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Rebuilding Ourselves

The way we interact with our environment is the key to rewiring our brain.

Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize as we interact with the world. In the book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain is a non-fiction book, the neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, gives insight into what happens if someone has half a brain, why we dream, and other mind-blowing explanations.

We are accustomed to thinking the areas in the brain are fixed in place, being each one responsible for a specific part of the body. However, it’s rather very dynamic. We are only born with rudimentary neurons, not fully preprogrammed. And as we start interacting with the environment and move our body, the brain’s circuitry rewires based on feedback from our senses and members.

Here’s an analogy from the book:

Imagine this: instead of sending a four-hundred-pound rover vehicle to Mars, we merely shoot over to the planet a single sphere, one that can fit on the end of a pin. Using energy from sources around it, the sphere divides itself into a diversified army of similar spheres. The spheres hang on to each other and sprout features: wheels, lenses, temperature sensors, and a full internal guidance system. You’d be gobsmacked to watch such a system discharge itself.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had the technology to do this? A technology that works just like our brains.

Neurons are the basic building blocks of your brain, and there are about 86 billion of them. A single neuron fires between five and fifty times per second, and on average, each neuron receives five thousand connections from other neurons. So, in the time it takes you to read this sentence, billions of neurons will have fired inside your head — a complex system, to put it mildly.

For every action, thought, and feeling you will ever have, it’s neurons firing that allow you to make sense of the experience. This is the biological basis of learning. The more you practice a certain behaviour — say, mindfulness, or worry — associated neurons become more practised.

These neurons are then required to fire more often and more quickly. To save energy, the brain creates new structures specific to the job at hand. This is the essence of learning, and what we call neuroplasticity.

The human brain can be loosely divided into three regions: the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the cortex.

The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three brain regions from an evolutionary perspective, is responsible for the body’s vital functions, such as body temperature, heart rate, and breathing. This structure is also in control of our instinctual and self-preserving behaviours, which ensure the survival of the species.

This primitive part of the brain, which is also responsible for reckless and impulsive behaviour, can be highly problematic. its need to survive is so powerful that it often fights with the logical part of the brain, the cortex.

It’s like two different people having an argument. “Go on, have a drink.” “No, I better not.” “Ah, sure I deserve it.” “Yeah, but you’ll regret it later.” If you’re an anxious person, as I was, the reptile brain sees feelings of anxiety as a threat, even when it doesn’t know what’s causing them.

Through experience, it knows that a drink can relieve anxiety, if only for a short while. So when you say yes to that drink, the reptilian brain has won. I often think back on my drug-induced years when my impulsive behaviour was controlled by my reptilian brain. There was never a fight, just a winner — the crocodile always got his drugs.

The limbic brain is comprised of several structures, found above the reptilian brain. The main components include the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus.

The limbic brain supports a variety of functions. The hippocampus is essential for memory formation. The amygdala, located next to the hippocampus, plays a key role in emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger. The amygdala is also responsible for determining the strength of stored memories, whereby memories with strong emotional content tend to stick.

The hypothalamus, which links the brain to the endocrine system, is a vital component of our stress response. It produces chemical messengers that can both stimulate or inhibit stress-releasing hormones.

The cortex, the most recent addition of the three brain regions, consists of grey matter surrounding the deeper white matter of the cerebrum. Grey matter contains the bodies of neurons, and white matter consists of the connecting fibres between different grey matter cells.

The cortex is the part of the brain involved in higher-order functioning, such as abstract thought, problem-solving, appraisal of danger, and language. With unparalleled learning capacities, this highly flexible structure has enabled humans to do things no other species has done.

In times of stress, the three core structures of the limbic system — the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus — work together in tandem.

Consider this example. You are walking through a field when you see what looks like a snake. Stored memories in the hippocampus remind you that you’re scared of snakes. This lights up your amygdala — the fear centre of your brain — which activates your hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus then sends a signal to your pituitary glands, which in turn, sends a message to your adrenal glands releasing cortisol throughout your bloodstream. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, which prepares your body for fight or flight.

Our brains are malleable, like playdough, and our experiences determine their shape. This process is best compared to physical exercise. For example, thirty reps in a gym won’t make your muscles bigger, but thirty reps every day for a year will. The same is true for your brain, and over time, its shape will change.

As a perennial worrier, I always felt tense, uneasy, and anxious. If my mind wasn’t scanning the world for potential threats, it was looking for ways to relieve my unrelenting anxiety. Over time, I literally transformed my brain into a finely tuned anxiety machine.

It’s the same for any negative feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Whatever you rest your mind upon, be it anger, self-doubt, or fear, your brain will eventually take that shape.

When a message gets to the tip of an Axon branch, it jumps over to the Dendrite branch of the next neuron, and that connection, between the Axon tip and Dendrite tip, is called a Synapse.

