As we go through life, our brain is always changing and adapting, say neuroscientists. During the first 18-20 years of life the brain is developing circuits that will form the basis of decision-making for a lifetime. Brain researchers have found that unhealthy lifestyles can inhibit normal brain development in adolescents and lead to impaired judgment and destructive behavior that carries over into adulthood. Traumatic experiences, alcohol and drug abuse, growing up neglected in a broken home, living in fear of violence and crime, or even a bad diet can interfere with development of the frontal lobes, the brain's executive system. This can cause behavioral problems. Brain researcher Dr. Fred Travis explains: "When a person's frontal lobes don't develop properly, he lives a primitive life. He doesn't -- and can't -- plan ahead. His world is simplistic, and he can only deal with what's happening to him right now. Thinking becomes rigid: 'You're either with me or against me,' or 'Me and my gang are good, and everyone else is bad.'"
The good news: meditation improves brain function
Brain researchers have also found that the brain can be changed in a positive direction through healthy lifestyle choices. This ability of the brain to reorganize its network of neurons is called "neuroplasticity." Studies recently published in Cognitive Processing show that brain development can be enhanced -- not only during adolescence but at any age -- through the practice of meditation, and that different meditation techniques have different effects on the brain. For example, during the Transcendental Meditation ("TM") technique there is increased alpha coherence in the brain's frontal areas. "Within a few months of practice of the TM technique," says Travis, "we see high levels of integration of frontal brain connectivity. And interestingly, that integration does not disappear after meditation. Increasingly and over time, this orderly brain functioning is found in daily activity."
When the different parts of the brain are better integrated they work together more harmoniously -- our brain is healthier. Higher levels of brain integration are associated with higher moral reasoning, emotional stability and decreased anxiety, according to a 1981 study in the International Journal of Neuroscience. Research shows that world-class athletes have higher brain integration than controls. Brain integration is important because one's environment and circumstances are constantly shifting, and you need a flexible, integrated brain to successfully evaluate where you are, where you want to be and the necessary steps to get there.
Keeping your prefrontal cortex "online"
The prefrontal cortex -- said to be the brain's executive center or "CEO" -- plays a crucial role in higher judgment, discrimination and decision-making. When we are overly tired or under intense mental, emotional or physical stress, our brain tends to bypass its higher, more evolved rational executive circuits, defaulting to more primitive stimulus/response pathways. We respond to challenges without thinking, making impulsive, shortsighted decisions. When the brain's CEO goes "offline," strong emotions such as fear and anger can adversely color or distort our perception of the world. Interestingly, the brain's crucial frontal area is where the highest levels of EEG coherence are typically recorded during TM practice, indicating improved communication between the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain.
When a person transcends during meditation (goes beyond the active levels of the mind), the experience is commonly reported as a state of deep silence and inner wakefulness, without particular qualities or attributes -- just pure consciousness. According to research studies, such as the previously mentioned study in Cognitive Processing, it is this 'transcendental' experience that creates the more efficient, integrated brain functioning seen during TM practice. While focused attention and other mental processes activate local brain areas, the experience of transcending activates the whole brain, enabling different parts of the brain to function together better as a whole.
Helping kids grow healthier brains
Fortunately, transcending is easy -- we're hardwired for it. With proper instruction and right practice, anyone can do it, including students with ADHD. Experiencing the quiet, transcendental field of orderliness deep within the mind doesn't mean conjuring up a new outlook on life or accepting new beliefs, nor does it require an attitude change. It's a natural, universal experience that produces a healthy response in the brain.
With help from the David Lynch Foundation and other private benefactors, thousands of at-risk students are now learning meditation during structured, in-school programs around the world. Researchers monitoring the results are finding that meditation improves learning ability, memory, creativity and IQ. Findings such as these may be opening a new frontier of research -- establishing an expanded, more enlightened view about what is possible for the human brain.
VIDEO of Dr. Fred Travis, Director, Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition in Fairfield, Iowa: