This post is a transcribed part of a TV show in which Dr. Fred Travis, Professor of Maharishi Vedic Science, answers some questions about brain activity, neuroplasticity, stress, challenge and meditation:
Let us start by asking the question of how you are seeing me right now? Light is coming through your eyes, it goes through the brain and creates a ringing over the brain. It is that ringing over your brain, the communication among hundreds of billions of neurons that lets you create a picture of me. The sounds from my lips are hitting your ears, but it is the ringing in your brain that lets you actually understand this. So what we have is the brain that is the link, the link between us and our environment.
Question - What parts of our brain and in what way are involved in our everyday experience?
Answer - To think of the brain, the brain actually has the back and the front to it. The back part of the brain folds down, the front part of the brain also folds down. They are actually divided up. The back part of the brain is your concrete sensory area. It is where you create a picture of the outside world.
It is interesting. Light hits the eyes, but it is not processed until it gets to the back of the brain. So this is your concrete present. In fact, that is where I am right now in your viewers. A person is sitting, talking, it is like a film that is playing in the back part of their brain. To actually do something with that, to actually take it out of the immediate present and think about it, you need to use the front part of the brain.
The front part of the brain has connections to all of the parts of the brain. It takes the information that we are actually seeing, combines it with emotions, with plans, with values, with intentions and then it creates what we want to do. What we have is the back part is the concrete present, the front part is thinking, planing and desiring, and what is happening in every experiences is that there is a ringing in those areas.
Question - The brain is not so much determined by its shape and possibilities as we used to think. There is something called neuroplasticity, which means that our brain can be altered throughout our whole life by the impulses that we give to it. What are the possibilities of our brain due to this neuroplasticity?
Answer - Neuroplasticity is an excellent next question. The picture I have given you is as though the brain is like a computer, has modules and just works. The reality is, that in the process of ringing which allows us to see the world, that circuits that are used are actually changed. This is what neuroplasticity is. It is the neurons that fire. Because every time you see something is one neuron sending some information to another and another. These circuits of neurons, hundreds of thousands of neurons working together for a moment. Every time they fire, electrical activity goes down the output fiber, it produces chemical activity in the space between them.
In that space is where the change happen and that's neuroplasticity. All the cells that were involved in the experience get fed. It is a very simple system. Neurotrophic hormones get bigger. They grow more input fibers. They are called dendrites. The output fibers branch out. The spaces between them get primed. It is called long term potentiation, so that when one neuron fires, they all begin to fire. So neuroplasticity is just the result of the experience and increasing the waiting between different neurons. What's the limit of this? There is almost no limit. You have to understand this. The brain is not like this table. The table has been here for many years. It is solid. 70 percent of your brain connections change every day. The people that are watching this show, after the show they are going to feel different. It is a very real feeling, because they have different ideas, different ways to see the world, and that is actually strengthening the different circuits.
And this is the important point here. We see the world, based on our brain circuits, and because of that we make the decisions and have some experiences. That experience in turn changes the brain circuits. So, we can easily just get into a rut. You can watch the same TV shows, you can see the same people, you can take the same route to work, you can come home and do everything you do at home the same way. And you never will actually grow. You won't change at how you actually see the world.
What neuroplasticity says is that if you seek out new experiences, those experiences will begin to strengthen different circuits and you begin to see the world the different way. This is the value of the arts, this is the value of good media. This is also the value of good meditation practice. Gaining the new experiences helps to change those brain circuits with which we see the world.
Now, there is some upper limit of ability and that is, by analogy, if you are a donkey and you want to run really fast and you work really hard you become the fastest donkey on Earth. But it doesn't mean that you can beat a thoroughbred horse. There is some inherent limitations there. So the whole trick in life I feel and this as well I tell my students is find out what you enjoy, find out what you are good at and put your attention there. Because then, neuroplasticity is going to allow you to refine your mind, body and brain, so you can really excel in that specific area and become really great.
Question - In other words, we direct our attention toward things that bring us experiences, which in turn, shape our brain in accordance to the way we would like to see the world. If I have understood correctly, this is the way of using this closed circle to our own benefit.
Answer - Yes, you understand correctly.
Question - In any case, this is a liberating realization. Today we often use the term stress. Practically everything is stress: walking the street, food, everyday life, except maybe walking through the woods. In what way stress affects the brain, given that this could be the flip side of what we have just discussed, and could, through neuroplasticity, affect us in a negative way.
Answer - It's a very good insight. It's a very important question. Stress is not a bounded thing. A new experience one day can be stressful, the same experience the other day may not be stressful. To understand this we have to understand the difference between stress and challenge. Some people listening to your question may think I need stress to keep me going. I need that outer pressure to really start focusing in and getting things going. I think what we are talking here is challenge. Because under challenge, the primitive brain, the brainstem actually activates the whole brain. Under challenge we begin to see things more clearly. Under challenge the front of the brain (remember that's the part that puts everything together) begins to function faster. We like challenge, challenge is how we grow, challenge is how we explore new areas. But what happens is, is that when the challenge gets too high then it becomes stress.
What stress actually does, is that the brain actually turns itself off. It turns down the functioning of the front brain, of the integrated centers of the brain. It turns down the primitive emotional system, the amygdala. It just has a flight-of-fight response.
So under challenge what happens is you see the big picture, you have a lot of big ideas, you are creative, you have a lot of energy, you can focus for a long period of time and you are not tired at the end. Suddenly what that becomes stress, your broad vision just focuses in on what's immediately in front of you. You lost any chance for a creative solution.
So what it is that a stress does? What the stress does is - experience changes the brain, neuroplasticity - so what it does is predisposes us to see everything not in terms of the larger symbolic space, not in terms of the underlying relationships, not in terms of the possibility to combine our experiences and understanding into something greater, but it just narrows down into a protectivism. Anything that is different from me I don't want to deal with it, it focuses on the immediate now, and stress chronically shuts down the brain. People who are under stress for the long periods of time have the front of the brain, that integrated center, sometimes called the CEO of the brain, - that part of the brain is physically getting smaller. The part of the brain that has to do with memory, the hippocampus, is physically smaller. This is what stress is doing to the brain.
But again, the brain is not a rock the brain is a river and not a rock. It is constantly changing. So if you can do something to awaken the brain, do something to strengthen the frontal areas, what will happen is you begin to get out of that rut that you are in. You begin to be able to see creative solutions. This is what I think meditation procedures are very useful for. It is a means to try to strengthen brain circuits, to strengthen brain connections, so that we are able, in the same situation, to see creative solutions.
Prof. Dr. Fred Travis, Professor of Maharishi Vedic Science. The questions were asked by Kre??imir Mi??ak, the author of the popular TV show Fringe Science. Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD_f_kgEI30
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I wanted to share some extra information. Today we know that there is a tangible difference in the brain structure between meditators and non-meditators. People who meditate a long time have increased cortical tickness, larger gray brain matter density and larger hippocampal gray matter. Source: