Throughout his life and writings, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and “the talking cure”, believed and wrote that chemistry would most likely be the ultimate and eventual cure for mental illness. And so it has evolved. Drugs have replaced psychiatry in large part in the treatment of mental diseases.
Equally now, the brain itself is the landscape wherein we seek the epicenters of our mind and emotions. This blog has focused on the Self, an elusive composite of ingredients that add up to our sense of existence and being. A recent study on the brains of young adolescents, seems to point to the existence of Self in a particular part of the brain. When adolescents were put into various experimental situations that made them self-conscious and embarrassed, the part of the brain known as the medial pre-frontal cortex showed extensive excitation and flared up in hyper-activity on the various monitors that showed the brain’s topography. Like Freud anticipating chemistry as his replacement, do we now have to assume that the fleeting figment we call Self is in fact to be found physically in a certain region of the brain?
If so, does that take out of the equation, all of the effort and social practice that we have traditionally acceded to improving our Self and our character? This same new knowledge of the brain would suggest not. While there well may be a portion of the brain, a piece of physiology that corresponds to the sense of Self, that same research also testifies to the surprising plasticity of the brain, i.e., the capacity of the brain to change itself physically in response to need and stimuli.
Just as we can train the brain to recompose itself in the face of a stroke or an injury to the body, so apparently can we change the circuitry and synapses of the brain in response to emotional and social patterns that are improvements in those important areas. This would suggest that the very premise of this blog, that life is a series of scripts, and if we change them, we can change as well, has sound footing. The added beauty is that this change is not just some ephemeral modification in the psycho-sphere, but may in fact be a change effected upon the brain itself, that circuitry and synapses have altered and adjusted. I take comfort in that possible permanence.
The plasticity of the brain, to be able to change and adjust its neural physicality, is encouragement for those who would not just overcome a new physical challenge, but also for those who would overcome and change a social or psychological challenge. Much like having the confidence as we exercise that we are changing and improving a muscle or muscle group, so we can now have similar confidence that the physical organ of the brain, too, is able to grasp and incorporate the psychological and emotional changes that we wish to press into our existence.
It may take repetition and dedication just as any exercise does, but its results may prove to become natural and intrinsic.