Dr. John Young 4/20/08
Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville
Train Your Brain
No one knew much about the brain until the 20th century. Most scientists of the brain until twenty years ago agreed with Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the Spanish neuro-anatomist who won the 1906 Nobel Prize in Medicine, who said: “In the adult brain the nerve paths are fixed, ended, and immutable. Perhaps future science can change this harsh decree, working to impede or moderate the gradual decay of the neurons, to overcome the almost inevitably rigidity of their connections.” People assumed that we were all born with a genetically determined brain of a certain size and potential with little we could do to alter its capacities and functioning. Most assumed that our intellectual chances were significantly predestined; our minds’ fates sealed. However, these scientific dogmas have been significantly replaced in recent years by a vastly different view of the brain, the concept of neurological plasticity.
Neurological plasticity has found that the brain is a growing, evolving, constantly changing organ. Its capacities and vitality depend significantly upon how you nourish and exercise the brain. Each of us can dramatically influence our brain’s functioning and destiny not only as a toddler, child, or young adult, but as middle-aged multi-tasker, or as a resilient senior citizen. It is at least as important how you take care of your brain as it is how you care for the rest of your body.
In this sermon I have used three books extensively. Train Your Mind to Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley, who is a science writer for The Wall Street Journal. It presents the continuing dialogue between contemporary neurologists and Tibetan Buddhists. The second is Your Miracle Brain by Jean Carper, a science writer for USA Weekend. UUCJ member David Morrison gave it to me, and it focuses on how we can most adequately feed our brains nutritionally. The third is Keep Your Brain Alive by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin, a 1999 paperback that UUCJ member Jay Huebner gave me. It is a group of 83 neurobic exercises that anyone can put to use, and I would you urge all to get a copy of Keep Your Brain Alive and use it regularly.
As scientists of the brain tended to assume that the adult brain was fixed and immutable; so, the scientists of the mind, like psychologists, tended until recently to concentrate on mental illness. They were, in effect, focusing on a zero point and below, as if normal was all those who were not mentally ill. It was an unnecessarily dark view of human nature, and it set the bar far too low. There are 46,000 scientific papers on depression and only 400 on joy. But ‘normal as zero’ is not as good as it gets. ‘That’ normal mentality can still be filled with distress: anxiety, frustration, restlessness, boredom and resentment. It is possible to develop instead a different kind of normality, what the Buddhists call mindfulness. All of us face fear, disappointment, pain, and conflict, but it is possible to learn to respond to them largely with curiosity, engagement, contentment, drive, happiness and compassion. This is part of what neurologists are learning from Buddhists, who have been studying states of mind for 2500 years. There is a human normality way above not being sick.
Portions of contemporary science were falling into neurogenetic determinism, ascribing causal power to the genes one inherited from one’s parents, as if your depression, addiction, violence or criminality were the inevitable consequences of the genes you inherited. Certainly geneticists have found genes connected with certain sorts of behavior, but in the vast majority of cases these genes simply incline a person toward certain behaviors, or make it harder for them to wean themselves from such behaviors once they are systematically embarked upon them. The facts and findings of neuroplasticity systematically blow most neurogenetic determinism out of the water. It turns out that, in fact, the mind can change the brain. The conscious act of thinking about one’s thoughts in a different way changes the very brain circuits that do that thinking. You can willfully change your brains; you can internally self-direct brain evolution, adaptation, and growth throughout your life, but it requires focus, training and effort. Free will is not only alive and well, but it becomes the basis for 21st century ethics, an ethics that systematically supports personal responsibility, altruism, and compassion. Your genes don’t make you do evil, and your practiced intentions can approximate your principles both in actions and in your life’s experiences and feelings.
