So what is Neuroplasticity?
Change can become easier when you understanding how brain function influences who you are and how you experience the world AND how you can influence brain function. Neuroplasticity shows us that the brain is the most trainable and flexible organ we have.
Change is in your control.
Why does it matter?
When I first started this work I remember giving a talk to a local health care clinic and I had to explain the term Neuroplasticity and how it relates to pain, fatigue, anxiety & trauma. A lot has changed since then but NEUROPLASTICITY is still often not fully understood.
Most of us has grown up not thinking too much about our brains or its role in everyday basic function. We obviously knew it was a vital organ but we often misunderstood the role it plays and few thought they could actively influence their own brain. Just how import is the brain? Well we no longer talk about an immune system or an endocrine system. It is the neuro-immune -endocrine system because of the driving role of the brain plays. This has given rise to the field of science called psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI) – how psychological process interact with immune and endocrine function. How we experience our body or the world around us is a brain process. We see, hear, feel, smell, taste because of how the brain process the information coming from our senses. Our senses send the information to the brain and what we experience is the brain’s ‘best guess’ of what’s ‘out there’. If the processing of this information is altered even slightly, our experience of ourselves and the world changes. We also now know how a traumatic experience changes the brain to protect us. And more recently it has become clearer that chronic pain and chronic fatigue are very different from acute pain and acute fatigue and are less ‘body’ issues but rather issues in brain processing. We can confidently now say that ‘All Pain is in the Brain’ – a statement that just wouldn’t have made sense a few decades ago.
All this information would be of mere scientific curiosity but it really matters. If the brain can change, can we influence that change in our favour? Can you learn to change the organ that is so critical for making us who we are. Neuroplasticity says the brain is actually built to change! So why not make the most of Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity has been described as the greatest medical breakthrough in the last 400 years. It’s a game changer that offers everyone with a brain, the opportunity to improve their lives. But it is still a concept that is culturally new. The Nobel Prize for Science in 1990 went to work on Neuroplasticity and pain but it takes time to go from the science lab to the water cooler. And that’s where it needs to be. A cultural understanding that if you change your brain and you change your life.
It is a concept that has become so linked in with my work and my trainings that I often forget that it is still a concept that is new to people or that people only vaguely comprehend.
So here is a basic overview for you. Colleagues and Neuroscientists will cringe at the simplification but it is aiming for a basic understanding only. I will give links to great books and videos to watch to deepen your understanding at the end.
WHAT IS IT?
The term Neuro means the nervous system. Our central nervous system is the brain and spinal chord. The Plasticity part refers to the revolutionary concept that the nervous system is malleable, flexible changeable in both it’s structure and function. It is revolutionary because we used to think it was not flexible at all. We thought the brain was made up of specific regions and that each region had it’s own important function.
We used the think that the brain formed in the womb and continued developing in early critical childhood period. By late childhood the brain had finished developing. It was believed to be the only organ in the body that couldn’t heal or change. The implication of this old ‘static brain’ concept was that if you had devolopmental or trauma issues early on then there was little you could do. You were at the mercy of those developmental years. Also we thought if there was deterioration in brain function with age or brain injury then there was little we could do. We were at the mercy of our age and genetics and we just had to get along as best we could.
It turns out that not only we were wrong we were embarrassingly wrong. The brain does change and adapt. It is actually built to adapt and change. It retains this capacity until the day we die.
So we have a brain that has built into its function the capacity to change. To rewire. To change its structure and function to create a better life. We can be stronger, happier, healthier, smarter. We can be more happy and healthy, day by day. If the brain can change, we can change.
DIY Brain Changes
Making change however takes effort and energy so the brain will only change if there is a need. If there is not a need to change it won’t. Some neuroscientists call it a lazy brain, but I think it is more about efficiency. It changes if it needs to. If it doesn’t need to then it won’t. The brain will change if there is a benefit to us. Benefits tend to fit into two categories. They either positive changes to get us to thrive or they are changes that keep us alive.
If something is dangerous to our survival then the brain will change to protect us and keep us safer. But here is where I think it gets really fascinating. For the brain to decide what is dangerous it LEARNS. It can learn from past experience, from conversations, from the news, from watching others, from the internet. From all the sensory input it has received from its early development. Your brain is unique to you and is formed through your life experiences. No two brains are the same. They have been changing since the beginning and bring you to NOW.
