Posted on February 6, 2014
Good morning community! I want to welcome some great new friends from my trainings at Lyon-Martin Health Services and San Francisco HIV Health Services. It was an honor to learn more about the great work being done in San Francisco and to spend a few days in your great city!
Today I want to build upon last week’s discussion on the mind. To do this we have to go way down the rabbit hole and understand the brain at its most basic level. This understanding of the brain illuminates how we can help clients shift energy and information towards healthier behaviors and ways of thinking that can promote post-traumatic growth.
Today’s journey starts with the brain cell or neuron.
Daniel Siegel’s Definition of the Mind, helps us understand what is happening in the brain; Siegel states, “The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” At the molecular level we are talking about electricity. Energy and information are passed from neuron to neuron through axons and dendrites. Axons transmit electrical signals in the first neuron (presynaptic), which are received by the dendrites in the receiving neuron (postsynaptic). This happens across the synaptic cleft which we’ll look at in more detail in a moment.
Resting neurons have a negative electric charge, compared to the extracellular fluid that surrounds them. The cell holds more negatively charged ions (potassium) and fewer positively charged ions (sodium and chloride), than the extracellular fluid holds. In order for a neuron to fire it must change its negative charge to a positive through the process of depolarization. The potential for a neuron to depolarize, or fire, is called the action potential.
To create a positive charge, or realize the action potential, the axon takes in positively charged sodium (influx) and releases negatively charged potassium (efflux). This starts to change the state of the neuron from a negative to a positive state, in contrast to the surrounding fluid. As the charge builds, more sodium channels continue to open and the charge becomes stronger.
If this charge hits a critical mass (if it fires) it opens up calcium channels, further increasing the positive state of the cell. The calcium influx into the axon activates vesicles containing neurotransmitters to be released across the synaptic cleft, mentioned above.
Some of these neurotransmitters bind with receptors in the postsynaptic membrane. This opens up glands in the membrane that allow the influx of specific ions, impacting the charge of the postsynaptic neuron. If enough positively charged sodium and chloride enter the postsynaptic cell then the process is continued in the next neuron. Neurons either fire or they don’t, there is no middle ground.
Here is the moment of truth. Synaptic connections can be either excitatory or inhibitory. Excitatory connections open up channels which let in positively charged sodium ions. This leads to depolarization in the postsynaptic cell, allowing action potential to continue. Inhibitory connections open channels which let positively charged potassium ions leave the cell. Inhibitory connections also open channels which let in negatively charged chloride ions, leading to hyperpolarization (negative charge), limiting the energy for the action potential.
In their most recent Motivational Interviewing (MI) book, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick talk about change by using the analogy of a committee inside your mind. If we are mindful or have someone helping us focus through MI we call a vote of the committee. “Sustain talk” in MI represents votes to maintain the status quo. Votes for new behaviors are “change talk”, which we know can lead to behavioral changes.
In essence this vote occurs between inhibitory and excitatory connections. The connection with more energy and information, votes, either moves us closer to action or away from it. In future posts we will talk about the importance of the vote itself. If we are not mindful or paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, we will automatically do what we have done in the past. Only when we focus on the vote can we start to gain mastery over the structure of our brains and create change.
So how do we shift votes in the committee of our minds? The number of votes is mostly determined based on our past behaviors. Every time an action potential is realized, it becomes more efficient. I like to think of this as similar to a hiking path; the more traffic the path has, the more defined and easy the path is to travel. Synaptic connections that fire together wire together, which is why it can be really difficult to change habits. On the other hand, those synaptic connections that do not fire lose efficiency and can die over time. We either use connections or lose them.
This is where our journey to change, mindfulness, and control begins. We all have a brain that is structured to efficiently continue past behaviors. While this is great for habits that improve our well-being, it can be destructive when this structure is controlled by addictions and negative views of self, relationships, and the world.
My question this week is a simple one. What is the power inherent to the information presented above? I have found that many clients think they are bad, evil, or unworthy due predominantly to their traumatic past experiences. The power in this basic brain information is that they are not bad people; rather, they are prisoners of a brain structure that was designed to survive past traumas and current high stress environments.
I’m wondering if anyone has had success in helping clients better understand themselves through knowledge about how the mind and brain works. If you have, please share this with the community through in comment section of this post!