise the old grey matter, particularly as you get older.
But did you also know that certain activities can literally change the structure of your brain? The brain isn’t a fixed, static object, rather, it’s constantly adapting to all kinds of stimuli. While this may seem like a big deal, the ‘neuroplasticity’ of the brain isn’t a new concept, it’s been kicked around by psychologists and neuroscientists since the 19th century.
What’s really interesting is how breakthroughs in medical science are starting to add some meat to these theoretical bones…
Change your brain through meditation
One of the most interesting and controversial areas of popular neuroplasticity involves mediation. The Buddha taught many centuries ago that we are what we think, and the increasing acceptance of Buddhist-inspired ideas such as mindfulness has prompted a lot of scientific research into meditation.
It’s still a controversial area, but according to neuroscientist Dr Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, the brains of people who meditate actually become thicker – they build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries in two major regions. Hanson also believes the ‘insula’ gets bigger, which helps people to become more self aware and empathetic.
The Dalai Lama is also outspoken about the benefits of meditation, and has actively encouraged scientists to study the brains of monks and other serial meditators. Dr Dan Siegel is another well-known advocate of meditation as a way to change the brain in a positive way; check out his engrossing YouTube video:
Neuroplasticity and anxiety/OCD
What some specialists call ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’ is also being used to treat anxiety-related conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Many people flippantly claim to be ‘a bit OCD’ about arranging their sock draw, but chronic OCD is no laughing matter. It can take many forms, too, encompassing debilitating conditions such as social anxiety and health anxiety (hypochondria).
Dr Jeffrey Schwartz, author of the pioneering self-help book Brain Lock, argues that OCD sufferers can literally rewire their brains by consciously relabelling their anxious thoughts as OCD thoughts, and being prepared to expose themselves to their deepest fears.
So a compulsive hand-washer, who deep down is really afraid of making themselves or their loved ones ill, would consciously try to resist the hand-washing urge as a way of ‘rebooting’ the brain’s malfunctioning alarm system – a haywire alarm system that is firing out intense feelings of anxiety. “The person with OCD can’t get rid of intrusive thoughts and urges because the brain’s ‘early-warning detection system’ is firing inappropriately,” Schwartz writes.
Neuroplasticity and learning
Although scientists are still arguing about neuroplasticity and meditation and anxiety therapy, there is a broader consensus that intelligence is malleable – in other words, that learning can have lifelong benefits for the brain. This needn’t be academic learning, it can also come about through an intellectually absorbing hobby such as photography or learning French conversation, for instance.
The rallying cry for supporters of this theory is that “cells that fire together, wire together.” In other words, any task or memory recollection that causes neurons to fire together tends to make the connections between them stronger. And the more times a network in the brain in stimulated, the more efficient it becomes.
Neuroplasticity and exercise
There is also increasing agreement that regular exercise is another beneficial form of self-directed neuroplasticity. Physical exercise is believed to increase the flow of brain-stimulating hormones, and it is now commonplace for stroke patients to do exercises as a way of stimulating sluggish or damaged neurons.
So how can I change my brain for the better?
Knowing the brain isn’t an immutable lump is news we can use. Here are some suggestions to help you benefit from a bit of self-directed neuroplasticity…
- Meditation: even if you don’t to buy into the all the baggage that comes with Buddhism, you can still meditate as a way of promoting calmness, empathy and self awareness, particularly when it comes to dealing worrying thoughts and compulsive behaviours. All you need is 10 minutes a day. Sit comfortably (a chair is fine), with your back straight but relaxed and your hands folded in your lap. Keep your eyes half-open and focus on an object about six feet in front of you. Then simply breathe in and out, counting the breaths to keep your mind from wandering. It’s impossible to stop thoughts altogether, so allow them to come and go, like clouds. Simply label them ‘thoughts.’
- Study: If you’ve turned into a couch potato who slumps in front of the TV every night, make a conscious decision to start reading good-quality books again, or consider attending an evening class or starting a new hobby that requires mental effort. While there is no guarantee that keeping mentally active will ward of dementia, it certainly won’t do you any harm.
- Exercise: You don’t need Lifehacker UK to tell you how to keep fit, but if you don’t want the hassle and expense of joining a gym, try parking your car a bit further away from the office so you have to walk more, or avoid using lifts altogether. Or get a dog that needs a lot of exercise. Your neurons will thank you for it!
Like this? Why not read Why Learning a New Language Makes Us Better at Multitasking