Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is a promising area of brain research and neuroscience that supports the idea that new experiences can change or rewire the brain. The discovery that the brain can be rewired is creating a new understanding of how our brains are adaptive and can be neurologically changed as the result of brain training. A great example of one type of brain training that changes the brain is mindfulness meditation.

When we engage in meditation, we are teaching our brain to be more aware of thoughts and emotions with the goal of not reacting to them. This “present centered” experience also teaches us to be more self compassionate when events occur that we cannot control. Typically, thoughts and emotions provoke our brain to respond in different ways. For instance, when a traumatizing event occurs and we are fearful or afraid, our amygdala may become reactive and encourage us to either “fight, flight or freeze.” These reactions are evolutionary responses to stress and trauma. They have the ability to save us from danger or paralyze us from taking action. At times our fears can be rational and predictive of danger causing us to select a response that will ensure our safety. But there are times when our fears and not accurate and perceived threats cause us to engage in worrying, rumination, or other non-productive behaviors. Over time, these become patterns of behavior that may cause us to experience chronic stress or even anxiety. Mindfulness meditation may be the key to training and rewiring the brain to respond differently to these types of worrisome events.

Neuroplasticity is the ability to reorganize the brain to engage in new or novel ways of thinking and doing things. The act of reorganizing neural pathways involves cognition, behavior, emotions and the environment. While it has been previously believed that the adult brain was pretty well “set”, recent research suggests that rewiring our thinking is possible. Hence the term “neuro-plasticity” or the plastic or malleable brain. We know that young children have very malleable brains and can adapt to situations without interference from fixed ideas or learned behaviors, but we are learning that adults also have the ability to change patterns of thinking that can reshape neural pathways. As adults we respond to new situations and experiences with previously held knowledge and beliefs which then influence our behavior. If what we believe conflicts with new experiences, we sometimes struggle to adjust or respond to situations or challenges, preferring to rely on what we have previously learned. Many adults report that they have overcome challenging mental health conditions like ADHD, depression and anxiety by engaging in practices like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation, which slowly change the existing neural and behavioral patterns resulting in more productive thinking outcomes.

Considerable research has been conducted to examine the ways that mindfulness meditation affects the brain. These various studies have attempted to measure how meditation impacts the brain by rewiring neural synapses and the release of neurochemicals. Recent randomized controlled studies have shown that mindfulness meditation increased both attention and awareness in study participants. The ability to enhance both selective and sustained attention resulted in reductions in emotional reactivity, which allowed the study participants to be more aware of their thoughts and emotions and to remain present-centered. This experience enhanced their perceptions of subjective well being. Overall, neuroplasticity and training the brain through mindfulness meditation contributed to a more positive mindset as well as a reduction in stress and anxiety.

Neuroplasticity has tremendous implications for improving the quality of our lives. A variety of mental health issues including trauma and adverse childhood events, situational or long term stress, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, autism, learning disabilities and possibly other brain involved conditions may benefit from interventions that train the brain to develop new neural pathways. In relation to mindfulness meditation, neuroplasticity can help us to harness the ability of the brain to more efficiently use the prefrontal cortex to regulate attention, problem solving and planning and form new or better synaptic connections between the emotional centers of the brain (amygdala and hippocampus) and the areas that regulate attention and emotions. Research now suggests that mindfulness meditation training can enhance the functioning of some areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, and to reduce activity in areas of the amygdala, thus calming emotions and resulting in greater emotional stability and reducing reactivity.

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Dr. Don Matthews has worked in K-12 and higher education for over 30 years as a learning specialist, lecturer, instructional designer and teacher educator.

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Donald D. Matthews, PsyD

Dr. Don Matthews has worked in K-12 and higher education for over 30 years as a learning specialist, lecturer, instructional designer and teacher educator.