Posts Tagged ‘Marian Diamond’

Altered Traits and Neuroplasticity

November 26, 2017

There have been many healthy memory blog posts on neuroplasticity, which is a topic of continuing attention. The first evidence of neuroplasticity was of a negative effect. Bruce McEwen produced evidence of how stressful events produce lingering neural scars. The research used a tree shrew, a small creature, but the research had a gigantic effect. The thinking, or rather dogma of the day, was that the neural system was fixed and could not change. It was research by Marian Diamond and her psychologist colleagues that documented that enriched environments increase the size of rats’ brains. Previous research had focused on the nature vs nurture issue. Genes defined nature and the environment defined nurture. Arguments abounded about whether intelligence and many other topics of interest were affected more by nature or more by nurture. The truth is that there is an interaction between nature and nurture. Traits altered by meditation are further examples of neuroplasticity at the positive end and post-traumatic stress disorder at the negative end.

Goleman and Davidson’s interests go beyond the merely healthy spectrum to an even more beneficial range of wholesome traits of being. Extremely positive altered traits, like equanimity and compassion, are a goal of mind training in contemplative traditions. They use the term altered trait as shorthand for this highly positive range.

Neuroplasticity provides a scientific basis for how repeated training can create those lasting qualities of being they encountered in a handful of exceptional yogis, swamis, monks, and lamas, Their altered traits fit ancient descriptions of lasting transformation at these higher levels.

Goleman and Davidson write, “A mind free from disturbance has value in lessening human suffering, a goal shared by science and meditative paths alike. But apart from lofty heights of being, there’s a more practical potential within reach of every one of us: a life best described as flourishing.

This post is taken from Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”

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The Loss of a Neuroscientist Who Should Have Been Awarded a Nobel Prize

September 6, 2017

And that neuroscientist is Marian Diamond who passed away on July 25, 2017 at the age of ninety. Her painstaking research showed that the body’s three-pound seat of consciousness was a dynamic structure of beautiful complexity, capable of development even in old age.

Prior to her research it was strongly believed the nervous system was fixed. We were stuck with the brain we were born with. And any damage to the brain was irreparable. The brain was a static and unchangeable entity that simply degenerated as we age.

Inspired by the research of psychologist Donald Hebb, she began studying the brains of lab rats. Rats that were raised alone, in small and desolate cages, had more trouble navigating a maze than did rats were raised in “enriched” cages, with toys and rat playmates. Through painstaking analyses of these rat brains she found that the cerebral cortices of rats in “enriched” cages were about 6% thicker than the rats in the “impoverished” cages.

Her findings, published in a 1964 paper with three colleagues, were a pivotal contribution to the long-running debate between nature and nurture, which seeks to determine the extent to which a person is shaped by their genes or by their life experiences.. UC-Berkely professor Robert Knight said “The idea that the brain could change based on environmental input and stimulation was felt to be silly, and that’s the boat she completely sank.

Further research generalized these conclusions to humans. Neuroplasticity was found to be ubiquitous. We continue to generate neurons until we die.

Dr. Diamond went on to develop a rich theory of brain plasticity summarized in the phrase use it or lose it. She outlined the following five factors crucial to brain development at any age: diet, exercise, challenge, newness, and love.

Later in her career she was given several sections of Albert Einstein’s brain. She found an unusually high amount of glial cells, which were thought to be a relatively unimportant part of the tissue that held the brain together. This discovery launched renewed interest in the role of glial cells, which are now believed to play a crucial role in cognitive processes.

This post is based in part on an obituary by Harrison Smith in the 31July 2017 Washington Post.