You’re Not Stuck With The Brain You Were Born With

8684533456_baec82041a_zHow many times have you heard someone say, “That’s just the way I am” or “I was born this way?” Those statements may be true, but do not mean that the person is fated to stay that way forever.  Contrary to what used to be believed and was a rather convenient excuse, our brains are not hardwired at any age.  You are not stuck with the brain you were born with.

In The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young tells of being born with severe learning disabilities earning her the labels of slow, stubborn, and worse.  (See blog: Behavior Problem Or Brain Problem) Although obviously intelligent, she read and wrote backwards, struggled to understand language and abstract concepts, was always getting lost, and was terribly physically uncoordinated.

By relying on sheer memory and will, she made it to graduate school where she discovered research inspiring her to invent cognitive exercises to fix her own brain. She has spent more than thirty years since sharing that knowledge working with children and adults to better their brains at the Arrowsmith Schools she started.

Dr. Michael Merzenich, co-founder of Posit Science and professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, has proven time and time again that no one is stuck with the brain that they are born with.  Dr. Merzenich was on the team that invented the cochlear implant which translates sound into electrical impulses that can be interpreted by the brain allowing deaf people to hear.

He was one of the research scientists to develop the Fast Forward program, offered by Scientific Learning, a computer-based reading intervention which rewires and improves the brain to treat the underlying causes of language and reading difficulties permanently.

Fast Forward has proven research and results with adults and children showing that it can raise reading skill level up to 2 years in as little as 3 months. In some instances, people who have had a lifetime of cognitive difficulties see improvement after only 30 to 60 hours of doing the program.  Fast Forward has also quickly moved autistic children from severe language impairment to the normal range.  It has also improved attention span, sense of humour, eye contact, social interaction, and other autistic symptoms.

What both the Arrowsmith Schools and Fast Forward take advantage of is the ability of the brain to rewire and reconfigure itself, known as neuroplasticity.  Neuroplastic change happens from cradle to grave. Radical improvements in cognitive function – how we learn, think, perceive, and remember – are possible even in the elderly.  Merzenich has been known to claim that neuroplasticity may prove as useful as drugs.

In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge writes:

The brain Merzenich describes is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.  Before Merzenich’s work, the brain was seen as a complex machine, having unalterable limits on memory processing speed, and intelligence. Merzenich has shown that each of these assumptions is wrong.

Our brains are changing all the time in response to our behaviors, emotions, and thoughts whether for our benefit or not.  (See blog: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly) To work consciously to harness this process, called self-directed neuroplasticity, can transform brains, lives, and the world for the better.

Please take the time to watch this awesome TED Talk by Barbara-Arrowsmith Young.

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The Baffled Brain

4093083957_574a22187b_zThe Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987


Upon reading these insightful words by the American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, Wendell Berry, my baffled mind immediately relaxed a little.  I felt like he was talking directly to me saying, “It’s OK not to know.”

Maybe, just maybe, my standing at this precipice at 50 years old, not sure of the next step,  making it up as I go is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.  As Wendell suggests, maybe venturing down my next path, whatever it may be, is the start of my real work and journey.

I went to college, got married, had kids – all like I was “supposed to.”  In my early 40s, depressed and living a numb existence, I completely shattered that life when I got divorced, tried to commit suicide, sustained a serious brain injury, and lost custody of my kids.  Whew!  That’s one way to do it, but I wouldn’t advise it.

After the suicide attempt and resulting brain injury, my life didn’t look anything like “supposed to”  anymore, but surprisingly that’s when I found the most meaning and purpose. My everyday became all about my recovery, physically, mentally, and emotionally as I was forced to make the changes I’d been needing to make in my life long ago.  Despite poor odds and dire predictions, through mindfulness, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, neurofeedbackthought reframing, physical exercise, brain training, and a brain healthy diet, I did heal fully to become happier and healthier than I’d ever been.

With that arduous journey behind me, I have newfound confidence and faith in myself and the universe.  I often tell myself that “If you can figure your way out of that one, you can handle anything.” However, even knowing this doesn’t always squelch that gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach or stop my anxious mind from asking “What’s next?  How are you gonna provide for yourself?  Are you gonna be alone forever? What’s the plan?”

