Is it possible to change oneself by the power of thought?

We believed that the brain can not be changed. Now we believe that it is possible - if you try hard. But is it?


For years, she tried to be an ideal wife and mother, but now, having been divorced, with two sons, having gone through another break and desperate for her future, she felt that she had not achieved her goals, and was tired of it all. On June 6, 2007, Debbie Hampton from Greensboro, North Carolina took a lethal dose of medication. That day, she wrote a note on the computer: “I have so badly ruined this life that I have no more space here, and I have nothing to bring into it.” Then, all in tears, she climbed to the second floor, sat down on the bed, and set the singer, Daido , to play, so that, dying, listen to her songs.

But then she woke up. She was found, quickly taken to the hospital and rescued. “I was furious,” she says. - I spoiled it all. And in addition to everything, I hurt my brain. ” After Debbie woke up after a week of coma, the doctors diagnosed her with encephalopathy . “It's just a general term for the brain not working as it should,” she says. She could not swallow, control her bladder, her hands were constantly shaking. Most of the time she could not understand what she saw. She barely spoke. “I could only make sounds,” she says. “It felt like a mouth full of balls.” It was a shocking sensation, because the sounds that I heard coming from the mouth did not coincide with what I heard in my head. ” After the rehabilitation center, she began to slowly recover. But a year has passed, and progress has stalled. “The speech was very slow and indistinct. Memory and thinking worked unreliably. I did not have enough energy to live a normal life. I thought that the day was not in vain if I was able to unload the dishwasher. ”

Around this time, she tried a new treatment, neurotherapy. To do this, the doctors watched her brain while she was playing a simple game like Pac-Man, controlling the movements of the character with the help of brain waves. "In ten sessions, my speech improved." But a real breakthrough happened when her neurotherapist suggested she read a book, the international bestseller Brain Plasticity, authored by Canadian psychotherapist Norman Doydzh. “My God,” she says, “for the first time, they showed me how to cure my brain. And that this is not just possible, but depends only on me. "

After reading Doge's book, Debbie began to live, as she says, a “healthy brain” life. These included yoga, meditation, visualization, diet and support for a positive psychological attitude. Today she has her own yoga studio, she wrote an autobiography and a guide to “healthy for the brain life”, and also runs the site The science of neuroplasticity taught her that “you do not need to put up with the brain with which you were born. You may have a certain genetics, but everything you do in life changes your brain. This is your magic wand. " Neuroplasticity, she says, “allows you to change your life and turn happiness into reality. You can go from the sacrifice to the winner. This is like superpower. It's like x-ray vision. ”

Debbie is not alone in her enthusiasm for neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change itself in response to what happens to a person in his environment. The claims about the benefits of this ability are widespread and surprising. Half an hour of googling, and you will find information that neuroplasticity is a “magic” scientific discovery, demonstrating that our brain does not have a rigid circuit, like a computer, as it was thought before, but more like plasticine or oil. This means that “our thoughts are capable of changing the structure and functioning of the brain,” and that by performing certain exercises, we can actually physically increase the “strength, size and density” of the brain.

Neuroplasticity is “a collection of wonders that occur in your skull,” that is, we can all succeed in sales and sports, and learn to love the taste of broccoli. It is able to cure food disorders, prevent cancer, reduce the risk of dementia by 60%, and help discover our “true essence of joy and peace.” You can teach yourself the "skill" of happiness and be trained to be "amazing." And age is not a hindrance. Neuroplasticity demonstrates that "our mind is designed to improve with age." And it doesn't even have to be complicated. "Just changing the way to work, shopping at another store, using a non-main hand for combing, you can increase the power of your brain." As the famous advocate of alternative medicine Deepak Chopra said : “Most people think that their brain controls them. We say that we control our brain. ”

Debbie's story is a mystery. Techniques that promise to change her brain through an understanding of the principles of neuroplasticity obviously brought her great benefits. But does neuroplasticity really look like superpower, like x-ray vision? Is it possible to increase the weight of the brain with thought? Is it possible to reduce the risk of dementia by 60%? And learn to love broccoli?

