Category Archives: Neuroplasticity Articles

The Brain, Neuroscience and Meditation

obsessive love disorder

brain, neuroscience and meditation

THE PHYSICAL BRAIN :

The brain – the most complex entity in the known universe – controls our thoughts, moods, behaviour and memories. It is clearly a physical entity, but neuroscientists are still a long way from being able to explain how something purely physical can give rise to conscious experience.

In simplified terms, the brain can be split into 3 main parts :

– THE CEREBRUM

– THE BRAIN STEM

– THE CEREBELLUM

brain regions

brain regions

The brain contains about 10 BILLION NEURONS (brain cells) and about 50 TRILLION SYNAPSES (connections between neurons).

The brain is also split into 2 halves (LEFT and RIGHT HEMISPHERES) which are connected by the CORPUS CALLOSUM (a collection of nerve fibres).

The two hemispheres can be further sub-divided into 4 lobes :

– THE FRONTAL LOBES (concerned with reasoning, voluntary movement, planning, emotions and intelligence)

– THE PARIETAL LOBES (concerned with spatial awareness, sensory information and body movement)

– THE OCCIPITAL LOBES (concerned with vision and visual memories)

– THE TEMPEROL LOBES (concerned with generating memory and emotions and also with comprehending sounds and images)

the brain's lobes

the brain’s lobes

THE BRAIN’S EFFECT ON CRITICAL BODY FUNCTIONS :

The CEREBRUM is CONNECTED TO THE SPINAL CORD by the BRAIN STEM and, via this route, AUTOMATICALLY REGULATES VITAL BODY FUNCTIONS such as BREATHING, SWALLOWING, BLOOD PRESSURE, HEART BEAT and POSTURE ADJUSTMENTS.

THE CHEMICAL BRAIN :

The brain produces over 50 drugs and chemical reactions within it are continuous : these chemical reactions are linked to the brain’s electrical activity and together they are responsible for our behaviour, mood and health. It follows, then, that as the brain’s chemistry and electrical activity alter, so, too, does our behaviour and mood.

3 chemicals produced by the brain which affect mood

3 chemicals produced by the brain which affect mood

One group of brain chemicals which are of particular interest in connection with our mood and behaviour are called ENDORPHINS. Endorphin is, in fact, morphine (a powerful pain killing drug) that is produced within the body itself – it is able to produce analgesia and a general sense of well-being.

FOUR KEY EFFECTS OF ENDORPHINS :

1) improve immune system

2) relieve pain

3) reduce stress

4) postpone the ageing process

Endorphins are not only produced by the brain, but secreted throughout the whole body (which underlines the intimate connection between the mind and body).

HOW CAN WE MAXIMIZE OUR PRODUCTION OF ENDORPHINS?

The neuroscientist, Candice Pert, a research expert in this field of study, suggests that the following will help to maximize our production of endorphins :

– daily relaxation

– enjoyable exercise

– ‘goaless’ recreation (ie recreation we do for its own sake, rather like children at play)

– displays of affection (both public and private)

– guiltless sex

– laughing/humour/sense of the ridiculous

– deep breathing/meditation

– massage

– music

BRAIN CHEMISTRY AND MENTAL / PHYSICAL HEALTH :

Research has demonstrated that severe and long-lasting stress, as well as depression and anger, cause the body to produce chemicals which block healing (both psychological and physical) and even reduce life expectancy. Whereas, on the other hand, the production of endorphins protects us from stress and illness as well as increasing our life expectancy.

THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN :

The neurophysiologist, Paul MacLean, stated that, in effect, we have ‘three brains’ which are connected to one another but which also process information independently. These are :

1) THE NEOCORTEX – this only exists in humans and the other higher mammals (most recent, and relatively newly evolved)

2) THE LIMBIC SYSTEM – this is the paleo mammalian part of our brain (second part to evolve)

3) BRAIN STEM and CERREBELLUM – this is the reptilian part of our brain (first part to evolve)

I remember, when doing my first degree in psychology at university, we were told that, in effect, this meant that our brains were part lizard, part horse and part higher mammalian/human.

Indeed, our rational thought processes, generated by our recent acquistion of the neocortex, can easily be swamped and over-ruled by the more primitive parts of our brain which control our basic, instinctual drives. The three parts of the brain can be seen as being at conflict with one another, or even at war. This echoes Freud’s view of the Id, Ego and Superego being similarly at war with one another, leading to neurosis or psychosis (although there is no room to go into Freud’s theory here, unfortunately).

