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The following is excerpted from Neurosculpting: A Whole-Brain Approach to Heal Trauma, Rewrite Limiting Beliefs, and Find Wholeness (Sounds True, January 2015).
We have a landscape of neural jungle in our brains. Modern science has given us Brainbow imaging technology, which is a magnificently beautiful way in which to view the networked jungles of brain cells without having to cut into the brain.2 This method, developed at Harvard University, enables scientists to locally insert a particular sort of DNA into the genome. DNA is the warehouse of genetic code we carry in each cell that holds all the potential of our physical, mental, and even emotional patterns passed down through our lineage. It’s the collection of all of our genetic scripts that dictate the color of our eyes, the density of our bones, and even the predisposition to certain behaviors. When certain genes are activated, they are in an active state of expression. In the Brainbow process when this inserted piece of DNA is expressed, some of the cell types become colorful and florescent. We can now look at the most colorful and vibrant representations of the brain and get a sense of the dense, rich jungles of thoughts and experiences going on inside our heads. Imagine looking into a transparent body to the mechanisms in the brain pulsing in a neon Technicolor dreamscape— a carnival of confetti thoughts—and then you might have a notion of how utterly fantastic our neural jungle can be.
With more than 30,000 neurons in one cubic millimeter, which is about the size of a pinhead, and more than 100 million synapses in that tiny space, the territory is potentially more vast than the universe.3 Our neural rainbow jungles look as though they defy navigation and any sense of order, yet somehow they execute billions of electrical computations each second with efficiency and precision far beyond our understanding. This jungle of electric pulsations creates and fuels our dreams, cultivates ideas of who we are, and motivates us to achieve our highest goals. But it also suffocates us quickly under the weight of our darkest fears. This jungle makes room for others to deflate our dreams or lift us up. It’s in the heart of this jungle’s darkness that we can rise up from the ashes. Neuroplasticity is at the heart of it all.
WHAT DOES NEUROPLASTICITY MEAN TO YOUR LIFE?
Let’s pretend that you at your current age are suddenly stripped of your gift of neuroplasticity. You get to keep all that you know up to this point, all of your existing skills and capabilities, all of your memories, and even all of your personality traits. This doesn’t seem so alarming until you are given a new project at work that requires you to learn a bit of new information about a program you’re using. Without your neurological adaptability to create new pathways you would not be able to learn the new program, store the information, and then build upon it to become proficient. Or think about something even simpler: Your phone company just came out with the upgrade to your phone. This new phone has many more features that would make your life and your business dealings easier. But you won’t benefit from this because you won’t be able to learn the most basic new applications or how to use them. You are no longer able to fire up a new neurological map that associates with new information. Your current state of existence is as promising and as full of potential as it will ever be. You can’t go anywhere new in this jungle of yours. Furthermore, any of the skill sets you don’t use for a long time would also eventually be lost. Your capacity for growth would be capped and limited for the rest of your life.
But our neurological adaptability, our neuroplasticity, means that you can edit, sculpt, and rewrite those old stories and fears that cripple you precisely at the time in which you are supposed to expand into the fullness of your life. What would it be like to be able to identify a limiting script and simply edit it? What if you could instantly notice a self-sabotage script that prevented you from succeeding at your job and instantly edit it so that you weren’t afraid to apply for that promotion? Consider what it would be like to simply file a limiting script away so it remained in the past as an experience you had, but not a script that you needed to stay loyal to? Who would you be then? What might be possible for your life?
Neuroplasticity happens partly as a result of our ability to create new brain cells and maintain existing ones in a healthy state. These brain cells, or neurons, have a branched formation of dendrites that reach out from them; they look like branches of a tree, or clusters of tentacles. The dendrites’ job is to gather incoming information like a net and send it to the cell body. If the information or compiled signals are strong enough, the cell body will continue to send that message with an electrical surge down a channel called an axon, across a synaptic gap, and on to the next dendrite waiting to continue passing along the message to other neurons. 4 All together, this system of cells, channels, and branches becomes a communication network where the electrical signaling from one cell can pass through channels and be spread to other areas, inspiring an electrical signal in those other areas as well. Every thought, everything learned, every sensation, is an electric telephone game. The more we signal through a mapped area, the more that mapped area can reach out to other areas with speed, strength of signal, and ease of firing. When we’re not neuroplastic, our reach is limited, and sometimes even shrinks. If we want to continue to create a meaningful relationship between our own being and the world we live in, then rigidity becomes a limitation, and perhaps even a disease.
