Health 1240

A Changing Mind

Ever since man first came onto the earth, our brain has been the instrumental in helping us evolve and adapt to the world.  Our ability to think and reason has created art, literature and technology that have propelled humanity to surpass all other species. We like to think our brain is the product of evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, however recent research has shown the human brain can physically be altered by extrinsic and intrinsic stimuli. The extrinsic factor being stress and intrinsic being meditation, can change the brain structure and rewire its function.

The brain is a gift and yet also a curse as it brings about chronic stress and anxiety and other disorder that comes from compulsive worrying. The stress is an inherited trait in all animals. This stress factor helps our body respond to threats in the wild. It is the mechanism in the fight or flight survival response that we inherited, it speeds up our response and adrenaline, increase our memory to remember danger.  Stress also has the ability to rewire our brain.

In the wild a zebra is busy grazing then suddenly a lion ambushes it, the zebra body responds by releasing stress hormones into the systems. The hormones increase it heart rate, breathing and increases it metabolic rate to use energy, allowing it to get away. Once the zebra is free from the danger, the hormone stops and it continues its grazing.  The HPA response is a necessity for all animals in time of emergency when life or death depends on your reaction to flee or fight the danger.

The part of the brain that is responsible for flight or fight response is the hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA), it releases two hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline into the body triggering an immediate increase in heart beats, breathing and redirection of blood from the intestinal areas to your limps. This reaction stops the body natural state of ingestion, absorption and excretion. This process interrupts cell growth and production. (Gardner-nix 60)

In the Human brain this inability to shut off the HPA creates chronic stress leading to multitude of health problems, and also a rewiring of how our brain functions. The human brain seems unable to let go of the threat once the danger has passed. This fixation on the past danger causes the brain to continue to release stress hormones into the body system. The chronic stress can lead to weaken immune system, cardiac heart disease, damage memory cell, fat deposit, irritable bowel disease, ageing, insomnia, depression, behavior changes and inability to think clearly.

In 2002 Dr. Bruce McEwen director of neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University did behavior study of stress rats. The experiment “wear and tear by stress,” on lab rat .The test data showed in behavior changes in the experiment lab rats vs. the control lab rat. In the Experiment their cortisol hormone reach high levels when they were given stressor and then slowly stop producing as they become accustom. The rats became more aggressive and anxious. McEwen also notes that stress at an early age can affect how one responds to mild stress later in life. This psychology study emphasis chronic stress can lead to behavior and body changes. ( Gardner- nix 63)

Dr. Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minhoin Portugal  has found out that stress also manages to create a cycle of stress around itself.

Chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.

The finding is that the region of the brain that carries out decision making and goal directed behavior had shriveled while the link in habit formation had bloomed.(NY Times)

The Psychology changes associated with stress often puts ourselves doing the same thing as the rats have. This is apparent in humans too when chronic stress pushes us to we rely on routine and body memory to carry out our daily function. Our ability to think and make decision is clouded; we can witness this on game shows, where contestants crack under pressure.

In today’s world it’s hard not to be stress, when we have so many responsibility and issues we must deal with. We live in more complicated society and varying pressures created by work, family, friends, and society takes a strain on our brain. However we can reduce these extrinsic stresses through meditation. Meditation is an ancient art practice by Buddhist monks in developing a higher level of consciousness and enlightenment through mindfulness.

Meditation is different from relaxation and distraction practices.  The key of meditation is that it is active mental state of alertness, the mindfulness. This results in a higher level of consciousness and a longer lasting effect benefits. Relaxation is unconscious, and does not require any mental input, it the same as if one were sleeping. Distraction is just that, it takes the mind off the presents without addressing issues; there is no long term benefit.

Meditation is eloquently explain by Rob Nairn , the author of “What is Meditation?”

It is a highly alert and skillful state of mind because it requires one to remain psychologically present and with whatever happens in and around one without adding to or subtracting from it in any way. (Psychology Today)

Meditation does not take us away; it does not distract or make us sleep. It makes us face our present emotion. In this state we are able to understand the root of our problem, control it, and be mindful of our present condition.

 

Meditation research around the world at many universities has been shown to be effective in treating chronic stress, anxiety and depression. It also has a special effect about how we feel about pain and emotions. Mediation practice of mindfulness has been shown to change the wiring in your brain and behavior response to stimuli.  What makes meditation so unique is the changes are made by internal stimuli. The mind is changing and rewiring itself with every meditation practice. The benefits are long term and immediate.

A study reported in National Academy of Science found that Tibetan Monks who have 10,000 plus hours mediation have structural and functions of the brain changes vs. novice meditators. The study found the monks who practiced compassion meditation have recorded higher gamma wave activity compared to the novice. Gamma wave is responsible for higher brain activity like consciousness. Using an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI machine) researcher found the structural brain of the Monks were also changed, the positive frontal lobe on the left over took the right frontal lobe responsibility for negative emotions and anxiety. The MRI showed off the chart brain activity during meditation.(Science Journal)

Researchers at UCLA also came to the same conclusion that meditation does change brain structure and increase in gray matter.

The researcher found significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators compared with controls, including larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe. There were no regions where controls had significantly larger volumes or more gray matter than meditators.  (UCLA)

Gray matter is major component of the central nervous system, and it’s involved in muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, and speech. A large volume of grey matter correlates to healthy cognitive function, lower grey matter may be associated with psychiatric disorders.

An experiment done by Joshua A. Grant, a doctoral student at the University de Montreal found that Zen meditator had a thicker cortex in the brain. The hard discipline practice by Zen Master meditation thickens the central brain region that regulates emotion and pain. The meditation can prevent normal age related grey matter reduction and possibility of a stroke caused by reduction in grey matter. (University of Montreal)

The brain is an amazing and complex organ with many mysteries to it function and capability. It has been shown the ability to rewire itself from external forces like stress or changed internally by meditation practice. The brain is like any other muscle, if we work on it with positive stimuli it can be faster, stronger and bigger. We can train our brain to stop stress before it becomes chronic, and live a healthy fulfilling life. The brain ability to change and adapt so rapidly is what gives the human species such an edge in the evolution process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Psychologytoday.com/print/24320

University of Montreal (2010,February 24). Zen Meditation: Thicker brains fend off pain. Science Daily.

Newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/how-to-build-a-bigger-bain

Gardner-Nix , Jackie, Lucie Costin-Hall, Jon Kabat-Zinn. “The Mindfulness Solution to Pain.” New Harbringer Publication, Inc. 2009.

Syphz.psych.wise.edu/web/News/Meditation_alters_brain_wave(National Science Journal reprint)

Nytimes.com/2009/08/18/science/18angier.html

Resources.metapress.com/pdf-previews.axd?code=720772266xj3 , “a Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Mediation Versus Relaxation Training: Effects on Distress, Positive state of mind, Rumination and Distraction”

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