In 1990 the Nobel prize for science was awarded for work on Neuroplasticity. Since then Neuroplasticity has been described as the greatest breakthrough in our understanding of the brain in the last 300 years.
So it’s worth having a basic understanding because it impacts you if a) you have a brain and 2) you‘ve EVER felt stuck.
It’s another longer email but ‘greatest breakthrough in last 300 years’ – come on! That has to be worth 10 minutes of your time!
12 years ago I was giving a talk at a clinic of healthcare professionals and used the term NEUROPLASTICITY. They had heard of it but weren’t sure how it linked in with chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety or depression. The Nobel Prize work was after all done on sea slugs. Now fast forward to 2020 and most pain experts will say that Chronic Pain can only occur because of NEUROPLASTICITY. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time and I want to get YOU up to speed as well!
A Bit of History
Most of us grew up not really thinking too much about the brain except we knew it was where the thinking happened, and maybe that alcohol, sneezing and age kills brain cells. The mantra was that the brain is the only organ that can’t heal and so it’s basically all down hill from youth.
Along comes NEUROPLASTICITY which turned that idea on its head.
Neuro = Brain
Plasticity = changeable/malleable
We would NOW say that the brain is the most trainable and adaptable organ we have. The capacity to change stays with us, until out last dying breath. Not only were we wrong about the brain but we were embarrassingly wrong. The brain can change (Neuroplasticity) and even grow (Neurogenesis).
Our brain does a lot more than ‘think’ though. In many ways it defines us, it co-ordinates our health and well-being, controls key bodily functions like digestion, immunity, sleep, healing and growth. It allows us to survive and flourish in the world.
NEUROPLASTICITY shows us that your brain, the organ that is central to all those functions, is structurally designed to change.
Assumptions about the brain were based on ‘old maps’. People seemed very adaptable when young but ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Right? Dementia was a natural consequence of aging. Right?
Machines that could peer into brain activity in real time and view structural changes told a VERY different story. They were the game changer.
It turns out the ‘maps’ were really wrong. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks – under certain circumstances.
Our brain is constantly adapting as required, changing its structure and function. Through changes in our brain we get better and better at things. Think about the child learning to walk or talk. Now think about how little you think about walking and talking. Your brain has learnt key skills and now they are automatic.
However there is a dark-side to automation. A dark side to NEUROPLASTICITY.
Welcome to the Dark Side
WHATEVER is repeated, changes the brain. You get better at what you repeat. You get faster and more efficient at it – to the point you do it without thinking. Mindlessly doing things is a wonderful way to drive a car IF and only if you have practiced great driving skills including practicing what to do when things go wrong. But mindless driving is not great if you have been practicing unsafe habits OR if the driving environment changes.
The brain will only have it’s historic responses to go by and that’s not always great. We’re stuck responding historically rather than appropriately.
How might that relate to you?
If we have a brain that is stuck doing things in historic ways, neuroplasticity suggests that we can, with focused effort, re-engage that inbuilt capacity to change.
We can retrain the brain to respond appropriately.
Automation is the enemy of change. Karl Jung once said:
Until you make the unconscious, conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
But WHAT do we need to make conscious. Far more than our thoughts that’s for sure. That’s why the LP isn’t about positive thinking. That won’t do it. The neurological responses that are stuck are often immune, endocrine, digestive, sleep, pain or fatigue responses. All things that are out of your everyday awareness BUT you can learn how to influence them.
When you are able to see common health issues from their neurological foundation (not the psychology but the neurology) then you can begin to actively engage the brain’s ability to change.
A simple example is a key Neuroplasticity principle called Hebb’s Law. If 2 experiences happen together they get structurally connected (wired together) in the brain. You may have heard the phrase ‘What fires together wires together’. Just like Pavlov and his dogs, you ring a bell and give a dog food. These are 2 experiences happening together. In time the brain changes to wire the auditory nerve with the production of saliva. Ring a bell and the dog salivates. That’s Neuroplastic change. Its ‘learnt’ but not consciously.
In another famous experiment, Robert Ader gave rats a drug that lowered their immune function. At the same time they gave them water with sugar in it. Neurologically 2 experiences are happening together. Low Immunity + tasting sugar. What fires together wires together. When the rats come off the drugs their immune system normalises. But when they drink the sweetened water later, their immune system drops again. The brain is detecting a safe substance (sugar) but this triggers an immune response. The brain has changed and now stuck in a historic response.
