In response to a family member’s recent illness, I have been reading My Stoke of Insight, by Dr. Jill Taylor. Dr. Taylor suffered a severe stroke, and after a long and challenging recovery, she wrote My Stroke of Insight to tell her story and share what she had learned about herself and about the brain. The book is not about addiction (although it is noteworthy that Dr. Taylor served on the board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness), but it contains a wonderful introduction to the anatomy and function of the brain – including why that function is sometimes not “normal”. Probably without realizing it, Dr. Taylor also offers powerful hope for recovery.
When viewed without a microscope, our brains mostly look the same. At the cellular level, we all have about the same number of neurons (#). What makes each brain unique is the nature of the connections between those neurons. Those connections and the pathways they form are developed by our experiences, our environment, and our emotional state, and they continue to change and develop throughout our lives. These connections account for our personalities, our likes and dislikes, and illnesses like addiction.
In a nutshell, mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, and addiction may be at least partially caused by the way connections between neurons are affected by experiences like trauma, abuse, or exposure to other stimuli. At the cellular level, when we say that porn changes how your brain works, we are referring to the way exposure to pornographic images can eventually change the pathways of connections between your brain cells.
The number of cells in our nervous systems does not change much after we are born; unlike blood cells or skin cells, the body does not produce new brain cells. The connections between those cells, however, are capable of change throughout our lives. In Dr. Taylor’s case, she was eventually able to help her brain adapt its cellular pathways to adjust to the damage done by the stroke. For recovering addicts, the amazing lesson in this story is that your brain is capable of change and healing.
It just needs the right stimuli- positive, healthy activities and relationships – and a healthy environment. In other words, you just need to consistently “feed the right wolf.”
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