Neurogenesis: Are you the Master of your Mind?
Or the Slave?
If I’d known when I was in therapy how our precious brains work, how we should take the reins and ride through the landscape of our minds, fertilizing the land to grow healthy brain cells, would I have reached this state of inner peace sooner?
In this story I shared ways to rewire our brains; to keep them growing with the language and images by which we communicate with that powerhouse inside our skulls. I also shared some neurobic exercises to keep our brains fit.
I was awestruck and grateful that you, dear readers, loved that story. Your interest has motivated me to write more about the plasticity of our brains — a fascination that has helped me stay out of depression for almost 19 years.
Understanding how this universe in my head works has been instrumental in coping with episodes of “down” time. I know I’m the conductor; it’s up to me to produce the symphony. I can step back and observe the various members of this Infinite Orchestra.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are.” Carl Jung (1875–1961)
Let’s head back to when this scientific knowledge first emerged.
The Discovery of Neurogenesis
Until the early 1970's scientific circles widely accepted that once you reached adulthood, the brain cells (nerve cells or neurons) you possess are finite. That’s it. That’s your ration.
In addition, the belief was that our brains are divided into departments, staffed by neurons appointed for their expertise in a particular function, and who may not transfer to another department.
A leading pioneer in neuroplasticity in the 1970's is Professor Michael Merzenich PhD, author of “Soft Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life” (2013). He was conducting experiments to demonstrate that the hypothesis in the previous paragraph was correct.
“He was trying to prove that if there was damage to one part of the brain, because it had a fixed function, that skill could not be relearned. His neuroplasticity discovery proved the exact opposite. The brain is one big learning tissue. The skills previously learned by damaged tissue can be relearned in other parts of the brain.” — Gemm Learning
Your brain has a cortical map for your feet, hands, and every other part of the body. Dr. Merzenich found that if one cortical map is deprived of its input, this situation wasn’t permanent. Later, it could become active once again if something stimulated other nearby cortical maps. This process occurs because of neuroplasticity; Brain’s ability to adapt to change.
Here’s an example of what someone can achieve.
In 1972, more than a decade before I met him, my husband and soulmate was a victim of a serious car accident, thanks to a drunken teenager. He couldn’t talk and he couldn’t walk. Broken and burnt below the knees.
He spent 18 months in hospital during which he taught himself to talk. And he walked again despite one leg being shortened with pins and the other having all toes except the big one amputated because of gangrene.
He’d been trying to convey to the medical staff that there was something wrong under the plaster cast on his leg using hand and facial gestures. By the time they caught on, they wanted to amputate the lower leg; he refused but let them take his toes.
Despite being told the damage to his brain was irreversible, he didn’t believe them. Losing who he was before motivated him to learn to talk and walk again. This is the power we have over our minds!
(PS He gave me permission to share this story.)
“Algorithms have done better than brain plasticity at enabling paralyzed people to send a cursor to a target using thought alone.” — The Economist, Technology Quarterly, January 2018.
The advances in neuroscience and technology create possibilities we would have relegated to the realm of science fiction four decades ago. For instance, we wouldn’t be researching and developing
- bionic eyes
- brain-controlled prosthetic limbs
- BCI (Brain Computer Interface) development such as the cochlear implant, a hearing device which Michael Merzenich helped develop.
- NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) was created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California (where else?) in the 1970s; an approach to personal development, communication and psychotherapy which identifies patterns of thoughts and behaviors.
I’m excited about the family of health benefits that this marriage creates!
More Brain Exercises
Am I neurotic about neurobics? Well, yes, I’m obsessed with good emotional, physical and spiritual health for all of us.
(Drum Roll. Hit the switch.)
Solve a math problem in your head — no cheating, no paper or fingers waving in the air. Keep it simple; addition or division. I do subtraction too, and there’s definitely no calculus on the horizon!
Move to the Next Level by solving a math problem while doing another task. We do not recommend chopping vegetables — one slip of the knife — ouch! Ironing is safe, I’ll vouch for that. Or mowing the lawn. Perhaps wash the dishes? But not while driving.
I’d love to hear what worked for you.
Make a List
Turn grocery shopping into a memory game! Here’s what you do.
· Write your list. (Handwriting is good for you.)
· Go about your business for two hours
· Do you remember the items on the list? (No peeping)
Learn a Language
I’m thinking of signing up to DuoLingo but my dilemma is what? There are no Southern African languages and I’m not planning to emigrate to Venezuela, so Spanish is out. Maybe Russian or Chinese? The jury is deliberating.
Change your daily routine
When you dress in the morning, what order to you put your clothes on?
· Let’s say you’re a man who puts his socks on before his trousers. Do it the other way around.
· Let’s say you’re a woman who puts her skirt on before her blouse (you can substitute bra/panties, whatever you decide). Do it the other way around.
You probably have a morning routine — everything in the same sequence every day of your life.
· Liven up your mornings by changing the order. Confusing at first, but fun.
· As it becomes routine, change again or your mind will get bored.
(Good luck with putting the dog in the fridge and letting the milk out.)
This is an online brain training program, developed in part by Michael Merzenich, which I have just signed up to. At present I’m on the free version which only allows one exercise per day. When I’m able, I’ll definitely subscribe!
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Neurogenesis has taught us we can paint a positive picture for our future and maintain a healthy brain until our last breath. (To the naysayers out there — dementia and Alzheimer’s will eventually decline as we move to understanding the power of our brains.)
However, we cannot maintain a healthy brain without feeding it the right physical nutrients too. Keep the following in mind.
- eliminate sugar from your diet (I’m in Phase 1 — I no longer buy biscuits or doughnuts or sweets so there’s no temptation calling me to the cupboard; I confess I still have sugar in my coffee.)
- have lots of fruit and veg (smart carbohydrates), fibre, and water
- do regular physical exercise (I’m progressing with my yoga now — my balance has improved!)
- get enough sleep
- practice meditation, mindfulness or Tai Chi
Conductors! Wave your batons and let the symphony begin.
(No, we don’t want Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.)
We are the Masters of our Minds. Not the Slaves.