"What is the ultimate truth about ourselves? Various answers suggest themselves. We are a bit of stellar matter gone wrong. We are physical machinery—puppets that strut and talk and laugh and die as the hand of time pulls the strings beneath. But there is one elementary inescapable answer. We are that which asks the question."
—Sir Arthur Eddington, astronomer/philosopher, 1935
What is the mind? How does a lifeless, small amount of gray material with its electro-chemical rhythmic dancing give rise to a living, thinking, consciously aware being—one capable of probing the mysteries of the universe and its own character? It has only been in the recent fifty years that consciousness itself has become established as a valid topic of scientific study. Earlier generations of psychology graduate students were not permitted to use the word 'mind' in their dissertations as the word was too subjective, an immeasurable nebulosity, and unscientific—yet it is the 'thing' with which we are most familiar in our own experience.
Sages have said that the mind is our best friend and our worst enemy. Although this may sound like a paradox, let's investigate.
Some scientists consider the mind as being basically a product of the activity and patterns in the cells, tissues, and groups of neurons in the brain, and that living matter is simply a working organization of molecules, cells, and proteins. How well the brain works can be influenced by biology, genes, practice, and experience. But many others also understand the mind as the interpreter of the world, the maker of meaning and coherence, the producer of our pains, fears, angers, successes, and happiness; our minds produce the worlds we live in.
Interestingly, this echoes the ancient words of the Buddha: "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thought. With our thoughts we make our world."
State of Mind
Scientists are now providing evidence that the state of one's mind can influence the length of one's life and illnesses, and aid in improving sports or music performance.
In a well-known study done at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, sports psychologist Judd Biasiotto split undergraduate basketball students into three groups to perform free throws.
At the end of the month, Biasiotto tested the students again. The first group had improved their initial scores by 24%. The second group had improved by 23%. The third group showed no improvement.
In another experiment, conducted by L. Clark at Wayne State University, two groups from 144 high-school boys were studied over a two-week period. Students in one group did one-hand foul shots every day, and those in the second group visualized making the shots but did not physically practice them. Both groups showed improvement.i
One thing to note is that these are deep visualizations. That is, the visualizer must feel the weight and texture of the ball and use all the senses to make the scene as realistic as possible.
"In summary, the evidence produced thus far supports the use of imagery to benefit performance. Research has shown that imagery can produce better performance outcomes and have a positive effect on anxiety, motivation, and self-efficacy."ii
In studies of survivors of cancer, it was found that those patients who were active, developed a fighting spirit, were willing to change lifestyles, and who thought less of themselves and more about others, could live for longer periods of time and in a more fulfilling way than those patients who did not use their will-power to changeiii. But it is also likely that one's resiliency may have arisen from having a generally healthful or positive way of life in the first place.
Other case studiesiv find that the brain is not as rigidly hard-wired and incapable of change and improvement as had been thought for centuries. Only recently, in the mid-1990s, have we learned that the mind/brain can improve and re-wire itself even under dire circumstances, such as loss of an entire hemisphere or a damaged or abnormal lobe. In a blind person, other senses now have more brain area to use for their enhancement. Scientists have learned that even aging brains can be revitalized in varying degrees.
Previously, it had been thought that whatever faculties the brain lost could never be regained, that damaged neurons could never be regenerated. While this remains controversial, depending on the extent of the damage, scientists have observed 'sprouting' in mammals that occurs when healthy axons, near damaged ones, "sprout" additional back-up branches which, presumably, fill in somewhat for the loss of the damaged neurons.
Jay Braun, Professor Emeritus of Psychology says, "Neurons in the peripheral nervous system (outside of the cranium and spinal column), however, do regenerate to various degrees which is handy. How handy it would be to have a regenerating central nervous system is open to debate for animals like mammals, which are so dependent upon life experience—memory—rather than evolutionary selection for behavior appropriate to the environment into which they were born. (It is interesting that many of our vertebrate ancestors, such as amphibians, clearly demonstrate regeneration of central neurons.)"
These new studies demonstrate that just the opposite of what was once believed is true—the brain can reorganize itself in response to trauma and experience. New terms being used are neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Neurogenesis, that is, new neurons developing from active cells, has been observed, especially in parts of the brain associated with memory, for example, in the hippocampus.
"... that novel environments may trigger neurogenesis, is consistent with Merzenich's discovery that in order to keep the brain fit, we must learn something new, rather than simply replaying already-mastered skills."v
Scientists are now proposing that we have "mirror neurons" in our brains that respond even when we merely observe other people's actions, as though we ourselves are experiencing the same actions! Our mirror neurons respond to the activities and emotions and intentions of others, that is, other people's neuronal activities affect our neurons. Imagine, then, how our mind/brains respond to all the negative and violent scenes we watch on television, films, and video games! In short, what we see, we experience at some level of consciousness.
Using the Mind's Abilities
Recent books have presented additional scientific studies that also conclude that training the mind (through concentration, meditation, visualization, intense focusing, brain exercises) can effectively alter the structure of the brain.vi Athletes and musicians who visualize practice sessions in their minds, in addition to some physical exercise, perform virtually as effectively as those who practice only physically.
When asked what people fear the most, they usually answer, after death and dying, not snakes and spiders nor sticks and stones, but speaking in front of an audience. Actually, we don't really fear speaking in public; what causes our dread is what we think and imagine about public speaking, which causes the body to produce chemicals that pervade our systems whenever we are called upon to say something in front of others. What we think and imagine is our interpretation of situations, and becomes our perception of the world, that is, our reality. Even thinking about what someone else may be saying, thinking, or feeling is only our interpretation of their body language, words, and tone of voice. So many misunderstandings take place because of faulty interpretations!
