Gridlock. We hardly ever have it in Whitehorse and if we do we can likely, easily, take another route to get where we are going (ok, not over the Riverdale Bridge). It is much like the fiber optic cable that is carrying our email to Paris. One moment it might go by Rio de Janeiro and another by Dublin. Whatever route is open.
The brain operates in much the same fashion. A signal may travel one route one day and a completely different route another day, depending on what circuits are available. And this is helpful: for it allows us to press into service less occupied neurons and bond them to the task of learning new skills.
In the brain there is a map of the body. A thigh muscle doesn’t take up much space in the brain map because it primary job is to move the knee forward. The fingers however occupy a large part of the brain map because they perform many functions.
And this is core to what we are learning from neuroscience: given the right treatment the brain has a huge capacity to work around impairments and reprogram the brain map.
However the key to programing or reprograming, is focused attention; a half effort won’t do.
South African, John Pepper has Parkinson’s disease, yet he has taught himself to walk without the shuffling gait so typical of those with PD. He has done so by engaging his frontal cortex to the atypical task of learning how to walk. Usually our brain stem coordinates such activity. John Pepper’s story is recounted by Norman Doidge M.D., in his book, The Brain’s Way of Healing and he will soon feature in an episode of The Nature of Things, hosted by Norman Doidge.
Pepper accomplishes this task by thinking, consciously thinking of the minute details of walking. If he walks consciously he walks well. If he multi-tasks, or talks too much or spaces out, he trips himself up. But if he uses his cerebral cortex with focused attention, he can walk very well.
What Pepper is doing is going around the gridlock of the brain stem where the damage that is Parkinson’s is located. There are sufficient neurons that can pass the message through to the cortex, which has now undertaken the task of coordinating walking. And since neurons that fire together wire together, Pepper is getting better and better at walking. The brain map for walking, previously coordinated by the brain stem is now coordinated by the frontal lobe.
Focused attention. Slow, unhurried focused attention, repeated, over time, will encode our desired new learning.
Whether through the heightened emotional attention of stress or the unhurried focused attention of concentration, our brain is structured to respond to the repeated firings of the neurons and so with conscious thought we can control that firing and organize our brains to serve our needs and suit our surroundings.
As I say in My Brain is Plastic “it’s simple but it isn’t easy”.
Originally published in What's Up Yukon
According to Israeli physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, “hurrying is bad for learning”.
How many of us hurry through our day ensuring that the garbage has been put out, the car has gas, the kids arrive at school on time, that we are appropriately attired and prepared for work, that dinner arrives on the table and that the laundry for the week is done?
Hurrying results in inattention and is characteristic of the multi-tasking life. It means we are not fully present in the moment because we are already half in the next moment. And when we live this way habitually, our neurons, which are habitually wiring together because they so often fire together; program hurrying into our daily habit pattern. If we are not hurrying, it starts to feel funny.
Problem with hurrying is it sends a signal to our sympathetic nervous system that it needs to pay attention, to be on guard. Cortisol and adrenalin levels go up and there we are in a heightened state of fight-or-flight again. This fight-or-flight state can be quite subtle: For some even speaking up at a meeting; Sounding like we know what we are talking about when we are not entirely certain. Even a social encounter can put us into the stress zone if we are not ready for it. Once elevated, we need soothing to calm ourselves. Any number of self-soothing measures are pressed into service: a coffee or tea, a snack, a break of some sort, self-talk, a walk, biting the nails, a cigarette. Well you get it. So many of our habits are efforts to calm ourselves and reduce stress. Often they are so deeply wired we don’t even really take notice.
When we are in an elevated state, our brain plasticity is heightened. Stress response is activated and our attention becomes highly focused. The Limbic System, located at the top of the brain stem and in the centre of the cranium is already engaged, evaluating the emotional significance of events and comparing them to previous events so as to determine their threat value. Our brain is primed to encode and remember.
For example: a camping trip which moments earlier, full of fun and the smell of pine trees is now a terrible threat because of a mouse which runs up someone’s leg and freaks them out. Anything that moves quickly now startles them and draws a stress response. The individual is now triggered not just by swift moving small rodents, but by anything quickly moving and caught out of the corner of the eye. They calm themselves by having a snack or reading a book or curling up somewhere safe and so that self-soothing habit also gets special attention and also gets wired in. The trigger and the self-soothing, both wired in by a plastic brain at a heightened moment of vigilant attention. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
Problem is we’re not engaging the benefit of our frontal lobe. The frontal lobe could tell us that the chances of a mouse running up our leg again are very low. Or that the mouse doesn’t really want to risk its life by running up our leg, or that if we sit with our legs up and not on the ground we decrease the risk of attack. However, the frontal lobe is off line when cortisol and adrenalin are high.
So, now we know neuroplasticity helps us survive in a threatening world; but how does it help us learn new tricks? Stay tuned for part 3 of Neuroscience and Everyday Living.
Originally published in What's Up Yukon.
Can we change our brain just by thinking? Neuroscience would have us believe so.
For example, a calm brain is more capable of learning, working and healing. It sounds simple. When the signal to noise ratio in the brain is low, learning and working and healing is easier. Signal to noise ratio means that the brain’s, “noise” - or random and distracted neural firing, - is so loud a thought can’t make itself heard. How is it our thinking has to push through so much noise to make itself heard?
Neuroscience is starting to provide us with some answers, and stress is part of a story that starts in our nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is composed of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-digest-repair).
When the fight or flight response is triggered, blood flows to the heart and muscles so that we can do just that: run away or defend ourselves. However, even though we are not being chased by wild animals, we are being chased by deadlines and deliverables. And this leaves us feeling desperate, endangered and hyper-anxious. The noise in our brain is very loud and “a person in fight-or-flight can’t heal or learn well” says Norman Doidge, M.D. in his second book: The Brain’s Way of Healing.
I come to an interest in neuroscience and specifically neuroplasticity through five years of researching the play My Brain is Plastic, a study of a girl, her troubles, neuroplasticity and hope. It is the story of a pretty normal family, with its share of stress. There it is, that word: stress.
I don’t think any of us imagine ourselves to be in a state of flight-or-fight stress, yet – the surprise is that we are often in a heightened state and that heightened state is elevating our sympathetic nervous system, creating noise in the brain, and making it hard to learn, work and heal. And mostly we just push through, meeting our daily deliverables.
Problem is stress starts to get wired in. Neurons that fire together, wire together is the expression used in neuroscience. Walk down the path of stress on a daily basis and it becomes our default program. We become wired to the elevated state of stress even though our lives are not literally threatened.
Too much stress and we seek ways to de-stress: To relax, to turn off our sympathetic nervous system and get some rest-digest-repair time. We need soothing. Along the way we learned to soothe ourselves: As babies, rocking or sucking our thumbs or fingers; as teens by biting our nails or smoking; as adults by drinking coffee or beer or a glass of wine. Certainly food is soothing.
Habits of stress, habits of soothing. Neurons that fire together wire together. And so habit becomes the default program. And while some of us may have the habit of yoga and mindfulness mediation, many of us have the habit of beer and burgers.
What does neuroscience have to say about habit and how to change them? Stay tuned for part 2 of Neuroscience and Everyday Living.
Originally published in What's Up Yukon.