I had so much fun doing these drawings! Thank you so much to everyone who entered! I wish I could have given prizes to all of you. I hope to have more giveaways in the future, so if you didn’t win this time, please try again!
Neuroplasticity Quiz Answers (and Who Got Them Right AND Why the Answers Matter!)
What is the name researchers give for the phenomenon of the human brain’s tendency to focus on things like worry, danger, anxiety, and interpersonal anger? (Answer is in, among other places, Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness.)
The answer: Brain negativity bias
Who got it right: Congratulations go to Kevin, Jill, CJ, and Sarah!
Why it matters: Our brains have evolved to focus on danger, rewards, and connection with other humans, or as Rick Hanson puts it, to make us anxious, driven, and clingy. Of these tendencies, the strongest one, and the one that is most relevant to brain negativity bias, is the propensity to worry about dangers or threats — our tendency to focus on worry, danger, anxiety, loss, and other “negatives.” This is because being on the constant watch for danger kept our ancestors alive, which allowed them to pass on their genes, so there was an evolutionary advantage to being vigilant.
Unfortunately, while vigilance may keep you alive long enough to reach maturity and reproduce, it’s very bad for your long-term health and happiness. Further, our modern-day focus on negativity is not limited to actual dangers, such as keeping us from getting into a car accident or keeping us from falling off a cliff. We actually focus on any negatives more than positives or neutrals. So, if 20 things happened to you yesterday, and 12 of them were neutral, and nine of them were positive, and one was negative, which one are you fuming about on your way home? Which one are you going to tell the sympathetic ear in your life about?
This is because our fight/flight system in our brain doesn’t understand that a computer software glitch, being late to an appointment, or having a fight with our spouse is not actually a life-or-death situation. Any situation that gets us stressed, revved up, brooding, or adrenalized is activating that do-or-die part of our sympathetic nervous system. This is what floods our bodies with stress hormones, raises our blood pressure, interrupts our digestion, dilates our capillaries, makes our heart pump faster, and affects our breathing so that we can run for our life or fight to the death . . . with our internet service provider? Yes. Our brains don’t know the difference between saber-toothed tigers and email viruses.
However, there is good news here: Once you know about the brain negativity bias, you can become aware of this tendency that is your birthright and start focusing on the positives. You can get more in touch with reality, in other words, and notice the good and neutral things, too, and dwell less on the negatives.
For example, if you just take ten seconds once or twice a day to notice what is good in the moment, you will be taking on a practice that will support your physical and mental health. There is something good in every moment. Probably on most days you can be glad that you had enough to eat for breakfast, that you can go to the bathroom on your own, that somebody in your life loves you, that the sun is shining, that you can communicate what’s in your heart or mind to someone else. Even on days that that’s not true, you can notice that your heart is beating or that you are breathing!
If you want to learn more on this topic, here’s a Psychology Today article on Brain Negativity Bias, and here’s a New York Times article on Overcoming Your Negativity Bias. Or, read Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Hardwiring Happiness.
Which three healing modalities did Donna Jackson Nakazawa detail in her book, The Last Best Cure?
The answer: Meditation, Yoga, and Acupuncture
Who got it right: Congratulations go to Sarah, who got it completely right, and to CJ and Holly, who got it mostly right.
Why it matters: The Last Best Cure is a compelling combination of memoir, medical research and science, and practical information for applying strategies to your own life. When she started her search for healing, medical journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa had multiple health problems, including autoimmune, neurological, blood, and endocrine disorders.
Her doctor urged her to use techniques that would support beneficial neuroplasticity — positive changes to her brain — to help her recover her health. The reason the author chose meditation, yoga, and acupuncture is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting their medical efficacy (more so for meditation and yoga than acupuncture at this time), and they are generally pretty accessible. You can do yoga and meditation on your own at home, or for a relatively low cost in groups or classes in the community, and acupuncture is also widely available and often covered by insurance.
The book chronicles her ups and downs and explorations. The longest portion of the book is devoted to her path in exploring meditation. She learns both metta (lovingkindness) and vipassana (insight) Buddhist techniques, and uses both walking and sitting meditation. She also finds yoga practice to be astonishing in its effects for her. In the chapter entitled, “So Why Aren’t We All Doing Yoga?” She says,
Neuroscientists are just now fully grasping the profound ways in which yoga helps to activate the healing responses of the brain and establish a positive feedback loop between state of mind and cellular vitality. As it turns out, the overall positive mood benefits of practicing yoga are more robust than what we see with other well-studied types of exercise. For instance, women who take a twelve-week class in yoga show greater improvements in mood and lowered anxiety levels than do women who expend the same amount of time and energy walking. That’s saying a lot — because, for a long time, walking has been the all-around wonder exercise for those of us with chronic health constraints.
