Neuroscience has shown that the brain changes with experience.
Taxi drivers who have ferried passengers around London for years have larger hippocampi, a region of the brain important for spatial awareness and memory, compared to newer cab drivers.
Similarly, experienced musicians show higher grey matter volume in motor, auditory and visual-spatial regions, suggesting their brains have been altered through daily practice.
When the brain is damaged – such as during a stroke – it is possible to recover lost capacity through therapy. Other areas of the brain take over from those damaged.
The brain’s ability to adapt in response to experience is known as neuroplasticity. Just as exercise affects the body, the same is true of the brain. This process can happen quite quickly: learning to juggle or play the piano over just a few days alters brain density.
This is empowering news because it suggests that we aren’t stuck with our old brains and our old habits. We can plough new furrows, cultivating freedom to shape the future, based on what we do in the present, or how we train the mind.
Researchers have explored the neuroplastic changes that occur with mindfulness training, and are finding that practitioners’ brains seem to reflect their expertise. Activity, structure and volume are different in parts of the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain which is associated strongly with reasoning and decision making. Experienced meditators also show high levels of gamma wave activity, which is thought to be related to increased awareness.
Changes start to be seen in the brains of new meditators after a few days or weeks of training. As they practise mindfulness, regions of the brain related to learning, memory, mind-body awareness, cognitive control, emotional reactivity, sense of self and other markers of wellbeing are all affected.
It doesn’t take much, it appears, for patterns of activity in the brain to shift. As new grooves are formed in our ways of seeing, relating and behaving, so these are reflected and perhaps reinforced by neural shifts.