Can we change our brain just by thinking? Neuroscience would have us believe so.
For example, a calm brain is more capable of learning, working and healing. It sounds simple.
When the signal-to-noise ratio in the brain is low, learning and working and healing is easier. Signal to noise ratio means that the brain’s “noise” – or random and distracted neural firing – is so loud a thought can’t make itself heard. How is it our thinking has to push through so much noise to make itself heard?
Neuroscience is starting to provide us with some answers, and stress is part of a story that starts in our nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is composed of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-digest-repair).
When the fight or flight response is triggered, blood flows to the heart and muscles so that we can do just that: run away or defend ourselves. However, even though we are no longer being chased by wild animals, we are being chased by deadlines and deliverables. And this leaves us feeling desperate, endangered and hyper-anxious.
The noise in our brain is very loud and according to Norman Doidge, M.D. in his second book The Brain’s Way of Healing, “a person in fight-flight can’t heal or learn well.”
I come to an interest in neuroscience and specifically neuroplasticity through five years of researching the play My Brain is Plastic, a study of a girl, her troubles, neuroplasticity and hope. It is the story of a pretty normal family, with its share of stress. There it is, that word: stress.
I don’t think any of us imagine ourselves to be in a state of flight-or-fight stress, yet. The surprise is that we are often in a heightened state of stress.
This heightened state elevates our sympathetic nervous system, creating noise in the brain and making it hard to learn, work and heal. And mostly we just push through, meeting our daily deliverables.
The problem is that stress starts to get wired in. Neurons that fire together, wire together is the expression used in neuroscience.
Walk down the path of stress on a daily basis and it becomes our default program. We become wired to the elevated state of stress even though our lives are not literally threatened.
Too much stress and we seek ways to de-stress: to relax, to turn off our sympathetic nervous system and get some rest-digest-repair time. We need soothing.
Along the way we learned to soothe ourselves: as babies, rocking or sucking our thumbs or fingers; as teens by biting our nails or smoking; as adults by drinking coffee or beer or a glass of wine. Certainly food is soothing.
Habits of stress, habits of soothing. Neurons that fire together wire together. And so habit becomes the default program. And while some of us may have the habit of yoga and mindfulness meditation, many of us have the habit of beer and burgers.
What does neuroscience have to say about habit formation? Stay tuned for Part 2 of Neuroscience and Everyday Living.