Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Holding a human brain for the first time was a powerful moment. Cradling the fragile organ in my hands, I had this overwhelming realization that every thought, every emotion, every experience and every dream this person ever had was coded within. As a neurologist, my awe for this miraculous structure intensifies with every new breakthrough in neuroscience and each personal triumph that I encounter. Eleanor Longden's talk, "The Voices in My Head" is a testament to the intrinsic power of the human brain and its ability to redesign itself.
Only recently have we begun to understand that thoughts are structurally encoded within the brain. Every time you think a specific thought, certain pathways of neurons fire up. With repetition, these pathways are strengthened. The more often you think a specific thought, the stronger that particular pathway becomes. Over time, you develop habitual thought patterns because it's more convenient for the brain to send ideas down a well paved highway rather than a cobble side street. This is how mental habits are formed, both good and bad. When we think in novel ways, new thought pathways are forged in the brain. In this way, the brain you have at this very moment is a result of how your brain has been molded over time.
We now understand that from depression and anxiety disorders to cognitive dysfunction, psychosis, substance abuse and eating disorders, the brain has been physically altered to an unhealthy state. Marie Pasinski, Ph.D.
Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and redesign neural pathways throughout your life. This process called "neuroplasticity", has been a revelation in neuroscience and has transformed the way we perceive mental illness. We now understand that from depression and anxiety disorders to cognitive dysfunction, psychosis, substance abuse and eating disorders, the brain has been physically altered to an unhealthy state. Although we have just begun to scratch the surface in understanding these complex changes, recent discoveries in this area are truly remarkable.
Ground-breaking research shows that both depression and chronic stress are associated with diminished neuroplasticity. In other words, the production of new neurons markedly decreases in these conditions. Meanwhile other studies show that antidepressants, the medications used to treat depression, such as SSRIs and tricyclics, actually boost the production of new neurons. This may explain why exercise, which has been shown to increase the birth of new neurons and enhance neuroplasticity may be helpful in reversing depression and treating anxiety.
It's important to know that many factors and numerous medical conditions affect our thoughts, emotions and behavior. For example, sleep disorders, thyroid dysfunction, metabolic abnormalities, vitamin deficiencies and medication side effects are common conditions that can masquerade as mental illness. This is why it's so vital to see your doctor if you do notice a change in your thinking or mood. Once other contributing medical causes have been eliminated or treated, it's essential to realize that thought, emotion and behavior have a physical, chemical and biologic, basis within the brain. All the thoughts and experiences you have had throughout your life combined with your unique genetic makeup determine your brain's structure and function.
Although you cannot change your past experiences or your genetics, you can foster a mentally healthier brain. From this day forward, you can tap into the power of neuroplasticity. It begins by taking charge of your thoughts and realizing that you can choose to think and feel differently. Over time, like Eleanor Longden, you can redesign the infrastructure of your brain. That's the beauty and the miracle of her story. Nothing will have a greater impact on the quality of your life than discovering your brain's intrinsic power.
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