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How Your Brain Cooperates with Personal Change

by Peter Van Houten, M.D.
Fall 2012 3 Comments

How would you like your life to be different in six months? You’re going to change in six months no matter what you do. Instead of letting your habitual patterns of behavior determine the quality of your life, why not make it a more conscious process? We now have scientific evidence showing that your brain will cooperate with whatever goals you set, even if your goals seem well beyond your present capabilities. The brain doesn’t recognize limits.

With the advent of brain imaging techniques in the 1980s, science has become increasingly aware of the changeability of the brain. Nowadays, whenever scientists think they have identified the outer limit of the brain’s changeability, they soon discover that they have significantly underestimated the brain’s potential for change.

Brain changes manifest in two weeks
Studies have found that when people first decide to take up a new behavior, such as learning a new language or attempting to get along with a difficult person, the brain starts changing before they take any actual steps toward achieving their new goals. With the setting of the goal, the brain begins to mobilize and change.

For most people, the first two weeks of learning a new behavior are usually the most challenging. But at about the two-week mark, the process gets easier. If you were trying to learn a new basketball shot, you find that you’re getting considerably better. If you were trying to learn to control a tendency toward anger, you often begin to see real progress.

What happens after two weeks is that the brain changes brought about by the new activity begin to manifest in a person’s outward behavior, and are detectable with brain imaging. If we were to look at brain scans after six months, we would see a certain degree of permanency in the changes.

Brain changes soon become permanent
During my first year in medical school, I had an experience of how quickly brain changes can become permanent. I took up skiing for the first time, and I skied a number of times during that first winter. By the end of the season I had made some progress. When I began skiing the following year, I expected to start out at a level far below what I had achieved the previous year. I was shocked to discover that I was skiing as well as, or better than, I had the previous winter. Each year I skied, I had this same experience.

I was perplexed about the permanency of my improvement until I found the answer: neuro-plasticity – the technical term for brain changeability. During my first three months of skiing, my brain got the message that I wanted to be a better skier, and it began changing in ways to make that possible. If I had skied for six months instead of three, there would have been even more brain changes. Even so, there was enough permanency after three months that I didn’t lose any skiing ability between seasons. In fact, I was usually skiing a little better at the start of the new season than at the end of the last one.

We can apply these principles to any area of human endeavor. Let’s say, for example, that you decide to make an effort to get along with a difficult person at work and come up with excellent strategies for working effectively with this person, even if he or she remains difficult. By making the effort for six months, not only will you become very good at working with this person, but certain areas of your brain will have changed as a result of that effort. And you will carry into the future this new ability of being able to work harmoniously with difficult people.

How does your brain change? Essentially there are three separate processes that allow your brain to change so robustly.

1) We constantly make new brain cells
Whenever you take up a new activity, the area of your brain concerned with that activity begins to create new brain cells (neurons), to allow you to carry out that activity.

Let’s say you decide to start learning a new language. After two weeks, the left temporal lobe of your brain, where the speech center is located, will have increased in size. After six months it will have increased even more. And as you continue to learn the new language, that area of the brain continues to increase.

Back in the late 1970s, scientists believed that people didn’t make new brain cells after about age 23. We now know that people in their 70s make new brain cells!

2) Brain cells can change functions
Forty years ago neuroscientists thought that each individual brain cell was committed to a single activity – that if a brain cell was concerned with vision, for example, it performed only that one activity during its entire existence. More recently scientists have learned that brain cells are able to change functions as needed and are surprisingly flexible in what they do.

Whenever a new activity causes an increase in the growth of new brain cells, there appears to be an additional process known as “recruitment,” in which nearby cells get called in to help out with the new activity. These nearby cells change their function and augment the growing mass of new brain tissue associated with the new activity. Recruitment appears to occur whenever we begin to learn something new.

3) Increase in interconnections between brain cells
Probably the most important factor in the growth of brain cells is the tremendous increase in the interconnections between brain cells in the newly activated area of the brain. Let’s say, for example, that about one percent of your brain is committed to learning languages – that would be about a billion brain cells. When you learn a new language, each one of those billion brain cells would experience about a 50% increase in its interconnections with other brain cells. After six months, this increased inter-connectivity could be seen with brain scans.

You can change at any age
For a long time brain scientists assumed that age inevitably brought a decline in a person’s cognitive function, and in his or her ability to change or to learn new things. Two recent studies have exploded these myths.

One study, over a three-year period, tracked a large group of 65-70 year old people who lived in a retirement community in Florida, to see how much they declined in cognitive functioning. The study used cognitive testing at the beginning and end of that period to assess the following: 1) participants’ memory, 2) ability to learn new things, and 3) ability to carry out all the common activities of daily life.

Much to the surprise of nearly everyone, the study found that in three years, 85-90% of the people in the study experienced no significant decline in cognitive functioning or in the other areas assessed by the study. What was also interesting was that almost all of those who experienced a decline in cognitive function and other activities (about 10-15% of the group) were suffering from a disease or other problem that was causing brain degeneration: Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, hardening of the arteries in their brain, or on-going alcohol damage to their brain.

This study proved to be a major turning point in understanding that people in their 60s and 70s can have positive expectations about their future cognitive functioning. The message of this study is that if you do things you enjoy, and stay active in ways that challenge you to use your mind, not only will you maintain your current level of brain function, but you can still learn and improve in new areas.

In fact, for a long time it was assumed that to learn and speak a foreign language with the fluency of a native speaker, you had to learn it before age 15. However, recent studies of people ranging in age from the teens to the 60s have established that there is little difference in how quickly or how well people learn a new language based on age. In this study, all participants, regardless of age, learned the new language at about the same rate and showed the same potential for fluency.

The brain reinforces positive and negative thoughts
Our brain is designed to help us change, and that’s why we can change so easily. Our brain tries to cooperate with whatever new direction we take. The problem, however, is that people often surround themselves with a lot of distracting mental diversions, or their mental diet is focused on things that are negative. Every time someone has a negative thought, the brain reinforces it.

Many years ago, when I first became a physician, I worried a lot about making diagnostic mistakes or doing something wrong that could hurt a patient. One of my close friends said, “You know, Peter, it’s almost like you have a worry slot.” I said, “A worry slot?” She said, “Yeah. If you’re not worried about this particular thing, you find something else to worry about.”

After thinking about it I realized she was right: I had trained my brain to worry. And if I didn’t have anything to worry about, I could always find something to fill the void. I’m happy to say I no longer do that, and that it’s possible to change a habit like this by conscious effort.

In my medical practice I always feel I’m in a very fortunate position. I help patients medically with treatment or advice, but I also always try to give them love, compassion, and hope. And I’ve seen what a tremendous effect this daily practice of serving others has had on me. When people say, “You really have such a hard job as a doctor,” I always answer, “No, I’m the lucky one!”

In my job people’s lives get changed every day, and I, in turn, get changed by helping them. This practice has certainly changed my heart, and I’m certain it has also changed my brain.

Excerpted from a February 2012 talk at Ananda Village.

Peter Van Houten, a Lightbearer and resident of Ananda Village, is the founder and CEO of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village. He is also co-author of Yoga Therapy for Insomnia and Yoga Therapy for Headache Relief, Crystal Clarity Publishers.

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