The power of plasticity - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

The power of plasticity

Written by on July 14, 2015 in Learning, Wellness with 0 Comments

imagesUp until quite recently, the profession of neuroscience had a very pessimistic view of the brain, namely that it’s a rigid, unchangeable organ once we reach adulthood. If you regularly read our blog and certainly if you attend our conferences, you will know that this notion has now been successfully and in many cases dramatically challenged thanks to a growing body of ground breaking research in the area including that conducted by acclaimed neuro-psychiatrist and author, Professor Jeffrey Schwartz, a keynote at our next Mind & Its Potential conference in October. Schwartz also presented at Mind & Its Potential 2011.

In this interview, Schwartz whose area of expertise is working with those who have chronic obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder characterised by the presence of recurring intrusive and unwanted thoughts, for example, that something is dirty or contaminated with germs, explains how imaging studies he did in the early 1980s involving OCD sufferers “really started to nail down pretty clearly that there were brain related changes that were very probably causally related to the fact that these thoughts were intrusive.”

At the time, the prevailing therapy for OCD was so-called exposure and response therapy (ERT), which involves exposing sufferers to the object of their obsession. For instance, someone with obsessions related to contamination and infection might have to plunge their hands into bin of dirty tissues and sit there for hours without exercising their hand washing ritual until their uncomfortable feelings subside.

An exceedingly painful process and one Schwartz says sheds light on a “critical point” and that is “when people have the awareness that this [behaviour] doesn’t make sense [to the extent] that they can refocus their attention by having an encouragement to remember this is just your brain; it’s not you, it’s just your OCD … then we can get beyond just using ERT where people have to focus on the bad feeling and can start to focus on the adaptive feeling [instead].”

To this end, Schwarz has pioneered a cognitive behaviour therapy called the Four Steps: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, Revalue, a method of self-treatment that’s been shown to be extremely effective. Schwartz says of the four, Refocus is the “critical step” in the context of rewiring the brain – subsequently borne out by brain imaging studies done after therapy – because “when you take advantage of knowing this is OCD (Relabel) and that it’s your brain sending you a false message (Reattribute), that’s when you can refocus your attention and by doing that wire in brain circuitry that matches with adaptive behaviour and weakens the pathological circuitry.”

If such awareness training is, as Schwartz claims, the willful mind acting on the brain, what of the prevailing belief that mind and brain are one? Schwartz responds, “But the mind is not the brain. That’s precisely the point that we’re making. You see, we’re basically assertively making the claim that the statement ‘the mind is the brain’ is false. What we’re having is a paradigm shift.”


Professor Jeffrey Schwartz will be presenting a session as well as co-presenting with Josie Thomson (who presented at Mind & Its Potential 2014) an in-depth workshop at Mind & Its Potential 2015. For more information and to register, please click here.

Visit The Wellness Show Expo 1-3 April 2016, Hordern Pavilion & Royal Hall of Industries, Sydney – a free showcase of the innovation and technology that are transforming the way we stay fit and healthy. For more information and to register for your free visitor pass click here.

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