Not many people appreciate that it is the repetition of words, of movements, of thoughts (in fact any new experience) that creates and strengthens neuronal pathways in the brain. It is how we learn and how we re-learn (overwrite garbage)… Mala prayer beeds encourage repetition for Buddhists whilst, at our end of the pond, Roman Catholicism prescribes the use of the Rosary. Stepping over this cultural divide, both bead strings simply encourage repetition. Practice makes perfect but oh my, be mindful of what the input is… the computing term GIGA (garbage in, garbage out) springs to mind because this is so very apt! The header picture is my own 108-bead Mala that ‘does the counting for me’ whilst I mantra, visualise and build new neuronal pathways. I’m neither a Buddhist nor a Roman Catholic, I am simply a pragmatists. A mala helps your brain build neuronal pathways, it’s a tool.
In music you start playing a piece extremely slowly (creating a default neuronal pathway), and only once you can play it faultlessly at that speed, you gradually speed up to the composer’s tempo. You correctly build the desired neural pathways first, repetition embeds them deeper and deeper, and only then speed can be added. In gymnastics you cannot vault slowly first and then at the required speed, so in physical movement you break it down into components of movements (e.g. balance or strength or coordination). In meditation or in mantras all that matters is the repetition of words, the feeling these engender and the vision that accompanies them. Top sport uses this, top musicians do too and I want to talk here about how repetition will help your brain. It is called neuroplasticity, the ability of the neurons in your brain to compensate for injury and disease (e.g. stroke) and to adjust their activities in response to new situations (learning anything mental or physical) or to changes in their environment. Your brain is either your biggest supporter or your biggest adversary, and the liberating or depressing thing about this is, that ultimately it is your freedom of choice. I mean choice in the sense of Eleanor Roosevelt saying “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
Other perhaps than for solely meditation, before you use a mala or utter a mantra, it’s useful to know what you ‘consent to’ and what you do not ‘consent to’. This is where a little homework like ‘mapping‘ clarifies what you want to reinforce with your brain. Map what you like, what you dislike; what you are good at, what you are not so good at. Map your dreams, hopes and aspirations instead of chasing fantasies. Many aspects of the brain remain changeable even into adulthood, you’re never too old for change. Such neuroplasticity occurs as physaical changes to individual neurons, to how neurons link with one another (which is what is referred to in this Post) or to the brain as a whole (cortical remapping). Of course the longer (thus likely more as default) a GIGA pathway is embedded, the more challenging it may prove to overwrite it. Where there’s a will…
If you find exploring yourself in such an analytical way difficult, then imagine that you’re looking at a friend, nine out of ten you’d mellow your criticisms, or deliver any that should be mentioned more gently, or praise when praise is due. Get the bearings for your journey (building new neurons) as sorted as you can, only then use repetitions. Make sure that your actions are congruent with your desired goals. Fingering the mala/rosary, reciting a mantra and visualising running a marathon without ever leaving the settee is called delusion. The faith I mention in my diagram is ‘I can’ and, for those who find that choice hard, or who let fear of failure dictate life, be inspired by the Rio Paralympics 2016 trailer.
Does It Work
Yes it does. In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Russian team won a total of 98 medals, 24 more Olympic medals than their closest rival (USA). They used hypnosis and visualisation… nowadays pretty much all top teams do. Soviet research was motivated by the observation of how Holocaust survivors were able to continually renew their strength in the harshest of times and the worst of treatment. In one of the most solid Russian trials on how the use of visualisation could lead to peak performance in sports, the Soviet researchers divided a group of top athletes into four groups that corresponded with the following training regimes:
Group 1 – 100% physical training
Group 2 – 75% physical training – 25% mental training
Group 3 – 50% physical training – 50% mental training
Group 4 – 25% physical training – 75% mental training
Group 4 had shown significantly greater improvement than Group 3. Group 3 showed even greater improvement than Group 2, with Group 1 giving the lowest performance. This is a straight forward example that using mental training i.e. using repetition of mantras and visualisation helps build neuronal pathways that physical training alone cannot generate. At the 2012 National Dressage Convention at Hartpury, the Dutch dressage superstar Adelinde Cornelissen talked about her using such techniques even during her riding (normally referred to as moving meditation , in this case meditation on the hoof might be the better phrase). It is total immersion into what you are doing and is extrasensory communication with your horse. I know that our own Leah Beckett uses meditation/visualisation also. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy… Fueling nutrition for your journey are steps I described in Our Approach. No army can fight on an empty stomach and no soldier can fight unless he is fit [Winston Churchill].
Too much of a good thing
Pacing the training your brain to make new neuronal pathways is no different from the pacing physical training needs. After my 108 bead(n) meditation in the morning, I have done my quota of mental training and I’ll get on with my day. Limit how much you do in any one session because too much of the same input results in what is known as repetition suppression. Your brain switches off, so take a break, get the dosage right for you. All neurons that initially are responsive to a stimulus show a proportionally equivalent reduction in their response to repeated presentations of the same stimulus. We know that from functional MRI and EEG/MEG and neuron firing rates declining in one mechanism of ‘switching off’. If you do mental training for longer sessions, make sure you vary the input!