The Daily Challenge, Day Twenty-Five: Neuroplasticity

Hope is a very powerful thing. Sometimes, it's the one thing we rely on to get us through tough times. For some people, thinking of loved ones gives them hope. For others, it might be a rainbow at the end of a rainy day that reminds them that life is full of pleasant surprises. For me - hope is neuroplasticity. 

Like many others, I experience anxiety and stress and have become increasingly despondent with my brain's ability to cope with the 21st Century. Ironically, the very thing responsible for me being here today is evolution. Yet, the one thing that hinders me is the fact that my brain has not evolved into the present day. It doesn't have the ability to react proportionately to fear, which causes a lot of disruption to the mind, body and everyday life. 

Yesterday, for instance, I was in the kitchen. I live in a flat that is furnished with the first appliances ever made - the microwave looks so old I'm afraid to touch it. I turned it on and it started crackling and flashing and I jumped, screamed and ran. Yes, this could have been potentially dangerous. But it returned to normal a couple of seconds later and I was unscathed. I felt ill, though. My heart continued pounding and my legs and hands didn't stop shaking for about ten minutes. This is what I don't like about evolution - it's failed us in that the brain can't see a distinction between caveman days and 2012. 

In a nutshell, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to be adaptable and malleable, to rewire itself in response to thoughts and experience (a good example of this is a stroke or brain injury). The discovery of neuroplasticty has been named the most important change of the human brain in the last 400 years.

For instance, in someone who has been blind from a young age, neuroplasticity is the process whereby the visual cortex can learn to feel and hear. This is one example of how physical structure of the brain, the relative sizes of its different regions and the strength of the connections between them are related to the  life we lead, what we have learned and what we have experienced. 

The brain can also change as a result of our thoughts. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is a good example of this. Studies have shown that it can alleviate symptoms of depression by changing the way a sufferer thinks, interprets and reacts to everyday situations. Within the study of neuroplasticity there is emphasis on the connection between mind and brain, that a change in one leads to a change in the other.

It isn't just intervention that helps to shape our brain, though. If we habitually focus on things we resent and regret, or if we regularly practice gratitude, our brain builds a certain neural substrate in accordance with this. This is where there is an overlap between science and Buddhism - generation of compassion is a standard Buddhism meditation technique. Studies looking into the structure of Buddhist monks' brains have supported the idea that positive mentality can be learned. 

To think that thoughts can change the structure of matter is just fascinating - and enough to make Matilda seem a bit less of an impressive film. 

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