BRAIN PLASTICITY by Janice Van Cleve

It all started with habits.  I read somewhere that it only takes 22 consistent repetitions to make or break a non-hemically dependent habit.  Now we all have lots of habits.  They are the automatic programs that run many of our daily functions.  They serve us well because they perform hundreds of tasks without consuming any of our conscious brain power.  They are like federal regulators in the background who operate the rules that flow from the decisions of our legislative brains.I decided to test this theory of 22 repetitions, starting with my morning stretch routines.  This was easy because the routines consist of a series of exercises in a particular order.  I consciously changed the order and soon, literally without thinking, I had established a new order.  My habit regulators had adopted the new order so my mind could go back to its morning wanderings without thinking which stretch to do next.The same thing happened with getting rid of a habit.  I always liked my scotch or brandy while reading in bed before turning in.  My senses told my brain that it tasted good and therefore it must be good; i.e. – the sensation acquired a value judgment.  Because there was a chemical component involved, my subconscious convinced my conscious that I needed the drink in order to sleep and that if I did not get it, I would not be able to sleep.  The habit had become a necessity.

I developed all sorts of rationalizations to support this habit.  For example, the release of energy from burning up the alcohol took about four hours which warmed up my body in the dead of night.  This was especially welcome when I was out camping in my sleeping bag. Eliminating this habit would be a good test of the 22 repetitions theory.  I kicked the issue back into the legislature which voted to discontinue it.

As we all know, the federal bureaucracy is slow to change and so is the body’s bureaucracy.  However, in the face of a new law, consciously enforced, regulators eventually fall into line, write new rules, and the former need/value/sensation is reduced back to a habit and discarded.  During this process, a drink would still occasionally show up at my bedside, but less and less frequently.  Each time the subconscious would flash a window message to the conscious “do you really want to do this?  YES/NO”  It was not a guilt trip with all the shaming and blaming that comes with guilt trips.  It was simply elevating from habit to decision.  The experiment worked!

I repeated it many times – adding and deleting habits like adding and deleting programs on the computer.  It was not a matter of value judgments or health benefits or finances.  It was not about good or evil; right or wrong.  It was a matter solely of imposing my will upon my body and ultimately upon my life to demonstrate that I could. While it forced me to make more conscious decisions about routine matters, it also earned me independence and freedom.  I could live by
choice instead of by habit.

Then along came the movie What The Bleep?  This movie is loaded with intriguing ideas about quantum physics, the interaction of emotions and hormones, nerve synapses, and more.  One particularly striking idea was the illustration of how physical reality could be changed by thought alone.  The example was water.  The experiment photographed the crystalline structure of water in jars.  On one jar was pasted a sentiment of love.  On the other, a sentiment of hate.  The results were startling.  The love thought produced photos of beautiful snowflake shaped crystals; the hate thought produced photos of tortured, irregular crystals.

The movie asks “It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  If our thoughts can do that to water, what can they do to us?”  The key idea here is that 98% of our bodies is water.  Perhaps that explains the success of my experiments with habits.  Today scientists are exploring this idea for the management of pain.  Often pain builds a neural pathway in the brain that remains after the original hurt is gone.  If we can change the neural pathway by thought, perhaps we can cure the lingering pain. Army drill sergeants figured this out long time ago when they yell at recruits, “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

Yet maybe there is something to this.  From the standpoint of quantum physics, if everything is waves (or particles if so measured) and thoughts are waves, then enough directed thought power should be able to change matter!  In fact there are many examples of groups of people focusing their combined thoughts to effect tangible change.  Effective religious rituals do it all the time.

Alas.  Concentrate as I might, I have yet to change my pennies into gold or create money out of thin air like the Federal Reserve does. However, much of what we think is reality is actually our perception of reality.  Stage magicians make their living on the basis of this fact and science is catching up to them.  Psychological and neurological studies are making amazing discoveries on how the brain processes data, which parts of the brain do what kind of processing, and how we might go about strengthening the powers of the brain to do more.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke.  Fortunately she is a trained scientist in neurology and the particular kind of stroke she had did not damage her observational or memory skills.  She documented her experience in a book, Stroke Of Insight, and summarized it in a talk on YouTube at  <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU>.

