Ask Dr. Rick About:

Neuroplasticity

In regard to neuroplasticity, how do our brains rewire after stopping alcohol consumption?

I am not a specialist on substance abuse and dependence. The thoughts expressed here are informal and tentative, and I encourage you to explore these topics with true experts.

A lot depends of the total history of alcohol consumption, and personal factors such as age, weight, and gender. The long-term effects of mild consumption (in terms of weight, gender, etc.) on the brain may be fairly limited and relatively quickly reset after sobriety. Then the effects of no longer drinking would be felt more through psychosocial pathways (e.g., experiencing a loss of “fun” or stress relief) than through physiological pathways – though this is a very informal tentative uneducated view.

Long-term moderate to severe drinking (defined relative to the particular individual) could affect neurochemistry in a variety of ways, as discussed in these articles:

I doubt there is any particularly clear information about how long it takes to return key neurotransmitter systems back to their original healthy activity. It’s hard to assess neurotransmitter activity in humans . . . and how informative are invasive studies of rats? How Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters (nice current summary)

The practical takeaways from the neural implications of alcohol consumption would be in sobriety to: Find other ways to relax and lower stress (compensating for the desensitization of GABA receptors).

Find forms of enjoyment and “stimulation” that are both rewarding and relatively mellow (compensating for the hypersensitization of glutamate receptors and the disruption of dopamine activity).

Through exercise and engaging complex mental activities, encourage neurogenesis in the hippocampus (compensating for the ways that high alcohol consumption damages and kills neurons).

Through social support and other means, find ways to stay sober . . . one day at a time (compensating for the ways that alcohol consumption, especially intermittent high consumption, can alter the nucleus accumbens and other reward-seeking systems in the subcortex to crave alcohol even months or years into sobriety).

Of course, there are other useful actions in sobriety besides the neurally-informed ones noted above.

What is one practice we can adopt in our everyday lives to overcome our negativity bias?

Several times a day, take in the good by really savoring a positive experience for 10-20 seconds or more. (The second chapter of Just One Thing is about this.)

Over time, much as repeated negative experiences make the brain more sensitive to them, I believe that repeatedly savoring positive experiences can train your brain to internalize them increasingly rapidly – in effect, making your brain like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.

How did you get interested in your work?

Probably like many people, I had a sense as a young child that there was a lot of unnecessary unhappiness in my school, my family, and out in the world. But I didn’t know what to do about it. Then as I got older and learned about psychology, brain science, and contemplative wisdom, I became excited about the practical tools they offered for using the mind alone to change the brain for the better.

The brain is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through us to make us happy or sad, loving or hateful, effective or helpless – so if you can change your brain, you can change your life. I have personally gained from these methods (my wife of 30 years says I have become nicer – which could be the toughest test!), and have seen many others get many benefits as well.

What changes in our brains when we decide to repeatedly focus on the way we think about and react to situations in our lives?

In practical terms, learning – brain change – is a two-stage process in which an activated experience must be installed through some kind of lasting change in neural structure or function. We become happier through having repeated experiences of happiness and related factors that get encoded – installed – into the brain.

Without installation, there is no learning, no change: in effect, the experience is wasted on the brain. This is the dirty little secret in most psychotherapy, human resources training, coaching, addiction recovery, and character education: most hard-won beneficial states of mind are momentarily positive but have no lasting value. That’s why many efforts to develop deep inner strengths in people are largely if not completely ineffective: they are indeed being fostered – but without deliberate mindful attention to sustaining them, feeling them in the body, and intentionally absorbing them into oneself, they just don’t get encoded much into the brain. The person may have a memory of a harrowing sailing trip or an intense week with Outward Bound, but is still basically just as vulnerable to stress, loss, or setbacks as ever because they didn’t “take in” those experiences.

Here is the key takeaway: it is commonplace to activate experiences of love, support, determination, endurance, and tenacity. What is rarer and more important is to bring skillful attention to installing these experiences in the brain so that they have enduring benefit for the person.

The good news is that this skillful attention can be readily developed, as we found in the research on my training in positive neuroplasticity, and as explored in Hardwiring Happiness. But we have to do the work 5, 10, 20 (usually enjoyable) seconds at a time. Then we know in our hearts that we have earned the results – which makes the strength that we develop even sweeter.

Your work is based on the idea that meditation and mindfulness can change the brain. Can you expand on this?

Actually, I’d put this a little more broadly: my work – and that of many other scholars and clinicians – is grounded in the general fact of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure.

For example, researchers studied cab drivers who must memorize London’s spaghetti snarl of streets, and at the end of their training their hippocampus – a part of the brain that makes visual-spatial memories – had become thicker: much like exercise, they worked a particular “muscle” in their brain, which built new connections among its neurons. Similarly, another study found that long-term mindfulness meditators had thicker cortex in parts of the brain that control attention and are able to tune into one’s body.

In the saying from the work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Fleeting thoughts and feelings leave lasting traces in neural structure. Whatever we stimulate in the brain tends to grow stronger over time.

A traditional saying is that the mind takes the shape it rests upon. The modern update would be that the brain takes its shape from whatever the mind rests upon – for better or worse. The brain is continually changing its structure. The only questions are: Who is doing the changing: oneself or other forces? And are these changes for the better?

In this larger context, my focus is on how to apply these new scientific findings: how to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – for psychological healing, personal growth, and (if it’s of interest) deepening spiritual practice. I’m especially interested in:

  • How the brain has been shaped by evolution, giving us problematic tendencies toward greed, hatred, heartache, and delusion (using traditional terms) as well as wonderful capacities for happiness, peace, love, and wisdom. For example, we have a brain that makes us very vulnerable to feeling anxious, helpless, possessive, fixated on short-term rewards, angry, and aggressive. These qualities helped our ancestors survive and pass on their genes, but today they lead to much unnecessary suffering and conflict on both personal and global scales.
  • “Neurologizing”, the deep Buddhist analysis of the mind: what is going on inside the brain when a person is caught in the craving that leads to suffering? Alternately, what is happening in the brain when a person is experiencing equanimity, lovingkindness, meditative absorption, or liberating insight?
  • Using neurologically-informed methods to help overcome our ancient inclinations to fear, dehumanize, exploit, and attack “them” so that 7 billion of us can live in peace with each other on our fragile planet.

In sum, this brain stuff can sound exotic or esoteric, but in essence the approach is simple: find the neural processes that underlie negative mental factors, and reduce them; meanwhile, find the neural processes that underlie positive mental factors, and increase them. Less bad and more good – based on neuroscience and Western psychology, and informed by contemplative wisdom.

Of course, much is not yet known about the brain, so this approach is necessarily an exploration. But if we remain modest about what we don’t know, there are still many plausible connections between the mind and the brain, and many opportunities for skillful intervention for ourselves, for our children and others we care for, and for humankind as a whole.

What is 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity'?

Great question. Fundamentally, experience-dependent neuroplasticity  is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure. In other words, it’s the brain’s ability to change based on what you experience.

For example, researchers studied cab drivers who must memorize London’s spaghetti snarl of streets, and at the end of their training their hippocampus – a part of the brain that makes visual-spatial memories – had become thicker: much like exercise, they worked a particular “muscle” in their brain, which built new connections among its neurons. Similarly, another study found that long-term mindfulness meditators had thicker cortex in parts of the brain that control attention and are able to tune into one’s body.

In the saying from the work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Fleeting thoughts and feelings leave lasting traces in neural structure. Whatever we stimulate in the brain tends to grow stronger over time.

A traditional saying is that the mind takes the shape it rests upon. The modern update would be that the brain takes its shape from whatever the mind rests upon – for better or worse. The brain is continually changing its structure. The only questions are: Who is doing the changing: oneself or other forces? And are these changes for the better?

Why is neuroplasticity important, and how do you use it in your work?

My focus is on how to apply the new scientific findings around neuroplasticity: how to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – for psychological healing, personal growth, and (if it’s of interest) deepening spiritual practice. I’m especially interested in:

  • How the brain has been shaped by evolution, giving us problematic tendencies toward greed, hatred, heartache, and delusion (using traditional terms) as well as wonderful capacities for happiness, peace, love, and wisdom. For example, we have a brain that makes us very vulnerable to feeling anxious, helpless, possessive, fixated on short-term rewards, angry, and aggressive. These qualities helped our ancestors survive and pass on their genes, but today they lead to much unnecessary suffering and conflict on both personal and global scales.
  • “Neurologizing”, the deep Buddhist analysis of the mind: what is going on inside the brain when a person is caught in the craving that leads to suffering? Alternately, what is happening in the brain when a person is experiencing equanimity, lovingkindness, meditative absorption, or liberating insight?
  • Using neurologically-informed methods to help overcome our ancient inclinations to fear, dehumanize, exploit, and attack “them” so that 7 billion of us can live in peace with each other on our fragile planet.

Brain stuff can sound exotic or esoteric, but in essence the approach is simple: find the neural processes that underlie negative mental factors, and reduce them; meanwhile, find the neural processes that underlie positive mental factors, and increase them. Less bad and more good – based on neuroscience and Western psychology, and informed by contemplative wisdom.

Of course, much is not yet known about the brain, so this approach is necessarily an exploration. But if we remain modest about what we don’t know, there are still many plausible connections between the mind and the brain, and many opportunities for skillful intervention for ourselves, for our children and others we care for, and for humankind as a whole.