Some of these questions sound silly, and some don't. This is the problem. It is difficult for a person not connected with science to understand what neuroplasticity really is, and what its true potential is. “I have met with monstrous exaggerations,” says Greg Downey, an anthropologist at the University of Macquarie, co-author of the popular blog “Neuroanthropology”. "People are so enthusiastic about neuroplasticity that they can persuade themselves to believe in anything."


For many years, there was a consensus that the human brain was unable to create new cells upon reaching adulthood. Having matured, you enter a phase of a brain decline. This view is most famous way expressed so-called. founder of modern neuroscience Santiago Ramon y Kahal . Having become interested in neuroplasticity, he then began to treat her skeptically, and in 1928 wrote: “In adult centers, the nervous paths are in some way fixed, completed, unchanged. Everything can die, nothing can be reborn. Changing this cruel sentence is a matter of the science of the future. ” Kakhaly's gloomy forecast sounded all XX century.

Although the idea that the adult brain can undergo significant positive changes was periodically paid attention to, it was usually avoided in the 20th century, as the young psychologist Ian Robertson found out in 1980. Then he just started working with people who survived a stroke at the Astley-Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh, and was surprised at what he saw. “I moved to a new area of ​​neuro-rehabilitation,” he says. At the hospital, he saw adults go through occupational therapy and psychotherapy. And he thought - if they had a stroke, it meant that part of the brain was lost. And if part of the brain is dead, then everyone knows that this is forever. So how is it that periodic physical therapy helps? There was no point. “I tried to understand which model works here? - he says. “What are the theoretical foundations of what is happening?” The people who answered his questions were very pessimistic by today's standards.

“Their whole philosophy was compensatory,” says Robertson. “They thought that external therapy simply protected from further deterioration.” At some point, still not understanding very much, he took a textbook explaining how this all should work. “There was a head for wheelchairs and a head for walking sticks,” he says. “But there was absolutely nothing about the idea that therapy is really capable of influencing the resumption of physical connections in the brain. Such an attitude sent back to Kahal. He had a strong influence on the mood, who claimed that the adult brain was rigidly built, and could only lose neurons, and that if you damage it, you can only help the surviving parts of the brain to build detours around the damage. ”

But Kahal’s forecast contained a challenge. It was only in the 1960s that the “science of the future” first took hold of it. Two stubborn pioneers, whose stories are mentioned in Doge's bestseller, Paul Bach-i-Rita and Michael Merzenich . Bach-i-rita is perhaps best known for his work in helping blind people “see” in a radically new way. He wondered if it was possible, instead of receiving information about the world through the eyes, to transmit it in the form of vibrations through the skin. People sat in a chair, leaning back on a metal sheet. 400 plates were pressed to the back of the sheet, vibrating in accordance with the movement of the object. Bach-i-Rita devices became more complicated (the most recent of them is attached to the language), and as a result, people who are blind since birth began to tell what they can “see” in three-dimensional space. Only after the beginning of the era of brain scanning technology, scientists began to see evidence in favor of this amazing hypothesis: the information obtained was processed in the visual cortex. Although the hypothesis has not yet been clearly approved, apparently, the brain of people redid itself radically and with benefit for them - in a way that was considered impossible for a long time.

In the meantime, Merzenich in the 1960s helped confirm the presence in the brain of "maps" of the body and the outside world, and their ability to change. He then developed a cochlear implant that helps hearing deaf people. It works on the principle of plasticity, because the brain needs to adapt to receiving sound information from an artificial implant instead of an ear snail (not working for the deaf). In 1996, he helped found a Fast ForWord educational software company to “improve children's cognitive skills with periodic exercises based on plasticity and improving brain function,” according to their website. As Doyge writes: “In some cases, people who have suffered from cognitive problems all their lives experience improvement after only 30–60 hours of work with this system.”

And although it took several decades, Merzenich and Bach-i-Rita helped prove that Kahal and the scientific consensus were wrong. Adult brain is plastic. He is able to change himself, sometimes even radically. This was a surprise for experts, for example, for Robertson, who now works as a director of Trinity College at the Dublin Neurobiological Institute. “I recall lectures at the University of Edinburgh, when I gave students incorrect information based on dogma, which stated that dead brain cells are unable to recover, and plasticity only works in early childhood.”

