This is your brain.
This is your brain on drugs.
Do you remember this commercial from the 80s?
The message was that your brain was fragile, like an egg. Doing drugs would crack your brain open and fry it like an IHOP breakfast (they still do breakfast, right? 🍳)
A simple and powerful message. How could that not be true?
Anyone with an addiction history will tell you there can be long-term effects from substance use, even well into recovery.
The overarching message driving this campaign was that you were born with only so many brain cells.
If you kill them, through drugs or alcohol, for example, you don’t ever get them back. One blackout from a night of partying meant millions of brain cells vanished into thin air, just like that.
I’m not sure exactly how many brain cells I was born with, but I’m not keen on losing any more than I have to. As a teenager with giant winged hair, a crisply popped-up collar and a conceivably big future ahead of me, I received that message loud and clear.
Thanks to some diligent science people, however, we now know that message was wrong. Because your body was fearfully and wonderfully made, your brain can change and compensate for many things life throws at it.
Your brain, it turns out, is highly flexible and constantly works to adapt to the new requirements placed on it. The clinical term for this is neuroplasticity, and you see it all the time in real life.
- Recovery after a stroke is the brain adapting and making new connections to relearn some basic functions.
- Sudden loss of hearing in one ear may strengthen hearing in the other ear to compensate for the loss.
- Phantom limb sensation experienced by amputees is plasticity at work.
Apparently your brain learns how to rewire itself, change directions and find alternate pathways all the time.
Like MacGyver trying to get out of a locked basement with a roll of duct tape, a Craftsman screwdriver, and a crooked smile.
But plasticity isn’t just limited to injuries or damage. There’s a very practical side to this that can help you in your daily biz.
Your brain can also adapt to new ways of thinking and behaving.
You might think you can’t change some of your behaviors related to depression or anxiety, but you can set up your brain to help you be more successful in your efforts.
The patterns and thinking habits that have been with you since you started using reason and logic as a wee youngster are ingrained as pathways in your brain. It’s what you learned from your earły environmental influences. It’s just how you’ve “always been.”
You can play a role in getting your brain to change those pathways in a few simple ways.
What you pay attention to
What you focus on is a stimulus to your brain.
Think about that for a second.
Every time you give your attention to something, you are stimulating your brain toward some action.
You can’t choose the thoughts that pop in your head. But you can choose how long you focus on those thoughts and how you decide to handle them.
Sorry, that’s just how it is.
If you are struggling with depression, and you focus on a negative thought or situation, your brain just keeps going down the path you take it.
If you’ve been struggling for a while, your brain doesn’t have to work that hard to take you down the familiar path. It’s been in this part of the labyrinth before.
Your brain likes this path of least resistance because it can conserve energy for something else.
But when you choose to focus on an adaptive thought, or a positive thought, your brain lights up. 💥 It now has to fire differently and make new neural connections to accommodate the new activity.
It’s like when you suddenly realize Google Maps is taking you on a detour and you don’t know where the next rest stop might be…and you just finished a Big Gulp. 🌊
In order to meet the new demand, your brain has to entertain the thought of a different path and determine what resources it needs to get there.
If you manage to keep your focus on more helpful, adaptive thoughts, your brain gets comfortable with that path and it’s easier to override the negative, now less used, paths.
And you just mastered a new thinking skill that will help improve your mood.
Boom. 👊 You didn’t even have to leave the couch for that one.
Move your body
I know I bring this up a lot, but you have to move your body every day to even have a shot at feeling better. You have to disturb your homeostasis, to quote the science people.
Here’s another compelling reason why.
Exercise prevents shrinkage 😳
If you’re still alive, then your brain is aging.
If you’re not exercising, then your brain is shrinking. The gray matter, the part we laymen call “brain,” is reducing in volume.
Exercise increases the volume of gray matter in your brain and reverses that shrinkage.
Apparently size does matter. 😆
This gray matter growth also can contribute to the formation of new blood vessels.
And the pie de resistance: exercise can help your brain regenerate new cells, a process called neurogenesos.
So no more fried egg brain for you.
And all this adds up to improved cognitive function. Studies show one of the best ways to prevent age related cognitive decline is to exercise.
Higher intensity is best but anything will help.
So there you go. Time to take your shrinking brain to the gym.
Free your mind (and the rest will follow 🎶).
The research is still a little back and forth on this one, but meditation appears to have significant changes on the brain.
Apparently just one session can improve blood flow into the prefrontal cortex, which is where all your thinking and planning lives.
But over the long term, meditation may provoke some structural changes in the areas that regulate emotions and assist in learning and memory.
Doesn’t that sound nice?
Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean a long, drawn out session. You can find a space somewhere in your day and meditate for just a few minutes. This can lower your fight or flight responses, which can help you manage anxiety and depression.
There are a gazillion meditation apps for your phone. Try one and see if it doesn’t improve your focus and increase your ability to handle the stuff in your day.
And remember, over time, your brain will come to consider this more calm, relaxed state as the norm.
Your brain is a marvelous machine.
You get to carry it around in your head all the time. Only you know what’s truly going on in there.
Please know that at the end of the day, you can change and control what you do with your marvelous brain. It can be shaped and molded to your specifications (within reason, your Highness).
Make an intentional and purposeful plan to change your brain and see what happens!
Newberg, A.B. , Wintering, N., Waldman, M.R., Amen, D., Khalsa, D.S., Alavi, A. (2010).Cerebral blood flow differences between long-term meditators and non-meditators. Conscious Cogn. ;19(4):899-905.
Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., Lazar, S.W.(2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 30;191(1):36-43.