Book Excerpt: The Plastic Brain

Barbara Arrowsmith Young quite literally built herself a new brain. Watching a video of the poised, articulate, self-assured woman describe her journey, it is difficult to imagine that Barbara was once labelled ‘retarded’.[i] The use of that unfortunate term arises from the fact that Barbara was born in the 50s, before ‘multiple learning disabilities’, a term that would more accurately describe her condition, came into common use. Her condition came with a physical misalignment: her right side was larger than her left, which meant she constantly dropped anything she tried to hold with her left arm, and she had a poorly coordinated left eye. Because she had difficulty with spatial reasoning, the ability that allows us to coordinate our movements in space and form a mental map of where we are, she was painfully clumsy and constantly got lost outdoors. In addition, she had difficulty understanding abstract concepts; for example, being unable to work out why her aunt was also her mother’s sister. She could not tell the time on an analogue clock. She had trouble pronouncing words. She was also profoundly dyslexic, and, unable to understand cause and effect, socially awkward. Her social problems were compounded by the fact that she had trouble with logic and had difficulty working out whom to trust.[ii]

Today, her visual ability, spatial reasoning, and her ability to find her way around are all normal, as are her ability to understand grammar, maths and logic. Indeed, watching her talk during one of her lectures, it is fair to conclude that all these abilities are well above just ‘normal’ in Arrowsmith Young. Her clumsiness is gone. She can read complex clocks (with hands for seconds, fractions of a second, etc.) faster than normal people. Barbara Arrowsmith Young holds both a BASc in Child Studies from the University of Guelph, and a Master’s degree in School Psychology from the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). She is co-founder and Director of the Arrowsmith School in Toronto that focuses on children with learning disabilities.

Barbara is cured.

But how?

In his best-selling book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, MD makes a startling statement:

The brain […] is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.[iii]

Dr Doidge’s book introduces us to the concept of neuroplasticity, a widespread fact for those in the know, but a huge and wonderful shock for those of us brought up on the concept of a brain hard-wired to precise areas of specific function.

Simply put, rather than being locked into unchangeable areas of specialisation, neuroplasticity means that the brain is constantly changing, evolving and re-wiring itself, a process that continues throughout our lives. You read that right; the ability is not limited to only young minds! While loose areas of specialisation do exist, these are fluid, constantly changing size, shape and functionality as the brain adapts to its environment, sometimes even taking over the functions of parts of the brain that have been damaged.

This was key to Barbara’s epiphany. A series of fortunate events, as well as her own dogged detective work, led her to the work of Mark Rosenzweig of the University of California at Berkeley, who was able to conclusively demonstrate that sustained activity could produce changes in the structure of the brain.

A 2012 Guardian article describes her encounter with Rosenzweig’s research and thinking:

Then she read about the work of Mark Rosenzweig, an American researcher who found that laboratory rats given a rich and stimulating environment, with play wheels and toys, developed larger brains than those kept in a bare cage. Rosenzweig concluded that the brain continues developing, reshaping itself based on life experiences, rather than being fixed at birth: a concept known as neuroplasticity. Arrowsmith Young decided that if rats could grow bigger and better brains, so could she.[iv]

Armed with this knowledge, Barbara went on to painstakingly develop her very own brain exercises, focusing on bringing the abilities she had most difficulty with up to scratch, which she practised to the point of exhaustion. First was work with telling time, which she practised relentlessly until she was able to rapidly tell time faster than normal people. The miracle kicked in when she realised that other abilities were starting to improve as well. Grammar, maths and logic all started to make sense. In an article for Professionally Speaking, the magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers, Arrowsmith Young explains the change:

“After a great many hours of practice, things began to shift,” she explains. “For the first time, I began to make connections in what I was reading. I began to understand cause-and-effect concepts. I pre-tested myself on certain mathematical concepts and after countless hours of clock work, I found that my mathematical abilities had increased significantly.”[v]

The real star behind the neuroplasticity theory is one Michael Merzenich, Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. Before the idea of neuroplasticity was accepted, localisation, the idea that very specific parts of the brain were associated with equally specific functions, inspired the concept of ‘mind maps’ which spawned the science of finding were in the brain different parts of the body were represented and their activities processed. Merzenich discovered that “the shape of brain maps change depending upon what we do over the course of our lives.”[vi]

Dr Doidge’s book describes several exciting things the brain can do. Regarding learning and evolving, it has been proven that the brain can and does change, depending on what we do in the course of our lives. Neural connections that are formed when a new skill is learned get more efficient with practice. But the really exciting fact is that training in one skill can result in an improvement in others and further, that older brains are just as capable of plasticity as young ones. “Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain […] the changes can be every bit as great as the changes in a newborn.”[vii]

