Neurons develop a relationship that facilitates future coordinated activation as a response to being repeatedly stimulated.
This is how networks are constructed.
While it is quaint to consider the beauty of Tiger Woods’ golf swing as representing a pinnacle in the development of “muscle memory,” the real credit for his performance lies in the memory encoded in the neural networks in his brain that have been refined through years of practice.
But it takes more than simple repetition of a stimulation or activity to create the brain connections that lead to the formation of neural networks. Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, performed a series of experiments in the mid 1990s demonstrating the importance of attention in the formation of neural networks.
In one experiment he applied a tapping stimulus to the fingers of two groups of monkeys. Occasionally, the rhythm of the tapping would change. In one group, responding to the change in the tapping would result in a reward; a sip of juice. In the other monkeys, a change in the tapping did would not provide any reward, even if the monkeys responded to the change.
After six weeks, examination of the monkey’s brains revealed profound changes in the monkeys who, by virtue of being rewarded, paid close attention to the stimulus, waiting for the rhythm change.
Specifically, changes were recorded in the specific area of their brains that was involved in processing stimulation to the fingers. No such changes were observed in the monkeys who weren’t paying attention to the stimulus, despite the fact that the stimulus, the tapping on their fingers, was exactly the same.
Looking back on these results and considering the implications for humans, Dr. Merzenich remarked,” Experience coupled with attention leads to physical changes in the structure and future functioning of the nervous system. This leaves us with a clear physiological fact…moment by moment we choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves…” In essence, creating neural networks, and indeed the process of neuroplasticity, requires focused attention.
As Dispenza stated,” The key ingredient in making these neural connections…is focused attention. When we mentally attend to whatever we are learning, the brain can map the information on which we are focusing. On the other hand, when we don’t pay complete attention to what we are doing in the present moment, our brain activates a host of other synaptic networks that can distract it from its original attention. Without focused concentration brain connections are not made, and memory is not stored.”
And as Sharon Begley summarized in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention.”
So becoming mentally engaged with an activity is requisite for learning that activity. We can choose to strengthen those pathways that serve us in positive ways.
And as we will see later on, this is the science that underlies our ability to choose to enhance our ability to connect with the divine energy field that permeates our existence. Moreover, the corollary of Dr. Hebb’s “neurons that fire together, wire together” thesis provides the understanding that neurons that don’t fire together may ultimately not remain wired together.
So activities need to be maintained if they if their neural networks are to remain functional. This may sound familiar and distressing, but the “glass full” aspect of this concept is that it allows for the disappearance of dysfunctional or detrimental networks when attention is directed away from them.
Research now demonstrates that just the mental aspect of an activity is enough to create the neural connections associated with learning it. In 1995, Dr. Pascuel-Leone conducted experiments in which he demonstrated changes in the brains of individuals only mentally practicing a piano exercise. These brain changes were virtually identical to those seen in subjects who actually physically practiced the instrument. These subjects demonstrated that the mere act of thinking about an activity imparted physical changes in the brain.
And it is this profound discovery that has become a focal point of unified interest in discourse amongst philosophers, scientists, and theologians alike. As Schwartz and Begley propose in their groundbreaking book, The Mind and the Brain,
“ … the time has come for science to confront the serious implications of the fact that directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function; that the exertion of willful effort generates physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical structure. The result is directed neuroplasticity.”
David Perlmutter, M.D., FACN is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of nutritional influences in neurological disorders. A board-certified neurologist, Dr. Perlmutter is the author of bestselling books including Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment and The Better Brain Book .
Dr. Perlmutter has appeared on 20/20, Larry King Live, CNN, Fox News, Fox and Friends , the Today show, The Oprah Show, and The Early Show on CBS. He serves as medical director of the Perlmutter Health Center in Florida and is an adjunct instructor at the Institute for Functional Medicine.
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