The following commentary is part of my series of reflections after reading the incredible book The Emotional Life of The Brain by neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson and contributor, science journalist Sharon Begley. I am mesmerized by the profound truths discovered through Davidson’s thirty-year commitment to understanding emotions and personality through his work on the brain. What’s even more exciting (at least for myself) are the revelations which support the importance of the mind in relation to the brain.
Davidson's research agrees with a hypothesis I have always believed and try to advocate— that my attention is due to how my mind operates because thought alone is enough to change how I experience the world; and even more compelling, how the brain functions. What I found so fascinating about this read is the deeper education I received in expanding my understanding of the brain.
The newer findings in neuroscience prove just how powerful the mind is in relation to the functions of the brain. The research revealed in The Emotional Life of the Brain confirms the heightened connection between the mind and the brain. Therefore, the attention given towards the well-being of the mind is even more important as research points to the significant implications of the mind over brain function, as “thought alone can increase or decrease activity in specific brain circuits that underlie psychological illness.”
Dated neuroscience dogma falsify the widespread understanding about the connection between the mind and the brain. The problem which has permeated through the decades is that most are uninformed of the specific advancements in this field, “the decades-old neuroscience dogma” promoted “that the adult brain is essentially fixed in form and function,” but the latest research confirms that this “is wrong.” (The last time I learned anything about emotions – in a textbook and classroom setting, was back in high school and there was no mention on how the brain is involved because the research was dated).
What’s accurate to say is, that “the brain has a property called neuroplasticity, the ability to change its structure and patterns of activity in significant ways not only in childhood, which is not very surprising, but also in adulthood and throughout life. That change can come about as a result of experiences we have as well as of purely internal mental activity—our thoughts.” This is an incredible departure from the past understanding of the brain and of mental activity. The profound discovery is in how the brain is constantly able to change and adapt “throughout life.” That in itself is a riveting truth!
The adaptive capacity of the brain is illustrated by how the brains of people who were blind from birth was able to adapt, despite a lack of sight. For the blind, reading braille, “the writing system based on tiny raised dots that the fingers slide across,” is an experience which witnesses “a measurable increase in the size and activity of areas in the motor cortex and somatosensory cortex that control movement and receive tactile sensation from the reading fingers.” From the deprivation of sight, the brain adapts its functions and the blind’s “visual cortex—which is supposedly hardwired to process signals from the eye and turn them into visual images—undertakes a radical career change and take on the job of processing sensations from the fingers rather than input from the eyes.” Who would’ve thought that no part of a functioning brain will go to waste despite other functional misfortunes. If it’s a working brain, it’s smart enough to adapt use its capacity for worthwhile and significant endeavors. Even more so, the adaptive capacity of the brain is influenced by more than just sensory stimulations.
What the book goes on to clarify is how “the brain can also change in response to messages generated internally—in other words, our thoughts and intentions.” The example used in the book is how athletes are able to “engage in mental imagery, focusing on the precise sequence of movements required to execute, say, a forward two-and-a-half pike,” can cause “the regions of the motor cortex that control the required muscle [to] expand.” This is a tremendous shift in my understanding of how the brain works, because this validates the strength of the mind’s influence. Further, how much value and importance is necessary when considering my mind and how it impacts the quality of my life because, “thought alone can increase or decrease activity in specific brain circuits that underlie psychological illness.”
If thought alone can create such an impact, then doesn’t the quality of thoughts matter more than ever. If thought alone can influence change my brain’s networking, then isn’t investing more time and energy to devote to my mind’s well-being become even more significant. Paying attention to mental health—or the health of our mind (which I feel is an underrated topic)— is paramount. Investing in our mental state is a worthwhile endeavor.
Resource: Begley, Sharon, and Richard J. Davidson. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live - and How You Can Change Them. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012.