For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is immutable and unchangeable. By the time we reach adulthood it was thought that we were pretty much stuck with what we have brainwise. The thought was that if one cluster of neurons moves your right finger then that is set for your entire life. Damage that area of your brain and you would damage the ability to move that finger.
Over the past decade or so this model of the brain has been overturned. Neuroscience now realizes that the adult brain retains neuroplasticity past childhood. Neuroplasticity means that the brain can change its structure and function in response to experience. These can be huge changes too. For example, a person who becomes blind can often train the visual cortex to process sound – thus partially explaining why blind people often tend to hear better. Stroke victims can often train different parts of their brain to take over and operate parts of their bodies that were rendered unusable due to the stroke. The brain can be rewired.
Scientists are learning that rewiring of the brain can occur without input from the outside world. The brain can actually physically change by the thoughts we think (stop and think about that for a minute – amazing). In a study researchers had volunteers practice a piano piece for two hours a day for seven days. After the seven days transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) tests determined that the stretch of motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas of the brain (i.e. that part of the brain spread). So, use of particular muscles causes the brain to devote more cortical area to it. The researchers then took another set of volunteers and had them merely think about practicing the piano exercise. They played the music in their head, holding their hands still while imagining moving their fingers. The TMS test found that the volunteers who merely imagined playing the piece had their finger motor cortex region expanded to the same extent that the volunteers who actually played the piece had. Wow. This implies that mental training has the power to shape the structure of the brain. So, something seemingly insubstantial as a thought can actually change the very structure of the brain.
These findings are lending credence to cognitive behavioral therapy in treating many types of mental illnesses such as OCD and depression. Regular meditation (real Buddhist meditation over years) has recently been shown to enlarge the regions of the brain related to compassion, happiness, empathy and maternal love.
Link to previous IFOD on meditiation: http://www.theifod.com/meditation/
So, what does this mean to the average person? How you use your brain affects how your brain may work in the future. The “use it or lose it” concept is finding support in neuroplasticity. Playing Sudoku or the games found in “Brain Age” may help our brain pathways to be rewired in ways that may fight aging and keep us mentally sharp (or make us sharper). Regular meditation may affect your “preset” state of happiness. Continuing to learn and challenging yourself is important.