- Brian Sass
How Your Brain Works and Changes
Updated: Feb 18
From the moment that you are born until the day that you die, everything you think, feel, imagine, and remember is a direct result of the continuous loop between the nervous system and the body. The nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord, has connections to the body and different organs, so that the nervous system can send messages in order to direct function. The body also has connections that send messages back to the nervous system for feedback. But how does the nervous system work? How can you change the health of your nervous system to improve performance or to heal from injuries and symptoms? Let’s look into how the nervous system works and changes.
The nervous system is made up of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with one another through electrical impulses back and forth. Every experience, emotion, memory, or feeling you have every had is a result of electrical activity of specific neurons in the nervous system. The best way to think about how this works is playing music on a piano; a specific key on the piano that is played doesn’t make a song, but a certain sequence of specific keys makes a song. Your nervous system works in the same way; certain neurons when activated in a specific manner create the memories, emotions, feelings, and cognitive abilities that you have every day.
How then does your nervous system function? How are you able to change its function for better health and performance? There are five things that your nervous systems does; sensation, perception, feelings/emotions, thoughts, and actions. The ability of the nervous system to sense internal and external stimuli is very important; our ability to see, hear, feel, touch, and smell is dependent on the nervous system. There are also sensations, like gravity sensation, that is regulated by the nervous system and can cause many problems and symptoms if the sensation is either not perceived at all or perceived abnormally. Perception is the recognition and focused attention of different sensations; it is what makes the color “blue” look “blue” to you – you are perceiving a sensation and recognizing it as a certain color. Think of the pressure on your feet if you are standing or the pressure on your body from sitting on the chair right now; you don’t perceive the pressure unless you think about it, but the sensation of pressure was always there. The ability to perceive, and how normally or abnormally the nervous system can perceive different sensations, is usually the difference between feeling symptoms like dizziness or brain fog versus having no symptoms at all. Perception is dependent on attention and focus; similarly, the ability to change the way that your brain works is dependent on the ability to focus and attention during different experiences.
Feelings and emotions are governed by neurons through electrical signals. Those electrical signals release neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin that can makes parts of the nervous more active or less active. The effects of these neurochemicals can make you feel accomplished, happy, rewarded, depressed, lonely, or anxious. It all goes back to the health and functioning of the nervous system and its ability to coordinate electrical activity. Thoughts, like emotions, can be reflexive or voluntary. Thoughts are the brain ability to not only understand or recognize perceptions and sensations, but also the memory of past perceptions and sensations. Actions and behaviors are the most recognizable parts of the nervous system in each individual person; they are the result of the sensations, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. Behaviors can be reflexive or deliberate; the ability to deliberately do something frequently can create change in the nervous system by engaging certain pathways of neurons consistently over time.
The brain’s ability to change in called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity occurs when groups of neurons gain, or lose, connections with other neurons and changes the way that they work. These changes occur throughout life; there are experiences and events that can improve the neural connections of certain areas of the brain, and they are injuries that can damage neural networks as well. If you are looking to change the control over your emotions, shape your behavior and thinking, and improve your performance via neuroplasticity, there are certain factors that are crucial to neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity requires what’s called top-down processing; that is, the brain must be stimulated in a way that has effects on the downstream targets (like the body and organs). This is induced by agitation and strain on certain systems that challenge areas to activate or process at higher frequencies and intensities than what their previous baseline was. Once you decide what area of the nervous system you want to try to change (like emotion, cognition, balance, or to decrease symptoms arising from certain areas), the next question is how you go about changing the nervous system.
There is a structure, or regimen, that engages neuroplasticity and increases the probability that adaptive plasticity occurs. Neuroplasticity is reliant upon wakefulness (focus and attention), sleep, and certain activities or experiences that are specific to the brain. For example, performing cognitive tasks every day can increase cognitive networks via neuroplasticity, but have very little effect on the inner ear or vestibular system that governs balance and motion. The experience or activity that you engage in must have an effect on the part of the nervous system that you want to strengthen or improve. This is one of the most important factors in self-directed neuroplasticity (changes you can make in your daily life to induce neuroplasticity) or in a clinical setting in which you are trying to recover from injuries, traumas, and complex symptoms. One specific area of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system, governs the ability of the body to change from alertness and calmness; which in turn has a significant effect on neuroplasticity because it governs the transitions and engaging in focus/attention states and sleep states. For this reason, people who experience dysautonomia symptoms (dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system) can struggle to recover from their symptoms because their ability to engage neuroplastic changes is hindered by the injury in the autonomic system.
Future blogs will dive deeper in neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change, both in a clinical setting and in everyday life!
Some of the content in this blog was put together using information from Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast entitled “How your nervous system works and changes”. Dr. Huberman is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. He has made numerous free videos focused on practical, low-cost options and methods to improve your health and life using principles of neurology and science-based tools. Visit www.youtube.com/@hubermanlab/playlists to learn more from Dr. Huberman!
Our mission at Great Lakes Functional Neurology is to help you understand your injury and get you back to normal, healthy living. We strive to equip you with the tools needed for your full brain recovery. If you would like to know more, we would be happy to discuss our services in more detail to you. You can reach out to us at www.greatlakesneurology.com and schedule a complimentary phone consult with one of our doctors.
MEDICAL DISCLAIMER The content above is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. Great Lakes Functional Neurology does not take responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. We recommend readers that are taking prescription or over-the-counter medications consult their physicians before starting any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.