Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity
Mindfulness and positive psychology encompass the notion that we are in control of our physiological wellbeing through our mindset.
Positive psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on optimal wellness and flourishing. Along with neuroscience, positive psychology birthed the term neuroplasticity, where we, as individuals, can rewire our thought processes and influence our physiology at a cellular level.
Neuroplasticity essentially refers to the ability we have to rewire our brains to think and feel differently and to increase overall wellbeing. Psychologists used to think the brain and personality were fixed, but we now realise that is incorrect. We can be our own neurosurgeons (neuroplasticians) and change our thinking with our thoughts.
Modern day stress can wreak havoc on our wellbeing, but being able to take control and influence our own thoughts has a positive impact on our bodies. The term epigenetics is a phenomenon whereby we can influence the growth of disorder through negative thinking, and conversely, influence health and wellbeing through positive thinking processes. Neuroplasticity gives us the ability to recover from a stroke, learning disabilities, brain injuries and mental illnesses, such as depression.
Harnessing creativity is another important factor in positive psychology and the promotion of wellbeing. Creativity is cultivated by taking time out from the chaos and being in a positive environment. The positive psychology movement advocates making time for daily or regular doses of creativity, which plays a fundamental role in changing our mindset.
Using affirmations (such as positive self-talk) is also important to safeguard against any negativity that can hinder creativity. Creativity allows you to get into the flow; this is a state of being that psychologists describe as being completely focused, devoid of knowledge of time and distraction.
Neuroplasticity is also called brain plasticity. We have the ability to rewire our brains. We do this with our thoughts and with what we say. If we did not have this ability, we would not be able to develop from infancy or recover from a brain injury. The brain is, therefore, not fixed or in a static state as once was thought.
Case Studies of Neuroplasticity
The concept was first forged by American Neuroanatomist Dr. Marian Diamond who found that an enriched environment caused anatomical changes in the cerebral cortex of rats’ brains. The brains of those in a thriving environment were heavier than the brains of rats in the unstimulating environment (Diamond, Krech, & Rosenzweig, 1964).
Cheryl Schiltz also found her ability to heal through neuroplasticity when a course of antibiotics destroyed her balance. Using the techniques given to her by Paul Bach-y-Rita, she retrained her brain to find balance (Maclean’s, 2007).
The brain is special in that it processes sensory and motor signals in parallel. If any damage is done to the brain because it has many neural pathways that can replicate another’s function, this can be rectified by rerouting the signals down another neural pathway.
As the body can recover from damage to the brain due to neuroplasticity by forging new neural connections, it was also found that losing certain functions within the body enhanced other functions. For instance, losing the sense of touch increased the sense of smell. Losing one function may rewire others. Those that lose their sight early in life may have an increased ability to hear.
Recovery also depends on the level of sensory and motor stimulation that a person receives post-injury. The more stimulation, the greater the chance of recovery. For those that have had a stroke, this includes training in virtual environments, music therapy, and using mentally physical movements. Younger brains have a better ability to recover.
While the brain’s structure is genetically predetermined, continued development is done via development plasticity. This process changes neurons and synaptic connections. While new neurons are formed quickly in younger brains, this slows down with age.
As the brain develops, individual neurons mature by sending out axons and dendrites that transmit and receive information from one neuron to the next. Neurons also mature by increasing the number of synaptic contact with specific connections. A newborn child’s neuron in the cerebral cortex has roughly 2500 synapses, but this increases to approximately 15000 by ages two to three. This is done through a process called synaptogenesis - where a child explores and learns new skills. However, by adulthood, a process called synaptic pruning takes place and the number of synapses halves.
It is certainly debatable as to whether the brain retains its ability to increase synaptogenesis as it ages, however, the ability for a person who has had a stroke to reverse the damage through aggressive treatment suggests that it is a process that still takes place.
Even as we age, we still retain the ability to learn new skills, activities, and languages. This means the brain has a mechanism that is available so that knowledge is retained and accessible for future recall (another example of neuroplasticity).
A happiness set-point is the point on a continuum of happiness with which we are born. Happiness set points are given at birth and account for 40% of our overall happiness. While positive and negative events can change our happiness levels in the short-term, we eventually return to a baseline (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). The happiness set-point can be changed through neuroplasticity. This is done when we practise gratitude, optimism, and self-compassion. The neuron in the brain form more connections and that area of the brain becomes stronger.
Therefore, we must aim to establish a growth mindset. Since we can rewire our brain to learn anything we want, the only limitation is ourselves. We can increase and build on talents through discipline and hard work.
Mindfulness can help train the brain to feel more positive. Positive and negative emotions look different in the brain. When we experience positive emotions, there is much higher activity in the left prefrontal cortex, whereas negative emotions, such as anxiety and stress, are linked to increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex.
In an experiment on 41 biotechnology employees, one cohort received mindful training while the other cohort did not. Those that received the training had experienced a heightened increase in the left prefrontal cortex, which is the area that reflects positive emotions (Davidson et al. 2003). When you use mindfulness, you are training your brain in the art of happiness.
Epigenetics is the study of how experience, thoughts, and words can modify our DNA. These changes can be passed on from one generation to the next. We can change the structure of our genes, and this can have lasting consequences.
A genome is a double helix code that is uniquely you, unless, of course, you have an identical twin. Added to this is another layer of complexity called the epigenome. The epigenome sits in your cells with your genome and is the instruction manual that decides which parts of your DNA are activated and which genes are switched on or off. Every cell in your body contains its own epigenome. This is impressive stuff because it is the epigenome that decides the actions of a cell.
Trauma and Epigenetics
Your DNA stays consistent throughout your life, but the epigenomes are fluid. They change as we grow (i.e. throughout adolescence), and the experiences we have in life impact on them. Epigenetic changes affect our body, both positively and negatively, and impact on the health of our bodies. Experiences, such as trauma, can have an adverse impact on our cell health. But not only that, it can also impact on our children and grandchildren’s development. This is the same as the experiences of our grandparents and parents on our own lives.
In a study conducted by Professor Yehuda Bauer, the impact of traumatic experiences on war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and the September 11th attacks were considered. The study aimed to understand the impact this had on the survivor’s children. Professor Yehuda found that children whose parents had suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) displayed PTSD and depressive symptoms, too. The children also shared epigenetic markers with their parents, meaning they were more reactive to stress.
The good news is that we can rewire and reverse these changes through our personal experiences. We can also do this using powerful words, thinking positively, seeking out joyful and enriching experiences, and keeping our focus on the here and now. Our words are powerful and can influence health at a cellular level. It is estimated that between 75 and 98% of mental and physical health problems come from the mind.