Published in the 2020 Autumn Edition of the Australian Kinesiology Association Magazine
More than 12 years ago shortly after I had read the first book by Norman Doidge, “The Brain that changes itself” on brain plasticity, one of my then students brought her mother-in-law in for some kinesiology.
Her mother-in-law had recently undergone brain surgery (3 months prior) for the removal of a large benign brain tumour in her occipital lobe. Following the surgery, the doctors rated her visual function as 12% and informed her that it would be unlikely that it would improve further. As a consequence, she would never work nor drive again and although there was nothing wrong with her eyes themselves, she would in fact remain technically blind for the rest of her life. The occipital lobe (at the back of the brain) is where our visual processing takes place. The shock and damage to her brain caused by the removal of the tumour had impeded how her brain processed the visual information streaming from her eyes.
Her symptoms included tunnel vision (a severe lack of peripheral vision) and what I noticed as she precariously navigated her way to my clinic room, was a lack of visual-spatial-memory. This was particularly peculiar; as she navigated and moved across the waiting room she could see an object when she looked directly at it, but when she looked away, if she had to re-locate the same object, she had no idea where it was. It was so extreme that at times she would be looking up at the ceiling for something she had just seen on the floor moments ago. It was very strange as it was something that I had never observed before and a function that I think we all take for granted. The combination of tunnel vision and no visual – spatial – memory was a catastrophic combination.
My approach to the treatment was initially associated with the trauma to her brain created by the surgery so it was important for me to identify the location of the tumour and the Brodmann’s areas within the zone of surgery. Immediately after the treatment my client noticed improvement to tunnel vision in that there was a definite expansion to her field of vision which she and her family were very happy about. This gave them hope that there could be change and improvement beyond the prognosis which she had received. However, there was no change to the lack of visual – spatial- memory which clearly was the bigger problem. Inspired by the aforementioned book on brain plasticity, I suggested an activity for the purpose of growing her brain….. This proved to be critical in her recovery.
Distilled from the book, The Brain that Changes Itself, the precepts for promoting Brain Plasticity include:
- Being able to identify the area of deficiency in our processing or behaviour.
- Implementing an activity regime that directly challenges the zone of deficiency.
- Having sufficient motivation to overcome the inertia of the change.
- Being consistent with the regime.
Based on what I observed, the critical remaining limitation for my new client was the symptom of no visual – spatial- memory – after clearly sighting an object, once she looked away she did not have any notion of where to place her field of vision so that she could relocate the object. Noting this, I came up with an exercise that would potentially challenge this specific deficiency. I suggested that the family source a series of different pictures of things that she liked (to enhance her motivation) and place them in various locations around the room. When a visitor came to her room, they would ask her to locate one of the images. Eventually once she remembers where they are (locating them specifically and directly with her field of vision) she could be further challenged by relocating the images to new positions around the room and repeating the exercise. The client and the family took this suggestion on and sourced some small posters of animals which the client liked and put them in different positions on the walls of her room. Every time someone came in the room, they would ask her “where is the horse”, or “where is the dog”, or “where is the bird” etc. and she would gaze all around the room scouring for the image. She had no problem in seeing or recognising the animal when she saw it; her challenge was remembering where it was. My client was highly motivated, she wanted to regain the freedom of sight, so she was thereby dedicated and consistent with her practice regime. Consistency of practicing at the area of deficiency is critical for brain plasticity.
She came for three more sessions, which were focused on resolving her brain trauma but also on enhancing her brain plasticity. Over this time the plasticity exercises were maintained.
The exciting thing about brain plasticity is that when it works there is a measurable growth in brain tissue. The growth in brain tissue means that new neural networks are being written which can replace or improve the damaged or deficient parts of the brain.
By the end of the same year (9 months later) after all the dedication and hard work of my client and her family, her vision was rated at 98% – the doctors and OTs where gobsmacked!! My client returned to work and regained her driver’s licence; her life went back to normal.
My student at the time (the daughter-in-law of the client) noticed leaps in her visual function after each session. It was clear to me that kinesiology combined with brain plasticity was a potent combination for change.
From this experience, my understanding of brain plasticity within the context of a kinesiology practice has grown and evolved. It is not just relevant in the case of brain injury and learning deficiencies but virtually in every aspect of desired change within a client’s life. Our pre-existing behaviours and habits that limit us can only truly change when we start doing something different. This is easier said than done, as the developed adult brain has undergone synaptic/dendritic pruning, which means that there are highly defined pathways within the neural network of the adult brain which are determining our habits and behaviours. The pathways to do something different do not yet exist, so initiating a new behaviour feels awkward and uncomfortable because the network to implement the new behaviour is not yet present. As a consequence, we are more inclined to stay with what we know, even if our behaviours and habits are dysfunctional and causing us to suffer. In order to make change, we need to overcome the inertia of our pre-existing neural network.