How could you measure clinical interventions that encourage new cell growth and happiness?

This question gets at the remarkable fact under our noses all day long: our ineffable thoughts and feelings are making concrete, physical, lasting changes in the structure and function of our brains. Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is learning, including the emotional, motivational, attitudinal and skills learning that is our focus in therapy. In other words, the making of memory – especially implicit memory, the storehouse of emotional residues of lived experience, knowing “how to,” expectations, assumptions, models of relationship, etc. distinct from explicit memory, the much smaller storehouse of specific recollections and knowing “about” – the gradual change of the structure and function of the brain.

In this context, any kind of mental change is evidence of neural change. Since neuroscience is a baby science, our current, noninvasive, imaging technologies have limited capacities to measure neural change in human beings – especially given how physically fine, fast, and complex these changes are. You could put five of the cell bodies of a typical neuron side by side in the width of just one of your hairs, and five thousand of the synapses, the connections, between neurons in the width of just one hair.

Nonetheless, even though the ethics of animal research trouble and even alarm many, including me, it is the case that more invasive research on animal learning – including emotional, motivational learning, that has some parallels to therapy – has established many fine-grained details of the ways in which experiences of stress, frustration, and trauma, as well as experiences of caring, success, and safety change the nervous system.

So we presume that neural change must be occurring if there is mental change. In this light, there are now many studies with human beings that show structural and functional changes after interventions such as training in mindfulness, compassion, body awareness, and psychotherapy.

The cortex – the outer shell or “skin” of the brain – gets measurably thicker due to new synapses and greater infusion by capillaries for blood flow; key regions are more readily activated; there is also greater connectivity between regions, so they are more integrated and work better together; there are even changes in the expression of genes – tiny strips of atoms in the twisted up molecules of DNA in the nuclei of neurons.
And as your mind changes your brain for the better, these changes in your brain feed back to change your mind for the better as well. As these positive structural and functional changes in the brain occur, people become more capable and happy. For instance, training in mindfulness increases activation in the left prefrontal cortex, which supports a more positive mood.

As to new cell growth, I assume this is a reference to neurogenesis, the birth of new baby neurons, primarily in the hippocampus. We can encourage the birth of these neurons through exercise, and encourage their survival and wiring into memory networks through engaging in complexity and stimulation.

Here’s the takeaway: we can be confident in our own lives, and in our work with clients, that our efforts are bearing fruit in actual, physical changes in the nervous system. And since motivation is one of the primary factors shaping outcome in psychotherapy – and in life as a whole – this is heartening, wonderful news.

In your understanding, what are the limits of brain plasticity?

As you imply, most neuroplasticity is subtle and local, and does not change the overall architecture of the brain. I also think it is possible that there are individual variations in organic capacity for changing the brain, though I haven’t seen any studies on that (though they may exist).

I think a good starting point is to consider the vast diversity of human cultures, and the many individual examples of vast psychological changes – for better or worse – over the course of one person’s life. These illustrations of great mental plasticity are evidence for great neural plasticity in high impact ways, even if the vast majority of the synapses and circuits of the brain are unchanged.

The takeaway for me from this line of thinking is to appreciate the importance of hard work, of making little efforts each day that add up over time, to change your brain and thus your life for the better. And there’s a takeaway in terms of never betting against human potential and the human heart. Most of us have no idea how much we could grow psychologically or spiritually if we really gave ourselves to it, and put at least as much effort into it as we put into our occupation – or even our golf game!

Will you recommend some books to help me learn about positive neuroplasticity?

You can find some great books listed under “Introduction to Positive Neuroplasticity” here.

How can you erase negative associations in neural structure rather than overwriting them?

When something bad happens the brain sometimes starts to associate neutral stimulus with negative stimulus. There’s been a lot of study on this with animals. A few human examples might be being in an elevator after having a panic attack in one, or working with an authority figure when you’ve had issues with authority in the past, or being outside in the dark after being assaulted out in the dark, or speaking from the heart when that was shamed when you were young. The situations are not inherently bad, but over time we build up negative associations with them because we’ve been hurt in the past. It’s the classic idiom – once burnt, twice shy.

In studies on rats, and also in new studies with humans, the key is (A) the activation of the learned link between the neutral and the negative stimulus, and (B) the repeated activation of the neutral stimulus with no negative associations during the window of re-consolidation.

In practical terms, this would be a matter of surfacing a person’s association between a neutral and negative stimulus, and helping them understand conceptually (at least) that the neutral stimulus is actually inherently neutral. Then, after this process, repeatedly reactivate the neutral stimulus with no negative associations for the next hour or so.

