Neuroplasticity: the Invisible Link between our Performance and our sense of Wellbeing

February 11, 2014

A person IS what a person DOES

Our performance, that is all that we do, how well or how poorly we do it is the furthest downstream effect and thus the ultimate manifestation of our subjective sense well-being.

Proof of the link between Neuroplasticity and Performance

If asked to describe the most fundamental of all scientific principles my answer is the inherent relationship between a physical object’s structure and function. Whether an element on the periodic table, a suspension bridge or a distant galaxy; and regardless of its scale, from subatomic to astronomical, inherent within every physical object in the known universe is this immutable link between its structure and functionUs human beings, arguably one of the most complex objects in the known universe, are no exception to this principle.

Human performance is defined as accomplishing tasks according to agreed upon standards of accuracy, completeness, and efficiency. Therefore, human performance is the willful and measurable part of a human-being’s function which begs the question, what is the underlying structure of human performance?

The first layer we see if we peel back our performance is a collective of individual behaviors, each of which is executed exclusively and entirely by the moveable human body; its skeleton, muscles and connective tissues. Pull back just one more layer to expose that each of these component behaviors is the immediate reflection of the core of our performance; the neuroplastic molecular structure of our Central Nervous System (CNS).

While macroscopically it appears as a solid structure, at the microscopic level the human brain is plastic, even liquid or soup-like whose molecular ingredients continuously and instantaneously change via the inter-neuron electrical-chemical communication process known as neurotransmission, which in its collective form is commonly called neuroplasticity. While it begins with neurotransmission, neuroplasticity ultimately leads to structural changes in the circuits and other structural elements of our brains. And this process occurs throughout our entire lives, not just through childhood and adolescent neuro-development as once thought.

To illustrate neuroplasticity, consider a soldier on the battlefield who suffers a shrapnel injury to his shoulder. The first thing the battle-field medic does when she comes upon the wounded soldier is inject him as much morphine as it takes to ease the soldier’s pain so he can lie still, allowing her to safely examine and treat his wound. If the soldier was given this exact dosage of morphine one millisecond before he suffered the shrapnel wound he would have died instantly due to respiratory suppression effect of morphine. However, simultaneously with the shrapnel penetrating the soldier’s flesh the molecular ingredients, in the receptors on the surface of the soldier’s neurons (brain cells) structurally changed in a way which allowed morphine to act as an analgesic (pain reliever) rather than a respiratory suppressant. This is neuroplasticity in action, and it happens faster than you can add a dash of salt to bland soup.

A mortal wound is not required to set neuroplasticity into motion. In fact, neuroplasticity is occurring continuously from the embryonic stage throughout the lifetime of every human-being. As in the wounded soldier, the effects of neuroplasticity can be instantaneous. Neuroplasticity also occurs more slowly over time such as a soldier who develops PTSD or when we learn new motor skills such as playing golf or the piano. Neuroplasticity can be maladaptive (pathologic) or adaptive as these examples show. Neuroplasticity is a variable process within every human being that occurs spontaneously as well as in response to a stimuli, whether internal (within the person, such as an infection other disease process) or external (in the person’s environment). Neuroplasticity is a highly evolved process, while at the same time is the primary process that has continuously driven human evolution forward. Neuroplasticity is the chisel from which the human brain, the one organ that definitively distinguishes humans from every other species on the planet, has been meticulously sculpted over millions of years. Neuroplasticity is what allowed our prehistoric ancestors to successfully adapt to an ever-changing, ever-challenging environment we commonly refer to as Planet Earth, through a process, which in evolutionary terms has come to be known as natural selection. For millions of years neuroplasticity has played, and continues to play, the leading role in the continuing saga, first documented by Darwin and referred to ever since as the evolution of our species. Neuroplasticity is the process that can singularly be credited with making humans fit to survive and fit to strive.

The impact of neuroplasticity on human performance is ubiquitous. The effects on our health and performance from regular exercise, good nutrition and sleep as well as the impact the of drugs, both prescribed and illicit, favorable and unfavorable, are all mediated via this single process called neuroplasticity.  So, when we peel back the layers of human performance (function), at its core we find a soup whose molecular ingredients are constantly changing based on the stimuli to which we are exposed. To the same extent that an internal stimulus, such as a disease or a drug, or an external stimulus, such as a traumatic event or winning the lottery, affects the ingredients within this bowl of soup, is the same extent to which it affects our performance.

The link between our subjective sense of Wellbeing and Neuroplasticity

To begin this section, I want every reader to rate their subjective sense of wellbeing (physical, mental, spiritual) over the past week on a scale of 1 (horrible) thru 10 (outstanding).  Our subjective sense of wellbeing sets the upper limits on our performance in all spheres of our life; interpersonal (social), academic and vocational. In short, we cannot perform better than we feel. When we describe our wellbeing as a 5 on a 10 scale, we cannot possibly perform better than a 5. We are a 5 or lower as a spouse, a parent, a friend, at school or at whatever it is we do for a living.

Why is this? 

When we describe our subjective sense of wellbeing, we are describing the current structure of our ever-changing neuroplastic state; and for every structure exists functional limitations. For example, if an engineer designed a bridge to bear a load of 20 tons, put 21 tons on this bridge and it fails. In its broadest terms, the author’s hypothesis states that the underlying structure of a human being’s current performance is his or her current neuroplastic state. Therefore, whatever your rating of your subjective sense of wellbeing is, it represents the current state of your continuously changing neuroplasticity. So, if your answer was a 9 or a 10 take note, benchmark I’m begging you, all of your life-habits are and keep them up. If your answer is 5 or lower, I don’t want to alarm you and I am certain you are already aware of this but your low-level of wellbeing is manifest in your current performance in all spheres of your life. In my professional opinion you need and deserve attention, the entire focus of which is your current state of wellbeing, the internal and environmental contributors to this state and all of their potential remedies. No less than this is required in order to optimize human performance

Conclusion

Our performance is our ultimate vital sign as it is a direct reflection of our neuroplastic state. Our subjective sense of wellbeing is a further reflection of our neuroplastic state. Since structure and function are immutably linked, we can only perform as well as we feel. Therefore, we need to pay attention to how we feel. When we don’t feel well, it is incumbent upon us to figure out, as best we can, the reasons for it and pursue potential remedies. Who we are depends on this.

 

End Post

Mitchell R. Weisberg, MD, MP

Internist-Psychopharmacologist-Corporate Wellness Consultant

Founder-CEO and Personal Physician at:

Optimal Performance MD

 

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