The Changing Brain

I have been reading Deepak Chopra’s book Super Brain lately (written by Deepak Chopra M.D. and Rudy Tanzi Ph.D; It has some great information, as I have come to expect from Deepak. Of course this topic goes way beyond the brain, moving from medicine, anatomy, quantum physics to the esoteric side of spirituality – right up my ally.

One of the first things the book does is to bust five important myths about the brain:

1. The injured brain cannot heal itself. Now we know that the brain has amazing powers of healing, unsuspected in the past.

2. The brain’s hardwiring cannot be changed. In fact, the line between hard- and soft-wiring is shifting all the time, and our ability to rewire our brains remains intact from birth to the end of life.

3. Aging in the brain is inevitable and irreversible. To counter this outmoded belief, new techniques for keeping the brain youthful and retaining mental acuity are arising every day.

4. The brain loses millions of cells a day, and lost brain cells cannot be replaced. In fact, the brain contains stem cells that are capable of maturing into new brain cells throughout life. How we lose or gain brain cells is a complex issue. Most of the findings are good news for everyone who is afraid of losing mental capacity as they age.

5. Primitive reactions (fear, anger, jealousy, aggression) overrule the higher brain. Because our brains have been imprinted with genetic memory over thousands of generations, the lower brain is still with us, generating primitive and often negative drives such as fear and anger. But the brain is constantly evolving, and we have gained the ability to master the lower brain through choice and free will. The new field of positive psychology is teaching us how best to use free will to promote happiness and overcome negativity.

The book shows that as we experience and interact with the world, our brains are recording, interpreting, and creating the world around us. With every new experience the connections of our brain’s neural network are rewiring themselves! The way we choose to experience our world determines how we rewire our own brains!

The brain is quite complex, consisting of hundreds of billions of nerve cells, which make hundreds of trillions of connections (synapses) creating the neural network. If you placed these nerve cells end to end, it would extend over 100,000 miles, enough to wrap around the Earth over four times!

Our brain creates the reality of our entire world. This means that each species has its own reality, ‘wired’ by its species version of a brain (i.e. dog, insect, human). The book proposes that you can change your reality by relating to your brain in a new way. This is a very important statement and changes a lot of the opinions that many of us grew up with.

The book Super Brain bridges two worlds, biology and experience. Biology is great at explaining physical processes, but it is totally inadequate at telling us about the meaning and purpose of our subjective experience. The more neuroscientists learn, the more it seems the brain has hidden powers. We now know that the brain takes in the raw experience of life, acting through a filter of any desire or emotion you have. This means we colour reality by our perceptions via emotions. Change your perception, or beliefs, and you change your reality. Your brain cannot do what it thinks it cannot do. But, your mind can tell your brain what you want it to do. Notice here we have a distinct difference between the brain and the mind. The brain (an incredibly powerful three-pound mass of gelatinous material — hardware) is no more than a radio receiver that receives its signals from the mind (more of an electromagnetic wave — software). We can upgrade the hardware of our brain, by upgrading the software of the mind. Your mind can only send information that your brain can conceive of.

 In short, the brain is a verb, not a noun.

 The mind reshapes the brain with thoughts, memories, desire and experience.

The brain changes every minute you experience life, and you are in charge of it.

Because it is dynamic, fluid and ever renewing, the brain is much more malleable than anyone ever imagined.

Even though the old view of the brain was seen to be fixed, mechanical, and steadily deteriorating, we now know this is far from the case. We are creating reality at this very minute, and if that process remains alive and dynamic, your brain will be able to keep up with it, year after year. Think about it: your entire world, all that you see, hear, taste, touch, and feel is conjured up for you by your brain. And this world is, of course, similar to that of others with similar brains. Every species experiences a world created for them within the limits of their brain and nervous system, from human to dog to mosquito to bacteria. We are reinventing our brain as we go along, day by day. It happens in this lifetime; it’s not a matter of eons.

The book Super Brain looks at one of my favorite groups of studies by British neurologist John Lorber, who had been working with victims of a brain disorder known as hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”), in which excessive fluid builds up in the skull. The resulting pressure squeezes the life out of brain cells. Hydrocephalus leads to retardation as well as other severe damage and even death.

In the 1980’s Lorber had a young patient who had an enlarged head. He had graduated from college with a first-class honors degree in mathematics and had an IQ of 126. There were no symptoms of hydrocephalus; the young man was leading a normal life. Yet a CAT scan revealed, in Lorber’s words, that he had “virtually no brain.” The skull was lined with a thin layer of brain cells about a millimeter thick (less than 1/10 of an inch), while the rest of the space in the skull was filled with cerebral fluid.

Hydrocephalus Brain 1980

This is an appalling disorder to contemplate, but Lorber pushed on, recording more than 600 cases. He divided his subjects into four categories depending on how much fluid was in the brain. The most severe category, which accounted for only 10% of the sample, consisted of people whose brain cavity was 95% filled with fluid. Of these, half were severely retarded; the other half, however, had IQs over 100.

It seems undeniable that reinventing the brain is viable. Stroke victims are rehabilitated on that basis, training undamaged areas of the brain to take up functions lost during the stroke. Efforts in autism and schizophrenia are also proceeding on the possibility that brain dysfunction is setting in months or years before the appearance of symptoms. If these pre-symptomatic changes can be addressed soon enough, the full-blown disease could be averted or greatly lessened.

A similar approach to Alzheimer’s disease examines brain changes in young adults who may be genetically susceptible to the disease, could reverse that susceptibility through therapy.

Once medical science accepts that the brain can be reinvented, there is no limit. The book shows even Alzheimer’s can be reversed if we relate to the brain in a new way.

The book Super Brain shows that the most direct way to improve brain function is through the mind. The mind-body connection is powerful because it can use our habits to lead the brain to change. What you pay attention to, what your passion is, your approach to diet, exercise, stress and even basic emotions like anger and fear, all register in your brain and drastically shape and reshape its structure.

In the simplest terms, every experience is either positive or negative when seen as input for the brain. A brain that is processing positive input will grow and evolve differently from a brain that processes negative input. In our next blog we will look deeper into how this happens.