The plastic brain

More malleable than we ever believed. Just look me in the eyes, and you’ll know I speak the truth.

I am living proof of brain plasticity.

Some years ago, I was undergoing a minor medical procedure – which was advisable but not absolutely necessary – and I was warned en passant that there was a 1 in 1,000 chance I would experience a stroke.

I’ve never had a 1,000-1 horse come in, so I disregarded the risk.

Well, Dear Reader, that’s the last time I ignore apparently small risks. In recovery the nurse asked how I was. I answered “which of you wants to know?”

I had double vision. Two very pretty brunettes were looking down at me with a concerned expression. Side by side. Twins.

After a day or two of head scratching, it was decided that a tiny blood clot had made its way up to my brain, and settled on the nerve controlling the positioning of my right eye, which was now pointing at virtual right angles to my left. A later MRI confirmed it. A tiny, but potentially deadly little white hole in my brain, where the clot had starved it of oxygen.

I was very lucky. The clot could have stopped anywhere, and anywhere else might have killed me. But it was difficult to feel too grateful about this fact when it appeared that the most useful result from this pretty much unnecessary surgery was going to be being able to watch both sides of a football pitch simultaneously.

Worse, there was nothing to be done. “Ooops, sorry.” was the collective response of the medical fraternity. “Dunno what will happen now,” the response of the concerned but out-of-ideas neurologist. Dead brain tissue is dead brain tissue.

Luckily for me, Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and Fruit of Loins are both blessed with an optimistic stubborn-ness that rivals my own,although at this time mine was admittedly tinged with a few buckets of self pity as well.

We were due to fly to the UK and Europe for a holiday, so after a family conference, and determining that there was no medical reason not to, we set off anyway.

For a while, at least some of the day I wore an eye patch. (Remove binocular vision from your kit bag and see how you go. Steps and staircases, not to mention sidewalks, were a death trap.)

All very funny - until it happens to you. (No, that isn't me.)

All very funny – until it happens to you. (And no, that isn’t me.)

But every day, we sat down, and my family looked me in the eye. Although we could see no appreciable difference, for week after week, I simply thought about the eye straightening up. I willed it to. I tried as hard as I could to look straight ahead, even though it was impossible. Just tried, in my head, to look dead ahead with the bung eye.

“I think it moved a little bit!” was the inevitable response from my dear wife and daughter whenever I asked anxiously whether they could see any difference, especially if I reported that I felt like the eye was moving.

They were lying. White lying. The eye stayed stubbornly askew, and I stayed effectively disabled, angry, looking ridiculous (vanity was a big part of my irritation) and worried. I was unable to drive, of course. What if nothing changed? Someone muttered darkly about surgery to make the eye at least point straight, if not to the right, which would have at least provided minimal relief for my vanity if nothing else.

Then, after about three months, over the course of about three remarkable days, the eye simply righted itself. Well, that should really be “lefted” itself, I suppose. One day it was markedly less strange looking, the next even more so, the day after it was straight, and I could look right and left with it as well as, blessedly, straight ahead.

In discussion with somewhat bemused medicos later on, the consensus was that the brain had re-wired itself. Unable to get blood to the nerves controlling the eye through the previous route, it had looked, spurred on by my wanting it to, for another pathway. Eventually, the nerves got some blood supply, they “woke up”, and the brain was once again able to get messages to the eye telling it where to look.

To this day, this “by pass” effect continues to do the job, although after a long day it is obvious that my eye and the brain somehow get “tired”. I can’t really explain the sensation, it’s not pain or even a dull ache or, indeed, anything ‘physical’ at all that I can put my finger on, but it’s like they somehow communicate to me: it’s like they’re saying “come on, do the right thing, we’re doing our best to deliver this workaround, but we’re knackered now. Take a break.” So I do. Gratefully.

More amazing than any of us ever imagined.

More amazing than any of us ever imagined.

So I reproduce the article below to encourage you – yes, you – to think about “brain plasticity”. Or “neuroplasticity” as it is also called.

We all have things we don’t like about our brains – we are annoyed by our inability to remember details, we may suffer from anxiety, depression or stress, we may get confused when faced with complex tasks, or ironically, simple ones.

The message from recent research is that how we manage our brain – the exercises we put it through, even the things we think about – has a profound effect on how it works, even sub-consciously.