What about unlearning? Can you change the faulty programming that is causing you grief? The answer, apparently, is a resounding YES. You can erase bad brain associations. The book discusses how you might not necessarily be stuck with the brain you had at birth, or have developed from your life experiences up until this moment. “The brain is structured by its constant collaboration with the world, and it is not only the parts of the brain most exposed to the world, such as our senses, that are shaped by experience. Plastic change, caused by our experience, travels deep into the brain and ultimately even into our genes, molding them as well.”[viii]

The brain can unlearn negative associations, and encouragingly, there seem to be several pathways for this. All seem to involve temporarily immersing the brain in a milieu that makes it easier to ‘melt away’ previously formed associations, allowing the brain to form new ones. Falling in love might be one, “because love allows us to experience as pleasurable situations or physical features that we otherwise might not, it also allows us to unlearn negative associations, another plastic phenomenon.”[ix]

There seems to be a demonstrable biological mechanism for unlearning, via the hormone oxytocin.

“Oxytocin’s ‘ability’ to wipe out learned behaviour has led to some scientists to call it an amnestic hormone.”[x] Current thinking is that it melts down existing neuronal connections that underlie existing attachments, so that new attachments can be formed, making it possible for us to learn new patterns.[xi] Fortunately, you don’t have to run out and buy the stuff. Apparently simply giving someone you love a hug ought to produce a decent amount![xii]

One final exciting concept is the idea that there could be more capacity to heal actual brain damage than we thought. In the area of physical brain damage, this thinking is leading to a change in the way, for example, stroke patients are treated. In Constraint Induced (CI) movement therapy, patients are encouraged to practice using the weak or damaged part of their body by restraining the unaffected part. What the therapy does is force the patient to use the affected parts of the body through concentrated effort rather than rely on the learned use of the actions they perform every day.[xiii]With some very impressive results.

Elsewhere, Dr Doidge has admitted that the clinical applications based on these new discoveries might be some way off. He does caution that certainly not all conditions can be fixed all the time. However, that does not take away from the phenomenal fact that all these claims are a demonstrable and indeed demonstrated, mainstream neurophysiological fact. The implications are enormous… you might not be stuck with the liabilities of emotional and, even in some cases, physical damage to the brain.

Speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2010 in Brisbane, Queensland, Dr Doidge explains how neuroplasticity means that the brain can “change in structure and function”. By function, he means at all levels of the brain: “what genes are turned on and off; what connections are made (the very tendrils of the nerve cells as they connect to each other); what goes on where in the brain; how fast the brain can process its signals; and which hemisphere might be dominant to a particular person at a particular time.”

I am particularly excited about the possibilities for emotional healing. Many individuals who suffered abuse at a young age are burdened with the double injustice of the initial abuse, as well as often the lifelong emotional damage that arises from it. Could there be hope for healing in the brain’s innate plastic nature? The evidence seems to point to an affirmative answer. The clue might lie in the difficulties faced by people who move to a new country.

During the talk in Brisbane, Dr Doidge explains that emigrants suffer from what he terms as ‘brain shock’, which happens when one tries to adjust to a completely new culture. The brain is plastic to the extent that culture can, and does in fact, heavily influence how it is eventually wired. Dr Doidge argues convincingly how being brought up in a particular culture can affect not just how we see the world, but how our cortical reflexes etc. (which are influenced by our brain) will influence what we do see, and ultimately how we process information. The more we are immersed in a certain culture, the better we adapt to it so that we become better and more efficient at functioning in it. In the ‘circuits often used are reinforced while others wither away’ or ‘use it or lose it’ model, the ones that are used get better and better and more efficient.[xiv]

This brings us to the plasticity paradox, which explains why inherently plastic brains can act so hard-wired. Proficiency at anything, a skill, a talent, or even at surviving and thriving in a particular culture, means that plasticity is often sacrificed for efficiency. Language is another place where this is clearly seen. Essentially, we become so good at a particular language, even at speaking with a particular accent, that any other unused language or way of speaking that language is lost. All babies are born being able to hear and process all manner of linguistic sound. The fact that Japanese adults, for example, have difficulty distinguishing between ‘l’ and ‘r’ is a manifestation of their being very efficient at speaking Japanese, where these two sounds are indistinguishable.

