I was watching a documentary about the brain the other day, and one of the many remarkable things it discussed was how some people, who have been partially paralyzed by brain damage, are actually regaining mobility where they were once paralyzed, through continuously practicing various repetitive movements. Always the movement initially starts just with the smallest twitch.
Physical therapists believing that it is even remotely possible to help someone regain function who has been paralyzed like this is based partly on the newer discovery that the brain is much more plastic and malleable than we previously thought. We can re-map and re-structure the brain, forging new neural pathways. The old myth of the brain as a static thing with different parts governing different aspects of our physicality is outmoded. Research shows that when one part of the brain is no longer functional, other parts of the brain step up to pick up the slack.
What I love about this is how it relates to two different truths we find echoed in yoga philosophy:
- Rather than our consciousness being a function of our brain, our brain is rather a function of our consciousness. Just as we reshape the body through asana, we can literally reshape the brain through our intention and awareness.
- Our neural map is only one expression of the countless ways that our brain could be mapped, inspiring us to practice, to forge new neural pathways aligned with more liberating ideas.
What remarkable brains and bodies we have! Inside us reside so many seeds of potential to expand out and become spacious, to let go of limiting beliefs and the contractions around which we identify as the small, narrow self that is the source of our suffering. If our brains can be re-mapped, like our bodies, why not forge neural pathways to a more expansive self, one that looks out onto the world and sees not enemies and others but rather parts of this larger Self? The vision of reality that sees me as isolated and separate from you, the animals, the earth, is a historically situated constellation of neural connections, and unfortunately that myth of separation currently embedded in our neurochemistry is what inspires war and loneliness, depression and environmental degradation.
The path out of that sense of separation is challenging and requires practice. It requires a consistent rehearsing of that vision of interconnectedness through meditation and mindfulness practices. Just as the paralyzed person starts with a twitch in a non-functioning arm and ends up with a fully functioning limb, we too will only have twitches initially toward that sense of expansiveness. With time and practice and determination, we can all change our brain matter. We can all forge neural pathways to the divine.