Minimally, you could reactivate the neutral stimulus with neutral associations. And for maximum effect, I think it could be useful to associate the neutral stimulus with authentic positive associations, which you can think of as “antidote experiences.”

Does having an implicit memory full of positive experiences make you less dependent on day-to-day or moment-to-moment events for your happiness?

Exactly right!

People who have not internalized positive experiences and other resources are dependent upon the outside world for the provision of them – or they get stoic or defended and deny their need for such experiences. This is a mistake since they are a universal, human need, as well as the basis for coping and for the strength of mind and heart it takes to stick up for those we love and make this world a better place.

But if you do take in positive experiences – particularly the ones that are key resources for a history of lacks or wounds (e.g., current experiences of feeling cared about are critically important for healing old experiences of abandonment, rejection, dismissal, loneliness) – then you fill up your own cup and become less dependent on external conditions; in effect, your happiness becomes increasingly unconditional.

If you focus on the positive for long enough, does it actually make your brain more receptive to doing that?

Research shows that repeated practice of any positive behavior (e.g., gratitude) will increasingly incline the mind in that direction. Presumably, since all mental activity and changes entail neural activity and changes in brain structure, this changing inclination of mind must involve enduring changes in neural networks and activations.

More specifically, there is much research showing that negative experiences gradually sensitize neural networks, including for memory, in a negative direction. I don’t know of any specific studies describing an opposite effect, though there are studies showing that positive experiences and thoughts can gradually desensitize negative sensitization. This said, it’s plausible to me that a person could gradually sensitize the brain to “the good” since sensitization is such a general dynamic/mechanism in the brain – thus making the brain like Velcro for the positive. This has certainly been my own experience; I feel like I am much faster than I used to be at registering a positive experience so it “sticks to my ribs.”

Do we have to savor an experience for 10-20-30 seconds to allow it to install in the brain’s circuitry as a resource?

Extending the duration of a beneficial experience will indeed tend to increase its consolidation/installation in memory – especially implicit memory for sensations, emotions, attitudes, intentions, etc.

This would apply to all experiences in general that we hope will lead to lasting changes in neural structure or function – learning, in the broadest sense – including those experiences that we wouldn’t tend to think of “savoring,” such as an insight into oneself or others, healthy remorse, the sense of how to be more skillful in a relationship, or clarity of resolution about how to act differently in the future.

There is a little bit of research on how the duration of an experience affects its lasting impact on a person (i.e., learning), but on the whole it is remarkable how little research there is on what a person can do inside her own mind – such as extending their duration – to increase the durable gain from the experiences she is having. I’ve had to pull together research from many corners, including on non-human animals, to identify “learning factors” that could plausibly be used by individuals to steepen their growth curves, healing curves, from the experiences they are having.

So I try to be modest about what I suggest, and emphasize how it is plausible, it can’t hurt, and we need more research. Bottom-line, I suspect that there is a minimum duration of at least a few seconds for the emotional/somatic/social/etc. residues of a “typical” beneficial experience to have a chance to begin their slow process of consolidation as lasting physical changes in the brain. (“Million-dollar moments” might take a little less time to start being consolidated.) Once that threshold is met, then I think it is plausible and certainly not contradicted by research that there is a kind of “dosing effect” in which extending the duration of the experience by 5-10-20 seconds or longer tends to increase its consolidation.

Is there a connection between our emotional state and the physiology of our voices?

I don’t know of any specific research about emotional states affecting vocalization, or vice versa, but I assume there must be multiple studies about these subjects. Stephen Porges has some powerful ideas about the vagus nerve, soothing, and the innervations of this nerve complex into the middle ear so that certain sounds have a particularly calming and reassuring effect. Also, material on experience-dependent neuroplasticity suggests that positive experiences will over time alter neural structure and function for the better.

Regarding work about ``power of the sub-conscious``, ``positive visualization``, or the ``law of attraction``, how do these ideas relate to – or compare with – what you have learned or even proved in the science of positive neuroplatiscity?

Let’s think about it at two levels: (1) what’s called the “natural frame” of ordinary reality and (2) whatever may lie outside of it, which I’ll call the supernatural.

Inside the natural frame, there is lots of evidence that imagining our goals and having related experiences can build up inner resources, woven into our body (mainly the nervous system), that can help us achieve our dreams. Of course, we need to take skillful action as well. Think of the old line: “genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

As to whatever might be supernatural, my personal opinion is that there are such factors, and who knows, it could be helpful to a person to open to, invite, and draw upon such forces.

This said, I think that most if not all of the factors that shape a person’s life are to be found inside the natural frame – and there is plenty of opportunity there for psychological healing, everyday well-being and effectiveness, self-actualization, and spiritual realization. So personally that’s where I focus – including in my own practices of imagining and giving myself over to that which calls my heart.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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