The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young at TEDxToronto
Neurological science and by proxy, psychology has advanced by quantum leaps in only the last twenty years. What we once believed to be static and unchanging is being revealed to plastic and alterable.
To find the source of these theories we must go back to 1913 when Dr Santiago Ramon y Cajal declared that the brain once matured into adulthood was fixed into that structure and forever immutable. Dr Ramon y Cajal’s work on mapping the structures of the brain and his theories about brain construction has led him to be dubbed the ‘Father of Neuroscience’ and earned him a Nobel Prize jointly award with collaborator and rival Italian scientist Camillo Golgi for their breakthrough work on the structure of the nervous system.
Yet modern research is showing quite the opposite may in fact be true. Our environment, our habits, our diet and exercise regimes (or lack thereof) even the way we think can alter the very fabric of our brains.
One of the pieces of definitive research that illustrated previously held speculation about the neuroplasticity of the brain was conducted by Professor Eleanor Macguire of the University College London (U.C.L) in 2000 demonstrated that our brain may be plastic rather than static. This study showed that London cabbies had a far larger Hippocampus than other people. By using MRI technology to examine the relative size of varying parts of the brain Professor Macquire discovered that the Hippocampus, a portion of the brain dealing with long term memory and spatial navigation, was by far larger in those that drove Black Cabs in London. In part it is theorised that the intensive training required to become a Black Cab driver, consisting of three years of memorising the circuitous rotes of London is the primary reason for the enlarged Hippocampus. After following a group of trainees for four years Professor Macquire extensively tested those who both succeeded and failed at training, as well as a control group of similar aged Londoners. It was clearly demonstrated that those who successfully completed the training had significantly larger Hippocampal regions than those who had failed and those who did not participate in the training. This study definitively demonstrated that cognitive exercise alters the very substance of the brain itself and clearly shows that training will alter the density, connectivity and structure of neurological constructs. For
the articles in depth you can click here: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cdcn/aboutus/steering/Maguire
We are not only finding that the brain itself alters size, shape and consistency depending on environmental effects and the kinds of thought patterns we habituate, but that our thinking can alter the genetic material we are made from, something that was previously unthinkable.
Relationship of Mindfulness
The research to support these theories is the most advanced in the field, with recent Canadian research into breast cancer released in November 2014. This study led by Dr Linda. E. Carlson was looking at the relationship of mindfulness and supportive relationships in distressed breast cancer survivors to the maintenance of telomere length. Telomeres are the binding caps at the ends of our DNA that protects our chromosomes. Often described like the plastic binder on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres prevent DNA deterioration. Telomere disintegration is associated with the aging process, cancer and early death.
Working with three distinct groups of women with breast cancer, one of which was a control group, the research team randomly set one group a one day stress management program, the second got 12 weeks of intensive group therapy forming strong supportive social bonds, and the third group 8 weeks of Buddhist meditation and gentle hatha yoga practice. The results that have come from this study are somewhat surprising. It was clearly demonstrated that those who exercised mindfulness and yoga practice or forged strong social connections did not suffer the same level of telomeric shortening. For the article in depth you can look here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.29063/full
We are now beginning to see the relationship of thought to the matter of the brain itself is not as simple as once posited. We know for certain that the brain does change and alter over time and that it is not immutable as once thought. We also clearly see that social relationships and even certain mental practices such as meditation alter the make up of our DNA.
The ways in which we think alter the fabric of that which we think with.
The underpinning philosophy of psychology must come to terms with what sister neuroscience is discovering and the impacts that may have on psychotherapy, psycho-evaluation and clinical psychiatry.