My purpose in writing this blog is to peak your interest enough in the subject matter to have you do your research into neuroplasticity and how it can change your life for the better. My journey started in 2010 with reading the book Brain Rules by John Medina. Since that time I’ve read a book or two each year on the subject. Here is a blog on his site I published covering what I had learned to that date.
Much of what I am including in this blog was taken from two books: The Mind and the Brain Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffery M. Schwartz, M.D. and Soft-Wired How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life by Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD.
Note: Be sure to checkout the many videos and other hyperlinks while you read this document.
Now take a couple of minutes to watch this two minute video on Brain Architecture put out by Harvard University.
Before I launch into the material from these two books I want to share a story with you.
In June of 2012 I adopted Mia, a three year old black and white English Springer Spaniel rescue dog. When I went to pick her up from her foster family in Denver she was so frightened of me the foster dad had to put her in the cab of my pickup before I could drive back to the family cottage on Grand Lake.
It wasn’t just me whom she was frightened of, but everyone in which she came into contact. Mia was born in a Missouri puppy mill farm then became a puppy producer, missing a normal puppyhood. She had been in the rescue system for a year but due to her fears she had not been adopted. I felt I might have the answer to her overcoming her constant fear of the unfamiliar and unknown.
On July 4th 2013, Mia and I walked down the lake trail to attend a luncheon with some friends. I was the first guest to arrive so we sat on the boat dock until the other guests began to arrive. I left her on the dock while I asked Marlene if I could bring her in. When I went back to the dock to get her, she was gone. I asked the two grand children on the dock if they had seen which way she had gone. They had not seen her go.
I walked the foot trail both ways for a short distance calling out to her but, no luck. I reasoned with myself that she only knew the trail we had walked and I would probably find her at the cottage, so I stayed for lunch. When I walked the trail home, I called her name. Once again, no dog came. When I arrived at the cottage she was not there either. Once again I started back down the trail to Marlene’s calling her name. I continued past Marlene’s house and to the nearest neighbors but no Mia. Each day that week I drove down to the east end of the lake, walked the area calling her name and talking to the few residents in the area. It was a guilt ridden week for me. I did not understand the panic she experienced when I came up missing to her.
A week later I received a call from Kay, the owner of the first house east of Marlene’s, telling me that Mia was on their property and to come retrieve her. I did and the moment I whistled for her, she came bounding down the mountain side to me. We were both happy to see each other.
I discovered that Mia also had separation anxiety and would not leave my side. I could not leave her home alone. She would stay in my pickup for hours but not home. In her panic one time she jumped onto the toilet in the lower level bathroom and right out through the window screen. Then, trying to get back into the cottage looking for me, she destroyed both wooden screened doors. My solution was to just take her wherever I went and leave her in the pickup with the windows down.
Not much changed that summer and Mia spent lots of time with me and alone in my blue Ford Ranger pickup. In October, we returned to our home in Southwest Nebraska. About the only change in her behavior prior to returning to Grand Lake in late May was that I could change the inflection in my voice and she would not cower. That meant we could roughhouse on the floor. She learned that there were safe places for her to go in the city park with me.
In late August of 2014, when things slowed down around the town of Grand Lake, I decided that she should be around people more and maybe she would learn that people were not something to fear. I would take her with me to the coffee shop, The Hub with an outside eating area with several round tables and chairs. I would sit and read The Brain That Changes Itself while she lay next to me. Eventually she became curious and went looking for dropped bits of food and crumbs under the empty tables. Finally, she started looking under tables which were occupied by eaters and drinkers. Occasionally someone at the table would reach down and pet her. Over time she came to realize that people were safe and she could forage for food scraps and not experience fear.
The summer came to a close and she would actually allow some dog lovers to pet her away from The Hub but she still had not barked as most dog do.
By this past summer, 2015 her whole world changed. Instead of us being outside we started having coffee in the morning with a couple of old geezers, like I am. Mia grew into the unofficial greeter at The Hub. When someone or group would enter, she would walk up to them and request a pat or good head rub. She even started barking when she saw another dog approaching and on several occasions played chase with them. I now consider Mia a normal dog. We take walks without a leash, she comes when I call her and she barks when she hears the door bell ring or someone knocks at the door. I can also leave her home alone and not find the door or carpet next to it destroyed.
