We all face adversity at some point in our lives. Some kinds of adversity are easily overcome. Others, like mental health and neurological challenges, present a continual struggle to regain control in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and fear. The new brain science of Neuroplasticity is bringing hope to many. It is the ability of the brain to change its own structure and function in response to mental experience. With Neuroplasticity, “the brain’s very sophistication makes possible a unique and gentle kind of healing” allowing us to overcome deficits and insufficiencies in order to live life more fully. Through Neuroplasticity we can embrace our abilities, and, Melanie Herrmann believes, God has been telling us how to do this since the beginning.
With five children, three of whom face neurological challenges, Melanie Herrmann is no stranger to adversity. The Hermann family has been on a long road to healing, relying on faith and prayer, and choosing holistic/family led therapies in addition to traditional medicine.
One of Melanie’s sons, Nick, was born prematurely, weighing only two and a half pounds and suffering a brain bleed. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and developmental delays, and spent the first three months of his life in the hospital receiving intensive care. Throughout his stay in the hospital, he was the recipient of numerous prayers, priesthood blessings from his father, Dave, and overwhelming optimism that his health would continue to improve. “Doctors told us he may never sit up, feed himself, or communicate,” she said, “but we had to hope for more.”
With the continued love and support of his family and the community, Nick grew while facing challenges, including a diagnosis of non-verbal learning disorder (NLD). Two decades later, many would be surprised to know the severity of his early brain injury. At age 16 he was told by one well-meaning doctor to accept his life and be grateful. He said it is a miracle that things turned out so well. But Nick cried when the doctor left the room, he wanted more. At 17 he was promised in his patriarchal blessing that his ‘capacities would be enlarged’. The family continued to seek new approaches to increase brain processing and function, and their dedication to Nick’s abilities has brought enormous progress in his struggle to overcome his disabilities and live a rich, rewarding life.
Like many LDS families, Nick’s family hoped for a mission call when he turned 19. After submitting his papers, they waited for weeks, until finally the Stake President received a letter. To their disappointment, the letter stated that Nick had been honorably excused from missionary service. The family knew that a mission was possible for Nick, and he was determined to go forth to take God’s word to the world. The Stake President, who knew Nick personally, felt moved to request that the missionary department reconsider a mission call for Nick.
Searching for Answers
The family waited for months while the mission call was being reconsidered. In the meantime, Melanie decided to seek treatment methods she hadn’t considered before, in order to help Nick to prepare to serve. In her research, she stumbled across Neurofeedback, a therapy shown to regulate arousal and neural activity while decreasing symptoms of brain injury such as stress and anxiety. She talked to others who had tried this approach, including a family whose son has Asperger’s who eventually was able to serve a mission. Melanie received training as a neurofeedback clinician and began working with Nick. Over the next few months he settled into “a calm he had never known” and his vision improved from 20/100 to 20/40 in his weak eye. Eventually Nick was blessed with the opportunity to serve a mission.
Upon returning home, Nick enrolled in college. Though he earned good grades, he had to work harder and longer than his peers, experiencing mental exhaustion much of the time. After more searching, Melanie came across an interview with Dr. Norman Doidge, a leading neuroplasticity expert and the New York Time’s Bestselling Author of The Brain that Changes Itself. This groundbreaking book explores the work of neuroscientists across the world, which has led to revolutionary new insights into neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change and adapt itself.
“For centuries it was believed that the price we pay for our brain’s complexity was that, compared to other organs, it was fixed and unregenerative – unable to recover mental abilities lost because of damage or disease.” Doidge explains how the brain’s capacities are highly dynamic and its very sophistication makes possible a ‘unique and gentle” way of healing—without surgery or medication and their unpleasant side effects.
Drawing on this new understanding of how our brains work, scientists and practitioners have learned how to use neuroplastic therapies to address many common conditions and to offer hope where prospects for healing were long denied. Some methods of improving the brain’s performance and health are simple approaches anyone can use.
