Monday, January 1, 2018

Chrono-Plasticity


Beginning a new calendar year is always good for one thing: resolving to make beneficial change - forging a new path in life, amending old ways that no longer serve, and charting a new course for whatever may lie ahead. With the return of New Year's Day I am thrilled to once again make contributions to my blog. My aim heretofore is to strive for greater resilience in my thinking and attitudes as well as how I use my body to interact with the world through physical expression.

As goes the mind, so follows the body; as goes the body, so follows the mind. I have sensed an increased rigidity in both my mental outlook and physical pliability, and am not satisfied to accept either as a matter of chronology. So the new year will see me exercising greater creativity and logical processing through reading, investigative research, writing, and musical innovation, along with doing whatever plyometric contortions I can devise to get the spring back in my step. So, more blogging, more resistance exercise, and more climbing of trees is in store!

To restore strength, spring, and balance in my body, I am going to school on quarterback Tom Brady and am already implementing a daily regimen of his TB12 series of resistance movements. For my mind, this blog serves as a representative beginning. An explanation of the Brady approach can wait. This first day back as a keyboard jockey I wish to explore thoughts on restoring neuroplasticity.

There is an established scientific understanding that the brain can be re-wired to improve mental well-being and the quality of life. It is not a physiologically static organ at even the most advanced age. Proof of its malleability is undeniably visible through the use of MRI's. The question is – what can we proactively do both physically and functionally to reorganize the brain and build new and beneficial neural connections?

Mental resilience is demonstrated anytime we learn. Our innate plasticity also enables people to recover from stroke, injury, and birth abnormalities, overcome autism, ADD and ADHD, learning disabilities and other brain deficits, overcome depression and addictions, and reverse obsessive compulsive patterns. We are a successful species in large part because of the adaptability of the three-pound computer behind our eyes.

Although brain function tends to decline with age, there are things we can do to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate brain function – things like increased focused attention, determination, hard work and maintaining overall brain health with proper diet and exercise.  It takes attention to detail, but one can re-invigorate life at any age.

In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research and co-founder of Posit Science, lists ten core principles necessary for the remodeling of a brain to take place:

1. Change is mostly limited to  those situations in which the brain is in the mood for it. If you are alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action, the brain releases the neurochemicals necessary to enable brain change. When disengaged, inattentive, distracted, or doing something without thinking that requires no real effort, your neuroplastic switches are “off.”

2. The harder you try, the more you’re motivated, the more alert you are, and the better (or worse)  the potential outcome, the bigger the brain change. If you’re intensely focused on the task and really trying to master something for an important reason, the change experienced will be greater.

3. What actually changes in the brain are the strengths of the connections of neurons that are engaged together, moment by moment, in time. The more something is practiced, the more connections are changed and made to include all elements of the experience (sensory info, movement, cognitive patterns). You can think of it like a “master controller” being formed for that particular behavior, which allows it to be performed with remarkable facility and reliability over time.

4. Learning-driven changes in connections increase cell-to cell cooperation, which is crucial for increasing reliability. Merzenich explains this by asking you to imagine the sound of a football stadium full of fans all clapping at random versus the same people clapping in unison. He explains, “The more powerfully coordinated your [nerve cell] teams are, the more powerful and more reliable their behavioral productions.”

5. The brain also strengthens its connections between teams of neurons representing separate moments of successive things that reliably occur in serial time. This allows your brain to predict what happens next and have a continuous “associative flow.” Without this ability, your stream of consciousness would be reduced to “a series of separate, stagnating puddles,” explains Merzenich.

6. Initial changes are temporary. Your brain first records the change, then determines whether it should make the change permanent or not. It only becomes permanent if your brain judges the experience to be fascinating or novel enough or if the behavioral outcome is important, good or bad.

7. The brain is changed by internal mental rehearsal in the same ways and involving precisely the same processes that control changes achieved through interactions with the external world. According to Merzenich, “You don’t have to move an inch to drive positive plastic change in your brain. Your internal representations of things recalled from memory work just fine for progressive brain plasticity-based learning.”

8. Memory guides and controls most learning. As you learn a new skill, your brain takes note of and remembers the good attempts, while discarding the not-so-good trys. Then, it recalls the last good pass, makes incremental adjustments, and progressively improves.

9. Every movement of learning provides a moment of opportunity for the brain to stabilize — and reduce the disruptive power of — potentially interfering backgrounds or “noise.” Each time your brain strengthens a connection to advance your mastery of a skill, it also weakens other connections of neurons that weren’t used at that precise moment. This negative plastic brain change erases some of the irrelevant or interfering activity in the brain.

10. Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it is just as easy to generate negative changes as it is positive ones. You have a “use it or lose it” brain. It’s almost as easy to drive changes that impair memory and physical and mental abilities as it is to improve these things. Merzenich says that older people are absolute masters at encouraging plastic brain change in the wrong direction.

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