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What is "Brain Rewiring?"

I've recently had some people asking about "rewiring the brain." I thought I'd say a few words about it, as it can seem a bit abstract or even sound "new-agey." You may be asking yourself, "What is brain rewiring, and can it help me during benzo withdrawal?"

Firstly, the term "rewire" isn't great, and many top scientists and researchers agree on this, as our brains don't consist of wires! Therefore, there's nothing to rewire. However, we must convey an idea, and the analogy is helpful. The brain creates neural pathways, similar to running an electrical wire. And as many of you know, neurons also carry an electrical charge. Not only that, but they are covered by a myelin sheath, a kind of insulating coating that allows electrical impulses to travel quicker and more efficiently down the nerve cells.

Now, we have two key concepts to remember when looking at neuroplasticity building: a) Use it or lose it, and b) neurons that fire together wire together.

Firstly, the concept of use it or lose. As the saying suggests, when the brain doesn't use certain functions enough or altogether, it goes through a kind of synaptic pruning process. It quite literally breaks down old neurons and pathways and recycles things. This process is happening every second! Yes, right now! Our brains are constantly in motion, building and breaking down. But on a larger scale, the brain will begin to recycle certain functions if we do not use them. Hence, use it or lose it. You'll lose some memory power if you don't practice using your memory. You'll lose coordination, balance, precision, and even functions if you don't practice motor function movements. This is true with hormones and neural transmitters as well. Conversely, when we practice activating those neurons, they form new synapses and can regrow and heal old synapses. Things become more efficient, for better or worse.

This is great when building neuroplasticity involved in BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) activated growth stemming from regular exercise. This is NOT great when we are sick in bed for an extended period, and then our body becomes deconditioned, and we become agoraphobic and depressed!

b) Neurons that fire together wire together. This one has long been studied, and essentially what we are talking about is classic conditioning, both in the sense of cortex anxiety (logical experience-driven connections between two stimuli) and amygdala anxiety (unconscious automatic learned association stimuli).

Here is a quick example. Cortex anxiety is like watching some documentaries on bridges collapsing, getting super freaked out over it, and then having anxiety the next time we drive over a bridge. Whereas amygdala anxiety is like receiving a distressing phone call while driving on the bridge, having a panic attack (unrelated to the bridge), and then developing anxiety about bridges. You see, it's not a conscious-logical process when the amygdala gets involved. It's just the pairing of two stimuli, which may or may not even relate!

When you think of classical conditioning, think of Pavlov's dog. I'm sure you remember the experiment Pavlov conducted where he'd ring a bell each time he'd feed a dog, and after enough time, the dog began to salivate and would come to the sound of the bell expecting food. This was also parodied in the comedy show The Office, where Jim Halpert would reboot his computer (it would make a sound), and then offer Dwight a breath mint. At which point Dwight would obnoxiously reach his hand out expecting a mint. Eventually, Jim reboots his computer but doesn't offer Dwight the mint. As expected, Dwight, without thinking, reaches his hand out to take the breath mint, which Jim isn't offering. Naturally, Dwight is confused and feels embarrassed. It's funny, but this is our brains' learning process! This is the language of the amygdala.

This is what is meant when some psychologists speak on the potential of "rewiring" the brain. It's a very core element in both behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Once we understand how the brain learns and forms these connections, we can use this to our advantage and potentially avoid inadvertently training the brain in negative ways and reinforcing bad pairing of stimuli, such as the case with agoraphobia and panic disorder. We can also use this to our advantage by building new pathways that are healthier and conducive to our recovery, aiding in neuroplasticity building.

This need not be complex. We don't need some fancy program like Gupta or DNRS, where they have us engage in strange activities (i.e., practicing laughing with a group of strangers). The concept here is that laughter does indeed do some fantastic things to the brain. And it is also true that even forcing and holding a smile can release good brain chemistry. It's quite an interesting phenomenon. However, the goal is to increase laughter and engage in such activity. We don't need to laugh with strangers for 2 minutes each day, which would make me feel utterly absurd and uncomfortable! Instead, watching comedy films, etc., can be just as effective.

The concept of "rewiring" the brain is rooted in neuroplasticity, an area of research dating back 100 years. Today, we do not question the science of neuroplasticity. This isn't something that's debatable. The brain grows and breaks down throughout our entire life span. If we do not "use" it, we certainly can "lose it." And lastly, the neurons that fire together tend to wire together. In other words, they create a neural connection uniting each other. Below are some links to more information.

Harvard Medical School: Can You Rewire Brain to get out of a Rut?

Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health

Neuroplasticity After Traumatic Brain Injury

Brain Plasticity is the Key to Recovery After Brain Injury or Stroke

Harvard Medical School: The Brain's Wiring Technicians

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