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Is the brain a static organ, shaped by our DNA? Can it be influenced by our emotions and if so in what ways? Are emotions distinct from the brain?
Over the 20th century, scientists assumed that the brain was only made up by our genes. Those genes would naturally influence the development and function of the brain. We can thus easily jump to the conclusion that intelligence is hereditary, that individuals get different results on intelligence tests due to genetic differences only.
Have you heard of the term neuroplasticity? A few scientists mentioned this theory over the 20th century but their voice couldn’t be heard due to a strong academic dogma at the time. Scientists were then convinced that the brain was a static organ, except during the developmental phase. Our abilities were thus innate, an inborn potential we could use up to some extent. Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski was the first to coin the term in 1948. By the end of the century, scientists were finally ready to debate over this somehow new theory – the plasticity of the brain.
The plasticity of the brain
Neuroplasticity means that the brain is malleable, that it does offer infinite possibilities when it is stimulated and exercised. Basically, we went from an unchanging brain to a flexible one that changes over a lifetime. ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’!
But how? In 2000, Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on neurophysiology, a discipline studying the functioning of the nervous system. Born in Austria, he had to flee from the Nazi regime and moved to New York in 1939. He was first fascinated by psychoanalysis and memory, then turned to ‘the hard sciences’. He was the first to define a revolutionary notion according to which social experiences, the holding environment, stress, anxiety, interactions could affect, positively or negatively, the gene expression. In short, the gene expression allows cells to respond to their changing environment.
This theory is supported by over a decade of meticulous research and proves the powerful impacts of psychological, social and emotional factors on the brain. Therefore, no one is limited by DNA! Most importantly, each and every experience that necessarily leads to a variety of emotions (pleasure, pain, trauma, curiosity, etc.) does rewire an individual’s brain. The brain can also learn constantly, improve its capacities and heal from injury.
This has also been a crucial discovery in the field of psychology and psychiatry. Mental illnesses can be thought about from a different angle. As Kandal said in 1998:
Insofar as psychotherapy or counselling is effective and produces long-term changes in behaviour, it presumably does so through learning, through producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections and structural changes that alter the anatomical pattern of nerve cells of the brain.
The intelligence of emotions
We now know that emotions do have an impact on the brain due to its plasticity. But are they distinct from the brain anyway, like two different ‘mechanisms’ influencing each other but acting separately?
Our emotions are engaged each and every time we interact, we visit a museum, watch a film/play, we adapt to new cultures, countries, organisations, new experiences in general. We learn how to cope with difficulties, overcome obstacles, enjoy lovely moments. We keep shaping ourselves, which in turn gives us the opportunity to get new insights, new perspectives, better self-awareness and a better understanding of our surroundings. This in itself shows that emotions are indeed intelligent since they are able to change and adapt. We could then say that if emotions are intelligent, they do also shape parts of the brain. Therefore, the brain (thanks to its plasticity) and emotions (thanks to their intelligence) are definitely intertwined.
Kandal is actually living proof that they are deeply connected. In his book, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, he depicts his own story, trauma, and research, he shows that any violent episodes experienced during a time of developmental neuroplasticity alter the morphology and the functioning of the brain.
We can therefore safely say that neuroplasticity and emotions have both a powerful impact on an individual’s character. They both adapt, change, heal, and hurt throughout one’s lifetime. This also represents hope for anyone suffering a brain injury, a mental illness or learning disabilities. No one is condemned by DNA.
If you are interested in learning more about emotions, the attachment theory, and the impact of the environment on our brain and emotions, visit Polychromatic Life Design.
Margareth Van Steenlandt is a certified counsellor, personal development and business coach.
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