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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

Plasticity and the Healing Mind

As we’ve spoken about before, the actual physical structure of the brain is altered and adapts to the impacts of trauma. We develop ways of seeing and responding to the world as a response to that traumatic impact and our learned responses, and the structures of our neurons change accordingly.

We have the power to transform our past, by how we think and what we think about

The neurons of our brain are cells which form an incredibly complex lattice mesh of signals, these signals are both electric and chemical. When a signal (a thought, an idea, a reaction) travels along the body of the neuron cell it is in the form of an electric charge travelling at the speed of thought. When the signal travels from one neuron to the next on it’s pathway it is a chemical (a neurotransmitter) which then tells the next neuron how to react.

The first time we have a thought or an idea or a reaction or even an action, the neurons are connecting in a new pathway of electrical impulse. The more we practice the thought or idea or reaction or action the stronger the neural pathway becomes. The saying goes: neurons that fire together, wire together. The first time we essay a thought the neural connection will be thin and tenuous. If, however, we repeat the thought over and over, the neural pathway becomes deeper, wider and stronger. More like a highway than a goat track. When we have developed a neural pathway like this we tend to think of the associated thought or idea as an intrinsic truth. When we develop this type of neural pathway for an action or reaction, we have developed a habit.

A thought that has a strong emotional charge, like a trauma memory and our responses to that memory, will have a very strong neural pathway. The neural pathway has been created by that event, and strengthened by the subsequent replaying and traumatic responses of self protection and strong emotional charge. This is one way in which trauma can impact the map of our mind.

Luckily, the converse is true. Through therapy like EMDR, counselling, EFT, and many other forms of psychotherapy, the emotional charge attached to the thought can be reduced, and the thought pathway becomes less charged and less travelled. This is the heart of brain plasticity. The abandonment of the neural pathway doesn’t mean it disappears, but it starts to lose strength and relevance to our lives in the here and now. It becomes more like a goat track than a highway; the neurons no longer fire together as often and so become less wired together. The thought or memory then loses the power to hijack our thoughts to a certain direction.

Neurons that fire together, wire together.

We have the power to transform our brain, by how we think and what we think about, to rewire connections and create new ones. This is brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity at it’s most basic. This gives us the power the transform our past and the impact it has on us now. In cases of trauma impact the brain is modifying itself in ways which are protective at the time of the trauma, but later in life may develop into maladaptive coping strategies. During healing and therapy the brain can also rewire in ways that enable us to live fuller and richer lives, freeing us from connection to past hurts and fears.

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