THE AMYGDALA :

It is thought that our most basic instinctual survival drives are centred on the part of the brain called the amygdala. Under stress, this part of the brain can completely disrupt thinking. It responds to both conscious and unconscious perceptions, non-verbal signs of fear and anger, to produce hormones that lead to physical responses of the body including sweating, muscular tension and defensive body postures.

location of the amygdala

location of the amygdala

Once aroused, it can completely inhibit rationality and create actions of passion, anger and violence. Whilst this function served our ancestors well (as they frequently needed to protect themselves from life – threatening attack), in the modern world ( where we are now rarely in physical danger), this very same function is now usually maladaptive (or, to put it another way, can create far more problems than it solves).

THE AMYGDALA, ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, PHOBIA AND PTSD.

Modern brain scanning techniques show that when the amygdala becomes active it interferes with parts of the brain responsible for processing information rationally. The amygdala also stores emotionally charged memories and, in conditions in which such memories seem to overwhelm the individual, such as can occur in anxiety, depression, phobia and PTSD, it is now believed the symptoms such conditions generate may be in large part due to a malfunctioning amydala.

The amygdala is highly sensitive, and, because it works as an INTERNAL ALARM SYSTEM, it can be easily triggered.

FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE PHYSICAL BRAIN PROCESSES :

Knowing the above about the amygdala, we can see that feelings and emotions are essentially ‘just’ brain processes.

Unfortunately, due to the way various parts of the brain are interconnected, it is much easier for thoughts to turn the amygdala ON than it is for them to turn the amygdala OFF (this is evolution’s way of expressing the sentiment, ‘better safe than sorry’, I suppose).

THE ELECTRICAL BRAIN :

The brain is an electrochemical processing system. Neurons (brain cells) communicate with one another by the means of tiny electric impulses. There are 4 frequency bands utilized by the brain. These are ;

– DELTA FREQUENCY :  0.1-4 Hz, characterized by deep sleep

– THETA FREQUENCY : 4-8 Hz, characterized by drowsiness, hypnosis and deep daydreaming

– ALPHA FREQUENCY : 8-13 Hz, characterized by a relaxed but alert mental state

– BETA FREQUENCY : Above 13Hz, characterized by deep concentration and/or anxious thinking

measuring electrical activity in the brain

measuring electrical activity in the brain

Very recent research has also discovered that much higher frequencies can also be detected, above 40Hz, and even as high as 100Hz. This has been termed GAMMA FREQUENCY. This brand new area of study is of much interest as it is believed that these frequency levels have important implications for our higher mental processes including perception, self-awareness and insight.  The GAMMA STATE is also associated with deep meditative states in which people report phenomena such as ‘feeling at one with the universe’ and a ‘loss of the sense of the self as a separate entity.

THE IMPLICATIONS OF NEUROSCIENCE FOR UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF MEDITATION :

Neuroscience has now demonstrated that meditation alters the frequency level at which the brain operates.

Studies have revealed that novice meditators can cause the gamma activity in their brains to increase slightly, whereas expert meditators can produce gamma activity in their brains 30 times stronger. These high levels of gamma activity were found to be concentrated in brain areas associated with positive emotions.

I have already written articles about the brain’s neuroplasticity (ie its ability to physically change itself even in adulthood ; CLICK HERE to read one of my articles on this). It now seems clear that meditation is one of the ways in which the brain’s structure and function can be caused to undergo such change.

Indeed, research suggests that meditation can greatly increase acivity on the left hand side of the brain near the front of the cortex (eg regions in which activity is correlated with positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm and happiness) whilst greatly reducing activity on the right hand side of the brain (eg regions associated with negative emotions such as anxiety and sadness).

Through meditation, then, it is now clear we can train our brains to make ourselves experts in habitually generating  positive emotions and feelings of well being in much the same way that training in a sport like tennis can make us a talented tennis player.

 

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Effect of Early Trauma on Brain’s Right Hemisphere Development.

effect of childhood trauma on brain development

effect of childhood trauma on brain development

As recently as 25 years ago, it was still frequently believed that the structure of the brain had already been genetically determined at birth. Now, however, we of course know that this is absolutely NOT the case. Indeed, the experience, in early life, of trauma, abuse or neglect can have a profoundly adverse effect upon both the brain’s chemistry and its architecture (ie the way in which its physical structure develops).

The diagram below shows the human brain’s left and right hemispheres together with some of each hemisphere’s particular functions.

