Full transcript of neuroscience and motivational expert Colleen Lightbody’s TEDx Talk: A Journey of a Worrier to a Warrior at TEDxHyderabad conference.
Colleen Lightbody – Managing Director of The NeuroLeadership Group Africa
10 years ago I discovered that I had a brain. There were two things that precipitated this. Firstly, I discovered the amazing and wonderful and magnificent concept of neuroplasticity. And secondly, life threw up some unimaginable challenges at me. So I have some science and I have a story.
Science — talking about the science is what I do for a living. So I find that quite easy. Talking about my story is not so easy and this is the first time that I am sharing my personal story on a global stage. Some of my closest friends don’t know the story.
So I’ll start with the science, because that’s the easy part. If you had a brain in your hands you would literally be able to — the brain is about the size, by the way — you would be able to put your fingers deep inside that brain, because your brain is about the consistency of hard butter. The brain is soft, it is not rigid as was previously thought. It is amenable to change right through actual lifetime. This is an incredibly exciting concept.
The brain is like a muscle. When you go to gym you lift your weights and you lift the weights and your muscle becomes stronger and thicker and denser. It’s exactly the same with the brain. The more you use your brain, the more you use any parts of your brain, the thicker and denser and stronger your brain becomes. So the reason this is so incredibly exciting is because it brings up endless possibilities.
I in my career have seen people change their IQs significantly. I’ve seen people change their temperament, people that are able to stave off age-related brain diseases to a huge degree when they use their brains effectively. I have seen people take up musical instruments in their 50s and begin degrees in their 60s. So this is incredibly exciting and I truly wish that this was knowledge that I had had when I was 14 or when I was 18 or even when I was eight.
The thing with this — finding this knowledge about the brain — finding out about neuroplasticity is it brings responsibilities. You have a choice of what you wire in your brain and the brain that you create. If you pay attention to jealousy and negativity and rumination and worry, that is what you’re going to manifest in your brain, and that is what I manifested in my brain. So you have a choice to change from a ‘worrier’ to a warrior of the mind but it takes commitment, it takes control and it takes courage.
So I’ll start 10 years ago and I’ll tell you a little bit what I was like 10 years ago. 10 years ago, if I had stood up in front of three people to talk, I would have found that’s an incredible event and now today I’m standing here at TEDx in Hyderabad. 10 years ago I smoked, I drank, I was overweight. In fact, I was actually once one and a half times the size that I am now and I had no self-confidence. I certainly didn’t believe in a life of possibility. I’ll go back five years before this.
Five years before, my son Gabriel was born and I was lucky enough to be present at both of my children’s birth. And why I say lucky enough is because my children are adopted. So it was an incredible privilege to be invited to see them born, and I don’t know how you ladies do it, because it’s a tough thing.
The social worker came to me just before Gabriel was born. This is protocol and she said to me, “Colleen, if there’s something wrong with this child, are you still going to adopt him?” And I said, “Definitely not”. You see I had a beloved brother who I love more than anything on earth. And when he became an adult, in early adulthood my brother was diagnosed with bipolar one disorder, a really extreme version of it. And we have been many years going through hospitalizations. At one stage my brother went missing for a period of time in Okavango swamps in the African [Botswana] where we believed he’d died. And eventually my brother did die, a most traumatic day. And I didn’t want my daughter to have to go through the same pain and suffering that I’d been through with the sibling. So I said, ‘No, I would not take the child’.
So Gabriel was born and the pediatrician took this little creature to the side and checked him out and came back to me and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry to tell you this but the child has got congenital hip displacement’. Now congenital hip displacement — and he had in both hips quite badly — is where the little hip forms outside of the socket so the socket does not form properly and it requires quite a bit of intervention to correct.
So the social worker came to me and said, ‘Colleen, I guess this means that you’re not going to take the baby’. And I said, ‘No, quite on the contrary, I can manage this. It’s a physical disability’. So we went through a couple of years, it was fairly tough and this is the time when I made a choice. Gabriel at first was put into something called a Pavlik Harness which is a little brace — the hip sockets in place, we used to call him little chicken, because he looked like a little chicken. He was not able to move much and we weren’t able to take it off to bathroom at all. Unfortunately this didn’t work.
We then went through some extensive surgery. Gabriel was put in a full body plaster cast from his shoulders to his feet. And again his little hips kept in place that he couldn’t move and one of my most enduring memories of this time was how Gabriel and I used to sleep. He used to sleep lying on top of my body in an effort for myself to give him some kind of comfort. He’s had a few other operations and possibly will still have many more.
