6 min read

 

Excerpt from Awakening the Brain by Charlotte A. Tomaino, PhD

To understand how you can influence change through choice, some neuropsychological basics will be helpful. Even though we don’t see them in action, our conscious mental experience is facilitated through tiny cells called neurons. Understanding how our neurons work enables us to enhance our experience in a variety of ways. Each neuron conducts an electrical charge called an action potential. When that charge fires, chemistry is released from one neuron and taken up by another. Just as electrical impulses flow through electrical wires to convey information, they flow through our neurons to convey information. When billions of the neurons in your head release chemistry into trillions of those connections, you come alive.

Neural networks are an important concept to grasp if you want to get a glimpse of your complexity. The billions of neurons in your brain talk to each other, and the more they talk, the more likely they will be to talk again. This is referred to as neuroplasticity. When we take the time to reflect on our experience and see beyond the surface events and the old automatic reactions that have driven us, we are literally connecting new dots in our brain.

Each choice we make creates a focus for the brain and guides neurons to talk to each other, creating new connections or reinforcing old ones.When we realize that someone’s criticism of us comes from that person’s own fear or insecurity, and we actually make the choice to feel some compassion for those who have hurt us—a daily spiritual practice for nuns and monks— we have connected the dots of insight and perspective for a greater objectivity the next time something like that happens. If we keep thinking such thoughts, we actually reduce our own suffering by cultivating different emotional reactions that will then automatically come from life’s events.

Automaticity is the characteristic we strive for when attempting to master a new skill. The nervous system is highly adaptable, hence the plastic component in neuroplasticity. It is the repetition of a thought or action that eventually makes it automatic. When learning to read, we first had to sound out the letters. But slowly, automaticity kicked in and the automatic recognition of the word made reading become fluent. Automaticity happens with anything we keep doing. With repetition, we shape who we become.

The reverse is also true. Skills and insights that are no longer reinforced with experience will decrease with time and may become lost. We can also foster negative behavior. If we reach for a drink, criticize someone else, or act out of frustration, the likelihood of that behavior growing to be automatic increases. Repetition of our behaviors strengthens their likelihood of becoming automatic. Neuroplasticity has an upside, where it improves skills, awareness, and quality of life, but it can have a downside, where painful and destructive behaviors take over and keep getting stronger, imprisoning us in bad habits. Every thought, emotion, and act leaves a trail of neurological footprints within you. These are traces of your experiences that neuroplasticity can either build or diminish based on your choices.

In my work I use a video depicting two neurons that have never communicated actually moving toward each other; the dendritic branches of the neurons reach out and attach to each other to convey a chemical message. When I show the video to patients to explain their potential for recovery, a look of hope deepens in their faces. It all becomes more real and very possible. When I show it to audiences at conferences, they want to see it again and again. When people actually understand that the choices of what they focus on are shaping their brain, a new level of awareness is available to them. Focused choices of thought or sloppy thinking have implications for training your brain. The video depicts what is happening in your brain right now as you connect new dots with a new awareness that is awakening you to how your brain works.

When you are building new neural networks as you first learn a new skill, you are selectively engaging a specific set of neurons, teaching them to work together to automatically go into action when you have mastered the task. When you first get behind the wheel of a car, you start the transformative process in your brain that will, over time, take your identity from being a passenger to becoming a driver. When you change your neural network, you create a new dimension of yourself. When children are small, we read to them. As they mature and master the skills of literacy, they become readers. When you can read or drive, whole new worlds open up to you. You train your brain to become the person you are. These are fascinating concepts with enormous potential for awakening in us a consciousness of who we are and the potential for what we can become. In an existing network of neurons already talking to each other, new connections can be made and contribute to the existing network.

A relatively new perspective coming from neuroscience imaging of neural networks now suggests that there is a progression of change in the pattern of neural networks that unfolds with age. As data on the areas of the brain that automatically talk to each other in young children were compared with the networks talking to each other in adolescents and adults, significant differences were observed. In children, the brain regions forming networks were physically close to each other and based on local proximity in the brain. Neurons nearby found each other and established communication to facilitate basic functions of walking, talking, and eating. The language center for storing words finds the neurons that control the mouth muscles, and out come the words. They are physically located adjacent to each other in the left frontal lobe. But as our experience broadens, our neurons reach out to distant locations in the brain.

The interconnections keep changing as we grow. In adolescents, and even more so in adults, the neural networks link neurons that are distant from each other but functionally related. For instance, the visual center sends messages to the neurons for the letters of the alphabet and then on to the thumbs to move across the BlackBerry. The neuroscience imaging shows us that, over time, repetitive events activate a connection on a functional level to produce the automatic response desired. With time and repetition, your thumbs automatically go to the keys your mind imagines.

A key principle of neuroplasticity and neural networks is represented here. As the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, “The neurons that fire together wire together.” Repetitive thoughts, emotions, and behavior increase the likelihood of strengthening that experience to become automatic. This is a good thing when it comes to learning to drive a car and not wasting time to think about putting your foot on the brake when a child is chasing a ball into the street, but not so good in the case of destructive reactions to stress that become addictions.

The neural networks you build and continue to reinforce will become the automatic reaction you have and will eventually help you become who you are. Knowing you are a work in progress is the power of the awakened brain. We have all seen and heard of experiences that seemed impossible. Spontaneous remissions from disease, breaking the powerlessness of addictions, forgiving the unforgivable and achieving a joyous heart, and going to foreign lands to serve the “untouchables”—all are in the realm of the impossible for many who have never seen otherwise or who feel powerless to think any other way. However, if you explore these extraordinary events, you find ordinary people who changed their thinking and took a leap of faith, believing in what others thought impossible. Why is that? Somehow the vision and expectation held in their mind, along with the physical and emotional state of knowing it to be possible for them, created the outcome they sought. Their inner reality was greater than the outer reality they had known and, hence, enabled them to do the seemingly “impossible.”

This is neuroplasticity at work, guided by your desire and inspiration. When the brain is focused on an intention that has emotional meaning and drive behind it, your inner physical resources are marshaled to adapt and engage neural structures that have not previously talked to each other. Repetitive effort increases the automaticity of any behavior. That is how the nervous system works.


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