"No matter what business you're involved in, first and foremost you’re in the brain change business.” So asserts Houston neuro-psychiatrist, Bruce Perry. In line with that premise, it makes great sense to know at least a few of the basics about how your own and other people’s brains grow and change in ways that could possibly help make them work like Einstein’s, Michelangelo’s and Mother Teresa’s all rolled into one!
Is it a Universe? Is it an Endocrine Collection?
The brain is perhaps best thought of as a collection of interconnected endocrine glands - roughly 52 individual parts controlling different actions. They all must work together to “process energy and infor- mation.” Thinking about the brain in such terms - as a network of organs that must optimally process the energy and information of our daily lives - turns out to be a very useful template to help us understand our own and others’ reactions to the world, and to make good decisions in response to them. Ideally, we only want ourselves and our family and friends involved in activities that their brains are developmentally suited to handle, and perhaps a little bit more. It’s the “little bit more” that can become tricky, which is how we build resilience in ourselves and our kids. I’ll be discussing resilience often in these columns.
As you might suspect, timing plays a significant role in the kinds of energy and information our brains can process at any given point in time. So does the source of that energy and information. It can come from outside us, as well as from inside the body (exogenously and endogenously). Timing also determines the quantity and quality of energy and information our brain can process. An obvious example is that for the first few years, children’s brains cannot process language very well. However, they can process sound, and children are particularly sensitive to the loudness, frequency and cadence of the mother’s voice. This is known as prosody, and in future columns we’ll talk a lot about prosody’s extraordinary capacity to not only grow and change children’s brains, but also an adult or a spouse’s brain as well!
The human brain is purported to be the most complex structure in the known universe. Princeton neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Gene D’Aquili, in their book, Why God Won’t Go Away, argue that inherent in that complexity lives a biological need for meaning, spirituality and truth. It’s encoded into our cells. Scanning the brains of Buddhist monks, catholic nuns, along with practitioners of the Pentecostal faith and assorted other denominations, these researchers found that specific neuron firing patterns correllate across the brains of longtime practitioners. Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, writing about the neurobiology of mystical experience as experienced by Carmelite nuns in their book, The Spiritual Brain, suggest that not only do such experiences change lives, but they also change our neurological landscape as well. Much of this work is further confirmed and elaborated upon by the work of Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon in their lovely little book, A General Theory of Love.
Associations Make it Happen
Another important way to think about our brain is as an associating organ. By that, I simply mean that it learns a lot by putting things together. Things like words and pictures, up and down, hot and cold, thoughts and feelings. By pairing things that make the brain feel good with things that we want ourselves or our children to learn, the neurons in the brain become richly connected. A variation of this is sometimes known as “Grandmother’s Rule: You may do what you want to do - when you’ve done what you need to do.” By pairing preferred actions with less exciting necessary duties, like brushing teeth and going to bed at a set, regular time, reinforced learning takes place. It is such associations, repeated frequently over long periods that produce what we generally think of as learning. One interesting finding about such learning by Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist, Eric Kandel is that learning involves five pulses of serotonin, “The Happy Molecule.” Therefore, it begins to make perfect sense that we learn more when we are happy than when we're not. Thus, learning and play go hand in hand, and not only during childhood, as a number of us old fogies have finally figured out!
Plastic is as Plastic Does
One last thing to realize and remember about the brain and the business of trying to change it, is that the brain is exquisitely “plastic.” What I mean by that is we can do a lot of things less than perfectly with ourselves, our children and our friends, and the possibility for later improvement and correction remains not only strong, but something we can almost always count on the brain to try to accomplish. In future columns I will be addressing many of the ways that new scanning technologies - machines like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulators (TMS) and SQUIDS (Super-Conducting Quantum Interference Devices) that can make us briefly brilliant and let us see parts of the brain at work in real time - are offering us clues to some of the best ways we can begin to take advantage of neural plasticity. TMS has even been used to raise the “dead,” and I’ll refer to that research too, in future columns.