Transformation has long been a cherished human goal. Mythological characters embodied animal and human forms alike, sometimes merging the two. In fiction, drama and film, characters must emerge in some way transformed, otherwise the plot would not be so meaningful.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” That’s why we’re obsessed with cinema: the plot speeds along; we witness the transformation of attitudes and lives at hyper speed. Yet from a neurological perspective, it’s those boring parts that need addressing in order to ensure transformation. If you want to transform yourself, patience, awareness and diligence are key. And, as we’ll see, so is movement.
In order to understand how transformation is possible, you have to take a step back to wrap your head around just who “you” are.
Seeking the Self
We often think of ourselves — that inner voice — as a distinct entity from the neurochemical processes occurring in our brains and nervous systems. Yet, as Walter White said, life is chemistry. One way we know this is through brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The construct that we call the “self” is fluid and dynamic, balanced thanks to the body’s vigilant thrust toward equilibrium, or homeostasis.
Yet, for eons our ancestors believed the self was determined at birth and remained the core of your identity as long as you were alive. Some ancestors — that is — Buddhists, for example, recognized the self to be an illusion, that there is no fixed form inside of us. Even three millennia ago they were correct, insofar as the self is a continual process that changes constantly.
What is so liberating about this knowledge is that we have the power to change ourselves whenever we’d like. The technical term for this phenomenon in the brain is neuroplasticity, which simply states that we can continuously form neuronal connections. One way that researchers have come to understand this is through work with stroke victims. The part of the brain destroyed never healed. Instead, the patients’ brains co-opted underused regions to relearn old skills.
Miracle-Gro for Your Brain
We often think about transforming ourselves not in small ways, but instead into something entirely new. It turns out, however, that our brains are truly in conflict about change, and our simultaneous love and fear of variety is a perfect example. In terms of energy, our brains will always choose the path of least resistance. One important aspect of maintaining homeostasis is conserving energy; if we can do something with less effort, we’ll choose that. Yet, our brains also feature a “novelty bias.” We love new experiences and a variety of possibilities from which we can choose. How can we rectify this dilemma?
Let’s consider neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás’s theory of movement. In his book, “I of the Vortex,” he speculates that thinking is a form of movement based on prediction. Early multicellular organisms navigated toward or away from other organisms based on predicting where they needed to eat, reproduce and avoid danger.
Cycle through a few billion years and you arrive at humans. According to Llinás, we have internalized this evolutionary drive of movement in the form of thinking. Thoughts are movements. Interestingly, every time you have one, your motor neurons fire. Though thinking is an internalized activity, it still affects neurons that physically move you.
In fact, if you just imagine doing a bicep curl, those specific neurons fire. That’s how humans learn through mimicry.
Your brain absorbs whatever movement is being displayed as if you were doing it yourself.
This is where variety comes into play, and why it’s an essential component of transformation. In his book “Spark,” Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey calls brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) the “Miracle-Gro of the brain.” Navigating your environment requires a variety of specialized movements and thought patterns. The more time you spend learning new movements, the more time you spend thinking differently to navigate your environment, the more you adapt, the more BNDF grows.
When BDNF is released, it does not simply affect newly created pathways — neuroplasticity — or existing motor neurons. It floods the entire brain. This is why diverse movement is so important. It helps everything, all at once, including neurotransmitters implicated in helping people with addiction and depression. It helps you remember better, longer. It also helps loosen the grip of anxiety, one of the most prominent issues facing us today.
And, it helps you transform.
How to Transform
We often discuss how exercise transforms us physiologically. The transformation that occurs not only affects our bodies, but our minds and emotions as well. As Llinás states, everything is movement. Once you know this, you have an opportunity to move your life in the direction of your choosing.
Sometimes you need to move, and sometimes you need to slow down. We know fitness transforms us at the cellular level. What about stillness?
Psychology professor Richard J. Davidson, the first researcher to scan the brains of Buddhist monks during meditation, offers a specific form of mindfulness meditation to help transform your outlook on life: tonglen, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition meaning “giving and taking.” Benefits include a more resilient brain — you’ll bounce back from adversity quicker — and the potential to transform your life in a more caring, empathic manner.
We know we feel good after a workout. The rush of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine keep us coming back to the gym. But, if we’re looking for long-term transformation of our mind, Davidson’s adaptation of tonglen, verified by brain scans, is a wonderful means of accomplishing this goal.
This meditation asks you to imagine the pain of others in order to come to terms with your own capacity for pain and healing. It might take a few times to get the hang of it, but when you can disassociate the feeling of this psychic pain with the content that caused the pain, you come to terms with your inner world in revelatory new ways. By envisioning the pain of others, you heal your own, and develop a better relationship not only with yourself, but with those around you as well. You transform yourself and inspire others to do the same.
- Find a comfortable seat. Closing your eyes, visualize someone who is suffering. It could be a child you saw on the news or a loved one dealing with a disease. I’ve personally found better success imagining people I know, for it is easier to relate to them. At the same time, if it’s too close to home, invoking a random person might be a better option.
- With every inhalation, picture yourself breathing in this person’s pain, be it physical or existential. Envision that pain traveling through your nostrils, into your lungs, and radiating to all the edges of your body.
- As you exhale, imagine the pain leaving your body. Notice the sensation as your body is alleviated of suffering.
- Repeat for at least ten breaths.
With time and patience this meditation weakens the connection between your amygdala, your fight-flight-freeze region, and prefrontal cortex, the center of rational thinking. A space appears between the time you have an emotion and your reaction. You’re empowered to fill that space with whatever you’d like to transform into. Choose wisely.