When we are born, our neural network is underdeveloped. The dendrites and synapses are few and far between, the stimulation via the senses activates rapid growth of dendrites and synapses in the baby as seen in the images below.
At age two our brain peaks in its saturation of synaptic connections, at this age children can quickly and easily pick up any number of languages that they are regularly exposed to. After age two the brain begins to undergo dendritic pruning, the networks that are not being used die back and the ones that are being used regularly get more defined, this determines our individual propensities and characteristics from a neurological perspective. As we move beyond age two, with every day that passes our capacity to learn new things reduces incrementally as the saturation of the brain’s synapse and dendrites goes into decline.
An observation of human behaviour, which is directly relevant to kinesiology and brain plasticity, is that we tend to hide our weaknesses and augment our strengths. Whatever we lack talent in we tend to avoid. There is generally significant emotional charge associated with our weaknesses and deficiencies, so as a consequence we tend to overuse our strengths and hide and underuse our weaknesses.
A recent client of mine who is self employed in his own business wanted to improve his business profits. He employed staff in the Philippines, who would run most of his businesses operations and he would design systems and protocols for them to follow. For his business to work well he would need to do his own sales here in Australia. It was clear that he needed to boost sales to increase his business performance; increasing sales was clearly the key aspect to boosting his business profits. Despite this understanding, he would spend each day engaging his staff and writing systems for them to follow. It became obvious that his aversion to sales and his enjoyment and talent of developing systems kept him in that role and avoiding the necessity of sales. With every day that passed his neural network for developing systems was becoming more entrenched and his neural network for sales was diminishing due to lack of use. The pre-existing network of his brain was continuing to be re-enforced by his activities and behaviours remaining unchanged. We calculated that a 5% increase in sales would increase his business performance by 30%, however a 5% improvement in the efficiency of his business systems would increase the performance of his business by 0.5%. The network that he had built was precluding him from changing his patterns of behaviour. This is a typical scenario, where the biggest overall improvement to our life comes from improving our weaknesses, not by improving our strengths. For most people we are already overusing our strengths so by improving these we only ever get marginal change.
A chain is as strong as its weakest link
There is generally a mass of negative and blocked emotional charge associated with our weakness, so as a consequence we are often reluctant to challenge them as when we do, this mass of associated emotion will rise to the surface. Consequently, implementing brain plasticity exercises that work to improve our deficiencies can be met with massive resistance, retarding the potential benefits of a brain plasticity regime. Our weaknesses and deficiencies are like a hurt locker for the blocked emotions and issues that we carry; unpleasant emotions such as shame, self-doubt, disappointment and guilt are frequently found here. When these arise, clients readily lose interest and motivation to push forward with the regime.
Clearly, as kinesiologists, we know that kinesiology is a powerful tool for resolving and releasing challenging emotions. Consequently, we can use kinesiology in an integrated fashion with brain plasticity strategies.
Once we have designed a plasticity protocol that focuses on improving our clients’ deficiencies, we can do a test run in the kinesiology clinic; this will activate the emotional stress associated with the deficiency. By using this as a set up for your balance, you can now use your kinesiology tools to resolve the emerging stress activated by the brain plasticity activity. Once corrected, you will have shifted the emotional stress associated with the deficiency and, as a consequence, the capacity for the client to follow through with the practice regime will be massively improved. This way the client will have a much higher success potential for the remodelling of their own brain.
The enhanced benefit of combining brain plasticity principles with kinesiology was one of the key factors for the development of a kinesiology coaching framework. By working within a kinesiology coaching framework, the client pays up front for 5 sessions, so they are locked into a longer time period which means it is harder for them to dodge the activities and gives the practitioner a better opportunity to clear their stress as it arises. Combined with this there is an expectation within coaching for clients to do designated work and activity between sessions.
I hope this article has inspired you to explore and develop your understanding of brain plasticity and modern neurology as an adjunct to your kinesiology. I would recommend that you read the book by Doidge, “The Brain That Changes Itself”, and the related works by Joe Dispenza. The emergence of kinesiology and our understanding and acceptance of brain plasticity signifies the beginning of a new era in each individual’s right and innate capacity to be truly self-determining and self-actualising.