Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness – teaching an old dog new tricks

There has been much research by neuroscientists into how our brains respond to events and how our minds and brains operate together. The human brain is the most sophisticated instrument that we have encountered in our exploration of the universe.

Some interesting statistics from the University of Washington are:

  • At birth, there are 100 billion neurons in the brain (Naegele & Lombroso, 2001). Each neuron communicates with the other neurons through synapses. Each synapse acts at a very simplistic level like a switch that processes electrical and chemical signals.
  • The brain develops, from about 6 to 24 weeks post-conception, at a spectacular rate of 4000 neurons per second (Brown, Keynes, & Lumsden, 2001).
  • Each neuron can have between 1,000 to 10,000 synaptic connections.
  • There are 0.15 quadrillion (a thousand million million) synapses in the brain.
  • The potential number of different combinations of connections between all of the neurons in the brain and all of the synapses is equivalent to the total number of all of the fundamental particles in the universe which is a very big number…

Neuroplasticity
As we learn, our brain adapts to how it is used. New connections between neurons grow and recent research has identified that new neurons grow too. This process is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasiticity is the malleability of the brain, observable as changes in neuronal structure and connectivity.

The experiments on neuroplasticity most associated with learning in humans come from studies of London taxi drivers, who have been shown in a number of studies to have larger posterior hippocampi and smaller anterior hippocampi than control subjects (Maguire et al., 2000; Maguire, Woollett, & Spiers, 2006; Woollett & Maguire, 2009). Licensed London Taxi Drivers must memorise every street and place of interest within a six mile radius of Charing Cross in central London in order to pass the famous “knowledge” test. This is an intensive process with gruelling verbal tests that requires focused learning for up to five years.

The brain changes as we learn
The size of the posterior hippocampus in these experiments was found to be direclty correlated with the number of years of driving taxis. A direct correlation was also found with the proficiency of a taxi driver in finding London land-marks in a Virtual Reality environment set up to test them.
What this tells us is that we learn as we grow and that learning literally becomes part of us as our brain changes to accommodate that new information.

Neuroscientists have a famous phrase to describe this which is that “neurons that fire together wire together”.

Patience
We need to be aware that our conditioning becomes part of us, literally, and it is a long process of physical and mental change to un-learn any behaviours that are unhelpful. It can be frustrating when old behaviours surface continually as we try to change but we need to be aware that we “have become our conditioning” and so we need to be patient when we try to change it.

Excellent further reading on this subject can be had from A.S. Lillard, A. Erisir / Developmental Review 31 (2011) 207–239 (Old dogs can learn new tricks) which I downloaded from academia.edu.

Definition of the Day: Impact Bias

How we view the future (wrongly)

Impact Bias is a description of how we view future events. We feel that we will be happier or more distressed than we actually feel and, just like many other human behaviours, we don’t learn from this.

In this link, Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert presents his findings on how our expectations of future events tend to the extreme.

We all know that the feel-good factor of new gadgets and holidays wears off pretty quickly. We can also see, with the benefit of hindsight, that things were maybe not as bad as we thought they would be looking forward. We realise that our predictions of how we will feel about good or bad events is skewed, but we can see that the extent to which we are wrong is far greater than we think thanks to Daniel’s research.