Our mind and brain are very closely linked. So, as our mind changes, our brain also changes. In fact, our brain changes both temporarily and permanently. It changes millisecond by millisecond and in lasting ways. As our brain cells change together, they form a common bond. Therefore, Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb claims, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Sometimes, the fleeting flow of experiences leaves behind lasting marks on our brain, much like a spring shower leaves little tracks on a hillside, claims Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom writing in his regular blog in Patheos. Hanson gives an example. The fine motor areas of pianists are measurably thicker than those of non-pianists. Similarly, the portions of the hippocampus that are responsible for spatial memory are discernibly thicker in experienced taxi drivers compared with when they started their training. On a darker note, chronic trauma and stress in people lead to a noticeably smaller hippocampus, that plays a central role in registering new experiences into memory. So the mind changes the brain.
Further, Hanson says that the converse is also true. As our brain changes, our mind changes. For example, if millions of your neurons start firing together in relatively slow rhythms — called alpha waves — we will experience a growing sense of peacefulness and calm. Alternately, if our hypothalamus tells our pituitary and adrenal glands to release epinephrine, cortisol, and other stress hormones, we are inclined to fight or flee. Drawing from the above facts, Hanson hold that we can use our mind to change our brain to benefit ourselves and our neighbours. It may seem a little disorienting at first to think about “using your mind to change your brain to change your mind.” But we can truly intervene within our own brain at the organic, material or natural level. For example, consider how we might change our brain with a cup of coffee or tea to feel more focused in a meeting.
Moreover, we can use our mind to change our brain to benefit ourselves in two ways, claims Hanson. First, we can use our mind to activate brain states that promote patience or inner peace or other positive qualities in response to difficulties, such as wounds or tension. Secondly, since “neurons that fire together, wire together” by deliberately cultivating wholesome states of mind over time, we create permanent, structural changes in our brain which may have been there all along. By properly managing the mind, we can cause the “removal of the obscurations” and cause lasting change within ones brain.
These scientific findings of modern psychology and neurology offer incredibly good news. They confirm the ancient teachings of Buddha about the possibility of each person transforming his or her life — even to the point of enlightenment. They nourish our deepest convictions, sometimes called faith: one of the seven factors of enlightenment. And they suggest new practices that may increase the power and penetration of traditional ones.
In short, today science and psychology is showing the deep connection between our mind and brain. By properly channelising and opening our mind, we can bring about lasting changes in our brain. Thus, we can impact our lives and make them more purposeful, creative, peaceful and adventurous. Maybe time has come for science and religion to contribute to better and deeper human life.
(The writer is a professor of
science and religion)
Kuruvilla Pandikattu