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Neuroplasticity: The Revolution in Neuroscience and Psychology, Part I

The science of change.

For decades neuroscientific dogma held that the brain was immutable, unchangeable and static. New research in the field of neuroscience has shown this core belief to be untrue, and revealed that the brain is in fact a dynamic organ that changes almost constantly.

The majority of the ‘fundamentals' that we learned in Psych 101 are wrong. Memory maps (remember the Homunculus?) not only differ widely from individual to individual, but they can change radically in the same individual over a matter of days. The brain is not hardwired, but plastic. Dendritic and synaptic connections have been demonstrated to rewire themselves via experience, and, most intriguingly, through mind training. The implications of these findings for neuroscience, cognitive science and applied psychology are staggering.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this revolution in neuroscientific study is that it has been motivated in no small part by a simple Tibetan monk named Tenzin Gyatso — more commonly known as His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has long had an interest in science and holds that, if Buddhist doctrine can be challenged or even disproved by science, then it should. He, himself, was the first to do this when, as a young man, he discovered that the Buddhist teachings on astronomy were in error. It is Buddhism that is bridging the gap between science and spirituality.

In 2004 the first in a series of now annual collaborative conferences between The Dalai Lama and various scientists, philosophers and researchers, organized by Francesco Varela and Adam Engel, was convened at Dharamsala. It was called the Mind and Life Institute. The intent of the conference was to investigate the relationship between neuroscience and Buddhist teachings.

The course and content of these discourses has been elegantly documented by Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley in her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. In her book, Begley lays out for us how, at the end of the 19th century, the scientific community held the position that the brain was changeable, how that position was reversed and became concretized (no pun intended) and how, until only recently, research demonstrating this gross doctrinal error in neuroscience has been largely ignored, if not scorned, by the scientific community.

She then goes on to discuss how the Mind and Life collaborations have become a microcosmic distillation of this revolution in the field of neuroscience, and how researchers have accessed an extensive population of Buddhist monks and practitioners, highly adept at meditation and mind control techniques, to demonstrate how thought can, quite literally, change the brain.

What does that mean for us? It means that cultivation theory, which suggests that repeated exposure to social messages shapes belief systems, not only has a demonstrable biological correlate, but that changing our perception of those social messages can not only change our thinking, but change the way we synaptically process the message — permanently.

It means that social constructionism and the social construction of reality is not only a two-way street, but a genuine collaboration between self and society. We literally do create our reality, and we can change it, just as it can change us. More to the point, we really, literally and demonstrably can change as people.

It means that with proper mind training — rigorous and intensive training, this is not a magic bullet — it may be possible to actually think our way out of depression or OCD, or retrain the cognitive processing mechanism to turn dyslexia into fluid reading skills.

It means that collaborative talk therapy, by changing perceptions and perspective, can change the brain, which changes thinking and, by association, behavior — for real. Is this not, in fact, what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) — which, by the way, is considerably influenced by Marsha Linehan's 20+ years as a Buddhist meditator — already actually do?

It means that addicts may not really be addicts for life (forgoing, of course, the biological component potentially associated with alcoholism), and sufferers of Borderline Personality Disorder may not be enslaved by the throes of emotional dysregulation forever and ever.

It even means that all that New Age gobble-dee-gook about positive affirmations and positive thinking changing how you feel about yourself and your world might actually have some basis in hard science.

More to the point, it means that we, as professionals, need to rethink whether or not we can continue to think of psychology as a "soft" science, and must start to re-envision what we do in our role as social change agents as having a demonstrable, biological correlate.

Do I sound excited? I am. When I was first introduced to the idea of neuroplasticity, I thought it was interesting. The more I learn about the subject, the more I realize that we are on a frontier. There is a familiarity to all of it, and, at the same time, my entire intellectual perspective has been turned on its head — possibly even dropped on its head.

This is Part I of a series — we will get to the hard facts, the science, the references and such in later posts. Too much too soon is more than a brain — my brain, anyway — can handle.

(c) 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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