Mindfulness - Neurons that fire together wire together - Rewiring the brain and the implications for our personal suffering.
For a long time neuroscience assumed the brain was static. More recent discoveries show that the brain changes according to our experiences and the way we use it. Mindfulness, a particular way of using the brain, can be used to rewire our brains and transform our negative and feelings habits into positive and enjoyable ones.
Around 25 years ago neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons.
As shown in the animation above, each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories, emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” states writer Nicholas Carr. (1)
Until the 1980s, received wisdom in neuroscience was that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood.
However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich, this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer a computer analogy, the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way round. Neuroscience today is governed by what’s known as Hebb’s rule: “cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.
The time lapse film below shows Neuron growth through connection. As you watch, your neurons are making synapses of the fact your neurons are making synapses of watching neurons make synapses. Without being overly dramatic, this is what the physical process of learning actually looks like.
Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the harder it becomes to rewire them. These older entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thought and actions. Every time we fire off a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood of us doing it again.
Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again.
There are many parallels with the practice as mindfulness, in particular as taught by the famous Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (also known simply as Thây), who has been instrumental in modernizing Buddhist thought and practice and making it relevant for everyone.
The essence of mindfulness practice is to develop singularity of thought, ie concentration, which can help us get us out of out of habitual thinking and feeling and to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering.
Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for more well-being. Mindfulness is intentional, it is based on our free will, and we need to be “awake” to practice it. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them.
Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being in doing so, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.
Using a positive visualization or mantra as proposed by Thich Nhat Hanh, “this is a happy moment,” is a good example: and as simple and naïve as it may sound to our ‘sophisticated’ western minds, it trains the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might otherwise not be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthen the neural pathways associated with our suffering.
We also all know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not, another factor is the way we look at it—wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness, compassion and deep understanding, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering in this way, and with mindfulness recognise the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being.
In addition, Thich Nhat Hanh has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings, and neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathway indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thây has long recommended that we don’t overdo the digging into their suffering, but that healing instead begins with watering our seeds of well-being.
Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.
It is important to remember that there are no magic formulas or strategies: the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful at any point of whether we’re transforming our suffering, or rehearsing it.
The full text from which the above has been adapted can be found at http://tingen.org/mindfulness-rewire-brain/
(1) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:
* A. Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).
* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.
* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).
* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. (Harper – Perrenial, 2002).