More and more research studies are showing that the brain is not fixed but changes according to experience.

It makes sense to look after your brain

Compared to other organs, the brain receives very little attention. How often do you hear about brain health as opposed to, say, heart health. But it pays to know something about your brain. It all goes back about 200,000 years ago, when modern men and women (homo sapiens) began to emerge. (By "modern" it is meant that if you mix up our skeletons and theirs, you can't tell the difference). With this came bigger and more complex brains and the beginnings of the remarkable processing power that we know today.

How or why this happened is not known for certain. One interesting theory is that modern humans first emerged on the southern Cape coast of South Africa. Other candidate sites are Morocco and Ethiopia. It is suggested that pregnant women were in the habit of foraging on the coastlines and ate a diet rich in long chain fatty acids from shellfish which, over centuries, enabled rapid brain development.

Archaeological excavations are providing evidence of this. (Today it is well-documented that long chain fatty acids (omega-3) are amongst the most valuable supplements you can take for enhancing brain functionality, especially for ADHD). A contributing factor in the case of the Cape is the abundance of tubers for which humans did not have to compete.

Along with bigger brains came the development of language (from grunts, facial expressions and the like) and the emergence of larger social groups.  These two factors interacted to further fast-track development.

But unlike many other species, especially mammals, our brains are not fully developed at birth. (A male brain weighs about 380 gm at birth, 1120 gm at two years old and 1440 gm at 21). The huge advantage of this is adaptability: we can adapt to different kinds of environments, enabling sustainability.

But there are some unintended consequences.

The beginnings of the compassionate brain

Imagine a newborn child interacting with the most important thing in its environment, its mother. Remember that much of the brain still needs to be formed. (Neurons are added at the rate of 250 000 every minute).  Unlike other mammals, the human child is utterly dependent on its mother.

The communication between mother and child is entirely emotional and nonverbal. These early social events are imprinted into brain 'wiring' that is maturing during the rapid brain growth spurt that occurs during the first two years of life.

It is from these moments that qualities like the ability to love and feel empathy are ignited. These are the beginnings of the compassionate brain.

But what happens when the early environment is not ideal, or if it is neglectful or even abusive? Then, unfortunately, all the wrong things happen.  The developing mind goes into a state of chronic arousal.  This doesn't allow for new learning or bonding. Brain functioning is changed and becomes geared towards coping with threat or trauma.

Under these circumstances levels of neurotransmitters, stress hormones and the immune system are disturbed. Neurons don't grow as intended: appropriate brain wiring is disrupted. The effect of all this is harmful on the growing brain: children get sick easier, they don't learn, they are in a state of hyperarousal, their social worlds are compromised, they struggle with relationships. They can become cut off from the positive effect of relationships.

The developing brain is 'organised' in these patterns which later become ways of 'seeing the world' and behaving as an adult. And, as life unfolds and the interactive effect of genes and the environment kick in, the seed is sown for what can be the basis of many psychological issues.  Not only that, the effect on the physical body results in a state of chronic overarousal and may contribute to a wide variety of later medical complaints such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome and many others. 

But of course, just as these patterns were laid down during adverse times, they can be undone by intervening in a number of ways: by rewarding and meaningful relationships, good nutrition, by psychotherapy, by good practice, biofeedback, diet, exercise, meditation, spiritual awakening and many more. Having a good childhood usually predicts a good adulthood but an unhappy childhood does not predict that you will have an unhappy adulthood.

The ability to change is the promise of neuroplasticity. More and more research studies are showing that the brain is not fixed but changes according to experience. 

That said, it certainly makes a lot of sense to look at the way you live your life and to look after the health of your brain.