Taking the role of optimist or pessimist can make a huge difference in our interpretations, in our relative happiness in life, and in the health and activity choices we make. Studies have shown that positive interpretations do seem to aid in our general health and feelings of wellbeing. It is clear that our minds can have a very powerful influence over the health of our bodies.
"Everything your 'immaterial' mind imagines leaves material traces. Each thought alters the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level."iv
Placebos are non-medicines with no curative powers, but which are sometimes administered to patients in certain situations. In a test, patients may not know which substance they are being given—a medicine or a placebo. In most careful double-blind studies done using placebos, it is found that about a third of the participants receive benefits. This shows that the mind, thinking it may have received medicine, begins the body's healing process, without any actual medicine. It also may suggest that the illness may have been caused in the first place by the mind and thoughts. Placebos illustrate the power of imagination to affect the mind/brain, and the power of the mind to affect the body. The effect of the placebo can be stopped by blocking the endorphins that were produced in the brain in response to it. So, the endorphins are the healing agents, released when the mind/brain thought that medicine was being received.
It behooves us to be able to train or tame the mind. After all, it is just going about its usual duties—constantly interpreting the input that our sensory instruments feed it, and through the limbic system, giving emotional weight to situations.
Those few, very relaxed, moments just before falling asleep or waking up are times to capture creative ideas. Most creative people keep a pen and notebook or a computer close by to write down new thoughts that suddenly arise from the subconscious.
Scientists have begun to study the effects of meditation in recent years. Harvard Professor Herbert Benson has shown that when a person sits quietly, with closed, upturned eyes, alpha waves intensify in the brain, and this leads to a more relaxed mind/body. He also found that simply observing the breath also has a great calming effect, decreases the amount of epinephrine/adrenaline in the brain, and thus helps reduce anxieties and stress.vii
Tibetan monks have been studied during their meditation practice. Results show that specific areas of the brain are affected when the monks go into a deep meditation state, some going so deeply that they claim to experience a feeling of 'union with something transcendent'.viii Findings are similar for Catholic nuns in prayer.viii What this shows is that there are places in the brain that are measurably affected when a person engages in meditation and/or prayer.
In more compelling studies, the Dalai Lama is now working with neuroscientists as they study the long-term effects on the brains of experienced Tibetan Buddhist monks who have, over the years, meditated at least 10,000 hours compared to those of novices.ix These studies find greater changes in the well-practiced brains. They found "… greater activity in the left frontal cortex" and a "dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves … [which] underlie higher mental activity, such as consciousness."ix They conclude that happiness, even bliss, and other positive mental states can be cultivated by training the mind.
So, since we have so many "crazy thoughts", what we think cannot always be taken as being "true" or reliable. What we think is a product of a working mind, our imaginations, our experiences, memories, habits, perceptions, and preconceived ideas.
How to control this maelstrom?
Being still in one's body, sitting quietly without fidgeting, and quietening the mind is not an easy task. The mind merely continues doing its normal jobs—monitoring, interpreting, dredging up memories, imagining, criticizing, sifting through the myriad sensory inputs, entertaining, dreaming, and on and on—endlessly. If we want to still the commotion, we have to use our will and volition. One way we can do this is by the long-term practice of meditation.
Becoming the master of one's own mind/body may seem to be an idealized, but essentially unreachable, goal for most of us, but this state has been reached by many practitioners of meditation.
Try not to have a thought for a full minute—or even for a few seconds. Meditation helps to still the mental pandemonium for a while, leaving the practitioner in a calmer state afterward.
Benefits of Meditation
Practitioners report a lasting inner peacefulness, improved efficiency, better concentration, and a more positive attitude toward life, work, and others. Some report improvements in getting along better and in having more harmonious family relationships. Many report a marked lessening of stress and increase in focus. (See article "Testament of a Meditator" by clicking the 'Next' button at the bottom of this page.)
In fact, researchers claim, that for subjects who meditated just 30 minutes each day, in two months time the gray-matter density in areas of the brain belonging to empathy, stress reduction, and increased learning and memory had measurable changes.
There is still an enormous amount to be learned about meditation and its effects on the body/mind and brain; many neuroscientists are now deeming these subjects worthy of deeper investigation.
© Linda Stryker
1) Clark, LV. "Effect of mental practice on the development of a certain motor skill", Research Quarterly, 31(4):560–569
2) Morris T, Spittle M, Watt AP. 2005. Imagery in Sport. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL. p 24.
3) Siegel B. 1990. Peace, Love, and Healing. Harper Paperbacks: New York, NY.
4) Doidge N. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself. Viking: New York, NY.
5) Ramachandran V.S. 2002. "Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind the 'great leap forward' in human evolution"
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_p1.html, accessed: Aug. 20, 2011
6) Begley, S. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.
7) Benson, H. 2000. The Relaxation Response. Harper Paperbacks: New York, NY.
8) Newberg A, D'Aquilli E, Rause V. 2002. Why God Won't Go Away. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.
9) Hölzel B, et al. 2011. "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density", Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging; 191(1):36-43.
Linda Stryker has written poetry and stories for most of her life. Her creative writing has been published in Highlights for Children, New Millennium Writings, Palo Verde, Self-Realization Magazine, Emeritus Voices, and other venues. In addition, she has published many professional articles and chapters in astrophysical journals. She holds degrees in music, physics, and astronomy and won a Templeton Course Award for her course "Science and Religion". She retired from university teaching and now devotes her time to writing, tennis, meditation, and volunteering.