Mental Flexibility & Neuroplasticity
Are you strong enough to change your Mind?
Brain circuitry becomes “overheated” from ceaseless internal chatter: intense training, meditation, immersive tasks, cause the internal commentor to fall silent, allowing overheated brain circuitry time to cool down, heal, recover and repair. Use the same mental circuits in the same patterns all the time and you burn them out. Neuroplasticity activates unused brain circuitry, giving relief to old circuitry and opening new sections of the brain. Neuroplasticity is also attained by doing our recurring life tasks in purposefully new ways.
Mental inflexibility, left unattended, increases with age. Just as the unattended body stiffens, loses function, and slows, so too does the unattended Mind. One of the most clichéd aging stereotypes is that of old, wizened men and women, feeble, doddering, bent over, walking with short, shaky, unsure steps, ready to topple over – coupled with an eternal attitude of grumpiness, snappiness, pettiness, lots of anger and small mindedness. This type is one bus stop away from becoming wheelchair-bound or regressing into dementia. Just as the body can be trained to retain strength, flexibility, functionality, and suppleness as it ages, so too can the Mind be “trained” to retain mental suppleness, pliability, sharpness, alertness, and function as it ages. Optimally, you can do both at once.
One surefire way to short-circuit ceaseless mental chatter, improve concentration, improve focus and amplify mental acuity, is to engage in high-intensity exercise on a repeated and regular basis. Exercise needs to be of such intensity that body and Mind must unite to cope with the severity of the task. If the exercise intensity is insufficient, the Mind can continue to operate, hold conversations with itself, as the trainee exercises, a split-screen existence, externally exercising, internally thinking about something totally different. Those fitness devotees that continually operate in the 60-80% of capacity range never invoke intensities of sufficient amplitude to force a mind-body melding and an ending to split-screen existence.
An overactive Mind that babbles incessantly every waking moment, becomes like every other overworked muscle, exhausted, burnt out; the mental circuitry gets fried from continual overuse. Intense exercise short-circuits the internal commentator, taking the “thinker” off-line. Simultaneously, an intense training session causes the release of adrenaline, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, growth hormone, norepinephrine, etc., heightening, accelerating, supercharging, both the physical effort and the psychological focus. Intense training builds the body, intense training causes a Mind-Body unification, intense training unleashes a flood of beneficial hormones into the bloodstream that catapult the whole effort to the next level. What’s not to like?
How does this relate to mental flexibility? Intense exercise causes the mind to fall silent allowing overheated brain circuitry to cool down, heal, repair. Physiologically, past a certain level of exercise intensity, the conscious mind, the internal talker, cannot maintain a coherent internal dialogue, the difficulty of the effort causes the conscious mind to shut down – of its own accord.
This last point is critical and subtle: willpower cannot be used to silence the internal commentator as that is just another conscious act of the conscious Mind, akin to holding one’s breath. Exercise doesn’t ask the conscious Mind to please stop babbling, intense exercise slaps the conscious Mind, the talker, across the face, WHAP! Shut up! help us push or pull our guts out! The degree of exertion required is so herculean that the little man in our head cannot maintain his spiel. Ironically, this unintentional quieting of the internal voice is the goal of all classical meditational schools.
The overarching goal that links all schools of meditation is mental quietude: all meditational schools and sects offer ritualized methods for achieving “the Mind of No Mind,” as a Soto Zen master might label the attainment of internal quietude. Deep meditation and the post-workout “glow state,” are both characterized by an electrified mental silence. The five “sense gates” (see, hear, taste, touch, smell) are amplified in the meditational state and in the post-workout after-glow state.
The goal of the advanced mediator is to experience “reality,” the “all ground,” that can only be experienced in the “gaps between thoughts.” Meditators are often impaled on the horns of a dilemma: they are using a mechanical method constructed using conscious thought to access a meditational state that are beyond words, methods and willpower.
Intense exercise sidesteps this irresolvable contradiction by attaining a meditational state incidentally, as an unexpected benefit of hardcore training. The Iron Man comes by his meditational mindset, accidentally, as an unintended side consequence of his extreme physical efforts.
How does all this help someone on the wrong side of sixty seeking to avoid the ever-shrinking concentric circles? How does one avoid the physical and psychological mire and stagnation that cause fossilization?
Neuroplasticity’s goal is to retard cognitive decline associated with aging. Neuroplasticity is consciously doing different things or the same things differently. The inference being that rote repetition, doing the same things over and over in the same way, hastens the loss of cognitive function. Use it or lose it.
Those that passively stay doing the same things in the same ways, year after year, decade after decade, inevitably suffer physical and psychological degradation. Both body and Mind require new stresses, stresses of sufficient intensities that challenge brain and body. By offering Mind and body new challenges, old grooves become less worn; new grooves are established that require focus, effort, and physical and psychological intensity.
Adherence (and improvement) in new challenges is the antidote to mental and physical inflexibility. Are you strong enough to change your Mind? Or are you comfortable and growing sleepier in your ever-shrinking concentric circles of mental and physical activities? Don’t fall asleep in that snowbank. Introduce some purposeful physical stress into your life, enough to short-circuit that over-active little man in your head. Do you feel the endorphin rush post-workout? A hormonal glow is evidence that you trained hard enough: bask in the electrified post-workout glow – it is an advanced meditational state.
Past intense training, take up new interests, reinvent new ways of doing old interests. Take up tasks that generate immersion, be it cooking, working on a racecar, ship-in-a-bottle-building, model building, stamp collecting, hard training, bowling, golf - seek tasks or acts that causes you to lose “self,” to become so immersed and concentrated that the internal talker falls quiet of his/her own accord. This is neuroplasticity personified. Fight stagnation, fossilization, and degradation by challenging yourself mentally and physically. Don’t be a superficial surface skimmer: don’t be a mile wide and an inch deep. Be an inch wide and a mile deep. Train hard, get lost in immersive tasks. Don’t think so much.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.