How to Rewire Your Brain in 6 Weeks: A BBC Reporter Explores How Everyday Life Changes Can Alter Our Brains

If you sus­pect that your brain isn’t quite suit­ed for mod­ern life, you’re not alone. In fact, that state of mind has prob­a­bly been clos­er to the rule than the excep­tion through­out moder­ni­ty itself. It’s just that the mix of things we have to think about keeps chang­ing: “The school run. Work calls. Infla­tion. Remem­ber your lines,” says BBC sci­ence reporter Melis­sa Hogen­boom in the video above. “Our brain nev­er evolved for any of this, and yet here we are, get­ting on with it as best we can, and it’s all thanks to our brain’s incred­i­ble capac­i­ty to adapt, to learn, to grow” — the very sub­ject she inves­ti­gates in this series, Brain Hacks.

In search of neu­ro­sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound “hacks to help strength­en cru­cial con­nec­tions and keep our minds younger in the process,” Hogen­boom put her­self through a “a six-week brain-alter­ing course.” The first seg­ment of the series finds her enter­ing into a med­i­ta­tion pro­gram she describes in this arti­cle: “For 30 min­utes a day, either as one sin­gle ses­sion or two 15-minute ses­sions, I prac­ticed a guid­ed mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion by lis­ten­ing to a record­ing.” In addi­tion, she had a week­ly ses­sion with Uni­ver­si­ty of Sur­rey pro­fes­sor of clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy Thorsten Barn­hofer, who also appears in the video.

Can med­i­ta­tion, and the oft-dis­cussed “mind­ful­ness” it empha­sizes, keep our minds from wan­der­ing away from what we real­ly need to think about? “Mind-wan­der­ing is some­thing that, of course, might be help­ful in many ways,” says Barn­hofer, “but it’s also some­thing that can go awry. This is where repet­i­tive think­ing comes in, where rumi­na­tive think­ing comes in, where wor­ry comes in. Those are the fac­tors which increase stress,” increas­ing the pres­ence of hor­mones like cor­ti­sol. And “if lev­els of cor­ti­sol remain high, that can actu­al­ly become tox­ic for your brain, for regions of your brain which are very plas­tic.” Stress, as Hogen­boom sums it up, “is a direct inhibitor of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.”

“Research has found that after only a few months of mind­ful­ness train­ing, cer­tain depres­sion and anx­i­ety symp­toms can ease,” Hogen­boom writes, and her own expe­ri­ence seems also to point in that direc­tion. A brain scan per­formed after her med­i­ta­tion course found that “one half of my amyg­dala – an almond-shaped struc­ture impor­tant for emo­tion­al pro­cess­ing – had reduced in vol­ume,” pos­si­bly because the prac­tice “buffers stress seen in the amyg­dala.” It also revealed growth in her cin­gu­late cor­tex, “part of the lim­bic sys­tem that is involved in our behav­ioral and emo­tion­al respons­es,” which indi­cates “increased con­trol of that area.” Hogen­boom acknowl­edges that these changes “could also be ran­dom,” since “the brain is con­stant­ly chang­ing any­way”; the trick, how­ev­er and when­ev­er pos­si­ble, is to nudge it toward change for the bet­ter.

Bonus: Below, sci­ence jour­nal­ist Daniel Gole­man talks about mind­ful­ness and how you can change your brain in 10 min­utes with dai­ly med­i­ta­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Med­i­ta­tion 101: A Short, Ani­mat­ed Beginner’s Guide

How Med­i­ta­tion Can Change Your Brain: The Neu­ro­science of Bud­dhist Prac­tice

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion: A Time-Test­ed Way to Stop Think­ing About Think­ing

Dis­cov­er the Back­wards Brain Bicy­cle: What Rid­ing a Bike Says About the Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty of the Brain

How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

5 Ways to Build an Alzheimer’s‑Resistant Brain: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Lisa Gen­o­va Explains

David Lynch Explains Why Depres­sion Is the Ene­my of Cre­ativ­i­ty — and Why Med­i­ta­tion Is the Solu­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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