Curt Thompson: Neuroplasticity and Spiritual Disciplines

Curt Thompson: Neuroplasticity and Spiritual Disciplines


>>The term neuroplasticity really refers to the capacity of neurons
to flexibly change, by that we mean the following. 25 to 30 years ago, which
is not really that long, it was believed that, for the most part, if there was any damage
to the brain, number one, the brain would have a
great deal of difficulty recovering from that damage. The second thing was that
it was generally considered that once a person reaches the age somewhere between about 12 and 16 that the brain was for
the most part done forming and there really wasn’t any more space for growth or change whatsoever. But advancements in some of our technology gives us the capacity for now measuring what those neurons are able to do and as it turns out, neurons
are far more flexible than we ever thought they were. And by flexibility, by neuroplasticity or the neuron’s capacity
to be plastic or malleable, we mean the following. First of all, that neurons
are able of regeneration. So the brain has the capacity
for, one, growing new neurons. The second part of
neuroplasticity is that the brain has the capacity for neurons
to grow in size and length, in diameter and in length. And the third thing is that neurons are able to increase their
degree of connectivity with other neurons. All three of these things, regeneration, growth in length and diameter, and growth in density of connection, means that our mind has the
capacity for doing things even after damage that we
didn’t think it could do before. What does that have to do
with spiritual transformation? We like to say that in the brain nothing changes without neurons changing. If I learn a new thing, if I put a new practice
into a disciplined place, all of those things require
the redirection of neurons to do things that they
weren’t doing before. Neuroplasticity is something
that we want to enhance in order to make that
flexibility more accessible. Things like spiritual disciplines, fasting, confession, prayer,
solitude, and so forth, do a couple of things. One, they open our awareness to things that our mind is sensing,
feeling, evoking, that we typically are
not paying attention to. If I am now paying attention
to these new things I’m asking my brain’s neurons to do things they weren’t doing before and as such I open up windows into connecting functions of my mind, experiences of my mind that
were not being connected before. And so the flexibility of neuroplasticity is in some respects almost interchangeable with spiritual formation. You can’t really talk
about spiritual formation without invoking the
activity of neuroplasticity.

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