Thinking Can Change the brain

Below are excerpts selected by Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal science
columnist, from her own book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”

The subject–mind over matter–would have been off-limits just a few years
ago when biological psychiatry held an iron grip on scientific discourse
about the brain, having banished even the concept of mind.

Neuroscience was revolutionized in 2004 when it was discovered contrary to
previous dogma, that brain neurotransmitters are plastic rather than rigid.
Adult brains, it was discovered, were plastic and changeable. The brain’s
neuroplasticity means that the brain has the ability to change its structure
and function in response to experience.

Begley writes that the Dali Lama added another dimension: namely, the theory
that the mind has the ability–through directed meditation (rigorous
thinking) to change the brain as well.

This, I believe, may be a scientific turning point away from the dogma of
biological psychiatry and its reductionist approach to mental functions.
That mechanistic simplification of the human dimension is likely to be
relegated to the dust heap of history’s long trail of failed theories.

The challenge posed by Canadian neuroscientist, Helen Mayberg, who in 2002
discovered that placebos -sugar pills–work the same way on the brains of
depressed people as antidepressants do, has never been addressed by
psychiatry’s leadership. She reported that in both groups: “Activity in the
frontal cortex, the seat of higher thought, increased; activity in limbic
regions, which specialize in emotions, fell.”

However, when using brain imaging to measure activity in the brains of
depressed adults comparing brain responses of patients prescribed an
antidepressant (Paxil) compared to patients receiving cognitive behavioral
therapry,  Dr. Mayberg and colleagues at the University of Toronto were
surprised by their findings. They reported that  all the patients’
depression lifted, regardless of whether their brains were infused with a
powerful drug or with a different way of thinking. Yet the only “drugs” that
the cognitive-therapy group received were their own thoughts.

The scientists scanned their patients’ brains again, expecting that the
changes would be the same no matter which treatment they received, as Dr.
Mayberg had found in her placebo study. But no. “We were totally dead
wrong,” she says.

“Cognitive-behavior therapy muted overactivity in the frontal cortex, the
seat of reasoning, logic, analysis and higher thought. The antidepressant
raised activity there. Cognitive-behavior therapy raised activity in the
limbic system, the brain’s emotion center. The drug lowered activity there.
With cognitive therapy, says Dr. Mayberg, the brain is rewired “to adopt
different thinking circuits.”  Thus, those patients who received cognitive
therapy learned not to catastrophize. They were taught to break their habit
of interpreting every little setback as a calamity, as when they conclude
from a lousy date that no one will ever love them.”

The possibility of reshaping one’s emotions by redirecting one’s own thought
process–opens the way toward changing people’s perceptions about themselves
and others–violence (and wars) could be rendered as obsolete, unacceptable
solutions to resolving disputes.

In that case,  there may be real hope for the human race to survive the
current era of bloodshed.

Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
veracare@ahrp.org

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116915058061980596.html
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
SCIENCE JOURNAL
By SHARON BEGLEY

How Thinking Can Change the Brain

Dalai Lama Helps Scientists Show the Power of the Mind To Sculpt Our Gray Matter  January 19, 2007; Page B1

Although science and religion are often in conflict, the Dalai Lama takes a
different approach. Every year or so the head of Tibetan Buddhism invites a
group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, in Northern India, to discuss
their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it. In 2004 the subject was
neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and
function in response to experience. The following are vignettes adapted from
“Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain,” which describes this emerging area of
science:

BOOK EXCERPT
Adapted from “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain”, by Sharon Begley. Ms.
Begley writes the weekly Science column for The Wall Street Journal.
The Dalai Lama, who had watched a brain operation during a visit to an
American medical school over a decade earlier, asked the surgeons a
startling question: Can the mind shape brain matter?

Over the years, he said, neuroscientists had explained to him that mental
experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When
electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex, for instance, we see;
when neurochemicals course through the limbic system we feel.

But something had always bothered him about this explanation, the Dalai Lama
said. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain
giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to
this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to
cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure
thought would change the brain’s activity, its circuits or even its
structure.

One brain surgeon hardly paused. Physical states give rise to mental states,
he asserted; “downward” causation from the mental to the physical is not
possible. The Dalai Lama let the matter drop. This wasn’t the first time a
man of science had dismissed the possibility that the mind can change the
brain. But “I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific
basis for such a categorical claim,” he later explained. “I am interested in
the extent to which the mind itself, and specific subtle thoughts, may have
an influence upon the brain.”

The Dalai Lama had put his finger on an emerging revolution in brain
research. In the last decade of the 20th century, neuroscientists overthrew
the dogma that the adult brain can’t change. To the contrary, its structure
and activity can morph in response to experience, an ability called
neuroplasticity. The discovery has led to promising new treatments for
children with dyslexia and for stroke patients, among others.
But the brain changes that were discovered in the first rounds of the
neuroplasticity revolution reflected input from the outside world. For
instance, certain synthesized speech can alter the auditory cortex of
dyslexic kids in a way that lets their brains hear previously garbled
syllables; intensely practiced movements can alter the motor cortex of
stroke patients and allow them to move once paralyzed arms or legs.

The kind of change the Dalai Lama asked about was different. It would come
from inside. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would
rewire the brain. To the mandarins of neuroscience, the very idea seemed as
likely as the wings of a butterfly leaving a dent on an armored tank.


Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg had not endeared herself to the pharmaceutical
industry by discovering, in 2002, that inert pills — placebos — work the
same way on the brains of depressed people as antidepressants do. Activity
in the frontal cortex, the seat of higher thought, increased; activity in
limbic regions, which specialize in emotions, fell. She figured that
cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which patients learn to think about their
thoughts differently, would act by the same mechanism.

At the University of Toronto, Dr. Mayberg, Zindel Segal and their colleagues
first used brain imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed
adults. Some of these volunteers then received paroxetine (the generic name
of the antidepressant Paxil), while others underwent 15 to 20 sessions of
cognitive-behavior therapy, learning not to catastrophize. That is, they
were taught to break their habit of interpreting every little setback as a
calamity, as when they conclude from a lousy date that no one will ever love
them.

All the patients’ depression lifted, regardless of whether their brains were
infused with a powerful drug or with a different way of thinking. Yet the
only “drugs” that the cognitive-therapy group received were their own
thoughts.

The scientists scanned their patients’ brains again, expecting that the
changes would be the same no matter which treatment they received, as Dr.
Mayberg had found in her placebo study. But no. “We were totally dead
wrong,” she says. Cognitive-behavior therapy muted overactivity in the
frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, analysis and higher thought.
The antidepressant raised activity there. Cognitive-behavior therapy raised
activity in the limbic system, the brain’s emotion center. The drug lowered
activity there. With cognitive therapy, says Dr. Mayberg, the brain is rewired “to adopt
different thinking circuits.”


Such discoveries of how the mind can change the brain have a spooky quality
that makes you want to cue the “Twilight Zone” theme, but they rest on a
solid foundation of animal studies. Attention, for instance, seems like one
of those ephemeral things that comes and goes in the mind but has no real
physical presence. Yet attention can alter the layout of the brain as
powerfully as a sculptor’s knife can alter a slab of stone.

That was shown dramatically in an experiment with monkeys in 1993.
Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, rigged up a
device that tapped monkeys’ fingers 100 minutes a day every day. As this
bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys heard sounds through
headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught: Ignore the sounds and pay
attention to what you feel on your fingers, because when you tell us it
changes we’ll reward you with a sip of juice. Other monkeys were taught: Pay
attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes you’ll get juice.

Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, undergoing an EEG during a study of
compassion meditation
After six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains. Usually, when
a spot on the skin receives unusual amounts of stimulation, the amount of
cortex that processes touch expands. That was what the scientists found in
the monkeys that paid attention to the taps: The somatosensory region that
processes information from the fingers doubled or tripled. But when the
monkeys paid attention to the sounds, there was no such expansion. Instead,
the region of their auditory cortex that processes the frequency they heard
increased.

Through attention, UCSF’s Michael Merzenich and a colleague wrote, “We
choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we
will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left
embossed in physical form on our material selves.”

The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has
important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on
autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up
mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if
you become able to do them without paying much attention.


Since the 1990s, the Dalai Lama had been lending monks and lamas to
neuroscientists for studies of how meditation alters activity in the brain.
The idea was not to document brain changes during meditation but to see
whether such mental training produces enduring changes in the brain.
All the Buddhist “adepts” — experienced meditators — who lent their brains
to science had practiced meditation for at least 10,000 hours. One by one,
they made their way to the basement lab of Richard Davidson at the
University of Wisconsin, Madison. He and his colleagues wired them up like
latter-day Medusas, a tangle of wires snaking from their scalps to the
electroencephalograph that would record their brain waves.

Eight Buddhist adepts and 10 volunteers who had had a crash course in
meditation engaged in the form of meditation called nonreferential
compassion. In this state, the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and
loving kindness toward all living beings.

As the volunteers began meditating, one kind of brain wave grew
exceptionally strong: gamma waves. These, scientists believe, are a
signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung circuits —
consciousness, in a sense. Gamma waves appear when the brain brings together
different features of an object, such as look, feel, sound and other
attributes that lead the brain to its aha moment of, yup, that’s an armadillo.

Some of the novices “showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma
signal,” Prof. Davidson explained to the Dalai Lama. But at the moment the
monks switched on compassion meditation, the gamma signal began rising and
kept rising. On its own, that is hardly astounding: Everything the mind does
has a physical correlate, so the gamma waves (much more intense than in the
novice meditators) might just have been the mark of compassion meditation.

Except for one thing. In between meditations, the gamma signal in the monks
never died down. Even when they were not meditating, their brains were
different from the novices’ brains, marked by waves associated with
perception, problem solving and consciousness. Moreover, the more hours of
meditation training a monk had had, the stronger and more enduring the gamma signal.

It was something Prof. Davidson had been seeking since he trekked into the
hills above Dharamsala to study lamas and monks: evidence that mental
training can create an enduring brain trait. Prof. Davidson then used fMRI
imaging to detect which regions of the monks’ and novices’ brains became
active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed
activity in regions that monitor one’s emotions, plan movements, and
generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of
what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion
meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The
monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula
and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also
had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions,
which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most
dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it
easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

“This positive state is a skill that can be trained,” Prof. Davidson says.
“Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of
the brain in an enduring way.”

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