The brain is “much more plastic than most people think,” says Giulio Tononi, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s changing all the time.”
I’ve been reading The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, 2007). Written by psychiatrist and Columbia University researcher Norman Doidge, this book covers a range of current neuroscience in the area of neuroplasticity – the astonishing adaptive capability our brains have.
One topic that interests me is “unlearning.” I’m fascinated by how we, as bodies, physiologically do the work that described in yoga and other contemplative disciplines as “letting go.”
In brain science unlearning is sometimes referred to as neuronal reorganization. Doidge points to two periods of life when such reorganization happens on a massive scale – when we become parents and when we fall in love.
On a less dramatic but far more persistent scale, unlearning also happens every day when we sleep.
Scientists are discovering that the brain’s ability to respond to new experiences depends on sleep. According to Dr Tononi, sleep produces “a leaner brain — there’s a gain in terms of energy, space and supplies, and you are ready to learn anew.”
When you deprive yourself of sleep, the impact on your health is both fairly immediate and long term. For example, early this year the Reuters news service ran the following item:
Deep, restful sleep may be important for keeping Type 2 diabetes at bay, researchers reported. They said slim, healthy young adults who were deprived of the deepest stage of sleep known as slow-wave sleep developed insulin resistance — a trait linked to Type 2 diabetes — after just three nights. The effect was comparable to gaining 20 to 30 pounds. ”It demonstrates the importance of deep sleep not only for the brain, but for the rest of the body,” said Eve Van Cauter, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. The study appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.