Neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain changes, for better or worse, and that brain “plasticity” can be evaluated. Stress, for example, can physically alter not only the connections between brain cells (neurons), but also the structures in our brain’s emotional circuitry. A region of the brain called the amygdala, responsible for our emotional responses, actually gets bigger after chronic or repeated stress. An area of the brain involved in memory called the hippocampus, on the other hand, can shrink in response to chronic stress.
Physical exercise, cognitive therapy and meditation, among other things, can also change brains – but for the better. These changes can be measured with the tools of modern neuroscience, according to a review article now online at Nature Neuroscience.
“The study reflects a major transition in the focus of neuroscience from disease to well being,” says first author Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a press release from the university.
Although the positive practices such as exercise or cognitive training reviewed in the article were not designed using the tools and theories of modern neuroscience, “these are practices which cultivate new connections in the brain and enhance the function of neural networks that support aspects of pro-social behavior, including empathy, altruism, kindness,” says Davidson, who directs the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at UW-Madison.
As an example of how cognitive training or another intervention could have a profound effect, consider the following research summary. A cohort of 1,000 participants was followed from birth to 32 years of age. Researchers found that childhood measures of self-control (defined as adaptive behaviors including delay of gratification, impulse and attentional control, executive function, and willpower) actually predicted physical health, substance abuse, personal finances and even criminality at 32 years of age. Early-age training of the behaviors involved in self-control could be ideal interventions to promote greater self-control and therefore improve later adult positive outcomes.
The authors conclude in their review that “structural and functional changes in the brain have been observed with cognitive therapy and certain forms of meditation, and lead to the suggestion that well-being and other pro-social characteristics might be enhanced through training.”