Mind Matters: The changing brain

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The brain has been on my mind lately. Last weekend through
sleet and snow like an eager letter (not to mention junk mail) carrier, I
trekked to City Line Avenue to hear two eminent M.D. writer-researchers speak
on the plasticity of the brain. Norman Doidge is the author of “The Brain That
Changes Itself.” Dan Siegel has written several books, most recently
“Mindsight.” (I have referred to his books in previous articles—particularly to
his book with M. E. Hartzell, “Parenting from the Inside Out.”

There are vast implications for us from all the ongoing
brain research. Many psycholotherapists, perhaps particularly family
therapists, have intuited for years that interactions with others, and that
family relationships inparticular have profound effects on the developing
child’s mind. Also, the pioneer in education, Maria Montessori, in Italy in the
early 1900’s, knew how much the child was “an absorbent mind,” a sponge.

Now we may relate her educational methods to be geared to
the affluent who can afford private pre-school. But in fact, Montessori
utilized her methods first with Italian children who were poor and considered
limited in ability and IQ. Her schools, which allowed the children freedom of
movement and individualized experiences, also promoted teamwork and
collaboration.

So now brain researchers are proving with clinical data,
derived from technological advances with MRI’s and CAT scans that indeed human
interaction directly affects the development of the brain, its structures and
neurochemistry.

Dan Siegel informs us that relationships are key for
stimulating neuronal activation and growth. (For this process, he uses the
mnemonic SNAG.) Relationships, although crucial in early stages of development,
remain significant until our last breath.

Doidge and Siegel point out that we used to consider the
brain like a machine, a computer. It is not. Our brains and nervous system are
in process and change—not at all fixed, rigid structures.

There is an upside and downside to the plasticity. On the
one hand our brains can be remarkably adaptable, with areas of the brain taking
over other areas that have been injured. On the other hand, the responsiveness
of plasticity can be problematic in such things as drug abuse or other
addictions. (Dopamine chemistry of the brain, such as with the use of
marijuana, can be irreversibly affected.)

There were several memorable “takeaways” from the
conference.

Effortful attention is necessary! Use it or lose it! We are
reminded that yes we do need brain exercise and we do need to challenge our
brains with something NEW! Siegel informs us that while an infant’s brain
circuits that help consolidation of information and experience are “always on,”
we, as we age, “turn off.” We then don’t make the effort to pay attention to
learn and we actually stop exerting ourselves mentally. This is reversible by
revving up our curiosity. Our brains need novelty. Not only do we benefit from
mental activities, but also from aerobic exercise.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it turns out we
humans need a dose of it to live just one life.

We and our brains also benefit from engaging in mindfulness
practices which heighten our awareness of ourselves and others. Mindfulness has
become a buzzword in many circles these days. However, given its long history
throughout the world, mindful awareness of being in the moment is no fad. Again
brain research gives us direct evidence that practicing mindfulness meditation
can significantly change neural patterns.

Heightening awareness and observation of ourselves, becoming
reflective rather than reactive, promotes our own neural integration and mental
health. And because we and our brains need relationship and are dependent on
interaction, mindfulness of self correlates to healthier interaction with
others. As Siegel notes in “The Mindful Brain,” “Today, more than ever, we
desperately need a scientifically grounded view that supports our societal
encouragement of reflection to promote compassion and care for each other.”

Books to consider:

“The Brain That Changes Itself,” Norman Doidge

“The Mindful Brain,” Daniel Siegel

“The Neuroscience of Human Relationships,” Doug Cozolino

“The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” Christopher Germer
and Sharon Salzberg

 

• Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling
psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She
welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com
or (610)388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com.

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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