Dr Doidge invites us to see a neurosis as an accent, where you can ‘hear’ certain things and not others. This strikes me as particularly pertinent, having observed how, for example, depressed individuals are able to only see the absolute worst case scenario of any situation, or remember only dark incidents from their memories. Constantly using only certain circuits, in language, perception or thinking, means that you literally get stuck in a rut: “The brain learns something and gets very good at it, even with bad habits.”[xv]

This has exciting implications for emotional healing. The competitive nature of plasticity also means that more commonly used circuits are created while the lesser used ones wither away. His interviewer during the talk, Queensland-based psychiatrist Dr Greig Richardson, adds that we could “de-emphasise or move away from the prominently used pathological pathways that underpin our thinking in favour of trying to stimulate these new ones.”[xvi] In other words, learn to think in new, less defective ways. I totally agree. I sometimes feel alone in my unease at classical therapy’s emphasis on raking over the coals of childhood abuse, in the hope that an understanding of the events will bring emotional healing. An inordinate amount of time is spent staring back into the face of horror, over and over again, reliving the awfulness of the event. There, of course, could be benefit to that approach, but the brain’s plastic nature does seem to point at different ways of getting to emotional healing… build on positive and healthy associations while allowing the pathological ones to wither away. Indeed, this approach seems to have worked in at least one instance, where Dr Doidge treated a patient with a particularly unpleasant history of abuse from a parent.[xvii] As a result, the patient had developed an unhealthy association where sexual expression had to be accompanied by aggression.

When violent thoughts came up, I got him to search his experience to find even a single instance in which aggression or violence as untainted with sex or was even praiseworthy, as in justified self-defense. Whenever these areas came up—a pure physical tenderness or aggression that wasn’t destructive—I drew his attention to them. As time passed, he was able to form two different brain maps, one for physical tenderness, which had nothing to do with the seductiveness he experienced with his mother, and another for aggression—including healthy assertiveness—which was quite different from the senseless violence he’d experienced when his mother was drunk.

Separating sex and violence in his brain maps allowed him to feel better about relationships and sex, and improvement followed in stages.[xviii]

An article in the March issue of The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, a group of psychiatrists point out that brain plasticity can work both for and against us, or in doctor-speak: “Neuroplastic changes can be either adaptive or maladaptive.”[xix] They also add that “[t]he concept of neuroplasticity is opening the doors to new ways of understanding illness and recovery, as well as how these processes can be utilized to influence and direct outcomes.” In essence, things are changing. We are probably not stuck with our neuroses for life after all!

Indeed, the mental health world is alight with the possibilities of new treatment models for mental illness in light of the new findings about neuroplasticity. In his article on neuropsychiatry in the July 2011 issue of Psychology Today, Dr David J. Hellerstein discusses some of the exciting consequences of these new developments. Talking about a patient that has benefited from this new approach:

In thinking about neuroplasticity, a patient I call “Hannah W.” comes to mind. She is described more fully in Heal Your Brain, but in brief she presented for treatment as a 27-year-old single woman who had a difficult early life with many losses and traumas, and who had experienced over fifteen years of severe depression and panic disorder. She also had a number of ‘stress-induced’ medical illnesses including colitis and severe asthma. Her depression and anxiety responded to medicine and psychotherapy, but to me the more interesting thing was that at a certain point she became passionate about yoga. She practiced yoga on average 2 to 3 hours a day, and after a few months, she described how she was able to feel sustained sense of calm and wellbeing for the first time in her life. For what it’s worth, her asthma and GI symptoms became much less severe, perhaps a result of her physical changes.[xx]

A quiet testimony to the fact that non-pharmaceutical treatments are starting to be of value, AND the fact that mental illness might not be a lifelong condition is very good news indeed for suffers and their loved ones. Imagine the power of being able to separate love and abandonment associations, phobias, or even racial prejudices.

One cannot help wondering, could we rewire our brain maps by literally exposing ourselves to completely different emotional landscapes or “cultures”? This might explain the success some people sometimes find in methods that otherwise outrage the intellect. Srikumar Rao is one such person that outraged my intellect. In his highly successful lectures and book Are You Ready For Success, Rao seems to suggest that merely (but consistently) changing one’s outlook about a certain situation does eventually change, not just the experience of the situation, but quite literally, the situation itself. He humorously talks about how, when he had the mindset that metaphorical coconuts fell on his head all the time, they did. His life seemed to be one hard knock after the other. When he made a serious effort to view the world differently, things changed, for the better. Mr Rao trains people on how to find meaning, satisfaction and even happiness as well as success in their work by adjusting their worldview. His lectures are hugely popular.

