The mind has the capacity to grow and learn. This derives from the brain's "plasticity" -- i.e. our biological ability to have "mind-expanding" experiences.
In the psychedelic era, the phrase "mind expanding experiences" referred
to ingesting drugs that brought you to "alternate states of
consciousness". This was meant to lead you through new "doors
of perception"... an experience that would change your interaction
with the world. While such experiences may have helped some people
to attain something akin to a spiritual awakening, for many others
it was essentially a hallucinogenic experience. All of this to say
that the phrase "mind expanding experiences" comes equipped
with some baggage!
So, you may wonder, am I talking here about having “psychedelic” experiences
without using drugs? Well, no, I'm actually making a difference between
what is "mind expanding" and what is a hallucinating experience.
What I call "mind expanding" is related to experiencing
things in a way that is different from our usual way, a way that
opens up new possibilities. In a hallucination, we also perceive
things differently, but this new perception does not help us interact
more effectively with reality. For instance, you may believe you
can fly, but this belief is not very helpful because you will still
fall down if you jump out the window.
In the psychedelic era, “mind-expanding” was mostly
wishful thinking. Science took it as a incontrovertible fact that
one's brain circuitry would not change past a certain age (the first
few years of life for many functions, late teens for others). This
led credence to the idea that you could never really change, never
really perceive the world and interact with it in a different way.
Today, neuroscience has destroyed this old belief, to the point that
psychiatrist Norman Dodge refers to it as "neurological nihilism".
In contrast, he writes about "The Brain That Changes Itself" (this
phrase is the title of a book of his).
Throughout our life, connections keep forming between our neurons,
and even some new neurons are created, in response to our experiences
and how we handle them. The old dichotomy between "mind" and "body" no
longer feels adequate to cover the complexity of the interactions
between what is "purely physical" and "purely mental" --
the distinction feels arbitrary. For instance: Medical drugs like
SRI’s affect our moods through chemical interactions. Psychotherapy,
at least in some cases, has been shown to change the wiring of some
brain circuits (reflecting new habits). While SRI's do not directly
affect brain circuitry, they may help to do so by making it easier
for people to override all habits and replace them with new ones.
We live in a world where it is possible to radically change our
experience of life, where it is possible to lift the debilitating
effects of being depressed, or anxious, or obsessive compulsive.
The point of this article is not to debate whether this is more effectively
done through psychotherapy, through medical drugs, or a combination
of both. My point here is that it is possible to feel and act like
a different person. That is, to expand our mind beyond our default
mode as we know it.
Neuroscientist Michael Mezenich,
of the University of California, San Francisco, says: "We now know
that the qualities that define us at one moment in time come from
experiences that shape the physical and functional brain, and that
continue to shape it as long as we live".
In other words, one of the essential qualities of our mind is our
ability to be proactive, to shape ourselves by learning, and by creating
learning experiences that help us to shape ourselves.
I am not talking about realizing psychedelic fantasies such as acquiring
paranormal powers. But I find it at least as exciting to know that
we have the ability to shape our lives in a proactive way. To not
just learn new tricks, but to also change the inner experience of
what it is like to deal with things. To expand into something different,
and, in doing so, be more fully ourselves.
My point in the article above is that we all have built-in mechanisms
that make positive change possible. We're born that way, and we continue
to be that way, even as we age.
It's easy to forget this when you're feeling overwhelmed by outside
forces that impose undesirable change on you. Or when you're struggling
with feeling stuck.
In these cases, the point of this article is to remind you that
there is hope: You can harness these built-in mechanisms for proactive
change, to expand and rise up to the situation.