At the time I did not understand the brain mechanics associated with Mia’s fears and transformation. Now that I’ve studied more on the mind and the brain, I understand what happened.
The first place to go is to understand just what neuroplasticity is: Neuroplasticity is a concept referring to the fact that the brain is capable of changing its function in response to your environment, thinking, emotions, behavior, as well as injury.
It used to be thought that once we reached adult age our brains became hard wired and that it did not change. But with the development of the fMRI and other scientific equipment it was found that the locations where thoughts/events happened did actually change locations in the brain. Mapping of the brain has pretty well put to rest the belief that adult brains do not change.
The following are several of the principles I’m going to discuss in this document.
- Neurons that fire together wire together.
- Use it or lose it. If a neural circuit goes unused it is pruned.
- The more you use it the stronger it gets.
- There is competition for our neural real estate.
- Habits and neuroplasticity.
Neurons that fire together wire together – and some of the strongest bonds are when emotions are tied with an event. As an example of that, here is my abbreviated story – Between my junior and senior years in college I fell in love with a girl whose name was Pat. That same summer Pat was the last person I was with before driving off to attend USAF ROTC summer camp at Otis AFB on Cape Cod. The song that was played over and over on my drive to Otis was “This Guys In Love With You” sung by Herb Alpert. To this day, almost 50 years later, every time I heard that song the wonderful memory and feelings associated with being in love return.
On a more serious level. Mia’s fear of almost every living thing she came in contact with caused her fear memories to return and with each occurrence the bond between the associated neurons was strengthened. As with practicing the piano or guitar, the more you practice something the stronger the neurons firing at the same time are strengthened. What fires together wires together.
Neurons are connected from the axon of one neuron cell to the dendrites of the next cell. The synapse is the connecting point between the two neurons. The stronger the bond between the two neurons the more synapse there are between them. If, as in the case of Mia, she is not put in situations where she experiences her fears, those neurons associated with fear start to diminish in strength. And, in this case, as she experienced more of the positive events of being petted and finding food crumbs and scraps those neurons associated were strengthened. Now Mia does not fear strangers but embraces their positive attention.
Do you have any learned fears? I’ve know of people who were petrified of spiders, heights, dying if the wrong foods are eaten or the right foods not eaten, being in windowless rooms, flying, playing sports, what others might think of them, and losing control of people in their life. The list could probably go on and on.
Use it or lose it – Just like in the use of our muscles, if you don’t use parts of your body or certain senses they will diminish or possibly lose that function. It’s been shown that if a baby animal is kept in a dark room when that part of the brain should be receiving visual signals and developing, that animal will never learn to see. But that part of the brain not being used for it’s original designated purpose does not go idle.
I was a pilot for seven years in the USAF and felt very proficient in my ability to fly and even teach jet flying. I took my last flight in 1976 and I would only be considered a foolish old man to think that I could strap on a Cessna T-37 or C-130 and go fly after forty year of not practicing the skill. That neuron real estate area associated with piloting an aircraft is now being used for some other purpose, something more important to me at this time.
The more you use it the stronger the neuron connections get – The more you use neuron circuits the stronger the bonds between wired neurons become. Think about the first time you tried to drive the family car. In my case, it was a 1953 two tone red Hudson with a three speed transmission on the steering column. It took several practice sessions with my father to coordinate the clutch, gas, gear lever and steering wheel all at the same time. The more I practiced driving the Hudson, the better I became and finally I mastered it. Once that happened I didn’t have to think much about what I needed to do. Eventually I was even able to carry on a conversation while driving.
After watching the Broncos defeat the Patriots last weekend it became obvious that the receivers had practiced catching passes so many times that mostly their hands just went to the spot where the ball was going to be. The connected neural circuits had been developed to such a great extent little conscious thinking about it was needed. You can also apply that to playing a musical instrument, driving a nail or ……
Think back to learning to drive your first car. Once you mastered the process of driving, something you did not realize, is that the brain starts paring down and streamlining the group of neurons to just the vital few. Those neurons released from duty could then begin doing some other task. There is competition for cortical neural real estate.
Competition for neural real estate – In his book The Brain that Changes Itself Norman Doidge writes about two studies which prove that there is competition for brain real estate. The first one was where kittens had one eye sutured closed prior to them opening their eyes. That eye was never able to see because it received no vision input during the critical brain development period for eyes. What the researchers did find was the area which should have been processing sight from the covered eye was actually processing the inputs from the sighted eye. It appears that no part of the brain goes unused. Here is a short video of Dr. Doidge explaining competition for cortical real estate.
