Your brain can be trained like a muscle! Just like lifting weights, a repeated mental activity such as meditation can strengthen beneficial neural pathways. The malleability of your brain in response to external stimuli such as meditation is known as neuroplasticity. This phenomenon evolved over millions of years as an adaptation to help us learn from more experienced members of our social groups.

This plasticity of the human brain has a dark side. It can reinforce destructive habits such as addiction. But it can also be a powerful tool to rewire your brain – you just need to know how. 

Our Evolved Brain

Human evolution has given us a brain distinct from any other animal. We have developed the neural software to run a range of complex programs – communication through language, problem solving and social integration (most of the time). These programs were written over millions of years as our brain evolved and became more complex. Researchers have found that blood flow rate through the brain – a predictor for cognitive function – increased sixfold from our 2-3 million year old ancestor Australopithecus africanus to modern humans (homo sapiens)1.

Figure 1. Evolving complexity of the human brain. Source: The Conversation.
Figure 1. Evolving complexity of the human brain. Source: The Conversation (2).

Our increasingly intellectual brain provided us a unique set of skills – the ability to remember the past, learn from the previous experiences of ourselves and others, and visualize the future. However, this complex interplay of thoughts running through our head can sometimes be a problem rather than a perk. Over-critical thinking has an evolutionary root in fixing our mistakes by learning from others, but is also a symptom of modern mental illness. Cognitive therapies such as mindfulness can promote neuroplasticity of the brain to counteract the stresses associated with excessive mental noise.

Evolution through Culture

As our ancestors’ activities became increasingly intellectual in nature, their brain size and complexity grew. This growth happened especially in regions such as the neocortex3, responsible for higher executive function such as visual processing, planning and conscious thought, and the Broca’s area, responsible for language development. Our ancestors also started to quickly transmit information across generations with tools such as language and artwork. Thus began cultural evolution – the capacity for socially learned information to influence the evolution of our species.

Biological evolution had previously dominated the development of life on Earth. But the emergence of cultural evolution started to outpace biological evolution to become the dominant evolutionary mechanism4.

“In biological evolution, the information is stored in the base sequence of DNA molecules. In cultural evolution, the information is stored in the minds and behavior of adult members of society, in cultural artifacts such as books, architecture and works of art, and in social institutions including laws, customs and schools.” – Wexler, 2010.4

While survival of the fittest was previously about traits that made an individual stronger, faster or more elusive, genes for intelligence and socialization became the new currency for evolution. Our ancestors who could team up to defend themselves against a larger predator, communicate the location of a new food source or solve problems facing the social group were more likely to survive and reproduce. In this way, the following features of cultural evolution underlie our transcendence out of the animal realm.

  1. Socialization is an adaptation – learning from each other’s experiences and cooperating together is beneficial for activities like hunting, cooking and protecting the group.
  2. Culture evolves, and quickly – lessons from social learning can be transmitted to the next generation through behavioral copying or teaching. Some lessons have a greater capacity to promote survival over others, allowing for evolution of ‘fitter’ lessons.
  3. Culture-gene coevolution – cultural ideas that pervade the group can influence genetic evolution. Take cooking as an example; the knowledge of how to successfully cook meat made it more readily digestible. This freed up resources initially allocated to the digestive tract that could then be reapplied toward brain development.

Human intelligence became the ability to learn. In the evolutionary world of survival of the fittest, the fittest individuals were the ones who could learn quickest and integrate these lessons most effectively over their entire lifetime.

Neuroplasticity and Learning

The selective advantage of quickly learning from others drove the evolution of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is a process that the brain undertakes to integrate and consolidate new information. The brain is made up of around 100 billion neurons – brain cells – forming 1000 trillion connections together known as synapses. To simplify this extremely complex system, cognitive neuroscientists propose that concepts are organized in your mind as an interconnected web of concepts and subconcepts, mirrored in your brain as organizations of connected neurons.

Figure 2. An example schematic for the organization of connected concepts in your brain – known as the spreading activation model of knowledge (5).
Figure 2. An example schematic for the organization of connected concepts in your brain – known as the spreading activation model of knowledge (5). Figure 3. Meditation helps rewire your brain’s neural connections in response to challenging situations. Source: Collins & Loftus, 1975.

When we learn, we are creating new connections and strengthening existing connections between neurons, while neglected connections deteriorate. This process of consolidation and deterioration of neural connections through learning, and how easily and quickly it happens, is known as neuroplasticity – the malleability of our brain as it structurally rewires itself in response to our lived experience. Neuroplasticity as a trait of the human brain set off a cultural revolution that forever changed the way our ancestors co-existed together and with the world around them.

Neuroplasticity = the nervous system’s capacity to reorganize itself throughout life in response to learning and experiences.

But while neuroplasticity originated as a learning adaptation, it now acts as a double-edged sword in modern society. Certain modern influences can hijack the reward pathways in the brain that originally evolved to drive us towards nutrient-rich food, reproduction and social integration. Neuroplasticity becomes pathological when an unhealthy activity, such as gambling or smoking, is repeatedly connected with the rewarding feeling of dopamine flooding your brain. These reinforced pathways produce mental and additive disorders, which are shaped by environmental influences such as stress, substance abuse and psychological trauma, as well as genetic predispositions6.

