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The Implications Of Revolutionary Brain Research Discoveries For Health, Wellness And Performance

 


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Today's revolutionary advances in neuroscience will rival the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. - Paul Churchland

There's a revolution going on. The current era in neuroscience is comparable to the time when Louis Pasteur first discovered that germs cause disease. - Candice Pert

In the past decade or two brain scientists have made a number of truly amazing and far-reaching discoveries about the workings of the human brain and mind. Many of these discoveries have turned long-held beliefs about them on their head so to speak, revealing characteristics which were not known about previously and uncovering abilities which were once not thought possible. And, significantly, the implications of these findings with respect to individual and corporate health, wellness and performance are equally profound and far-reaching.

What has made many of these remarkable findings possible? Not surprisingly, it has been the equally remarkable advances in brain imaging technology which have enabled scientists to view the structure and function of our brain in ways only dreamed of before - or perhaps seen only in sci-fi movies or read about in such books. Modern brain imaging techniques such as CAT (computerized axial tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans now provide extremely detailed information about normal and abnormal brain structures and have made the diagnosis of conditions such as strokes and brain tumors relatively easy compared to the previous era. But even more amazing advances in brain imaging technology has also made it possible to see the brain in action i. e. to analyze the functioning of the brain “as these functions are taking place" or in “real time" as it were. Brain processes such as thinking, generation of emotions, facilitation of action or movement and making of decisions for example can now actually be seen as they happen thanks to functional imaging machines such as the fMRI (functional MRI), PET (positron emission tomography) and SPECT (single positron emission computed tomography) scanners. In fact brain imaging technology and the discoveries emanating there from has already greatly enhanced (and will no doubt continue to enhance) our understanding of the human brain and mind. It is therefore not surprising to see the term “revolutionary" frequently used by neuroscientists and others familiar with the field of brain science when talking about these advances and their implications. Certainly this new comprehension of the human brain and mind is already having a major and significant impact, in many instances, on how people think about themselves and others and how they interact with each other. For example we now live in a world where assessments of our very thinking and behavioral characteristics are commonplace and even compulsory in many instances, where neurotechnology is an inherent part of marketing and advertising campaigns assisting marketers to target their markets more effectively and so forth. But perhaps a more promising and positive consequence that this greatly renewed understanding of the human brain and mind will have (and indeed has already started to have) is that of the maximization of our potential as human beings, including a significant enhancement in our health, wellness and performance levels. These revolutionary brain research findings can empower us all significantly - but only if we understand them fully and use them correctly.

One of the more profound of these discoveries is neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to remold or reshape itself. This finding has nullified the decades old thinking (and teaching) of brain scientists that the brain was unchangeable. The human brain is a highly complex organ which consists of about 100 billion neurons or nerve cells in addition to an even greater number of glial or supporting cells. These nerve cells each have up to 100 000 dendrites and an axon through which they are connected to other neurons (via connections known as synapses). At any given moment there are trillions of connections between these billions of neurons. Neurons that are connected to each other form ‘neural networks’ or ‘neural pathways’. And the brain is capable of processing up to 400 billion bits of information per second through its neural networks. The brain is in fact a ‘neural network factory', constantly producing new connections (and discarding old ones) between neurons in the production of new neural pathways. And believe-it-or-not, the brain actually produces about one million new connections every second. A staggering feat. Although at any given moment there are several hundred trillion connections between the brain's vast number of neurons, fascinatingly the potential number of new connections that can be made between them is in fact infinite. And equally fascinating is the fact that the potential number of ways that these neurons can connect to each other can for all intents and purposes also be regarded as limitless. So neuroplasticity then is this ability of the brain to form new synapses or connections and to discard old ones, thereby constantly changing its neural networks or forming new ones and thus remolding and reshaping itself.

Brain researchers have found that stimulation of the brain in the form of acquisition of new knowledge or having new experiences for example regardless of age, causes new connections to be formed between brain cells via their synapses. This is in fact how learning occurs - through the formation of new synaptic connections and new neural networks. In fact all our thoughts (conscious and subconscious), our beliefs (true or false), our memories (short-term and long-term), our skills, abilities, attributes and attitudes are ‘held’ in these vast, intensely complex and intricately - connected neural networks which are spread out in a multitude of 3-dimensional patterns throughout different parts of the brain. And as we think, process new ideas and engage in decision-making for example, we create new connections and new neural pathways in our brains. Thus each new thought we generate, each new experience we have and each new thing we learn causes our brain to change - physically.

