Select Page

Experience and the Brain: Transcending

By Robert Keith Wallace, PhD

A better understanding of the brain is certain to lead man to a richer comprehension both of himself, of his fellow man, and of society, and in fact of the whole world.—Nobel Laureate Sir John C. Eccles

Within our brain are billions of living nerve cells or neurons, connected together in an extremely complex yet elegant manner. During the first months and years of life our brain undergoes massive changes, with each cell sending numerous fibers to the next—resulting in millions of connections. If we witness the birth of a horse, we see that in minutes the newborn is up and prancing on delicately-formed but sturdy legs.  At this early stage of life, the foal’s brain is already “wired” to allow it to move about and even to run.  A baby antelope rapidly gains its legs in order to follow its mother, who will abandon it if it is necessary to move on to ensure her own survival. Unlike other mammals, human infants are virtually helpless at birth.  Contained within the DNA of virtually all of our cells is the blueprint for the unfoldment of our brain, only the details of the plan have not yet manifest.

A baby’s brain makes 24 million new connections every minute, and this continues for the first three years of its life. In the earliest stages of brain development an overabundance of connections are made between cells, each competing with the other to form communication pathways. This process of expansion continues from age 3 to 10, when another process called neural pruning takes over. Similar to trimming or pruning a tree, excessive and non-active connections are absorbed back into the cell. Only active connections remain.

The early expansive stages of development of our brain resemble a new Facebook member actively seeking an ever-increasing number of friends. The later stage of neural pruning corresponds to the process of “de-friending” when we reach a point where we have too many friends to keep up with.

It is through this process of development that precise neural networks, far more intricate than any man-made computer system, are formed. The orchestration of the complex development of all the parts of our brain involves the interplay of nature versus nurture, genetics versus environment.

In a series of classic experiments demonstrating the effect of experience upon the anatomy and chemistry of the brain, two groups of young rats were brought up in two different environments in order to compare the effects of advantageous and disadvantageous surroundings. The “enriched” environment consisted of ladders, Ferris wheels, and swings—like a children’s gym set—in a cage large enough for several young rats to grow and interact socially.  In the “impoverished” environment, the rats experienced the standard Spartan world of lab animals, i.e., a steel wire cage and no companions.

The results of these experiments were dramatic.  The brains of the rats in the enriched environments grew larger and heavier, and the important outer covering of the brain, the cerebral cortex—where most learning and higher mental functions take place—was measurably thicker due to an increased number of connections between nerve cells. This tells us that experience has a definite and dominating effect on the physical structure of the brain and on the development of nerve cells.

In a variation of this experiment that was primarily focused on the aging process, older rats were studied under these same conditions. The older rats in the enriched environment fared far better than those in the impoverished environment.  Not only was there an increase in the number of connections between cells, but there was also a significant decrease in cell death over time.  This was a surprising result, because the general assumption in the scientific community had been that aging is inevitably accompanied by both a decrease in the number of brain cells and the number of connections between cells. We now know that how we age, i.e., the types of experiences we have, plays a pivotal role in the way our brain ages.

Our brain is constantly interacting with the environment and as a result, its internal microstructure is constantly changing. Each time we hear a name, think a word, or feel an emotion (among thousands of possible experiences) the chemistry and microanatomy of our brain changes. It has been estimated that 70% of the brain’s connections change every day.  Neuroscientists refer to the adaptability of our brain as “neural plasticity,” the ability to form new connections between cells while old connections fall away.

In the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is particularly involved with short-term memory, connections between nerve cells change every 10 to 30 seconds even during simple learning tasks.  The expression, “Where you put your attention grows stronger,” is demonstrated by London taxi cab drivers who, during their two-year training period, showed a significant increase in the size of that part of their brain involved in spatial memory (the hippocampus).  If we learn how to play the cello and if we practice regularly every day, there will be a significant increase in the number of connections to the nerve in the motor areas of our cerebral cortex.

Our nerve cells reach out to make connections, and as we have discussed, experience is the main factor that determines which cells they connect to.  With the introduction of new experiences, new connections are formed, while old connections (like those pre-programmed to see only horizontal lines) wither away like the dying branches of a tree.

We know there are good and bad experiences in life. Abuse victims are far more likely to have addiction and other mental health problems. What about good experience? Can we replace some of the old experiences with new ones and rewire our brain to work better.

Peak Performances

Peak performance are unique experiences which often occur when there is an integration between heart and mind, feeling and intellect.  A performer must be able to integrate feelings and intellect with the technique of his or her craft.  Mozart’s compositions were said to come to his mind already finished before he committed them to paper. He didn’t try to be original; his ideas came naturally.

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come I know not; nor can I force them.—Mozart

A similar experience is expressed by the classical guitarist Sharon Isbin,

Practicing TM has inspired heights of creativity for me on many levels: as a musician, arranger, educator, writer, and artistic director. Because TM is so effective at eliminating stress and distraction, it encourages laser-sharp focus and concentration for any task.

As a musician, TM enhances my mental stamina, memory, concentration, and ability to learn. It puts me in touch with my innermost creative core and enables its expression through music. Most importantly, it facilitates instant access to a state of “cosmic immersion,” that feeling of being in the flow, or in “the zone.” When I perform onstage, I enter a state of being very similar to the one I enter daily when practicing TM. It’s a sense of communion with the energy of the universe, the audience, the composer, and the music—without ego or interference. It’s a feeling of unity between me and the listeners, a sense of “oneness” in which we are all experiencing the beauty of the music together. That sensation is one of the reasons live performances can be so powerful—everyone is focused and transported, and the experience is unique and in the moment, never to be replicated.

