Neuroplasticity and Spiritual Disciplines
Curt Thompson M.D., author of Anatomy of the Soul, explains the flexibility of the brain to change and grow, the capabilities of the mind, and what these have to do with spiritual transformation and the traditional 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.