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How experience changes the structure of the brain

‘A massive proliferation of synapses occurs during the first years of life. These connections are shaped by genes and chance as well as experience, with some aspects of ourselves being less amenable to the influence of experience than others. Our temperament, for example, has a nonexperiential basis; it is determined in large part by genes and by chance. For instance, we may have a robust approach to novelty and love to explore new things, or we may tend to hang back in response to new situations, needing to “warm up” before we can overcome our initial shyness. Such neural propensities are set up before birth and then directly shape how we respond to the world – and how others respond to us.

But from our first days of life, our immature brain is also directly shaped by our interactions with the world, and especially by our relationships. Our experiences stimulate neural firing and sculpt our emerging synaptic connections. This is how experience changes the structure of the brain itself – and could even end up having an influence on our innate temperament. ‘

– Daniel Siegel, Mindsight

‘Mindsight’ is not specifically to do with education, or parenting, but I think the understanding of the workings of the mind that it provides are profoundly relevant to both. It mixes the scientific explanation of the way the mind and brain works with case studies showing how people have used the mindfulness based techniques he describes to change their lives.

I’ve read a lot around meditation and mindfulness, and around neuroscience, and I was not expecting this book to add much new to my understanding – but actually more than anything else it has convinced me of the value of mindfulness techniques by explaining how they actually work. I think almost anyone could read this book and find a way to approach an area that is bothering them. It’s a good ‘un, especially if you like your science along with a bit of human interest.

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