How To Change Your Brain

Not a Halloween/Frankenstein themed post.

Nearly twenty years ago now I spent some time with the acclaimed Vietnam war photographer Tim Page. He told me how an exploding shell sent a piece of shrapnel through his head and tore out about a third of his brain. Afterwards, he couldn’t walk, talk, write, and had to re-learn all his functions. But re-learn he did, over time, and the neural mechanism for each activity shifted to a new part of the brain, a recognised effect. When I met him, you couldn’t tell he’d been so devastatingly injured.

That discussion was part of an ongoing fascination I’ve had with consciousness studies. It’s a science that’s been through one or two revolutions over the years. For instance, one of those things that everyone knows is that brain cells can’t be regenerated. That’s based on a piece of 1928 research which was completely turned on its head seventy years later.

Thus, this:

“As Sharon Begley remarked in her book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, “The discovery overturned generations of conventional wisdom in neuroscience. The human brain is not limited to the neurons it is born with, or even the neurons that fill in after the explosion of brain development in early childhood.” What the researchers discovered was that within each of our brains there exists a population of neural stem cells which are continually replenished and can differentiate into brain neurons. Simply stated, we are all experiencing brain stem cell therapy every moment of our lives.”

The book by Newsweek science writer Begley looks interesting: “Contrary to popular belief, we have the power to literally change our brains by changing our minds. Recent pioneering experiments in neuroplasticity–the ability of the brain to change in response to experience–reveal that the brain is capable of altering its structure and function, and even of generating new neurons, a power we retain well into old age. The brain can adapt, heal, renew itself after trauma, compensate for disabilities, rewire itself to overcome dyslexia, and break cycles of depression and OCD. And as scientists are learning from studies performed on Buddhist monks, it is not only the outside world that can change the brain, so can the mind and, in particular, focused attention through the classic Buddhist practice of mindfulness.”

Who’s Really In Charge?

Think you’re a rational, thinking human being in control of yourself and your surroundings? It’s an illusion. New research suggests our subconscious is really the part of us that is in control.

I’ve always known how important the unconscious is when it comes to creativity – it generates the most surprising and affecting parts of stories while I’m in that hazy, detached writing zone. (And that’s why writers who want to get published shouldn’t plot things out too heavily in advance – you’re cutting off the bit of you that is the most important part of the process.)

Now we know the subconscious mind stands behind everything – choosing when and how we respond, and identifying certain emotions – love, fear – as “more important”. The analogy in the above article is that the conscious mind is a searchlight, but the subconscious decides when to switch it on and where to shine it.