Mind Matters — The Changing Brain

The brain has been on my mind lately. Last weekend through sleet and snow like an eager letter (not to mention junk mail) carrier, I trekked to City Line Avenue to hear two eminent M.D. writer-researchers speak on the plasticity of the brain. Norman Doidge is the author of The Brain That Changes Itself. Dan Siegel has written several books, most recently Mindsight. (I have referred to his books in previous articles—particularly to his book with M. E. Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out.)

There are vast implications for us from all the ongoing brain research. Many psycholotherapists, perhaps particularly family therapists, have intuited for years that interactions with others, and that family relationships in particular have profound effects on the developing child’s mind. Also, the pioneer in education, Maria Montessori, in Italy in the early 1900’s, knew how much the child was “an absorbent mind,” a sponge.

Now we may relate her educatioinal methods to be geared to the affluent who can afford private pre-school. But in fact, Montessori utilized her methods first with Italian children who were poor and considered limited in ability and IQ. Her schools, which allowed the children freedom of movement and individualized experiences, also promoted teamwork and collaboration.

So now brain researchers are proving with clinical data, derived from technological advances with MRI’s and CAT scans that indeed human interaction directly affects the development of the brain, its structures and neurochemistry.

Dan Siegel informs us that relationships are key for stimulating neuronal activation and growth. (For this process, he uses the mnemonic SNAG.) Relationships, although crucial in early stages of development, remain significant until our last breath.

Doidge and Siegel point out that we used to consider the brain like a machine, a computer. It is not. Our brains and nervous system are in process and change—not at all fixed, rigid structures.

There is an upside and downside to the plasticity. On the one hand our brains can be remarkably adaptable, with areas of the brain taking over other areas that have been injured. On the other hand, the responsiveness of plasticity can be problematic in such things as drug abuse or other addictions. (Dopamine chemistry of the brain, such as with the use of marijuana, can be irreversibly affected.)

There were several memorable “takeaways” from the conference.

Effortful attention is necessary! Use it or lose it! We are reminded that yes we do need brain exercise and we do need to challenge our brains with something NEW! Siegel informs us that while an infant’s brain circuits that help consolidation of information and experience are “always on,” we, as we age, “turn off.” We then don’t make the effort to pay attention to learn and we actually stop exerting ourselves mentally. This is reversible by revving up our curiosity. Our brains need novelty. Not only do we benefit from mental acticities, but also from aerobic exercise.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it turns out we humans need a dose of it to live just one life.

We and our brains also benefit from engaging in mindfulness practices which heighten our awareness of ourselves and others. Mindfulness has become a buzzword in many circles these days. However, given its long history throughout the world, mindful awareness of being in the moment is no fad. Again brain research gives us direct evidence that practicing mindfulness meditation can significantly change neural patterns.

Heightening awareness and observation of ourselves, becoming reflective rather than reactive, promotes our own neural integration and mental health. And because we and our brains need relationship and are dependent on interaction, mindfulness of self correlates to healthier interaction with others. As Siegel notes in The Mindful Brain, “Today, more than ever, we desperately need a scientifically grounded view that supports our societal encouragement of reflection to promote compassion and care for each other.”

Books to consider: