My senior year in high school, a close friend of mine suffered a severe brain trauma when he was struck by a drunk driver. Before the accident, Tim had a quick wit, a sharp mind, and a gift for speaking and writing. After emerging from his coma, however, time was sluggish and confused. His neurologist, parents, and friends shared the same fear: the old Tim was gone.
Months after the accident, Tim had become more conversant and functional, even attending community college classes with moderate success. But his healing seemed to have plateaued and his old sparkle and wit had still not returned. That’s when he decided to leave home and travel the world.
Tim was gone for eleven months sending simple postcards about once a month, assuring us of his safety and listing his stops in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Bhurma. It was impossible from his quick communications to know anything other than that he was on the move and alive.
The Tim who returned was alert, engaged, and articulate—in two languages now instead of just one. Somehow in his travels his stuttering high school French had morphed into fluency. His speech was careful and his personality more sober than before the accident, but it was tough to tell whether these were symptoms of the trauma or of world-wise maturity. Much to everyone’s joy and relief, Tim was back!
Thirty years later, Tim is now a professor at Stanford and an acclaimed education expert, so if any neurological changes did persist, they have certainly not limited his functioning.
Enriched Environment Therapy
What Tim experienced in Europe is what neuroscientists call “enriched environment therapy.” Only in Tim’s case, the “therapy” was accidental. Recent research from the Salk Institute, Johns Hopkins, UC Irvine, and many other neuroscience research institutes, strongly supports the idea that enriched environments–those with high levels of emotional, cognitive, social, and physical stimulation–not only have a strong preventative and rehabilitative effect on humans with brain disorders, but can even heal neurological damage and stimulate brain growth.
William Greenough, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recommends that this kind of enrichment include complex and demanding elements that compel learning and physical activity. Other research indicates that engaging social activity, play, frequent change, and a healthy, varied diet are also critical components of an optimally enriched environment. In Tim’s case, this was all neatly bundled in a year of travel.
Hope for Healing
As Tim’s story suggests, exposure to enriched environments seems to be an effective therapy for traumatic brain injuries and can lead to remarkable healing. Researchers point to two primary mechanisms that they believe are activated by highly stimulating circumstances: the brain’s natural plasticity and its ability to generate new neurons—two remarkable mechanisms that scientists are only now beginning to understood.
Even more surprisingly, enriched environments may be useful for treating everything from cocaine addiction to fetal alcohol syndrome to epilepsy. While much of the direct research supporting enriched environment therapies comes from animal studies, there is increasing evidence that these therapies may be effective for humans too.
Like many theories of treatment, science is really just confirming what we already know about enriched environments. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that learning new things, playing, moving, discovering, and interacting with others are good for mental health and cognitive functioning. Personal experience, common wisdom, and anecdotal evidence like Tim’s story offer compelling evidence that an enriched environment is a good thing—not only for those suffering from brain-related conditions, but for anyone seeking health and wellness.
What’s exciting about the science, though, is its potential to help us refine and focus on enriched environment therapies for the treatment of specific conditions. These therapies may enable us to aggressively prevent, mitigate, and even heal neurological disorders once considered untreatable.