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The Pain in your Brain need mainly not Remain

November 28, 2012

For thousands of years Eastern wisdom has directed us to practice contemplation and meditation as tools for self- discovery.

Neuroscience has now shown definitively that how we focus our attention shapes the physical structure of the brain, the way in which we grow new nerve connections throughout life. Recent studies in the field of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize and create new connections) have demonstrated that the brain develops and grows rapidly until the age of twenty five and after that it still continues to produce as many as 10,000 new neurons every day till we die.

Daniel Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, explains that the brain changes in response to experience, thoughts and emotions, and that long term brain health is achieved by putting these new neurons to work. Learning new things and exposing ourselves to new experiences are just some of the ways we encourage neuroplasticity. Every time you go somewhere new, learn a new skill or consider a new idea you are stimulating your brain to make new connections and make use of the brand new neurons that it produces every day.

The new understanding of brain growth and change also has a vast array of potential consequences for the treatment of many stress-related disorders from anxiety to depression. For example, in a study conducted by Stein, Simmons, Feinstein, and Paulhus, it was found that patients who reported elevated levels of anxiety and neuroticism had especially sensitive response in the amygdala and insular areas of the brain when viewing a range of emotional facial expressions. Stein, M. B., Simmons, A. N., Feinstein, J. S., & Paulhus, M. P. (2007). Increased amygdala and insula activation during emotion processing in anxiety-prone subjects. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 318-327.

However, the latest neuroscientific research suggests that something as simple as training our attention on one thing, and bringing it back to that one thing over and over again (meditation is a good example) can change the structure and size of brain centres such as the amygdala and insular cortex that are used for managing emotions like anger, sadness, frustration and fear. We can consciously choose to increase the size of areas of the brain that control stressful emotions and decrease the size of the areas that generate them. Meditational and contemplative techniques allow us to change our brain and expand our social and emotional intelligence with the development of qualities such as compassion and resilience.

In his recent book “Mindsight” {2011 Bantam}, Dr. Siegel integrates ideas from neuroscience, mindfulness and cognitive psychology to formulate the concept of 

”mindsight” – the human capacity to perceive the mind of oneself and others. Mindsight uses focused attention techniques in order to observe the internal workings of our own mind, which in turn helps us to change ingrained, habitual reactions to the world.

An example of the mindsight approach is the difference between noticing that “I feel sad” rather than “I am sad.” These statements are different in that “I feel sad” suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling without being overwhelmed and defined by it, whereas “I am sad” implies a limited and rigid self-definition. The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is happening inside your mind, to accept it, and then to gradually let it go. Learning to observe and stay with a thought or emotion, even a very threatening or uncomfortable one, allows the realisation that this thought or emotion is just a set of neural firings in the brain – a perceptual experience rather than a statement of absolute reality.

“Mindsight” highlights three aspects of our lives – relationships, mind and brain – that “form the three mutual influencing points of the Triangle of Well-Being.” We can develop awareness and control of “the flow of energy and information within the Triangle of Well-Being.”

The mind is not what the brain does, the brain is what the mind does. In other words, your brain is a physical organ that can be shaped and evolved through the non-physical consciousness of your mind.

Spencer Joseph

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