The next paragraph describes yoga’s specific benefits for people with fibromyalgia, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and allergy. In other words, yoga and meditation are amazing tools you can use, no matter where you live, to improve your physical and mental health.
Learn more about The Scientific Basis of Yoga or support forthe healthful effects of meditation, tai chi, yoga, and acupuncture, or check out these links on Neuroplasticity and Yoga, Meditation, Cognitive Training, and Health. And of course, I recommend The Last Best Cure.
The study of the expression of genes — which genes are “turned on” or “turned off” in our genetic code — is called what?
The answer: Epigenetics
Who got it right: Congratulations go to Kathleen, CJ, Holly, Forest, Courtenay, and Sarah!
Why it matters: I’m going to quote extensively from The Last Best Cure again because even though I’ve read other explanations of epigenetics, I found this one most compelling. For one thing, she puts it in the context of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a disregulated response to stress, which resonated with me based on my own experiences as well as those of virtually all of my chronically ill friends:
…When we are repeatedly thrust into a state of hyperarousal when we are still young and our brain is developing, the physical and emotional sensations of fight or flight do more than send forth a toxic floating brain cocktail….Neurobiologist Michael Meaney recently found that this chronically elevated state of fight or flight causes deep biophysical changes in the young, developing brain. This occurs through a process known as epigenetics: biological changes that affect the expression of our genes — in this case, the genes that govern our stress hormone receptors in the brain.
Here’s how epigenetics works. Every cell in the body has the full set of chromosomes and contains all of our DNA. But the reason why one cell, during embryonic development, becomes a skin cell versus a bone cell or eye cell is because most of the genes that could be expressed are turned off. They get switched off by an epigenetic process called gene methylation in which small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to specific genes, silencing them. This gene silencing is permanent, which is why we don’t grow eyes in the back of our head. But scientists are beginning to realize that the brain is an epigenetically “priviledged” place. This process of DNA methylation can occur much more easily within the brain, allowing the brain to respond to experiences that might be good or bad, and change with those experiences over time.
Meaney has found that when the young, developing brain experiences ACEs [adverse childhood experiences], these small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to specific genes that oversee the production of stress hormone receptors in the brain. These chemical markers disable these genes, preventing the brain from successfully regulating its response to stress long into the future. The chemical markers that should govern stress hormone production profoundly disregulate the brain’s ability to moderate stress — and they impact us for life.
This methylation process tips the brain into a state of constant hyperarousal. Stuck on autopilot, inflammatory hormones and chemicals keep coursing through the body, like a leaky faucet left on, building up corrosive effects….
By the time children with a high ACE score reach adulthood, their stress hormone and fight-or-flight responses have been stuck in the “on” position for decades….
…Perturbed by all that I’ve learned — and concerned that it might be too late to change the brain that I now have — I reach out to neuroscientist Margaret McCarthy….McCarthy conducts research into how epigenetics impacts nuances of behavior and mental health. The good news, she reminds me, is that the brain is an eipgenetically priviledged place not just in terms of creating negative changes, but positive ones as well. “Our brains are malleable,” she reassures me. “Scientists are now of the mind that DNA methylation can come and go. And it may be that the reason why approaches such as meditation and mindfulness have such power is that they undo bad epigenetics or even induce new, good epigenetics.”
Which world-renowned religious leader has hosted conferences and written book introductions on neuroplasticity?
The answer: The Dalai Lama (aka Tenzin Gyatso, aka His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)
Who got it right: Congratulations go to Sarah! (A couple of people said Deepak Chopra. While he has a spiritual practice that he has written and spoken about, he is largely known as a physician who advocates alternative medicine.)
Why it matters: Well, it’s partly just interesting, I think. I mean, I picked up the book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Newsweek journalist Sharon Begley at my library, and I was surprised to see, “Introduction by the Dalai Lama” on the front cover. It was kind of like picking up a book on neuroscience and seeing, “Introduction by the Pope,” you know?
It turns out that this book is actually a report on a neuroplasticity conference organized by the Dalai Lama! He has had a lifelong interest in science — partly because he believes that science is the main “religion” of the West — and he organizes a conference every year of Western scientists and his handpicked Buddhist monks to discuss where these two areas of inquiry overlap. (For more information on this, check out the Mind & Life Institute which is dedicated to contemplative science.)
