Did you know your brain is plastic? Not that kind of plastic! (Though the way things are going…)
Neuroscientists have proven that our brains are always changing. They are, in effect, plastic until the day we die. “Neuroplasticity” encompasses not just function, but the very structure of our B spot. (What? You don’t know about the B spot?)
Our brains—along with the rest of us—are literally shaped by our external environment, internal states, thoughts, and emotions. Turns out, mind-body-spirit isn’t just a hashtag. Our brains truly are embodied!
And yet, this story long predated neuroplasticians.
It has simply acquired new details and new names. At least as far back as the 5th century B.C.E., Taoist philosophers already had our plasticity figured out. Like today’s neuroplasticians, these ancient Chinese visionaries saw beyond rigid constructs and dated paradigms. They recognized continual, cyclical change as the Way, or Tao, of the Universe and ourselves.
Know what this means for medicine and manifestation? (It’s really cool.)
For all the elusiveness of Taoist philosophy and all the complexities of the neuroplastic paradigm, both embrace meaningful, accessible application. By being conscious of the brain’s plasticity, we get an enriched understanding of our potential.
We get to see just how much capacity we have to change the course of things.
This holds true not only in relation to ancient Taoist principles, but also cutting-edge discoveries in neuroplasticity and epigenetics. Alone, each offers strong support for health and healing. Together, they are all the more powerful.
You too! No Exceptions!
Neuroplastic shifts are not exceptions, observable only in cases of significant pathology or prodigy. Rather, they represent the ordinary, everyday nature of our minds. These shifts emerge within an interconnected body-mind system, but also through interaction of the system and outside world. The mind then, is both embodied and relational.
In revealing how environment and experience shape our brains, neuroplasticity research aligns with the science of epigenetics. Literally, “control above genetics,” this field arose from evidence that environmental factors can alter genes without changing DNA blueprints.
Such environmental factors encompass all non-inherited influences, including aspects of the external environment and what we consume…as well as internal states, thoughts, and emotions. And, as we recognize in Chinese Medicine, external factors and inner states are intertwined and indivisible. Together, they constitute us.
Epigeneticists have shown that our environment, experience, actions, and even thoughts influence whether a gene is expressed. Taking this further, they assert that modifications arising from environmentally and mental-emotionally influenced gene expression can be passed on to future generations (Lipton 37).
As science editor and writer Jonah Lehrer eloquently summarizes in Proust Was a Neuroscientist:
“What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialog with our environment, feed back into our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic... Our human DNA is defined by its multiplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context.” (44–45)
Shape your brain, co-create your destiny
This interplay between genes and environment shapes the embodied brain throughout our lives. Emphasizing its role in childhood, physician and addictions expert Gabor Maté maintains: “The three environmental conditions absolutely essential to optimal human brain development are nutrition, physical security, and consistent emotional nurturing” (185).
And at any age, existing in a socially and cognitively enriched environment is conducive to neural health and regeneration. Animal studies have shown that living in stimulating settings or engaging in regular mental training increases brain weight by 5 percent in the cerebral cortex (and up to 9 percent in targeted brain areas), with neurons increasing in size, blood supply, number of branches, and number of connections (Doidge 43). (Makes studying for exams more appealing, hey?)
Other things that move the needle include novelty (rather than just doing the same old thing), physical movement (even “just” walking), and mindfulness (including meditation but also single-tasking and paying attention to one thing at time). These, along with existing in an enriched environment and consuming enriching content, have been proven to promote neurogenesis.
The brain is not a passive recipient of such influences any more than it is of genetic code. Rather, it is an active participant. It takes form and re-forms in response to interactions of the whole body-mind within an environmental and genetic context (post-Heaven meets pre-Heaven, in Chinese Medicine parlance).
This interface and interaction is the stuff of experience, and experience shapes a plastic brain. As we act in the world and are acted upon, new connections are formed and pre-existing pathways light up with new use.
And, as conscious beings able to observe and influence how we respond to environmental stimuli, we “co-create” our “destiny” (Lipton 104). Manifestations include subtle shifts as well as dramatic transformations in cognitive abilities, emotional tendencies, motor skills, sensory sensitivity, and conscious or subconscious habits and routines.
The neuroplasticity of an embodied, relational brain offers promise in the form of expanded possibilities and potential. It means that through learning—and unlearning—we can literally change our minds. In the process, we alter our physical brains (and bodies) as well as our experience.
Yet, this inherent malleability is not inherently welcome. It also opens the door to unhelpful patterns, perceptions, beliefs, and addictions. Rather than expand our possibilities, wayward programming may instead result in limited expression of self. In what’s known as the “plastic paradox,” repetition of unhelpful thoughts and behaviors causes rigidity, stagnation, inertia, and general stuck-ness in body and mind.
How do we avoid such pitfalls? Well, sometimes, we just don’t. As humans, hard things happen to us. We can’t skirt all of plasticity’s perils.
And, we have agency. We can use our understanding of a plastic, embodied brain to actively cultivate and reinforce patterns that are helpful and healthy. We can be responsible caretakers of our inner and outer ecology. The stakes? Who we are…and who we’re continuously becoming.
Where to begin?
So, just go fine tune your interface between self and world, genes and environment, already. NBD.
Just kidding. Thankfully, we can call on ancient Taoists for this part. Yes—they had a lot figured out. But they also took great care not to overcomplicate things. Indeed, they counselled: “See simplicity in the complicated. Achieve greatness in little things.” (Lao-tsu 63)
In other words…
Proven ways to support neurogenesis (literally, “neuron generation”):
- Pay close attention: Meditate; draw; read a real book; engage in mindful, focused yoga practice or breathing; engage in mindful, focused anything that requires full presence; do one thing at a time.
- Embrace novelty: Change up your routine; visit places outside of your usuals and comfort zone; explore something new as an enthusiastic beginner.
- Engage in physical exercise: Take a walk (ideally, outside); stretch your body in ways that are intuitive and delicious; engage in other movement that works for you and feels good; if you can’t move your limbs, focus on breath and posture.
- Exist within an enriched environment: Immerse yourself in a culture different from your own (whether in your own locale or another one); edit what you consume intentionally and rigorously; choose surroundings (online and off) that make you feel expansive, curious, and alive.
Also…do everything you can to support your embodied brain!
Together food and herbs are the Yin side of Chinese Medicine. They provide the nutrients our Yang side needs to function, complementing any brain-boosting lifestyle adjustments.
The result? Using your biological bendiness for good! Simple steps, done with consistency over time, bring big results. Our plastic, embodied body-mind pretty much guarantees it.
(Use the code DANA at checkout for 20 percent off that herbal backup.)
Doidge, Norman. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2007
Lao-tzu. The Tao Te Ching. Trans. Gia-fu Feng & Jane English. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.
Lipton, Bruce H. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Santa Rosa: Elite Books, 2005.
Maté, Gabor. In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009