When I was a kid my psychiatrist Dad decided to bring home a human brain from the hospital where he worked. It was one of the specimens donated by a dearly departed soul for physicians to study. Dad decided it was important for me and my older siblings to pay attention to our one and only brain. He said, “I’ve got a surprise for you, now close your eyes, hold hands while I lead you into the Family Room.” He positioned the four of us around the game table as we heard him removing the brain from its container. I can still “smell” the pungent odor of the preservative, formaldehyde as I recall this understandably, vivid memory and my Dad saying, “Okay, open your eyes.” WOW.
Needless to say, I have been fascinated by brains and brain science ever since and as a person in long-term addiction recovery, a very good thing.
I’m re-reading Dr. Norman Doidge’s great book, The Brain That Changes Itself. He’s one of the people who ushered in and popularized the idea that our brains are like computers in the sense they can reprogram themselves, but unlike computers, our brains can heal themselves. While reading, (actually, listening) I just can’t help but get super excited about the far reaching implications of this work when it comes to addiction recovery.
Here’s what Dr. Doidge and the brain science are telling us:
- Our brain processing centers have the ability to change
- We can change the very structure of the brain itself
- The brain is constantly adapting itself to the environment
- The brain is always learning how to learn
- The brain grows and changes itself with proper nourishment and exercise
- The brain can reorganize its “maps” (programmed routines) in the right environment
The brain is not the fixed, rigidly organized organ we or my Dad once thought, but capable of re-learning and restructuring–actually changing the physical architecture of itself, “from crib to death.”
All of what we have learned works in addiction treatment is related to programs, modalities, therapies and practices that actually reprogram the brain, which just happens to be the target organ for addiction. Our former practices in active addiction established ingrained brain maps, (thanks, Lisa Frederiksen) or the above mentioned, programmed routines that our minds, bodies and spirits became accustomed to, and what most people in addiction recovery will agree, we held onto for dear life–even at the risk of near death.
As we know now, the not-so-healthy former habits came about as strategies for coping with one or more of the risk factors for developing addiction. Once we’re committed to leaving behind these strategies and behaviors that changed our brains profoundly, the task is to find what new practices will change our brains back toward what we all want; peace of mind, good health and productivity. “Just say no” never worked because it was contrary to the brain science and…just wrong.
Addiction recovery requires establishing new brain maps, a lifetime proposition–hey, good news!–of practice and reinforcement that turns out to be what any kind of wellness demands. Nobody gets out alive; it’s just about being well–today. All of wellness is one kind of remission or another…Let me stress again, implicit in this requirement is bolstering brain health and new brain maps with the essential practices of eating, moving, thinking, feeling and sleeping well without which the brain will not change itself in the ways desired. This is why all three phases of addiction treatment; detoxification, rehabilitation and continued care are required for healthy, sustainable remission from active addiction to be possible. Remember, repetition is how the brain learns and changes.
Addiction Recovery | New Practices | New Brains
If the science has shown us anything it’s that there is no one, best way to foster the business of rewiring the brain for better outcomes. What inspires me is the fact that the programs that have proven to help people are just what the brain science ordered. For example, here’s what Dr. Doidge reports about what brain science research tells us followed by the time honored wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous:
- Repetition is the mother of all invention – “Keep comin’ back”
- Brain plasticity (reprogramming ability) is available from the cradle to the grave – “One day at a time”
- Neurons that fire together, wire together – “Fake it till you make it”
- Radical improvements in brain function are available at any age – “Now is a good time to start”
- New brain maps take time to develop – “May you be blessed with a slow recovery”
- The brain thrives and actually grows when learning – “Learn to change, change to learn”
And the 12 Step process is just one way to take a look at how we’re taking a look at things, (the learning brain) to establish new brain maps and associated practices to reinforce them in order to override the previous brain maps. There are many ways and the key is to find a way that uses an integrated approach catering to the needs of your mind, body and spirit–however that looks. Rewiring the brain mandates it and long-term recovery cannot be possible without it.
In brain science lingo and as seen above, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”, (creating new brain maps). Conversely, when the practice/repetition ceases, “If the neurons fail to link–they fail to sync” and no new brain maps. In that case, the brain fires up the already ingrained maps associated with the old, well practiced behavior–when cued–and relapse ensues.
Different Paths to the Mountain of Evidence Based Research
So addiction recovery is not about monolithic, one-way approaches. This is because we all have different experiences and worldviews. What is clear however is that individuals with addiction do have to find ways to establish new brain maps for the reasons outlined above and there are many wonderful interventions to begin the process including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Motivational Interviewing
- Integrated Nutrition/Functional Movement
- Somatic Experiencing
- Equine Therapy
- Wilderness Therapy
- 12 Step programs
- Smart/Practical Recovery
Implicit in the American Society of Addiction Medicine policy statement, an integrated, multidisciplinary team of providers can help in the initial, stabilization/rehabilitation phases of treatment to assist people in finding their own mind, body, and spirit fitness program in order to reprogram that biological computer of theirs, the self-healing brain. The goal is that these practices get carried into the final phase of addiction treatment; continued care.
As we re-learn to move, eat and think/feel well, we’re really and truly reprogramming our brains. We’re really and truly giving up the habit of the being who we are that’s no longer working for us, for the habit of being who we can be–to become the best versions of ourselves.
I think my Dad was trying to tell me something very important…
And now I’m going to appeal to your humanity and your heart by saying that there was a huge price to pay to learn more about how we can indeed heal ourselves resulting from brain science research. I’ll have to admit I’m such a baby, the dolphins make me cry, but must say that untold throngs of laboratory animals suffered and gave their lives for this research to come forward. There is nothing more upsetting to me to know that information is available to people, but not accessible for one reason or another–while innocent sentient beings gave their lives in the process.
Let’s uphold the dignity of our humanity and of recovery and the sanctity of those who went before us, (all forms and species) who have made addiction recovery ever more possible in this 21st Century.
Addiction recovery – It’s a Go-Brainer.