Brain Plasticity: A Mental Health Renaissance  | Hani Akasheh | TEDxPSUT

Brain Plasticity: A Mental Health Renaissance | Hani Akasheh | TEDxPSUT

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs My brother and I grew up
in an anxious household, with a mom who had a tendency
for chronic depression and anxiety and a father who was
emotionally unavailable, which at time made things worse. We grew up in a house where there was so much emphasis
on academic achievement, but so little on interpersonal
and emotional development. So as a result, me and my brother would grow up,
but we would also grow apart. But my parents got what they wanted – the dream of all our parents – to see their children
become doctors and engineers. Our story started just a few years ago. After seven years of studying abroad – when I would finish my medical degree
and become a doctor, and my brother would finish
his Masters in mechanical engineering – we would meet and reunite
for the first time and live together. At first, I thought it
was going to be strange living with him, but to my surprise,
we instantly connected. It felt like he was a roommate
in a past life. For starters, what I discovered
is that my brother was suffering exactly from the same mental health
problems I was suffering from: anxiety, depression,
psychosomatic symptoms. And we would spend all our time
just talking and sharing our stories and telling each other
about our experience in mental health. And I must say, it felt great
to have somebody to talk to, somebody that really would understand
what I’ve been through. But to be honest, the one and the most single thing
that connected me and my brother was our passion and our love for science. We just loved talking about
scientific ideas and concepts in science. We would spend countless nights talking about artificial intelligence,
psychology, the human brain. We would particularly intersect on topics that came between mechanical
engineering and the human brain. And it was in this exercise
of talking about the human brain and talking about
the mechanical nature of the mind where me and my brother
would stumble across an idea, one key concept that would
change our lives forever. To me, it’s funny how one idea we learned
about how our brain works, learning how our mind works, helped our mind work better. It fascinates me that
one key concept in neuroscience has the power and the potential
and the promise to change and transform
people’s mental health. And this key concept
is known as brain plasticity. In my specialty,
we call it neuroplasticity. But to understand neuroplasticity, we must first come to an appreciation
to what the brain actually is. The human brain, the most technologically advanced
agent in the universe, made out of billions
and billions of neurons with trillions and trillions more in synapses and connections
between these neurons. A true connectome. But to understand brain plasticity, we would have to stop
at the first checkpoint, which is the neuron,
the building cell of the brain. And to understand the neuron, we would have to zoom in to a very small and fine scale
inside the brain structure. Neuroplasticity describes
a new image, a new picture – one that is very different from
the old thoughts we had about the brain: our thoughts about the brain
being dynamic, being fixed and unchanging; our thoughts, our old beliefs about the brain being an agent
that doesn’t change in adulthood. Brain plasticity is a phenomena
that explains a very different picture. What brain plasticity emphasizes is that if we look at a single neuron,
a single cell in the brain, and we realize that
with continuous stimulus – and this stimulus can be anything, an emotion, a feeling, a behavior,
a habit, an exercise, an experience – the repetition of the experience,
the repetition of the stimulus would cause a phenomena
known as “neurogenesis.” And what neurogenesis means is the creation of new neurons
when there was none before. This idea is fascinating. The simple shifting between one cell to have more neurons
that have more neurogenesis on one side is known as neurogenesis,
which is what we describe now. But on the reverse process,
something called “synaptic pruning,” which means if you don’t use
these nerve cells, or you don’t use this particular circuit, you will start losing connections. I think most of you here agree. By show of hands, who has become
really good at something through simply by training
every day at it? And then, by show of hands, who has lost a talent, lost a skill,
by not training for a period of time? Simple, right? Neuroscience is much simpler
than people make it out to be. Synaptic pruning explains exactly that: the neurons that we use will grow, but in synaptic pruning, the neurons and the part
of our brains that we don’t use, we will lose synapses
and lose surface area in this dimension. But to even understand
neuroplasticity on a deeper sense, we have to zoom in
beyond the neurons themselves, and look at the fine space between the terminal endings
of where neurons connect, a very small space that is actually
the size of a virus, 20 nanometers. If we zoom into this space, we can come to comprehend
and look at brain plasticity in a new way. And in that fine space
where two neurons meet, an increase in stimulation, an increase in stimulus or an increase in the firing activation
of those two networks – what will happen is something, a phenomena called
“long term potentiation.” And we will see transformations
in the presynaptic knob, where we will start releasing
more neurotransmitters, and we find transformation
in the post-synaptic knob, where we will build more receptors
to receive those messages, all in all, increasing the activation and the power of the signal
in those neurons, building a more intimate relationship
between these two neurons. The research on neuroplasticity
has become fascinating, and those changes
