Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Brain That Changes Itself...

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books)
I've just finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) by Norman Doidge.  And wow.  I think I wanna be a neuroscientist when I grow up. Or a psychologist.  That would be cool.  Might be time to put my "therapist face" to good use.  But I digress.

Sometime over the last few months, I became acutely aware that my brain has changed.  That my mind, my thought processes, my reactions are now different than they once were.  It has become obvious to me that my brain has changed itself.  It is startling to realize that your brain is different.  I woke up one day and wondered where all the suicidal thoughts went off to.  Along with the deep self-loathing and challenges with accepting life as it is.

Really, I was shocked to notice what wasn't there anymore, what isn't floating around my head on a regular basis.  The daily "I think I should end my life" thought wasn't the only one missing.  Along with that thought, the following thoughts had also vacated my mental premises:  

"My health will always limit what I can accomplish in this life."

"I'm not good enough."

"I'm not going to amount to anything in this life beyond what I am now."  

But not only have certain thoughts left my mental meanderings, but new thoughts have arisen to take their place.  Thoughts like:

"Life is short.  I'm not going to let anyone or anything keep me from living the life I need to live."

"My best is good enough."

"My life is going to be awesome, because I'm gonna make it awesome."

And so on and so forth.

I don't know when those changes happened, or precisely how they happened, but they have happened.  And that is amazing to me, considering how long I had all that other guck floating around in my consciousness.  Don't misunderstand me, it's not all roses and unicorns in my mind all the time.  There are moments where the old thought patterns come up, but these new patterns are gaining such momentum that it isn't long before they take over again.  And that, to me, is nothing short of a miracle.

So, what does this have to do with the book I just read?  Well, Doidge's stories from the frontiers of neuroscience validate the idea that the brain is capable of such phenomenal changes.  It can indeed change itself, and profoundly so.  

Doidge, psychiatrist and researcher, gives examples of people whose brains have reacquired functions lost during a stroke.  The unaffected parts of the brain, thanks to neuroplasticity, have the ability in many cases to take over what the stroke-affected parts lost, recovering speech and motor skills.  

Doidge also goes into the mystery of phantom limbs and how the work of neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has helped people, via a mirror box, release the pain they feel after a limb is lost.  

The book also goes into how psychotherapy has the ability to change our brains. Over the years I've tried just about every kind of therapy imaginable.  And they all had their place.  But I firmly believe it was the intense reading, reflecting and questioning I've done since leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses that was the most therapeutic intervention for me.  Over the past five years, I have become my own therapist.  And it's pretty awesome how it's paid off.  

Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. I also have friends and my social network to thank as well as the meds I finally found to help me smooth out my moods and let me sleep at night.  I believe all of these things together helped my brain change itself.  As my friend D often says, "It takes a village to live a life."  

I highly recommend Doidge's book.  You can also watch a full documentary on Doidge's discoveries here.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book. Regarding the plight of widows or those who've lost partners due to the end of a relationship, Doidge writes:

"Often such people cannot move on because they cannot yet grieve; the thought of living without the one they love is too painful to bear.  In neuroplastic terms, if the romantic or the widow is to begin a new relationship without baggage, each must first rewire billions of connections in their brains.  The work of mourning is piecemeal Freud noted; though reality tells us our loved one is gone "its orders cannot be obeyed at once."  We grieve by calling up one memory at a time, reliving it, and then letting it go.  At a brain level we are turning on each of the neural networks that were wired together to form our perception of the person, experiencing the memory with exceptional vividness, then saying goodbye one network at a time.  In grief, we learn to live without the one we love, but the reason this lesson is so hard is that we first must unlearn the idea that the person exists and can still be relied on." 

I think that this applies not just to a loss of romantic relationship but can apply to any person or situation that we have lost; a job, our health, personal autonomy, a social network, our childhood; anything that feels like a loss to us.  I believe grief is one of those foundation emotions that locks us up.  It stifles our ability to move forward in life.  I think it is stronger than fear, stronger than anger. In fact, I think that underneath all of our fears and anger is unprocessed grief.  I know that the most profound mental and emotional shifts I have experienced over the past five years have been in confronting my grief.  While grief can lock us up, when released, it can also free us beyond measure. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the mind is a vast universe.  That three pounds can be our greatest heaven or our deepest hell.  I'm happy I stuck it out long enough to see it become the former.  And damn, I love books!!! 

tall penguin


Anonymous said...

I think you should change "My life is going to be awesome, because I'm gonna make it awesome." to "My life is awesome, because I'm making it awesome."

Look at how much you have done and continue to do to make your life better every day. I think people (myself included) spend too much time waiting until things seem perfect, waiting for the right moment, instead of just giving it all in the place and time they are in, despite circumstances. Also, we expect all these huge, defining moments to make our lives awesome, when really, it's the little moments that may seem trivial at the time that create a great life. Life doesn't have to be perfect to be awesome.


tall penguin said...

Thanks LP. I think you are my new raving fan. :)

Yes, I noticed the wording of that statement shortly after I hit the post button. Funny how some stuff just rings untrue or not quite clear enough, right after it leaves your lips, or in this case, fingertips.

Perhaps, the word "continue" would be best for me. "My life will continue to be awesome, because I'm continuing to make it awesome." Your suggestion works too.

What happens sometime in life is that we hit a point where we feel "Perhaps this is as good as it gets." And I hit that point some months ago. I wrote my "Radical Acceptance" post then, not from a feeling of resignation but from the feeling that even if this is as good as my life will ever get, I'm okay with it. It was pretty awesome as it was and I was willing to accept that that awesomeness might have reached its limit for me. And it was all good.

And then, something in the last few months since then has shifted and possibilities have opened up that I hadn't deeply considered before. So now, it's obvious that my life can be infinitely more awesome than I had previously imagined. Why? Because I'm going to continue to make it that way. Because I'm going to continue to be open to life. Because I'm going to continue to embrace the change life sends my way.

"Life doesn't have to be perfect to be awesome."

So true. Your commentary about us waiting for some future moment describes the plight of modern society. 'I'll be happy when...' 'When the kids are grown', 'When I get a divorce', 'When I retire', 'When I make my first million'. Happiness gets delayed and delayed until one day you wake up and realize, 'Where the hell did my life go and why am I so damned miserable?'

As a Jehovah's Witness, you are always waiting for future happiness. You're in limbo in this life because your whole focus is on the next one. I would surmise that to be the case with most people who call themselves religious and who believe in an afterlife. Their brains never quite get to the point of accepting their present life and circumstances, and finding happiness there, because their focus is so future-oriented.

And you are also quite right about it being the seemingly "little moments" that "create a great life." I often think back on all of the "big things" I wanted in life that I thought would make me happy. Every one, once achieved brought with it less happiness that I had imagined. But the moments that bring me the most joy in hindsight were those serendipitous moments that you just didn't plan for.

So, I guess the caveat here is: be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.