Today, the U.S. Navy named one of its ships for former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford. If you remember what happened to her three years ago, you’ll know why her presence at this ceremony is a testament of her strength and perseverance. You may also marvel at the power of her brain.
It was January of 2011, just months after I began my masters program in neuroscience and its practical application in business. Every TV station carried the news that Ms. Gifford had been shot through the head at point blank range.
I didn’t need to fully understand the brain to know that Ms. Gifford would never be the same. However, from my neuroscience studies, I did know that she could make a surprising degree of recovery. And thankfully, she has.
When you explore traumatic brain injury rehabilitation, you learn a bit about the complexity of the brain from a layman’s point of view. You also begin to get a sense—just a small taste—of the amazing capacity of an organ most of us do not begin to understand. For example, as people like Ms. Gifford recover from brain injury, they build on skills that may not have even been recognized before the injury.
What’s also amazing is that it wasn’t that long ago when others may not have shared my optimism about her recovery. Since scientists first began examining the brain, it has been considered physiologically static after childhood, or possibly into one’s teen years. For years, we’ve believed that once you reach adulthood, you’re done growing neurons and they just begin to disappear.
Not true! Research has shown that the brain can change well into people’s eighties. The essence of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change—is that we can change the structure of the brain by the way we focus our attention.
So those of us who have never experienced brain injury should also take note: we can use our brains in new ways to improve the way we live, engage with others, and treat our bodies. And I’m not the only one who’s excited by these prospects.
You can’t open a newspaper, magazine or look at the newly published books list without seeing more discoveries on the neuroscience research and applications that affect our ability to influence, change and rewire the structures of our brains. Our understanding of neuroplasticity can even impact how we treat disease!
Neuroscientists reference the brain’s ability to change as Hebbian theory or Hebb’s Law. Basically, it states that “cells that fire together, wire together.”
Every experience—including our thoughts, feelings, sensations and muscle actions—becomes embedded in the network of brain cells that produce that experience. Each time you repeat a particular thought (i.e., reiterate a perception) or action, you strengthen the connection between a set of brain cells or neurons.
Hebb’s Law is the reason I’m so insistent about tuning into one’s self-talk. Your inner voice matters more than you know. When you repeatedly have negative thoughts about yourself, you’re actually shaping your brain to believe it. Conversely, when you have positive thoughts about yourself, you unleash your greatest potential and shut down your most severe critic: you.
Your turn: What is your inner voice telling you today? Are you being kind to yourself or judgmental and critical? Stop your inner critic now by writing down five positive things about yourself. Send me an e-mail to let me know how it felt to beat that bully in your brain today. I’d love to hear from you!