Friday, February 13, 2015

Thoughts on a healthy brain

For those who follow my blog, you might have noticed that the past few weeks I've seen quite a lot of progress.  What has changed?  I'm not certain.  My regimen has not changed much at all for the past eight months of Diplopia and tDCS.  My guess is that my eyes have aligned to an extent which allows my brain to turn off suppression.  Now that my convergence and divergence are so quick and facile, there's significantly less overall visual conflict and therefore less need to suppress.

But anyway, I wanted to make a post about the topic of brain health and mind awareness.  It's something that I've always been interested in, but that I've gotten more interested in as of late.

My main interest lies in the building scientific evidence of the positive effects that meditation has on the brain and, through the brain, the body.  Some of the benefits include improved concentration, mood, and immune response.  Studies done on longterm practitioners of meditation report having a stronger ability to cope with physical pain.  They will report the same amount of pain (on a number scale) as non-meditators, but they're not as bothered by it.  There is evidence that meditation increases brain mass, and causes the release of GABA (gamma amino butyric acid--a calming neurotransmitter).  Everything that's said about meditation seems to indicate that it's really good for the brain and body--and in all ways in which something can be said to be 'healthy'.

In Sam Harris's book, Waking Up, which I recommend to everybody, he talks about how meditation causes the deactivation of the default-mode network.  This is a network which lies primarily in the medial pre-frontal cortex and medial parietal cortex.  He says that this is a region of the brain which becomes active during the resting state in which one is waiting for something to happen.  This network is associated with the daydream state.  When one is fully engrossed in an activity, this region goes dark, and the subject will lose one's 'self' in the activity.

It is this sense of loss of one's self that happens when one successfully meditates, and when one is able to experience consciousness without a ceaseless onslaught of apparently random thoughts over which he has no control.  In my own experience, this is very difficult.  It requires a lot of persistence, will, and concentration in order to have a strong command over one's own mind.  But the rewards are immense.  Even for me, just ten minutes of meditation will have an enormous impact on the quality of my life for the rest of the day: better mood, improved concentration, and the ability to enjoy sensations, seeing and noticing things around me.

The really surprising thing to me about all of this--and this shouldn't be all that surprising, and yet somehow it is--is that it's just a change in the way of thinking.  It's a completely internal commitment.  You're just sitting there, cross-legged, and committing some time to yourself for 10-20 minutes.  And yet this invisible internal commitment has an enormous, apparently disproportionate return on investment.  It shouldn't be surprising.  Everything is mind stuff, created by minds, especially in an industrial world.  Everything that we use and operate--the bottles at my desk, and computer that I'm working with right now, are products of someone imagination--the invisible internal state of another person.

These facts point strongly to the idea that the mind matters a lot, that it's worth it to develop a discipline of the mind, and to practice mindfulness--an awareness of one's mental state for as much of the time as possible.  This way you can be aware of what you're doing to yourself internally.  This way you can avoid having useless repetitive thoughts which serve no function, but only cause anxiety.  You're aware.  You can see yourself and realize 'Why am I doing this?  This is stupid and futile'.  Being aware, you can then return to where you currently are.

In Waking Up, Sam says that the quality of your mind is the single greatest determining factor of your quality of life.  Sam says, paraphrased, "If you can overcome the problem of the mind, you'll be able to avoid almost of all of the problems you'll ever encounter in life."

I think Sam is right.  The vast majority of our problems are self-created, as a result of not taking taking control of our consciousness--the single most important thing over which it can be said that we are the owners.  To have a high quality life and a healthy brain--based on what all of the studies about mindfulness indicate--is to have a healthy mind.  It pays, in concrete material terms, to be kind to yourself, to be aware of what you are doing to yourself.

I have achieved a significantly improved quality of life as a direct result of improved mindfulness in only the past four months or so, since I'd rediscovered meditation.  I can't help but wonder if this improved mindfulness might have improved the health and strength of my brain, and this has helped with vision therapy.  It is certainly not out of the realm of plausibility.

Many people's lives are repetitive.  They wake up, eat the same meals every day, drive the same car to work taking the same route every day.  The work they do is repetitive.  There is no challenge.  They become comfortable.  The brain deteriorates.  The default-mode network is engaged for too much of the time.  But this mind complacency is a choice.  You can choose to have a healthy brain by paying attention to your internal state.

There are studies that show that if you drive to the same place every day, but you practice taking a different route to that place, you can slowdown the onset of dementia.  Likewise, there are studies which indicate that actively speaking two or more languages promotes brain health.  Learning new skills, like dancing or martial arts will likely also promote brain health, especially if you're a programmer who sits down at a computer all day.  Lately I've been going out for walks while listening to podcasts, and bouncing a tennis ball, alternating between my two hands.  It looks silly, but the experience seems to give my brain much needed stimulation that it wouldn't likely otherwise get.  I know this because it's awkward as hell, trying to bounce a tennis ball with my left hand.

While I'm doing this, there is a part of me that's watching it all happen, as a result of my practice with mindfulness and meditation.  I swell with excitement at the thought that there is something inside of me which is in control of the experiences that I have.  I can choose the quality of my mind, and by extension, my brain and body.  As far as I can tell, this is true for everyone.

"Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain" - Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934)

1 comment:

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