All we’re hearing from our news is crisis: the heating up of US-Iranian aggression, the impeachment of a president, the burning down of Australia, the enormous challenge we face with climate change. Even Harry and Meghan have decided to check out.
It’s easy to think that we’re starting as we mean to go on, with a decade of disaster.
I do not agree. This is probably the most exciting time to be alive that I can think of. I’m thrilled to have this front-row seat to witness the overhaul of many systems we’ve created in our modern industrial world – a system that gave us riches beyond measure but at the expense of community, family life, free time and environment.
However, as this historic and expectation-laden new decade dawns, what is now required is that each of us moves from our ringside seats, as passive observers, and throw our hats – and ourselves – into the ring.
Look upon this tough time as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent yourself. I guarantee that you will look upon this period of your life as one of the best times of your life, a pivotal moment that forever changed you for the better.
And you can start by learning from, of all places, from London cab drivers.
London taxi-driving is not a job for a faint-hearted. 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. And this is still the case, even with the universal use of satnavs.
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 order 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 that the study showed ‘how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation. This provides yet more evidence that the brain is plastic – changeable – depending on the nature of a person’s thoughts through life.
This has been confirmed in long-term studies of Buddhist monks and meditators. Whatever you focus on gets reinforced by actually enlarging that portion of your brain. Focus on happiness, and the ‘happy’ portion of your brain gets larger; focus on altruism, and the same goes. Help others a few times and you begin to desire doing it again.
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.
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 is 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.
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 (willing the ending of suffering on the planet), he 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.
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 – and better – radio.
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.
Essentially these means that we become what we think.
The best way to reinvent yourself in 2020? Start monitoring what it is you’re transmitting 24/7.
And then vow to change the broadcast – from a focus on calamity to the ways that you personally can be instrumental in the cure.