Did you know that the body you lived in yesterday is different than the one you’re in today? In a process called cellular mitosis the cells in your body birth new cells repeatedly and die off naturally throughout your lifetime. In fact, in a few years you’ll have a completely rebuilt body altogether. Some cells reproduce faster than others; the cells that lined your stomach two hours ago have already been replaced with new ones whose daughter cells will soon be born. The body reinvents itself again and again throughout its lifetime and it’s plainly evident. Watch a youngster grow up and age over the years; what you’re witnessing is the process of cellular growth and regeneration occurring with the passing of time.
Neuroscientists tell us that brain cells, called neurons, are programmed a bit differently than the other cells. They adapt to their environment depending on what you learn and what new behaviors you acquire. In a process called neuroplasticity the map-like structure of the brain cells can be remodeled; doctors often see it when studying patients who’ve suffered head injuries and have since created new neuronal pathways to compensate for the loss.
In cases of head injuries that cause blindness, neuroscientists have observed amazing changes in the brains of the victims. Using functional MRI’s and brain imaging scans they have isolated electro-magnetic energy emitted by the visual cortex, a portion consisting of approximately one third of the brain, and found that this region has adapted and retrained itself in these patients to supervise new skills. Neuroplasticity is the process by which many blind people develop their highly acute senses of hearing, touch, taste and smell and are often able to master completely new tasks and creative endeavors that the rest of us find challenging and even impossible to do.
Until the mid 1990’s it was believed that brain cells do not regenerate beyond the formative years of development, after about two or three years of age. Scientists now know that was incorrect. Through a process called neurogenesis brand new neurons are created when you enrich your environment by taking up new and interesting mental exercises like studying a foreign language, and using significant mind/body exercises like learning to play a musical instrument or practicing meditation.
Tackling challenging skills like these helps to ward off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia because the process increases cognitive abilities and rebuilds memory function. This means that new and challenging mind/body activities enhance neuroplasticity in the brain. Here’s the catch: doctors say the initial changes are only temporary because you have to be emotionally engaged in the process to retain the results.
Permanent plasticity only happens when you feel passion, élan, savior faire and a zest for life because positive thoughts and a sense of wellbeing are critical for the release of the specific neurotransmitters and the other brain chemicals that enable the changes to stick. Your new skills must be taxing, interesting and highly motivating for the results to become permanent. This is another prime example of the conscious communication you send to your instinctive intelligence. It’s solid proof of the mind/body connection; in this case it needs you to consciously choose to feel passion and motivation before it can make the health benefits of your new activities lasting and permanent.
Neurologists have learned that neuroplasticity operates in two ways; it can be either positive or negative. An example of negative plasticity: many elderly people are understandably afraid of falling. Trying to avoid an accident by looking down at the ground in front of them while they walk narrows their field of vision which in turn trains the brain to decrease physical coordination and balance. The negative effects are due to the misunderstanding and misuse of the mind/body connection; fear is the motivation and it’s a strong emotion that powers the process. The resulting changes in the brain actually impair normal mobility and increase the likelihood of a fall, the one thing they were focused on, but trying to prevent.
Chronic pain is also an example of negative plasticity. It’s the result of the brain repeatedly firing specific neuronal pathways over time until what was once only temporary information has now become an ingrained bad habit. It’s like driving a truck on a muddy dirt road; the more you drive over them, the deeper the grooves become. The repeated pain sensations in your body construct an “information superhighway” on the roadmap of the brain but it is not necessarily a permanent fixture. You simply have to adopt the new habits, behaviors and activities that replace the old patterns and stick with them to permanently change the terrain.
As the mature cells within you constantly give birth to new ones, you’re actually building an entirely new and different body, a process that completes itself every few years. The work is alive and ongoing throughout your lifetime and you can take an active role in the process. Physical exercise is an excellent way to modify your physique and mental exercises are helpful as well. If you want to build a healthier body than the one you’ve got now, it really is possible to do so. Utilizing helpful mind/body techniques is one of the most effective ways to make a positive impact on your health and aging.