For some, NOW is now really working for them. They are in a stuck state. The brain changes in order to make life better, easier, more efficient and SAFER. But it is also easy to get into a neurological rut. This is known as the dark side of NEUROPLASTICITY. Anything we repeat often enough or under certain conditions, rewires the brain so that becomes easier and eventually effortless and automatic. This includes emotions, feelings, behaviours, physiological responses.
So with certain neuroplastic change, people can become stuck in a rut where their brain and body really isn’t operating in a way that is creating an optimal life.
But the exciting part of Neuroplasticity is that brain is the most flexible and trainable organ we have. Just because we are stuck, doesn’t mean we can not potentially become unstuck.
When we understand the nature of the rut and have the tools to get out of those neuroplastic ruts, then we can do incredible things.
For the chronic conditions I work with change is required at the neuroplastic level. But a neurosurgeon can’t do it. But you can.
Retraining sleep pattern alters brain function. Regular physical activity plays a special role in neuroplastic change. Addressing trauma or stress hormones influences brain function. How you think changes your brain. Everything we do can influence the brain and body in important ways. What you do, how you move, what you think, say, feel, remember, expect, focus on or imagine changes your brain. All these things can become automatic and create change in our brain. These are all things that you can learn to control and take back control of your brain and life.
Your past experience has given you a unique brain that is helping to make you who you are and how you experience the world. But you are not at the mercy of your brain. You are not at the mercy of your past.
If you are curious to learn more about Neuroplasticity then I would recommend Norman Doidge’s 2 books.
You can be skeptical or you can be curious about neuroplasticity. And thanks to Neuroplasticity either can become a habit. I would recommend curiosity and a willingness to learn. It will change your brain and your life.
There is a great TedTalk (below) by Michael Merzenich ‘the Pioneer of Neuroplasticity’ if you enjoy going to the movies.
If you prefer to kick back and listen to podcasts, then download the Brain Science Podcast interview with Michael Merzenich.
And of course if you would like to talk to a real person, and learn more about my work and how it might help you then it’s as simple as making contact.
TAKE BACK CONTROL – Lightning Process Podcast
I recently did an Interview with Bev for the Living Fabulously Website about my work & the concept of taking back control of your health & life.
I wrote a recent post “If Pain persists BE your own Doctor”.
This one could be “If you are stuck BE your own Neuroplastic Surgeon”.
To live a brilliant life you don’t need understand the brain at the level of a Neuroscientist like Michael Merzenich. But you would be foolish to ignore his message.
And that is that change is very much under your control. You can learn to change your brain and therefore your life.
Inside your skull you have something which is extraordinarily precious AND has a built in capacity to make your life better – happier, stronger, healthier.
Why would it have this capacity if not to utilise it?
It’s worth pondering that biological fact. Your brain has the capacity to change. You can learn to walk and speak because you have the built in capacity. You have the capacity to speak several languages but you might not want to. But you could.
Another built in capacity you have is to make changes in your brain. You can take charge of this process. You may not want to but you could. But unlike speaking another language, once we learn how to change our own brain then a world of opportunity opens up to us.
Regardless of what your beliefs are about how the brain got that ability to change, the truth is that your brain can change and you have the capacity to change it.
It is built for change. You are built for change. We can all get into a rut. Life, circumstance or age can put us into a stuck state or a state of decline. But one of the most destructive concepts is the idea that you can’t change or that you are at the mercy of your past, your genes, your environment, your circumstance or your age. At any age and regardless of your past. You can change.
When you believe you can’t change you are ignoring that your brain is built for it. When you understand just how influential the brain is in who you are and how you experience the world, you begin to understand why Neuroplascitiy is regarded as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the last 300years.
You can learn to be your own Neuroplastic Surgeon.
Below is a video from Micheal Merzenich. He is such a powerful voice for Brain Plasticity because of his passionate understanding of these concepts and their implications.
Many people I see have been sick for a long time & come to me with a long list of failures, having ‘tried everything’.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible or even hard. It is just a comment on the approaches they have tried or how they have used the approaches.
Maybe it means it’s time for a radically different approach.
If you ignore the role brain function plays in any chronic health condition you are likely to be missing a key driver.
Opioids have been in the news a lot lately.
In the popular news with the death of Prince due to an overdose of the synthetic opioid Fentanyl.
