© Sharon Davis 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 29, 2010

Every sustained activity, including physical, sensory, learning, thinking, and imagining changes the brain. The brain changes its structure with each activity, perfecting its circuits so it is better suited to the task at hand. If some parts fail, other parts can often take over. In scientific terms, this concept is called neuroplasticity, neuro for neuron, the nerve cells in the brain; and plastic for changeable.

Today I will talk about how the brain can change itself, by giving some examples from everyday life, and from the book by Norman Doidge, M.D., titled The Brain That Changes Itself. Then I'll talk a little bit about why it is so hard to purposefully change when you want to, and finally end by relating this to Unitarian universalism.

Let's start with an example probably everyone has heard of. How many of you know someone who has gotten contact lenses or LASIK surgery so that one eye can see long-distance, and the other eye can see for reading? We know our eyes weren't originally wired for that, and yet somehow, the brain is able to interpret the new information coming in from each eye, and make sense out of it. How that happens demonstrates neuroplasticity. Neurons that were originally designed to see at all distances now interpret images from one distance only. Inside the brain, there is actually a change in what's called the "brain map." If we were to map exactly which neurons are involved in interpreting images from the eyes, we would see that those neurons that are designed for long-distance begin to take up more of the map for the eye adjusted for long-distance vision. And vice versa. And somehow, through the neurons communicating with each other, the two images are put together and the brain is able to interpret a full image.

Doidge provides several other interesting examples. Cheryl had her vestibular apparatus destroyed by taking a common antibiotic. The vestibular apparatus is the sensory organ for the balance system located near the inner ear, and when it's not working, a person falls or feels like she is falling constantly. It is not a fun way to live, being always dizzy and looking like a drunk when you walk. Cheryl was lucky to find a scientist who is brilliant and is able to translate his understanding of the brain into adaptive devices that actually help the brain retrain itself. He developed a hat with an accelerometer in it that sends electrical signals to a thin plastic strip that can be put on the tongue. The accelerometer is a device that detects movement in two planes, and that is translated onto the map on the strip on the tongue. It feels like tingling on the tongue that moves as you move your head.

Cheryl's brain learned to take the touch sensations from her tongue and translate them into the brain area that processes balance. Eventually, with much practice with the hat, her brain created new pathways, and she was able to regain a sense of balance even without the hat. How could that happen when her vestibular apparatus was not functioning at all? This demonstrates how miraculous the brain is, in its ability to create pathways and use other senses to overcome deficits.

Another example was Barbara Aerosmith Young. She was born with serious learning disabilities, along with some areas of brilliance. She was dyslexic, so reading was very challenging for her. Learning-disabled kids at that time were taught "compensations" based on the theory that if part of the brain fails to develop, it can't be improved, and must be worked around. Barbara learned of some research that had been done years before, showing that head injury victims with similar deficits to hers had been able to regain some function. She designed exercises to work on one of her most weakened functions, reading clocks. After weeks of practice, not only could she read clocks faster than most people, she noticed improvements in other areas related to interpreting symbols. She designed exercises for her other disabilities and brought them up to normal. She started the Aerosmith school in Toronto, where they assess the weak areas and assign specific exercises to improve them, rather than simply identify ways of working around them.

Brain maps show in which area of the brain neurons are firing to do specific actions. Neurons that are located next to each other tend to work together, from which comes the saying "neurons that are wired together fire together." Dr. Merzenich discover that the brain can reorganize its maps. The shape of our brain maps changes depending on what we do over the course of our lives. For example, if you lose the use of a finger, the brain map for your hand will reorganize so that less territory is devoted to the finger that no longer works, and valuable space can be re-utilized for your other fingers. Merzenich develop the cochlear implant, which translates sounds into bursts of electrical impulses. Deaf people's brains can learn to interpret and use these signals to understand sounds, including speech.

