If you need more motivation to take up the transformative practice of meditation, neuroscience research has shown that meditation and mindfulness training can cause neuroplastic changes to the gray matter of your brain. It has been said that you typically only use 20 percent of your brain. But what if you could use it all? It was the premise of the film Limitless that a magic pill lets users take advantage of 100 percent of their gray matter.
In fact the truth is that there are no hidden or secret regions waiting to be uncovered or released. We may be using 100% of a resting mind, but ones potential is far greater. Because the brain responds to external stimuli until internal needs are met, it is possible to cause physical changes from the inside out starting with your mind. Thus by challenging the body we challenge the mind; in effect the body takes the form of what spills out of the mind. Developments in the field of neuroplasticity have shown us that our thoughts can also change the actual structure of our brains, even into old age. Therefore the conventional medical wisdom that we are “hardwired” to our problems is challenged.
Our brain contains roughly 15–33 billion nerve cells called neurons, each of which can be linked with up to 10,000 synaptic connections. Every experience we encounter, whether an action, a feeling, a thought, a sensation, regardless of our awareness of it, is embedded in thousands of neurons that form a network. Repeated experiences become increasingly embedded in this net, making it easier for the neurons to respond to the event by firing and more difficult to unwire or rewire them to respond differently (illustrated by Hebb’s axiom “neurons that fire together wire together”). As a result it is easier to engage in habitual patterns than new ones. Laying down fresh neural pathways, which are needed to gain new skills, requires our brain physiology to be brought into a heightened state of concentration and awareness.
The idea that a 10-year or 10,000 hour benchmark of persistent focused training is required to achieve world-class expertise in any field, originated with Anders Ericsson and was then brought to a huge audience by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The 10,000-hour mark is not a skills tipping point but it does highlight that learning and gaining experience are gradual processes, and realistically there is a vast range of time periods over which different individual reach their own peak of proficiency.
In the lab, Trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) has been used as a tool to augment neuroplastic brain physiology for the purpose of enhancing the ability to learn new skills. TDCS is a form of neurostimulation which uses constant low current delivered directly to the brain area of interest via small electrodes. It was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries such as strokes but is now used by the US Air Force to speed up pilot training and tests on healthy adults have demonstrated that it can increase cognitive performance on a variety of tasks, depending on the area of the brain being stimulated.
Since the brain is in fact ‘neuroplastic’ we also possess the ability to train our brain to be able learn things more quickly. The natural strategy is to develop the ability to control our awareness and modulate our concentration through the practice of meditation. From the perspective of neuroscience, meditation can be characterized as a series of mental exercises by which one strengthens one’s control over the workings of their own brain. The simplest of these meditation practices is ‘focused attention’ where one concentrates on a single object. When skilled practitioners practiced ‘focused attention meditation’, demonstrable changes were seen using MRI in the networks of the brain that are known to modulate attention. These studies suggest that it triggers active processes within the brain, and can cause physical changes to the structure of regions involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and cognitive processing.
What is conscious awareness? The lay view of perception is that sensory information pours into the brain and makes itself seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt – “perceived.” However a closer examination of the facts reveals this to be incorrect. The brain is properly thought of as a predominantly closed system that runs its own internally generated activity such as breathing, digestion, and walking are controlled by autonomously running activity generators in your brain stem and spinal cord. During sleep the brain is isolated from its normal input, so internal activation is the only source of cortical stimulation (in the awake state, internal activity is the basis for imagination and hallucinations). The more surprising aspect of this framework is that internal activity is not generated by external sensory data but merely modulated by it. Thus awareness of your surroundings occurs only when sensory inputs violate expectations. When the world is successfully predicted away (by the subconscious), awareness is unnecessary.
According to Ray Kurzweil, “We don’t actually see things [at all]; we hallucinate them in detail from low-resolution cues.” We can think of it as hallucinating reality all the time, but only taking notice when our hallucinations fail to make accurate predictions; our brains have to then hunt down new information in order to make better predictions. The more certain we are in our hallucinations, the less information we think we need, and the less open to new information we become. Since the outside world is in fact rarely still, meditation can be an extremely beneficial exercise because by zeroing in one’s conscious awareness and control we are open to gathering in more information as the brain resolves uncertainty. In essence bringing up conscious control evokes the right conditions for the brain to rewire itself and learn new skills.
Meditation, in the short term, can improve concentration, resolve bad habits and negative emotions that get in the way of leading a healthy happy existence. Once a certain degree of positivity and self-confidence has been established the practice can extend to looking at life in more depth at the true nature of reality that brings a sense of more profound and essential satisfaction. Mastery in life is dependent on the cultivating a healthy mind and this clarity comes from leading the right kind of life. In the words of the famous buddhist monk Huang Po “Since every action taken in life is an affirmation of purpose, it is important to exert our strength in this life to realize them.”