And in scientific news thanks to a really significant finding. Research is showing that Opioids, commonly used in treatment of pain and long known to be addictive ……. can cause pain. So you can see how the two stories are probably linked.
Long term opioid use can cause pain. That’s worth pondering. What was once the drug of choice for chronic pain, is now implicated in causing pain.
Opioids were the wonder drug a few decades back with many synthetic opioids coming onto the market and becoming popular – really popular. In the last 2 decades though, there was a massive rethink on prescribing opioids for chronic pain. They were addictive in nature and often not as effective as first thought. They tended to work initially but loose effectiveness so doctors would prescribe ever increasing doses. But the larger doses also would often become ineffective and have significant impact on other vital organs in the body. Given that they can become addictive long term opioid use has been problematic and a concern for a long time.
Morphine, from the poppy flower, was good for short term pain relief but not for long term pain conditions. So drug companies have been working hard to solve these problems by creating synthetic versions of morphine in the hope of finding that magic drug. We now have many versions of opioids coming from the basic morphine – including codeine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, hydrocodone, heroin, methadone, pethidine, naloxone, tramadol and fentanyl. Lots have come onto the market with many ways it can be administered but they never really solved the addiction nor the lack of effectiveness for chronic pain.
It turns out opioids can be great for short term pain relief but not for the treatment of chronic pain. They may provide short term relief but they are not a treatment or cure. But’s what’s wrong with a little bit of temporary relief? Some recent research is suggesting there is something very wrong.
Recent studies have highlighted a concerning issue. Opioids do more than I thing. They do seem to play a role in reducing certain functions in the Central Nervous System (Brain & Spinal Cord) that reduce pain in the short term but it now appears that these drugs are alarmingly also seen by the immune system as a ‘foreign body’ so to trigger an immune response. The impact of this immune response over an extended period creates an ironic problem – PAIN.
So this research is suggesting that while opioids might temporarily reduce pain, their long term usage, won’t only not impact pain levels in general but they can create addictions AND pain. So you become addicted to something causing pain.
The immune response finding is thanks to something that we will be hearing lots more about in the future – Glial cells.
You may never have heard of Glial cells before (unless you have taken a training with me). The brain has become very trendy and we often talk about neuroplasticity in regards to neural pathways and neurons in the brain and nervous system. But possibly up to 90% of the brain is made up of something else – the forgotten brain – Glial cells. We used to think they were nothing but the ‘goop’ holding the important stuff together. The word glial comes from the Latin word for Glue. That’s how insignificant we thought they were. Now we know they are active and essential.
Glial cells act as part of our immune system and detect that these drugs are a threat as they are not natural products so produce an immune response (pro-inflammatory cytokynines) which in turn creates pain.
So the drug companies will be working hard now on looking at how Glial cell activitiy can be modulated so it sees the drugs as natural.
While that will be an important advancement in pain medicine there is another option.
What is there was an opioid that was natural. One that glial cells didn’t register as unnatural. That would be the wonder drug that we have been waiting for.
Turns out there is. It is the reason why morphine works in the first place. Morphine and the synthetic versions are all close matches to something we produce ourselves. It is 40 times more powerful than morphine. It is part of our natural medicine cabinet.
Why haven’t you heard about this internal morphine-like drug before?
You have. It’s Endorphin. (Endogenous means ‘man-made’. Endogenous morphine is endor-phin). Produced by you for you. It’s undergone thousands of years of research and development. No animal testing. It’s Organic and safe with no harmful side-effects.
I think the first really important step is to really understand pain. Then you can begin to look at not only how you can learn to turn pain off but you can look at why it is being turned on at all. So you can learn how to turn it off and keep it off.
If pain persists BE your doctor.
Below is a video that I have shared before but it is so simple and clear. It highlights why drugs are not the answer for Chronic Pain and also helps explain why the Lightning Process takes such a personalised / tailored approach to teach people to turn off pain and get on with a life they love.
**IMPORTANT – Changes in type or dosage of many medications, or coming off an opioid should only be done with guidance from your GP.**
I train people. I guide them. I point out blind spots. I am their cheer squad and coach. But I am not able to do the work. That is up to them. Only they can do it. So in the course of discussing whether someone is ready for this sort of active approach to change, people will often tell me that they ‘are constantly self-sabotaging them self.
