When I was a senior in high school, two of my best friends were in a car that was broadsided by a drunk driver. One friend, Scott, was killed. My other friend, Tim, suffered a terrible head injury and was left in a coma.
Tim did emerge from his coma, but very slowly. His first weeks were stuporous and confused. Gradually he became functional, returning to school to finish the last few weeks of his senior year and then taking some community college classes with moderate success. Months later, Tim followed through on his longstanding plan to travel the world—a trip he had originally intended to take with Scott. The external wounds on his face and head had not even had time fully heal, much less his neurological injuries. When we said goodbye, his speech was still slow and his affect flat. How would he survive a solo trip around 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, communist Russia, India, Pakistan, and Bhurma. It was impossible from his quick communications to track his well being, other than to know that he was on the move and alive. So Tim’s return was surrounded with great suspense. Who would his parents and friends meet at the airport upon his return?
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. 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.
In my own professional journey as an educator and mental health professional, I’ve reflected on Tim’s journey from traumatic brain injury to world traveler to college professor. A near miraculous amount of emotional and neurological healing occurred in eleven months of wild adventure as Tim immersed himself in new places, cultures, relationships, and languages. Tim, who remains a close friend to this day, is clear that those experiences were not incidental to his transformation—they were central to it.
What Tim experienced in Europe is what neuroscientists call an “enriched environment.” In the 1960s, UC Berkeley researchers studied the impact of enriched environments—i.e. those with abundant and engaging physical, sensory, social, and problem-solving opportunities—on animals. These enriched environments, they discovered, caused animals to grow larger and better-functioning brains. Animals in low-stimulus environments, on the other hand, suffered brain atrophy.
More recent research from the Salk Institute, Johns Hopkins, UC Irvine, and many other neuroscience research institutes, strongly supports the idea that enriched environments not only have a strong preventative and rehabilitative effect on humans with brain disorders, but can even heal neurological damage and stimulate brain change and 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, and a healthy, varied diet are also critical components of an optimally enriched environment.
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. Researchers also suspect that the mind-body connection may be partially to credit for these effects, with physical activity and stimulation causing increased blood flow to the brain (chewing gum, for instance, has been shown to temporarily increase cerebral blood flow and task-related memory).
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 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.