What can you do if you’re depressed? It’s programmed into
your genes, and hardwired into your brain. Since your brain isn’t going
to change, you’re stuck with the depression unless you can find some
sort of physical remedy.
What if you have a stroke? Part of your brain has been destroyed.
Since your brain can’t change, you’re just going to have to get used to
living with reduced functioning. And the same holds true if you injure
your brain in a car accident, or injure it some other way.
What about happiness? We’ve been told we each
have a “happiness set-point.” That means your personal happiness level
has been genetically determined at birth. You can only experience that
much happiness, no more.
And what about athletic abilities? If you have a lousy golf swing, or you just can’t shoot a basketball, you might be able to improve it a little by practice, but only to the extent your biological inheritance allows.
These ideas were the prevailing wisdom for the better
part of the last century. Until very recently, neuroscientists
continued to believe that the brain couldn’t change much after
Then scientists started making some rather startling discoveries.
It was discovered, for example, that in some individuals
who were born blind, their visual cortex – the part of the brain that
processes sight – was able to learn a whole new set of skills. In some
cases, it developed the ability to process hearing or memory, giving the
person exceptional skills in those areas.
In one case, a patient had become blind because his entire visual cortex was destroyed. But other parts of his brain “rewired” themselves to take over the function of sight, allowing him to develop normal vision.
In another case, a child referred to as “Alex” was born without the left hemisphere of his brain, leaving him almost completely mute for nine years. (You may remember that the left cortex is the part of the brain which ordinarily controls language.) But at age nine, Alex started learning to speak, and by age 15, he’d developed the language skills of an average ten-year-old. Doctors assumed that his right hemisphere rewired itself to take over the language functions of the left.
These and other related discoveries have led to a new field of neuroscience known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons – the nerve cells that make up our brain and nervous system – to change in response to our experience. “Experience” includes both our interactions with the things around us, as well as our own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes.
In fact, the brain has been found to be a constantly changing organ, continually modifying itself right up until the end of our lives. It can create new neurons, as well as new connections between already existing neurons. The average number of neurons in a human brain is around 100 billion. The more connections there are between those neurons, the more powerful your brain becomes, and the number of new connections that can be created between them is literally astronomical.
Once scientists discovered that the brain could change
itself, they began to investigate whether there were things we could do
to encourage it to change. And what they discovered was there are
things we can do to encourage both the creation of new nerve cells and
the formation of new connections between existing ones.
In fact, every action you take, each skill you learn, each thought you think, all leave impressions on your brain – kind of like the grooves in an old-fashioned long-playing record. Depending on how you choose to act, think, and even how you focus your attention, those impressions will contribute to either greater balance and well-being, or to greater stress and imbalance.
When you set about trying to change your brain for the better, it’s very helpful to keep in mind that the more energy you put into whatever you’re doing or thinking, and the more focused your attention and intention, the deeper the impressions you make in your brain.
Research in the field of neuroplasticity has now established that any skill you practice - whether physical or mental - leads to remarkable changes in your brain. So, for example, if you practice playing the violin, the area of the brain that controls finger movements will increase in size.
Another example is from a study done on London cab drivers. It was found that the years these cabbies spent learning to navigate the incredibly complex streets of London resulted in an increase in the size of their hippocampus – the part of the brain largely responsible for spatial memory.
Chess players and Olympic athletes have shown similar increases in the parts of their brains involved in their particular skills.
And other studies have shown that basketball players, as well as violinists, can change their brains by imagining themselves practicing their skill, in much the same way as if they had physically practiced it.
So what implications, if any, do these studies have for someone who is depressed?
We know that there are medications that can alleviate depression by changing the chemicals in the brain. But research now shows that mindfulness meditation and mindful cognitive-behavioral therapy (MCBT) can be just as effective as medication in changing the brain to cure depression.
And what about someone who’s had a stroke?
There’s a relatively new treatment called “constraint-induced therapy” that has been successful in restoring functioning to stroke victims who, for example, lost the use of one of their arms. Ordinarily, the person would compensate for the loss by using their normal arm and ignoring the affected one.
The treatment involves preventing the stroke patient from using their good arm by constraining its movement. Research shows that as a result of the constraint, the part of the brain that was damaged rebuilds itself, significantly restoring normal function to the affected arm. And the restoration of normal function often occurs in as little as ten days.
Now that you’ve learned how responsive the brain is to everything we do, perhaps it’s easier to imagine how taking frequent breaks to “remember to breathe” (that is, remembering to activate your MPFC) could, over time, significantly change your brain and change your life in some very helpful ways.
To learn about some of the latest research on how we can influence our genes, continue on to the next Brain Page which talks about the relatively new field of Epigenetics.