Neuroplasticity – our brain is not a fixed state
When I was first asked to write a blog for the website, internally, I was filled with horror. Me? Do a piece on something neuro related? I am not clinical! Gasp! My tummy flipped, anxiety began to take a grip, and my mind began telling me I couldn’t do this! However, I pushed it to the side and accepted the challenge and my investigation into my chosen topic ensued.
The brain has fascinated me for a long time as have the workings of the mind, so I decided to take a look at neuroplasticity. The web offers an abundance of information, leading you up one path and onto another in very quick succession. It is by going from page to page that I happened across an amazing article* of a film producer in Los Angeles who had a major road traffic accident in 1994 but who came back fighting with no less than one third of his brain missing to write a book on his recovery journey. The story is a remarkable showcase for how neuroplasticity – the reorganisation of the neural pathways - can help overcome the biggest of hurdles and amaze even the medics.
Simon Lewis, producer of the 1989 hit film ‘Look Who’s Talking’ was found at the scene of a road traffic accident so badly injured and ‘broken’ that he was thought to be dead by the off-duty paramedics who found him.
Simon suffered a massive stroke which damaged one third of the right hemisphere of his brain.
Following his admission to hospital, he went into a coma (GSC3 – the lowest score out of a score of 15 meaning no motor, verbal or visual responses were found and a 10% chance of survival with a positive outcome). Simon came around 31 days later unaware of his surroundings, unable to read or write and completely unaware he had even been in a crash. His cognitive function was so low it was unable to be tested, rendering him with an IQ lower than 50. Doctors predicted he would be reliant on others for the rest of his life.
A determined Simon ventured on his own pathway to a miraculous recovery. Not only did he endure multiple surgeries but he teamed up with an educational therapist to do cognitive training three times a week. They used games, exercises and building blocks, counted backwards and forwards and put images into the correct sequence to help Simon relearn lost skills. Interactive Metronome was used, the beat of which helped Simon to improve his concentration in order to teach his brain to work more effectively. Through use of these methods, hard work, stamina and commitment, Simon’s IQ rose to 151, deemed ‘super-genius’ level (with ‘genius’ level beginning at 140), brought back to a level no less than what it was prior to his accident when he graduated in Cambridge in law.
Simon now gives talks to audiences of his story and the phenomenal outcomes that can be achieved by neuroplasticity, showing that the brain is not fixed as once was first thought, but is able to adapt, change and re-learn even after the most catastrophic of injuries.
Neuroplasticity - The brain can rewire itself!
In years gone by, neuroscientists once believed that once we reached adulthood the brain became a fixed state; that it could not change or adapt, especially when an injury incurred. They believed that following an injury the affected areas could not be ‘fixed’. Nowadays though, it is widely accepted that the brain is able to reorganise itself in response to our physical and functional experiences – this is neuroplasticity.
The reorganisation of the brain is dependent on a combination of factors – the environment, a person’s thinking and their behaviour and emotional patterns. It is a continual process that occurs throughout life as the brain learns and grows in every new situation or experience it is introduced to. In everyday life, we are subjected to sounds, smells, images, thoughts and feelings, whether they are conscious or not. What happens in our lives shapes our brain.
Following an injury or disease, the brain is not able to regenerate but that does not mean it cannot recover lost functions. Our brain has the amazing ability to relearn (or rewire) those lost functions by allowing the pathways of direction to change – much like a road map, where one road may be closed, an alternative route will need to be taken to reach the final destination. Similarly, the brain cells, or neurons, need to make new connections to perform those functions that are lost. Cognitive training plays an integral part in this as does repetition and continuity, hard work and determination – much like that displayed by Simon Lewis. The unaffected areas of the brain pick up the pieces to relearn the processes that the damaged areas once controlled.
One of the keys to effectively rehabilitation is continuity and repetition as this helps embed the new route the brain has to take in order to fulfil the purpose it is trying to achieve, thus strengthening the new connections or pathways until they become habitual. Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly, relaxation and mindfulness / meditation, challenging yourself (this engages the brain) and subjecting yourself to new things, such as travelling to new destinations or learning a new language, all play an integral part in the relearning and healing process.
Simon’s story, told in his book Rise and Shine, is a truly remarkable one. It shows implicitly how the brain is constantly learning, constantly changing and how we are not fixed states but able to change and grow even in the most horrendous of circumstances.
There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon.
‘For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.’**
We can overcome so many hurdles provided we work hard at them – even when asked to go outside of your comfort zone and write a blog piece!