How is your thinking affecting your brain?
For a long time it was thought that our brains developed throughout childhood and our teenage years, but once we moved into adulthood our brains were fixed, that they didn’t really change from then on. We now know this is not true. Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change itself, is now a well known fact, and is a lifelong phenomenon. Every time we learn something new we form new connections in our brains, and the more we think about or repeat certain activities, the more well developed the corresponding parts of our brains become.
To take a couple of simple examples, brain imaging studies show us that London taxi drivers have well developed brain maps for their jobs after years of driving around and navigating through London streets, and that students studying for exams develop the areas of their brains that process memory and abstract information in the process.
We know also that not only can brain maps thicken and expand with repeated activity, but that areas of our brain can shrink if you no longer use them. For example if we were to tie one hand behind our backs and do everything with the other hand, the brain area devoted to the hand we were using would rapidly form new neural connections, while the area devoted to the hand we were not using would quickly lose connections.
We also now know that our thoughts affect not just our brains but our bodies too. Different thought patterns correspond with different chemicals being released in the brain, which then have flow on effects to the rest of our bodies. For example, when we are stressed, 170 of the 25,000 genes in our DNA are affected in a way that slows healing and wound repair, showing us that our thoughts have far reaching effects on our bodies.
Knowing all of this gives us food for thought. If we were to take a map of your brain, what would we find? Would we see the areas involved in positive thought well developed, with many branches and lots of neural connections, or would we find instead a large area of the brain well developed in finding fault, criticising and looking for problems? Would we find a brain that is stressed and unable to heal to its potential, or one which is calm and healing quickly and effectively. Remember, the brain is not fixed, we can change what is happening with it. If we change our habits of thought, our brains will change also. If we change how we are thinking about things, the neural connections associated with those things will change with it. The choice is ours.