Neurostimulation is one stage of neuroplastic healing. Light, sound, electricity, vibration, movement– and even thought– provide neurostimulation. Neurostimulation helps revive dormant circuits in the hurt brain and leads to a second phase in the healing process – an improved ability of the “noisy brain” to regulate and modulate and reach homeostasis. “Everyday thought, especially when used systematically, is a potent way to stimulate neurons.”
“When we think particular thoughts, certain networks in the brain are ‘turned on’ while others are switched off. Once a relevant circuit is turned on by thought, it fires and then blood flows to that circuit (a process that can be seen on brain scans that monitor blood flow in the brain) to replenish its energy supply.” Doidge explains how Edward Taub’s Constraint –Induced Therapy, a movement-based behavioral therapy that challenges learned non-use of a limb after injury, involves great intentional effort and motor planning, and too, likely triggers thought-based neurostimulation.
Melanie had a strong impression that neuroplasticity could be yet another answer to Nick’s residual challenges. She immediately purchased Doidge’s book and read about many who overcame challenges of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), learning disorders (LDs), stroke, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Sensory Integration Disorder (SPD) and addictions with revolutionary neuroplastic interventions. She received training in cognitive enhancement and trained Nick (and others) to increase working memory and processing speed.
Making the Connections
At the same time she was discovering Doidge’s work, Melanie was called to be the Ward Relief Society President. One day while out visiting, she met Benita Quakenbush-Roberts, the Founder and CEO of Avalon Hills Eating Disorder Programs. Their common interest in the brain and psychology led to walks in the canyon and discussions on LDs, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and epilepsy.
Benita shared the story of the creation of her treatment centers. Melanie opened up about her family’s struggle with neurological challenges, the mental health challenges of some of the women in her ward, and her success with neuroplastic interventions. She told Benita about Norman Doidge’s book, and loaned her a marked-up copy. As the leader of a premier mental health facility, Benita was fascinated with the impact these newfound treatment methods made for Melanie and her family.
Benita began to wonder how neuroplasticity could be applied in a residential mental health/eating disorder treatment setting, and felt that the knowledge of neuroplasticity could change the way the state of Utah looks at mental health. She purchased The Brain that Changes Itself for every employee. In Benita’s words, it was a “God thing” that Melanie had knocked on her front door. She soon invited Melanie to her home, where she met with Don Hebert, a member of the Avalon Hills treatment team. After discussing the profound impact that neuroplasticity has made on mental health treatment, Benita had an idea: “Why don’t we invite Dr. Doidge to speak in Salt Lake City?” They contacted Doidge via his website and to Melanie’s surprise, his assistant (and wife), Karen, responded on his behalf.
For several weeks, Karen and Melanie corresponded by email until Avalon Hills was able to secure a one hour conference call with Doidge. Though not a staff member, Melanie was invited to sit in. At the end of the call, Doidge asked, “Is Melanie Herrmann in the room?” Stunned by his question, she responded with a shaky, “Yes.” Doidge gave her a referral for Nick to visit Paul Madaule of the Listening Centre in Toronto.
Melanie was overwhelmed by Doidge’s graciousness. His referral would lead to further enhancement of Nick’s abilities and quality of life, as well as the opportunity to meet Dr. Doidge and his family in person.
Mental Health and God’s Teachings
“God has been sharing these mental health principles through scripture since the beginning of time, and now science is showing the proof,” Melanie says. Doidge’s scientific work led her to find connections in the scriptures. “I needed to know what God had to say about the mind, thoughts, fear, and faith.”
“Your brain is constantly changing over the course of your life, responding to the kinds of things you choose to do and think,” Doidge tells us. Our thoughts actually shape our brain anatomy and behavior. Brain plasticity can be used for both our good and our bad. Doidge calls this the ‘plastic paradox.’
