THE BLOG

Neuropsychology: 5,000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair

08/27/2010 01:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How much change in the brain makes a difference in the mind?

That's the issue raised by a very interesting comment regarding my previous blog. So I've taken the liberty of posting the comment here, and then responding.

I was pondering your statement that long term meditators show a thickening in certain areas of the brain. As I understand it, the volume of the skull is fixed in adults. This would seem to require that if one part thickens, another part must be reduced. I am curious as to whether anyone has considered what the implications of a loss of volume in these other areas might be. I enjoyed your article, and look forward to more on the topic of neurology and meditation.

While the size of the skull is indeed fixed in adulthood, we can both lose gray matter volume due to the normal effects of aging and gain it through mental training of one kind or another. For instance, one study showed that the hippocampus (really hippocampi, since there is one on each side of the brain, but convention is usually to refer to neural regions in the singular), of London taxi drivers is thicker after their training, which makes sense since the hippocampus is deeply involved with spatial memory.

But the size of these changes in volume is very small, so they do not "bump up against" the skull. For example, the increased thickness in the brains of meditators -- seen in one of the cooler studies in this field -- amounted to about 1/200th of an inch. This may not seem like much but is a BIG change in the density of synaptic networks when you can fit about 5,000 synapses in the width of a human hair.

The point is that small changes in daily activities -- meditating instead of sleeping in, driving a cab instead of working in an office -- can make changes in the brain that seem small but actually create big changes in the mind. And that fact opens the door to amazing opportunities.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.