Changed thinking can alter the brain

Meditation can create brain changes that in turn affect perception, a new book says.

Published April 10, 2007

Anything that stimulates your brain, including the words you are reading at this moment, affects the way you think. But, as neuroscientists are learning, this road runs in two directions: While your brain produces your thoughts, your thoughts have the ability to make physical changes in your brain.

For example, if you develop the habit of recognizing and challenging negative thoughts about yourself (I'm stupid; no one will ever love me, etc.), you may be able to brighten your mood more effectively than Prozac could.

Quieting your mind through meditation may increase the activity in your left prefrontal lobe, which produces feelings of happiness and contentment. And if you generate feelings of compassion for others, you may become more tolerant and less aggressive.

The secret to such changes is focusing your attention, according to Sharon Begley, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Attention is the mental device that filters the flood of sensations flowing into the brain, pulling out the bits that coalesce into coherent thoughts and perceptions. "Paying attention physically damps down activity in neurons other than those involved in focusing on the target of your attention," Begley says.

Focused attention also ramps up activity in other neurons, which produce more connections to meet the new demands placed upon them.

This may sound like New Age wishful thinking, but Begley, science writer for the Wall Street Journal, provides persuasive scientific evidence to bolster every assertion. She built her rigorous but utterly readable book on the 2004 Mind and Life conference held in India, where several scientists met with the Dali Lama, an avid student of cognitive neuroscience, who has convened the conferences since 1988.

This conference was devoted to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to experience.

In the brains of people who play the guitar or the violin, for example, more space is devoted to regions that control the string fingers.

But the most amazing transformations are those that involve pure thought. Some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder improve by practicing mindfulness meditation, which teaches them to regard their obsessive thoughts as mere products of faulty brain wiring.

Changing the brain by harnessing the will has the potential to bring malfunctioning minds back to health, Begley says, and to raise healthy minds to higher levels.

Tom Valeo is a St. Petersburg freelance writer who writes the Body of Information column appearing in Pulse.




Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

By Sharon Begley, Ballantine Books, 304 pages, $24.95