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Neuroplasticity – Term of the Week

December 27, 2013

This is quite a new term within brain science and medical science. It is also referred to by popular figures such as Deepak Chopra to illustrate that our brains are not fixed, and that throughout life we have the potential to change the circuiting and hard-wiring of our brains. A common definition runs as follows:

Neuroplasticity refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.

It was a long held belief in scientific circles up until the last 30 to 40 years, that beyond childhood the brain was pretty much fixed, and no longer capable of plasticity. But when phenomena started emerging of people recovering from certain brain injuries, and functioning normally off only a small percentage of healthy brain matter, scientists began to question this belief.

The issue was connected with a materialist view of the brain that saw it as only possible for matter to influence matter. In which case, it simply was not possible for mentally perceived influences to effect matter. But this now is the position we find ourselves in. A mental perception connected to your behavior and your environment can influence the very matter of your brain.

The nature of the interaction remains shrouded in mystery as long as we are committed to a materialist or dualist view. Since our very conceptual background here preludes the possibility of a meaningful interaction. It seems then that the acceptance of this phenomena of neuroplasticity will lead us to other changes in our concepts and terminology.

I suppose the basic change required is that we do not identify with our brains, a fixed piece of matter. But acknowledge that mentality extends way beyond the limits and confines of the brains encased in our skulls. One way to look at it is to see the mind as a reality-maker. The mind is not just passively receiving impressions from the world. It is also an active force shaping our perception of the world, including our perception of our bodies and brains. And these perceptions influence what we think possible to achieve within this framework.

When we believe ourselves to have found the “true” framework, all our mentality is geared towards the same result, and so our minds become more fixed and less plastic. The suggestion of neuroplasticity research is that we can break up this “programming” by exercising our mind in certain specific ways to increase our neural pathways. It involves throwing your mind a curve-ball, so to speak. Do certain things with your left-hand that you normally do with your right-hand. Put your clothes on in the dark. Take a different route to work in the morning. Little things  like this create a change in your mental stimuli that wake up your mind from its “dogmatic slumber”.

We all get that experience of mental lethargy, and we all strive to find ways to overcome it. There are many online resources for exercises of this kind. A simple search for Mind Gym, or Mental Exercises, or Brain Training, or Brain Plasticity Exercises will give you some useful results.

Neuroplasticity is an important term in science, and in the philosophy of mind debate. Just the realisation that the brain is not fixed can empower us to make changes, and so the importance of how we perceive reality to how we can then influence and change the world can not be understated.

The mind is not a passive lump of matter receiving impressions from the world and being pushed and pulled around by them like a puppet. It is an active, organising force that creates the reality we come to believe in, and then determines how we act and respond to it. Our freedom may not lie simply in how we choose to act, but in the reality we choose to believe in as a guiding framework for how to act. In this sense, we can begin to see how something as seemingly benign as sitting still and meditating may have a knock on effect of increasing our freedom in our lives.

I hope knowledge of this term will be as empowering to you in some of your life choices as it has been for me. All terms are tools for our empowerment if we learn to use them correctly, and can enhance our sense of reality. We just need to avoid those whose agenda is somewhat different. Maybe you will think of this term before you next act in a blind habitual way. And do something a bit differently.

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