At its most simple, if you don’t like the way your brain works, you can change it. Evidence is also now irrefutable that such activities can stave off the onset of dementia, or slow its progress, and having watched two people die of it, and well aware of one’s own ageing process, that should be reason enough to take action.

Meditate. Be calm. If you can’t manage calm, then cultivate calmer.

Consciously think differently. Do some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to correct unhelpful thought patterns and emotions. Play brain games. Do crosswords or Sudoku. Simply sit, and think, constructively. It all works. Go on – try it.

The following article is from LiveScience

Throughout life, even shortly before death, the brain can remodel itself, responding to a person’s experiences. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, offers a powerful tool to improve well-being, experts say.

“We now have evidence that engaging in pure mental training can induce changes not just in the function of the brain, but in the brain’s structure itself,” Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told an audience at the New York Academy of Sciences on Thursday (Feb. 6) evening.

The brain’s plasticity does change over time, Davidson pointed out. For instance, young children have an easier time learning a second language or a musical instrument, he said.

Exercise for the mind

The idea of training the brain is not a radical one, said Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University Miami and another panelist for the discussion.

“How many of you think engaging in certain kinds of physical activity will change the way the body works? Our cultural understanding now is that specific types of activity can alter the body in noticeable ways,” Jha said, adding that this cultural understanding may be shifting to incorporate the mind as well. [10 Easy Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp]

The panel discussion focused on a particular type of exercise: the practice of mindfulness, which panelist Jon Kabat-Zinn, a clinical mindfulness expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defined as awareness.

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention in the present moment, nonjudgmentally,” Kabat-Zinn said.

Jha’s personal interest in mindfulness arose from stress. As a young professor and mother under pressure from her job and family life, she ground her teeth so much that it caused numbness, interfering with her ability to speak. Jha attended a presentation Davidson gave and was startled to hear him say meditation, which cultivates mindfulness, could promote a positive pattern of electrical activity in the brain.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe he used that word [meditation] in this auditorium,'” she said. “I had never heard it in a scientific context.”

So, Jha began her own mindfulness practice, which not only reduced her stress level, but also inspired her to explore the topic as a neuroscientist.

Opening the door

There are many doors into mindfulness, said Kabat-Zinn. He gave two examples: A person can practice mindfulness by focusing on something, such as his or her own breath, and bringing his or her attention back to the breath when it begins to wander, Kabat-Zinn said.

It is also possible to practice awareness without choosing a particular object upon which to focus; however, “that turns out to be quite a challenging thing to do,” he said.

Cultivating mindfulness like this can help break harmful cycles, such as those that accompany depression, in which the mind continues to repeat the same negative thoughts.

“When you see you are not your thoughts or your emotions, then you have a whole different palette of ways to be,” Kabat-Zinn said.

Roots in the East

Many would say mindfulness as it is practiced in Western society has its roots in the East, in Buddhism, noted moderator Steve Paulsonof the public radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”

“Is mindfulness a spiritual practice?” Paulson asked the panelists.

“For me, I don’t talk about spirituality, because I don’t know what spiritual means,” the University of Wisconsin’s Davidson said. “I think what we’re talking about is part of every human being’s innate capacity.”

Buddhist monks, whom Davidson has studied, provide a “sample of convenience,” a group of people who have all received the same training, an important consideration for research, he said.

The neuroscience

Brain scans of meditating people show different patterns of activity depending on the practitioner’s level of experience. These patterns also differ depending upon the type of meditation practice used, Davidson said. [Mind Games: 7 Reasons You Should Meditate]

Work in Davidson’s lab indicates a connection between meditation and resilience. A response to stress (as with chronic anxiety, OCD, and other issues) becomes problematic when someone perseverates – or has a stressful emotional reaction – long after the problem has ended. In the brain, this shows up as the prolonged activation of a region known as the amygdala.

Mindfulness can increase the speed of recovery in the amygdala, and the more hours of formal practice people have, the faster their amygdalas recover, the data indicate, Davidson said.

  1. I came over here looking for something about the Pope. I just KNEW you’d have written something about his resignation. This is a great post, though. I’m glad everything ended up the right way, and that you are fully recovered. Meditation would be a great thing for me, but I’m so busy running around I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to start. =/


    • I will get to the Pope in due course! 🙂

      The trick with meditation is to see it as ten minutes to yourself. Let everyone know this is an investment in your own health and well-being, and you expect the time to be respected. There are many good free guided meditations on Apples iTunes store, just search on “meditation”, I find the “Meditation Station” ones very good, or they themselves will have a website somewhere. Oh, people who meditate age more slowly, and need less dermabrasion 😉


  2. jvdix says:

    Like Stacie, I came here looking for something else – in my case, whether you had an opinion on breeding cheetahs in Tasmania. I know, how trivial, but your scope is wide and I thought you might have said something.

