Neuroplasticity‎ > ‎

Mind and brain

Train your mind, change your brain
Consulting Educational and Communications Expert
Trends in Education

Learning changes the brain

"Pensar es servir"

Every mind is creative

Click here for an overview of this topic mapped on Prezi.


When we imagine, we form new images and sensations without seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling or physically experiencing them. We can use our imagination to change our mood, experience empathy, solve problems, and to enhance learning through imagined experiences. Imagination enables us to create and innovate.

Studies using fMRI and brain mapping have enabled neuroscientists to confirm the areas of the brain active during imagining experiences, and to demonstrate that we can use our minds to change our brains. We also now know that imagination changes the brain functionally and physically.

So Yes, by imagining and visualizing, or doing mental practice, we can change the physical structure of our brain, as well as brain function. Studies also indicate that we can increase muscle strength by imagining, visualizing and doing mental practice.

However, it is not implied that visualization and imagining are as effective as, or a substitute for, physical practice. Nor is it implied that we can replace physical exercise with mental practice. Experiments and findings regarding the effect of mental force on our physical bodies are part of the work scientists undertake to study, for example, ways to use the mind to initiate recovery from physical paralysis.

"How and Where Imagination Occurs in the Brain"

This article in Science Daily, published September 16, 2013, reports on a recent study on imagination and the brain. The image accompanying the article shows that the thalamus, the cerebellum, and the neocortex - various areas of the occipital, pareital and prefrontal lobes - are involved in imagining. Notice that both hemispheres are active during imagining.

The false dualism of mind and brain

French mathematician, scientist and philosopher René Descartes (1586-1650) overturned the prevailing philosophy of his time and is generally regarded in the West as the first major philosopher of the modern era. His name became synonymous with dualism, the belief that mind and body are distinct entities, independent of each other, different in nature, and governed by different laws.

For Descartes, bodies are like machines, and governed by physical laws. The mind ("rational soul"), is uniquely human, produces thought, and is governed by the laws of reason. Bodies are external to the mind, and mind and body interact, but Descartes didn't credibly explain how or where in the brain this interaction occurs.

René Descartes (1586-1650)

Dualism was the dominant influence on Western science for three to four hundred years. Mind and body were viewed as opposite and conflicting tendencies. Reason was associated with the higher-level rational tendences of the mind. Brain-related processes were viewed as a lower-level physical response associated with the body. Mind and body, reason and emotion were viewed as antithetical.

Modern neuroscience has established a new paradigm. The brain is the seat of the mind, brain and mind are closely related, and we can use our mind to change the structures of our brain.

Food for Thought

"Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter, and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear and know what are foul and what is fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what are unsavoury. ... And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us. ... All these things we endure from the brain" (On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates, 5th century BC).

Neuroscientist Jeanette Norden cites Hippocrates to remind us that there have always been individuals and minds that have been well ahead of their time! (Understanding the Brain, 2007)

Imagination and the brain
Source, "The Culturally Modified Brain" in Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself

The S
panish neuro-anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), a Nobel laureate, knew that "well-directed mental exercise" changes the brain by strengthening existing neuronal pathways and creating new ones. He believed that for pianists, for whom mental practice is a regular routine, the neurons that control their fingers would be particularly affected. It turns out that he was correct, but the technology required to prove his case was not available in the early decades of the twentieth century. Neuroscience today has had the advantage of both modern technology and an accumulated body of evidence to correct many misconceptions, offer insights into the complex ways brain and mind interact, and study the way thoughts change the brain.

Norman Doidge describes several experiments designed and conducted by Alvaro Pascual-Leone using TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to map the brains of individuals. Mapping occurred before, during and at the end of controlled studies to measure brain map changes resulting from mental activities. In the "imagining experiment" he measured changes in the finger maps of two groups of people who learned to play a sequence of notes on the piano.

The Imagining Experiment

Alvaro Pascual-Leone used TMS in this experiment which involved two groups of people who had never studied piano - a mental pactice group and a physical practice group. They were taught a sequence of notes, showed which fingers to move, and they listened to the notes as they were played. The mental practice group sat in front of an electric keyboard two hours every day for five days, and imagined playing the sequence and hearng the notes. The physical practice group practised on the keyboard two hours every day for five days. Then both groups performed the sequence of notes and a computer measured their accuracy.

Researchers mapped their brains before the experiment, every day of the experiment, and after the experiment. Both groups learned to play the sequence of notes and showed similar brain map changes. The motor maps of the mental practice group showed the same physical changes as the maps of the physical practice group. By the end of the fifth day, the mental practice group were as accurate as the physical practice group were on their third day. However, after two hours physical practice, the mental practice group improved to the level reached by the physical practice group after their fifth day.

