Many years ago as a kid I was confronted with a particularly grumpy old lady, whose grumpiness was not merely a set of behaviours, but had etched itself deep into to the lines of her face, her posture and general demeanour. Afterwards I told my mum ‘… that lady should think more happy thoughts!’ and we laughed together about this. Little did I know how profound this statement was until now, almost 25 years later.
What caught my eye was an experiment explained in a recent issue of TIME magazine (February 12, 2007), devoted to exploring all sorts of topics pertaining to the brain and its’ functionality. Let me quote:
It was a fairly modest experiment, as these things go, with volunteers trooping into the the lab at Harvard Medical School to learn and practise a little five-finger piano exercises. Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone instructed the members of one group to play as fluidly as they could, trying to keep to the metronome’s 60 beats per minute. Every day fro five days, the volunteers practised for two hours. Then they took a test.
At the end of each day’s practise session, they sat beneath a coil of wire that sent a brief magnetic pulse into the motor cortex of their brain, located in a strip running from the crown of the head toward each ear. The so-called transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) test allows scientists to infer the functions of neurons just beneath the coil. In the piano players, the TMS mapped how much the motor cortex controlled the finger movements needed for the piano exercise. What the scientists found was that after a week of practise. the stretch of motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas like dandelions on a suburban lawn.
The finding was in line with a growing number of discoveries at the time showing that greater use of a particular muscle causes the brain to devote more cortical real estate to it. But Pascual-Leone did not stop there. He extended the experiment by having another group of volunteers merely think about practising the piano exercise. They played the simple piece of music in their head, holding their hands still while imagining how they would move their fingers. Then they too sat beneath the TMS coil.
When the scientists compared the TMS data on the two groups – those who actually tickled the ivories and those who only imagined doing so – they glimpsed a revolutionary idea about the brain: the ability of mere thought to alter the physical structure and function of our gray matter. For what the TMS revealed was that the region of motor cortex that controls the piano-playing fingers also expanded in volunteers who imagined playing the music – just as it had in those who actually played it.
“Mental practise resulted in a similar reorganisation of the brain”, Pascual-Leone later wrote. If his results hold for other forms of movement (and there is no reason to think they don’t), then mentally practising a movement, a golf swing or a swim turn could lead to mastery with less physical practise. Even more profound, the discovery showed that mental training had the power to change the physical structure of the brain.
Where does this leave us? Well, it does highlight the profoundness of statements like Be mindful of your thought’s, because according to this we, ourselves, are very much in charge and can influence how our brains will perform, by either allowing a set of thoughts to take place or consciously working to direct thinking and thus mental practise in another direction.
To bring back the grumpy lady from the beginning – it seems that many factors that contribute to this lady’s grumpiness are things that are out of her control. Fair enough, but what is in her control is how she chooses to see those things. If she indeed allows herself to become grumpy, then next time something, however small, happens, she will get grumpy that much faster than before. Why? Because that connection in her mind is now stronger than the path where she tries to look on the bright side of the problem, for instance. By continuing to allow this to happen over time, over and over again, she would eventually become grumpy and indeed stay grumpy, all the time. Her health, demeanour, physique, all of it would be affected by the fact that in the beginning – a bout of intellectual laziness meant that she preferred to think the grumpy thought and remain in that frame of mind, rather than making a conscious effort to train her mind to think in a different way.
So is the truth then that we become our thoughts? To a large extent you could say yes, but that message contains hope, because being conscious and self-aware of one’s own behaviour and thought patterns means one can also influence those. So we should indeed strive to become better by imagining ourselves not as we are, but as we would like to be and devote time to thinking about this and acting on it, rather than try to lull ourselves into some false belief that the world and our reality is what happens to us and we have no influence over it. Far from it. We may not have influence on the physical factors of this, but we certainly have a large influence over how our brains deal with and process that information and how we behave subsequently. And those behaviours may very well influence what happens afterwards, or as people like to joke ‘if it didn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger’.