Thursday, November 19, 2009


Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to "re-map" patterns of thinking through the introduction of new experiences. I'm not brain surgeon, but here's how I understand this phenomenon...

Thinking happens because of the interconnection of countless, far-flung neurons in the brain. The activation pattern of these neurons creates certain thoughts. Over time, we develop habitual activation patterns, and these patterns become our habitual ways of thinking. You can imagine these habitual neuronal firing patterns as dirt roads that have been traveled many times creating deep ruts and grooves. Eventually, we become stuck in our deeply-rutted neuronal pathways.

Apparently, meditation helps to re-route the neuronal firing patterns and changes the structure of the brain. A study in 2004 compared monks who had been practicing meditation for many years with novice practitioners. The veteran meditators displayed significant increases in the activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which is the location of positive emotions, such as happiness and compassion. In addition, this activity in the left side completely dominated the right prefrontal cortex, the seat of negative emotions, such as fear. The novice meditators showed only slight increases in this kind of brain activity.

When we sit still in meditation, and an itch arises on the forehead, if we just let it be instead of scratching it, we are changing our own neuronal firing patterns, and thus changing our brains. The habitual itch-scratch reaction firing pattern gets re-routed. Over time, this kind of de-coupling from habitual reactions during meditation can have a profound effect in our daily life, as we learn new ways to deal with our experiences.

It takes time to groove these new activation patterns, however, just as it took years (or decades) to produce the old ones. With consistent meditation practice, combined with mindful living, our new pathways become more and more the automatic setting of our life.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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