StressStop Blog

My Third And Fourth Days In India: The Neuroplasticity Of Travel

Jim Porter, M.A.L.S., President, StressStop.comTuesday, February 12th, 2013

Everywhere you go in India you see people living as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years easily co-existing with people who are living perfectly modern lives. It's mind-boggling! (I like to say that what boggles the mind rewires the mind - but more on neuro-plasticity later.)

India is very raw and not for the faint of heart. The poverty here is overwhelming and shanty-towns, which are rare in our western world, are much more common here. You see them everywhere. Several times women with no arms have approached our group begging for money. And some people seem to just live out on the street.

A domicile outside on the street in front of a fairly wealthy home in Ahmadabad India
A "domicile" outside on the street in front of a fairly wealthy home in Ahmadabad, India.

We visited a fairly well-off family in Ahmadabad who had four servants working inside the home. Right outside their front door was a kind of large box, maybe a cabinet about five or six feet long covered by a blanket. There was a picture of a Hindu god over the box (nailed to the outside wall of this wealthy person's house) and a chair to one side of the box. I asked our guide, "Does someone live here?" "Yes," he said, someone did.

At first, when you walk among the city streets in some of the better neighborhoods, which still have the stray dogs and wandering cows (and let's not forget the excrement from those animals as well) your first instinct is to be afraid. But the more you do, the more you realize that the people here are just going about their business and not the least bit concerned with you. On the first day, I confused a boy coming up to me and giving me a hug with someone who was trying to pick my pocket. Our tour guide said we should be on the look-out for this, so naturally my mind went in that direction. But as it turned out, the school children here sometimes treat foreigners as if we were something special and even want to have us pose in pictures with them.

So as you wander the streets, and in our case, we ALWAYS wandered as a group and always with a guide, your innate sense of fear and being on guard all the time - which is driven by the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for vigilance gradually gets rewired. You start to develop a bit of a comfort factor with the unknown, and the scary unfamiliar elements you've been preprogrammed to be afraid of your whole life. This is what I call the neuroplasticity of travel. It happens anyplace you go, but in India it's neuroplasticity on steroids!

The amygdala is one of the most plastic (changeable) parts of the human brain. It changes in response to experience, particularly stressful events. It tends to become more sensitive and slightly larger, the more we allow ourselves to be stressed by the world around us. It's kind of a vicious cycle. The more stress we perceive around us, the more sensitive to stress we become. But the more we use our pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that I talked about in my last blog, that Tibetan monks use to keep their stress in check, the more the amygdala shrinks and the left prefrontal cortex grows, getting bigger and stronger and more resilient to stress. Also, the more we do things like meditate, practice yoga, exercise and even become comfortable with what would normally frighten us, the more our pre-frontal cortex grows bigger and becomes stronger.

So if you think about it, we have two choices: We can excise our fears through careful rewiring of our brains by exposing ourselves to new, slightly stressful situations which we can gain mastery over. Or, we can practice standard stress management techniques that also rewire our brains so that we become more resilient and capable of handling our own stress. In other words, we can get use to our stressors by deliberately exposing ourselves to them or we can make ourselves stronger and better able to handle these stressors, by practicing standard stress management coping techniques.

If you wanted to help the impoverished people of India (or anywhere) you'd have to get over whatever inherent fear of the unfamiliar surroundings you might find yourself in. I remember feeling this way the first time I volunteered to work at a homeless shelter. I learned the other day, while visiting Gandhi's ashram (commune), that he had a near insurrection on his hands when a man with leprosy asked to be taken in. Against the wishes of EVERYONE else in the ashram Gandhi insisted the man be allowed in. Even though it was believed at the time that leprosy was highly contagious (and that anybody who came close to a person with leprosy would catch it) Gandhi proved otherwise by treating the man himself, rubbing his skin every night with oils until the man started feeling better and the community started feeling better about the man.

Gandhi's sitting room where he sat, wrote, used his spinning wheel, and met with people who came to the Ashram
Gandhi's sitting room where he sat, wrote, used his spinning wheel, and met with people who came to the Ashram.

Of course Gandhi didn't know anything about neuroplasticity, yet he intuitively knew how to rewire his brain and the brains of others. Gandhi changed the world by simply being the change he wanted to see in the world. He would stop eating for weeks if he thought it might inspire others to stop fighting and it did. He rewired the way the whole world thought, believing as it did, since the beginning of time, that only violence and terrorism and war could bring about a regime change. By promoting non-violence in the face of violence against him (and his followers) and preaching tolerance in the face of intolerance and promoting compassion (as was the case with the leper) in the face of fear, Gandhi changed the way the whole world thought. Gandhi literally rewired the WORLD's brain. I think the reason we all love traveling so much is it just kind of automatically rewires our brains. Some of my earliest blogs (see stresstop.com. blogs) were about neuroplasticity as a cure for depression. Think about it, depressed people get stuck in a rut, doing things the same way every day, feeling stuck, berating themselves for feeling stuck and just making themselves more and more for weeks if he thought it might inspire others to stop fighting and it did. He rewired the way the whole world thought, believing as it did, since the beginning of time, that only violence and terrorism and war could bring about a regime change. By promoting non-violence in the face of violence against him (and his followers) and preaching tolerance in the face of intolerance and promoting compassion (as was the case with the leper) in the face of fear, Gandhi changed the way the whole world thought. Gandhi literally rewired the WORLD's brain. I think the reason we all love traveling so much is it just kind of automatically rewires our brains. Some of my earliest blogs (see blog entries: My First Day In India And The History Of Mind/Body Medicine ans My Second Day In India: The Gift Of Non-Fear) were about neuroplasticity as a cure for depression. Think about it, depressed people get stuck in a rut, doing things the same way every day, feeling stuck, berating themselves for feeling stuck and just making themselves more and more depressed.

Seeing a country so different as India challenges you to rewire and rethink everything. It's truly an amazing feeling when you embrace it all, the good and the bad, the poverty and the INCREDIBLE wealth (think Taj Mahal which is coming up next on our itinerary) and a very god-like little man named Gandhi and you come away from here a completely different person. It's a life-changing experience.

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