Our brains are built to learn, adapt & grow for our entire lives. Research on neuroplasticity has opened the field of human potential and healing exponentially in recent years. Some say that understanding how the brain can change is one of the most important advances of our time. We can strengthen specific neural pathways and create new connections at any age. Applied to chronic illness is showing remarkable results.
Grow Good Neurons
It was a Canadian neuropsychologist named Donald Hebb who coined the phrase,”neurons that fire together, wire together.” Since then we’ve learned how to apply this concept to treat conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. Let’s talk about how this works.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Pathways in the brain form and are reinforced through repetition. When you become ill, the brain begins firing in a way that is not your normal. Illness that goes on for a long period of uses pathways that become the new normal. I often hear from patients, “I just don’t feel like myself.” A person who was once quite social and connected might start to isolate for example. Treatment needs to include reminding the brain of the pathways it used to use. With IBS we treat the infection as well as the brain because this is where the root cause of the illness originates.
We grow good neural pathway by remembering who we are. When authentic, positive moments occur we savour them. This allows the neural structures to strengthen healthy pathways that will be used again. Beneficial experiences occur in life. When they do, we can linger just a little in the joy or pleasure. Our nervous system will then remember this. Memory is a big part of rehabilitating ourselves after negative experiences.
Slow Down to Savour
A moment of feeling strong inside, of letting go, of feeling cared about or being skillful in relationship are all worth savouring. Slowing down allows these experiences to become part of your nervous system. When you slow down, you begin to hard-wire a feeling of safety and pleasure back into your body. Craving diminishes because your needs feel met and you know you have what you need. Growing pathways of contentment internally allows you to be happier, more resilient and less shaken by life. The ups and downs are a breeze instead of a storm.
The Root Cause
The reason this can be difficult to do this, at least at first. is because of an innate survival response that we all have. Our ancestors survived because they were paranoid and fussy. Amusing, yes and true. Our negativity bias and is well researched. This bias has allowed us to survive imminent death by helping us focus on what is most threatening. By further understanding this we can rewire our brain.
We give more attention to pain than to pleasure.
Dr. Rick Hanson outlines how this bias works. I have paraphrased his work in these 5 steps.
- We tend to seek our environment and body for potential dangers or threats. This is how we stayed alive throughout our evolution. When we do this, it’s likely that we will find something that looks like bad news or actually is.
- We then focus all our attention on it. Imagine a predator close to your home. I know I’d focus all my attention, even obsess over it until it was gone. We become over reactive to threats until we are able resolve the situation.
- This is how and why we give more attention to pain than to pleasure.
- This response gets fast tracked into our memory and becomes a somatic memory which will need to be resolved later. If you’ve ever seen a puppy shake or play out a chase during sleep, this is what I’m talking about.
- A stressful event leaves us vulnerable to more stress. Cortisol is released and then crosses the blood-brain barrier. The amygdala, our alarm center, gets charged up. Meanwhile the calming action of the hippocampus is weakened by the excess cortisol. Cortisol then tells the hypothalamus to release more stress hormones causing a vicious cycle.
What Puppies Know that Humans Need
This vicious cycle can be curbed. We create more resiliency in our brain by simply extending those times when we feel relaxed, safe, connected, competent and understood. Let’s go back to the secret of puppies. Puppies know how to let go. Humans don’t because we let this brain of ours override our body. So don’t think your way out! Trying to override it with ‘positive thinking’ won’t work.
Our ancestors survived because they were paranoid and fussy.
What puppies do is relax and experience whatever is there. It’s called ‘being with your experience’. Not trying to get away from it with positive thoughts. Be with your body and it will work it out. It knows how to let go. This is why somatic meditation is so powerful.
Brain Function & Structure
Our nervous system has the capacity to change. Enduring changes in function result in structural changes. This how chronic illness can be resolved. For example, we know that the underlying cause of IBS is an infection in the small bowel that happens because the migrating motility complex isn’t being triggered in the brain.
The gut is basically a bundle of nerves. This is why we see a co-occurence of depression and anxiety with IBS. We see relapse with IBS or SIBO. Sometimes what is needed is rewiring of the nervous system. This will look different for each patient but generally requires training the brain to skillfully develop neural pathways that are new or haven’t been used in a while. Annie Hopper has developed a system for doing this. I spoke with her at a conference earlier this year. I encourage patients to access biodynamic cranio-sacral therapy or other somatic therapies.
Changing the Brain
A focus on gratitude, grit, self-compassion, confidence and self-worth begins to hard wire these attributes into the brain during treatment. It is very similar to muscle memory. Every person knows how to learn because we all learned to walk and talk. With over 200 billion cells and several hundred trillion synapses in our brain there are always new options for growth and learning. Making new connections and getting our neurotransmitters firing helps the prefrontal cortex to calm the part of the brain that fires the alarm.
Our brain can learn to be like velcro for beauty.
If we understand that our brains are like velcro for bad experience and teflon for good we are eons ahead. This wiring helped us when we were hunter-gatherers but we can adapt. That’s what humans are good at. Our current circumstances require that we savour our surroundings. Let the beauty of this world sink in a bit everyday. My functional medicine teacher explained that in his First Nations culture there is a word for this. It is about appreciating the world and embodying a state of wonder. We can cultivate this way of beauty.