The Atlas

Nurturing our nature

If there is one topic on the planet that fascinates me more than any other, it's the question of how much of who we are is innate (nature) versus cultivated (nurture). As a result, there isn't another topic on which I do more reading and more studying; neurobiology, the mapping of the human brain, cognitive re-programming, brain chemistry and the increasingly large body of information associating genetics with different characteristics is something that I can nerd out on for days.

But, like most things that human being speculated on for centuries before our scientific tools got refined enough to get a REAL look, we've historically broken this topic down in an overly simplistic way that is, as it turns out, inaccurate.

We now know enough to know that it's actually not "nature VERSUS nurture."

It's really "nature AND nurture."

Someone recently told me that "meditation doesn't work." To me, this might be the single best example to illustrate what we now know about how the brain actually works: your brain is like the rest of your body. Working it out gradually is what makes it stronger.

A person who can't lift 100 pounds is limited because they have not worked towards building the muscles they need to lift 100 pounds. Your brain is the same way. There is an increasingly large body of research that continues to show that the process of meditation actually changes key aspects of your brain composition over time, which then creates an effective meditation experience.

Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Sara Lazar describes the following key physical differences in the brain that can be produced in as little as 8-weeks of meditation:

  • Thickening of the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
  • Thickening of the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  • Thickening of the temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
  • A shrinking of the amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which influences anxiety, fear and stress in general.

My point in all of this isn't to try to convince you to meditate -- though, I think it's something that everyone could benefit from. My purpose is in illustrating that our brains, just like our bodies, change based on what we fuel them with. To borrow from an old tech phrase: "Garbage in, garbage out."

Our brains are amazing, incredible things. And our growth, happiness, connection with others, capacity for empathy, ability to learn and trajectory of the lives we live are heavily influenced by our what we give to and expect from our brains.

Sure, there are a ton of advantages that some of us are born with -- everything from rapid cognitive capabilities, to sensitive palettes, to incredible eyesight, to powerful physical prowess, to financial and familial stability -- but as adults how we treat our brains is a direct influence on how we choose to live.

There are so many things we inflict on our brains -- reality TV, tabloids, celebrity gossip, porn, video games, conspiracy theories, social media -- that might feel as innocuous as chewing gum at the time. And in small doses, they can be just as harmless as any other indulgence. But unchecked consumption of them can quickly turn into the intellectual version of a daily diet of Big Macs.

What is important to you? To accomplish? To do? To experience? To be?

Now, what are you fueling your brain with to get you there?

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