But after a couple of years everything had settled down and once the plaster casts came off, Gabriel started talking and he has not stopped talking since. Firstly, he is incredibly social, he loves socializing and he loves people, terribly friendly. And secondly, he is incredibly articulate. Gabriel has a wonderful command of the English language and he speaks like a little genius. I kind of figured that he’d become a doctor.
Then came the courage part. 5 years later, Gabriel was about to enter formal schooling and his teacher said to me, ‘Colleen, I’m not sure why but I just think you should take him for some tests, just to check that he’s ready for school’. So I said 10 years ago, almost to this very day in front of a panel of professors at the Johannesburg Children’s Hospital where I was told that my son was permanently and irrevocably brain-damaged. Gabriel will maybe even reach the cognitive capacity of a ten-year-old. However he has this amazing talent which is the ability with language.
Gabriel suffers from something called fetal alcohol syndrome. His biological mother had been drinking in his pregnancy. Alcohol has an irrevocably damaging effect on the baby central nervous system and most tragically on the brain. Alcohol literally shrinks baby’s brains. In South Africa we have the highest incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome of anywhere in the world. Worldwide the statistics are: about 0.1% to 0.3% of babies are affected by alcohol which I find horrifying. In South Africa, it is closer to 14% and we have the fewest resources available to us.
So I cried all the way home. One of the things I do in my work is I teach people that emotions are useful and wonderful things. Unfortunately we’ve created a society where we don’t allow people to express their emotions. In fact, from a neuroscience perspective, if you remove or damage the emotional part of your brain, a person is able to function completely normally. However they become pathologically indecisive, they become unable to decide whether they’re going to go to work in the morning or what breakfast cereal to eat. So emotions are useful. It’s what you do with your emotions that count.
One of the great warriors of the mind in my country is Nelson Mandela. And Nelson Mandela always says, ‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by my failures and how many times I have got up again’. When I give talks about fetal alcohol syndrome, one of the demonstrations that I do which is quite heartbreaking is I break an egg into a glass and I pour alcohol over the egg. And within seconds this egg actually begins to cook. Alcohol cooks babies’ brains. There was nothing I could do about our reality. I cried a lot and I still probably will cry.
So what we decided to do is we decided to create something which is called The Flutterby Foundation and we created this foundation to build awareness for drinking in pregnancy. And the tagline of the association is: if even one child is prevented from the scourge, then Gabriel’s life has purpose. Gabriel himself tells everybody that he has got fetal alcohol syndrome. He stands up with me and gives talks about it. If you had to meet Gabriel in a restaurant he would come up because it’s terribly friendly and he would say to you, ‘Hi, my name is Gabriel and I’ve got fetal alcohol syndrome because my mom drank in her pregnancy’. And I always go: ‘Gabriel, tell me it wasn’t me’. Although the truth is it could have been.
So then came the control part. Discovering that my son had irrevocable brain damage made me realize that I had to take charge of my life, I had to care for this child forever. So I changed my life from a life of purposelessness and powerlessness, I started to do things differently. I bought some running shoes and I bought a bicycle and I started to climb mountains. And this is my daughter and myself at Base Camp Everest and the other one is Kilimanjaro. And I started to run, I started to run marathons and 90 kilometers ultra marathons. This is from somebody who had never done a stitch of exercise before.
And then I’ve got this crazy idea because I think once you start going like this, you can get out of control and I got this crazy idea to do an Ironman competition. So an Ironman competition is a 3.8 kilometers swim in the sea, followed by 180 kilometers bike ride, followed by a 42 kilometers run. So I remember standing there on an African beach while the Zulu dancers beat their drums and jangled their beads in celebration before entering the African waves. And I don’t know if any of you have ever seen an Ironman swim they call it the washing machine. It’s the craziest event, it’s for knitting, you’ve got goggles get knocked off your face, people kick you and I thought that, that was going to be the tough part.
1 kilometer into the bicycle ride however was the tough part, when I came crashing off my bike. I remember climbing slowly back onto my bike in excruciating agony and I knew that I was going to finish this race, I don’t care what happened. There were too many people watching, so I didn’t want to be so embarrassed that I hadn’t finished this race and I told everybody that I was going to do it. I did the whole 180 kilometer ride, crying again, then put my techies on my running shoes and I started the 42K marathon. I remember looking like a little old lady as I called along eventually I managed to gather some speed and I finished the race.
