Ever been told that as you get older, you'll lose neurons and inevitably go into a mental decline?
Well, thanks to reading a great research synthesis just published by Norman Doidge, M.D. (The Brain That Changes Itself – New York: Penguin Books, 2007), I've now been convinced otherwise. I thought I would share some of this information with you because it is not only interesting, but gives me hope to stay active and engaged in my later years.
Yes, as you age, neurons die. But it turns out that your (potential) cognitive decline has a lot to do with the fact that you are not engaging your mind and attention the way you did when you were younger.
Learning new things builds new brain maps
As you learn new skills and abilities, you are literally changing the structure and patterns in your brain. Whenever you focus on something intensely, your brain devotes more resources to it. These resources are in the form of brain maps.
Here is something concrete that will help you understand things going forward. (Note: These next findings are based on animal research, which may disturb some people.)
Researchers cut the nerve on an adult monkey's middle finger to see what effect it would have on the corresponding brain maps of the monkey. (I know -- I'm not for this type of research on animals, either.)
After a couple of months, they found there was no longer a map for the middle finger in the monkey's brain. More importantly, the maps of the adjacent fingers had grown into the place where the middle finger's map used to be.
Source: M.M. Merzenich, R. J. Nelson, M. P. Stryker, M.S. Cynaderm, A. Schoppmann, and J.M. Zook. 1984. "Somatosensory cortical map changes following digit amputation in adult monkeys." Journal of Comparative Neurology, 224 (4): 591-605.
Additional research demonstrated that when a monkey's fingers were sewn together, the maps for the two fingers merged into one map.
What does this mean? It means that even in adults, your brain physically changes its maps based on what you are using and paying attention to. More specifically, when two neurons fire together on a repeated basis (the sewn fingers), they tend to connect more strongly.
Yes, I am going somewhere with this. But first -- one more thing. We need to talk about "brain plasticity" (the ability for the brain to make significant changes in itself).
What "triggers" brain plasticity?
The short answer is that there is an area called the nucleus basalis that opens up the ability for plasticity by releasing nerve growth factor.
A child's nucleus basalis is almost always on, thus making it easy for a young child to learn new things (a new language, for example). Researchers call this "critical-period plasticity."
In research with adult rats, researchers have actually been able to electronically stimulate the adult brain to have the plasticity typically found in a young rat.
Imagine being able to stimulate a "super-learning" part of your brain at will! (Sorry, this is still science fiction now. It could be both incredibly useful, and incredibly dangerous!)
However, this closing of critical-period plasticity with age is by no means the end of plasticity. It is our boring, non-challenging lifestyles that are causing us to lose plasticity unnecessarily.
Remember the monkey's finger? When the nerve was cut, the map for that finger disappeared in the brain. Well, your maps atrophy for all kinds of things that you no longer do. And in the case of aging, one big thing that we stop doing is paying attention.
From constant attention . . . to functioning on autopilot
In childhood, everything is new. We have to pay attention in order to survive.
As young adults, we have new jobs requiring new skills and abilities. As we progress, we are mastering new skills, requiring attention to novelty. We are exercising our brain's ability to make distinctions, associations, and so forth.
In middle age, we feel comfortable with ourselves. We think we're learning, but most of us, in reality, are just doing the things we've already learned to do well.
Reading the paper, following the news, playing the musical instrument we already know how to play, looking over our corporate numbers . . . you get the picture. We stop challenging our brains to learn truly new skills.
Why is paying attention important?
According to Michael Merzenich, whose research is at the forefront of this field, in order to keep and develop "brain plasticity," you need to constantly be learning things that require intense focus.
This might include:
- learning a NEW musical instrument
- learning a new language
- doing challenging puzzles with variety
- learning new physical movements – like yoga, tai chi, tennis, dancing, etc.
I am sure you have heard some of this before, but I think it is more powerful when you know that there is solid science behind it.
Will you experience a miracle? Probably not. But you can make significant improvements in your mental agility, and keep your brain as young as possible.
Can hypnosis help?
I wish we had a hypnosis program for this, but we don't! Actually, hypnosis itself IS a state of focused attention, but it would be stretching the research to apply it that way (to say the least).
However, if fear of trying new things is holding you back from re-engaging with the world by trying novel things, or if you feel so stressed out that you don't have the energy even to try, then hypnosis COULD help you.
Hypnosis can help you follow through, so you can start to take on new and challenging activities.
We publish three programs that I believe could help you or a loved one to overcome this type of negative inertia.
Programs that could help you explore uncharted territory
The first program is probably my favorite of all 25 programs we publish. It is called Preparing for Uncertainty, and was created by a world-famous Ericksonian therapist named Eric Greenleaf. Ericksonian hypnosis uses metaphor and story to help you unearth the resources you already have within you, so you can overcome issues that leave you stuck. Preparing for Uncertainty allows you to gather your resources for going into unchartered territory.
Dr. Greenleaf (Eric) also created a program for us that we simply call The Hypnosis Experience. The program allows you to go pretty deep into how to communicate with yourself at a subconscious level.
I truly believe that if you had the intention of making a shift in your life to add new and challenging activities into your existing routine, these programs could be of great benefit.
And if what is holding you back is simply being "stressed out" from all the tensions of life, then Dr. Randy Gilchrist's program for Managing Stress and Anxiety is a wonderful aid.
Here are links to the three products:
Dr. Greenleaf's Preparing for Uncertainty
Dr. Greenleaf's The Hypnosis Experience
Dr. Gilchrist's Managing Stress and Anxiety
What's your take on this?
What's your reaction to the research on brain plasticity? As always, I look forward to hearing your feedback. Just email me at the address below if you have comments.
Co-Founder, The Hypnosis Network