Sunday, April 22, 2012

Practice and Brain Plasticity

This article talks about the neuroscience of spirituality and I was struck by the similarity to what the neuroscientists are saying about making music, in that multiple areas of the brain are simultaneously involved. 

“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”

The article goes on to talk about how people who've had trauma to that part of the brain dealing with the "self" tend to have, 

"an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power."Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone said. “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.”

Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.

Johnstone makes the comparison to other kinds of disciplines; "It is like playing the piano, the more you train your brain, the more the brain becomes predisposed to piano playing."

The fact that deactivation of some areas of the brain is apparently just as important as activating others for some mental states reminded me of this post talking about what's going on in the brain during improvisation. 

Another point to make, that ties in with the previous post, is that as you practice, all kinds of new connections (and activations and deactivations) are being made in your brain, most of which you're probably not fully conscious of. The more mindful you are of creating positive mental states, and the less you build associations between music making and negative emotions, the more enjoyable your music making will be. It's not just a question of increasing brain plasticity, but the quality and nature of that newly created brain function.

It's also worth noting that that lack of "self" seems to be a part of "flow" and that's probably why many, but not all people, tend to associate the flow experience with spirituality.

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