Using mindfulness to rewire the brain

For a long time neuroscience assumed the brain was static. More recent discoveries show that the brain changes according to our experiences and the way we use it. Mindfulness, a particular way of using the brain, can be used to rewire our brains and transform our negative and feelings habits into positive and enjoyable ones.

Around 25 years ago neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and Thây’s teachings. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories, emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” states writer Nicholas Carr. (1)

Until the 1980s, received wisdom in neuroscience was that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was drawn between the hardware of the brain determining and limiting the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich, this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way round. Neuroscience today is governed by what’s known as Hebb’s rule: “cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the harder it becomes to rewire them. These older entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thought and actions. Every time we fire off a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood of us doing it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

My son Raphael, with lotus flower leaf, with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, 2012

My son Raphael, with lotus flower leaf, with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, 2012

There are many parallels with the practice as mindfulness, in particular as taught by the famous Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (also known simply as Thây), who has been instrumental in modernizing Buddhist thought and practice and making it relevant for everyone. The essence of mindfulness practice is to develop singularity of thought, ie concentration, which can help us get us out of out of habitual thinking and feeling and to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for more well-being. Mindfulness is intentional, it is based on our free will, and we need to be “awake” to practice it. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being in doing so, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

Using a mantra proposed by Thich Nhat Hanh, “this is a happy moment,” is a good example: it trains the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might otherwise not be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthen the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We also all know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not, another factor is the way we look at it—wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness, compassion and deep understanding, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering in this way, and with mindfulness and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

In addition, Thich Nhat Hanh has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings, and neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathway indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thây has long recommended that we don’t overdo the digging into their suffering, but that healing instead begins with watering our seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Statue of the Buddha in Plum Village, France

Statue of the Buddha in Plum Village, France

In trying to describe these processes more clearly, I hit upon an analogy that’s an extension of Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of mindfulness practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. And so, looking at our neural pathways, a helpful way of describing the hardware is as gulleys, brooks, canals, and canyons, and the software—ie our feelings and thoughts—as the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy with describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. This is unavoidable: life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with ‘wrong’ thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a canal, and eventually a grand canyon of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this stream or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (ie the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream, and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of us can we heal our afflictions. We shine our sun of mindfulness on the gulley or canal, and take the energy out of the stream of water.

When we’re suffering streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds it firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it will evaporate in the light of the sun and fall down as rain (our tears), somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers, rather than deepen the groove.

In this analogy it’s easy to see why Thich Nhat Hanh stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice we use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may be bitter and/or have repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings. Sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to this, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person, and as the water starts to flow we cry, and we can begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. There are no magic formulas or strategies: the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful at any point of whether we’re transforming our suffering, or rehearsing it.

Thich Nhat Hanh in 2012, talking about mindfulness and neuroscience, elaborating on some of the concepts in this article

Thich Nhat Hanh in 2012, talking about mindfulness and neuroscience.

A lot of our mindfulness practice can be understood with the above. Mindfulness practice in general and sitting meditation in particular are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, ie the power of our concentration. Neuroscience is also still researching a particular class of neurons called mirror-neurons, which are triggered by observing the actions and/or feelings of others, and then fire in a corresponding way. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror-neurons make empathy possible, and they certainly also offer an explanation as to why our practice is so much deeper when we are part of a group of people who also practice mindfulness.

Also, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our Store Consciousness (which can be seen as analogous with the sub-conscience) can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the things we consume in our society strengthen addictive neural pathways, in particular what comes to us through the many screens that now dominate our lives. By contrast, the general calming nature of mindfulness practice will make it easier to rewire our brain. Living lightly offers more freedom to a mindfulness practitioner, and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones, in other words to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being.

© 2012, Paul Tingen.


1) All above quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* A. Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005).

* Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008.

* Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007).

* Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. (Harper – Perrenial, 2002).


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