Friday, June 25, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The good news is your brain makes physical changes based on the repetitive things you do and experiences you have in your life. The bad news is your brain makes physical changes based on the repetitive things you do and experiences you have in your life. This works both ways…for you and against you.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its own structure and function through thought and activity, is an amazing, empowering truth of the last decade. It has implications and possibilities in almost every aspect of human life and culture. This same characteristic also makes the brain very vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself refers to this as “the plastic paradox.”

Think about it. The brain actually wires itself and forms neuronal connections based on what you do repeatedly in your life. Vegging out on TV. Getting a sugar fix. Sipping a soda. Drinking the morning cup of joe. Fixing a drink to unwind after work. Smoking cigarettes. Burning a joint to take the edge off. Having a hit of harder stuff. Biting fingernails. I could go on and on. We call them bad habits or addictions. They become wired into your brain.

Not all addictions are to substances. An addiction is any compulsive habit. People can be addicted to anything…exercise, facebook, pornography, shoes, negative self talk. All addiction involves neuroplastic changes in the brain. A person (addict sounds too hard core here, but that is what we are talking about) experiences cravings because their plastic brain has become sensitized to the substance or experience.

When the craving is satisfied, dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter, is released. Dopamine is an essential component of neuroplasticity. The same shot of dopamine that makes someone happy also assists in making neuronal connections.

When someone kicks the habit – whatever the habit is, the addictive neuronal circuits in the brain become weaker and less active over time without the reinforcement of the behavior, but they are still in place. Alcoholics Anonymous insists that there are no “former alcoholics.” They are right! The pathways are still there and can easily be reactivated.

Recent research shows that it takes 66 days to make a new habit automatic. I could not find any definitive information about the time frame required to deactivate a habitual brain circuit. However, I would guess it is about the same as they are simultaneous processes and one is dependent on the other. Unlearning involves weakening connections between neurons through disuse and is just as plastic a process.

The same neuroplasticity that allows us to amazingly alter our brain and reality by implementing healthy, good for you habits conversely allows not so good habits to be unconsciously carved in the brain in the first place. What are you etching into your brain? This is one area in which you can really make a conscious choice and change yourself and your life. It is a use or lose it brain. Use it for you.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oil on the Brain

I am going to take a bit of a divergence here, but not really, because it is something that has been weighing heavily on my brain for weeks. Let’s talk about the Horizon oil gusher. It is misleading, I believe, to even call it a measly “spill.” A hellish, nightmarish flood is more like it.

Last week, I was ready to drive to Louisiana and volunteer. As an animal lover, the pictures of the oil covered birds, turtles, fish, even crabs made me cry and hurt my heart. In addition, the stories of whole industries, communities, and ecosystems suffering utter devastation is just tragic and hard to even fathom.

In my typical fashion, but not as bad as I used to be mind you, I hyper focused on all this – clicking on every Facebook link and watching every YouTube video I could find. Too much. I felt totally outraged, overwhelmed, and helpless.

In an email to a friend, who works for a solar energy company BTW, I vented. Along with a bunch of other stuff, they responded with:

I appreciate your anger and frustration over the oil spill. I feel however, that your reaction stops just where most of us do, at the feeling of helplessness and frustration we experience from the ugly consequences of decisions we don't recognize as our own. I don't feel you are acknowledging your part in this.

What are YOU doing to stop the oil spill?

I'm not asking you to stop it directly. This is a systemic situation that is a result of my, your, our dependence on oil. There's no way we can all switch to renewable energy tomorrow, and we can't just turn off our cars today either. So you, I, we use oil to create refined products like gasoline, plastic etc.

You, I, we consume this stuff without caring where it comes from or how much we use or how inconvenient or dangerous it is to get it when we have already consumed all the easily extractable resources of it domestically. So, we resort to drilling a mile or two deep in the ocean to slake our black thirst so we can maintain our convenient lifestyles. We fly across the country and drive cars that get 20 mpg instead of 40 mpg and don't give a damn about CAFE standards, and vote for people who are even less conscious about this than we are to make decisions for us about environmental and energy policy.

And you know what? They are right. Instead of reacting defensively, their words made me feel empowered and brought me a sense of peace. There is something I can do besides going down to the Gulf and putting on one of those white suits. There is something we all can do in our own lives. We can start living more consciously and make reducing our dependence on oil a factor in the decisions we make every day.

Other headlines are already taking prime position. It is becoming old news. I was floored to find out from my sons that this was not even a topic of discussion in the halls or the classrooms of their schools. This is going to effect their and all of our futures.

In a small, good way as well as the obvious, huge bad, I wonder? I hope. It is our decision. If anything good is to come of this, we have to allow it to teach us and change us. I know I am going to. We can blame BP or Obama and look to them to fix this mess, but the solution has to start with each of us.

