THE core scientific basis of mindfulness is neuroplasticity. Although the idea was suggested by many scientists and thinkers the term was coined by Polish neurophysiologist Jerzy Konorski in the middle of the 20th century. It’s probably the most important think most people don’t know about themselves.

It means that your way of thinking, reacting, and behaving is subject to change at any and at all times. This happens through primarily external events. In everyday terms we can think of it as ongoing cause and effect. Someone says something unpleasant about us and we become sad. We think of this as a one-off incident; it happened, now it’s gone. But in fact the experience has embedded in your brain and in some subtle, unconscious way, changed you. It may be that you now like that person a little less, or you feel a tiny bit less confident about the subject of the remark. The ultimate effect is that you are now a different you as a result of a single remark.

This flow and flux of causes and effects, ripples that bump into you as life experiences, has been happening to you since the moment your brain started to function before you were born. It’s still happening. You’re being affected by the very fact of reading this column.

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But ripples aren’t things that just happen to you and to everyone else. They are also created in turn by each of us. Every single thing you either think, feel emotionally, say, write or do causes effects, ripples. Some of these ripples affect only ourselves. So a pleasant thought about how nice the weather is on a cold but clear and sunny winter’s morning is not only produced in our mind but the very fact of it being produced itself affects your mind for the future. All the other forms of activity you do usually affect other people, including even our involuntary facial expressions.

What does this tell us? That we’re susceptible to change even if we don’t want to be, and moreover we are susceptible to harmful or unhelpful forms of change even without our awareness that this is actually happening. It also tells us that we capable, wittingly or not, of hurting other people and changing how they perceive life, themselves, others.

Given that this can and does happen in virtually every single moment, let’s look at some extreme examples. John Lennon walks out through his apartment door, a man walks up to him smiling, and shoots him dead. Imagine a tiny change to that scenario. John Lennon walks out through his apartment door, a man walks up to him smiling, and decides not to shoot him dead. Lennon goes on to compose songs which we are not able to imagine because he never did get the chance to write them.

Even more extreme. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated in June 1914. A month later Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. Four years later, 40 million people have been killed as a direct result of that decision to declare war. Other direct effects are: Russia has had a world-changing revolution leading to the first communist state, the Austrian and German empires have been destroyed, Poland re-emerges and Czechoslovakia is created. The further ramifications of this war leads to the Second World War in 1939.

What if the Austrians decided not to go to war but instead to try to build bridges with Serbia? We can’t know the effects but for hundreds of millions of people over the next century a different fate would have resulted. All because of one decision.

This is why mindfulness matters so very much and why in my view everyone should learn to practise it. It enables one to have a much better chance of noticing what’s going on in each moment. The more aware we are of the potential of external effects on who we are, the better chance we have or gently letting them fall away without the effect on us becoming a reality. And the more aware we are of our own thoughts, moods, feelings and impulses, the more likely we’ll be of perceiving that certain ones are destructive or hurtful, and from that insight let drop what might otherwise have caused a poisonous ripple into our mind or into the world and the people around us.

Our mindful responses may not prevent two world wars or save the life of a great songwriter and performer, but they may help you not become a less happy version of yourself and may help you make someone’s day brighter rather than darker.