Apart from Rao’s books, examples of the manifestation of this phenomenon abound. People who see themselves as inherently unlucky do seem to experience more than their fair share of ill-luck, although the chicken-and-egg thing might be argued in this case… that their worldview arose from having such constant bad luck.

The implications of neuroplasticity for physical healing are also breathtaking. At the beginning of this chapter, we saw how Arrowsmith Young was able to heal her brain using exercises based on the brain’s plasticity. Another awe-inspiring example comes from Jane Gapp and her daughter Sarah. This phenomenal story starts when Jane “tears herself away” from her daughter’s bedside to attend one of Dr Doidge’s lectures in the hope of getting some hope for her daughter.[xxi] After suffering a stroke at age 21, Sarah developed ‘locked in syndrome’, a frightening condition where the patient is totally unable to express themselves, but, is at the same time, cruelly able to comprehend all that is going on around them. The miracle of this story is that Jane, using the principles gleaned from her understanding of the brain’s inherent plasticity (she’d read Dr Doidge’s book), was able to bring her daughter out of the condition, the first time this had been known to happen in medical history. She’d been told it could not be done. The story is made even more miraculous when the extent of Sarah’s illness comes to light. The damage to her brain stem, where all nerve fibres from the body congregate before entering the brain, was extensive. One half of her cerebellum was completely gone, effectively dead, as well as a great deal of the remaining half.

Dr John D’Arcy, who interviewed Jane and Sarah for a TV story, said:

You know when I studied medicine forty years ago, when people suffered a stroke, a blood clot to the artery of the brain, they received very little in the way of real treatment. They were nursed but often left unchallenged, lying in a bed. Some died, many were disabled and very few recovered. Today we realise how wrong we were, there’s now no longer any medical doubt that if we stimulate the body we can repair the damaged brain.[xxii]

In light of this medical stance, Jane’s work and determination are astonishing. She worked hard, starting with stroking her daughter’s skin with different textured materials, having learnt that the brain responds to the multisensory input of data. And slowly, Sarah’s brain began to wake up. One day, she was able to wriggle a toe. Today, she has regained some movement and speech.[xxiii] That Jane and her daughter were both able to attend Dr Doidge’s 2010 Brisbane talk is nothing short of a miracle. Sarah was still in a wheelchair and has a long way to go, but one cannot help but be amazed at the miracle wrought by these two incredible women. It’s humbling.

In other areas, neurofeedback has been shown to be very effective in treating ADHD in the place of pharmaceuticals. Neurofeedback games have been developed that show promise with some neurological disorders, such as epilepsy and even helping torture victims get over their PTSD.

The last exciting area is in lifelong learning. The brain at a young age does have a critical period of disputed length, where, for example, one is able to “soak up words” without furrowing the brow, so to speak. These maps are then pruned and refined. Beyond this period, in order to learn, you have to make the effort to pay special attention. This kind of effort is rarely required in middle age, a time where most of life is a “replay of already mastered skills”, from having the same job, friends or type of friends, routine, etc. This leads to the weakening of the part of the brain that reinforces plastic connections (nucleus basalis), which can result in age-related cognitive decline. Using the brain’s plastic nature, brain exercises can be done that will allow an 80-year old to effectively have the brain of an individual 10 or even 20 years younger.[xxiv][xxv]

When asked whether pharmaceuticals could be helpful in this regard, Dr Doidge answers: “the easiest way (nature’s way) of activating the brain circuit you want is just actually thinking about it.” Good old-fashioned concentration is one way of re-opening this critical period. Neurofeedback too, once again, shows some promise here.

The implications of these new discoveries are astounding. You can change your brain. You can change your brain! You can improve it; you can literally rewire it. You can free your mind from its lifelong shackles and drive your brain to work for you instead of against you. Instead of nursing petty concerns and neuroses, your mind can soar. You can harness the might of this phenomenally powerful cognitive masterpiece to transform your life. The same brain behind civilisations that built the pyramids, the Roman Colosseum, Michelangelo’s Pietà and the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat can be brought into service for your personal advancement and happiness. Feats of architecture, art and engineering—why, these are nothing to your mighty but humble servant. The human brain saw man plough through land to join two great seas with the building of the Panama Canal, and burrow beneath the sea to birth the Channel Tunnel. And when the answer was not to tunnel beneath, or plough through land, the human brain thought to soar above the air to build the stunningly beautiful Millau Viaduct, the ‘bridge in the skies’ in southern France. If the seas need to be held back, why, the mighty brain will find a way, as has been done for the coastline of the Netherlands, which is protected by a series of engineering marvels that do just that.