Similarly, you can waft jasmine across a room while the body is producing a histamine response. In time jasmine triggers the allergic reaction. By merely occurring together, the brain neurologically connects the presence of jasmine with a histamine response. It’s learnt and luckily it’s reversible. So safe stimulus like jasmine can trigger a histamine / immune response.
Now the big question – Is the trigger bad for you or have you just ‘learnt’ to respond inappropriately?
This has given rise to entire field of science called Psychoneuroimmunology. It shows 2 things can be paired in the brain. What’s wired together then fires together. Sugar & histamine? Exercise and immune response? Movement and a pain response? Food and stress response? Adrenaline & the Jaws sound track?
Given that the stress response creates an instant systemic shift in our physiology (impacting sleep, digestion, immunity, brain function, pain, fatigue, emotions, cognitions etc), having it turned on unnecessarily isn’t going to be great for health in the long run.
A chronic unconscious stress response is associated with many poor health outcomes.
The implications are huge. This means that if you have undergone a period of chronic stress in the past, anything happening at the same time could be neurologically wired up together. A safe thing might trigger a stress response. Some things that should feel good or be good for us, might feel horrible even painful. Healthy foods might trigger digestive upset. A safe thing can set off a protection immune response. A small amount of a safe food can trigger an extreme response.
Many people I work with respond terribly and physically to otherwise safe things (exercise, touch, light, food, chemicals, standing, noise).
So when I am talking about the brain, I am not just talking about ‘thinking’. Although thinking (both thougths & thinking styles also can become stuck).
People are often insulted when I talk about the brain. ”You’re saying it’s all in my head or not real”. Tell that to the person who is smelling Jasmine and having a histamine response or the person drinking sugary water and getting an infection because of a lowered immune response. Very real. Very physical. Very unconscious …….. and neurological and reversible.
You limit your options to change if you don’t recognize the role the brain plays.
The brain coordinates so many aspects of our lives. Our health, our behavior, our thoughts, our emotions, our biological responses, our immune system, our endocrine system, our digestion, our pain and fatigue responses, our movement, our perception, our sleep, our stress response. All these things are being co-ordinated at the brain level in some way.
A stuck brain producing poorly timed or unnecessary responses can be a nightmare.
Avoid? Push Through? Or ……….Retrain!
Without a neurological framework someone responding inappropriately to jasmine has 2 options. Avoid the things that set them off or put up with the response. Think about whether they are your current options – 1) avoid or 2) push through and suffer pay back. That is the management paradigm most people are in. There is another option though. Retrain the brain and nervous system to respond differently.
Time for a change
To live a brilliant & healthy life you don’t need to understand the brain at the level of a Neuroscientist, but you would be foolish to ignore their key findings.
And that is that 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, smarter and 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 therefore you have the capacity to change.
NEUROPLASTICITY shows us that change and adaptation is a core function of our brain.
Regardless how long we have been stuck, the capacity to change remains.
When we are ready to see issues from a brain perspective (without falling into that historical cry that neurological means psychological and not real) we can focus on retraining the brain and body to respond differently.
It is as exciting as it is life changing. Chronic ill health impacts every facet of people’s lives. JUST as recovery does.
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.
That is why NEUROPLASTICITY is such a profound concept. It changes the way we see the brain and see ourselves.
When you believe you can’t change you are ignoring that your brain is built for it.
There is lots online about Neuroplasticity. Here is a link from Micheal Merzenich. He is such a powerful voice for Brain Plasticity because of his passionate understanding of these concepts and their implications.
The Lightning Process & Neuroplasticity
My work approaches common health conditions from a neurological retraining perspective. By utilizing how the brain and body influence each other, we can learn ways to retrain the brain for better health.
It does take work. Deliberate, repetitive and focused work.
Is it easy? Compared to a life of stuckness – I would say yes.
If you would like to arrange a time to chat then email, or download the Lightning Process audiobook HERE.
With travel restrictions and social distancing measures Lightning Process trainings are still being offered for the time being through the online format.
Want more reading? Here’s an article on Neuroplasticity and Anxiety.
Or Email me for a change.