Thinking your way to a better brain

Can the mind influence the brain?

Photo credit: Creative Commons, from AlicePopkorn flickr photostream

Can the way we think actually change the wiring, activation patterns, and physical landscape of our brains? In other words, can our mind, in a sense, control or at least influence the direction of our brain?


Our brains are incredibly flexible. Long after the exuberance (fast growth) and the pruning (cutting away of connections) of infancy and childhood, the brain's connections and structures continue to change, influenced both by internal factors—for instance, studies have shown that depressed and stressed individuals have a smaller hippocampus; the volume can increase back to normal once the emotional landscape shifts — and external factors — for instance, both physical and psychological trauma can significantly affect brain development, even in mature adults; extreme events during a sensitive period in adolescence, to name one example, have been linked to an increased risk of schizophrenia. But these changes seem to be incidental: it's not like we will bad things to happen, or our moods to darken. However, recent work points to the possibility of changing our brains for the better: a change in how we think can positively impact how our brains look, function, and make us feel.

Meditation-like thought causes neural change in the physical brain

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin instructed a group of individuals who were not in the habit of meditating in the following manner: Relax with your eyes closed, and focus on the flow of your breath at the tip of your nose; if a random thought arises, acknowledge the thought and then simply let it go by gently bringing your attention back to the flow of your breath. For 15 minutes, the participants attempted to follow these guidelines. Then, they were broken up into two groups: one group had the option of receiving nine 30-minute sessions of meditation instruction over the course of five weeks, and the other would have that option at the conclusion of the experiment, but not before. At the end of the five weeks, everyone completed the earlier thought assignment a second time.

The researchers found striking differences in the brain activity of the two groups. While prior to training, the two groups showed no differences in frontal EEG asymmetry, by the end of the study, those who had received additional training showed a leftward shift in asymmetry. In real terms, this means a move toward an asymmetry pattern that has been associated with positive and approach-oriented emotional states—and that change occurred without a significant time commitment, as those in the meditation training group averaged only five to sixteen minutes of training and practice a day.

The positive results are more accessible than you might think

What does that mean? First, unlike past studies of meditation, that asked for a very real input of time and energy, this experiment did not require extensive resource commitment, and yet still showed striking neural results. Moreover, the training provided was extremely flexible: people could choose when they would want to receive instruction and when they would want to practice. And — and perhaps more importantly — participants reported a spike in spontaneous passive practice, when, without a conscious decision to meditate, they found themselves thinking along the lines of the instructions they had been provided, in unrelated situations.

In my mind, what this study so nicely illustrates is something that many people have long believed: that meditation does not have to be scary or strange or foreign or invasive. It can be incorporated in a natural way into your everyday routine – and even that relatively minor incorporation will provide very real benefits in terms of structured, focused thinking and emotional stability, benefits that have their roots in the brain but effects that play out in actual behavioral terms.

Successful individuals have been using meditation techniques for a long time

To many a highly successful individual, this isn't news. Ray Dalio, the founder of the world's biggest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, meditates every morning before work, calling it, in his interview for the New Yorker, “just a mental exercise in which you are clearing your mind" – as good a way of putting it as I have seen, and one that doesn't have any of the negative connotations that so often accompany the word meditation itself. The Daily Trading Coach counsels for meditative techniques to improve trading ability and clarity of thought. And the list goes on.

The benefits of meditation are in your brain as well as in your mind, and they play out in very real terms, allowing you to make better decisions, maintain better emotional equilibrium, and work your way coolly through many a hot situation. If you don't like the way meditation sounds, just call it something else. Call it, to paraphrase Dalio, a mental exercise to clear your mind. The name doesn't matter; taking the time to do it and to train yourself to think differently as a matter of course is what makes the difference.

If you'd like to receive information on new posts and other updates, follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova

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