It’s also relevant because the more I learn about neuroplasticity and ways to use it to our advantage, the more I see Buddhism as the practical, spiritual application of beneficial neuroplasticity. Those of us raised in the West have a lot to gain from learning from Buddhism (which does not require being Buddhist, or even if you are Buddhist, you can still be Christian or Jewish or Muslim). I think the fact that the Dalai Lama has been curious and inquiring and supportive of Western science provides an entry for those of us enamored of Western science to become curious, inquiring, and supportive of contemplative traditions. Everybody wins!
PTSD that grows worse over time, autonomic dysreflexia after a spinal cord injury, chronic pain, tinnitus, and addiction can be examples of what phenomenon?
The answer: I would have accepted any of these answers: “the dark side of neuroplasticity,” or “negative neuroplasticity,” or simply “neuroplasticity”
Who got it right: Congratulations go to . . . me, for thinking of such a challenging question that everybody gets to learn something from the right answer?
Why it matters: Neuroplasticity is not good or bad; it just is. Our brains are changing all the time. If you are alive, neuroplasticity is occurring!
Most of the recent explosion of research and writing on neuroplasticity focuses on its positive effects: that we are not condemned to Alzheimer’s disease or poor balance as we age; that we can recover from strokes, traumatic brain injury, depression, and PTSD; that those who exercise a specific area of their brain can develop amazing skills in that area; that more children with learning disabilities or auditory processing disorders can be helped to learn and process information more easily.
But I think it’s really important for people to understand that neuroplasticity is always occurring. Whatever you are doing or thinking about is always shaping your brain. If you an elite alpine skiier, spending your time skiing down mountains, not only will you develop strong muscles in your arms, legs, and back, you will develop the parts of your brain that have to do with balance and courage and coordination and competitiveness. And because neurons are competitive with each other — you only have so much cortical real estate, which is all in use all the time — some parts of your brain that might otherwise be used for other things will be given less space.
If you spend your time worrying — if you practice worrying — a larger-than-normal chunk of your brain will be devoted to “worry circuits” which will be juiced up and ready to spark into anxiety, worry, and fear, and that will have an answering impact on your body. If you spend your time reading novels, more neurons will be recruited for language, focus, and empathy.
So, neuroplasticity cuts both ways. The more you do something, the more your brain streamlines to get good at that thing — neurons are recruited from nearby cognitive maps to do that thing, those neurons get more nutrients and get stronger, the neural pathways for that activity are the fastest and most easily accessed. If that something you are doing is good for you — meditating, reading, doing math problems, feeling compassion — the end result will be a brain that supports your health. If that something you are doing is not good for you — feeling enraged, snorting cocaine, having flashbacks of a traumatic incident — your brain is getting good at it anyway.
This is why many chronic neurological conditions become chronic, and it’s also why it can be so hard to recover from them. Likewise, it’s why there’s hope for these conditions. For example, several years ago, a friend sent me an article about PTSD that talked about how having PTSD changes your brain, making sturdy pathways that are devoted to trauma increasingly stronger. She found it incredibly discouraging because it seemed to be saying, “Your brain will become increasingly warped by trauma.”
That article was focused on the negative side of neuroplasticity. If I had known more about neuroplasticity at the time I read that article, I would have realized that it was hopeful, too: If you can build up these neuronal networks of trauma, you can also break them down!
Tinnitus, addiction, and chronic nerve pain are disorders that grow out of the way the brain changes. Thus, there are also ways to make use of what we know about neuroplasticity to change the brain to ameliorate these problems.
If you want to learn more on this topic, check out this interview with Eric Nestler on the “dark side” of neuroplasticity and its role in addiction and depression. There’s even a book called Neuroplasticity and its Dark Side.
Now the giveaway winners…
Winners of a Set of Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) DVDs
Jill Huggins and CJ Buffalo!
Congratulations Jill and CJ! Please email me your US postal mailing address where I can have the DNRS DVDs shipped to.
Winner of a Coaching Session with Me
Congratulations, Sandy! Please email me when convenient to set up your coaching session.
Winners of a Tagulator and Clicker
Kevin Skorupa and Sarah Friedel!
Congratulations, Kevin and Sarah, on your correct answers in the Neuroplasticity Quiz! You both totally rocked it. It seems really fitting that you won. Please get in touch about your preferred colors and styles of tagulators and clickers and where I should send them.
Thanks to everyone who participated! I hope you found the quiz and giveaway fun and informative!