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The Mind-Brain Connection and The Neural Pathways of Change

The power of the mind is seen in our imagination, abstract thinking and artistic expression. For a long time, biologists have considered the mind an epiphenomenon — a byproduct — of the increasing complexity of the human brain. It was once also believed that the brain grew till the age of seventeen, remaining fixed and static for the rest of our life.

New scientific evidence now points to the contrary: our brains display an astonishing neural plasticity or an ability to constantly reorganize and change. There a ceaseless cellular activity in the brain, during both wake and sleep times. The structure of the neurons undergoes a continuous, rapid change. When we frequently repeat or exercise a particular activity, we strengthen and enhance those neural circuits in our brain which are associated with that activity. Neuroscientists have even found that the rate of that change. Namely, the capacity of reinforced neural circuits (i.e. the number of synaptic connections) doubles in one hour of repeated activity. This is true regardless one’s age; clinical trials have confirmed neuron regeneration in seniors aged 80 and above. At the same time, those neural pathways which are rarely used begin to lose their capacity and eventually disassemble, through a process known as pruning.

Different regions of the brain are associated with different activities, and when stimulated, they can undergo significant changes. Exercising memory or learning a new language, for example, increases the volume of the hippocampus. Dancing, on the other hand, increases the grey mass in several brain regions, including the motor cortex.

There is robust scientific evidence of the benefits of mindfulness techniques and meditation. Most notably, meditation leads to significant changes in the brain regions responsible for emotional regulation. One becomes more resilient to, or better equipped to face, various life challenges that range from negative external triggers to high-stakes situations and stressful events. More importantly, science has shown that meditation changes one’s personal traits, instilling feelings of sympathy, compassion and a new outlook on life.

Therefore, how we use our mind determines the neural changes that happen in our brain. Our thoughts and objects of attention signal the brain, and lead to the formation and strengthening of certain neural connections. By becoming more conscious and cautious of the kind of thoughts we engage our mind with, the more in control we become of the changes that happen in our brain.

~Based on the book ‘Mind to Matter’ by Dawson Church~

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