In February, I had the opportunity to address a group here in Ajijic on the topic of neuroplasticity, and how it applies to addiction and an ageing population. The video is in three segments, and totals about 40 minutes in length. The talk was given on the 19th of February, following three weeks that were unseasonably chilly here, and we even had a little rain, if anyone is curious about the references to the weather in the first part of the talk.
The venue was our Sunday morning “Open Circle” gathering. Each week we have a speaker on a different topic, typically someone local with specialized expertise in a certain area. They let me speak anyway, and, in fact, they let me come back on April 22nd to talk about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, which I’ll be posting here in a week or so.
Enjoy the video! When you reach the end of the first segment, click on the little white box to start the second segment. Rinse, repeat.
What we can learn, we can unlearn
Up to now, we have been discussing neuroplasticity as though our brain is a one-way street, but that’s definitely not the case. Our brain is totally fluid, what we can learn we can unlearn just as quickly. In the first part of this chapter, I mentioned that our neural circuits are pruned to the tune of 20 billion synapses a day, or so, during adolescence, and this practice continues, although at a slower rate, for our entire lives.
Pathways we don’t use simply shrivel-up and die. We forget people, places, and things; we lose skills, some acquired with a great deal of effort; we change habits, likes, dislikes, political parties; we adapt new ways of doing things, discarding the old; in other words, if we are the sum of our experiences, we become different people over time, and this is all a result of neuroplasticity.
Baseball players have batting practice every day, during the season, and many continue all winter; actors rehearse again, and again, and again; in fact, every learned skill must be practiced to maintain the neural circuits we have created, or we lose it, over time. Jascha Heifetz, the renowned violinist is rumored to have said: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”Continue reading
The stimulus-driven learning process
We forge long-term memories, and learn nearly everything we retain by strengthening neural connections through repetition, and sometimes trauma or reward. Certain events can imprint permanent memories, simply by their magnitude, and their effects upon our lives and our emotions. Events such as Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the horror of 9/11 evoke strong associations, and any of us who lived through them remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about them. Few of us, however, could recall what we did on the preceding day. We are all familiar with that kind of memory imprinting and recall, but what about the normal, everyday kinds of things we try to remember – and sometimes fail. How does this neuroplasticity really work, and, most importantly, do we have any control over it?
The first step in memory formation is called “encoding,” which is a biological process, rooted in the senses, that begins with perception. As an example, think of meeting your first “crush.” When you met him or her, your visual system registered things like their physical appearance, the color of their eyes, the tilt of their head, and their smile. Your auditory system may have recorded the sound of their laughter. You may have experienced the smell of their after-shave or perfume. You may have even felt the touch of their hand upon your arm. These separate sensations traveled along neural pathways from different regions to a portion of your brain stem called the hippocampus, where they were integrated, as they occurred, and became one single experience – your experience of that specific person.
Imaging studies indicate that the hippocampus, along with another part of our brain, called the frontal cortex is responsible for analyzing these various sensory inputs and deciding if they’re worth remembering or not. If they are, they become part of our long-term memory. If not, they stay in short-term memory for a brief time, and are then forgotten. Do we have any control over what information is retained in long-term memory? Yes, we absolutely do, there are a couple of tools we can use to train our minds to commit information to long-term memory, one is repetition, and the other is mindfulness.Continue reading
This is my first excerpt from Chapter Two, “How We Learn Addiction.” It’s an introduction to the concept of neuroplasticity, and discusses why I chose to use this concept to explain not only the process of addiction, but also the process of recovery.
Nearly every recovery self-help book explains the mechanism of addiction, if they address it at all, by discussing the chemical changes that take place in the brain during the various phases of the addiction process, some of which are irreversible. Explaining addiction in that manner merely feeds into the disease and powerlessness model, when we are not powerless over our addictions at all. I’m not denying that some of these chemical changes are, in fact, irreversible, but they do not effect our ability to overcome our addictions by changing our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Fortunately there is an entirely different way to look at both the process, and the effects of addiction that is not only equally valid, but also does a much better job of explaining not only how we become dependent upon substances, but also how most of us manage to recover, on our own, from this “irreversible” condition.
Our brains have the ability to rewire themselves, changing structurally and functionally, in response to changes in our environment and our experiences. For most of the twentieth century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that the brain was relatively fixed and immutable after a certain critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by new findings and evidence, especially detailed brain imaging that has conclusively proven that our brains retain a significant ability to change, which is called “plasticity,” into adulthood, and even old-age. Neurological research indicates that experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure and functional organization from top to bottom. It was also once believed that our brains can never grow new neurons, but this has also been proven to be false, for at least two areas of the brain having to do with learning can indeed grow new neurons. In fact, it’s happening to you right now as you read this page! This characteristic of the brain, called “Neuroplasticity,” not only is responsible for our ability to learn and unlearn, but also for the ability of some people to recover from serious injuries, strokes, and diseases that disable or disrupt some of their brain functions.Continue reading