Throughout recent decades, neuro-science has achieved remarkable insights into the human brain. These insights give us an increasingly detailed understanding of the architecture of the brain, as well the functioning of it’s parts, lobes and centres. These functions include processing sensory information, controlling and regulating autonomous bodily functions such as heartbeat and breathing, regulating emotion, and making language and other forms of abstract thinking possible.
The insights gained from neuro-science are an essential part of humanity’s knowledge not least because the brain is the most complex thing in the human body, if not the entire universe. This knowledge and understanding is being applied to clinical practice, leading to developments in psychiatry. Thanks to neuro-science we have a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and there is now the prospect of diagnosing this illness before the symptoms become apparent. There have also been advances in understanding the brain activity that underpins major depression and new treatments using electrical and magnetic stimulation are being trialled. The links between autism and schizophrenia are more evident, the latter now also being understood as a spectrum disorder, leading to better treatments for both conditions.
The concept of neuro-plasticity, which is supported by empirical evidence from neuro-imaging, shows us that the brain is not fixed and that both the structure and the functioning of the brain develop throughout life. As a result of experience new neural pathways are created and the synapses between neurons are strengthened, resulting in faster and more dependable connections which we experience as improved recall and retention.
Linked to neuro-science, the study of epigenetics – how genes are expressed – is important as it acknowledges the role of the environment and behaviour in gene activation. Lifestyle choices and environmental factors can cause genes to be turned off (become dormant) or be turned on (become active). Genes not only determine the characteristics that make us all unique, but also are linked to certain diseases.
Whilst the importance and significance of neuro-science is undeniable, sometimes the insights gained from it are not easily applied in changing lifestyle or to adaptations of behaviour. This is so for a number of reasons. Often, the insights from neuro-science require specialist knowledge, gained from in-depth scientific education and training. The language used in communicating information about the functioning of the brain is sometimes unavoidably complex, and only fully understood within the scientific community. There often appears to be a gap between neuro-science and lived experience, making it difficult for individuals to apply scientific knowledge to activity, learning and behaviour. For example, it is helpful to know that the amygdala, located in the region of the temporal lobe called the antero-inferior, has an important role in controlling activities such as friendship, love and affection and also in expressing moods, particularly fear, rage and aggression. Whilst this knowledge can be used by a doctor to prescribe a drug, by itself, it does not, indicate how I might influence the functioning of the amygdala, or develop my awareness or behaviour.
Thus, there is a facilitative gap between the understanding gained from neuro-science (cognition) and personal practice (mindfulness). That gap, it can be argued, is filled by our understanding of the human mind. Understanding the mind draws upon knowledge from neuro-science and also from psychology, cognitive science, psycho-therapy and philosophy, amongst other disciplines. Knowledge about the mind adds to our understanding of the brain, but because the mind closely influences our behaviour, we are able to use this knowledge to gain self-understanding, to undertake self-development and specifically, develop our mindfulness and awareness. Or to quote Rick Hanson ‘… you can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better’ (Hanson, 2014, page 16).
The knowledge gained from research into the mind can underpin psycho-therapy and self-development practices, such as mindfulness, as well as education and learning. This knowledge is in the following areas (amongst others):
- The evolutionary development of the mind
- The link between the brain, mind and emotional regulation;
- The effect of behaviour upon the mind (and vice-versa), and it’s impact upon neural structures and processes;
- Understanding mind as a process and our relationship to it;
- The embodied nature of the mind and intelligence;
- How understanding the mind can inform mindfulness practice and the development of awareness.
Rick Hanson, (2014) Hardwiring Happiness. How To Reshape Your Brain And Your Life. London: Rider.
Dan Siegal (2011) Mindsight. Transform Your Brain With The New Science Of Kindness. London: One World.
Dan Siegal (2016). Mind. A Journey to the Heart of Being Human. London: Norton.
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