we talked about on a microlevel have a larger and a bigger effect
on a macroscale. In University of Cambridge, we discovered that cab drivers who use
their visual-spatial part of their brain – cab drivers, because they have
to memorize the maps and the city in a visual perspective – we found out that cab drivers have an increase in the volume
of their posterior hippocampus. At the same time, we found out that children who suffer
from anxiety and stressed homes have an increased number of networks
and size in their amygdala, which is part of the limbic brain
responsible for the fear response. But what’s amazing
is that we also found out that people who meditate
and practice mindfulness have an increase in the size
of their prefrontal cortex, but at the same time, people who are suffering from stress have
a shrinking in their prefrontal cortex. This idea is fascinating. The idea itself is so powerful – to know that your brain
is a dynamic, responsive organ that is always capable of changing. The idea itself is so powerful
that it got me thinking that could my anxiety today, my mental health problems today, my negative thoughts,
my complaining, my self-doubt, could all these features be no more or no less
than hyperconnected circuits conditioned by childhood, conditioned by the flow
and passing of time? The idea is so powerful,
and the second question that arises, If that neuroplasticity
is something that does not stop – it’s always constantly
changing until you die – if that’s the case, then the question is, Can I change my mental health perspective? Can I change the way
I see myself and I see the world? And the answer is absolutely yes. The idea was so powerful that it helped me and my brother transform
our perspective of mental health. We became better. We didn’t go to a doctor;
we didn’t take any medication. It was just the power of the idea
that my brain is plastic, my brain is dynamic, that in itself transformed us. Now, I know, many people think it’s too romantic
to say that ideas can change us, but this is why I’m here today. This is why I love
the TED conference so much. Because it’s on this stage
where we humans celebrate the most powerful
and impactful ideas in the world. Actually, the TED mission
on the website is: “We believe passionately
in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives
and ultimately the world.” And we’ve seen through history
how the greatest ideas came out of the greatest conflicts
and greatest problems. For a great idea, you need
a great conflict or a great problem. And we’ve seen time
and time again through history how ideas, just simple ideas, have the power to transform
culture and human thinking. One great example of that
is the Renaissance – how single concepts, a school of ideas from humanism, ideas about how important humanity was, ideas about how important education was – ideas alone were powerful enough
to usher in a new renaissance, a rebirth in Europe, linking the bridge between
the Dark Ages and the modern world. But a more powerful example
is the Apollo 8 mission from NASA. The spacecraft takes a picture
of the first ever Earth-rise phenomena. We see our fragile blue planet
suspended in the blackness of space. The picture was so powerful that only in the next couple of years
after we received this picture, the power in this picture
was powerful enough to change our culture,
laws and our political systems relating to environmental protection. Actually, in a matter of only two years, we invented the first environmental
Earth-protection agency, we called the first Earth Day, and we banned DDT, and we started suddenly caring
about the earth and the environment – just from a single shot
of the planet from space. Far away from politics
and environmental protection, my name is Hani Akasheh, and I’m inspiring
to one day be a psychiatrist. And I spend most of my time
searching for ideas that can have the power
and the potential to change a crisis that I think is way bigger
and way more complex than global warming or politics, a crisis that I think sits
at the heart of all our problems, and this crisis
is the mental health crisis. To me, I feel like the world
is suffering a collective soul-sickness. The statistics don’t lie: anxiety and depression are being diagnosed
at rates we’ve never seen before. Neuropsychiatric disorders are now among the leading cause
of disability on the planet. And sadly, and according
to the World Health Organization, 800,000 people commit suicide every year. That is more than the number of people who die from armed conflict
and natural disasters, combined. But all the statistics I tell you about,
they mostly come from developed countries. When it comes to developing countries, like our Jordan, the statistics become scarier. According to the
World Health Organization, six of the countries in the world most urgently in need
of mental health reform were chosen, and Jordan was chosen as the lead country
to receive that action plan. This, to me, reflects the desperate state
of mental health in my country, and it breaks my heart. But we said great ideas
come out of great conflicts; we need a great problem
to have a great idea. This is when my brother and I
thought of an idea that could activate, that can catalyze a healing process, raising awareness
on mental health in Jordan. And this was drawn out of our personal
inspirational experience ourselves. How when we learned about the human brain,
it helped us develop our mental health. It helped us optimize
our perception of mental health. So we thought maybe we could do something
about the mental health issue in Jordan. We decided to open
our first neuroeducation company, a company that specializes in teaching people
key concepts in neuroscience that we thought could help them
change their perspective of mental health. We used visual animations, technology; we wanted to create a fun and exciting way for people to discover
