Change brains, not minds

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Last week during his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke about the need of all Americans (but most particularly those in Congress) to ignore their differences and work together on ‘the mission’ – putting America back together again.


Recently, I discovered some fascinating brain evidence, which bolsters the idea that the most constructive thing we can do to connect with people across deep ideological divides during these tough times is to quietly sit together, meditating on neutral topics, but all thinking common thoughts.


Gaining The Knowledge

The first was a study, of all things, about London cab drivers.


London taxi-driving is not a job for a faint-hearted or indeed the casual émigré from another country attempting to rely on a satnav. For those of you who live outside the UK and have never visited London, the capital city is 611 square miles’ worth of small towns.


It is also the polar opposite of the sensible grid that makes up most modern cities: a maddening maze of curvatures, deadends and loop-de-loops, many of which, without warning or demarcation, at some point suddenly morph into an entity with an entirely different name.


Anyone wishing to drive a black cab for a living must be prepared to devote up to four years on a motorbike, practicing 320 runs within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, in order to gain ‘the Knowledge’ – the instant recall of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and places of interest – so that once his meter is first turned on, he can get you from anywhere in the city to anywhere else in a jiffy.


A larger memory

A team at the University College London decided to study the brains of trainee drivers before and after they’d acquired the Knowledge in to find out what happens to a person acquiring such elephantine information.


The research team scanned 79 trainees via magnetic resonance imaging scanners before they’d started their course and regularly throughout the process, then compared these scans with non-taxi drivers.


As the course proceeded, the would-be cabbies increased the size of the posterior hippocampus, the rear section of the hippocampus that lies in front of the brain. The more they exercised their memory, the more they enlarged the part of the brain involved with memory.


Professor Eleanor Maguire, the study leader noted tha tthe study showed ‘how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation. This provides evidence that the brain is plastic – changeable – depending on the nature of a person’s thoughts through life.


A brain wave of a study

Another study from the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for the Biology of Memory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim discovered how the brain uses different frequencies of waves to send out certain information.


‘What we found,’ says Colgin,’ could be described as a radio-like system inside the brain.’


The team discovered that a particular group of brain waves, called gamma waves, are the carriers of information, much as songs are carried by radio waves, transporting information from one region of the brain to another.


The team, led by Laura Colgin, discovered that brain cells that wish to connect with each other tune into the gamma waves of other cells. Colgin and her colleagues also studied how these gamma waves were involved in communication across the cell groups in the hippocampus.


Cells either tune into the high or low frequency gamma waves in order to tune into a particular thought or idea. In the case of memory, the lower frequencies were used to transmit memories of past experiences and the higher frequencies to transmit what is happening at the present moment.


Peak intensity

Gamma band, the highest rate of brain-wave frequencies, is employed by the brain when it is working its hardest: at a state of rapt attention, when sifting through working memory, during deep levels of learning, in the midst of great flashes of insight.


When the brain operates at these extremely fast frequencies, the phases of brain waves (their times of peaking and troughing) all over the brain begin to operate in synchrony.


This type of synchronization is considered crucial for achieving heightened awareness. The gamma state is even believed to cause changes in the brain’s synapses – the junctions over which electrical impulses leap to send a message to a neuron, muscle or gland.


That the brain communicates through gamma waves particularly interesting, considering the fact that Buddhist monks, and other ‘masters of intention’ have a very high proportion of gamma wave activity, which suggests that their brains are at all times communicating globally within the brain and also flooding the brain with awareness of the present moment.


Happy meditation

When Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, studied eight of the Dalai Lama’s most seasoned practitioners while engaged in compassionate meditation, he witnessed their brains being activated on a scale neither Davidson nor any other scientist had ever seen. The monitors showed sustained bursts of high gamma-band activity – rapid cycles of 25–70 hertz.


Similar activity has been recorded with yogis during deep meditation, when they withdraw from external stimuli and completely focus their attention inward, and also during prayer.


Davidson also discovered that this heightened state also produced permanent emotional improvement, by activating the left anterior portion of the brain – the portion most associated with joy.


Even new meditators show increased activation of the ‘happy-thoughts’ part of the brain and enhanced immune function after a few weeks.


Plastic brain

Neuroscientists have imagined the brain as something akin to a complex computer, which got fully constructed in adolescence. All these latest results show that the ‘hard-wired’ brain theory is outdated.


The brain appears to revise itself throughout life, depending on the nature of its thoughts. Certain sustained thoughts produce measurable physical differences and change its structure. Form follows function; consciousness helps to form the brain.


As these studies indicate, certain types of concentrated focus enlarge the mechanism by which we receive information and clarify the reception. We turn into a larger, more sensitive radio.


We also know that when we do things together with a common purpose, we all get on the same wave length.


Essentially these means that we become what we think. We also connect best when we think the same thoughts.


Sitting together with people and simply intending positively about the future of America, or indeed the world, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


First the belief will grow and then we’ll be prompted to act.


What Intention Experiment can you suggest that we can collectively hold together? Please share your thoughts, below and on my Facebook author’s page:


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