Who doesn’t dream of taking full control of their brain, becoming a master of their own mind? For tens of thousands of years, individuals from every culture around the world have claimed the ability to focus their thoughts and brain activity to a state of profound one-pointedness, leading to incredible mental feats, deep states of calm, and numerous enhancements to the brain’s day to day functionality. Whether these people are called gurus, yogis, spiritual masters, or even prophets, the recipe for unlocking the brain’s full potential has traditionally involved methods such as years of sensory deprivation, the use of rare and exotic entheogens, praying to a higher power, or even a mixture of all the above. However, studies have revealed that the ability to change the brain, both biologically and psychologically, is already at our fingertips. You don’t need to be a spiritual guru to start hacking and changing your brain this moment; altering your own brain is far simpler than you might think!
As stated above, you can start drastically altering your brain immediately, but first, let’s talk about how and why this level of change is even possible.
The brain is highly plastic, meaning that it can change its own shape and functionality in respone to stimuli or through direct intention. This capacity for the brain to change is referred to as brain plasticity. While absolutely everyone has experienced changing over time–from child to adult–due to the natural growth and maturity of thoughts, perceptions, and intentions, brain plasticity goes above and beyond day to day changes and provides individuals the ability to radically change according to both internal and external stimuli. In fact, in 2007, a French man was documented to be living a perfectly normal life despite missing a large portion of his original brain. Researchers analyzing the man’s brain pointed out that
…even though his remaining brain was only tiny, the neurons left over were able to still generate a theory about themselves, which means the man remained conscious of his actions.
Incredibly, the man’s brain was capable of spontaneously altering its physical makeup to account for the difference in mass as well as the ongoing brain damage. If a person can lose 90% of their brain and still function equally well as when they had 100% of their brain, this implies that the brain is far more powerful and capable of change than any of us may realize.
While the brain is capable of radically changing over a short period of time, it is also capable of changing on a moment to moment basis through the natural development of growing up. During development, different activities and experiences influence the brain to alter itself. Studies on middle age monkeys have shown increases in physical exercise leading to
histologically-quantified vascular volume in the cerebral cortex in parallel with improved performance on cognitive tests…. Such vascular changes likely contribute to activity-dependent differences observed…after training.
These changes indicate that an increase in exercise increased the learning rate. While the experiment revealed temporary results, the changes remained constant through regular exercise.
Similar to this development, practicing different activities can lead to ongoing brain development across various structures of the brain. As children,
most neurogenesis is complete by five months, with one important exception being cells in the hippocampus…. Once the neurons are formed, they begin to migrate along fibrous pathways formed by radial glial cells…. As cells… reach their destination the interaction of genes, maturation, and environmental influences increasingly steer them toward differentiating into a particular cell type.
This means that our cells go through many stages as they develop, so different effects on our brains at different stages of development can drastically change the resultant structure and functionality of the brain.
Natural Human Development and Brain Change
While humans never truly stop developing, the vast majority of our development and growth takes place when we are young, especially during puberty. As the cells in our bodies continue to develop and die off, our brains continuously develop. Because of the ongoing development of the brain, our brains are always dynamically altering themselves through improved cortical organization, which involves the cognitive processing of sensory information. According to scientists at the Department of Neuroscience in Canada,
The cells lining the subventricular zone are stem cells that remain active throughout life. These stem cells can produce neural or glial progenitor cells that can migrate into the cerebral white or gray matter, even in adulthood…. The functional role of these cells is still controversial but their generation can be influenced by many factors including experience, drugs, hormones, and injury.
Because of the versatility of brain cells, our daily experiences can change the physical brain and how it causes our bodies to respond. Studies have shown enhanced functionality of the brain when animals were placed
…in complex environments in which there is an opportunity for animals to interact with a changing sensory and social environment and to engage in far more motor activity than regular caging…. [The results have shown] increases in brain size, cortical thickness, neuron size, dendritic branching, spine density, synapses per neuron, glial numbers and complexity, and vascular arborization.
These incredible results reveal that the brain’s ability to physically alter itself in response to internal or external stimuli exists in all brains, not just humans. In fact, the study went on to show that,
Young rats [placed] for 60 days in enriched environments, [showed] changes in overall brain weight on the order of 7–10% . This increase in brain weight reflects increases in the number of glia and blood vessels, neuron soma size, dendritic elements, and synapses.
Again, these studies reiterate the brain’s proven ability to grow, become enhanced, and even alter itself in unexpected ways relative to what the environment demands.
Ways You Can Personally Change Your Brain Right Now
With the brain’s capability and ability to change, along with the brain’s natural state of constantly altering itself through physical development, incredible avenues of self change are available to all people. The following provides information on some of the most accessible and economic ways to literally alter the shape, form, and functionality of the brain and its associative psychology. If you want to alter yourself and control who you are on a day to day and year to year basis, try the following:
- Learning (school, experience, watching)
Learn a Language
Learning a new language causes great changes in the brain. A study performed at Penn State University revealed the benefits of learning a new language by observing the creation of additional and more complex networks created by neurons. Researches of the study pointed out that in people who participated in learning a language,
…their brain networks had become better integrated, which means they’re more flexible and allows for faster and more efficient learning…those who excelled in the language lessons had more integrated networks than the brains of those who struggled, even before the experiment had begun, suggesting that they habitually sought out new things to learn and exercise their brains with.
Furthermore, this study also showed that
…language-learning participants ended up with increased density in their grey matter and that their white matter tissue had been strengthened. Grey matter is a type of neural tissue that encompasses various regions in the brain associated with muscle control, memory formation, emotions, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, and it’s white matter’s job to connect these grey matter regions together in the brain’s cerebrum, sort of like a train line for your brain.
This study showed that learning a new language can directly alter the brain to become more accustomed to learning new things. Amazingly, these effects were also shown to occur regardless of age, even in the case of an 84 year old.
Go Read a Book!!
Many underestimate the effects of reading, but reading can actually alter the brain significantly. The changes that reading can bring are long lasting and profound. A study published in the journal Brain Connectivity revealed the changes to the brain after simply reading a novel. The researchers pointed out that in individuals who had finished reading a novel, there was
heightened connectivity…seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
By reading a novel, the brain is able to more realistically and efficiently simulate feeling to the body, leading to more profound states of empathy. Also, our brains are able to become more active as we practice exercising our brains through reading.
Sit Down and Meditate!
Another easily accessible way to alter the brain is through meditation. Mediating daily, even for a short period of time, can enhance emotions and awareness. It can affect
…how personally you take things and how you interact with others. It enhances compassion, allows you to see things more clearly (including yourself) and creates a sense of calm and centeredness that is indescribable.
…that the main nodes of the default-mode network…were relatively deactivated in experienced meditators across all meditation types. Furthermore, functional connectivity analysis revealed stronger coupling in experienced meditators between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (regions previously implicated in self-monitoring and cognitive control)….
The study showed that through meditation, it is possible to gain more self control. Rebecca Gladding, a psychologist, further explains similar effects of meditating, pointing out that,
First, the strong, tightly held connection between the Me Center (specifically the unhelpful vmPFC) and the bodily sensation/fear centers begins to break down. As this connection withers, you will no longer assume that a bodily sensation or momentary feeling of fear means something is wrong with you or that you are the problem! This explains, in part, why anxiety decreases the more you meditate – it’s because the neural paths that link those upsetting sensations to the Me Center are decreasing.
The overcoming of these feelings allows us to see that they are merely transient feelings and helps us to not be affected by them. Another benefit of meditating is that it causes
…a heftier, healthier connection…between the Assessment Center and bodily sensation/fear centers.
So, instead of unexpected behavior during sudden feelings of fear or nervousness, through meditation, people are able to remain more rational in the way they view the situation.