more about their brains, and we were so lucky and so blessed to have our company grow so fast
in such a short time. Working with people
from across the spectrum, working with universities,
tech companies, corporate giants. When we put out this idea, and we reached out to adults
suffering from stress and anxiety, and when we told them
about brain plasticity and the relationship between
the frontal cortex and the amygdala, the power of the message itself
gave them intrinsic motivation to understand how powerful
meditation and mindfulness can be in controlling your anxiety
and your stress symptoms. But the real results were
when we started working with children. When we taught little kids
about brain plasticity, the power of the idea itself pushed them
to a more growth-oriented mindset. It’s like now they know
that they can face their challenges, that change is inevitable if you keep practicing
and you keep working. And we already know
from great researchers like Carol Dweck that the mindset of children will really be a huge indicator
of their success in later stages of life. Actually one of the sweetest things: we got a message from one of the parents who we gave this workshop
to their children, and she described in the message how mathematics stopped
becoming a nightmare for these children and started becoming something they enjoy. (Applause) Thank you. This is the power
of understanding our brain. This is the power of understanding
how dynamic and changing our brains are. And brain plasticity,
when it’s given to children, it can really revolutionize
how they see themselves. But this idea also struck
a new thought about the process. We saw how brain plasticity and teaching people
about their brains at a younger age had a bigger impact
than elder or older people. So we thought to ourselves that the mental health problem in Jordan
is too big to solve it by going around and giving people workshops
and teaching them about the brain. If we really wanted to address
the mental health issue in Jordan, we would have to address
this issue at its root. And we already know that mental health diseases
are diseases of childhood. And if we wanted to address this problem,
we would have to go back to childhood. So this is why my brother and I,
again, this summer, we opened our first non-profit program, a program dedicated to bringing neuroscience programs
and neuroscience training to kindergarten teachers,
particularly kindergarten teachers. It was our hope that the message
of neuroplasticity and the message in brain plasticity had the most powerful impact
and had the most potential to change when we gave it to younger people and when we gave it to the caregivers,
the educators and the policymakers involved in early brain development. We knew that when the teachers
and the parents and the policymakers involved in early brain development knew about the critical period
of brain development in children, when they knew how plastic
and how fragile their minds are, and when they knew
that the first years of life dictate and design the structure
of the brain of the children forever, on a very small sample scale yet, we’ve already figured out and found out that after teachers in kindergartens
learned about brain plasticity and learned about how the brains work, we found out that this message itself – the power and the hope
in the message itself – was able to help the teachers develop more empathy, more patience
and more love towards the children. It’s like now they
understand the children, they understand how these children
grow and develop. On such a small scale, when the teachers figured out
that at six years of age, 90% of the brain development
of the children would have been complete, which means that the quality
of interactions in the first six years of life will design the brain forever. When teachers were able to wake up
to their true role in society, to their role as actual designers
of the children’s brains and their lives, that in itself motivated them and gave them the true image
that they need to work with, the true organ
that they need to work with. To finalize, my message
is go and learn about your brain. There’s good news: there is a mental health renaissance
happening all over the world. Everybody now is caring a bit more
about mental health. Particularly in Jordan, we can see it
in the meditation centers, in the holistic centers,
in the breathing workshops. The world is slowly waking up. But to me, there is nothing more powerful, there is nothing more promising
for your own mental health renaissance, for your own transformation, than understanding your brain. When you understand your brain, you will begin to have empathy
for yourself and for others. When you understand your brain, you will be able to comprehend that the world you create
is always creating you back. Discovering your brain will also let you
be more mindful and more aware on where you spend your time: How you spend your free hours? Who do you talk to?
Who do you go out with? How much do you read? All your choices, all these micro-choices
you do in your life, are ultimately changing the network and structure of your brain,
your personality and your future. And they always told us that trying to change the world
will only lead to more suffering, trying to change the world is impossible, and we should rather focus more
on changing ourselves. But what if the message – the truth and the hope in the message
that we can actually change ourselves – become a template in which we can
actually change the world? Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)



  • TheOkforever

    Great Talk!!!

  • Qais Akasheh

    this is BEAUTIFUL

  • Kristel Meff


  • Sarah Azzam

    I’ve never seen someone talk so passionately this way in a ted talk before

  • Asma Karameh

    so amazing

  • بتول احمد

    اذا امكن ارفاق الفيديو بترجمة😭

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