Change Becomes You
I have a friend who searches for truth. A problem solver, my friend finds a solution to every problem and has an answer for every question. Intelligent, creative, and driven, she is your go-to girl when you want something done. Sometimes, I wish I were more like her. I have another friend who watches the world go by. He can be found sitting on a bench, staring out at the lake or gazing up at the stars. Thoughtful, poetic, and serene, he will never judge you for what you say. Sometimes, I wish I were more like him. But there is one thing that I take solace in, and that is in knowing that these differences among humans are good, that none of us is exactly the same, and that no one is perfect.
There exists no ultimate perfection, and it therefore seems likely that there exists no ultimate truth. What we perceive, we interpret as our reality. Yet, too often we are led to believe that reality is fixed and that reality is identically constructed for everyone. Do my friends and I live in exactly the same reality? Can anyone ever actually experience anyone else’s reality? In this paper, I am going to explore the transformative power of the environment and the transformative power of the mind in order to suggest that reality is not only a construction of the brain, but is, in fact, a construction that we have the power to manipulate and change.
Over this past semester, we discussed the possibility that our perceived reality may be a direct result of our brain’s I-function, telling stories based off of the signals it receives. Perhaps what we see is not synonymous with reality; instead, perhaps our knowledge and understanding about what is out there in the world is based on our brain’s informed guesses. In fact, we know from the visual system that despite the fact that the image that appears on our retina is distorted by blood vessels and holes, our brain allows us to experience that image of the world in fine detail. It is therefore reasonable and useful to try to understand reality as a construction of the brain. The brain is anything but static. It is not a machine, it is not predictable, and it is not uniform. Although scientists do not fully understand the neuroplasticity of the brain, observations strongly suggest that the brain is flexible, dynamic, trainable and very capable of change.
Reality can be interpreted as both physical and mental. Physical reality includes the environment and the people/things with whom we interact. For example, if I decide to remove a painting from a wall in my home, that painting falls out of my physical reality, and my reality – concerning home décor – changes. Mental reality can be thought of as thinking and thought processing. For example, an individual, raised within a society that believes African-American people are inferior to white people, probably thinks about social justice within a different reality. Although these examples demonstrate that reality can be altered, they fail to show full agency. Once we accept that our perceived reality comes from within our own brain’s I-function, we can summarize observations that show the neuroplasticity of the brain. If we can show that the brain is capable of change and that individuals can create that change, we can begin to entertain the idea that individuals are capable of changing their own realities.
Research supports the claim that environmental influences physically alter the brain. One study, by Diamond and colleagues (1964) examined the effect of environmental enrichment on the rat brain. Thirty Long-Evans rats were separated at birth and reared for a month in three very different environments, 1) Enriched 2) Standard 3) Impoverished. Rats in the enriched environment were provided with a wealth of exploratory objects and playmates that were varied frequently throughout the duration of the experiment. Rats in the standard environment had plenty of food and could observe the world outside of their cages. Rats in the impoverished environment experienced a serious lack of both physical and mental stimulation. After thirty days, the rats were anesthetized and their brains were examined. It was observed that the rats in the enriched environment had increased thickness in their frontal, parietal, and occipital cortices. It was concluded that, “the combination of social conditions and frequent exposure to new stimulus objects were necessary for the animals to gain full effect of enrichment.” Interpreting these observations in relation to reality, increased dendritic branching, nerve cell size, and frequency of synapses led to physical alteration of the brain. Rats that experienced enriched lives had brains that were significantly altered, and this alteration led these rats to perceive a different reality than the rats that had experienced either the standard or the impoverished environmental conditions. It is clear why these changes might occur. In the enriched environment where things were constantly new and exciting, adaptation was necessary. These rats’ expectations about the world were constantly altered due to the frequent environmental stimulation they experienced which led to direct changes in behavior and reinforced a reality for them in which life was challenging and exciting. It makes sense to conclude that enriched environments drive changes in the brain, which in turn lead to changes in reality. By experiencing an enriched life, you increase your power to change both your brain and your reality.
I have attempted to demonstrate how physical environmental factors can lead to profound changes in an individual’s perceived reality. Now, I would like to entertain the possibility that mental factors might influence physical factors to make changes more or less inevitable. By controlling your mind, you may be able to manipulate your perceived reality. “Our brains are dynamic, alive, shifting, and with effort and input, can be pushed in the direction we choose” (Davidson, 2007). Director of UW-Madison’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Richard Davidson researches mind control through the power of meditation. Through MRI analysis, Davidson analyzes the brain activity of long-term meditators, Tibetan monks (including the Dhali Lama). His research suggests that monks have increased gamma waves and increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with happiness. Living a life without hate, greed, or desire may be living in a reality that most people will never attain, however, a monk’s reality is no better than anyone else’s. Although these results suggest that living the life of a Buddhist monk can change mental reality, the quest to determine how years of mental control and exercise over emotion produce physical changes in the brain is not complete. This research just begins to open the door to understanding another way in which thought processes hold the power to change an individual’s reality.
Having identified both physical and mental conditions that lead individuals to alter their brains and change their realities, let’s take a step back. It is perhaps too simplistic to attempt to completely separate one’s perceived mental and physical reality. If you take a moment to examine your own understanding of reality, it seems more likely that adjusting mental reality adjusts physical reality and adjusting physical reality adjusts mental reality. There need not be a defined separation. The two are interwoven, functioning to affect each other directly. Enrichment or deprivation in one area impinges on development in the other area.
Life is constantly changing, everything is in motion, and our brains are designed to adapt to change. With each adaptation, our reality is changed. But the degree of change is not fixed. Each individual is capable of changing his or her reality and capable of modulating the direction of that change. Although the rats in Diamond’s study were given no choice as to which condition they were assigned to, humans have some control over their own lives. Someone who grows up in small town Wisconsin, marries his or her high school sweetheart, and lives in that same small town for life experiences a very different reality than someone who travels around the world, speaks seven languages, and enjoys skydiving. The greater the range of experiences, the more comfortably and more powerfully, an individual can change his or her reality.
So where does this leave us? The idea that the brain is constructing a “reality” and that individuals are capable of changing that reality is radical. I do not wish to preach truth or authority. Instead, it is my intention to show agency. As Richard Davidson said, “We have far more control over our wellbeing, over how we respond to the world, than a simplistic, deterministic view would permit…we have an extraordinary ability to transform our own minds, if we so choose.” Although it may not always seem possible, and the options are significantly narrower for people who experience deprived environments during development, we all hold some power to control our perceived realities. There is no definable limit as to what we can experience or what we perceive to be reality. No two people are identical, and no two realities are exactly the same. Understanding that people have agency and control over reality is powerful, in fact, it is transformative.
Serendip, the server home page, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu, accessed May 9, 2008