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Our marvelous brains

Brain research is telling us some amazing things. When I was in graduate school, we were taught that brain development was largely complete by about age 3. We knew that children could learn in much more flexible ways than adults, but that even so, their brain structures were all in place and other than perhaps continuing to grow and develop more connections, nothing was really going to change. And we “knew” that after adolescence, and certainly after 30 or 40, it was all downhill. Nothing we could do would affect brain structures in any positive way, even though we “knew” that doing crossword puzzles and memorizing numbers was somehow good for us.

How things have changed! Not our brains, which are even better designed by our Creator than we could have imagined, but our understanding of our brains. For instance, studies have shown that severe emotionally traumatic experiences can definitely cause changes to certain structures of the brain, especially those having to do with memory. These changes can be seen using MRI technology, comparing similar groups of people who have no traumatic experience and combat veterans or victims of severe abuse. An interesting article summarizing some of this can be found here. Another article describing the symptoms and frequency of PTSD can be found here.

What is even more amazing is that our brains can heal, much more so than we used to think. Scientists use a term called “neuroplasticity” that essentially means our brains are “plastic” or changeable, even in adulthoold. We continue to manufacture new neurons all the time, and new connections are made every time we think or do something new. There are even some imaging studies that conclude that psychotherapy can lead to healing of brain structures damaged by trauma.

Another amazing area of research involves mental rehearsal of motor activity. It turns out that when we imagine ourselves doing something, the same areas of our brain are at work as when we actually do the activity. So if we mentally rehearse, in some ways we gain the same benefits as physically practicing the skill. As more studies are done in these sorts of areas, we are sure to learn more and more about how very skillful our brains are, and we will learn about better ways to help people heal, and to help people learn.

As a therapist, it is very exciting to read about these things, and very validating as well. I’ve always known that my clients were doing very deep work and that important changes were happening for them. It is wonderful and awe-inspiring to learn that at least some of these changes may be able to be seen. We truly live in very interesting times.

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