We all tend to accept that once we’re adults, not much in our physical (and sometimes even spiritual) selves will change. Away from the uncertainty of adolescence – where there’s the constant uneasy feeling that we’ll look in the mirror and our nose will be twice as big, or our legs will grow by 18 inches in the night – adulthood feels fairly fixed. We’re as tall as we’re ever going to be, we know roughly how clever we are, our ideas about the world aren’t subjected to ricocheting swings of hormones and moods. We may slowly adjust as we grow older, but the fundamentals aren’t going to change anytime soon.
And for a long time, this is how scientists felt about our brains. They grow larger, transform and absorb information during childhood, but once we reach maturity they simply stop, changing as little throughout life as our shoe size. The idea that once we reach adulthood we are trapped in our own fixed perception, restricted by its prejudices, experiences and fears, is a disheartening one – and also one that is counterintuitive. While it’s clear that some people are set in their ways, it’s also obvious that many can undergo radical change – with a life event or unexpected realisation completely changing how they interact with the world. What we didn’t realise is that this kind of change can actually transform the physical makeup of our brains.
Over the last few decades it’s become increasingly clear that far from being as fixed as the workings of a clock, set to tick until our lives end, our brains are capable of physical change. Suddenly it becomes clear why meditation can transform us so entirely and help us so profoundly. Whether you use meditation for spiritual growth or to enjoy the benefits such as increased productivity and reduced anxiety, the effect is the same. Our brains loosen the neural pathways that trap us into habitual and restrictive thinking, and form new ones that can make us feel more positive and connected to the world. A seemingly ethereal transformation of mindset doesn’t occur in a locked system, its facilitated by our brains being fluid and adaptable – and, by extension, full of potential.
It’s this potential that’s so exciting. The brain has the capability to tune itself in ways that could completely revolutionise how someone thinks. For anyone who feels like they can’t stop themselves from being bitter, or angry, or nervous, this is something which is incredibly encouraging. When we think something over and over again, we strengthen those connections within our brain, making it harder to avoid that kind of thought in the future. There’s a reason why we go over and over that particular argument with an ex, or keep replaying an embarrassing memory right at the moment that we need some confidence. But if these kinds of associations can be formed, they can also be broken.
Neuroplasticity and Meditation
For those who want to get away from the mundane, finally putting an end to the obsession over the humdrum details of life, (which will make life more enjoyable and profound) the ability to form new neural pathways may be the key. Many of us feel unable to break out from everyday worries, fretting over the future and sighing over the past, but this is a habit we can break. Practising meditation daily will be a great place to start, especially as it’s a practice that can have a positive effect even in a short time.
MRI scans have shown reduced activity in the “me-centres” of the brain, where wandering and self-referential thoughts originate, during meditation. There’s also evidence of increased cortical thickness in those who meditate, most encouragingly in the areas of the brain which control memory, problem-solving and learning. The amygdala, responsible for the brain’s flight or fight response (responsible for our fears, panic and anxiety) is physically reduced. All these changes suggest a happier and healthier mind, one that’s much more equipped to approach the world in a open and empathetic way.
At this moment in time, neuroplasticity is little understood. Indeed, the brain as a whole is something of a mystery, even to the experts who have dedicated their life to exploring it. But the brain’s potential to change is clear, and could have huge personal ramifications for those who want to think differently.