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  • Writer's pictureAnnelie

About meditation and you - Meditation and Neuroplasticity


No need to explain an experience

This article is not intended to explain the mysterious experience of meditation. Meditation is an ancient form of experiential art. Art that potentially leads us to a state of some sort of higher understanding, into non descriptive experiences and realms — unique and universal at the same time.

It is neither necessary nor beneficial to establish a universal proof of meditation. The meditative experience is profound — an experience that each of us makes in her or his own way. “Scientific proof” always carries the air of universal application. If you do not experience it the same way as the studies have shown, you are not doing it right. And that is simply not accurate. It’s not even true in science — where scientific and mathematical theories are regularly challenged or outright destroyed by empirical observations (here’s an interesting list of recent or ongoing scientific paradoxes).

Mediation is inherently personal and unique, and there is no one way to do it nor one outcome that it will produce. There is no need to explain specifically how it works, for it works in as many different ways as there are people who have done it.

The physiology of meditation

Notwithstanding the unique nature of meditation as an experience and indeed a phenomenon, there are physiological observations that can be made within the brain during meditation.

Without losing sight of the fact that the physical is only one dimension of the meditative experience — and that it is much more import to FEEL than it is to UNDERSTAND — it is nonetheless interesting to look into the effects of meditation on our brain structures.

Understanding the observable physiological mechanisms at play during meditation may not help us understand the totality of meditation’s modus operandi, but it can at least reassure us that something is indeed happening. It is also useful when speaking to the skeptic, especially when the skeptic is one’s self!

Neuroplasticity

What is happening in your brain while you meditate, western science describes with the term neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is not limited to meditation, far from it in fact. Neuroplasticity is what underlies the human ability to learn and remember. Simply put, neuroplasticity is the brain’s physiological ability to change and grow.

Ranging from the growth of new neurons and the atrophy of neurons that are not used, to the forming of new connections between per-existing neurons, neuroplasticity encompasses a number of mechanisms of change in the brain. The physiological process of neuroplasticity is the foundation of all human knowledge, memory, learning, and experience. [1]

“Neural Darwinism”

The term Neural Darwinism is a key aspect of neuroplasticity and describes how “any neuron that isn’t ‘fired-and-wired’ together into a network [with other neurons] is likely to be extinguished”[2]. A new neuron that isn’t winning in the constant neuron-firing competition in the brain is extinguished — just as would be a microbe, plant, or animal that isn’t keeping up with or outpacing its respective peers. At the same time, those neurons that are firing and wiring (i.e. networking with other neurons) are becoming stronger and forming solid neural pathways that will be more durable. In this way, the brain learns new languages, skills, and behaviors.

Neuroplasticity as the embodiment of thought patterns

Every thought has a specific neural pathway attached to it. New thoughts are simply new paths being created in real-time. When thinking one thought repeatedly, that specific pathway in your brain gets stronger and stronger. The challenge for humans is that this strengthening of pathways is true for all thoughts, regardless of whether they are good or bad, beneficial or harmful.

The brain simply prefers what is familiar to it. The brain will return to the familiar as often as it can — because by the brain’s logic, if you’re still alive, then whatever you’ve been doing has kept you alive. The brain does not care if you feel good — it just cares that you are alive.

If negative thoughts, behavior patterns, or emotional states become well-established in the brain — the brain will become comfortable and adept in those paths.

Meditation unlocks new thought patterns

While meditation has infinitely many forms and defies precise definition, it can generally be defined, at the very least, as slowing down, deliberately inspecting one’s thoughts as they pass through the mind, and seeking to observe one’s self or the world around without passing judgement. Most generally, meditation is the deliberate and non-judgemental observation of the human experience, including self and surrounding world (including other people in the world). During meditation we are creating or invoking thought patterns: being mindful of (i.e. openly and non-judgmentally observing) our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

Viewed another way, meditation is the deliberate act of creating time and space for the brain to discover or create new thoughts. And with those new thoughts come new pathways.

Mindfulness creates space, even a millisecond in between a thought and the emotional reaction that follows the thought, and the action that follows the emotion.

Most importantly, the act of creating space is itself a neural pathway. And this ability to slow down, create space, and observe thoughts, feelings, and actions can be strengthened to the point where you can do so more easily and naturally over time (as the pathway of creating space/time in the brain becomes more familiar). Over time, you will be able to do so even when you are not seated quietly in meditation. In other words, it will become so familiar and natural to you (and your brain) that you will be able to exercise this ability at will, anywhere.

Having space, making changes

When we have the space to observe our thoughts, something magical can happen. With gentle patience, you take each thought for what it is — merely a thought, a worry about the future or a shame about the past (there can also be positive thoughts, too!).

You can then observe the feelings that this thought creates. In observing the thought and the feelings, you give yourself the opportunity to choose how to respond, instead of everything happening automatically beneath the surface.

As you become more comfortable with and aware of your patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, you will feel more comfortable with and confident in yourself and you will slowly be able to mold your neural pathways more in a direction of your choosing.

[1] Please view my article on Neuroplasticity for information in depth. [2] Bergland, 2017.

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