Everything we do, our experiences bring on changes in the number and strength of synapses, dendrite branches, and axons. Everything we do or stop doing has an impact on our brain. It continuously changes, evolves, adapts to answer our immediate challenges in our everyday lives. It’s our immediate environment and how we interact with it that ends up shaping our brain.
In other words…The way we interact with our environment is the key to rewiring our brain.
Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

The brain is the big, wrinkly organ in your head that is responsible for many vital functions. Scientists have tinkered with various models, psychological experiments, and brain imaging machines to figure out exactly how it works. It is composed of a dynamic network of cells that communicate through chemical signals and electrical impulses. Somehow these signals and impulses give rise to various coordinated actions and thoughts. It is responsible for brewing coffee in the mornings. It is responsible for overthinking in the shower. For anxiety. For happiness. For pleasure.

Neuroplasticity & Mental Wellness: Our Path Forward

by Lawrence Choy, MD

Mental wellness refers to our psychological and emotional health. The term also encompasses the general sense of well-being in the physical, social, occupational, spiritual, financial, and environmental aspects of our lives. It is an active lifelong process that involves making conscious and intentional choices toward living a healthy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. It enables us to realize our potential, cope with daily stresses, work productively, and contribute meaningfully to our community and society.

Wellness practices have existed for centuries and millennia in promoting health and harmony. However, we were unable to provide a “hard science” explanation for their underlying benefits until the past few decades, thanks in large part to the advent of revolutionizing research technologies in brain imaging and molecular genetics. During the 1990s, coined the Decade of the Brain, our understanding of the most complex structure in the universe underwent a radical paradigm shift. At the time, the scientific community was quite convinced the brain was fixed and incapable of change when we reach our adult age. Moreover, we thought everyone was born with a fixed number of brain cells that would decline inevitably with age, without a chance to regenerate. This bleak belief implied that we were not able to change much nor significantly improve ourselves once we reach adulthood. As the saying goes,” You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

We now have substantial scientific evidence that explains how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed Neuroplasticity.

Fortunately, we were all proven wrong. We discovered stem cells actually exist in the adult brain. Furthermore, these newborn brain cells have the capacity to develop into mature functional neurons to aid in memory and learning in a remarkable process called Neurogenesis. In other words, we can add gigabytes and upgrade our brain’s operating system in our old age!

We now have substantial scientific evidence that explains how wellness habits promote our brain to change and rewire itself through a lifelong process termed Neuroplasticity. The strengthening and integration of the neural connections in the higher-level brain regions, namely the prefrontal cortex (PFC), are fundamental in the benefits of wellness practices.

In gaining a deeper understanding of neuroplasticity and its practical applications, we can better harness its immeasurable potential, empowering ourselves and each other toward meaningful growth and positive change. We will ensure that we not only survive in our fast-changing modern-day world but learn to thrive both individually and collectively in a shifting landscape of unpredictability and uncertainty. With the awareness, knowledge, and practice of self-directed neuroplasticity, we can achieve mental and overall wellness.


Illustration by Rost9 (Shutterstock)

refers to our brain’s intrinsic and dynamic ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout our lifetime.

Neuroplasticity simply means a change in the nervous system. It refers to our brain’s intrinsic and dynamic ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout our lifetime. Neural changes occur on multiple levels, ranging from the microscopic to the observable and behavioral. It happens on different time scales, spanning mere milliseconds to years and decades.

What are neurotransmitters?

Arran Lewis. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Serotonin: The Moody One

Giving, receiving, or even witnessing an act of kindness boosts your serotonin, as does sunlight, exercise, and getting a massage.

Dopamine: The Hedonistic One

GABA: The Chill One

Norepinephrine: The Alert One
(also known as noradrenaline)

Oxytocin: The Loving One

Endorphins: The Feelgood One

Half a brain

Imagine that at six years old, one loses one side of the brain. What do you think would happen? Sure, all the movements from the side respective to the brain’s empty half would be lost. Possibly speech as well. While that would occur initially, afterward, magic would happen.

This was the case with a boy named Matthew. After multiple seizures that got more and more frequently during the course of three years, he was diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory disease: Rasmussen’s encephalitis. It affects not just a small part, but the entire half. The only treatment is (or was at the time) a Hemispherectomy. The empty part is filled with fluid and appear as a black void.

Image for post
Figure 1: Half of Matthew’s brain was surgically removed.

After just three months of physical and language therapy, Matthew was back to the same developmental stage as before the surgery. Today, after many years, Matthew lives a normal life, with just a limp and not being able to use the right hand properly. This happened because the brain rewired itself. the half divided in two: one responsible for the right part of the body and the other for the left. It took the form of a full, regular brain.

Another case is with the girl Alice. She was born with only the left half of the brain. But no one knew until she was three and a half years old! No abnormality was ever noticed. The parents only found out when she went for a brain scan, due to having small seizures. The seizures were controlled by medication, and Alice had a normal childhood.

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