    OK, so mindfulness helps recovery in the amygdala. What if the amygdala is just fine, thank you, but the injury (major injury, with major loss of brain cells) was to the pre-frontal cortex? And the injury is almost 50 years old? And just about every kind of cognitive therapy has been tried, without success? Obviously, or it will become obvious, I am not talking about myself but about someone dear to me, who is now in prison serving twelve to life. I have read Descartes’ Error by Antonio R Damasio – well, I have read a lot of books and articles, but this seems to have the best handle on what happens with this type of injury. It seems to be most like being an amputee of a body part for which there is no prosthesis. And no prospect of there ever being a prosthesis. I’m so glad you are fully recovered. I’m afraid it’s too late for us.

    And by the way, what about the Pope?


    • Acquired brain injury is, of course, one of the most complex areas of modern therapeutic medicine, and I don’t pretend to be an expert. I assume that some areas are more susceptible to change than others. I am certain brain plasticity is correct, because the evidence is so strong now, and I also think it explains the astonishing “brain training” achievements of Indian mystics and so forth.

      Sadly in the case you describe it was inadequate. As you say, presumably some trauma is irreparable – there must be a point at which that is so. For many people, though, mindfulness and brain exercise shows them a way out of a cycle of illness they thought themselves locked into for life.

      Now, to checkout Tasmania …


      • Like jvdix’s subject (acquaintance, lover, friend?), I had a “major injury, with major loss of brain cells.” I was 13. And like you, Steven, I had double vision. I do not think my eyes were askew physically as yours were; it was just something in the brain where it seemed each eye saw its own image but didn’t align them. I wore an eye patch too for awhile, several months until the brain got strong enough to align the images. Also like you, my double vision came back when I got tired. I explain it to people like this: If I were tired yet staying up to watch SNL when I should have gone to bed, then I would have double vision.

        Then, 29 years later, at 42, I started to have double vision again. It came on over 6 months or so to where I finally went to a neuro-opthalmologist, who said that it’s common for double vision to redevelop for folks, now in their 40s, whose vision corrected early because the muscles in the eye are weaker now and are unable to align the images.

        That was interesting to me because I didn’t think muscles had anything to do with it. Anyway, it can be corrected through surgery or with eyeglasses with a prism in one lens. I opted for the glasses.

        (Years ago I learned of a study: people wore glasses that turned what they saw upside down. Within a week (or a short amount of time anyway) people’s brains had accommodated and saw things right side up. The brain is an amazing thing.)

        By the way, I have practiced yoga for past 6 years or so. Have been a regular exerciser since I was 19. That likely has attibuted to my successful recovery from the coma I suffered at 13.


        • A fascinating story, Elizabeth, and I am so glad the glasses are working for you.

          Many years ago I worked with a woman who was convinced she has discovered and catalogued a range of eye muscle exercises that could reduce or eliminate the loss of vision acuity caused by age. Worth “googling” perhaps, in case they would be helpful in your situation?

          Thanks for dropping by and commenting. 🙂


    • Ah yes, breeding cheetahs in Tassie zoos. Why not, eh? Tasmania has a long tradition of supporting threatened species, born of collective guilt over earlier mindless eradication of notable species such as the Thylacine and, er, Aborigines.

      I was going to write about this, but became sidetracked by the story about a new sanctuary for retired Popes. Apparently the idea has been worked up with the Vatican state who are rather worried that “too many Popes will cook the books” (I’m sure you recognize that old saying) and being a small place they don’t really want Ratzy living out the back in a granny flat. So the Tasmanian government is due to vote on a new Pope sanctuary to be set up somewhere in the Tarkine forest. It’s key characteristics will be its remoteness from modern civilization (to ensure the occupant feels comfortable) and immunity from prosecution on any matters to do with inadequate responses to child abuse scandals, gay sex rings, the spread of AIDS in Africa thanks to no condom usage, banking theft, and wearing silly clothes in public.

      Sadly, the Tasmanian government says the new sanctuary does not qualify as a captive breeding program for what it describes as “self-evident obstacles”.


What do YOU think? That's what matters. Please comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s