Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.
Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.
Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome Denise Clegg with her first article. Denise’s future articles will appear on the 20th of each month.
Your brain has a mind of its own – a cartographer. Every action, thought, memory, habit, talent, and trouble is recorded in the firing pattern of neural networks in your brain. Why is a bad habit so hard to break? Why is the electric slide effortless for some and befuddling to others, no matter how hot the disco?
Dr. Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself chronicles the academic history of neuroplasticity (the brain changing itself) and other recent developments in neuroscience from his perspective as a psychiatrist and researcher. Doidge is a clear and engaging writer, weaving together research, narrative, and interviews with leading neuroscientists including Paul Bach-y-Rita, Michael Merzenich, and V.S. Ramachandran.
BOOK REVIEW: The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (Penguin Books, 2007).
Like a bad habit or the electric slide, each moment is continually inscribed and revived by the cartographer of the mind, and each moment’s patterns and associations as well. And much like conventional cartography, our maps record not only what was once navigated, but also influence which path will likely be charted for new explorations. These neurochemical firing patterns are commonly called brain maps. They are both shaped by and creators of habit, and can be radically transformed by a range of conditions including love and trauma. When you change, they change, and this growth and flexibility is called neuroplasticity.
A core theme of Doidge’s book is how and when positive change and healing manifest in brain and behavior. In the book, Michael Merzenich notes, “Practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps” (p. 47). This is precisely the change practitioners work for with positive interventions and exercises.
What conditions facilitate this kind of change? This book offers an inspiring introduction to the answers. Positive Psychology practitioners will be happy to learn that positive emotions are particularly conducive to neural plasticity, and will find correlations between the science of positive interventions and the science of mind presented here. For example, each of the following can nurture plasticity:
- Love, bonding, pleasure, and reward
- Habit and practice
- Vision, imagery, imagination
- Motivation and stimulation
- Focus, restriction and self-regulation
Positive affect engages the pleasure and reward centers and triggers the release of neuropeptides that reinforce seeking and motivation for new learning and play a critical role in unlearning, both required for growth and change. Though Barbara Fredrickson’s research is not referenced in The Brain that Changes Itself, her work on the broaden-and-build and undoing effect of positive emotions will be a constant companion for every reader with a positive psychology background.
For instance, Fredrickson’s (2005) research shows that positive affect can “undo” physiological effects of negative emotions such as anxiety and stress. Several studies have shown that stress has a profound, damaging effect on neurogenesis, and can lead to the destruction and atrophy of neurons and suppression of new neural growth (Warner-Schmidt and Duman, 2006).
Neuropeptides associated with positive affect may also mediate a different kind of undoing effect—in this context called unlearning—on brain maps. Love, bonding, and the associated neuromodulator oxytocin may cause massive plastic change by softening existing neural networks so that new bonds and habits can be quickly learned via new connections in neural networks.
Doidge’s book suggests that positive psychology has a great deal to offer anyone interested in neural plasticity and health. Two of the most important messages of this book are that the human brain is always able to change, and that interventions work when they alter the brain’s structure and functioning. On the open ocean of the mind, you are both cartographer and navigator, and deep happiness may very well be True North.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2005). Positive Emotions. In C. R. Snyder, & Lopez, S.J. (Ed.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Warner-Schmidt, J. D., R. (2006). Hippocampal Neurogenesis: Opposing Effects of Stress and Antidepressant Treatment. Hippocampus, 16, 239-249.