WHAT DOES RIGIDITY LOOK LIKE? MAYBE A SPIDER CAN HELP US UNDERSTAND
A little girl five years old went on her first family camping trip. The build-up was weeks in the making. She and her family had studied the map of the national forest, plotting out areas where they planned to hike, fish, and put up their tent. Thy talked about seeing wild animals she had only read about in books. In preparation for this trip she got her very own sleeping bag, new pajamas, and a big-girl backpack. She was so excited that she even slept in the sleeping bag the night before the trip, falling asleep to the new smell and the anticipation of the next day. This was an exciting time when Mom and Dad wouldn’t have to go off to work. Their first night at the park was upon them. The day had been rich with new experiences and exciting vistas of wildflowers and mountains. The smell of a campfire was the most unique scent she’d ever experienced. Her first night sleeping in a tent was to be an adventure. She was primed with new experiences to remember this trip for a long time.
During this time, her brain was activated in a particular way as she paid attention to each new stimulus. As she was paying attention she had a synergistic harmony of dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine in her prefrontal cortex (PFC), all enabling her to minimize distractions, amplify relevant stimuli, and stamp it all in with some glue. She wasn’t fearful, and her fight-or-flight center was quiet. Because it had been a good day of exciting firsts, she was engaging her PFC, storing and cataloguing the new information. In performing like this, our PFC has the ability to stamp an experience into a lasting memory. As everyone was settling in for bed, the little girl excitedly crawled into her sleeping bag, and laid her head on her pillow, only to put her face right down on a big . . . black . . . spider! What do you think she did? What would you have done?
She screamed, jumped out of her sleeping bag, and cried in terror, inconsolable for a long time as Mommy and Daddy assured her the spider was gone.
And how eager do you think she was to get back in her sleeping bag? How quickly would you get back in the sleeping bag?
So in her heightened neuroplastic state of paying attention to an experience and learning new things, she ran into a very emotionally charged fear moment and activated her fight-or-flight center: her limbic response.
In this moment, she mapped the experience of the spider quite strongly into her storehouse of retrievable experiences. As the PFC has the ability to map something with an emotional charge of curiosity and novelty, so the fight-or-flight center has the ability to take over and map something to fear.
Flash forward to when she was fifteen and went to summer camp. The campfire smell was rich in the air reminding her of her fist camping trip. It was time to go to bed. This was her fist time camping since she was five. What do you think she did before bedtime? You guessed it! She looked at her pillow, and perhaps even used her flashlight to examine the inside of her sleeping bag just to make sure there were no spiders. She retrieved the old story and reinforced its strength by acting upon it as though it were relevant in the present moment. She was in an old map charting a familiar path through her mind jungle. What do you think she’d do if a tiny hair accidentally brushed her face while she fell asleep?
Flash forward one more time years later to her weekend getaway with her husband. They were in a cabin; they’d just put out their fire and crawled into bed. Can you just imagine what she asked her heroic husband to do?
In this way, the girl is locked into a rigid pattern of fear. It doesn’t matter that the fear moment is decades in the past. If it was big enough to cause an indelible mark on the mind map, then it can and will be retrievable, perhaps forever. This map leaves little room for being present in the moment because it’s using an outdated lens. And this old lens comes with real and in-the-moment emotions and body responses that make it very confusing to navigate as we hear others tell us to “calm down.”
Rather than unconsciously use our power of neuroplasticity to relearn and remap old scripts, why not use it to consciously create better ones?
3 Yi Li, Jieli Chen, and Michael Chopp, “Cell Proliferation and Differentiation from Ependymal, Subependymal and Choroid Plexus Cells in Response to Stroke in Rats,” Journal of the Neurological Sciences 193, no. 2 (2002): 137–46.
4 Kenneth D. Harris et al., “How Do Neurons Work Together? Lessons from Auditory Cortex,” Hearing Research 271, no. 1–2 (2011): 37–53, doi:10.1016/j.heares.2010.06.006.
Teaser image by Mike Seyfang, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
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