Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

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Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind Within the last generation, what we thought we knew about the brain has completely overturned, as new testing devices and methods have been created to begin the process of accurately measuring and mapping the mind.  These discoveries have been nothing short of revolutionary.  While the brain is not the mind, it is the physical basis of the mind and understanding the machinery behind the curtain renders the mind trainable, not just in concept but as a physical reality.  Twenty years ago it seemed to be a scientific fact that the brain was static and the focus for brain health was on the conservation of a finite number of brain cells.  Then, just as Steve Jobs was being “permanently” removed from Apple in disgrace, nueroanatomists were beginning to direct incredibly sensitive scanners inside the cranium.  It was discovered that inside the brain, just like in the world of Apple, real genius, even what the organism is and does, is not nearly as fixed as the experts thought. What has emerged since then has been the unveiling of a brain that is regenerative, reconfigurable, and trainable.

In the spring of 1998, a psychology professor named Elizabeth Gould, published a paper which contained a word that had spent the last century largely exiled to the realm of science fiction:  nuerogenesis.  In experiments conducted at Princeton University, she taught rats a series of tasks and then examined their neurons with the aid of chemical dyes.  Gould found that new neurons were being generated in the hippocampus and that this generation was associated with learning.   With a few short years, nueroanatomists were finding that this was not only repeatable, but transferable to other regions of the brain and could be demonstrated in humans.  Textbooks were rewritten to describe brain cells that not only could be generated at any age, but that this process of nuerogenesis responded to the intentional exercise of the mind.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s disease researchers were beginning to notice an anomaly.They were receiving brains for dissection which clearly showed the ravages of Alzheimer’s, however, according to the paperwork, the previous owners of these brains were symptom free.Closer examination revealed that while Alzheimer’s was creating dead areas in the brain, the brain was re-wiring itself around the damage and moving specific functions to other areas of the brain.

A picture of a malleable brain began to emerge.  Brain functions arise from groups of neurons firing together in specific sequences.   As any brain activity is repeated, connections are made, reinforced and strengthened.  Over time, this activity becomes “hardwired” as a series of neurons physically connect themselves to each other.  These hardwired actions of the brain become the preferred default, irrespective of the benefit they provide.  Similar to a computer, these default pathways are not, however, set in stone.  As the Alzheimer’s researchers examined the brains of stroke victims, schizophrenics, and a wide range of physical brain damage, it became increasingly apparent that not only were the neural connections changing, but that whole areas of the brain were being reconfigured to carry out the lost functions of damaged areas.  Not even the structure of the brain is absolute and function that is lost can sometimes be moved to a different site.

The next wave of research this spawned was revelatory.  The Brain is customizable.  In pianists who play arpeggios, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused as the two fingers are used in tandem.  As a result, the pianist can no longer move the fingers independently.  London Taxi Drivers , who are required to memorize highly detailed maps prior to licensure, experience measurable growth of the hippocampus.   We are rewiring our brains and altering their structure on a daily basis.

Knowing that the brain is capable of heroic measures in that face of adversity, and can respond to specific stresses, the question arose as to the trainability of the brain: could the brain be altered, not just taught, but actually rewired in response to direct action of the user – could the mind change the brain and thus itself.  Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, had an idea, had heard that the Dalai Llama was enthusiastic about science, and so asked if he could borrow some monks.  Davidson began by examining gamma waves which are associated with higher mental activity, awarenesss, happiness and positive emotions.  Davidson found that measuring gamma waves from Dalai Llama’s monks generated the highest levels ever documented in a healthy person.  “What we found,” Davidson said.” is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one.”

Cat Scans and MRI’s revealed clear structural differences.  The grey matter of the meditating group was highly developed and thick around cortical regions that relate to sensory and internal perception,  including auditory and visual perception, in addition to the autonomic responses such as breathing and heart rate. The study also identified that increases of grey matter were far more prevalent in the right hemisphere. This is the hemisphere that deals with attention, the main focus of meditation.

His initial findings were well received and an 11 million dollar research center was built to house the continuing research under Davidson’s direction, and this research continues around the world.  Davidson has found that “expert” mediators with over 10,000 hours of practical mediation experience consistently scored highest in measurable area of the kind of brain activity associated with well being, happiness, and clarity.   Not only did the monks genereate the highest level of Gamma Waves ever recorded in a healthy human being, but the movement of brain waves was better organized and coordinated that is other groups.  These changes were found to be lasting and consistent even when the monks were in a “normal” state of mind.  The benefits of meditation were found to be accessible to anyone, with novice mediators able to elicit changes after a single meditation session.  The novices where able to carry these changes over but the effects were not as lasting when compared against groups which maintained consistent meditation practices

Meditation also improves the tonal strength of the vagus nerve, connecting the heart and body to the brain.  As research expands outwards from the brain itself, science finds itself following a neural path downwards brain and discovering interconnectivity between body, heart, and mind.

The list of benefits of meditation keeps growing.  From hypertension, depression and anxiety to fibromyalgia, from the immune system to the digestive system and the circulatory system, meditation has repetitively shown to significantly decrease stress, promote positive mental states, reduce pain, boost disease fighting anti-bodies, balance hormones and more. One study found that avid meditators paid an average health insurance bill of 50 percent less then the standard American. Meditation alone has the power to alter the form and function of not only the brain, but the rest of the body as well.

In the last generation we have discovered  that neural tissue is as moldable and trainable as muscle tissue.  In 2006, Davidson was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and an 11 million dollar facility has been built in Wisconsin to study the mechanism by which meditation alters the brain.  Research is taking place worldwide in search of ways to visualize what is happening inside our heads.  When Americans look in the mirror and can see the results of the work the do on their physique, it drives them to the gym by the millions. Science is looking for ways to create images and models of the brain.  Once this is achievable, visual, and affordable, the search for tools to guide brain exercise will inevitably explode.  It seems unavoidable that we are headed into a future where a persons nueroanatomy will be evaluated in the same fashion as the rest of their anatomy.

In the meantime, we have the map that people have always had.  We have the spiritual world, an image of the mind that has been used successfully for thousands of years.  As research around the world has shown, this has proven to be a navigable set of directions. We have learned that it is possible to hardwire the brain for happiness.  There is a proven method, a path,  whereby we can make happiness, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the mind state we identify as “well-being”, our default state of the mind.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s disease researchers were beginning to notice an anomaly.They were receiving brains for dissection which clearly showed the ravages of Alzheimer’s, however, according to the paperwork, the previous owners of these brains were symptom free.Closer examination revealed that while Alzheimer’s was creating dead areas in the brain, the brain was re-wiring itself around the damage and moving specific functions to other areas of the brain.