YAHOO.COM - Throughout life, even shortly before death, the brain can
remodel itself, responding to a person's experiences. This phenomenon,
known as neuroplasticity, offers a powerful tool to improve well-being,
"We now have evidence that engaging in pure mental training can induce
changes not just in the function of the brain, but in the brain's
structure itself," Richard Davidson,
a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told an
audience at the New York Academy of Sciences on Thursday (Feb. 6)
The brain's plasticity
does change over time, Davidson pointed out. For instance, young
children have an easier time learning a second language or a musical
instrument, he said.
Exercise for the mind
The idea of training the brain is not a radical one, said Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University Miami and another panelist for the discussion.
"How many of you think engaging in certain kinds of physical activity
will change the way the body works? Our cultural understanding now is
that specific types of activity can alter the body in noticeable ways,"
Jha said, adding that this cultural understanding may be shifting to
incorporate the mind as well. [10 Easy Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]
The panel discussion focused on a particular type of exercise: the practice of mindfulness,
which panelist Jon Kabat-Zinn, a clinical mindfulness expert at the
University of Massachusetts Medical School, defined as awareness.
"Mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention in the present moment, nonjudgmentally," Kabat-Zinn said.
Jha's personal interest in mindfulness arose from stress. As a young
professor and mother under pressure from her job and family life, she
ground her teeth so much that it caused numbness, interfering with her
ability to speak. Jha attended a presentation Davidson gave and was
startled to hear him say meditation, which cultivates mindfulness, could promote a positive pattern of electrical activity in the brain.
"I was like, 'I can't believe he used that word [meditation] in this
auditorium,'" she said. "I had never heard it in a scientific context."
So, Jha began her own mindfulness practice, which not only reduced her stress level, but also inspired her to explore the topic as a neuroscientist.
Opening the door
There are many doors into mindfulness, said Kabat-Zinn. He gave two
examples: A person can practice mindfulness by focusing on something,
such as his or her own breath, and bringing his or her attention back to
the breath when it begins to wander, Kabat-Zinn said.
It is also possible to practice awareness without choosing a particular
object upon which to focus; however, "that turns out to be quite a
challenging thing to do," he said.
Cultivating mindfulness like this can help break harmful cycles, such as those that accompany depression, in which the mind continues to repeat the same negative thoughts.
"When you see you are not your thoughts or your emotions, then you have
a whole different palette of ways to be," Kabat-Zinn said.
Roots in the East
Many would say mindfulness as it is practiced in Western society has
its roots in the East, in Buddhism, noted moderator Steve Paulsonof the
public radio program "To the Best of Our Knowledge."
"Is mindfulness a spiritual practice?" Paulson asked the panelists.
"For me, I don't talk about spirituality, because I don't know what
spiritual means," the University of Wisconsin's Davidson said. "I think
what we're talking about is part of every human being's innate
Buddhist monks, whom Davidson has studied, provide a "sample of
convenience," a group of people who have all received the same training,
an important consideration for research, he said.
Brain scans of meditating people show different patterns of activity
depending on the practitioner's level of experience. These patterns also
differ depending upon the type of meditation practice used, Davidson
said. [Mind Games: 7 Reasons You Should Meditate]
Work in Davidson's lab indicates a connection between meditation and
resilience. A response to stress becomes problematic when someone
perseverates, or has an emotional reaction long after the problem has
ended. In the brain, this shows up as the prolonged activation of a
region known as the amygdala.
Mindfulness can increase the speed of recovery in the amygdala, and the more hours of formal practice people have, the faster their amygdalas recover, the data indicate, Davidson said.
This panel was the last of a four-part series on consciousness, moderated by public radio host Paulson and presented by the Nour Foundation.
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