As indicated a commonly held belief by scientists until fairly recently was that the brain was unchangeable - that we were all born with a fixed a fixed number of neurons which were wired together in a fixed way. As we aged so the connections between our neurons grew weaker and eventually disintegrated while our neurons grew fewer in number as a result of them dying off. But this has been found not to be the case at all. In reality throughout the life of an individual a massive amount of new connections are constantly created in the brain in response to new learning and experiences. Reading a book or newspaper, having a discussion, eating, thinking a thought, learning to ride a bike or exercising for example produces a mind-boggling number of new connections in the brain. Our brain rewires itself every second of every minute of every hour of every day in response to everything it thinks, learns and experiences, be these everyday occurrences or serious life-changing or life-threatening ones alike. But it has also been discovered that not only is the brain capable of producing new connections between its nerve cells, it also has the ability to generate entirely new neurons. This ability, known as neurogenesis, has been a hugely surprising finding to scientists who for long believed that this was impossible. It is obvious then that the brain is built to produce new connections and nerve pathways. It is built and designed to change. It is a synapse and neuron-producing machine. Indeed its very functioning is dependent on these abilities because this function involves the linking and associating of pieces of information which are held in various neural networks located in various areas throughout the brain. Thus every thought or experience we have or behavior we display for example involves a complex formation of connections between a multitude of neural pathways holding various bits of information relating to the thought, the experience or the behavior. Our brain is in fact a pattern-recognizing machine, always comparing information coming into it with information already held in its long-term memory stores in an attempt to determine whether the information is familiar or not.

Since the brain has the potential to form an unlimited number of new connections between its neurons it consequently has an infinite number of ways that it can code and store information relating to what it has learnt or what it has experienced. And despite the fact that from a macroscopic perspective human brains generally all look the same, each individual human being has their own unique pattern of neural connections making our neural pathways largely unique to each of us and making our brains work differently, with respect to learning, decision-making, leading etc. But not only that. We have mentioned that for decades scientists thought (and taught) that the brain was unchangeable. It was a commonly held belief that we were all born with certain predispositions, habits and characteristic traits based on the patterns and combinations of neural connections we inherited from our parents. Thus it was accepted as fact that humans were totally at the mercy of their genetic makeup with respect to who they were as a person. However with the discovery of neuroplasticity it is now realized that we, with respect to our character, personality and temperament for example are not as unchangeable as was once previously believed. We in fact do have the ability to change in this respect.

It is accepted that thoughts make up a large proportion of our brain processes. We think thousand of thoughts a day. But what exactly is a thought? Have you ever thought about that? On a more serious note scientists have discovered that our thoughts are ‘real things’ in that they are electrochemical impulses which travel in neural networks. They can be observed and measured. And it has also been discovered that our thoughts directly affect our bodies, our behavior and our very lives. Every thought we have results in a biochemical reaction in the brain. Chemicals are consequently released by the brain (which is in essence also an electro-chemical factory) and they in turn are transmitted to the body. These chemicals are in fact messengers of the thought, instructing the body to feel the same way as the thought i. e. the thoughts we have are matched by the same feelings in our bodies due to the chemical messengers produced by the thoughts. Now the amazing thing about this discovery is that it has been found that thinking happy or positive thoughts produces chemicals which make us feel happy while thinking negative thoughts produces chemicals which make us feel that way. For example thinking that you are angry with, or hateful of, someone produces chemicals which make you feel that way i. e. angry or hateful. A feedback loop is then set up whereby the body sends a similar message back to the brain causing the brain to think similar thoughts in turn. We now begin to think the way we are feeling!
Thus thoughts create feelings and feelings create thoughts. This cycle of thought and feeling then determines how we generally feel and behave (or what we say and do) - our state of being. Thus our thoughts control our lives through ultimately determining our state of being and controlling our actions and behavior. And this has profound implications for our health, wellness, performance and levels of achievement.