Only after the publication of several striking experiments that included brain scans, did the new truth begin to be encoded in the synapses of the masses. In 1995, neuropsychologist Thomas Elbert [Thomas Elbert] published a paper on musicians playing stringed instruments, showing that the “cards” in their brain, representing each finger on their left hand — they used to play — were increased compared to people’s cards, not doing music (and compared to their own right hands). This showed that their brain rewrote itself as a result of many hours of practice. Three years later, a team of Swedes and Americans, led by Peter Erikson from the University Hospital of Salgren, published in Nature magazine a study that demonstrated for the first time that neurogenesis — the creation of new brain cells — can take place in adults. In 2006, a team led by Eleanor Maguire from the Neurobiological Institute at University College London discovered that urban taxi drivers in one part of the hippocampus contain on average more gray matter than bus drivers, thanks to their incredible knowledge of the maze of London streets. In 2007, Doyd's Brain Plasticity was published. In a review of the book, the New York Times announced that "the possibilities of positive thinking have finally gained scientific confirmation." In more than 100 countries, it has been sold in quantities of more than a million copies. Suddenly, neuroplasticity penetrated everywhere.


Pretty easy, and probably even fun to treat it with cynicism. But neuroplasticity is actually an amazing thing. “We know that almost everything we do, all our behavior, thoughts, emotions, physically change our brain due to changes in chemistry or brain function,” says Robertson. “Neuroplasticity is a constant of the properties of the very essence of human behavior.” He says that such an understanding of brain abilities opens up new technologies for the treatment of an amazing spectrum of diseases. "I believe that there is practically no disease or damage for which it would be impossible to find clever brain stimulation through behavior, possibly combined with other stimuli."

Does he agree that the possibility of positive thinking has gained scientific confirmation? “In short, yes,” he says. “I think that people have far more opportunities to control the brain than is believed.” More: yes, but not without a dirty trick. First, our genes influence this. Of course, I ask Robertson, they have a significant impact on everything from our health to our character? “My personal rough estimate is 50/50; how nature affects and how nurturing affects, he says. “But we need a positive attitude towards those 50% that relate to the environment.”

An additional complication to the already confusing public discussion of neuroplasticity is the fact that this word itself can have several meanings. In general, says Sarah-Jane Blackmore, deputy director of the London Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, it means "the ability of the brain to adapt to changing external stimuli." But the brain is able to adapt in different ways. Neuroplasticity can describe structural changes in which neurons are created or die, when synaptic connections are created, amplified or reduced. It can also refer to a functional reorganization, such as the sightless patients of Paul Bach-i-Rita, whose devices switched their brains to use visual cortex, which had not functioned before.

On a larger scale of development, there are two categories of neuroplasticity. They are "very different," says Blackmore. "They need to be distinguished from each other." In childhood, our brain goes through a phase of "experience-waiting." He “expects” to learn some important lesson based on his environment at certain stages, for example, to acquire speech skills. Our brains do not complete this development until about 25 years. “That's why car insurance for people under 25 is so expensive,” says Robertson. “Their frontal lobes are not completely tied to the rest of the brain.” They lack the ability to predict risks and impulsive behavior. ” And there is still neuroplasticity "experience-dependence." “The brain does this by examining something, or when something changes in the environment,” says Blackmore.

One of the exaggerations attributed to science is due to the merging of these two different types of changes. Some scientists write as if everything can be considered “neuroplasticity,” so it becomes revolutionary, magical, and worthy of media coverage. But there is no news in that, for example, that our environment greatly affects the brain at a young age. However, in the book Brain Plasticity, Norman Doyge reviews a wide range of human sexual interests and calls him "sexual plasticity." Neuroscientist Sophie Scott, deputy director of the London Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, has doubts about this. “It's just how the growth process affects your brain,” she says. Doge even uses neuroplasticity to explain cultural change, for example, the universal acceptance of the fact that in the modern world we are getting married because of romantic love, and not because of socio-economic amenities. “This is not neuroplasticity,” says Scott.

