- You’ve had them forever.
- They’re part of you.
- In fact, they have (quite literally!) burned neural pathways in your brain – so they are ‘hard-wired’, and are as ‘auto-pilot’ and involuntary as the process of driving or making a coffee is to you…
- You don’t ‘construct’ the thoughts, they just ‘are’….
So – surely they’re just a part of how and who you are? Is it even possible to change and challenge them at this stage? Is it worth the effort? Can an old dog learn new tricks? Can a leopard change its spots?
Advances in science tell us that we can re-hardwire our brains, that we can imprint new healthy neural pathways OVER the old unhealthy pathways! Scientists have made the discovery that the brain is ‘plastic’ – that is to say that the brain has the ability to be shaped or formed by new activity – even into old age. Neuroplasticity (also referred to as ‘brain plasticity’) is the changing of neurons and the organization of their networks and function by ‘experience and learning’. In other (plainer) words, the adult brain is not “hard-wired” with fixed circuits. There are many instances of actual physical rewiring of circuits in response to training (learning) as well as in response to injury (e.g. strokes). There is solid evidence that the formation of new nerve cells occurs in the adult brain—and such changes can persist well into old age – so… we never ever stop learning and evolving and adapting… and a leopard can change it’s spots, and you can teach an old dog new tricks! Make the effort and reap the rewards.
Practice makes perfect – practice practice practice makes an imprint! Reknowned psychiatrist and author Norman Doidge has in fact stated that neuroplasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century”. Imagine if you could change it so that your auto pilot thinking was calm and considered and evidence based? So that your emotional responses to things would be calm and appropriate – so that you would automatically feel good most of the time, even in times of difficulty? Yes, of course we would all choose that scenario if we could. And we can. But it means taking CBT seriously – it means engaging in the exercises even when they’re a pain. Writing things down isn’t hard, but it takes open awareness and dedication to the task – the mental tasks as well as the written worksheets – to really replace old thinking and behaviours… but bit by bit, the new thinking and behaviour will become natural and automatic to you – and you thereafter only have to do occasional brush-ups and revisits to your written exercises – the mental ones will be with you as a matter of course – it will be your new ‘philosophy of living’.
Here’s the ‘Science Bit’…
The brain consists of nerve cells (neurons) which are interconnected, and learning may happen through changing of the strength of the connections between neurons. “Plasticity” relates to this learning by adding or removing connections, or by adding new cells. According to the theory of neuroplasticity: ‘thinking, learning, and acting’ actually change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom. When a stimulus is cognitively associated with reinforcement, its cortical representation is strengthened and enlarged.
‘Plasticity’ generally means ability to be shaped or formed. More specific scientific meanings include:
- Neuroplasticity; entire brain structures can change to better cope with the environment. Specifically, when an area of the brain is damaged and non-functional, another area may take over some of the function.
- Plasticity (psychology); an intelligence factor that determines the ease of changing ones perception of a situation for finding a new solution to a problem. Lack of plasticity is termed rigidity.
“There is now ample evidence of active, experience-dependent re-organization of the synaptic networks of the brain involving multiple inter-related structures including the cerebral cortex” – in other words – the brain can change itself through learning and ‘doing’ – repeatedly, and for some kind of reward (feeling good? a better life experience? no stress? Your brain will react to the new experiences that come as a result of the new restructured and deliberate healthy thinking by LIKING IT, and burning new pathways)
“Control studies show that changes are not caused by sensory experience alone: they require learning about the sensory experience, and are strongest for the stimuli that are associated with reward, and occur with equal ease in operant and classical conditioning behaviors” – in other words, put the effort in! Practice practice practice! Change your thinking, change your brain, change your life…
Case study examples –
Dr Shephard Ivory Franz – one very early study involved stroke patients who were able to recover through the use of brain stimulating exercises after having been paralyzed for years. “… Dr Franz understood the importance of interesting, motivating rehabilitation: ‘Under conditions of interest, such as that of competition, the resulting movement may be much more efficiently carried out than in the dull, routine training in the laboratory’.” This notion has led to motivational rehabilitation programs that are used today.
Michael Merzenich is a neuroscientist who has been one of the pioneers of brain plasticity for over three decades. He has made some of “the most ambitious claims for the field – that brain exercises may be as useful as drugs to treat diseases as severe as schizophrenia – that plasticity exists from cradle to the grave, and that radical improvements in cognitive functioning – how we learn, think, perceive, and remember – are possible even in the elderly.” Merzenich’s work was affected by a crucial discovery made by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel in their work with kittens. The experiment involved sewing one eye shut (I know I know, nasty, but let’s be clinical in the reporting of this story and just take in the facts) and recording the cortical brain maps. Hubel and Wiesel saw that the portion of the kitten’s brain associated with the shut eye was not idle, as expected. Instead, it processed visual information from the open eye. It was “… as though the brain didn’t want to waste any ‘cortical real estate’ and had found a way to rewire itself.” It showed the brain ‘must be plastic’.
Richard Davidson is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. He has led experiments in cooperation with the Dalai Lama on effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest “alterations in patterns of brain function assessed with an MRI. Changes in the cortical evoked response to visual stimuli that reflect the impact of meditation on attention, and alterations in amplitude and synchrony of high-frequency oscillations that probably play an important role in connectivity among widespread circuitry in the brain.” – which means relaxation and visual exercises work to restructure the brain.
Draganski and colleagues (2006) recently showed that extensive learning of abstract information can also trigger some plastic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of German medical students 3 months before their medical exam and right after the exam and compared them to brains of students who were not studying for exam at this time. Medical students’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the parietal cortex as well as in the posterior hippocampus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in memory retrieval and learning.