Edward Taub developed a rehabilitation program for stroke victims that results in remarkable recovery even with people who have failed traditional rehabilitation programs and are years past the original incident. The program works by constraining the good limb to force the development of pathways in the brain for using the damaged limb. It starts with small exercises, rewarded frequently, and practiced intently. The exercises progress to everyday activities. Speech is regained through playing games with pictures of objects on cards. In order to win, you must name the object on the card. Eventually, players progress to requesting cards by name from specific other players, using full sentences.

If the brain is so plastic, why is it so hard to change old habits and ways of thinking? There is a great joke that illustrates the fixed mindset. Two men are making breakfast. As one is buttering the toast, he says "did you ever notice that if you drop a piece of toast, it always lands butter side down?"

The second guy says, "No, I bet it just seems that way because it's so unpleasant to clean up the mess when it lands butter side down. I bet it lands butter side up just as often."

The first guy says, "Oh, yeah? Watch this." He drops the toast on the floor, where it lands butter side up.

The second guy says, "See, I told you."

Then the first guy says, "Oh, I see what happened, I buttered the wrong side!"

One way to think about how our brain gets ingrained in habits is to imagine a big hill with a fresh covering of snow. We slide down the hill on the tube, and then climb back up. Chances are, when we go down the second time we will slide down very near the first place we slid down, because the snow was more packed down, and the route is faster and easier. Over time, we wear down ruts in the snow, and it becomes much more difficult to change how we do things.

Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is one example of how the brain gets locked into a pattern of worrying, followed by an obsession to take a specific action or ritual to relieve the worry. Jeffrey M. Schwartz developed an effective treatment that starts by having the OCD person re-label what is happening to him, so he realizes it's not an attack of germs or AIDS but an episode of OCD. Re-labeling gives some distance from the content of the obsession and enables the person to view himself separately from it. The OCD person is then taught that the reason for the OCD attack is a faulty circuit of the brain and that it can be changed. The next crucial step is to refocus on a positive, wholesome, pleasurable activity the moment the person becomes aware he or she is having an OCD attack. This could be gardening, exercise, art, or music. It is essential to do something to shift the gears. This won't make the feeling go away, but it begins to lay the groundwork for neuroplastic change, which becomes easier over time.

Changing your brain can be done, but involves sustained practice, and rewarding yourself for each brief small step along the way. Doidge mentions some specific brain exercises developed by Posit Science that have been demonstrated to improve brain function, including memory and reasoning. When you get home from church, you can google that and find a few free exercises on there to play with.

People who are interested in growing their minds are constantly searching for new answers to help them understand the ever-changing world. They are always trying to find new ways to learn. They have a tendency to question authority, and challenge themselves to learn about other people's beliefs. They are willing to put in some effort at working to grow and learn, and they also want to help those around them.

Obviously, one of my points here is that Unitarian Universalism attempts to be a growth-minded religion. We take pieces from a variety of different beliefs and see how they fit with the situations we may be facing in our own lives. We try to be accepting of other people's differences, to welcome people with a variety of religious upbringings, sexual orientations, and life challenges.

Evolution seems to be all around us all the time, manifested in the ever-changing patterns of plant life, birds, insects and animals. It does not frighten us to think that biologically, our DNA is almost identical to that of chimpanzees. That's because we do not see ourselves as born into a fixed condition, but born as ever-changing, ever-growing beings whose brains can change themselves.

I remember one Sunday service we had to celebrate the solstice. The service included a blessing to the four directions borrowed from Native American cultures, the lighting of candles woven into wreaths taken from European pagan ceremonies, and a reading from Buddhism.

I'm grateful that our church does not force everyone into one mold. We allow people to develop their faith in a way that complements and challenges their neurodevelopmental strengths. There is no one way to believe correctly in a Unitarian Universalist church. Rituals, music and religious philosophies from all over the world are offered here. Different ways of thinking and believing are valued and encouraged.

We don't have to think alike or worship alike to love each other and appreciate our uniqueness. We can explore the depths of other cultures and the immense complexity of our community, one mind at a time.


Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
--Romans 12:2

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