I was asking myself whether neuroplasticity and impermanence are related and how this dynamic would work on a practical level. Concluding that there is some usefulness in relating the scientific neuroplastic characteristics to the Buddhist philosophical construct of impermanence, I have briefly shared my thoughts here.
Neuroplasticity refers to brain cells’ (neurons) ability to change at synaptic and non-synaptic levels. The synapses are where neurons communicate and hence the communication can change, whereas non-synaptic changes occur in the axons and dendrites (structures of the neurons). Impermanence is a fundamental part of Buddhism whereby it is agreed that nothing is permanent. In other words, change is constantly afoot as each moment passes to the next and so on.
On the basis that we are continually learning and changing with each and every new experience, moulding our reality in that given moment, it is highly probable that neuroplastic changes are underpinning our lived experience. We are of course on a continuum, begining with a blank slate to be filled as we progress through our life, genes being appropriately sculpted through exposure and meaning and creating what is a rich, textured existence. The fact that no moment is the same and each is so fleeting, fundamentally means that change is a constant and a definite and hence nothing about existence can be permanent.
Whilst we like to attach ourselves to various things such as our partner, our body, our beliefs, all of these are constantly changing too, alongside the changes that we are making. This constant dynamism is what makes life so fascinating, piquing our curiosity at each and every turn with the unfolding of events. It is worth considering for a moment (that has just passed) that the past does not exist anymore, except in our unreliable memory, and that the future does not exist, except in our minds that attempt to anticipate and guess what may happen. You can argue the usefulness of predicting the future in order to make plans or indeed the recall of a past event to learn. Whilst this may have some use in certain situations, the large problem remains that when we ‘re-live’ a moment passed or project ourselves forward, the whole person responds as if actually there with all the same emotions, physiological responses and on-going thoughts–we feel it and live it. Through these lived experiences, which are invented and illusory, we then further sculpt our biological machinery, priming ourselves for what is to come.
Think about someone who bumps into you on the train. If this annoys you, do you carry on thinking about it or do you let it go? What mood were you in when it happened? In a tired, grumpy state, you may retort with anger; whereas a compassionate mood would see you forgive or even laugh. And what happens next when you arrive at work? How has that moment framed the next? With ever passing moments, impermanence at play, the realisation of this moving film in which you are the author, director and the star who can make choices moment-to-moment is a potent one.
So, let us enjoy being plastic and discovering the full impact of neuroplasticity (much is said about this nowadays, yet there is a great deal to learn about how changes in synaptic activity translate into real-time experience, learning and behaviour) and impermanence as these are characteristics we can use to grow and develop to take on challenges. Certainly in terms of pain and chronic pain, to understand that we are constantly changing creates realistic hope that pain can also change. Pain does change when you understand it fully and take healthy actions based on sound thinking.
Much of my time is spent with people suffering chronic pain, coaching them and treating them, harnessing their own ability to grow and change with new knowledge and skills that are employed to overcome their pain. Witnessing their change is an incredible privilege as well as a wonderful example of neuroplasticity and impermanence.