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

effect of childhood trauma on brain development

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

Studies on animals can help us to understand the effects of trauma on the developing human brain. For instance, if animals are subjected to inescapable stress they develop behaviours such as :

   – abnormal alarm states

   – acute sensitivity to stress

   – problems relating to both learning and memory

   – aggression

   – withdrawal

The symptoms listed above are, in fact, very similar to those displayed in humans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In both the cases of humans and of animals, investigations suggest that prolonged exposure to stress adversely affects a vital brain system ( the NORADRENERGIC BRAIN SYSTEM).

Indeed, in humans it has been found that even in adults (let alone children) just one exposure to severe trauma (eg a terrifying battle) can significantly alter an adult’s brain and lead to PTSD.

STUDIES ON EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA ON BRAIN :

Drissen et al (2000) found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma had smaller volumes of two vital brain structures which play a role in stress management; the two structures physically affected by trauma were :

1) THE AMYGDALA

2) THE HIPPOCAMPUS

On average, those who had experienced severe childhood trauma were found to have :

  – amydallas which were 16% smaller than those who had not experienced significant trauma

   – hippocampuses which were 8% smaller than those who had not experienced significant childhood trauma.

Further research by Shore (2001) has shown that the brain’s right hemisphere (see diagram of the brain’s right and left hemispheres above), which has deep connections into the limbic and autonomic nervous systems, is impaired in terms of its ability to regulate these systems properly;  leading to profound difficulties managing stress  in those who had suffered serious childhood trauma.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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Effects of Lack of Emotional Security in Childhood.

effects of lack of emotional security

Effects of emotional insecurity in childhood

Children who grow up in emotionally secure environments are likely to develop good emotional regulation (control) in later life and are unlikely to develop significant anti-social personality traits (characteristics). However, when there is a lack of emotional security and the environment is hostile, the child will tend develop ‘avoidant attachment’ with the parent/s or carer/s (ie avoid interaction with them where possible) and is likely to become aggressive (especially if male – Renken et al, 1989). This is especially likely if the parents are often angry (either with each other or with the child).

In this situation, the child will generalize from his experiences and come to see others as hostile and likely to reject him/her. Also, because s/he is dependent upon the parents s/he will often be unable to fully express the true level of his/her anger towards them so will tend to lessen it by avoiding contact with them. This avoidant behavior, then, is not genetic, but a learned defensive response.

Once the child has learned this response, and both defensiveness and expectation of harsh treatment by the parent/s or carer/s has become ingrained, s/he does not stand to lose much by rebelling and going against their wishes. This leads to the parent controlling, or attempting to control, the child by instilling yet further fear in him/her.

This pattern of maladaptive interaction between the parent and child can adversely affect how the child’s brain develops. On a biochemical level, the hostile environment in which the child finds him/herself trapped can lead to the brain receiving insufficient opiates. This means that the medial prefrontal cortex fails to develop properly. The behavioural effect is that the child grows up believing others will either pay him/her no attention or will act in a hostile or aggressive manner towards him/her. In essence, then, he generalizes his/her experience of how his/her parent/s or carer/s treat him/her into his/her belief system relating to how s/he expects others will treat him/her.

Studies have found (eg Dodge et al, 1987) that boys who have been brought up in this type of environment are often likely to interpret the behaviour of others towards them as hostile even when, in objective terms, this is not the case. In other words, their perception of reality may become distorted by the way in which the environment they have grown up in has affected their brain development.

I hope you have found this post of interest. Please leave a comment if you wish – I will respond asap.

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Recovery: How the Brain can ‘Rewire’ Itself (Neuroplasticity).

childhood_trauma_effects

Severe childhood trauma can adversely affect the way in which the brain develops, leading to, for example, extremes in anxiety or great difficulty in controlling emotions. However, there has been exciting research conducted showing that the brain is able, under certain conditions, to ‘rewire’ itself, correcting its own faulty circuitry, and, thus, alleviating the behavioural and emotional problems caused by the original damage.

The adult brain is much more changeable and modifiable than had previously been believed. There is now a large amount of evidence to show that damaged neural (brain) circuitry resulting from severe childhood trauma can be corrected, reshaping our brain anatomy and consequent behaviour, with the right kind of therapeutic interventions. In other words, it is now clear that brain architecture continues to change throughout adulthood and this can be manipulated in highly beneficial directions.

Many people who suffer extreme childhood trauma go on to develop personality disorders as adults; one hallmark of these disorders is rigid, destructive behavioural patterns. Research is now showing, however, that certain therapeutic interventions, due to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself), can change those behaviours to become more flexible and adaptive (helpful in creating a more successful life).

Another problem those who have suffered extreme childhood trauma  develop later on is extreme and obsessive worry which can be so severe it is pathologically categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For the purposes of explaining how neuroplasticity works, let’s take that (ie OCD) as our example of a problem which needs to be alleviated.