When my thoughts go in that direction, I remind myself to come back to the present moment, get OK with the uncertainty, let happenings unfold in their own time, respond to them as they do,  and TRUST.  Trust, breath, and relax.  I remind myself that a person can drive all of the way across the U.S. in the dark only seeing the 20 feet illuminated ahead of them.   Yesterday, today was out of the scope of those headlights.

Thank you Wendell Berry.  My brain is definitely employed.

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Sometimes, It’s Best To Just Stop Thinking

14363038593_d1f14e22ba_zThere are generally two types of people in the world when it comes to decision making.  The first takes the time to gather information, evaluates and analyzes several options, and,  makes a decision backed by sound methodology and reasoning making sense to them.  The other type, of which I tend to be included, makes decisions based on little information with reasoning along the lines of “It just feels right.”

More Information + More Time =  Better Decisions?

Gathering more information and taking the time to make calm, careful decisions is better, right? Not always. There is an implicit belief in our society that more information is better which is supported by basic economic theories.  Economist do concede and make the exception that this is not true when the information is not free.  The general rule is, according to economics, that more information is always better unless the cost of acquiring further information exceeds the anticipated gain from it.

In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gerd Gigerenzer proposes that this is not true even when the information is free and that, while the belief that more information is better is accurate in some cases, there is a range of situations in which less time, less information, or fewer alternatives can actually lead to better decisions and outcomes.

In 2000, he asked 100 random pedestrians in Berlin to pick 50 stocks they recognized out of a list of 100.  Taking the ten stocks most often chosen, he created a portfolio and submitted it to an investment magazine, Capital, to take part in a contest they were conducting. More than 10,000 participants, including the editor-in-chief and professionals with sophisticated computer stock picking programs and insider information, submitted portfolios.

Even in the down market which followed, his portfolio, based solely on collective recognition, gained 2.5% and out performed 88% of all the portfolios submitted.  The editor-in-chief of the magazine lost 18.5% on his portfolio.  In a second similar experiment, the results were almost identical. Given that some 70% of mutual funds perform below the market in any given year, these results were not totally surprising.

Unconscious Intelligence

These experiments depict a concept Gigerenzer calls “a beneficial degree of ignorance” where a gut feeling can outperform a considerable amount of knowledge and information because oftentimes, we make decisions based on  intuitive judgements which have a real basis in the unconscious mind.  In the stock example, something he calls the “recognition heuristic” was at work.  The recognition heuristic implies that when a person recognizes one object but not the other, then, they infer that the recognized object has a higher value.

This kind of unconscious intelligence has actually been identified to be located in the anterior frontomedian cortex of the brain by functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. Although the exact functions of this area of the brain are still not specifically known, the region is widely associated with unconscious intelligence. Such intuition is not impulsive, but is believed to be a form of unconscious evaluation and can be consciously over ruled.

When Too Much Thinking Can Be Deadly

Similarly, too much information and too much thinking can be detrimental – even deadly – in other cases.  For example, imagine a marine on the front lines of combat in a war zone with bullets whizzing by and bombs exploding.  Trying to gather too much information before acting could prove deadly.  An airplane pilot could crash before they analyze multiple options and arrive at the best one in an emergency situation.  The gut feelings of trained professionals are based on unconscious skills which can be impeded by too much deliberation.  In such cases, thinking too much about the processes involved or using more time, thought, or attention can slow down and disrupt performance disastrously.

In the book, The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success
by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, they write:

New York City firefighters receive over 600 hours of training and a multitude of written exams before they are eligible for assignment.  By the time they encounter their first fire, a lot of what they need to do is so practiced and ingrained they could practically perform their job in their sleep. …this is no different for FBI agents…(650 hours of training), doctors (an average of 11 years), and many other professionals that call for performance under pressure.

Thinking Can Lose The Game

The same is true for experienced athletes.  In his book, Gigerenzer tells of studies of novice and expert golfers.  Under timed pressure, novice golfers, not surprisingly, performed worse while expert golfers actually did better when they had less time. With repetition and practice, motor skills become unconscious and are best when performed outside of conscious awareness.

For this reason, gymnasts, professional tennis and basketball players, and many more put a lot of time into practicing; so they don’t have to consciously think about everything in the moments when they need to perform at their best.  They can rely on the quick, intuitive decisions of their unconscious brains.

Permission To Stop Thinking

You do this too. Think of tying your shoes, riding a bike, or driving a car.  While learning, you need to consciously pay attention and concentrate on every detail.  After that, having to consciously think of the steps involved would be detrimental to actually performing the task at hand. Once some one is skilled at something, it’s best to just stop thinking.

