Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Nature, nurture and neuroplasticity

Commentary by Dick Dorworth


Dick Dorworth

Neuroplasticity is a new term describing the science/process/study of transforming the mind by changing the brain. That is, training and experience affects the very structure and functions of the brain in the same way that exercise affects the structure and functions of the body. Scientists have discovered that the human brain has the ability to change its very structure and function. This can be accomplished by expanding or strengthening circuits in the brain that are often used and by shrinking or weakening those less often engaged. The science of neuroplasticity has amply documented how physical experience and input from the outside world change the workings of the brain. One report says, "In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another."

That sounds right. We see occurrences of similar brain fusions all the time. For instance, people who get most of their information and news about the world through one source (say, the fair and balanced reportage of Fox News or a fundamentalist religious orthodoxy) instead of a variety of sources have clearly fused different regions of their brains and been fooled into thinking what they are told about the world and the world as it is are the same thing, that reality and virtual reality are one. Such fusion may be useful and efficient for piano players, couch potatoes and true believers, but neither safe nor sane for people for whom arpeggios, virtual reality and zealotry are not the first order of life.

The brain is often described as a computer. This description has a limited value, as the brain is a living organ rather than a machine, and it is constantly in the process of organic activity and transformation, much like the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs. Nature gives us each a brain. How life nurtures that brain is a mixed bag; some of it we control; much of it we do not, beginning with the events and people and experiences of childhood.

Neuroplasticity is the study of the ways in which experience changes the brain's structure and functions, and, therefore, how it processes information and directs the action of what we call the mind. This scientific discipline is in its infancy, and, as with all good science, it is the process of questioning as much as the stasis of certainty that nurtures the mind. Evan Thompson, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Science and the Embodied Mind at Toronto's York University, writes: "On the one hand, the assumption that mental processes are brain processes both regulates (or guides) scientific research and constitutes the overall scientific view of the mind. On the other hand, there is still no adequate explanation of how brain activity gives rise to consciousness and of what causal role consciousness may play in the brain's workings."

And those studying neuroplasticity (Neuroplasticians?) are beginning to delve into the possibility that the brain can change in response to internal, mental signals, not just physical experience and input from the outside world. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has done some experiments that suggest mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

What a concept! At some level of consciousness, we know this is true. Professor Davidson is the first, so far as I know, to scientifically research, document, and to theorize about the potential of changing the way the human mind works by intentionally altering the structure and function of the brain. Davidson has written, "Our emotional reactions to events and our daily mood form the basis of our personality and color virtually all our behavior. Adult personality is traditionally regarded as relatively fixed and immutable."

One of Davidson's more interesting, intriguing and, perhaps illuminating experiments involved what is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans of Tibetan Buddhist monks. The scans compared the brain activity of novice Buddhist meditators with those of Buddhist monks who had meditated some 10,000 hours, all of them practicing "compassion" meditation, generating feeling of loving kindness toward all beings. The scans showed a striking difference between the two groups. The experienced monks showed a dramatic increase in high frequency brain activity called gamma waves during meditation. Novices showed a slight increase in gamma activity. Gamma waves are thought to indicate "neuronal activity that knits together far flung brain circuits," underlying higher mental activities like consciousness. Davidson says, "...the fact that the monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training."

Davidson's study with Buddhist monks suggests that the brain, just like the body, with the right effort and intention can be deliberately molded, just as weight lifting or aerobics sculpt muscles. If so, then the age old dream of peace on earth and good will toward men is within the realm of every person with a brain.

Happy Holidays.

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