The earth produces all things and receives all again. ~ Spanish Proverb

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Heaven and Hell Inside Your Head

My brain injury, resulting from a pill popping suicide attempt, has actually been a blessing in disguise. I certainly did not think I would ever say such a thing. While the injury was global, my left side was more damaged than my right because I am physically right dominant and there was much more to damage on the left side of my brain.

Because a lot of my existing connections and pathways were wiped out, I got to start with a clean slate of sorts. I am not advocating this at all, but it has proven to be an amazingly good thing for me. Really.

Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist, experienced a massive hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. In her book My Stroke of Insight, she uniquely and knowledgeably describes the process she experienced as her brain shut down, and she lost the functions of speech, motion, and self awareness.

She tells of living out of her right brain for a while after. She likens the right brain to a parallel processor. It is all about the right here and right now and interpreting our experience of ourselves in the world through the senses. It thinks in pictures and connects us to everything around us through its’ consciousness.

The left brain is a serial processor. It interprets the world linearly and methodically. It is all about the past and the future. It picks out details of present moment and categorizes them and gives them meaning based on associations it makes with past experiences. It thinks in words and defines us as separate entities. It is also responsible for that ongoing brain chatter which, in my case, was incessant and not very nice.

With her left brain quiet, she tells of experiencing a kind of nirvana when she awoke. I also lived in this kind of bliss for months as my left brain functions gradually came fully back on line. For the first time in my life, it was quiet in my head. I was not haunted by the past. It was there, but it was not constantly, drearily encroaching upon the present and the future.

I also was not terrified of the future. To me, it might as well have not even existed and was not a concern. I lived entirely in the present. I liken it to the Mad Magazine guy’s slogan “What me worry?”

I can remember laying on the trampoline (makes a great place for a nap BTW) in the sunshine just watching the puffy, white clouds float by against the backdrop of a brilliant, blue sky and being perfectly content even though I had a pretty serious brain injury and had lost custody of my kids, blah, blah, blah.

Jill Bolte Taylor says this proved to her that anyone can attain this same state and make the choice every moment of every day to exist and operate out of either of the two cognitive minds.

In my own life, it has been a deliberate process to develop and maintain the glimpse of nirvana and to not allow the left brain to bully the right brain and take over. I do this through such practices as meditation, mindfulness, and more. Anyone can also achieve this. Brain injury not required. Heaven or hell? It really is your choice and is all in your brain.

Jill Bolte Taylor:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Go Jump!

Literally. Have you heard of the kind of rebounding that doesn’t require a basketball and a back board? It’s bouncing on a mini-trampoline. It is a superior form of exercise for many reasons, and it is fun! Weeee!

At the top of a bounce, you experience weightlessness. At the bottom of a bounce, your weight doubles or triples depending on how high you are bouncing. These forces of acceleration and deceleration maximize your effort. A half hour of rebounding is equal to an hour of other exercise. It is 68% more efficient than traditional exercise. It is truly a cellular, aerobic, strength training exercise which effects every cell in your body. Now, those are pretty good stats!

Unlike most other exercises which put extreme stress on certain joints, rebounding is considerably gentler to the body. It is not shock-less, but almost. Any body at any age, in any health, and at any level of fitness can do this. A person can even get benefits doing it sitting down.

Rebounding provides incredible detoxification results. The lymphatic system is the metabolic garbage service of the body. Lymph fluid bathes every cell, carrying good stuff to the cell and bad stuff away from the cell. Unlike the circulatory system, it has no pump and relies on movement of the body to make its rounds. Rebounding is reported to increase the lymph flow by 15 to 30 times.

The rebounding motion stimulates all internal organs, moves the cerebral-spinal fluid and is beneficial for the intestines. It causes immune cells to be 5 times more active. This directly translates into a stronger immune system.

The benefits of rebounding go on and on:
• Increased oxygenation of the body and lung capacity
• Combats depression and anxiety
• Prevents cardiovascular disease and normalizes blood pressure
• Increased activity of red bone marrow and red blood cell count
• Lowered cholesterol and triglyceride levels
• Improved digestion and elimination
• Improved sleep and mental performance

A gentle two minute health bounce frequently throughout the day will increase mental sharpness, focus and attention, strengthen the immune system and work in the physical benefits of exercise. For this reason, some people have mini-tramps at their place of work. Rebounding has proven remarkably effective in aiding everything from lymphedema to cancer.

A rebounder is portable and can fit even into the most space constrained places. You just can’t have low ceilings!

I have been rebounding for about a year and a half. I started by doing instructional cd’s to get the hang of it and learn the basic moves. You can do a lot more than just jump. You can jog, twist, kick, shuffle, or do jumping jacks. It is great for doing cross lateral movements, like raising the elbow or hand to the opposite knee. These type of movements get signals going across the hippocampus which is absolutely wonderful for any brain especially those recovering from a brain injury.

My son keeps me well supplied with techno tunes. I just turn up the music and get creative and have a blast. I really work up a sweat in no time. The thump, thump, thump sets a great pace to work out to and gets the energy really revved.