Interesting but I don’t believe it.
Any one who has worked with me, knows how much importance I place on language and words. So I invite you to challenge the concept of ‘self-sabotage’.
It is a concept we have all heard and probably just accepted. So when told about someone’s self-sabotaging tendencies, a psycho-therapeutic question might be ‘Why do you do it?’. They have probably asked themselves the same question and have an answer ready.
But that to me is not a useful question because by asking it I am instantly 1) presuming it to be a true statement (which I don’t believe it is) and 2) I am then getting them to guess as to why a non-existant thing exists. The answer may take us down an interesting but potentially harmful path.
Is it true that self-sabotage is even a thing? It is clear that some people’s behaviours are contrary to their stated goals or aims, or get in the way of good health or happiness. But is this make it self-sabotage? I don’t think so.
Instead if someone told me they self-sabotage, the first thing I would ask would probably be – “How does believing that you self-sabotage make you feel about yourself?”
This answer is not guess work. This is true. Regardless of whether they self-sabotage or not, believing it makes them feel crappy and weak. That is the reality. They can usually even point to parts of their body that react when they believe that there is a part of them that is actively screwing them over and stopping them from being happy.
Imagine believing that there is an evil malicious part of you that is actively undoing any hard work you do. That’s pretty hopeless and puts things out of your control? Who can you blame with this model? No one but yourself.
Do you think that view influences how or if they make change? They have two options. Give up trying or battle their evil self. Both daunting options. So in some ways the ‘self-sabotaging myth’ is a self-sabotaging myth. Calling it ‘self-sabotage’ influences one’s ability to change.
But something IS definitely happening.
I believe a different model is more useful.
What I see is not self-sabotage but self-protection. I’ve never yet met a person whose perceived ‘self-sabotage’ isn’t actually self-protection. It’s not broken-ness or weakness. It’s self-protection and therefore something we all have and all need.
The self-protective response can be misguided but NEVER evil.
The misguided self-protection might be created through limiting understanding of past experience. It might be self-protection driven by fear of failure or fear of success. It might be driven by outdated or limiting beliefs. It might now just be mindlessness. It might be self-protection driven by the belief that not changing is safer and easier than changing.
Part of us may want one thing, but another powerful part wants us to be safe. So we do what we need to stay safe and avoid threat. Until this conflict is addressed we will act with consistency and reliability. So this model sees those ‘self-sabotaging’ behaviours in a totally new light.
So conflicting parts yes but not evil or malicious.
Equally no human EVER lacks motivation. We just might be motivated by different things.
So what to do? Be kind and get curious. Often that self-protective part is merely running on inaccurate perceptions of threat or how the world works. The brain learnt something and now believes that it is safer and easier to stay the same. The pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. So we protect ourself and stay the same.
If we could update that part with the new understandings and different set of behaviours to achieve aims, then we could change without the battle. We are still driven by self-protection. We don’t want that to change but it is expressed in radically different and more appropriate ways.
We can then learn to protect ourself with better health, better relationships, better jobs, better behaviours.
Think of the stubbornness of ‘self-sabotaging behaviours but directed in fresh ways. Imagine having ‘stubbornly’ healthy behaviours.
Instead of getting in our way, they could become an unstoppable force.
This way of seeing certain behaviours feels more compassionate and useful. It also means the battle can stop. You don’t need will power. You don’t need to fight yourself. You just need to understand.
When this happens people get to ‘inhabit’ a body and mind that isn’t out to screw them over. Instead they have at their disposal, a mind and body that are on their side and working towards a shared aim.
It may take curiosity and willingness to look a little deeper. It may take effort but so does the ‘battle’ model. We need a willingness to understand rather than a willingness to fight.
Of course it’s just a model. But would you prefer to believe you are intentionally getting in your own way, or accidentally overprotecting yourself because of limiting learnings from the past?
The brain is high protective but at times illogical. It’s on your side but at times needs us to step in.
Use your brain for a change.
We give our brain far too much credit for being ‘smart’. Its real focus is PROTECTION.
Good health requires the brain to have an accurate perception of what’s going on outside the skull (in the body and around the body). The accurate perception of threat is critical and it is often way off.
If you fear speaking in public your brain is protecting you by literally producing the same biological response as if you were about to be attacked by a tiger. Way over-protected!
