As I’ve researched the human brain over the years, what lies beneath the gray/grey matter that is the human brain, there are some very fascinating details about it that we’ve only discovered within the last decade. Everything we knew before was just wrong. We’re just getting started. The irony in understanding “it really doesn’t take a brain scientist”, well, actually, it does.
We are all products of our knowledge, education, & experiences that make up wisdom that we have throughout our lives. When we are born, our brain comes out of the womb with a clean slate. There are only memories we have during fetal development that we’d all be hard pressed to recall, let alone remember.
The very first year of our life, our brain is like a huge sponge that soaks up and takes in and stores everything our sensory receptors receive. Our sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch all provide us a feedback loop to interact and respond to the things that we experience in our world around us. It serves to educate us and provide us with the knowledge we need to react to it in whatever manner and capacity we deem most suitable and appropriate to us.
I like to use how we learn to walk as an example. If our brain were a microprocessor executing individual instructions, it would literally take billions upon billions of them based on our sensory input to execute a walking routine. That’s enormously complex when you think about it. The sheer magnitude of what it takes to walk is just mind boggling.
This all occurs as we adapt to changes that occur within the brain. We are constantly forming and building new neural path connections in our brain, making new cells, in response to everything we do. And everything we do, every single activity we engage in, forever changes our brain every day. It’s called “brain plasticity”.
Throughout our lives, most of us will experience disease in one form or another. Some of that hinges on genetics. Much of it hinges on the environment. All of it hinges on our lifestyle choices and the decisions that we make. For example, if we develop Type 2 Diabetes because of our poor choices, an American epidemic, we can rest assured that if it has adverse effects on our kidneys, our diabetic neuropathy, our cells, tissues, and bones, and A1C, it also has enormous effects on our brain as well.
Our brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It changes throughout our life. But we have the power to change it ourselves and how it works. We can have an influential control over this process. But we have to consciously make that choice to do it. In a process called neuroplasticity, we shape and mold our brain much like plastic by the things we learn, the things we experience, and the knowledge we gain. Our sensory input and perceptions translate into electrical impulses. These impulses travel across synapses from one neuron to another inside our brain. The trajectory that it follows, the path created (a road more traveled versus a road less traveled), and the speed at which it travels, all play significant roles in wiring our brain. In essence, we are programming our brain, we are training it, to respond and react in a specific manner to all the input that we receive. The more we go down that path, the more solidified it becomes. The more solidified our internal wiring becomes, the easier it becomes for us to fluidly complete the tasks at hand associated with it which also, incidentally, is the reason it becomes quite difficult to change it.
If we utilized a team analogy, and think about what it means to be part of a team, each of us has our own role on the team. It is our part that we own, are accountable, and take responsibility for. That’s our role. Individually, our tasks are seemingly inconsequential and trivial. As a team, our tasks work cohesively together to perform a specific function. It is this team analogy that I utilize to demonstrate another analogy learning how to operate big machinery such as a large trackhoe (backhoe). All of the individual functions come together to work cohesively and fluidly together to perform the bigger collective complex function. The individual functions within our brain operate collectively as a team of functions. Initially, the first time we operate the trackhoe, our movements are very choppy and very uncoordinated as if we have an absence of fine motor skills as we train ourselves to intercept feedback from our sensory input to translate that into movements of the controls with our hands, arms, legs, and feet. Over time, with enough experience, we become faster, smoother, and much more deliberate at operating the equipment as if it were an extension of our own bodies. Learning how to type would be another example. Over time and with enough practice, we become much more deliberate and fluid typing until we become proficient enough in it as we learn where our movements should naturally occur to press the correct keys. If learned correctly, we don’t even need to look at the keys on the keyboard anymore to know where we are supposed to place our fingers to type a character.
Everything we do, and do on a regular basis, as repetition otherwise known as habit, we have systematically trained ourselves, our brain, to do. For example, if we bite our nails as a nervous habit, we’ve trained our brain to bite our nails. If we engage in compulsive impulsive action(s) & behavior(s), we’ve trained our brain to engage in them too. We are predisposed to go down that “beaten path” we’ve created, because in our brain, it’s our path of least resistance. So now we’re stuck having to go down that path. Or so we believe.
There are several things at play here. We’re following a step-by-step procedure, even if it’s not a written one, that comprises many many steps. We’re engaging in repetition which is key to solidifying the neural pathway connections which is why root memorization of multiplication tables becomes an integral part of learning and remembering them in elementary school. Training our brain takes practice, and the firing of impulses and wiring of synapses together in the brain forges, etches, and engraves a permanent physical mark and place on the brain. Cells together wire together as this becomes our own self-directed neuroplasticity.
Our brain goes through neurogenesis every time we learn something new. Our brain training spawns it. It occurs from the time we take our first breath, we are born, right up until we take our last, we die. Everything in our environment contributes to it, including but not limited to diet, exercise, and quality of life. A preponderance of the evidence suggests that genes also contribute to it, but it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to create a controlled test environment to confirm unequivocally this hypothesis.
- We calibrate ourselves. We want to understand how our brain is functioning, yet we can’t. We have to depend on outside help to determine the state of our own brain health. It is important to get that baseline so that we have something by which to gage our progress. It’s why history is so important.
