Plasticity – The Amazing Human Brain
We humans are very fortunate in that our brain is one of the most complex entities in our known universe. Natural selection, genetic modifications, and use-related neuroplasticity have blessed us with a brain quite capable of some of the most complicated tasks imaginable. Some of these tasks (medical miracles, landing on the moon, kindness and compassion, love, etc.) are very dramatic and positive; other tasks (possible nuclear destruction, hacking weaknesses of the internet, weapons development, cyber-hate, cell-phone addiction, etc.) we would be better without. In this post I will discuss briefly some of the amazing things about YOUR brain.
The brain’s neurons fire at both conscious and autonomic levels at the speed of lightening. That is very, vert fast! It is estimated that the brain contains over a trillion cells, with 100 billion neurons among them. That is a huge number of cells at work in YOUR brain right now. As far as all possible combinations of cell-firing in the brain, that number is set at a staggering 10 to the 1,000,000th power. All of this wonder stems from 3.5 billion years of brain evolution, and the power of brain plasticity (“neurons that fire together wire together”). Our DNA is so, so close to that of the chimpanzee, but the small difference is what make the great difference. It is said there is no other known entity as complex as the human brain.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., our intention, attention, and attitude have much to do with how well we use our brain for the better good. This better good improves life for each of us as well as for others on this great earth. Research at the University of California (Berkeley and Davis) suggests that specific neuroplastic training may improve mental health (anxiety, depression) as well as compassion/self-compassion, contentment, joy, gratitude and happiness. In addition, important human functioning areas such self-care, calmness, mindfulness, motivation, social connection, and intimacy may also be improved. These outcomes of practice-based neuroplasticity, in and of themselves, are quite miraculous. We are indeed fortunate.
Research being done by Dr. Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., at Rockefeller University in New York suggest that specific activities and practices help to rewire the brain. Once again, the wonders of neuroplasticity are at work here. It is suggested that specific evidence-based activities like regular mindfulness practices, social support, meaning and purpose in life, regular physical activity, even cognitive-behavioral therapy may all play important roles in plasticity-related, human resiliency. The important things here is that all these practices work against the reactive and chronic debilitation caused by severe and/or chronic stress. We Americans are plagued by high stress in every-day life; our stress comes from economic, social, work, relationship, health, and digital communication demands. The never-ending need to remain connected electronically, and to reach expected levels of achievement have good and bad consequences. It has been noted that regular physical activity and helpful care-taking behaviors (compassionate action) enhances the function of the hippocampus (short-term, long-term, and emotionally important memory).
So, be sure to take good care of your brain. Watch what you eat! Stay away from the “SAD” diet – the Standard American Diet. Get lots of regular exercise, Stay away from mind-altering substances. Be a kind and caring person. These practices will help keep your mind/brain and body healthy.
For more information refer to related posts and training opportunities at www.nicabm.com/brain-science, www.thefoundationsofwellbeing.com/science, and other sources.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness