Yes, it is breathtaking to consider that we have the will to physically and functionally change our brains.
And while the fact that research demonstrates that simply contemplating a physical activity can make these changes, the brass ring involves taking the final step.
That is, exploring the effect of mental attention not associated with any physical activity or dedicated to episodic or declarative memory; mental attention directed in such a way as to facilitate the experience of what has been variously termed universal intelligence, Zero Point Field, Source, God, Divine Matrix.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania maintains what may at first blush seem to be another seemingly incongruous appointment; associate professor of radiology.
These titles are reconciled however, as he has devoted his career to examining how the practice of meditation changes both the structure and function of the brain as revealed by sophisticated imaging techniques. In his latest book, How God Changes Your Brain, Dr. Newberg describes his breakthrough findings not only demonstrating the specific areas of the brain that are modified by meditative practices, but in addition, eloquently details the function of these areas in terms of the positive effects behaviorally and emotionally imparted on the meditation practitioner.
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Newberg’s work has shown that the practice of meditation enhances blood flow as well as function in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate, an evolutionary newcomer that mediates our experience of empathy, social awareness, intuition, compassion, and our ability to regulate emotion.
This structure sits in the front of the brain and wraps around the front part of the corpus callosum, the thick network of neurons that bridges the two hemispheres together. In addition to these functions, the anterior cingulate mediates communication between the amygdala, one of our most primitive brain structures, and the prefrontal cortex, a crowning evolutionary achievement and a purely human brain attribute.
The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure situated in the front of each temporal lobe (there are thus two). It governs our so-called “fight or flight” automatic and instantaneous responses to real or imagined threat.
Basically, it is the “fear center” of the brain, important for our survival as it allows us to respond to dangerous situations reflexively and unconsciously as opposed to actions based upon the deliberate and calculated input from the far more sophisticated prefrontal cortex.
Unlike the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex allows for measured, careful responses to situations, giving consideration to various outcome possibilities and allowing for the evaluation of the implications of various choices.
The anterior cingulate thus stands at the crossroad. Its functionality or lack thereof helps determine whether our day to day behavior is reflexive and fear motivated, or is a manifestation of our uniquely human attribute of recognizing the array of implications and consequences of our choices.
With enhancement of the anterior cingulate’s function comes better connection to behavior based on the latter along with enhanced empathy, social awareness, intuition, compassion, and our ability to regulate emotion.
And Dr. Newberg has quite graphically shown using the latest technology in functional brain mapping that spiritual practices like meditation strengthen the anterior cingulate while at the same time calming the activity of the primitive amygdala.
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On the other hand, anger has exactly the opposite effect. Anger basically shuts down the communication to the prefrontal cortex as mediated through the anterior cingulate. Emotion and fear take over in determining behavior. As Newberg puts it, “ Anger interrupts the functioning of your frontal lobes. Not only do you lose the ability to be rational, you lose the awareness that you’re acting in an irrational way. When your frontal lobes shut down, it’s impossible to listen to the other person, let alone feel empathy or compassion… When you intensely and consistently focus on your spiritual values and goals, you increase the blood flow to your frontal lobes and anterior cingulate, which cause the activity in emotional centers of the brain to decrease.”
Bridging our primitive emotional response areas with our highly evolved contemplative prefrontal cortex coupled with extensive connections with other brain areas allows the anterior cingulate to mediate how we perceive ourselves and our actions in relation to others and to the rest of the world, and beyond.
And because the function of this circuit is enhanced by meditation, Dr. Newberg believes, “… there is a coevolution of spirituality and consciousness, engaging circuits that allow us to envision a benevolent, interconnecting relationship between the universe, God, and ourselves.”
So the gift of neuroplasticity, a process enhanced by repetition, attention, caloric restriction, and adequate dietary DHA, is the physical and functional link between meditation and connection with divine energy.
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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