Oakville Zen Meditation

#96. Neuroplasticity: What, How and Why? 15FEB16

We know what the brain is but we have no idea what the mind is. Maybe the mind is our consciousness or part of it or has nothing to do with it. For the purpose of discussion we will use the computer as metaphor where the brain is the hardware and the mind the software. I will use the word brain in this talk.

Definition: The word plastic means to mold, sculpt, or modify. Neuroplasticity refers to the potential that the brain has to change and reorganize its structure by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as it needs to. Physical and mental stimuli induce neuroplasticity. Neuro-morphological changes are the brain's way of tuning itself to meet your new needs either physical, or mental (cognitive and emotional)

Click on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity for an extensive and good review.

Book: The brain that changes itself by Norman Doidge.

History: We know for a long time that the human body and its organs are capable of changing their structure and biochemistry based on their tasks and needs to adapt.

1- Cardio training modifies:

  • Heart muscle (strength + thickness) and coronaries (diameter + number)
  • Lung (alveoli (sac) + bronchus network)

2- Running is affecting positively some muscles such as calf and negatively others such as quads and gluteus.

3- Diet does affect structure and function of the stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines.

4- Stress produces body changes (high blood pressure, tachycardia) and feeling changes (anger, fear, anxiety).

The fact that physical activities and thinking itself may influence the structure and function of the brain was science fiction until sophisticated neuro-imaging and chemical nano-probing technologies proved its reality few years ago.

Facts: Our brain is made of around 100 billions neurons, each of them interconnected with thousand others

(10power15). Altogether they form a huge wiring network of trillions of Km where zillion of electrical signals runs non-stop everywhere in this maze day and night. The brain is made of many zones each of them with a specific function: the frontal lobe controls our cognitive function, the cerebellum our balance, the limbic system (primitive / reptilian brain) our desires, emotions, memory, visual, etc.

Role of neuroplasticity: We know now that our brain like many other organs is able to adapt itself to the needs requested. This neuroplasticity is probably not limited to structural changes but also to electrical and chemical ones since one cannot function without the others. The brain functions using electrical impulses transmitted via neuronal circuits and neuro-transmitters. The energy needed for its activity comes from complex chemical reactions. All these changes structural but also electrical and chemical do affect positively the activity of the area to meet the needs.

Here are some examples. Practicing problem-solving affects our frontal lobe, working on balance affects our cerebellum, learning a new language modifies our left parietal lobe responsible of language and so on.

Does meditation influence brain structures and functions? A growing number of studies have confirmed that mindfulness meditation affects the structure and functions of various parts of the brain such as: cortical thickness and density of gray matter. One of the most well known studies to demonstrate this was led by Sara Lazar, from Harvard University. Results suggest that daily meditation results in changing the activity in many brain regions:

  • Increased structural mass/activity within the gray matter of our cognitive frontal lobe resulting in enhancing attention, concentration, analytic and deductive skills.
  • Decreased structural mass/activity within our reptilian limbic system resulting in reducing our emotional reactions such as anger, resentment, fear, guilt, impatience, etc.

Prospective randomized studies are under way to see if meditation may minimize or even prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

As we already know the electrical activity of the brain greatly increased during meditation within our frontal lobe that is the analytic and concentration hub of the brain. However, the electrical activity of our emotional hub localized in our limbic system is reduced.

Is meditation the Holy Grail? No, but a significant part of it.

Conclusion: We have known for years that our subconscious mind influences body structures. For example: salivation starts when thinking of chewing a lemon or anatomic changes occur with sexual arousal.

However, now we know that conscious thinking such as mindfulness meditation modifies the anatomy, structure, biochemistry and functions of the brain to adapt itself to new needs.

Thank you. Ven. J.G. 15FE16