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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

12 Things I Learned from Dr. Mark Brady, a PhD Neuroscientist

As I have been reading and integrating information, I have found that some sources provide a richer trove of information than others. One of those rich sources for me is Dr. Mark Brady, a PhD neuroscientist. I encountered Dr. Brady‘s work through my training with The Couples Institute, where he is not only a very good friend of both founders, but also provides training on brain-based information and therapy interventions.

I can always tell when I have located a good resource by the number of notes I take and the density of information that I want to remember from each encounter with them. My notes from Dr. Brady’s presentations are long and involved. Perhaps more importantly, I use a lot of the concepts that I have learned from him daily with clients and as foundational concepts in my own thinking. I thought I’d share with you the top 12 things I have learned from Dr. Brady.

  1. Goal of neural growth — one of Dr. Brady’s overarching teachings is that dense neural networks work more efficiently for processing energy and information than sparse neural networks. By that he means that if your brain has dense interconnections between neurons, you will be better equipped to deal with stress and other difficult life experiences than someone whose brain has fewer and sparser interconnections. Dense brain networks promote psychological flexibility which is one of the main markers of good mental health. And because of neuroplasticity, we can actually work to increase the density of our brain networks. He is a great and inspiring example. He writes in his blog about his own childhood filled with trauma and instability. Dr. Brady has an ACE score of 8 out of 10, which, if you’ve done any reading about ACE scores and their impact on later health and well-being, is a tremendous challenge to overcome throughout life.

  2. Nourished vs. deprived neurons — Further to point #1, our life experiences can either nourish or deprive our brain cells. Nourished or enriched neurons have denser and more plentiful dendrites (or the arms that come off the center of the neuron). Deprived ones have fewer. Here are some things that deprive your neurons: trauma, emotional disconnection, addiction, isolation, hunger, and boring work. And here are some ways to enrich your neurons: learning of all kinds, beauty, being in nature, social interaction, critical thinking, and love. We should always be looking for ways to enrich our brain cells to create a denser and more flexible brain network.

  3. Movement is key — I already knew this, but Dr. Brady is resolute in his emphasis on physical movement as a way to metabolize stress and trauma. He points to the fact that regular exercise has shown to be as good, if not better, than SSRIs in treating Major Depressive Disorder. In addition, he believes that the movement created through his day job as a general contractor throughout his life has significantly increased his lifespan (see ACE scores above). I use regular movement in my own life and, if I could, would mandate at least 20 minutes of daily exercise for every client.

  4. All evaluation is threat — Human beings feel threatened by any kind of evaluation, even when it turns out positive. This completely makes sense to me given my lived experience. Think about your heightened nervous system response to performances, annual reviews, surprise birthday parties, or even someone randomly commenting on your appearance. Even if you are being evaluated positively, the process still feels like a threat.

  5. Our partner is our biggest threat — Perhaps because our romantic partners can be our biggest source of support and joy, they also represent the biggest threat in our lives. After all, if they withdraw their love, acceptance, or affection, it can be devastating. It makes sense that our threat response is triggered with any indication that our partner is withdrawing from or rejecting us.

  6. Wired to connect & protect — Our brains are wired both to connect and protect, but not at the same time. This is a concept that I think about constantly when I’m working with couples. It’s simplified and therefore not 100% true, of course. In fact, I believe that our first response to threat is generally to attempt to connect with others in order to protect ourselves. But generally, if we are under threat, our brains are not wired for open and flexible connection. Taken together with the idea that our partner can be our biggest threat, we can find ourselves pushing away from connection when we are feeling vulnerable, scared, or angry. In order to connect with our partners in these moments, we need to calm down and get to a more open and less protected place.

  7. Dopamine bursts — In addition to writing a blog, Dr. Brady also share his presentations about books he is reading. The way he compiles his highlights is by monitoring his brain for the burst of dopamine that he receives when he reads something surprising, new to him, or particularly interesting. I have done book summaries and takeaways on my YouTube channel for several years, but decided to modify my format to reflect Dr. Brady‘s process in part. My book summaries now include 5 to 10 takeaways that I identify by these little bursts of dopamine in my own brain.

  8. Connect goals to neural growth — Dr. Brady wrote a blog post about 10 New Year’s resolutions for 2023. Each of his intentions are linked to an element of neural growth. For example #5 is “Average making and initiating contact with a new friend a month who feels like I’m curating my social circle upward (Exposing the brain regularly to new nouns — people, places and things — is also beneficial for Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor).”

  9. The neural impact of trauma — Traumatized brains have deep pockets of physical holes where the neurons have atrophied. These are essentially “no go” areas in our brain which cordon off real estate that cannot be used to process energy or information. It’s like having a traffic system where a bunch of roads are blocked off. It causes a lot of congestion in the active areas and impedes effective and efficient processing of energy and information.

  10. Abdication is the opposite of integration — If we are all trying to achieve denser neural growth and more connected pathways, then avoidance is the main obstacle to this growth. Instead, we should all be trying to integrate our thoughts, our feelings, and our experiences. By integration, I’ll use Dan Siegel’s definition: “Integration is the linkage of differentiated aspects of a system.” Avoiding memories, ideas, activities, places is a way to stymie brain integration and halt neural growth.

  11. Artifical Intelligence — Dr. Brady has been playing around with ChatGPT and I have started to use it as well as a result of his encouragement. It is fascinating. I leave the dialogue open on my iPad and ask questions throughout the day. Obviously, I take the responses with a grain of salt, but it is impressive how much information artificial intelligence networks can organize and communicate. Some of my recent questions are: how are emotional safety and psychological flexibility related? And what are 10 ways to grow better neural connections?

  12. Better listening — Dr. Brady has written a series of books on the discipline of becoming a better listener that he calls the Tao of Listening Trilogy. Although listening is something I do for a living, I consider myself to be a novice. I am using his book “Noble Listening” as a weekly discipline to continue to enhance my skills of listening better and asking better questions.

Over the past year, I'm lucky enough to have developed a friendship with Mark. He is just as delightful and interesting in person as he is as a writer or a presenter. In my frenzied information gathering, I don’t always remember to lift up the sources from whom I’ve derived so much knowledge. In this case, Dr. Brady‘s life experience, outreach, and breadth of knowledge have combined to make him not only a deep source of knowledge, but also a special person to encounter. I hope we can all continue to benefit from his wisdom.

Let me know what you think. Comments are always appreciated and welcome!

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