"Won't you change your mind?", someone asks. And after some consideration, perhaps you do. You will take that drive home; you will have that ice cream cone after all. Changing our mind like this is a common act.
But what do you think of the idea of changing your brain? Increasingly, researchers in the field of neuroplasticity are collecting evidence that we can do just that.
For hundreds of years, the common understanding of the brain has been that it operates like a machine, a hard-wired computer pretty much fixed and unchanging. And a damaged brain was thought largely irreparable.
Dr. Norman Doidge says that the idea that the brain can change and that we can change it is the most important new idea about the brain in the last 400 years. This ability to change is called neuroplasticity and he describes it as the characteristic of the brain that enables it to change its structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.
He’s written two books describing the work being done in this field: The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain's Way of Healing. In both, he chronicles stories of people who have recovered fully from strokes, slowed the progression of Parkinson’s, overcome debilitating dizziness, and eliminated chronic pain.
There are 100 billion nerve cells in our brains and each makes tens of thousands of connections with other brain cells. When neurons connect in a repeated pattern they learn to fire faster and stronger signals or pathways, and the brain gets better at what you choose to do. We get good at math? Math is easy; we use and develop those skills. We get good at being angry? We use that a lot too.
We used to think that these pathways were fixed, but people working in neuroplasticity have shown that’s not the case.
Dr. Doidge relates the impressive story of Dr. Michael Moskowitz, a psychiatrist turned pain specialist who was left with persistent neck pain after an accident. The pain increased in severity and spread to his shoulders and back as more than a decade passed. Acute pain is a useful message from our brain - it tells us not to step on that sprained ankle. Chronic pain occurs when the pain pathways in a brain become hypersensitive. Each time we have an attack of pain, the brain gets more sensitive to it; the pathways enlarge, make more connections, and take over a larger part of the brain, and we begin to feel pain over a larger surface of our body.
Moskowitz wondered if he could use visual imagery to ‘re-wire’ his pain pathways. In his research, he’d studied fMIR images of brains without pain and of those in chronic pain. Every time (and he did do this every time) he felt a twinge or stab of pain he visualized the image of the pain-free brain and imagined his own neural pain map shrinking. He noticed a very small decrease as he kept up his visioning exercise, and by 6 weeks felt a difference. After a year he was almost always pain-free. He changed his brain by thinking about it.
Neuroplasticity is changing how helping professions work with many physical and emotional conditions. It has exciting possibilities and the capacity to make the impossible - possible! To see Dr. Doidge talk about neuroplasticity check out this link!