Human brainpower is what got explorers, pioneers and migrating societies of any age to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same brain that saw inventions that changed the course of history is also behind advances in thinking in law, government, politics and economics. Great works of literature and music, including speeches and orations that have inspired entire nations, are all courtesy of the mighty human brain. Advances in medicine and science. Great military conquests. Thinking that changed the way people lived for millennia. Mathematics, philosophy, political and social movements. The very same brain that created all this is what YOU have, right now, resting between your ears.

Should you really be wasting this amazing thinking machine stewing over whether or not some trifling celebrity is pregnant?

I’ll conclude with a quote from Dr Doidge’s excellent book:

As the scientist Gerald Edelman has pointed out, the human cortex alone has 30 billion neurons and is capable of making 1 million billion synaptic connections. Edelman writes, “If we considered the number of possible neural circuits, we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeros. (There are 10 followed by 79 zeros, give or take a few, of particles in the known universe.)” These staggering numbers explain why the human brain can be described as the most complex known object in the universe, and why it is capable of ongoing, massive microstructural change, and capable of performing so many different mental functions and behaviours, including our different cultural activities.[xxvi]

In effect, when it comes to brainpower, even when you have a little, you have a lot. And if you don’t like what you’ve ended up with, you can always change your mind.

References

[i] Arrowsmith-Young, B., “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”. TEDxToronto 2012 (October 2, 2014) Web:

http://www.tedxtoronto.com/talks/tedxtoronto-2012-talk-barbara-arrowsmith-young/

[ii] Doidge, N., The Brain That Changes Itself. (Penguin Books, 2007) p. 28

[iii] Doidge, N. p. 47

[iv] Henley, J., “How Barbara Arrowsmith-Young rebuilt her own brain”. The Guardian (Tuesday, June 12, 2012) Web: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jun/12/barbara-arrowsmith-young-rebuilt-brain

[v] Miller, L., “Raising Cognitive Capacity”. Professionally Speaking (September 2008) Web: http://professionallyspeaking.oct.ca/september_2008/raising_cognitive_capacity.asp

[vi] Doidge, Norman. p. 49

[vii] Doidge, Norman. p. 88

[viii] Doidge, Norman. p. 91

[ix] Doidge, Norman. p. 116

[x] Doidge, Norman. p. 120

[xi] Doidge, Norman. p. 120

[xii] “What is Oxytocin?” Psychology Today. PSYCH BASICS. Oxytocin. pair bonding (Accessed June 24m 2014) Web: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/oxytocin

[xiii] Doidge, Norman. p. 141

[xiv] Doidge, N., and Richardson, G., “Our Plastic Brain: An Update”. Brisbane Writers Festival. Big Ideas ABC TV. (Published: October 6, 2010) Web: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2010/10/06/3029729.htm

[xv] Doidge, N., and Richardson, G.

[xvi] Doidge, N., and Richardson, G.

[xvii] Doidge, N. p. 93–94

[xviii] Doidge, N. p. 124

[xix] Kays, J. L. Psy.D.; Hurley R. A.  M.D.; Taber, K. H.  Ph.D., “The Dynamic Brain: Neuroplasticity and Mental Health”. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences Vol. 24 (2) (March 1, 2012)

[xx] Hellerstein, H., MD, “The brain changes throughout adult life… a process of plasticity”. Psychology Today. Neuroplasticity and Depression (Heal Your Brain, July 14, 2011) Web: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heal-your-brain/201107/neuroplasticity-and-depression

[xxi] Doidge, N., and Richardson, G.,

[xxii] Sunday Night, Reporter: Dr John D’Arcy, Producer: Sophie Kennedy-White, Assistant Producer: Shannon Marshall-McCormack. “Stroke of Genius transcript: The full transcript on our story about Sarah Gapp”. (October 18, 2010) Web: https://au.news.yahoo.com/sunday-night/transcripts/a/8152894/stroke-of-genius-transcript/

[xxiii] Dibben, K., “Stroke victim Sarah Gapp to sue ambos, Royal Brisbane Hospital”. The Courier Mail, Brisbane (February 21, 2010) Web: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/stroke-victim-sarah-gapp-to-sue-ambos-royal-brisbane-hospital/story-e6freoof-1225832526180

[xxiv] Doidge, N., and Richardson, G.

[xxv] Doidge, N. p. 89-90

[xxvi] Doidge, N. p. 294

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