Martha Curtis had a dream. She wanted to become a violinist. She had been playing the violin since she was nine and excelled at it. But there was a problem. A huge problem. Martha had begun suffering from seizures at age three and a half. She was diagnosed with epilepsy and even though she was on medication, the seizures continued. In her twenties, now a student at Eastman School of Music, Martha had seizures on stage. Up to five per month. Music was her life, but she realized that no orchestra would let her play if she was regularly collapsing on stage. So she sought help.
At Cleveland Clinic, neurologists located the origin of her epilepsy in the right temporal lobe, from where a constant storm of abnormal electrical activity was spreading into other regions of her brain. The doctors suggested surgery. There was one problem, however: The right temporal lobe is the region of the brain where musical memory seems to be stored. So Martha had to make a decision: Live with the seizures that were worsening and would make it impossible to have a musical career. Or, undergo surgery at the risk of losing what had kept her alive: Music.
After three surgeries in which her doctors removed close to 50 percent of her right temporal lobe, including the entire hippocampus, Martha was finally seizure-free. Then, she picked up the violin. She could play as if nothing had happened. Her musical abilities were intact and her memory and concentration even had improved. Her doctors concluded that her brain must have been damaged when she was still a toddler and because she had started to play an instrument at an early age, her brain seemingly adapted to the damage, storing musical memories in other regions than the right temporal lobe.
Cognition, attention, learning, memory, language, motor skills, emotions, thought, reasoning, or the mind: From whichever angle you look at it, the human brain is endlessly fascinating. One of the most fascinating abilities is its ability to adapt, change, and reorganize. And this ability is not limited to a few synapses rewiring a tiny bit. Until the 1990s, many scientists believed that the structure of the human brain was mostly defined by our genes and that the brain was more or less immutable after early childhood. Today we know that nothing could be farther from the truth. Our genes are simply not capable of describing the 100 trillion neurons of the adult brain. So we are born half-baked and the final structure and wiring of the brain are gradually formed by learning and experience. Up until old age, the brain is able to grow new neurons and constantly forms new connections that become stronger with use. The brain adapts to what is needed to survive. This is called neuroplasticity.
The amazing thing about neuroplasticity: To a certain extent, we have control over it. For one, you can choose to do something over and over again, and your brain will adapt to the new requirements. This is how we learn and change our habits. And, as researchers have found, by actively focussing attention, we can increase the effect an action has on the structure of our brains. But what is even more astonishing: Just thinking of a specific action has the same effect on your brain circuitry like actually performing the action. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between a real and an imagined action. It fires the exact same neurons. We can use the power of our minds to shape the physical structure of the brain.
Focussed attention can increase the chances of recovery for stroke patients and can even cure behavioral disorders that were previously thought to be incurable. In his book “The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force”, Jeffrey M. Schwartz talks about how he successfully treated people who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with a self-treatment approach that included mindfulness training. The patients, who, for example, experienced an urge to repeatedly wash their hands, practiced paying attention to the moment a compulsive behavior would arise and then tried to refocus their attention on another fulfilling, productive activity for at least 15 minutes. Over time, many were able to successfully “rewire” their brains, significantly decreasing the amount and severity of compulsive habits and injuries. In his book, Schwartz offers many more examples of stunning research about the brain and the power of directed mental force. And while I’m not yet sold on his idea that the mind even is a physical force like gravity or electromagnetism, he still offers much food for thought about how we can use our mind – and mindfulness – to shape the workings of our brains.
Just like with the observable universe, even after years of research, we are only scratching the surface of understanding how our brains work. But what researchers have found so far, suggests that the brain is much more malleable than we thought.
Our brains aren’t just the result of our genes and other influences that are predetermined or out of our control. To a large extent, we can decide which thoughts, experiences, and skills we want to admit to our brains. Maybe it is time to become better at mindfully directing our thoughts and attention. Because the things we do and think define who we become.
This is the 57th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.