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Neuroplasticity (…and I can make this happen?)

Neuroplasticity is a miraculous process by which the brain reorganizes its neural connections in response to new circumstances and environments. Though it plays a major role in infant, toddler, and pre-pubescent brain development; the adult brain can be amazingly plastic.

For example, neuroplasticity comes into play within the context of disease and injury; explaining, say, how a stroke victim regains a particular function even though the directing area of the brain has been damaged. Well, my mission here isn’t so much to explain what neuroplasticity is and how it works. It’s more about making the point that we have the ability to make it happen. And that’s pretty incredible.

Now, this volitional neuroplasticity business came to the fore thanks to the work of a very wise and impressive man, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. Do an Internet search on Dr. Schwartz…it’ll be well worth your time.

Schwartz, and his pals at UCLA, discovered that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can positively impact the brain machinations involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in a manner similar to the often prescribed antidepressants.

Briefly, CBT, a psychotherapeutic intervention, is based upon the pivotal role of thought as it applies to our feelings and behavior. If we’re experiencing distress, the mission of CBT is to identify the faulty thinking causing the problems and teach us how to swap these errant thoughts with those of real-world-proven fact. This fosters more desirable responses and behavior.

Well, the discovery story goes like this. Dr. Schwartz revisited an interest in the Buddhist concept of mindfulness; a clear-minded, in-the-present-moment, self-observational technique that emphasizes viewing oneself without criticism or judgment. Schwartz discovered that when OCD patients practiced mindfulness meditation (as a CBT technique), upon experiencing distressing symptoms, a significant number of them reported measurable improvement and relief.

Wanting to understand why, Schwartz and his team examined PET scans administered before and after a course of CBT and found activity in the core of the brain’s OCD circuit, the orbital frontal cortex, decreased significantly. Furthermore, the observed decrease was about the same as what would be noted after antidepressant therapy. Schwartz needed no further evidence that intention – will – can definitely alter the brain’s functioning through the wonders of neuroplasticity. And this holds the potential to bring a whole lot of relief to a whole lot of people, including us.

Neuroplasticity is all about neurons having the ability to establish new connections throughout our brains, facilitating all sorts of new functioning. So, it’s about the rewiring of the brain. But, it’s also a matter of how specific neural circuits got wired together in the first place, resulting in patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior.

It’s apparent that neurons consistently interacting together form long-lasting functional relationships, just as neurons that no longer interact lose their connections. And these machinations are foundational in our hope for incredibly positive and powerful change throughout the lifespan, as our brains physically change – adapt – based upon the dynamics of will and neuroplasticity.

This is a fascinating discovery, the implications and applications of which are incredibly far-reaching. If you’d like to learn more about neuroplasticity, check-out the work of Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., and so many more.

I’m curious…what are your thoughts? How might what you’ve read be applied to your life? How has it been a factor already?