I seem to have come across a flurry of all things neuroplastic in the last few weeks. From bulletproof coffee that claims to optimize brain performance, stave off hunger for hours and leads to weight loss (all of which I can attest to be true, having been drinking it for the last week or so) to the Tomatis Method that involves an intensive schedule of listening to Mozart, specially calibrated to realign imbalances in the functions of the ear and ultimately the brain; and from condoms that allow people with spinal cord injury victims who have no feeling in their penises to experience orgasms (not me, I hasten to add) to ’40 Years of Zen’, a biohack that claims to be able to achieve the same impact on the brain in two weeks as that achieved in 40 years of Zen meditation. A bargain at $15,000. I wonder how old Zen monks would feel about that.
The thread that links all of the above is that of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity. It is the complete antithesis to the neurological nihilism that prevailed for the last several hundred years wherein it was believed that brain activity was fixed and that, post childhood, the brain begins to die and brain cells cannot be replaced. Cheery.
A quote from a book I recently read summed it up already to save me describing it myself:
“One of the extremely helpful qualities of neural networks is that they get stronger the more often they are activated. This efficiency through repetition is one of the reasons a black belt in karate or a concert pianist has such blinding speed where the rest of us experience routine clumsiness: their motor neurons have practiced the same sequence so many times, the paths have become etched into their brains. Or as the neurological ditty goes: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’.”
This basic principle summed up so wonderfully precisely applies to all learning we engage in and is how we form habits. The good news is that by learning to practice something like yoga in a way that is massively mindful, we learn to cultivate the habits that enable us to be more efficient, use less energy, and, as I’m finding more and more so in my own practice, become far more pleasurable. The bad news is that this same principle is the reason we get stuck in negative patterns, whether relating to the almost instant regression into a teenage state when around family (particularly if said family still live in the home in which you grew up), or those times we get stuck in our practice, where the plateau we are trying to traverse seems to have no end in sight and only an infinite horizon ahead. It’s precisely in those moments where the meta-position, looking at ourselves in our environment from an objective viewpoint, is fundamental, as is how we choose to respond to what is going on. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow stated: “Do we make a choice that leads us to regression or do we make the one that leads us towards growth?”. The choice belongs to us.