OK, let’s start this way. Synapses that fire together wire together. What? Stay with me. A synapse (more specifically a synaptic cleft) is empty space (a gateway) between nerve cells. This is true for the entire brain and for all those super highways of connections called our nervous system(s). When we touch a toe to the cool surface of a pond the sensation is transmitted from one nerve cell to another in form of electrical signals that travel up the nerves until they reach a synapse. The signal (the charge) must now cross the gateway, the synaptic cleft, and it does so by releasing chemicals (neurotransmitters) into the space between nerve cells. It is upon these that the electrical charge rides across the portal and continues its journey to the brain where the signal is received, processed, and where we get to choose how we will respond. Pull back? Jump in? We decide.
Now, the same is true for thought, feeling, or memory transmissions. When we generate a thought, recall a memory, or sense a feeling, it too is transmitted throughout the body. With each transmission we have options. Do we love this thought, this feeling, or that memory? Do we hate it? Does it scare us? Does it produce stress? Or does it make us feel relaxed?
At this point the reader might ask why is this all relevant to cannabis being a gateway drug? Stick with me, just a little longer.
The body is hardwired for efficiency. For every time the same charge is expressed, the gateways grow closer to reduce distance and make it easier for the electrical charge to cross the cleft. The more often we think the same thought, experience the same feeling, tell yourself the same story, the easier it will be to redo it until it becomes the path of least resistance.
Our thoughts (repeated) and our responses (repeated) are some of the most powerful forces that shape our brain (and our entire nervous system) and in doing so have great power over our health and well-being.
Wow. Let that sink in for but a moment.
We are designed to do this all the time! Our brain grows and evolves with every thought we think, especially those we think more frequently. In fact our most repeated thought and emotional narratives becomes the basis for how we experience ourselves, others, and the world (more on this in Part 2. How Changing Ourselves Changes the World Around Us).
Think of it this way. Imagine the synaptic cleft as a gorge you need to cross. Let’s say you have two ways across. Option A is the one you have taken many times before. It takes you across but is an unhealthy and difficult crossing. Option B sounds really good, healthy, and leaves you feeling invigorated on the other side. But it is very unfamiliar and therefore you’re a little hesitant to try it out.
How do most of us make that decision? If it’s the end of the day and we are tired, we might feel that it takes too much energy to try something new, even if the outcome would be better. So we go down the old and familiar path even though we know the cost will be high.
In this scenario, option A is a pessimistic state flush with emotions such as stress or fear and option B would be an exploratory or adventurous state flush with feeling open or relaxed. The road we take most often will become our reality. Fear vs trust, worry vs wonder, or anxiety vs willingness to explore and embrace new things.
If we go with option A, fear, like all chronic negativity, becomes the source of chronic stress. Our body will be flushed continuously with stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin, or dopamine for example. Chronic exposure to these molecules are clearly associated with reducing our resilience, making us vulnerable to inflammation, and lowering our immunity not to speak of their ill effects on our heart or blood pressure for example. Given the consequences of option A, why is it so hard for many of us to choose option B?
At this point it would really be nice to give ourselves a break. For many of us option A has become so hard wired into our nervous system because we have chosen it so often.
Ok. Now, enter the cannabis-experience.
Remember how we started? Synapses that fire together wire together! It is important to note that much of our “firing and wiring” is actually guided by endocannabinoid receptors inside the synapse.
Cannabinoids are significantly involved in bridging signals. However, rather than merely ferrying over a signal cannabinoids also help to positively regulate additional, complex brain chemistry.
And here is the magic of cannabis. Properly used cannabis is a mindfulness practices that make it easier to explore new choices.
In fact cannabis works for so many different types of patients suffering from so many different diseases because it affects the body and the mind in such as way as to unblock old paths, stimulate the growth of new ones and thus fortify and enhance our capacity for healing.
Mindfulness practices in mind-body medicine work through the same mechanism. That’s the reason why they are so effectively used in individualized, integrative medicine and for a similarly wide range of patient populations.
Both (endocannabinoids and plant-based cannabinoids) can reduce chronic stress and induce deep relaxation making new pathways more available and accessible. Plus, both naturally and easily tilt the mind toward positivity (optimism or positive affect). And, in doing so both can become “hard wired” gateways to deeper mental, emotional, physical and spiritual healing and well being.
Stay tune for Part 2. How Changing Ourselves (With Cannabis, Mindfulness, and/or Both) Changes the World Around Us