Yet another significant discovery is the fact that the brain constantly attempts to drive its processes and operations from conscious awareness into its subconscious realm. Compared to those of which we are consciously aware, brain processes which take place at the subconscious level occur at a significantly faster rate and much greater level of efficiency. This is as a result of the ‘hard wiring" and consequent automation of these processes in the subconscious realm. Conscious brain processes are in fact slow, wasteful of energy and prone to mistakes. When brain processes such as thinking, processing of information, attention etc are hard-wired in the subconscious mind and become automatic their speed of execution is several hundred times greater than their conscious counterparts. For example it has been found that our decision-making processes only involve our conscious attention about 5% of the time. Most of our decisions are made subconsciously and significantly more rapidly than those made consciously. It turns out that the brain can only hold a limited amount of information in its working memory (conscious mind) at any one time and that by driving information and processes into the subconscious realm the brain not only frees up conscious resources for more pressing current matters but also operates more efficiently and effectively this way. Thus any processes which are deemed important by the brain - such as actions or thoughts which are repeated over and over again and experiences which are associated with intense emotions for example - are hardwired in the subconscious mind and become automatic. And it is a physiological characteristic of nerve conduction in the brain's neural networks which enables such hard wiring of processes in the subconscious mind to take place. This characteristic is that the more a message i. e. an electrochemical impulse, is sent down a neural network in the form of a thought or action for example the easier it is for that message or impulse to go down that neural network again - until the thought or action is driven into the subconscious and becomes automatic. Conscious brain processes are controlled, logical and sequential but significantly slower than automatic subconscious processes.

Now as you read this article you are developing certain perceptions about it viz. perceptions about the writer and the subject matter itself for example. You are mentally interpreting the information herein in a way that is unique to yourself or at least different to that of other readers of this very same article. And this perception that you have of this information is automatic and directly influenced by your hard-wired processes and beliefs that you may hold about the writer, the subject matter etc. This then is another of the astounding research findings made by brain scientists about how the human brain and mind works. Although it has always been suspected for millennia that human beings see and interpret the world according to how they are and not according to the way the world actually is, it is only recently that scientists have been able to confirm that this is truly the case and provide an explanation of how this actually occurs. Thus the fact that doctors see people in terms of the various illnesses which afflict them or that the masses of people accept destructive financial and economic systems as good for them, often defending such systems with their very lives or that those responsible for recruitment of staff see people over the age of forty as ‘over the hill’ and unable to provide value to their organizations for example, is now perfectly understandable given the way information is processed and stored in the brain. Of course providing a detailed explanation is beyond the scope of this article save to say that we interpret information and experiences based on our expectations of them rather than their actual content, which of course explains why we may often not be as right as what we think we are.

We have indicated previously that thoughts lead to feelings which in turn lead to behavior (what we say and do). Our hard-wired neural network-residing beliefs (thoughts which are taken to be the truth) are in fact the filters through which we perceive the world and thereby cause us to create our own reality. Believing is seeing i. e. we see what we believe which then in turn makes us believe what we see. The external world that we perceive is in fact just a reflection of what is going on inside of us.

Most of us are familiar with the statement ‘Use it or lose it’. However with respect to the brain a more appropriate description would be ‘Use it and grow and strengthen it’. We have mentioned that neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to form new connections between its neurons and to discard old, unused one's in response to our learning, our experiences and changes in our behavior. However it has also been discovered that the connections or synapses in those neural pathways which are used frequently (i. e. through which electrochemical impulses pass repeatedly) increase in quantity and quality, becoming stronger and longer lasting and often-times remaining permanently. In this way we develop ingrained, often difficult-to-change habits, thoughts, beliefs, skills and attitudes. However this does not mean that these unchangeable aspects about ourselves cannot be replaced by more desirable ones should we feel it necessary for some or other reason - such as enhancement of our health, wellness and performance for example. But there is a specific way to achieve this. Attempting to get rid of problems such as undesirable habits, thoughts, attitudes etc in the “usual" way by focusing on them only serves to make them worse or more ingrained. The answer is in fact to create new pathways by focusing on solutions rather than on the problems.

Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis have also been found to be the reason why the brain is able to build a ‘Brain Reserve" which prevents the onset of Alzheimer's disease in later life. Alzheimer's is a devastating dementing condition characterized by loss of memory, confusion, irritability, aggression and terminating in a general decline of the senses, loss of bodily function and ultimate death. Lifelong brain - stimulating experiences such as reading, getting an education, mentally-satisfying occupations, physical exercise and leisure activities have a major influence on how we age and specifically on whether we will develop Alzheimers or not. These stimulating experiences cause the brain to build up a reserve of neurons and synapses which protect against the development of the clinical effects of this distressing condition. And it has been found that these mentally-stimulating activities contribute to the building of a brain reserve and the prevention of Alzheimer's in an independent and synergistic way and have a cumulative effect. So the more of these activities one engages in and the earlier one starts to do so the better - although it is never too late in life to start. In fact leading a mentally-stimulating life reduces the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease by a significant 35% - 40%. And the interesting thing is that even though the pathology of Alzheimer's disease may develop in the brain, many individuals who lead such mentally stimulating lives remain symptom-free despite this occurrence. Of these brain-stimulating activities the exciting recent finding has been that physical exercise also causes both the production of new neurons or neurogenesis thereby contributing to brain reserve and enhancing our cognitive abilities, making us mentally sharper. Thus physical exercise is good for the development of both brain and body. However for optimal brain health and brain fitness the quadrad of good nutrition, proper stress management, physical exercise and challenging, variable mental exercise are non-negotiable.

These brain research findings, and perhaps the reason why they are referred to as revolutionary, have shown that the human brain and mind are capable of far more than was originally believed. With respect to intelligence for example, it is the brain's neuroplastic ability which makes it possible to increase both our levels of intellectual and emotional intelligence. Intellectual intelligence encompasses our cognitive skills or abilities such as logic and reasoning, attention, reading, analyzing, decision-making and problem-solving while emotional intelligence encompasses a range of emotional and social skills which are vital for leadership, both of self and of others. These include competencies such as empathy, emotional self-control, trustworthiness, emotional self-awareness and adaptability amongst many others. Although both levels of intelligence are important for success in the workplace it has been found that for higher level jobs emotional intelligence is much more important. Unfortunately our education system is designed to focus largely on development of the intellectual mind, producing armies of learners with effective intellectual abilities but sadly sending them out into the workplace battlefield with ‘functional holes’ in their brains with respect to their emotional and social development. It is therefore not surprising to frequently witness highly-paid corporate or organizational leaders causing tragic destruction of their people's lives and their entities on a regular basis across the world as a result of these ‘functional holes. ’ A lack of, or weakness in empathy, emotional self-control (such as greed for example) and trustworthiness is directly responsible for the significant levels of white collar crime in many countries across the globe for example. And the short-coming of our education system with respect to development of learner's social / emotional minds is evident in the widespread problems caused by the consequent lack of social and emotional intelligence evident in our schools. Unintelligent, anti-social behavior such as substance abuse and bullying and fighting are commonplace and such and other related incidences are reported almost daily in our media. Emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression are equally common. But brain science research has shown that training students in social and emotional skills development helps them in every way. For example students who have received such training displayed less anti-social behavior, liked and attended school more often and also performed much better academically than those who did not. Students learn better when they are more self-aware or able to manage their distressing emotions well.

So thanks to these revolutionary discoveries it is now understood why and how leadership skills can be acquired. Thus those not blessed with a congenital propensity for leadership (such a propensity being extremely rare in any case) but who have an interest, duty or obligation to lead already posses the tools and materials to satisfy this need. All they need do is use them in the correct way. Leaders then, thank goodness, can be made if they are not born. And leadership whose goal is to improve performance of others lead based on how the human mind functions from within the perspective of these revolutionary brain research findings.