You feed your brain both with nutrients and with exercise. Carper’s book argues that the typical American diet and life-style tends to be brain-deadening in both ways. Most contemporary Americans exercise both their bodies and their minds very little. For instance, when people watch television they are using less of their brain than when they are sleeping. Average Americans eat way too much; far too many bad fats and fast sugars that not only ruin their bodies but particularly their brains. They over-stimulate their brains with harmful and often addictive substances, most commonly caffeine and alcohol, and then bring themselves down with other drugs. They tend to keep doing the same things in the same ways, and in the easiest, least innovative manners; so, they are systematically starving their brains. What the brain needs is modest nourishment of the right kinds, systematic physical exercise which keeps your body flexible and stretching its capacities, combined with continuing innovation and change, stretching and testing of the mind. The brain needs stimulation, and the mind needs challenge without debilitating stress. All these are possible for every one of us, from infancy until death, by choosing our environments and by learning to control our minds.
Drs. Bert and Judi Herring have been teaching many of us that we can flourish with many fewer calories per day and an eating schedule that pays more attention to our metabolism. Carper summarizes the current nutritional concentrations per week for smart brains as well as healthy bodies: much less meat, less animal and bad vegetable fat like corn oil, more fish, fish oil, and good vegetable oil like olive, flax, or canola; lots of fruits and vegetables especially colorful ones, like berries; a cup of coffee in the morning, a couple of cups of black or green tea during the day, a modest glass of red wine several times a week, a few handfuls of nuts and dried fruits, a few eggs, a little lean dairy products a day, a modest portion of dark chocolate, whole wheat pastas and sourdough breads in modest portions, sweet potatoes, whole oats, and other slow carbohydrates instead of junk foods, refined potatoes, rice or cereals.
Exercise is close to the human Holy Grail. Mature adults who walk at least an hour a day or exercise in some other way that burns off a similar number of calories are 46% less likely to get a stroke, if you cut your exercise to a half hour a day, its 26% less. You need to exercise your bodies in order to keep your brain healthy. Smart people who become couch potatoes still get dumber, lose their memories faster, and respond less well to intellectual exercises.
The Keep Your Brain Alive paperback has 83 neurobic exercises to stretch your mind and continue to re-wire and renew your brain. Most of them remind us to try different ways of doing the things we must or choose to do most days. Brush your teeth or your hair with your non-dominant hand. Dress or undress yourself at least partly with your eyes closed. Take a different way to work, eat in a different place. Almost every thing that we do, we could choose to do in a different way and still do it adequately, and whenever you do something differently you are changing your brain’s connections. Sit in a different place in church, talk with different people or join a new group periodically. Interact with someone new, visit a strange place in your own neighborhood, or try something you have always wanted to learn. There are endless ways to re-wire your brain by making different choices, and some of them may become whole new portions of your lives.
I invite your to become a conscious student of transforming your mind. Whether you call it meditation, prayer, or simply thinking, whenever you learn to focus your attention on what is truly important, to ignore distractions, to shift your attention attentively and quickly, you are gaining higher consciousness, and you are also re-wiring your neural connections, helping them to continue to grow and evolve productively, and to endure with greater health. We develop our own and others’ healthy natures by our adept and patient nurture. Children abandoned in inadequate orphanages or other institutions and later adopted by nurturing parents usually regain their physical well-being and sometimes their intellectual capacities, but through lack of nurture, they often remain emotionally handicapped. Children with only the most basic material necessities but loving and predictable nurturing often grow up not only successful but emotionally whole and balanced. There is now great evidence that people with massive disabilities or even brain injuries can re-wire and re-train themselves to not only cope but to excel and flourish. Not only for them, but for all of us, this requires the participation of some caring nurturers and predictable and loving communities but also systematic and life-long personal responsibility, discipline, innovation, and effort.
If you want to get beyond zero, you need to not only think outside of the box but to focus beyond the mundane, and to concentrate on ideals, principles and practices that get you beyond a zero line normal. 21st century living and ethics asks us all to grow beyond surviving or getting by or even just taking care of our own short-term selfish interests, and instead to evolve into responsibility, altruism, compassion, and daily practical empathy. Train your mind, not just at 10 or 20 but at 40, 60 or 80. I invite you to become a conscious student of transforming your mind, not just by changing any worn-out or unnecessarily depressed opinions about humanity or yourself, but by systematically re-wiring your neural circuits and connections, learning to control your consciousness and by so doing to achieve a degree of wisdom, a capacity for compassion, and a level of peace of mind that you thought was only for saints and world-changers.