The Science of SELF™ – Neuroplasticity, Part I

In my last blog, I stated that “in the upcoming blogs, I will discuss each of the science concepts, the positive attitudes, and skills in more depth.”

In this blog, I introduce the first of four blogs about neuroplasticity, a science that forms part of the foundation of the SELF Empowerment Program™ (SELF™).

How neuroplasticity saved my life.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself in response to our experiences and thoughts. For years scientists have known neuroplasticity occurs from conception through age three, and between our 12th and 25th birthdays.

From conception through age three, our brain creates many neurons, and connections, and has great plasticity among the connections. Then, from ages 12 through 25 our brain undergoes a massive reorganization that makes it faster and more sophisticated.

However, knowledge about adult neuroplasticity is very new.

Adult Neuroplasticity

Scientists used to believe adult brains were fixed, static, and unchangeable, that our DNA determined the specific functions of each area of our brain, and could not be changed. They also believed that if we lost a sense, like vision, the area handling it withered away and we learned how to use other senses, like hearing, better. Because functions like vision were believed to be in specific brain areas, diagrams exist showing where our vision and other brain functions are located.

But, we now know our brain’s diagram can change when we lose a sense, as our brain rewires the areas handling the lost sense to receive and process information from the other senses.

An early example of adult neuroplasticity occurred in 1959 when at age sixty-five, Pedro Bach-y-Rita suffered a stroke that paralyzed his face, half of his body, and left him unable to speak. His son, George, began an unusual therapy that began by teaching his father skills a baby learns like crawling and catching marbles rolled on the floor. After a year of the unusual therapy, Bach-y-Rita resumed a normal life that included teaching full-time at the City College of New York. An autopsy done after his death found the lesion from the stroke had destroyed 97% of the nerves from his cerebral cortex to his spine and had never healed. In short, Bach-y-Rita’s recovery was due to neuroplasticity that allowed the unusual therapy to rewire his brain so different brain areas took on the functions previously handled by the damaged areas.

A challenge with neuroplasticity is that we rarely recognize when it is happening. In my case, thanks to Divine Intervention, and over forty years of physical and meditation exercises, I recovered from a major health challenge in November 2018. According to the doctors treating me, it took 45 minutes for my heart to beat without assistance. This caused them to predict I would be a vegetable, if I lived, since my brain had not received enough oxygen when my heart could not beat on its own. However, five years ago, I learned that due to my years of physical and meditation exercises, my brain had changed so that my asleep pulse was in the twenties. I also learned that I was unusual because most people, when awakened with a pulse in the twenties, are groggy and disoriented. But when I was awakened, I was immediately awake and alert. This meant my physical and meditation exercises had rewired my brain to function with a pulse much lower than the average pulse of a person, which helped me recover in November 2018.

What It Means

While we are still learning about neuroplasticity, it is clear that our brain is more plastic than scientists once thought, and that our brain’s wiring changes throughout our lives. What is more, neuroplasticity changes our brain’s wiring due to everything from a major trauma like a brain injury or loss of a limb, to engaging in brain strengthening activities like meditation, to responding to our thoughts. That our thoughts, to include what we imagine, can rewire our brain, is new knowledge that needs further study.

In short, neuroplasticity makes possible the central message of the SELF Program™, which is you have the ability to change your self-story, your brain, and your life.

In my next blog I will discuss aspects of the teenage brain and why the SELF Program™ was designed for this age group. The third blog in this neuroplasticity series will discuss how our brain enables us to feel empathy. The final blog in this neuroplasticity series will discuss how we can strengthen our brains.

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