Swimming In A Sea Of Neurotoxins

3165456548_70fe4dc501_zYou eat and are surrounded by known neurotoxins everyday. A neurotoxin is a substance that interferes with the electrical activity of nerves preventing them from functioning optimally. Neurotoxins interact with nerve cells by either overstimulating them to death or interrupting their communication process.

Studies have shown that neurotoxins can shorten the life span of nerve cells. These toxins have been linked to brain disorders, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s, and can cause serious reactions including migraines, insomnia, asthma, depression, anxiety, aggression, chronic fatigue, and even ALS. Neurotoxins may be partially responsible for the swelling numbers of children diagnosed with ADHD and autism.

The availability of neurotoxins has increased dramatically in the last few decades as our food has become more processed and we rely more on synthetic, manufactured products and live in chemically treated environments. Restaurant food and junk food are notoriously known for containing high amounts of neurotoxic additives because they make the food taste good and make you crave more.

In our every day lives, we are immersed in neurotoxins.  Known neurotoxins are allowed by the FDA in the food we eat and water we drink. Because their bodies and brains are still developing, children are the most vulnerable to neurotoxins.  It’s hard to avoid neurotoxins, but it is possible with some effort and education.

YOU HAVE TO READ LABELS.  Most food and personal care products containing neurotoxins have them listed right on the ingredients list, but, be careful, neurotoxic substances can go by many name variations which is one way manufacturers try to deceive you. A list of the most common offenders to avoid in food is below.  (Source:

  1. Aspartame: Very common in sugar-free food products, especially sugar-free gums and drinks. Most aspartame is made from the fecal matter of genetically modified bacteria. Studies have linked aspartame to diabetes, migraines, kidney failure, seizures, blindness, obesity, neurological disorders, mental illness and brain tumors.
  2. Monosodium glutamate (also known as sodium glutamate, MSG): Very common in chips, canned food, baby food and other junk food. Independent researchers believe that MSG plays an important role in neurodegenerative brain disease, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. The evidence supporting their claim is that MSG destroys neurons in cells, especially brain cells.
  3. Sucralose (also known as Splenda): An artificial sweetener that is very popular in sugar-free products, especially sugar-free drinks. Sucralose was accidentally discovered while doing research to create a new insecticide, which is why some researchers suggested that sucralose should be listed in the insecticide category. This neurotoxin is regarded as a chemical cousin to DDT. Sucralose is a chlorinated compound. When the body breaks this type of chlorinated compound, it releases toxic chemicals.
  4. Aluminum: This type of metal is common in drinking water, over-the-counter antacid and vaccine. Aluminum is hard for the body to absorb, but citrate or citric acid can dramatically increase its absorption. Vaccine is one of the major contributors to aluminum toxicity, because the aluminum is injected directly into the body.
  5. Mercury: This heavy metal is common in fish products, vaccine and amalgam fillings (also known as silver fillings). Mercury can be found in drinking water too. Mercury is one of the most toxic neurotoxins, because it easily destroys brain tissue. For an excellent short video showing how mercury destroys brain tissue, read this article titled How Mercury Destroys the Brain.
  6. Fluoride (sodium fluoride): This toxin is very common in drinking water and conventional toothpaste. Fluoride was used to kill rats before it was introduced into consumer products. The fluoride used for consumer products is a mixture of many hazardous chemicals. It is known as sodium fluoride, not to be confused with the natural calcium fluoride. This is why there are warning labels on fluoridated toothpaste. For proof that fluoride is a hazardous toxin, read this article.
  7. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein: This harmful food ingredient is very common in certain junk food. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein contains high concentrations of glutamate and aspartate. In high levels, glutamate and aspartate can stimulate nerve cells to death.
  8. Calcium caseinate: This toxin is popular in protein supplement, energy bar and junk food. It is harmful to the brain due to its neurotoxic properties.
  9. Sodium caseinate: This type of protein is common in dairy products and junk food. It has been linked to autism and gastrointestinal problems. Visit this site for more specific information about sodium caseinate and calcium caseinate.
  10. Yeast extract: A popular food ingredients in many processed food, such as canned food. It is toxic to the brain.