This experiment confirms that mental practice and memorizing are effective ways of something new or preparing for a performance, and that the mind changes the structure of the brain.

Learning Braille - the tortoise and the hare effect

Alvaro pascual-Leone designed another experiment which confirmed that learning a new skill changes the brain.. He used TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to map the brains of blind subjects learning to read Braille. They studied Braille for a year, five days a week - two hours in class followed by one hour of homework daily. Braille readers read by learning to scan the arrangement of raised dots with their index finger, which is a motor activity.

His findings showed learning Braille results in changes in a person's motor cortex. The map of the Braille-reading finger becomes larger and increased in size according to an increase in the number of words that could be read per minute. His findings also showed the pattern of brain changes over the duration of the learning process.

Using TMS to map the brains of research subjects on Fridays, after the week's training, and on Mondays, after they had rested, he found consistent differences in Friday and Monday maps. For six months, Friday maps showed an increase in size, but Monday maps returned to baseline size. Friday maps during the first six months expanded more dramatically than Friday maps after six months, but they were consistently larger than Monday maps.

Monday maps returned to baseline size over the first six months, then they began to increase slowly and plateaued at ten months. Monday maps changed less dramatically than Friday maps, but Monday maps were more stable and correlated better with the Braille-reading skills research subjects were acquiring.

Ten months of training were followed by a two-month break. When research subjects returned and their brains were mapped,their brain maps were the same as their Monday maps two months earlier.

For Pascual-Leone, Friday and Monday maps suggest different plastic changes. Rapid, dramatic Friday changes suggest the strengthening of existing neuronal connections - synapses and neuronal pathways. Slower but more stable Monday maps suggest new neuronal connections. In the Aesop fable, the hare is faster, but the tortoise wins the race. This "tortoise-and-hare effect" helps to explain the learning process.

Cramming strengthens existing synaptic connections and may work as a short-term strategy. It produces "the Friday effect." Learning, i.e., encoding into and retrieving long-term memory, requires repetition, practice, and steady work over an extended period of time to produce "the Monday effect."

The blindfold experiment - experimenting with a roadblock

In Alvaro Pascual-Leone's blindfold experiment, he used blindfolds as a roadblock for vision. Participants were blindfolded. In two days the visual cortex started processing information from touch and hearing. Once the blindfolds were removed, the visual cortex stopped responding to touch and hearing within twenty-four hours. The roadblock strategy produces change because the brain is plastic. It reorganizes itself very quickly because different parts of the brain can process information from more than one sense. However, change is temporary when the roadblock is removed after a short duration.

In a related study, Pascual-Leone was able to show that in cases where vision loss is permanent, the visual cortex begins to process information from other senses. When TMS was used to block the visual cortex of blind Braille readers, they could no longer read Braille, and could no longer sense touch with their Braille-reading finger. For Braille-readers who were not blind, blocking their visual cortex did not affect their ability to read Braille.

These studies suggest that the brain can quickly reorganize its sensory areas because of the multisensory nature of the cortex. Sensory systems are not fixed, and plasticity is competitive, Different areas of the brain are recruited depending on the task the brain needs to perform.

Other experiments

Norman Doidge describes other studies that show the integration of brain and mind, as well as mind and action. Guang Yue and Kelly Cole have shown that doing physical exercise and imagining doing physical exercise both increased muscle strength. Performing the exercises increased muscle strength by 30%; imagining them increased muscle strength by 22%.

Doidge also describes thought-reading experiments conducted at Duke University in the mid-1900s by Miguel Nicolelis and John Chapin. They have shown that a computer can record the firing patterns of neurons, recognize those patterns when an animal imagines performing that action, and convert them into signals that trigger the performance of the imagined action from a remote location. Experiments like these provide essential research that contributes to the engineering of the technology that assists severely paralyzed individuals.

An experiment by Jean Decety of Lyon demonstrated the integration of mind and action by having people just imagine they are writing their names and then actually performing the action. The time involved in imagining was similar to the time involved in writing. The process takes longer imagining and using the non-dominant hand, and it is faster when imagining and using the dominant hand. In studies of patients with brain damage, the process of imagining the action was slower, similar to the slower process of performing the action.

Doidge concludes: "Now we can see that our 'immaterial' thoughts too have a physical signature, and we cannot be so sure that thought won't someday be explained in physical terms. While we have yet to understanding exactly how thoughts actually change brain structure, it is now clear that they do, and the firm line that Descartes drew between mind and brain is increasingly a dotted line" (The Brain That Changes Itself).

Train your mind to change the brain

Richard Davidson learned much about the power of the mind to change the brain by studying the brains of Buddhist monks. He shares his insights into the power of the mind to transform the brain in this video.

YouTube Video