Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity

This is an extract from a chapter – Consciousness As Food – in a  book available on Amazon Kindle  – Keeping Dharma Alive. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0074A3LNC

In the groove

Buddhist masters for over two thousand six hundred years have observed the process of their own awakening.  The training of disciples and observation of their similar steps into awakening empirically confirmed the validity of their own experience.  This would not be a verification process that Western science would necessarily concur with, as examining the mind from the vantage point of an awakened mind is not something that Western science is equipped to do.  In 1987 Francisco Varela made a statement that has shaken scientific turpitude:

The chance of surviving with dignity on this planet hinges on the acquisition of a new mind.  This new mind must be wrought among other things, from a radically different epistemology, which will inform relevant actions

Varela was the catalyst for the Mind and Life dialogues between neuroscientists and Buddhist meditators. He maintained that a third person observational stance was inadequate for modern science as the first person experiential component was necessary to make science complete. He turned to Buddhism for this component and enlisted the support of the Dalai Lama for a series of dialogues, which began in 1987. Varela clearly saw that Buddhism used investigative practices that rested on observation, mind training, logical thinking and a rigorous experimental/verification process that relied on a person’s own experience. Verification of Buddhist teachings did not come solely from faith, but relied on testing the teachings out in the laboratory of personal experience and the mind.

The Dalai Lama sent eight highly trained senior monks to the Wisconsin laboratory of Dr Richard Davidson in 1992.  The monks had trained in the Tibetan Buddhist Nyingma and Kagyu traditions for periods of 10,000 to 50,000 hours.  They were observed for high frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, hooked up by 256 brain sensors to electroencephalograph (EEG) and fMRI machines and compared with control groups without meditation training (see Lutz et alia 2004).  The results were sufficiently astonishing to encourage further ongoing research, as the sensors picked up in the monks’ brains an exponential increase in gamma waves, much more highly coordinated than that observed in the control groups.  Significantly, activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the monks was very high.  This brain region is usually associated with positive thoughts, feelings of balance and harmony (Lutz et alia 2004; HOPES 2003).

The significance of these ground breaking research results by neuroscientists is that in terms of meditation effects – it is clear that the trained mind is cognitively and structurally different from an untrained mind, as new neuronal connections are created so that ingrained perceptions fall away.  Yongey Mingyur, who was one of the original experimental subjects, refers to the essence of the Buddha’s teachings as: the mind is the source of all experience, and by changing the direction of the mind we can change the quality of everything we experience (2007:102).  Prolonged meditation has the effect of producing permanent changes in levels of awareness in the direction of harmony and balance.  Just what we need as a species!

Thich-Nhat-Hanh-image-5

The medical implications of neuroplasticity are nothing short of astonishing, as mechanistic biology and genetics are progressively thrown out of the window.  Previously, neuroscience in the twentieth century had established a dialectical relationship between the brain and the body.  Scientists had identified the health of the immune, hormonal and nervous systems with discrete areas of the brain – frontal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus respectively (Pollard 2004).  At that time it was thought that the brain was fixed in its structure and functions early in life – that the brain contained all its neurons at birth.  But from the 1980’s onwards, experimental research clearly demonstrated that this assumption was incorrect, that new neurons and synapses were generated throughout one’s lifespan as a consequence of new learning processes activating memory functions in the brain (Milgram 1987; Racine & Kairis 1987).  Recent studies by Begley (2004) and Lutz et alia (2004) using sophisticated MRI scans on the brains of Buddhist monks in meditation, demonstrated in no uncertain terms that meditation as a long term practice rewired the chemical and physical structure of the brain and as a consequence promoted behavioral and attitudinal changes in the direction of balance, harmony and happiness.

Now that the doctrine of the unchanging brain is thoroughly discredited, radical new vistas have opened up both for medicine and culture.  Eric Kandel received a Nobel Prize in 2000 for advancing the argument that learning and challenging memory functions stimulates genes to create new proteins and new neural circuits in the brain.  This has significant implications for curing memory disorders, treatment of neurological problems as well as reversing memory loss in the ageing brain.  Norman Doidge (2007) has argued further that this is how the brain always works – only we did not allow ourselves to understand this feature of constant malleability.  Though Buddhism does have a handle on brain structure being impermanent and everchanging.  The brain is inherently “neuroplastic” and therefore can change both its structures and functions.  Doidge documents the case history of Michelle Mack, born without the left hemisphere of her brain.  Nevertheless, Michelle leads a full and active life because the right hemisphere of her brain reorganized itself to create the synapses and brain circuits to do what were thought to be exclusive left hemispheres functions.

The changing brain is normal; furthermore the ageing brain – often beset with decline – can be stimulated by a variety of brain exercises that create new processing functions.  Costa e Silva’s work in 2004 demonstrates that depression and chronic pain are a function of a lack of plasticity in brain structures and the search is on for drug combinations that can stimulate the creation of new proteins and synapses so that brain circuits expand.  The groundbreaking work of Davidson (2000, 2003) has already shown that prolonged meditation reorganizes frontal hemisphere activity related to the stimulus of theta and alpha brain waves, which are associated with calm, harmony and attitude shift.

Furthermore, being permanently stuck with the same old cultural assumptions and predispositions is a notion that is no longer tenable.  While we most certainly shape culture, culture also shapes our brain structure.  The commonly held view that cukltural differences are implacable has to give way to the fact that we can change our cultures by simply changing our minds and the way we think about things.  Our synapses, senses, brain circuits and cultures are all malleable.  So an “unchanging world” perspective is no longer tenable particularly as the recent work of Iacoboni (2008) postulates a “mirroring” neuron.  His argument is that we understand the world around us through brain circuits that copy what we sense and see, yet do not do.  He thinks the mind explores beyond the item copied and reaches into the realm of intuition and feelings.  Are we getting closer to a “neuropolitics” and a “neuroeconomics”? Iacombini does think this is indeed possible and already happening (2008). Whether one agrees with his experiments on monkeys and further inferences – it is clear that static views in medicine, science and consciousness are exceedingly hard to justify.

The term “Neuroplasticity” was coined to describe the phenomenon of continually adjusting and reorganizing brain neurons, synapses and neural pathways.  There is no longer a place in modern neuroscience for Cartesian mind/body dualism, nor for a plausible distinction between mind and brain.  This meeting ground between Buddhist meditation and modern science in the twenty first century has produced a series of groundbreaking studies in neuroscience, accompanied by a flurry of international conferences and collaborative research projects between seasoned Buddhist meditators and contemporary neuroscientists.  It is all about consciousness change!

 

An interesting departure from the conference circuit and testing the brain scans of Buddhist meditators are the retreats (such as Plum Village 2006, Garrison Institute 2006) where neuroscientists have the opportunity to practice meditation surrounded by the Olympic athletes of meditation – highly skilled Buddhist meditators.  If it holds true that our store consciousness consumes the mind states of surrounding beings, then a pertinent question arises.  With neuroscientists surrounded by skilled Buddhist mediators in a retreat setting – how will the scientists subsequently practice their science once they return to their laboratories?  Only time will tell, though Buddhist meditators may provide an educated guess!  At the very least the explorations between Buddhist meditation and neuroscience create the conditions for a compassionate foundation to emerge for science, while at the same time Buddhism is refreshed by a novel experimental foundation rooted in scientific procedures (Chopra 2005).

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