Some of the most common neurotoxins and carcinogens to avoid in personal care products can be found here, The Price We Pay For Beautyand here, The Environmental Working Group Cosmetics Database (good info on cleaning products too.)   The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics is also an excellent resource.

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The Multitasking Myth

6035325308_f03cab1af5_zA mom holds her baby while stirring a pot of spaghetti on the stove and talking into the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear.  A salesman, running late for his next appointment, glances at the client information laid out in the passenger seat of his car while singing the tune on the radio and whizzing along the highway.

Multitasking.  We all do it.  At times, it simply can’t be avoided. Life often demands that we do more than one thing at a time.  But are we really doing ourselves any good?

The idea of multitasking was originally used to describe a computer’s parallel processing capabilities and has become shorthand for our brains attempting to do many things simultaneously.  However, your brain is not built to work that way.

Oh sure.  You can walk and talk at the same time, but when it comes to paying attention, your brain operates sequentially focusing on one thing.  Research shows that our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when people think they are multitasking is that they’re shifting their attention back and forth and utilizing short term memory.

New studies have shown that, while the brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once.  Studies show that a person takes longer to complete a task when interrupted and makes about four times more errors.

Talking on a cell phone while driving is the perfect example.  John Medina, neuroscientist and author of Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, writes in the online article, The Brain Cannot Multitask:

Until researchers started measuring the effects of cell-phone distractions under controlled conditions, nobody had any idea how profoundly they can impair a driver. It’s like driving drunk. Recall that large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks. Cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes in emergencies, slower to return to normal speed after an emergency, and more wild in their “following distance” behind the vehicle in front of them.

If someone appears to be an adept multitasker, they are really showing good use of working memory.  It becomes much easier to switch back and forth with less errors when the tasks are familiar.

Your brain is a sequential processor no matter how much multitasking is valued in our society, and research clearly shows that it decreases productivity while increasing mistakes.  The bottom line is slow down, turn distractions off, and tune in.  You and your brain will be happier.

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There Is No Such Thing As Normal

11210003685_101f302d99_zAbout a year after my brain injury, I had regained some semblance of my “before brain injury” life back.  Although my two sons had moved to a different state with their father, I was living independently and driving again, had learned skills to compensate for my memory deficits, and could speak somewhat understandably instead of just making sounds.  But, my solitary life, in which I struggled to do the stuff other people do every day – that I too used to do without a thought: go to the grocery store, pay bills, mow the yard – looked very different than it had before or than I thought it should or would at this point in my life.

I remember telling my brother, “I can’t wait to get back to my normal life.”  A very wise soul, he looked me in the eyes and said, “This is your normal life, Debbie.”

It took me another year to quit desperately trying to get back to the person I used to be before the injury and realize that that person was gone forever.  Over the next couple of years, I gradually began to accept the “new Debbie” with her way-less-than-perfect speech, handwriting, and memory.  And, in another couple of years, I began to even sort of like her.

Recovering from the brain injury taught me a valuable lesson.  I learned that there is no such thing normal.  Normal is an illusion.  It’s an idea we get in our heads about what our lives should look like influenced by society, the media, friends, family and a million other things.  Searching for normal is denial of and resistance to whatever is happening right here and now which results in struggle and pain.  ( See blog:  Life Gets Better By Managing Expectations) Wherever I am in my life and whatever is happening IS normal whether it’s what I wanted or expected or not.

Eckhart Tolle said, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”  I have learned not to judge any situation as good or bad when it arises. It’s my job to find the good in it for me, whatever “it” is.  Good is always present. (See blog: One Little Question)  By taking this attitude, things always turn out good because “good” is up to me.

So, although finding out that I have to move may be unsettling and my mind’s first inclination is to try to stay right where I am comfortable now, the normal, it turns out that I get to move into a cooler house that I can make into a real home for me and my animals.

At the outset, the dog getting sick doesn’t seem to have any upside to it.  But, his being puny made me realize how much I appreciate him and how much he’s added to my life over the years.

I have come to appreciate all of life’s ups and downs and swerves and curves.  It’s all part of it, and it’s all normal.  I used to wish for a calm life with no surprises, but now think of how numb and boring that would be.  To live a rich, full life, I have to be willing to embrace, yes embrace, whatever comes my way and find the joy and meaning in it.  Without any little part of it, life wouldn’t be the multi-textured, colorful tapestry it is.  I’ll take that over normal any day.

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