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. [Read more...]

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.

[Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]

Games Your Brain Plays

file0001052648856Your brain has natural tendencies, of which you probably aren’t even aware, to keep it feeling happy and safe.  While these inclinations were built-in to help our species survive, they color our perceptions, can be problematic, and tilt a person towards unease and unhappiness.

Your brain is wired to ensure your physical survival, which makes it happy, but doesn’t help you find and stay in a happy place. Two things have to happen to counteract this natural slant of your brain: awareness and action.

In What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo writes:

Awareness of why we are doing what we are doing is a crucial step toward action because it initiates a change in thinking – we have to pause to examine what’s going on. And this why science-help is more useful than typical self-help. [Read more...]

The Gap Between Knowing And Doing

4386332168_8b943f73a3_zAlthough the difference between the two words is just a few letters, the gap between knowing and doing can be as wide as a universe.

After the break up of my eighteen year marriage and the end of a subsequent three year relationship, I found myself in the dark, confusing chasm between knowing and doing. Goodness knows, I’d read enough books to confidently label myself a co-dependent, over-reactive, passive aggressive, people pleaser with low self esteem, PTSD, and obsessive compulsive tendencies.  But, knowing all of this didn’t help….yet.

I was a self-help junkie, always searching for my next fix and seeing myself in every book I read.  Yet I was never quite able to take the wise words from the pages and work them into my day-to-day life. While I could easily diagnose my deficits and wanted to do better, really changing anything was beyond me.

Because of this predicament, I found myself in a most uncomfortable place, the space between knowing how to do better and actually doing it.  When I didn’t know any better, I was blissfully ignorant.  I could be all justified and smug in my victim role and right-ness.  Everything was always someone else’s fault. [Read more...]

The Law Of Little Things

7281315220_dce84493a8_zIn order to survive, our ancestors’ brains were wired to notice and remember the bad while ignoring the good.  Recalling a near miss and deadly predator’s territory was much more likely to pass on the genes than remembering a nice nap in the sunshine. Although this negativity bias developed for an important purpose, it leaves us worried and stressed in today’s world.

Over time, lots of little bad memories can add up to take a person to an unhappy and painful place. To give your brain a positive tilt, you have to intentionally make an effort to notice and take in the good.

No matter what your current circumstances, there is always good in the present.  Even if it’s something as small as you turned on the faucet and water came out or you flipped a switch and the light came on.  You ate today.  You woke up.  You can talk to a friendly voice on the phone.  A good tune is playing.  There was good in your past, there is good in the present, and there will be good in your future, but you HAVE to notice it and make it count. [Read more...]

Float Away

13229983435_5c63df9b7c_zAfter shedding my clothes, I stepped into the foot-deep warm water, sat down, and pulled the heavy pod door shut with a loud “thunk.”  Easing back to lay in the unusually soft water, I felt completely supported as if I was resting on an under inflated air mattress.

As the salty water enveloped my body, I became acutely aware of every little cut that I hadn’t known existed a second ago. Extending my right arm, I switched off the faint green light which was casting an eerie glow in the watery cocoon. Total darkness.  Having already shoved the spongy ear plugs into my ears, I closed my eyes, relaxed, and began an hour without any stimulation in a sensory deprivation or float tank. [Read more...]