Instead of buying a new computer or smart phone when your old one can’t keep up with your needs, wouldn’t it be great if it had the limitless ability to upgrade its own hardware and software to meet the demands of the moment?
Your own brain already has this ability.
At birth, we are born with approximately 86 billion neurons and as they die, one by one, they are not replaced.
This has lead to the common assumption that our brains and therefore our capacity for thinking and remembering decline throughout adulthood. Associated with this assumption is the belief that we are less capable of change as we age. That’s the way the majority of adults think and behave. With time, we get stuck in habits of behaviour and thought; it gets harder to change our routine and how we see ourselves.
Although the actual of number of neurons (nerve cells) does not increase with age, up to adulthood, the human brain can increase to five times its size at birth. The increase in volume is due to myelination (the outer insulation of nerve fibres) and the growth of connections (or synapses) between neurons.
The principle of “use it or lose it” applies to your brain as well as your body. We know muscles that aren’t challenged will atrophy and become weaker. If we don’t move through a full range of motion, we become stiff, and if we limit our activity, we lose our agility and balance.
How your brain adapts and evolves over a lifetime, depends on how you use it because the brain is capable of creating new synapses (connections between neurons) at any age. Frequently used connections are reinforced and become stronger and more efficient. Seldom used connections are lost.
This creates habits of thought, which beget habits of behaviour and habits of feeling.
If we reinforce habits of drinking, smoking or using drugs when we are stressed or in response to particular situations, those habits become more entrenched over time as we strengthen the corresponding synaptic connections.
But if we stop the cycle, try out a new and healthier pattern of behaviour, and repeat that pattern repeatedly over time, we can reinforce an alternate neural pathway. The more we travel along this new connection of neurons, the more we strengthen the synapses until we have adopted the new and healthier habit.
The same principle applies to how we think about our selves, others and our world. It’s simpler and more efficient to hold onto assumptions and beliefs about others and our world, but too often it doesn’t keep up with the reality of change.
If we think of ourselves as being stuck in our ways, addicted to our attachments or incapable of positive change, we will live this self-fulfilling prophecy. Too often we limit our capacity for growth and happiness by our prejudices and unexamined assumptions; we see only evidence to reinforce our beliefs and are blind to evidence that show them to be false.
Certain patterns of thought reinforce particular emotional states, and once in these states, those patterns are reinforced. Thoughts focussed on negativity, judgment, blame and hopelessness reinforce feelings of anger and sadness. Thoughts of appreciation, personal empowerment and a positive purpose beget happiness.
With a healthy brain that can literally change itself, each of us is capable of positive change. Which free upgrades will you choose?
At 7 pm on Tuesday, September 22nd, I’ll be speaking on Emotional Wellness at the Bob Prittie Metrotown Library in Burnaby. I’ll talk about the key emotional health skills we all need to cope with life’s ups and downs; managing stress, difficult thoughts and feelings; recognizing the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, mood and other psychological conditions; and where to find help.
This free presentation is provided by the Burnaby Public Library in collaboration with the Burnaby Division of Family Practice as part of our Empowering Patients public health education series. As space is limited, please register by calling (604) 436-5400 or online http://bpl.bc.ca/events/emotional-wellness