The next day in hospital, I was X-rayed and I had a fractured spine and concussion. But I also had a medal and I had learned that hardship and difficulty can be conquered and can be overcome. And this is my [pijami] crossing the finishing line.
One of the parts of the brain that I just want to mention here is one of my favorite parts of the brain. It’s called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and I promise you don’t have to remember any of these words after this. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that hangs out here in your temples and it’s the part of the brain to do with self-control and self-discipline. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, I call the leadership part of your brain. It’s the part of your brain you use when you resist the chocolate cake, or when you wake up 10 minutes earlier in the morning to meditate.
Now remember, neuroplasticity — the more you use any part of your brain, the thicker and denser that part of your brain becomes. The more you practice self-control and discipline, the thicker and denser becomes your ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the more you are able to practice self-control — to practice control to become a warrior of your mind. So life hadn’t finished with me yet and it probably still hasn’t finished with me.
I went through most of my greatest fears, I lost my cousin and my best friend, I lost my beloved aunt and I noticed my dad through the final stages of brain cancer. My marriage collapsed unexpectedly and devastatingly and I was financially devastated, had to start again. I was also incredibly lonely, sometimes I still am lonely and I cry a lot. But don’t think that it’s all about crying — crying is good but I’m also extremely happy and especially happy because I made the decision in my life never to say no to anything that scared me ever again and that’s why I’m standing here today.
So Gabriel has created this life way, I faced the emotional challenges, life is like that. Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad. Sometimes we’re extremely happy, we love, we lose, we grow and we hurt. And if your life is a graph like this, where in your life have you had your greatest learning experiences? Absolutely and to think that I wanted to deny my daughter Abigail, the opportunity to have this brother, this challenge in her life that has actually made her to be the wisest, the most centered and the strongest 20 year olds that I know. The pharmaceutical industry and self-help books have decided that we need to look at this band of happiness. No, we need to embrace the human experience, embrace everything that comes to us and challenge ourselves to become warriors.
So I went back to university, I got my honours degree, I got my master’s degree and next week on Tuesday I’m going to be defending my proposal for my PhD at the University of Johannesburg. And I carry on running and I ride my bike every day of my life. I travel the world teaching people about the brains, teaching people and challenging people and asking everyone in my programs, please teach this to your children. I truly wish that I had known this when I was a teenager, I had known this when I was a young adult, that you are capable of being in control of your mind and you are capable of changing your brains.
And by the way, 10 years ago, my job was – I never left Johannesburg ever and my job was as a beautician painting people’s nails and now I travel the world teaching people about possibility.
Gabriel himself has some unimaginable challenges. He is terribly bullied by unkind children and unkind adults. He has some crippling fears. He’s terrified of wind, so on windy days we spend a lot of our time indoors. And he also has debilitating panic attacks that we’ve all of us completely devastated in their wake. Gabriel does not understand why he cannot live like other children and he does not understand why he cannot do the things that other children do. However Gabriel has the happiest life and Gabriel has the greatest wisdom and I’m going to share with you some of the wisdom from this impaired brain that I think we can all learn from.
The first thing that Gabriel has taught me is to be indiscriminately friendly to every single person that you meet regardless of their status and treat everybody in exactly the same way.
The second thing that Gabriel has taught me is to tell the people that you love how wonderful they are, whenever you can.
Gabriel actually has another talent and it’s complete honesty. So Gabriel will say to me, ‘Mommy, when you walk through the shopping center, the guys all look at you but then you turn around and they see how old you are.’
The third lesson is to care deeply. Gabriel cares so deeply, he cares about the plight of the Rhino. He cares about the disabled, he cares about global warming and I found him crying sometimes because of the lady who digs at her baby on our corner and he sneaks up food to give her wherever he can.
Gabriel has taught me to make every day of your life the happiest day so far. Every night he goes to bed, and he goes, ‘Mommy, today has been the happiest day of my life.’
And last and most importantly the lessons from Gabriel is learn how to hula-hoop. So my wish for you, my desire is for every person here for yourself and for your children and for your family and your friends, I’m challenging you to become the warriors of your mind. It is a choice, it takes commitment, it takes control. You are the sculptors of your neural pathways. You are the painters of your experiential canvas and you are the architects of its form and structure. So make that choice, make the commitment, have the courage and the discipline to become a warrior of your mind. Many thanks.