We’ve all heard the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. The underlying thought there, of course, is that once you get past a certain age or life stage, everything is cemented — your routines, your habits, your abilities, your potential.
Thankfully — most thankfully! — the truth is that this saying is not based in reality, and that not only change, but real, incredible transformation is possible at any age, any time. And even better, we now have the brain research that backs this up.
Keep reading to find out how the brain can change, and the things you can do today that keep your brain young.
To all our new tricks,
The Secret To A Younger Brain
We know that the brain is plastic — that is, new connections can be forged at any time that literally change the shape and function of a person’s brain, regardless of age or intelligence level.
Scientists have known for a few decades now that our experiences trigger neuroplastic change in the brain. For example, a study done on taxi drivers found that they have larger posterior hippocampi, a brain structure important for spatial representation of the environment, because they spend their days experiencing and practicing the skill of navigation, orientation, and visualizing routes.
New research, however, is finding something even more amazing: our thoughts have just as powerful an effect on brain transformation as our experiences.
Dr. Richard J. Davidson is one of the most influential people in the field of neuroscience today. His groundbreaking work has led to exciting discoveries in the areas of brain health, the brain’s potential to heal itself, and the powerful role that emotions play in how our brains function. Not surprisingly, he has worked side by side with the world’s most renowned scientists, written hundreds of articles, and edited dozens of papers and books.
Perhaps even more notable, though, is the fact that he has collaborated with those whose expertise is in mind training to research and demonstrate how our thinking and concentration affects how our brains behave. This has led him to work closely with people not often associated with “hard” science — the Dalai Lama, for example.
But his findings are clear: “Meditation, which cultivates mindfulness, promote[s] a positive pattern of electrical activity in the brain.”
Here’s the skinny on what’s going on in the brain when you’re meditating. Davidson’s research indicates a connection between meditation and resilience. A response to stress becomes problematic when someone obsesses, ruminates, or has an emotional reaction long after the problem has ended. In the brain, this shows up as the prolonged activation of the amygdala — what we often refer to as the lower brain, the seat of very primal and reactionary emotions like fear, rage, and stress.
Mindfulness meditation can boost the recovery time in the amygdala. And, just like with experiences — think of a taxi driver on his first day compared to someone who’s been navigating the streets of New York for 10 years — the more hours of dedicated practice people have, the faster their amygdalae recover. (For the full scholarly article, plus brain imaging illustrations that show the brain on mediation, click here.)
In addition to sending energy to the prefrontal cortex — the seat of the “higher brain” — certain types of mediation also strengthen areas of the brain associated with awareness of internal experiences, awareness of others, concentration, the ability to appropriately handle distraction, and adaptive control of behavior. It’s also been shown to bring relief to those who suffer with anxiety and depression — because depression often causes people to perseverate, or repeatedly fixate on negative thought cycles, and mindfulness training teaches the brain to healthily interrupt these cycles.
That’s a lot of benefit for the brain from something that we already know is good for the mind.
Though Davidson’s research has focused mainly on Buddhist meditation — this is because practitioners all have the same training, which brings a necessary consistency to scientific studies — he is clear that a person’s chosen mind training need not be religious in nature. “[W]hat we’re talking about is part of every human being’s innate capacity.”
Isn’t it exciting to know that we all have this incredible potential? What could a few minutes of stillness each day in mind training do for you?
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