Yoga and neuroplasticity: strengthening
our brains’ ability to adapt
One of the dramatic advances in our science-based understanding of being human in the past ten years is the result of research on neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to change its structure.
Neurons are the basic unit of our nervous systems. The organization of networks of neurons in our bodies and brains are the physical pathways by which we observe and respond to everything around us. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change these pathways through which we do our thinking, feeling, moving, and living, in other words, change the structures by which we are who we are in the world.
New discoveries about neuroplasticity “change everything about how we should think of ourselves, who we are and how we get to be that way,” says neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. [Newsweek*]
Growth and recruitment in the brain
Neuroscience journalist Sharon Begley, reporting for Newsweek, says the way we do things, the way we use our bodies, is the foundation of growth and change. “The amount of neural real estate devoted to a task, such as playing the violin, expands with use. And when an area of the brain is injured, as in a stroke, a different region– often on the mirror-image side–can take over its function.”
In an article in The New England Journal of Medicine Bruce Dobkin agreed. “At any time after [a] stroke, cognitive, language, and motor skills may improve by means of the cerebral processes involved in ordinary learning.” Learning, he says, is “experience- induced neuroplasticity.” Dobkin asserts physical activity can initiate learning and improve the brain’s ability to adapt “even when the exercise is initiated years after a stroke.” [NEJM**]
All of this means no matter how long we’ve had a habit or an attitude, it’s malleable. Are there implications, then, for how movement and practice can change who we think we are and what is possible for us?
Why we embrace a lack of choice – and responsibility
Begley’s Newsweek piece, “When Does Your Brain Stop Making New Neurons?” spotlights our love affair with “genetic determinism”, that is, why we prefer to believe we’re “hard-wired” – and helpless.
“Few laypeople understand that neurological nihilism and genetic determinism have been so discredited. Most still embrace the idea that our fate is written in our DNA, through the intermediary of the brain wiring that DNA specifies,” writes Begley. She quotes UCSF’s Merzenich, “It’s puzzling that determinism is so attractive to so many people. Maybe it’s appealing to view yourself as a defined entity and your fate as determined.”*
As Shakespeare wryly noted, our fault lies not in our stars (or our brains or genes) but in ourselves. When it comes to health, “predisposition” indicates areas of vulnerability, not irrevocable fate.
Yoga: Your brain on prana
Neuroplasticity is a particularly clear argument for yoga. Asana is a physical practice of attention – “neural real estate expanding with use.”
The attentional and intentional aspects of yoga boost its effectiveness to help the brain adapt. Even mental practice is a “use of the body” that changes the neuron network structure. In a Time Magazine piece, Begley cites a study of advanced meditation practitioners:
perhaps the most striking difference was in an area in the left prefrontal cortex–the site of activity that marks happiness. While the monks were generating feelings of compassion, activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal (associated with negative moods) to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity. [Time*]
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who organized the study, believes the results indicate a “positive state is a skill that can be trained.”
How our “experiences reach down” even into the depths of our DNA may not yet be understood by scientists, but it has been the life practice of yogis for thousands of years.
Neuroscience no longer uses descriptions like “hard-wired” when talking about brain function. In spite of discoveries about the adaptability of the brain, the rest of us persist in using “fated” metaphors of determinism whenever we slip into talking about body and mind as though there were two separate things. But our brains, once deemed to be unchangeable, are now known to have a great ability to adapt rapidly to day-by-day practice and over time, even recover from trauma.
What we choose to do with our bodies and lives, changes who we are. As Merzenich says. “We now know that the qualities that define us at one moment in time come from experiences that shape the physical and functional brain, and that continue to shape it as long as we live.”
Sharon Begley. Newsweek; 7/2/2007, Vol. 150 Issue 2, p62-64. Time 1/2/2007 vol. 169 pp. 72
Bruce H Dobkin. The New England Journal of Medicine. Boston: Apr 21, 2005. Vol. 352, Iss. 16; pg. 1677