“If we don’t take the time to learn and understand history, we are destined to repeat it.”
If we’re operating like a 90 year old, and we’re 90 years old, we may want to reconsider how we are living our life. We can recalibrate our brain however we want to. Brain plasticity is what allows us to change our brain throughout our lives. We are continuously rewiring, changing, and developing our brain.
2. Doing the right thing feeds the reward circuits in our brain. When we give someone a gift, it makes us happy. When we help someone, it makes us happy. When we are kind to someone, it makes us happy. Our own happiness is contingent upon us and us alone. All these things that feed the reward circuits in our brain are rewarding to our brain and us.
3. We challenge ourselves when we have blazed a trail, a neural path in our brain, as we have reduced the blood flow requirements necessary to service the function that the trail provides. Our metabolism slows down just as it does when we are physically fit, yet running a marathon. Our brain needs challenges to thrive in this environment. This is why repetition is as important to brain functionality as it is for building muscle mass in the gym. Brain plasticity increases efficiency of wired circuits in the brain to the point it requires almost no effort at all. Exercise our brain as much as we exercise our body. Athletes will practice to maintain their physical and mental strength. We continue to practice. We continue to learn. If you’ve ever heard the expression “use it or lose it”, that’s where it comes from.
4. We need to focus our attention so that we can control where and how our brain changes. When a task becomes a challenge, and failure is a possibility, we can train our brain to respond better to the challenge. Intense focus and practice pays huge dividends. It also provides us the ability to respond rationally and calmly in the event of a crisis.
5. Train our brain and change our life. We train our brain to be more efficient and self-directed. We are, in effect, programming our brain, and conditioning ourselves, to respond in a specific manner to different input criteria. Doing so allows us to perform tasks with greater speed and accuracy. If you’ve ever witnessed any astronaut training, it’s why it is so intense and repetitious. When we train our brain, the world around us slows down relative to where our perception changes into manageable pieces and components we can accomplish on the fly. We can’t slow down time, but we can certainly speed up our response time to it.
6. What is good for our body is also good for our brain. Conversely, what is bad for our body is also bad for our brain. fMRI shows minute changes in blood flow. These things go hand-in-hand and are not separate according to Dr. Ralph E. Carson. New neurons are created with exercise. The hippocampus neurogenesis improves with aerobic exercise. The complexity of living in an environment exposed to new things is incredibly good for brain training. Physical exercise helps the brain’s ability to control movement, unexpected,x and unpredictable situations and circumstances. All these things exercise the brain. Walking is good. Hiking is better. Physical exercise is not just good for the cardiovascular system, but also the brain. It feeds the body and also feeds the brain. It’s called vascular plasticity.
So how do we learn new fine motor skills? Weightlessness demonstrates how the mind and body changes to adapt to its environment. Astronauts have to adjust and adapt to weightlessness when they go into outer space, and also must do so again when they return to earth. Motion sickness also develops as a result of conflicts between our sensory input and our new reality because it confuses our brain. We retrain our brain to compensate. We make adjustments to limit our impact and activity when we should challenge ourselves to overcome those conditions. Avoiding it only exacerbates it.
We should take advantage of neuroplasticity to train our brain.
7. Throughout our life, we develop a cognitive reserve. The richer our lives are when we are younger, the more cognitive reserve we develop over a lifetime. It provides us a safety net as we age, and we experience a decline in cognitive reserve. Our brain is plastic. We have the power within us to change our brain every day.
The bad news is, we can’t do anything about our past. The good news is, we can change everything about our future and what our future holds and looks like. We cannot reverse that which we have already experienced. We can, however, change our trajectory going forward. We can only renew and rebuild our cognitive reserve.
We must remain cognitively active, challenge ourselves intellectually, and engage in physical activities to improve our core brain functionality. Our cerebral cortex shrinks with age.
“The key to successfully quitting anything is the exact same process for starting something. We become proficient by forging a different path with practice, repetition, and resolve to finish what we started that inevitably becomes our new path of least resistance.”
We do this by keeping and staying active; physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually in an active lifestyle. We do this by taking classes that challenge the heart, mind, and soul to keep us sharp intellectually. We do this by eating a balanced diet, exercising efficiently, effectively, and regularly, and getting plenty of rest.
We do this with a good, upbeat, and positive attitude. We do this by developing, cultivating, and building strong social networks that support us as much as we support them.
This becomes our recipe for positive change. If we want change to materialize, we’ll have to start in the conscious mind where we invoke and promote mindfulness to circumvent and overpower our subconscious mind where mindlessness resides. This means that where the hindbrain is predisposed to overrule, override, and veto the decisions of the prefrontal cortex we must make a conscious decision to circumvent the subconscious “fight”, “flight”, and “freeze” response. This is our recipe for success.
Don’t give up. Don’t give in to the disease. We can fight it. Or we can quit. We need to push ourselves. Our brain can change and we can change it. We can control it. What we do physically impacts our brain. What we do mentally does as well. When we have a brain disease, our individuality has changed. Our brain can change us and we can change our brain.