Melanie points out that God tells us this, too: ‘Commit thy works unto the Lord and thy thoughts shall be established’ (Prov 16:3). ‘For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind’ (2 Tim 1:7). ‘As [a man] thinketh, so is he’(Prov 23:7). She brings up an article, “Repentance That Brings Conversion,” from the September 2012 issue of Ensign.
In the article, Elder James B. Martino raises the point that “Often we think that repentance is the process of only laying aside the wrong we have done; however, equally important is what we do to replace bad habits and traditions with new and better ones.” The result is a firm mind. “This is how we create the new neuropathways described by Norman Doidge, and we read about it over and over again in the Book of Mormon,” says Melanie.
Doidge suggests that “traditional talk therapy focuses on the problem, further immersing one in the destructive behavior.” Instead, by focusing on new, healthy behaviors, we create new, healthy neuropathways. Brain imaging actually shows the brain’s ability to heal from addiction. “We have a ‘use it or lose it brain’ which can work for us or against us,” he says. Melanie sees a correlation between the ‘problem’ Dr. Doidge mentions and sin and addiction. Benjamin R. Erwin, LDS Family Services does, too. We can focus on the fiery serpents (sin or addiction) , or we can focus on the Savior and the healing power of his Atonement. “Decisions are constantly before us. To make them wisely, courage is needed—the courage to say no, the courage to say yes. Decisions do determine destiny” (Pres. Monson quoted by Elder Martino). No wonder we teach our youth to be aware of their thoughts and to ‘sing a hymn’ when needed.
Avalon Hills and Neuroplasticity Today
Several months later, the news of neuroplasticity has created quite a stir at Avalon Hills. Benita’s son, Tom, has begun listening therapy, a neuroplastic approach utilizing modified recordings of music, usually Mozart, to rewire the brain. As a child Tom struggled with speech and language production and was forced to develop coping strategies to get by. “I had to consciously think about every word that come out of my mouth—the actual production of each sound.” But by the third day of his listening training he’d noticed a change. “I was thinking more about word choice and content than sound production.” And acquaintances, unaware of the intervention, noticed, too. “They told me I was more lively and talkative.”
Other members of the staff have embraced the news and begun interventions with their own family members as well. Natalie Wintch writes: “Wesley and I have been desperately praying and searching for answers. One day Wesley was reading the book [Benita] recommended, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. There was a section specifically addressing auditory processing disorders. Wesley was so excited to share it with me. I cried when I read it because for the first time in a very long time, I felt hope. I felt like there was a way to free Annie from the prison of her own mind. I could get my happy little girl back.”
The family recently traveled to Toronto for listening/sound therapy with Paul Madaule. In a few short months their daughter’s reading scores have gone from the 40-50th percentile to the 90-100th percentile. Her father says: “There was nothing we did differently between October and the end of January that would account for this increase in her performance except for the Listening Centre program and helping rewire the way her brain processes things. There really is something to neuroplasticity, at least it has made a real difference for Anne.”
Now Dr. Norman Doidge is coming to Utah. This is good news.
“I believe the brain can improve every day,” says Nick Herrmann. “I am grateful to have met Norman Doidge and for the information he is sharing.” God’s gift to us of a neuroplastic brain allows our growth and progress both on earth and eternally.
Norman Doidge in Salt Lake City on March 31st.
If you or your loved ones suffer from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and addictions, or neurological challenges such as chronic pain, ADD, LD, TBI, stroke, MS, dementia, Parkinson’s, and Autism, or if you want to learn what you can do to preserve and enhance brain function, join us. Avalon Hills Treatment Centers invite you to attend a night with Dr. Norman Doidge, MD. Hear stories of faith, hope and personal triumph and remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity on Tuesday, March 31st at 7 pm at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.
Click below to reserve your tickets.
To find out more about how the new science of Neuroplasticity can help you overcome your challenges and/or preserve and enhance brain function, join us on March 31st.