Re-wiring Your Brain for the Better? Meet Neuroplasticity

Posted: January 3, 2019 by admin

There are a lot of stellar aspects that come with running a company. I spend my time pursuing an idea that I’m passionate about. I get to work with some amazing people. I also get to meet other great founders who figure out clever ways to tackle numerous challenges.

While the benefits far outweigh the negatives, you can’t get the good without the bad. One of these negatives that can really hinder a CEO from doing their job properly is anxiety. Anxiety affects 40 million American adults daily. But combine anxiety with working overtime, trying to inspire employees, being a good spouse and father and keeping up a personal life? It’s not exactly a cakewalk. It’s something that I’ve been struggling with for years.

I recently attended a conference that sparked a flame of interest in me. The conference involved a guest speaker who spoke about anxiety, specifically for CEOs, since we live in high-pressure situations most of the time. This speaker elaborated on coping mechanisms for anxiety, but honed in on one in particular: neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s way of re-wiring itself to adapt, or even re-adapt, to certain situations. The neurons in the brain will actually change their structure in response to any new information crossing the brain. I highly suggest reading The Brain that Changes Itselfby Norman Doidge, M.D. It is packed with compelling research and even the history behind why the medical community rejected the concept of a brain that can re-wire itself.

The speaker, using this idea of neuroplasticity, said that he would repeat mantras to himself aloud when anxious, such as, “You are great. You are confident.” By using this tactic, the brain, ideally, will be able to re-wire itself via these mantras and positive attributes so that one day, it will recreate its neural pathways and stop anxiety issues altogether. Sure, it’s sounds a bit hokey and bizarre – you wouldn’t want to be seen in public talking to yourself.

But before you jettison the idea, Dr. Shad Helmsetter, an expert on self-help, wrote a book entitled What to Say When You Talk to Your Self, which is based upon the idea that you can help yourself purely on motivational self-talk and a positive outlook. C’mon, we’ve all been guilty of talking to ourselves either via that Austin Powers “inner monologue” or outright uttering words of self-encouragement. Look at tennis players that are having a complete dialogue with themselves between points to fire themselves up. If you don’t have the time to read the entire book, have a quick listen to Joseph Rodrigues’ audiobook, where he deconstructs Dr. Helmsetter’s book and offers his own personal lecture based upon the book.

With this idea of motivating yourself via positive reaffirmations and mindset, scientists may really be onto something with using neuroplasticity to decrease personal anxiety and stress.

Before this whole concept of neuroplasticity, the brain was thought of as an organ with a set number of cells that we lose over the years. Neuroplasticity, however, is based on the principle that the brain is not really an organ, but an actual muscle, that is completely malleable, no matter if you’re 10 years-old or 90 years-old.

Then there comes along the idea of neurogenesis, delving deeper into this idea that the brain can re-wire itself. It is the process by which the brain actually creates new neurons. Each of these neurons is one of 100-billion (give or take) specialized cells within the brain that each have their own job. While this process is crucial during embryonic development, the theory is that neurogenesis continues throughout an entire lifespan.

What I really wanted to know was can we, as executives, function better if we use neuroplasticity and neurogenesis to our advantage, and how long will that process take?

I recently watched a TED Talk by a PhD student named Don Vaughn at UCLA. He told an anecdote about a three year-old girl who was diagnosed with a rare disease called Rasmussen’s encephalitis, which causes chronic epileptic seizures and also adversely affects speech. The only actual treatment to cure this disease is a hemispherectomy: the removal of half the brain.

As we know, one half of the brain controls the other half of the body, so by cutting out half the brain, this little girl would be left hemiplegic. Vaughn went on to say that just four weeks post-op, she walked out of the hospital, despite half of her brain being removed. How was this possible?

Our brain, Vaughn explained, can sense loss of neural-tissue and can use neuroplasticity to re-wire itself so that the body can function as it is supposed to. There are also countless examples of this throughout the book that I mentioned earlier by Dr. Norman Doidge.

