The capacity of neurons to connect with each other in a network is mind-boggling. In fact, the human brain with its 100 billion neurons—a huge population to begin with—can make 100 trillion connections.
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Resonance: Nine Practices for Harmonious Health and Vitality
The following excerpt is taken from the book Resonance by Joyce Whiteley Hawkes, PhD. It is published by Hay House and available Jan. 1, 2012, at all bookstores or online at www.hayhouse.com.
We know that stress is a problem. It shoves us out of resonance. How that occurs biologically is quite revealing. Cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands during stress, has a number of actions. One of them is to attack the myelin sheath that encircles nerve fibers. When a nerve cell loses its myelin, it cannot transmit signals—no transmission, no awareness. Long-term stress causes death of nerve cells and that includes the neurons of the brain. Awareness is not totally a function of how many neurons are at work, but the fewer brain cells, the less opportunity for adequate cognitive function. Not that many years ago the loss of brain cells was considered to be permanent. Current research shows that neurons do divide and make new cells. The surprise is what promotes the production of these new cells—neurogenesis in the brain. Studies supported by the National Institutes of Health and picked up by the popular press have shown that blueberries and Sudoku are not the panacea they were once thought to be.1 Three activities, however, have been identified that do help our brains make new neurons and improve the synapses, or connections, between nerve cells. Those connections form circuits that involve numerous neurons. Extensive circuits of various lengths increase cognitive function that enables us to develop skills and to remember many aspects of a particular activity or series of thoughts needed to make a decision.
What does help the brain and its cells function optimally? Exercise, meditation, and fine motor skills that develop with certain video and computer games have all proven to promote brain power. Exercise is the number-one activity that promotes the formation of new connections in the brain. Data from Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that “a year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking.” Exercise appears to enhance the cell-level requirements for superior cognition. The molecular needs of brain cells to function and to transmit their messages to the proper circuit of cells directly benefit from exercise. The capacity of neurons to connect with each other in a network is mind-boggling. In fact, the human brain with its 100 billion neurons—a huge population to begin with—can make 100 trillion connections.2 When billions of cells make trillions of connections, they form a high level of complexity. The more cellular connections, the smarter we are. More awesome even than the massive numbers of neurons and connections are the ways they reliably function to move muscles, create thoughts, compose music, and write words.
Studies on one brain region, the visual cortex, indicate that it is not the genetic codes that create this complexity, but it is the self-organizing ability of the brain cells that craft the networks of complex connections. Exactly how a self-organized system accomplishes such a feat is yet to be fully understood.
An adjunct to physical exercise that boosts our brain function is the attention we pay to what we are doing. The intensity that it takes to learn a new skill, whether mental or physical, engages our biology in a positive way. Just as appreciation can help prevent a narrow view of life, the skill of attention benefits the biology of the brain, and awareness continues to provide fresh perspectives.
Researchers found that the second most effective way to augment brain power is through meditation. Isn’t it curious how we are advised to work out, fully engage our mind with attention, and then shift gears to sit as still as possible, empty the mind, and keep silent? Amishi Jha at the University of Miami teaches a type of meditation in which focus is maintained on an object. Classic mindfulness training in Buddhist and yogic traditions often starts with focus on the flame of a candle, a flower, or on the breath. The instructions include details about the optimal position for the body—seated with crossed legs, slightly arched back, head balanced atop the spine. No slumping or snoozing allowed. The mind is steady and quiet. The whole of reality is the object or the breath without intrusion of mind chatter. Relaxed and alert at the same time, the freedom from worries, agendas, and schemes has its own benefit. It is possible to achieve this state of mind in formal meditation and in less formal ways. The rebels within and among us are grateful that there is no one formula that works for everyone. However, a quiet moment of connection with the universe, God, source, or principle of creation can open the gateway to the freedom and richness of inner peace.
Other studies on the effects of meditation by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin showed increased brain mass in Tibetan monks who meditated regularly. Increased brain mass relates to the production of more neurons—the process of neurogenesis—initiated by meditation. Many of the monks tested had logged 50,000 hours of meditation. A theme in their practices, along with having trained the mind to be relaxed, alert, and stable, was compassion. If they were shown pictures of someone obviously suffering, the left prefrontal cortex lit up with neuronal activity. This is not to say that other areas of the brain were not involved—brain cells fire all over the various parts—but strong activity was observed in the prefrontal cortex, a site known to be active when someone feels compassionate.
There is an experience in meditation during which compassion arises without the meditator thinking about a specific person, situation, or cause of suffering. In the quietest state of alert relaxation, with no mental images or thoughts, something happens that is neither expected nor able to be summoned. The experience is beyond description, as if one is in an entirely different dimension. After returning to an ordinary state of consciousness, one might say, “I was immersed in light, compassion surrounded me, and there was a sense of timelessness. I cannot describe how magnificent this was and how it has changed my awareness of life and reality. I appreciate every breath and every vista.” Could such an experience promote new brain cells? Studies indicate this is in fact the case. The ways that profound spiritual incidents affect the body are also anecdotally described by many as enlivening and healing.
The third type of activity that appears to enhance brain function is playing certain types of video and computer games. These games, which also show up on our cell phones, require complex decision making, skill development, and rapt attention. Curiously, a break in playtime with a walk outside also makes a positive difference. The capacity to change focus and direction is essential. How we move from exercise to attentiveness, from deep quiet to sensory stimulation, are all ways of building our mental capacity.
1. Sharon Begley, “Can You Build a Better Brain?” Newsweek, January 10, 2011, 41–45.
2. Carl Zimmer, “100 Trillion Connections,” Scientific American, January 2011, 59–63.