Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
If you were stranded in cyberspace with access to only one TEDTalk, I hope it would be Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's "My Stroke of Insight." Perhaps as a neurologist I am biased, but what could be more important than understanding the potential of your most precious gift, your brain. Dr. Taylor's recovery from her stroke is a testament to the power of neuroplasticity, our brains' remarkable ability to redesign itself. Through the miracle of neuroplasticity you can, as Dr. Taylor inspires us, "step to the right" of your left brain and discover your true essence of joy and peace.
Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and construct new neural pathways throughout your life. When you engage in new experiences or think in novel ways, new pathways are forged. Every time you think a specific thought, a specific pathway of neurons fires up, neurotransmitters are released and synapses are subtly altered. With repetition this pathway is strengthened. Even as you read this very sentence, your brain is changing. In this way, your brain's structure is a culmination of all the thoughts and experiences you have had up to this very moment.
Exciting research reveals that the way we use our brain and care for our brain can enhance its neuroplasticity. Here are some suggestions:
Fine Tune Your Inner Voice -- When Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's language centers shut down during her stroke, she experienced exquisite joy and peace. Although we cannot similarly switch off our inner voice, we can rewire it through neuroplasticity. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston used MRI scans to document before and after changes in the brain's gray matter associated with mindfulness meditation. After eight weeks, the MRI scans revealed an increased density in areas of the brain associated with memory, self-awareness and compassion. (1)
Improving the tenor of your inner voice begins by listening to what it is saying. When you experience a distressing thought, identify its true nature and give yourself the choice to think or feel differently. In the process, negative thought pathways will wane from disuse and you will begin to forge new self-enhancing neural pathways. When you are feeling joyful and calm, reflect on your accompanying thoughts at that moment. Cherish these thoughts and relish them frequently knowing that these pathways become stronger with each repetition. Over time, you will transform the infrastructure of your brain. You can do it on your own, but if you're not making progress, I would encourage you to seek out a professional instructor or take a class. Fine tuning your inner voice to a channel that transmits a calm and joyous message will enhance every aspect of your life.
Be a Dreamer -- In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor extols the critical role sleep played in her recovery. Fascinating research reveals that the creation of new brain cells and the construction of neural pathways occur during sleep. (2) Brain imaging studies show that the brain literally changes overnight. Comparing the MRI brain activation patterns for a newly acquired motor skill both before and after sleep shows a reorganization of neural networks during sleep. (3) In addition, sleep has a powerful effect on our mood and the emotional centers of the brain. Even partial sleep deprivation causes feelings of stress, anger, irritability and sadness. (4)
Many of us simply do not allot enough time for sleep. Consider going to bed 10 minutes earlier than usual and gradually move up your bedtime until you feel rested and energized upon awakening. If you suffer from insomnia, I encourage you to make an appointment with your doctor or consider seeing a sleep specialist. Getting adequate sleep is essential for building the infrastructure and enjoying the bounty of a joyous, serene mental state.
Master the Flow -- Mental or physical activities in which you are completely absorbed, quiet negative brain chatter and foster feelings of well-being and inner peace. Being completely immersed in such an activity is referred to as "flow". The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy. Many people experience flow through mediation, prayer, yoga or Tai Chi. For others, flow is achieved while running, playing an instrument or gardening. Take a moment to consider what activities have allowed you to experience this transcendent state. Whatever it is, commit to spending more time in flow. Like any other skill, practice makes perfect and with time, you will strengthen your neural connection to this state of mind.
It is my hope that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's powerful and inspirational testimony, along with the suggestions above, will inspire you to become the architect of your brain, and that over time, "stepping to the right" of your left brain will become a way of life.
1. Holzel B, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti S, Gard T Lazar S. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 2011 Jan 30; 191 (1): 36-43
2. Guzman-Marin R, Bashir T, Suntsova N, Szymusiak R, McGinty D. Hippocampal
neurogenesis is reduced by sleep fragmentation in the adult rat. Neuroscience. 2007 Aug 10;148(1):325-33.
3. Walker MP, Stickgold R, Alsop D, Gaab N, Schlaug G. Sleep-dependent motor
memory plasticity in the human brain. Neuroscience. 2005;133(4):911-7.
4. Dinges, D. et al., Cumulative Sleepiness, Mood Disturbance, and Psychomotor Vigilance Decrements During a Week of Sleep Restricted to 4 - 5 Hours Per Night, Sleep. 1997 Apr; 20 (4): 267-277.
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