The easiest and most accessible method to alter the brain is through breathing. Breathing has many beneficial effects. Not only does it have the ability to calm us down, but it can also positively affect the way we think. Studies conducted by Northwestern University show the relationship between brain activity and breathing. Researchers found that for people in general,
their brain activity appeared to fluctuate in sync with their breathing. This activity was seen in three areas of the brain: the piriform (olfactory) cortex, which processes smells; the hippocampus, which controls memory; and the amygdala, which is tied to emotional processing.
However, the researchers further discovered the effects of different types of breathing and their relation to our brains. Northwestern University reported the results, quoting neurologist Christina Zelano, stating,
One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation….When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.
By controlling our rhythm of breathing, we can alter the brain to have better memory, produce more positive emotions, and retain a more positive outlook about the future. The best part is that breathing techniques can be practiced anywhere and anytime, no matter who you are.
Future Techniques to Alter the Brain
While the methods described above are accessible to anyone and everyone, there are numerous other methods of altering the brain that are only just now entering the modern technological landscape.
A more recent method that we can use to alter our brains is through brain implants. In the future, by having a chip or device inserted into our brains, we can alter or boost our memories and control limbs. Current research revolves around treatment for people with trauma or for paralyzed areas of their body. In a recent study, a man who had been paralyzed in an accident was able to have his arm and hand movements restored through two brain implants. The brain implants
record brain signals created when Kochevar imagines movement of his own arm and hand. The brain-computer interface extracts information from the brain signals about what movements he intends to make, then passes the information to command the electrical stimulation system.
Not only can these implants help people gain more independence, but they can boost our memories. Scientists have tested brain implants that opened up many possibilities to improvement of memory through the devices. The New York Times explains how
The device works like a pacemaker, sending electrical pulses to aid the brain when it is struggling to store new information, but remaining quiet when it senses that the brain is functioning well. [A study reported that the devices] improved word recall by 15 percent — roughly the amount that Alzheimer’s disease steals over two and half years.
Another future possibility that could be accessible to us in the far future is brain uploads. Researchers are interested in uploading memories or personalities to a computer. Eventually this could lead to the creation of incorruptible bodies that would have the same memories and personalities as us. Already there has been a company, Nectome, that tried to preserve memories from the brain after death. MIT, which aided Nectrome, stated that they withdrew from their contract because
Neuroscience has not sufficiently advanced to the point where we know whether any brain preservation method is powerful enough to preserve all the different kinds of biomolecules related to memory and the mind. It is also not known whether it is possible to recreate a person’s consciousness.
This is an extremely exciting possibility that could very well be the world of tomorrow if research continues, despite the pitfalls.
Adding, Removing, or Altering Memories
Experiments on mice have shown that changing past memories is a possibility as well. MIT has done an experiment where they successfully change a fearful memory to a cheerful one. In the study,
Male mice were given a negative experience…and the neurons working to store that memory were labelled using ‘optogenetics’. This is a technique…installs a switch in those neurons, allowing them to be turned on by will [by a blue light].
The results of the study showed the mice to be more fearful in the room associated with their negative experiences without the simulation. However, once the mice were stimulated, they immediately felt more at ease. The researchers further predict that
…a place memory, stored in brain cells of the hippocampus, can “call up” different sets of neurons in the amygdala, invoking either good or bad emotions – and their experiments tweaked that wiring, so that the original memory produced an altered emotional response.
A genetic alteration is a method to alter our brains in the near future involving the direct manipulation of a person’s genetic code. UT Southwestern Medical Center Investigators were able to find an alteration that could enhance our brains. The researchers tested the deletion of a gene code on mice and discovered that the mice with the gene alteration
…formed more neurons over time…[and]…required much lower amounts of anti-depressants to counteract the effects of stress.
This manipulation that increases the number of brain cells enhanced the effect of antidepressants. This change can lead to decrease in the amount of necessary antidepressants for future generations. The change also had
…anti-depressive and anti-anxiety effects of its own that continue over time.