Your Amazing Brain and What it can do

moken eyesMoken “See” People: Normally pupils dilate underwater to let in more light (but this causes everything to be blurry). The Moken’s brains have adapted to the sea by contracting their pupils–an ability that allows them to see cleary underwater.

I remember when I was young, a popular saying was “People only use 10 to 15% of their brains.” Back then, I had no idea what that meant. My young mind thought “So, one day we might learn to levitate objects? Read other peoples’ minds? What’s in that other 85% to 90%?” I don’t know that these capabilities are in the cards for our modern brains any time soon, but the general idea was correct enough: We can develop advanced capabilities that we (at least in the West) had no idea existed. And you can develop a range of resiliences and capabilities through exercising or “working out” the 3 lb. “muscle” that is your brain. designed to improve your brain?)

“What we know is that whenever you engage in a behavior over and over again, it can lead to changes in your brain; and this is what is known as neuroplasticity…the neurons can change how they talk to each other with experience.Sara Lazar, Neuroscientist

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, people still tend to think that exercise is mainly for the body. As it turns out, people who “work out” their brains can develop new neural networks in various parts of their brains. There’s the well known anecdote that cab drivers in London tend to have larger areas of the Hippocampus responsible for visualization and spatial memory, because they have to memorize the spaghetti-like maze of streets that is London. There’s proof that those who meditate frequently have been measured to have smaller amygdalae (that almond-shaped “ancient” part of the brain that is key to our fight/flight/freeze responses) and larger left pre-frontal cortices (that more modern part of the brain that governs emotions, complex thoughts, and that filters messages to the amygdala). That’s according to Dr. Sara Lazar’s research, which relied on fMRI scans that showed amazing changes in the brain in those who meditated.

Meditation: Thinking Outside the Box

meditation benefitsSea People who See Better. Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, explains how the brain is incredibly adaptable. He cites the fascinating sea-faring Austroasians known as the Moken who have developed an amazing ability. You see, the Moken can see twice as well under the sea than you or I–a result of the brain’s ability to change to meet the needs of the body.

According to Dr. Charney:

The Sea Gypsies, or Moken, are a seafaring people who spend a great deal of their time in boats off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand, have unusual underwater vision — twice as good as Europeans. This has enabled Mokens to gather shellfish at great depths without the aid of scuba gear. How do the Moken do this? They constrict their pupils by 22 percent. How do they learn to do this? Is it genetic? Neuroscientists argue that anyone can learn this trick. Simply put, the brain orders the body to adapt to suit its needs.

Dr. Hanson’s Take. If the brain can enable people to adapt their pupils to the ocean water, what else can it do? According to Dr. Rick Hanson, for people who meditate, it can stave off neural decay:

“research has … shown that it’s possible to slow the loss of our brain cells. Normally, we lose about 10,000 brain cells a day. That may sound horrible, but we were born with 1.1 trillion. We also have several thousand born each day, mainly in the hippocampus, in what’s called neurogenesis. So losing 10,000 a day isn’t that big a deal, but the net bottom line is that a typical 80 year old will have lost about 4 percent of his or her brain mass—it’s called “cortical thinning with aging.” It’s a normal process.

But in one study, researchers compared meditators and non-meditators. In the graph to the left, the meditators are the blue circles and the non-meditators are the red squares, comparing people of the same age. The non-meditators experienced normal cortical thinning in those two brain regions I mentioned above, along with a third, the somatosensory cortex.

However, the people who routinely meditated and “worked” their brain did not experience cortical thinning in those regions.”

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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