Your brain grew rapidly when you were a child; that’s nothing new. But did you know that your brain is still changing today? New studies in neuroplasticity have revealed that the brain continues to modify its structural connections throughout life.
Not only that but the experiences you encounter can alter the molecules that decide which of your genes get expressed—a process called epigenesis . Depending on which genes are expressed, your brain’s structure will be altered, affecting personality, mental health, behavior and more. In short, your relationships and life experiences shape the way your brain gets structured.
Granny’s experiences affect your genes
But there’s something even more surprising: your grandma’s experiences leave a mark on your genes . If your grandma was abused as a child, for example, these experiences can affect which genes get expressed in yourself, potentially releasing some rather unwanted personality traits like, say, anxiety or depression.
For decades, scientists argued about whether nurture or nature makes you who you are. It turns out, nature gives you your genetic makeup, but nurture—and even experiences your ancestors had before you were born—play a role in deciding which genes appear in the phenotype and ultimately become part of your character. Yesterday’s experiences are today’s personality. Grandma’s trauma is your triggered trait.
So, I have good news and bad news—which do you want first?
I’ll start with the bad (because that’s what depressed people do). The bad news is, you have less control over your character than we once thought. This may sound overly deterministic but it’s reality. Yes, you have the power and responsibility to change for the better. But, as Sam Harris puts it, “You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts .”
The good news is, you have less control over your character than we once thought—which means you’re not justified in being so hard on yourself. This is anything but trivial since we depressed people are adept at self-hatred. But there’s more good news. You are also not justified in being so hard on those around you. Not your partner. Not your children. Not your co-workers. No one. You can let go of your grudges. I know, easier said than done.
Understanding the brain is half the battle
“You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts.”
To understand all of this better, it’s helpful to know how your brain functions. The part of your brain that is “you, as a conscious agent”, as Sam mentions above, is the frontal cortex . This part of your brain does the reasoning, judgment, inhibition of behavior, planning, and so on. It’s where the “self” that you think of as “you” comes together.
And then there’s the limbic region. This part of your brain does the feeling and reacting. It’s where your instinct toward self-preservation, protecting your family, remembering past threats, and seeking rewards happen, among other things. It’s the area that controls the body via hormones like norepinephrine or adrenaline. It’s also the area of the brain we share with lower animals. The most critical difference between the frontal cortex and the limbic region is that, while the former can be rewired and reprogrammed, the latter cannot. The limbic region is hardwired.
Taming your mind is like training a horse
It’s helpful to think of your limbic region as a horse and your frontal cortex as you, the rider of the horse . The thoughts, impulses, and sensations in your body are like a wild animal’s natural instincts; they arise without your control. If you see a snake, your limbic region will try to compel you—by triggering hormones like norepinephrine (which results in emotions like fear)—to avoid the snake at all costs. But your frontal cortex will then have to decipher all of the incoming information. It may respond to the limbic region by saying, “Look, that is a garden snake which isn’t even poisonous. Plus, it’s tiny.” However, the limbic region, like an untamed horse, may choose to ignore that logic. Worse still, your frontal cortex can shut off completely in these situations as you get carried away by emotions and sensations.
This is the basis for meditation. Without meditation, you are unable to decipher between the untamed horse and yourself, the rider. When the horse (your limbic region) reacts strongly to something, the rider (your frontal cortex) simply follows suit. But changing the relationship you have with your horse can change your horse’s nature.
Be the horse whisperer
There are two main ways to tame a horse: natural or traditional . Traditional training has often involved shaming or inflicting pain and fear—ever used those methods on yourself? Natural horsemanship, on the other hand, is about understanding your horse and building a partnership with her. Instead of forcing her to behave properly through shame and fear, you ask questions like, “Why does she behave this way?” As you dig deeper into this question, you discover that she has no control over her behavior. Our species has survived for millions of years thanks to the limbic region’s incessant warnings.
As you meditate, you become a skillful rider who observes the horse’s behavior to understand it. Instead of trying to stop the horse from having its own whims, you remain still and gentle as the whims inevitably come and go. You don’t get angry at the horse or try to beat it into submission. You don’t stiffen up and get tense. Rather, you acknowledge its desires and gently whisper it back on track.
This is exactly what you do when you’re meditating on the breath. Your limbic region spontaneously brings up a nasty sensation like anger and, instead of manifesting that anger in your behavior, you simply observe what it feels like as you bring your awareness back to the breath.
Change the structure of your brain. In as little as 8 weeks.
fMRI studies have shown that meditation shrinks the amygdala—the “fear center” or “fight or flight” region of the brain . Not only that, but meditation also causes the frontal cortex to become thicker. So, meditation shrinks your fear-producer and strengthens your decision making, concentration, and awareness. Or, your horse becomes less unruly and unpredictable while you, the rider, become stronger and better at working in tandem with the horse. Even more impressive, you can change the structure of your brain in as little as eight weeks with just 10-15 minutes of meditation per day .
There is a lot about yourself that you are powerless to control. After all, you didn’t choose your genetic makeup or the experiences your ancestors encountered during their lives. You didn’t choose the horse you’re riding. But that’s what mindfulness meditation (thinking less) is about. Why waste your time wishing you had a different horse when you could spend it training the one you have?
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Hurley, D. (2015, June 25). Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark On Your Genes. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes
Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.
Hall, B. (2017, May 16). Retrieved October 21, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYaV1ptlVHM&t=4518s
Halliwell, E. (2018, June 08). How Taming the Mind is Like Riding a Horse. Retrieved October 20, 2018, from https://www.mindful.org/how-taming-the-mind-is-like-riding-a-horse/
Jones, V. (2015, August 14). Natural Horsemanship versus Traditional Horse Training. Retrieved from https://www.naylors.com/blog/natural-horsemanship-versus-traditional-horse-training/
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