I have recently read some fascinating books about findings in neuroscience, and their practical applications in cognitive behavioral therapy. Equally important, they can be used for everyone to become happier.
My interest in this was first piqued when I heard, years ago, that the Dalai Lama had asked neuroscientists whether our thoughts can change our brains . The answer he received was pretty much universally no, for two reasons which were entrenched beliefs in neuroscience:
- Adult brains do not have “neuroplasticity”: they cannot grow new neurons or make new connections. Only the brains of children can do that.
- Even if neuroplasticity could occur, our thoughts have no influence on it. That would be “top-down plasticity”. There’s no such thing.
If you read the history of neuroscience in the earlier part of the twentieth century [1, 2], it’s easy to see how these hypotheses arose (although there are glimpses of counterevidence being ignored). But this is a case where entrenched scientific dogma does not intuitively feel right. It seems like adult brains can change, although maybe considerably less so than children. Us old dogs can learn new tricks. The Dalai Lama knew, from his own experience, that decades of meditation had changed his brain, and had seen its effects on other dedicated practitioners of his tradition. And the second point above cannot explain the placebo effect. How can some people get better taking a sugar pill because they believed it was the real medicine (there are a lot of fascinating evidence related to that in the book Timeless Healing by Dr. Herbert Benson).
There has been a quiet revolution in neuroplasticity in the past 20 years or so that has turned these views upside down. [1,2]. Partially this was caused by accumulating evidence that could no longer be swept under the rug by skeptical scientists, and partially it’s due to increasing powerful imaging techniques and other technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMri). These allow the active regions of the brain to be imaged with precision. Our mental states are subjective and cannot be measured. But their neurological correlates can. You can, for example, ask someone with clinical depression, for example, how sad are you on a scale of 1 to 10, then see what regions of the brain are active. The possibilities are endless, and they are being put to good use in labs all over that world.
The bottom line is that both points one and two above are now known, undoubtedly, from repeated experiments, to be false:
- neuroplasticity persists into adulthood, even for senior citizens like me: New neurons can grow from stem cells, existing neurons can be repurposed, even wholesale regions of the brain can be repurposed , And
- your mental states, including your thoughts, can influence all of this: top-down neuroplasticity exists [1,2].
It’s even more exciting than that. Individual neurons, of which there are about 100 billion in the brain, were thought to be simple summing devices. If enough input sensors (dendrites) are activated, the neuron fires, and its axon sends out an output signal. The interfaces among neurons (the synapses) were known to be quite intricate biochemically, but it was thought that all the action occurred there. Recently it’s become known that neurons are sophisticated “microprocessors”, which contain thousands of quantum devices . There’s clearly a lot more going inside than summing, The staggering implications of that are in the early days of study. I’ll cover the details in a future post.
Practical examples of the new findings in neuroscience abound [1,2], including:
- more long term recovery from functionality lost in strokes can happen than previously thought possible. Neurons from other regions of the brain can take over for those lost in the damaged region.
- An effective new cognitive treatment has been found for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD sufferers have strong urges from what’s been identified as the “worry circuit” in the brain. Often it feels like they are helpless observers of their own minds. They know the signal they are receiving, like “my hands are dirty, I have to wash them again” (even though they’ve been washing them repeatedly), is wrong, but feel powerless to fight off the urge. A clear sign of lack of free will if ever there was. But they can train their minds to mindfully observe the abnormal thought arising, and apply cognitive techniques to fight off the urge (like noting “that’s not me, it’s just a faulty circuit”). And repeatedly doing this changes their brains, calming down the worry circuit, as shown in imaging studies.
- Clinical depressed people have an over-reactive “doom and gloom” circuit in their brains. One aspect of this is deficient serotonin, which is why drugs like Prozac help. But unfortunately, drug treatment has a high relapse rate and doesn’t work as well after a while. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) reduces the relapse rate considerably, by calming down the activity in the brain that causes excess brooding and “awfulizing”. Again, modified thinking changes the brain.
And to get back to the Dalai Lama’s question, the answer to that is now conclusively yes also: long-term meditators appear kinder and calmer, and they subjectively feel a higher state of unconditional inner peace. But now imaging and brain wave measurements have shown significant associated brain changes, compared to control groups with untrained minds [1, 4]. During meditation, there is a temporary alteration in your brain state. Repeated over time, this leads to a permanent altered trait.
The Role of Willpower
I have talked about mental benefits of techniques like meditation and mindfulness previously. The benefits of these go beyond stress relief if they are consistently used as part of what I call a transformational path, as I’ll describe in my next post. This is not some “new age” notion, it is well-supported by the evidence in neuroscience. The single most important factor for this to work is giving consistent attention to it, which requires willpower.
Whether or not we really have free will or it is illusory has been argued by scientists and philosophers (and scientists) for centuries, and I’m not going to get into it. But the evidence shows that if we pay attention and apply willpower, we can change our behavior and our brains. It is hard to explain otherwise how someone in the incredibly strong compulsion of OCD, caused by a faulty brain circuit, could choose, with awe inspiring willpower, to change their thoughts and rewire their brain. Or numerous other examples.
It’s true we often behave as if we are on autopilot. We can compulsively perform an action and then rationalize to ourselves that we really chose to do that. It’s often easy to show how these compulsions come from survival instincts. In my case an obvious example is eating junk or poor eating choices. Some part of my mind comes up with a reasonable sounding explanation why just this once some cookies wouldn’t hurt, and I fall for it. We can fight this off, but it sure takes willpower. One of the coolest examples is the Nike ad where the woman’s alarm goes off so she can go for her run. While she’s still bleary-eyed, her bed starts talking to her, “you want me, you know you want me. I am so soft, so comfy…”. But she goes running anyway!
I’ve seen estimates that on average we’re behaving compulsively 95% of the time, and then probably rationalizing that we chose that behavior. And we are actually only rationally choosing 5% of the time. But that 5% makes all the difference. By using willpower and picking our battles, it allows us to choose in important situations. Like fighting off OCD, depression, or compulsive eating. And we can also choose to meditate. If our mind wanders off, whenever we notice that we can choose to bring it back .
That 95%/5% estimate is for the average person, with what meditation teachers would call an untrained mind. But that’s like saying the average person can only run 200 feet. With physical training you can run a marathon or more. The same is true for mental training.
I am continuing to read up on the exciting new developments in neuroscience and their implications, and will report when I find any exciting new tidbits.
- Begley, S, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Random House, 2008.
- Schwartz, J, and Begley, S, The Mind and the Brain
- https://www.closertotruth.com/series/quantum-physics-consciousness. Click on the interview with Dr. Anirban Bandyopadhyay.
- Goleman, D, Davidson, R, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Penguin, 2017.