Train Your Brain with Mindfulness

Like an athlete building muscle with repeated weight training, the brain is a muscle that can be trained and strengthened. When repeated, beneficial ideas, skills and behaviors strengthen their corresponding neural pathways. Neurons that fire together wire together!

Mindful practices such as meditation utilize the long-evolved process of neuroplasticity to structurally rewire your brain, counteracting the stresses of modern life. When faced with a challenging situation, the way that you approach it can alter the neural connections that change the way you respond. When faced with a slow driver, it’s easy to be frustrated, but repeating this reaction can consolidate this response to inconvenient situations. Meditation can start to reframe your perspective, helping to control emotional reactions to different situations.

Figure 3. Meditation helps rewire your brain's neural connections in response to challenging situations. Source: Collins & Loftus, 1975.
Figure 3. Meditation helps rewire your brain’s neural connections in response to challenging situations. Source: Collins & Loftus, 1975.

By changing the way you think and react in different situations, mindfulness has been proven to promote neuroplasticity, especially for the anterior cingulate cortex and corpus callosum, brain regions responsible for emotional regulation and hemispherical communication respectively. Read more about the neuroscience of mindfulness here.

The researched benefits that mindfulness-induced neuroplasticity can have on your life include attention control, emotion regulation, self-awareness and stress reduction7. Based on these results, clinical trials have employed meditation for the amelioration of several mental disorders such as depression8, generalized anxiety9, addiction10 and attention deficit disorders11.

A Mindfulness Practice: When facing a challenging situation, or when you catch your mind reliving past events or worrying about the future, take a moment to pause and focus on taking three deep breaths, letting these thoughts slip away. Where there was previously stress, allow yourself to feel a quiet calmness. Try to spend the same amount of time breathing out as breathing in, and focus on the rhythm of your breath. See if you can continue this focused breathing for 1-3 minutes.

This simple activity of relinquishing your thoughts is the core idea of meditation. It is applied when you sit down for a session, but can also be applied at any moment throughout the day. This is the first step you can take towards training your brain into positive habits with the power of neuroplasticity.

Ultimately, neuroplasticity is an enduring manifestation of cultural evolution; how the ever-changing social environment influences our neural physiology, thoughts and behaviors. Understanding how the environment modulates our thoughts – and the structure of our brain – may provide solutions to the growing mental health pandemic that our society faces partly due to the neuroplasticity we evolved long ago. But you can put neuroplasticity to work today by practicing mindfulness to rewire your emotional and stress-inducing reactions to the world around you!

If you’re interested in learning more about the science of neuroplasticity and its most frequently asked questions, check out LifeOmic’s Mindfulness FAQ here. Explore a mindful breathing practice and other meditation practices here.

For some additional resources on the benefits of mindful activities, check out these journal articles: Cahn et al. (2017) and Guendelman et al. (2017)

 

References

  1. Seymour, R. S., Bosiocic, V., Snelling, E. P., & Seymour, R. S. (2016). Fossil skulls reveal that blood flow rate to the brain increased faster than brain volume during human evolution Subject Category : Author for correspondence : Royal Society Open Science, 3, 160305. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160305
  2. https://theconversation.com/how-our-species-got-smarter-through-a-rush-of-blood-to-the-head-73856
  3. Barton, R. A. (2012). Embodied cognitive evolution and the cerebellum. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1599), 2097–2107. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2012.0112
  4. Wexler, B. E. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Biological Evolution’s Contribution to Cultural Evolution. In S. Han & E. Poppel (Eds.), Culture and Neural Frames of Cognition and Communication (Vol. 84, pp. 487–492). Retrieved from http://ir.obihiro.ac.jp/dspace/handle/10322/3933
  5. Collins, A. M., & Loftus, E. F. (1975). A spreading-activation theory of lemma retrieval in speaking. Psychological Review, 82(6), 407–428.
  6. Cramer, S. C., Sur, M., Dobkin, B. H., O’Brien, C., Sanger, T. D., Trojanowski, J. Q., … Vinogradov, S. (2011). Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. Brain, 134(6), 1591–1609. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr039
  7. Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–225. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916
  8. Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018555
  9. Hoge, E. a, Bui, E., Marques, L., Metcalf, C. a, Morris, L. K., Robinaugh, D. J., … Simon, N. M. (2013). Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 74(8), 786–792. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.12m08083.Randomized
  10. Clifasefi, S. L., Chawla, N., Lustyk, M. K., Larimer, M. E., Grow, J., Bowen, S., … Hsu, S. H. (2014). Relative Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Standard Relapse Prevention, and Treatment as Usual for Substance Use Disorders. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(5), 547. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.4546
  11. Schoenberg, P. L. A., Kan, C. C., Speckens, A. E. M., Buitelaar, J. K., Barendregt, H. P., & Hepark, S. (2014). Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on neurophysiological correlates of performance monitoring in adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Clinical Neurophysiology, 125(7), 1407–1416. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinph.2013.11.031

Jordan Pennells

G’day guys! My name is Jordan. I’m a graduate bioengineer and a first year PhD student researching sustainable plant-based nanomaterials at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN). I am intensely interested in all aspects of evolution, from the origins of life, to the development of humanity, and artificial selection in agriculture and dog breeding. I’m a passionate advocate for science, science communication, health, fitness, optimism and mindfulness.

LifeOmic is the software company that leverages the cloud, machine learning and mobile devices to offer disruptive solutions to healthcare providers, researchers, health IT companies and patients.

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