The Plastic Brain

For the better part of the 20th century, there was a generally held belief amongst the scientific community that the brain underwent great change during childhood and adolescence, but once reaching adulthood, it became static, fixed, unchangeable. From the 1970’s onwards, studies began to show the opposite. The adult brain has, in fact, the ability to alter and adapt in response to changing activities, experiences and the changing environment. The brain’s ability to reorganise itself is called neuroplasticity.

Imagine a grassy field. Now imagine driving a car over the same path through the field, repeatedly. Eventually a clear and identifiable track will appear. Stop using the road and the grass will take over once again. This analogy can be applied to our brain’s neural connections.

The more we use certain neural connections, the stronger they become. Stop using the connections and they become dormant. This is where the saying, “Cells that fire together, wire together” becomes relevant. It was coined by psychologist Donald Hebb in 1949 who was trying to explain learning and memory, but scientists have found that it also applies to the way the brain remodels itself continually in response to usage.

In the late 1980’s, studies of stroke victims supported neuroplasticity as regions of the brain sometimes took over from the affected parts, depending on the extent of the injury. Plasticity was also observed in the rewiring of psychiatric diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Journalist and author Sharon Begley wrote in her book, The Plastic Mind (2009), “The brain can indeed be rewired. It can expand the area that is wired to move fingers, forging new connections that underpin the dexterity of an accomplished violinist. It can activate long-dormant wires and run new cables like an electrician bringing an old house up to code, so that regions that once saw can feel or hear. It can quiet circuits that once crackled with the aberrant activity that characterizes depression and cut pathological connections that keep the brain in the oh-god-something-is-wrong state that marks obsessive compulsive disorder.”

Researchers then began to wonder if the brain’s plasticity could be altered by something as seemingly amorphous as thoughts. Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of California, Los Angeles, set up an experiment to see if mindfulness and mental training can help with OCD. He reported the following, “The week after patients started relabelling their symptoms as manifestations of pathological brain processes, they reported the disease no longer controlled them…” This research loaned credence to the belief “It’s not you…it’s your brain”.

Richard Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was interested in studying what sort of physical effects, if any, meditation had on the brain. It took years to get the study organized, but with the help and support of the Dalai Lama, the brain functions of some of the most experienced Tibetan monks were monitored while in a state of meditation. Davidson compared their results to those of lay people who were novice meditators. The monks showed extremely large increases of gamma waves which underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The levels of gamma waves were so high, that the likes had never been previously seen in neuroscience. Even the moderate meditators (novices) showed an increase in gamma activity above the norm. Sharon Begley wrote in The Wall Street Journal (Nov 5/04) that Davidson’s research “opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally”.

By: Elaina Curran, HPD, DSFH, DPLR, AfSFHreg, MPLTA, CNHCreg

Published in BS35 Local Magazine, September issue, 2017


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