Mental Activity Changes the Brain

The sixth chapter of “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” reviews how mental activity changes the brain.  The notion that the mind can act downward on the brain is a concept alien to most scientists.  The first esteemed scientist to argue that the mind cn act down on the brain was Nobel Prize—winning neuroscientist Roger Sperry who developed scientifically rigorous themes  of the position that the mind can act on the brain, which he called mentalism or emergent mentalism.  He theorized that there is a “downward control by mental events over the lower neuronal events.”  He suggested that mental states can act directly on cerebral states even effect electrochemical activity in neurons.  Healthy memory blog readers should realize that this is the position of healthy memory.  However, in the 1990s this was a radical concept. one which is still refuted by mainstream scientists in spite of ample evidence that it is correct.

Neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz is a practicing Buddhist who became intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness, or mindful awareness, is the practice of observing one’s own inner experience in a way that is fully aware  but nonjudgmental.  One stands outside one’s own mind, observing the spontaneous thoughts and feeling that the brain throws up, observing all this as if it were happening to someone else.  Dr. Schwartz was treating patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  OCD sufferers are troubled by obsessions and compulsions that become all-consuming.  In most cases the intrusive thoughts and fixations  feel as if they are arising from a part of he mind that is not the real self.

According to brain imaging studies OCD is characterized by hyperactivity in two regions:  the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum.  The main job of the orbital frontal cortex seems to be to notice when something is amiss.  It is the brain’s error detector, its neurological spell checker.  In OCD patients it fires repeatedly, bombarding the rest of the brain with the crushing feeling that something is wrong.  The second overactive structure, the striatum, receives inputs from other regions, including the orbital frontal cortex  and the amygdalae that are the seat of dread.  Together, the circuit linking the orbital frontal cortex and the striatum has been dubbed “the worry circuit” or “the OCD circuit.

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy patients learn to think about their thoughts differently.  So when an obsessive thought popped up, the patient would think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought.  Don’t I  know it is not real but just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit.  This is not really an urge to do something, but rather a brain-wiring problem.”

Dr. Schwartz used the brain-imaging technique positron-emission tomography (PET).  He would show patients their PET scans emphasizing that their symptoms arose from a faulty neurological circuit.  One patient responded immediately, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD”.  Other patients responded similarly.  The week after patients started relabeling their symptoms as manifestation of pathological brain process, they reported that the disease was no longer controlling them, and they felt that they could do something about it.

In a formal research study they performed PET scans on eighteen OCD patients before and after two weeks of mindfulness-based therapy.  None of the patients took medications for their OCD, and all had moderate to severe symptoms.  Twelve patients improved significantly.  PET scans in these patients showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex had fallen dramatically.

Dr. Schwartz concluded, “This was the first study to show that cognitive-behavioral  therapy has the power to systematically change faulty brain chemistry in a well-defined brain circuit.”  He continued that the ensuing brain changes “offered strong evidence that willful, mindful effort can alter the brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes—neuroplasticity are a genuine reality.  The mind can change the brain.”

Mindfulness-based therapy is also more effective treating depression and produces longer lasting effects that do pharmaceutical products.  In 2002, Helen Mayberg discovered that anti-depressants and inert pills—placebos have identical effects on the brains of depressed people.

Toronto scientists used PET imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed patients.  They had fourteen depressed adults undergo fifteen to twenty sessions of cognitive-behavior (mindfulness) training. Thirteen other patients received parozetime, the generic name for an antidepressant.  Depressed patients responded differently to the two kinds of treatment.  With cognitive-behavior therapy activity in the frontal cortex was turned down, activity in the hippocampus was turned up, which was the opposite pattern of  antidepressants.  Cognitive therapy targets the core, the thinking brain reshaping how your process information and change your thinking pattern, which are key activities to defeating depression.  Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, working from the top down, keeps the depression circuit from being completed.

Yet another study involved having piano students practice playing a simple piece in their heads.  The result was that the region of the cortex that controls piano-playing fingers expanded in the brains of volunteers who merely imagined playing the piece just as it did in the brains of those who actually played it.

Even though neuroscientists do not know exactly how the mind influences the brain, neuoscientis have evidence that it somehow involves paying attention.  All participants in this research focused intently.  The chapter concludes by noting that an enormous amount of information bombards the brain, but unless that information is attended to, there is a high probability that it will be lost.


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