Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity

Now to elucidate that strange phrase “neuroplastic brain,” which refers to the fact that human brains change and grow in response to experience. Until recently, neuroscientists assumed that such growth entailed only an increase in connections among the approximately ten billion neurons — nerve cells — in the brain as a result of learning and adaptation. They believed that the brain stopped growing new cells at an early age, after which neurons that die go un-replaced. The fact that neurons may die in great numbers from time to time makes this belief rather grim, implying that, brain-wise, we are on a downhill course from childhood on.

Just over a decade ago this belief was overturned by the staggering discovery that neurogenesis—the creation of new neurons—does not stop in childhood. We now know that human brains create new cells continually throughout their entire life. This discovery radically changes the notions of neuroplasticity that we and all our peers were taught in our psychology studies up to a decade ago.

Not only do neuroscientists now know that neurogenesis is a lifelong process in humans, they are quickly discovering the subtle and powerful methods by which people can deliberately influence the ways in which their brains grow.

We learned of this revolution in neuroscience by reading an exciting little book published just last year: Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley (Ballantine Books, 2007). It summarizes the research underlying the revolution in neuroscience, research that was presented at the 2004 conference of the Mind and Life Institute that took place in Dharamsala under the sponsorship of the Dalai Lama.

The Mind and Life dialogues have been held almost every year since 1987, usually in the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile in Dharamsala, and have generated ten books so far. The topic of the 2004 conference is of special interest to the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, because it provides a basis formed by rigorous Western science for the validity of traditional Tibetan Buddhist practices for training the mind.

The highest purpose of these practices is to relieve suffering for all sentient beings. Apropos of that, Begley ends her book with a section titled “Above-the-Line Science,” from which we excerpted this passage:

If we score mental health on a scale that runs from very negative values (mental illness) through a zero point and then up into very positive values, the absence of mental illness is akin to the zero point . . . Virtually all of biomedical science focuses on getting people up to the zeroth level and nothing more. As long as someone can attain nonsickness, that is deemed sufficient. As Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace put it, “We in the modern West have grown accustomed to the assumption that the normal mind, in the sense of one free from clinical mental illness, is a healthy one. But a normal mind is still subject to many types of mental distress, including anxiety, frustration, restlessness, boredom, and resentment” . . . We call unhappiness a normal part of life and say ‘it’s normal’ . . . There are so many people who are sick in the same way that we accept that as being normal.

Begley goes on to say:

Tapping into the brain’s powers of neuroplasticity offers the hope of changing the understanding of mental health . . . the power of mental training to harness that neuroplasticity to change the brain suggests that humanity does not have to be content with this strange notion of normalcy, with the zeroth level of mental and emotional health . . . we are therefore poised at the brink of “above-the-line” science . . . Neuroplasticity will provide the key to realizing positive mental and emotional functioning. (pp. 250-251)

Begley speaks of mental training as a path to change the brain. Our suggestion in this essay is that neurofeedback is a highly efficient method of brain fitness training that is in most ways equivalent to the mental training to which Begley refers, and also that brain fitness training via neurofeedback is best employed by augmenting it with one or more other practices such as regular meditation, visualization, prayer, yoga, integrative counseling, time in wild nature . . . you get the idea. Neurofeedback can get us above zero very quickly. Yet, in order to consolidate and sustain the brain changes thus gained, an ongoing practice of mental training is very important.

We are finding this to be true in the brain fitness training we offer through Shasta Brainrise in Mount Shasta. We have learned in our own personal sessions, as well as in our work with clients, that we can use the brain training as a platform for self-discovery. We can train either passively, simply allowing the brain to respond to the feedback unconsciously, or more actively, by giving special attention to our inner responses. For example, we (or a client) might discover a pattern of tension or anxiety that can then be consciously released with the help of the feedback. This can be done with or without the exploration of the personal history related to that pattern.

In other words, we can use the sessions to train our minds as well as our brains. Recent research has shown that the brains of Tibetan monks who have spent decades deepening their compassion through meditation practice function with far greater coherence and flexibility than do the brains of non-meditators (you can read about this at http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/web/pubs/2004/Long-term_meditators.pdf). Developing these qualities usually requires years of disciplined training, which seems less and less possible in today’s rapidly changing world. Brain fitness training can accomplish the same thing in a much shorter time because of the added power that feedback — giving the brain immediate information about changes in function as they occur — brings to the learning process. Still, engaging in some kind of regular practice will deepen the qualities and ensure their integration into daily living.

Clearly, the enormous challenges we face today require a great deal more equanimity and resilience than most of us have attained. Feedback-assisted brain training can help us develop these qualities of mind. It can, for instance, increase “social intelligence” by replacing unconscious defensive neural networks with patterns that connect us more readily with other people—a critical factor in health, as neuroscientists are discovering.

We have all built up these defensive neural networks in response to trauma and stress; they continue to operate long after the traumatic circumstances have passed. Brain training helps the brain to quiet these fear-based “knee-jerk” reactions and instead respond to the present moment creatively and harmoniously.

Optimizing Resources

In the uncertain times we live in, three levels of resources stand out as particularly worthy of investment. One is durable goods—equipment and supplies that will help us sustain our physical existence in the absence of cheap energy. Another is “social capital”—the networks of mutual support we form with other people. The third is “mind power,” which is what we have discussed above. We believe mind power (clarity, flexibility, resilience, and compassion) is fundamental to the optimum creation and use of the other levels. Brain fitness training can be, therefore, an excellent investment in our future well-being, and that of our families and our communities. It could, in fact, be one of the highest and best uses for our advanced computer technology.

Jim Brown, PhD and Molly Young Brown, M.A, M.Div. offer “brain fitness training” through Shasta Brainrise in Mount Shasta. Jim has worked in neurofeedback as both researcher and practitioner for many years, and recently acquired a neurofeedback system that he considers to be the most comprehensive and subtle of all he has yet seen. Molly also teaches courses on-line and offers coaching/counseling by phone. Website: www.ShastaBrainrise.com, phone 530-926-2223.

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