Bob Van Oosterhout

Book Exerpt -Truth and the Brain: A Practical Understanding of How It Works and What Works

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Truth and the Brain: A Practical Understanding of How It Works and What Works (uncompleted draft)
Bob Van Oosterhout, MA, LLP, LMSW

There is one discovery in brain science that stands out from all the rest in terms of it’s effect on how we live our lives.  It can be summed up in four words.

Your Brain is Forming
I believe that comparing our brains to computers and electrical wiring is unfortunate.  Computers have separate components, often manufactured in different parts of the world.  Each performs a specific function that is required for the system to operate. Wiring is fixed and unchanging.  Three stories lead me to believe that our brains are smarter than that.

The first is a PBS documentary where a man told the story of his father’s stroke.  His father had been very active and loved to run and play sports.  A severe stroke damaged the part of his brain that is thought to regulate movements related to these activities.  He was told he would never walk again.  His son dropped out of medical school to work with him saying, “You learned how to walk once.  Why can’t you learn again?”  They started spending hours each day practicing rolling and then crawling.  After months of intense effort, his father learned to walk again.  Within a few years he was running and playing sports.

Twenty years later, the father died of other causes and the son, now a doctor, requested an autopsy of his brain.  The part of the brain thought to control movement required for walking and sports was dead tissue, which he described as “mush.” Thousands of hours of practice had regenerated these pathways in other parts of his brain.

The second story was told by a brain scientist who studied taxi drivers in London.  As ancient city that expanded over centuries, London streets are not laid in a simple grid like cities designed for traffic.  There are often no easy ways to get from one place to another.  The scientist discovered that experienced cab drivers had a much larger portion of their brain dedicated to visual memory because they had learned to form pictures in their mind of where they were and needed to go.  

The third story is more personal.  I had a stroke in June, 2009.  I remember the EMT asking me to sign my name on a form as the ambulance pulled up to the Emergency Room.  I was able to hold the pen but had no idea how to sign my name.  When I was placed in a room, I asked for a pad and pencil.  It took intense concentration but after long practice, a nurse came in and asked me to sign a form.  I looked over the form and took great pride in being able to sign on the line she marked.  When she asked me to sign on another line, my mind went blank and once again, I had no idea how to proceed.  After a lot more practice, I was able to sign as quickly as before my stroke.

A doctor asked me who the president was.  I said “John Kennedy” but had a sense it was wrong.  I mentally went through each election since 1960 and was able to correctly state our current president.  It was like I came to a river and seeing that the bridge was gone, moved alongside it until I found a suitable crossing.  I was put in a room overnight and spent most of the time practicing tasks I had been unable to do during my evaluation.  It required more concentration than any other time in my life but I was able to master each of these tasks and can do them all today without effort.

You might say that the man who learned to walk again, London cab drivers, and I all “rewired” our brains.  “Rewiring” is a common way to describe this process but I believe it is misleading.  
There are no “wires” in our brains.  Thoughts and experiences form links between brain cells called neurons.  Each new experience creates a new pathway.  Memory research demonstrates that these pathways are not fixed.  Each time we recall an event, a new pathway is formed that is very close to the old one.  The pathways merge in places as we recall the same event a number of times.  The merged pathway may be different than the first pathway formed in the experience of the event.

One example of research that supports this finding is a study of memory of an airplane accident in the Netherlands.  Eye witnesses interviewed immediately after the event did not report seeing any smoke but there were widespread news reports that the plane was smoking before it crashed.  When the same witnesses were interviewed days later, they reported seeing smoke even though unreported videos showed that there was no smoke.  The initial pathway formed by a single experience was overridden by listening to multiple news reports over the next few days.

“Hard-wired” is a term often used to describe brain pathways that are well established.  It often refers to connections related to survival, particularly the fight/flight/freeze response.  I have worked with people who committed or were threatening violence most of my career and often had to intervene to bring calm a violent incident.  I learned very early on that maintaining my own composure was critical to defusing an outburst.  I taught myself to breathe deeply in a slow even rhythm and to keep my knees bent to help me become aware of and let go of any tension that started to build.  Over time my first reaction to direct threats turned into a process of slowing down, relaxing, and focusing on understanding the situation.  The supposed “hard-wired” response of fight/flight/freeze was no longer activated.

Every thought, memory, experience, or sensation creates a series of connections between neurons that can accurately described as "roads" or "paths."  I believe this also provides a more practical way of understanding how our brain works.  The lesson that is important to remember is that our brains are always in the process of being formed.  At any given moment we are either creating new pathways or reinforcing old ones.  Paths that are not used are pruned.  

Ultimately we are in control of how our brain is formed to the extent we don’t give that power to someone else.

What Would a Map of Our Brains Look Like?
There is a tendency among some who study the brain to assume that different parts of the brain activity “controls” specific functions and activities.  This assumption is based in part on studies that look at what happens when an area of the brain is damaged.  It is important to remember that our brains are not machines.  They are living organisms that change and adapt to changing conditions.  

There are landscape features in our brain that are helpful in understand.

Number of neurons - pruning process

Brain chemicals (endorphin etc.) determine slope of roads
Repeated travel over pathways increases quality of road surface and accessibility

Who Makes the Maps?
There a lots of people who want to control how we think and what we see.  Advertisers and politicians are particularly adept at sending messages the limit our thinking to support their products or positions.  It is important to know how they do this and how we can take back control of our brains and our lives.

Pathways to Truth