Lecture Review: ‘Positive Brain Change’ by Professor William (Billy) O’Connor

IAHIP Limerick Regional Group Public Evening Lecture Friday, 23rd November 2012

Reviewed by Shirley Ward

This was an extremely successful, stimulating lecture delivered by Billy O’Connor, Neuroscientist and Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology at the Graduate Entry Medical School, University of Limerick. The evening, so well organised and advertised by IAHIP member Lindsay Mitchell, brought in an audience of over seventy-five attendees; comprising of thirty IAHIP members and over fourty-five members of the public. A great combination of psychotherapists, students and professionals from interesting backgrounds, each handed an IAHIP brochure for their perusal!

Billy, a stimulating, lively, thought-provoking lecturer and passionate about his work, captivated his audience for over two and a half hours and they wanted even more at the end! Presenting his most recent research on the brain, cleverly integrating his work with that of the psychotherapist and mental health, it was good to understand a topic that is often beyond the understanding of many of us. Following through the work of the brain cells, neuron structure, impulses, travelling through the immensely complex pathways of circuits and systems and understanding, the workings of the frontal lobes and how the physiology of fear causes the brain to suffocate with deprivation of oxygen – it was an enlightening, exciting ride on the roller coaster of understanding – quite simply explained! To understand that the frontal lobes of the brain regulate impulse control and involve anticipation, creativity, communication and invention and that they all need discipline to function along with choosing, deciding, interpreting and questioning was a real learning curve in the making!

We were invited to participate in voting by Smart phone on various questions such as ‘How do we acquire Happiness?’ (as this actually strengthens the brain) and ‘What drug is the most harmful?’ It was seen that alcohol is more harmful than heroin. There was an emphasis that drug taking starts with not being able to sleep. Billy explained that the brain is what we are and that happiness, the mental or emotional state of well-being, characterised by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy can create positive brain changes. His explanations of the workings of the neurons and neurotransmitters, of which fifty types have now been identified, show that they form a network for one certain thing, change. The brain works on reflex, then it perceives and reacts to the five senses. It is interesting to note how we, as psychotherapists, can help make these changes in our clients.

The introduction of the idea of natural rewards and how they affected the brain was fascinating. Natural rewards from food, water, sex and nurturing were introduced as the important pathways for the survival of the species and each person needs to be guided to where they would do best in their lives. If parents found the good in their children and guided them into natural highs and success, there would be no deprivation affecting the brain. There was a warning though, to be careful about what you would like to reward. It could lead to the Obsessive Compulsive Character with traits of Hypochondria, Social Phobias, Pathological Gambling and others!

The teaching that brains can be rewired, for example from fear, doubt, anxiety and depression through Meditation, Education and Exercise, Nutrition and Determination = MEND, was illuminating and Billy recommended a website, <http://themeditationpodcast.com>, where meditations on such themes as The Unknown; Renewal; Money; Finding Your Voice; Releasing Fear, could all be found.

It is hoped to invite Billy back in the future to learn more about how our brains change in response to our experiences. For further information on his work refer to the following website: <http://www.Inside-the-brain.com>. or Google Search <William.OConnor@UL.ie>