The stroke affected only the left hemisphere of her brain and gradually shut it down.  Her right arm became paralyzed because as scientists have long known, motor controls of the right side of the body are managed from the left side of the brain and vice versa.  The interesting thing is what she experienced at the times when only the right side of her brain was working.

Just as the two halves of the brain control different halves of the body, they also think differently.  Dr. Taylor explains in the video that the right hemisphere is a parallel processor.  It is focused on the here and now, taking in all the  information from the senses as a collage of pictures.  It has no boundaries and sees no separation between the self and everything else.  Operating on its own, the right brain becomes one with the universe, the All, Nirvana, The Force,
Goddess or God.  The left brain is a serial processor.  It looks for details past and future to build links and remember lessons.  Its tools are language and logic.  It recognizes boundaries and filters out input that does not fit its calculations.  It is conscious of itself as separate from the rest of the universe.

Dr. Taylor describes how before the stroke really took hold, her brain alternately flashed between one half and the other.  When only the right brain was working she felt strange, out of body, and in La La land.  She said it was a near death experience but she did not see any tunnels or lights – just wonder, peacefulness, and total lack of baggage.  Then left brain would momentarily come on line and flash out:  ”Alert!  Alert!  Houston, we have a problem here.”  She would try to take action but then right brain would come on line again and it was back to La La land.  Eventually she did get to the hospital and achieved full recovery.

Talking to Oprah, Dr. Taylor said “I wondered how I could have spent so many years in this body – in this form of life – and never really understood that I was just visiting here.”  She complains that too much of our lives is governed by our left brains and that we would be in a happier, more peaceful, place if we allowed more expression of our right brains.  Maybe this is where Buddhist bodhisattvas go when they meditate.

Or not.  The brain is not necessarily hard wired.  An amazing video at www.dnatube.com/video/1302/brain-placticity
<http://www.dnatube.com/video/1302/brain-placticity>  tells the story of a little 3 year old girl whose epilepsy shut down her right brain and threatened to kill her.  Surgeons removed her entire right hemisphere and it cured her.  Now at 12 years old her left brain has reinvented itself to accomplish the motor and other skills that normally would be performed by the missing half plus continuing to do its own jobs.

Norman Doidge in his book The Brain That Changes Itself describes many examples of injured people whose brains adapt and physically change in order to accommodate.  A recent study showed that the spatial information areas of London taxi drivers’ brains grow larger than bus drivers’ brains because they have to learn more streets.  Other studies show that bilingual persons have larger parietal cortexes than monolingual persons.  The list goes on and on.  Science is now able to demonstrate that concentrated learning not only strengthens neural pathways in the brain, but specific learning does actually increase the size and capabilities of specific regions of the brain.

This ability of the brain to grow, change, rewire, adapt and strengthen is the basis of a new field of science called Brain
Plasticity.  There is an increasing body of research, seminars, books and videos on this subject and exercises for improving brain function.  These are all easily found on the web.  Naturally, there are also plenty of entrepreneurs who have designed programs to cash in on this emerging market.

One NOVA film on Brain Fitness lists five keys to sustaining a healthy, active brain:

1.  Keep what you have.  The Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano means a sound mind requires a sound body.  Physical fitness, exercise, good diet, active seeing, and continually processing information provide a sound platform for cranial operation.

2.  Be socially active.  Engage as many people as possible.  Learn their names and follow their lives.  Perhaps soap operas have a positive application after all!

3.  Focus and attention.  Continually push cognitive abilities to the max.  Learn new languages, explore new topics, travel to new places. Use it or lose it is the message.

4.  Positive direction.  Keep the mental legislature in session and don’t turn over too much control to the regulators.  Change habits frequently and reanalyze situations from different angles.

5.  Decline is not inevitable.  While our brains become less flexible as we age they nevertheless retain plenty of potential and flexibility.  Be aggressive in mental pursuits and never “settle”.

These are habits worth encouraging.

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Janice Van Cleve is a writer, thinker, adventurer, and traveler whose exploration of brain potential has just given her a new rationalization for playing computer games.  Copyright 2013.

 


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