When I was in graduate school, we were taught that the human brain reaches its maximum developmental potential around age 25. Can you imagine how discouraging a thing that was to hear for a bunch of 25 year old graduate students?!
The basic idea was that, upon reaching adulthood, the only possibilities for the brain were to (somehow) retain the capacity it has or lose it to injury, atrophy, or disease. I have to admit that I wondered why I was studying so hard if, cognitively, it couldn’t get any better than it already was! It’s true that the brain, along with most of the rest of the body, has completed its initial development by about age 25. By that age, I had long since stopped getting taller, I had all of my adult teeth, etc. But even though I may have been in my prime developmentally speaking, my body certainly had not topped out in terms of potential.
A mere five years after graduate school, I was embarking on a contracting career that included daily, outdoor, physical labor (It’s a long story, perhaps one for another blog entry). I developed leaner, stronger muscles. My cardiovascular and respiratory systems became more efficient. In short, my body responded to the way I was using it. This is just what body’s do. On a fundamental level, our bodies recognize that behaviors that get repeated must be important. So, they begin to reallocate their resources to make those behaviors easier. If I was doing push-ups all day long, my body would reallocate its resources to grow muscle tissue to make those push-ups easier to do. Of course, this is why body-building is even possible. So, we clearly understand that, though our bodies eventually reach the end of their initial stages of development, we can continue to strengthen them, make them more agile, and make them more flexible simply by repeating behaviors that require the qualities of strength, agility, and flexibility.
Wouldn’t it make sense that, if our bodies can do this, our brains could do it too? Well, the good news is that they can! I’m pleased to report that my graduate school textbooks and professors from 1995 were partially wrong about the brain and its 25 year developmental limit. Brains do complete their initial development around that time, But after that, our brains respond to the ways that we use them just as our bodies do. You may have heard of this described as Neuroplasticity. That means that we can increase our capacity for focused attention by practicing focused attention. We can improve our ability to observe by practicing observation. And if we can do these things, maybe we can make ourselves less judgmental by practicing non-judgment. Perhaps we can become more compassionate by practicing compassion. Somebody should study this, right?
Mindfulness is Exercise for your Brain
More good news: There is already a bunch of great science that supports these exact assumptions. Dr. Sara Lazar, a Neuroscientist at Harvard University, has studied what happens in the brains of people who meditate regularly. Her research repeatedly shows that our brains literally grow in some areas (and shrink in others) after just eight weeks of daily practice. The areas of growth include those parts of the brain that are involved with memory, focus, emotional regulation, and more. The areas of the brain that shrink are associated with our fight/flight/freeze reactions. Dr. Lazar’s research and more and more studies all the time show us that mindfulness meditation is literally exercise for our brains. Mindfulness meditation is the “mental push-up” that leads to a stronger, more flexible, more agile mind and one that is less prone to anxiety, depression, and irritability. Dr. Lazar’s research was done using people who participated in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes (MBSR). If you are interested in taking an MBSR class, you can learn about opportunities at Into Balance here. You can watch a brief video of Dr. Lazar describing her research here.