This is not to deny the years of necessary training and preparation that precede a great performance, but as many artists, athletes, and successful people will tell you, their finest work often comes in moments of spontaneity, rather than through conscious volition.

Being in the zone is a well-known phenomenon in sports and is characterized by a high level of performance achieved in an effortless and completely natural manner. Even scientist have their own version of peak experiences where they discover some deep secret of nature’s wisdom and intelligence.

Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.—Albert Einstein

The Experience of Transcending

The experience of transcending during the regular practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) spontaneously allows the stresses and strains that limit our awareness to fall away. It creates new more integrative neuronal pathways. Repeated daily practice of TM has the effect of reinforcing these pathways and creating a higher level of brain integration even during activity. One of the clearest indications of the development of higher states of consciousness is a long-term increase in brain wave coherence during activity.

This increase in EEG coherence is correlated with an increase in learning ability, intelligence, and emotional development. The act of meditating has a very profound effect upon our heart and our mind, influencing how we communicate and how we create. We can see how this might help any performance, creating inner stability and calm even during dynamic activity. One part of our nervous system is maintaining the state of pure consciousness which bring orderliness and inner peace, while another part of our nervous system is performing action and dealing with the challenges of life.

What about people who do not meditate, can they have the same kinds of experiences and also gain total brain development?  Some of the experiences that occur during meditation also may occur spontaneously in our daily lives. One of my favorites accountsbecause of description of the subtle physical changesis of that William Wordsworth, in his poem Tintern Abbey.

That blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things—William Wordsworth

Athletes and adventures describe something similar when they talk about being “in the zone,” in which heightened awareness is present even in activity. It is not always obvious what the stimulus is for these unexpected transcendental experiences. The following quote is from Charles Lindberg during his famous flight across the Atlantic.

 [I experienced] a state of semiconsciousness in which an awareness exists that is less acute but apparently more universal than that of the normal mind. . . .Over and over again on the second day of my flight, I would return to mental alertness sufficiently to realize that I had been flying while I was neither asleep nor awake. My eyes had been open. I had responded to my instruments’ indications and held generally to compass course, but I had lost sense of circumstance and time. During immeasurable periods, I seemed to extend outside my plane and body, independent of worldly values, appreciative of beauty, form, and color without depending upon my eyes. It was an experience in which both the intellectual and sensate were replaced by what might be termed a matterless awareness.—Charles Lindbergh

We might have such experiences only once, or twice, they may happen many times during a lifetime, and they can occur at any age.

I’m lying on the grass, looking at the sky and making up pictures with the clouds. It’s hot, and I have on shorts and a sun top. I’m four. It’s very still, and the clouds have stopped moving.I don’t know how long it was—it dawned on me only after it was all over—but for a time there, I was everything and everything was me. I’ve never felt that way since. But it’s possible.Carol Burnett, actress

But this sublime condition is not of permanent duration. It is only now and then that we can enjoy this elevation. . . . I myself have realized it but three times as yet, and Porphyry [his friend] hitherto not once. All that tends to purify and elevate the mind will assist you in this attainment, and facilitate the approach and the recurrence of these happy intervals. . . . [At these times] we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul.Plotinus

Many of us may have had such glimpses, perhaps when listening to a piece of music, or sitting quietly and enjoying nature.  Sometimes these experiences change or expand our view of life. It’s impossible to determine how many experiences of transcending a person might need in order to release all of his or her stress and reach the full state of enlightenment. Each of us begins our journey from a different place, physically, mentally, and emotionally. So, one of the primary benefit of learning a highly effective technique of meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation, is that it gives us a reliable and systematic means to improve our brain function, so that we can achieve enlightenment sooner rather than later.

At any stage in life, it is possible for anyone to meditate and to learn to experience more refined levels of their thinking process and to re-enliven and, therefore, re-enforce the neural pathways that results in a gradual reorganization of our entire nervous system, and supports total brain development.

“What does enlightenment mean?”
The Buddha replied: “Enlightenment
is a way of saying that all things are seen in their intrinsic empty nature, their Suchness, their ungraspable wonder. Names or words are merely incidental, but that state which sees no division, no duality, is enlightenment.”—Prajnaparamita

Selected References

  1. Your Brain is a River, Not a Rock by Fred Travis, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (January 20, 2012)
  2. The Supreme Awakening: Experiences of Enlightenment Throughout Time – And How You Can Cultivate Them by Craig Pearson, MIU Press, 2013
  3. Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 2006;16(12):1091-101. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20233. PMID: 17024677.
  4. Eichenbaum H. The role of the hippocampus in navigation is memory. J Neurophysiol. 2017 Apr 1;117(4):1785-1796. doi: 10.1152/jn.00005.2017. Epub 2017 Feb 1. PMID: 28148640; PMCID: PMC5384971.
  5. Harung HS, et al. Peak performance and higher states of consciousness: A study of world-class performers. Journal of Managerial Psychology 11(4): 3–23, 1996
  6. The Coherence Effect by Wallace, R.K.; Marcus, J.B.; Clark, C.S.; Armin Lear Press: Boulder, CO, USA, 2020.
  7. Wallace RK, Wallace T. Neuroadaptability and Habit: Modern Medicine and Ayurveda. Medicina (Kaunas). 2021 Jan 21;57(2):90. doi: 10.3390/medicina57020090. PMID: 33494269; PMCID: PMC7909780