Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mind Over Matters

What’s happening, NIP?

            I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. And that’s exactly where it needs to be. After finishing my most recent foray into neuroscience—The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.—I’m convinced that we all have an almost limitless untapped potential within our minds. The revelations contained within the tome astonished me as I turned from page to page, reflecting on the changes in my own personality over the last few years. It was thrilling, as if I were putting together the pieces of a puzzle and watching the broader picture of my life emerge from the jagged details of seemingly disparate parts. Much of the book challenges the older, conventional view of the brain known as “localizationalism,” which is the idea that specific parts of the brain control certain functions and that these regions of the brain are hardwired to only operate said functions (e.g. hearing, vision, etc). This notion has increasingly been challenged in the last decade due to the discovery of neuroplasticity, which effectively has shown that the brain is much more malleable and “plastic” than scientists had ever previously imagined. As it turns out, advances in brain scanning and mapping technologies have allowed us insight into the workings of our miraculous minds.

            While this isn’t the first book that I’ve read that tackled the topic of neuroplasticity, it was perhaps the most in-depth. The Brain That Changes Itself is rife with success stories of stroke patients who had debilitating injuries and managed to rewire the brain to make up for lost brain maps (the neuronal pathways that are built into the system for routine bodily functions), thereby returning the person’s life to some sense of normality. In one such story, for instance, a neurologist worked with his father who had had a stroke and could no longer walk or use his dominant hand. Though much of the older gentleman’s brain had been damaged by the stroke, over the course of 18 months of grueling physical work (such as trying to re-teach himself to move by first pulling himself along a wall with his good arm) he was able to re-map the brain allowing other areas not normally associated with physical movement to take over those tasks. While he never completely returned to his earlier state, he did manage to walk again with the aid of a cane and regained the use of his dominant hand (something localizationalist neurologists deemed impossible in their prognoses). Stroke patients are only one example, however, as the book also covers people with congenital birth defects (one woman was born with only her right hemisphere) and the importance of continued learning in order to keep the brain growing.

            Perhaps what’s most interesting about neuroplasticity, though, is that we have influence over it. The human brain—much like any other part of the body—can be developed through exercise. The more we practice a particular skill, the stronger it becomes; inside the brain, the synaptic neural networks that are responsible for that skill/task essentially grow “thicker,” allowing the connection to be made easier. But it’s not simply physical skills or activities that can be strengthened; it can be our attitudes and dispositions as well. Reading through this material made me realize how much we truly are what we think. It also explains how I’ve managed to change my own mental patterns and overall personality during the last three years. If you’ve been reading the letters for some time (or simply know me personally), you know that just a few years ago I was a tremendous cynic who had a sarcastic quip to make to anyone for just about any reason. This isn’t to say that I’m perfect or that I’m no longer capable of making such comments, but they are certainly few and far between compared to the older me (as ridiculous as that idea may sound). Now I focus on positivity and possibility, but this is precisely because I’ve been cultivating this attitude consciously for almost three years. If anything, the changes I’ve managed to foster in myself should encourage anyone who wants to change for the better. We all have an incredible untapped potential due to neuroplasticity, but we must harness it in order to make the best of ourselves and our lives.

            One of the best ways we can make the most of our minds / mental potential is through meditation. Many of the books I’ve read on the human brain over the last few years typically touch on this topic as it’s often mentioned as one of the best ways to harness the power of the mind. Many of the myriad benefits of a meditation practice emerge in as little as several weeks (studies also show that as few as 20 minutes per day can work wonders); some of the more common effects are improved ability to focus/pay attention, better memory retention/recall, better emotional reaction/control, general stress relief, and improved sense of well-being to cite only a few. I’m convinced after reading Dr. Doidge’s book that a great deal of the personal progress I’ve made in the last few years is directly correlated to the plasticity of the mind. Between focusing every day on “the five qualities” (love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience) at the beginning and end of my meditation practice in addition to the repetition of my “sankalpas” (statements of intent) before beginning my morning yoga sadhana, I have managed to fundamentally alter the way I perceive myself and the world. And if I can completely turn around the way I think, you can too, NIP.

            As contemporary science continues to discover more about the mind and its untapped potential, I’m sure we will see a corollary uptick in the interest in / recommendation of meditative practices. The more we improve and strengthen our mental faculties, the easier it is for each of us to put our mind over matters, whether they are dealing with daily stress, emotional reactions, and/or other difficult situations that life can throw at us. Considering how our inner mental state is often reflected in our outer persona, it is important for each of us to take advantage of our neuroplasticity and shape our worldview as we see fit. It won’t happen overnight and will take constant effort, but over time it gets easier and easier. If you’re interested in beginning a meditation practice, NIP, I would suggest you read this short, simple article. It’s really as easy as focusing on your breath and learning to be compassionate toward yourself. The more we reinforce the thought patterns that we know will benefit us, the more we see the results show up in our daily lives. Before long, you’ll be wondering what other aspects of your life you can improve through rewiring the brain with its amazing ability.

Make the most of your mind and its potential, NIP.

- Ryan