Another example mentioned in the book dealt with braille instructors. New instructors actually had no light allowed to enter either eye for several weeks while they learned braille. That area of the brain which had been processing the vision signals for functioning eyes was now being used by the finger tips in processing the braille print. Once the eye patches were removed sight was eventually restored to the teachers and to the area of the neocortex which processes vision.
The following paragraph was taken from page 59 of The Brain that Changes Itself:
“The competitive nature of plasticity affects us all. There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, “How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you much practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”
This might explain why Mia has, by my standards, transformed herself into a normal six year old English springer spaniel. She was not exposed to being frightened by people but instead was rewarded by food bits and lots of good feeling pats and head rubs. In other words, those neurons associated with fear of people and unknown things were not used and those for positive rewards were.
Neuroplasticity and Habits. I wrote about some of this above but not to much extent. We are what “our” habits make us. It is not only about what we do, like driving, how we put on our cloths, brush our teeth, tie our shoes, the food we eat and ………… It is also how and what we think, the beliefs we hold, what we value and the actions we take because of them.
Habits make our lives easier in many respects. If we had to think about each and every thing we need to do, our minds would spend a huge amount of time thinking what we needed to do, how to do it then doing it. Habits are both constructive and destructive to us and those around us.For more information on habits go to his webpage.
One example close to home I wrote about back in the late 1980s and published in several blogs on this site. It’s about how I reacted to my fear, frustration and hurt that manifested itself as anger. Here’s My anger story by Steve Batty.
Here’s a short article written by Debbie Hampton on The Dark Side of Neuroplasticity which talks about habits. I recommend you read it.
Now to where this blog was going all along. Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force:
From the front inside book jacket of The Mind and the Brain – “Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a leading researcher in brain dysfunctions, and wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley demonstrate that the human mind is an independent entity that can shape and control the functioning of the physical brain. Their work has its basis in our emerging understanding of adult plasticity – the brain’s ability to be rewired not just in childhood, but throughout life, a trait only recently established by scientists. But in this paradigm-shifting work, Schwartz and Begley take neuroplasticity one crucial step further. Through decades of work treating patients with Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Schwartz made an extraordinary finding: while following the therapy he developed , his patients were effecting significant and lasting changes in their own neural pathways. It was a scientific first: by actively focusing their attention away from negative behaviors and toward more positive ones. Schwartz’s patients were using their minds to reshape their brains. Here is a short TED video talking about changing your own brain.
The Mind and the Brain follows Schwartz as he investigates this newly discovered power, which he calls self-directed neuroplasticity or, more simply, mental force.”
This book spends quite a bit of print discussing the Silver Spring, MD monkey/PET fiasco beginning back in 1981. The ensuing court case lasted about ten years. As far as this blog goes it was what was learned from the monkey research and Dr. Taub’s move to the University of Alabama when he received a grant to continue his work that is important.
His grant at U of A was in the field of stoke recovery and developing a more effect method to help stroke victims. With his knowledge through working with the Silver Spring monkeys Dr. Taub and his staff developed what is know today as constraint-induced movement therapy or CI. Here is a power point presentation of CI, which lasts a little over six minutes. Here’s a short video showing the application of CI.
Another section of Schwartz’s book deals with proving, using the quantum theory, that the brain and mind are two separate entities. The material was way over my head but if you would like to read his explanation it’s chapter 8 and starts on page 255. Here is a youtube video on the quantum theory. I just accepted his finding since I also believe that our mind is not our brain.
Dr. Schwartz’s actual theme of his book is about the method he developed to help his OCD patients overcome their disorder by using their minds to control the brains output. The method helps his patients over come their obsessive thoughts and compulsive responses.
Dr. Schwartz developed a four step process to help his OCD patients defeat the destructive obsessive thoughts the brain offers up periodically. The following is a brief summary of the four steps:
- Relabel – their obsessions and compulsions as a false disease.
- Reattribute – those thoughts and urges to pathological brain circuitry.
- Refocus – attention away from the pathological thought and urges into constructive behavior.
- Revalue – the OCD obsession and compulsions, realizing that these have no intrinsic value and no inherent power.