We have said that these revolutionary discoveries also have profound implications for personal and organizational health and wellness. For example it is now a disturbing fact that 85 to 90% of patients seen in a doctor's rooms, hospital clinic or emergency unit suffer from one or other stress-related emotional or physical disorder. Stress is an extremely destructive phenomenon which makes people ill and disrupts their lives - besides putting them at risk of ageing and dying prematurely. For example stress destroys neurons in certain areas of the brain resulting in a loss of memory and decrease in attention and concentration. Amongst the most vulnerable of these areas are the hippocampi, two areas in the midbrain consisting of densely-packed neurons whose extensions (dendrites and axons) spread to and connect with neurons in all parts of the brain. Neurogenesis is particularly active in each hippocampus whose functions include management of emotions and consolidation of new memories. Death and destruction of hippocampal neurons and their connections by chemicals released during the stress response shrinks these areas of the brain and wreaks havoc on stress-sufferers’ lives. A marked deterioration in cognitive ability, including the retention of new information and adapting to new situations are common experiences of such afflicted people. However, thanks to the brain's neuroplastic and neurogenensis abilities these negative consequences of stress can be stopped and reversed once the cause of the stress is removed. Thus stress management techniques such as thought control, visualization, meditation, brainwave entrainment and EFT (emotional freedom techniques) which stimulate neuroplastcity and neurogenesis are all highly-effective in reversing the brain-damaging effects of stress. A life free of the effects of chronic stress is entirely possible with proper stress-management training and coaching.

Now on the subject of coaching we have said that the brain is a synapse-producing machine, making millions of connections in response to everything we think, say or do. In essence our brain changes physically in response to every single experience we have. Changing and creating new connections and neural pathways is a constant task of the brain and is something it does with the utmost of ease. However forming new connections and pathways is one thing. Maintaining them is another. If these connections and pathways are not hardwired in the brain by constant activity through them (such as thinking a thought recurrently, writing it down or acting on it or hearing a message over and over again for example) then the consequence is that the connections in the pathways holding that information become weaker and eventually disintegrate. Automatic thoughts, beliefs and habits are hardwired into our brains through constant repetition which results in the neural networks relating to them making widespread, strong and long-lasting connections across the brain. However it has been found that what is also needed for neural networks to become hardwired are positive emotions or positive feedback which causes the production of chemicals called neural growth factors which facilitate such hardwiring. Now we may very well be eager to hardwire our brains voluntarily for various reasons, such as programming beliefs into our subconscious mind with respect to certain goals we would like to achieve for example. The problem though associated with creating new hardwiring in our brains is usually remembering to do what is necessary to achieve such hardwiring in the first place. If we would like to lose weight, manage our stress better, increase our levels of health and wellness or perform better then we need to engage in frequent thinking and behavior relating to these goals. But because we live in a world of information and work overload, prioritizing or allocating time for such “activities" is much easier said than done. And this is where the benefit of a coach or a coaching leadership style can assist people to bring about the necessary change they seek with respect to their goals. A health and wellness coach for example whose role involves reminding his clients about and focusing their attention on their goals and providing them with reassurance that someone is dedicated to their developing new thinking, behavior and habits will dramatically increase their chances of attaining optimal health and wellness. Similarly organizational leaders whose repertoire includes the coaching style or who lead in ways that help their people identify thinking and behavior which require hardwiring often have a significantly positive impact on their performance levels.

A knowledge of brain science will provide one of the major foundations of the new age to come. - GERALD EDELMAN

Dr. Faiez Kirsten is a medical doctor who qualified at the, now, Nelson Mandela School of Medicine (MB ChB from the University of Natal Medical School). He spent two years as a medical officer in the public health sector and more than twelve years as a private medical practitioner both locally in his own practice and also abroad. Dr. Kirsten also holds a post-graduate degree in business administration (MBA from the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business), having had his research thesis accepted with distinction. In addition he holds a certificate of completion in EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), a discipline of energy psychology which is used to heal both physical and emotional disorders and which is based on the principles of quantum physics.

Furthermore Faiez served both as a trustee for two years to Bioventures, South Africa's first biotechnology Private Equity Fund and on the executive committee of an Independent Practitioner Association for several years. In addition he spent two years in the corporate environment managing a primary health care project and has also consulted to business organizations. He is also the founder and director of the Brain Science Academy, a learning institution which utilizes brain research findings to enhance personal and organizational health, wellness and performance. The Academy's offerings are packaged in various modules, including the Neuroscience of Leadership, the Neuroscience of Stress Management, Organizational Culture assessment and development, Wellness Coaching, Brain Fitness and Training and the Neuroscience of Personal Goal Achievement amongst others.

Dr. Kirsten thus has extensive experience in the medical, health care and business environments and is also a member of the South African Medical Association and the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

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