Vaughn’s TED Talk reminded me of people who have language disorders caused by brain damage such as strokes, also known as aphasia. Those with aphasia have lost the ability to speak. The part that really blows my mind is the stories I hear of those patients in speech therapy. Speech is controlled by the left brain. Music is a right brain concept. However, singing involves both sides of the brain. Clinicians who work with patients with aphasia have reported that while the patients may not be able to speak, they are able to sing. By practicing to sing before speaking, aphasia patients are able to stimulate both sides of the brain and thus re-learn to speak at a faster pace.

Getting back to anxiety. Music has also been known to diminish anxiety through what is known as “sound therapy.” I recently read an article about a group of neuroscientists in the United Kingdom who put together the top ten songs that decrease stress.

This began with a study on a group of participants who worked on arduous puzzles as fast as they could. The participants were connected to sensors and these sensors tracked their levels of stress, caused by the puzzles, via brain activity, blood pressure, rate of breath, and heart rate.

Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson, the leader of the study, concluded that one song, entitled “Weightless,” by Marconi Union, had the greatest effect on participants’ general anxiety. While listening to “Weightless,” participants’ anxiety decreased by 65% and their physiological resting rates decreased by 35%.

Marconi Union composed “Weightless” with sound therapists, producing an arrangement of harmonies, rhythms, and bass lines in order to decrease the listener’s blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels.

The article goes on to say that stress can actually increase changes of heart disease, obesity, depression, gastrointestinal issues, and asthma. A paper, from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools, on common stress factors in the workplace concluded that stress from the workplace alone could result in more deaths than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.

In my opinion, we need this stress-relief wave more than ever. In my professional life, we are seeing an increase of companies focused on wellness and meditation to reduce stress. One company is Sanity and Self which has created a highly successful meditation app. We’ve been working with them to create a curated music experience to help maximize relaxation. Check it out here.

This idea of taking the time out of our day to de-stress has become even more poignant to me over the years.

About 15 years ago, I started practicing qigong, which is an ancient Chinese practice to improve mental and physical health by posture, movement, and breath-technique. The goal of qigong is to harness your “qi,” meaning “energy,” through “gong,” meaning “skill cultivated through steady practice.”

Included in the practice of qigong is meditation. I try to start every day with a 5-15 minute session. I often have difficulty focusing – my mind wanders to a myriad of topics that are floating around my brain – the daily schedule, dropping my kids off to school, etc. But, eventually my mind usually calms down and I can figuratively sweep away many of these superficial thoughts. When I can focus, in just a few minutes, I feel completely grounded, almost like there’s a shield around me, repelling any sort of stress. If I’m extremely focused, I’m able to meditate for an hour.

And, as you can imagine, mediation also relates back to neuroplasticity. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT have found that those who meditate actually have an increase of thickness in areas of the brain that control attention and process of sensory input.

“Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” said Sara Lazar, leader of a meditation study at Harvard and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.”

It seems to me that meditation and neuroplasticity go hand-in-hand, with their common theory of re-wiring the brain.

While some may feel that the next great frontier is exploring space or finding new creatures in the deepest oceans, I feel that the new biggest frontier is right here in our own bodies: our mind. If we can continue to use neuroplasticity to our advantage, we as people, executives, and leaders may be able to fine-tune our focuses, gear up our drive, and get one step closer to the individual we have envisioned for ourselves. Time will tell as we learn more about this unchartered territory, but I’ve had a lot of fun learning about this and trying a few basic experiments out on my own.

Links from research – What is neuroplasticity – Medical definition of neuroplasticity – What is neuroplasticity – Neuroplasticity info – Neuroplasticity: The Revolution in Neuroscience and Psychology, Part I – What is neurogenesis – The human brain in numbers – TED Talk, Don Vaughn “Neurohacking: rewiring your brain” – How Do Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis Rewire Your Brain? – Rasmussen’s encephalitis – Qigong – Brief history of qigong – Meditation found to increase brain size – From singing to speaking: it’s amazing to see – Sing something simple: the therapy that helps stroke victims to speak – Does singing use different parts of the brain?

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