With OCD, obsessive worries can become so extreme that the person experiencing them becomes actively suicidal. Such a tortured state of mind can persist for months or even (as in my own case) years. Indeed, one suicide attempt nearly killed me and I even underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — to no avail, most regretably (see the ‘My Story’ category if you want to read a bit more about this profoundly distressing period of my life). When anxiety is this pathological, medications may dampen the symptoms somewhat, but, this, of course, fails to address the root psychological cause of the problem.

With this kind of anxiety, terrible and terrifying events are unremittingly anticipated – whether these are largely imagined or not is not the point : the problem is that the threats FEEL real. When something truly appalling is even remotely possible, in the mind of the individual experiencing obsessional anxiety, it FEELS INEVITABLE.

In order to address such life-threatening (due to risk of suicide) conditions, the psychologist Jeffrey Schwartz has developed a NEUROPLASTICITY-BASED TREATMENT; it has already yielded excitingly successful results.

To understand his form of treatment, let’s first examine the theory of why those suffering from OCD become mentally fixated on their intense anxieties.

Schwartz, first of all, compared the brains of those who suffered from OCD with the brains of those who did not (by taking scans). After he delivered his form of psychotherapy, he took the scans again which revealed the brains of the patients had normalized.

In ‘normal’ people, when something goes wrong, there is a period of anxiety which gradually wears off. However, with OCD sufferers, the period of anxiety is not only much more intense but also maintains an iron mental grip on the sufferer – the individual becomes ‘stuck’ in this intense anxiety phase. So what is going on in neurological terms?

Schwartz generously enlightened us in the following manner :

1) When something anxiety inducing occurs, a region of the brain, known as the ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX, is alerted. Activity in this region of the brain is far greater in those who suffer OCD – it becomes HYPERACTIVE.

2) A chemical message is then sent from that brain region to another brain region – the CINGULATE GYRUS, triggering the anxiety response. IN PEOPLE WITH OCD, the activity here is, again, far more than normally intense. Crucially, too, in people with OCD, the intense activity in this brain region STAYS ‘LOCKED ON’ (as if the ‘ON SWITCH’ which has activated it CANNOT BE ‘SWITCHED OFF’). Indeed, Schwartz referred to this phenomenon as ‘BRAIN LOCK’. (In ‘normal’ individuals the activity in the stimulated brain regions gently fades away, as the brain designed it to do).

The treatment Schwartz developed is designed to ‘UNLOCK’, and normalize, the manner in which the brain’s circuitry works.

THE FIRST STEP in the therapy is for the OCD sufferer to RELABEL what s/he is experiencing AS A SYMPTOM OF HIS/HER OCD. S/he should remind him/herself that it is ‘just’ the neurological malfunctioning (the ‘brainlock’) which is the true cause of his/her discomfort, NOT the content of the anxiety itself. This relabeling provides some mental distance from the content of the obsessive concern. The more the person can concentrate on the physiological reasons for the feeling of distress, and the more s/he can distance her/himself from its actual content, the more effective the therapy tends to be.

Once this has been acknowledged, THE SECOND STEP is to REFOCUS THE ATTENTION ON SOMETHING POSITIVE and, ideally, pleasure-inducing.

As the person gets better at implementing these steps, new brain circuits start to develop : the obsessive circuits begin to be bypassed. Of course, changes do not materialize instantaneously – the brain takes time to ‘rewire’ itself.

If the person finds implementing the above two steps difficult to do, s/he should remind him/herself that even distancing him/herself from the content of the anxiety and doing something pleasurable instead for just one minute will help develop the beneficial new brain circuitry.

Two rather pithy sayings, often quoted by psychologists, help us to remember the theory behind the therapy :

– ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’

– ‘neurons that fire apart, wire apart’

To end this post with an encouraging statistic, it is worth recording that 80% of Schwartz’s patients got better when this therapy was combined with medication.

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How Neurological Problems Relating to Childhood Trauma can be Addressed.

childhood-trauma-fact-sheet

As I said in my previous post, neurological problems resulting from childhood trauma can be reversed, and it is to the research into this exciting and fast developing area of study that I now turn.

Studies have shown that because SEROTONIN (a chemical, also known as a neurotransmitter, in the brain) can become depleted by childhood trauma, ANTI-DEPRESSANTS (eg. setraline) which increase the availability of serotonin in the brain can help to REVERSE the harmful effects of childhood trauma on it.

However, the beneficial effects of anti-depressant treatment is greatly increased if, in addition, the childhood trauma survivor’s ENVIRONMENT is also significantly improved, providing as many positive experiences as possible. Indeed, positive experiences can BENEFICIALLY AFFECT BRAIN CHEMISTRY (eg. by increasing the availability of serotonin and other important neurotransmitters in the brain), just as anti-depressants can.

So: brain chemistry can be affected by environmental factors, as well as by medication.

Because survivors of childhood trauma often FEEL OVERWHELMED BY THEIR EMOTIONS, studies have been conducted which also show that activities that discharge these emotions in a creative or constructive manner can also change brain chemistry for the better. Examples include drawing, painting, writing or even undertaking exercises such as hitting a punch bag at the gym.

In addition to human studies, there have also been some studies on animals. There is now a growing body of evidence that new experiences can regenerate animals’ brain cells. Studies in this area are likely to be conducted on humans in the near future.

Because many of these studies are new, their implications have not yet been fully taken advantage of in the construction of treatment programs. Indeed, it is estimated that fewer than 10% of childhood trauma survivors are receiving appropriate therapeutic interventions.

The exciting conclusion that we are able to draw from all of the above is that there is now good evidence that even if the brain has undergone neurological damage as a result of childhood trauma, this CAN BE REVERSED due to the fact that THE BRAIN CONTINUES TO CHANGE THROUGHOUT LIFE.

brain_damage_Caused_by_childhood_trauma

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Neurological Effects: How Childhood Trauma can Damage the Developing Physical Brain.

effects of trauma on physical development of brain

Recently, there have been various cutting-edge studies into the neurological effects of child abuse and child neglect- in other words, how childhood trauma has been shown to damage the developing physical brain.

It has been shown that BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS, following childhood trauma, can be scientifically traced back in origin to damage, caused by child abuse, neglect etc., to both the brain’s PHYSICAL STRUCTURE and its CHEMISTRY. As well as behavioural problems resulting from this damage, it has also been shown to impair the sufferer’s ability to LEARN.

Indeed, it has been estimated that about 75% of children in the care system could have suffered such adverse effects on the physical brain following their particular traumas.

THE POSITIVE NEWS

This is all very depressing; however, there is also good news: the damage that the brain has suffered is NOT ALWAYS PERMANENT. If therapeutic interventions are made, especially when the brain is still developing during childhood, the brain is able, to some extent (due to its plasticity), to rewire itself in such a way that development can return much closer to the norm than it would have done without such intervention. The intervention needs to include the child being given a loving, secure, stable and supportive environment.

In general, the more protracted and intense the childhood trauma, the more serious the damaging effects on the physical brain will have been.

effects of childhood trauma on the physical development of the brain

Above –  Neurological Effects : An illustration of how childhood trauma can seriously, adversely affect physical developmemt of the brain

 

WHICH BRAIN REGIONS ARE AFFECTED?

Severe and prolonged childhood trauma has been demonstrated to potentially damage:

a) THE CORTEX (the function of the cortex is to facilitate RATIONAL THINKING).

b) THE HIPPOCAMPUS (the function of the hippocampus is, in part, to facilitate the REGULATION of our EMOTIONS).

Given that these regions of the brain are sometimes damaged by childhood trauma, and given the function of these regions, we need hardly be surprised that if we have suffered childhood trauma we might find ourselves behaving IRRATIONALLY at times and finding it very difficult to CONTROL OUR EMOTIONS.

Indeed, in one study it was found those who had suffered childhood trauma were much more likely to have:

a) an underdeveloped cortex

b) a smaller hippocampus

Further studies have found that another brain area, the AMYGDALA (which also has a very prevalent role in regulating our emotions) becomes OVERSENSITIVE and OVERACTIVE in those who have suffered childhood trauma. As a result, it will often signal extreme danger – putting us constantly on ‘red-alert’, as it were – even when, in objective terms, there is no, or very little, danger threatening us. Our fear response, then, operates on a hair-trigger.

HOW BRAIN CHEMISTRY IS AFFECTED BY CHILDHOOD TRAUMA:

Studies have also found that prolonged and severe STRESS in early life can also affect the production of chemicals (also known as neurotransmitters) in the brain. For example:

a) CORTISOL (which regulates stress)

b) SEROTONIN (which is closely tied to MOOD and BEHAVIOUR)

Dysfunction of these chemicals leads, respectively, to:

a) us becoming far more susceptible and far more likely to be adversely affected by stress

b) us becoming far more prone to severe, CLINICAL DEPRESSION and much more prone than normal to IMPULSIVE VIOLENCE/AGGRESSION.

child_trauma_and_NEUROPLASTICITY, functional_and_structural_ neuroplasticity

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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