Many of you who are reading this article may recall the old adage about being born with a finite number of brain cells. If brain cells were damaged it was believed that there was no regeneration of these cells. It was thought that most brain development occurred in infancy and early childhood and was clearly established by ages 3-5. In 1993 research studies noted an increase in IQ levels of those who listened to Mozart Sonatas leading to the notion there was a continual ability to create new neural pathways. While these findings were not supported in a number of later experments, we’ve learned a lot more about how experience shapes brain development since that time.
Neural pathways are formed when a neuron fires together with another neuron and they become “wired” together. In the aging brain there is some shrinkage of the numbers of neurons. Under stressful conditions neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the center of executive functioning, will tend to shrink and will tend to grow in the amygdala area associated with fight or flight. With the increase in the activation of this area of the brain an individual may respond by being trapped in a constant state of fear and anxiety increasing physiological responses such as elevated blood pressure and inflammation.
Modern research studies indicate there is a correlation between those who practice meditation and the strengthening of the neural pathways in the left prefrontal cortex and decreases in stress levels. The practice of meditation for managing stress and its damaging effects are of substantial significance. We have the ability to create stress where there is none, for example through imagining our worst-case scenarios. Meditation teaches us to become mindfully aware of stress triggers without overreacting to them.
Meditation appears to prevent the mind from running amok, frees the body of tensions, clears away information overload and improves focus and the ability to enjoy the moment.
In summary it is now known that the brain does have the ability to change throughout life, to rewire itself based on experiences and change with continual learning. The technique of mindful meditation can facilitate positive change and decrease needless interference of excessive stress and anxiety. Consider adding this tool to your self-care arsenal along with exercise. To learn how to meditate, visit the website, marc.ucla.edu and click on Free Guided Meditations
Judy Park, PsyD