For a more full understanding of Dr. Schwartz’s four step process go to his webpage by the Westwood Institute for Anxiety Disorders.
ON A MORE PERSONAL LEVEL
In my search for more information on the subject I ran across the following blogs when I keyed in google.com “self-directed neuroplasticity”. http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/02/20/self-directed-neuroplasticity-consciously-changing-your-brain-function/
According to the author self-directed Neuroplasticity is defined as “a concept that allows us to consciously control how we want our brains to work. In other words if you want your brain to become better in stressful situations, you’d “force” yourself to become more comfortable in these situations and your brain eventually adapts.” This certainly appeared to be a sound concept to me. Particularly when applied to my Anger Story mentioned before.
The concept of Self-Directed Neuroplasticity involves:
- Attention – The need to pay attention to what you want to be encoded into your brain. In my situation, I wanted to change the way I expressed my anger. I wanted to control my emotions so that I could use the energy from my anger in a more positive and constructive manner.
- Volition (willpower) – A person needs to find a strong reason to want to change. Once a person has a strong personal reason to change, it helps give them the willpower to do what it takes to be successful. In my case, I needed to change my anger behavior to strengthen the positive bond between my two sons and me.
- Brain Activation – That occurs in part as a result of how you choose to focus your attentions and guide your willpower. In my case, I researched and read many books (this was prior to yahoo and the Internet) on emotions, anger and habits. I was searching for a better understanding why I expressed my anger as I did with my two boys when they misbehaved. I wanted, no, needed to find a way to change my thinking and behavior. And I did. My search led me down a path of discovery, enlightenment and change.
- Consistency – One needs to practice the behavior and thoughts they want to happen and not those they do not want. In my case I developed a better understanding why I expressed my angry emotions in the way I did. This knowledge led me to develop a way to harness my emotional energy in a more constructive way. From my understanding, how habits are formed and replaced I practiced my new behavior, my anger tree, over and over so that it would be what I did when I became angry.
Back in the late 1980s when I did my anger research and developed my anger tree to help me with my behavioral change, I knew nothing about neuroplasticity or its dark side. I just stumbled into using much of the process to achieve my goal. Now that I understand the process to change my behaviors is by uing my mind to change my brain, I can see more opportunities for myself. How about you? Do you have any habits which might be destructive to you or those you love? The four step SDN process is your starting point.
I found this a very relevant and interesting video delivered by Dr. LuAnn Helms talking about how we can use SDN to improve our daily lives.
One final story. After WW II, my father moved our family to McCook in 1947. In maybe 1959 or 60, he attended a medical meeting in Las Vegas. Later I learned that his desire to attend the meeting was to learn how to use hypnosis to help his patients.
The first weekend after his return from the LV meeting he had me sit down in a kitchen chair and he proceeded to demonstrate his new medical skill on and to me. At the time I was probably 12 or 13 but even at that I still remember the event. One of the final things he told me, as I sat there with my eyes closed, was that I was going to feel pressure on my right arm but no pain. Then he proceeded to clamp a medical instrument called an Allen forceps on my arm. I did feel the pressure but no actual pain. After he awakened me he once again clamped the Allen forceps on my arm and it hurt like blazes. From then on I was a true believer.
Through the use of hypnosis in his medical practice, my father helped his patients, conquer their fears, delivered lots of babies, stop smoking, lose weight, reduced dislocations and even sewed up a few. On several occasions, he even helped me feel like I had a full eight hours of sleep when I had stayed up late studying for an exam the night before. It was a wonderful tool for him and his patients.
I remember the time when we were talking about hypnosis, he told me that all hypnosis was “self-hypnosis” that he was only the guide. Now, after learning about self-directed neuroplasticity, I understand that he was only helping a person change their own brain. He was guiding their mind in a way as to accomplish what we can now do for ourselves. At this moment, I just wish he were still with me so I could share what I’ve learned in my research on the topic. He would have been fascinated. To me, my father was a great man and healer of the body, the mind and the brain. Thank you, Dad.
My question to you and me is; “Now that we know we can reprogram our brains with our minds, what are we going to do with that knowledge?”
Here’s a great blog I suggest you read. You might want to sign up for her newsletters like I did. How Your Mind Shapes Your Brain.
The next book on my reading list is titled The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D.