Here's the truth about neuroplasticity: it exists and works, but this is not a magical discovery, which would mean that you can easily transform yourself into an adoring broccoli, running marathons, immune to the diseases of the superphygenic genius. "The deep question," says Chris McManus, a professor of psychology and medical education at University College London, is, "why do people, even scientists, want to believe in it?" She is interested in the causes of general obsession with neuroplasticity, and she thinks it is just the latest version of the myth about the transformation of oneself, which has been pursuing Western culture for many generations in a row.


“People have a lot of fantasies and dreams, and we, in my opinion, are not particularly good at translating them,” says McManus. “But we like to think that when someone does not succeed in life, they can transform themselves and become successful.” It's all the same Samuel Smiles , isn't it? His self-help book, Self-Help, was an example of positive thinking for Victorian times.

Samuel Smiles (if frankly, he was my great-great-uncle), is usually known as the inventor of the movement "help yourself" and the author of the book, which, like Doige's book, turned to something deep for the population and became an unexpected bestseller. His optimistic appeal spoke of a new, modern world, and the dreams of men and women who lived in it. “In the 18th century, landowners had power,” says historian Kate Williams. - Smiles wrote in the era of the industrial revolution , the spreading education and economic opportunities offered by the Empire. For the first time, a middle-class man could live well, just working hard. To achieve success, they needed a solid work ethic, and this is what Smiles gave them in the book “Help Yourself”.

In the second part of the XIX century, thinkers from the United States adapted this idea so that it reflected the national faith in the creation of a new world. Adherents of Religious Movements New Thinking , Christian Scienceand Metaphysical Healing removed most of the talk about hard work, which the British insisted on, and created a movement of positive thinking, which, according to some, gave scientific evidence of neuroplasticity. Psychologist William James calls this a "movement to heal the mind", "an intuitive belief in the salutary ability of a healthy mental attitude as such, in the all-conquering effectiveness of courage, hope and trust, and in appropriate contempt for doubts, fear, unrest and all nervous states of consciousness." It was an American idea that belief in yourself and optimism - thoughts alone - could give you personal salvation.

This myth that we can become what we want to achieve our dreams, if only we have enough faith in ourselves - appears again and again, in our novels, films and news, in a TV show where singers compete and Simon Cowell participates [ one of the largest representatives of the British show business; most famous as a judge was produced by the television show American Idol, Pop Idol, The X Factor UK and Britain's Got Talent / approx. trans.], and in such unexpected ideas a fix, like neuroplasticity. The previous, surprisingly similar embodiment of this idea was neuro-linguistic programming , which suggests that states such as depression are just patterns learned by the brain, and that success and happiness is only a matter of reprogramming it. This idea was manifested in a more scientific form, according to McManus, in the form of a “standard sociological model” [standard social science model, SSSM]. "This is an idea from the 1990s, according to which all human behavior can be reformed, and genetics has no meaning."

But adherents of plasticity have an answer to a cunning genetic question, as well as an influence on everything related to health, life and well-being. Their answer: epigenetic. This is a relatively new understanding of the ways in which the environment can affect gene expression. Deepak Chopra says that epigenetics has shown us that "regardless of the nature of the genes we inherit from our parents, the dynamic changes at this level help us to influence our destiny almost unlimitedly."

Jonathan Mil, a professor of epigenetics at the University of Exeter, dismisses such statements as “chatter”. “This is a truly fascinating science,” he says, “but it would be too much to say that these processes completely redo your brain and the work of genes.” And so says not only Chopra, he adds. Popular newspapers and scientific journals are also to blame for this myth. “There are a variety of jaundiced headlines. People who have long been engaged in epigenetics, fall into despair, in particular, because it is used to explain all sorts of things without any real evidence. ”


Epigenetics does not justify our cultural expectations about personal transformation, and the same can be said about neuroplasticity. Even some of the more convincingly sounding statements, says Ian Robertson, have not yet been confirmed. Take a 60% reduction in the risk of dementia. “There is not a single scientific study that would show that some kind of intervention would reduce the risk of dementia by 60%, or by any percentage,” he says. “No one has conducted such studies using appropriate methods with control groups so that a causal link can be seen.”

