Neuroplasticity Meditation



Neuroplasticity meditation probably refers to the discussion of Richard Davidson's work discussed by Sharon Begley in her excellent book, TRAIN YOUR MIND, CHANGE YOUR BRAIN.

That work is discussed in a Wall Street Journal article, which I will refer to and link to at the bottom of this page.

Neuroplasticity is the awareness of and the study of the capacity of the human brain, composed of billions of neurons to rewire itself, based on what we are paying attention to.

According to a recent interview with Simon Evans, Ph.D., co-author of the e-book, Brainfit for Life neurons can reconnect or perhaps connect for the first time, in minutes, perhaps hours.

That was surprising to me. It indicates that I really need to keep my thinking focused on thoughts and feelings that I prefer, and it gave me a hint at how programs like AA, or the study of Chi Gong can work.

I have been a student of a Chi Gong master in Texas for the last 10 years, and the study involves regular physical and meditative challenges, and I know I have learned, because I have completed some physical tasks which I could not have done even in my 20's when I was much more a weight lifter and athlete than I am today.

That mastery has come from neuroplasticity.

Lots of the Chi Gong process involved overcoming physical and mental inertia. For example, on one of the leg training exerecises, I had to dig a hole, fill it with Sacrete and, using some very heavy gauge angle iron, make a tool in which a paving brick was inserted, for kicking. It was very hard to get going on that project, but I did it, and then imagine my surprise when I actually accomplished the goal of breaking the paving brick with a kick. Not once but many times. It still feels good.

And that is the essence of neuroplasticity. Rehearsing the memory activates the neurons in the "Chi Gong" circuit, for lack of a better word, and I have again practiced Chi Gong, even though I have not done brick kicking per se for four years.

Here is How Author Begley Posed the Neuroplasticity Meditation Question

..."But something had always bothered him about this explanation, the Dalai Lama said. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure."

Then thought would lead to neuroplasticity.

According to Michael Merzenich, Ph.D. who has been a major influence in the neuroplasticity field,

"Through attention, UCSF's Michael Merzenich and a colleague wrote, "We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves."

"The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention."

So according to Merzenich, the feedback from mental exercise must be of the right kind, at the right time, at the right challenge level, for neuroplasticity from mental exercises to be effective in rewiring our brains.

And now, for the Rest of the Neuroplasticity Meditation Story...

This is the part of the article about Professor Davidson;

"Since the 1990s, the Dalai Lama had been lending monks and lamas to neuroscientists for studies of how meditation alters activity in the brain. The idea was not to document brain changes during meditation but to see whether such mental training produces enduring changes in the brain.

All the Buddhist "adepts" -- experienced meditators -- who lent their brains to science had practiced meditation for at least 10,000 hours. One by one, they made their way to the basement lab of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He and his colleagues wired them up like latter-day Medusas, a tangle of wires snaking from their scalps to the electroencephalograph that would record their brain waves.

Eight Buddhist adepts and 10 volunteers who had had a crash course in meditation engaged in the form of meditation called nonreferential compassion. In this state, the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving kindness toward all living beings.

As the volunteers began meditating, one kind of brain wave grew exceptionally strong: gamma waves. These, scientists believe, are a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung circuits -- consciousness, in a sense. Gamma waves appear when the brain brings together different features of an object, such as look, feel, sound and other attributes that lead the brain to its aha moment of, yup, that's an armadillo.

Some of the novices "showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal," Prof. Davidson explained to the Dalai Lama. But at the moment the monks switched on compassion meditation, the gamma signal began rising and kept rising. On its own, that is hardly astounding: Everything the mind does has a physical correlate, so the gamma waves (much more intense than in the novice meditators) might just have been the mark of compassion meditation.

Except for one thing. In between meditations, the gamma signal in the monks never died down. Even when they were not meditating, their brains were different from the novices' brains, marked by waves associated with perception, problem solving and consciousness. Moreover, the more hours of meditation training a monk had had, the stronger and more enduring the gamma signal.

It was something Prof. Davidson had been seeking since he trekked into the hills above Dharamsala to study lamas and monks: evidence that mental training can create an enduring brain trait.

Prof. Davidson then used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks' and novices' brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one's emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," Prof. Davidson says. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."



Sharon Begley-Wall Street Journal

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