NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS, CHANGE,
For many of you, a new year brings yet another round of New Year's Resolutions. And, unless the years have unkindly left us with a defeatist attitude, we more often than not are game to give this new-resolutions ritual another go.
True, in the back of our minds, we cannot escape the cynical voices warning us that "the leopard cannot change its spots." But we hope, at least secretly, that the bumper sticker may be right: "It is never too late to have a happy childhood"!
So, where am I in the collective exercise of penning new resolutions for the new year? Pardon me for side-tracking slightly with reference to a 1967 movie, The Graduate. You may remember that evocative moment in the movie when Mr. McGuire pulls Ben (Dustin Hoffman) aside to say one word, "plastics." Actually, the scene as well as the advice of Mr. McGuire was a harbinger of things to come in our society.
And I find it interesting that I am now speaking the same word to you -- almost -- "plasticity." Plasticity. Not as a product to be manufactured or a career to be pursued but as a word I am encouraging you to remember when you become discouraged about following those new year's resolutions and begin to wonder if change is ever really possible.
And my response is, yes, change is possible. It is possible because of the brain's incredible plasticity. That's right. The brain can change. As long as we live the brain can change. Consider these facts. The brain weighs between three and four pounds, but it contains over 100 billion neurons (cells) and 100 trillion synapses (the juncture where neurons connect with other neurons). One neuron can connect with an indefinite number of other neurons, making possible all the many and complex functions of thinking, feeling behaving, remembering, learning, valuing, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, etc.
This is no vacuous promise, but rather basic information we have been able to gather from research in recent years on the so-called "plasticity" of the brain -- its capacity to change, to heal, to create new neural pathways that make it possible for each of us to develop new patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. Speaking from his clinical perspective as Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Steven E. Hyman says this:
The crowning achievement of the brain's complexity, however, is its
plasticity. The brain undergoes significant changes in the structure and
function of neurons and synapses based on experience. Not only during
brain development but even in the mature brain, every memory that lasts
beyond a few minutes ... involves the activation of a cascade of genes
within critical neurons resulting in the synthesis of a set of new proteins
that alter the structure of synapses. Ultimately, alterations in the strength
of existing synapses, the production of new synapses, and the pruning of
others change the function of circuits in the brain and their behavior.
"The Neurobiology of Mental Disorders," The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry,
Third Edition, p. 136)
This kind of "looking into" the working of the brain is made available for research through FMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging. This is the computer-driven creation of images involving magnets and the utilization of oxygen enabling a process of image formation that shows us the brain at work, so to speak. But even back in the 1970's, Dr. William Greenough conducted an experiment with rats at the University of Illinois, in which he anticipated our present-day understanding of the brain's plasticity.
In Dr. Greenough's experiment, he compared two groups of rats. In the first group, the individual rats were isolated within the very basic cages where they generally were kept in the laboratory. But in the second group, the rats were provided a rather plush living area that was larger, enabling social interaction with other rats, games such as little treadmills, and other activities for the purpose of stimulation, exercise, and feeding and rest. In addition, the lab assistants maintained ongoing positive contact with the rats.
The results were remarkable. The rats in the second group showed a pronounced increase in growth of synapses, contrasting with the first group of rats where growth was stabilized. Greenough's conclusions were in line with the more recent research by neuroscientists that demonstrates how the brain can change and adapt to new environmental challenges throughout the life cycle of human beings.
So, yes, you are on to something when you make your new year's resolutions. Change is possible for new behavior, for the alteration of moods, for the way one looks and feels.
Ah, but yes, there is a catch. And it is this. We must take ourselves out of the "box" in which we have been stuck all or most of our lives. The box is our old pattern of thinking or behaving. We actually have to see the new possibilities, to believe that the plasticity of our brain makes change possible, and then we have to practice the new patterns of thinking, of behaving, and of feeling.
It is a promise as ancient as the age of our great religions as well as the humanist perspective of the Enlightenment; however it may be expressed, the promise is that one may experience new life. The sacrifice to be made, of course, is the giving up of one's old life -- never an easy thing. But more on that later.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year!