Indeed, the clinical results of many famous therapies using the principles of neuroplasticity were surprisingly mixed. In June 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized an advertisement for the latest iteration of Bach-i-Rita devices for the blind, providing “vision” through language, citing successful research. With this 2015 review from Cochrane [ international non-profit organization studying the effectiveness of medical technology / approx. trans.] CIM therapy [constraint induced movement therapy] —the cornerstone therapy of neuroplasticity advocates that improve motility in people who have experienced a stroke — found that “the effect of these advantages on increasing human abilities is unconvincing.” Meta-analysis of the 2011 Fast ForWord technology from the godfather of the neuroplasticity of Michael Merzenich, so beautifully described by Doge, did not find "no evidence" that it is "effective as a therapy for children with speech or reading difficulties." This, according to Sophie Scott, applies to other therapies. “There was a lot of enthusiasm about brain training techniques, but their large studies do not show much effect,” she says. “Or they demonstrate that you have improved your skills in working with what you have been training with, but this does not extend to the rest of your opportunities.”In November 2015, a team led by Clive Ballard at King’s College London discovered evidence that online brain-training games help improve logical reasoning, increase attention and enhance memory in people over 50.

One can understand why people have so many hopes when they read stories about miraculous restorations from brain damage, in which people again begin to see, hear, walk, and so on. Such exciting stories make you believe that everything is possible. But usually they describe a very specific form of neuroplasticity - functional reorganization - which occurs only in certain circumstances. “The restrictions are partly architectural,” says Greg Downey. “Certain parts of the brain do a better job with certain tasks, partly simply because of their location.”

Another limitation for people who dream of developing superpowers is the simple fact that all parts of the normal brain are already occupied. “Reorganization after, for example, amputation, happens simply because you leave the somatosensory cortex area out of work,” he says. A healthy brain does not have free resources. “It is used for what it is used for, and it cannot be trained to do something else. He is already busy with something. ”

Age also presents problems. “Over time, ductility decreases,” says Downey. - You start with a large supply of it, and the space for maneuvers slowly decreases. Therefore, brain damage at age 25 is a completely different matter than damage at age 7. Plasticity provides you with a start with great potential, but you are laying down a future for yourself, which over time is increasingly determined by what you have done before. ”

Robertson talks about the therapy of a famous writer and historian who has survived a stroke. “He completely lost his ability to express language,” he says. - He could not say a word, could not write. A lot of therapies were applied to him, but no stimulations were able to restore him, because his brain became extremely specialized, and developed a whole network designed to give out perfect language constructs. ” Despite what beliefs the current flows in our culture attract us, the brain is not plasticine. “You cannot open new areas in it,” says McManus. - It can not be expanded to other parts. The brain is not a mass of gray porridge. You can't do anything at all. ”

Even those people whose lives have changed due to neuroplasticity find that changing the brain is not so easy. Take recovery after a stroke. “If you need to restore the use of the arm, you may have to move it tens of thousands of times, until you have new nerve paths,” says Downey. “And after that there are no guarantees that it will work.” Scott speaks about the same about speech and language therapy. “50 years ago there were dark times, when after a stroke, you did not have such therapies. Now it becomes clear that they are, but such things just do not get it. "

Those who uncontrollably preach new areas like neuroplasticity or epigenetics sometimes find themselves guilty of saying that our genes don't matter at all. A layman may perceive their enthusiasm as if upbringing easily overcomes nature. This story attracts a huge number of people who read newspapers, blogs and gurus' works, because our culture supports it, and because we want to believe in it: a story about the possibilities of a radical personal transformation, about our potential to be anyone and do anything, that we can achieve happiness, success, salvation - you just need to try. We are dreamers to the very synapses, people of the American dream.

To these ideas, of course, our plastic brain set us up. As we grow, the optimistic myths of our culture are so firmly embedded in our sense of self that we can forget that they are just myths. The irony is that when scientists describe how the blind see, and the deaf hear, and we take it as stories of miracles - our neuroplasticity is to blame.

The article mentions an episode from the life of a woman who tried to commit suicide. In Russia there are several free psychological services, their coordinates can be found, for example, in this collection . To search for international assistance services there is the site Befrienders Worldwide .


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