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The Forest of our Brain

Our Brains are like Forests. They develop and change over our lifetimes. They grow, evolve, mature and continue to evolve over our life spans. There are many things we can do to improve them and keep them healthy.

When our parents conceived us there were two cells, neither was a nerve cell. Over the first few weeks those cells multiplied. Some cells became neural tissues. They further evolved to form the various parts of our nervous system. This is like a forest after the ground has been laid bare. Many seeds land on it. Some were blown there by the wind and others dropped by birds.

Some of the seeds will take root and grow; others get eaten by birds and little animals. The birds and animals prefer different seeds. Therefore, only a few remain. This sorting resembles the differentiation of cells, each finding the right conditions to grow and do their thing. By our birth there are so many cells it resembles a tangled mess.

After birth this mass of cells begins to sort itself out. Like little animals scurrying about, some thoughts are common. Pathways emerge. As new cells grow they grow around these paths protecting the cells farther from the path and encouraging the animals to follow the pathways. With use these paths become better established and easier for our animals or neural signals to travel.

If a potential path or part of this forest does not get used another use emerges. This has been noted in children whose eyes don’t function. The visual part of the brain finds other uses by about age 3.

As the brain develops, more sophisticated sets of nerve cell connections emerge and are reinforced with use. Thus the more practice we get in walking the more those neurons and pathways become set. As a child learns to stand, walk, and then run the neural pathways get better developed.

Like a forest our brains get nourished by the rest of our world or body. Nerve cells need energy in the form of sugar that they take from the blood. The specialization of nerve cells prevents them from making energy from other foods or storing sugar. Thus when our blood sugars fall after a meal our brains don’t function as well.

When our brains get a sudden burst of sugar they go a little wild. We see that in children who get “sugar highs.”

The brain cells need other materials or nutrients as well. These are called vitamins and minerals. When they become deficient we see changes. Many such states exist.

A Pellagra epidemic occurred in the US 100 years ago due to such a deficiency. Pellagra is a disease that involves skin changes and other things including mental sharpness. The mental changes can lead to a form of delirium. In the early 1900’s a method of commercially preparing corn meal became common. It removed part of the corn kernel that contained most of the niacin. Poor and institutionalized people ate large amounts of this cheap food. Over time, the lack of niacin resulted in the symptoms of Pellagra. When niacin rich foods were added to the diets these symptoms reversed.

These vitamin and mineral deficiencies take time to occur and resolve. However, certain types of foods can change our moods more quickly. We all have “feel good” foods we seek in times of stress. They may provide nutrients that we need or trigger memories. Family’s often have celebratory menus that contain special foods.

We associate Turkey with Thanksgiving. If Thanksgiving creates happy memories then turkey might stimulate those feelings for you. As adults these family events are often stressful. Thus turkey might not be a favorite food.

With good nutrition our nervous systems continue to evolve.

As the body changes so do the neural connections. For a while it seems easier for a small child to run than walk. As the legs get longer they revert to walking. Trees replace the shrubs and vines in our brains. The trees allow for our thoughts and behaviors to change. We become more mature.

We find that these paths represent thought patterns and behaviors. With effort we can change these thought patterns and behaviors.

Some of the thought patterns that we form don’t serve us. We might have learned these from our parents or other examples. A child who constantly gets the message that he is “bad” will learn that about himself. He will struggle to find a positive self-image. Likewise a child who is never “Bad” will not learn to accept criticism.

While some infants seem very happy and others always irritable, the way they are treated can reinforce or temper these traits. Thus common life events for a child who is susceptible to feeling one way will get that way reinforced.

Events that make us depressed reinforce our depressed pathways. Happy events reinforce our happy pathways. If one of these paths is already better established then that pathway will prevail.

A person who responds with fear when presented with an image can learn to not fear those images. Phobias are a key example. With conscious effort you can unlearn to fear something. That does not mean that the fears will not return but you can overcome them.

This process has been applied to depression and other emotional problems. If we choose a happy path then over time that becomes the path we follow. The unhappy path still exists and when a bear starts chasing us thru the forest we might take that unhappy path again. That is one way we can end up depressed again.

Storms strike our forest in the forms of traumatic events. Those traumas might be physical or emotional but cause trees to fall and block paths. It will be difficult to follow our usual paths of behavior. Over time and with effort we can find ways around the fallen trees and back to familiar behaviors.

We see the results of these storms in the form of post-traumatic stress. One or more events sear memories into a part of our brain. Anything that brings our thoughts near that area prompts us to recall the event. By planting and nurturing happy thoughts around that memory event, we can restore that burned area of our brain. The scars will remain but we will find a more normal forest as our thoughts approach it.

Substances our bodies produce also affect our brains. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol change what parts of our brains are active. They shunt blood to emotional centers and away from the more sophisticated thought areas. This helps in time of danger but over time leads to atrophy of the higher thought areas.

People exposed to constant danger or stress does not perform like their peers. We see this in abused children. For years after the abuse ends, their thoughts and dreams relive these events, sometimes in the forms of conscious thoughts and other times as emotions. They might be less mature.

Drugs and other substances also affect our brains. Some slow the activity of our thoughts and calm us. Others help our thoughts find their way to different moods. Antidepressants keep our thoughts from ending up in Depression.

Other chemicals like alcohol and street drugs also affect our brains. They have immediate and long term effects. Small amounts of alcohol calm us, and lessen depression, but in large amounts impair memory and make us more depressed.

Thus to keep our brains healthy we need to treat them well with good food and nutrition and good exercise. A varied diet will offer the good nutrition.

Exercising our brain is more complicated. We can connect our memories with positive thoughts, replacing negative and depression or fear generating ones.

With practice the pathways that enable us to speak and move our bodies improve. We learn language by exposure and repetition. Dance becomes more fluid with practice as well.

Like a forest change seems rapid at first and then slows. Tall trees take time to grow and bear the scars of events that happened over that time. Older brains are more set in their ways. They can recall more experiences related to the thoughts they have.

They might be better able to weather life’s storms. The damage a storm might cause now will be harder to heal. Yet the ways we learn to heal life’s wounds make us more resilient.

Thus, like a forest our brains change constantly. Our current environment determines how we function and feel. We can influence how they function both in the present moment and over time.

What sort of forest do you want your brain to become?

As all Ways, Seek Joy,