So we may need to retrain the brain and alter its perception of threat. It’s not just public speaking. Think anxiety, phobias, PTSD, chronic pain.
The brain is highly protective and luckily highly trainable. It’s not ‘smart’. YOU are smart. You are not your brain.
Stress hormones protect us from the clichéd tiger.
Chronic stress however puts us into an unnecessarily protective biological state. There is no tiger so we are over-protected.
An over-protective brain & nervous system will assess ‘safe’ things as ‘dangerous’ and respond accordingly.
Biologically overprotective = hyper-sensitive.
How many International ME/CFS Days (May 12th) have you been through? Is it time to celebrate some ‘After ME/CFS Days’? Because yesterday was ‘ME/CFS Day’ I am making May 13th ‘After ME/CFS Day’.
“After ME/CFS” Day – Celebrating the effort & courage to make After ME/CFS possible.
Here’s one man who has been in the news and celebrating his after ME/CFS days. Well done Chris!
May 12th was ME/CFS day. Which makes today –
“After ME/CFS Day”.
That deserves its own day of recognition. Celebrating the effort and courage that goes into making ‘after’ ME/CFS possible.
I love that these conditions are getting the attention they deserve – there are after all 60 000 sufferers in Australia.
But there has been a slow and welcome shift of ‘awareness’ since I have been specialising in ME/CFS. Often the awareness campaign is driven by a single purpose – to let the public and health practitioners know that the condition is real even though it is often invisible.
While this campaign is important, there is a far more important campaign that is often lost in that message and that is a message directed to sufferers of ME/CFS –
‘Chronic’ doesn’t mean forever, and so there are things you can do. People do recover.
So it was nice to read this morning in NEWS.COM.AU the positive messages that are now joining the awareness campaign.
Some people have never met anyone who has fully recovered from ME/CFS so these success stories are so important. Frustratingly if you go to major ME/CFS information websites the message about recovery is non-existent with a focus on management. Management is not recovery as I explain in this article.
Public awareness is changing and has changed since I have been working with ME/CFS. Understandings of NEUROPLASTICITY, and the role the brain plays in immune function (Pyscho-neuroimmunolgy); the impact of chronic stress hormones or past trauma on biological function, as well as the changing understanding of the nature of pain and fatigue – these ideas are moving from science to public awareness.
Many years ago I gave a talk to a physiotherapy clinic and no one there had an understanding of NEUROPLASTICITY and its role in Chronic Pain. Last week I got an email from a Grade 6 class doing a project on Neuroplasticity with some really cool questions. Things are changing.
When I first started working in the field, one of the key information sources for sufferers was the various ME/CFS associations websites. The first line on one was “ME/CFS is a serious neurological illness and there is no cure”. This was a primary information source for sufferers and I suggested that this statement was misleading. It promoted acceptance and directed people to the dreaded ‘management’ option. I was accused of spreading false optimism while I believed this message was spreading false pessimism. The site no longer states ‘there is no cure’ and instead reads ‘Many people recover from this illness’. The illness hasn’t changed. It’s still real but the awareness is changing – slowly.
So things can and do change. People can and do change. My goal is to help as many people as I can change their lives while changing the way we view and treat these chronic illnesses.
There is a way to go. But the more people tell their stories of recovery, regardless of the way they got there, the easier it will be for people diagnosed to find their way to recovery.
So thank you to Chris and his story and for all those who tell their personal story. The ripple effects of those conversations or stories are life changing.
So in honour of “International After ME/CFS Day” I thought I would share one of my favourite stories.
My wife’s Recovery – http://iancleary.com/cfs-recovery/
We now know too much to have ‘good management ‘ of Chronic Pain and ME/CFS as the aim. It is about treatment and recovery and we see that is possible regardless of the severity or the length of time – change is possible.
It takes focus and effort but remember……. so does managing the condition.
If you are like others who have unsuccessfully tried so many things before, it’s really worth remembering that management also takes time and energy. In the long run, where is your energy better spent?
Norman Doidge, (Author of the Brain that Changes Itself) spoke recently on ABC Radio National Health Report about neuroplasticity and brain retraining. He commented that is really does take focused work but only for a brief time.
If you would like to know more about the Lightning Process or discuss your situation then feel free to make contact for a free 30 minute consult. EMAIL ME
If you would like to read more people’s stories of recovery go to
Happy Ever After ME/CFS Day!