Neuroscience and Everyday Living: Part 3

Gridlock. We hardly ever have it in Whitehorse and if we do we can likely, easily, take another route to get where we are going (okay, not over the Riverdale Bridge). It is much like the fiber optic cable that is carrying our email to Paris. One moment it might go by Rio de Janeiro and another by Dublin. Whatever route is open.

The brain operates in much the same fashion. A signal may travel one route one day and a completely different route another day, depending on what circuits are available. And this is helpful: it allows us to press into service less occupied neurons and bond them to the task of learning new skills.

In the brain there is a map of the body. A thigh muscle doesn’t take up much space in the brain map because its primary job is to move the knee forward. The fingers, however, occupy a large part of the brain map because they perform many functions.

And this is core to what we are learning from neuroscience: given the right treatment the brain has a huge capacity to work around impairments and reprogram the brain map.

However, the key to programing – or reprograming – is focused attention. A half effort won’t do.

South African John Pepper has Parkinson’s disease, yet he has taught himself to walk without the shuffling gait so typical of those with the disease. He has done so by engaging his frontal cortex to the atypical task of learning how to walk. Usually our brain stem coordinates such activity. John Pepper’s story is recounted by Norman Doidge M.D., in his book, The Brain’s Way of Healing and he will soon feature in an episode of The Nature of Things, hosted by Doidge.

Pepper accomplishes this task by thinking – consciously thinking – of the minute details of walking. If he walks consciously, he walks well. If he multi-tasks, or talks too much or spaces out, he trips himself up. But if he uses his cerebral cortex with focused attention, he can walk very well.

What Pepper is doing is going around the gridlock of the brainstem where the damage that is Parkinson’s is located. There are sufficient neurons that can pass the message through to the cortex, which has now undertaken the task of coordinating walking. And since neurons that fire together wire together, Pepper is getting better and better at walking. The brain map for walking, previously coordinated by the brain stem, is now coordinated by the frontal lobe.

Focused attention. Slow, unhurried focused attention, repeated, over time, will encode our desired new learning.

Whether through the heightened emotional attention of stress or the unhurried focused attention of concentration, our brain is structured to respond to the repeated firings of the neurons and so with conscious thought we can control that firing and organize our brains to serve our needs and suit our surroundings.

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