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The Effect of Differences on the Brain

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By Kimberly Burnham

Do something new. Think, care, and create in your community. Expand your definition of community. Use action words and move your body. See your connection to the oneness of life and your relationship to that oneness.

These are all ways to improve brain health. As we connect and communicate with people, ideas, and experiences that are different from our own we grow, we learn, and we heal. These are some of the good reasons to dialogue through differences.

Do Something New

Recent research on Alzheimer’s dementia teaches us the value of doing something new. That newness might take the form of reading a new book or genre of books, listening to or playing a new piece of music, or learning a new game or physical activity. One way to do something new is to talk to someone that you don’t know every day. As strangers become familiar friends broaden your horizons to listen to and learn from someone new. This is a way to exploit our differences and unique ways of looking at the world to improve our quality of life.

Think, Care, and Create in Your Community

There is a relationship between the frontal lobe, which houses our cognitive skills; our ability to care for other people, animals, and our environment; and our ability to express ourselves creatively. The more we think and learn in community, the more creative and caring we become. The reverse is also true. The more caring of others we are the more creative and consciously aware of our environment we become. Expanding our definition of community and who we connect with just makes us all the more thoughtful and creative.

In the peer-reviewed journal article “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang uses true stories designed to evoke admiration and compassion. She notes, “It is well known that basic emotions such as fear, sadness, and happiness and limited social emotions such as moral indignation engage neural systems [the brain] concerned with sensing [experiencing your environment] and regulating body function or homeostasis [balancing how well your body works].”

In the absence of a sense of compassion from others or a lack of respect or admiration, there are many ways individuals try to shut out or hide from the information that constantly bombards us. Sometimes sensations, sounds, light, and other kinds of energy can feel painful and overwhelming. The healthier your brain is the more easily you can recognize your own responses to information and sensations, as well as noticing when someone else is in pain.

A few years ago, in my clinical practice, I worked with a boy with severe autism. At the end of our first two-hour manual therapy session (hands-on complementary and alternative medicine, similar to physical therapy, osteopathic manual medicine, or massage), I was drenched in sweat. Like the wrestler he had become during our session, he was drenched in sweat too, and I was not sure I had accomplished anything. So the second time I saw him I was prepared to engage in another struggle. But when I said, “Okay, let’s get you up on the massage table,” this nonverbal six-year-old jumped right up on the table, and I never had another problem treating him. Despite what I had thought, I did accomplish something during that first session with him. I had decreased his pain, pain that was contributing to his withdrawal from other people, pain that caused him to wince with any sudden sounds and to move away when anyone tried to touch him. Once that pain subsided, he started to talk, to communicate, and to engage with his family.

We are each on a continuum somewhere between a comatose-like state of unconsciousness—a self completely disconnected from others, whether through injury or insecurity—to the other end of the continuum where a wholly interactive human being is found, consciously aware and full of abundance, gratitude, and self-growth. The conscious human being is able to see opportunities in differences and extend caring and compassion.

Use Action Words and Move Your Body

There is ample evidence that moving your body, learning a new physical skill, or experiencing something new helps to develop and heal your brain. There is also evidence that how we use language also affects not only our brain but our muscles and our ability to move. As Fabian Chersi explains in “Sentence Processing: Linking Language to Motor Chains,”  “The processing of language stimuli, at least for sentences expressing a motor content [words like lick, kick, pick], modulates the activity of the motor system [muscles and nerves] and that this modulation specifically concerns those sectors of the motor system where the effector [face, foot, hand] involved in the processed sentence is represented.”

When we listen to someone new, read someone else’s experience, or share our own story we learn and grow in unique ways. Dialoguing across our differences makes life more interesting and helps us to move or navigate through life in new ways. And while sometimes moving into new territory can be frightening, it can also help us create the life we want.

Connect To Oneness

From the field of Neurotheology and the Iranian Journal of Neurology comes the idea that a health brain, “especially the right hemisphere, has the ability to perceive holistic concepts such that we perceive and understand wholeness in things rather than particular details. For example, we might understand all the cells and organs to comprise the whole human body. From a religious or spiritual perspective, we might understand a concept of absolute oneness as pertaining to God. Furthermore, the holistic process in the brain allows for the expansion of any religious belief or doctrine to apply to the totality of reality, including other people, other cultures, animals, and even other planets and galaxies. In fact, as human knowledge of the extent of the universe has expanded, the notion of God has incorporated this expanding sense of the totality of the universe. The holistic function pushes us to contemplate that whatever new reaches of the universe astronomers can find, God must be there. No matter how small and unpredictable a subatomic particle might be, God must be there, too.”

In the Winter 2016 CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Andrew Newberg describes this holistic way of thinking: “the holistic process may be related to the parietal lobes, which typically take our sensory information and help us to construct a sense of our self and how that self relates spatially [where we fit in space] to the rest of the world.”

So when we are able to see and learn from our differences we grow and develop. We also enliven our brains when we see our connection to the oneness of life, rather than our differences. We are using our brains when we experience our place in and relationship to that oneness. And as the saying goes, “use it or lose it.”

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Dialoguing Through Our Differences” at 10 a.m., Jan. 2 at Indaba Coffee, 1425 W Broadway. Burnham is a panelist.

Kimberly Burnham

About Kimberly Burnham

Author of "Awakenings: Peace Dictionary, Language and the Mind, A Daily Brain Health Program" Kimberly Burnham, PhD (Integrative Medicine) investigates the relationship between memory, language, caring and pattern recognition to create a daily brain health exercise program enabling people to achieve better neurological health, mood, and quality of life. She is on a mission to create more peace and understanding in the world by collecting and writing about the nuanced meaning of “Peace” in 4,000 different languages and is looking for funding to complete the project. Known as The Nerve Whisperer, Kimberly uses words (books, presentations, and poetry), health coaching, guided visualization, and hands-on therapies (CranioSacral therapy, acupressure, Matrix Energetics, Reiki, and Integrative Manual Therapy) to help people heal from nervous system and autoimmune conditions. She also focuses on vision issues like macular degeneration and supports people looking for eye exercises to improve driving and reading skills as well as athletic visual speed. An award-winning poet, Kimberly grew up overseas. The child of an international businessman and an artist, she learned Spanish in Colombia; French in Belgium; then Japanese in Tokyo and has studied both Italian and Hebrew as an adult. The author of “My Book: Self-Publishing, a Guided Journal”, she can be reached for health coaching, publishing help, bible study zoom presentations or talking about peace at NerveWhisperer@gmail.com or http://www.NerveWhisperer.Solutions.

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