Home Mind & Brain How Do We Make Sense of Neuroplasticity?

How Do We Make Sense of Neuroplasticity?

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While visiting the Rockie Mountains of Alberta, my path crossed with that of Norman Doidge, an eminent Canadian psychiatrist, neuroplastician, and author. It was 27th October 2016 and on that night only the documentary The Brain’s Way of Healing, from Doidge’s book of the same title, was screened by The Nature of Things on CBC. I saw it; then I read it. Then I bought it for others and told still more people to buy it.

I wondered if perhaps I had inadvertently become Doidge’s informal ‘UK agent’ in my desire to share the view that I saw opening through the windows and doors of his pages. Hopeful openings of healing and wholeness, of neuroplasticity and a brain that changes itself via a balancing act of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system rather than waging an endless and fearful war with self. 

So, what did this hopeful approach of remarkable and holistically cutting edge recoveries and discoveries mean to me and my work with parents, young people, and children?

Fundamentally, all of Doidge’s stories spoke to me of the transformative power of early intervention in the prevention of clients becoming ‘locked within self’ – trapped, rigid, afraid, and living a life of protective compulsion rather than creative freedom.

Being hypersensitive to threat and living on the edge of anxiety induces a near-constant sympathetic response of, the now popularly known ‘fight, flight and freeze’. Healing doesn’t happen in that mode but detrimental immune reactions, traumatic stress and insult to injury do – ironically all in the name of survival.

Doidge’s hope happens in the parasympathetic mode of, the not-yet-so-popularly-known, rest, digest and repair. Let’s just sit quietly with that for a moment: turn down the ‘noisy brain’ and relax as you might in yoga, meditation, pilates, awareness through movement or simply sitting rhythmically watching waves ebb and flow. What do you feel? Is it relief? Is it peace? Is it a contemplative focus? Whatever it is for you, this is where growth happens.

This is where social engagement happens too and it is those human-to-human connections that allow us to feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure – echoing the needs of a child in their primary attachment relationship. It is in that zone of safety and the calm mode of exhaling that new healthy neural connections can be made and self-regulation fostered through co-regulation.

So how does all that work? The Brain’s Way of Healing uniquely utilises the energy that it once focused on fight and resistance to pain, or perceived threat, to focus on awareness and healing in a dynamic and gentle way, aided by the non-invasive energy sources around us: light, sound, vibration, and movement.

Just as the neurons that previously fired together wired together (a principle coined by Doidge) in the name of survival, neurons can now transformatively fire and wire together in the name of restoration, balance, and safety.

That is to say, in Doidge’s words, that ‘repeated mental experience leads to structural changes in the brain neurons that process that experience, making the synaptic connections between those neurons stronger’ – or weaker via the use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon. In this converse way, unlimited possibilities lie in the fact that neurons that fire apart, wire apart.

What hopeful words about a process that cooperatively includes and empowers the client to actively use their body and its senses to feel their pain and not respond in terror but seek to be soothed, healed, and restored. Not restored in a fixed way but in a fluidly balanced homeostatic way where awareness can exist between emotions, thoughts, and actions enabling the brain and body to respond in sync with varying situations.

Navigating the unpredictability of life with this sense of autonomic balance and integration of experience, I believe, provides a centre line of trust and safety within self where inner war ceases and peace is declared.

What could be a more important message for my client group given that parents and caregivers are the key creators of the environmental energy that is received by the young developing brains they are responsible for? A flippant adage I heard once about parenting comes to mind: ‘The good news is you set the tone. The bad news is you set the tone’.

Now that we know the brain is a plastic, experiential, and cultural organ, let us hold on to that knowledge with open minds and open hearts, within safe and open spaces. Together, we can work to promote and support brain health, growth, and restoration rather than the continual defence from danger and fear of fear.

Together, we can promote mental health as brain health, and work to create an optimal environment for the safety of our brains and those of our children and young people, and ultimately our communities – using all of ourselves and all of our senses to fire together and wire together.

Claire Harrison is an integrative therapist and writer. She works integratively with parents, young people, and children at her private practice. 

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