Meditation Can Keep Your Brain Young
One of the popular buzzwords today is Neuroscience.
We’re all fascinated by our brain and the potential it has. And isn’t it curious that the very organ that can think about itself has difficulty in comprehending itself?
Scientists used to think that the neurons (brain cells) we were born with were only plastic (changeable) for the first couple of years of life. After that it was a slippery slope downwards and our capacity to change our habits and learn new things diminished the older we got. “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”
To some extent, that’s true. Certainly at birth the brain has maximum plasticity (changeability). We’re born with billions of existing and potential neural pathways, and by the time we’re two, the brain has already started to economise and shear back the ones that have not been used as an energy saving mechanism. In this way, it can put more resources into maintaining the pathways that are regularly used.
For example, when a child learns it’s first language, it has the capacity to develop any accent, learn to move its mouth, tongue and lips in whatever way it needs to produce the sounds it hears. After a few years, this capacity starts to diminish and by the time we reach adolescence the accent we developed in our infancy tends to remain for the rest of our life, even if we’re hearing a different accent every day. That’s why accents are so much easier to learn when we’re very young (think of bilingual children).
This is also be true of our behaviours. Our responses to life tend to take the path of least resistance. So if we’re used to getting angry over something it becomes very easy to get angry at that situation every time it arises, even when we know that an angry response is not helpful. Same is true if we’re used to getting anxious, worried or panicky about something. Whatever we practice is what we get better and better at.
The good news is that current research tells us that the brain remains plastic to some extent for all of our lives. It’s true that plasticity is stronger in infancy, but it’s not true that it ever completely disappears. Every time we visit a new place, learn something we didn’t know before or try a new app on our phone, we’re using neural networks that haven’t been used before. And the more novelty there is in our life, the more malleable our neural networks remain.
Beware, however, of programs and computer games that say they can keep you young by challenging you in only one area. “Novelty” means across the board, including physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. The more types of novelty one has in their life and the greater range of experiences we give our brains, the more plastic it remains. Activities that combine movement with mental focus (like sport or dance) are particularly good in encouraging brain plasticity.
The science is also clear that mindfulness practice changes the brain. Most people accept that if you’re sitting still and relaxing for 20 mins a day it will probably be good for aspects of your physical health. We’ve also known for some time that meditation can alter the electrical activity of the brain. However we now know that regular meditation practice is associated with changes in the brain’s physical structure.
Meditation is not passive. It’s an active noticing. We notice the sensation of the breath, for example. Then we notice that the mind has wandered, and we return attention to the breath. This dance of focus, distraction, refocus is like doing arm curls at the gym. But instead of building biceps we’re building brain cells that support self-regulation, focus, resilience and mental fitness.
It also builds an essential quality known as interoception, which is awareness of the sense of signals originating within the body. Interoception is critical for our sense of embodiment, motivation and well-being. Interoception is what helps us become aware of the early warning signs of an emotional state, such as anger or anxiety. It’s this awareness of the earliest physical signs of oncoming emotion that allows us to choose to respond in a different way, a way that serves us better.
In 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues at the Harvard Medical School conducted a landmark study on the effects of meditation on the brain. They determined that mindfulness meditation increased thickness of the parts of the brain associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing when compared with control non-meditators. Increased cortical thickness is normally due to increased use of that part of the brain. This difference was most pronounced in older subjects, suggesting that meditation may off-set age-related cortical thinning or brain deterioration.
In other words, meditating at any age is good for you, and it can keep you young.Back to Blog menu