The Role of Neuroplasticity in Happiness

MBV   June 28, 2016

Healthy Brain

One of the most recent and fascinating discoveries in the field of neuroscience has been the indication of the brain’s ability to change and reform when exposed to certain stimulations. This development is referred to as neuroplasticity.

This concept states that it is possible to improve a skill or master a new ability at any point in your life when focus and repetition are applied to a certain activity, thought, or stimuli.

How it works: The brain is composed of a vast network of nerve cells (neurons). Each individual cell is made up of an axon and dendrite that are linked by a small space called the synapses.

These neurons use electrical impulses to send and recieve signals through their shared network. This constant interaction is responsible for the immense amount of diverse activity in the brain. When challenged, the brain has the potential to reorganize these neural pathways to adapt as it needs to.

Practices like meditation will help cultivate the part of your brain that  controls your decision making, focus, and self-control — making it much less strenuous for you to learn or refine a skill, tackle an obstacle, or simply enjoy the implications of having more clarity of thought. When this focus is consistent, new neural connections are created by the process of repetitive stimulation in the brain. This helps you hone and develop new skills.

Similarly, we can identify areas of the brain that correspond to certain emotions – including happiness. Scientists have been able to help define several neural pathways that could lead us there. Dr. Richard Davidson for instance, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, found that the prefrontal cortex is noticeably more active when a person is in a state of happiness.

This area of the brain is also associated with adversity – the ability to recover from negative experiences and overcome negative thoughts. Davidson’s research is broadly focused on the neural bases of emotion and emotional style along with methods that promote human flourishing including meditation among contemplative practices.

The focus that is cultivated by practicing meditation helps us to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and actually strengthens the brain. This stimulation can be the cause of overall feelings of joy, relaxedness and well-being.

Finally, brain imaging has allowed doctors and researchers to see how the structures of the brain change positively and negatively. They can observe how meditation has…

  • Increased cortical thickness
  • Increased gray matter density in the brain stem (long-term)
  • Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter (long-term)
  • Changes in white matter – contributing to self-regulation

… and all of these things contribute to our sense of well-being!

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